The Hidden Places
THE HIDDEN PLACES
Frontispiece. See page 128.
By BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
"Big Timber," "Poor Man's Rock," etc.
A.L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Printed in U.S.A.
By Little, Brown, and Company.
Published January, 1922.
Printed in the United States of America
Hollister stood in the middle of his room, staring at the door withoutseeing the door, without seeing the bulky shadow his body cast on thewall in the pale glow of a single droplight. He was seeing everythingand seeing nothing; acutely, quiveringly conscious and yet obliviousto his surroundings by reason of the poignancy of his thought.
A feeling not far short of terror had folded itself about him like ashrouding fog.
It had not seized him unaware. For weeks he had seen it looming overhim, and he had schooled himself to disregard a great deal which hisperception was too acute to misunderstand. He had struggleddesperately against the unescapable, recognizing certain significantfacts and in the same breath denying their accumulated force in sheerself-defense.
A small dressing-table topped by an oval mirror stood against the wallbeside his bed. Hollister took his unseeing gaze off the door with astart, like a man withdrawing his mind from wandering in far places.He sat down before the dressing-table and forced himself to look[Pg 4]steadfastly, appraisingly, at the reflection of his face in themirror—that which had once been a presentable man's countenance.
He shuddered and dropped his eyes. This was a trial he seldom venturedupon. He could not bear that vision long. No one could. That was thefearful implication which made him shrink. He, Robert Hollister, inthe flush of manhood, with a body whose symmetry and vigor other menhad envied, a mind that functioned alertly, a spirit as nearlyindomitable as the spirit of man may be, was like a leper among hisown kind; he had become a something that filled other men with pityingdismay when they looked at him, that made women avert their gaze andwithdraw from him in spite of pity.
Hollister snapped out the light and threw himself on his bed. He hadknown physical suffering, the slow, aching hours of tortured flesh,bodily pain that racked him until he had wished for death as a welcomerelief. But that had been when the flame of vitality burned low, whenthe will-to-live had been sapped by bodily stress.
Now the mere animal instinct to live was a compelling force withinhim. He was young and strong, aching with his desire for life in itsfullest sense. And he did not know how he was going to live and endurethe manner of life he had to face, a life that held nothing butfrustration and denial of all that was necessary to him, which wasmaking him suffer as acutely as he had ever suffered in the field,[Pg 5]under the knives of callous surgeons, in the shambles of the frontline or the ether-scented dressing stations. There is morphine for atortured body, but there is no opiate for agony of the spirit, thesharp-toothed pain that stabs at a lonely heart with its invisiblelancet.
In the darkness of his room, with all the noisy traffic of a seaportcity rumbling under his windows, Hollister lay on his bed andstruggled against that terrifying depression which had seized him,that spiritual panic. It was real. It was based upon undeniablereality. He was no more captain of his soul than any man born of womanhas ever been when he descends into the dark places. But he knew thathe must shake off that feeling, or go mad, or kill himself. One of thethree. He had known men to kill themselves for less. He had seenwounded men beg for a weapon to end their pain. He had known men who,after months of convalescence, quitted by their own hand a life thatno longer held anything for them.
And it was not because life held out any promise to Hollister that helived, nor was it a physical, fear of death, nor any moral scrupleagainst self-destruction. He clung to life because instinct wasstronger than reason, stronger than any of the appalling facts heencountered and knew he must go on encountering. He had to live, witha past that was no comfort, going on down the pathway of a futurewhich he attempted not to see clearly, because when he did envisage ithe[Pg 6] was stricken with just such a panic as now overwhelmed him.
To live on and on, a pariah among his fellows because of hisdisfigurement. A man with a twisted face, a gargoyle of a countenance.To have people always shrink from him. To be denied companionship,friendship, love, to know that so many things which made lifebeautiful were always just beyond his reach. To be merely endured. Tohave women pity him—and shun him.
The sweat broke out on Hollister's face when he thought of all that.He knew that it was true. This knowledge had been growing on him forweeks. To-night the full realization of what it meant engulfed himwith terror. That was all. He did not cry out against injustice. Hedid not whine a protest. He blamed no one. He understood, when helooked at himself in the glass.
After a time he shook off the first paralyzing grip of this unnameableterror which had seized him with clammy hands, fought it down by sheerresolution. He was able to lie staring into the dusky spaces of hisroom and review the stirring panorama of his existence for the pastfour years. There was nothing that did not fill him with infiniteregret—and there was nothing which by any conceivable effort he couldhave changed. He could not have escaped one of those calamities whichhad befallen him. He could not have left undone a single act that hehad performed. There[Pg 7] was an inexorable continuity in it all. Therehad been a great game. He had been one of the pawns.
Hollister shut his eyes. Immediately, like motion pictures projectedupon a screen, his mind began to project visions. He saw himselfkissing his wife good-by. He saw the tears shining in her eyes. Hefelt again the clinging pressure of her arms, her cry that she wouldbe so lonely. He saw himself in billets, poring over her letters. Hesaw himself swinging up the line with his company, crawling back withshattered ranks after a hammering, repeating this over and over againtill it seemed like a nightmare in which all existence was comprisedin blood and wounds and death and sorrow, enacted at stated intervalsto the rumble of guns.
He saw himself on his first leave in London, when he found that Myrawas growing less restive under his absence, when he felt proud tothink that she was learning the lesson of sacrifice and how to bear upunder it. He saw his second Channel crossing with a flesh wound in histhigh, when there seemed to his hyper-sensitive mind a faintperfunctoriness in her greeting. It was on this leave that he firstrealized how the grim business he was engaged upon was somehow rearingan impalpable wall between himself and this woman whom he still lovedwith a lover's passion after four years of marriage.
And he could see, in this mental cinema, whole searing sentences ofthe letter he received from[Pg 8] her just before a big push on the Sommein the fall of '17—that letter in which she told him with child-likedirectness that he had grown dim and distant and that she lovedanother man. She was sure he would not care greatly. She was sorry ifhe did. But she could not help it. She had been so lonely. People werebound to change. It couldn't be helped. She was sorry—but—
And Hollister saw himself later lying just outside the lip of ashell-crater, blind, helpless, his face a shredded smear when he feltit with groping fingers. He remembered that he lay there wondering,because of the darkness and the strange silence and the pain, if hewere dead and burning in hell for his sins.
After that there were visions of himself in a German hospital, in aprison camp, and at last the armistice, and the Channel crossing oncemore. He was dead, they told him, when he tried in the chaos ofdemobilization to get in touch with his regiment, to establish hisidentity, to find his wife. He was officially dead. He had been soreported, so accepted eighteen months earlier. His wife had marriedagain. She and her husband had vanished from England. And with hiswife had vanished his assets, his estate, by virtue of a pre-wararrangement which he had never revoked.
He beheld himself upon the streets of London, one of innumerable straydogs, ruined, deserted, disfigured, a bit of war's wreckage. He didnot particularly consider himself a victim of injustice.[Pg 9] He did notblame Myra. He was simply numbed and bewildered.
But that was before he grew conscious of what it meant to a sensitiveman, a man in whom all warm human impulses flowed so strongly, to bepenniless, to have all the dependable foundations of his life tornfrom under his feet, to be so disfigured that people shunned him.
He had to gather up the broken pieces of his life, fit them together,go on as best he could. It did not occur to him at first to dootherwise, or that the doing would be hard. He had not foreseen allthe strange shifts he would be put to, the humiliations he wouldsuffer, the crushing weight of hopelessness which gathered upon him bythe time he arrived on the Pacific Coast, where he had once lived, towhich he now turned to do as men all over the war-racked earth weredoing in the winter of 1919,—cast about in an effort to adjusthimself, to make a place for himself in civil life.
All the way across the continent of North America Hollister grew moreand more restive under the accumulating knowledge that the horribledevastation of his features made a No Man's Land about him which fewhad the courage to cross. It was a fact. Here, upon the evening of thethird day in Vancouver, a blind and indescribable fear seized uponhim, a sickening conviction that although living, he was dead,—deadin so far as the common, casual intimacies of daily intercourse withhis fellows went. It was as if[Pg 10] men and women were universallyrepulsed by that grotesquely distorted mask which served him for aface, as if at sight of it by common impulse they made off, withdrewto a safe distance, as they would withdraw from any loathsome thing.
Lying on his bed, Hollister flexed his arms. He arched his chest andfingered the muscular breadth of it in the darkness. Bodily, he was aperfect man. Strength flowed through him in continuous waves. He couldfeel within himself the surge of vast stores of energy. His brainfunctioned with a bright, bitter clearness. He could feel,—ah, thatwas the hell of it. That quivering response to the subtle nuances ofthought! A profound change had come upon him, yet essentially he, theman, was unchanged. Except for those scars, the convoluted ridges oftissue, the livid patches and the ghastly hollows where once hischeeks and lips and forehead had been smooth and regular, he was as hehad always been.
For a moment there came over him the wild impulse to rush out into thestreet, crying:
"You fools! Because my face is torn and twisted makes me no differentfrom you. I still feel and think. I am as able to love and hate asyou. Was all your talk about honorable scars just prattle to misleadthe men who risked the scars? Is all your much advertised kindlinessand sympathy for war-broken men a bluff?"