The next day Rania left with Peter Harbin and his young sister, Nadia, who had recently come from boarding school to recover from illness. Their parents had been killed in Russia. She was seventeen. He was working for the newspaper, getting ads, interviewing people of importance drifting in or through Carmel. He was strangely quiet. Hardly ever spoke. He had seen too much perhaps.
His manners were refined. In this at least he remembered his aristocratic youth. The rest he had forgotten, deliberately. His family had fought with the whites. He hated the carnage, atrocities committed, the whole game of counter-revolution. A youth of twenty, he had fled with his little sister, worked his way through China, Japan; then San Francisco. Working as a clerk for a firm, he began to hate the city. His sister was alone, needed care. Someone mentioned Carmel. He hiked down the coast, carrying her in his arms part of the time. He had been there ever since. Having received some money from friends, he had sent Nadia to a girls' school in San Francisco, for the last three winters. But she hated it. She loved the sea, to run barefoot in the woods, to roll on the sand, to cut the breakers with her smooth bladelike body, illness had been a good pretext. She would stay now in Carmel. She would wait in a tearoom and help her brother keep his little two-room cottage in the pinewoods.
Rania had seen her but twice since she had arrived. She began to love her tenderly. She recalled to her so much of her own youth, her own vigor, agility of old. They both came from neighboring lands. There was something of the same rich, free blood in them. It flared forth in contact with vast power-filled America. But in Nadia there was a curious reticence, a quiet simplicity that her elder had lacked. The child was meeting life on a more objective, more accurate, more dispassionate plane. She belonged to a colder generation; to one which estimates and analyzes more, which may run wild and fall into hectic depravations, but does so objectively, cold-bloodedly, with a queer mixture of experimental daring, sheepish desire to conform to what everyone does, and disabused boredom; yet with keen and vivid intuitions ready to pierce through shams and pathetic sentimental shells.
They sped on the precipitous road, making sharp turns over sheer cliffs. The hills now rose more majestically. They stretched up, fervently green, huge bodies lying parallel on their side, feet deep in the waters, heads toward the land, beyond. Dark canyons heavied with hairlike trees told mysterious pungent secrets. Brooks gurgled through, soon vanishing into the rock-strewn ocean. The magnificence of it was overwhelming. It dilated one into new dimensions, into some supernal kinship with elemental powers. From these limbed forms an intense vitality surged. They vibrated with power. Half-sunken gods and goddesses loved in tumultuous embraces.
That love grew more heroic still, yet more serene, as the coast unfolded, as Point Sur was left behind and new perspectives, bent to the southeast, arose under paling skies. Opalescent mist floated at the confine of sea and land. The road mounted up, leaving the waters below, high over fog. The blue expanse of sea grew vertical. The earth heaved still more majestic curves that struck the ocean in a magnificent sweep. Torso piled over torso in cosmic slumber. The air felt warmer, more lucent. It glowed with the rising moon, a seed thrown upward from the meeting of earth and sea. This moon seemed to bring the whole vision to a focus. It made the mist iridescent, which the last sun-glow licked from below. All curves became transfixed by the red spear of light that sank far away in the unknown.
On a rounded eminence, commanding all the coast north and south, the log cabin stood, placid and low. Nadia jumped from the car before it stopped. She could not stand still. The power of the earth boiled through her. She was drunken with being flung open at the sky. She kissed the sturdy oaks, spirals of strength radiating from the hills, locks of dark curly hair with grasping roots, tense fiber and brittle leaves. Rania breathed deeply the marvelous scent and ecstasy of the winds that were blowing and surging. The moment was so strong, she feared it would break from too much intensity. She closed her eyes to feel it deeper. She thought of Boris. How she wanted him here! His spirit would feel akin to the grandeur of the earth. It would mount the earth as a pedestal to cry out from their bare summits, dome of fecundity, the tone of rising ages, of the new child of regenerated manhood.
The night grew colder. Logs burned and crackled in the huge fireplace. The flames danced, wondrous release from the rigidity of the wood. They, too, were life-cries surging from huge trunks that had grown silently for centuries. From the very death of the trees there came now dancing tones, leaping incandescence, warmth that one stretches into, that one breathes in with open lungs; good warmth.
Nadia and Peter slept out of doors. They wanted to be wax for the immensity, wax for it to stamp itself upon during the emollient hours of sleep. They were up early. The sun was warm; the south wind blew them fragrances that seemed to remember orange fields and sagebrushes. Hours of deep inbreathing passed. They went swiftly by. Nadia looked at Rania with tear-heavied eyes when her brother mentioned departure. She did not dare ask in words; but her entire being implored. Rania understood. There was so much happiness flowing from earth to humans and back to the earth, that she was afraid to break the contact. Her eyes said "yes" before her lips shaped the word.
Then she remembered Hilda had asked her to go with her and might feel hurt if Nadia would remain. The thought shot through her just as Nadia threw herself on her neck, kissing her with joyful excitement. It was too late, now, to refuse. Peter left alone. He was to come back for them in two weeks, unless they would send word before. As he left, Rania felt some dark wing graze her. A poignant hurt stopped her heart. She stood, wondering. Nadia was looking toward the sea. Her strong yet slender body profiled itself against the sun illumining from below the full underfoliage of the oaks. It seemed to take hold of the youth and lift her heavenward. Light claimed her. Nadia stretched her arms for some great wing-flight. The sun owned her. As she turned suddenly crying out in rapture: "Rania, look!" the light seemed to throw her at Rania's face. Behind her one could observe, faintly lighted, the evening star.
Then passed days of pure and serene felicity. The fresh open wonders of the young girl produced a strange exaltation in Rania.
She communed again through her with radiant life. In most beings she could always sense a tension, a bruised unwholesome feeling, or else a sort of excited forgetfulness, like grownups trying to become as children. The ego stood up in most of them like huge signs in public parks: "Do not trespass," or "Private Property" along country roads.
Nadia glowed with the openness of an everlasting: "Come through me." She was amazingly unselfconscious. She knew she was there. It was she herself, Nadia. Nobody had any business to spoil that; and her mind was very clear about what that meant. She was not going to lose her head. She was quietly passing through life; therefore life and all living things were welcome to pass through her. Quietly — but a strange intoxicated quiet. A great inner certitude which could afford to be passionately disturbed. She was so sure of knowing, that she was perfectly at ease in ignorance. That was the reason she hated school. They tried to teach her what she knew she knew somewhere. She did not bother much to find out where this somewhere was. Like so many modern youths, she was a fatalist. She sensed the absurdity of her elders' bragging vanity of self. She saw clearly and calmly the mess they had made of their own lives. The older generation came for judgment before her absolutely unsentimental clear-sightedness. The figure it made was so grotesque and their big words so childish, that she could not refrain from a sort of generalized smile of pity. They were all right, the poor dears! They would know some day.
At first Rania was a little taken aback by such an attitude. Then she realized that it really was at the bottom of the extravagances and apparent cold conceit of modern youth. She felt it justified, even if it was only a half-wisdom, and a rather disconcerting sort of wisdom at that. It seemed to complement in a subtle way her own tempestuous sense of selfhood and her strained fervor. It was true that she had always opened herself to life and felt an inner certainty beyond her turmoils; but there was a difference. It was herself, Rania, that opened herself and was certain. But in a curious way she felt in her companion not Nadia-the-open, but openness called-Nadia; a subtle reversal, impersonality of a kind, with a coloring of extreme personality on the surface. Objectivity was, where, in Rania, subjectivity had yearned. Only recently could she feel herself really objectively peaceful, poised in destiny. In Nadia destiny was splashing into personality; but underneath the descent foam, the waters of life flowed, strong, unmoved, clear.
Every day Nadia went, alone, for long walks over the hills, through the canyon filled with decaying trunks and colossal redwoods, rust-eaten in many places, yet stubbornly darting through the thicket, sky-intoxicated. She came back, hot and disheveled, glowing. She would lead Rania to the cliff's edge. Then with sure agility she would run down steep paths to the sea. She would throw her clothes away, and shouting to Rania who could hardly hear her voice from her three- or four-hundred-foot elevation, would jump into the cold waves. Then, wet and salty, half-wrapped, she would climb the nearly perpendicular cliffs, and throw herself into Rania's arms, a thing of the sea, effervescent with foam and wind.
Before the fire they talked. Rania had felt her way carefully into her mysterious intangible openness. She had found where the open closed into a soul-womb, in which she began to rouse the deeper sense of spiritual motherhood, the sense of the sacredness of ideas, the sense of racial duty, or self-dedication. Nadia began to feel the restriction of a destiny. It gave a meaning to her certainty; it made it become human. From elemental openness and instinctual stability to human meaningfulness, the road may be hard and tragic. It often needs to be tragic with most of our youth whose hectic sophistication answers to the grotesque hypocrisy of their elders. But where the elders can guide the younger ones into selfhood and the sense of destiny, there may come quick and wondrous growth and the descent of soul into the open vase.
Dreams came to Rania. Their fringes of reality bore heavily upon her consciousness. They seemed to flow in two layers, one very somber, oppressed by the insistent beating of some outer sea upon her soul petrified into some mysterious stone-duty; the other, intense with unremembered events of some far-distant beyond, out of which she would feel only Boris's face emerging transfigured by an unearthly radiance. These two dream worlds lived with her all through the day in an occult polyphony, the harmony of which was evident, yet intensely dissonant. The physical world seemed to act as a unifier, the two streams to converge in this waking mind that almost collapsed under the stress of the harmonization.
But when the pressure was greatest Nadia would always appear from nowhere apparently, and her presence would act as a tonic, focusing the tensions into a definite orb. These tensions would knead themselves into a stream of power that would rush into what would appear as the vacuum of Nadia's soul, there to take form and virtue. And Rania would witness herself in young sun-streaming eyes that loved her. Was it a mysterious transfer of power, of destiny? They both felt it as a sacred rite that was being celebrated in and through them. It made hours and days sing paeans of deliverance and fecundation.
Peter came two days before the expected time. It happened that he appeared unnoticed as Nadia had run half-clad from her ocean bath up the long winding path and was lying close to Rania on the grass, trying to regain her breath. As Rania turned quickly in hearing footsteps and threw a blanket over the half-naked girl, she saw Peter's face turn sullen and strained.
"Oh! it is you, Peter! We did not expect you so soon. Nadia has just come back from her bath. She is still out of breath."
Yes, he had come sooner, being unexpectedly free and thinking he would enjoy a day or two of rest with them. Rania asked a little anxiously about Mrs. Falkner and Hilda. Peter answered evasively. They were not very well. Hilda had apparently taken a great fancy to Robert Johnson; they were much together. But she seemed terribly nervous, and her mother very depressed.
He brought several letters for Rania. Two were from Boris whose coming was to be once more delayed by new engagements around San Francisco. These were to be positively the last, however. He was weary of continuous talking, of being always on the go with people. The plan for his big book had come to a definite point of crystallization in his mind. He had decided to start writing it at once — this would mean many months of quiet work. Carmel seemed the proper place, and the thought of being with her again and of relaxing into creative work elated him intensely.
Another letter was from her lawyer. Her husband's father had fought stubbornly against giving her any more money after Richard's death, and only after many threats of lawsuits had he proposed to pay her the round sum of a few thousand dollars — a small amount in view of his wealth — which her lawyer urged her to accept. Her house in the Hollywood canyon was about to be sold for a good price, and she would thus have a capital, the income of which would be sufficient for her needs.
The morning after, while Nadia was away hiking, Peter, whose reserved attitude had somewhat disconcerted Rania, asked her to give him a few moments for a talk which he felt was necessary, however unpleasant it might be. "What was it?" she asked. She was ready for the worst.
Well, it had happened like this. When he had come back after leaving them both, he had received the next morning a visit from Hilda, who had asked how Rania was. Of course he had told her that Nadia had stayed with Rania. Upon hearing this Hilda had turned terribly white, had almost collapsed; then after recovering herself, had flown in a sort of hysterical rage, swearing at him, insulting him for leaving his sister in the hands of a woman who was perverse and corrupt, who had attempted many times to seduce her and make love to her. He was a big fool. Did he not know what kind of creature Rania was? He should look at her, Hilda; for months she had slaved at her side nursing her. In recompense she had gotten what? Mistreatment and obscene propositions. Now, she was a nervous wreck. She had wanted to take a rest and go to Big Sur. But no, Rania would have nothing of her. Rania wished to be alone, to meditate, to dream of her god, Boris. Nonsense! What she wanted was to lay hands upon a young girl and satisfy her lust. God! what a pity the whole thing was!
Then Hilda had almost collapsed and he had to carry her back to her mother. At first he did not know what to believe. The accusation seemed to him monstrous. Yet there must be something wrong somewhere. It was his duty to find out somehow something of the truth. Well, he had wanted first to come back at once to Big Sur. But he decided to have a talk with Mrs. Falkner. It had been a painful one. The woman almost broke down on hearing even the few guarded words he had said in order to feel the ground. She had told him she suspected Hilda of being terribly in love with Rania. She had seen some things which had opened her eyes suddenly. She did not think Rania was at fault. Yet she could not tell for sure. She was broken by the whole thing.
Hilda had suddenly turned to Robert, the poor boy who had been in love with her for months. She had thrown herself at him in a sort of unnatural, hectic way, and Mrs. Falkner felt that nothing but catastrophe could possibly come from such an outburst. She was sure Hilda did not love him, but did it all out of spite and rancor. The situation was becoming unbearable. She thought Rania had better not live with them any longer; yet she hated to see her alone.
After that he had thought he would wait a little before coming back to Big Sur and see how things would develop. He had not heard anything more; but he had come ahead of time to be able to talk to her and ask her frankly to tell him on her word of honor what had been the matter between her and Hilda. Not that he especially cared to know her own private matters; but his sister's name, reputation and happiness were involved and while he had trusted Rania and did not come back at once to take away his sister, still things did not look too clear. He felt he had the right to know, under his own pledge of secrecy.
Rania had kept very still during the long speech. Her face had become quite drawn and stonelike. The outer darkness was pounding upon it. She had to be calm, quiet. Was it not her task to stand and remain, resisting with stoic indifference the impact of the destructive winds, sheltering the seeds within the great wall of protection? Yet her mind worked intensely. It dug into the past, flew over the plains of futurity. It weighed causes and effects. It evaluated the possible reactions of denials, affirmations, concealment. It tried to read Peter's thoughts, deeper still, his heart. How much did he believe? How much would he understand of the truth, if told? How much of it would help him, help her, and above all Nadia? For the one great thought in her, that which rang foremost, louder than her own sense of honor, or truthfulness, of anything whatsoever, was: to save Nadia from trouble, from the destruction of the new inner beauty that had begun to develop within her and which brutal incriminations or suspicions might suddenly shatter.
And so she turned her eyes toward Peter and holding them straight and deep into his own, she said very quietly, yet with vibrant intensity:
"What Hilda told you is not true, Peter. And you can be sure that your sister has not heard a word from me or seen any gesture which might have conveyed to her any feeling or desire from my part which would not have been pure and natural. I have found in her a beautiful younger sister; and I love her as such. And we have had wonderful talks and rich days. I believe she discovered in me things that none of her young friends at school had been able to give her. There is nothing at all that can be open to reproach, I swear to you.
"As to Hilda, I am deeply sad and pained to see her in such a condition. I felt she would be jealous knowing that Nadia was staying with me. But I had already told your sister she could remain. Even though I thought Hilda might be somewhat hurt, I never would have believed she would throw herself into such a state of madness and hysteria. She was wonderful to me when I was so terribly ill and helpless. Her devotion has been amazing. Well, Peter, you can imagine how close our contacts have been. She has handled my body for months. She has done everything for me. Of course it was done professionally. She was paid for it all the time I was in the hospital and even for a while after. I have been paying my board in Mrs. Falkner's home all the time. These are trivial matters, but you must know so that you will not get a wrong impression of me.
"I have known or suspected for a long time that Hilda's attachment for me was much too personal, even physical. I had no repulsion from it, but I did not encourage it. I thought the girl was high-strung and I urged her all the time to be with boys and live a natural life, instead of being in constant fear of life. What else could I do? Perhaps I should have left the house. But then Boris came into my life. I did not want to precipitate anything. She became jealous of Boris, too, it seems. Perhaps the intensity of my devotion to his work and his wisdom has generated energies which have reacted upon Hilda in a destructive way. I really cannot know fully. I have been ill and delirious for a few days. Something may have happened which I have not been conscious of, I know Mrs. Falkner has been very upset ever since. What did she see? I do not know. She did not tell me. I can only affirm that I have not been conscious of anything in which I had any guilt whatsoever.
"You may not believe me. I suppose that if Hilda goes on telling such a story about me, people will believe her. I cannot do anything about it. Can I? I only hope it will not reach Nadia's ears. For while I suppose she understands these things, as all our youngsters seem to, yet it might disturb her and have a bad effect upon her.
"And now, tell me, what shall we do about it?"
Obviously there was nothing to be done, Peter answered. He was glad to have heard what she had said. He was willing and happy to believe her and he would watch for any possible development. In the meantime he did not know whether it might not be best for her to leave the Falkner house.
"But," said Rania, "if I do suddenly, Hilda may become still more jealous and circulate more infamies concerning my relation to Nadia."
There was the problem. She thought she had to go back first to the Falkners, and see how things would turn out. Rushing any decision might make matters worse.
The return to Carmel was somewhat sullen and tense. Nadia noticed a certain serious air about her companions, and she wondered silently what the reason for it might be. She would have to find out. Rania tried to be gay, but somehow it did not ring very true; and Nadia's big eyes would look into hers questioningly. Would she have the courage to carry on the comedy? She had the uncomfortable feeling that Peter was watching more or less unconsciously their every move. It made gestures tense and somewhat forced.
Rania returned home. Mrs. Falkner welcomed her with sad, worn-out sleepless eyes. Hilda was driving with Robert Johnson. They had suddenly become inseparable. Tired with the trip, Rania went to bed. She slept badly. Hilda came in late, slammed the doors, as if purposely. Rania heard her through the thin partition, sighing, speaking incoherent words in dreams. When at last she herself slumbered she passed from one nightmare to another. She felt oppressed. Her body ached. The air was damper in Carmel. Rain was coming again. A great darkness overwhelmed her which grew thicker as dawn came, as she again met Hilda, whose face seemed to be brave with an air of bitter defiance, as she talked alone to Mrs. Falkner about the situation created by Hilda's behavior. Robert Johnson was running around all day with her. He was almost giving up his job in Monterey. People had begun to talk about it. What could be done to avert more tragedy?
Rania decided to leave the house. Hilda shrugged her shoulders when told. All right! If she had had enough of them, why not try someone else! Rania took a room in the Fonda Hotel. She thought it would be wiser than to rent a cottage. Her actions would lead less to misinterpretations, and besides, she would have service and would feel less lonely.
But rain set in for a week of continuous downpour. The streets were torrents. Roofs leaked. Rheumatic pains, sciatica took hold of her. She was soon confined to her bed in great pain. Hilda did not come to see her. Nadia was busy in a tearoom and managed to steal but a few moments to visit Rania who did not dare urge her to come too often.
Days of terrible depression weighed drearily upon the brave soul upon whom destiny was beating relentlessly. Boris wrote a few words of cheer that stirred her. What would he say? She would tell him all. He knew already perhaps. What would he think of Nadia? He must love her, help her. Boris-Nadia. These were her two lights that kept flaming forth. Yet she had almost ceased to care. All was the same. Nothing mattered much. She was so weary. She could no longer stand physical pain. She begged for morphine. It calmed her. She began to dream. She did not want food. The fog and rain pressed in. The drops of water hit the house's skull and fever grew all around. It pounded the silence. It shrieked agonizing counterpoints on the bass of the sea, on the walls of the wind, shaking the pines as one shakes a drunkard to bring him to his senses. The Big Sur days stood out, golden mosaic of dreams in a haunted decrepit church filled with bats.
Nadia herself seemed rain-beaten. She had dimly sensed what had happened. She had asked Rania cautiously. Rania did not say much, but enough to open the girl's eyes. Nadia had never liked Hilda. She sensed that Rania suffered from things Hilda had said; she guessed what it must have been. It depressed her. A beautiful fire that had blazed forth was dying now in the dark. She felt cold, shivering, damp. She grew vindictive toward her brother.
In the midst of this distress, there came to Carmel a man who called himself Sarmananda.