As the little boys clattered out she said to the two guests, "I don't know whether you're used to children. If you're not, you must be feeling as though you were taking lunch in a boiler factory."
Mr. Welles answered, "I never knew what I was missing before. Especially Paul. That first evening when you sent him over with the cake, as he stood in the door, I thought, 'I wish I could have had a little son like that!'"
"We'll share him with you, Mr. Welles." Marise was touched by the wistfulness of his tone. She noticed that Mr. Marsh had made no comment on the children. He was perhaps one of the people who never looked at them, unless they ran into him. Eugenia Mills was like that, quite sincerely.
"May I have a little more of the blanquette, if I won't be considered a glutton?" asked Mr. Marsh now. "I've sent to the city for an invaluable factotum of mine to come and look out for us here, and when he comes, I hope you'll give him the recipe."
The little boys clattered back and began to eat again, in haste with frequent demands for their mother to tell them what time it was. In spite of this precaution, the clock advanced so relentlessly that they were obliged to set off, the three of them, before dessert was eaten, with an apple in one hand and a cookie in the other.
The two men leaned back in their chairs with long breaths, which Marise interpreted as relief. "Strenuous, three of them at once, aren't they?" she said. "A New York friend of mine always says she can take the vibration-cure, only by listening to family talk at our table."
"What's the vibration-cure?" asked Mr. Welles seriously.
"Oh, I don't know!" confessed Marise. "I'm too busy to keep up with the latest fads in cures as Eugenia does. You may meet her there this summer, by the way. She usually spends a part of the summer with us. She is a very old school-friend of mine."
"French or Vermont incarnation?" inquired Marsh casually. "May I smoke? Won't you have a cigarette, yourself?"
"Oh, French!" Marise was immensely amused, and then, remembering that the joke was not apparent, "If you'd ever seen her, even for a moment, you'd know why I laugh. She is the embodiment of sophisticated cosmopolitanism, an expert on all sorts of esoteric, aesthetic and philosophic matters, book-binding, historic lace, the Vedanta creed, Chinese porcelains, Provencal poetry, Persian shawls . . ."
"What nationality is she, herself?" inquired Mr. Welles with some curiosity.
Marise laughed. "She was born in Arkansas, and brought up in Minnesota, what did you suppose? No European could ever take culture so seriously. You know how any convert always has a thousand times more fervor than the fatigued members of the faith who were born to it."
"Like Henry James, perhaps?" suggested Marsh.
"Yes, I always envied Henry James the conviction he seems to have had, all his life, that Europeans are a good deal more unlike other people than I ever found them. It may be obtuseness on my part, but I never could see that people who lived in the Basses-Pyrenees are any more cultivated or had any broader horizons than people who live in the Green Mountains. My own experience is that when you actually live with people, day after day, year after year, you find about the same range of possibilities in any group of them. But I never advance this theory to Eugenia, who would be horrified to know that I find a strong family likeness between her New York circle and my neighbors here."
She had been aware that Marsh was looking at her as she spoke. What a singular, piercing eye he had! It made her a little restive, as at a too-intimate contact, to be looked at so intently, although she was quite aware that there was a good deal of admiration in the look. She wondered what he was thinking about her; for it was evident that he was thinking about her, as he sent out that penetrating gaze.
But perhaps not, after all; for he now said as if in answer to her last remark, "I have my own way of believing that, too, that all people are made of the same stuff. Mostly I find them perfectly negligible, too utterly without savor even to glance at. Once in a thousand years, it seems to me, you come across a human being who's alive as you are, who speaks your language, is your own kind, belongs to you. When you do, good Lord! What a moment!"
He pronounced this in a perfectly impersonal tone, but something about the quality of his voice made Marise flash a quick glance at him. His eyes met hers with a sudden, bold deepening of their gaze. Marise's first impulse was to be startled and displeased, but in an instant a quick fear of being ridiculous had voiced itself and was saying to her, "Don't be countrified. It's only that I've had no contact with people-of-the-world for a year now. That's the sort of thing they get their amusement from. It would make him laugh to have it resented." Aloud she said, rather at random, "I usually go down once a season to the city for a visit to this old friend of mine, and other friends there. But this last winter I didn't get up the energy to do that."
"I should think," said Mr. Welles, "that last winter you'd have used up all your energy on other things, from what Mrs. Powers tells me about the big chorus you always lead here in winters."
"That does take up a lot of time," she admitted. "But it's a generator of energy, leading a chorus is, not a spender of it."
"Oh, come!" protested Marsh. "You can't put that over on me. To do it as I gather you do . . . heavens! You must pour out your energy and personality as though you'd cut your arteries and let the red flood come."
"You pour it out all right," she agreed, "but you get it back a thousand times over." She spoke seriously, the topic was vital to her, her eyes turned inward on a recollection. "It's amazing. It's enough to make a mystic out of a granite boulder. I don't know how many times I've dragged myself to a practice-evening dog-tired physically with work and care of the children, stale morally, sure that I had nothing in me that was profitable for any purpose, feeling that I'd do anything to be allowed to stay at home, to doze on the couch and read a poor novel." She paused, forgetting to whom she was speaking, forgetting she was not alone, touched and stirred with a breath from those evenings.
"Well . . . ?" prompted Mr. Marsh. She wondered if she were mistaken in thinking he sounded a little irritable.
"Well," she answered, "it has not failed a single time. I have never come back otherwise than stronger, and rested, the fatigue and staleness all gone, buried deep in something living." She had a moment of self-consciousness here, was afraid that she had been carried away to seem high-flown or pretentious, and added hastily and humorously, "You mustn't think that it's because I'm making anything wonderful out of my chorus of country boys and girls and their fathers and mothers. It's no notable success that puts wings to my feet as I come home from that work. It's only the music, the hearty satisfying singing-out, by ordinary people, of what too often lies withering in their hearts."
She was aware that she was speaking not to sympathizers. Mr. Welles looked vague, evidently had no idea what she meant. Mr. Marsh's face looked closed tight, as though he would not open to let in a word of what she was saying. He almost looked hostile. Why should he? When she stopped, a little abashed at having been carried along by her feelings, Mr. Marsh put in lightly, with no attempt at transition, "All that's very well. But you can't make me believe that by choice you live up her all the year around. You must nearly perish away with homesickness for the big world, you who so evidently belong in it."
"Where is the big world?" she challenged him, laughing. "When you're young you want to go all round the globe to look for it. And when you've gone, don't you find that your world everywhere is about as big as you are?"
Mr. Marsh eyed her hard, and shook his head, with a little scornful downward thrust of the corners of his mouth, as though he were an augur who refused to lend himself to the traditional necessity to keep up the appearance of believing in an exploded religion. "You know where the big world is," he said firmly. "It's where there are only people who don't have to work, who have plenty of money and brains and beautiful possessions and gracious ways of living, and few moral scruples." He defined it with a sovereign disregard for softening phrases.
She opposed to this a meditative, "Oh, I suppose the real reason why I go less and less to New York, is that it doesn't interest me as it used to. Human significance is what makes interest for me, and when you're used to looking deep into human lives out of a complete knowledge of them as we do up here, it's very tantalizing and tormenting and after a while gets boring, the superficial, incoherent glimpses you get in such a smooth, glib-tongued circle as the people I happen to know in New York. It's like trying to read something in a language of which you know only a few words, and having the book shown to you by jerks at that!"
Mr. Marsh remarked speculatively, as though they were speaking of some quite abstract topic, "It may also be possibly that you are succumbing to habit and inertia and routine."
She was startled again, and nettled . . . and alarmed. What a rude thing to say! But the words were no sooner out of his mouth than she had felt a scared wonder if perhaps they were not true. She had not thought of that possibility.
"I should think you would like the concerts, anyhow," suggested Mr. Welles.
"Yes," said Marise, with the intonation that made the affirmation almost a negative. "Yes, of course. But there too . . . music means so much to me, so very much. It makes me sick to see it pawed over as it is among people who make their livings out of it; used as it so often is as a background for the personal vanity or greed of the performer. Take an ordinary afternoon solo concert given by a pianist or singer . . . it always seems to me that the music they make is almost an unconsidered by-product with them. What they're really after is something else."
Marsh agreed with her, with a hearty relish, "Yes, musicians are an unspeakable bunch!
"I suppose," Marise went on, "that I ought not to let that part of it spoil concert music for me. And it doesn't, of course. I've had some wonderful times . . . people who play in orchestra and make chamber-music are the real thing. But the music you make yourself . . . the music we make up here . . . well, perhaps my taste for it is like one's liking (some people call it perverse) for French Primitive painting, or the something so awfully touching and heart-felt that was lost when the Renaissance came up over the Alps with all its knowingness."
"You're not pretending that you get Vermonters to make music?" protested Marsh, highly amused at the notion.
"I don't know," she admitted, "whether it is music or not. But it is something alive." She fell into a muse, "Queer, what a spider-web of tenuous complication human relationships are. I never would have thought, probably, of trying anything of the sort if it hadn't been for a childhood recollection. . . . French incarnation this time," she said lightly to Marsh. "When I was a little girl, a young priest, just a young parish priest, in one of the poor hill-parishes of the Basque country, began to teach the people of his parish really to sing some of the church chants. I never knew much about the details of what he did, and never spoke to him in my life, but from across half the world he has reached out to touch this cornet of America. By the time I was a young lady, he had two or three big country choruses under his direction. We used to drive up fist to one and then to another of those hill-towns, all white-washed houses and plane-tree atriums, and sober-eyed Basques, to hear them sing. It was beautiful. I never have had a more complete expression of beauty in all my life. It seemed to me the very soul of music; those simple people singing, not for pay, not for notoriety, out of the fullness of their hearts. It has been one of the things I never forgot, a standard, and a standard that most music produced on platforms before costly audiences doesn't come up to."
"I've never been able to make anything out of music, myself," confessed Mr. Welles. "Perhaps you can convert me. I almost believe so."
"'Gene Powers sings!" cried Marise spiritedly. "And if he does . . ."
"Any relation to the lively old lady who brings our milk?"
"Her son. Haven't you seen him yet? A powerfully built granite rock of a man. Silent as a granite rock too, as far as small talk goes. But he turns out to have a bass voice that is my joy. It's done something for him, too, I think, really and truly, without sentimental exaggeration at all. He suffered a great injustice some six or seven years ago, that turned him black and bitter, and it's only since he has been singing in our winter choir that he has been willing to mix again with anyone."
She paused for a moment, and eyed them calculatingly. It occurred to her that she had been talking about music and herself quite enough. She would change the subject to something matter-of-fact. "See here, you'll be sure to have to hear all that story from Mr. Bayweather in relentless detail. It might be your salvation to be able to say that I had told you, without mentioning that it was in a severely abridged form. He'd want to start back in the eighteenth century, and tell you all about that discreditable and unreconstructed Tory ancestor of mine who, when he was exiled from Ashley, is said to have carried off part of the town documents with him to Canada. Whether he did or not (Mr. Bayweather has a theory, I believe, that he buried them in a copper kettle on Peg-Top Hill), the fact remains that an important part of the records of Ashley are missing and that has made a lot of trouble with titles to land around here. Several times, unscrupulous land-grabbers have taken advantage of the vagueness of the titles to cheat farmers out of their inheritance. The Powers case is typical. There always have been Powerses living right there, where they do now; that big pine that towers up so over their house was planted by 'Gene's great-grandfather. And they always owned an immense tract of wild mountain land, up beyond the Eagle Rock range, along the side of the Red-Brook marsh. But after paying taxes on it for generations all during the time when it was too far away to make it profitable to lumber, it was snatched away from them, seven years ago, just as modern methods and higher prices for spruce would have made it very valuable. A lawyer from New Hampshire named Lowder turned the trick. I won't bother you going into the legal details—a question of a fake warranty deed, against 'Gene's quit-claim deed, which was all he had in absence of those missing pages from the town records. As a matter of fact, the lawyer hasn't dared to cut the lumber off it yet, because his claim is pretty flimsy; but flimsy or not, the law regards it as slightly better than 'Gene's. The result is that 'Gene can't sell it and daren't cut it for fear of being involved in a law-suit that he couldn't possibly pay for. So the Powers are poor farmers, scratching a difficult living out of sterile soil, instead of being well-to-do proprietors of a profitable estate of wood-land. And when we see how very hard they all have to work, and how soured and gloomy it has made 'Gene, and how many pleasures the Powers' children are denied, we all join in when Mrs. Powers delivers herself of her white-hot opinion of New Hampshire lawyers! I remember perfectly that Mr. Lowder,—one of the smooth-shaven, thin-lipped, fish-mouthed variety, with a pugnacious jaw and an intimidating habit of talking his New Hampshire dialect out of the corner of his mouth. The poor Powers were as helpless as rabbits before him."
It all came up before her as she talked, that horrid encounter with commercial ruthlessness: she saw again poor 'Gene's outraged face of helpless anger, felt again the heat of sympathetic indignation she and Neale had felt, recognized again the poison which triumphant unrighteousness leaves behind. She shook her head impatiently, to shake off the memory, and said aloud, "Oh, it makes me sick to remember it! We couldn't believe, any of us, that such bare-faced iniquity could succeed."
"There's a good deal of bare-faced iniquity riding around prosperously in high-powered cars," said Mr. Welles, with a lively accent of bitterness. "You have to get used to it in business life. It's very likely that your wicked Mr. Lowder in private life in New Hampshire is a good husband and father, and contributes to all the charitable organizations."
"I won't change my conception of him as a pasty-faced demon," insisted Marise.
It appeared that Mr. Marsh's appetite for local history was so slight as to be cloyed even by the very much abbreviated account she had given them, for he now said, hiding a small yawn, with no effort to conceal the fact that he had been bored, "Mrs. Crittenden, I've heard from Mr. Welles' house the most tantalizing snatches from your piano. Won't you, now we're close to it, put the final touch to our delightful lunch-party by letting us hear it?"
Marise was annoyed by his grand seigneur air of certainty of his own importance, and piqued that she had failed to hold his interest. Both impressions were of a quicker vivacity than was at all the habit of her maturity. She told herself, surprised, that she had not felt this little sharp sting of wounded personal vanity since she was a girl. What did she care whether she had bored him or not? But it was with all her faculties awakened and keen that she sat down before the piano and called out to them, "What would you like?"
They returned the usual protestations that they would like anything she would play, and after a moment's hesitation . . . it was always a leap in the dark to play to people about whose musical capacities you hadn't the faintest idea . . . she took out the Beethoven Sonata album and turned to the Sonata Pathetique. Beethoven of the early middle period was the safest guess with such entirely unknown listeners. For all that she really knew, they might want her to play Chaminade and Moskowsky. Mr. Welles, the nice old man, might find even them above his comprehension. And as for Marsh, she thought with a resentful toss of her head that he was capable of saying off-hand, that he was really bored by all music—and conveying by his manner that it was entirely the fault of the music. Well, she would show him how she could play, at least.
She laid her hands on the keys; and across those little smarting, trivial personalities there struck the clear, assured dignity and worth of her old friend . . . was there ever such a friend as that rough old German who had died so long before she was born? No one could say the human race was ignoble or had never deserved to live, who knew his voice. In a moment she was herself again.
Those well-remembered opening chords, they were by this time not merely musical sounds. They had become something within her, of her own being, rich with a thousand clustered nameless associations, something that thrilled and sang and lived a full harmonious life of its own. That first pearling down-dropping arabesque of treble notes, not only her fingers played those, but every fiber in her, answering like the vibrating wood of a violin, its very cells rearranged in the pattern which the notes had so many times called into existence . . . by the time she had finished she had almost forgotten that she had listeners.
And when, sitting for a moment, coming back slowly from Beethoven's existence to her own, she heard no sound or stir from the porch, she had only a quiet smile of tolerant amusement. Apparently she had not guessed right as to their tastes. Or perhaps she had played them to sleep.
As for herself, she was hungry for more; she reached out her hand towards that world of high, purified beauty which miraculously was always there, with open doors of gold and ivory. . . .
What now? What did she know by heart? The Largo in the Chopin Sonata. That would do to come after Beethoven.
The first plunge into this did not so intimately startle and stir her as the Beethoven movement had done. It was always like that, she thought as she played, the sound of the first note, the first chord struck when one had not played for a day or so; it was having one's closed eyes unsealed to the daylight anew, an incredulous rapture. But after that, though you didn't go on quaking and bowing your head, though you were no longer surprised to find music still there, better than you could possibly remember it, though you took it for granted, how deeply and solidly and steadfastly you lived in it and on it! It made you like the child in the Wordsworth sonnet, "A beauteous evening, calm and free"; it took you in to worship quite simply and naturally at the Temple's inner shrine; and you adored none the less although you were not "breathless with adoration," like the nun; because it was a whole world given to you, not a mere pang of joy; because you could live and move and be blessedly and securely at home in it.
She finished the last note of the Largo and sat quiet for a moment. Then she knew that someone had come into the room behind her. She turned about, facing with serene, wide brows whatever might be there.
The first meeting with the eyes of the man who stood there moved her. So he too deeply and greatly loved music! His face was quite other from the hawk-like, intent, boldly imperious countenance which she had seen before. Those piercing eyes were softened and quietly shining. The arrogant lines about the mouth that could look so bitter and skeptical, were as sweet and candid as a child's.
He smiled at her, a good, grateful, peaceful smile, and nodded, as though now they understood each other with no more need for words. "Go on . . . go on!" was all he said, very gently and softly. He sank down in an arm-chair and leaned his head back in the relaxed pose of listening.
He looked quite and exactly what Marise was feeling.
It was with a stir of all her pulses, a pride, a glory, a new sympathy in her heart, that she turned back to the piano.
A LITTLE GIRL AND HER MOTHER
An Afternoon in the Life of Elly Crittenden, aet. 8 Years
Elly Crittenden had meant to go straight home from school as usual with the other children, Paul and Mark, and Addle and Ralph Powers. And as usual somehow she was ever so far behind them, so far that there wasn't any use trying to catch up. Paul was hurrying to go over and see that new old man next door, as usual. She might as well not try, and just give up, and get home ever so late, the way she always did. Oh well, Father wasn't at home, and Mother wouldn't scold, and it was nice to walk along just as slow as you wanted to, and feel your rubber boots squizzle into the mud. How good it did seem to have real mud, after the long winter of snow! And it was nice to hear the brooks everywhere, making that dear little noise and to see them flashing every-which-way in the sun, as they tumbled along downhill. And it was nice to smell that smell . . . what was that sort of smell that made you know the sugaring-off had begun? You couldn't smell the hot boiling sap all the way from the mountain-sides, but what you did smell made you think of the little bark-covered sap-houses up in the far woods, with smoke and white steam coming out from all their cracks, as though there was somebody inside magicking charms and making a great cloud to cover it, like Klingsor or the witch-ladies in the Arabian Nights. There was a piece of music Mother played, that was like that. You could almost see the white clouds begin to come streeling out between the piano-keys, and drift all around her. All but her face that always looked through.
The sun shone down so warm on her head, she thought she might take off her woolen cap. Why, yes, it was plenty warm enough. Oh, how good it felt! How good it did feel! Like somebody actually touching your hair with a warm, soft hand. And the air, that cool, cool air, all damp with the thousand little brooks, it felt just as good to be cool, when you tossed your hair and the wind could get into it. How good it did feel to be bare-headed, after all that long winter! Cool inside your hair at the roots, and warm outside where the sun pressed on it. Cool wind and warm sun, two different things that added up to make one lovely feel for a little girl. The way your hair tugged at its roots, all streaming away; every single little hair tied tight to your head at one end, and yet so wildly loose at the other; tight, strong, firm, and yet light and limber and flag-flapping . . . it was like being warm and cool at the same time, so different and yet the same.
And there, underneath all this fluttering and tossing and differences, there were your legs going on just as dumb and steady as ever, stodge, stodge, stodge! She looked down at them with interest and appreciation of their faithful, dutiful service, and with affection at the rubber boots. She owed those to Mother. Paul had scared her so, when he said, so stone-wally, the way Paul always spoke as if that settled everything, that none of the little girls at school wore rubber boots, and he thought Elly oughtn't to be allowed to look so queer. It made him almost ashamed of his sister, he said. But Mother had somehow . . . what had she said to fix it? . . . oh well, something or other that left her her rubber boots and yet Paul wasn't mad any more.
And what could she do without rubber boots, when she wanted to wade through a brook, like this one, and the brooks were as they were now, all running spang full to the very edge with snow-water, the way this one did? Oo . . . Ooh . . . Ooh! how queer it did feel, to be standing most up to your knees this way, with the current curling by, all cold and snaky, feeling the fast-going water making your boot-legs shake like Aunt Hetty's old cheeks when she laughed, and yet your feet as dry inside! How could they feel as cold as that, without being wet, as though they were magicked? That was a real difference, even more than the wind cool inside your hair and the sun warm on the outside; or your hair tied tight at one end and all wobbly loose at the other. But this wasn't a nice difference. It didn't add up to make a nice feeling, but a sort of queer one, and if she stood there another minute, staring down into that swirly, snatchy water, she'd fall right over into it . . . it seemed to be snatching at her! Oh gracious! This wasn't much better! on the squelchy dead grass of the meadow that looked like real ground and yet you sank right into it. Oh, it was horridly soft, like touching the hand of that new man that had come to live with the old gentleman next door. She must hurry as fast as she could . . . it felt as though it was sucking at her feet, trying to pull her down altogether like the girl with the red shoes, and she didn't have any loaves of bread to throw down to step on . . .
Well, there! this was better, as the ground started uphill. There was firm ground under her feet. Yes, not mud, nor soaked, flabby meadow-land, but solid earth, solid, solid! She stamped on it with delight. It was just as nice to have solid things very solid, as it was to have floaty things like clouds very floaty. What was horrid was to have a thing that looked solid, and yet was all soft, like gelatine pudding when you touched it.
Well, for goodness' sake, where was she? Where had she come to, without thinking a single thing about it? Right on the ridge overlooking Aunt Hetty's house to be sure, on those rocks that hang over it, so you could almost throw a stone down any one of the chimneys. She might just as well go down and make Aunt Hetty a visit now she was so near, and walk home by the side-road. Of course Paul would say, nothing could keep him from saying, that she had planned to do that very thing, right along, and when she left the school-house headed straight for Aunt Hetty's cookie-jar. Well, let him! She could just tell him, she'd never dreamed of such a thing, till she found herself on those rocks.
She walked more and more slowly, letting herself down cautiously from one ledge to another, and presently stopped altogether, facing a beech tree, its trunk slowly twisted into a spiral because it was so hard to keep alive on those rocks. She was straight in front of it, staring into its gray white-blotched bark. Now if Mother asked her, of course she'd have to say, yes, she had planned to, sort of but not quite. Mother would understand. There wasn't any use trying to tell things how they really were to Paul, because to him things weren't ever sort-of-but-not-quite. They either were or they weren't. But Mother always knew, both ways, hers and Paul's.
She stepped forward and downward now, lightened. Her legs stretched out to carry her from one mossed rock to another. "Striding," that was what she was doing. Now she knew just what "striding" meant. What fun it was to feel what a word meant! Then when you used it, you could feel it lie down flat in the sentence, and fit into the other words, like a piece in a jig-saw puzzle when you got it into the right place. Gracious! How fast you could "stride" down those rocks into Aunt Hetty's back yard!
Hello! Here at the bottom was some snow, a great big drift of it still left, all gray and shrunk and honey-combed with rain and wind, with a little trickle of water running away softly and quietly from underneath it, like a secret. Well, think of there being still snow left anywhere except on top of the mountains! She had just been thinking all the afternoon how good it seemed to have the snow all gone, and here she ran right into some, as if you'd been talking about a person, saying how sick and tired you were of everlastingly seeing him around, and there he was, right outside the window and hearing it all, and knowing it wasn't his fault he was still hanging on. You'd feel bad to know he'd heard. She felt bad now! After all, the fun the snow had given them, all that winter, sleighing and snow-shoeing and ski-running and sliding downhill. And when she remembered how glad she'd been to see the first snow, how she and little Mark had run to the window to see the first flakes, and had hollered, Oh goody, goody! And here was all there was left, just one poor old forgotten dirty drift, melting away as fast as it could, so's to get itself out of the way. She stood looking down on it compassionately, and presently, stooping over, gave it a friendly, comforting pat with one mittened hand.
Then she was pierced with an arrow of hunger, terrible, devouring starvation! Why was it she was always so much hungrier just as she got out of school, than ever at meal-times? She did hope this wouldn't be one of those awful days when Aunt Hetty's old Agnes had let the cookie-jar get empty!
She walked on fast, now, across the back yard where the hens, just as happy as she was to be on solid ground, pottered around dreamily, their eyes half-shut up. . . . Elly could just think how good the sun must feel on their feathers! She could imagine perfectly how it would be to have feathers instead of skin and hair. She went into the kitchen door. Nobody was there. She went through into the pantry. Nobody there! Nobody, that is, except the cookie-jar, larger than any other object in the room, looming up like a wash-tub. She lifted the old cracked plate kept on it for cover. Oh, it was full,—a fresh baking! And raisins in them! The water ran into her mouth in a little gush. Oh my, how good and cracklesome they looked! And how beautifully the sugar sprinkled on them would grit against your teeth as you ate it! Oh gracious!
She put her hand in and touched one. There was nothing that felt like a freshly baked cookie; even through your mitten you could know, with your eyes shut, it was a cookie. She took hold of one, and stood perfectly still. She could take that, just as easy! Nobody would miss it, with the jar so full. Aunt Hetty and Agnes were probably house-cleaning, like everybody else, upstairs. Nobody would ever know. The water of desire was at the very corners of her mouth now. She felt her insides surging up and down in longing. Nobody would know!
She opened her hand, put the cookie back, laid the plate on the top of the jar, and walked out of the pantry. Of course she couldn't do that. What had she been thinking of,—such a stealy, common thing, and she Mother's daughter!
But, oh! It was awful, having to be up to Mother! She sniffed forlornly and drew her mitten across her nose. She had wanted it so! And she was just dying, she was so hungry. And Mother wouldn't even let her ask people for things to eat. Suppose Aunt Hetty didn't think to ask her!
She went through the dining-room, into the hall, and called upstairs, "Aunt Hetty! Aunt Hetty!" She was almost crying she felt so sorry for herself.
"Yis," came back a faint voice, very thin and high, the way old people's voices sounded when they tried to call loud. "Up in the east-wing garret."
She mounted the stairs heavily, pulling herself along by those spindling old red balustrades, just like so many old laths, noticing that her rubber boots left big hunks of mud on the white-painted stairs, but too miserable to care.
The door to the east-wing garret was open. Aunt Hetty was there, bossing Agnes, and they were both "dudsing," as Elly called it to herself, leaning over trunks, disappearing in and out of closets, turning inside out old bags of truck, sorting over, and, for all Elly could see, putting the old duds back again, just where they had been before. Grown-ups did seem to run round in circles, so much of their time!
She sat down wearily on an ugly little old trunk near the door. Aunt Hetty shut up a drawer in a dresser, turned to Elly, and said, "Mercy, child, what's the matter? Has the teacher been scolding you?"
"No, Aunt Hetty," said Elly faintly, looking out of the window.
"Anybody sick at your house?" asked Aunt Hetty, coming towards the little girl.
"No," said Elly, shaking her head.
"Don't you feel well?" asked Aunt Hetty, laying one wrinkled, shaky old hand on her shoulder.
"No, Aunt Hetty," said Elly, her eyes large and sad.
"Maybe she's hungry," suggested Agnes, in a muffled voice from the depths of a closet.
"Are you?" asked Aunt Hetty.
"Yes," cried Elly.
Aunt Hetty laughed. "Well, I don't know if there are any cookies in the house or not," she said, "we've been so busy house-cleaning. Agnes, did you bake any cookies this morning?"
Elly was struck into stupor at this. Think of not knowing if there were any cookies in the house!
Agnes appeared, tiny and old and stooped and wrinkled, like her mistress. She had a big, rolled-up woolen-covered comforter in her arms, over which she nodded. "Yes, I made some. You told me to make some every Wednesday," she said. She went on, looking anxiously at Aunt Hetty, "There ain't any moth-holes in this. Was this the comfortable you meant? I thought this was the one you told me to leave out of the camphor chest. I thought you told me . . ."
"You know where to find the cookies, don't you, Elly?" asked Aunt Hetty, over her shoulder, trotting rapidly like a little dry, wind-blown leaf, towards Agnes and the comforter.
"Oh yes, Aunt Hetty!" shouted Elly, halfway down the stairs.
Aunt Hetty called after her, "Take all you want . . . three or four. They won't hurt you. There's no egg in our recipe."
Elly was there again, in the empty pantry, before the cookie-jar. She lifted the cracked plate again. . . . But, oh! how differently she did feel now! . . . and she had a shock of pure, almost solemn, happiness at the sight of the cookies. She had not only been good and done as Mother would want her to, but she was going to have four of those cookies. Three or four, Aunt Hetty had said! As if anybody would take three if he was let to have four! Which ones had the most raisins? She knew of course it wasn't so very nice to pick and choose that way, but she knew Mother would let her, only just laugh a little and say it was a pity to be eight years old if you couldn't be a little greedy!
Oh, how happy she was! How light she felt! How she floated back up the stairs! What a perfectly sweet old thing Aunt Hetty was! And what a nice old house she had, though not so nice as home, of course. What pretty mahogany balusters, and nice white stairs! Too bad she had brought in that mud. But they were house-cleaning anyhow. A little bit more to clean up, that was all. And what luck that they were in the east-room garret, the one that had all the old things in it, the hoop-skirts and the shells and the old scoop-bonnets, and the four-poster bed and those fascinating old cretonne bags full of treasures.
She sat down near the door on the darling little old hair-covered trunk that had been Great-grandfather's, and watched the two old women at work. The first cookie had disappeared now, and the second was well on the way. She felt a great appeasement in her insides. She leaned back against the old dresses hung on the wall and drew a long breath.
"Well," said Aunt Hetty, "you've got neighbors up your way, so they tell me. Funny thing, a city man coming up here to live. He'll never stick it out. The summer maybe. But that's all. You just see, come autumn, if he don't light out for New York again."
Elly made no comment on this. She often heard her elders say that she was not a talkative child, and that it was hard to get anything out of her. That was because mostly they wanted to know about things she hadn't once thought of noticing, and weren't a bit interested when she tried to talk about what she had noticed. Just imagine trying to tell Aunt Hetty about that poor old gray snow-bank out in her woods, all lonely and scrumpled up! She went on eating her cookie.
"How does he like it, anyhow?" asked Aunt Hetty, bending the upper part of her out of the window to shake something. "And what kind of a critter is he?"
"Well, he's rather an old man," said Elly. She added conscientiously, trying to be chatty, "Paul's crazy about him. He goes over there all the time to visit. I like him all right. The old man seems to like it here all right. They both of them do."
"Both?" said Aunt Hetty, curving herself back into the room again.
"Oh, the other one isn't going to live here, like Mr. Welles. He's just come to get Mr. Welles settled, and to make him a visit. His name is Mr. Marsh."
"Well, what's he like?" asked Aunt Hetty, folding together the old wadded petticoat she had been shaking.
"Oh, he's all right too," said Elly. She wasn't going to say anything about that funny softness of his hands, she didn't like, because that would be like speaking about the snow-drift; something Aunt Hetty would just laugh at, and call one of her notions.
"Well, what do they do with themselves, two great hulking men set off by themselves?"
Elly tried seriously to remember what they did do. "I don't see them, of course, much in the morning before I go to school. I guess they get up and have their breakfast, the way anybody does."
Aunt Hetty snorted a little, "Gracious, child, a person needs a corkscrew to get anything out of you. I mean all day, with no chores, or farmin', or anything."
"I don't know," Elly confessed. "Mr. Clark, of course, he's busy cooking and washing dishes and keeping house, but . . ."
"Are there three of them?" Aunt Hetty stopped her dudsing in her astonishment. "I thought you said two."
"Oh well, Mr. Marsh sent down to the city and had this Mr. Clark come up to work for them. He doesn't call him 'Mr. Clark'—just 'Clark,' short like that. I guess he's Mr. Marsh's hired man in the city. Only he can do everything in the house, too. But I don't feel like calling him 'Clark' because he's grown-up, and so I call him 'Mr. Clark.'" She did not tell Aunt Hetty that she sort of wanted to make up to him for being somebody's servant and being called like one. It made her mad and she wanted to show he could be a mister as well as anybody. She began on the third cookie. What else could she say to Aunt Hetty, who always wanted to know the news so? She brought out, "Well, I tell you, in the afternoon, when I get home, mostly old Mr. Welles is out in his garden."
"Gardin!" cried Aunt Hetty. "Mercy on us, making garden the fore-part of April. Where does he think he's living? Florida?"
"I don't believe he's exactly making garden," said Elly. "He just sort of pokes around there, and looks at things. And sometimes he sits down on the bench and just sits there. He's pretty old, I guess, and he walks kind of tired, always."
"Does the other one?" asked Aunt Hetty.
This made Elly sit up, and say very loud, "No, indeedy!" She really hadn't thought before how very untired Mr. Marsh always seemed. She added, "No, the other one doesn't walk tired, nor he doesn't poke around in the garden. He takes long tramps way back of the mountains, over Burnham way."
"For goodness' sakes, what's he find up there?"
"He likes it. He comes over and borrows our maps and things to study, and he gets Mother to tell him all about everything. He gets Toucle to tell him about the back trails, too."
"Well, he's a smart one if he can get a word out of Toucle."
"Yes, he does. Everybody talks to him. You have to if he starts in. He's very lively."
"Does he get you to talk?" asked Aunt Hetty, laughing at the idea.
"Well, some," stated Elly soberly. She did not say that Mr. Marsh always seemed to her to be trying to get some secret out of her. She didn't have any secret that she knew of, but that was the way he made her feel. She dodged him mostly, when she could.
"What's the news from your father?"
"Oh, he's all right," said Elly. She fell to thinking of Father and wishing he would come back.
"When's he going to get through his business, up there?"
"Before long, I guess. Mother said maybe he'd be back here next month." Elly was aware that she was again not being talkative. She tried to think of something to add. "I'm very much obliged for these cookies," she said. "They are awfully good."
"They're the kind your mother always liked, when she was your age," said Aunt Hetty casually. "I remember how she used to sit right there on Father's hair-trunk and eat them and watch me just like you now."
At this statement Elly could feel her thoughts getting bigger and longer and higher, like something being opened out. "And the heaven was removed as a scroll when it is rolled up." That sentence she'd heard in church and never understood, and always wondered what was behind, what they had seen when the scroll was rolled up. . . . Something inside her now seemed to roll up as though she were going to see what was behind it. How much longer time was than you thought! Mother had sat there as a little girl . . . a little girl like her. Mother who was now grown-up and finished, knowing everything, never changing, never making any mistakes. Why, how could she have been a little girl! And such a short time ago that Aunt Hetty remembered her sitting there, right there, maybe come in from walking across that very meadow, and down those very rocks. What had she been thinking about, that other little girl who had been Mother? "Why" . . . Elly stopped eating, stopped breathing for a moment. "Why, she herself would stop being a little girl, and would grow up and be a Mother!" She had always known that, of course, but she had never felt it till that moment. It made her feel very sober; more than sober, rather holy. Yes, that was the word,—holy,—like the hymn. Perhaps some day another little girl would sit there, and be just as surprised to know that her mother had been really and truly a little girl too, and would feel queer and shy at the idea, and all the time her mother had been only Elly. But would she be Elly any more, when she was grown up? What would have happened to Elly? And after that little girl, another; and one before Mother; and back as far as you could see, and forwards as far as you could see. It was like a procession, all half in the dark, marching forward, one after another, little girls, mothers, mothers and little girls, and then more . . . what for . . . oh, what for?
She was a little scared. She wished she could get right up and go home to Mother. But the procession wouldn't stop . . . wouldn't stop. . . .
Aunt Hetty hung up the last bag. "There," she said, "that's all we can do here today. Elly, you'd better run along home. The sun'll be down behind the mountain now before you get there."
Elly snatched at the voice, at the words, at Aunt Hetty's wrinkled, shaking old hand. She jumped up from the trunk. Something in her face made Aunt Hetty say, "Well, you look as though you'd most dropped to sleep there in the sun. It does make a person feel lazy this first warm March sun. I declare this morning I didn't want to go to work house-cleaning. I wanted to go and spend the day with the hens, singing over that little dozy ca-a-a-a they do, in the sun, and stretch one leg and one wing till they most broke off, and ruffle up all my feathers and let 'em settle back very slow, and then just set."
They had started downstairs before Aunt Hetty had finished this, the little girl holding tightly to the wrinkled old hand. How peaceful Aunt Hetty was! Even the smell of her black woolen dresses always had a quiet smell. And she must see all those hunks of mud on the white stairs, but she never said a word. Elly squeezed her hand a little tighter.
What was it she had been thinking about on the hair-trunk that made her so glad to feel Aunt Hetty peaceful? Oh yes, that Mother had been there, where she was, when she was a little girl. Well, gracious! What of that? She'd always known that Mother had visited Aunt Hetty a lot and that Aunt Hetty had been awfully good to her, and that Mother loved Aunt Hetty like everything. What had made it seem so queer, all of a sudden?
"Well," said Aunt Hetty at the front door, "step along now. I don't want you should be late for supper." She tipped her head to look around the edge of the top of the door and said, "Well, I declare, just see that moon showing itself before ever the sun gets down."
She walked down the path a little way with Elly, who still held her hand. They stood together looking up at the mountain, very high and blue against the sky that was green . . . yes, it really was a pale, clear green, at the top of the mountain-line. People always said the sky was blue, except at sunset-time, like now, when it was filling the Notch right to the top with every color that could be.
"The lilacs will begin to swell soon," said Aunt Hetty.
"I saw some pussy-willows out, today," answered Elly.
The old woman and the little girl lifted their heads, threw them back, and looked up long into the sky, purely, palely high above them.
"It's quite a sightly place to live, Crittenden's is," said Aunt Hetty.
Elly said nothing, it being inconceivable to her that she could live anywhere else.
"Well, good-bye," said Aunt Hetty. It did not occur to her to kiss the little girl. It did not occur to Elly to want a kiss. They squeezed their hands together a little bit more, and then Elly went down the road, walking very carefully.
Why did she walk so carefully, she wondered? She felt as though she were carrying a cup, full up to the brim of something. And she mustn't let it spill. What was it so full of? Aunt Hetty's peacefulness, maybe.
Or maybe just because it was beginning to get twilight. That always made you feel as though something was being poured softly into you, that you mustn't spill. She was glad the side-road was so grass-grown. You could walk on it, so still, like this, and never make a sound.
She thought again of Father and wished he would come home. She liked Father. He was solid. He was solid like that solid earth she liked so much to walk on. It was just such a comfort to feel him. Father was like the solid ground and Mother was like the floaty clouds. Why, yes, they were every way like what she had been thinking about. . . . Father was the warm sun on the outside, and Mother was the cool wind on the inside. Father was the end that was tied tight and firm so you knew you couldn't lose it, and Mother was the end that streamed out like flags in the wind. But they weren't either of them like that slinky, swirly water, licking at you, in such a hurry to get on past you and get what it was scrambling to get, whatever that was.
Well, of all things! There was old Mr. Welles, coming towards her. He must be out taking a walk too. How slowly he went! And kept looking up the way she and Aunt Hetty had, at the sky and the mountains. He was quite close now. Why . . . why, he didn't know she was there. He had gone right by her and never even saw her and yet had been so close she could see his face plainly. He must have been looking very hard at the mountains. But it wasn't hard the way he was looking, it was soft. How soft his face had looked, almost quivery, almost. . . . But that was silly to think of . . . almost as though he felt like crying. And yet all shining and quiet, too, as if he'd been in church.
Well, it was a little bit like being in church, when you could see the twilight come down very slow like this, and settle on the tree-tops and then down through them towards you. You always felt as though it was going to do something to you when it got to you; something peaceful, like old Aunt Hetty.
She was at her own front path now, it was really almost dark. Mother was playing the piano. But not for either of the boys. It was grown-up music she was playing. Elly hesitated on the flagged stones. Maybe she was playing for Mr. Marsh again. She advanced slowly. Yes, there he was, sitting on the door-step, across the open door, leaning back his head, smoking, sometimes looking out at the sunset, and sometimes looking in towards the piano.
Elly made a wide circuit under the apple-trees, and went in the side-door. Toucle was only just setting the table. Elly would have plenty of time to get off her rubber boots, look up her old felt slippers, and put them on before supper time. Gracious! Her stockings were wet. She'd have to change them, too. She'd just stay upstairs till Mr. Marsh went away. She didn't feel to talk to him.
* * * * *
When out of her window she saw him step back across the grass to Mr. Welles' house, Elly came downstairs at once. The light in the living-room made her blink, after all that outdoor twilight and the indoor darkness of her room upstairs.
Mother was still at the piano, her hands on the keys, but not playing. At the sight of her, Elly's heart filled and brightened. Her busy, busy thoughts stopped for the first time that day. She felt as you do when you've been rowing a boat a long time and finally, almost where you want to go, you stop and let her slide in on her own movement, quiet and soft and smooth, and reach out your hand to take hold of the landing-place. Elly reached out her arm and put it around Mother's neck. She stood perfectly quiet. There wasn't any need to be anything but quiet now you'd got to where you were going.
She had been out on the rim of the wheel, all around and around it, and up and down the spokes. But now she was at the center where all the spokes ended.
She closed her eyes and laid her head on Mother's soft shoulder.
"Did you have a good walk, all by yourself, dear?" asked Mother.
"Oh yes, it was all right," said Elly.
"Your feet aren't wet, are they?"
"No," said Elly, "I took off my boots just as soon as I came in, and changed my stockings."
THINGS TAKE THEIR COURSE
A Couple of Hours from Mr. Welles' New Life.
One of the many things which surprised Mr. Welles was that he seemed to need less sleep than in the city. Long hours in bed had been one of the longed-for elements of the haven of rest which his retiring from the office was to be. Especially as he had dragged himself from bed to stop the relentless snarl of his alarm-clock, had he hoped for late morning sleeps in his new home, when he could wake up at seven, feel himself still heavy, unrefreshed, unready for the day, and turn on the pillow to take another dose of oblivion.
But here, after the first ten days of almost prostrate relaxation, he found himself waking even before the dawn, and lying awake in his bed, waiting almost impatiently for the light to come so that he could rise to another day. He learned all the sounds of the late night and early morning, and how they had different voices in the dark; the faint whisper of the maple-branches, the occasional stir and muffled chirp of a bird, the hushed, secret murmur of the little brook which ran between his garden and the Crittenden yard, and the distant, deeper note of the Necronsett River as it rolled down the Ashley valley to The Notch. He could almost tell, without opening his eyes, when the sky grew light over the Eagle Rocks, by the way the night voices lifted, and carried their sweet, muted notes up to a clearer, brighter singing.
When that change in the night-voices came, he sat up in bed, turning his face from the window, for he did not want any mere partial glimpse for his first contact with the day, and got into his clothes, moving cautiously not to waken Vincent, who always sat up till all hours and slept till ten. Down the stairs in his stocking-feet, his shoes in his hand; a pause in the living-room to thread and fasten shoe-laces; and then, his silly old heart beating fast, his hand on the door-knob. The door slowly opened, and the garden, his own shining garden, offered itself to him anew, so fresh in the dew and the pale gold of the slanting morning sun-rays, that he was apt to swallow hard as he first stepped out into it and stood still, with bare head lifted, drawing one long breath after another.
He was seldom alone in those early hours, although the house slept profoundly behind him; a robin, the only bird whose name he was sure of, hopped heavily and vigorously about on the sparkling grass; a little brown bird of whose name he had not the slightest notion, but whose voice he knew very well by this time, poured out a continuous cascade of quick, high, eager notes from the top of the elm; a large toad squatted peaceably in the sun, the loose skin over its forehead throbbing rhythmically with the life in it; and over on the steps of the Crittendens' kitchen, the old Indian woman, as motionless as the toad, fixed her opaque black eyes on the rising sun, while something about her, he could never decide what, throbbed rhythmically with the life in her. Mr. Welles had never in all his life been so aware of the rising sun, had never so felt it like something in himself as on those mornings when he walked in his garden and glanced over at the old Indian.
Presently, the Crittenden house woke, so to speak, with one eye, and took on the aspect of a house in which someone is astir. First came the fox-terrier, inevitable precursor of his little master, and then, stepping around Toucle as though she were a tree or a rock, came his little partner Paul, his freckled face shining with soap and the earliness of the hour. Mr. Welles was apt to swallow hard again, when he felt the child's rough, strong fingers slip into his.
"Hello, Mr. Welles," said Paul.
"Hello, Paul," said Mr. Welles.
"I thought sure I'd beat you to it for once, this morning," was what Paul invariably said first. "I can't seem to wake up as early as you and Toucle."
Then he would bring out his plan for that particular morning walk.
"Maybe we might have time to have me show you the back-road by Cousin Hetty's, and get back by the men's short-cut before breakfast, maybe? Perhaps?"
"We could try it," admitted Mr. Welles, cautiously. It tickled him to answer Paul in his own prudent idiom. Then they set off, surrounded and encompassed by the circles of mad delight which Medor wove about them, rushing at them once in a while, in a spasm of adoration, to leap up and lick Paul's face.
Thus on one of these mornings in April, they were on the back-road to Cousin Hetty's, the right-hand side solemn and dark with tall pines, where the ground sloped up towards the Eagle Rocks; jungle-like with blackberry brambles and young pines on the left side where it had been lumbered some years ago. Paul pointed out proudly the thrifty growth of the new pines and explained it by showing the several large trees left standing at intervals down the slope towards the Ashley valley. "Father always has them do that, so the seeds from the old trees will seed up the bare ground again. Gosh! You'd ought to hear him light into the choppers when they forget to leave the seed-pines or when they cut under six inches butt diameter."
Mr. Welles had no more notion what cutting under six inches butt diameter meant than he had of the name of the little brown bird who sang so sweetly in his elm; but Paul's voice and that of the nameless bird gave him the same pleasure. He tightened his hold of the tough, sinewy little fingers, and looked up through the glorious brown columns of the great pines towards where the sky-line showed, luminous, far up the slope.
"That's the top of the Eagle Rocks, where you see the sky," explained his small cicerone, seeing the direction of his eyes. "The Powerses lost a lot of sheep off over them, last year. A dog must ha' started running them down in the pasture. And you know what fools sheep are. Once they get scared they can't think of anything to do except just to keep a-running till something gets in their way. About half of the Powers flock just ran themselves off the top of the Rocks, although the dog had stopped chasing them, way down in the valley. There wasn't enough of them left, even to sell to the butcher in Ashley for mutton. Ralph Powers, he's about as old as I am, maybe a little bit older, well, his father had given him a ewe and two twin lambs for his own, and didn't they all three get killed that day! Ralph felt awful bad about it. He don't ever seem to have any luck, Ralph don't."
. . . How sweet it was, Mr. Welles thought to himself, how awfully sweet to be walking in such pine-woods, on the early morning, preceded by such a wildly happy little dog, with a little boy whose treble voice ran on and on, whose strong little hand clasped yours so tightly, and who turned up to you eyes of such clear trust! Was he the same man who for such endless years had been a part of the flotsam cast out every morning into the muddy, brawling flood of the city street and swept along to work which had always made him uneasy and suspicious of it?
"There's the whistle," said Paul, holding up a finger. "Father has the first one blown at half-past six, so's the men can have time to get their things ready and start; and not have to hurry."
At this a faint stirring of interest in what the child was saying broke through the golden haze of the day-dream in which Mr. Welles was walking. "Where do they come from anyhow, the men who work in your father's mill?" he asked. "Where do they live? There are so few homes at Crittenden's."
"Oh, they live mostly over the hill in the village, in Ashley. There are lots of old houses there, and once in a while now they even have to build a new one, since the old ones are all filled up. Mr. Bayweather says that before Father and Mother came here to live and really run the mill, that Ashley Street was all full of empty houses, without a light in them, that the old folks had died out of. But now the men have bought them up and live in them. It's just as bright, nights! With windows lighted up all over. Father's had the electric current run over there from the mill, now, and that doesn't cost anything except . . ."
Mr. Welles' curiosity satisfied, he fell back into his old shimmer of content and walked along, hearing Paul's voice only as one of the morning sounds of the newly awakened world.
Presently he was summoned out of this day-dream by a tug at his hand. Paul gave out the word of command, "We turn here, so's to get into the men's short-cut."
This proved to be a hard-trodden path, lying like a loosely thrown-down string, over the hill pasture-land which cut Ashley village off from Crittenden's mill. It was to get around this rough tract that the road had to make so long a detour.
"Oh, I see," said Mr. Welles. "I'd been thinking that it must bother them a lot to come the two miles along the road from the village."
"Sure," said Paul. "Only the ones that have got Fords come that way. This is ever so much shorter. Those that step along fast can make it easy in twelve or fifteen minutes. There they come now, the first of them." He nodded backward along the path where a distant dark line of men came treading swiftly and steadily forward, tin pails glistening in their hands.
"Some of those in that first bunch are really choppers by rights," Paul diagnosed them with a practised eye, "but of course nobody does much chopping come warmer weather. But Father never lays off any men unless they want to be. He fixes some jobs for them in the lumber-yard or in the mill, so they live here all the year around, same's the regular hands."
The two stood still now, watching the men as their long, powerful strides brought them rapidly nearer. Back of them the sun rose up splendid in the sparkling, dustless mountain air. The pasture grass on either side of the sinuous path lay shining in the dew. Before them the path led through a grove of slim, white birches, tremulous in a pale cloud of light green.
"Well, they've got a pretty good way to get to their work, all right," commented Mr. Welles.
"Yep, pretty good," agreed Paul. "It's got tramped down so it's quite smooth."
A detachment of the file of tall, strongly built, roughly dressed men had now reached them, and with friendly, careless nods and greetings to Paul, they swung by, smoking, whistling, calling out random remarks and jokes back and forth along the line.
"Hello, Frank. Hello, Mike. Hello, Harry. Hello, Jom-bastiste. Hello, Jim." Paul made answer to their repeated, familiar, "Hello, Paul."
* * * * *
Mr. Welles drew back humbly from out their path. These were men, useful to the world, strong for labor. He must needs stand back with the child.
With entire unexpectedness, he felt a wistful envy of those men, still valid, still fit for something. For a moment it did not seem as sweet as he had thought it would always be, to feel himself old, old and useless.
He was impatient to be at the real work of gardening and one morning applied seriously to Mrs. Crittenden to be set at work. Surely this must be late enough, even in this "suburb of the North Pole," as Vincent called Vermont. Well, yes, Mrs. Crittenden conceded to him, stopping her rapid manipulation of an oiled mop on the floor of her living-room, if he was in such a hurry, he could start getting the ground ready for the sweet peas. It wouldn't do any harm to plant them now, though it might not do any good either; and he mustn't be surprised to find occasional chunks of earth still frozen. She would be over in a little while to show him about it. Let him get his pick-mattock, spade, and rake ready, up by the corner of his stone wall.
* * * * *
He was waiting there, ten minutes later, the new implements (bought at Mrs. Crittenden's direction days and days ago) leaning against the wall. The sun was strong and sweet on his bared white head, the cool earth alive under his feet, freed from the tension of frost which had held it like stone when he had first trod his garden. He leaned against the stone wall, laid a century ago by who knew what other gardener, and looked down respectfully at the strip of ground along the stones. There it lay, blank and brown, shabby with the litter of broken, sodden stems of last year's weeds, and unsightly with half-rotten lumps of manure. And that would feed and nourish . . .
For an instant there stood there before his flower-loving eyes the joyful tangle of fresh green vines, the pearly many-colored flesh of the petals, their cunning, involved symmetry of form—all sprung from a handful of wrinkled yellow seeds and that ugly mixture of powdered stone and rotten decay.
It was a wonderful business, he thought.
Mrs. Crittenden emerged from her house now, in a short skirt, rough heavy shoes, and old flannel shirt. She looked, he thought, ever so trig and energetic and nice; but suddenly aware that Vincent was gazing idly out of an upper window at them, he guessed that the other man would not admire the costume. Vincent was so terribly particular about how ladies dressed, he thought to himself, as he moved forward, mattock in hand.
"I'm ashamed to show you how dumb I am about the use of these tools," he told her, laughing shamefacedly. "I don't suppose you'll believe me, but honestly I never had a pick-mattock in my hand till I went down to the store to buy one. I might as well go the whole hog and confess I'd never even heard of one till you told me to get it. Is this the way you use it?" He jabbed ineffectually at the earth with the mattock, using a short tight blow with a half-arm movement. The tool jarred itself half an inch into the ground and was almost twisted out of his hand.
"No, not quite," she said, taking the heavy tool out of his hand. If she were aware of the idle figure at the upper window, she gave no sign of it. She laid her strong, long, flexible hands on the handle, saying, "So, you hold it this way. Then you swing it up, back of your head. There's a sort of knack to that. You'll soon catch it. And then, if the ground isn't very hard, you don't need to use any strength at all on the downward stroke. Let Old Mother Gravity do the work. If you aim it right, its own weight is enough for ordinary garden soil, that's not in sod. Now watch."
She swung the heavy tool up, shining in the bright air, all her tall, supple body drawn up by the swing of her arms, cried out, "See, now I relax and just let it fall," and bending with the downward rush of the blade, drove it deep into the brown earth. A forward thrust of the long handle ("See, you use it like a lever," she explained), a small earthquake in the soil, and the tool was free for another stroke.
At her feet was a pool of freshly stirred fragments of earth, loose, friable, and moist, from which there rose in a gust of the spring breeze, an odor unknown to the old man and thrilling.
He stooped down, thrust his hand into the open breast of earth, and took up a handful of the soil which had lain locked in frost for half a year and was now free for life again. Over it his eyes met those of the beautiful woman beside him.
She nodded. "Yes, there's nothing like it, the smell of the first earth stirred every spring."
He told her, wistfully, "It's the very first stirred in all my life."
They had both lowered their voices instinctively, seeing Vincent emerge from the house-door and saunter towards them immaculate in a gray suit. Mr. Welles was not at all glad to see him at this moment. "Here, let me have the mattock," he said, taking it out of Mrs. Crittenden's hands, "I want to try it myself."
He felt an anticipatory impatience of Vincent's everlasting talk, to which Mrs. Crittenden always had, of course, to give a polite attention; and imitating as well as he could, the free, upward swing of his neighbor, he began working off his impatience on the unresisting earth. But he could not help hearing that, just as he expected, Vincent plunged at once into his queer, abrupt talk. He always seemed to think he was going right on with something that had been said before, but really, for the most part, as far as Mr. Welles could see, what he said had nothing to do with anything. Mrs. Crittenden must really be a very smart woman, he reflected, to seem to know what he meant, and always to have an answer ready.
Vincent, shaking his head, and looking hard at Mrs. Crittenden's rough clothes and the handful of earth in her fingers, said with an air of enforced patience with obvious unreasonableness, "You're on the wrong track, you know. You're just all off. Of course with you it can't be pose as it looks when other people do it. It must be simply muddle-headed thinking."
He added, very seriously, "You infuriate me."
Mr. Welles, pecking feebly at the ground, the heavy mattock apparently invested with a malicious life of its own, twisting perversely, heavily lop-sided in his hands, thought that this did not sound like a polite thing to say to a lady. And yet the way Vincent said it made it sound like a compliment, somehow. No, not that; but as though it were awfully important to him what Mrs. Crittenden did. Perhaps that counted as a compliment.
He caught only a part of Mrs. Crittenden's answer, which she gave, lightly laughing, as though she did not wish to admit that Vincent could be so serious as he sounded. The only part he really heard was when she ended, ". . . oh, if we are ever going to succeed in forcing order on the natural disorder of the world, it's going to take everybody's shoulder to the wheel. Women can't stay ornamental and leisurely, and elegant, nor even always nice to look at."
Mr. Welles, amazed at the straining effort he needed to put forth to manage that swing which Mrs. Crittenden did so easily, took less than his usual small interest in the line of talk which Vincent was so fond of springing on their neighbor. He heard him say, with his air of always stating a foregone conclusion, something so admitted that it needed no emphasis, "It's Haroldbellwrightism, pure and simple, to imagine that anything you can ever do, that anybody can ever do, will help bring about the kind of order you're talking about, order for everybody. The only kind of order there ever will be, is what you get when you grab a little of what you want out of the chaos, for your own self, while there's still time, and hold on to it. That's the only way to get anywhere for yourself. And as for doing something for other people, the only satisfaction you can give anybody is in beauty."
Mr. Welles swam out of the breakers into clear water. Suddenly he caught the knack of the upward swing, and had the immense satisfaction of bringing the mattock down squarely, buried to the head in the earth.
"There!" he said proudly to Mrs. Crittenden, "how's that for fine?"
He looked up at her, wiping the sweat from his forehead. He wondered for an instant if she really looked troubled, or if he only imagined it. There was no doubt about how Vincent looked, as though he thought Mr. Welles, exulting over a blow with a mattock, an old imbecile in his dotage.
Mr. Welles never cared very much whether he seemed to Vincent like an old imbecile or not, and certainly less than nothing about it today, intoxicated as he was with the air, the sun, and his new mastery over the soil. He set his hands lovingly to the tool and again and again swung it high over his head, while Vincent and Mrs. Crittenden strolled away, still talking. . . . "Doesn't it depend on what you mean by 'beauty'?" Mrs. Crittenden was saying.
THE NIGHT-BLOOMING CEREUS
An Evening in the Life of Mrs. Neale Crittenden
Nowadays she so seldom spoke or acted without knowing perfectly well what she was about, that Marise startled herself almost as much as her callers by turning over that leaf in the photograph album quickly and saying with abruptness, "No, never mind about that one. It's nothing interesting."
Of course this brought out from Paul and little Mark, hanging over her shoulder and knee, the to-be-expected shouts of, "Oh, let's see it! What is it?"
Marise perceived that they scented something fine and exciting such as Mother was always trying to keep from them, like one man choking another over the edge of a cliff, or a woman lying on her back with the blood all running from her throat. Whenever pictures like that were in any of the magazines that came into the house, Marise took them away from the little boys, although she knew helplessly that this naturally made them extremely keen not to miss any chance to catch a glimpse of such a one. She could see that they thought it queer, there being anything so exciting in this old album of dull snapshots and geographical picture-postcards of places and churches and ruins and things that Father and Mother had seen, so long ago. But you never could tell. The way Mother had spoken, the sound of her voice, the way she had flapped down the page quick, the little boys' practised ears and eyes had identified all that to a certainty with the actions that accompanied pictures she didn't want them to see. So, of course, they clamored, "Oh yes, Mother, just one look!"
Elly as usual said nothing, looking up into Mother's face. Marise was extremely annoyed. She was glad that Elly was the only one who was looking at her, because, of course, dear old Mr. Welles' unobservant eyes didn't count. She was glad that Mr. Marsh kept his gaze downward on the photograph marked "Rome from the Pincian Gardens," although through the top of his dark, close-cropped head she could fairly feel the racing, inquiring speculations whirling about. Nor had she any right to resent that. She supposed people had a right to what went on in their own heads, so long as they kept it to themselves. And it had been unexpectedly delicate and fine, the way he had come to understand, without a syllable spoken on either side, that that piercing look of his made her uneasy; and how he had promised her, wordlessly always, to bend it on her no more.
Why in the world had it made her uneasy, and why, a thousand times why, had she felt this sudden unwillingness to look at the perfectly commonplace photograph, in this company? Something had burst up from the subconscious and flashed its way into action, moving her tongue to speak and her hand to action before she had the faintest idea it was there . . . like an action of youth! And see what a silly position it had put her in!
The little boys had succeeded with the inspired tactlessness of children in emphasizing and exaggerating what she had wished could be passed over unnoticed, a gesture of hers as inexplicable to her as to them. Oh well, the best thing, of course, was to carry it off matter-of-factly, turn the leaf back, and let them see it. And then refute them by insisting on the literal truth of what she had said.
"There!" she said carelessly; "look at it then."
The little boys bent their eager faces over it. Paul read out the title as he had been doing for the other photographs, "'View of the Campagna from the top of the cable-railway at Rocca di Papa. Rome in the distance.'"
She had to sustain, for an instant, an astonished and disconcerted look from all those eyes. It made her quite genuinely break into a laugh. It was really a joke on them. She said to the little boys mischievously, "What did Mother say? Do you find it very interesting?"
Paul and Mark stared hard at the very dull photograph of a cliff and a plain and not even a single person or donkey in it, and gave up the riddle. Mother certainly had spoken to them in that hide-it-away-from-the-children voice, and yet there was nothing there.
Marise knew that they felt somehow that Mother had unfairly slipped out between their fingers, as grown-ups are always doing. Well, it wasn't fair. She hated taking advantage of them like that. It was a sort of sin against their awakening capacity to put two and two together and make a human total, and understand what went on about them.
But it hadn't been against their capacity to put two and two together that she had instinctively thrown up that warding-off arm, which hadn't at all warded off attention, but rather drawn it hard and scrutinizing, in spite of those down-dropped sharp eyes. Well, there was no sum he could do with only two, and slight probability he would ever get the other two to put with it . . . whatever the other two might be.
Mr. Welles' pleasant old voice said, "It's a very pretty picture, I'm sure. They certainly have very fine views about the Eternal City. I envy you your acquaintance with all those historic spots. What is the next one?"
Dear old Mr. Welles! What a restful presence! How unutterably sweet and uncomplicated life could be with a good big dose of simplicity holding everything in a clear solution, so that it never occurred to you that what things seemed was very different from what they were.
"Ready to turn over, dears?" she asked the little boys. This time she was in her usual control of the machine, regulated what she did from the first motion to the last, made her voice casual but not elaborately so, and put one arm around Mark's slim little shoulder with just the right degree of uninterest in those old and faded photographs.
Very deep down, at the edge of consciousness, something asked her, "Why did you try to hide that photograph?"
She could not answer this question. She didn't know why, any more than the little boys did. And it wouldn't do now, with the need to be mistress-of-the-house till a call ended, to stop to try to think it out. Later on, tonight, after the children were in bed, when she was brushing her hair . . . oh, probably she'd find as you so often did, when you went after the cause of some unexpected little feeling, that it came from a meaningless fortuitous association of ideas, like Elly's hatred of grape-jelly because she had once taken some bitter medicine in it.
"'View of the Roman Aqueduct, taken from the tramway line to Tivoli,'" read out Paul.
"Very pretty view," said Mr. Welles.
Mr. Marsh's silences were as abysmal as his speech was Niagara-like on occasion. He said nothing.
Elly stirred and looked toward the doorway. Toucle stood there, her shoe-button eyes not blinking in the lamp-light although she probably had been sitting on the steps of the kitchen, looking out into the darkness, in the long, motionless vigil which made up Toucle's evenings. As they all turned their faces towards her, she said, "The cereus is going to bloom tonight," and disappeared.
Marise welcomed this diversion. Ever since that absurd little gesture about the photograph, she had felt thickening about her . . . what? What you call "depression" (whatever that meant), the dull hooded apparition that came blackly and laid its leaden hand on your heart. This news was just the thing. It would change what was threatening to stand stagnant and charge it with fresh running currents. She got up briskly to her feet.
"Come on, children," she said. "I'll let you sit up beyond bed-time tonight. Scatter quick, and put on your things. We'll all go down the road to the Powers house and see the cereus in bloom."
The children ducked quickly out of the room, thudding along softly in their felt slippers. Scramblings, chatterings, and stamping sounded back from the front hall, as they put on their boots and wraps.
"Wouldn't you like to come, too?" she asked the men, rescuing them from the rather high-and-dry position in which this unexpected incident had left them. It was plainly, from their faces, as inexplicable as unexpected. She explained, drawing a long, plain, black silk scarf closely about her head and shoulders, "Why, yes, do come. It's an occasion as uniquely Ashleyian as pelota is Basque. You, Mr. Marsh, with your exhaustive inquiries into the habits and manners of Vermont mountaineers, your data won't be complete unless you've seen Nelly Powers' night-blooming cereus in its one hour of glory. Seriously, I assure you, you won't encounter anything like it, anywhere else."
As Marsh looked at her, she noted with an inward amusement that her words had lighted a smouldering glow of carefully repressed exasperation in his eyes. It made her feel quite gay and young to be teasing somebody again. She was only paying him back in his own coin. He himself was always telling everybody about his deep interest in the curious quaint ways of these mountaineers. And if he didn't have a deep interest in their curious quaint ways, what else could he give as a reason for staying on in the valley?
The men turned away to get their hats. She settled the folds of her heavy black silk mantilla more closely about her head, glancing at herself in the mirror. She smiled back with sympathy at the smiling face she saw there. It was not so often since the war that she saw her own face lighted with mirth.
Gravely, something deep on the edge of the unconscious called up to her, "You are talking and feeling like a coquette."
She was indignant at this, up in arms to defend human freedom. "Oh, what a hateful, little-villagey, prudish, nasty-minded idea!" she cried to herself. "Who would have thought that narrowness and priggishness could rub off on a person's mind like that! Mrs. Bayweather could have thought that! Mercy! As if one civilized being can't indulge in a light touch or two in human intercourse with another!"
The two men were ready now and all the party of six jostled each other cheerfully as they went out of the front door. Paul had secured the hand of old Mr. Welles and led him along with an air of proprietary affection.
"Don't you turn out the lamp, or lock the door, or anything?" asked the old man, now.
"Oh no, we won't be gone long. It's not more than half a mile to the Powers'. There's not a soul in the valley who would think of going in and rummaging . . . let alone taking anything. And we never have tramps. We are too far from the railroad," said Marise.
"Well!" exclaimed the other, looking back as they went down the path, "it certainly looks queer to me, the door standing open into this black night, and the light shining in that empty room."
Elly looked back too. She slipped her hand out of her mother's and ran towards the house. She darted up to the door and stood there, poised like a swallow, looking in.
"What does she want?" asked Mr. Welles with the naive conviction of the elderly bachelor that the mother must know everything in the child's mind.
"I don't know," admitted Marise. "Nobody ever knows exactly what is in Elly's mind when she does things. Maybe she is looking to see that her kitten is safe."
The little girl ran back to them.
"What did you want, dear?" asked her mother.
"I just wanted to look at it again," said Elly. "I like it, like that, all quiet, with nobody in it. The furniture looks as though it were having a good rest from us."
"Oh, listen to the frogs!" screamed Mark, out of the darkness where he had run to join Toucle.
Elly and Paul sprang forward to join their little brother.
* * * * *
"What in the world are we going to see?" asked Marsh. "You forget you haven't given us the least idea."
"You are going to see," Marise set herself to amuse them, "you're going to see a rite of the worship of beauty which Ashley, Vermont, has created out of its own inner consciousness."
She had succeeded in amusing at least one of them, for at this Mr. Marsh gave her the not disagreeable shock of that singular, loud laugh of his. It was in conversation like something-or-other in the orchestra . . . the cymbals, that must be it . . . made you jump, and tingle with answering vibrations.
"Ashleyians in the role of worshipers of beauty!" he cried, out of the soft, moist, dense darkness about them.
"None so blind as those who won't see," she persisted. "Just because they go to it in overalls and gingham aprons, instead of peplums and sandals."
"What is a night-blooming cereal?" asked Mr. Welles, patient of the verbose by-play of his companions that never got anybody anywhere.
What an old dear Mr. Welles was! thought Marise. It was like having the sweetest old uncle bestowed on you as a pendant to dear Cousin Hetty.
". . . -eus, not -eal," murmured Marsh; "not that I know any more than you what it is."
Marise felt suddenly wrought upon by the mildness of the spring air, the high, tuneful shrillness of the frogs' voices, the darkness, sweet and thick. She would not amuse them; no, she would really tell them, move them. She chose the deeper intonations of her voice, she selected her words with care, she played upon her own feeling, quickening it into genuine emotion as she spoke. She would make them feel it too.
"It is a plant of the cactus family, as native to America as is Ashley's peculiar sense of beauty which you won't acknowledge. It is as ugly to look at, the plant is, all spines and thick, graceless, fleshy pads; as ugly as Ashley life looks to you. And this crabbed, ungainly plant-creature is faithfully, religiously tended all the year around by the wife of a farmer, because once a year, just once, it puts forth a wonderful exotic flower of extreme beauty. When the bud begins to show its color she sends out word to all her neighbors to be ready. And we are all ready. For days, in the back of our minds as we go about our dull, routine life, there is the thought that the cereus is near to bloom. Nelly and her grim husband hang over it day by day, watching it slowly prepare for its hour of glory. Sometimes when they cannot decide just the time it will open, they sit up all through a long night, hour after hour of darkness and silence, to make sure that it does not bloom unseen. When they see that it is about to open, they fling open their doors, wishing above everything else to share that beauty with their fellows. Their children are sent to announce, as you heard Toucle say tonight, 'The cereus is going to bloom.' And all up and down this end of the valley, in those ugly little wooden houses that look so mean and dreary to you, everywhere people tired from their day's struggle with the earth, rise up and go their pilgrimage through the night . . . for what? To see something rare and beautiful."
She stopped speaking. On one side of her she heard the voice of the older man say with a quiver, "Well, I can understand why your neighbors love you."
With entire unexpectedness Marsh answered fiercely from the other side, "They don't love her! They're not capable of it!"
Marise started, as though a charged electric wire had fallen across her arm. Why was there so often a note of anger in his voice?
For a moment they advanced silently, pacing forward, side by side, unseen but not unfelt by each of the others.
The road turned now and they were before the little house, every window alight, the great pine somber and high before it. The children and Toucle were waiting at the door. They all went in together, shaking hands with the mistress of the house, neatly dressed, with a clean, white flounced apron. "Nelly's garment of ceremony!" thought Marise.
Nelly acknowledged, with a graceful, silent inclination of her shining blonde head, the presence of the two strangers whom Marise presented to her. What an inscrutable fascination Nelly's silence gave to her! You never knew what strange thoughts were going on behind that proud taciturnity. She showed the guests to chairs, of which a great many, mostly already filled, stood about the center table, on which sprawled the great, spiny, unlovely plant. Marise sat down, taking little Mark on her knees. Elly leaned against her. Paul sat close beside old Mr. Welles. Their eyes were on the big pink bud enthroned in the uncomeliness of the shapeless leafpads.
"Oh!" said Elly, under her breath, "it's not open yet! We're going to see it open, this time!" She stared at it, her lips parted. Her mother looked at her, tenderly aware that the child was storing away an impression to last her life long. Dear, strangely compounded little Elly, with her mysticism, and her greediness and her love of beauty all jumbled together! A neighbor leaned from her chair to say to Mrs. Crittenden, "Warm for this time of year, ain't it?" And another remarked, looking at Mark's little trousers, "That material come out real good, didn't it? I made up what I got of it, into a dress for Pearl." They both spoke in low tones, but constrained or sepulchral, for they smiled and nodded as though they had meant something else and deeper than what they had said. They looked with a kindly expression for moment at the Crittenden children and then turned back to their gaze on the flower-bud.
Nelly Powers, walking with a singular lightness for so tall a woman, ushered in another group of visitors—a tall, unshaven farmer, his wife, three little children clumping in on shapeless cow-hide boots, and a baby, fast asleep, its round bonneted head tucked in the hollow of its mother's gingham-clad shoulder. They sat down, nodding silent greetings to the other neighbors. In turning to salute them, Marise caught a glimpse of Mr. Marsh, fixing his brilliant scrutiny first on one and then on another of the company. At that moment he was gazing at Nelly Powers, "taking her in" thought Marise, from her beautiful hair to those preposterously high-heeled shoes she always would wear on her shapely feet. His face was impassive. When he looked neutral like that, the curious irregularity of his features came out strongly. He looked like that bust of Julius Caesar, the bumpy, big-nosed, strong-chinned one, all but that thick, closely cut, low-growing head of dark hair.
She glanced at Mr. Welles, and was surprised to find that he was looking neither at the people nor the plant. His arm was around his favorite Paul, but his gaze seemed turned inward, as though he were thinking of something very far away. He looked tired and old, it seemed to her, and without that quietly shining aspect of peace which she found so touching. Perhaps he was tired. Perhaps she ought not to have brought him out, this evening, for that long walk over rough country roads. How much older he was than his real age in years! His life had used him up. There must have been some inner maladjustment in it!