A Circle in the Sand
by Kate Jordan
Author of "The Kiss of Gold," "The Other House," etc., etc.
A flood of feeling trickled over Donald's heart, something never felt before--a pain, an ecstasy, a fire loosening some callous growth and seeming by a miracle to turn it to sunshine within him.
"Yes, yes," he said, the perplexing joy still controlling him. "What can we do?"
"There's only one way Red Evans can escape," she continued feverishly. "I've money with me. I'll give it to him. But that doesn't help matters while he's hidden here. The only way he can leave the mine unquestioned is by putting on your blouse and hat and taking your place when I go up. Once he's freed, I'll return for you. This is my plan--to pretend I lost some money and come back with these things I wear secreted under my own cloak for you, to slip them to you, have you put them on, step out unnoticed and join the searchers for the money. It will be easy enough. All men look alike in these things, and with the collar up and one's face turned away they make a good disguise. But should there be any comment you'd have to insist that you came down with me the second time. Are you willing? Will you risk it? I promise to return for you."
In answer Donald took off the long blouse and hat and saw Anne's eyes darken with gratitude. She pointed to the mule cart.
"He's there, and you'll need to give him some whisky; he's so weak."
After putting out the light upon his hat, which had begun to flicker, Donald stepped across an oozing stream and leaned over the cart.
"Evans! Evans! Look up, man! Here's your chance. This hat and blouse"--He broke off abruptly. "Why doesn't he answer?"
He bent nearer and touched the head and face of the hidden man.
"Oh, if he's fainted how can we save him? There isn't a moment," whispered Anne in a frenzy of fear.
Donald climbed into the mule cart and plunged down.
The words rang out. The echoes carried them and played with them in a ghastly way. No need of plans, sacrifice, danger. Freedom and the hangman were alike impossible and indifferent to Red Evans now.
Anne saw Donald's face lifted, touched by the awe always following the wake of the great mystery, but only for a few seconds before her lamp went out with a long leap, as if protesting against some new, uncanny presence, and they were in darkness with the dead.
Anne sank down, her folded arms resting against a wet wall. Everything seemed to slip into a mist; she felt numbed, vanquished, when, like a promise of good, Donald's groping hand sought hers and held it firmly. They did not speak. It was a burden even to think of the horrors surrounding them, the masses of coal not far above their heads creaking like a lazy monster settling himself, the whimpering of flying rats and the knowledge that beside them lay a dead man, a look of affright on his face.
After awhile it became evident that something delayed the return of the cage. Hours seemed to crawl by as they sat there, hand in hand, scarcely speaking until it became imperative to talk and let sound trouble the black pall dividing and overhanging them.
Then something happened that seemed to Anne beyond belief. Donald in hesitating tones began speaking of himself. To see the lips of the sphinx melt into a smile could scarcely have been more astounding to her. She listened, understanding how the sights and sounds of that terrible day and the intimate hand clasp in the blackness had aroused the inner self he so consistently silenced.
Her heart smarted for him as she heard the halting story of his childhood. She could see him left orphaned, under an unfriendly roof, no natural love excusing his faults, loneliness eating into him. Loneliness! It was the word on which his life had reared its twisted structure.
In words that burned he sketched the difference between David's place and his in John Temple's house--David, secretly loved by him always and bitterly envied, David the figure in the white light which he might adore, but never follow. He told her how manhood came and the bitter knowledge of all. He was despised, superfluous, and the determination took root to fulfill the promise of his dark origin to sink to the level considered fitting.
A stronger nature would have doggedly risen no doubt. But the other was easy, natural and had not been without joy. The poor, the unhappy like himself had understood and loved him. For the rest he had grown content to tear principles to rags, revel in the mud, live for the moment and go with flags flying to ruin and death.
"Why didn't you try to do well?" Anne asked urgently.
"I was afraid, " he said in a lifeless tone. "I thought it wouldn't do for me with the inherited tendencies of which I was so constantly reminded. Besides, no one cared. That was it. It's all well enough to talk of doing right, but when your instinct leads you to the wrong and there's not a soul on earth to care a pin if you're fished out of the river, a boy--at least most boys--would get into an easy stride on the wrong road."
"No, you needn't have gone," she said passionately.
"I'm not trying to excuse myself."
"But you're not hopeless, are you?"
"I don't know, " he said slowly. "I ought to be. I have been. But tonight somehow I wish I could begin over again."
He heard a sob. All Anne had felt during the trying day and the pathos of this confidence had touched her beyond endurance. She wept unrestrainedly from a full heart. She could not see Donald's eyes nor how they grew intent and unbelieving. It seemed impossible that he should hear a woman's sobs for him, tears for him. They were terrible and racked him, but they were sweet too.
Before he could fully accept the wonderful occurrence as true and before Anne could control herself to speak the grating of the wire ropes in the shaft cautiously commenced.
A light sprang into Donald's face, and despite the opposing forces tearing him like teeth he pressed her hand and said in a whisper that was slow and difficult:
"If I do make anything of myself, if I ever do, it won't be because it's right nor for society, nor even for shame of what I am, but for you."
When they entered the cage, Anne's tear swollen face needed no explanation. To have been kept in a mine for an hour without a light because part of the machinery had slipped its groove and to have chanced upon Red Evans dead was enough to unnerve any woman.
Only Anne and Donald ever knew the truth of that hour. They stepped into the night and saw the moon filling the place with phosphoric light, making a glory of the drenched earth. More marvelous than this white atmosphere of peace after the stormy day was the friendship which had put forth sudden flower in silence and night.
By the middle of December even the most careless in the office of The Citizen had commented upon the change in Donald Sefain. He was no longer the voluntary recluse, a man parading his vices, eager to be judged by them alone. He had learned to believe in his possibilities. His fettered nature, feeding on all that was rotten, had risen like a dazed, hungry thing following an instinct for better food and freedom Ambition, a rebellious prisoner always, had revived in him after he had striven to crucify it. It called to him in the long nights, in his lonely walks, and its voice was somehow Anne's:
"What have you done with your life?"
The assertion of his best instincts had left their marks upon the outer man. His antagonism and gloom had almost vanished; so had his untidiness and air of general dissoluteness. He carried himself better, his clothes were better, and they were worn as if he respected them and himself.
As his habits mended and his work steadily improved David Temple treated him as a worker whom he prized. A closer degree of intimacy between the two men seemed impossible. They saw each other seldom, save in the office. But Anne was the friend of both.
David visited her less often than in the summer, his engagements were so many, but every hour he could spare was spent in her pretty, out of the way rooms. He let the social mask fall when with her as with no one else. Any one seeing him pacing up and down her room, a privileged cigarette between his fingers, as he indulged in brilliant nonsense, laughing like a boy when he pulled her pet theories to bits as if he blew away loose rose petals, would scarcely have known him.
Anne loved these hours with him, and her happiness went with her, absorbing her thoughts to the detriment of the art so dear to her. The pen lay dry upon the sheets of her novel. She no longer struggled against the passionate effacement of self in another's being. She did not torment her heart by looking for a growing love in David's eyes. She was content to drift. It was evident to all he was very fond of her. He sought her familiarly. She knew nothing of his life beyond the small horizon of her own, and, feeling an anticipative joy which seemed to melt her future with his, she was content.
Dr. Ericsson had much to engross him and keep him away. The wild winter weather had brought the usual illnesses, and the Waverly place house was in chaos, preparing for the arrival of his wife and daughter after an absence of eight years.
Anne had plenty of leisure, and she gave much of it to Donald Sefain. Between them they made some of those winter nights idyls of joy for little Joe Evans. He was very ill. Giving way to rest after inured hardship seemed like giving way to grief, and his weak body collapsed.
He was in Donald's home, a trio of small rooms in a street a short distance from The Citizen. They were cheap apartments, but hopefully clean, presided over by a "lone" woman, Mrs. Mulligan, who lived on the floor beneath.
Anne often went home with Donald in the quick winter dusks, and, stepping from the hall into the firelight, she would feel as if summer had come across the snow and kissed her. The room was always sweet smelling from a bunch of flowers, the kettle always singing, the lamp shaded.
"Ah, Joe, dear, if yez had seen me whin I was young!" she had surprised Mrs. Mulligan saying once as she knitted beside the pillowed chair where Joe reclined, pale from the languor of unhealthy sleep. "There was a sight for ye! The girls of today with their crotched in bodies and white cheeks stuck to the bone--what are they? Ah, avick, girls were different in moy toime! Why, I shtud 14 stone, weighed in me stockings. Me hair shtud out loike eaves on both soides of me head, alanna, 'twas so thick. As fer me cheeks," she added in climactic triumph, "they shtuck out loike apples and were that red ye cud bleed them with a shtraw."
On nights like these Donald's nature seemed to expand and exult. He surprised Anne by his humor, his mocking grace as host, his boyish play with Joe, who adored him. Sometimes when he read aloud after dinner and Mrs. Mulligan sat motionless as a sphinx save for the darting needles, Anne knelt on the floor, her arms around the boy. His feverish mouth would creep close to her ear and he would tell her how he loved Mr. Sefain and how he was never to go back to the mines, never. Anne would assure him of this while holding him to her and kissing him in a little storm of love, and then her eyes would rove over him, his hands with no more substance than claws, dry and hot, his hungry eyes seeming to hold life like a picture before them in an endeavor to see all quickly before the short day ended.
It was Donald who showed Anne some of the singular sides of the city's life.
During this season of pure frost when the electric wires spanning the city were turned into glacial ribbons and the noise of traffic on the frozen ground was like the clamor from brass, she often found herself treading the narrow, uphill streets in the lower quarter of the city to see some marvelous "find" of his.
Once it was an old Russian musician, a political exile. The room they found him in was wretched, but in a corner stood a samovar of copper fit for a prince's table. This and the Amati on the old man's knee were the only visible relics of a sumptuous past. Bending over the decaying fire, be had played for them wild and terrible music, which awoke strange fancies. It seemed to whisper of a spirit haunting a familiar but empty house, where moonlight streamed through the bare windows; it shrieked of shipwreck, mumbled of witches dancing in a haggard dawn, prayed for life while the block and the headsman waited. The unsyllabled desolation of the exile's life, it had haunted her for days.
Although working in the office of a world known newspaper, she had never seen the wonders of the mechanism used in its construction until one midnight Donald took her down to the pressroom. There was a weighty but soundless vibration as she went down the stone stairs, but when the iron door was pushed back the noise was so tremendous it leaped out like a bar and struck her. A gust of air accompanied it which seemed to suck her down the ladderlike stairway against her will until, dazzled and bewildered, she stood on a little bridge overlooking a plateau of steel that leaped and shivered in gigantic sockets. Bare chested men like sweating pygmies stood between the big machines, and above them, a monster of many jaws, the roaring presses snapped up the paper. On the first page there was a portrait of a murderer, and this was repeated all over the gaslit space. On every side the sinister visage with eyes turned obliquely toward her came riding into view, and the glittering clamps seized it, seemed to crush it furiously until, like the stone Sisyphus, rolled, it appeared again, and the task was incessantly continued.
It was Donald who showed her the underground restaurants where the newspaper "hacks" plunged in the early morning hours for coffee that was like a fluid blessing. She went with him to all sorts of queer and storied nooks. Once they had tea in a place known only to a few privileged scribblers. This was in a sort of cul de sac, a swinging lamp lighting the way up the long alley. Separated from the noise of the town and waited upon by a genial French host and his wife, they had seemed in Paris, for the secretive niche in the crowded street might have strayed from one of Hugo's stories and settled, out of countenance, in a commercial atmosphere.
Together they went to well known studios where all was harmony and beauty--idols sombrously contemplative, mediaeval windows, wood carving from India and rugs from Damascus. She had watched the last touches put to a landscape, had seen a sculptor make lips of clay smile as if he had called life there.
Donald had taken her behind the scenes of a theater, and she had watched the progress of a play from the wings, had gazed with critical eyes and a sense of illusions lost at the mechanism of what had so often enchanted her--exits, entrances, cues and prompter's book.
And they had read much together--the exquisite prose of Huysmans and Mallarme, Kipling's crushing phrases painting the arid glitter of India, "Tess," bare armed and fawn eyed, loving tragically in a setting of clover and dawn mists; the fatalism of the "Rubaiyat" and the wholesome cynicism of Thackeray.
They shared all together as comrades and confidants. The boy in Donald and the piquant schoolgirl only masked in the woman clasped hands and laughed.
(To be continued)