THE OLD OAK CHEST

I had such a strange dream. I dreamt that I was in man’s clothes, and
that I was astride of a coal black horse: how I knew that the horse
was black I scarcely can tell, for the night around me was dark as
death, Geraldine was on the pommel before me, grasping me round the
loins with her arms; her head was on my breast, the horse was galloping
mad, mad he seemed; behind me galloped a man on a white horse, a man
in the dress of a cavalier. I turned my head now and then to look at
him. He was myself, and he was dead. He swayed and he reeled in the
saddle. His spurs were plunged and stuck in the white horse’s sides,
and great flakes of bloody foam fell from them through the darkness
like red flowers; we tore through archways that seemed to roar at us,
down white roads, and through tiny hamlets with lights that winked
at us, and then we were in the darkness again, on a moor. A ghastly
moon broke through the clouds overhead. I looked back, he was still
following, swaying and reeling, now falling flat back on the back of
his horse, so that his long black hair mixed with the horse’s tail,
now falling straight forward, his hair all thrown and mixing with the
horse’s mane. I saw the nostrils of the white horse blown out thin as
paper, its staring, straining eyes. Then the darkness fell again and
I found Geraldine gone; and the moon broke through again, and I saw
that the white horse had overtaken me and passed me, and was far ahead,
and the cavalier, reeling and swaying in the saddle, held Geraldine in
his arms, and they were both dead. Then my horse faltered and stumbled
and fell. And I woke. All around me was in black darkness. I felt the
pillows to make sure I was in bed, then I felt for a match-box on the
little table by the bed-side, and I struck a light. The clock on the
mantelpiece pointed to quarter past five. I rose and lit a candle, and
put on a wrapper. I felt frightened. I wanted to go to Geraldine to see
if she were all right. You never love a person so much as just when you
wake from a dream of them, at least I quote from my own experience. I
opened my bedroom door, the passage was utterly dark, and the house
seemed strangely still. I came along the passage like a ghost–only I
had a candle in my hand, and you never hear of ghosts carrying candles.
I reached the top of the great hall stairs, and I saw the hall below,
with the men in armour standing round the oak-panelled walls and the
grey dawn glimmering down at them through the stained glass windows. I
came down the stairs, crossed the hall. My feet were bare, but I did
not feel the cold of the parquet. I pushed the curtain aside that led
to the corridor with its flower-pictured walls and fan-shaped windows.
The heavy curtain at the end concealed a bedroom, that I knew. I blew
out the candle and raised the curtain. A door half open; I pushed it
and entered. On a bed, white as snow, lay a little figure curled up
under the sheets. The window-blinds had not been drawn and the grey,
still light fell on a small face. Never seemed anything so fast asleep
as this form. As I stood watching it, it seemed to me that I could
still hear the galloping of the dream horses, I felt like a thief.
Geraldine was safe then; she knew nothing of that furious ride through
the night, heard none of the galloping of those horses.

As I turned from taking a last look at the sleeping face I felt awed,
not exactly awed, but frightened. Do you know that perfect and absolute
purity frightens one to look at, as if it were a ghost? You may laugh,
but it does, though it is more rarely seen than any ghost. I have only
seen it once, and that was when I saw this child asleep with the dawn
on her face.

When I had found my room again I drew up the window-blind and
opened the window. The trees in the garden stood all dripping with
dew in the grey light that came from the slate-coloured sky, and the
chrysanthemums looked like the ghosts of chrysanthemums. Not a breath
of wind. I looked up at the sky. Two crows were flying lazily in the
distance, their black wings winking dreamily as they flew. Not a sound.

I woke at nine o’clock. Someone had knocked at my door. It was only the
maid-servant with hot water.

I had gone to sleep at six o’clock with the vision of that strange grey
dawn in my head, and now at nine–I can never account for my motives,
I seem built up of perversities–at nine o’clock I woke, and my first
sensation was one of irritation. I was irritated with myself, and I was
irritated with the thoughts of the old butler. I was irritated with the
window-blind which I had drawn down all crooked. I was in a sulk with
Geraldine.

I looked at my face in the looking-glass. I was a fright. My eyes were
red. I dressed, and I actually did not care what dress I put on. It
did not matter; all my dresses were hideous, every woman’s dress was
hideous, except Geraldine’s, she alone knew how to dress.

Really never before had I been in such a vile and senseless humour. It
seemed to take in the whole world. I passed in review all the men I had
ever known. They were all about equally detestable; they seemed all so
like one another, more or less hair on their faces, that was all, and
yet women fall in love with these creatures; but then, what were women?
I passed in review all the women I had ever known, and all the women
I had ever heard of–they all had to stand for inspection beside the
strange figure of Geraldine. Oh, what fools they looked, what dummies,
what empty-headed apes, tricked out in borrowed feathers, full of
spiteful tricks, and tricks to draw the attention of those other apes,
the ones with beards.

I thought of the school-girls at the boarding-school,–those virgins
so full of suppressed vice, their finnikin manners, their whispers,
and their sniggers. I never thought that I too had been one of those
vicious virgins.

I pricked myself with a pin, and that brought me back from my thoughts.
Then I went down to breakfast. One place as usual. Old James the butler
seemed grown ten years younger since that night so long ago when he let
me in first, that night so long ago, the night before last. He darted
about so quick that he upset a plate of muffins on the floor. Then
bang! my bad humour changed suddenly to good.

What did this little wretch mean by breakfasting alone at unearthly
hours? Did she have strange people out of the garden to breakfast with
her? people with feet like roots, and faces like flowers. I had seen
this Geraldine looking at the chrysanthemums with an expression of face
as if she knew more about them than a mortal ought to know. Last night
a great moth flew in from the garden, and rested quite familiarly on
her hair, just above her ear. She treated the snails just as if they
were kinsfolk. I felt sure that to her breakfast-table guests came who
would have flown, or run, or crawled, from _my_ presence.

Then, like a sombre note of music, came the recollection of my dream.
I heard the mad galloping of the horses, and my good humour turned to
sadness. You must think me a very changeable person, but that is just
what I am. I am jotting down all my feelings as they came, so you can
see that it takes very little to move me from sorrow to laughter.

I have written seventy-three pages! almost a little book. To think that
I should ever have written a book, no matter how small!

Well, when breakfast was over I sat for awhile making up my mind that
Geraldine might come to me before I came to her; then I got up and did
exactly what I had determined not to do. I came down the toy-house
corridor. I knocked at the right hand door; no answer. I pushed the
door open and peeped in; no one. I knocked at the bedroom door; no
answer, but I did not go in, I felt somehow afraid. Then I turned to
the left hand door. I opened it. It was a strangely pretty room, but
it did not contain Geraldine. It looked like an oratory; the roof was
arched, and at the far end the daylight through a stained glass window
shone glimmering down on the polished oak floor. A silver lamp swung
from the ceiling, and an oak table, plain and rather severe looking,
stood in the centre. This was where she probably dined, if she ever
dined, and breakfasted all alone.

What a life this strange being must have led, just like a nun, and many
a morning she must have sat here all alone whilst _I_ was–where?

Do you know that all the sermons ever preached would have had less
effect upon me than the sight of this room? I suddenly saw the
beastliness of the world we all live in, just as plainly as if it had
been some vile reptile crawling from under that oak table; but we never
see sights like that for long, just half a second or so, and then we
forget. I looked for a moment, then I turned away. Where had she gone
to? was she hiding? could she be in the garden?

No, she was not in the garden; the chrysanthemums all looked as if they
knew but would not tell. Oh, those chrysanthemums, how they haunt my
dreams, actually haunt me; they are all dead and forgotten, but their
faces seem to haunt me. Geraldine made them human when she walked
amongst them, she touched their faces as if they were faces of brothers
and sisters. I saw her smile at one once, and once I saw her actually
frown at one of them, and now they come and haunt me as if to say,
“What have you done to Geraldine?”

Then I began to feel uneasy. Where could this strange child be? had any
accident befallen her? I remembered my dream, and hurried back to the
house. Old James, the butler, was crossing the hall, a tray of glasses
in his hands. I asked him had he seen the child, did he know where she
was hiding?

He answered that she had gone out for a drive; she went at eight.

I could have boxed the old fellow’s ears.

Was she in the habit of going out for drives so early in the day?

Oh, yes, several times a week the horses were ordered early. That
exasperated me. So it was a habit not to be broken through on my
account. Just because it was her habit, she had gone out and left me
all alone, knowing very well that I would be hunting for her. Then
I remembered the absurd fright I had been in about my dream, and I
remembered the strange and passionate parting of the night before, and
now this cold creature had gone out for a drive; no wonder she was so
fond of snails.

Where was the use of loving a creature like this? it would build a
house for itself of your dreams and sighs and groans, and then crawl
off with its house on its back. All my waking irritation returned.
I told the old butler to bring me my luncheon to my room when
luncheon-time came, for I felt ill–so I did–and would not come down
again that day.

Then I went upstairs to my bedroom utterly determined to give Geraldine
a lesson that she would never forget. She might wait for me, but I
would not come, not I.

Up in my bedroom I fell into one of those stupid fits in which we–at
least I do–take a tremendous amount of interest in nothing. I looked
at my rings and at my hair brushes. I looked at myself in the glass.
I stood with my head against the pane, looking out at the garden. The
weather had not altered, still moist and warm and autumny; all these
three days seemed carven out of the same kind of weather so that they
might last for ever as one piece, all the same, beautiful, sorrowful,
and dark. “For ever” I say, for I am sure I shall see them even when
I am dead: perhaps they will be for me the only solatium through
eternity, given me to look at, like some gloomy but beautiful jewel to
a sick and sorry child.

After a while I grew tired of taking an interest in nothing. I fell
to wondering what Geraldine would do or say if I killed myself or was
killed. She would go out for a drive very likely. Then I thought what a
fool I had been to prison myself up in my bedroom and give out to the
old butler that I was ill. I smoked a cigarette as I thought, and then
I determined on an expedition: I would go for a prowl.

At the end of the corridor on which my bedroom opened there was a door.
Yesterday morning I had opened this door to see what was behind, and
had seen a staircase, a spiral staircase, that had somehow an elfish
look. I told you before, I think, that on my first arrival at this
house everything except the dining-room seemed familiar. Well, that
feeling had utterly vanished, yet _still_ everything remained familiar.
I don’t exactly know how to explain my meaning fully, unless I can make
you understand that the ghostly part of the familiar feeling was gone.

Well, the little staircase cropped up in my mind just as I finished my
cigarette, and I determined on exploring it. I looked out of my room to
see that no one was about, then I came along the corridor, softly. I
opened the door, and there was the little spiral staircase all covered
with dust. I shut the door behind me, and I can tell you it required
some courage to shut that door and remain alone in the dark with that
ugly little staircase. Then up the staircase I went, feeling my way by
the cold little bannister rail, till suddenly my head came bump against
something. I put my hand up and felt a trap door. I pushed it, and it
fell back. What a strange room I entered, perfectly square, and lit by
one dusty window. The walls were hung with arras, and the only piece of
furniture was a large black oak chest, carved all over with foliage and
figures. It stood opposite the window.

Somehow this room had a strangely forlorn and melancholy appearance, it
had also a vague and musty smell. The arras looked ghostly. Perhaps it
was the perfect silence, but it appeared to me that here a horse and
there a stag seemed ready to jump from the canvas.

I sat down on the oak chest, and began to observe the tapestry more
attentively. Beginning at the window, my eye ran along it. Here was
a hunting scene–a meet evidently–ever so many horsemen surrounding
a man on a white horse, he seemed the chief; he was dressed as a
cavalier, his hair was black and flowing. Beyond, in the distance, lay
a castle, a castle on a green hill, with a white pathway running down
it. I knew that castle was meant to represent Castle Sinclair. A little
further on another scene. The same cavalier, riding, and by his side a
lady on a brown horse; how proudly the horses stepped. A little further
on another scene, love this time, and the same man and the same woman;
they were kissing.

Then I knew by a kind of intuition that this tapestry was meant to
represent the connection of the houses of Wilder and Sinclair, worked,
probably, through long generations by the pious hands of Wilder women.

Suddenly I got up and looked at the tapestry just behind me. Yes,
the same man and the same woman–she on a couch, he on the floor,
perhaps dead, a broken glass beside him. Was that the poison running
on the tapestry-wrought floor?–perhaps. The next scene was a funeral
procession; black nodding plumes and bowed heads.

I looked no more; that tapestry gave me the shivers.

I turned to the oak chest and raised the lid; an odour of rosemary
filled the air. I peeped in. Down at the bottom lay some clothes,
carefully folded, on the clothes a sword, and on the sword a great
cavalier’s hat with a magnificent black feather; I took out the hat and
sword, and laid them on the floor, then I took out a most exquisite
amber satin doublet, and the other parts of a man’s dress. Down at the
bottom still there lay a pair of long buff-coloured boots, with silver
spurs, and a great glittering silver trumpet, to which was attached a
long crimson silk cord.

I would have clapped my hands, only my arms were so full; here was
everything I wanted. That little Puritan with the pale face would
whimper no more for jingling spurs and a sword on her lover. Oh! the
good sword! I drew it from its sheath, and looked at its broad, strong
blade, all damascened near the hilt, then I popped it back in its
sheath, and kicked off my shoe. I wanted to see if the boots would
fit; I tried one on, it fitted to perfection. This cavalier, whoever
he was, must have had an amazingly small foot. Perhaps he was Gerald
Wilder. Nothing more likely, for this room seemed dedicated to him, and
these things were possibly his relics; any way, they were mine for the
present, and I promised myself a fine masquerade.

_What_ would Geraldine say when she saw me?

I took out the trumpet; it looked like a battle-trumpet; there was a
dint upon it as if from a blow. It was solid silver, and was marked
near the mouthpiece with a little tiger and a P surmounted by a tiny
star. It was evidently intended to be slung round the back by the
silken cord, so I slung it round my back, and taking all the other
things, I left the room, laden like an old clothes man. I had fearful
work shutting the trap door with all the things in my arms, but I
managed it at last, and got safely back to my bedroom without having
been seen.

On the dressing-table stood a silver tray with some luncheon and a
decanter of sherry; so the old butler had been. I shut the door and
locked it, then I placed all my booty on the bed, and sat down to eat
what the old fellow had brought me.

As I ate I thought how fortunate it was that there were so few
servants. The only ones I had seen indoors were the butler and the
sour-faced maid. There must have been a cook, and a very good one,
hidden down stairs somewhere, but she, or he, was never visible. How,
thought I, do these two manage to keep this great house in order? they
are always working like galley slaves, I suppose, and Wilder pays them
like princes; anyhow I am very glad, two are quite enough, almost two
too many.

Then I rose and placed the luncheon things on the floor out of my way,
and then I took all the hairpins out of my hair and let it fall as it
always wants to fall, right round my shoulders in black, curling locks.
Then I undressed. I laughed as I put on the man’s things, but my heart
was fluttering fearfully lest they shouldn’t fit. I shall never forget
the perfume of rosemary from the amber satin doublet as I drew it on.
Then the boots, how the spurs jingled; but I would not look at myself
in the glass yet, I was not perfect, for the sword still lay on the
bed, and the trumpet. I buckled the sword-belt and swung the trumpet
behind me, then with one hand on the hilt of my sword and one hand
on my hip I whirled round on my heel to face my image in the cheval
glass. I can never tell you, nor could you ever imagine, the deep, the
_furious_ pride that filled me as I gazed at the glorious-looking man
who faced me in the mirror. Can you imagine an eagle condemned into
being a sparrow; can you imagine the feelings of that eagle should
it find itself once more an eagle royal and splendid? So great, so
overmastering was this feeling, that I utterly forgot Geraldine and the
whole world that held her.

I was myself again, yet I was completely changed. All my waywardness
and woman’s pettinesses seemed vanished and drowned. As I looked at
the cavalier with black flowing hair, I smiled, and he smiled. How
gloomy and stern was that smile. What a graceful, and strange, and
poetic-looking man he was; one could imagine him riding through a
battle with his face unmoved, one could imagine him terrible in love.

And he was _I_.

Then I turned and threw myself into an arm-chair. Geraldine had just
entered my mind, and the stern cavalier, who would have laughed in
the face of a battle, became like a child. Do men turn weak like this
before the image of their love? I veritably believe they do.

“Geraldine,” I thought, “she went out; ah, yes, this morning. I shall
go to her when it is dusk. Will she smile, or will she frown, and my
white rose will she wear it?” Then I found myself wondering what rose.
I could not remember actually that I had given her a rose, yet a vague
impression filled my mind that I had. Somewhere long ago I had given
her a rose, and my fate seemed to depend on whether she would wear this
rose, now, this evening.

Oh, I tell you, on that afternoon, ay, and ever since I put on the
dress of the cavalier, I was not and am not–what I was. That dress
seemed to seal a compact, and I was, and am still, partly drunk with
the remembrance of a dim and shadowy past.

I sat in the arm-chair thinking; time must have flown as it never flew
before.

I would go to her with the dusk and behold it was dusk!

And the wind had risen with the dusk and was sighing amidst the garden
trees like a ghost.

I rose from the arm-chair, and I stood, I remember, sucking in my
underlip and staring at the floor. Then I turned to the wardrobe, and
took out my great sealskin cloak. I threw it round me and it reached to
my feet. I wished to conceal my clothes, why, I did not exactly know,
but it seemed to me that they ought to be hidden from everyone but
Geraldine.

Then I opened the bedroom door softly and peeped into the passage. No
one–not a sound. I stole down the corridor to the head of the great
staircase, and peeped over into the hall, the lamps were not yet lit.
Then I came down the staircase so softly that you might have thought me
a shadow only for the faint, silvery jingle of the spurs. I entered
the corridor, and the heavy silk curtain fell behind me. Then I found
myself standing at the right hand door with my hand pressed to my
heart. No actor about to enter before his audience could have felt
the nervousness I felt. My heart seemed gone mad. Then I dropped my
sealskin cloak and my nervousness fell with it. I tossed my hair back,
felt the hilt of my sword, and without knocking, I turned the door
handle and entered.

The figure of a girl stood at the open window; she was gazing out at
the dusk-stricken garden. Then she turned and saw me. I heard her
breath caught back, and I saw in her hand a white rose.

Did I cross the room? I must have crossed it, but I have no
recollection of doing so. I knew nothing of the world or the things in
the world, save a face that was trying to hide itself on my shoulder,
and a voice that was whispering “You have come.” Yes, one other thing I
knew. A beetle passed by out somewhere in the garden, and the dreamy
and mournful boom of his wings mixed sadly with my intoxication,
seeming like a voice from long ages ago.

Oh, that meeting in the grey autumn dusk, that voice repeating over and
over again the words “You have come.” When shall I hear those words
again? Never. There is no perhaps for me, I know in some strange way
that I shall hear those words again–never. And the fault is mine.

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