The Twilight Guests

Old Man, The Twilight Guests short story book cover

Old man and The Twilight Guests is a wonderful short story of an old, man revisited by familiar fond memories of old friends who have long since past. A wonderful short story by the American author and poet Josephine Dodge Daskam wrote a series of short stories based on her own experiences. With the addition of some illustrations, and only a few—slight—changes to enhance a more modern reading experience, we hope you enjoy this short story.

The Twilight Guests

When they left him, in the warm, late afternoon, lying listless on his couch in the porch, they thought he would stay alone there till they came again. His little granddaughter, indeed, felt so sad at deserting him that she ran back and kissed him twice. “To leave Grandpapa alone!” she said. But he was not alone; there came to him strange guests and sweet. And this was the manner of their coming.

Old Man, The Twilight Guests short story book cover

As he watched the shadow creeping up the steps, he thought how often he had marked the time by it in the far-away days. He remembered how he had tried to keep in the broad sunbeam that lay along the walk, when he used to run home to supper tired and hungry, shouting to his mother that his school was over and out and that he had come—”So hungry, mother dear!” And as he thought of her, slow tears crept from under his old eyelids, and he raised his hand feebly to wipe them away. When he saw clearly again, he started slightly, for up the path, walking in the sunbeam came a boy. He smiled sweetly, cheerily at the old, man, and sat down confidingly, close to the couch. “It is so warm in the sun!” he said.

The old man turned uneasily and looked at him. “Are you Arthur’s son?” he asked doubtfully. “My eyes are so dim—I cannot always tell you apart, at first. Are you Arthur’s son?”

“No,” said the child.

“Are you—” but then the boy looked full in his face, and the old man could not take his eyes from that searching smile. And as he looked, there grew around his heart the sweet faint breath of lilac trees, though it was early autumn and not at all the spring. And deep in the child’s eyes was so strange a soul—yet so familiar! As he looked yet deeper, the lilac scent grew stronger, and he dared not turn away his eyes, lest he should lose it. So he listened to the child, who spoke brightly yet gravely, with his head resting against the old man’s knee.

“See!” he said, “the lilacs are all out! I took a bunch to school, and the teacher wore them in her dress. Oh, but I grow tired of the school in the mornings, when the birds sing under the window! The brook is all full with the floodwater, do you know?”

“Yes,” said the old man dreamily, “yes, I know.”

“There are pickerel there—I saw one, anyway!” said the boy. “The old one—he lives under the stone all alone. If I could get him, I’d be proud enough! But I never can—I can only catch him on a Friday night when the moon is full, and then I’m not allowed out! The man that weeds the garden told me that. Do you remember?”

“Yes, I remember,” said the old man.

“But if I don’t fish, I don’t care so much,” said the boy happily. “Because I get so wet and dirty, and Rachel doesn’t like me then. I can’t look on her book. She is so dear! She never spots the ink on her apron, like the other girls. And she never eats fish, either. She thinks it hurts them too much to kill them. I don’t think so—do you? But girls are different.”

“Where are you going to-night?” said the old man, quietly, yet his voice trembled.

“I’m going to sing to Rachel’s grandfather. He’s blind, you know.”

“Yes,” said the old man, “and old. His hair is white. He walks with a cane. But he loves the singing.”

“Then to-morrow I must go to church,” said the boy. “The minister talks and prays and I get so sleepy. But mother keeps a peppermint for me, just before the second hymn. Then I have it for the long prayer. And I can sing the hymns. Rachel never looks at me; she sits so still in church. And she won’t play on Sunday. I can have my whip and two of the largest marbles. Do you think that is wrong?”

“No,” said the old man, “I don’t think that is wrong.”

“And we have gingerbread on the porch in the afternoon,” said the boy, “and Rachel comes. Mother says children must not be vexed at the Lord’s Day.”

“Yes,” said the old man, “mother is so good to us—so good—” and when he saw clearly again, the child was gone. Only the shadow lay upon the porch’s upper step, and the sunbeam was shrunken to a narrow path of light.

He stretched out his trembling hands and called sorrowfully to the boy. “Come back! O come back! I had forgotten so much! And the lilacs—” but he was alone. And his hair was almost white. He covered his face with his hands and shivered, for the shadow was creeping up the porch.

And then over his chilled heart, there came the breath of roses—summer roses. The air struck warm and soft upon his cheeks. And when he dropped his hands there stood in the sun-ray a straight, tall youth. His eyes were shining with strength; his smile was happiness itself. In his firm brown hands he held roses—summer roses. The old man forgot to be afraid and raised himself on the cushions.

“Give them to me—give them!” he cried. The young man laughed low and laid the red flowers softly up against the withered cheeks. Then he sat down and took the cold, dry hands in his.

“What do they make you remember?” he said.

The old man sighed for pure joy. “Ah, how sweet—how heavenly sweet! Did they come from the garden behind her father’s house?”

“Yes,” said the youth, “from the old bush near the wall. It was moonlight, and we picked them together. I reached the highest ones, because Rachel is not tall. She wore—”

“She wore the white gown with the big shade hat,” said the old man eagerly. “And I made a wreath for her shoulders. I called her—what did I call her? The queen—the queen.”

“The queen of roses,” said the youth.

“Ah, yes, the queen of roses!” said the old man. “Her mouth was like the pink, young buds. We went up and down the long paths, and I wanted her to take my arm.”

“But she would not,” laughed the young man. “She said that old folks might lean, but she could run as well as any man!”

“So she ran through the garden, and I after!” cried the old man, crushing the roses till they filled the porch with sweetness. “She hid behind the old elm and let me call and call. And I had to find her in the moon shadows. You know she grew afraid and cried out when I caught her? And yet she knew I would. But women are so. Her mother knew I was with her, so she let us stay till it was late. Rachel’s mother was kind to me, you know?”

“Yes,” said the young man. “But she knew that Rachel—”

“Ah!” said the old man quickly, “it seems they all knew! All but Rachel and me! Now that is so strange. We should have known it first. But Rachel laughed so when I tried to tell her, she said—what was it she said?”

“That you were too young to know how you would think of it later,” said the youth.

“And I said, ‘I’m old enough to know I love you, Rachel, now and forever!” said the old man softly, clasping his hands together so that the roses dropped to the ground. “And then she did not laugh at all, but only held her head down so I could not see her eyes, and would not speak.”

“It was so still,” said the youth. “There was no breeze, and everything in the garden listened, listened, for what she would say.”

But nothing in the garden could hear,” said the old man eagerly because she only whispered!”

“Was it then that her mother called?” asked the youth.

“Yes,” said the old man, and he smiled. But we did not come, for Rachel was afraid to go. She thought her mother would not like to have her leave the old home. And she feared to tell her that she wanted to go. So we sat like silly children in the dark. You see, I was afraid, too. Her father and mother were old and old people cannot know how we feel when love first comes to us—and yet they loved, once!”

“Yes, they loved once,” said the youth, “but they forget. They think of lands and money and the most prudent course—they cannot feed their heart’s blood rushing through their veins, surging in their ears, ‘She loves me!’ They cannot feel that one hour with her is dearer than years with the others of the world!”

“And then we went in!” said the old man softly. “Then we went in! And her mother stood waiting for us. Rachel would not look up, and I had to lead her by the hand. She feared that we could not make it plain, that her mother would scold us—”

The youth laughed aloud. “But did she?” he said.

And the old man laughed too.

“No. She came to me and kissed me and then she held Rachel and cried. But not that she was sorry. Older people feel strange when the younger ones start away, you see.”

The young man picked up the roses and laid them again by the side of the couch. “Sleep,” he said softly, “and dream of her!” And the old man’s eyelids drooped and the hands that held the roses relaxed in quiet sleep.

When he awoke, the sun had almost set. The path of rays had faded, and the creeping shadow had covered the highest step and lay along the porch. He felt feebly for the roses, but they were gone. And the sweet, warm scent of them was only in his dim memory. But there sat in the shadow a man.

Threads of grey were in his hair and lines around his firm mouth. But in his eyes shone yet a sweet strength, and he held his head high as he spoke.

“Do you know where I have been?” he said.

The old man shook his head.

“Think!” said the other.

Then while he looked into the stranger’s eyes, there stole across his heart, the wind that blows through the orchard when the fruit is ripe. He drew in great breaths of it, in doubt, and at last he said in a whisper so low that he hardly heard himself, “You have been to his grave—his little grave!”

“Yes,” said the man, “I have. His mother goes there alone—not even I go with her. She goes alone.”

“No,” said the old man solemnly, “no. God goes with her. I thought that she would have died—why did she live?”

“Because,” said the other, “because you would have been alone. And you could not have kept yourself a man, if she had gone, too.”

“Ah, yes!” said the old man softly, “that is it. She is an angel! When he was born, I was almost afraid. I said, “My son! I have a son! If I should die to-night, he would live, and I should live in him!” And when she brought him herself into the orchard—I see her now—I see her now!”

He could not lift his head from the pillow, he was so tired and weak, but he begged the other to come nearer with his eyes. The man came close to the couch and looked down tenderly at the old man. “She wore the white trailing gown,” he said.

“Yes,” whispered the old man, “and the great wide hat. And she held him up under the brim and said that if it should rain, she and he could keep dry together, but I must stay in the rain!”

“Do you remember,” said the other, “how when he could just say words, you played with him under the apple tree?”

“Can I ever forget?” said the old man. “But now the angels teach him a better language, so that he had but one to learn!”

“Do you remember how she left him with her mother and went away with you?” said the other.

The old man smiled a little. “Ah, yes! Well enough!” he said. “We thought we would be young again, and leave him to his grandmother and his sisters. He had enough care! It was not lacking of that—”

“And when you had gone only a few miles she grew anxious—”

“Yes, yes!” said the old man. “She said, ‘Suppose he is sick? Suppose he falls into the brook? He walks about so brave and strong—and he is our only son!’ So we came back.”

“You were good to her,” said the other. “You did always just as she wished.”

“I loved her,” said the old man simply.

The stranger’s eyes grew moist, and his voice shook as he said, “When he grew sick—”

“Ah, when he grew sick!” cried the old man bitterly. “Almost I lost my trust in the Giver of my child, and dared not give him back! How I begged! How I prayed!—you know!”

“Yes,” whispered the stranger, “I know.”

“Then she left me for the first time,” said the old man slowly. “For the first time. She went alone and prayed. Oh, Rachel, my dear, dear wife, I could not go with you to God! I think even we go best alone! I said ‘It cannot be! He cannot let it come! I have done all my life as best I knew how, and is this my reward?’ And I heard her crying, and I wished I had never lived.”

“But not for long?” said the other.

The old man smiled through his tears.

“No, no, not for long!” he said. “When Rachel saw that I was weak, she grew strong. It is strange, but women are the strongest then. And she showed me the folly and wickedness of throwing away my faith because the Most Faithful had taken away my child. And she brought me my little daughters and set them on my knees and put her arms around my neck. So I grew comforted. And there have come other sons—Arthur and John. But he—ah, Rachel! Little we thought when we laid him on the grass under the tree and measured him with goldenrod, that he would so soon lie there for all our lives!”

“And he lies there now,” said the stranger.

“Yes,” said the old man softly, “he lies there now. Under the apple tree where he lay and laughed that day, he lies there now, for Rachel wanted it so. ‘I carried him out there the first time,’ she said, ‘and he always loved it there. I used to walk there before he came, and plan for him, how he should grow so great and famous and good; and now I want him to be there, while he is asleep. And I think that all the fields are God’s—the orchard as well as the graveyard.’ So we laid him there, and she goes there often, and I.”

“You miss her?” said the stranger.

“Miss her?” said the old man, staring at the visitor, “miss her? Why she is here! She is my wife!—” but he was alone, on the couch, with the faint breath of ripening apples dying on the air.

And as he turned wearily, the shadow crept softly and covered the porch and the couch where he lay. The sun dropped behind the hills, and the air struck cold on his uncovered shoulders. He was too tired to cry, too old and weak to question or find fault, but he dimly felt that to be left alone was hard. His memory grew suddenly untrustworthy; had they come or not? It was all so plain to him now. He was not with Rachel; he was neither in the church nor the garden nor the orchard. He was an old man, strangely weak and confused, left alone.

“Ah, Rachel,” he murmured, “only come again, while I go! Come to take me—not that it will be a long to wait before I see you, dear! We have been so happy, you and I! But it was so cold—”

And then while he shivered helplessly and half afraid, there came the scent of spring lilac-bushes, and by his bed stood the bright-eyed child.

“Come! Come and sit by me!” cried the old man. But the boy only smiled. “Take my hands—they are so cold!” he begged. Still, the boy smiled. And as the old man looked, the child’s eyes filled him with half hope, half fear. “Are you—are you—” he tried to speak, but no sound came from his lips.

“If I come and touch you,” said the boy, “it will be the end. Shall I come?” The old man’s face lighted softly.

“Yes,” he said in his heart, for he could not speak aloud, “yes, come now!” The boy laughed and stepped to the couch and lay down beside him, putting his cheek close to the white hair.

Into the heart of the old man rushed a quick, new life. “Ah, Rachel, Rachel,” he said strong and clear, “sit on the step and eat your cake with me? Here is the flag-root I promised you—it’s quite clean. I took off all the mud! And here is the red marble”—but the child kissed him, and he went to sleep, holding to his heart his happy youth.

And when they found him in the evening, they were not too grieved, for on his face was a great content.

Next short story

 

Original short story by Josephine Dodge Daskam

Retold by A Moffat

Illustrations by justanemotion.com

©All rights reserved justanemotion.com 2020

 

The Maid Of The Mill

The Maid Of The Mill short mystery story, horror book cover

The maid of the mill is a mystery, for no one really knows if it actually happened, but on a dark still night apparently you can still hear the screams. The sky it’s said reddens from the reflection of the river, flowing like a severed artery between the gorse banks. The maid of the mill is a short story that is told among men who relive the harrowing tale by Josephine Dodge Daskam, an American author and poet who wrote a series of short mystery stories based on her own experiences. With the addition of some illustrations, and only a few – slight – changes to enhance a more modern reading experience, we hope you enjoy this short story.

 

THE MAID OF THE MILL

The only objection I have to ghost stories,” said young Sanford, “is from a literary point of view. They’re so badly done, you know.”

“In what way?” said the clerk of the hotel, settling back in his office chair, and smiling at young Sanford and the circle of men who had come down for their keys from the billiard-room.

“Well, in this way. I’m not considering the little harmless stories where the heroes are only frightened, or even those where their heads are grey in the morning. I’m thinking of those where they never live to tell the awful tale, you know; the ones in which they tell their friends to come if they call, and then they never call; the ones in which, although they scream and scream, nobody hears them.

“And yet the old trembling man who points them to the haunted room knows perfectly well that five men have entered that room on five-nineteenths of October, and never come out alive. Yet he only warns them, or at most only beseeches them not to go in. He has no police force—not that police could seriously harm the ghosts, but somehow they never appear to the police; he does not arrange with the victim’s friend to burst in the door at twelve-thirty, anyhow, whether they are summoned or not; he doesn’t—but then, what do any of them do that they might be expected to? And all this forced condition of things so that the ghost may have all the evening to work quietly in. Do you mean to tell me that if I were frightened to the extent of grey hair in the morning, I couldn’t scream loud enough to be heard any distance?”

 

This speech drew nods of approval from several of the men. “I’ve thought of that, too,” said the clerk. In a dark corner behind the stove sat a man, hunched over his knees, silent, and apparently unknown to any of the others. At this point, he looked up, cleared his throat, and said in a strange, husky voice:

“Do you really suppose that that is anything else than nonsense?” Young Sanford flushed. “Sir”—he began. The other continued in his rough, thick voice:

“Do you suppose they don’t try to scream? Do you suppose they don’t think they’re screaming?”

A little silence of discomfort fell on the circle. There was something disagreeably suggestive in the question. Suddenly the man spoke again.

“I had a friend,” he said, “in fact, I had two friends. One was young—about your age,” nodding to Sanford. “The other was older. He was not so clever nor so attractive nor so brilliant nor so jolly as the younger, but he had a characteristic—perhaps his only one—for he was a very ordinary man. He had an iron will. His determination was as unbreakable as anything human could be. And he was devoted to his friend, who, somehow, loved him. I don’t know why, because he had so many other admirers—but he stuck to his friend—Joan. They called the two Darby and Joan. Their real names were not unlike those, and it was rather funny. Darby used to talk as you were talking, sir,” he nodded again to Sanford, “and he was sure, cocksure, that what he said was right. He would tell what things were possible and what were not, and prove what he said very nicely. Joan wasn’t clever, but he knew that it does no good to call a thing impossible. He knew, in fact, that nothing is more possible than the most impossible things.”

The man coughed and cleared his throat and waited a moment as if to see whether he were intruding. No one spoke, so he went on.

The Maid Of The Mill short mystery story, horror book cover

 

“One day Darby rushed into Joan’s study and told him of a haunted mill he’d discovered. It was one of the old mills where the farmers used to bring their sacks before the big concerns in the West swallowed all the little trades. It was dusty and cobwebbed and broken down and unused and haunted. And there was a farmhouse directly across the road and a house on either side of it not a hundred feet away.

“‘Was it always haunted?’ asked Joan. ‘No,’ said Darby, ‘only once a year.’ On Christmas eve every year for nineteen years there had appeared, late at night, a little light in one of the windows; and that side of the house had an odd look, somehow it seemed to look fresher and newer, and at one o’clock or so a horrible piercing shriek would ring out from the mill, and then a kind of crashing fall, and then all was still, and the light would disappear.

“‘Had nobody investigated?’ Oh, yes. The first year it was noticed was when houses were built up around it. It used to stand away from everything else, and the miller and his family lived there. Then, long after they were dead, people moved out there and heard the noises and saw the light. They thought of tramps and escaped criminals and everything one suggests till it had occurred too repeatedly for that, and then a young farmer went over one Christmas eve, not telling anyone, and they found him roaming about the mill, a hopeless wreck the next day; he had gone quite mad.

“And the next year a man came up from the city, and his friends were in the next room to help him if he called, and he didn’t call, and they were afraid to startle him by knocking, so they got a ladder and peeped into the window at ten minutes to one, and he lay peacefully on the bed with his eyes closed and his hands stretched loosely out, and they thought it was a great joke that he should sleep through it, so they went home, and in the morning they found him in horrible convulsions, and he never recovered.

“And there were two young divinity students that went once together, and they had a crowd along with instructions to break in the door at one exactly. And at the stroke of one, the crowd beat in the great door and burst into an empty room! They had gone up a flight too far, somehow, and as they stood staring at each other, from the room beneath them came a dreadful shriek and a crash, and when they rushed down, they found the boys in a dead faint. They brought them to and got them home, and they muttered nonsense about a dog and a sash and would say no more. And they escaped with severe nervous prostration. But later they lost what little nerve they had and couldn’t sleep at night, and joined the Catholic Church, because they said that there were things they found it difficult to reconcile.…

“‘And what was the story of it all?’ asked Joan. Oh, the story was disagreeable enough. The miller’s daughter wanted to marry a poor young man, but her father would not let her. And she refused to accept his rich nephew. So he locked her in her room till she should consent. And she stayed there a week. And one night the nephew came home late and saw a tiny light in her window, and presently he saw someone place a ladder and go softly up, and the miller’s daughter leaned out and helped him in. So he told her father, who came into her room the next night with a bloodhound, and bound her to the bed and hushed her cries with her sash, then lit the little light. And when her lover had climbed the ladder—the dog was there. And that was Christmas eve.

“‘Do the people suffer this without complaint—these deaths and convulsions and apostasies?’ asked Joan. Well, no. But if they destroyed the mill, a liquor saloon would go up immediately. The proprietor was simply waiting. And they didn’t want that. So they kept it quiet. And nobody need go there. Nobody had been alarmed or hurt except the meddlers. And in villages, the people have less scientific curiosity. But Darby was going immediately. It was December twenty-third now. Joan must come, too; it would be most exciting. Joan argued against it, but he too was curious, so they agreed to go. And the next day they went.”

 

By this time the circle was absolutely silent, concentrated to ears and eyes. They stared and leaned towards the shadowy corner behind the stove where the dimly defined figure crouched. The clerk got up and turned down the gas, which flared in his face, and the room was almost wholly dark. The man spoke in a dull, mechanical way, as one speaks who clears his mind, once for all. At intervals, he waited fully ten seconds to rest his voice, strangely impressive, with its strained, choked tones.

“The next day they went,” he repeated. “Darby was not only clever—he was extremely sensitive. Ridicule was unbearable to him. And though he was a literary fellow, and artistic and all that, he was practical, too, for all he was so brilliant and winning. It actually troubled him that people should believe anything but what he called ‘the strictly logical,’ and he thought Joan’s ideas far too flexible and credulous. It was really for Joan’s sake, he said in-joke, whom he rather suspected of spiritualistic leanings, that he intended to make the excursion into the country. And he would tell nobody. He would make no inquiries. He would conduct the search along somewhat unusual lines, he declared. One of them should sleep in the room. At one o’clock precisely the other should quietly mount a ladder fixed just where the mythical ladder had been and enter the room in that way, thus preventing any mischievous practical jokes from without, and insuring help to the man within, should he need it.

“And Joan agreed to this. He was interested himself, and he’d have been as eager and scornful as Darby if it hadn’t occurred to him—for he was a terribly literal fellow—that four tragedies, sad as these had been, and all unexplained, couldn’t be accounted for by chance nor made less sad even by a good logician like Darby. So he suggested one or two friends to fall back upon in case of foul play of any kind. And Darby looked at him and laughed a little sneering laugh and called him—” The man choked and bent lower. He seemed to be unable to speak for some seconds. Then he hurried on, speaking from this point very rapidly and using a kind of clumsy gesture that brought the scenes he spoke of strangely clear to the men around him.

“He called him a coward. So Joan agreed to go. And on the afternoon of the day before Christmas, they took a long ladder and a lantern and some sandwiches and two revolvers and drove in a butcher’s cart to the little village. And Joan was as eager as Darby that no one should know. You see, Darby called him a coward.

“They slipped into the old, dingy mill at dusk, and went over it with the greatest thoroughness. Everything was open and empty. Only the corner bedroom and one of the living rooms were furnished at all. The dust lay thick in the mill proper, but the living rooms were singularly free from it. Darby noticed this and remarked it to Joan. ‘It doesn’t smell half so musty, either,’ he said. ‘I’m glad of that. I hate old, musty smells.’

“Then a queer, crawly feeling came over Joan, and he said: ‘Darby, let’s go home. Life’s short enough, heaven knows. If anything—’ And then Darby told him once for all that if he wanted to go home he might, and otherwise he might shut up.

“‘Do you want it dusty and smelly?’ said he.

“‘Yes,’ said Joan, ‘I do. I don’t see why it isn’t, either. It’s just as old and just as deserted as the other part.’

“‘You might get a little dust from the other side and scatter it about,’ said Darby, and before Joan could reply he had scooped a handful of dry, brown dust from the bag room of the mill and laid it about on the bureau and chairs of the bedroom. ‘Now come out for our last patrol,’ he said. They went out and studied the mill carefully. As they came around to the house side, keeping carefully in the shadow, Joan looked surprised and pointed to the door by which they had entered.

“‘That door’s shut,’ he said.

“‘Well?’ asked Darby.

“‘We left it ajar.’

“‘Oh, the wind!’ said Darby, and went up to the door softly, listening for any escaping joker. He rattled the knob and pushed it inward, but the door did not yield. ‘Why, you couldn’t have left it ajar,’ he said, ‘it’s locked!’

“Joan stared at the house, wondering if it was possible that the window-panes really shone so brightly. And the cobwebs about the blinds, where were they? He could have sworn that the porch was full of dead leaves and sticks when they went in—it was as clean as his hand now.

“‘We’ll go in by the window, the broken one, at the back,’ he said quietly. They went around the house and hunted for the broken window, but did not find it. The window was not only whole but locked. Then Joan set his teeth.

“‘The broken window must have been at the mill side,’ he said, we’ll go there.’ So they went around and clambered in by a paneless window and went to the bedroom. The room was dim, but they could distinguish objects fairly well. Darby looked queerly at Joan.

“‘So you cleared away the dust,’ he asked.

“‘What dust?’ asked Joan. Then he followed Darby’s eyes, and where the little piles of brown dust had lain were only clean, bare boards.

“Outside, the teams of the home-coming farmers rolled by. A dog barked, and now a child called. But they seemed far away—in another country. Where the two young fellows stood, there was a strange, lonely belt of silence.

“‘Perhaps I brushed the chair as we went out,’ said Darby slowly. But he looked at Joan queerly.

“They took their supper, and then Joan announced his intention of staying in the room while Darby patrolled the house, and climbed the ladder at once. At first Darby demurred. He had planned to stay. But Joan was inflexible. It was utterly useless to argue with him, so Darby agreed. If Joan wanted help, he was to call. At eleven and twelve Darby was to climb the ladder and look in, and at once, he was to come in, whatever the situation. At the slightest intimation of the danger of any kind Joan was to fire his revolver and Darby was to call for help and rush up the ladder. For all that the people were so quiet roundabout, they were probably uneasy—they knew that things might happen on the night before Christmas.

“Joan sat for some time after Darby had left him, staring about the room. It was simply furnished with a large bed, a table, and two deal chairs. Thrown over the bed was a moth-eaten blanket, checked white and red. Joan swept it off from the bed and shook it, closing his eyes instinctively to avoid the dust. But no dust came. He shook it again. It was as fresh and clean as his handkerchief. He threw it back on the bed and looked out at Darby, walking quietly around in the shadow.

“He was glad Darby was out there. He got to thinking of ghosts and strange preparations for their coming. The boards of the window creaked, and he gasped and stared, only to see Darby’s face at the window. ‘Anything happened?’ he signalled. Joan shook his head. It must be eleven o’clock. How was it possible? The time had seemed so short. He stared at a big star till his eyes swam. He felt dull and drowsy. He had sat up late the night before, and he needed sleep.

“A thought came to him, and it seemed somehow very original and striking. He tapped on the pane to Darby.

“‘I’ll lie down and take a little nap,’ he whispered, opening the window softly. ‘You can call me at twelve.’ Darby nodded.

“‘How do you feel, old fellow? All right?’ he asked.”

The man choked again and was silent for a time. The strain was growing. The men waited for something to happen as one awaits the falling of the red, snapping embers.

“Joan lay down in that bed,” said the stranger hoarsely, and from this point he hurried on almost too quickly for clearness, “on that hideous checked blanket, and fell asleep. He fell asleep thinking of Darby’s words and how thoughtful they were: ‘How do you feel, old fellow? All right?’

He had bad dreams. He dreamed a woman stood at the foot of the bed and stared at him and motioned him to go. And she was an unnatural woman. She kept changing colour, from red to yellow, from yellow to cream colour, from cream colour to white, from white too—ah! she was a dead woman!

“She motioned him to go, but he refused. She came to the side of the bed and took off her long red sash and bound him down. Then he was willing to go indeed, and strained his muscles in useless efforts to break away, but she laughed at him and then breathed in his face till her damp, icy breath chilled his very soul—and he woke, covered with the sweat of terror—to see her standing at the foot of the bed, looking, looking into his staring eyes!

“So, it was true. There were such things. But at least his limbs were free, and to his joy, he discovered that he was not afraid. No; he had a dull feeling of coming disaster, but no fear. She was a young woman, with big shadowy eyes and a strange mouth. She had on a long, loose white night-gown, open at the throat, and she carried a little lamp. ‘Go!’ he saw in her eyes as plainly as if she said it. He looked about the room—he could have sworn it was changed. It had the air of a woman’s room that she is living in and keeps her things in. He had no right there—none. He should have gone. But he was proud because he wasn’t afraid, and he answered her with his eyes that he would not go. A tired, puzzled look came into her face, a kind of frown, and she leaned over the footboard and begged him with those big dark eyes, begged him hard to go. He had his chance—oh, yes, the fool had his chance!

But he was so proud that he could master her, master a returned soul—for lovely as she was, he knew she wasn’t human—that he only set his teeth and started up to come nearer her. But she raised her hand, and he fell back, feeling queer and drowsy. Then she came to the edge of the bed and sat down and took from behind her a soft red silk sash and drew it across his face. A sweet, languid feeling stole over him; the bed seemed like a cloud of down, her sash smelled like spice and sandalwood in a warm wind. He felt he was being drugged and weakened, and he tried to stumble up, but the soft silk smothered him, and he became almost unconscious.

“He only wanted one thing—to feel her fingers touch his face and to hold her long brown hair. And while she drew the sash across his mouth, he stretched out his hands on either side to catch it and reach her fingers. There was nothing ghostly about her—she was only a lovely dream-woman. Maybe he was asleep.…

“And then she pulled the sash away, and he caught her eye and awoke with a start—her look was full of triumph. She didn’t beg him any longer. This was no helpless, gentle spirit of a woman; this was a weird elemental creature; she hadn’t any soul or any pity; something made her act out all this dreadful tragedy, without any regard for human life or reason. He knew somehow that she couldn’t help his weakness; that though in some fiendish way she had bound him hand and foot, she did it not of herself, but in obedience to some awful law that she couldn’t help any more than he. And then he began to be afraid. Slowly great waves of horror rose and grew and broke over him. He tried to move his feet and hands, but he could not so much as will the muscles to contract. He strained till the drops stood on his forehead, but still, his arms lay stretched motionless across the bed.

“Just then he met her eyes again, and his heart sank, they were so mocking and bitter. ‘Fool! Fool!’ they said. They were so malignant, and yet so impersonal—he could have sworn that she was afraid too. What was to happen? Would she kill him?’ His tongue was helpless. He worked his lips weakly, but they made no words. And she turned down her mouth scornfully and played with the sash. Why did she wait? For she was waiting for a time to come—her eyes told that. What was that time? A great joy that Darby was safe outdoors came to him, and he remembered that Darby would come at twelve! He would break the spell. And just then she left the bed and bent down over the little lamp, and when she took it up, it was lighted. She moved across to the window and set it in the sill. Then she glided to the door and locked it. Joan heard the bolt slip.

“Steps sounded on the ladder outside. Into Joan’s half-dulled thought came a kind of comfort. Darby was coming. Someone knocked on the pane, and the window was raised from the outside.

“‘Joan! Joan!’ whispered Darby, ‘are you all right? Why did you light the lamp? Where are you?’ And then Joan, the fool, forgot that if he had not answered. Darby would surely have come in. It seemed to him that if he did not speak now, he was lost. He strained his throat to say four words—only four: ‘All right. Come in.’ Just that. The first two to reassure Darby, the second to bring him. He made a mighty effort. ‘A11—all right!’ he shouted, ‘c—c—,’ and then her eyes were on him and he faded into unconsciousness. He saw in them a terror and surprise. He understood that she wondered at his speaking. There was a stinging pain in his throat, and he heard Darby whisper angrily,

“‘Keep still, can’t you? Don’t howl so! It’s quarter to one. I looked in at twelve, and didn’t want to wake you. You’d better get up now—who’s that down there?’ and with a sickening despair, he heard Darby hurry down the ladder.

“The leaves rustled a little, and then all was still. He didn’t struggle any longer. It was clear to him now. He was to play the lover in this ill-fated tragedy, whose actors offered themselves, fools that they were, unasked, each time. And what happened to the lover? Why, he was killed. Well, rather that he should die than Darby. It seemed to him so reasonable, now. No one had asked him to suffer. He had had his chance to go and refused it. No one could help him now. Not even she. They must play it out, puppets of an inexorable drama.

“And then the girl dashed to the bed, and sank beside it as if to pray. And he felt her hair on his face, as he had hoped, but it brought no joy to him, for something was coming up from the floor below. Something that sent a thrill before it, that advanced, slowly, slowly, surely. The girl shuddered and grasped the bed and tried to pull herself up, but she sank helplessly back. And slowly, the bolt of the door pushed back. No one pushed it, but it slipped back. Then slowly, inch by inch, the door opened. Joan grew stiff and cold, and would not have looked but that his eyes were fixed. Wider, wider, till it stood flat against the wall.

“Then up the stairs came steps. And with the others, quick and pattering. What was that? Who walked so quickly, with padding, thudding feet? He longed for them to come in—but he dreaded their coming. The door was ready for them. The room was swept and clean.

“Up, up, they came, the heavy steps and the scratching, pattering feet. Nearer, nearer—they came in. The man, large, dark, heavy-jawed; the stone-grey, snarling hound, licking its frothing jaws, straining at its chain. The girl writhed against the bed in terror—she opened her lips, but with a stride, the man was upon her, his heavy hand was over her mouth. He dragged her up, shaking and sinking, he snatched the sash and bound her mouth, he held her at arm’s length and stared once in her eyes. Scorn and rage and murder were in his.

“Joan forgot his own danger in terrified pity. He struggled a moment, but it was useless. His dreadful bonds still held. The man came to the bed, dragging the hound, and Joan shut his eyes, not to see the dark evil face. He would die in the dark, alone, unaided. Oh! to call once! To hear a human voice! But there was no sound but the panting of the great, eager dog.

“The man seemed not to see him. He seized the girl, and turning her toward the light that burned at the pane; he bound her to the bed-post with the silken sash. She writhed and bent and tried to grasp his feet; she pleaded with her eyes till their agony cut Joan like a knife, but the man tied her straight and fast. Then he walked to the pane and crouched down by it and held the dog’s muzzle, and became like a stone image.

“And suddenly it flashed across Joan’s mind, with a passion of fear to which all that had gone before was as nothing, that Darby was coming up that ladder to that light! Darby, whom he had thought so safe, was to come unknowing, unwarned, to that straining, panting beast. He turned faint for a moment. And then, with all the power of his soul, he tried to scream. He felt his throat strain and bend and all but burst with the tremendous effort. He tried again, and the pain blinded him. At his feet there the girl strained and twisted, great tears rolling down her cheeks. And yet there was a ghastly silence. The stifled panting of that hound echoed in a deadly quiet. It was horrible, pitiful! The girl’s white gown was torn and mussed; her soft naked shoulder quivered when she strained against the cruel sash. He could see that her arm was red where it was tied.

“She trembled and bent and bit her lip till the blood-stained her chin. He cursed and prayed and shrieked till the sound, had it come, would have deafened him—but it was all a ghastly mockery! It was as still as a quiet summer afternoon—and the dog and the man waited at the window.

“There was a sound of scraping. Someone was coming up the ladder—someone who whistled softly under his breath, and came nearer every moment. Up, up—the ladder rattled against the window-frame. The man at the window slipped his hand slowly, slowly from the dog’s muzzle. The dog stiffened and drew back his black, dripping jaws from his yellow teeth. The man’s fingers sunk in the beast’s wrinkled neck and he held him back, while he threw one look of hate and triumph at the tortured woman behind him.

“The man bound to the bed couldn’t bear it any longer. As a hand grasped the window-sill from outside, he summoned all his iron will, and with a rasping, rending effort that brought a sickly, warm taste to his mouth, he gave a hoarse cry.

“Then the woman leaned over till the sash sunk into her soft flesh, and shrieked with a high, shrill note that cut the air like a knife. But even as she shrieked, a form rose over the sill, there was a rush from inside, and their voices were drowned in a cry of terror, a scream so broken and despairing that Joan could not recognise the voice. And then there was a horrid crashing fall, and the light went out, and something snapped in the brain of the man chained to the bed, and he dropped for miles into a deep, black gulf.”

There was a dead silence in the room. No one dared to speak. The stranger’s voice had quivered and broken, and in a hoarse whisper, he said, rising and stumbling to the door while they made way for him silently:

“And when he knew his friends again, Darby had been buried a long time. Joan did not know whether a broken neck is so much worse than anything else in the world. He hadn’t any curiosity about the mill—he didn’t care to hear the details of how they burned it to the ground. Perhaps after a while, he will be too tired to contradict ignorant people. But he thinks—he has said, that when a man has not slept five hours in a week, nor spoken for days together without agony, much may be forgiven him in the line of intolerance of other people’s ignorance—a blessed ignorance gentlemen, a blessed ignorance.”

The door closed behind him, and the men drew a long breath. No-one turned out the gas, and it burned till morning, for they took their keys in silence and went upstairs, for the most part, arm in arm, haunted by the hoarse, rough voice of the stranger, whom they never saw again.

And indeed they did not care to see him. “For what could one say?” as young Sanford demanded, the next day. “It either happened, or it didn’t. If it didn’t, he could say no more; if it did, then he is right, and we are in blessed ignorance.” And no one of the circle but nodded and looked for a moment at the chair behind the stove.

Next short story

 

 

Original short story by Josephine Dodge Daskam

Retold by A Moffat

Illustrations by justanemotion.com

Book cover illustration by Kordi

©All rights reserved justanemotion.com 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Wind Flower

The Wind Flower Book cover of short story mystery and romance fiction

The Wind Flower a short story of infatuation and, obsession. An artist becomes completely spellbound by a quiet, monosyllable girl who flourishes in a prevailing storm. This exhilarating transformation of the girl captures the spirit of life, excitement and adventure. A short story by Josephine Dodge Daskam, an American author and poet who wrote a series of short stories based on her own experiences. The Wind Flower is a unique tale of mystery and romance with a touch of mother nature and its ability to capture our emotions. With the addition of some illustrations, and only a few – slight – changes to enhance a more modern reading experience, we hope you enjoy this short story.

 

The Wind Flower

Willard’s landlady smiled sympathetically across the narrow breakfast-table. “I guess you’ve got to stay in this mornin’, Mr Willard,” she said. “It’s a good deal too raw and cold for you to be out around, paintin’, to-day.”

Willard nodded. “Quite right, Mrs Storrs,” he returned, and he smiled at his landlady’s daughter, who sat opposite. But she did not smile at him. She continued her silent meal, looking for the most part at her plate, and replying to direct questions only by monosyllables.

She must be nineteen or twenty, he decided, but her slender, curveless figure might have been that of a girl several years younger. Her face was absolutely without character to the casual glance—pale, slightly freckled, lighted by grey-green, half-closed eyes, and framed in light brown hair. Her lips were thin, and her rare smile did not disclose her teeth. Even her direct look, when he compelled it, was quite uninterested.

The Wind Flower Book cover of short story mystery and romance fiction

—x—

Her mother chattered with the volubility of a woman left much alone, and glad of an appreciative listener, but the girl had not, of her own accord, spoken a word during his week’s stay. He wondered as he thought of it why he had not noticed it before, and decided that her silence was not obtrusive, but only the outcome of her colourless personality—like the silence of the prim New England house itself.

He groaned inwardly. “What in time can I do? Nothing to read within five miles: my last cigar went yesterday: this beastly weather driving me to melancholia! If she weren’t such a stick—heavens! I never knew a girl could be so thin!”

The girl in question rose and began clearing the table. Her mother bustled out of the room, and left Willard in the old-fashioned armchair by the window, almost interested, as he wondered what the girl would do or say now. After five minutes of silence, he realised the strange impression, or rather the lack of impression, she made on him. He was hardly conscious of a woman’s presence. The intangible atmosphere of femininity that wraps around a tête-à-tête with even the most unattractive woman was wholly lacking. She seemed simply a more or less intelligent human being.

Given greatly to analysis, he grew interested. Why was this? She did not want intellectually; he was sure. Such remarks as she had made in answer to his own were not noticeable for stupidity or even stolidity of thought. He broke the silence.

“What do you do with yourself, these days?” he suggested. “I don’t see you about at all. Are you reading, or walking about these fascinating Maine beaches?”

She did not even look up at him as she replied. “I don’t know as I do very much of anything. I’m not very fond of reading—at least, not these books.”

Remembering the “Pilgrim’s Progress,” “Book of Martyrs,” “Mrs Heman’s Poems,” and the “Adventures of Rev. James Hogan, Missionary to the Heathen of Africa,” that adorned the marble-topped table in the parlour, he shuddered sympathetically.

“But I walk a good deal,” she volunteered. “I’ve been all over that ledge you’re painting.”

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said. “It reminds me of a poem I read somewhere about the beauty of Appledore—that’s on this coast somewhere, too, isn’t it? You’d appreciate the poem, I’m sure—do you care for poetry?”

She piled the dishes on a tray and carried it through the door before he had time to take it from her.

“No,” she replied over her shoulder, “no, I don’t care for it. It seems so—so smooth and shiny, somehow.”

“Smooth? shiny?” he smiled as she came back, “I don’t see.”

Her high, rather indifferent voice fell in a slight embarrassment, as she explained: “Oh, I mean the rhymes and the verses—they’re so even and like a clock ticking.”

He took from his pocket a little red book. “Let me read you this,” he said eagerly, “and see if you think it smooth and shiny. You must have heard and seen what this man tries to tell.”

She stood awkwardly by the table, her scant, shapeless dress accentuating the straight lines of her slim figure, her hands clasped loosely before her, her face turned toward the window, which rattled now and then at the gusts of the rising wind. Willard held the little book easily between thumb and finger, and read in clear, pleasant tones, looking at her occasionally with interest:

The Wind Flower Poem Fresh from his fastnesses, wholesome and spacious. The north wind, the mad huntsman, halloos on his white hounds Over the grey, roaring reaches and ridges, The forest of Ocean, the chase of the world. Hark to the peal of the pack in full cry, As he thongs them before him, swarming voluminous, Weltering, wide-wallowing, till in a ruining Chaos of energy, hurled on their quarry. They crash into foam!

—x—

“Fresh from his fastnesses, wholesome and spacious.
The north wind, the mad huntsman, halloos on his white hounds
Over the grey, roaring reaches and ridges,
The forest of Ocean, the chase of the world.
Hark to the peal of the pack in full cry,
As he thongs them before him, swarming voluminous,
Weltering, wide-wallowing, till in a ruining
Chaos of energy, hurled on their quarry.
They crash into foam!”

—x—

“There! is that smooth and shiny?” he demanded. She had moved nearer, to catch more certainly his least intonation.

Her hands twisted nervously, and to his surprise, she smiled with unmistakable pleasure.

“Oh, no!” she half-whispered, eyeing the book in his hand wistfully. “Oh, no! That makes me feel different. I—I love the wind.”

“What’s that?” Mrs. Storrs entered quickly. “Now, Sarah, you just stop that nonsense! Mr Willard, has she been tellin’ you any foolishness?”

“Miss Storrs had only told me that she liked the wind,” he replied, hoping that the woman would go, and let him develop at leisure what promised to be a most interesting situation. She had really very pretty, even teeth, and when she smiled, her lips curved pleasantly.

But Mrs Storrs was not to be evaded. She had evidently a grievance to set forth, and looking reproachfully at her daughter, continued:

“Ever since Sarah was five or six years old, she’s had that crazy likin’ for the wind. ‘Taint natural, I say, and when the gales that we have up here strike us, the least anybody can do ‘s to stay in the house and thank Providence they’ve got a house to stay in! Why, Mr Willard, you’d never think it to look at her, for she’s a real quiet girl—too quiet, seems to me, sometimes, when I’m just put to it for somebody to be social with—but in that big gale of eighty-eight she was out all night in it, and me and her father—that was before Mr Storrs died—nearly crazy with fearin’ she was lost for good. And when she was six years old, she got up from her crib and went out on the beach In her little nightgown, and nothin’ else, and it’s a miracle she didn’t die of pneumonia, if not of bein’ blown to death.”

Mrs Storrs stopped for breath, and Willard glanced at the girl, wondering if she would appear disconcerted or angry at such unlooked-for revelation of her eccentricity. Still, her face had settled Into its usual impassive lines, and she dusted the chairs serenely, turning now and then to look fixedly through the window at the swaying elm whose boughs leaned to the ground under the still rising wind.

Her mother was evidently relieving the strain of an enforced silence, and sitting stiffly in her chair, as one not accustomed to the luxury of idle conversation, she continued:

“And even now, when she’s old enough to know better, you’d think, she acts possessed. Any wind-storm ‘ll set her off, but when the spring gales come, she’ll just roam ’round the house, back and forth, staring out of doors, and me as nervous as a cat all the while. Just because I won’t let her go out, she acts like a child. Why, last year I had to go out and drag her in by main force; I was nearly blown off the cliff gettin’ her home. And she was singin’, calm, as if she was in her bed like any decent person! It’s the most unnatural thing I ever heard of! Now, Sarah Storrs,” as the girl was slipping from the room, “you remember you promised me not to go out this year after supper, if the wind was high. You mind, now! It’s comin’ up an awful blow.”

The girl turned abruptly. “I never promised you that, mother,” she said quickly. “I said I wouldn’t if I could help it, and if I can’t help it, I can’t, and that’s all there is to it.” The door closed behind her, and shortly afterwards Willard left Mrs Storrs in possession of the room.

—x—

The day affected him strangely. The steady low moan of the wind was by this time very noticeable. It was not cold, only clear and rather keen, and the scurrying grey clouds looked chillier than one found the air on going out. The boom of the surf carried a sinister threat with it, and the birds drove helplessly with, the wind-current, as if escaping some dreaded thing behind them.

Indoors, the state of affairs was not much better: Mrs Storrs looked injured; her sister, a lady of uncertain years and temper, talked of sudden deaths, and the probability of premature burial, pointed by the relation of actual occurrences of that nature; Sarah was not to be seen.

At last he could bear idleness no longer, and opening the dusty melodeon, tried to drown the dreary minor music of the wind by some cheerful selection from the hymn-book Mrs Storrs brought him, having a vague idea that secular music was out of keeping with the character of that instrument. After a few moments’ aimless fingering the keys he found himself pedalling a laborious accompaniment to the “Dead March” from Saul, and closed the wheezy little organ in despair.

The long day dragged somehow by, and at supper, Sarah appeared, if anything, whiter and more uninteresting than ever, only to retire immediately when the meal was over.

“I might’s well tell you, Mr Willard, that you can give up all hope of paintin’ any more this week,” announced Mrs Storrs, as the door closed behind her daughter. “This wind’s good for a week, I guess. I’m sorry to have you go, but I shouldn’t feel honest not to tell you.” Mentally vowing to leave the next morning, Willard thanked her and explained that the study was far enough advanced to be completed at his studio in the city, and that he had intended leaving very shortly.

A few moments later, as he stood at the window in the parlour, looking at the waving elm-boughs and lazily wondering how the moon could be so bright when there were so many clouds, the soft swish of a woman’s skirt sounded close to his ear. As he turned, the frightened “Oh!” and the little gasp of surprised femininity revealed Sarah, standing near the table in the centre of the room. Even at that distance and in the dark, he was aware of a difference in her, a subtle element of personality not present before.

“Did I frighten you?” he asked, coming nearer.

“No, not very much. Only I thought nobody would be here. I—I—wanted someplace to breathe in; it seems so tight and close in the house.” As she spoke, a violent blast of wind drove the shutters against the side of the house and rubbed together the branches of the elm until they creaked dismally. She pressed her face against the glass and stared out into the dark.

“Don’t you love it?” she questioned, almost eagerly.

Willard shook his head dubiously. “Don’t know. Looks pretty cool. If it gets much higher, I shouldn’t care to walk far.”

She took her old place by the table again, but soon left it, and wandered restlessly about the room. As she passed him, he was conscious of a distinct physical impression—a kind of electric presence. She seemed to gather and hold about her all the faint light of the cold room, and the sweep of her skirt against his foot seemed to draw him toward her. Suddenly she stopped her irregular march.

“Hear it sing!” she whispered.

—x—

The now distinct voice of the wind grew to a long, minor wail, that rose and fell with rhythmic regularity. As she paused with uplifted finger near him, Willard felt with amazement a compelling force, a personality more intense, for the time, than his own. Then, as the blast, with a shriek that echoed for a moment with startling distinctness from every side, dashed the elm branches against the house itself, she turned abruptly and left the room. “Stay here!” she said shortly, and, resisting the impulse to follow her, he obeyed. In a few moments, she returned with a heavy shawl wrapped over her head and shoulders.

“Hold the window open for me,” she said, “I’m going out.” He attempted remonstrance, but she waved him impatiently away. “I can’t get out of the door—mother’s locked it and taken the key, but you can hold up the window while I get out. Oh, come yourself, if you like! But nothing can happen to me.”

Mechanically he held open the window as she slipped out, and, dragging his overcoat after him, scrambled through himself. She was waiting for him at the corner of the house, and as he stumbled in the unfamiliar shadows, held out her hand.

“Here, take hold of my hand,” she commanded. Her cool, slim grasp was strangely pleasant, as she hurried along with a smooth, gliding motion, wholly unlike her indifferent gait of the day before.

Once out of the shelter of the house, the storm struck them with full force, and Willard realised that he was well-nigh strangled in the clutches of a genuine Maine gale.

“What folly!” he gasped, crowding his hat over his eyes and struggling to gain his wonted consciousness of superiority. “Come back instantly, Miss Storrs! Your mother—”

“Come! Come!” she interrupted, pulling him along.

He stared at her in amazement. Her eyes were wide open, almost black with excitement. And now her face gleamed like ivory in the cold light. Her lips were parted and curved in a happy smile. Her slender body swayed easily with the wind that nearly bent Willard double. She seemed unreal—a phantom of the storm, a veritable wind-spirit. Her loosened hair flew across his face, and its touch completed the strange thrill that her hand-clasp brought. He followed unresistingly.

“Aren’t—you—afraid—of—the—woods?” he gasped, the gusts tearing the words from his lips, as he saw that she was making for the thick growth of trees that bordered the cliff. Her high, light laughter almost frightened him, so weird and unhuman it came to him on the wind.

“Why should I be afraid? The woods are so beautiful in a storm! They bow and nod and throw their branches about—oh, they’re best of all, then!”

A sweeping blast nearly threw him down, and he instinctively dropped her hand, since there was no possible feeling of protection for her, her footing was so sure, her balance so perfect. As he righted himself and staggered to the shelter of the tree under which she was standing, he stopped, lost in wonder and admiration. She had impatiently thrown off the shawl and stood in a gleam of moonlight under the tree.

Her long, straight hair flew out in two fluttering wisps at either side, and her slender, curved mouth were painted against her pale face in clear relief.  Now her eyes were wide open, the pupils dark and gleaming. It seemed to his excited glance that rays of light streamed from them to him. “Heavens! She’s a beauty! If only I could catch that pose!” he said under his breath.

“Come!” she called to him again, “we’re wasting time! I want to get to the cliff!”

He pressed on to her, but she slipped around the tree and eluded him, keeping a little in advance as he panted on, fighting with all the force of a fairly powerful man against the gale that seemed to offer her no resistance. It occurred to him, as he watched with a greedy artist’s eye the almost unnatural ease and lightness of her walk, that she caught the turns of the wind intuitively, guiding along currents and channels unknown to him, for she seemed with it always, never against it. Once she threw out both her arms in an abandon of delight, and actually leaned on the gust that tossed him against a tree, baffled and wearied with his efforts to keep pace with her, and confusedly wondering if he would wake soon from this improbable dream.

—x—

Speech was impossible. The whistling of the wind alone was deafening, and his voice was blown in twenty directions when he attempted to call her. Small twigs lashed his face, slippery boughs glided from his grasp, and the trees fled by in a thick-grown crowd to his dazed eyes. To his right, a birch suddenly fell with a snapping crash. He leapt to one side, only to feel about his face a blinding storm of pattering acorns from the great oak that with a rending sigh and swish tottered through the air at his left.

“Good God!” he cried in terror, as he saw her standing apparently in its track. A veer in the gale altered the direction of the great trunk, that sank to the ground across her path. As it fell, with an indescribable, swaying bound, she leapt from the ground, and before it quite touched the earth, she rested lightly upon it. She seemed absolutely unreal—a dryad of the windy wood. All fear for her left him.

As she stood poised on the still trembling trunk, a quick gust blew out her skirt to a bubble on one side, and drove it close to her slender body on the other, while her loose hair streamed like a banner along the wind. She curved her figure towards him and made a cup of one hand, laying it beside her opened lips. What she said he did not hear. He was rapt in delighted wonder at the consummate grace of her attitude, the perfect poise of her body. She was a figure in a Greek frieze—a bas-relief—a breathing statue.

Unable to make him hear, she turned slightly and pointed ahead. He realised the effect of the Wingless Victory in its unbroken beauty. She was not a woman, but an incarnate art, a miracle of changing line and curve, a ceaseless inspiration.

Suddenly he heard the pound and boom of the surf. In an ecstasy of impatience, she hurried back, seized his hand, and fairly dragged him on. The crash of the waves and the wind together took from him all power of connected thought. He clung to her hand like a child, and when she threw herself down on her face to breathe, he grasped her dress and panted in her ear: “We—can’t—get—much—further—unless—you—can—walk—the—Atlantic!” She smiled happily back at him, and the thickness of her hair, blown by the wind from the ocean about his face, brought him a strange, unspeakable content.

“Shall we ever go back?” he whispered, half to himself. “Or will you float down the cliff and wake me by your going?”

Her wide, dark eyes answered him silently. “It is like a dream, though,” her high, sweet voice added. And then he realised that she had hardly spoken since they left the house. The house? As in a dream he tried vaguely to connect this Undine of the wood with the girl whose body she had stolen for this night’s pranks. As in a dream, he rose and followed her back, through the howling, sweeping wind. Her cold, slim handheld his; her light, shrill voice sang little snatches of songs—hymns, he remembered afterwards. As the moonlight fell on her, he wondered dreamily why he had thought her too thin. And all the while he fought, half-unconsciously, the resistless gale, that spared him only when he yielded utterly.

The house gleamed white and square before them. Silently he raised the window for her. He had no thought of lifting her in. That she should slip lightly through was of course. The house was still lighted, and he heard the creaking of her mother’s rocking-chair in the bedroom over his head. He looked at his watch. “Does her mother rock all night?” he thought dully, for it was nearly twelve. She read his question from the perplexed glance he threw at her.

“She’s sitting up to watch the door so that I shan’t get out,” she whispered, without a smile. “Good-bye.” And he stood alone in the room.

continue

 

Original short story by Josephine Dodge Daskam

Retold by A Moffat

Illustrations by justanemotion.com

Book cover illustration by Ractapopulous

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