The Wind Flower had blossomed into a kind of mystical dryad of the woods; her utter earthly wildness fascinated him. He was left feeling completely mesmerised by Sarah, the windflower, will her earthly wild romance with the wind encapture him once more.
Until late the next morning he wandered in strange, wearied, yet fascinating dreams with her. Vague sounds, as of high-pitched reproaches and quiet sobbing, mingled with his morning dreams, and when, with an aching head and thoroughly bewildered brain, he went to his late breakfast, Mrs Storrs served him; only as he left for the train, possessed by a longing for the great, busy city of his daily work, did he see her daughter, walking listlessly about the house. Her freckled face was paler than ever, her half-closed eyes reddened, and her slight, awkward bow in recognition of his puzzled salute might have been directed to someone behind him. Only his aching head and wearied feet assured him that the strangest night of his life had been no dream.
That his studio should seem bare and uninteresting as he threw open the door, and tried to kindle a fire in the dusty, stove, did not surprise him. That the sketches and studies in colour should look tame and flat to the eye that had been fed for two weeks with Maine surf, angry clouds, and swaying branches, was perhaps only natural. But as the days went on and he failed to get in train for work a puzzled wonder slowly grew in him. Why was it that the picture dragged so? He remembered perfectly the look of the beach, the feel of the cold, hungry water, the heavy, grey clouds, the primitive, forbidding austerity that a while ago he had been so confidently eager to put on the canvas. Why was it that he sat for hours together helplessly staring at it?
His friends supposed him wrapped in his subject, working under a high pressure, and considerately left him alone; they would have marvelled greatly had they seen him glowering moodily at the merest study of the subject he had described so vividly to them, smoking countless packages of cigarettes, hardly lifting his hand from his chair-arm.
Once he threw down a handful of brushes and started out for a tramp. It occurred to him that the city sights and smells, the endless hum and roar, the rapid pace of the crowded streets would tone him up and set his thoughts in a new line; he was tired of the whistling gales and tossing trunks and booming surf that haunted his nights and confused his days. A block away from the studio a flower-woman met him with a tray of daffodils and late crocuses. A sudden puff of wind blew out her scanty thin skirt; a tree in the centre of the park they were crossing bent to it, the branches creaked faintly. The fresh, earthy odour of the flowers moved him strangely. He bought a bunch, turned, and went back to the studio, to sit for an hour gazing sightlessly ahead of him.
Suddenly he started up and approached the sketch.
“It wants wind,” he muttered, half unconsciously, and fell to work. An hour passed, two, three—he still painted rapidly. Just as the light was fading a thunderous knock at the door ushered in the two men he knew best. He nodded vaguely, and they crossed the room in silence and looked at the picture. For a few moments, no one spoke. Presently Willard took a brush from his mouth and faced them.
“Well?” he said.
The older man shook his head. “Queer sky!” he answered briefly.
The younger looked questioningly at Willard. “You’ll have to get a gait on you if you hope to beat Morris with that,” he said. “What’s up, Willard? Don’t you want that prize?”
“Of course I do.” His voice sounded dull, even to himself. “You aren’t any too sympathetic, you fellows—” he tried to feel injured.
The older man came nearer. “What’s that white thing there? Good Lord, Will, you’re not going to try a figure?”
Willard brushed rapidly over the shadowy outline. “No—that was just a sketch. The whole thing’s just a sort of—”
“The whole thing’s just a bluff!” interrupted the younger man, decidedly. “It’s not what you told us about at all—and it’s not good, anyway. It looks as if a tornado had struck it! You said it was to be late afternoon—it’s nearer midnight, as far as I can see! What’s that tree lying around for?”
His tone was abusive, but a genuine concern and surprise was underneath it. He looked furtively at his older friend behind Willard’s back. The other shook his head expressively.
Willard bit his lip. “I only wanted to try—it won’t necessarily stay that way,” he explained. He wished he cared more for what they said. He wished they did not bore him so unspeakably. More than all, he wished they would go.
The younger one whistled softly. “Pretty late in the day to be making up your mind, I should say,” he remarked. “When’s it going to dry in? Morris has been working like a horse on his for six weeks. He’s coming on, too—splendid colour!”
Willard lit a cigarette. “Damn Morris!” he said casually. The older man drew on his glove and turned to go.
“Oh, certainly!” he replied cheerfully. “By all means! No, we can’t stay—we only dropped in. We just thought we’d see how you were getting along. If I were you, Will, I’d make up my mind about that intoxicated tree and set it up straight—good-bye!”
They went out cheerfully enough, but he knew they were disappointed and hurt—they had expected so much from that picture. And he wished he cared more. He looked at it critically. Of course it was bad, but how could they tell what he had been doing? It was the plan of months changed utterly in three hours. The result was ridiculous, but he needed it no longer—he knew what he wanted now, what he had been fighting against all these days. He would paint it if he could—and till he could. The insistent artist-passion to express even bunglingly something of the unendurable beauty of that strange night was on him. Before the echo of his guests’ departure had died away, he was working as he had never worked before, the old picture lying unnoticed in the corner where he had thrown it.
He needed no models; he did not use his studies. Was it not printed on his brain, was it not etched into his heart, that weird vision of the storm, with the floating fairy creature that hardly touched the earth? Was there a lovely curve in all her melting postures, which slipped like water circles into new shapes, that he did not know? That haunting, elf-like look, that ineffably exquisite abandon, had he not studied it greedily then in the wood, and later, in his restless dreams? The trees were sentient, the bushes put out clasping fingers to detain him, the wind shrieked out its angry soul at him; and she, the white wonder with her floating wisps of stinging hair, had joined with them to mock at him, the startled witness of that mad revel of all the elements. He knew all this—he was drunk with it: could he paint it? Or would people see only a strange-eyed girl dancing in a wood?
He did not know how many days he had been at work on it; he ate what the cleaning-woman brought him; his face was bristled, with a stubby growth; the cigarette boxes strewed the floor. Men appeared at the door, and he urged them peevishly to go away; people brought messages, and he said he was not in town, and returned the notes unread. In the morning, he smiled and breathed hard and patted the easel; at night, he bit his nails and cursed himself for a colour-blind fool.
There was a white birch, strained and bent in the wind, that troubled him still, and as he was giving it the last touches, in the cold, strong afternoon light, the door burst open.
“Look here; the thing closes at six! Are you crazy?” they called to him, exasperatedly. “Aren’t you going to send it?”
“That’s all right; that’s all right,” he muttered vaguely, “shut up, can’t you?”
They stood over behind him, and there was a stillness in the room. He laid down his palette carefully and turned to them, a worried look on his drawn, bristled face.
“That’s meant to be the ocean beyond the cliff there,” he said, an almost childlike fear in his eyes, “did—did you know it?”
The older man drew in a long breath.
“Lord, yes! I hear it!” he returned, “do you think we’re deaf?”
The younger one squinted at various distances, muttering to himself.
“Dryad? Undine? No, she frightens you, but she’s sweet! George! He’s painted the wind! He’s actually drawn a wind! My, but it’s stunning! My!”
Willard sank into a chair. He was flushed, and his legs shook. He patted the terrier unsteadily and talked to her. “Well, then! Well, then! So she was, his, so she was!”
The older man snapped his watch. “Five-thirty,” he said. “Put something ’round it, and whistle a cab—we’ll have to hurry!”
Willard fingered some dead crocuses on the stand beside him. “Look out, you fool, it’s wet!” he growled. The older man patted his shoulder.
“All right, boy, all right!” he said soothingly. “It’s all done, now—never mind!”
They shouldered it out of the door while he pulled the terrier’s ears.
“Where you are going?” they called.
“Turkish bath. Restaurant. Vaudeville,” he answered, and they nodded.
“Yes, thanks. Drop-in to-morrow!”
“—And drive like thunder!” he heard them through the open window.
A week later he was walking up Broadway between them, sniffing the fresh, sweet air comfortably, the terrier at his heels. At intervals, they read him bits from the enthusiastic comments of the critics.
“Mr Willard, whose ‘Windflower’ distanced all competitors and won the Minot prize by a unanimous verdict of the judges, has displayed, aside from his thorough master of technic, a breadth of atmosphere, and imaginative range rarely if ever equalled by an American. Nothing but the work itself, so manifestly idealistic in subject and treatment, could convince us that it is not a study from life, so keen, so haunting is the impression produced by the remarkable figure of the Spirit of the Gale, who seems to sink before our eyes on the falling trunk, literally riding the storm. In direct contrast to this abandon of the figure is the admirable reticence of the background which is keyed so low—”
Willard stopped abruptly before the window of a large art establishment where a photograph of the picture was already displayed. “I want one of those,” he said, “and I’m going out into the country for a bit before I sail, I think.”
“Oh, back there?” they asked, comprehensively.
“Yes, back there!”
As the train rushed along, he explained to himself why he was going—why he had not merely sent the photograph. He wanted to see her, to brush away the cloud of illusion that the weeks had spun around her. He wanted to realise definitely the difference between the pale, silent, unformed New England girl and the fascinating personality of his picture. Ever since he left her they had grown confused, these two that his common sense told him were so different, and he was beginning to dread the unavowed hope that for him, at least, they might be someday one. The same passionate power that had thrown mystery and beauty into colour on the canvas wove sweet, wild dreams around what he contemptuously told himself was little better than a lay figure, but he yielded to it now as he had then.
When he told himself that he was going purposely to hear her talk, to see her flat, unlovely figure, to appreciate her utter lack of charm, of all vitality, he realised that it was a cruel errand. But when he felt the sharp thrill that he suffered even in anticipation as his quick imagination pictured the dream-cloud dropping off from her, actually before his eyes, he believed the journey more than ever a necessary one.
As he walked up the little country street, his heartbeat fast; the greening lawns, the fresh, faint odours, the ageless, unnamable appeal of the spring stirred his blood and thrilled him inexpressibly. He was yet in the first flush of his success; his whole nature was relaxed and sensitive to every joy; he let himself drift on the sweet, confused expectancy, the delicious folly, the hope that he was to find his dream, his inspiration, his spirit of the wind and wood.
A child passed him with a great bunch of daffodils and stopped to watch him long after he had passed, wondering at the silver in her hand.
At the familiar gate, a tall, thin woman’s figure stopped his heart a second, and as a fitful gust blew out her apron and tossed her shawl over her head, he felt his breath come more quickly.
“Good heavens!” he muttered, “what folly! Am I never to see a woman’s skirt blown without—?”
She put the shawl back as he neared her—it was Mrs Storrs’s sister. She met his outstretched hand with a blank stare. Suddenly her face twitched convulsively.
“O, Mr Willard! O Mr Willard!” she cried and burst into tears.
The wind blew sharper, the elm tree near the window creaked, a dull pain grew in him.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” he said brusquely.
“I suppose you ain’t heard—you wouldn’t be apt to!” she sobbed, and pushing back the locks the wind drove into her reddened eyes, she broke into incoherent sentences: he heard her as one in a dream.
“And she would go—’twas the twenty-fifth—there were dozens o’ trees blown down—’twas just before dark—her mother, she ran out after her as soon’s she knew—she called, but she didn’t hear—she saw her on the edge o’ the rocks, an’ she almost got up to her an’ screamed, an’ it scared her, we think—she turned ’round quick, an’ she went right off the cliff an’ her mother saw her go—’twas awful!”
Willard’s eyes went beyond her to the woods; the woman’s voice, with its high, flat intonation, brought the past so vividly before him that he was unconscious of the actual scene—he lived through the quick, terrible drama with the intensity of a witness of it.
“No, they haven’t found her yet—the surf’s too high. We always had a feeling she wouldn’t live—she wasn’t like other girls—”
Half unconsciously, he unwrapped the photograph.
“I—I brought this,” he said dully. The woman blanched and clutched the gate-post.
“Oh, take it away! Take it away!” she gasped, a real terror in her eyes. “O Mr Willard, how could you—it’s awful! I—I wouldn’t have her mother see it for all the world!” Her sobs grew uncontrollable.
He bent it slowly across and thrust it in his pocket.
“No, no,” he said soothingly, “of course not, of course not. I only wanted to tell—you all—that it took the prize I told you about and—and was a good thing for me. I hoped—I hoped—”
He saw that she was trembling in the sudden cold wind, and held out his hand.
“This has been a great shock to me,” he said quietly, his eyes still on the woods. “Please tell Mrs Storrs how I sympathise—how startled I was. I am going abroad in a few days. I will send you my address, and if there is ever anything I can do, you will gratify me more than you can know by letting me help you in any way. Give her these,” and he thrust out the great bunch of daffodils to her. She took them, still crying softly, and turned towards the house.
Later he found himself in the woods near the great oak that lay just as it had fallen that night. Beneath all the confused tumult of his thoughts, one clear truth rang like a bell, one bitter-sweet certainty that caught him smiling strangely as he realised it! “She’s won! She’s won!”
There, while the branches swayed above him, and the surf, sinister and monotonous, pounded below, the vision that had made them both famous melted into the elusive reality. He lived again with absolute abandonment that sweet mad night, he felt again her hair blown about his face as he lay on the windy cliff with the lady of his dreams.
For him, her fate was not dreadful—she could not have died like other women. There was an intoxication in her sudden taking away: she was rapt out of life as she would have wished, he knew.
Slowly there grew upon him a frightened wonder if she had lived for this. Her actual life had been so empty, so unreal, so concentrated in those piercing stolen moments; she had ended it, once the heart of it had been caught and fixed to give others faint thrills of all she had felt so utterly.
“She died for it!” he felt, with a kind of awe that was far from all personal vanity—the blameless egoism of the artist.
He left the little town hardly consciously. On his outward voyage, when the gale beat the vessel, and the wind howled to the thundering waves, he came to know that though a love more real, a passionless elusive, might one day hold him, there would always rest in his heart and brain one ceaseless inspiration, one strange, sweet memory that nothing could efface.
Original short story by Josephine Dodge Daskam
Retold by A Moffat
Illustrations by justanemotion.com
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