When Rania announced at the dinner table that she was going to study every day with Boris's help certain phases of Oriental philosophy, a startled look appeared on Mrs. Falkner's face, while Hilda became very pale and hollow, as if something had dropped within her and her life was ebbing away uncontained. Boris, who was gazing intently on her, frowned and some sudden sadness seemed to steal over his features. But he shook it off at once and rejoined, saying that he had himself urged Rania to study more seriously than she had done before, and that knowing the difficulty of such an abstract study he had offered to act as a guide. As he knew Sanskrit fairly well, he could thus supplement the translations, or point out the root-meaning of terms and names used so often in occult literature. He added he would be very happy besides to conduct a class on similar subjects if a few persons were ready to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the work.
Mrs. Falkner, with a voice not too assured, said something to Rania about her having to be thankful for such a teacher to help her. It was so difficult often to find one's way alone. Boris tried to turn the conversation to a happier mood by joking about himself He laughed at the term "teacher." Not as much however as at being called "Dr." Khsantianoff. Rania joined him in amusement. Yes, that certainly sounded funny. Dr. Khsantianoff! Hilda could not refrain from saying, half sarcastically:
"Of course, Boris sounds much better!"
A strange bitterness gripped her. Boris tried to analyze it, to discover the deeper roots of the feeling. There was something in her that somewhat antagonized him. Had he allowed such an impulsive reaction to become visible to Hilda? He tried to be more kind than before to her. She was suffering. He had pity for her. He asked her many questions about hospital work and her experiences. But she did not relax; she seemed able to speak only of Rania's sickness, and Rania's courage, and Rania's pains. She seemed to take pleasure in enumerating all the bones Rania had had broken, all the terrible things that had happened to her.
Rania had taken paper and pencil and was drawing Boris's face. He had to be quiet and not to move his head. Mrs. Falkner was sewing. The atmosphere was tense, uneasy. After an hour the drawing was finished. It told in bold lines, in accentuated masses and sharp outlines, a poem of strength and tragic fervor. Hilda exclaimed:
"She certainly did not make you look happy! Much older too. She always does that. She drew me and I looked like a ghost."
But Boris was gazing deeply on the drawing. It seemed to open to him and he was finding in it a depth of himself which was not so familiar, but which he felt very intensely true, implacably true. Mrs. Falkner remarked that a man of his spirituality should radiate a much greater peace; that he did radiate such; but the drawing was almost tortured. Rania seemed to invest everything, rocks, trees, men, with her own tragedy.
Rania smiled at first, looking at Boris and attempting to feel his deepest emotion in front of her vision of him; but at the last remark she retorted rather sharply that contentment was easy for oysters and cows. Hilda laughed. "Hurrah for the oysters!" she shouted, bitingly.
Rania was confused. Why make fun of such a plain statement? Was not humanity today in a most tragic period of her growth? Tragedy did not mean bitterness or despair. It meant confrontation. Why hide the torments of men and bejewel them with false happiness? Why make faces look like dolls, without any lines, without any of the furrows that the pageant of moments plough into the flesh? Was she not right? She asked Boris with almost passionate pleading.
Yes, she was right, as far as he could see. He did not find much value in American optimism; it was lovely, but childlike. It was really a false mental attitude, a deep refusal to face reality, a mode of escape. Escape! That was the great curse, the source of all evil. Religions are all born out of the craving to escape; drugs are modes of escape. Alas! much of so-called intellectual studies, much even of love-sentimental, indrawing love are but subtler forms of escape.
Perhaps it was his Slav ancestry, perhaps all the horrors he had seen in Russia, in Asia, everywhere; perhaps it was that he had not yet the strength of becoming, beyond it all, at peace. Still, he was at peace. Because within himself he accepted it whole and understood, his inner self was not affected. That alone was the refuge; but a refuge in the midst of the battle, a refuge of understanding in the thick of strong, fervent action, in the thick of war. Could the warrior look polished like a bishop, and ethereal like a cave ascetic?
Could one who knew the world misery and had vowed to serve the cause of the future against the past, the cause of spiritual freedom, could he live unbruised, unseated, unbleeding in his outer self.
Rania had felt in him the warrior-self; probably because she herself was of the same race of warrior-selves. She had told in lines of struggle the fury of the battle that had raged, that was raging still, always would rage until the new Golden Age would lift man up from his own hells and make darkness significant in terms of light. Darkness and light are twins. Could one draw a picture without the black ink? Could there be form, movement, rhythm without the contrast of lights and shadows? Chiaroscuro was not only a technique valuable to painters: it was a technique of living, a great occult mystery. If only men understood the mysteries of the alchemical generation of power! Is Adeptship possible where there is no power? Power means rupture of equilibrium, terrific tensions induced, maintained and controlled between the most widely separated extremes. The identification of the opposites . . . the ultimate secret of mastery!
Boris stopped suddenly. Rania had closed her eyes, very near him. He felt her breath, rhythmical, moving through him. But he dared not look at her. Hilda was staring at them both, like a wounded beast caught in a hunter's trap. Mrs. Falkner was trying very hard to remember by heart all that the great man said, to serve it to friends as occasions would arise. It fitted well the carefully dusted compartments in her brains. It was quite exciting. It was her form of escape. She drank wisdom like champagne. It made her feel good.
Boris stopped. His voice had sounded suddenly like a bitter joke to him. He felt the need of all his sense of humor not to sink in utter depression. He must leave. He could not stand the friction of these fates grinding his own being in curiosity, in hatred, even in love.
He felt a yearning to be alone; never to speak any longer. For it is strange how one's soul flees at the very tips of uttered words, its radiation lost in the void of uncomprehending and disturbed minds — uselessly lost or contaminated.
As if she had understood, Rania, gently but with a strange firmness, put her hand upon his shoulder and said: "You would like hot chocolate, wouldn't you, before going? It is chilly outdoors. I think it will rain tomorrow. I am aching in all my bones . . . a marvelous barometer I am now."
Somehow the tension had been broken. He thanked her. Yes, hot chocolate; an excellent idea. Hilda, with nervous haste, rushed to the kitchen without saying a word; and in a few moments brought back the steaming cups.
Just then the phone rang from Monterey. A telegram from the south for Mr. Khsantianoff. Would he not come for a series of lectures in Los Angeles? A group was formed and expected him within two or three weeks, if possible. Boris hesitated a while, looked at Rania. He read the message aloud. Hilda burst out excitedly: "Will you go?"
He smiled, a little sadly. "I suppose I shall go. I have to go where I am called."
"But you will be back, will you not?" inquired Mrs. Falkner.
The clock struck amidst the silence. Boris asked permission to leave. Rania pressed his hand as he bid her good night. He thought there were tears pressing around her eyes. He smiled tenderly.
"May I keep my portrait? I would love to show it to friends in the south."
She assented, then words had to leave her lips that had contracted: "But you must promise to pose for another, a better one?"
The next day Rania walked to Boris's house. The door was unlatched and on a paper tablet hanging in Carmel fashion from a nail alongside the door was written "Shall be back soon." She hesitated for a moment; it was damp, almost raining. She went inside. The fireplace was still warm. She twisted and lighted some newspapers, built a small hollow cone of pine wood. The flame flared up, resinous. She sat in front of it, warming her aching limbs that felt the rain. She glanced around. She felt the silence, almost weighing it like gold in the hollow of a hand. It was rich and enfolding. One could sense peace caressing all the little things, like a scarf scented with living skin. The peace lived. Rania let herself go. She stretched her soul into it, as a swimmer, cold-bitten, who encounters a warm current and relaxes, floating on the soft eiderdown waves.
Oh, to feel always such a pure tranquility around one's being, to merge into its silence and its fullness, and be harmonized, be happy! Only for a few moments while living with her old friend in the Hollywood canyon had she tasted something that felt like happiness. But here there was more. There was intensity, subdued fervor, a richness of humanhood that spelt overcoming, triumph, heroism; not merely the serenity of one who has quieted into being wise and old.
Soon Boris came. He seemed to bring everything to a focus. Around him the silence took meaning. It ran to him to be blessed, to be given significance and human warmth. And her entire being within the broken frame followed the silence. It yearned for significance, to be made whole, to be opened.
It said: "Take me. I have waited for you. I am rich of substance. I am fruitful. Take me, beloved! What am I if untaken? What am I without the name you shall give me? I am folding around you to receive the whole. I am being you all around you. Take me. Make me whole."
He stood silent, holding her two hands that had flown to him to be captured. He looked far away, far away through her. She was all open, a great door of life. His self flowed through, not hurting, not bruising. There can be no hurt where there are no walls hemming in love. He pulsated through her whole being as a center through a sphere, a rhythm of the true love beyond limits, beyond the narrow channel of the coercive and coherent flesh, beyond the spelling of names. He was seeing through her, as mind through eyes. She was eye; he was vision; and beyond both the one Self saw, the Perceiver, the Spectator, the Enjoyer.
Soon the silence became so full of wholeness that brains and body could stand the weight of it no longer.
She said: "Are you really going?"
"I must, Rania."
"But you shall come back soon, stay here then — or else? . . . or else, could I not go, too?"
He smiled. "And then? What should we do then?" he asked.
She did not answer. She was feeling her path through something dark and huge she could not well fathom. She looked up to him again, jokingly: "Then we shall study of course!"
He laughed. "Why not now?"
He drew near them a little table crowded with books; and they began to read.
Two weeks more before going. She came almost every day for a couple of hours and they studied in intense rich concentration. He went from book to book, culling here and there sentences, paragraphs pregnant with meaning. New horizons burst open before her, like flower buds in tropical springs. The topography of a world in which she had dwelt only as a blind man became clear, evident. She could see reliefs, mountains, plains, where before she had roamed through poignant fogs, in feeling, not in knowledge. As the fog lifted she recognized the landscapes. She knew all the time they were there; but she had forgotten shapes and names. Now it all came back with terrific power. Her heart would beat violently as she would read a sentence that hurled back at her a vision. It flared through her, a wondrous display of cosmic ultimates. She lived with them as with old companions long gone, but always passionately loved in the heart beyond the conscious self.
She read, read greedily. Not that she rushed through the pages. Quietly, reverently she would take in the words. Only at times the flow of visions, the great upsurge of fire within her body would be so vehement, that her whole being would rebel madly at the slowness of the brain's response. She would read, read, eat up the pages with her mind, just feel, feel, not bother with clear cerebrations, but absorbing it whole, being drunken with ideas, drunken with the dream presence of Beings crowding around her, forcing her to welcome, forcing her to greet, to recognize, to be again what she was, what she ever is, one of them; beautiful, strong, radiant.
Boris cautioned her to be careful and go more slowly with her reading. He pointed out the danger of such a strong fare. The mind may burn itself into the frenzy of the revelation. Our bodies are not attuned to vibrations too metaphysical. As old contacts are made again, they overpower our present frame. It does not pay to be in a hurry. We must grow like plants. All stages are necessary from seed to stalk and flower and seed again.
She glowed with intense fervor. She seemed so light one was no longer conscious of her being an invalid. She seemed to soar and to dance with the winds. She was wings. She was fire. She burned into him who led her; through him she blazed forth. She was combustion. He was flame. There was light where they passed.
But light is hard to bear; light is death to the shadows in us and all others. Fire hollows out, even the most sublime. Where the radiance has been so rich, there comes the great darkness.
Boris left for the south. He was to be gone from three to four weeks. The few days that followed, she refused to admit his absence. Her love was too fundamentally impersonal to make a tragedy of mere bodily absence. She found him in the light that continued to flow from the books he had guided her through. She withdrew into the immanent shrine where their oneness had celebrated itself. She blinded herself to externalities. The within of trees and dust and stars sang the same booming tone of discovery.
Uncovered they were. All wrappings had glided away. The stark nakedness of all lives struck at her soul like a fanfare. It grew; it grew . . . until the roar of reality became a deafening cataract of truth. It glared at her. It took her and shook her. Her face hollowed. Her limbs trembled. Something poignant, unbearably beautiful seared her through. She refused to see anyone. She could not bear to see human faces. The bare reality of soul grinned at her behind the mask. She felt she was dissolving souls, violating them. She felt sacrilegious. Dazzling storms of light battered her mind.
One night, it gave up. She cried in delirium. She shouted incoherent words of ecstasy. "Mother! Mother! ... all the snow . . . all the light. I am dancing; I am singing! Burn me. Boris! my Boris! . . . I am thy light. Hear me!" And she sang, full-voiced, exhilarated, with resonant, almost nonhuman tones. She could not be stopped. It was midnight. She sang through the night, then collapsed, moaning, still humming songs as if from beyond her exhausted body.
The doctor summoned could not find anything wrong organically. Perhaps a cerebral fever; she had burned herself out. Her nervous strength had collapsed. She slept for days afterwards. Hilda watched her day and night. She attended to her. She clung to her bed. The reflected flame of Rania's ecstasy seemed to have struck her at the heart. She was hanging to the sleeping one, as if entranced, haunted, in unrestrainable devotion.
Rania dreamt. Her dreams sang through her. Words rose from her like prayers. They rose like incense to him she loved, to the mystic being of whom he was but the shadow. They rang like incantations modulating strange names of other times. They quivered like gongs, rapturous and clear.
Hilda listened, tense like a resonating. harp. The words struck at her and she trembled in tragic distress. As in a play of mirrors we see images inverted, so Rania's ecstatic love turned into bitter woe, into hatred in her convulsed mind. Yet she could not run away. She had to listen, to listen. She had to let the light eat her up like acid. She could not escape it. She was bound to the light irrevocably, pitilessly. She was bound to the illumined one, as a shadow to the tree, as reaction to action. She began to hate in the passionate fervor of love; to love in the desperate agony of hatred. She could not touch Rania's body without shivering with some excruciating pain of desire. Not even desire. She was past the stage of desiring anything, any gesture. She was wound up in Rania as the filament of moss in the resilient greens of redwoods and pines. To break away would be death, the multitudinous dying of the life-fibers, one by one torn, lacerated.
Mrs. Falkner at last understood. She had sensed tragedy seeping into Hilda's being. But she had too hermetically closed herself in her intellectual tower to escape and admit it. To admit it would have meant to become involved again in a world of pain she had hoped to shut out forever. Now however, the ominous attitude of her daughter had suddenly become too clear to be left unrecognized. One evening she happened to pass near the door of Rania's room which had been left half-unclosed. She stopped as she heard some strange spasmodic sobbing. She knew it was Hilda. In the dim light of a night lamp she saw Rania lying almost naked on her bed, apparently asleep, and Hilda kneeling, sob-broken, disheveled, her arms convulsed around the resting body, caressing, caressing passionately, yet not touching the flesh, not awakening, caressing with insane mumbling of words, poor haggard love words, shreds of hollowed heart, lacerating the silence with unbearable pain.
For a long time the walling went on and the untactile quivering of hands and body. Then suddenly Rania moved, almost rose hardly awake. Hilda jumped to her feet, arranging distractedly the sheets. "What is it, Hilda?"
"Oh! it was nothing. Just the sheets upset." She was fixing them for the night.
"I had a bad dream. I thought someone was piercing my entire body with sharp needles hidden in flowers . . . poisonous ones, it must have been. But I could not move . . . for the flowers were beautiful."
Hilda broke into desperate sobs.
"But, Hilda, why do you cry? Are you hurt?"
"Oh, no . . . not hurt . . . just tired out." She must go to bed. She rushed out, not noticing her mother who had withdrawn in the darkness of an open door.
That night there was little sleep in the house. Mrs. Falkner's little world had cracked open like a frail crystal container. She was staring at it, helpless. What had really happened? How much of it could have come from Rania? How long had her poor little girl felt the hopeless desires? Or had it been a thing that had grown between them? Did Rania know it? She wondered what Boris would think, should he know. Perhaps he knew already. Perhaps he was not to come back. Then, what was she to do? Separate the girls? Travel? But she had no money. The only possibility would be for Hilda to go and resume her hospital work, far away; or else for Rania to go. How could it all be worked out without causing worse damage?
She suddenly realized how nervous and emaciated Hilda had looked for weeks. She had thought it was just tiredness, the remains of a flu she had caught. But now she became aware of a deeper gangrene that corroded life from within. Not that she had any particular prejudice, or thought of immorality. She only saw Hilda waning away, eaten up by some unconquerable rust. She became frantic with the urge to save her. She ought to have known before. It was too late perhaps. Her life opened as a useless and miserable failure. She had endured moral agonies for this daughter of hers whom she wanted pure, beautiful, happy. She had tolerated the ordeal of conjugal cohabitation with a degenerate for Hilda's sake. Now she had let her waste herself away in an unnatural passion, unnoticed, carelessly. It was pitiful.
She arose. She wanted to go to Hilda's room, take her in her own arms, lull her tenderly, make her whole. She opened her door silently. She listened. There hung a heavy, unpeaceful silence, as in rooms whence sleep has departed. Darkness clings to the walls almost like black crepe, made more sinister yet by the bleak white corners of open windows. Oh, it was useless, Hilda could not understand. For a long time they had not been really intimate. It was hard for a mother to weave again tender feelings to cover the shivering soul of a daughter long estranged.
Rania heard her. She wondered. She felt a queer pressure around her heart, like that of impending disaster. She was stronger now. She felt stronger yet because of this sense of danger. It burst over her like a cold shower reviving her, shaking her from a long torpor. In sudden distress, her mind flew to Boris. Why was he not here? He had written but a couple of hasty notes. He was terribly busy, lecturing, seeing people, traveling through all the small towns of the Southland, giving talks here and there, speaking above all about Russia and India to counteract the nefarious propaganda of newly published books and documents which were distorted accounts of conditions sufficiently difficult in themselves not to need such treatment. If she could only be with him! He had been right. She had overreached the goal, made a fool of herself in her uncontrollable fervor to know all and merge into great dangerous heights. Now, not only was she suffering from it, but Hilda, she realized, had been affected also; perhaps anxiety, sleeplessness — she was not sure. But she could see plainly upon her the marks of deep-seated tiredness, of intense nervous exhaustion.
Mrs. Falkner rose early. Hilda, after a dazed, empty night, one after many, had fallen asleep. Her mother heard her breathe, a little raw and strained, yet regular. She glided quietly downstairs and attended to the morning duties. Soon she was astonished to hear Rania moving in her room. She went to her. Was she getting up? Did she feel well again?
"Yes," said Rania. "I think I am quite all right. I just need to be careful, that is all. I have been a fool to concentrate so hard. I seem never to hit the midground. Always rushing madly ahead, as if I could force life. I suffer. Everybody suffers. It is ridiculous. Just when I thought I had come to a real sense of peace and destiny! Pff! and here I am all up again!"
Mrs. Falkner helped her to dress. She stammered once or twice trying to unburden herself. She dared not. After all perhaps things were not as bad as she thought. Yet she managed to whisper: "I am worrying about Hilda. She looks absolutely worn out. I wonder what it is. I could not get her away from your bed, even when I was there and you were resting. There is something about her which is not natural. Do you feel it? Am I imagining things?"
"I know. She is not well." Rania answered slowly. She wondered what Mrs. Falkner really meant. She knew well Hilda's passionate devotion to her; it weighed upon her. She felt unfree, bound by strange creepers that held her prisoner, that oppressed her.
"Perhaps she ought to do some work again. She dreams too much. If she really studied something, it would be all right. But she only imagines, dreams. She is not fulfilled. She has not lived yet. She cannot stand it. I wish so much she could be healthy, like any other girl, court, marry! But she is afraid. What a dreadful thing, the fear of life!"
A moment later Hilda entered the room. She looked somewhat more rested; but her eyes flared like those of hasheesh eaters. They had no peace. They were craving to be ploughed by light, yearning to be fresh again, sun-lighted. Somehow Mrs. Falkner thought of her husband's look. She shuddered. Was it heredity? Was old blood fermenting in the child in spite of her love? But had she really loved her? Had she not been merely selfish, withdrawing from the girl when there was the greatest need for understanding and tenderness?
A long letter came to Rania. Boris had been so much on the move that he had received no letter or news of any kind until then. Thus he had heard at the same time about her illness and her near-recovery. He begged her to relax and give her mind and nerves a chance to accustom themselves to certain changes that had happened within her. He suggested that it might be better either to see a great many people and have a plain good time or else to be alone as much as possible and lie on the grass and let telluric forces steady her disturbed and over-accelerated pulse. Anyway a change would be good for her if it were possible.
The letter seemed to crystallize a decision which had been forming slowly within her during the morning. She asked Mrs. Falkner if she could not go and stay all alone in a log-cabin which she and some friends had built quite a distance from Carmel beyond Point Sur. She felt the need for solitude and complete rest. Perhaps some friends could motor her down and arrange a few things around the cabin and make it easier. She would bring enough food for a week or two, and thus would have a marvelous rest far from books, human beings, and all strains.
Hilda thought it was a foolish plan. Why? She would die of boredom, and if anything happened to her whom could she call for help? But Mrs. Falkner was overjoyed with the suggestion. Such a change would do her much good. The air was warmer, drier there; the cabin was very comfortable and there was a farm nearby. She could arrange to have someone call for a moment every other day at least to see that she needed nothing. Hilda became sullen. Why could she not go also? She would not talk to her if she craved silence.
Rania shook her head. She took Hilda's hands and looked intently into the girl's unclear eyes.
"Hilda, why don't you start working again, and live your own life? You have been giving me all your time and care, and for that I am deeply, intensely grateful. But it is not right. I am well now. This thing that happened was purely mental and nervous. It is all over now. I am stronger and calmer than ever. I am facing a new life. You must face yours. You have lived with fear, as a recluse, shrinking from all that might have brought you joy, or at any rate experience-frightened by the mere possibility of sorrow and failure. That in itself is the greatest failure. It has brought disaster around you. Even now it blinds you."
Hilda laughed in answer. But her laughter was like the tones of a scarred bell. It was hollow and almost hoarse. She did not answer. Mrs. Falkner suggested she might phone the hospital about some nursing work. They had asked for her again a week ago, being very short of efficient help. Hilda began to tremble. Her face became white. What were they both plotting against her? They wanted to get rid of her? Why not say it plainly? She would not work in the hospital. She hated the thought of it. Rather waitress in a restaurant. She had seen too much of it while nursing Rania. She could not do it any longer. She could not stand the misery of it. How could they suggest it to her? If she was no longer wanted at home, all right, she would go, beg in the street! God! was that her recompense for having watched day and night over Rania, for having kept the house for her mother that she might pass hours plunged in her empty books? Why should she bother after all, fool that she was! If Rania wished to be sick at Point Sur and dream all alone of her prophet and god, why should she not? The pity of it! That was life. Afraid, was she? God! what was there to be more afraid of than those we thought we loved, parents, friends, all! She would not stand it. She could not go on. They had better leave her alone, alone . . . alone!
She ran upstairs sobbing hysterically, slammed the door of her room. They heard her fall over her bed which vibrated. Her mother stood up, aghast. She looked at Rania. Big tears were filling her eyes. There was a painful silence. Rania rose slowly on her crutches.
"You go and help her, Mrs. Falkner. It is better. I shall phone Peter Harbin and ask him to motor me down to the cabin. Tomorrow is Saturday. He will probably be able to do it. I must go . . . and leave you both. You have much to do together."