“I must get rid of it,” said the man in the corner of the carriage, abruptly breaking the silence.
Mr. Hinchcliff looked up, hearing imperfectly. He had been lost in the rapt contemplation of the college cap tied by a string to his portmanteau handles--the outward and visible sign of his newly-gained pedagogic position--in the rapt appreciation of the college cap and the pleasant anticipations it excited. For Mr. Hinchcliff had just matriculated at London University, and was going to be junior assistant at the Holmwood Grammar School--a very enviable position. He stared across the carriage at his fellow-traveller.
“Why not give it away?” said this person. “Give it away! Why not?”
He was a tall, dark, sunburnt man with a pale face. His arms were folded tightly, and his feet were on the seat in front of him. He was pulling at a lank black moustache. He stared hard at his toes.
“Why not?” he said.
Mr. Hinchcliff coughed.
The stranger lifted his eyes--they were curious, dark-grey eyes--and stared blankly at Mr. Hinchcliff for the best part of a minute, perhaps. His expression grew to interest.
“Yes,” he said slowly. “Why not? And end it.”
“I don’t quite follow you, I’m afraid,” said Mr. Hinchcliff, with another cough.
“You don’t quite follow me?” said the stranger quite mechanically, his singular eyes wandering from Mr. Hinchcliff to the bag with its ostentatiously displayed cap, and back to Mr. Hinchcliff’s downy face.
“You’re so abrupt, you know,” apologised Mr Hinchcliff.
“Why shouldn’t I?” said the stranger, following his thoughts. “You are a student?” he said, addressing Mr. Hinchcliff.
“I am--by Correspondence--of the London University,” said Mr. Hinchcliff, with irrepressible pride, and feeling nervously at his tie.
“In pursuit of knowledge,” said the stranger, and suddenly took his feet off the seat, put his fist on his knees, and stared at Mr. Hinchcliff as though he had never seen a student before. “Yes,” he said, and flung out an index finger. Then he rose, took a bag from the hat-rack, and unlocked it. Quite silently he drew out something round and wrapped in a quantity of silver-paper, and unfolded this carefully. He held it out towards Mr. Hinchcliff--a small, very smooth, golden-yellow fruit.
Mr. Hinchcliff’s eyes and mouth were open. He did not offer to take this object--if he was intended to take it.
“That,” said this fantastic stranger, speaking very slowly, “is the Apple of the Tree of Knowledge. Look at it--small, and bright, and wonderful--Knowledge--and I am going to give it to you.”
Mr. Hinchcliff’s mind worked painfully for a minute, and then the sufficient explanation, “Mad!” flashed across his brain, and illuminated the whole situation. One humoured madmen. He put his head a little on one side.
“The Apple of the Tree of Knowledge, eigh!” said Mr. Hinchcliff, regarding it with a finely assumed air of interest, and then looking at the interlocutor. “But don’t you want to eat it yourself? And besides--how did you come by it?”
“It never fades. I have had it now three months. And it is ever bright and smooth and ripe and desirable, as you see it.” He laid his hand on his knee and regarded the fruit musingly. Then he began to wrap it again in the papers, as though he had abandoned his intention of giving it away.
“But how did you come by it?” said Mr. Hinchcliff, who had his argumentative side. “And how do you know that it is the Fruit of the Tree?”
“I bought this fruit,” said the stranger, “three months ago--for a drink of water and a crust of bread. The man who gave it to me--because I kept the life in him--was an Armenian. Armenia! that wonderful country, the first of all countries, where the ark of the Flood remains to this day, buried in the glaciers of Mount Ararat. This man, I say, fleeing with others from the Kurds who had come upon them, went up into desolate places among the mountains--places beyond the common knowledge of men. And fleeing from imminent pursuit, they came to a slope high among the mountain-peaks, green with a grass like knife-blades, that cut and slashed most pitilessly at anyone who went into it. The Kurds were close behind, and there was nothing for it but to plunge in, and the worst of it was that the paths they made through it at the price of their blood served for the Kurds to follow. Every one of the fugitives was killed save this Armenian and another. He heard the screams and cries of his friends, and the swish of the grass about those who were pursuing them--it was tall grass rising overhead. And then a shouting and answers, and when presently he paused, everything was still. He pushed out again, not understanding, cut and bleeding, until he came out on a steep slope of rocks below a precipice, and then he saw the grass was all on fire, and the smoke of it rose like a veil between him and his enemies.”
The stranger paused. “Yes?” said Mr. Hinchcliff. “Yes?”
“There he was, all torn and bloody from the knife-blades of the grass, the rocks blazing under the afternoon sun--the sky molten brass--and the smoke of the fire driving towards him. He dared not stay there. Death he did not mind, but torture! Far away beyond the smoke he heard shouts and cries. Women screaming. So he went clambering up a gorge in the rocks--everywhere were bushes with dry branches that stuck out like thorns among the leaves--until he clambered over the brow of a ridge that hid him. And then he met his companion, a shepherd, who had also escaped. And, counting cold and famine and thirst as nothing against the Kurds, they went on into the heights, and among the snow and ice. They wandered three whole days.
“The third day came the vision. I suppose hungry men often do see visions, but then there is this fruit.” He lifted the wrapped globe in his hand. “And I have heard it, too, from other mountaineers who have known something of the legend. It was in the evening time, when the stars were increasing, that they came down a slope of polished rock into a huge dark valley all set about with strange, contorted trees, and in these trees hung little globes like glow-worm spheres, strange round yellow lights.
“Suddenly this valley was lit far away, many miles away, far down it, with a golden flame marching slowly athwart it, that made the stunted trees against it black as night, and turned the slopes all about them and their figures to the likeness of fiery gold. And at the vision they, knowing the legends of the mountains, instantly knew that it was Eden they saw, or the sentinel of Eden, and they fell upon their faces like men struck dead.
“When they dared to look again the valley was dark for a space, and then the light came again--returning, a burning amber.
“At that the shepherd sprang to his feet, and with a shout began to run down towards the light, but the other man was too fearful to follow him. He stood stunned, amazed, and terrified, watching his companion recede towards the marching glare. And hardly had the shepherd set out when there came a noise like thunder, the beating of invisible wings hurrying up the valley, and a great and terrible fear; and at that the man who gave me the fruit turned--if he might still escape. And hurrying headlong up the slope again, with that tumult sweeping after him, he stumbled against one of these stunted bushes, and a ripe fruit came off it into his hand. This fruit. Forthwith, the wings and the thunder rolled all about him. He fell and fainted, and when he came to his senses, he was back among the blackened ruins of his own village, and I and the others were attending to the wounded. A vision? But the golden fruit of the tree was still clutched in his hand. There were others there who knew the legend, knew what that strange fruit might be.” He paused. “And this is it,” he said.
It was a most extraordinary story to be told in a third-class carriage on a Sussex railway. It was as if the real was a mere veil to the fantastic, and here was the fantastic poking through. “Is it?” was all Mr. Hinchcliff could say.
“The legend,” said the stranger, “tells that those thickets of dwarfed trees growing about the garden sprang from the apple that Adam carried in his hand when he and Eve were driven forth. He felt something in his hand, saw the half-eaten apple, and flung it petulantly aside. And there they grow, in that desolate valley, girdled round with the everlasting snows, and there the fiery swords keep ward against the Judgment Day.”