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A short story by Josephine Daskam Bacon

The Hut In The Woods

Title:     The Hut In The Woods
Author: Josephine Daskam Bacon [More Titles by Bacon]

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.

* * * * *

The surgeon, who knew her well, took her hand on the threshold of the operating room.

"Even now, dear friend," he said, "we may turn back. You know what I think of this."

"You promised me!" she cried eagerly. "I have your word that I should not risk this."

"You have my word," said he, "that in your present state of mind and under the present conditions you should not risk it. But I am by no means sure that you could not change both your state of mind and the conditions. If you say you cannot, then, indeed, I will not let you risk it. But if you would only say you could! Then I would risk anything. Will you not say it?"

"I cannot say it," she said. "Open the door!"

"Listen!" said the surgeon; "if when you are on the table, if even when the ether is at your lips, you will raise your finger, I will stop it. Will you remember? For you, too, you know, run a risk in doing this."

"I shall remember," she said, "but I shall not raise my finger." And he opened the door.

Her mind was so busy with a rush of memories and plans, crowded together at will to shut out her fear, that she was unconscious of the little bustle about her, the blunt, crude details of preparation.

"Breathe deeply, please," someone said in her ear, "harder, harder still--so!"

"I am breathing deeply, I am! How can I do this forever? I tell you I am breathing deeply!" she screamed to them, but they paid no attention. The surgeon's face looked sadly at her and receded, small and fine, to an infinite distance. Though she called loudly to them, she realized that in some way the sound did not reach them, that it was useless. She prayed that they might not think her unconscious, for she had never reasoned more clearly. Now her ankles were submerged, now her knees, now her hips, now it was at her chest, now her throat.

"It is all over--you can begin now!" she said deeply, and in order to save herself from a sickening struggle, she bent her soul, as one bends one's body to dive under a combing breaker, and dipped under the wave that threatened her.

Just as one slips through the breathless surf she slipped through, and left them. She heard someone breathing heavily in the room she had left and hurried away from the horrid sound, intending to find her room and change the loose gray gown and the soft fur-lined boots she had put on for her journey to the terrible room. But the hoarse, heavy breathing followed her and threw her into a panic of fear, so that she turned into a side corridor and ran blindly down it, stumbling through a little narrow door at the end of it. The door swung to with a long sigh and she heard the breathing no more.

As she rested in the little room, which was perfectly empty, a door at the other side of it opened suddenly and a woman rushed in. She, too, had on a long gown, and her dark hair hung in two thick braids, one over each shoulder.

"Can you tell me the way out?" she said quickly, "I can't stay here--I can't breathe."

"But you aren't dressed--we must find our rooms first."

"No, no! There are nurses everywhere. We shall be seen! Come this way," and she pointed, shaking, to a long window that opened on a fire escape. The steps were broad and easy; a moment and they were in the street.

"Here is my carriage--I saw it from the window. Let me take you where you want to go," said the woman; "home, directly, James."

The door of the carriage was swinging wide; they had only to step in. As they sank on the seat the fat coachman leaned out and slammed it.

"Drat that door!" he said loudly. "She'll have to go back to the factory again." The footman made some remark and the coachman swore angrily.

"I think I see myself standing here two hours!" he growled. "The gray's nervous as it is. I'm going up through the Park and let them out a little at the other end."

The carriage started. The woman half rose in it and tapped imperiously on the glass.

"James! James!" she cried, but no one answered her. She pressed the knob of the door, but it did not turn.

"I can't make him hear?" she complained, "what shall I do? What do you think is the matter--he acts as if there were nobody in the carriage!"

They looked fearfully at each other.

"He will stop surely--somewhere," said the other, but her heart felt chilled. She could not think--she dared not.

They trotted swiftly on; her companion's eyes were fixed ahead of her, her lips moved.

"Hail Mary!" she muttered, and then, "now and at the hour of our death!"

"Don't say that, don't!" she begged the woman, but still the mutterings went on. The door of the carriage swung open; the horses dropped to a walk. All around were trees and grass; great rocks lined the driveway.

"I could slip behind the bushes and my gown would not be noticed," she thought feverishly, "for I cannot bear to hear her," and as the carriage almost halted she swung herself easily down from the low step.

"Now and at the hour of our death!" she heard as the carriage rolled on, and shuddered when the coachman slammed the door upon that pale, crazed creature.

Behind the bushes she was well screened, and the few people that drove and walked through the wild, beautiful woodland never looked in her direction. Once a couple, intertwined and deep in each other's eyes, almost ran against her, but though she drew away, startled and apologizing, they walked on with no reply to her excuses.

Her heart sank strangely.

"I wish they had spoken to me," she whispered to herself. "I wish I could think better--I know there is something wrong. The next person I meet I will ask----"

But she walked steadily away from the great driveway, deeper and deeper into the wood.

"In a moment I will stop and think this out--in a moment," she murmured, but she did not stop; she ran like a hunted animal, farther and farther.

The wood was utterly quiet. Sometimes a little furry beast slipped across the narrow path she ran along, sometimes a large bird flapped heavily into the air ahead of her; but no person walked or called.

Soon a great fatigue seized her, and hunger. She moved languidly; her legs seemed to walk of themselves.

"I must eat--I must rest," she moaned, "but why did they not speak to me?"

At last she realized that she could drag herself no farther, that she was alone and lost, fearful and worn out, in a dense wood.

"I will get to that little path," she said, trembling, "and there I will drop, and if I must think, I must."

She staggered up the little path, and it lead to a tiny hut, the colour of the four great trees that stood about it. Its door hung wide open, and in the middle of it, on a low stool, there sat an old woman, wrapped in a long cloak, looking kindly at her.

She threw herself across the threshold and fell upon the earthen floor.

"Oh, will you speak to me? Will you see me? Pray, pray answer me!" she cried.

"And why should I not see you, my child?" said the old woman.

She gasped with joy.

"I don't know--I thought--the coachman slammed the door--I don't know what I thought! It was terrible!" she panted.

"I know, I know," said the old woman; "but you are here now. You can rest now. It took you a long time, you are so strong. Look, I have a bed for you!"

She looked, and in the corner of the hut was a couch of pine boughs, odorous and soft.

"You may lie on my cloak," said the old woman, and spread it on the springy couch. She dropped on it.

"Oh, I ache!--every bone in me aches!" she sobbed, and for the first time she wept.

"That is right," said the old woman, and soothed her with her hand, "now sleep, and I will have something for you when you wake."

Her body sank, relaxed, upon the soft boughs, and it was as if a sponge were wiped across her mind, and she slept.

Time passed over her; she had no way of knowing if they were minutes or hours that ran by.

When she awoke, a gentle, steady humming filled the air; a murmurous, musical sound that calmed every sense. It was like the turning of a great wheel or the rocking of an old cradle.

"What is that?" she asked faintly.

"They are my bees, child," said the old woman. "They have come home."

She was slender, with brown eyes like brook water, and though she was wrinkled finely, she was straight and strong, for she lifted up her guest and half carried her to the opposite corner of the hut.

"Now wash," she said, "and then you must eat."

A cold, deep spring welled up in that corner, and as she plunged her face into it she opened her hot eyes to let the icy water cool them--and gazed at the white moon far below her and the small stars.

All space seemed spread before her and she drew out, frightened, but when she glanced quickly at the spring from above, she thought she must have dreamed, for it was like any other spring, only a little deeper. Then she washed her hands till they tingled and warmed. When she had braided her hair afresh she turned and saw that the old woman had set out a meal for her on the low stool; a brown loaf, a comb of golden honey and an earthen jug of milk.

"Eat, my child," she said.

She fell upon the food and it was like wine and meat to her. The blood ran swiftly through her veins again and she forgot the terror and fatigue and the cloud in her mind.

"You are most kind to me, mother," she said, for she had lived in the old countries where it is easy to speak kindly to the old; "how do you happen to live here? I should have died but for you. All my courage had gone and it seemed that some terrible thing must be true, but I dared not think what it might be. Now I am strong again and I will thank you and go on."

"Where will you go, my child?" said the old woman.

She looked out of the door and saw that the wood was so dense that only a dim light pierced through the boughs far above her head.

"It is always twilight here," said the old woman.

"But you can tell me the way, surely you know the way out?" she begged.

"I know my way," said the old woman, "but not your way. I come from the other side."

"And how do you come?" she asked, almost fearfully, for something about the old woman began to frighten her.

"I follow my bees," said the old woman.

"But I cannot wait for your bees," she cried, vexed and alarmed. "I must get back--I was mad to have come here. I have work to do. Everything has gone wrong with me since--since--oh, I must go back and get at my work!"

"And what is your work?" the old woman asked.

"I am an artist," she said.

"What is that?"

"I paint pictures," she said.

"Why do you do that?" asked the old woman.

"Why? Why?" she repeated. "Why does anyone do his work? Because I am told by good workmen that I do it well, and that I shall every year do it better. Because I would give up food and sleep for it. Because I shall, if I live, some day do some one thing that will be remembered after I am past all work."

"You will never do that with a picture," said the old woman quietly.

She stamped her foot upon the earthen floor.

"How dare you say so, you?" she cried. "What do you know of art or the great world of cities beyond this horrible wood? What are you?"

"They call me the Bee-woman, in this part of the wood," she answered, "but I have many duties. What are yours?"

"I have told you," she said sullenly, for under the other's eyes her own fell.

"Not so," said the Bee-woman quickly, a hand on her shoulder, "you have told me only your pleasures. I do not ask you for what you would sacrifice food and sleep--though you seem unable to go without either for very long--but for what you should sacrifice them?"

She clasped her hands and faced the Bee-woman proudly.

"Art is the one thing in this world that makes these two the same," said she, "to the artist his art is both his pleasure and his duty."

"That is the reason that artists are not women, then," replied the Bee-woman, "for their duties cannot be their pleasures very long or very often."

At this she would have run away, but her knees were still weak, and the thought of the trackless woods stopped her heart a moment with fear.

"A Bee-woman may know much of bees," she said coldly, "but the world beyond this wood has a wider space to overlook, and while you have been growing old in the wood, mother, the humming of your charges has stopped your ears to the voices of the young who fill the world outside. They would tell you, if you could understand, that Art is the one word that is one for men and women."

"My child," said the Bee-woman, "so long as bees hive and trees root in the earth there will be no such word. For the words of the world were made to match the things of the world, and that is so in this wood and out of it."

She looked at the Bee-woman and felt troubled and on the eve of something great and sad.

"You are no common peasant woman, I am sure," she said gently, "and indeed, I have heard wiser and more travelled persons than you say very much the thing that I think you mean. But like you, they were old."

"That is to say, that they had seen more of the life they speak of, I suppose," said the Bee-woman.

"But the world moves, mother," she said.

"That is to say, that it runs round and round, I suppose," said the Bee-woman, "but not that it gets any farther from the sun."

"But women have learned many new things since you were young, mother."

"That is to say, that they have all the more to teach their children, I suppose," said the Bee-woman, "and they had more than a little, before."

"Who spoke of children?" she cried harshly, "not I! I spoke of work--the world's work, that I am free to do!"

"So long as bees hive and seeds fly on the wind," said the Bee-woman, "the world has one work for you to do, and you are bound, not free, to do it!"

Then she sank on the floor beside the old woman and began to beg her, for it seemed to her, as often it seems in dreams, that before she could go any farther she must win over this one who stood between her and where she would go.

"You think me vain," she cried, "but, indeed, with me this is no girlish fancy, mother. Men greater and wiser than I have told me that mine will be work for which the world will be the better."

"I think that they have spoken truly, my child," said the Bee-woman, "and that is why I was waiting for you."

"Then let me go and work!" she cried, and rose from her knees.

"Go quickly, indeed," said the Bee-woman, "but work with flesh and blood, as does God the Creator, not with paint and canvas, as does man, the mimic!"

Then this old bee woman grew tall and terrible to her, and she saw that she had been led into the wood as into a trap and that she must fight hard for her freedom.

"I do not know what you are!" she cried wildly, "but you talk like an old song mumbled over the hearthstone, and it is to the hearthstone that you would chain me. Was I given eyes that can sweep the horizon only to turn them downward to that narrow hearth?"

"My child," said the old woman, and her voice was like a bell that tolls across the ancient fields, "so long as bees hive and fire burns on the hearths of men will the daughters of men walk in this wood and tell me that the hearth is narrow; and yet it is wider than the width of the womb whence all men come, and wider than the width of the grave whither all men go. And all men know this."

She put her hand over her heart, as one who covers a wound, and her hand touched a folded paper under her gray gown. She drew it out in triumph and her face grew bright.

"Not all men, mother, not all men!" she boasted. "See--I took this with me when I went in to the trial from which I escaped. (Though what I have suffered in this wood is worse than that from which I ran away.) Read this letter from my husband, and you will see that not all men would chain their mates--that to-day the jailer himself throws away the key!"

"Read me the letter," said the Bee-woman. And she read:

"I love you because you think my thoughts with me, because our work is the same and we understand each other. Let us work on together hand in hand."

"Now dip this letter in the spring," said the Bee-woman, "and read it to me again. For now the paper can show you only what the pen has written."

Wondering, she dipped it in the spring, and the writing, which had been black, turned blood red and was not the same when she read it:

"I love you because your eyes are blue and have drowned my heart, because after I have done my work, which I cannot explain to you, I lie in your arms and cease to think. Give me a son with your eyes, for I shall never understand you."

She crushed the paper in her hand and flung it out of the door of the hut.

"Then he lied to me!" she said bitterly, "fool that I am!"

"If you had been a fool he would not have needed to lie to you," said the Bee-woman. "But you are one of those for whom no price is too great."

"Oh, oh!" she wept, "I am deceived! God and the world have deceived me! But I will not be beaten. I will show him--and you--that I am not the weak thing you think me. This very moment, if only I had the colours, I could paint as never before. I feel it. The very pain will help me. If only I had the colours!"

"There are always colours," said the Bee-woman, "if not of one kind, then of another. But you cannot get them for nothing."

"I will pay any price," she said.

"Will you take the crimson from the blood of your cheeks?" said the Bee-woman. "Will you take the fresh blue from your eyes, the ivory white from your teeth, the ruddy gold from your hair, and the thick softness of it for brushes? Will you?"

She shuddered.

"I know what you mean," she said, "but oh, it is hard! I--I cannot."

"Then you are a fool," said the Bee-woman quietly. "There is no man living who would not give all that and give it with a smile, for his work. You are not a great artist."

She wrung her hands.

"You are right, you are right," she moaned, "and I am not worthy. If colours are my weapons to win fame, how should I grudge them? I will give them up."

"Then indeed you are a fool," said the Bee-woman sternly, "for you throw away your most powerful weapon before the fight begins. You are not a great woman."

She fell with her face to the earthen floor and lay quiet, while the bees hummed outside the hut like the turning of a great wheel or the rocking of an old cradle.

"Then all that I have learned," she muttered at last, "is useless? All that I have worked and anguished for? All that I have saved even my suffering for, prizing it and never grudging, because it would help my work? No man could do more."

"You think so?" said the Bee-woman. "Get up, my child, and look out of the latticed window at the back of my cottage. Do not think what you see there is close before you, for the glass of that window has strange properties and the part of the wood which it shows you is far, far from here."

She raised herself and walked to the casement, shading her eyes with her hand, for a red glow struck the single pane and blinded her.

"Before you look," said the Bee-woman, "tell me if you remember that picture of yours which you think the best?"

"Do I remember it?" she repeated, "can I ever forget it? A year of my life has gone into it. The year that I was married."

"Do you think it worth that year?" said the Bee-woman.

"It could not have been done with less," she said.

"Now look," said the Bee-woman, "and tell me what you see."

She went to the casement, and it seemed as if the aged trees formed a long, long aisle out from it, narrow and bright, and at the end was a sunny glade.

"I see a young man," she said, "laughing and singing to himself in the sun."

"Has he suffered?" asked the Bee-woman.

"No, he is hardly more than a boy. His hair curls like a boy's. His face has never known a care."

"What is he doing?" asked the Bee-woman.

"He is eating fruit and painting a picture on a white cottage wall. The children and the old men are watching him."

"Do you watch him, too," said the Bee-woman, folding her hands in her lap.

Soon she gave a little cry.

"What! what!" she murmured, "how can he do that--he is but a boy!"

"Is he weeping?" asked the Bee-woman. "Has he shut out the world?"

"He is smiling," she answered, "and as he works he talks. Oh! he is painting my picture, mine! Who is he? Mother, who is he?"

"Does he paint well?" asked the Bee-woman.

She did not answer.

"It is nearly done," she whispered, "and he smiles as he works. What blue, what glistening white! Mother, who is that boy?"

"Is it as well done as your picture?" asked the Bee-woman.

"It is better done," she whispered through her tears, "and he has gone and left it. He has given it to a village girl for a kiss! Oh, how could he leave it?"

"Because he can do many more, my child," said the Bee-woman, "and life has not yet touched him."

"Tell me his name," she said, and turned from the window, pale and sad.

"His name neither the world or this wood has yet troubled to learn," said the Bee-woman, "but he will be called a great painter before long."

"How long?" she asked.

"I forget if you call them days or years," said the Bee-woman, "but they will not be many."

"Who taught him?" she asked.

"Everyone," said the Bee-woman, "the village girl, for one. But many will learn from him."

She knelt again upon the earthen floor and looked the woman in the eyes....

"I do not know, my child," said the Bee-woman, "I can only tell you that you must paint what you have learned, with tears; he can paint he knows not what, and he smiles. I ask you, which of you will go furthest?"

"Ask me no more, mother," she said faintly, "but tell me this: why is life so cruel? For you know everything and this wood is not what I thought."

"Child," said the Bee-woman, "for I suppose you call it cruel because it does not please you, why life is as it is, I do not know; but that it is so no one can doubt who has tried to make it otherwise and failed. Now, what will you do?"

She bent her head before the eyes of the Bee-woman, ashamed, because in her deep brown eyes she saw reflected her lost years.

"What shall I do?" she asked meekly.

"Go back, child," said the Bee-woman, and her voice warmed like summer sunshine on the wall at noon, "go back and let men make pictures: do you make men!"

Then outside the door she saw the little path and suddenly she seemed to know where it would lead and how, and she had no fear at all of the wood.

"Good-bye, mother, God keep you!" she said and stepped over the threshold.

"So long as I keep my bees, child, God will doubtless keep me," said the Bee-woman, "and that is true in this wood and out of it. Now hurry back, for you have stayed almost too long."

She waved her hand and turned from the hut, threading her way among the trees.

"I must go back, I must go back!" she said to herself, and moved more and more quickly, for something drew her almost off the ground.

Once she thought she heard a low cry behind her, and as she looked back she saw some one running hotly through the wood across her track.

She called aloud to help the poor creature, for she saw that it was a woman in deadly terror, wrapped in a long gown, with two great braids of dark hair, that hit against her back like whips, who turned her pale, crazed face--and it was the woman in whose carriage she had driven to the edge of the wood.

"Come back!" she called, "this is the way! Come back!"

But the runner clasped her shaking hands upon her heart and leaned hotly forward in one last burst of speed, and fell fainting across the threshold of the Bee-woman's hut.

Then a panic terror caught the woman who had left that hut, a terror to which her first fright was as nothing.

"In God's name," she screamed, "where am I? What am I? Who is that wrinkled woman with young eyes? What wood is this?"

So screaming she whirled about and missed her footing, and fell heavily over the root of a great tree, striking her head in the fall.

A sickening pain washed in great waves through every nerve, and she struggled, turning her head feebly from side to side, closing her eyes against the blinding light that pierced her brain like knives.

The tall trees swam and wavered before her, the boughs tossed and swayed and receded till they were like a forest seen in a picture. Then she saw that they were framed in a window, with empty space behind them, and that she was staring at them from a bed in a strange room.

Over her eyes bent two brown eyes, young and kind.

"Do you see me? Can you speak to me?" she heard.

"I do not hear the bees," she muttered, "I miss them. And yet you are the Bee-woman, are you not? I know your eyes----"

"I am the nurse," said the voice, "there are no bees here. You hear the rumbling in the street below. I am glad to see you open your eyes--we were growing worried. You remember you are at the hospital, do you not? Would you like to see your husband? He is just outside the door."

She looked long at the nurse. "My husband," she murmured. "Oh, yes. Does he know that I got away? How did you bring me back here? Tell the doctor that--that I could not bear it and that he must take me through without it. He--he will be glad--"

"The operation is over," said the nurse, "and you have nothing to bear, now. You are just coming out of the ether. Do you understand? Everything is all right. You have only to lie quiet, now, and you may see your husband, if you wish. He wanted to see you as soon as you were safely out of the wood, he said."

The tears gathered in her eyes, but she was too weak to wipe them.

"'Out of the wood,'" she whispered, "'out of the wood'! So that is what they mean! But he will never go into that wood ... yes, call him in."

[The end]
Josephine Daskam Bacon's short story: The Hut In The Woods