Un Peu D'Amour

by Robert W. Chambers
When I returned to the plateau from my investigation of the crater, I realized that I had descended the grassy pit as far as any human being could descend.  No living creature could pass that barrier of flame and vapour.  Of that I was convinced. 
          Now, not only the crater but its steaming effluvia was utterly unlike anything I had ever before beheld.  There was no trace of lava to be seen, or of pumice, ashes, or of volcanic rejecta in any form whatever.  There were no sulphuric odours, no pungent fumes, nothing to teach the olfactory nerves what might be the nature of the silvery steam rising from the crater incessantly in a vast circle, ringing its circumference halfway down the slope. 
          Under this thin curtain of steam a ring of pale yellow flames played and sparkled, completely encircling the slope. 
          The crater was about half a mile deep; the sides sloped gently to the bottom.  But the odd feature of the entire phenomenon was this: the bottom of the crater seemed to be entirely free from fire and vapour.  It was disk-shaped, sandy, and flat, about a quarter of a mile in diameter.  Through my field-glasses I could see patches of grass and wild flowers growing in the sand here and there, and the sparkle of water, and a crow or two, feeding and walking about.  I looked at the girl who was standing beside me, then cast a glance around at the very unusual landscape. 
          We were standing on the summit of a mountain some two thousand feet high, looking into a cup-shaped depression or crater, on the edges of which we stood. 
          This low, flat-topped mountain, as I say, was grassy and quite treeless, although it rose like a truncated sugar-cone out of a wilderness of trees which stretched for miles below us, north, south, east, and west, bordered on the horizon by towering blue mountains, their distant ranges enclosing the forests as in a vast amphitheatre. 
          From the centre of this enormous green floor of foliage rose our grassy hill, and it appeared to be the only irregularity which broke the level wilderness as far as the base of the dim blue ranges encircling the horizon. 
          Except for the log bungalow of Mr.  Blythe on the eastern edge of this grassy plateau, there was not a human habitation in sight, nor a trace of man’s devastating presence in the wilderness around us. 
          Again I looked questioningly at the girl beside me and she looked back at me rather seriously. 
          “Shall we seat ourselves here in the sun?” she asked. 
          I nodded. 
          Very gravely we settled down side by side on the thick green grass. 
          “Now,” she said, “I shall tell you why I wrote you to come out here.  Shall I?” 
          “By all means, Miss Blythe.” 
          Sitting cross-legged, she gathered her ankles into her hands, settling herself as snugly on the grass as a bird settles on its nest. 
          “The phenomena of nature,” she said, “have always interested me intensely, not only from the artistic angle but from the scientific point of view. 
          “It is different with father.  He is a painter; he cares only for the artistic aspects of nature.  Phenomena of a scientific nature bore him.  Also, you may have noticed that he is of a—a slightly impatient disposition.” 
          I had noticed it.  He had been anything but civil to me when I arrived the night before, after a five-hundred mile trip on a mule, from the nearest railroad— a journey performed entirely alone and by compass, there being no trail after the first fifty miles. 
          To characterize Blythe as slightly impatient was letting him down easy.  He was a selfish, bad-tempered old pig. 
          “Yes,” I said, answering her, “I did notice a negligible trace of impatience about your father.” 
          She flushed. 
          “You see I did not inform my father that I had written to you.  He doesn’t like strangers; he doesn’t like scientists.  I did not dare tell him that I had asked you to come out here.  It was entirely my own idea.  I felt that I must write you because I am positive that what is happening in this wilderness is of vital scientific importance.” 
          “How did you get a letter out of this distant and desolate place?” I asked. 
          “Every two months the storekeeper at Windflower Station sends in a man and a string of mules with staples for us.  The man takes our further orders and our letters back to civilization.” 
          I nodded. 
          “He took my letter to you—among one or two others I sent—” 
          A charming colour came into her cheeks.  She was really extremely pretty.  I liked  that girl.  When a girl blushes when she speaks to a man he immediately accepts her heightened colour as a personal tribute.  This is not vanity: it is merely a proper sense of personal worthiness. 
          She said thoughtfully: 
          “The mail bag which that man brought to us last week contained a letter which, had I received it earlier, would have made my invitation to you unnecessary.  I’m sorry I disturbed you.” 
          “I am not,” said I, looking into her beautiful eyes. 
          I twisted my mustache into two attractive points, shot my cuffs, and glanced at her again, receptively. 
          She had a far-away expression in her eyes.  I straightened my necktie.  A man, without being vain, ought to be conscious of his own worth. 
          “And now,” she continued, “I am going to tell you the various reasons why I asked so celebrated a scientist as yourself to come here.” 
          I thanked her for her encomium. 
          “Ever since my father retired from Boston to purchase this hill and the wilderness surrounding it,” she went on, “ever since he came here to live a hermit’s life—a life devoted solely to painting landscapes—I also have lived here all alone with him. 
          “That is three years, now.  And from the very beginning—from the very first day of our arrival, somehow or other I was conscious that there was something abnormal about this corner of the world.” 
          She bent forward, lowering her voice a trifle: 
          “Have you noticed,” she asked, “that so many things seem to be circular out here?” 
          “Circular?” I repeated, surprised. 
         “Yes.  That crater is circular; so is the bottom of it; so is this plateau, and the hill; and the forests surrounding us; and the mountain ranges on the horizon.” “But all
this is natural.” 
          “Perhaps.  But in those woods, down there, there are, here and there, great circles of crumbling soil— perfect circles a mile in diameter.” 
          “Mounds built by prehistoric man, no doubt.” 
          She shook her head: 
          “These are not prehistoric mounds.” 
          “Why not?” 
          “Because they have been freshly made.” 
          “How do you know ?” 
          “The earth is freshly upheaved; great trees, partly uprooted, slant at every angle from the sides of the enormous piles of newly upturned earth; sand and stones are still
sliding from the raw ridges.” 
          She leaned nearer and dropped her voice still lower: 
          “More than that,” she said, “my father and I both have seen one of these huge circles in the making!” 
          “What!” I exclaimed, incredulously. 
          “It is true.  We have seen several.  And it enrages father.” 
          “Yes, because it upsets the trees where he is painting landscapes, and tilts them in every direction.  Which, of course, ruins his picture; and he is obliged to start
another, which vexes him dreadfully.” 
          I think I must have gaped at her in sheer astonishment. 
          “But there is something more singular than that for you to investigate,” she said calmly.  “Look down at that circle of steam which makes a perfect ring around the bowl of the crater, halfway down.  Do you see the flicker of fire under the vapour?” 
          She leaned so near and spoke in such a low voice that her fragrant breath fell upon my cheek: 
          “In the fire, under the vapours, there are little animals.” 
          “Little beasts live in the fire—slim, furry creatures, smaller than a weasel.  I’ve seen them peep out of the fire and scurry back into it....  Now are you sorry that I wrote you to come? And will you forgive me for bringing you out here?” 
          An indescribable excitement seized me, endowing me with a fluency and eloquence unusual: 
          “I thank you from the bottom of my heart!” I cried; “—from the depths of a heart the emotions of which are entirely and exclusively of scientific origin!” 
          In the impulse of the moment I held out my hand; she laid hers in it with charming diffidence. 
          “Yours is the discovery,” I said.  “Yours shall be the glory.  Fame shall crown you; and perhaps if there remains any reflected light in the form of a by-product, some modest and negligible little ray may chance to illuminate me.” 
          Surprised and deeply moved by my eloquence, I bent over her hand and saluted it with my lips. 
          She thanked me.  Her pretty face was rosy. 
          It appeared that she had three cows to milk, new-laid eggs to gather, and the construction of some fresh butter to be accomplished. 
          At the bars of the grassy pasture slope she dropped me a curtsey, declining very shyly to let me carry her lacteal paraphernalia. 
          So I continued on to the bungalow garden, where Blythe sat on a camp stool under a green umbrella, painting a picture of something or other. 
          “Mr.  Blythe!” I cried, striving to subdue my enthusiasm.  “The eyes of the scientific world are now open upon this house! The searchlight of Fame is about to be turned upon you—” 
          “I prefer privacy,” he interrupted.  “That’s why I came here.  I’ll be obliged if you’ll turn off that searchlight.” 
          “But, my dear Mr.  Blythe—” 
          “I want to be let alone,” he repeated irritably.  “I came out here to paint and to enjoy privately my own paintings.” 
          If what stood on his easel was a sample of his pictures, nobody was likely to share his enjoyment. 
          “Your work,” said I, politely, “is—is—” 
         “Is what!” he snapped.  “What is it—if you think you know?” 
          “It is entirely, so to speak, per se—by itself “ 
          “What the devil do you mean by that?” 
          I looked at his picture, appalled.  The entire canvas was one monotonous vermillion conflagration.  I examined it with my head on one side, then on the other side; I made a funnel with both hands and peered intently through it at the picture.  A menacing murmuring sound came from him. 
          “Satisfying—exquisitely satisfying,” I concluded.  “I have often seen such sunsets—” 
          “I mean such prairie fires—” 
          “Damnation!” he exclaimed.  “I’m painting a bowl of nasturtiums!” 
          “I was speaking purely in metaphor,” said I with a sickly smile.  “To me a nasturtium by the river brink is more than a simple flower.  It is a broader, grander, more
magnificent, more stupendous symbol.  It may mean anything, everything—such as sunsets and conflagrations and Götterdämmerungs! Or—” and my voice was subtly modulated to an appealing and persuasive softness— “it may mean nothing at all—chaos, void, vacuum, negation, the exquisite annihilation of what has never even existed.” 
          He glared at me over his shoulder.  If he was infected by Cubist tendencies he evidently had not understood what I said. 
          “If you won’t talk about my pictures I don’t mind your investigating this district,” he grunted, dabbing at his palette and plastering a wad of vermilion upon his canvas; “but I object to any public invasion of my artistic privacy until I am ready for it.” 
          “When will that be?” 
          He pointed with one vermilion-soaked brush toward a long, low, log building. 
          “In that structure,” he said, “are packed one thousand and ninety-five paintings— all signed by me.  I have executed one or two every day since I came here.  When I have painted exactly ten thousand pictures, no more, no less, I shall erect here a gallery large enough to contain them all. 
          “Only real lovers of art will ever come here to study them.  It is five hundred miles from the railroad.  Therefore, I shall never have to endure the praises of the dilettante, the patronage of the idler, the vapid rhapsodies of the vulgar.  Only those who understand will care to make the pilgrimage.” 
          He waved his brushes at me: 
          “The conservation of national resources is all well enough—the setting aside of timber reserves, game preserves, bird refuges, all these projects are very good in a way.  But I have dedicated this wilderness as a last and only refuge in all the world for true Art! Because true Art, except for my pictures, is, I believe, now practically extinct!...  You’re in my way.  Would you mind getting out?” 
          I had sidled around between him and his bowl of nasturtiums, and I hastily stepped aside.  He squinted at the flowers, mixed up a flamboyant mess of colour on his palette, and daubed away with unfeigned satisfaction, no longer noticing me until I started to go.  Then: 
          “What is it you’re here for, anyway?” he demanded abruptly.  I said with dignity: 
          “I am here to investigate those huge rings of earth thrown up in the forest as by a gigantic mole.” He continued to paint for a few moments: 
          “Well, go and investigate ‘em,” he snapped.  “I’m not infatuated with your society.” 
          “What do you think they are?” I asked, mildly ignoring his wretched manners.  “I don’t know and I don’t care, except, that sometimes when I begin to paint several trees, the very trees I’m painting are suddenly heaved up and tilted in every direction, and all my work goes for nothing.  That makes me mad! Otherwise, the matter has no interest for me.” 
          “But what in the world could cause—” 
          “I don’t know and I don’t care!” he shouted, waving palette and brushes angrily.  “Maybe it’s an army of moles working all together under the ground; maybe it’s some species of circular earthquake.  I don’t know! I don’t care! But it annoys me.  And if you can devise any scientific means to stop it, I’ll be much obliged to you.  Otherwise, to be perfectly frank, you bore me.” 
          “The mission of Science,” said I solemnly, “is to alleviate the inconveniences of mundane existence.  Science, therefore, shall extend a helping hand to her frailer sister, Art—” 
          “Science can’t patronize Art while I’m around!” he retorted.  “I won’t have it!” “But, my dear Mr.  Blythe—” 
          “I won’t dispute with you, either! I don’t like to dispute!” he shouted.  “Don’t try to make me.  Don’t attempt to inveigle me into discussion! I know all I want to know.  I don’t want to know anything you want me to know, either!” 
          I looked at the old pig in haughty silence, nauseated by his conceit.  After he had plastered a few more tubes of vermilion over his canvas he quieted down, and presently gave me an oblique glance over his shoulder. 
          “Well,” he said, “what else are you intending to investigate?” 
          “Those little animals that live in the crater fires,” I said bluntly. 
          “Yes,” he nodded, indifferently, “there are creatures which live somewhere in the fires of that crater.” 
          “Do you realize what an astounding statement you are making?” I asked.  “It doesn’t astound me.  What do I care whether it astounds you or anybody else? Nothing interests me except Art.” 
          “I tell you nothing interests me except Art!” he yelled.  “Don’t dispute it! Don’t answer me! Don’t irritate me! I don’t care whether anything lives in the fire or not!  Let it live there!” 
          “But have you actually seen live creatures in the flames?” 
          “Plenty! Plenty! What of it? What about it? Let ‘em live there, for all I care.  I’ve painted pictures of ‘em, too.  That’s all that interests me.” 
          “What do they look like, Mr.  Blythe?” 
          “Look like? I don’t know! They look like weasels or rats or bats or cats or— stop asking me questions! It irritates me! It depresses me! Don’t ask any more! Why don’t you go in to lunch? And—tell my daughter to bring me a bowl of salad out here.  I’ve no time to stuff myself.  Some people have.  I haven’t.  You’d better go in to lunch....  And tell my daughter to bring me seven tubes of Chinese vermilion with my salad!” 
          “You don’t mean to mix—” I began, then checked myself before his fury. 
          “I’d rather eat vermilion paint on my salad than sit here talking to you!” he shouted. 
          I cast a pitying glance at this impossible man, and went into the house.  After all, he was her father.  I had to endure him. 
          After Miss Blythe had carried to her father a large bucket of lettuce leaves, she returned to the veranda of the bungalow. 
          A delightful luncheon awaited us; I seated her, then took the chair opposite.  A delicious omelette, fresh biscuit, salad, and strawberry preserves, and a tall tumbler of iced tea imbued me with a sort of mild exhilaration. 
          Out of the corner of my eye I could see Blythe down in the garden, munching his lettuce leaves like an ill-tempered rabbit, and daubing away at his picture while he munched. 
          “Your father,” said I politely, “is something of a genius.” 
          “I am so glad you think so,” she said gratefully.  “But don’t tell him so.  He has been surfeited with praise in Boston.  That is why we came out here.” 
          “Art,” said I, “is like science, or tobacco, or tooth-wash.  Every man to his own brand.  Personally, I don’t care for his kind.  But who can say which is the best kind of anything? Only the consumer.  Your father is his own consumer.  He is the best judge of what he likes.  And that is the only true test of art, or anything else.” 
          “How delightfully you reason!” she said.  “How logically, how generously!” 
          “Reason is the handmaid of Science, Miss Blythe.” 
          She seemed to understand me.  Her quick intelligence surprised me, because I myself was not perfectly sure whether I had emitted piffie or an epigram. 
          As we ate our strawberry preserves we discussed ways and means of capturing a specimen of the little fire creatures which, as she explained, so frequently peeped out at her from the crater fires, and, at her slightest movement, scurried back again into the flames.  Of course I believed that this was only her imagination.  Yet, for years I had entertained a theory that fire supported certain unknown forms of life. 
          “I have long believed,” said I, “that fire is inhabited by living organisms which require the elements and temperature of active combustion for their existence— microorganisms, but not,” I added smilingly, “any higher type of life.” 
          “In the fireplace,” she ventured diffidently, “I sometimes see curious things— dragons and snakes and creatures of grotesque and peculiar shapes.” 
          I smiled indulgently, charmed by this innocently offered contribution to science.  Then she rose, and I rose and took her hand in mine, and we wandered over the grass toward the crater, while I explained to her the difference between what we imagine we see in the glowing coals of a grate fire and my own theory that fire is the abode of living animalculae. 
          On the grassy edge of the crater we paused and looked down the slope, where the circle of steam rose, partly veiling the pale flash of fire underneath. 
          “How near can we go?” I inquired. 
          “Quite near.  Come; I’ll guide you.” 
          Leading me by the hand, she stepped over the brink and we began to descend the easy grass slope together. 
          There was no difficulty about it at all.  Down we went, nearer and nearer to the wall of steam, until at last, when but fifteen feet away from it, I felt the heat from the flames which sparkled below the wall of vapour. 
          Here we seated ourselves upon the grass, and I knitted my brows and fixed my eyes upon this curious phenomenon, striving to discover some reason for it.  Except for the vapour and the fires, there was nothing whatever volcanic about this spectacle, or in the surroundings. 
          From where I sat I could see that the bed of fire which encircled the crater, and the wall of vapour which crowned the flames, were about three hundred feet wide.  Of course this barrier was absolutely impassable.  There was no way of getting through it into the bottom of the crater. 
          A slight pressure from Miss Blythe’s fingers engaged my attention; I turned toward her, and she said: 
          “There is one more thing about which I have not told you.  I feel a little guilty, because that is the real reason I asked you to come here.” 
          “What is it?” 
          “I think there are emeralds on the floor of that crater.” 

End of PART ONE..... GO TO PART TWO..... 

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