The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XVI. The Nature of an Oath
"Your tray! It is after ten o'clock. Your 'angel' is a bad nurse." Moya brought the tray and set it on a little stand beside Paul's chair. He watched her shy, excited preparations as she moved about, conscious of his eyes. The saucepan staggered upon the coals and they both sprang to save the broth, and pouring it she burnt her thumb a little, and he behaved quite like any ordinary young man. They were ecstatic to find themselves at ease with each other once more. Moya became disrespectful to her charge; such sweet daring looked from her eyes into his as made him riotous with joy.
"Won't you take some with me?" He turned the cup towards her and watched her as she sipped.
"'It was roast with fire,'" he pronounced softly and dreamily, 'because of the dreadful pains. It was to be eaten with bitter herbs'"--
"What are you saying?"--
"'To remind them of their bondage.'"
"I object to your talking about bondage and bitter herbs when you are eating aunt Annie's delicious consomme."
He gravely sipped in turn, still with his eyes in hers. "Can you remember what you were doing on the second of November?"
"Can I remember!"
"Yes; tell me. I have a reason for asking."
"Tell me the reason first."
"May we have a little more fire, darling? It gives me chills to think of that day. It was the last of my wretched pot-hunting. There was nothing to hunt for--the game had all gone down, but I did not know that. Somewhere in the woods, a long way from the cabin, it began to occur to me that I should not make shelter that night. A fool and his strength are soon parted. It was a little hollow with trees all around so deep that in the distance their trunks closed in like a wall. Snow can make a wonderful silence in the woods. I seemed to hear the thoughts of everybody I loved in the world outside. There had been a dullness over me for weeks. I could not make it true that I had ever been happy--that you really loved me. All that part of my life was a dream. Now, in that silence suddenly I felt you! I knew that you cared. It was cruel to die so if you did love me! It brought the 'pang and spur'! I fought the drowsiness that was taking away my pain. I had begun to lean on it as a comfortable breast. I woke up and tore myself away from that siren sleep. It was my darling,--her love that saved me. Without that thought of you, I never would have stirred again. Where were you, what were you thinking that brought you so close to me?"
"Ah," said Moya in a whisper. "I was in that room across the hall, alone. They were good to me that day; they made excuses and left me to myself. In the afternoon a box came,--from poor father,--white roses, oh, sweet and cold as snow! I took them up to that room and forced myself to go in. It was where my things were kept, the trunks half packed, all the drawers and closets full. And my wedding dress laid out on the bed. We girls used to go up there at first and look at the things, and there was laughing and joking. Sometimes I went up alone and tried on my hats before the glass, and thought where I should be when I wore them, and--Well! all that stopped. I dreaded to pass the door. Everything was left just as it was; the shutters open, the poor dress covered with a sheet on the bed. The room was a death-chamber. I went in. I carried the roses to my dead. I drew down the sheet and put my face in that empty dress. It was my selfish self laid out there--the girl who knew just what she wanted and was going to get it if she could. Happiness I dared not even pray for--only remembrance--everlasting remembrance. That we might know each other again when no more life was left to part us--my life. It seemed long to wait, but that was my--marriage vow. I gave you all I could, remembrance, faith till death."
"Then you are my own!" said Paul, his face transformed. "God was our witness. Life of my life--for life and death!" Solemnly he took a bridegroom's kiss from her lips.
"How do you know that it is life that parts?"
"Speak so I can understand you!" Moya cried. "Ah, if I might! A man must not have secrets from his wife. Secrets are destruction, don't you think?"
Moya waited in silence.
"Now we come to this bondage!" He let the words fall like a load from his breast. "This is a hideous thing to tell you, but it will cut us apart unless you know it. It compels me to do things." He paused, and they heard a door down the passage open,--the door of his mother's room. A step came forward a few paces. Silence; it retreated, and the door closed again stealthily.
"She has not slept," Paul murmured. "Poor soul, poor soul! Now, in what I am going to say, please listen to the facts, Moya dear. Try not to infer anything from my way of putting things. I shall contradict myself, but the facts do that.
"The--the guide--John, we will call him, had a long fever in the woods. It would come on worse at night, and then--he talked--words, of a shocking intimacy. They say that nothing the mind has come in contact with under strong emotion is ever lost, no matter how long in the past. It will return under similar excitement. This man had kept stored away in his mind, under some such pressure, the words of a woman's message, a woman in great distress. Over and over, as his pulse rose, countless times he would repeat that message. I went out of the hut at night and stood outside in the snow not to hear it, but I knew it as well as he did before we got through. Now, this was what he said, word for word.
"'Do not blame me, my dear husband. I have held out in this place as long as I can. Don't wait for anything. Don't worry about anything. Come back to me with your bare hands. Come!--to your loving Emmy!'
"'Come, come!' he would shout out loud. Then in another voice he would whisper, 'Come back to me with your bare hands!' And he would stare at his hands and his face would grow awful."
Moya drew a long sigh of scared attention.
"Those words were all over the cabin walls. I heard them and saw them everywhere. There was no rest from them. I could have torn the roof down to stop his talking, but the words it was not possible to forget. And where was the horror of it? Was not this what we had asked, for years, to know?"
"You need not explain to me," said Moya, shuddering.
"Yes; but all one's meanest motives were unearthed in a place like that. Would I have felt so with a different man? Some one less uncouth? Was it the man himself, or his"--
"Paul, if anything could make you a snob, it would be your deadly fear of being one!"
"Well, if they had found us then, God knows how that fight would have ended. But I won it--when there was nothing left to fight for. I owned him--in the grave. We owned each other and took a bashful sort of comfort in it, after we had shuffled off the 'Mister' and 'John.' I grew quite fond of him, when we were so near death that his English didn't matter, or his way of eating. I thought him a very remarkable man, you remember, when he was just material for description. He was, he is remarkable. Most remarkable in this, he was not ashamed of his son."
"Do please let that part alone. I want to know what he was doing, hiding away by himself all these years? I believe he is an impostor!"
"We came to that, of course; though somehow I forgave him before he could answer the question. In the long watch beside him I got very close to him. It was not possible to believe him a deserter, a sneak. Can you take my word for his answer? It was given as a death-bed confession and he is living."
"I would take your word for anything except yourself!" Moya did not smile, or think what she was saying.
"That answer cleared him, in my mind, with something over to the credit of blind, stupid heroism. He is not a clever man. But, speaking as one who has teen face to face with the end of things, I can say that I know of no act of his that should prevent his returning to his family--if he had a family--not even his deserting them for twenty years. If, I say!
"When the soldiers found us we were too far gone to realize the issue that was upon us. He was the first to take it in. It was on the march home, at night, he touched me and began speaking low in our corner of the tent. 'As we came in here, so we go out again, and so we stay,' he said. I told him it could not be. To suppress what I had learned would make the whole of life a lie, a coward's lie. That knowledge belonged to my mother. I must render it up to her. To do otherwise would be to treat her like a child and to meddle with the purposes of God. 'No honest man robs another of his secrets,' he said. He was very much excited. She was the only one now to be considered--and what did I know about God's purposes? He refused to take my scruples into consideration, except such as concerned her. But, after a long argument, very painful, weak as we were and whispering in the dark, he yielded this much. If I were bent on digging up the dead, as he called it, it must be done in such a way as to leave her free. Free she was in law, and she must be given a chance to claim her freedom without talk or publicity. Absolute secrecy he demanded of me in the mean time. I begged him to see how unfair it was to her to bring her face to face with such a discovery without one word of preparation, of excuse for him. She would condemn him on the very fact of his being alive. So she would, he said, if she were going to judge him; not if she felt towards him as--as a wife feels to her husband. It was that he wanted to know. It was that or nothing he would have from her. 'Bring me face to face with her alone, and as sudden as you like. If she knows me, I am the man. And if she wants me back, she will know me--and that way I'll come and no other way.' Was not that wonderful? A gentleman could hardly have improved on that. Whatever feeling he might be supposed to have towards her in the matter we could never touch upon. But I think he had his hopes. That decision was hanging over us--and I trembled for her. Day before yesterday, was it, I persuaded her to see the sick guide. She wondered why I was faint as she kissed me good-by. I ought to have prepared her. It was a horrible snare. And yet he meant it all in delicacy, a passionate consideration for her. Poor fool. How could I prepare him! How could he keep pace with the changes in her! After all, it is externals that make us,--habits, clothes. Great God! Things you could not speak of to a naked soul like him. But he would have it 'straight,' he said--and straight he got it. And he is gone; broke away like an animal out of a trap. And I am going to find him, to see at least that he has a roof over his head. God knows, he may not die for years!"
"She has got years before her too."
"She!--What am I saying! We have plunged into those damnable inferences and I haven't given you the facts. Wait. I shall contradict all this in a moment. I thought, she must have done this for her children. She must be given another chance. And I approached the thing on my very knees--not to let her know that I knew, only to hint that I was not unprepared, had guessed--could meet it, and help her to meet the problems it would bring into our lives. Help her! She stood and faced me as if I had insulted her. 'I have been your father's widow for twenty-two years. If that fact is not sacred to you, it is to me. Never dare to speak of this to me again!'"
"Ah," said Moya in a long-drawn sigh, "then she did not"--
"Oh, she did, explicitly! For I went on to speak of it. It was my last chance. I asked her how she--we--could possibly go through with it; how with this knowledge between us we could look each other in the face--and go on living.
"'Put this hallucination out of your mind,' she said. 'That man and I are strangers.'"
"Was that--would you call that a lie?" asked Moya fearfully.
"You can see your answer in her face. I do not say that hers was the first lie. It must always be foolish, I think, to evade the facts of life as we make them for ourselves. He refused to meet his facts, from the noblest motives;--but now I'm tangling you all up again! Rest your head here, darling. This is such a business! It is a pity I cannot tell you his whole story. Half the meaning of all this is lost. But--here is a solemn declaration in writing, signed John Hagar, in which this man we are speaking of says that Adam Bogardus was his partner, who died in the woods and was buried by his hand; that he knew his story, all the scenes and circumstances of his life in many a long talk they had together, as well as he knew his own. In his delirium he must have confused himself with his old partner, and half in dreams, he said, half in the crazy satisfaction of pretending to himself he had a son, he allowed the delusion to go on; saw it work upon me, and half feared it, half encouraged it. Afterwards he was frightened at the thought of meeting my mother, who would know him for an impostor. His seeming scruples were fear of exposure, not consideration for her. This was why he guarded their interview so carefully. 'No harm's been done,' he says, 'if you'll act now like a sensible man. I'll be disappointed in you if you make your mother any trouble about this. You've treated me as square as any man could treat another. Remember, I say so, and think as kindly as you can of a harmless, loony old impostor'--and he signs himself 'John Hagar,'--which shows again how one lie leads to another. We go to find 'John Hagar.'"
"Have you shown your mother this letter? You have not? Paul, you will not rob her of her just defense!"
"I will not heap coals of fire on her head! This letter simply completes his renunciation, and he meant it for her defense. But when a man signs himself 'John Hagar' in the handwriting of my father, it shows that somebody is not telling the truth. I used to pore over the old farm records in my father's hand at Stone Ridge in the old account books stowed away in places where a boy loves to poke and pry. I know it as well as I know yours. Do you suppose she would not know it? When a man writes as few letters as he does, the handwriting does not change." Paul laid the letter upon the coals. "It is the only witness against her, but it loses the case."
"She never could have loved him. I never believed she did!" said Moya.
"She thinks she can live out this deep-down, deliberate--But it will kill her, Moya. Her life is ended from this on. How could I have driven her to that excruciating choice! I ought to have listened to him altogether or not at all. There is a hell for meddlers, and the ones who meddle for conscience' sake are the deepest damned, I think."
Moya came and wreathed her arm in his, and they paced the room in silence. At length she said, "If we go to find John Hagar, shall we not be meddling again? A man who respects a woman's freedom must love his own. It is the last thing left him. Don't hunt him down. I believe nothing could hurt him now like seeing you again."
"He shall not see me unless he wants to, but he shall know where I stand on this question of the Impostor. It shall be managed so that even he can see I am protecting her. No, call himself what he will, the tie between him and me is another of those facts."
"But do you love him, Paul?"
"Oh--I cannot forget him! He is--just as he used to be--'poor father out there in the cold.' We must find him and comfort him somehow."
"For our own peace of mind? Forgive me for arguing when everything is so difficult. But he is a man--a brave man who would rather be forever out in the cold than be a burden. Do not rob him of his right to be John Hagar if he wants to, for the sake of those he loves. You do not tell me it was love, but I am sure it was, in some mistaken way, that drove him into exile. Only love as pure as his can be our excuse for dragging him back. He did not want shelter and comfort from her. Only one thing. Have we got that to give him?"
"Well then, I go for my own sake--it is a physical necessity; and I go for hers. She has put it out of her own power to help him. It will ease her a little to know I am trying to reach him in his forlorn disguise."
"But you were not going to tell her?"
"In words, no. But she will understand. There is a strange clairvoyance between us, as if we were accomplices in a crime!"
Moya reflected silently. This search which Paul had set his heart upon would equally work his own cure, she saw. Nor could she now imagine for themselves any lover's paradise inseparable from this moral tragedy, which she saw would be fibre of their fibre, life of their life. A family is an organism; one part may think to deny or defy another, but with strange pains the subtle union exerts itself; distance cannot break the thread.
They kissed each other solemnly like little children on the eve of a long journey full of awed expectancy.
Mrs. Bogardus stood holding her door ajar as Moya passed on her way downstairs. "You are very late," she uttered hoarsely. "Is nothing settled yet?"
"Everything!" Moya hesitated and forced a smile, "everything but where we shall go. We will start--and decide afterwards."
"You go together? That is right. Moya, you have a genius for happiness!"
"I wish I had a genius for making people sleep who lie awake hours in the night thinking about other people!"
"If you mean me, people of my age need very little sleep."
"May I kiss you good-night, Paul's mother?"
"You may kiss me because I am Paul's mother, not because I do not sleep."
Moya's lips touched a cheek as white and almost as cold as the frosted window-panes through which the moon was glimmering. She thought of the icy roses on her wedding dress.
Downstairs her father was smoking his bedtime cigar. Mrs. Creve, very sleepy and cosy and flushed, leaned over the smouldering bed of coals. She held out her plump, soft hand to Moya.
"Come here and be scolded! We have been scolding you steadily for the last hour."
"If you want that young man to get his strength back, you'd better not keep him up talking half the night," the colonel growled softly. "Do you see what time it is?"
Moya knelt and leaned her head against her father. She reached one hand to Mrs. Creve. They did not speak again till her weak moment had passed. "It will be very soon," she said, pressing the warm hand that stroked her own. "You will help me pack, aunt Annie; and then you'll stay--with father? I know you are glad to have me out of the way at last!"