AN ALGONQUIN MAIDEN
.


 

CHAPTER XXI.

THE PASSING OF WANDA.

 


AFTER night comes morning in the material world, but in that inner sphere of thought and feeling, which is the only reality, it frequently happens that after night comes a greater depth of darkness.  The early light of successive summer mornings falling into the sleeping-room of Edward Macleod seemed to mock the heavy gloom which perpetually enshrouded his heart.  He was back in his old home, for the pleasant circle at Stamford Cottage had broken up shortly after the unexpected advent of Wanda.  A few days of enforced civilization had affected her more severely than the hard journey preceding it, and she had returned to her native wilds with the feeling of a bird regaining its freedom.  Where in all the limitless forest she could be found at any particular time her lover could not tell.  He was her lover still—he must always remain her lover.  He had attempted to limit and define the strange irresistible attraction she exerted over him, he had voluntarily resolved upon life-long celibacy rather than subject her to the bitter- ness of seeing him belong to another; and if in thought he ever yielded to this great, untamed unrepressed love of hers, it was with something of the exaltation and ardour of one who makes a supreme sacrifice.
     Edward Macleod was no sentimentalist, and yet he was conscious of a very delicate, infinitely sad satisfaction in the belief that he would expiate with his life the folly he had committed in permitting her to love him.  In the loftiest sense he would be true to her.  He could not be selfish and shameless enough to set for- ever aside the desolation that his hands had callously wrought.  As her sorrow could never be mitigated it should always be shared.  He would do everything for her.  She should be educated, and inducted [Page 223] by gentle degrees into the refinement of civilization—he fervently hoped that it might not prove the re- finement of cruelty.  She should not be left desolate, forsaken, uncared-for; she should share everything he had except his heart.  That was to be kept empty for her sake—for the sake of the sweet dusky maiden who had once possessed it.
     Who had once possessed it!  Ah, was it true then that she no longer held a claim?  He had closed the door hesitatingly and with sharp pain in her face, but now the bare recollection of the little brown hands fumbling upon it thrilled him with a blissful sense that perhaps, after all, his life was not to be the utter sacri- fice that he had supposed.  Perhaps this peerless creature by some magical process of development might yet meet and satisfy his intellectual demands.  She had already the soul of an angel—yes, and the beauty of an angel.  And yet he was not satisfied.
     It was this haunting dissatisfaction that kept him a prisoner in his room, one brilliant afternoon, when the fresh world without seemed too insupportable a mockery of his jaded and cynical state of mind.  He stepped out upon the little balcony that ran under the windows of his own and his sister’s apartments, and looked with a sore heart upon the eternal miracle of earth and sky.  He sank heavily down upon a low seat, feeling very old and worn.  If the back is fitted to the burden, it occurred to him that the painful process of adjustment would have to be continued through an interminable period of years.  Perhaps it is only the stiff, bent shoulders of age that are really fitted to bear the burdens that impet- uous youth find unendurably irksome.
     While he sat in utter silence, thrilled occasionally with shrill sweet bursts of irrepressible bird song, and inwardly tortured by the hateful whisperings of doubt, remorse and despair, the door of his sister’s apartment was opened, and a murmur of voices told him that Rose and Hélène had returned together from an afternoon drive.  Through [Page 224] the lightly draped open window their con- versation, distinctly heard, forced him into the position of an unintentional eaves-dropper.  There seemed at first no reason why he should withdraw, and when the reason became apparent he found it impossible to make his presence known.
     “Is your brother in the house?” asked Hélène, waiting for the answer before laying aside hat and gloves, and dropping languidly into an easy chair.
     “Oh, no,” returned Rose, “he is never at home at this hour of the day.  Why?  Did you wish to see him?”
     “I?  No!  I wish never to see him!”  The words were uttered in a passionate undertone.
     Rose came directly and beseechingly over to her friend.  “Dear Hélène,” she said, “what is this terrible trouble that is preying upon your life?  Every day you grow thinner and whiter and colder—more like a moonbeam than a mortal woman.  Soon I fear you will fade from my grasp altogether, and I shall have nothing left but the recollection that you did not care enough for me to confide in me.  I am sure there is something dreadful between you and Edward.”
     “Something, yes, but not enough; there should be an ocean—a whole world between us.”
     “I wish I could help you a little.”
     “Help me, dearest?  It is like your goodness to think of such a thing; but it is impossible.  No, there is nothing tragic, or terrible, or awe compelling, in my fate.  It is nothing, I suppose, beyond the common lot of a great portion of humanity.  It is simply—” she hesitated a moment, while a choking sob rose in her throat; she clasped her white hands above her head in a stern effort at self control, and then flung them down with an irrepressible moan—“it is simply that I am hungry, and thirsty, and cold, and tired; and I want to go back to my old home, to my only home in the heart of the man I love.  My poor child, do I startle you by talking in this passionate lawless way?  You invited [Page 225] my confidence, and it is such a relief to give it to you.  To every one else in the world I must keep up the desolate show of appearing heartless and lifeless, incapable of compassion, of suffering and yearning.  But with you, for a little while, I want to be myself.  I am not a mere drawing-room ornament, prized by its owner, and gazed at by curious beholders.  I am a wretched woman.  Oh, Rose, Rose, I am an inexpressibly wretched woman!”
     She caught the little warm hands, sympathizingly outstretched towards her, and pressed them to her neck, where the veins throbbed fast.
     “No, don’t pity me yet—only listen to me.  I am so tired of living on husks, I seem to be nothing but a husk myself, brainless, soulless, and empty.  I am so tired of sham and pretence, of keeping up appearances.  I hate appearances.  They are all false, unreal, loathsome.  Yes, I am a well-trained puppet; I smile and chatter, dance and sing, am haughtily self-satisfied; but at night—at night my sick heart cries like a starving child, and I pace the floor with it until I fear that its wailings will drive me mad.  I heap insults on my darling, and profess to scorn his tenderness, and all the time I could fly to him, and rain caresses upon him, and hold him closely folded in the arms of my love perpetually.  No, he is not to blame, and Wanda is not to blame, for all this wretchedness.  I don’t understand how a woman can hate her rival.  The fact of their loving the same object gives them a closer kinship than that between twin sisters.  Wanda’s sufferings are too much like my own to permit me even to dislike her.  She has rich beauty, a rarely luxuriant vitality, and the immense advantage of being free to show her love in a natural way.  I have nothing but my love for her lover!  If I could only trample on it, despise it, spurn it, but I can’t, I can’t!  My love is stronger than my pride, stronger than my life.  It is not a mere fancy of yesterday, it has grown and strengthened with my years.” [Page 226]
     “I remember one evening in York, last spring,” Hélène continued, “when it was warm enough to leave doors and windows open to admit the free breeze from the lake; I happened to pass a wretched little shanty in the lower part of the town.  A commonplace woman within was cooking supper in plain sight of the street, and I thought what a miserable lot must be hers.  Then her husband, a grimy-looking workman came home, and she put her toil-worn hands about his neck, and gave him a welcome that left me dazed and desolate, filled with un- bearable pain and envy, because I knew then, as I know now, that for my darling and me there can be no sweet home-coming, no interposition of my love bet- ween him and the sordid cares of the day.  The measure of my need will never be filled.  Ah, mon Dieu, it is very hard—it is bitterly hard!”
     The low passionate tones died away into absolute silence.  Rose’s tender arms were closely clasped about her friend, and her wet cheek was pressed against the pale face on her shoulder; but she could find no words to match the heart-sickness that had at last found free vent in speech.  Perhaps the deepest sympathy can be expressed only by silence.  In a few moments Hélène looked up gratefully and with a quivering smile.  “Dear little pet,” she said, “it is a sin for me to burden you with the shameless story of my griefs.  I hardly know what I have been saying, so you must not attach too much importance to it.  After all, it is only a mood.”  The inevitable reaction after deep feeling had come.
     “I wish with all my heart that I could help you,” said Rose, soothingly but despairingly.
     “So you can.  Give me those two blue eyes of yours to kiss.  They are blue as wood-violets, and look grieved and sad—so exactly like Edward’s.”  She leaned over and kissed them fervently.  “Oh, I must not yield to such thoughts.  I must control myself.  I must be strong.  I must conquer [Page 227] everything.  Heaven help me!”  The last words sounded like a piteous prayer, as indeed they were.  “Come and sing to me, Rose.  Sing my soul out of this perdition if you can.”
     The two girls departed to the music-room, and, shortly after, Edward, with the soundless step of a murderer, crept down stairs and far out into the forest.  Like one driven by an indwelling demon into the wilderness he walked swiftly with great strides away from his trouble.  No, not away from it, for it surrounded him like the atmosphere.  Sometimes he stopped from sheer exhaustion, and leaned heavily against a tree, while the perspiration stood on his brow in large drops.  At one of these times there was a rustling among the thick leaves behind him, and Wanda stole timidly, yet with the fearless innocence of a child, to his side.  He groaned aloud as she hid her face upon his breast.  “Ah, you are sad as a night in the moon of dying leaves,” she said, pulling his arms about her.
     “It is because I do not love you,” he returned, and the cruel sentence was softened by the measureless sadness of his tone. 
     “Oh, but you shall love me!”  Each passionate word seemed a link in a strong chain that bound him inexorably to her.  “What does it matter,” she pleaded, “that you care little for me now?  My love is great enough for both.  I can give my life up, but I can never give you up.  You are dearer to me than life!”
     She leaned over him, and he felt as in a dream the old potential charm of her flower-sweet breath and glowing beauty.  Still, though he submitted to her car- esses, he did not return them.  Within his ears the impassioned words of Hélène were sounding perpetually, deafening him to every other appeal.  His visible presence was with Wanda, his breast was deeply stirred with pity and affection and remorse for her, but his soul was left behind with that stricken girl, to whose broken-hearted confessions he had been a forced listener. [Page 228]
     The day had lost its brightness, as though twilight had suddenly laid her dusky hand across the burning gaze of noon; the shadows deepened perceptibly about them; the sky threatened, the darkened trees seemed full of dread, the last gleam of light faded swiftly into the black approaching clouds, and they were speedily engulfed in one of those impatient summer showers, whose sharp fury quickly spends itself.  Edward was reminded of that time a year ago when they were alone in the storm.  Again the Indian girl bent reverently to the ground, exclaiming in awed accents, “The Great Spirit is angry.”  “He has need to be angry,” muttered the young man, hurrying his companion to a denser part of the forest, where the thickly intermingled boughs might form a roof above them.  But before they reached it a terrific burst of thunder broke upon their ears, and a tree beside them was suddenly snapped by the wind, and flung to the ground.  The girl, with the quick instinct of a savage, stepped aside, pulling hard as she did so upon the arm of Edward.  But he, walking as one in a dream, was scarcely less unconscious of what was going on around him than when, a moment later, he lay, felled to the earth by the fallen tree.
     Wanda uttered an ejaculation of horror and alarm, and exerting all her strength she dragged the inanimate figure away from its enshrouding coverlet of leaves.  The rain beat heavily upon the bloodless, upturned face.  “What can I do for you?”  she cried in despair, taking his handkerchief and binding tightly the deep wound on his head.  He opened his eyes languidly, and murmured scarce- ly above his breath, “Bring Hélène!”  She did not pause even to kiss the pale lips, but flew swift as Love itself upon Love’s errand.  And yet, in her consuming desire to obey the least wish of her idol, it seemed to her that every fibre of her eager frame was clogged and weighted with lead.  The rain blinded her eyes, the tangled underbrush tripped her [Page 229] feet, and more than once she fell panting and trembling on the dead leaves.  Only for a moment; then she sprang up again, leaping, running, pushing away the branches that stretched across her path, spurning at every step the solid earth that interposed so much of its dull bulk between her and her heart’s desire.  Reaching the lake she jumped quickly into a boat Edward had given her, which lay near, and she made haste for Kempenfeldt Bay.
     The rain ceased before she reached Pine Towers, and with the first radiant glance of the sun Hélène had come to the wood’s edge for the sake of the forest odours, which are never so pungent and delicious as immediately after a thunder-storm.  In the thinnest, most transparent of summer white gowns, with her lily-pale face and drooping figure, she looked like some rare flower which the storm in pity had spared.  So thought Wanda, who, now that the object of her search was in sight, approached very slowly and wearily, her breast rent by fierce pangs of jealousy.  Why had Edward wished at such a critical time for this useless weakling?  What possible good could she be to him in what might be his dying moments?  And all the time, Hélène, fixing her sad eyes upon this wild girl of the woods, noting her drenched, ragged and earth-stained raiment, and the dark sullen expression that jealousy had painted upon her face, saw more than all and above all the overwhelming beauty, which belittled all externals, and made them scarcely worth notice.  “What wonder,” thought Hélène, “that Edward is given up heart and soul to this peerless creature, when the mere sight of her quickens my slow pulses?”
     The two loves of Edward Macleod stood face to face.  Wanda explained her presence in a few cold words.  “Some of the family can take a carriage and everything necessary and go to him by the road,” she said.  “You will reach him much sooner by letting me row you across the bay in my boat.” [Page 230]
     Hélène trembled visibly, and a great longing possessed her to go instantly to Edward.  Then a strong fear seized her.  She felt a profound distrust of this beautiful savage with the coarse garments, rough speech, and strangely marred visage.  Perhaps to revenge herself for Edward’s suspected unfaithfulness she had killed him in the forest, and wished now to satiate her appetite for vengean- ce by taking the woman who loved him to view her ghastly work.  Perhaps the whole story was a fabrication to lure her to some lonely spot in the boundless woods, where she would be horribly murdered.  Perhaps—
     “Come!” urged Wanda, with passionate entreaty.  “He is dying.”
     “Is it you who have killed him?” demanded Hélène, sternly voicing all her fears in that black suspicion.
     The girl turned away with a quick writhing motion.  “No,” she groaned, “it is he who has killed me—with two words—bring Hélène.”  She darted to the house with the news of Edward’s accident, and then to the beach, where Hélène was already before her.  The tiny skiff was pushed off, and the two girls were alone together.
     As long as she lived Hélène DeBerczy remembered that swift boat ride across the bay.  Great masses of black clouds still hung heavily in the western sky, occasionally pierced by a brilliant flash of sunshine, that emphasized by contrast the dreariness succeeding it.   Below, the waters were dark and troubled, while from the flat shores rose the majestic monotony of the forest, chill, shadowy, inscrutable.  But these were as the frame of a picture, that printed itself indelibly upon the heart of this high-born woman of the world—the picture of a tropically beautiful face, now for the first time deathly pale, and seamed with lines of unutterable anguish; of bare rounded arms, showing in their raised muscles, and in the tense grasp of the oars, a power of self-repression awful in its strength; of deeply-heaving bosom, beneath which [Page 231] was raging that old, old conflict between true and false love—the true love that gives every- thing, the false love that grasps everything; of the passionate, eloquent, suffering eyes, full of jealousy and yearning, fierce hate and fiercer desire, and behind all, yes, dominating all, the struggle for martyr-like self-effacement whose cry forever is, not for my sake, but for the sake of one that I love.  Great waves of pity over- whelmed every other emotion in Hélène’s breast, as she leaned forward.  “My poor child,” she said, “how intensely you love him!  Do not let my coming hurt you so, I have long ago yielded him to you.”
     “But he has not yielded himself to me,” moaned the girl, her ashen lips framing the cry that came from her soul.  The boat grated in the sand, and she sprang out, and pulled it upon the beach.  Then, taking in a feverish clasp the delicately-draped arm of the other, she hurried her to the spot where Edward still lay, deadly pale but conscious.  He did not look at Wanda—he had no eyes save for Hélène.  With a little cry of passionate love and sorrow she flung herself beside him, and drew the white wounded face close to her aching heart.  His broken syllables of love were in her ears, his head was nestled, like that of a weary child, within her arms, his blood was staining the white laces on her breast.  For a moment Wanda paused and looked upon them; then noiselessly as a dream she vanished away.
     But where in the wide, pitiless world is there a place of refuge for a woman’s broken heart?  Instinctively Wanda went back to the boat, and rowed far out upon the troubled waters.  The afternoon’s storm had been but the warning of a wilder one yet to come; the heavy skies shut down on all sides, adamantine and inexorable as the fate enshrouding her; from the mute mysterious woods came the sighing of the wind, sinking now into deep moaning, then rising into a shrill anguish, that was answered by the sobbing of the waves upon the beach.  All nature seemed stirred to [Page 232] the heart at the hopeless misery of this her cherished child.  But Wanda’s eyes were blank, and her ears deafened to the sights and sounds around her.  With the desperation of despair she rowed fast and strenuously out into the heaving lake, while hours passed, and the black night, like a pall, enveloped all things earthly.  At last, with her strength utterly gone, she dropped the oars and drifted wherever the wild tide might choose to take her.  Low mutterings of thunder shook the air, and with them she mingled the notes of an Indian death-chant.  Before the weird, heart-breaking tones had ceased, the black heavens opened, and tears of pity were rained upon this desolate human soul.  She lay outstretched, her glorious face upturned to the starless skies, her tired hands far apart over the sides of the boat.  Towards them with wolfish haste rushed the white-capped breakers, rising in fury as they reached the little craft, and flinging themselves wildly across it.  Wanda paid no heed.  Her voice rose once again, thrilling the air with its wild sweet melody, and then she sank, without even a convulsive clutch at the frail bark which overturned upon her.
      So perished the life that was naught but a mere empty husk, since love, its strong sweet occupant, had departed.  Alas, poor Wanda!  alas, poor little one, whose sore feet and sorer heart could find no resting-place in all this wide hard world.  The anguished winds moaned on far into the night; the sad waves, now racked and scourged by the tempest, sobbed ceaselessly upon the beach; the pitiful heavens outpoured their flood of tears, but the tortured soul that had committed the god-like sin of loving too much had found rest at last. [Page 233]
     


[Chapter XXII]