Dinah's Mammoth by Bernard Edward J. Capes
On a day early in the summer of the present year Miss Dinah Groom was found lying dead off a field-path of the little obscure Wiltshire village which she had named her "rest and be thankful." At the date of her decease she was not an old woman, though any one marking her white hair and much-furrowed features might have supposed her one. The hair, however, was ample in quantity, the wrinkles rather so many under-scores of energy than evidences of senility; and until the blinds were down over her soul, she had looked into and across the world with a pair of eyes that seemed to reflect the very blue and white of a June sky. No doubt she had thought to breast the hills and sail the seas again in some renaissance of vigour. No doubt her "retreat," like a Roman Catholic's, was designed to be merely temporary. She aped the hermit for the sake of a sojourn in the hermitage. She came to her island of Avalon to be restored of her weary limbs and her blistered feet, so to speak; and there her heart, too weak for her spirit, failed her, and she fell amongst the young budding poppies, and died.
I use the word "heart" literally, and in no sentimental sense. To talk of associations of sentiment in connection with this lady would be misleading. She herself would not have repudiated any responsibility for the term as applied to her; she would have simply failed to understand the term itself. There was no least affectation in this. Throughout her life of sixty years, as I gather, she acted never once upon principle. Impulse and inclination dominated her, and she would indulge many primitive instincts without a thought of conventions. Yet she was not selfish; or, at least, only in the self-contained and self-protective meaning of the word. She was a perfect animal, conscious of her supreme brute caste, shrewd, resourceful, and the plain embodiment of truth.
Miss Groom had, I think, a boundless feeling of fellowship with beauty of whatever description; but no least touch of that sorrow of affection which, in its very humanity, is divine. Her unswerving creed was that woman was the inheritrix of the earth, the reversion of which she had wilfully mortgaged to an alien race, and that she had bartered her material immortality for a sensation. For man she had no vulgar and jealous contempt; but she feared and shrank from him as something moved by scruples with which she had no sympathy. She understood the world of Nature, and could respond to its bloodless caresses and passions. She could not understand the moodiness that dwells upon a grievance, or that would sell its birthright of joy for a pitiful memory.
Yet (and here I must speak with discretion, for I have no sufficient data to go upon) there was that of contradictoriness in her character that, I have reason to believe, she had borne children, and had even been right and particular as to their temporal welfare until such time as, in the nature of things, they were of an age to make shift for themselves. This, virtually, I know to be the case; and that, once quit of the primitive maternal responsibility, she gave no more thought to them than a thrush gives to its fledglings when she has educated them to their first flights, and to the useful knack of cracking a snail on a stone.
My own feeling about Dinah Groom was that she had "thrown back" a long way over the heads of heredity, and that, in her fearlessness, in her undegenerate physique, in the animal regularity of her face and form, she presented to modern days a startling aboriginal type.
Beautiful--save in the sense of symmetry--she can never have been to the ordinary man; inasmuch as she would subscribe to no arbitrary standard of his dictating. She had a high, rich colour; but her complexion must always have been rough, and a pronounced little moustache crossed her upper lip, like an accent to the speech that was too distinct and uncompromising to be melodious. Her every limb and feature, however, was instinct with capability, and, in her presence, one must always be moved to marvel over that indescribable worship of disproportion that has grown to be the religion of a shapely race.
* * * * *
How I first became acquainted with Miss Groom it is unnecessary to explain. During the last three years of her life I was fortunate to be her guest in the Wiltshire retreat for an aggregate of many months. She took a fancy to me--to my solitariness and moroseness, perhaps--and she not only liked to have me with her, but, after a time, she fell into something of a habit of recalling for my benefit certain passages and experiences of her past life. In doing this, there was no suggestion of confidence; and I am breaking no faith in alluding to them. She was a fine talker--rugged, unpicturesque, but with an instinctive capacity of selection in words. If I quote her, as I wish to do, I cannot reproduce her style; and that, no doubt, would appear bald on paper. But, at least, the matter is all her own.
Now, I must premise that I arrogate to myself no exhibitory rights in this lady. She was familiar with and to many from the foremost ranks of those who "follow knowledge like a sinking star"; those great and restless spirits to whom inaction reads stagnation. To such, in all probability, I tell, in speaking of Dinah Groom, a twice-told tale; and, therefore--inasmuch as I make it my business only to print what is hitherto unrecorded--to them I give the assurance that I do not claim to have "discovered" their friend.
* * * * *
On a wall of the little embowered sitting-room hung a queer picture, by Ernest Griset, of the "Overwhelming of the Mammoths in the Ice." From the first this odd conception had engaged my curiosity,--purely for its fanciful side,--and one evening, in alluding to it, I made the not very profound remark that Imagination had no anatomy.
"They are true beasts," said Dinah.
"They are the mastodons of Cuvier, no doubt; but, then, Cuvier never saw a mastodon, you know."
"But I have; and I tell you Griset and Cuvier are very nearly right."
I expressed no surprise.
"In what were they astray?" I asked.
"The mammoth, as I saw it, had a huge hump--like the steam-chest of an enormous engine--over its shoulders."
"And where did you see it, and when?"
"You are curious to know?"
"Yes, I think I am; and there is a quiet of expectancy abroad. I hear the ghost of my dead brother walking in the corridor, Dinah; and we are all waiting for you to speak."
She smiled, and said, "Push me over the cigarettes."
She struck a match, kindled the little crackling tube, and threw the light out into the shrubbery. It traced a tiny arc of flame and vanished. The sky was full of the mewing of lost kittens, it seemed. The sound came from innumerable peewits, that fled and circled above the slopes of the darkening meadows below.
"What an uncomfortable seer you are!" she said, "to people this dear human night with your fancies. No doubt, now, you will read between the lines of that bird speech down there?" (She looked at me curiously, but with none of the mournful speculativeness of a soul struggling against the dimness of its own vision.) "To me it is articulate happiness--nothing more abstruse. Yes, I have seen a mastodon; and I was as glad to happen on the beast as a naturalist is glad to find a missing link in a chain of evidence. From the moment, I knew myself quite clearly to be the recovered heir to this abused planet."
She paused a moment, and contracted her brows, as if regretfully and in anger. "If I had only seen it sooner!" she cried, low; "before I had, in my pride of strength, tested the poison that has bewildered the brains of my sisters!"
Her general reserve was her self-armour against the bolts of the Philistines. What worldling would not have read mania in much that was spoken by this sane woman? Yet, indeed, if we were all to find the power to give expression to our inmost thoughts, madness and sanity would have to change places in the order of affairs.
"Once," said Dinah--"and it was when I was a young woman--a man in whom I was interested shipped as passenger on a whaling vessel. This friend was what is called a degenerate. Physically and morally he had yielded his claim to any share in that province of the sun, that his race had conquered and annexed only to find it antipathetic to its needs. Combative effort was grown impossible to him, as in time it will grow to you all. You drop from the world like dead flies from a wall. He could not physic his soul with woods, and groves, and waters. To his perceptions, life was become an abnormality--a disease of which he sickened, as you all must when the last of the fever of aggression has been diluted out of your veins. You die of your triumph, as the bee dies of his own weapon of offence; and you can find no antidote to the poison in the nature you have inoculated with your own virus.
"This man contemplated self-destruction as the only escape. He had sought distraction of his moral torments in travel long and varied. Many of the most beautiful, of the historically interesting places of the world, he had visited and sojourned in--without avail. His haunting feeling, he said, was that he did not belong to himself. Pursued by this Nemesis, he came home to end it all. He still proclaimed his spiritual independence; but it was immeshed, and he must tear the strands. This was wonderfully perplexing to me, and, out of my curiosity, I must persuade him to make one more attempt. His late efforts, I assured him, were nothing but an endeavour to cure nausea with sweet syrups. He would not get his change out of nature by such pitiful wooing. Let him, rather, emulate, if he could not feel, the spirit of his remote forbears, and rally his nerves to an expedition into the harsh and awful places of the earth. I would accompany him, and watch with and for him, and supply that of the fibre he lacked.
"He consented, and, after some difficulty (for there is an economy of room in whalers), we obtained passage in a vessel and sailed into the unknown. Our life and our food were simple and rugged; but the keen air, the relief from luxury, the novelty and the wonder, wrought upon my companion and renewed him, so that presently I was amused to note in him signs of a moral preening--some smug resumption of that arrogant air of superiority that is a tradition with your race."
Miss Groom here puckered her lips, and breathed a little destructive laugh upon her cigarette ash.
"It did not last long," she said. "We encountered very bad weather, and his nerves again went by the board. That was in the 60th longitude, I think (where whales were still to be found in those years), and seven hundred miles or so to the east of Spitzbergen. On the day--it was in August--that the storm first overtook us, the boats were out in pursuit of a 'right' whale, as, I believe, the men called it--a great bull creature, and piebald like a horse; and I saw the spouting of his breath as if a water main had burst in a London fog. The wind came in a sudden charge from the northwest, and the whale dived with a harpoon in its back; and in the confusion a reel fouled, and one of the boats was whipt under in a moment--half a mile down, perhaps--and its crew drawn with it, and their lungs, full of air, burst like bubbles. We had no time to think of them. We got the other boat-load on board, and then the gale sent us crashing down the slopes of the sea. I have no knowledge of how long we were curst of the tempest and the sport of its ravings. I only know that when it released us at last, we had been hurled a thousand miles eastwards. The long interval was all a hellish jangle in which time seemed obliterated. Sometimes we saw the sun--a furious red globe; and we seemed to stand still while it raced down the sky and ricocheted over the furthermost waves like a red-hot cannon ball. Sometimes in pitch darkness the wild sense of flight and expectation was an ecstasy. But through all my friend lay in a half-delirious stupor.
"At length a morning broke, full of icy scud, but the sea panting and exhausted of its rage. As a child catches its breath after a storm of tears, so it would heave up suddenly, and vibrate, and sink; and we rocked upon it, a ruined hulk. We were off a flat, vacant shore--if shore you could call it--whose margin, for miles inland, it seemed, undulated with the lifting of the swell. It was treeless desolation manifest; and on our sea side, as far as the eye could reach, the water bobbed and winked with countless spars of ice.
"I will tell you at once, my friend,--we were brought to opposite an inhuman swamp on the coast of Siberia, fifty miles or more to the west of North-east Cape; and there what remained of the crew made shift to cast anchor; and for a day and night the ragged ship curtsied to the land, like a blind beggar to an empty street, and we only dozed in our corners and wondered at the silence.
"By-and-by the men made a raft, and that took us all ashore. There was something like a definite coast-line, then; but for long before we touched it the undersides of the planks were scraping and hissing over vegetation. This was the winter fur of the land--thick, coarse tundra moss; and on that we pitched a camp, and on that we remained for long weeks while the ship was mending. It was a weird, lonely time. Once or twice strange, wandering creatures came our way--little, belted men, with hairless faces, who rode up on strong horses, and liked to exhibit their skilful management of them. They talked to us in their chirpy jargon (Toongus, I think it was called); but jargon it must needs remain to us.
"Well, we made a patch of the hulk, and we shipped in her again. We were fortunate to be able to do that, for, with every stiffish wind blowing inshore, we had feared she would drag her moorings and ground immovably on the swamps. The land, indeed, was so flat and low that, whenever the sea rose at all, it threshed the very plains and crackled in the moss; and we were glad, despite the risk, to leave so lifeless a place."
Dinah paused to light another cigarette, and to inhale the ecstasy of the first puff or so before she continued. Up through the still evening, from a curve of the main road that crooked an elbow to her front garden, came what sounded like the purring of a great cat--the wind in the telegraph wires.
"And I am now to tell you," she said, "about the mastodon?"
"As you please," I answered.
"I do please; for why should I keep it to myself? It makes no difference; only I warn you, if you quote me, you will be writ down a fool or a maniac. This relation lacks witnesses, for the whaler--that I subsequently quitted for another homing vessel--was never heard of in port any more."
She looked at me with some serious scrutiny before she went on.
"For these regions, it had been an extraordinarily hot summer--phenomenally hot, I understand; and to this--to the melting and breaking away of the ice from hitherto century-locked fastnesses, the captain attributed the wonderful experience that befell us. The sea was strewn with blocks and bergs, all hurrying onwards in the strong currents, as if in haste to escape the pursuing demon of frost that should re-fetter them; and their multitude kept the steersman's arms spinning till the man would fall half-fainting over the spoke-handles.
"Now, one morning early in September, a dense bright fog dropped suddenly upon the waters. We were making what sail we could--with our crippled spars and stunted trees of masts--and this it were useless to shorten, and so invite a rearward bombardment from the chasing hummocks. So we kept our course by the compass, and trailed on through a blind mist while fear drummed in our throats. The demoralization of my friend was by this time complete. For myself, I seldom had a thought but that Nature would sheathe her claws when she played with me.
"'This cannot last long!' said the captain.
"The words were on his lips when we struck with a noise like the splintering of glass. We were all thrown down, and my companion screamed like a mad thing. The captain rose and ran to the bows; and in a moment he came back and his beard was shaking.
"'God save us!' he cried, 'and fetch aft the rum!'
"There you have man in his invincible moods. They drank till they were in a condition to face death; and then they found that our situation was rather improved than otherwise by the collision. For--so it appeared--we had run full tilt for a perpendicular fissure in a huge block, and into that our bows were firmly wedged, the nature of the impact distributing the shock, and the berg itself carrying us along with it and protecting us.
"Now the dipping motion of the vessel was exchanged for a heavy regular wash along its stern quarters; for the bows were so much raised as that I felt a little strain on my knees as I went forward to satisfy my curiosity with a view of the icy mass into which we were penetrated. I waited, indeed, until the crew were come aft again from looking, and my friend crept timidly at my shoulder; but when we reached the stem, there was one of the hands, a little soberer than his fellows, sprawled over the bulwarks, and staring with all his eyes into the green lift of the wall against him.
"'Is it a mermaid you see, Killigrew?' I asked.
"The man shifted his gaze to me slowly and solemnly.
"'Nowt, nowt,' said he; 'but a turble monster, like a pram stuck in jelly.'
"I laughed, and went to his side. The fog, as I have said, was dense and bright, and one could see into it a little way, as into a milky white agate. But now and again a film of it would pull thin, and then sunlight came through and made a dim radiance of the ice.
"'I can make out nothing,' I said.
"He cocked an eye and leered up at me. 'Look steady and sober,' he said, 'and you'll make en owut like as in a glass darkly.'
"I gave a little gasp and my friend a cry before the words were issued from the man's mouth. Drawn by some current of air, the fog at the moment blew out of the cleft, like smoke from a chimney; and there, before our gaze, was a great curved tusk coming up through the ice and inside it.
"Now I clapped my hands in an agony, lest the fog should close in again, and the vision fade before my eyes; for, following the sweep of the tusk, I was aware of the phantom presentment of some monster creature lying imbedded within the ice, its mighty carcase prostrate as it had fallen; the conformation of its enormous forehead presented directly to our gaze. Its little toffee-ball eyes--little proportionately, that is to say--squinted at us, it seemed, through half-closed lids, and a huge, hairy trunk lay curled, like the proboscis of a dead moth, between its tree-like fore-legs. Away beyond, the great red-brown drum of its hide bellied upward on ribs as thick as a Dutch galliot's, and sprouting from its shoulders was the hump I have mentioned, but here, from its position, sprawled abroad and lying over in a shapeless mass.
"There was something else--horribly nauseating but for its strangeness. The brute had been partly disembowelled, as there was ample evidence to show, for the ice had preserved all.
"Suddenly my companion gave a high nervous shriek.
"'Look!' he cried--'the hand! the hand sticking out of the side!'
"I saw in a moment; turned, and called excitedly to the captain. He--all the crew--came tumbling forward up the slippery deck. I seized him by the shoulder.
"'Do you see?' I screamed--'the human hand beckoning to us from that great body!'
"He gazed stupidly, swaying where he stood.
"'One o' them bloomin' pre-hadymite cows!' he muttered; 'caught in the cold nip, by thunder! and some unfortnit crept into her for warmth.'
"I believed the creature's rude intuition had flown true.
"'Cannot you get at it?' I gasped.
"He stared at me. All in an instant a little paltry demon of avarice blinked out of his eye-holes.
"'Why,' he said slowly, 'who knows but it mayn't be a gal a-jingling from top to toe with gold curtain rings!'
"He was a furious dare-devil immediately, and quick, and savage, and peremptory. His spirit entered into his men. They went over the side with pikes and axes, and, scrambling for any foothold, set to work on the ice like maniacs. In the lust of cupidity they did not even think how they wrought against their own safety and that of the ship.
"The point of the uppermost tusk came to within a foot of the ice-surface. This they soon reached, and, prising frantically with crowbars, flaked off and rolled away half-ton blocks of the superincumbent mass. I need not detail the fierce process. In half an hour they had laid bare a great segment of that part of the trunk whence the hand protruded, and then they paused, and at a word flung down their tools.
"I was leaning over the bulwarks watching them. I could contain my excitement no longer.
"'Come,' I said to my friend, 'help me down, for I must go.'
"He climbed over, trembling, and assisted me to a standing on the ice. We scrambled along the track of debris left by the crew. At the moment half a dozen of the latter were rolling back a broad flap of the hide, in which they had found a long L-shaped rent revealed. Then a hoarse cry broke from them, and I stumbled forward and looked down, and saw.
"They lay beneath the mighty ribs as in a cage, of which the intercostal spaces were a foot in width, and the bars of a strength to maintain the enormous pressure of that which had surrounded and entombed them; they lay in one close group, their naked limbs smeared with the stain of their prison--a man, a woman, and a tiny child. From their faces, and their unfallen flesh, they might have been sleeping; but they were not; they were come down to us, a transfixture of death--prehistoric people in a prehistoric brute, and their eyes--their eyes!"
Dinah's voice trailed off into silence. Some expression that I could not interpret was on her face. There was regret in it, but nothing of pathos or mysticism. Suddenly she breathed out a great sigh and resumed her narrative.
"You will want to know how they looked, these lifeless survivors of a remote race from a remote time? I will try to tell you. The men hacked away the ribs with their axes, and laid bare the group lying in the hollow scooped out of the fallen beast. They were little people, and the man, according to your modern canons of taste, was by far the most beautiful of the three. He sat erect, with one uplifted arm projected through the ribs; as if, surprised by the frost-stroke, he had started to escape, and had been petrified in the act. His face, wondering and delicate as a baby's, was hairless; and his head only a pretty infantile down covered--a curling floss as radiant as spun glass. His wide-open eyes glinted yet with a hyacinth blue, and it was difficult to realize that they were dead and vacant.
"The woman was of coarser mould, ruddy, vigorous, brown-haired and eyed. She looked the very hamadryad of some blossoming tree, a sweet capricious daughter of the blameless earth. Everything luxuriated in her--colour, hair, and lusty flesh; and the child she held to her bosom with a manner that indescribably commingled contempt, and resentment, and a passion of proprietorship.
"This baby--joining the prominent characteristics of the two--was the oddest little mortal I have ever seen. What did its expression convey to me? 'I am fairly caught, and must brazen out the situation!' There! that was what it was; I cannot put it more lucidly. Only the thing's wee face was animal conscious for the first time of itself, and inclined to rejoice in that primitive energy of knowledge.
"Now, my friend, I must tell you how the sight operated upon me and upon my companion. For myself, I can only say that, looking upon that fine, independent fore-mother of my race, I felt the sun in my veins and the winy fragrance of antique woods and pastures. I laughed; I clapped my hands; I danced on the ice-rubbish, so that they thought me mad. But, for the other--the man--he was in a different plight. He was transfigured; his nervousness was gone in a flash. He cast himself down upon his knees, and gazed and gazed, his hands clasped, upon that sleek, mild progenitor of his, that pure image of gentle self-containment, whose very meekness suggested an indomitable will.
"Suddenly he, my friend, cried out: 'This is one caught in the process of materialization! It is not flesh; my God, no!'
"It seemed, indeed, as if it were as he said. I stopped in my capering and looked down. The tarry hinds standing by grinned and jeered.
"On the instant there came a splintering snap, and the floe rocked and curtsied.
"'Back!' yelled the captain. 'She's breaking through by the head!'
"He shrieked of the ship. She was clearing herself, had already shaken her prow free of the ice.
"There was a wild scamper for safety. I was carried with the throng. It was not until I was hauled on board once more that I thought of my friend. He still knelt where we had fled from him, a wrapt, strange expression on his face.
"'Come back!' I screamed. 'You will be lost!'
"Now at that he turned his head and looked at me; but he never moved, and his voice came to me quiet and exultant.
"'Lost!' he said, 'ay, for forty-three years: and here, here I find myself!'
"We dipped, and the wash of the water came about our bows. The block of ice swerved, made a sluggish half-pirouette and dropped astern.
"'Come!' I shrieked again faintly.
"With the echo of my cry he was a phantom, a blot, had vanished in the rearward fog; and thereout a little joyous laugh came to me.
"And that was a queer good-bye for ever, wasn't it?"