THE HUT IN THE WOOD
The woman who told me this, and other strange tales which I may one day try to put together, had no gift of writing, but only a pathetic regard for those who had. I say pathetic, because to me her extraordinary experiences so far outvalue the tinkling art of recording them as to make her simple admiration for the artist little short of absurd. She had herself a pretty talent for painting, of which I knew her to have made much in the years before we met. It was, indeed, because I remembered what hopes she had encouraged in her teachers in this and older countries, and how eagerly she had laboured at her craft, finding no trick of technique too slight, no repetition too arduous, no sacrifice too great, if only they might justify their faith in her, that I asked her one day, when I had come to know her well, why it was that she had stopped so suddenly in the work that many of us had learned to know before we knew her. For now she paints only quaint toys for her many lovely children, or designs beautiful gardens for her husband, himself an able artist and her first teacher, or works at the wonderful robes in which he paints her, burning in the autumn woods or mist-like through spring boughs.
We sat, that morning, I remember, on the edge of the wood that finishes their wide estate among the hills, looking down its green mazy aisles, listening to the droning of the June air, lapped in the delicious peace of early summer. "Why did you?" I asked, "what happened?"
She gave me a long look.
"I have often thought I would tell you," she said, "for you can tell the others. When I hear this warm, droning noise, this time of the year, it always reminds me——"
She looked at me, but I knew that she saw something or someone else. After a long pause her lips began to form a word, when suddenly she drew a short, frightened breath.
"What—do you smell it, too? Am I going away again—what is that odour?"
I sniffed the air. A dull, sweet taste flavoured it, unpleasant, vaguely terrifying. I looked about carefully and caught sight of a wide-mouthed bottle lying on its side, the cork half loosened. A brown moth fluttered feebly in the bottle.
"It is only chloroform," I assured her, remembering that the two oldest children were collecting butterflies, and I tightened the cork.
"Oh, yes," she said, a deep and unaccountable relief in her voice, "I see. That odour has the strangest effect on me ever since——" she waited a long time. At last she said she would try to tell me something, if I would ask her questions to make it easier for her, and never discuss it afterward unless she should invite the discussion.
I do not, of course, pretend to tell the story as she told it to me. It was broken by long pauses and many questions on my part. Her phrasing, though wonderfully effective at times, was empty and inadequate at others, when she simply could not say what she meant, neither pen nor tongue being her natural medium of expression. But if the style that I have used is not hers, it best translates, at least, the mood into which she threw me.