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the mississippi bubble


The Mississippi Bubble


“There is a need to hurry.” The servant obeyed. He tightened his grasp and said not a word. 

He lay suffering like any ordinary human being. Next to him sat the banker from Austria. She gazed back over the length of the little ship which had brought them thus far. He sat with perplexity written upon his brow. His shrewd mind knew that some new thing must be planned. He was a man who all his life had sought to speak the truth. She pushed back against his breast a hand that trembled. As he gazed from his hiding place he saw the waters broken into a long series of advancing ripples. The girl knew the mesh had fallen well. There came nights when the frost hung heavy upon the bending grasses. 

“In the hour of mist can’t you foresee the time of sunshine?” He had had his fill of savaging. A pallor swept across the face of the hypocrite who bent over him. The question was of great moment. The ancient landlady confronted him. “Where is your big peace?” she asked. “I bend me to the hoe, here in this foreign place, like any peasant.” He stood by smiling and extended his hand. There was a rumor that once he’d traveled in those regions. 

Vast mirrors framed by wreathes of laughing cupids gleamed on the walls of the room. He announced his decision to his own village first. He shut his lips tight together. Her hand clenched, her eyes grew dry and brilliant. He saw his brother standing there, easy, calm, indifferent. The seal of a strange fate was set forever on her life! “Monsieur is cast down?” he asked as they reached the beach. The mutterings arose yet more loudly among families who had lost most heavily. He sat thoughtful, his fingertips together. These creatures, sparkling, painted, ephemeral, not unsuited to the place and the hour… 

She didn’t like a man so confident. He half whirled on his heel and laughed bitterly. He wanted to offer some sacrifice in propitiation. In spite of the past, he went on singing a deep melody of joy. He stood on one foot and coughed. It had meant death and devastation to so much of Europe. A fall of wide lace drooped from the bosom of his ruffled shirt. Leaves set aflame the foliage of the maples all along the streams. He advanced into the room with a slouchy, ill-bred carriage. They prayed to God to punish him for what he had done. 

Each was watchful of the other. He didn’t see the face bent over the balustrade in the shadows of the hall. The boat drifted on into the mighty stream. A nice indifference sat in his query. “Surely you have seen this before?” “I admit it causes me to shiver.” 

The shadow of the city took the form of appalling monsters, savage of purpose. He pushed back his chair during the little lull in the play of the evening. Privacy was difficult while curious passers-by stared at the great coach by the door. She raised her eyes and turned them upon the visitor. He had given life and hope back to the poor of France. But he himself strode madly onward, his point raised slightly. “Surely this is a week of wonder,” he said. Far down the roadway there rose a cloud of dust, which came steadily nearer. It would end in time and they would meet again. She followed him, tugging at his coat, but he shook her off. She stood erect, her eyes flashing, her arms outstretched, her bosom panting, her voice ringing. He grimly turned again to study the crowds which swarmed before his window. 

He found her to be of good blood. “Now you’ve seen what is before us.” Presently his place was taken by a tall and stately form. He rose and stood apart, his head falling in despair. Why should the elements rage at a tiny fire, why should they tear at a little house? In two minutes she was sobbing alone. “Open the window, Annie!” he cried. “Your mistress is ill.” With every pulse a-tingle, every vein afire, what more could the young gallant do? 

The stranger was enveloped in a wide and undefining garment. A figure now stood before his eyes, part of his mental picture of a white road lined with green hedges. A big and busy fly buzzed a droning protest. “I have given thought and study to this enterprise which I propose now to lay before you.” A great peace was soon declared. Then came the rain. Once more the presence of the face of the woman haunted his soul. The ceiling of the room was a soft mass of silken draperies. It was a thing horrible, tremendous, titanic in organic power. She did not ponder it. More than once they had faced possibilities like this. Again the chorus rose, and again the hardy craft leaped onward. 

There came at last one chastening hour when they met. The populace was as merry as though some pleasant carnival were just beginning. “Get up,” said he, simply. He resolved to set forth at once. In an instance her arms were around his neck and tears were falling from both their eyes. The lightning struck once and won’t strike again, he thought. “I am not on the witness stand before you, and you are not my judge.” 

It might have been an hour or two after midnight when he finally arrived at his destination, a dark, gray mass of stone. He had a vicious sword and a temper no less vicious. The eyes of the young officer gleamed. He carried in his hand three tufts of long black hair, from which dripped heavy gobs of blood. “My brother does as he chooses,” she told him. “Myself also,” he answered. They had by chance met again. He proved to her what he’d said long ago. All at once the council broke up and scattered into groups. They walked in silence to a point beyond the cabin. It was a house made of bubbles. He conveyed by his speed a certain concern. Her blood ran backwards and left her cold. He gazed again and again, doubting what he saw. He kissed her once upon the lips. The situation was ominous enough at this point. “Never go beyond this,” he said. He pointed out the very spot where the act had been done. He waited, watching the great encampment disappear. There was a limit to an ambition which dealt in theories and not livres of gold. She fell choking. Now and then some startled fish sprang into the air. It was a land obviously little known. 

He now looked at her with grave face, yet with eyes that shone. She wept with tears that his survivor envied. He saw standing across from him a carriage towards which he dashed. “This is no place for us. This foolishness must go no further!” he cried. He offered the spectacle of a play in which a human life was at stake. He took the liberty of reading the message in her absence. The errand of carrying the news was offered to him. He stood for a moment in surprise and perplexity. It agreed well enough with his own private purposes. She stood, an aged and unhappy woman, gray and haggard. On a sudden turn in the river there appeared a scene for which they were unprepared. They saw a majestic flood. 

He showed him that he was the basest wretch on earth. For sometime silence reigned in the room. Did she indeed see and recognize again that other, inner man who might have been? He fell back in his chair and laughed heartily. Now they must pay for the music. From her lips there broke a sob of pain. Never was a man so deserving of death. 

He was not ready to meet this dark-haired, wide-eyed girl. Finally the vehicle stopped at the curb of the path which led to the prison gate. Her steps faltered. He was alone except for a little child, a child too young to know her mother. 

“Naturally, I could never forget you,” he said. “Now read me some further riddles of this young man.” He never turned up again. She looked, and there appeared a sight which caused her heart to stop, which confounded her reason. She averted her eyes from the handsome face above her. She was beaten down by the intentness of the other. She found it difficult to endorse his personal code of morals. Her changeful eyes were now covered by their lids. This in spite of all they both knew. Vehemently the young man approached her. It was strange. He seemed to fear nothing. He was the only resource of the moment, and the moment was too late to recall. He was too distracted to pay full heed. The words were written boldly, firmly, addressed to no one. He had set his heart on a kindly answer. Her story was most unusual. 

He regarded them with a sardonic smile. He saw in his dream what they now saw in reality. At the very door of his success something arrested him. They received faithlessness in return for insincerity. She was accustomed to please by brilliance of mind and vivacity of speech. She was no better than others of her sex. For a moment the two stood silent, facing each other. He was more lucky than him. 

Then there arose curving lines of fire outside the walls and blazing arrows fell on the unprotected roof. He smiled as though in actual joy. The child was theirs, and must be considered. He was on the trail again. No hazard was too great for him. They gave him the opportunities he sought. One by one the little party was lost to view. His eyes opened wide as he saw the contents of the box. Her face went white with rage at the sight of a rose offered to another woman. 

His brother was taken and put in jail. She held the message now in her hand. “I scarce know what to do,” she murmured. “If so, then we are too late.” He saw unforeseen results spring from causes well within his comprehension. As a student of fundamentals, he was in advance of his age. No one had heard of the woman before. She seemed to have no doubt, indeed no fear, of anything. No one knew how far back the affair ran. He turned her hospitality to shame. He saw that she dealt in mysteries and asked her about it. 

No excitement was strong enough to wipe away from his mind the black panorama of the past. At last the last gasp of his failing breath was drawn. This crumbling clod, this resolving excrescence, this diseased fungus of a disintegrating life and time was no more. She inclined her head to hear what he might say. A leading boat swung clear of the shadows. Let those forgive who can. The driver was muffled in such a fashion that he could not be known. A shade of color came to her cheeks, but her voice was firm though tears came to her eyes. 

Reluctantly the butler swung open the door. He followed to his own undoing as though by actual command. With the “single blade” he had never yet met his master. Many things revolved themselves in his mind as he stepped slowly towards the carriage. The object now seemed curiously to intermingle with his affairs. “We can stand here guessing and talking forever. I am weary of it,” he said. Dreading all things and knowing nothing, she found no way to reply. The fire made ragged masses of shadows. His servant disobeyed his instructions and followed close behind him. The mob lacked just the touch of rage to hurl itself at him. There it stood ruined, defaced and useless. A tide of ill fortune seemed to lead him to his doom. They half carried between them a stumbling man. The times were serious. He had yielded for the first time to the stress of nature and events. It was a dream impossible to be true. The pride of a superb manhood had departed from his limp figure. In some superhuman fashion he had climbed the spiked walls of the inner yard. For the first time in his life he dropped his head between his hands. It sure seemed a long way to go about. He noted in silence the look of surprise which crossed his face. The drooping figure leaned limply on his shoulder. 

With eager eyes the travelers witnessed a prospect of continual change. What did it all mean? Where was it all to end? He forgot the press of other things. There was a woman at the bottom of it, he thought. Let us all laugh. Let us all laugh together. Long training brings perfection in due time. There came into his heart a curious presentiment, a tension, a feeling that some great thing was about to happen. He was stricken with the mysterious mortal dread of what was to be. In every game we take our chances, in every game we pay our debts. “I speak but confusedly,” she said. “The matter will fall through at most for the day,” he responded. 

It went on in a pell-mell, hurly-burly fashion. He staked a diamond, a stone of worth. He was on the threshold of a new world, a new life. Still he could not go. A beseeching gaze of an eye of singular power rested on the girl. He had searched for her for days. He didn’t know which way to turn. He took his horse and went off like a whirlwind. He found her unbreakable in her resolve. Dark looks followed his bold speech. He cast his arm boyishly about the other’s shoulder. 

The lightning flared and flickered across the eastward sea. Seeing himself conquered, he smiled and flung his arms wide. It was a great game this, for which the continent of America was its preparation. He didn’t understand the ways of the wilderness, where news travels as fast as in cities. They made ready to carry their sons over the seas. It sounded sweet to her ears. 

The hours wore on slowly enough. He walked with head bent forward. He mistook his kidney completely. He said he was slow to find a quarrel. He stood in the center of the dull little room, now grown hateful to him. “Show the gentleman to his room,” she said. He had bought it at a good price just the day before. He rode off to keep an appointment he never made. He promised him the most beautiful women in Paris. It had had no effect on him to call attention to his numerous intrigues. A sudden light dawned on him. “This is the last proof that you’re stark, staring mad!” he exclaimed. The ship awaited him in the harbor and he sailed at once. She would not whimper or repine. Very far away it all sounded. Thus began, slowly and in primitive fashion, one of the great cities west of the Mississippi. He smiled broadly at the terrors and a dry grin even broke over the features of the impassive old trapper. They had their own trails and their own kinds. His answer was that the past had been a mistake. Still she regretted the wandering life that had been her portion. Now at last the arrogant selfishness of his heart began to yield. He labored, seriously labored, for their welfare that day. He had earlier proved his hospitality. The remark was not ill-fitted to the case. He had sweethearts by the score but ended by retaining them as friends. There sounded at the back of the great hall the tinkle of a little bell of some soft metal. She caught more and more brilliance as she advanced, a smoldering flame of scintillating gems. He followed her around like a dog for three years. He rescued her when she was in trouble. 

Both women looked out the window. “Some day he might find the means to send us a word.” All three went knee deep into the surf. “Didn’t I beg you to turn back?” He told her that he quite saw through her shallow falsehood. Her blood slowly mounted in her face, the resentful, fighting blood of her race. It was one rebellious, unsubdued nature speaking to another. It was never his way to waste time during a journey. He couldn’t believe that any woman would come to him at such a time. He fell upon that course which best would serve her purpose. Her little hands half twitched a trifle in her lap. Haggard but laughing, pale but with unbroken courage, he trod his way, the wonder of everyone who saw him. Buried generations deep in slime and mud, she now craved blindly the sunlight of the day. Here she found the sole compensation possible for her savage nature. 

His tirelessness of limb could hardly have been greater. He cast a cautious eye to note the progress of the threatening storm. The best is always ahead and unknown, he thought. Even so, did that relieve him of begging? Their tenor spelled ruin for the whole system. These were some of the tales brought back and reported privately — initially. Here comes the strange part. All things grew in unrivaled fruitfulness and the forests were filled with myriads of sweet-voiced birds. He was chosen to learn what he could of the internal mechanism of this new institution. He looked around him like any common criminal. 

Indeed, he had in his possession the philosopher’s stone, turning all things to gold. All warm blood is akin, he thought. “This new stone would look excellently well upon a woman,” he said. He had the look of a man not afraid of any living thing. The blood-soaked shirt’s looseness had perhaps saved him from a fatal blow. What he said, sleeping or waking, did not matter. “I promised to be back as soon as possible with the things we need,” he said. “This soil will one day raise up a people of its own.” He leveled out a smooth place on the ground. Faint blue smoke curled lakeward in the evening air. He told him that the description was misconceived deliberately. She stepped to a cabinet and took a paper from an inner drawer. 

Two centuries were spent by his family to teach him to love like a gentleman. Most of them had already graciously unmasked by the time the moment had arrived to make plain all secrets. Alike shrewd and easy, haughty and sensuous, here is where he held his real court. He knew as much of their history as they did. His life was later to be preserved for an ultimate opportunity. Nonetheless they were as they were. A jealous wave of divining intuition came upon the woman at his side. 

They came on two canoes roughly made of birch bark. He became not only patron but provider for the camp. He stooped to drink at the tiny pool made by the little rivulet which trickled down the face of the bluff. He could hardly have been better fitted for the part. He was a grave and saddened man, yet one now no longer lacking in decision. 

His face was shrunken and drawn with pain. The musicians grimaced and made what discord they liked, scorning his withered figure on the bed. There was no further word spoken. They were not alone, these travelers. He began to be a bit short of breath. Suppose they never do return? he thought. In the silence of the night there came a little wailing cry. 

He blundered merely by chance into their valley. An apparition, ran her first thought, come to threaten and affright. Behind them ranged a silent yet watchful group. He motioned to the others to stay well outside the gate. He impulsively begged her to assume tutelage of the child. He found he could not banish the pictures from his mind. The people were ready for any new thing. They mingled fraternally with their visitors. They were left to till their stony farms in quiet. He resolved to set forth at once on the journey back. 

She was dressed, cloaked, smiling sweetly and ready for her journey. He died a few moments later. The instant demanded all the resources of her soul. They found occasion to pause. He bore an unwonted look, as though he might yet succeed. Within a year they would see the city upside down. She shrank back in absolute horror, trembling. He found his way out into a world grown old and gray. He heard naught of plots or plans, saw naught but the beautiful face before him, felt naught but some deep, compelling thrill. His old stubborn nature showed once more, but under it something tenderer. 

Higher and higher the balloon floated, on it fixed the eyes of a nation. His sole concern in life was to plan some new passionate avowal. His vague and mysterious speech intoxicated enough even at this inappropriate time. She shifted herself on her seat and caught at the robe which fell from her throat. She sent him away forever. He stood there prating like a little boy. He bore an active part in their private plans. He heard the sound of men running to take their posts along the wall. They tried every stratagem of savage warfare. He believed they should talk to him. 

Two or three managed to climb to the tops of the spikes, but met their deaths at the muzzles of the muskets. Finally the messenger stopped and began his harangue. The game was simple, and depended much upon chance. They had seen the writhing of the torture victims more than once. How it must have pulsed her heart in agony! She took up the lots, which were the arbiters of life and death, with a hatred undying and unappeasable. 

She had become devout recently. The confusion of the carriages could have cost them everything. Was it something else that incited his elemental rage? The smoke rose steadily day-by-day but gave no signal to the watching enemy. They undertook that old and bootless human experiment of trying to escape yourself. This was the song of the prairies, its invitation, its counsel, its mad promise. For him, she must be clothed properly. He was ever free with some sly jest or other. He took the liberty of asking her if she knew any way he could be relieved of his difficulties. He believed it true that the government lived purely on credit. He was much a student of these matters. 

He struck his hands together in despair and strode down the room. “It’s time for a woman to ask for nothing,” he said. Her attitude showed an unwonted weakness and dejection. Her face flushed in spite of herself. It proved the truth of all she said. He gave his word of honor that there had been no happiness in this. 

There was a crashing as of one running. Again the little party maintained a steady fire. They would see their friend big as life next summer. She had lost neither her rounded body nor her subtle magnetism of personality. He could not withstand the argument of soft flesh and shining eyes. They arranged their few belongings for transport. He did not forget nor could he, though he tried again. He would pay for his folly like a man. He had her heart’s scorn in return. 

It was easy to see they hadn’t enough money for their business. Did he not tell them that France was laughing? Originally he deserved no such verdict from the public. Nevertheless, she would be “gallant” tonight and lay aside things spiriturel. There was now out all manner of reports of his child. He was not in distress then more then he is now, even in this hour of success, he thought. Her eyes grew dark in their emotion. He paused, but not to reflect on their meeting. He was almost conscious of uttering some name supplicatingly. He saw the door of the prison cell swing open. That which glittered in the firelight was the blade of a knife. He alone knew the character of the conflict within her soul. He claimed it irrevocably for his own. His eyes saw at a distance the struggles of the victim. 

“What proof did he offer?” she asked. “I would like to believe you.” Reaching out his arms, he picked her up from her seat, now gently, now with imposing force. It was not for him to stand in the way. Home was where his fire was lit. He saw here and there little germinating seeds thrusting their pale-green heads up through the soil. He disclosed, half buried in the ashes of the fireplace, an iron kettle. A shout of approval broke from the hardy men. There never was land so good but there was better just beyond. So far as he could tell, there was not in the valley the home of a single white man. 

The little ship rocked gently on the waves, mimicking the ruffled face of the water. The fact was more mighty than any story he could have told. Trembling, pallid, utterly broken, she half stumbled into a chair. All at once, slowly and then with a sudden crash, she fell forward across the table. He listened to them knocking on his door, as he had knocked on theirs. Today he was not of a mind to see anyone. It was to him an old experience. He would, of course, give him a guard and see him safe out of the city. He got for himself all the time he could. It was repudiation which now confronted him. This madness was not his nor of his making. Her voice was cool, though her soul was hot with impatience. “You say your brother is in trouble?” He was in need of her friendship for he must have speed. 

He had made no arrangements with them and had no wish to do so. He stepped through the door. “It was in the stars I should come to you,” he said. He felt himself unworthy. He came to the house time and again as though he was a friend of the family. She thought him courteous enough. The hand of the woman cast the dice. Some years had passed since he had last set foot on that shore. He delved further into the mysteries of recurrences and chance. 

He found her changed from a light-hearted girl to a maiden, tall, grave, reserved and sad. He turned his back on the appeal, driven by goads of remorse. He had remained away until his violent nature, gathering like an inner storm of furious repression, broke away in wild eruption. His hand came down hard on the table. They needed to keep the king in the saddle and not underfoot. They were no longer savages, to barter beads for hides. His took up an ax and forgot his sword and gun. Day after day he kept looking around him, studying all the strange things that he saw. He must think, and watch this growing of corn. He called out to those in the stream. A swift change came over his countenance. His body stiffened. He came without riddles and, still better, without threats. 

“Get up on your feet and look me in the face.” It almost seemed possible to count the successive leaps of progress, he thought. “Let those forgive who can,” she said. Much of the time in winter weather they toiled on. So both kept their promises. This man, thief of this woman’s life, felt his heart pinch again in anguish. Every gesture took on an old vibrant tone. He was bound some day to be heard. “Could you not leave me for a time untroubled?” she asked. 

For a long moment they stood. Once more there came a shift in the tidal current of her heart. The two strangers were still two strangers. His eye was as much imploring as it was bold. One day, shortly after that brilliant series of events, she was at a place where she was dizzy and needed a hand. He could not venture into her presence. Into his eye and mouth there came the reflex of the decision of his speech. He thought he had done rather well. With wild laughter, shrieks and imprecations, the spirit wailed on its furious way. Into the wild rabble of savages and citizens, they swiftly disappeared. At length even the last energies of the stubborn will gave way. A passing flower girl, gaily offering her wares, paused as the carriage drew up. They had not been unmasked for years. The earnestness of his speech in no way prevented the laughter that followed. 

He told them more of a new country of ice and snow. It was a land of poverty and tobacco. He had enough to do close at home. He quelled the incipient outcry with calmer speech. He himself saw turquoises and diamonds and emeralds taken in handfuls from the blue earth. Maybe the answer to this is what a woman’s eye saw. It sometimes gloriously happens in this poor life of ours: the quality of mercy. But the eye lacked the late convincing fire. His fate was failure, as he himself said. She was closely linked to his every thought for many years. His iron nature had been utterly unstrung. He saw her in a vision, a dream bitter and troubled, impossible but true. It was a mockery, she thought. 

He fought there and helped blow down their barriers. Life was there for the living. They were nonetheless impressed and thoughtful. “A man makes a most excellent sovereign for himself.” They were sitting ever on the edge of an icy death. On that cheery spring morning there was a scene of fashion and folly after the custom of the day. Above the mingled cries rose the blare of crude music. Back of the little courtyard, the country came creeping close up the town. The two slept on well into the morn. Evidently they were weary. 

He walked across the floor on his knees. At that moment matters happened that divided their two lives and drove them continents apart. There was no sign of actual recognition. She would not remain there. He raised his hand at the menace. A huge fellow brandished a paving stone before his eyes. He found there was nothing left to desire. 

“You have quite the advantage of us,” she said. She was afraid of her adventure now that it had come. He gravely bowed and saluted the occupants of the carriage. They were asked to hand their money to a pair of evil fellows. Once in the city he hoped to do better. A tremor of vertigo seized him as he stood. Circumstances surely could have been far worse. One heard and felt as keenly as the other. He offered his flower with a deep inclination of his body. 

They could not say he tried to steal away without them knowing it. He found out that all his money was not worth knowing. “We are going to kill you precisely here!” someone shouted. His dulled eyes regarded them curiously now, as though they presented some new and interesting study. It was as though the walls of some asylum had broken away and allowed its inmates to escape. The click of his heel on a bit of exposed marble echoed hollow. Everything was ready, as he directed. He was much agitated and shaken from his ordinary self-control. It was well the journey should begin. 

His case was quite different from theirs. He left the rest for those who would come to claim it. He admitted he was blind to his own interests. Never was such a time in all the world for making money. As a man of honor he could not deny them. He continued in the icy calm which for days had distinguished him. He discontinued his ordinary employments. The purpose was no longer possible. It would require a day or so for him to properly arrange his luggage. 

It was a point of honor. He flung out of the room. It was not a matter of his seeking and accepting. His father was a friend to many of their kin. In a somewhat unsteady attitude, he addressed him in a tone which left little option as to its meaning. He seemed a swaggering sort. The iciness in the air seemed now a natural thing. It was as though Fate were there, with her hand on his shoulder. He gazed indifferently at the heap of coins on the table. His strange assurance daunted them. Cries of derision followed his announcement of a system. 

He was born with a horror of running water. He announced there was no such thing as chance. He had no doubt he would be quite fit again. It was the hour of the night when one gains an appetite for one thing another. He admitted that there was some such thing as a talisman. She stood there, looking at her own image, keenly, deeply. They wanted to break down the doors and tear him limb from limb. It would serve him right — he who had ruined their pretty, pretty scheme. It was all over. A flood of contending emotions crossed her mind. The breaking of the bubble spread, edging out to the outer limits of the city. A sudden wave of sanity swept over the vast multitude, with a panic chill of sober understanding. He excitedly burst into her presence. There was little cohesion of purpose during their stormy interview. The news, after a fashion of its own, spread rapidly. 

He had divers employments. “Come with me and I’ll show you how things get done,” he blithely said. They were rated as thick as peas in a pod. Taking snuff calmly, he kept his evenness of temper. They were made for each other. It was another of his fancies. They had made a beginning and he thought they could better that beginning. Her like was none in all the world. It’s not every young man who gets so far. He was, as ever, a babe and a suckling. He didn’t have the courage of a flea. He had no given aim in life, nothing certain for an ambition. 

He did not at once make any answer. He pondered the matter with a hundred different phrases as he passed through the crowded streets. He was always free with some mad jest or other. His brother was the thrifty cashier of the firm. It was not a question of wealth, it was a question of confidence. His course was plain from that instant. He was now smitten with conviction regarding the limitations of human possibility. The perspiration fairly stood out on his forehead. He made a resolution. 

They had built bubbles, bubbles after bubbles, bubbles within bubbles, each bubble blown bigger, thinner, and higher than the last. The Mississippi, that noble stream, had swept its purifying flood throughout the world. “That means repudiation!” cried the king. That was honorable. He cast down the work he had labored all his life to finish. He juggled, temporized, postponed. He could never strike a balance. Never in his life had he forsaken a friend at the time of distress. The merriest game of his life was just before him! 

He doubted and hesitated and now it was too late. He found a place behind stout gates and barred doors, deep within the interior. Who was the master and who was the man? He was a disappointed man, a man with nothing to comfort him. They rubbed their eyes and began to awaken. No punishment was sharp enough for him! He again choked with anger. He was the murderer of the woman he adored. “Cry out to all the world!” he said. His voice showed the anxiety that had swiftly fallen upon his soul. He had supplanted him at every turn. He promised to pay back something that was unstipulated. He lacked the ability to see how the thing had attained to this situation. His hand trembled as he fumbled at his sword hilt. Wasn’t this what he had planned, what he was expecting? He relaxed now in his purpose. 

It had been proved a hundred times: Two couldn’t be in control of a concern like this. These words he hastened to qualify. He should have made an appointment. His heavy face glowed a dull red, his prominent eyes became more protruding. Meanwhile the mobs surged and swirled and fought in the narrow avenues. They seemed like so many ants running around. The mind of each was blank except for one absorbing theme: “What was the last quotation you heard?” The popular delirium had grown to its last possible degree. 

The news was it was leaking through “the slats in the fan.” He was ready with a vengeance with compliance. There was no limit to his buying of estates. The poor creature walked to the table and lifted a glass of wine. It was like a play! His coachman, the rascal, seemed to have done quite well himself. He gave back words hot as he received. 

She burst into the drawing-room early in the morning. When they came upon her she was quite dead. No man knows what will come. His heart was lighter than it had been for many days. He thought the problem could be solved simply and easily, without irritating people. The last trace of formality at the meeting abruptly vanished. “We may reason in this matter from the lesser relations of our daily life,” he said. “Above all things, let us act with perfect openness.” They made their campaign free and plain. The matter applied not to one man but to many. He was ill-fitted to be present there and ill-fitted to give advice. Nonetheless he possessed sobriety and depth of thought. He started from established principles of human nature. 

There had never stepped through his doors a finer figure of a man than him. Once again he was jogging through the streets of London. The bank commanded his attention. He needed help, he demanded ideas. The carriage drew up at the somber quarters where the meeting was set. In the room there bustled about important looking men. Now and then he turned a contemplative eye on them. It was a practical method and would work to harm no one. Was there no suggestion he could offer on this ticklish scheme, they wondered. They begged him to find fault with the plan. 

Their explanations reached him on the morrow. He paused to look behind him. They had a little supper. A sound which broke the silence caused all to start. He stood gazing with horror in his eyes. She stood as though in a dream. His imperious nature brooked not even a pointed rebuke. He told him it couldn’t be. The stern-faced woman decked in barbaric finery now stood trembling, drooping at the table. It was a strange, tense, unfamiliar situation. The wine had already done part of its work. 

What to do with this adventure now that it had arrived? She was wearied now with the heavy heats of the town. She moved forward a half pace, as though called by an unseen voice. “I think a rose is a sweet-pretty thing,” she said. She bent her cheek above the blossom. He didn’t think it needful to do that. Her eyes wandered hither and thither upon the splendors of the great room in the ancestral home. It was sweet to have such kindness. They retreated somewhat from this intrusion. He stood there at their very door. They would see him no more. They now turned a swift half-glance at the other. There was to be no introduction from that source. The other day she had been on the point of giving him his answer. Today the two maids still sat embroidering. 

She saw her puttering in the corner. Her brow was puckering into a frown. How could he help himself? She was seeking floss of the night, and found it difficult. She tried to mend him. Her face went suddenly white, visible even beneath its rouge and patches. The soup would be with them soon, and the wine was with them now. He occupied the absorbed attention of the public mind. His every item of apparel appeared of great simplicity and barren of pretentiousness. The full bosom of the scorned beauty rose and fell. 

Beneath the level of the table depended little waving fringes wrought in beads. That inquiring eyes might not clearly see, it was covered by a sweeping blanket of buckskin. He stood behind the groaning board. The newcomer swept a careless curtsey as she took her seat. Hatred sat in the bosom of each woman there. They possessed what their imagination required and their husbands provided. 

He continued in his heart sentiments of passion and admiration. He promised results from his painstaking efforts. As they advanced, all the butterflies of the bubble came swimming by. The clear olive of her skin showed in strange contrast to the heightened colors of her sisters. Devout and beautiful, she was no better than others of her sex. Yet, she was the wonder of the wise. He kept from her until the last, the main attraction. He never lacked in excellent taste and accorded to himself daily pleasures which were beyond approach. These were matter of curious interest to all, of intimate knowledge to few. 

His time was occupied to the full. Unhappiness was in her every gesture. She believed he was incapable of faith and constancy. The miracle had not been wrought. He had heard talk of it all. Servants now ate from plate, and clerks had coaches. He lacked the precise word for that crucial moment. Everything seemed to center around his brother. Under all this, he had greater dreams. He wanted to receive her protestations direct. She knew he was a hero to the people. He had raised some considerable noise by way of his enterprises. He wanted to awaken an old world and build a new one. Indeed he was crazed. Didn’t he know how ineffectual it seemed? 

She wasn’t moved by the voice of his proxy. It was no fault of his. They were in search of a quarrel as chance decreed. Mechanically he fumbled in the side pocket of his coat. Once more the code of the time had found its victim. His ardent love for every hardy exercise had given his forms solid strength. He would have been spat in the face in an instant by the fellow. He flung open the carriage door, crying out even before he saw the face within. Her old beau hit her again with his ardent eyes. She had a prejudice against fighting. He staked a diamond, a stone of worth, and showed no anxiety at all. 

Other parts of the drama of the day were forthcoming. She sat still sitting dreaming by the window when he arrived late on foot. It was no more to him than eating an orange. There was rumor of a quarrel. He begged of fortune now only one thing — a friend! There came a preliminary blow which in a flash he knew was to mean his ruin. He had the greater need. It was unimaginably passionate and frenzied. A leap from somberness went to the extreme of levity. A golden brothel of delirious delight was tenanted by a people utterly gone mad. 

“Why all this haste? Why this confusion?” He remained alone at the table, wondering what was the cause of the sudden commotion. He caught him by the collar and half shook him out of his calm. He thought a day of miracles was here. He couldn’t keep his chin from trembling. He moistened his lips with his tongue. He knew the secret plans of the bank. The covetousness of his soul shone in his eyes. Everything was to be on a different footing. He trembled with suppressed excitement. They had known many things only to find themselves mistaken. The story was said to emanate from the palace, so the natives cared noting for it. Fountains of youth were discovered in the valley. She cast off her lieutenant and came under the protection of a captain. There was neither too much sun nor too much rain. He told them what he knew of these future affairs. He swiftly went far toward verifying his boast. So rang the cry of shallow-witted people of an age splendid in its contradictions. 

It wouldn’t serve anything to have him moping. The turnkey swung the heavily guarded door. He showed ease and grace in every movement. He was a man who knew what a gentleman likes. He found a snuff box in the silken pocket of his new garment. A lad arrived bearing a parcel. He saw the contents of the box. He dared wait no longer. It was a felony case. The humor of this appealed to him mightily. He was hungry and weary enough before he reached the somber portals. He was obliged to strike the other man for fear of his life. The motley assemblage seemed to be making merry. It was not that she needed the little money, for she had it right there in the corner of her apron. Presently he shifted to a more convenient resting place on the curb. 

He promised them that he actually believed these things. He was keen, maybe too keen, to see his discovery which he’d kept concealed. For the sake of the head magician, the mysterious alien would be unmasked. He took no thought of the matter. He shook his finger exultingly. The immediate truth was that something needed to be done at once. 

He was known to his friends as gay, carefree, and full of camaraderie. There was small guarantee of this good faith. It was brutal but nonetheless true. The soil itself was security for wealth. He did not like the look of things. She danced to the tune clad in black. 

They never could agree. They wanted more money, they wanted more soldiers, they wanted more women. He was not well known by his own name. He had the opportunity for which he had waited all his life. He was now playing his last and greatest game. He searched his heart. Deep answered to deep in the ancient, wondrous way. He was a man seized fatally by a love that nothing could alter. Incertitude now shown in her tone. He wanted to go away forever. He bullied her into agreeing with him. He found in his heart the man he might have been. It seemed to her no less than terrible. There was to be this battle between them all their lives. He did all that lay in him to do. That was all he knew. 

Such speech was needless. His studies had gone deeper than the green cloth of the gaming tables. There were changes there that never yet were known. “Surely if love once dies, it can never be revived. But then, what is dead?” she said. All things he put aside or overrode. She continued to say nay. There was said to be a bitter feeling over the custom. The girl tore open the enclosure. “In a moment I shall be ready to go with you.” Never had the language of sex addressed him as it did now. He was bidden gently by the softest voice in all the kingdom. There was no one in the house except servants. The butler hesitated and so did the guest at the door. Unconsciously the sorcery of the sight enfolded the youth. These were the bars which seemed imperatively needful to be broken. He noted, though he could not define; felt, though he could not classify. “Pardon this robe, but half-concealing,” said her drooping eye. 

He was the one man on earth to whom so much was conceded. In her soul sat burning impatience, in her heart contempt for the callow youth. Across London he sent the cry of his heart. The message was important, no doubt. It was no wonder that his eye gleamed. He hailed as a happy harbinger that he had met that day the lady of his dreams. There had worn away the chill of suspicion which followed upon the popular knowledge of her connection. There had also been many changes. Many shifts in circumstances wrought changes to a house apparently pursued by unkind fate. He dragged from hotel to hotel the child whose life had been cast into unnatural surroundings. 

She was a young woman, kind of heart, soft of speech, with tenderness for every little suffering thing. Once more he met ice and adamant stronger than his own fires. She was an unwilling prisoner for a short time. He destroyed a long-standing debt. He heard broken bits of speech such as this as he passed. She was wicked, sinfully sweet. “When a woman loves, she stops at nothing,” she said. “The instant of doubt is the time of danger.” It was unusual speech to a lady. It must be private. She was ill pleased to hear of his brawling. Her swift, jealous rage was unpremeditated. He would not undergo more than was necessary. His face jerked sharply at the impact of these cutting words. She had no doubt that the law was just. Nothing better had served her purpose. Her foot was beating a signal of perturbation on the floor. 

It was necessary that the poison for some aeons should distil. It gave him a surprise to see her there. Her breath shortened after feline fashion. He took swift counsel of himself. Only the bitterness of an ambitious and unrounded life could have formulated this evil impulse. Friendship raised a protest. She saw again the man whose image was graven on her heart. Surely he would not deny her. They passed through the heavy gates, down a narrow, heavy-aired passage, and finally into a naked room. She would have gone to the end of the world if there had been need. “I do nothing unwomanly, and I do nothing, I trust, ignoble,” she said. This meant that he must part from her. He would dwell in her heart forever. 

He saw it all well enough. He demanded the cause of that thing that troubled her. This hope was left to wither unnourished in her mind. Another woman was also thinking of this convict behind bars. Never did his heart lose its undauntedness. At his word she came and departed. She left no indication of deceit and was blindly satisfied with herself. Life was a mockery she wouldn’t live out. 

Where to escape? They were both tossing wildly on the swell of the sea. In a moment he was master of himself. It was not far from morning. He was a gentleman who might have laid some claim to consequence. They passed — one going to his grave, the other to his goal. He saw through the upper portion of the door the face of the owner of the carriage. He was attended by two riders in livery who kept him company along the narrow streets. In her soul the consciousness of undying love sank like a knife. It was a petty rendezvous he’d set for her. She raged for a time apart, and took leave of life and ambition. Failure was written upon her every lineament. Her hands clenched and slow anger broke through her mask. His mind was clouded, he was thinking other things. He turned back in thought to earlier days. People were waiting with grim impatience. 

A rustic physician had a nostrum which kept the “grand monarch” alive for some unexpected days. The fawning creatures of the court swung back and forth. Uncertain groups of watchers whispered noisily. She was an unrivaled hypocrite, a self-contained dissembler, a pious murderer. He was losing the only time in his life when he might have learned human wisdom. The ragged, shapeless masses of the people licked their chops in expectation of some satisfying thing. He was now full of the very taste of death. He lay in the center of a land oppressed, ground-down, impoverished. 

The custom was a laggard one. One limb twitched, drawn up convulsively. He was like a black-hearted villain, she thought. The scent of the salt sea gave her a rare appetite. “Every plan gone wrong!” he cried. She could now not go home unbesmirched. He left the other to guess what sat upon his mind. “What is there left for any of us? I could swear these are shackles on me!” Wither had he gone? She whispered, “I’m afraid.” 

Life might be the same for him over here as well as there, he thought. It was one of the last ships to go down the river, which racked his mind. Their hands met again. He pointed to the down-coming flood. He heard once more the spirits of the river. All the whites were turning savage. They were contemptuous of friend and foe alike. 

It was one of the most remarkable and significant meetings of widely diverse human beings that ever took place. For once mindful of a promise, they came in a compact fleet. He hearkened to the roll of the thunder, a black sky overhead. They without protest submitted to the scrutiny. They hailed him as their new captain. She was much in need of ease and care. 

A little open space was quickly found. It was the door to the west. The great canoe tossed light as a cork on the incoming waves. A demon of unrest drove him forward. One great hazard appealed to him irresistibly. He was far from the beginning of his wild journey. The ictus of the measure marked time. The great lake lay black and ominous under a threatening sky. Their voices in one accord fell into the cadences of an ancient song. 

Could there be anything worse than what he had already known? It was enough to make him distraught. He had no fancy left. “You brave men, how can we thank you for our salvation?” they asked. “It was all so horrible.” They dug a great hill under which the hatchet was to be buried. He had closed his eyes so that he would not see the truth. He was the first to spy the approaching embassy of visitors. In an instant the village was in an uproar. He advanced to the head of his little party. They were too late, yet welcomed even now. 

Until then it had not been apparent what was to be his final position. His face went pale when he realized what their purpose was. He looked upon the sliding waters below him. Once more her hand rose and fell. Her eyes amber, feline, flamed hard and dry. Each offered his soul to the Creator. Eagerly the crowd pressed up to them, gesticulating wildly, peering again and again into their faces. He spoke a few rapid words. They were brave men, strong of arm, undaunted of heart. They stood with faces set and gray in the pitiless light of morn. He offered a sacrifice to appease their unsated vengeance. 

The storm passed on. They felt hopeless but still vindictive, born to life with all its wonder and to death with all its mystery. Shrieking legions of the lost, sighing armies of the damned, feel the tortures of the world. Piled up, falling, torn asunder, scattered, crushed and dropt. He joined the others in their rush. He loosened and brushed off the feeble finger-grasps at the threshold. The stubborn remnants clung under the shelter of a bivouac’s hearth. The rising choler of a man affronted and nursing his anger joined in the riotous revolt. Above them bent a sky appalling in its blackness. 

He strengthened and stiffened where he stood. A transient cloud crossed his face. A ragged column appeared. He knew they were surely lying. Yet it appealed to him since it was a land unoccupied. He wanted to find a place where he could be utterly lost, where he could forget. He was a man of spirit. It was his first voyage “at large” in the wilderness. She didn’t doubt that she could name the subject of his thought. 

The shadow of an eagle drifted high above. He paused uncertainly at the door of the world he had left behind. The white-pebbled beach was laved by pulsing waters. There came a time in the afternoon of that day that there appeared a scene for which they had not been prepared. Each man there knew it on the instant and instinctively. There was a fluttering in his throat. They had been there but then departed. If I falter, I lose, he thought. They had left nothing to invite their return. The party looked about them curiously. Something in the air made his shoulder blades creep. He felt the mysterious spell of the great stream. They took the course which led them farther on. Silence fell upon all. 

The rising of the sun seemed to bring conviction. His look was returned dumbly by the woman. He had behind him a long memory of suffering. They would not listen to him. Nothing would suffice except some terrible, tremendous thing. They were at the last hazard. They asked the spirits to give them knowledge. It was a spot not always visited. His conclusion was fateful to the prisoners. The horrid significance of the threat was soon made plain. To lag might mean to die. They found themselves beyond all possibility of resistance. He was wise enough to know when peace is best. 

The poor fellow staggered against the wall. In a few moments it was all up with him. He carefully adjusted the lock of his piece. As he spoke there came a rush of screaming Iroquois, who tried to gain the entrance. There was a sudden interruption. He paused for an uncertain moment. In an instant the peaceful spot became the scene of horrible confusion. The prairie mists were rising in the morning. It was the song of the maize. It told what man may pluck and eat. He found his questioning running back up the trails, in a demand which grew fiercer and fiercer. 

He presently appeared, breathing hard from his climb. He was on the brink of change. He smiled at the sturdy vehemence of the other’s speech. He would not like to see the king extend his hand further. The sullen English were crowding them along their borders. Not a family had meat for its children or clothes to cover their limbs. Yet, he had a mind to call the spot home. He puffed out his cheeks against the north wind. His eldest daughter was making sheep’s eyes to a soldier. The little party for the first time knew division. 

They were all savages! Pierced to the hilt of the sword, the executioner passed the sentence on himself. He was luckier than him. His whole face was convulsed. It was his chief bitterness, keener than the thought of the gallows. 

They turned and paced back into the forest glade. She hoped she would never hear his name again. He was strongly stationed. Without a word, she turned and fled into the cabin. His voluble tongue was on the point of breaking its restraint. She was filled with woman’s curiosity. Knowing nothing, she found no reply. It was well he wore his weapons. They followed what would be ill extinguished. His errand still carried mystery. He vowed to find him, no matter where he would go. He didn’t lack in the least his old conceit and assurance. His face displayed a scorn which sat ill with the man before him. He rose from his hiding place. 

They found nothing that would seem to warrant pause. The touch of autumn was now in the air. He spent months among these unusual scenes. He walked on steadily, following the path. His suspicious eye caught a glimpse of something. She was a woman whose life they had despoiled. In the dream, he heard her in her sleep. He looked at her with a simple, direct gaze. The figure before him straightened up. The morning meal was finished in silence.  A dark-crusted stain had spread on his tunic.  He could feel her pant in sheer sobs of anger. 

— from the novel The Mississippi Bubble by Emerson Hough; 
The Bowen-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, 1902 

— December 6 – 20, 2009
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