The White Blackbird by Bliss Perry

Mid-afternoon in August; a scarcely perceptible haze over the line of hills that marched northward into the St. Lawrence valley; and here, under the fir balsams back of the great dingy Morraway Hotel, coolness and quiet. Through the lower boughs of the balsams gleamed the lake, blue-black, unsounded, reticent. Behind their slender cone-darkened tops glistened the bare shoulders of Morraway Mountain in full sunlight; and overhead hung one of those caressing, taunting, weather-breeding skies that mark the turning point of the brief northern summer.

Curled up at one end of a broken rustic seat under the shadow of the balsams was a strenuous little woman of thirty-five, conscientiously endeavoring to relax. The habitual distress of her forehead was mitigated by a negligent, young-girlish manner of doing up her hair; she was carelessly dressed, too, and as she read aloud to her companion from The Journal of American Folklore she kept swinging one foot over the edge of the seat until the boot-lacings were dangling. The printed label upon the cover of the Journal bore the name of Miss Jane Rodman, Ph.D.

Miss Rodman's niece was stretched on the brown, fragrant, needle-covered slope, pretending to listen. Her face was turned dreamily toward the lake. Her head rested upon her left hand, which was long, sunburned, and bare of rings. In the palm of her right hand she balanced from time to time a little silver penknife, and then with a flash of her wrist buried the point in the balsam-needles, in a solitary and aimless game of mumble-the-peg. She was not particularly attracted by what her learned aunt was reading to her about the marriage rites of the Bannock Indians. In fact she buried the knife with a trifle more spirit than usual when the article came to an end.

Miss Rodman pencilled some ethnological notes upon the margin of the Journal. "There's another valuable article here, Olivia," she said, tentatively. "It's upon Blackfeet superstitions. Don't you think I'd better read that too?"

The younger woman nodded assent, without looking up. She was gloriously innocent of any scientific interest, and yet grateful for her aunt's endeavor to entertain her. Miss Rodman began eagerly, and Olivia Lane silently shifted her position and tried to play mumble-the-peg with her left hand. Ten minutes passed.

"Then there's a footnote," Miss Rodman was saying, mechanically. "Compare the Basque legend about the white blackbird whose singing restores sight to the blind."

The girl looked up suddenly. "What was that?" she asked.

"The white blackbird whose singing restores the sight to the blind," repeated Miss Rodman, in a softer voice.

Olivia moved restlessly and then sat up, with fingers clasped about her knees. There was a red tinge upon her round sun-browned cheek, where it had nestled in the palm of her hand. "A—white—blackbird?" she inquired, with the incredulous inflection of a child.

The elder woman nodded—that kindly pitying nod with which a science-trained generation recognizes and, even in recognizing, classifies, the old poetic superstitions of the race. But her pity was really for the tall, supple, low-voiced girl at her feet: this brave, beautiful creature who was slowly growing blind.

Olivia glanced at her, with great brown eyes that betrayed no sign of the fatal web that nature was steadily weaving in their depths. There was a slight smile upon her lips. Each of the women knew what was in the other's mind.

Miss Rodman laid down the Journal. "I shouldn't have read it, dear," she said, at last. "I didn't know what was coming."

"But it is such a pretty fancy!" exclaimed Olivia. "I shall be looking for white blackbirds under every bush, Auntie."

She drew a long breath—too long, alas! for a girl of twenty—and then with a sort of unconscious feminine instinct patted her heavy hair more closely into place and began to brush the balsam-needles from the folds of her walking-skirt.

Miss Rodman made no answer. There seemed to be nothing to say. In this matter of Olivia's eyes nature was playing one of her countless petty tragedies; science, the counter-player, stood helpless on the stage, and Olivia herself was outwardly one of the coolest of the few spectators.

She had done all that could be done. Dr. Sands, the rising specialist, an intimate friend of the Lanes and the Rodmans, had sent her to London to consult Watson, and Watson's verdict was not reassuring. Then he had sent her to Forget, at Paris, and Forget had shaken his head. Finally Dr. Sands had advised her to come here to the Morraway region for the air and the perfect quiet. Once a month he dropped everything in New York and came up himself to make an examination and give his brief report. At the end of June he had told Miss Rodman that Olivia had perhaps one chance in five of keeping her eyesight. A month later he pronounced it one chance in fifty. Dr. Sands stayed three days at the Morraway Hotel that time, before giving his opinion, and a more difficult professional duty he had never had to perform. If she were only some girl who walked into his office and out again, like the hundreds of others, it would have been different, but to tell Olivia Lane seemed as brutal as it would have been to strike her. And on this August evening he had promised to come again.

By and by Miss Rodman slipped down from the rustic bench and seated herself by her niece. The girl stroked her aunt's shoulder lightly. Everything that could be said had been said already, when the horror of that great darkness had not drawn quite so near.

And yet there was one question which Olivia longed to ask, though she feared the answer; trembling either way, as a child that asks whether she may run to snatch a glistening shell upon the beach even while another wave is racing to engulf it. Olivia's blindness was that black, all-engulfing wave. And the treasure which she might catch to her bosom, childlike, ere the dark wave fell?

"Auntie," demanded Miss Lane, abruptly, "have you told Mr. Allan about my eyes?"

Miss Rodman hesitated a moment. "Yes, dear," she replied; and she added, with an aunt's prerogative, "Why?"

"I wished him to know," answered Olivia, simply. "And I preferred not to speak of it myself. I am glad you told him."

Miss Rodman flushed a little. She was about to speak, apparently, but her niece interrupted her.

"He's coming to take us over to the Pines before supper, if he finishes his map. It seems to me that a government geologist has a very easy time, Auntie. Or isn't Mr. Allan a serious-minded geologist?"

Her tone was deliciously quizzical; she was conscious of a secret happiness that made her words come fast and sure.

"I should think the field work would always be interesting," replied Miss Rodman, with more literalness than was demanded by the occasion. "The preparation of the maps seems to me purely mechanical drudgery. If the Survey had a respectable appropriation, Dr. Allan would be left free for other things. Some of his work has been very brilliant."

The girl laughed. It always amused her to hear Miss Rodman, Ph.D., give Elbridge Allan his Munich title. It was like that old story of the Roman augurs bowing solemnly to each other with a twinkle in the eye.

"Hoho! hahei! hoho!" sang a big, boyish voice from the direction of the Morraway Hotel.

"Hoho! hahei! Hahei! hoho!"

Olivia turned and waved her hand toward the voice. "He doesn't get the intervals of that Sword-song exactly according to Wagner," she commented. "But what a Siegfried he would make for size!"

He came striding down the woodland path, shouting out the Sword-song and waving his pipe; a superb, tan-faced fellow of twenty-five, clean-built, clean-shaven, clear-eyed. His heavy hob-nailed field shoes were noiseless upon the moss. The loose, gray golf suit—with coat unbuttoned—showed every line of his athlete's figure, as he kept time to the rhythm of that splendid chant. When he neared the ladies, he lifted his cap, and all the sunlight that strayed through the balsam branches seemed to fall upon his face.

Miss Rodman gazed at him admiringly. "Isn't he magnificent!" she murmured.

Olivia did not hear her. "He knows!" she kept saying to herself. "And yet he is coming!"

"Hail!" cried Allan, waving cap and pipe together. "O ye idle women!"

"But we've been reading," explained Miss Rodman.

He picked up the Journal of Folklore and flung it down again. "Worse yet!" he insisted. "You ought to be tramping. Come, let's go over to the Pines."

"Is the map finished?" asked Olivia.

"Done, and despatched to an ungrateful government. I'm going to strike work for two days, to celebrate; then we begin triangulations on the north side of the lake. Well, aren't you coming?"

He put out his hand and swung Miss Rodman to her feet. Olivia had risen without assistance and was looking around for her hat. Allan handed it to her.

"I have some letters to write," said Miss Rodman. "I believe I won't go."

The geologist's face expressed polite regret. Olivia was busied with her hat-pins.

"But Miss Lane may go," continued her aunt. "You might take Dr. Allan over in the canoe, Olivia. That would save time."

The girl nodded, outwardly demure, inwardly dancing toward that bright, wave-thrown shell. "Very well," she said, "if Mr. Allan will trust himself again to the Water-Witch."

"Either of us could swim ashore with the Water-Witch in our teeth," laughed the geologist. "Come ahead!"

They started down the steep, shadowy path to the lake, the two tall, lithe figures swaying away from each other, toward each other, as they wound in and out among the trees.

Miss Rodman felt a trifle uncomfortable. She had not been altogether honest when Olivia asked her if Mr. Allan knew about her eyes. In fact she realized that she had been rather dishonest. She had indeed told the geologist—what he might have guessed for himself—that Miss Lane's eyes gave her serious trouble, and that she had been forbidden to use them. But she had not told him that Olivia was going blind. It was obvious that he liked the girl, and Miss Rodman shrank from letting the tragic shadow of Olivia's future darken these summer months unnecessarily. She recognized instinctively that the geologist's attitude toward her ward might be altered if he were conscious of the coming catastrophe. She wanted—yes, she owned to herself that she wanted—to have Elbridge Allan so deeply in love with Olivia that even if the worst came true he would but love her the better for her blindness. But to tell him prematurely might have spoiled everything. So reasoned Miss Rodman, Ph.D.

Yet, as she stood watching the disappearing pair, she was conscious of a certain irritation. If only he had not come singing through the woods at just the moment when she was about to explain to Olivia that she had not told him the worst! For she felt sure, now, that she would have explained, if they had not been interrupted. Well, she would confess to Olivia after supper! And Miss Rodman gathered up the Journal of Folklore and the other reviews, and sauntered back to the hotel. Ethics, after all, had been only her minor subject when she took her doctor's degree; she felt strongest in ethnology.

Meanwhile old Felix, at the boat-house, sponged out the tiny birch canoe, and scowled as Allan stepped carelessly into the bow with his big hob-nailed shoes. Miss Lane tucked up the cuffs of her shirt-waist to keep them from the drip of the paddle, and Allan pocketed her sleeve-buttons.  Then old Felix pushed them off. He had rented boats there for thirty years, ever since those first grand seasons of the Morraway Hotel, when the Concord coaches ran, and before the railroad had gone up the other valley, and left the Morraway region to a mild decay. Thirty years; but he had never seen a girl whom he fancied as much as Olivia Lane. He had pushed so many couples off from the old wharf in his time, and never a finer pair than this, yet he liked Olivia better alone. He did not know why he disliked the geologist, except that Allan had broken an oar in June and had forgotten to pay for it.

The pair in the Water-Witch grew rather silent, as the canoe crept over the deep, mountain-shadowed water. Allan smoked his pipe vigorously, his eyes upon Miss Lane; she seemed wholly occupied with her paddling. As they neared the shore he warned her once or twice when the canoe grazed the sharp edges of protruding basalt; but each time she avoided them with what appeared to him extraordinary skill. In reality she could not see them, and thought he understood.

She gave him her hand as she stepped ashore, and was conscious that he retained it a moment longer than mere courtesy demanded. He kept close to her side as they breasted the steep mountain-path. Whenever they stopped to rest, each could hear the other's breathing. Now and then, at a rock-strewn rise, he placed his fingers beneath her elbow, to steady her. He had never done it before.

"He knows!" she kept saying to herself, deep down below all words. "He knows! And he wants me to feel that it makes no difference!" It thrilled her like great music. Let the dark wave break, if it must; it could not rob her of the shining treasure. She could yet be loved, like other women. The darkness without would not be so dreadful, if all those lamps that Heaven meant to be lighted in a woman's soul were glowing!

They reached the crest of the knoll, where a dozen ragged white pines towered. Beneath them curved the lake, growing darker already as the western sky began to blaze. Olivia seated herself against one of the pines, and, removing her hat, leaned back contentedly. It was so good to breathe deep and free, to feel the breeze at her temples, to have the man who loved her reclining at her feet. All this could yet be hers, whatever happened!

And all at once, upon one of the lower branches of the pine, she was aware of a white blackbird. The utter surprise sent the color from her face; then it came flooding back again. In a tumult of unreasoning joy, of girlish superstition, she bent forward and caught Allan by the shoulder, pointing stealthily at the startled bird.

"The white blackbird!" she whispered, rapturously.

He glanced upward indifferently, wondering at Miss Lane's ecstatic face. He did not know that she cared particularly for birds.

"It's an albino," he remarked. "I've seen him three or four times this summer. They have one in the museum at St. Johnsbury."

"Hush!" exclaimed, Olivia, with a low, intense utterance that almost awed him. "It may sing!"

But the bird fluttered its cream-white wings, and disappeared into the upper branches of the pine.

"It's too late," said the geologist. "Blackbirds don't sing after midsummer."

"Oh, you don't understand!" she cried, half-starting from her seat and peering upward into the dusky, breeze-swept canopy. "The white blackbird is the Restorer of Sight!"

He looked puzzled.

"There's a legend!" she exclaimed. "Auntie and I learned it this very afternoon. The singing of a white blackbird restores sight to the blind!"

"Well," he said, carelessly, rapping the ashes out of his pipe, "what of that?" And he looked up in her face again, thinking that her luminous brown eyes had never been so lovely.

He saw them change and grow piteous, even as he spoke.

"Didn't Auntie tell you?" she demanded.

He shook his head.

She grew white, and a moan escaped her lips. The truth dawned, clear and pitiless. Aunt Jane had failed to tell him plainly, and Elbridge Allan—her lover, as she had believed—was yet in ignorance of her fate.

But the girl had had a long training in  courage, and she spoke instantly. "Mr. Allan, I am in all probability going to be absolutely blind. They said that in Paris and London last summer, and they gave me a year. Dr. Sands told me a month ago that I had but one chance in fifty."

Her voice was quiet and even, but she did not trust herself to look at Elbridge Allan. She gazed out over the gloomy lake toward the sun-tipped peak of Morraway Mountain, and waited. She would know, now. So many times had she waited, like this, for a verdict from the doctors, but her heart had never seemed to stop quite still before. She heard him make a surprised movement, but he did not speak.

"I knew Billy Sands in college," he said awkwardly at last. "He was too lazy then to walk across the yard when the bell rang."

"He is an old friend of ours," she replied, in swift loyalty. "No one could have been more kind——"

She stopped, realizing that he was embarrassed.

"Miss Lane," he broke out, "it's terrible! I had no idea it was as serious as that. I'm sorrier than I can say. Is Billy Sands really the best man to go to? There used to be a wonderful oculist in Munich. By Jupiter, it's too bad! Do you know, I think you're immensely brave. I—I wish I might be of some service."

Slowly she turned her eyes from the mountain-top, and looked straight into his face. It was a handsome face, full of boyish trouble, of genuine sympathy, of tenderness, even. And that was all there was there. His eyes fell. The stillness was so great that she could hear overhead the sleepy flutter and chirp of the white blackbird, the Restorer of Sight. And she was blind no longer: she comprehended, in that one instant, that he did not love her.

"I am so sorry——" he began again.

"I am sure of that, Mr. Allan," she interrupted. "But it is really better not to talk about it. It cannot be helped. And Auntie and I seldom speak of it." She wished to be loyal to her aunt, through all.

Allan nodded his head. He was thinking that it was a little unfair in Miss Rodman to let a young fellow go on—well, yes, liking a girl—without telling him that she was liable to be blind.

Olivia found herself trembling. Oh, if he would only go away! She could bear it, if she were alone! If he only would not lie there and look regretful and pathetic!

From far up the valley to the southward floated the faint whistle of the evening express. "Mr. Allan," said Olivia, suddenly, "you can do me a great service. Dr. Sands is coming on that train, and I promised Auntie to have a carriage sent for him. I forgot it. Would you mind attending to it? You might take the footpath down to Swayne's, and telephone, and I'll bring over the canoe."

Allan rose, with a look of relief which he could not quite disguise. "You're sure you don't mind going back alone?" he asked.

"Not at all."

With a long troubled look at the girl's downcast face he turned away and hurried down the slope toward Swayne's. His own dream-castle was in ruins, too; for a month past he had begun to picture Olivia's tall charming figure in the castle entrance. She had all that he could possibly have desired in a woman: beauty, grace, humor, wealth—and she had seemed to like him—and now she was going blind! It was too bad—too bad. He felt very hard hit. He stopped to light his pipe, and then strode on, discontentedly.

Olivia threw herself face downward upon the soft, sun-warmed pine-needles, and lay there sobbing. It was hard to give him up; harder still to feel that he had never loved her at all. She had simply been mistaken. Childlike, she had fancied it was the sea-shell that was singing, when in reality the music was only the echo from her own pulse-beats. Wave after wave of maidenly shame throbbed to her cheeks and throat. She had wanted to be loved, before that pall was flung over her life, and while she could still be to her lover as other women were to theirs. But she had had no right—no right!

Moment by moment her girlhood seemed to slip away from her, like some bright vision that flees at day-break. She felt already the terrible helplessness of her doom, the loneliness of a blind woman who is growing old. High overhead the solitary, mateless white blackbird smoothed his creamy wings and settled himself to rest among the soughing branches. Morraway Mountain grew gray and distant.  The mist began to rise from the swarthy lake. Between the trunks of the ancient pines the sunset glowed more and more faintly. The wind began to whisper solemnly in the woods. And still the girl lay prostrate between the roots of the great pine, praying to be forgiven for her selfishness.

It was quite dusk when she arose. With some difficulty she found the path and hurried downward, stumbling often and once falling. But her courage rose with the very play of her muscles. She had to grope with her hands to find the canoe, so thickly hung the mist already above the lake. There were lights moving at old Felix's boat-house, but Olivia could not see them. She seated herself in the Water-Witch, took her bearing from the vague masses of mountain shadow, and began to paddle with long, firm strokes. As the canoe shot into deep water, she was conscious that something scraped its frail side. In another moment the water was pouring over her ankles and knees. She stopped paddling to feel for the leak, and instantly the canoe began to settle.

With a powerful effort the girl freed herself from it as it sank, although she went under once and lost her hold upon the paddle. But she was a practised swimmer, and though the water chilled her through and through she struck out in what she fancied was the right direction. After a dozen strokes the shore seemed farther away, and she swam back in growing fear to the spot where she thought the canoe had sunk, in the hope of picking up the paddle. Round and round she swam, with a slow side-stroke, trying to find it, but it had drifted away.

She was getting bewildered in the mist, and the huge shadows that loomed above the lake seemed all alike. She called once or twice, and then remembered that Felix had probably gone home, and that no one could possibly hear her at the hotel. She turned on her back and floated awhile, to collect herself, and then, keeping her eyes on a certain shadowy outline in the fog, she struck out again with desperate coolness. Even if she were quite wrong, the lake was only half a mile wide here, and she had made a half mile so often.

If only her clothing did not pull her down so terribly! She had to turn over and float, in order to rest, and in so doing she lost her wavering landmark. A cry of terror escaped her, and with that the water slapped over her face for the first time. She shook it out of her nostrils and began to swim in a circle, peering vainly through the curtain of fog. The shadows had all melted again into one vast shadow. Her strength was going now; every stroke was an agony. She called—not knowing that she did so—all the life-passion of youth vibrating in the clear voice; then she turned on her back to float once more, making a gallant, lonely, losing fight of it to the very last....

She felt quite warm now, and all of a sudden she ceased to have any fear. This was the way God was taking to keep her from growing blind; she had been as brave as she could, but now that nightmare of life-long helplessness was over. It was not to be Blindness, after all. Death, beautiful, silent-footed, soft-voiced Death had outstripped Blindness, and was enfolding her—murmuring to her—murmuring——

And as she closed her eyes contentedly, old Felix, swearing tremulously, leaned out of his boat and drew her in.

But it was the two men in the other boat who carried Miss Lane up to the Morraway Hotel. One of them was Elbridge Allan, pale and disconcerted; the other a dark, quick-eyed, square-lipped man, who dismissed the geologist rather abruptly, after Olivia had been taken to Miss Rodman's room.

"But she's my friend, Dr. Sands," he pleaded.

"And mine. And my patient besides, Mr. Allan," pronounced Dr. Sands.

"Then, Doctor," said Allan, nervously, "you must let me ask you a question. Miss Lane told me three hours ago that she was going blind. I was—I don't mind saying—very much upset by it. Is it true?"

"Miss Lane's eyes are in a very serious condition," replied Dr. Sands, in his slightly bored, professional voice, while he measured the other man from head to foot.

"There is no chance?"

"I would not say that," was the brusque answer. "There is always a chance. You  will of course pardon me for not discussing my patient?"

There was a quiet finality about this query which did not invite conversation, and Allan turned irresolutely away.

It was in the middle of the next forenoon before Dr. Sands allowed Olivia to talk. She lay on the couch in her aunt's room, a fire of maple logs roaring on the hearth, a cold fine rain whistling against the shaking windows. The turn of the year had come. Miss Rodman had gone off to get some sleep. The famous young oculist was poking determinedly at the fire and calling himself hard names. He might have known that that handsome geologist would make himself obnoxious to Olivia Lane!

"Doctor," spoke Olivia.

"Yes, Miss Lane." He was at her side in a moment.

"Do you know," she said, "I saw a white blackbird yesterday, just as clearly! It restores sight by its singing, only it was too late in the year for it to sing." There was a gentle irony in her voice, like the echo of her old bravery.

"Was it you who took me out of the water?" she asked, after a pause.

He shook his head. "I wasn't lucky enough. It was Felix."

"Last night," said Miss Lane, slowly, "I didn't want to be taken out. The water seemed just the place for me. But this morning I feel very much stronger—Oh, very strong indeed!" She lifted one hand, to show how powerful she was, but it fell back upon the rug that covered her.

The doctor nodded. He was wondering about Elbridge Allan.

"I can bear anything," she went on. "You see I have had to think it all through. You are going to tell me that there is no chance, are you not? There was but one in fifty, you said." It was not hope, but only a great patience, that shone softly in her eyes.

"If you have held your own for the last month, we'll call it one in forty-nine," he replied. "But you see I don't know yet whether you have held your own. I don't know anything to-day, Olivia, except that I love you. I have loved you ever since I sent you to London."

She moved her head wearily, as if she could not comprehend.

"Of course it's very stupid in me to say so this morning," he exclaimed, ruefully. "But I have waited too long already." He was still thinking of Elbridge Allan.

"But I am going blind!" she cried, flinging out her hands.

"Very likely, dear," he replied. "Yet that has nothing to do with this."

She gave him a long, long look, the tears starting.

"It is you that I am in love with," he said, slowly. "But of course we will keep on making a good fight for the eyes."

"I—can't—think," cried Olivia. And indeed she seemed to be back in the unsounded water again, shrouded by shadowy forms, surrendering herself helplessly to a power mightier than her own. Only it was not Death that was murmuring now; it was Life, gallant, high-hearted, all-conquering Life, whose most secret name is Love. And as in that other supreme moment it was awe that the girl felt rather than fear. "Not—now—," she whispered. "Not—yet. I—can't—think."

"Well, don't!" he exclaimed, eagerly, "I don't wish you to think. If you stop to think, you'll refuse me."

Olivia smiled faintly.

"I want you to go to sleep again," he declared. In an instant he had drawn down the shades and placed the screen before the fire. "And when you wake up," he continued, "I shall be right here, Olivia;—and always—right—here.—I think that's about what I want to say," he added, with a curious husky little laugh.

The room was too dark for him to see the delicate color surge into Olivia's pale face. But her eyelids closed slowly, obediently, and he went softly out.