Chapter II. The Man in the Dark.
 

A man stood at a window, looking out into the night. There was no light in the room. The stars were hidden behind a thick curtain of sullen clouds.

The house was a wretchedly constructed, long-neglected building of a type common to those old river towns that in their many years of uselessness have lost all civic pride, and in their own resultant squalor and filth have buried their self-respect. A dingy, scarcely legible sign over the treacherous board walk, in front, by the sickly light of a smoke-grimed kerosene lantern, announced that the place was a hotel.

Dark as it was, the man at the window could see the river. The trees that lined the bank opposite the town were mere ghostly shadows against the gloomy masses of the low hills that rose from the water's edge, indistinct, mysterious, and unreal, into the threatening sky. The higher mountains that reared their crests beyond the hills were invisible. The stream itself swept sullenly through the night,--a resistless flood of dismal power, as if, turbid with wrecked souls, with the lost hopes and ruined dreams of men, it was fit only to bear vessels freighted with sorrow, misfortune, and despair.

The manner of the man at the window was as if some woeful spirit of the melancholy scene were calling him. With head bowed, and face turned a little to one side, he listened intently as one listens to voices that are muffled and indistinct. He pressed his face close to the glass, and with straining eyes tried to see more clearly the ghostly trees, the sombre hills, and the gloomy river. Three times he turned from the window to pace to and fro in the darkened room, and every time his steps brought him again to the casement, as if in obedience to some insistent voice that summoned him. The fourth time, he turned from the window more quickly, with a gesture of assenting decision.

The crackling snap of a match broke the dead stillness. The sudden flare of light stabbed the darkness. As he applied the tiny, wavering flame to the wick of a lamp that stood on the cheap, old-fashioned bureau, the man's hand shook until the chimney rattled against the wire standards of the burner. Turning quickly from the lighted lamp, the man sprang again to the window to jerk down the tattered, old shade. Facing about, he stood with his back to the wall, searching the room with wide, fearful eyes. His fists were clenched. His chest rose and fell heavily with his labored breathing. His face worked with emotion. With trembling limbs and twitching muscles, he crouched like some desperate creature at bay.

But, save for the wretched man himself, there was in that shabby, dingy-papered, dirty-carpeted, poorly furnished apartment no living thing.

Suddenly, the man laughed;--and it was the reckless, despairing laughter of a soul that feels itself slipping over the brink of an abyss.

With hurried step and outstretched hands, he crossed the room to snatch a bottle of whisky from its place beside the lamp on the bureau. With trembling eagerness, he poured a water tumbler half-full of the red liquor. As one dying of thirst, he drank. Drawing a deep breath, and shaking his head with a wry smile, he spoke in hoarse confidence to the image of himself in the dingy mirror: "They nearly had me, that time." Again, he poured, and drank.

The whisky steadied him for the moment, and with bottle and glass still in hand, he regarded himself in the mirror with critical interest.

Had he stood erect, with the vigor that should have been his by right of his years, the man would have measured just short of six feet; but his shoulders--naturally well set--sagged with the weariness of excessive physical indulgence; while the sunken chest, the emaciated limbs, and the dejected posture of his misused body made him in appearance, at least, a wretched weakling. His clothing--of good material and well tailored--was disgustingly soiled and neglected;--the shoes thickly coated with dried mud, and the once-white shirt, slovenly unfastened at the throat, without collar or tie. The face which looked back from the mirror to the man was, without question, the countenance of a gentleman; but the broad forehead under the unkempt red-brown hair was furrowed with anxiety; the unshaven cheeks were lined and sunken; the finely shaped, sensitive mouth drooped with nervous weakness; and the blue, well-placed eyes were bloodshot and glittering with the light of near-insanity.

The poor creature looked at the hideous image of his ruined self as if fascinated with the horror of that which had been somehow wrought. Slowly, as one in a trance, he went closer, and, without moving his gaze from the mirror, placed the bottle and tumbler upon the bureau. As if compelled by those burning eyes that stared so fixedly at him, he leaned forward still closer to the glass. Then, as he looked, the distorted features twitched and worked grotesquely with uncontrollable emotions, while the quivering lips formed words that were not even whispered. With trembling fingers he felt the unshaven cheeks and touched the unkempt hair questioningly. Suddenly, as if to shut out the horror of that which he saw in the mirror, the man hid his face in his hands, and with a sobbing, inarticulate cry sank to the floor.

Silently, with pitiless force, the river swept onward through the night, following its ordained way to the mighty sea.

As if summoned again by some dark spirit that brooded over the sombre, rushing flood, the man rose heavily to his feet. His face turned once more toward the window. A moment he stood there, listening, listening; then wheeling back to the whisky bottle and the glass on the bureau, he quickly poured, and drank again.

Nodding his head in the manner of one reaching a conclusion, he looked slowly about the room, while a frightful grin of hopeless, despairing triumph twisted his features, and his lips moved as if he breathed reckless defiance to an invisible ghostly company.

Moving, now, with a decision and purpose that suggested a native strength of character, the man quickly packed a suit-case with various articles of clothing from the bureau drawers and the closet. He was in the act of closing the suit-case when he stopped suddenly, and, with a shrug of his shoulders, turned away. Then, as if struck by another thought, he stooped again over his baggage, and drew forth a fresh, untouched bottle of whisky.

"I guess you are the only baggage I'll need where I am going," he said, whimsically; and, leaving the open suit-case where it lay, he crossed the room, and extinguished the light. Cautiously, he unlocked and opened the door. For a moment, he stood listening. Then, with the bottle hidden under his coat, he stole softly from the room.

A few minutes later, the man stood out there in the night, on the bank of the river. Behind him the outlines of the scattered houses that made the little town were lost against the dusk of the hillside. From the ghostly tree-shadows that marked the opposite bank, the solemn hills rose out of the deeper darkness of the lowlands that edged the stream in sombre mystery. There was no break in the heavy clouds to permit the gleam of a friendly star. There was no sound save the soft swish of the water against the bank where he stood, the chirping of a bird in the near-by willows, and the occasional splash of a leaping fish or water animal. But to the man there was a feeling of sound. To the lonely human wreck standing there in the darkness, the river called--called with fearful, insistent power.

From under the black wall of the night the dreadful flood swept out of the Somewhere of its beginning. Past the man the river poured its mighty strength with resistless, smoothly flowing, terrible force. Into the darkness it swept on its awful way to the Nowhere of its ending. For uncounted ages, the river had poured itself thus between those walls of hills. For untold ages to come, until the end of time itself, the stream would continue to pour its strength past that spot where the man stood.

Out of the night, the voice of the river had called to the man, as he stood at the window of his darkened room. And the man had come, now, to answer the call. Cautiously, he went down the bank toward the edge of the dark, swirling water. His purpose was unmistakable. Nor was there any hint of faltering, now, in his manner. He had reached his decision. He knew what he had come to do.

The man's feet were feeling the mud at the margin of the stream when his legs touched something, and a low, rattling sound startled him. Then he remembered. A skiff was moored there, and he had brushed against the chain that led from the bow of the boat to the stump of a willow higher up on the bank. The man had seen the skiff,--a rude, flat-bottomed little craft, known to the Ozark natives as a John-boat,--just before sunset that evening. But there had been no boat in his thoughts when he had come to answer the call of the river, and in the preoccupation of his mind, as he stood there in the night beside the stream, he had not noticed it, as it lay so nearly invisible in the darkness. Mechanically, he stooped to feel the chain with his free hand. A moment later, he had placed his bottle of whisky carefully in the boat, and was loosing the chain painter from the willow stump.

"Why not?" he said to himself. "It will be easier in midstream,--and more certain."

Carefully, so that no sound should break the stillness, he stowed the chain in the bow, and then worked the skiff around until it pointed out into the stream. Then, with his hands grasping the sides of the little craft, and the weight of his body on one knee in the stern, he pushed vigorously with his free foot against the bank and so was carried well out from the shore. As the boat lost its momentum, the strong current caught it and whirled it away down the river.

Groping in the darkness, the man found his bottle of whisky, and working the cork out with his pocketknife, drank long and deep.

Already, save for a single light, the town was lost in the night. As the man watched that red spot on the black wall, the stream swung his drifting boat around a bend, and the light vanished. The dreadful mystery of the river drew close. The world of men was far, very far away. Centuries ago, the man had faced himself in the mirror, and had obeyed the voice that summoned him into the darkness. In fancy, now, he saw his empty boat swept on and on. Through what varied scenes would it drift? To what port would the mysterious will of the river carry it? To what end would it at last come in its helplessness?

And the man himself,--the human soul-craft,--what of him? As he had pushed his material boat out into the stream to drift, unguided and helpless, so, presently, he would push himself out from the shore of all that men call life. Through what scenes would he drift? To what port would the will of an awful invisible stream carry him? To what end would he finally come, in his helplessness?

Again the man drank--and again.

And then, with face upturned to the leaden clouds, he laughed aloud--laughed until the ghostly shores gave back his laughter, and the voices of the night were hushed and still.

The laughter ended with a wild, reckless, defiant yell.

Springing to his feet in the drifting boat, the man shook his clenched fist at the darkness, and with insane fury cursed the life he had left behind.

The current whirled the boat around, and the man faced down the stream. He laughed again; and, lifting his bottle high, uttered a reckless, profane toast to the unknown toward which he was being carried by the river in the night.