THE MOORLAND OF THE APOCALYPSE
I reckoned that it would take me two or three days, leisurely walking, to reach Yellowsands. Rosalind would, of course, arrive there long before me; but that I did not regret, as I was in a mood to find company in my own thoughts.
Her story gave me plenty to think of. I dwelt particularly on the careless extravagance of the happy. Here were two people to whom life had given casually what I was compelled to go seeking lonely and footsore through the world, and with little hope of finding it at the end; and yet were they so little aware of their good fortune as to risk it over a trumpery theory, a shadow of pseudo-philosophy. Out of the deep dark ocean of life Love had brought them his great moon-pearl, and they sat on the boat's edge carelessly tossing it from one to the other, unmindful of the hungry fathoms on every side. A sudden slip, and they had lost it for ever, and might only watch its shimmering fall to the bottom of the world. Theories! Theories are for the unknown and the unhappy. Who will trouble to theorise about Heaven when he has found Heaven itself? Theories are for the poor- devil outcast,--for him who stands outside the confectioner's shop of life without a penny in his pocket, while the radiant purchasers pass in and out through the doors,--for him who watches with wistful eyes this and that sugared marvel taken out of the window by mysterious hands, to bless some happy customer inside. He is not fool enough even to hope for one of those glistering masterpieces of frosted sugar and silk flowers, which rise to pinnacles of snowy sweetness, white mountains of blessedness, rich inside, they say, with untold treasures for the tooth that is sweet. No! he craves nothing but a simple Bath-bun of happiness, and even that is denied him.
Would I ever find my Bath-bun? I disconsolately asked myself. I had been seeking it now for some little time, and seemed no nearer than when I set out. I had seen a good many Bath-buns on my pilgrimage, it is true. Some I have not had space to confide to the reader; but somehow or other they had not seemed the unmistakably predestined for which I was seeking.
And oh, how I could love a girl, if she would only give me the chance,--that is, be the right girl! Oh, Sylvia Joy! where art thou? Why so long dost thou remain hidden "in shady leaves of destiny"?
"Seest thou thy lover lowly laid, Hear'st thou the sighs that rend his breast?"
And then, as the novelists say, "a strange thing happened."
The road I was tramping at the moment was somewhat desolate. It ran up from a small market town through a dreary undulating moorland, forking off here and there to unknown villages of which the horizon gave no hint. Its cheerless hillocks were all but naked of vegetation, for a never very flourishing growth of heather had recently been burnt right down to the unkindly- looking earth, leaving a dwarf black forest of charred sticks very grim to the eye and heart; while the dull surface of a small lifeless-looking lake added the final touch to the Dead-Sea mournfulness of the prospect.
Suddenly I became aware of the fluttering of a grey dress a little ahead of me. Unconsciously I had been overtaking a tall young woman walking in the same direction as myself, with a fine athletic carriage of her figure and a noble movement of her limbs.
She walked manfully, and as I neared her I could hear the sturdy ring of her well-shod feet upon the road. There was an air of expectancy about her walk, as though she looked to be met presently by some one due from the opposite direction.
It was curious that I had not noticed her before, for she must have been in sight for some time. No doubt my melancholy abstraction accounted for that, and perhaps her presence there was to be explained by a London train which I had listlessly observed come in to the town an hour before. This surmise was confirmed, as presently,--over the brow of a distant undulation in the road, I descried a farmer's gig driven by another young woman. The gig immediately hoisted a handkerchief; so did my pedestrian. At this moment I was within a yard or two of overtaking her. And it was then the strange thing happened.
Distance had lent no enchantment which nearness did not a hundred times repay. The immediate impression of strength and distinction which the first glimpse of her had made upon me was more and more verified as I drew closer to her. The carriage of her head was no whit less noble than the queenly carriage of her limbs, and her glorious chestnut hair, full of warm tints of gold, was massed in a sumptuous simplicity above a neck that would have made an average woman's fortune. This glowing description, however, must be lowered or heightened in tone by the association of these characteristics with an undefinable simplicity of mien, a certain slight rusticity of effect. The town spoke in her well-cut gown and a few simple adornments, but the dryad still moved inside.
I suppose most men, even in old age, feel a certain anxiety, conscious or not, as they overtake a woman whose back view is in the least attractive. I confess that I felt a more than usual, indeed a quite irrational, perturbation of the blood, as, coming level with her, I dared to look into her face. As I did so she involuntarily turned to look at me--turned to look at me, did I say? "To look" is a feeble verb indeed to express the unexpected shock of beauty to which I was suddenly exposed. I cannot describe her features, for somehow features always mean little to me. They were certainly beautifully moulded, and her skin was of a lovely pale olive, but the life of her face was in her great violet eyes and her wonderful mouth. Thus suddenly to look into her face was like unexpectedly to come upon moon and stars reflected in some lonely pool. I suppose the look lasted only a second or two; but it left me dazzled as that king in the Eastern tale, who seemed to have lived whole dream-lives between dipping his head into a bowl of water and taking it out again. Similarly in that moment I seemed to have dived into this unknown girl's eyes, to have walked through the treasure palaces of her soul, to have stood before the flaming gates of her heart, to have gathered silver flowers in the fairy gardens of her dreams. I had followed her white-robed spirit across the moonlit meadows of her fancy, and by her side had climbed the dewy ladder of the morning star, and then suddenly I had been whirled up again to the daylight through the magic fountains of her eyes.
I'll tell you more about that look presently! Meanwhile the gig approached, and the two girls exchanged affectionate greetings.
"Tom hasn't come with you, then?" said the other girl, who was evidently her sister, and who was considerably more rustic in style and accent. She said it with a curious mixture of anxiety and relief.
"No," answered the other simply, and I thought I noticed a slight darkening of her face. Tom was evidently her husband. So she was married!
"Yes!" said a fussy hypocrite of reason within me, "and what's that to do with you?"
"Everything, you fool!" answered a robuster voice in my soul, kicking the feeble creature clean out of my head on the instant.
For, absurd as it may sound, with that look into those Arabian Nights' eyes, had come somewhere out of space an overwhelming intuition, nay, an unshakable conviction, that the woman who was already being rolled away from me down the road in that Dis's car of a farmer's gig, was now and for ever and before all worlds the woman God had created for me, and that, unless I could be hers and she mine, there would be no home, no peace for either of us so long as we lived.
And yet she was being carried away further and further every moment, while I gazed after her, aimlessly standing in the middle of the road. Why did I not call to her, overtake her? In a few moments she would be lost to me for ever--
Though I was unaware of it, this hesitation was no doubt owing to a stealthy return of reason by the back-door of my mind. In fact, he presently dared to raise his voice again. "I don't deny," he ventured, ready any moment to flee for his life, "that she is written yours in all the stars, and particularly do I see it written on the face of the moon; but you mustn't forget that many are thus meant for each other who never meet, not to speak of marrying. It is such contradictions between the purposes and performance of the Creator that make life--life; you'll never see her again, so make your mind easy--"
At that moment the gig was on the point of turning a corner into a dark pine-wood; but just ere it disappeared,--was it fancy?--I seemed to have caught the flash of a momentarily fluttering handkerchief. "Won't I? you fool!" I exclaimed, savagely smiting reason on the cheek, as I sprang up wildly to wave mine; but the road was already blank.
At this a sort of panic possessed me, and like a boy I raced down the road after her. To lose her like this, at the very moment that she had been revealed to me. It was more than I could bear.
Past the dreary lake, through the little pine-wood I ran, and then I was brought to a halt, panting, by cross-roads and a finger-post. An involuntary memory of Nicolete sang to me as I read the quaint names of the villages to one of which the Vision was certainly wending. Yes! I was bound on one more journey to the moon, but alas! there was no heavenly being by my side to point the way. Oh, agony, which was the road she had taken?
It never occurred to me till the following day that I might have been able to track her by the wheel-marks of the gig on the dusty summer road. Instead I desperately resorted to the time-honoured expedient of setting up a stick and going in the direction of its fall. Like most ancient guide-posts, it led me quite wrong, down into a pig's-trough of a hamlet whither I felt sure she couldn't have been bound. Then I ran back in a frenzy, and tried the other road,--as if it could be any use, with at least three quarters of an hour gone since I had lost sight of her. Of course I had no luck; and finally, hot and worn out with absurd excitement, I threw myself down in a meadow and called myself an ass,--which I undoubtedly was.
For of all the fancies that had obsessed my moonstruck brain, this was surely the maddest. Suppose I had overtaken the girl, what could I have said to her? And, suppose she had listened to me, how did I know she was the girl I imagined her to be? But this was sheer reason again, and has no place in a fantastic romance. So I hasten to add that the mood was one of brief duration, and that no cold-water arguments were able to quench the fire which those eyes had set aflame within me, no daylight philosophy had any power to dispel the dream of a face which was now my most precious possession, as I once more took up my stick and listlessly pursued my way to Yellowsands.
For I had one other reason than my own infatuation, or thought I had. Yes, brief and rapid as our glance at each other had been, I had fancied in her eyes a momentary kindling as they met mine, a warm summer- lightning which seemed for a second to light up for me the inner heaven of her soul.
Of one feeling, however, I was sure,--that on my side this apocalyptic recognition of her, as it had seemed, was no mere passionate correspondence of sex, no mere spell of a beautiful face (for such passion and such glamour I had made use of opportunities to study), but was indeed the flaming up of an elemental affinity, profounder than sex, deeper than reason, and ages older than speech.
But it was a fancy, for all that? Yes, one of those fancies that are fancies on earth, but facts in heaven. Perhaps you don't believe in them. Well, I'm afraid that cannot be helped.Next