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The Apple Tree, Page 2

Daphne Du Maurier

  Yet once, passing down the long corridor to the stair-head, I noticed that the door of Anna's room, which was usually closed, was open; and knowing it to have been Victor's mother's room in former days, with a fine old four-poster bed and several pieces of heavy solid furniture, all in keeping with the style of the house, ordinary curiosity made me glance over my shoulder as I passed the open door. The room was bare of furniture. There were no curtains to the windows, and no carpet on the floor. The wooden boards were plain. There was a table and a chair, and a long trestle bed with no covering upon it but a blanket. The windows were wide open to the dusk, which was then falling. I turned away and walked down the stairs, and as I did so came face to face with Victor, who was ascending. He must have seen me glance into the room and I did not wish to appear furtive in any way.

  "Forgive the trespass," I said, "but I happened to notice the room looked very different from your mother's day."

  "Yes," he said briefly, "Anna hates frills. Are you ready for dinner? She sent me to find you."

  And we went downstairs together without further conversation. Somehow I could not forget that bare sparse bedroom, comparing it with the soft luxury of my own, and I felt oddly inferior that Anna should consider me as someone who could not dispense with ease and elegance, which she, for some reason, did so well without.

  That evening I watched her as we sat beside the fire. Victor had been called from the hall on some business, and she and I were alone for a few moments. As usual I felt the still, soothing peace of her presence come upon me with the silence; I was wrapped about with it, enfolded, as it were, and it was unlike anything I knew in my ordinary humdrum life; this stillness came out of her, yet from another world. I wanted to tell her about it but could not iind the words. At last I said, "You have done something to this house. I don't understand it."

  "Don't you?" she said. "I think you do. We are both in search of the same thing, after all."

  For some reason I felt afraid. The stillness was with us just the same, but intensified, almost overpowering.

  "I am not aware," I said, "that I am in search of anything."

  My words fell foolishly on the air and were lost. My eyes, that had drifted to the fire, were drawn, as if compelled, to hers.

  "Aren't you?" she said.

  I remember being swept by a feeling of profound distress. I saw myself; for the first time, as a very worthless, very trivial human being, travelling here and there about the world to no purpose, doing unnecessary business with other human beings as worthless as myself; and to no other end but that we should be fed and clothed and housed in adequate comfort until death.

  I thought of my own small house in Westminster, chosen after long deliberation and furnished with great care. I saw my books, my pictures, my collection of china, and the two good servants who waited upon me and kept the house spotless always, in preparation for my return. Up to this moment my house and all it held had given me great pleasure. Now I was not sure that it had any value.

  "What would you suggest? " I heard myself saying to Anna. "Should I sell everything I have and give up my work? What then?"

  Thinking back on the brief conversation that passed between us, nothing that she said warranted this sudden question on my part. She implied that I was in search of something, and instead of answering her directly, yes or no, I asked her if I must give up all I had? The significance of this did not strike me at the time. All I knew then was that I was profoundly moved, and whereas a few moments before I had been at peace, I was now troubled.

  "Your answer may not be the same as mine," she said, "and anyway, I am not certain of my own, as yet. One day I shall know."

  Surely, I thought to myself in looking upon her, she has the answer now, with her beauty, her serenity, her understanding. What more can she possibly achieve, unless it is that up to the present she lacks children, and so feels unfulfilled?

  Victor came back into the hall, and it seemed to me his presence brought solidity and warmth to the atmosphere; there was something familiar and comfortable about his old smoking jacket worn with his evening trousers.

  "It's freezing hard," he said. "I went outside to see. The thermometer is down to 30. Lovely night, though. Full moon." He drew up his chair before the fire and smiled affectionately at Anna. "Almost as cold as the night we spent on Snowdon," he said. "Heavens above, I shan't forget that in a hurry." And turning to me with a laugh he added, "I never told you, did I, that Anna condescended to come climbing with me after all?"

  "No," I said, astonished. "I thought she had set herself against it."

  I looked across at Anna, and I noticed that her eyes had grown strangely blank, without expression. I felt instinctively that the subject brought up by Victor was one she would not have chosen. Victor, insensitive to this, went prattling on.

  "She's a dark horse," he said. "She knows just as much about climbing mountains as you or I. In fact, she was ahead of me the whole time, and I lost her."

  He continued, half-laughing, half-serious, giving me every detail of the climb, which seemed hazardous in the extreme, as they had left it much too late in the year.

  It seemed that the weather, which had promised well in the morning for their start, had turned by mid-afternoon, bringing thunder and lightning and finally a blizzard; so that darkness overtook them in the descent, and they were forced to spend the night in the open.

  "The thing I shall never understand," said Victor, "is how I came to miss her. One moment she was by my side, and the next she had gone. I can tell you I had a very bad three hours, in pitch darkness and half a gale."

  Anna never said a word while he told the story. It was as though she withdrew herself completely. She sat in her chair, motionless. I felt uneasy, anxious. I wanted Victor to stop.

  "Anyway," I said, to hasten him, "you got down all right, and none the worse for it."

  "Yes," he said ruefully, "at about five in the morning, thoroughly wet and thoroughly frightened. Anna came up to me out of the mist not even damp, surprised that I was angry. Said she had been sheltered by a piece of rock. It was a wonder she had not broken her neck. Next time we go mountain climbing, I've told her that she can be the guide."

  "Perhaps," I said, with a glance at Anna, "there won't be a next time. Once was enough."

  "Not a bit of it," said Victor cheerfully, "we are all set, you know, to go off next summer. The Alps, or the Dolomites, or the Pyrenees, we haven't decided yet on the objective. You had better come with us and we'll have a proper expedition."

  I shook my head, regretfully.

  "I only wish I could," I said, "but it's impossible. I must be in New York by May and shan't be home again until September."

  "Oh, that's a long way ahead," said Victor, "anything may happen by May. We'll talk of it again, nearer the time."

  Still Anna said no word, and I wondered why Victor saw nothing strange in her reticence. Suddenly she said good-night and went upstairs. It was obvious to me that all this chatter of mountain climbing had been unwelcome to her. I felt an urge to attack Victor on the subject.

  "Look here," I said, "do think twice about this holiday in the mountains. I am pretty sure Anna isn't for it."

  "Not for it?" said Victor, surprised. "Why, it was her idea entirely."

  I stared at him.

  "Are you sure?" I asked.

  "Of course I'm sure. I tell you, old fellow, she's crazy about mountains. She has a fetish about them. It's her Welsh blood, I suppose. I was being light—hearted just now about that night on Snowdon, but between ourselves I was quite amazed at her courage and her endurance. I don't mind admitting that what with the blizzard, and being frightened for her, I was dead beat by morning; but she came out of that mist like a spirit from another world. I've never seen her like it. She went down that blasted mountain as if she had spent the night on Olympus, while I limped behind her like a child. She is a very remarkable person: you realise that, don't you?"

  "Yes," I said slowly, "I d
o agree. Anna is very remarkable."

  Shortly afterwards we went upstairs to bed, and as I undressed and put on my pyjamas, which had been left to warm for me before the fire, and noticed the Thermos flask of hot milk on the bedside table, in case I should be wakeful, and padded about the thick carpeted room in my soft slippers, I thought once again of that strange bare room where Anna slept, and of the narrow trestle bed. In a futile, unnecessary gesture, I threw aside the heavy satin quilt that lay on top of my blankets, and before getting into bed opened my windows wide.

  I was restless, though, and could not sleep. My fire sank low and the cold air penetrated the room. I heard my old worn travelling clock race round the hours through the night. At four I could stand it no longer and remembered the Thermos of milk with gratitude. Before drinking it I decided to pamper myself still further and close the window.

  I climbed out of bed and, shivering, went across the room to do so. Victor was right. A white frost covered the ground. The moon was full. I stood for a moment by the open window, and from the trees in shadow I saw a figure come and stand below me on the lawn. Not furtive, as a trespasser, not creeping, as a thief. Whoever it was stood motionless, as though in meditation, with face uplifted to the moon.

  Then I perceived that it was Anna. She wore a dressing-gown, with a cord about it, and her hair was loose on her shoulders. She made no sound as she stood there on the frosty lawn, and I saw, with a shock of horror, that her feet were bare. I stood watching, my hand on the curtain, and suddenly I felt that I was looking upon something intimate and secret, which concerned me not. So I shut my window and returned to bed. Instinct told me that I must say nothing of what I had seen to Victor, or to Anna herself; and because of this I was filled with disquiet, almost with apprehension.

  Next morning the sun shone and we were out about the grounds with the dogs, Anna and Victor both so normal and cheerful that I told myself I had been overwrought the previous night. If Anna chose to walk bare-foot in the small hours it was her business, and I had behaved ill in spying upon her. The rest of my visit passed without incident; we were all three happy and content, and I was very loath to leave them.

  I saw them again for a brief moment, some months later, before I left for America. I had gone into the Map House, in St. James's, to buy myself some half-dozen books to read on that long thrash across the Atlantic—a journey one took with certain qualms in those days, the Titanic tragedy still fresh in memory—and there were Victor and Anna, poring over maps, which they had spread out over every available space.

  There was no chance of a real meeting. I had engagements for the rest of the day, and so had they, so it was hail and farewell. "You find us," said Victor, "getting busy about the summer holiday. The itinerary is planned. Change your mind and join us."

  "Impossible," I said. "All being well, I should be home by September. I'll get in touch with you directly I return. Well, where are you making for?"

  "Anna's choice," said Victor. "She's been thinking this out for weeks, and she's hit on a spot that looks completely inaccessible. Anyway, it's somewhere you and I have never climbed."

  He pointed down to the large-scale map in front of them. I followed his finger to a point that Anna had already marked with a tiny cross.

  "Monte Verità," I read.

  I looked up and saw that Anna's eyes were upon me.

  "Completely unknown territory, as far as I'm concerned," I said. "Be sure and have advice first, before setting forth. Get hold of local guides, and so on. What made you choose that particular ridge of mountains?"

  Anna smiled, and I felt a sense of shame, of inferiority beside her.

  "The Mountain of Truth," she said. "Come with us, do."

  I shook my head and went off upon my journey.

  During the months that followed I thought of them both, and envied them too. They were climbing, and I was hemmed in, not by the mountains that I loved but by hard business. Often I wished I had the courage to throw my work aside, turn my back on the civilised world and its dubious delights, and go seeking after truth with my two friends. Only convention deterred me, the sense that I was making a successful career for myself which it would be folly to cut short. The pattern of my life was set. It was too late to change.

  I returned to England in September, and I was surprised, in going through the great pile of letters that awaited me, to have nothing from Victor. He had promised to write and give me news of all they had seen and done. They were not on the telephone, so I could not get in touch with them direct, but I made a note to write to Victor as soon as I had sorted out my business mail.

  A couple of days later, coming out of my club, I ran into a man, a mutual friend of ours, who detained me a moment to ask some question about my journey, and then, just as I was going down the steps, called over his shoulder, "I say, what a tragedy about poor Victor. Are you going to see him?"

  "What do you mean? What tragedy?" I asked. "Has there been an accident?"

  "He's terribly ill in a nursing-home, here in London," came the answer. "Nervous breakdown. You know his wife has left him?"

  "Good God, no," I exclaimed.

  "Oh, yes. That's the cause of all the trouble. He's gone quite to pieces. You know he was devoted to her."

  I was stunned. I stood staring at the fellow, my face blank.

  "Do you mean," I said, "that she has gone off with somebody else?"

  "I don't know. I assume so. No one can get anything out of Victor. Anyway, there he has been for several weeks, with this breakdown."

  I asked for the address of the nursing-home, and at once, without further delay, jumped into a cab and was driven there.

  At first I was told, on making enquiry, that Victor was seeing no visitors, but I took out my card and scribbled a line across the back. Surely he would not refuse to see me? A nurse came, and I was taken upstairs to a room on the first floor.

  I was horrified, when she opened the door, to see the haggard face that looked up at me from the chair beside the gas-fire, so frail he was, so altered.

  "My dear old boy," I said, going towards him, "I only heard five minutes ago that you were here."

  The nurse closed the door and left us together.

  To my distress Victor's eyes filled with tears.

  "It's all right," I said, "don't mind me. You know I shall understand."

  He seemed unable to speak. He just sat there, hunched in his dressing-gown, the tears running down his cheeks. I had never felt more helpless. He pointed to a chair, and I drew it up beside him. I waited. If he did not want to tell me what had happened I would not press him. I only wanted to comfort him, to be of some assistance.

  At last he spoke, and I hardly recognised his voice.

  "Anna's gone," he said. "Did you know that? She's gone."

  I nodded. I put my hand on his knee, as though he were a small boy again and not a man past thirty, of my own age.

  "I know," I said gently, "but it will be all right. She will come back again. You are sure to get her back."

  He shook his head. I had never seen such despair, and such complete conviction.

  "Oh no," he said, "she will never come back. I know her too well. She's found what she wants."

  It was pitiful to see how completely he had given in to what had happened. Victor, usually so strong, so well-balanced.

  "Who is it?" I said. "Where did she meet this other fellow?"

  Victor stared at me, bewildered.

  "What do you mean?" he said. "She hasn't met anyone. It's not that at all. If it were, that would be easy..."

  He paused, spreading out his hands in a hopeless gesture. And suddenly he broke down again, but this time not with weakness but with a more fearful sort of stifled rage, the impotent, useless rage of a man who fights against something stronger than himself. "It was the mountain that got her," he said, "that God-damned mountain, Monte Verità. There's a sect there, a closed order, they shut themselves up for life—there, on that mountain. I never dreamed ther
e could be such a thing. I never knew. And she's there. On that damned mountain. On Monte Verità..."

  I sat there with him in the nursing-home all afternoon, and little by little had the whole story from him.

  The journey itself, Victor said, had been pleasant and uneventful. Eventually they reached the centre from which they proposed to explore the terrain immediately below Monte Verità, and here they met with difficulties. The country was unknown to Victor, and the people seemed morose and unfriendly, very different, he said, to the sort of folk who had welcomed us in the past. They spoke in a patois hard to understand, and they lacked intelligence.

  "At least, that's how they struck me," said Victor. "They were very rough and somehow undeveloped, the sort of people who might have stepped out of a former century. You know how, when we climbed together, the people could not do enough to help us, and we always managed to find guides. Here, it was different. When Anna and I tried to find out the best approach to Monte Verità, they would not tell us. They just stared at us in a stupid sort of way, and shrugged their shoulders. They had no guides, one fellow said; the mountain was—savage, unexplored."

  Victor paused, and looked at me with that same expression of despair.

  "You see," he said, "that's when I made my mistake. I should have realised the expedition was a failure—to that particular spot at any rate—and suggested to Anna that we turned back and tackled something else, something nearer to civilization anyhow, where the people were more helpful and the country more familiar. But you know how it is. You get a stubborn feeling inside you, on the mountains, and any opposition somehow rouses you.

  "And Monte Verità itself. . ." he broke off and stared in front of him. It was as though he was looking upon it again in his own mind. "I've never been one for lyrical description, you know that," he said. "On our finest climbs I was always the practical one and you the poet. For sheer beauty, I have never seen anything like Monte Verità. We have climbed many higher peaks, you and I, and far more dangerous ones, too; but this was somehow... sublime."