The peculiar ability of the human mind to slip so readily into the refuge of the commonplace after, or even during, some well-nigh intolerable crisis, has been to me long one of the most interesting phenomena of our psychology.
It is instinctively a protective habit, of course, acquired through precisely the same causes that had given to animals their protective coloration — the stripes, say, of the zebra and tiger that blend so cunningly with the barred and speckled shadowings of bush and jungle, the twig and leaflike shapes and hues of certain insects; in fact, all that natural camouflage which was the basis of the art of concealment so astonishingly developed in the late war.
Like the animals of the wild, the mind of man moves through a jungle — the jungle of life, passing along paths beaten out by the thought of his countless forefathers in their progress from birth to death.
And these paths are bordered and screened, figuratively and literally, with bush and trees of his own selection, setting out and cultivation — shelters of the familiar, the habitual, the customary.
On these ancestral paths, within these barriers of usage, man moves hidden and secure as the animals in their haunts — or so he thinks.
Outside them lie the wildernesses and the gardens of the unknown, and man’s little trails are but rabbit-runs in an illimitable forest.
But they are home to him!
Therefore it is that he scurries from some open place of revelation, some storm of emotion, some strength-testing struggle, back into the shelter of the obvious; finding it an intellectual environment that demands no slightest expenditure of mental energy or initiative, strength to sally forth again into the unfamiliar.
I crave pardon for this digression. I set it down because now I remember how, when Drake at last broke the silence that had closed in upon the passing of that still, small voice the essence of these thoughts occurred to me.
He strode over to the weeping girl, and in his voice was a roughness that angered me until I realized his purpose.
“Get up, Ruth,” he ordered. “He came back once and he’ll come back again. Now let him be and help us get a meal together. I’m hungry.”
She looked up at him, incredulously, indignation rising.
“Eat!” she exclaimed. “You can be hungry?”
“You bet I can — and I am,” he answered cheerfully. “Come on; we’ve got to make the best of it.”
“Ruth,” I broke in gently, “we’ll all have to think about ourselves a little if we’re to be of any use to him. You must eat — and then rest.”
“No use crying in the milk even if it’s spilt,” observed Drake, even more cheerfully brutal. “I learned that at the front where we got so we’d yelp for food even when the lads who’d been bringing it were all mixed up in it.”
She lifted Ventnor’s head from her lap, rested it on the silks; arose, eyes wrathful, her little hands closed in fists as though to strike him.
“Oh — you brute!” she whispered. “And I thought — I thought — Oh, I hate you!”
“That’s better,” said Dick. “Go ahead and hit me if you want. The madder you get the better you’ll feel.”
For a moment I thought she was going to take him at his word; then her anger fled.
“Thanks — Dick,” she said quietly.
And while I sat studying Ventnor, they put together a meal from the stores, brewed tea over the spirit-lamp with water from the bubbling spring. In these commonplaces I knew that she at least was finding relief from that strain of the abnormal under which we had labored so long. To my surprise I found that I was hungry, and with deep relief I watched Ruth partake of food and drink even though lightly.
About her seemed to hover something of the ethereal, elusive, and disquieting. Was it the strangely pellucid light that gave the effect, I wondered; and knew it was not, for as I scanned her covertly, there fell upon her face that shadow of inhuman tranquillity, of unearthly withdrawal which, I guessed, had more than anything else maddened Ventnor into his attack upon the Disk.
I watched her fight against it, drive it back. White lipped, she raised her head and met my gaze. And in her eyes I read both terror and — shame.
It came to me that painful as it might be for her the time for questioning had come.
“Ruth,” I said, “I know it’s not necessary to remind you that we’re in a tight place. Every fact and every scrap of knowledge that we can lay hold of is of the utmost importance in enabling us to determine our course.
“I’m going to repeat your brother’s question — what did Norhala do to you? And what happened when you were floating before the Disk?”
The blaze of interest in Drake’s eyes at these questions changed to amazement at her stricken recoil from them.
“There was nothing,” she whispered — then defiantly — “nothing. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Ruth!” I spoke sharply now, in my own perplexity. “You do know. You must tell us — for his sake.” I pointed toward Ventnor.
She drew a long breath.
“You’re right — of course,” she said unsteadily. “Only I— I thought maybe I could fight it out myself. But you’ll have to know it — there’s a taint upon me.”
I caught in Drake’s swift glance the echo of my own thrill of apprehension for her sanity.
“Yes,” she said, now quietly. “Some new and alien thing within my heart, my brain, my soul. It came to me from Norhala when we rode the flying block, and — he — sealed upon me when I was in-his”— again she crimsoned, “embrace.”
And as we gazed at her, incredulously:
“A thing that urges me to forget you two — and Martin — and all the world I’ve known. That tries to pull me from you — from all — to drift untroubled in some vast calm filled with an ordered ecstasy of peace. And whose calling I want, God help me, oh, so desperately to heed!
“It whispered to me first,” she said, “from Norhala — when she put her arm around me. It whispered and then seemed to float from her and cover me like — like a veil, and from head to foot. It was a quietness and peace that held within it a happiness at one and the same time utterly tranquil and utterly free.
“I seemed to be at the doorway to unknown ecstasies — and the life I had known only a dream — and you, all of you — even Martin, dreams within a dream. You weren’t — real — and you did not — matter.”
“Hypnotism,” muttered Drake, as she paused.
“No.” She shook her head. “No — more than that. The wonder of it grew — and grew. I thrilled with it. I remember nothing of that ride, saw nothing — except that once through the peace enfolding me pierced warning that Martin was in peril, and I broke through to see him clutching Norhala and to see floating up in her eyes death for him.
“And I saved him — and again forgot. Then, when I saw that beautiful, flaming Shape — I felt no terror, no fear — only a tremendous — joyous — anticipation, as though — as though —” She faltered, hung her head, then leaving that sentence unfinished, whispered: “and when — it — lifted me it was as though I had come at last out of some endless black ocean of despair into the full sun of paradise.”
“Ruth!” cried Drake, and at the pain in his cry she winced.
“Wait,” she said, and held up a little, tremulous hand. “You asked — and now you must listen.”
She was silent; and when once more she spoke her voice was low, curiously rhythmic; her eyes rapt:
“I was free — free from every human fetter of fear or sorrow or love or hate; free even of hope — for what was there to hope for when everything desirable was mine? And I was elemental; one with the eternal things yet fully conscious that I was — I.
“It was as though I were the shining shadow of a star afloat upon the breast of some still and hidden woodland pool; as though I were a little wind dancing among the mountain tops; a mist whirling down a quiet glen; a shimmering lance of the aurora pulsing in the high solitudes.
“And there was music — strange and wondrous music and terrible, but not terrible to me — who was part of it. Vast chords and singing themes that rang like clusters of little swinging stars and harmonies that were like the very voice of infinite law resolving within itself all discords. And all — all — passionless, yet — rapturous.
“Out of the Thing that held me, out from its fires pulsed vitality — a flood of inhuman energy in which I was bathed. And it was as though this energy were — reassembling me, fitting me even closer to the elemental things, changing me fully into them.
“I felt the little tendrils touching, caressing — then came the shots. Awakening was — dreadful, a struggling back from drowning. I saw Martin — blasted. I drove the — the spell away from me, tore it away.
“And, O Walter — Dick — it hurt — it hurt — and for a breath before I ran to him it was like — like coming from a world in which there was no disorder, no sorrow, no doubts, a rhythmic, harmonious world of light and music, into — into a world that was like a black and dirty kitchen.
“And it’s there,” her voice rose, hysterically. “It’s still within me — whispering, whispering; urging me away from you, from Martin, from every human thing; bidding me give myself up, surrender my humanity.
“Its seal,” she sobbed. “No — HIS seal! An alien consciousness sealed within me, that tries to make the human me a slave — that waits to overcome my will — and if I surrender gives me freedom, an incredible freedom — but makes me, being still human, a — monster.”
She hid her face in her hands, quivering.
“If I could sleep,” she wailed. “But I’m afraid to sleep. I think I shall never sleep again. For sleeping how do I know what I may be when I wake?”
I caught Drake’s eye; he nodded. I slipped my hand down into the medicine-case, brought forth a certain potent and tasteless combination of drugs which I carry upon explorations.
I dropped a little into her cup, then held it to her lips. Like a child, unthinking, she obeyed and drank.
“But I’ll not surrender.” Her eyes were tragic. “Never think it! I can win — don’t you know I can?”
“Win?” Drake dropped down beside her, drew her toward him. “Bravest girl I’ve known — of course you’ll win. And remember this — nine-tenths of what you’re thinking now is purely over-wrought nerves and weariness. You’ll win — and we’ll win, never doubt it.”
“I don’t,” she said. “I know it — oh, it will be hard — but I will — I will —”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58