Ellen Glasgow was born in 1873 to a wealthy Virginia family. Her father was a successful owner of an ironworks company in Richmond, Virginia. Glasgow’s mother, who bore ten children, became an invalid, suffering from a variety of nervous disorders. Glasgow was educated at home, and she exhibited intellectual independence from a young age. She read widely in her father’s library, tackling subjects from literature to philosophy and political theory. Glasgow began her own foray into fiction writing and was immediately successful. In novels such as The Descendant (1897), The Deliverance (1904), Virginia (1913), and Barren Ground (1925), Glasgow predicted the first wave of the Southern Renaissance as she rigorously chronicled the death of the Old South, as well as rebelled against the contemporary artifice and restrictions of Victorian gentility. Barren Ground, in particular, established her reputation as a writer who moved beyond the styles of the Realist and Naturalist in the 1890s more fully into the temperament of the Modernist and feminist writer. Glasgow continued writing until her death, publishing later works such as The Sheltered Life (1932), Vein of Iron (1935), and In This Our Life (1941), which won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1942. While she had love interests during her life, Glasgow remained single, valuing her independence. During her life, Glasgow suffered from a variety of illnesses and ailments, including heart disease. She died in her sleep at home in 1945.
Ellen Glasgow changed the course of Southern literature in the 1890s in her striking departure from traditional Southern literary fare dominated by Thomas Nelson Page’s fictional accounts of the plantation myth. Like literary Naturalists such as Frank Norris and Jack London, Glasgow absorbed ideas from Charles Darwin’s works and became one of the first Southern writers of substance to incorporate Darwinian themes in her fiction. She was influenced by Darwin’s views on heredity and environment as factors that strongly determined human behavior. As a young writer, she fearlessly confronted uncomfortable truths about human nature, eschewing the ever popular “moonlight and magnolias” fictional representation of life in the South and calling for more “blood and irony” in Southern fiction. She heeded her own call, producing a strong body of work that dealt with a variety of realistic, naturalistic, and even modernist, themes: women confronting their own biological impulses, social classes in conflict, women deconstructing social codes as artificial barriers to self-determination, rural farming families at odds with new industrialization and urbanization, and the transition of the Old South into the New South. Throughout her fiction, illusions about the present are shattered under the intense light of reality, and nostalgia for the past is revealed as a form of “evasive idealism,” a way of thinking that Glasgow deplored. In “Dare’s Gift,” one of many stories that Glasgow wrote about seemingly haunted dwellings, Glasgow explores the residual “haunting” of the present by the past, particularly by a past infected with the actions of a woman whose loyalty to an abstraction or dogmatic creed supersede her loyalty to her fiancé.
5.15.1 “dare’s gift”
A year has passed, and I am beginning to ask myself if the thing actually happened? The whole episode, seen in clear perspective, is obviously incredible. There are, of course, no haunted houses in this age of science; there are merely hallucinations, neurotic symptoms, and optical illusions. Any one of these practical diagnoses would, no doubt, cover the impossible occurrence, from my first view of that dusky sunset on James River to the erratic behavior of Mildred during the spring we spent in Virginia. There is I admit it readily! a perfectly rational explanation of every mystery. Yet, while I assure myself that the supernatural has been banished, in the evil company of devils, black plagues, and witches, from this sanitary century, a vision of Dare’s Gift, amid its clustering cedars under the shadowy arch of the sunset, rises before me, and my feeble scepticism surrenders to that invincible spirit of darkness. For once in my life the ordinary life of a corporation lawyer in Washington the impossible really happened. It was the year after Mildred’s first nervous breakdown, and Drayton, the great specialist in whose care she had been for some months, advised me to take her away from Washington until she recovered her health. As a busy man I couldn’t spend the whole week out of town; but if we could find a place near enough somewhere in Virginia! we both exclaimed, I remember it would be easy for me to run down once a fortnight. The thought was with me when Harrison asked me to join him for a week’s hunting on James River; and it was still in my mind, though less distinctly, on the evening when I stumbled alone, and for the first time, on Dare’s Gift.
I had hunted all day a divine day in October and at sunset, with a bag full of partridges, I was returning for the night to Chericoke, where Harrison kept his bachelor’s house. The sunset had been wonderful; and I had paused for a moment with my back to the bronze sweep of the land, when I had a swift impression that the memories of the old river gathered around me. It was at this instant I recall even the trivial detail that my foot caught in a brier as I wheeled quickly about that I looked past the sunken wharf on my right, and saw the garden of Dare’s Gift falling gently from its almost obliterated terraces to the scalloped edge of the river. Following the steep road, which ran in curves through a stretch of pines and across an abandoned pasture or two, I came at last to an iron gate and a grassy walk leading, between walls of box, to the open lawn planted in elms. With that first glimpse the Old World charm of the scene held me captive. From the warm red of its brick walls to the pure Colonial lines of its doorway, and its curving wings mantled in roses and ivy, the house stood there, splendid and solitary. The rows of darkened windows sucked in without giving back the last flare of daylight; the heavy cedars crowding thick up the short avenue did not stir as the wind blew from the river; and above the carved pineapple on the roof, a lonely bat was wheeling high against the red disc of the sun. While I had climbed the rough road and passed more slowly between the marvelous walls of the box, I had told myself that the place must be Mildred’s and mine at any cost. On the upper terrace, before several crude modern additions to the wings, my enthusiasm gradually ebbed, though I still asked myself incredulously, “Why have I never heard of it? To whom does it belong? Has it a name as well known in Virginia as Shirley or Brandon?” The house was of great age, I knew, and yet from obvious signs I discovered that it was not too old to be lived in. Nowhere could I detect a hint of decay or dilapidation. The sound of cattle bells floated up from a pasture somewhere in the distance. Through the long grass on the lawn little twisted paths, like sheep tracks, wound back and forth under the fine old elms, from which a rain of bronze leaves fell slowly and ceaselessly in the wind. Nearer at hand, on the upper terrace, a few roses were blooming; and when I passed between two marble urns on the right of the house, my feet crushed a garden of “simples” such as our grandmothers used to grow.
As I stepped on the porch I heard a child’s voice on the lawn, and a moment afterwards a small boy, driving a cow, appeared under the two cedars at the end of the avenue. At sight of me he flicked the cow with the hickory switch he held and bawled, “Ma! thar’s a stranger out here, an’ I don’t know what he wants.”
At his call the front door opened, and a woman in a calico dress, with a sunbonnet pushed back from her forehead, came out on the porch.
“Hush yo’ fuss, Eddy!” she remarked authoritatively. “He don’t want nothint.” Then, turning to me, she added civilly, “Good evenin’, suh. You must be the gentleman who is visitin’ over at Chericoke?”
“Yes, I am staying with Mr. Harrison. You know him, of course?” “Oh, Lordy, yes. Everybody aroun’ here knows Mr. Harrison. His folks have been here goin’ on mighty near forever. I don’t know what me and my children would come to it if wa’n’t for him. He is gettin’ me my divorce now. It’s been three years and mo’ sence Tom deserted me.”
“Divorce?” I had not expected to find this innovation on James River.
“Of course it ain’t the sort of thing anybody would want to come to. But if a woman in the State ought to have one easy, I reckon it’s me. Tom went off with another woman and she my own sister from this very house ”
“From this house and, by the way, what is the name of it?” “Name of what? This place? Why, it’s Dare’s Gift. Didn’t you know it? Yes, suh, it happened right here in this very house, and that, too, when we hadn’t been livin’ over here mo’ than three months. After Mr. Duncan got tired and went away he left us as caretakers, Tom and me, and I asked Tilly to come and stay with us and help me look after the children. It came like a lightning stroke to me, for Tom and Tilly had known each other all their lives, and he’d never taken any particular notice of her till they moved over here and began to tend the cows together. She wa’n’t much for beauty, either. I was always the handsome one of the family though you mightn’t think it now, to look at me and Tom was the sort that never could abide red hair ”
“And you’ve lived at Dare’s Gift ever since?” I was more interested in the house than in the tenant.
“I didn’t have nowhere else to go, and the house has got to have a caretaker till it is sold. It ain’t likely that anybody will want to rent an out of the way place like this though now that automobiles have come to stay that don’t make so much difference.”
“Does it still belong to the Dares?”
“Now, suh; they had to sell it at auction right after the war on account of mortgages and debts old Colonel Dare died the very year Lee surrendered, and Miss Lucy she went off somewhere to strange parts. Sence their day it has belonged to so many different folks that you can’t keep account of it. Right now it’s owned by a Mr. Duncan, who lives out in California. I don’t know that he’ll ever come back here he couldn’t get on with the neighbors and he is trying to sell it. No wonder, too, a great big place like this, and he ain’t even a Virginian ”
“I wonder if he would let it for a season?” It was then, while I stood there in the brooding dusk of the doorway, that the idea of the spring at Dare’s Gift first occurred to me.
“If you want it, you can have it for ‘most nothing, I reckon. Would you like to step inside and go over the rooms?”
That evening at supper I asked Harrison about Dare’s Gift, and gleaned the salient facts of its history.
“Strange to say, the place, charming as it is, has never been well known in Virginia. There’s historical luck, you know, as well as other kinds, and the Dares after that first Sir Roderick, who came over in time to take a stirring part in Bacon’s Rebellion, and, tradition says, to betray his leader have never distinguished themselves in the records of the State. The place itself, by the way, is about a fifth of the original plantation of three thousand acres, which was given though I imagine there was more in that than appears in history by some Indian chief of forgotten name to this notorious Sir Roderick. The old chap Sir Roderick, I mean seems to have been something of a fascinator in his day. Even Governor Berkeley, who hanged half the colony, relented, I believe, in the case of Sir Roderick, and that unusual clemency gave rise, I sup pose, to the legend of the betrayal. But, however that may be, Sir Roderick had more miraculous escapes than John Smith himself, and died at last in his bed at the age of eighty from overeating cherry pie.” “And now the place has passed away from the family?”
“Oh, long ago though not so long, after all, when one comes to think of it. When the old Colonel died the year after the war, it was discovered that he had mortgaged the farm up to the last acre. At that time real estate on James River wasn’t regarded as a particularly profit able investment, and under the hammer Dare’s Gift went for a song.”
“Was the Colonel the last of his name?” “He left a daughter a belle, too, in her youth, my mother says but she died at least I think she did only a few months after her father.”
Coffee was served on the veranda, and while I smoked my cigar and sipped my brandy Harrison had an excellent wine cellar I watched the full moon shining like a yellow lantern through the diaphanous mist on the river. Downshore, in the sparkling reach of the water, an immense cloud hung low over the horizon, and between the cloud and the river a band of silver light quivered faintly, as if it would go out in an instant.
“It is over there, isn’t it?” I pointed to the silver light “Dare’s Gift, I mean.”
“Yes, it’s somewhere over yonder five miles away by the river, and nearly seven by the road.”
“It is the dream of a house, Harrison, and there isn’t too much history attached to it nothing that would make a modern beggar ashamed to live in it.”
“By Jove! so you are thinking of buying it?” Harrison was beaming. “It is downright ridiculous, I declare, the attraction that place has for strangers. I never knew a Virginian who wanted it; but you are the third Yankee of my acquaintance and I don’t know many who has fallen in love with it. I searched the title and drew up the deed for John Duncan exactly six years ago though I’d better not boast of that transaction, I reckon.”
“He still owns it, doesn’t he?”
“He still owns it, and it looks as if he would continue to own it unless you can be persuaded to buy it. It is hard to find purchasers for these old places, especially when the roads are uncertain and they happen to be situated on the James River. We live too rapidly in these days to want to depend on a river, even on a placid old fellow like the James.”
“Duncan never really lived here, did he?”
“At first he did. He began on quite a royal scale; but, somehow, from the very start things appeared to go wrong with him. At the outset he prejudiced the neighbors against him I never knew exactly why by putting on airs, I imagine, and boasting about his money. There is something in the Virginia blood that resents boasting about money. How ever that may be, he hadn’t been here six months before he was at odds with every living thing in the county, white, black, and spotted for even the dogs snarled at him. Then his secretary a chap he had picked up starving in London, and had trusted absolutely for years made off with a lot of cash and securities, and that seemed the last straw in poor Duncan’s ill luck. I believe he didn’t mind the loss half so much he refused to prosecute the fellow as he minded the betrayal of confidence. He told me, I remember, before he went away, that it had spoiled Dare’s Gift for him. He said he had a feeling that the place had come too high; it had cost him his belief in human nature.”
“Then I imagine he’d be disposed to consider an offer?”
“Oh, there isn’t a doubt of it. But, if I were you, I shouldn’t be too hasty. Why not rent the place for the spring months? It’s beautiful here in the spring, and Duncan has left furniture enough to make the house fairly comfortable.”
“Well, I’ll ask Mildred. Of course Mildred must have the final word in the matter.”
“As if Mildred’s final word would be anything but a repetition of yours!” Harrison laughed slyly for the perfect harmony in which we lived had been for ten years a pleasant jest among our friends. Harrison had once classified wives as belonging to two distinct groups the group of those who talked and knew nothing about their husbands’ affairs, and the group of those who knew everything and kept silent. Mildred, he had added politely, had chosen to belong to the latter division.
The next day I went back to Washington, and Mildred’s first words to me in the station were,
“Why, Harold, you look as if you had bagged all the game in Virginia!”
“I look as if I had found just the place for you!”
When I told her about my discovery, her charming face sparkled with interest. Never once, not even during her illness, had she failed to share a single one of my enthusiasms; never once, in all the years of our marriage, had there been so much as a shadow between us. To understand the story of Dare’s Gift, it is necessary to realize at the beginning all that Mildred meant and means in my life.
Well, to hasten my slow narrative, the negotiations dragged through most of the winter. At first, Harrison wrote me, Duncan couldn’t be found, and a little later that he was found, but that he was opposed, from some inscrutable motive, to the plan of renting Dare’s Gift. He wanted to sell it outright, and he’d be hanged if he’d do anything less than get the place clean off his hands. “As sure as I let it” Harrison sent me his letter “there is going to be trouble, and somebody will come down on me for damages. The damned place has cost me already twice as much as I paid for it.”
In the end, however Harrison has a persuasive way the arrangements were concluded. “Of course,” Duncan wrote after a long silence, “Dare’s Gift may be as healthy as heaven. I may quite as easily have contracted this confounded rheumatism, which makes life a burden, either in Italy or from too many cocktails. I’ve no reason whatever for my dislike for the place; none, that is, except the incivility of my neighbors where, by the way, did you Virginians manufacture your reputation for manners? and my unfortunate episode with Paul Grymes. That, as you remark, might, no doubt, have occurred anywhere else, and if a man is going to steal he could have found all the opportunities he wanted in New York or London. But the fact remains that one can’t help harboring associations, pleasant or unpleasant, with the house in which one has lived, and from start to finish my associations with Dare’s Gift are frankly unpleasant. If, after all, however, your friend wants the place, and can afford to pay for his whims let him have it! I hope to Heaven he’ll be ready to buy it when his lease has run out. Since he wants it for a hobby, I suppose one place is as good as another; and I can assure him that by the time he has owned it for a few years especially if he under takes to improve the motor road up to Richmond he will regard a taste for Chinese porcelain as an inexpensive diversion.” Then, as if impelled by a twist of ironic humor, he added, “He will find the shooting good anyhow.”
We entered the wall of box through a living door, and strolled up the grassy walk from the lawn to the terraced garden. Within the garden the air was perfumed with a thousand scents with lilacs, with young box, with flags and violets andlilies, with aromatic odors from the garden of “simples,” and with the sharp sweetness of sheep mint from the mown grass on the lawn.
“This spring is fine, isn’t it?” As I turned to Mildred with the question, I saw for the first time that she looked pale and tired or was it merely the green light from the box wall that fell over her features? “The trip has been too much for you. Next time we’ll come by motor.”
“Oh, no, I had a sudden feeling of faintness. It will pass in a minute. What an adorable place, Harold!”
She was smiling again with her usual brightness, and as we passed from the box wall to the clear sunshine on the terrace her face quickly resumed its natural color. To this day for Mildred has been strangely reticent about Dare’s Gift I do not know whether her pallor was due to the shade in which we walked or whether, at the instant when I turned to her, she was visited by some intuitive warning against the house we were approaching. Even after a year the events of Dare’s Gift are not things I can talk over with Mildred; and, for my part, the occurrence remains, like the house in its grove of cedars, wrapped in an impenetrable mystery. I don’t in the least pretend to know how or why the thing happened. I only know that it did happen that it happened, word for word as I record it. Mildred’s share in it will, I think, never become clear to me. What she felt, what she imagined, what she believed, I have never asked her. Whether the doctor’s explanation is history or fiction, I do not attempt to decide. He is an old man, and old men, since Biblical times, have seen visions. There were places in his story where it seemed to me that he got historical data a little mixed or it may be that his memory failed him. Yet, in spite of his liking for romance and his French education, he is without constructive imagination at least he says that he is without it and the secret of Dare’s Gift, if it is not fact, could have sprung only from the ultimate chaos of imagination.
But I think of these things a year afterwards, and on that April morning the house stood there in the sunlight, presiding over its grassy terraces with an air of gracious and intimate hospitality. From the symbolic pineapple on its sloping roof to the twittering sparrows that flew in and out of its ivied wings, it reaffirmed that first flawless impression. Flaws, of course, there were in the fact, yet the recollection of it to day the garnered impression of age, of formal beauty, of clustering memories is one of exquisite harmony. We found later, as Mildred pointed out, architectural absurdities wanton excrescences in the mod ern additions, which had been designed apparently with the purpose of providing space at the least possible cost of material and labor. The rooms, when we passed through the fine old doorway, appeared cramped and poorly lighted; broken pieces of the queer mullioned window, where the tracery was of wood, not stone, had been badly repaired, and much of the original detail work of the mantels and cornices had been blurred by recent disfigurements. But these discoveries came afterwards. The first view of the place worked like a magic spell like an intoxicating perfume on our senses. “It is just as if we had stepped into another world,” said Mildred, looking up at the row of windows, from which the ivy had been carefully clipped. “I feel as if I had ceased to be myself since I left Washington.” Then she turned to meet Harrison, who had ridden over to welcome us. We spent a charming fortnight together at Dare’s Gift Mildred happy as a child in her garden, and I satisfied to lie in the shadow of the box wall and watch her bloom back to health. At the end of the fortnight I was summoned to an urgent conference in Washington. Some philanthropic busybody, employed to nose out corruption, had scented legal game in the affairs of the Atlantic & Eastern Railroad, and I had been retained as special counsel by that corporation. The fight would be long, I knew I had already thought of it as one of my great cases and the evidence was giving me no little anxiety. “It is my last big battle,” I told Mildred, as I kissed her good bye on the steps. “If I win, Dare’s Gift shall be your share of the spoils; if I lose well, I’ll be like any other general who has met a better man in the field.”
“Don’t hurry back, and don’t worry about me. I am quite happy here.”
“I shan’t worry, but all the same I don’t like leaving you. Remember, if you need advice or help about anything, Harrison is always at hand.”
“Yes, I’ll remember.”
With this assurance I left her standing in the sunshine, with the windows of the house staring vacantly down on her. When I try now to recall the next month, I can bring back merely a turmoil of legal wrangles. I contrived in the midst of it all to spend two Sundays with Mildred, but I remember nothing of them except the blessed wave of rest that swept over me as I lay on the grass under the elms. On my second visit I saw that she was looking badly, though when I commented on her pallor and the darkened circles under her eyes, she laughed and put my anxious questions aside.
“Oh, I’ve lost sleep, that’s all,” she answered, vaguely, with a swift glance at the house. “Did you ever think how many sounds there are in the country that keep one awake?”
As the day went on I noticed, too, that she had grown restless, and once or twice while I was going over my case with her I always talked over my cases with Mildred because it helped to clarify my opinions she returned with irritation to some obscure legal point I had passed over. The flutter of her movements so unlike my calm Mildred disturbed me more than I confessed to her, and I made up my mind before night that I would consult Drayton when I went back to Washington. Though she had always been sensitive and impressionable, I had never seen her until that second Sunday in a condition of feverish excitability.
In the morning she was so much better that by the time I reached Washington I forgot my determination to call on her physician. My work was heavy that week the case was developing into a direct attack upon the management of the road and in seeking evidence to rebut the charges of illegal rebates to the American Steel Company, I stumbled by accident upon a mass of damaging records. It was a clear case of some body having blundered or the records would not have been left for me to discover and with disturbed thoughts I went down for my third visit to Dare’s Gift. It was in my mind to draw out of the case, if an honorable way could be found, and I could barely wait until dinner was over before I unburdened my conscience to Mildred.
“The question has come to one of personal honesty.” I remember that I was emphatic. “I’ve nosed out something real enough this time. There is material for a dozen investigations in Dowling’s transactions alone.”
The exposure of the Atlantic & Eastern Railroad is public property by this time, and I needn’t resurrect the dry bones of that deplorable scandal. I lost the case, as everyone knows; but all that concerns me in it today is the talk I had with Mildred on the darkening terrace at Dare’s Gift. It was a reckless talk, when one comes to think of it. I said, I know, a great deal that I ought to have kept to myself; but, after all, she is my wife; I had learned in ten years that I could trust her discretion, and there was more than a river between us and the Atlantic & Eastern Railroad.
Well, the sum of it is that I talked foolishly, and went to bed feeling justified in my folly. Afterwards I recalled that Mildred had been very quiet, though whenever I paused she questioned me closely, with a flash of irritation as if she were impatient of my slowness or my lack of lucidity. At the end she flared out for a moment into the excitement I had noticed the week before; but at the time I was so engrossed in my own affairs that this scarcely struck me as unnatural. Not until the blow fell did I recall the hectic flush in her face and the quivering sound of her voice, as if she were trying not to break down and weep.
It was long before either of us got to sleep that night, and Mildred moaned a little under her breath as she sank into unconsciousness. She was not well, I knew, and I resolved again that I would see Drayton as soon as I reached Washington. Then, just before falling asleep, I became acutely aware of all the noises of the country which Mildred said had kept her awake of the chirping of the crickets in the fireplace, of the fluttering of swallows in the chimney, of the sawing of innumerable insects in the night outside, of the croaking of frogs in the marshes, of the distant solitary hooting of an owl, of the whispering sound of wind in the leaves, of the stealthy movement of a myriad creeping lives in the ivy. Through the open window the moonlight fell in a milk white flood, and in the darkness the old house seemed to speak with a thousand voices. As I dropped off I had a confused sensation less a perception than an apprehension that all these voices were urging me to something somewhere
The next day I was busy with a mass of evidence dull stuff, I remember. Harrison rode over for luncheon, and not until late afternoon, when I strolled out, with my hands full of papers, for a cup of tea on the terrace, did I have a chance to see Mildred alone. Then I noticed that she was breathing quickly, as if from a hurried walk. “Did you go to meet the boat, Mildred?”
“No, I’ve been nowhere nowhere. I’ve been on the lawn all day,” she answered sharply so sharply that I looked at her in surprise.
In the ten years that I had lived with her I had never before seen her irritated without cause Mildred’s disposition, I had once said, was as flawless as her profile and I had for the first time in my life that baffled sensation which comes to men whose perfectly normal wives reveal flashes of abnormal psychology. Mildred wasn’t Mildred, that was the upshot of my conclusions; and, hang it all! I didn’t know any more than Adam what was the matter with her. There were lines around her eyes, and her sweet mouth had taken an edge of bitterness.
“Aren’t you well, dear?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m perfectly well,” she replied, in a shaking voice, “only I wish you would leave me alone!” And then she burst into tears.
While I was trying to comfort her the servant came with the tea things, and she kept him about some trivial orders until the big touring car of one of our neighbors rushed up the drive and halted under the terrace.
In the morning Harrison motored up to Richmond with me, and on the way he spoke gravely of Mildred.
“Your wife isn’t looking well, Beckwith. I shouldn’t wonder if she were a bit seedy and if I were you I’d get a doctor to look at her. There is a good man down at Chericoke Landing old Palham Lakeby. I don’t care if he did get his training in France half a century ago; he knows more than your half baked modern scientists.”
“I’ll speak to Drayton this very day,” I answered, ignoring his suggestion of the physician. “You have seen more of Mildred this last month than I have. How long have you noticed that she isn’t herself?”
“A couple of weeks. She is usually so jolly, you know.” Harrison had played with Mildred in his childhood. “Yes, I shouldn’t lose any time over the doctor. Though, of course, it may be only the spring,” he added, reassuringly.
“I’ll drop by Drayton’s office on my way uptown,” I replied, more alarmed by Harrison’s manner than I had been by Mildred’s condition.
But Drayton was not in his office, and his assistant told me that the great specialist would not return to town until the end of the week. It was impossible for me to discuss Mildred with the earnest young man who discoursed so eloquently of the experiments in the Neurological Institute, and I left without mentioning her, after making an appointment for Saturday morning. Even if the consultation delayed my return to Dare’s Gift until the afternoon, I was determined to see Drayton, and, if possible, take him back with me. Mildred’s last nervous breakdown had been too serious for me to neglect this warning.
I was still worrying over that case wondering if I could find a way to draw out of it when the catastrophe overtook me. It was on Saturday morning, I remember, and after a reassuring talk with Drayton, who had promised to run down to Dare’s Gift for the coming weekend, I was hurrying to catch the noon train for Richmond. As I passed through the station, one of the Observer’s sensational “war extras” caught my eye, and I stopped for an instant to buy the paper before I hastened through the gate to the train. Not until we had started, and I had gone back to the dining car, did I unfold the pink sheets and spread them out on the table before me. Then, while the waiter hung over me for the order, I felt the headlines on the front page slowly burn themselves into my brain for, instead of the news of the great French drive I was expecting, there flashed back at me, in large type, the name of the opposing counsel in the case against the Atlantic & Eastern. The Observer’s “extra” battened not on the war this time, but on the gross scandal of the railroad; and the front page of the paper was devoted to a personal interview with Herbert Tremaine, the great Tremaine, that philanthropic busybody who had first scented corruption. It was all there, every ugly detail every secret proof of the illegal transactions on which I had stumbled. It was all there, phrase for phrase, as I alone could have told it as I alone, in my folly, had told it to Mildred. The Atlantic & Eastern had been betrayed, not privately, not secretly, but in large type in the public print of a sensational newspaper. And not only the road! I also had been betrayed – betrayed so wantonly, so irrationally, that it was like an incident out of melodrama.
It was conceivable that the simple facts might have leaked out through other channels, but the phrases, the very words of Tremaine’s interview, were mine.
The train had started; I couldn’t have turned back even if I had wanted to do so. I was bound to go on, and some intuition told me that the mystery lay at the end of my journey. Mildred had talked indiscreetly to someone, but to whom? Not to Harrison, surely! Harrison, I knew, I could count on, and yet whom had she seen except Harrison? After my first shock the absurdity of the thing made me laugh aloud. It was all as ridiculous, I realized, as it was disastrous! It might so easily not have happened. If only I hadn’t stumbled on those accursed records! If only I had kept my mouth shut about them! If only Mildred had not talked unwisely to someone! But I wonder if there was ever a tragedy so inevitable that the victim, in looking back, could not see a hundred ways, great or small, of avoiding or preventing it? a hundred trivial incidents which, falling differently, might have transformed the event into pure comedy?
The journey was unmitigated torment. In Richmond the car did not meet me, and I wasted half an hour in looking for a motor to take me to Dare’s Gift. When at last I got off, the road was rougher than ever, plowed into heavy furrows after the recent rains, and filled with mud holes from which it seemed we should never emerge. By the time we puffed exhaustedly up the rocky road from the river’s edge, and ran into the avenue, I had worked myself into a state of nervous apprehension bordering on panic. I don’t know what I expected, but I think I shouldn’t have been surprised if Dare’s Gift had lain in ruins before me. Had I found the house leveled to ashes by a divine visitation, I believe I should have accepted the occurrence as within the bounds of natural phenomena.
But everything even the young peacocks on the lawn was just as I had left it. The sun, setting in a golden ball over the pineapple on the roof, appeared as unchangeable, while it hung there in the glittering sky, as if it were made of metal. From the somber dusk of the wings, where the ivy lay like a black shadow, the clear front of the house, with its formal doorway and its mullioned windows, shone with an intense brightness, the last beams of sunshine lingering there before they faded into the profound gloom of the cedars. The same scents of roses and sage and mown grass and sheep mint hung about me; the same sounds the croaking of frogs and the sawing of katydids floated up from the low grounds; the very books I had been reading lay on one of the tables on the terrace, and the front door still stood ajar as if it had not closed since I passed through it.
I dashed up the steps, and in the hall Mildred’s maid met me. “Mrs. Beckwith was so bad that we sent for the doctor the one Mr. Harrison recommended. I don’t know what it is, sir, but she doesn’t seem like herself. She talks as if she were quite out of her head.”
“What does the doctor say?”
“He didn’t tell me. Mr. Harrison saw him. He the doctor, I mean has sent a nurse, and he is coming again in the morning. But she isn’t herself, Mr. Beckwith. She says she doesn’t want you to come to her ”
“Mildred!” I had already sprung past the woman, calling the beloved name aloud as I ran up the stairs.
In her chamber, standing very straight, with hard eyes, Mildred met me. “I had to do it, Harold,” she said coldly so coldly that my outstretched arms fell to my sides. “I had to tell all I knew.”
“You mean you told Tremaine you wrote to him you, Mildred?”
“I wrote to him I had to write. I couldn’t keep it back any longer. No, don’t touch me. You must not touch me. I had to do it. I would do it again.”
Then it was, while she stood there, straight and hard, and rejoiced because she had betrayed me then it was that I knew that Mildred’s mind was unhinged.
“I had to do it. I would do it again,” she repeated, pushing me from her.
All night I sat by Mildred’s bedside, and in the morning, without having slept, I went downstairs to meet Harrison and the doctor.
“You must get her away, Beckwith,” began Harrison with a curious, suppressed excitement. “Dr. Lakeby says she will be all right again as soon as she gets back to Washington.”
“But I brought her away from Washington because Drayton said it was not good for her.”
“I know, I know.” His tone was sharp, “But it’s different now Dr. Lakeby wants you to take her back as soon as you can.”
The old doctor was silent while Harrison spoke, and it was only after I had agreed to take Mildred away tomorrow that he murmured something about “bromide and chloral,” and vanished up the staircase. He impressed me then as a very old man old not so much in years as in experience, as if, living there in that flat and remote country, he had exhausted all human desires. A leg was missing, I saw, and Harrison explained that the doctor had been dangerously wounded in the battle of Seven Pines, and had been obliged after that to leave the army and take up again the practice of medicine.
“You had better get some rest,” Harrison said, as he parted from me. “It is all right about Mildred, and nothing else matters. The doctor will see you in the afternoon, when you have had some sleep, and have a talk with you. He can explain things better than I can.”
Some hours later, after a profound slumber, which lasted well into the afternoon, I waited for the doctor by the tea table, which had been laid out on the upper terrace. It was a perfect afternoon a serene and cloudless afternoon in early summer. All the brightness of the day gathered on the white porch and the red walls, while the clustering shadows slipped slowly over the box garden to the lawn and the river.
I was sitting there, with a book I had not even attempted to read, when the doctor joined me; and while I rose to shake hands with him I received again the impression of weariness, of pathos and disappointment, which his face had given me in the morning. He was like sun dried fruit, I thought, fruit that has ripened and dried under the open sky, not withered in tissue paper.
Declining my offer of tea, he sat down in one of the wicker chairs, selecting, I noticed, the least comfortable among them, and filled his pipe from a worn leather pouch.
“She will sleep all night,” he said; “I am giving her bromide every three hours, and tomorrow you will be able to take her away. In a week she will be herself again. These nervous natures yield quickest to the influence, but they recover quickest also. In a little while this illness, as you choose to call it, will have left no mark upon her. She may even have forgotten it. I have known this to happen.”
“You have known this to happen?” I edged my chair nearer.
“They all succumb to it the neurotic temperament soonest, the phlegmatic one later but they all succumb to it in the end. The spirit of the place is too strong for them. The surrender to the thought of the house to the psychic force of its memories ”
“There are memories, then? Things have happened here?”
“All old houses have memories, I suppose. Did you ever stop to wonder about the thoughts that must have gathered within walls like these? to wonder about the impressions that must have lodged in the bricks, in the crevices, in the timber and the masonry? Have you ever stopped to think that these multiplied impressions might create a current of thought a mental atmosphere an inscrutable power of suggestion?”
“Even when one is ignorant? When one does not know the story?”
“She may have heard scraps of it from the servants who knows? One can never tell how traditions are kept alive. Many things have been whispered about Dare’s Gift; some of these whispers may have reached her. Even without her knowledge she may have absorbed the suggestion; and some day, with that suggestion in her mind, she may have gazed too long at the sunshine on these marble urns before she turned back into the haunted rooms where she lived. After all, we know so little, so pitifully little about these things. We have only touched, we physicians, the outer edges of psychology. The rest lies in darkness–”
I jerked him up sharply. “The house, then, is haunted?”
For a moment he hesitated. “The house is saturated with a thought. It is haunted by treachery.”
“You mean something happened here?”
“I mean–” He bent forward, groping for the right word, while his gaze sought the river, where a golden web of mist hung midway between sky and water. “I am an old man, and I have lived long enough to see every act merely as the husk of an idea. The act dies; it decays like the body, but the idea is immortal. The thing that happened at Dare’s Gift was over fifty years ago, but the thought of it still lives – still utters its profound and terrible message. The house is a shell, and if one listens long enough one can hear in its heart the low murmur of the past – of that past which is but a single wave of the great sea of human experience –”
“But the story?” I was becoming impatient with his theories. After all, if Mildred was the victim of some phantasmal hypnosis, I was anxious to meet the ghost who had hypnotized her. Even Drayton, I reflected, keen as he was about the fact of mental suggestion, would never have regarded seriously the suggestion of a phantom. And the house looked so peaceful – so hospitable in the afternoon light.
“The story? Oh, I am coming to that – but of late the story has meant so little to me beside the idea. I like to stop by the way. I am getting old, and an amble suits me better than too brisk a trot – particularly in this weather –”
Yes, he was getting old. I lit a fresh cigarette and waited impatiently. After all, this ghost that he rambled about was real enough to destroy me, and my nerves were quivering like harp strings.
“Well, I came into the story – I was in the very thick of it, by accident, if there is such a thing as accident in this world of incomprehensible laws. The Incomprehensible! That has always seemed to me the supreme fact of life, the one truth overshadowing all others the truth that we know nothing. We nibble at the edges of the mystery, and the great Reality the Incomprehensible is still untouched, undiscovered. It unfolds hour by hour, day by day, creating, enslaving, killing us, while we painfully gnaw off what? A crumb or two, a grain from that vastness which envelops us, which remains impenetrable ”
Again he broke off, and again I jerked him back from his reverie.
“As I have said, I was placed, by an act of Providence, or of chance, in the very heart of the tragedy. I was with Lucy Dare on the day, the unforgettable day, when she made her choice her heroic or devilish choice, according to the way one has been educated. In Europe a thousand years ago such an act committed for the sake of religion would have made her a saint; in New England, a few centuries past, it would have entitled her to a respectable position in history the little history of New England. But Lucy Dare was a Virginian, and in Virginia except in the brief, exalted Virginia of the Confederacy the personal loyalties have always been esteemed beyond the impersonal. I cannot imagine us as a people canonizing a woman who sacrificed the human ties for the superhuman even for the divine. I cannot imagine it, I repeat; and so Lucy Dare though she rose to greatness in that one instant of sacrifice has not even a name among us today. I doubt if you can find a child in the State who has ever heard of her or a grown man, outside of thisneighborhood, who could give you a single fact of her history. She is as completely forgotten as Sir Roderick, who betrayed Bacon she is forgotten because the thing she did, though it might have made a Greek tragedy, was alien to the temperament of the people among whom she lived. Her tremendous sacrifice failed to arrest the imagination of her time. After all, the sublime cannot touch us unless it is akin to our ideal; and though Lucy Dare was sublime, according to the moral code of the Romans, she was a stranger to the racial soul of the South. Her memory died because it was the bloom of an hour because there was nothing in the soil of her age for it to thrive on. She missed her time; she is one of the mute inglorious heroines of history; and yet, born in another century, she might have stood side by side with Antigone ” For an instant he paused. “But she has always seemed to me diabolical,” he added.
“What she did, then, was so terrible that it has haunted the house ever since?” I asked again, for, wrapped in memories, he had lost the thread of his story.
“What she did was so terrible that the house has never forgotten. The thought in Lucy Dare’s mind during those hours while she made her choice has left an ineffaceable impression on the things that surrounded her. She created in the horror of that hour an unseen environment more real, because more spiritual, than the material fact of the house. You won’t believe this, of course if people believed in the unseen as in the seen, would life be what it is?”
The afternoon light slept on the river; the birds were mute in the elm trees; from the garden of herbs at the end of the terrace an aromatic fragrance rose like invisible incense.
“To understand it all, you must remember that the South was dominated, was possessed by an idea the idea of the Confederacy. It was an exalted idea supremely vivid, supremely romantic but, after all, it was only an idea. It existed nowhere within the bounds of the actual unless the souls of its devoted people may be regarded as actual. But it is the dream, not the actuality, that commands the noblest devotion, the completest self sacrifice. It is the dream, the ideal, that has ruled mankind from the beginning.
“I saw a great deal of the Dares that year. It was a lonely life I led after I lost my leg at Seven Pines and dropped out of the army, and, as you may imagine, a country doctor’s practice in wartimes was far from lucrative. Our one comfort was that we were all poor, that we were all starving together; and the Dares there were only two of them, father and daughter were as poor as the rest of us. They had given their last coin to the government had poured their last bushel of meal into the sacks of the army. I can imagine the superb gesture with which Lucy Dare flung her dearest heirloom her one remaining brooch or pin into the bare coffers of the Confederacy. She was a small woman, pretty rather than beautiful not the least heroic in build yet I wager that she was heroic enough on that occasion. She was a strange soul, though I never so much as suspected her strangeness while I knew her while she moved among us with her small oval face, her gentle blue eyes, her smoothly banded hair, which shone like satin in the sunlight. Beauty she must have had in a way, though I confess a natural preference for queenly women; I dare say I should have preferred Octavia to Cleopatra, who, they tell me, was small and slight. But Lucy Dare wasn’t the sort to blind your eyes when you first looked at her. Her charm was like a fragrance rather than a color a subtle fragrance that steals into the senses and is the last thing a man ever forgets. I knew half a dozen men who would have died for her and yet she gave them nothing, nothing, barely a smile. She appeared cold she who was destined to flame to life in an act. I can see her distinctly as she looked then, in that last year grave, still, with the curious, unearthly loveliness that comes to pretty women who are underfed who are slowly starving for bread and meat, for bodily nourishment. She had the look of one dedicated as ethereal as a saint, and yet I never saw it at the time; I only remember it now, after fifty years, when I think of her. Starvation, when it is slow, not quick when it means, not acute hunger, but merely lack of the right food, of the blood making, nerve building elements starvation like this often plays strange pranks with one. The visions of the saints, the glories of martyrdom, come to the underfed, the anemic. Can you recall one of the saints the genuine sort whose regular diet was roast beef and ale?
“Well, I have said that Lucy Dare was a strange soul, and she was, though to this day I don’t know how much of her strangeness was the result of improper nourishment, of too little blood to the brain. Be that as it may, she seems to me when I look back on her to have been one of those women whose characters are shaped entirely by external events who are the playthings of circumstance. There are many such women. They move among us in obscurity reserved, passive, commonplace and we never suspect the spark of fire in their natures until it flares up at the touch of the unexpected. In ordinary circumstances Lucy Dare would have been ordinary, submissive, feminine, domestic; she adored children. That she possessed a stronger will than the average Southern girl, brought up in the conventional manner, none of us least of all I, myself ever imagined. She was, of course, intoxicated, obsessed, with the idea of the Confederacy; but, then, so were all of us. There wasn’t anything unusual or abnormal in that exalted illusion. It was the common property of our generation. . . .
“Like most noncombatants, the Dares were extremists, and I, who had got rid of a little of my bad blood when I lost my leg, used to regret sometimes that the Colonel I never knew where he got his title was too old to do a share of the actual fighting. There is nothing that takes the fever out of one so quickly as a fight; and in the army I had never met a hint of this concentrated, vitriolic bitterness towards the enemy. Why, I’ve seen the Colonel, sitting here on this terrace, and crippled to the knees with gout, grow purple in the face if I spoke so much as a good word for the climate of the North. For him, and for the girl, too, the Lord had drawn a divine circle round the Confederacy. Everything inside of that circle was perfection; everything outside of it was evil. Well, that was fifty years ago, and his hate is all dust now; yet I can sit here, where he used to brood on this terrace, sipping his blackberry wine I can sit here and remember it all as if it were yesterday. The place has changed so little, except for Duncan’s grotesque additions to the wings, that one can scarcely believe all these years have passed over it. Many an afternoon just like this I’ve sat here, while the Colonel nodded and Lucy knitted for the soldiers, and watched these same shadows creep down the terrace and that mist of light it looks just as it used to hang there over the James. Even the smell from those herbs hasn’t changed. Lucy used to keep her little garden at the end of the terrace, for she was fond of making essences and beauty lotions. I used to give her all the prescriptions I could find in old books I read and I’ve heard people say that she owed her wonderful white skin to the concoctions she brewed from shrubs and herbs. I couldn’t convince them that lack of meat, not lotions, was responsible for the pallor – pallor was all the fashion then that they admired and envied.”
He stopped a minute, just long enough to refill his pipe, while I glanced with fresh interest at the garden of herbs.
“It was a March day when it happened,” he went on presently; “cloudless, mild, with the taste and smell of spring in the air. I had been at Dare’s Gift almost every day for a year. We had suffered together, hoped, feared, and wept together, hungered and sacrificed together. We had felt together the divine, invincible sway of an idea.
“Stop for a minute and picture to yourself what it is to be of a war and yet not in it; to live in imagination until the mind becomes inflamed with the vision; to have no outlet for the passion that consumes one except the outlet of thought. Add to this the fact that we really knew nothing. We were as far away from the truth, stranded here on our river, as if we had been anchored in a canal on Mars. Two men one crippled, one too old to fight and a girl and the three living for a country which in a few weeks would be nothing would be nowhere not on any map of the world. . . .
“When I look back now it seems to me incredible that at that time any persons in the Confederacy should have been ignorant of its want of resources. Yet remember we lived apart, remote, unvisited, out of touch with realities, thinking the one thought. We believed in the ultimate triumph of the South with that indomitable belief which is rooted not in reason, but in emotion. To believe had become an act of religion; to doubt was rank infidelity. So we sat there in our little world, the world of unrealities, bounded by the river and the garden, and talked from noon till sunset about our illusion not daring to look a single naked fact in the face talking of plenty when there were no crops in the ground and no flour in the storeroom, prophesying victory while the Confederacy was in her death struggle. Folly! All folly, and yet I am sure even now that we were sincere, that we believed the nonsense we were uttering. We believed, I have said, because to doubt would have been far too horrible. Hemmed in by the river and the garden, there wasn’t anything left for us to do since we couldn’t fight but believe. Someone has said, or ought to have said, that faith is the last refuge of the inefficient. The twin devils of famine and despair were at work in the country, and we sat there we three, on this damned terrace and prophesied about the second president of the Confederacy. We agreed, I remember, that Lee would be the next president. And all the time, a few miles away, the demoralization of defeat was abroad, was around us, was in the air . . .
“It was a March afternoon when Lucy sent for me, and while I walked up the drive there was not a horse left among us, and I made all my rounds on foot I noticed that patches of spring flowers were blooming in the long grass on the lawn. The air was as soft as May, and in the woods at the back of the house buds of maple trees ran like a flame. There were, I remember, leaves dead leaves, last year’s leaves everywhere, as if, in the demoralization of panic, the place had been forgotten, had been untouched since autumn. I remember rotting leaves that gave like moss underfoot; dried leaves that stirred and murmured as one walked over them; black leaves, brown leaves, wine colored leaves, and the still glossy leaves of the evergreens. But they were everywhere in the road, over the grass on the lawn, beside the steps, piled in wind drifts against the walls of the house.
“On the terrace, wrapped in shawls, the old Colonel was sitting; and he called out excitedly, ‘Are you bringing news of a victory?’ Victory! when the whole country had been scraped with a fine tooth comb for provisions.
“‘No, I bring no news except that Mrs. Morson has just heard of the death of her youngest son in Petersburg. Gangrene, they say. The truth is the men are so ill nourished that the smallest scratch turns to gangrene ’
“‘Well, it won’t be for long not for long. Let Lee and Johnston get together and things will go our way with a rush. A victory or two, and the enemy will be asking for terms of peace before the summer is over.’
“A lock of his silver white hair had fallen over his forehead, and pushing it back with his clawlike hand, he peered up at me with his little nearsighted eyes, which were of a peculiar burning blackness, like the eyes of some small enraged animal. I can see him now as vividly as if I had left him only an hour ago, and yet it is fifty years since then fifty years filled with memories and with forgetfulness. Behind him the warm red of the bricks glowed as the sunshine fell, sprinkled with shadows, through the elm boughs. Even the soft wind was too much for him, for he shivered occasionally in his blanket shawls, and coughed the dry, hacking cough which had troubled him for a year. He was a shell of a man a shell vitalized and animated by an immense, an indestructible illusion. While he sat there, sipping his blackberry wine, with his little fiery dark eyes searching the river in hope of something that would end his interminable expectancy, there was about him a fitful somber gleam of romance. For him the external world, the actual truth of things, had vanished all of it, that is, except the shawl that wrapped him and the glass of blackberry wine he sipped. He had died already to the material fact, but he lived intensely, vividly, profoundly, in the idea. It was the idea that nourished him, that gave him his one hold on reality.
“‘It was Lucy who sent for you,’ said the old man presently. ‘She has been on the upper veranda all day overlooking something the sunning of winter clothes, I think. She wants to see you about one of the servants a sick child, Nancy’s child, in the quarters.’
“‘Then I’ll find her,’ I answered readily, for I had, I confess, a mild curiosity to find out why Lucy had sent for me.
“She was alone on the upper veranda, and I noticed that she closed her Bible and laid it aside as I stepped through the long window that opened from the end of the hall. Her face, usually so pale, glowed now with a wan illumination, likeivory before the flame of a lamp. In this illumination her eyes, beneath delicately penciled eyebrows, looked unnaturally large and brilliant, and so deeply, so angelically blue that they made me think of the Biblical heaven of my childhood. Her beauty, which had never struck me sharply before, pierced through me. But it was her fate her misfortune perhaps to appear commonplace, to pass unrecognized, until the fire shot from her soul.
“‘No, I want to see you about myself, not about one of the servants.’ “At my first question she had risen and held out her hand a white, thin hand, small and frail as a child’s.
“‘You are not well, then?’ I had known from the first that her starved look meant something.
“‘It isn’t that; I am quite well.’ She paused a moment, and then looked at me with a clear shining gaze. ‘I have had a letter,’ she said.
“‘A letter?’ I have realized since how dull I must have seemed to her in that moment of excitement, of exaltation.
“‘You didn’t know. I forgot that you didn’t know that I was once engaged long ago before the beginning of the war. I cared a great deal we both cared a great deal, but he was not one of us; he was on the other side and when the war came, of course there was no question. We broke if off; we had to break it off. How could it have been possible to do otherwise?’
“‘How, indeed!’ I murmured; and I had a vision of the old man downstairs on the terrace, of the intrepid and absurd old man.
“‘My first duty is to my country,’ she went on after a minute, and the words might have been spoken by her father. ‘There has been no thought of anything else in my mind since the beginning of the war. Even if peace comes I can never feel the same again I can never forget that he has been a part of all we have suffered of the thing that has made us suffer. I could never forget I can never forgive.’
“Her words sound strange now, you think, after fifty years; but on that day, in this house surrounded by dead leaves, inhabited by an inextinguishable ideal in this country, where the spirit had fed on the body until the impoverished brain reacted to transcendent visions in this place, at that time, they were natural enough. Scarcely a woman of the South but would have uttered them from her soul. In every age one ideal enthralls the imagination of mankind; it is in the air; it subjugates the will; it enchants the emotions. Well, in the South fifty years ago this ideal was patriotism; and the passion of patriotism, which bloomed like some red flower, the flower of carnage, over the land, had grown in Lucy Dare’s soul into an exotic blossom.
“Yet even today, after fifty years, I cannot get over the impression she made upon me of a woman who was, in the essence of her nature, thin and colorless. I may have been wrong. Perhaps I never knew her. It is not easy to judge people, especially women, who wear a mask by instinct. What I thought lack of character, of personality, may have been merely reticence; but again and again there comes back to me the thought that she never said or did a thing except the one terrible thing that one could remember. There was nothing remarkable that one could point to about her. I cannot recall either her smile or her voice, though both were sweet, no doubt, as the smile and the voice of a Southern woman would be. Until that morning on the upper veranda I had not noticed that her eyes were wonderful. She was like a shadow, a phantom, that attains in one supreme instant, by one immortal gesture, union with reality. Even I remember her only by that one lurid flash.
“‘And you say you have had a letter?’
“‘It was brought by one of the old servants Jacob, the one who used to wait on him when he stayed here. He was a prisoner. A few days ago he escaped. He asked me to see him and I told him to come. He wishes to see me once again before he goes North forever ’ She spoke in gasps in a dry voice. Never once did she mention his name. Long afterwards I remembered that I had never heard his name spoken. Even today I do not know it. He also was a shadow, a phantom a part of the encompassing unreality.
“‘And he will come here?’
“For a moment she hesitated; then she spoke quite simply, knowing that she could trust me.
“‘He is here. He is in the chamber beyond.’ She pointed to one of the long windows that gave on the veranda. ‘The blue chamber at the front.’
“I remember that I made a step towards the window when her voice arrested me. ‘Don’t go in. He is resting. He is very tired and hungry.’
“‘You didn’t send for me, then, to see him?’
“‘I sent for you to be with father. I knew you would help me that you would keep him from suspecting. He must not know, of course. He must be kept quiet.’
“‘I will stay with him,’ I answered, and then, ‘Is that all you wish to say to me?’
“‘That is all. It is only for a day or two. He will go on in a little while, and I can never see him again. I do not wish to see him again.’
“I turned away, across the veranda, entered the hall, walked the length of it, and descended the staircase. The sun was going down in a ball just as it will begin to go down in a few minutes and as I descended the stairs I saw it through the mullioned window over the door huge and red and round above the black cloud of the cedars.
“The old man was still on the terrace. I wondered vaguely why the servants had not brought him indoors; and then, as I stepped over the threshold, I saw that a company of soldiers Confederates had crossed the lawn and were already gathering about the house. The commanding officer I was shaking hands with him presently was a Dare, a distant cousin of the Colonel’s, one of those excitable, nervous, and slightly theatrical natures who become utterly demoralized under the spell of any violent emotion. He had been wounded at least a dozen times, and his lean, sallow, still handsome features had the greenish look which I had learned to associate with chronic malaria.
“When I look back now I can see it all as a part of the general disorganization of the fever, the malnutrition, the complete demoralization of panic. I know now that each man of us was facing in his soul defeat and despair; and that we each one of us had gone mad with the thought of it. In a little while, after the certainty of failure had come to us, we met it quietly we braced our souls for the issue; but in those last weeks defeat had all the horror, all the insane terror of a nightmare, and all the vividness. The thought was like a delusion from which we fled, and which no flight could put farther away from us.
“Have you ever lived, I wonder, from day to day in that ever present and unchanging sense of unreality, as if the moment before you were but an imaginary experience which must dissolve and evaporate before the touch of an actual event? Well, that was the sensation I had felt for days, weeks, months, and it swept over me again while I stood there, shaking hands with the Colonel’s cousin, on the terrace. The soldiers, in their ragged uniforms, appeared as visionary as the world in which we had been living. I think now that they were as ignorant as we were of the things that had happened that were happening day by day to the army. The truth is that it was impossible for a single one of us to believe that our heroic army could be beaten even by unseen powers even by hunger and death.
“‘And you say he was a prisoner?’ It was the old man’s quavering voice, and it sounded avid for news, for certainty.
‘Caught in disguise. Then he slipped through our fingers.’ The cousin’s tone was querulous, as if he were irritated by loss of sleep or of food. ‘Nobody knows how it happened. Nobody ever knows. But he has found out things that will ruin us. He has plans. He has learned things that mean the fall of Richmond if he escapes.’
“Since then I have wondered how much they sincerely believed how much was simply the hallucination of fever, of desperation? Were they trying to bully themselves by violence into hoping? Or had they honestly convinced themselves that victory was still possible? If one only repeats a phrase often and emphatically enough one comes in time to believe it; and they had talked so long of that coming triumph, of the established Confederacy, that it had ceased to be, for them at least, merely a phrase. It wasn’t the first occasion in life when I had seen words bullied yes, literally bullied into beliefs.
“Well, looking back now after fifty years, you see, of course, the weakness of it all, the futility. At that instant, when all was lost, how could any plans, any plotting have ruined us? It seems irrational enough now a dream, a shadow, that belief and yet not one of us but would have given our lives for it. In order to understand you must remember that we were, one and all, victims of an idea of a divine frenzy.
“‘And we are lost the Confederacy is lost, you say, if he escapes?’
“It was Lucy’s voice; and turning quickly, I saw that she was standing in the doorway. She must have followed me closely. It was possible that she had overheard every word of the conversation.
“‘If Lucy knows anything, she will tell you. There is no need to search the house,’ quavered the old man, ‘she is my daughter.’
“‘Of course we wouldn’t search the house not Dare’s Gift,’ said the cousin. He was excited, famished, malarial, but he was a gentleman, every inch of him.
“He talked on rapidly, giving details of the capture, the escape, the pursuit. It was all rather confused. I think he must have frightfully exaggerated the incident. Nothing could have been more unreal than it sounded. And he was just out of a hospital was suffering still, I could see, from malaria. While he drank his blackberry wine the best the house had to offer I remember wishing that I had a good dose of quinine and whiskey to give him.
“The narrative lasted a long time; I think he was glad of a rest and of the blackberry wine and biscuits. Lucy had gone to fetch food for the soldiers; but after she had brought it she sat down in her accustomed chair by the old man’s side and bent her head over her knitting. She was a wonderful knitter. During all the years of the war I seldom saw her without her ball of yarn and her needles the long wooden kind that the women used at the time. Even after the dusk fell in the evenings the click of her needles sounded in the darkness.
“‘And if he escapes it will mean the capture of Richmond?’ she asked once again when the story was finished. There was no hint of excitement in her manner. Her voice was perfectly toneless. To this day I have no idea what she felt what she was thinking.
“‘If he gets away it is the ruin of us but he won’t get away. We’ll find him before morning.’
“Rising from his chair, he turned to shake hands with the old man before descending the steps. ‘We’ve got to go on now. I shouldn’t have stopped if we hadn’t been half starved. You’ve done us a world of good, Cousin Lucy. I reckon you’d give your last crust to the soldiers?’
“‘She’d give more than that,’ quavered the old man. ‘You’d give more than that, wouldn’t you, Lucy?’
“‘Yes, I’d give more than that,’ repeated the girl quietly, so quietly that it came as a shock to me like a throb of actual pain in the midst of a nightmare when she rose to her feet and added, without a movement, without a gesture, ‘You must not go, Cousin George. He is upstairs in the blue chamber at the front of the house.’
“For an instant surprise held me speechless, transfixed, incredulous; and in that instant I saw a face a white face of horror and disbelief look down on us from one of the side windows of the blue chamber. Then, in a rush it seemed to me the soldiers were everywhere, swarming over the terrace, into the hall, surrounding the house. I had never imagined that a small body of men in uniforms, even ragged uniforms, could so possess and obscure one’s surroundings. The three of us waited there Lucy had sat down again and taken up her knitting for what seemed hours, or an eternity. We were still waiting though, for once, I noticed, the needles did not click in her fingers when a single shot, followed by a volley, rang out from the rear of the house, from the veranda that looked down on the grove of oaks and the kitchen.
“Rising, I left them the old man and the girl and passed from the terrace down the little walk which led to the back. As I reached the lower veranda one of the soldiers ran into me.
“‘I was coming after you,’ he said, and I observed that his excitement had left him. ‘We brought him down while he was trying to jump from the veranda. He is there now on the grass.’
“The man on the grass was quite dead, shot through the heart; and while I bent over to wipe the blood from his lips, I saw him for the first time distinctly. A young face, hardly more than a boy twenty five at the most. Handsome, too, in a poetic and dreamy way; just the face, I thought, that a woman might have fallen in love with. He had dark hair, I remember, though his features have long ago faded from my memory. What will never fade, what I shall never forget, is the look he wore the look he was still wearing when we laid him in the old graveyard next day a look of mingled surprise, disbelief, terror, and indignation.
“I had done all that I could, which was nothing, and rising to my feet, I saw for the first time that Lucy had joined me. She was standing perfectly motionless. Her knitting was still in her hands, but the light had gone from her face, and she looked old old and gray beside the glowing youth of her lover. For a moment her eyes held me while she spoke as quietly as she had spoken to the soldiers on the terrace.
“‘I had to do it,’ she said. ‘I would do it again.’”
Suddenly, like the cessation of running water, or of wind in the treetops, the doctor’s voice ceased. For a long pause we stared in silence at the sunset; then, without looking at me, he added slowly:
“Three weeks later Lee surrendered and the Confederacy was over.”
The sun had slipped, as if by magic, behind the tops of the cedars, and dusk fell quickly, like a heavy shadow, over the terrace. In the dimness a piercing sweetness floated up from the garden of herbs, and it seemed to me that in a minute the twilight was saturated with fragrance. Then I heard the cry of a solitary whippoorwill in the graveyard, and it sounded so near that I started.
“So she died of the futility, and her unhappy ghost haunts the house?”
“No, she is not dead. It is not her ghost; it is the memory of her act that has haunted the house. Lucy Dare is still living. I saw her a few months ago.”
“You saw her? You spoke to her after all these years?”
He had refilled his pipe, and the smell of it gave me a comfortable assurance that I was living here, now, in the present. A moment ago I had shivered as if the hand of the past, reaching from the open door at my back, had touched my shoulder.
“I was in Richmond. My friend Beverly, an old classmate, had asked me up for a weekend, and on Saturday afternoon, before motoring into the country for supper, we started out to make a few calls which had been left over from the morning. For a doctor, a busy doctor, he had always seemed to me to possess unlimited leisure, so I was not surprised when a single visit sometimes stretched over twenty five minutes. We had stopped several times, and I confess that I was getting a little impatient when he remarked abruptly while he turned his car into a shady street,
“‘There is only one more. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to see her. She is a friend of yours, I believe.’
“Before us, as the car stopped, I saw a red brick house, very large, with green shutters, and over the wide door, which stood open, a sign reading ‘St. Luke’s Church Home.’ Several old ladies sat, half asleep, on the long veranda; a clergyman, with a prayer book in his hand, was just leaving; a few pots of red geraniums stood on little green wicker stands; and from the hall, through which floated the smell of freshly baked bread, there came the music of a Victrola sacred music, I remember. Not one of these details escaped me. It was as if every trivial impression was stamped indelibly in my memory by the shock of the next instant.
“In the center of the large, smoothly shaven lawn an old woman was sitting on a wooden bench under an ailanthus tree which was in blossom. As we approached her, I saw that her figure was shapeless, and that her eyes, of a faded blue, had the vacant and listless expression of the old who have ceased to think, who have ceased even to wonder or regret. So unlike was she to anything I had ever imagined Lucy Dare could become, that not until my friend called her name and she glanced up from the muffler she was knitting the omnipresent dun colored muffler for the war relief associations not until then did I recognize her.
“‘I have brought an old friend to see you, Miss Lucy.’
“She looked up, smiled slightly, and after greeting me pleasantly, relapsed into silence. I remembered that the Lucy Dare I had known was never much of a talker. “Dropping on the bench at her side, my friend began asking her about her sciatica, and, to my surprise, she became almost animated. Yes, the pain in her hip was better – far better than it had been for weeks. The new medicine had done her a great deal of good; but her fingers were getting rheumatic. She found trouble holding her needles. She couldn’t knit as fast as she used to.
“Unfolding the end of the muffler, she held it out to us. ‘I have managed to do twenty of these since Christmas. I’ve promised fifty to the War Relief Association by autumn, and if my finger don’t get stiff I can easily do them.’
“The sunshine falling through the ailanthus tree powdered with dusty gold her shapeless, relaxed figure and the dun colored wool of the muffler. While she talked her fingers flew with the click of the needles – older fingers than they had been at Dare’s Gift, heavier, stiffer, and little knotted in the joints. As I watched her the old familiar sense of strangeness, of encompassing and hostile mystery, stole over me.
“When we rose to go she looked up, and, without pausing for an instant in her knitting, said, gravely, ‘It gives me something to do, this work for the Allies. It helps to pass the time, and in an Old Ladies’ Home one has so much time on one’s hands.’
“Then, as we parted from her, she dropped her eyes again to her needles. Looking back at the gate, I saw that she still sat there in the faint sunshine knitting knitting ”
“And you think she has forgotten?”
He hesitated, as if gathering his thoughts. “I was with her when she came back from the shock – from the illness that followed – and she had forgotten. Yes, she has forgotten, but the house has remembered.”
Pushing back from his chair, he rose unsteadily on his crutch, and stood staring across that twilight which was spangled with fireflies. While I waited I heard again the loud cry of the whippoorwill.
“Well, what could one expect?” he asked, presently. “She had drained the whole experience in an instant, and there was left to her only the empty and withered husks of the hours. She had felt too much ever to fell again. After all,” he added slowly, “it is the high moments that make a life, and the flat ones that fill the years.”
5.15.2 Reading and Review Questions
- What does the title “Dare’s Gift” mean?
- How is Mildred affected by past events in the house, according to Dr. Lakeby? How does Dr. Lakeby present the events in the house as scientific rather than supernatural? Does he believe his own explanations?
- Examine the theme of betrayal in the story.
- How are Mildred’s and Lucy’s decisions and actions similar or different?
- Why does Lucy have no memory of her decision to turn in her fiancé?
- What role does the past play in the story, especially the past as represented by the Old South?