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 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
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
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
Miss Rodman flushed a little. She was
about to speak, apparently, but her niece
"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
"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
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
"Hail!" cried Allan, waving cap and
pipe together. "O ye idle women!"
"But we've been reading," explained
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
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
"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
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,
He glanced upward indifferently,
wondering at Miss Lane's ecstatic face. He
did not know that she cared particularly
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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.
"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
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.