20. Life Is Thorny, And Youth Is Vain
When Quamina can be quieted and her fears calmed, the truth is gradually drawn from her. She has seen a man in a black mask prowling on his hands and knees in the bushes round the house. She leant out of her window and screamed, whereupon he sprang on to a horse, and galloped up the hill like a madman.
Quamina cannot be persuaded it is not the devil himself haunting their domain, and is petrified with terror for the rest of the evening.
"I should feel inclined to put the masked man down to Quamina's vivid imagination," declares Eleanor, "if you had not personally encountered him, Carol. He is like a sort of 'troll,' one of Ibsen's 'helpers and servers.'"
Quinton has given Eleanor "The Master Builder" to read, himself being a believer in the strange theory of will power. He is much upset by Quamina's story, bewildered at the mystery shrouding this evil demon. His life is becoming a purgatory on earth; he goes in daily dread of some fresh disaster. He says little to Eleanor, but she notices he does not sit out in the verandah, preferring the shelter of four walls, as if in mortal fear of something.
"Does he picture a phantom shooting in the dark?" she wonders.
She offers to sing, but he silences her with a petulant movement and gruff word. He is not in the mood for music. The loaded revolver he always keeps in his room is brought down and laid beside him as he smokes and reads.
Eleanor is grieved to see him so unhinged. It is a pitiable thing when a man loses his pluck, and the woman must play the part of consoler and encourager.
The following morning, to her surprise, Quinton seems no less frightened than on the previous night. He refuses to go out, and sits in moody silence or paces the room--both equally trying to the patient Eleanor. At last the idea seizes her that, if she shows daring and goes out alone, leaving him to brood in solitude, it may spur Quinton to rouse himself and cast off his apprehensions. Surely he will not be outdone by a woman!
"I am going for a stroll," she announces calmly.
"Oh! Are you?"
His lips twitch nervously. He does not volunteer to accompany her.
She takes up a large shady hat, and winds a long white veil over her face.
"Won't you come, too?" she asks mildly.
"No, certainly not, and I think you are very foolhardy to go."
She stares at him in amazement.
"My dear boy, are we to stay in for ever because of old Quamina and her ugly sayings? If the devil is coming for me, he'll come in whether I hide or not; besides, I do not believe in devils!"
"No, but living assassins, modern highwaymen, who scout the country to shed blood, seeking whom they may devour. If you take my advice you will stay safely indoors."
But, for the sake of example, Eleanor shakes her head. If she gives in to him now their life will be one of cowering seclusion. There is something convincing in the light of day that drives from her heart all qualms and misgivings.
"I see no reason why we should not walk abroad just the same as Elizabeth or any other person. You were only attacked once, and that was at night. Look, for instance, at the white woman on the charger. She was alone. I don't think even a highwayman, though, would tackle her," with a low laugh. "She'd be a pretty good handful for anybody. I could imagine her mesmerising a lion with those eyes. I have no doubt she is a crack shot, too, from the bold way she carried her gun. She was a regular Amazon."
"You forget I have never seen the white stranger you allude to."
"Of course not. She passed when you were looking for the dog on that unfortunate day. Well, good-bye for the present, dear. Take care of yourself, and if you like to come and meet me I shall be delighted."
She leaves the house singing, hoping her bravado will have the effect of re-assuring Carol.
As she goes he flings his book on the ground, stretching out his arms like a caged bird beating its wings against the bars.
"It can't last much longer," he hisses between his teeth; "it won't
last much longer. Thank goodness I can see the end."
Eleanor's mind is so full of thought that she does not heed the direction in which her steps turn. She walks like one in a dream, busy with her own thoughts. A thousand ideas flit through her brain. She lives over her miserable past. Even the early days at Copthorne return vividly. She is a merry child swinging on a gate; a lazy girl lolling on a hayrick; a frivolous wife, sporting her gay attire in the Brussels Bois; a weary woman sighing at her lot in the house on Richmond Terrace; and then the realisation of the present rushes over her, and she starts as if suddenly awaking from sleep.
There are steps at her side; she turns, remembering Carol's warning.
Elizabeth Kachin stands before her, they are face to face.
From sheer force of habit Eleanor stretches out her hand in greeting, but draws it back sharply, gathering her scattered wits together. There is a cold look in Elizabeth's eyes. Eleanor shivers though the sun scorches, for the frosts of sin are very bitter. Mrs. Kachin averts her head, and passes her without a word. Little Tombo, who is following in the rear, runs up and raises his face for a kiss, but his mother calls to him quickly, while Eleanor pushes him away. "Why is she angry with me?" he asks Elizabeth; "why doesn't she come and see us now?"
Eleanor hears the words. They cut deeper than an assassin's knife. Carol was right. Retribution is on the road, waiting to devour her body and soul. She paces on with bent head, the hot blood in her cheeks, and a lump in her throat.
A third shadow crosses her path, this time it is Big Tombo. Her eyes meet his fearlessly. He bares his head, bows low, and Eleanor smiles sadly.
"Men are kinder than women," she thinks, as she wanders on. "They judge less harshly. When their companions sin they do not cast them out to sink lower in the mire, they give them a hand, instead of a kick! But women take upon themselves to dash their sisters with cruel force upon the stones."
It was good to be alone with her sorrow, her shame.
She breathed a prayer from the depths of her soul--a wordless invocation. She is close to the jungle now, and the pleasant shade of the foliage cools her feverish brain.
She steps fearlessly into the thick undergrowth. Then pauses, for the sound of a horse attracts her attention. It is the heavy tread of the huge charger, on which that handsome white stranger, gun in hand, is seeking prey.
Eleanor watches the flash of those wonderful eyes, there is something unholy, devilish, in their unusual splendour. Her full red lips are drawn in and compressed.
She raises her gun, and before Eleanor can cry out the woman has fired!
The bullet whizzes past her head, for a moment her heart stops beating, the narrow escape fills her with horror!
She fancies the stranger saw her before she pulled the trigger, and let off her gun out of sheer devilment, to show her accuracy.
But scarcely has she recovered from the fright when a second report is heard from the bushes close by, and the great charger, on which this reckless sportswoman is seated, falls dead beneath her. She rolls off the saddle, and stands like a fury over the body.
"What villain has killed my horse?" she cries aloud, in a deep voice, which even in its anger sounds strangely fascinating, despite the masculine slang.
"What villain has killed my horse?"
Eleanor rushes forward.
"The unseen hand!" she exclaims, hardly knowing what she says. "How do you mean?" asks the tall woman.
"Someone shot from the bushes; didn't you see? First of all you nearly hit me, it was the closest shave I ever had, and immediately your horse fell----"
"I'll soon find out who has been making a target of me," muttered the stranger.
So saying, she fires recklessly into the bushes, but there is no sound, no cry.
Eleanor watches this wild creature curiously. Surely she will apologise for nearly killing her through inexcusable carelessness.
But she says no word, only watches the smoke rise, and anathematises the fate that has slain a useful beast.
Eleanor forgets her own grievance, and sympathises with the stranger's loss.
"It could not have been done intentionally," she declares.
"I don't believe in chance; it was a dead aim, depend upon it."
Eleanor's eyes expand at this remark.
"Who are you?" she asks. "What is your name?"
"I am a woman," replies the other, with a mocking smile; "my name is Paulina."
She shows no wish to be acquainted with Eleanor's identity.
"What will you do without your horse?"
"Get another, of course."
"Then you live in these parts? I hope in the future you will be more careful how you shoot at random. It would not have been very pleasant for either of us if you had hit me."
"What are you doing walking about by yourself?"
Eleanor looks up and laughs.
"Not risking other people's lives, at any rate."
"I wish I could unravel the mystery of my unknown assailant! Have you any idea who watches your movements and revenges himself on my carelessness?"
A new light flashes across Eleanor at these words. This weird adventure becomes more interesting and amazing at Paulina's suggestion.
"I don't understand you."
"All the better, perhaps."
The abrupt answer startles Eleanor, a puzzled look creeps over her face.
"Why can't you say what you mean?" she asks hotly, looking at Paulina with sudden dislike and repugnance.
The stranger laughs, shoulders her gun, and turns away.
"Where would you have been now," she cries in parting, "if I had shot you down by mistake like a jungle fowl?"
There is a taunting sneer in the words.
A hateful thought steals into Eleanor's mind. This woman, who swears and treats her with such abominable coolness, knows something of her past or present, possibly from Elizabeth, with whom she may be acquainted. This last remark is an insinuation of her unfitness to die, and that her soul is ripe for perdition. The implied slur gradually increases and exaggerates itself in Eleanor's brain, sensitive to a degree. She sees in it a deliberate insult, and following Paulina, she demands:
"Before you go, please apologise for your carelessness. I am not accustomed to be made a mark of, either for bullets or jests."
Paulina stops, and looks her up and down in a manner that makes Eleanor feel like a pigmy facing a giant.
She takes out a cigarette, places it between her teeth, and hands her case to Eleanor.
"Have one?" she asks, with insouciance. Eleanor is staggered. She does not know whether to take this as a fresh slight or a very lame apology.
Faint pulses of quivering sunbeams glance through the trees, playing round the dead body of Paulina's horse. The old oaks rear their heads to a sky of purest turquoise, but Eleanor has no heart to notice the beautiful aerial effects. She is wondering if the proffered cigarette is meant as an olive branch or otherwise.
She gazes in mute disgust.
"Have you never seen a weed before?" asks Paulina vivaciously. "You are the type of woman, I suppose, who sits at home and arranges flowers, very artistically, no doubt. You would pose in limp gowns of gauzy drapery, like a pictured saint, and expect your husband or your lovers to grovel and worship. But you are dangerously near to the borderland separating the sublime from the ridiculous. You expect me to apologise for a shot at random, which cost a valuable horse its life. Some savage black who worships your fair form at a distance, most likely paid it back with interest."
"You are a very vulgar woman," exclaimed Eleanor. "I hope I shall never see you again."
"Don't use that word 'vulgar,'" she replies, "it's so low class."
"You don't mind what you say to me because I am alone and unprotected," cries Eleanor with almost childish petulance, the tears glistening in her angry eyes. "If Carol was here, he would defend me."
"Carol," she laughs, "who is the staunch and gallant Carol?" But Eleanor will not answer; she feels desperately affronted, and turns away.
The women walk in opposite directions; the day is dying.
"Well! you are back safely; any adventures?" asks Quinton, as she enters the house pale and weary.
Eleanor sinks into a chair, slowly unwinds her veil, and flings her hat impatiently upon the sofa. She is so seriously put out, that for the moment she dares not trust herself to speak.
"Anything the matter, eh?"
Eleanor clears her throat.
Quinton sits bolt upright from his lounging attitude.
"What?" he says, staring at her intently.
Then she recounts her scene with Paulina, word for word, while Quinton listens breathlessly.
"Her horse shot from under her
?" he cries, as if that is of far more importance than Eleanor's narrow escape.
"Yes, dear, wasn't it awful? It might have been you or me! I do believe the masked man is on the warpath, only he went for her
this time instead. It may be a lunatic, for every act seems so perfectly motiveless."
"I told you not to venture out," he says, his face reddening with annoyance. "You would
go against my wishes, and suffered for it accordingly. The idea of getting into conversation, and actually deigning to quarrel with a stranger. It was most humiliating and lowering. Another time if you meet this 'Paulina,' as you call the white Amazon, kindly avoid her. This merely confirms me in the conviction which has grown upon me lately, that this place is no longer fit for us to dwell in. I, for one, am sick of it, and long for a taste of clubdom and life again."
"Oh! Carol!" she exclaims, and the words are wrung from her like a sharp cry.
"Don't look so absurdly miserable, my dear," he says hastily, dreading a scene with all the shrinking of his cowardly nature. "I won't say anything to vex you again. I was only cross; forgive me."
Eleanor's heart goes out to him with all the old yearning tenderness.
Forgive him! Why, she would forgive Carol anything--he is her all. She falls on her knees at his side, and draws down his face for a kiss.
As she does so, the sound of a loud, rich, stirring voice, swelling out on the evening air, reaches them. They exchange hurried glances, start to their feet, and look cautiously out.
It is "Paulina," swaggering down the hill with a devil-may-care mien, her gun still over her shoulder, her hands in her pockets.
They catch the words, which ring full and clear:
"And constancy lives in realms above,
And life is thorny and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love
Doth work like madness in the brain."
like a 'troll,'" murmurs Eleanor, "shrieking in the night."
"A magnificent creature," says Carol. "Quite a picture!"
His eyes are riveted on the retreating form!