IN NO STRANGE LAND
BY KATHARINE BUTLER
HE was in the heart of the crowd, in it, and of it—the crowd of late afternoon whose simultaneous movement is the expression of a common wish to cease to be a crowd. His was one of the thousand faces that are almost tragical with weariness, tragical without thought. At five o’clock the sparkle of the morning is forgotten. There is no seeking of hidden treasure in the face opposite, for the face opposite, whosesoever it may be, has become too hatefully intrusive with its own burden to yield any light of recognition.
He was running down the Elevated stairs at the appointed minute, when his foot slipped and he fell. It seemed hardly a second before he was up again, angered by the sudden congestion about him. One white-cheeked woman put her hand to her mouth and gave a cry.
‘Let me by!’ he exclaimed, straining to break through the fast-pressing barrier. The very throng of which he had been an undistinguishable member had suddenly closed round him, focusing its Argus glance upon him, nearer and nearer, and it was only by extreme struggle that he was able to push away and be free.
He sat down in the train, breathless from his final sprint. He felt as if the incident had roused him from some deep lethargy of which he had hitherto been unaware. With his quickened pulse, his thoughts ran more quickly, more crystally onward. He felt as if a wonderful but unknown piece of luck had befallen him. An ecstatic sense of fortune made him wonder at himself.
‘What am I so damned happy about, all of a sudden?’ he thought.
He made an indifferent survey of his fellow passengers, and as he noted the familiar heads and shoulders, he had a most curious sensation of utter bliss, and thanked heaven that his lot was not theirs.
‘Am I dreaming?’ he asked himself. ‘Am I about to discover a gold-mine, or what?’
As the train moved out he sank comfortably back into his seat, and with his chin on his hand he took up his accustomed nightly gaze on the outer landscape. His thoughts ran back to the morning. He saw the room where he had gone to wake his children. It was a large, square room, with colored nursery pictures on the walls and a collection of battered toys in the corner. The place was fresh and cool with the sparkling air of early May, and through the open windows he had seen the lawn thick spread with cobwebs. And in each of the three small beds a pretty child of his lay stretched in a childish attitude of sleep. Very tender they looked, very lovable, in their naïve curlings-up, a young, shapely arm flung out in the restlessness of approaching day, lips and nostrils just stirred by the tiny motion of their breathing, and an unbelievable, blossomy hand spread in fairy gesture across a pillow. As he walked through the room, he heard the boy John murmur in his waking dreams. Alicia sat up suddenly, as thin and straight as a new reed in her prim nightgown. Her eyelashes were black and her eyes were heather-purple.
‘Father!’ she had cried, ‘I know what day it is!’ And in a moment three small whirlwinds stood up on the floor, dropped their nightgowns, and began to fling their arms and legs into their morning apparel, and there was a great deal of loud conversation full of the presage of festivity. Their father had forgotten that he had a birthday until his wife and children had recovered it from obscurity and made it a day of days.
As he left the house he had looked at Maggie, his fragile, high-hearted wife, and urged her not to get tired with the nonsense. She had looked back at him with mock haughtiness and warned him not to be late to supper, or make light of feast days. He did not notice her words; he was curiously unable to grow accustomed to her face. The more he saw it, the more unbelievably beautiful, the more eloquent in delicate and gentle meanings, it became to him. She looked into his eyes quickly, with a question for his sudden absent-mindedness.
‘Because your face is so heavenly,’ he answered reverently.
As the train moved on, he saw that a fresh, green haze had begun to veil and adorn the landscape which through the cold months had been so gaunt and ugly to his daily observation. The hint of fever was in the air—the slight madness that accompanies the pangs of seasonal change.
Love glowed in his heart and touched all the veins of his body with its winelike warmth, its inimitable winelike bouquet. ‘Life is sweet! Life is sweet!’ his body said, echoing and reëchoing through all the channels of his being. And as the train carried him on through the fields and woods outside the city, something almost like the fervor of genius took hold of him, plucking at his heart for words, crying to him out of the silent fields and woods for words, words!
A slight rain was in the air, darkening the twilight, when he stepped down from the train. He was grateful for the darkness, for the soft air on his face, grateful indeed for the silence. Evening had brought him back to his obscure town, a small station marked by one lantern swung in the stiff grasp of an ancient man. The usual handful of three or four passengers alighted, and exchanging remarks up and down the village street, quickly disappeared within the generous portals of their hereditary houses. The sound of a door opening and shutting, the pleasant light of lamps, the brief glimpse of a shining supper-table, the departing whistle of the train as it shot away through field and thicket, and the remote town was undisturbed again.
He was grateful indeed for the nightly renascence of his spirit in the clear air and gracious heaven of the place. On this May night of mist and darkness he took up again the thread of his real existence. Only to-night it seemed more golden, more palpitating with hope and mystery—a still moment wherein one could only half distinguish between the future and the past. He was thirty years old to-day, he told himself, and he had a wife and three children. A short swift time it had been! Had he them then, or was it a dream? Where were his footsteps taking him down the empty street? To Babylon, or some lost coast of gods and visions? He turned a familiar corner. A fresh breeze struck his face with a sudden shower of drops, and he saw in the dim light the heads of crocuses shaking in the grass beside the walk. He flung open the door and heard Maggie’s voice in the dining-room and the laughter of Alicia.
‘Hallo!’ he called; and getting no answer, he walked into the dining-room. There was a circle of candles on the table, unlighted as yet, and a bowl of flowers.
Maggie was sitting by the fire, cracking nuts, and telling a story to the children who sat about her in white frocks, the firelight on their faces. The boy John was staring into the flame with the look that made his mother believe that she had given habitation to a poet’s soul, and that inspired her to tell the most extravagant tales of wonder that her brain could conjure. Vibrant mystery rang in the low monotony of her voice.
Their father checked himself at the doorway, thinking that he had done violence to the etiquette of birthdays by allowing himself to view the preparation. He laughed and stepped out again.
‘Oh, I see you don’t want me. I really didn’t look at a thing!’ And he called back from the stair, ‘How soon may I come?’
He heard nothing but the cracking of nuts, Maggie’s enchanting tone, and the short laughter of Alicia.
‘O Maggie, dear!’ he called again.
No reply,—only the soft continuance of the magic tale in the inner room.
‘By the way,’—He stepped down a stair. ‘By the way, Maggie, may I see you a second?’
The story had ceased, but Maggie neither answered nor came. He stepped to the dining-room door with a curious sense of apprehension. There was a touch of surprise in his tone.
She looked round and on her face was the quick and strange reflection of his bewilderment. Yet she looked beyond him, through him, as if he had not been there. The boy John was still staring into the fire, folded deep in the robe of enthrallment his mother had made. As if from the hushed heart of it, he said,—
‘What did you hear, mother?’
She gave him a startled glance, and then she smiled upon him, tenderly, warmly.
‘Only the wind outside, dear child. It is a rainy and windy night.’
She looked again toward the door of the room.
Such was the sudden torture and fear in his breast, he could scarcely lift his voice. He put one hand to his head and stepped nearer his wife.
As if to find tranquillity in a moment of nervousness, she rested her soft glance on Alicia, the child of delicate hands and delicate thoughts.
Robbie, the importunate youngest, leaned against his mother with heavy and troubled eyes.
‘I thought I heard something, mother,’ he said.
She bent over him, visibly trembling.
‘What did you think it was, darling?’ she asked.
‘I thought it was the rain hitting the window and trying to get in.’
She laughed and rose uneasily from her chair, and taking the child in her arms, she walked up and down before the friendly fire. For a long time there was no sound in the room except the vague sound of wind, of flame, and of Maggie’s footsteps.
Suddenly Robbie gave a little cry from her shoulder.
‘Why doesn’t father come?’
The man rushed toward his wife to clasp her and the child in his arms, crying,—
She sank to her chair, trembling and stroking the head of her child with fearful compassion.
‘O heavy mystery! Is this life,’ he cried, ‘or death?’ He stretched out his arms in vain. The impassable gulf lay between them. Then, as he turned away from her, the walls of the house grew heavy upon him, the fire sent forth a smothering heat, and incomprehensible, unendurable became the spectacle of human grief.
He went toward the door. Hesitating he looked back again. Robbie’s face was buried in her breast; her eyes were deep and dark with the half-guessed truth.
There came a sound at the door, that caused Maggie to start piteously. He forgot his desire to be free in his desire to clasp her again and console her.
She left the children and went unhesitating and pale to answer the summons, he hovering beside her. What a flower she looked and how fragilely shaken, like the rain-beaten crocuses in the grass!
As the door opened he saw two men standing in the dark and wet. For a moment neither spoke. One looked at the other, and broke out,—
‘You tell her, for God’s sake!’
This came to him dimly as if he were a thousand miles away. He heard no more. He had gone out into the wind and rain. It struck his breast again with its incomparable sweetness. He saw dark hills lying before him. Gateways long barred within him rushed open with a sound of singing and triumph. He felt no more sorrow, no more pity,—only incredible freedom and joy. The stone had been rolled away.
‘Death is sweet! Death is sweet!’ echoed and reëchoed through all the passages of his being. He smelt the icy breath of mountains, and he knew the vast solitude of the plains of the sea. The veins of his body were the great rivers of the earth, sparkling in even splendor. His head was among the stars, he saw the sun and the moon together, and the four seasons were marshaled about him. The clouds of the sky parted and fell away, and across the blue sward of heaven he saw the procession of glowing, gracious figures whose broken shadow is cast with such vague majesty across the face of the earth.