The Claim Jumpers by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XXI. The Land of Visions
Although he had retired so early, and in so exhausted a condition, Bennington de Laney could not sleep. He had taken a slight fever, and the wound in his shoulder was stiff and painful. For hours on end he lay flat on his back, staring at the dim illuminations of the windows and listening to the faint out-of-door noises or the sharper borings of insects in the logs of the structure. His mind was not active. He lay in a semi-torpor, whose most vivid consciousness was that of mental discomfort and the interminability of time.
The events of the day rose up before him, but he seemed to loathe them merely because they had been of so active a character, and now he could not bear to have his brain teased even with their impalpable shadow.
Strangely enough, this altitude seemed to create a certain dead polarity between him and them. They lay sullenly outside his brain, repelled by this dead polarity, and he looked at them languidly, against the dim illumination of the window, with a dull joy that they could not come near him and enter the realm of his thoughts. All this was the fever.
In a little time these events became endowed with more palpable bodies which moved. The square of semilucent window faded into something indescribable, and that into something indescribable, and that into something else, still indescribable.
They moved swiftly, and things happened. He found himself suddenly in a long gallery, half in the dusk, half in the lamplight, pacing slowly back and forth, waiting for something, he knew not what. To him came a bustling motherly old woman with a maid's cap on, who said, "Sure, Master Ben, the moon is shining, and, let me tell ye, at the end of the hall is a balcony of iron, and Miss Mary will be glad you know that same." And at that he seemed to himself to be hunting for a coin with which to tip her. He discovered it turned to lead between his fingers, whereupon the old woman laughed shrilly and disappeared, and he found himself alone on the prairie at midnight.
His mind seemed to be filled with great thoughts which would make him famous. Over and over again he said to himself: "The rain pours and the people down below chuckle as they move about each under his little umbrella of self-conceit. They look up to the mountain, saying, 'The fool! Why looks he so high? He is lost in the mists up there, and he might be safe and dry with us.' But the mountain has over him the arch of the universe, and sleeps calmly in the sun of truth. Little recks he of the clouds below, and knows not at all the little self-satisfied fools who pity him," and he thought this was the sum of all wisdom, and that with it would come immortality.
Then a bell began to boom, a deep-toned bell, whose tolling was inexpressibly solemn, and poured into his heart a sadness too deep for sorrow. As though there dwelt an enchantment in the very sound itself, the dark prairies shifted like a scene, and in their stead he saw, in a cold gray twilight, a high doorway built of a cold gray stone, rough-hewed and heavy. Through its arch passed then a file of gray-cowled monks, their faces concealed. Each carried a torch, whose flickering, wavering light cast weird cowled figures on the gray stone, and in their midst was borne a bier, covered with white. And as the deep bell boomed on through all the vision, like a subtle thrilling presence, Bennington seemed to himself to stand, finger on lip, the eternal custodian of the Secret of it all--the secret that each of these cowled figures was a Man--a divine soul and a body, with ears, and eyes, and a brain; that he had thoughts, and his life that is and is to come was of these thoughts; that there beat hearts beneath that gray, and that their voices must not be heeded; that in the morning these wearied eyes awaited but the eve, and that the evening brought no hope for a new day; that these silent, awesome beings lived within the heavy stones alone with monotony, until the bell tolled, as now, and they were carried through the arched doorway into the night; and, above all, that to each there were sixty minutes in the hour, and twenty-four hours in the day, and years and years of these days. This was the Secret, and he was its custodian. None of the others knew of it; but its awfulness made him sad and stern. He checked the days, he numbered the hours, he counted the minutes rigorously lest one escape. One did escape, and he turned back to catch it, and pursued it far away from the stone doorway and the dull twilight, and even the sound of the bell, off into a land where there were many hills and valleys, among which the fugitive Minute hid elusively. And he pursued the Minute, calling upon it to come to him, and the name by which he called it was Mary. Then he saw that the square of the window had become yellow with the sun, and that through it he could hear plainly the voices of the Leslies talking in high tones.
His brain was very clear, more so than usual, and he not only received many impressions, and ordered them with ease and despatch, but his very senses seemed more than ordinarily acute. He could distinguish even by day, when the night stillness had withdrawn its favouring conditions, the borings of the sawdust insects in the logs of the cabin. Only he was very tired. His hands seemed a long distance away, as though it would require an extraordinary effort of the will to lift them. So he lay quiet and listened.
The conversation, of which he was the eavesdropper, was carried on by fits and starts. First a sentence would be delivered by one of the Leslies; then would ensue a pause as though for a reply, inaudible to any but the interlocutors themselves; then another sentence; and so on, like a man at a telephone. After a moment's puzzling over it, Bennington understood that Jim Leslie was talking to one of the prisoners down the shaft.
"You have the true sporting spirit, sir," cried the voice of Jeems. "I honour you for it. But so philosophical a resignation, while it inclines our souls to know more of you personally, nevertheless renders you much less interesting in such a juncture as the present. I would like to hear from Mr. Davidson."
"That was a performance, Mr. Davidson, which I can not entirely commend. It is fluent, to be sure, but it lacks variety. A true artist would have interspersed those finer shades and gradations of meaning which go to express the numerous and clashing emotions which must necessarily agitate your venerable bosom. You surely mean more than damn. Damn is expressive and forceful, because capable of being enunciated at one explosive effort of the breath, but it is monotonous when too freely employed. To be sure, you might with some justice reply that you had qualified said adjective strongly--but the qualification was trite though blasphemous. And you limited it very nicely--but the limitation to myself is unjust, as it overlooks my brother's equitable claims to notice."
"I beg pardon! Kindly repeat!"
"Delicious! Mr. Davidson, you have redeemed yourself. Bertie, did you hear Mr. Davidson's last remark?"
"No!" replied another voice. "Couldn't be bothered. What was it?"
"Mr. Davidson, with a polished sarcasm that amounted to genius, advised me in his picturesque vernacular 't' set thet jaw of mine goin', and then go away an' leave it!'"
"I beg you, Mr. Slayton, do not think of such a thing. I would not have him repressed for anything in the world. As you value our future acquaintanceship, do not end our interview. Thank you! I appreciate your compliment, and in return will repeat that, though in a pretty sharp game, you are a true sport. Our friend Arthur is strangely silent. I have never met Mr. Arthur. I have heard that either his face or his hat looks like a fried egg, but I forget for the moment which was so characterized."
"Fie, fie! Mr. Arthur. Addison, in his most intoxicated moments, would never have used such language."
And then the man in the cabin, lying on the bed, began to laugh in a low tone. His laugh was not pleasant to hear. He was realizing how funny things were to other people--things that had not been funny to him at all. For the first time he caught a focus on his father, with his pompous pride and his stilted diction; on his mother's social creed. He cared as much for them as ever and his respect was as great, but now he realized that outsiders could never understand them as he did, and that always to others they must appear ridiculous. So he laughed. And, too, he perceived that the world would see something grimly humorous in his insistence on the girl's parentage, when all the time, in the home to which he was to bring her, dwelt these unlovable, snobbish old parents of his own. So he laughed. And he thought of how he had been fooled, and played with, and duped, and cheated, and all but disgraced by the very people on whom he had looked down from a fancied superiority. And so he laughed. And as he laughed his hands swelled up to the size of pillows, and he thought that he was dressed in a loose garment spotted all over with great spots, and that he was standing on a stage before these grave, silent hillmen. The light came in through a golden-yellow square just behind them. In the front row sat Mary, looking at him with wide-open, trusting eyes. And he was revolving these hands like pillows around each other, trying to make the sombre men and the wistful girl laugh with him, while over and over certain words slipped in between his cachinnations, like stray bird-notes through a rattle of drums.
"I have no fresh motley for my lady's amusement," he was saying to her, "no new philosophies to spread out for my lady's inspection, no bright pictures to display for my lady's pleasure, and so I, like a poor poverty-stricken minstrel whose harp has been broken, yet dare beg at the castle gate for a crumb of my lady's bounty." At which he would have wept, but could only laugh louder and louder.
Then dimly he knew again he was in his own room, and he felt that several people were moving back and forth quickly. He tried to rise, but could not, and he knew that he was slipping back to the hall and the solemn crowd of men. He did not want to go. He grasped convulsively at the blanket with his sound hand, and shrieked aloud.
"I am sick! I am sick! I am sick!" he cried louder and louder.
Some one laid a cool hand on his forehead, and he lay quiet and smiled contentedly. The room and the people became wraithlike. He saw them still, but he saw through them to a reality of soft meadows and summer skies, from which Mary leaned, resting her hand on his brow. Voices spoke, but muffled, as though by many veils. They talked of various things.
"It's the mountain fever," he heard one say. "It's a wonder he escaped it so long."
Then the cool hand was withdrawn from his brow, and inexorably he was hurried back into the land of visions.