Neale laughed. Old Bayweather was perennial. "Backwards and forwards, of course," he said. "English people always say everything the longest possible way." He explained to the others, "Mr. Bayweather is an impassioned philologist . . ."
"So I have gathered," commented Marsh.
". . . and whenever any friends of his go on travels, they are always asked to bring back some philological information about the region where they go."
He turned to Marise (how sweet she looked in that thin yellow dress). "Where do you want your personally conducted to begin, dear?" he asked her. (Lord! How good it seemed to get back to Marise!)
Mr. Bayweather cut in hastily, "If I may be permitted to suggest, I think a history of the mill would be advisable as a beginning. I will be glad to tell the newcomers about this. I've just been working the subject up for a chapter in history of Ashley."
Neale caught an anguished side-glance from Marise and sent back to her a shrugged message of helplessness in the face of Destiny. The man didn't live who could head old Bayweather off when he got started on local history. And besides, this would give him time to get those last three letters finished. Aloud he said, "I wouldn't dare say a word about history in Mr. Bayweather's presence. I have a few letters to finish. I'll just step into the outer office and be ready to start when you've heard the history lecture." He turned to the children, who were tapping on the typewriter. "Look here, kids, you'd be better off where you won't break anything. Get along with you out into the mill-yard and play on the lumber-piles, why don't you? Paul, you see if you can tell yellow birch from oak this time!"
He and the children beat a retreat together into the outer office, where he bent over Arthur's desk and began to dictate in a low voice, catching, as he did so, an occasional rotund phrase from the disquisition in the other room. ". . . the glorious spirit of manly independence of the Green Mountain Boys . . ."
To himself Neale thought, "He'd call it bolshevism if he met it today . . ."
". . . second building erected in the new settlement, 1766, as a fort. . . . No, no, Mr. Marsh, not against the Indians! Our early settlers here never had any trouble with the Indians."
Neale laughed to himself at the clergyman's resentment of any ignorance of any detail of Ashley's unimportant history.
". . . as a fort against the York State men in the land-grant quarrels with New Hampshire and New York, before the Revolution." Neale, smiling inwardly, bet himself a nickel that neither of the two strangers had ever heard of the Vermont land-grant quarrels, and found himself vastly tickled by the profound silence they kept on the subject. They were evidently scared to death of starting old Bayweather off on another line. They were safe enough, if they only knew it. It was inconceivable to Mr. Bayweather that any grown person should not know all about early Vermont history.
At this point Marise came out of the office, her face between laughter and exasperation. She clasped her hands together and said, "Can't you do anything?"
"In a minute," he told her. "I'll just finish these two letters and then I'll go and break him off short."
Marise went on to the accountant's desk, to ask about his wife, who sang in her winter chorus.
He dictated rapidly: "No more contracts will go out to you if this stripping of the mountain-land continues. Our original contract has in it the clause which I always insist on, that trees smaller than six inches through the butt shall not be cut. You will please give your choppers definite orders on this point, and understand that logs under the specified size will not be accepted at the mill." He held out to the stenographer the letter he was answering. "Here, Arthur, copy the name and address off this. It's one of those French-Canadian names, hard to spell if you don't see it."
He paused an instant to hear how far Mr. Bayweather had progressed, and heard him saying, "In the decade from 1850 on, there was a terrible and scandalous devastation of the mountain-land . . ." and said to himself, "Halfway through the century. I'll have time to go on a while. All ready, Arthur." He dictated: "On birch brush-backs of the model specified, we can furnish you any number up to . . ." He wound his way swiftly and surely through a maze of figures and specifications without consulting a paper or record, and drawing breath at the end, heard Mr. Bayweather pronouncing his own name. ". . . Mr. Crittenden has taught us all a great deal about the economic aspects of a situation with which we had had years of more familiarity than he. His idea is that this mountainous part of New England is really not fit for agriculture. Farming in the usual sense has been a losing venture ever since the Civil War high prices for wool ceased. Only the bottoms of the valleys are fit for crops. Most of our county is essentially forest-land. And his idea of the proper use to make of it, is to have a smallish industrial population engaged in wood-working, who would use the bits of arable land in the valleys as gardens to raise their own food. He has almost entirely reorganized the life of our valley, along these lines, and I daresay he cannot at all realize himself the prodigious change from hopelessness and slow death to energy and forward-looking activity which his intelligent grasp of the situation has brought to this corner of the earth."
The young stenographer had heard this too, and had caught the frown of annoyance which the personal reference brought to Neale's forehead. He leaned forward and said earnestly, "It's so, Captain . . . Mr. Crittenden. It's so!"
Mr. Bayweather went on, "There is enough wood in the forests within reach of the mill to keep a moderate-sized wood-working factory going indefinitely, cutting by rotation and taking care to leave enough trees for natural reforestration. But of course that has not been the American way of going at things. Instead of that steady, continuous use of the woods, which Mr. Crittenden has shown to be possible, furnishing good, well-paid work at home for the men who would be otherwise forced off into cities, our poor mountains have been lumbered every generation or so, on an immense, murderous, slashing scale, to make a big sum of money for somebody in one operation. When old Mr. Burton Crittenden's nephew came to town it was a different story. Mr. Neale Crittenden's ideal of the lumber business is, as I conceive it, as much a service to mankind as a doctor's is."
Neale winced, and shook his head impatiently. How ministers did put the Sunday-school rubber-stamp on everything they talked about—even legitimate business.
"And as Mrs. Crittenden's free-handed generosity with her musical talent has transformed the life of the region as much as Mr. Crittenden's high and disinterested . . ."
"Oh Gosh, Arthur, never mind about the rest!" murmured Neale, moving back quickly into the inner office to create a diversion. "All ready?" he asked in a loud, hearty voice, as he came up to them. "Up to 1920 by this time, Mr. Bayweather?" He turned to Marsh, "I'm afraid there is very little to interest you, with your experience of production on a giant scale, in a business so small that the owner and manager knows every man by name and everything about him."
"You couldn't show me anything more out of my own experience," answered Marsh, "than just that. And as for what I know about production on a giant scale, I can tell you it's not much. I did try to hook on, once or twice, years ago—to find out something about the business that my father spent his life in helping to build up, but it always ended in my being shooed out of the office by a rather irritable manager who knew I knew nothing about any of it, and who evidently hated above everything else, having amateur directors come horning in on what was no party of theirs. 'If they get their dividends all right, what more do they want?' was his motto. I never was able to make any sense out of it. It's all on such a preposterously big scale now. Once in a while, touring, I have come across one of our branch establishments and have stopped my car to see the men come out of the buildings at quitting-time. That's as close as I have ever come. Do you really know their names?"
"I can't pronounce all the French-Canadian names to suit them, but I know them all, yes. Most of them are just the overflow of the rural population around here."
He said to himself in congratulation, "Between us, we pried old Bayweather loose from his soft soap, pretty neatly," and gave the man before him a look of friendly understanding. He was a little startled, for an instant, by the expression in the other's bright eyes, which he found fixed on him with an intentness almost disconcerting. "Does he think I'm trying to put something over on him?" he asked himself with a passing astonishment, "or is he trying to put something over on me?" Then he remembered that everyone had spoken of Marsh's eyes as peculiar; it was probably just his habit. "He can look right through me and out at the other side, for all I care!" he thought indifferently, meeting the other's gaze with a faintly humorous sense of something absurd.
Marise had come back now, and was saying, "You really must get started, Neale, the men will be quitting work soon."
"Yes, yes, this minute," he told her, and led the way with Mr. Welles, leaving Marise and Mr. Bayweather to be showman for Mr. Marsh. He now remembered that he had not heard the older man say a single word as yet, and surmised that he probably never said much when the fluent Mr. Marsh was with him. He wondered a little, as they made their way to the saw-mill, what Marise saw in either of them to interest her so much. Oh well, they were a change, of course, from Ashley and Crittenden's people, and different from the Eugenia Mills bunch, in New York, too.
He stood now, beside Mr. Welles, in the saw-mill, the ringing high crescendo scream of the saws filling the air. Marise stood at the other end talking animatedly to the two she had with her. Marise was a wonder on conversation anyhow. What could she find to say, now, for instance? What in the world was there to say to an ex-office manager of a big electrical company about a wood-working business?
His eyes were caught by what one of the men was doing and he yelled at him sharply, "Look out there, Harry! Stop that! What do I have a guard rail there for, anyhow?"
"What was the matter?" asked Mr. Welles, startled.
"Oh, nothing much. One of the men dodging under a safety device to save him a couple of steps. They get so reckless about those saws. You have to look out for them like a bunch of bad children."
Mr. Welles looked at him earnestly. "Are you . . . have you . . . Mr. Bayweather has told us so much about all you do for the men . . . how they are all devoted to you."
Neale looked and felt annoyed. Bayweather and his palaver! "I don't do anything for them, except give them as good wages as the business will stand, and as much responsibility for running things as they'll take. Beyond that, I let them alone. I don't believe in what's known as 'welfare work.' I wouldn't want them messing around in my private life, and I don't believe they'd like me in theirs."
The necessity to raise his voice to a shout in order to make himself heard above the tearing scream of the saws made him sound very abrupt and peremptory, more so than he had meant. As he finished speaking his eyes met those of the older man, and were held by the clarity and candor of the other's gaze. They were like a child's eyes in that old face. It was as though he had been abrupt and impatient to Elly or Mark.
As he looked he saw more than candor and clarity. He saw a deep weariness.
Neale smoothed his forehead, a little ashamed of his petulance, and drew his companion further from the saws where the noise was less. He meant to say something apologetic, but the right phrase did not come to him. And as Mr. Welles said nothing further, they walked on in silence. They passed through the first and second floors of the mill, where the handling of the smaller pieces was done, and neither of them spoke a word. Neale looked about him at the familiar, familiar scene, and found it too dull to make any comment on. What was there to say? This was the way you manufactured brush-backs and wooden boxes and such-like things, and that was all. The older men bent over their lathes quietly, the occasional woman-worker smartly hammering small nails into the holes already bored for her, the big husky boys shoved the trucks around, the elevator droned up and down, the belts flicked as they sped around and around. Blest if he could think of any explanation to make to a grown man on so simple and everyday a scene. And yet he did not enjoy this silence because it seemed like a continuation of his grumpiness of a few minutes ago. Well, the next time the old fellow said anything, he'd fall over himself to be nice in his answer.
Presently as they came to the outside door, Mr. Welles remarked with a gentle dignity, in evident allusion to Neale's cutting him short, "I only meant that I was very much interested in what I see here, and that I would like very much to know more about it."
Neale felt he fairly owed him an apology. He began to understand what Marise meant when she had said the old fellow was one you loved on sight. It was her way, emotionally heightened as usual, of saying that he was really a very nice old codger. "I'll be glad to tell you anything you want to know, Mr. Welles," he said. "But I haven't any idea what it is that interests you. You fire ahead and ask questions and I'll agree to answer them."
"That's what I'd like, all right. And remember if I ask anything you don't want to talk about . . ." He referred evidently to Neale's impatience of a few minutes ago.
"There aren't any trade secrets in the wood-working business," said Neale, laughing. "Better come along and see our drying-room as we talk. We've had to make some concession to modern haste and use kiln-drying, although I season first in the old way as long as possible." They stepped out of the door and started across the mill-yard.
Mr. Welles said with a very faint smile in the corner of his pale old lips, "I don't believe you want to show me any of this, Mr. Crittenden. And honestly that isn't what interests me about it. I wouldn't know a drying-room from a steam-laundry."
Neale stopped short, and surveyed his companion with amusement and admiration. "Good for you!" he cried. "Tell the truth and shame the devil and set an example to all honest men. Mr. Welles, you have my esteem."
The old man had a shy smile at this. "I don't tell the truth that way to everybody," he said demurely.
Neale liked him more and more. "Sir, I am yours to command," he said, sitting down on the steps, "ask ahead!"
Mr. Welles turned serious, and hesitated. "Mr. Bayweather said . . ." He began and looked anxiously at Neale.
"I won't bite even if he did," Neale reassured him.
Mr. Welles looked at him with the pleasantest expression in his eyes. "It's a great relief to find that we can get on with one another," he said, "for I must admit to you that I have fallen a complete victim to Mrs. Crittenden. I . . . I love your wife." He brought it out with a quaint, humorous roundness.
"You can't get up any discussion with me about that," said Neale. "I do myself."
They both laughed, and Mr. Welles said, "But you see, caring such a lot about her, it was a matter of great importance to me what kind of husband she had. I find actually seeing you very exciting."
"You're the first who ever found it so, I'm sure," said Neale, amused at the idea.
"But it wasn't this I wanted to say," said Mr. Welles. He went back and said again, "Mr. Bayweather said your idea of business is service, like a doctor's?"
Neale winced at the Bayweather priggishness of this way of putting it, but remembering his remorse for his earlier brusqueness, he restrained himself to good humor and the admission, "Making allowance for ministerial jargon, that's something like a fair statement."
He was astonished at the seriousness with which Mr. Welles took this. What was it to him? The old man looked at him, deeply, unaccountably, evidently entirely at a loss. "Mr. Crittenden," he said abruptly, "to speak right out, that sounded to me like the notion of a nice idealistic woman, who has never been in business. You see I've been in a business office all my life!"
Neale found his liking for the gentle, troubled old man enough for him to say truthfully, "Mr. Welles, I don't mind talking to you about it. Sure, yes I can understand how having a minister put it that way. . . . Lord! How the old boy does spill over! And yet why should I care? I'm ashamed of letting harmless Mr. Bayweather get on my nerves so."
Mr. Welles started to speak, found no words, and waved an arm as if to imply that he understood perfectly. This made Neale laugh a little, and gave him a picture of the helplessness of a newcomer to Ashley, before the flood-tide of Mr. Bayweather's local learning.
He went on, "He sort of taints an honest idea, doesn't he, by his high-falutin' way of going on about it?"
He hesitated, trying to think of simple words to sum up what he had, after all, never exactly formulated because it had been so much an attitude he and Marise had silently grown into. It was hard, he found, to hit on any expression that said what he wanted to; but after all, it wasn't so very important whether he did or not. He was only trying to make a nice tired old man think himself enough respected to be seriously talked to. He'd just ramble on, till Marise brought the other visitors up to them.
And yet as he talked, he got rather interested in his statement of it. A comparison of baseball and tennis ethics came into his mind as apposite, and quite tickled him by its aptness. Mr. Welles threw in an occasional remark. He was no man's fool, it soon appeared, for all his mildness. And for a time he seemed to be interested.
But presently Neale noticed that the other was looking absent and no longer made any comments. That was what happened, Neale reflected with an inward smile, as he slowed down and prepared to stop, when anybody succeeded in getting you started on your hobby. They were bored. They didn't really want to know after all. It was like trying to tell folks about your travels.
But he was astonished to the limit of astonishment by what Mr. Welles brought out in the silence which finally dropped between them. The old man looked at him very hard and asked, "Mr. Crittenden, do you know anything about the treatment of the Negroes in the South?"
Neale sat up blinking. "Why no, nothing special, except that it's a fearful knot we don't seem to get untied," he said. "I contribute to the support of an agricultural school in Georgia, but I'm afraid I never take much time to read the reports they send me. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, no particular reason. I have a relative down there, that's all."
Marise and the others came out of a door at the far-end of the building now, and advanced towards them slowly. Neale and Mr. Welles watched them.
Neale was struck again by Marsh's appearance. As far away as you could see him, he held the eye. "An unusual man, your friend Mr. Marsh," he remarked. "Mrs. Crittenden tells me that he is one of the people who have been everywhere and done everything and seen everybody. He looks the part."
Mr. Welles made no comment on this for a moment, his eyes on the advancing group. Marise had raised her parasol of yellow silk. It made a shimmering halo for her dark, gleaming hair, as she turned her head towards Marsh, her eyes narrowed and shining as she laughed at something he said.
Then the old man remarked, "Yes, he's unusual, all right, Vincent is. He has his father's energy and push." He added in a final characterization, "I've known him ever since he was a little boy, and I never knew him not to get what he went after."
How the Same Thing Looked to Mr. Welles
As they walked along towards the mill, Mr. Welles had a distinct impression that he was going to dislike the mill-owner, and as distinct a certainty as to where that impression came from. He had received too many by the same route not to recognize the shipping label. Not that Vincent had ever said a single slighting word about Mr. Crittenden. He couldn't have, very well, since they neither of them had ever laid eyes on him. But Vincent never needed words to convey impressions into other people's minds. He had a thousand other ways better than words. Vincent could be silent, knock off the ashes from his cigarette, recross his legs, and lean back in his chair in a manner that slammed an impression into your head as though he had yelled it at you.
But to be fair to Vincent, Mr. Welles thought probably he had been more than ready to soak up an impression like the one he felt. They'd had such an awfully good time with Mrs. Crittenden and the children, it stood to reason the head of the house would seem to them like a butter-in and an outsider in a happy-family group.
More than this, too. As they came within hearing of the industrial activity of the mill, and he felt his heart sink and turn sore and bitter, Mr. Welles realized that Vincent had very little to do with his dread of meeting the mill-owner. It was not Mr. Crittenden he shrank from, it was the mill-owner, the business man . . . business itself.
Mr. Welles hated and feared the sound of the word and knew that it had him cowed, because in his long life he had known it to be the only reality in the world of men. And in that world he had known the only reality to be that if you didn't cut the other fellow's throat first he would cut yours. There wasn't any other reality. He had heard impractical, womanish men say there was, and try to prove it, only to have their economic throats cut considerably more promptly than any others. He had done his little indirect share of the throat-cutting always. He was not denying the need to do it. Only he had never found it a very cheerful atmosphere in which to pass one's life. And now he had escaped, to the only other reality, the pleasant, gentle, slightly unreal world of women, nice women, and children and gardens. He was so old now that there was no shame in his sinking into that for what time he had left, as other old fellows sank into an easy-chair. Only he wished that he could have got along without being reminded so vividly, as he would be by this trip to the business-world, of what paid for the arm-chair, supported the nice women and children. He wished he hadn't had to come here, to be forced to remember again that the inevitable foundation for all that was pleasant and livable in private life was the grim determination on the part of a strong man to give his strength to "taking it out of the hide" of his competitors, his workmen, and the public. He'd had a vacation from that, and it made him appallingly depressed to take another dose of it now. He sincerely wished that sweet Mrs. Crittenden were a widow with a small income from some impersonal source with no uncomfortable human associations with it. He recalled with a sad cynicism the story Mrs. Crittenden had told them about the clever and forceful lawyer who had played the dirty trick on the farmer here in Ashley, and done him out of his wood-land. She had been very much wrought up about that, the poor lady, without having the least idea that probably her husband's business-life was full of such knifings-in-the-back, all with the purpose of making a quiet life for her and the children.
Well, there was nothing for it but to go on. It wouldn't last long, and Mr. Welles' back was practised in bowing to weather he didn't like but which passed if you waited a while.
They were going up the hall now, towards a door marked "Office," the children scampering ahead. The door was opening. The tall man who stood there, nodding a welcome to them, must be Mr. Crittenden.
So that was the kind of man he was. Nothing special about him. Just a nice-looking American business-man, with a quiet, calm manner and a friendly face.
To the conversation which followed and which, like all such conversations, amounted to nothing at all, Mr. Welles made no contribution. What was the use? Mr. Bayweather and Vincent were there. The conversation would not flag. So he had the usual good chance of the silent person to use his eyes. He looked mostly at Mr. Crittenden. Well, he wasn't so bad. They were usually nice enough men in personal relations, business men. This one had good eyes, very nice when he looked at the children or his wife. They were often good family men, too. There was something about him, however, that wasn't just like all others. What was it? Not clothes. His suit was cut off the same piece with forty million other American business-suits. Not looks, although there was an outdoor ruddiness of skin and clearness of eye that made him look a little like a sailor. Oh yes, Mr. Welles had it. It was his voice. Whenever he spoke, there was something . . . something natural about his voice, as though it didn't ever say things he didn't mean.
Well, for Heaven's sake here was the old minister started off again on one of his historical spiels. Mr. Welles glanced cautiously at Vincent to see if he were in danger of blowing up, and found him looking unexpectedly thoughtful. He was evidently not paying the least attention to Mr. Bayweather's account of the eighteenth century quarrel between New Hampshire and Vermont. He was apparently thinking of something else, very hard.
He himself leaned back in his chair, but half of one absent ear given to Mr. Bayweather's lecture, and enjoyed himself looking at Mrs. Crittenden. She was pretty, Mrs. Crittenden was. He hadn't been sure the first day, but now he had had a chance to get used to her face being so long and sort of pointed, and her eyes long too, and her black eyebrows running back almost into her hair, he liked every bit of her face. It looked so different from anybody else's. He noticed with an inward smile that she was fidgety under Mr. Bayweather's historical talk. He was the only person with any patience in that whole bunch. But at what a price had he acquired it!
By and by Mrs. Crittenden got up quietly and went out into the other office as if on an errand.
Mr. Bayweather took advantage of her absence to tell them a lot about how much the Crittendens had done for the whole region and what a golden thing Mrs. Crittenden's music had been for everybody, and about an original conception of business which Mr. Crittenden seemed to have. Mr. Welles was not interested in music, but he was in business and he would have liked to hear a great deal more about this, but just at this point, as if to cut the clergyman off, in came Mr. Crttenden, very brisk and prompt, ready to take them around the mill.
Vincent stood up. They all stood up. Mr. Welles noted that Vincent had quite come out of his brown study and was now all there. He was as he usually was, a wire charged with a very high-voltage current.
They went out now, all of them together, but soon broke up into two groups. He stayed behind with Mr. Crittenden and pretended to look at the machinery of the saw-mill, which he found very boring indeed, as he hadn't the slightest comprehension of a single cog in it. But there was something there at which he really looked. It was the expression of Mr. Crittenden's face as he walked about, and it was the expression on the faces of the men as they looked at the boss.
Mr. Welles, not being a talker, had had a great deal of opportunity to study the faces of others, and he had become rather a specialist in expressions. Part of his usefulness in the office had come from that. He had catalogued in his mind the different looks on human faces, and most of them connected with any form of business organization were infinitely familiar to him, from the way the casual itinerant temporary laborer looked at the boss of his gang, to the way the star salesman looked at the head of the house.
But here was a new variety to him, these frank and familiar glances thrown in answer to the nodded greeting or short sentence of the boss as he walked about. They were not so much friendly (although they were that too), as they were familiar and open, as though nothing lay hidden behind the apparent expression. It was not often that Mr. Welles had encountered that, a look that seemed to hide nothing.
He wondered if he could find out anything about this from Mr. Crittenden and put a question to him about his relations with his men. He tried to make it tactful and sensible-sounding, but as he said the words, he knew just how flat and parlor-reformerish they sounded; and it didn't surprise him a bit to have the business-man bristle up and snap his head off. It had sounded as though he didn't know a thing about business—he, the very marrow of whose bones was soaked in a bitter knowledge that the only thing that could keep it going was the fear of death in every man's heart, lest the others get ahead of him and trample him down.
He decided that he wouldn't say another thing, just endure the temporary boredom of being trotted about to have things explained to him, which he hadn't any intention of trying to understand.
But Mr. Crittenden did not try to explain. Perhaps he was bored himself, perhaps he guessed the visitor's ignorance. He just walked around from one part of the big, sunshiny shops to another, taking advantage of this opportunity to look things over for his own purposes. And everywhere he went, he gave and received back that curious, new look of openness.
It was not noisy here as in the saw-mill, but very quiet and peaceful, the bee-like whirring of the belts on the pulleys the loudest continuous sound. It was clean, too. The hardwood floor was being swept clean of sawdust and shavings all the time, by a lame old man, who pottered tranquilly about, sweeping and cleaning and putting the trash in a big box on a truck. When he had it full, he beckoned to a burly lad, shoving a truck across the room, and called in a clear, natural, friendly voice, "Hey, Nat, come on over." The big lad came, whistling, pushed the box off full, and brought it back empty, still whistling airily.
There were a good many work-people in sight. Mr. Welles made a guessing estimate that the business must keep about two hundred busy. And there was not one who looked harried by his work. The big, cluttered place heaped high with piles of curiously shaped pieces of wood, filled with oddly contrived saws and lathes and knives and buffers for sawing and turning and polishing and fitting those bits of wood, was brooded over as by something palpable by an emanation of order. Mr. Welles did not understand a detail of what he was looking at, but from the whole, his mind, experienced in business, took in a singularly fresh impression that everybody there knew what he was up to, in every sense of the word.
He and Mr. Crittenden stood for a time looking at and chatting to a gray-haired man who was polishing smoothly planed oval bits of board. He stopped as they talked, ran his fingers over the satin-smoothed surface with evident pleasure, and remarked to his employer, "Mighty fine maple we're getting from the Warner lot. See the grain in that!"
He held it up admiringly, turning it so that the light would show it at its best, and looked at it respectfully. "There's no wood like maple," he said. Mr. Crittenden answered, "Yep. The Warner land is just right for slow-growing trees." He took it out of the workman's hand, looked it over more closely with an evident intelligent certainty of what to look for, and handed it back with a nod that signified his appreciation of the wood and of the workmanship which had brought it to that state.
There had been about that tiny, casual human contact a quality which Mr. Welles did not recognize. His curiosity rose again. He wondered if he might not succeed in getting some explanation out of the manufacturer, if he went about it very tactfully. He would wait for his chance. He began to perceive with some surprise that he was on the point of quite liking Mrs. Crittenden's husband.
So he tried another question, after a while, very cautiously, and was surprised to find Mr. Crittenden no longer snappish, but quite friendly. It occurred to him as the pleasantest possibility that he might find his liking for the other man returned. That would be a new present hung on the Christmas tree of his life in Vermont.
On the strength of this possibility, and banking on the friendliness in the other man's eyes, he drove straight at it, the phrase which the minister had used when he said that Mr. Crittenden thought of business as an ideal service to humanity as much as doctoring. That had sounded so ignorant and ministerial he hadn't even thought of it seriously, till after this contact with the man of whom it had been said. The best way with Crittenden was evidently the direct one. He had seen that in the first five minutes of observation of him. So he would simply tell him how bookish and impossible it had sounded, and see what he had to say. He'd probably laugh and say the minister had it all wrong, of course, regular minister's idea.
And so presently they were off, on a real talk, beyond what he had hoped for, and Crittenden was telling him really what he had meant. He was saying in his firm, natural, easy voice, as though he saw nothing specially to be self-conscious about in it, "Why, of course I don't rank lumbering and wood-working with medicine. Wood isn't as vital to human life as quinine, or a knowledge of what to do in typhoid fever. But after all, wood is something that people have to have, isn't it? Somebody has to get it out and work it up into usable shape. If he can do this, get it out of the woods without spoiling the future of the forests, drying up the rivers and all that, and have it transformed into some finished product that people need in their lives, it's a sort of plain, everyday service, isn't it? And to do this work as economically as it can be managed, taking as low a price as you can get along with instead of screwing as high a price as possible out of the people who have to have it, what's the matter with that, as an interesting problem in ingenuity? I tell you, Mr. Welles, you ought to talk to my wife about this. It's as much her idea as mine. We worked it out together, little by little. It was when Elly was a baby. She was the second child, you know, and we began to feel grown-up. By that time I was pretty sure I could make a go of the business. And we first began to figure out what we were up to. Tried to see what sort of a go we wanted the business to have. We first began to make some sense out of what we were doing in life."
Mr. Welles found himself overwhelmed by a reminiscent ache at this phrase and burst out, his words tinged with the bitterness he tried to keep out of his mind, "Isn't that an awful moment when you first try to make some sense out of what you are doing in life! But suppose you had gone on doing it, always, always, till you were an old man, and never succeeded! Suppose all you seemed to be accomplishing was to be able to hand over to the sons of the directors more money than was good for them? I tell you, Mr. Crittenden, I've often wished that once, just once, before I died I could be sure that I had done anything that was of any use to anybody." He went on, nodding his head, "What struck me so about what Mr. Bayweather said is that I've often thought about doctors myself, and envied them. They take money for what they do, of course, but they miss lots of chances to make more, just so's to be of some use. I've often thought when they were running the prices up and up in our office just because they could, that a doctor would be put out of his profession in no time by public opinion, if he ever tried to screw the last cent out of everybody, the way business men do as a matter of course."
Mr. Crittenden protested meditatively against this. "Oh, don't you think maybe there's a drift the other way among decent business people now? Why, when Marise and I were first trying to get it clear in our own heads, we kept it pretty dark, I tell you, that we weren't in it only for what money we could make, because we knew how loony we'd seem to anybody else. But don't you see any signs that lately maybe the same idea is striking lots of people in America?"
"No, I do not!" said Mr. Welles emphatically. "With a profiteer on every corner!
"But look-y-here, the howl about profiteers, isn't that something new? Isn't that a dumb sort of application to business of the doctor's standard of service? Twenty years ago, would anybody have thought of doing anything but uneasily admiring a grocer who made all the money he could out of his business? 'Why shouldn't he?' people would have thought then. Everybody else did. Twenty years ago, would anybody have dreamed of legally preventing a rich man from buying all the coal he wanted, whether there was enough for everybody, or not?"
Mr. Welles considered this in unconvinced silence. Mr. Crittenden went on, "Why, sometimes it looks to me like the difference between what's legitimate in baseball and in tennis. Every ball-player will try to bluff the umpire that he's safe when he knows the baseman tagged him three feet from the bag; and public opinion upholds him in his bluff if he can get away with it. But like as not, the very same man who lies like a trooper on the diamond, if he went off that very afternoon to play tennis would never dream of announcing 'out' if his opponent's ball really had landed in the court,—not if it cost him the sett and match,—whether anybody was looking at him or not. It's 'the thing' to try to get anything you can put over in baseball, anything the umpire can't catch you at. And it's not 'the thing' in tennis. Most of the time you don't even have any umpire. That's it: that's not such a bad way to put it. My wife and I wanted to run our business on the tennis standard and not on the baseball one. Because I believe, ultimately you know, in fixing things,—everything,—national life as well, so that we'll need as few umpires as possible. Once get the tennis standard adopted . . ."
Mr. Welles said mournfully, "Don't get started on politics. I'm too old to have any hopes of that!"
"Right you are there," said Mr. Crittenden. "Economic organization is the word. That's one thing that keeps me so interested in my little economic laboratory here. Political parties are as prehistoric as the mastodon, if they only knew it."
Mr. Welles said, "But the queer thing is that you make it work."
"Oh, anybody with a head for business could make it work. You've got to know how to manage your machine before you can make it go, of course. But that's not saying you have to drive it somewhere you don't want to get to. I don't say that that workman back there who was making such a beautiful job of polishing that maple could make it go. He couldn't."
Mr. Welles persisted. "But I've always thought, I've always seen it, or thought I had . . . that life-and-death competition is the only stimulus that's strong enough to stir men up to the prodigious effort they have to put out to make a go of their business, start the machine running. That, and the certainty of all they could get out of the consumer as a reward. You know it's held that there's a sort of mystic identity between all you can get out of the consumer and the exact amount of profit that'll just make the business go."
Mr. Crittenden said comfortably, as though he were talking of something that did not alarm him, "Oh well, the best of the feudal seigneurs mournfully believed that a sharp sword and a long lance in their own hands were the strongholds of society. The wolf-pack idea of business will go the same way." He explained in answer to Mr. Welles' vagueness as to this term, "You know, the conception that if you're going to get hair brushes or rubber coats or mattresses or what-not enough for humanity manufactured, the only way is to have the group engaged in it form a wolf-pack, hunting down the public to extract from it as much money as possible. The salesmen and advertisers take care of this extracting. Then this money's to be fought for, by the people engaged in the process, as wolves fight over the carcass of the deer they have brought down together. This is the fight between the directors of labor and the working-men. It's ridiculous to hold that such a wasteful and incoherent system is the only one that will arouse men's energies enough to get them into action. It's absurd to think that business men . . . they're the flower of the nation, they're America's specialty, you know . . . can only find their opportunity for service to their fellow-men by such haphazard contracts with public service as helping raise money for a library or heading a movement for better housing of the poor, when they don't know anything about the housing of the poor, nor what it ought to be. Their opportunity for public service is right in their own legitimate businesses, and don't you forget it. Everybody's business is his best way to public service, and doing it that way, you'd put out of operation the professional uplifters who uplift as a business, and can't help being priggish and self-conscious about it. It makes me tired the way professional idealists don't see their big chance. They'll take all the money they can get from business for hospitals, and laboratories, and to investigate the sleeping sickness or the boll-weevil, but that business itself could rank with public libraries and hospitals as an ideal element in the life on the globe . . . they can't open their minds wide enough to take in that."
Mr. Welles had been following this with an almost painful interest and surprise. He found it very agitating, very upsetting. Suppose there had been something there, all the time. He must try to think it out more. Perhaps it was not true. But here sat a man who had made it work. Why hadn't he thought of it in time? Now it was too late. Too late for him to do anything. Anything? The voice of the man beside him grew dim to him, as, uneasy and uncertain, his spirits sank lower and lower. Suppose all the time there had been a way out besides beating the retreat to the women, the children, and the gardens? Only now it was too late! What was the use of thinking of it all?
For a moment he forgot where he was. It seemed to him that there was something waiting for him to think of it . . .
But oddly enough, all that presented itself to him, when he tried to look, was the story that had nothing to do with anything, which his cousin had told him in a recent letter, of the fiery sensitive young Negro doctor, who had worked his way through medical school, and hospital-training, gone South to practise, and how he had been treated by the white people in the town where he had settled. He wondered if she hadn't exaggerated all that. But she gave such definite details. Perhaps Mr. Crittenden knew something about that problem. Perhaps he had an idea about that, too, that might be of help. He would ask him.
IN AUNT HETTY'S GARDEN
Marise bent to kiss the soft withered cheek. "Elly is a real Vermonter, but I'm not. She can get along with just 'Hello, Aunt Hetty,' but that's not enough for me," she said tenderly to the old woman; "I have to kiss you."
"Oh, you can do as you like, for all of me," answered the other with an unsparing indifference.
Marise laughed at the quality of this, taking the shaky old hand in hers with a certainty of affection returned. She went on, "This is a regular descent on you, Cousin Hetty. I've come to show you off, you and the house and the garden. This is Mr. Welles who has settled next door to us, you know, and this is Mr. Marsh who is visiting him for a time. And here are the children, and Eugenia Mills came up from the city last night and will be here perhaps, if she gets up energy after her afternoon nap, and Neale is coming over from the mill after closing hours, and we've brought along a basket supper and, if you'll let us, we're going to eat it out in your garden, under Great-great-grandmother's willow-tree."
Cousin Hetty nodded dry, though not uncordial greetings to the strangers and said crisply, "You're welcome enough to sit around anywhere you can find, and eat your lunch here, but where you're going to find anything to show off, beats me."
"Mr. Welles is interested in gardens and wants to look at yours."
"Not much to look at," said the old lady uncompromisingly.
"I don't want to look at a garden!" clamored little Mark, outraged at the idea. "I want to be let go up to Aunt Hetty's yattic where the sword and 'pinning-wheel are."
"Would all you children like that best?" asked Marise.
Their old kinswoman answered for them, "You'd better believe they would. You always did yourself. Run along, now, children, and don't fall on the attic stairs and hurt yourselves on the wool-hetchels."
The fox-terrier, who had hung in an anguish of uncertainty and hope and fear on the incomprehensible words passing between little Mark and the grown-ups, perceiving now that the children ran clattering towards the stairs, took a few agitated steps after them, and ran back to Marise, shivering, begging with his eyes, in a wriggling terror lest he be forbidden to follow them into the fun. Marise motioned him along up the stairs, saying with a laughing, indulgent, amused accent, "Yes, yes, poor Medor, you can go along with the children if you want to."
The steel sinews of the dog's legs stretched taut on the instant, in a great bound of relief. He whirled with a ludicrous and undignified haste, slipping, his toe-nails clicking on the bare floor, tore across the room and dashed up the stairs, drunk with joy.
"If strong emotions are what one wants out of life," commented Marise lightly, to Marsh, "one ought to be born a nervous little dog, given over to the whimsical tyranny of humans."
"There are other ways of coming by strong emotions," answered Marsh, not lightly at all.
"What in the world are wool-hetchels?" asked Mr. Welles as the grown-ups went along the hall towards the side-door.
"Why, when I was a girl, and we spun our own wool yarn . . ." began Cousin Hetty, trotting beside him and turning her old face up to his.
Marsh stopped short in the hall-way with a challenging abruptness that brought Marise to a standstill also. The older people went on down the long dusky hail to the door and out into the garden, not noticing that the other two had stopped. The door swung shut behind them.
* * * * *
Marise felt the man's dark eyes on her, searching, determined. They were far from those first days, she thought, when he had tacitly agreed not to look at her like that, very far from those first days of delicacy and lightness of touch.
With a determination as firm as his own, she made her face and eyes opaque, and said on a resolutely gay note, "What's the matter? Can't you stand any more information about early times in Vermont? You must have been having too heavy a dose of Mr. Bayweather. But I like it, you know. I find it awfully interesting to know so in detail about any past period of human life; as much so . . . why not? . . . as researches into which provinces of France used half-timber houses, and how late?"
"You like a great many things!" he said impatiently.
"We must get out into the garden with the others, or Cousin Hetty will be telling her old-time stories before we arrive," she answered, moving towards the door.
She felt her pulse knocking loud and swift. Strange how a casual interchange of words with him would excite and agitate her. But it had been more than that. Everything was, with him.
He gave the sidewise toss of his head, which had come to be so familiar to her, as though he were tossing a lock of hair from his forehead, but he said nothing more, following her down the long hall in silence.
It was as though she had physically felt the steel of his blade slide gratingly once more down from her parry. Her mental attitude had been so entirely that of a fencer, on the alert, watchfully defensive against the quick-flashing attack of the opponent, that she had an instant's absurd fear of letting him walk behind her, as though she might feel a thrust in the back. "How ridiculous of me!" she told herself with an inward laugh of genuine amusement. "Women are as bad as fox-terriers for inventing exciting occasions out of nothing at all."
Then in a gust of deep anger, instantly come, instantly gone, "Why do I tolerate this for a moment? I was perfectly all right before. Why don't I simply send him about his business, as I would any other bold meddler?"
But after this, with an abrupt shift to another plane, "That would be acting preposterously, like a silly, self-consciously virtuous matron. What earthly difference does it make to me what a casual visitor to our town says or does to amuse himself in his casual stay, that may end at any moment? And how scarifyingly he would laugh at me, if he knew what comic relics of old prudish reflexes are stirred up by the contact with his mere human livingness. Heavens! How he would laugh to know me capable of being so 'guindee,' so personal, fearing like any school-girl a flirtation in any man's conversation. He must never see a trace of that. No matter how startled I ever am, he mustn't see anything but a smooth, amused surface. It would be intolerable to have him laugh at me."
Her hand was on the latch, when a deep, muffled murmur from the depths admonished her, "Personal vanity . . . that's what's at the bottom of all that you are telling yourself. It is a vain woman speaking, and fearing a wound to her vanity."
She resented this, pushed it back, and clicked the latch up firmly, stepping out into the transparent gold of the late-afternoon sunshine. She turned her head as her companion came up behind her on the garden path, half expecting to have his eyes meet hers with a visible shade of sardonic mockery, and prepared to meet it halfway with a similar amusement at the absurdity of human beings, herself included.
* * * * *
He was not looking at her at all, but straight before him, unconscious for an instant that she had turned her eyes on him, and in this instant before the customary mask of self-consciousness dropped over his face, she read there, plain and startling to see, unmistakable to her grown woman's experience of life, the marks of a deep, and painful, and present emotion.
All of her hair-splitting speculations withered to nothing. She did not even wonder what it was that moved him so strangely and dreadfully. There was no room for thought in the profound awed impersonal sympathy which with a great hush came upon her at the sight of another human being in pain.
He felt some intimate emanation from her, turned towards her, and for the faintest fraction of time they looked at each other through a rent in the veil of life.
* * * * *
Cousin Hetty's old voice called them cheerfully, "Over here, this way under the willow-tree."
They turned in that direction, to hear her saying, ". . . that was in 1763 and of course they came on horseback, using the Indian trails the men had learned during the French-and-Indian wars. Great-grandmother (she was a twelve-year-old girl then) had brought along a willow switch from their home in Connecticut. When the whole lot of them decided to settle here in the valley, and her folks took this land to be theirs, she stuck her willow switch into the ground, alongside the brook here, and this is the tree it grew to be. Looks pretty battered up, don't it, like other old folks."
Mr. Welles tipped his pale, quiet face back to look up at the great tree, stretching its huge, stiff old limbs mutilated by time and weather, across the tiny, crystal brook dimpling and smiling and murmuring among its many-colored pebbles. "Queer, isn't it," he speculated, "how old the tree has grown, and how the brook has stayed just as young as ever."
"It's the other way around between 'Gene Powers' house and his pine-tree," commented Aunt Hetty. "The pine-tree gets bigger and finer and stronger all the time, seems 'sthough, and the house gets more battered and feeble-looking."
Marise looked across at Marsh and found his eyes on her with an expression she rarely saw in them, almost a peaceful look, as of a man who has had something infinitely satisfying fall to his lot. He smiled at her gently, a good, quiet smile, and looked away into the extravagant splendor of a row of peonies.
Marise felt an inexplicable happiness, clear and sunny like the light in the old garden. She sat down on the bench and fell into a more relaxed and restful pose than she had known for some time. What a sweet and gracious thing life could be after all! Could there be a lovelier place on earth than here among Cousin Hetty's flower-children. Dear old Cousin Hetty, with her wrinkled, stiff exterior, and those bright living eyes of hers. She was the willow-tree outside and the brook inside, that's what she was. What tender childhood recollections were bound up with the sight of that quiet old face.
"And those rose-bushes," continued the old woman, "are all cuttings my great-great-grandmother brought up from Connecticut, and they came from cuttings our folks brought over from England, in 1634. If 'twas a little later in the season, and they were in bloom, you'd see how they're not nearly so I double as most roses. The petals are bigger and not so curled up, more like wild roses."
She sat down beside the others on the long wooden bench, and added, "I never dig around one of those bushes, nor cut a rose to put in a vase, without I feel as though Great-great-grandmother and Grandmother and all the rest were in me, still alive."
"Don't you think," asked Marise of the two men, "that there is something awfully sweet about feeling yourself a part of the past generations, like that? As we do here. To have such a familiarity with any corner of the earth . . . well, it seems to me like music, the more familiar it is, the dearer and closer it is . . . and when there are several generations of familiarity back of you. . . . I always feel as though my life were a part of something much bigger than just my life, when I feel it a continuation of their lives, as much as of my own childhood. It always seems deep and quieting to me."
Mr. Welles assented wistfully, "It makes me envious."
Marsh shook his head, sending up a meditative puff of smoke. "If you want to know how it really strikes me, I'll have to say it sounds plain sleepy to me. Deep and quieting all right, sure enough. But so's opium. And in my experience, most things just get duller and duller, the more familiar they are. I don't begin to have time in my life for the living I want to do, my own self! I can't let my grandmothers and grandfathers come shoving in for another whirl at it. They've had their turn. And my turn isn't a minute too long for me. Your notion looks to me . . . lots of old accepted notions look like that to me . . . like a good big dose of soothing syrup to get people safely past the time in their existences when they might do some sure-enough personal living on their own hook." He paused and added in a meditative murmur, "That time is so damn short as it is!"
He turned hastily to the old lady with an apology. "Why, I beg your pardon! I didn't realize I had gone on talking aloud. I was just thinking along to myself. You see, your soothing syrup is working on me, the garden, the sun, the stillness, all the grandmothers and grandfathers sitting around. I am almost half asleep."
"I'm an old maid, I know," said Cousin Hetty piquantly. "But I'm not a proper Massachusetts old maid. I'm Vermont, and a swear-word or two don't scare me. I was brought up on first-hand stories of Ethan Allen's talk, and . . ."
Marise broke in hastily, in mock alarm, "Now, Cousin Hetty, don't you start in on the story of Ethan Allen and the cowshed that was too short. I won't have our city visitors scandalized by our lack of . . ."
Cousin Hetty's laughter cut her short, as merry and young a sound as the voice of the brook. "I hadn't thought of that story in years!" she said. She and Marise laughed together, looking at each other. But they said nothing else.
"Aren't you going to tell us?" asked Mr. Welles with a genuine aggrieved surprise which tickled Cousin Hetty into more laughter.
"I shall not rest day or night, till I have found someone who knows that story," said Marsh, adding, "Old Mrs. Powers must know it. And she will love to tell it to me. It is evidently the sort of story which is her great specialty."
They all laughed, foolishly, light-heartedly.
Marise consciously delighted in the laughter, in the silly, light tone of their talk, in the feeling of confidence and security which bathed her as warmly as the new wine of the spring sunshine. She thought passingly, swiftly, with her habitual, satiric wonder at her own fancifulness, of her earlier notions about steel blades and passes and parries, and being afraid to walk down the hall with her "opponent" back of her.
Her opponent, this potent, significant personality, lounging on the bench beside her, resting in the interval of a life the intensity of which was out of her world altogether, the life, all power, of a modern rich man in great affairs; controlling vast forces, swaying and shaping the lives of thousands of weaker men as no potentate had ever done, living in the instants he allowed himself for personal life (she felt again the pang of her sympathy for his look of fierce, inexplicable pain) with a concentration in harmony with the great scale of his other activities. It was, just as the cheap novels called it, a sort, a bad, inhuman, colorful, fascinating sort of modern version of the superman's life, she reflected. She had been ridiculous to project her village insignificance into that large-scale landscape.
A distant whistle blew a long, full note, filling the valley with its vibrations.
"Is that a train, at this hour?" murmured Mr. Welles. His voice was sunk to a somnolent monotone, his hands folded over his waistcoat moved slowly and rhythmically with his breathing. It was evident that he did not in the least care whether it was a train or not.
"Oh no!" said Marise, severely, disapproving the vagueness and inaccuracy of his observation. "That's the mill-whistle, blowing the closing-hour. You're no true Ashleyan, not to have learned the difference between the voices of the different whistles of the day."
She turned to Marsh, tilting her wings for a capricious flight. "I think it's part of the stubborn stiff-jointedness of human imagination, don't you, that we don't hear the beauty of those great steam-whistles. I wonder if it's not unconscious art that gave to our mighty machines such voices of qower."
"Isn't it perhaps ostentatious to call the family saw-mill a 'mighty machine'?" inquired Marsh mildly. He sat at the end of the bench, his arm along the back behind Mr. Welles, his head turned to the side, his soft hat pulled low over his forehead, looking at the garden and at Marise out of half-shut, sleepy eyes.
Marise went on, drawing breath for a longer flight. "When the train comes sweeping up the valley, trailing its great beautiful banner of smoke, I feel as though it were the crescendo announcing something, and at the crossing, when that noble rounded note blares out . . . why, it's the music for the setting. Nothing else could cope with the depth of the valley, the highness and blackness of its mountain walls, and the steepness of the Eagle Rocks."
"I call that going some, 'noble rounded note'!" murmured Marsh, lifting his eyebrows with a visible effort and letting his eyes fall half shut, against the brilliance of the sunshine.
Marise laughed, and persisted. "Just because its called a steam-whistle, we won't hear its beauty and grandeur, till something else has been invented to take its place, and then we'll look back sentimentally and regret it."
"Maybe you will," conceded Marsh.
The two elder looked on, idly amused at this give-and-take.
"And I don't suppose," continued Marise, "to take another instance of modern lack of imagination, that you have ever noticed, as an element of picturesque power in modern life, the splendid puissance of the traffic cop's presence in a city street."
They all had a protesting laugh at this, startled for an instant from their dreaminess.
"Yes, and if I could think of more grandiloquent words to express him, I'd use them," said Marise defiantly, launching out into yet more outrageous flights of rhetoric. "I could stand for hours on a street corner, admiring the completeness with which he is transfigured out of the human limitations of his mere personality, how he feels, flaming through his every vein and artery, the invincible power of THE LAW, freely set over themselves by all those turbulent, unruly human beings, surging around him in their fiery speed-genii. He raises his arm. It is not a human arm, it is the decree of the entire race. And as far as it can be seen, all those wilful fierce creatures bow themselves to it. The current boils past him in one direction. He lets it go till he thinks fit to stop it. He sounds his whistle, and raises his arm again in that inimitable gesture of omnipotence. And again they bow themselves. Now that the priest before the altar no longer sways humanity as he did, is there anywhere else, any other such visible embodiment of might, majesty, and power as . . ."
"Gracious me, Marise!" warned her old cousin. "I know you're only running on with your foolishness, but I think you're going pretty far when you mix a policeman up with priests and altars and things. I don't believe Mr. Bayweather would like that very well."
"He wouldn't mind," demurred Marise. "He'd think it an interesting historical parallel."
"Mrs. Bayweather would have a thing or two to say."
"Right you are. Mrs. Bayweather would certainly say something!" agreed Marise.
She stood up. "I'm hypnotized into perfect good-for-nothingness like the rest of you by the loveliness of the afternoon and the niceness of everybody. Here it is almost eating-time and I haven't even opened the baskets. No, don't you move," she commanded the others, beginning to stir from their nirvana to make dutiful offers of help. "I'll call the children. And Neale will be here in a moment."
* * * * *
She went back to the house, down the long walk, under the grape-arbor, still only faintly shaded with sprigs of pale green. She was calling, "Children! Children! Come and help with the supper."
She vanished into the house. There was a moment or two of intense quiet, in which the almost horizontal rays of the setting sun poured a flood of palpable gold on the three motionless figures in the garden.
* * * * *
Then she emerged again, her husband beside her, carrying the largest of the baskets, the children struggling with other baskets, a pail, an ice-cream-freezer, while the dog wove circles about them, wrought to exaltation by the complicated smell of the eatables.
"Neale was just coming in the front gate," she explained, as he nodded familiarly to the men and bent to kiss the old woman's cheek. "Cousin Hetty, just look at Elly in that night-cap of Great-aunt Pauline's. Doesn't she look the image of that old daguerreotype of Grandmother? See here, Mark, who said you could trail that sword out here? That belongs in the attic."
"Oh, let him, let him," said Cousin Hetty peaceably.
"There's nothing much less breakable than a sword. He can't hurt it."
"I've woren it lots of times before," said Mark. "Aunt Hetty always let me to. Favver, won't you 'trap it tight to me, so's I won't 'traddle it so much."
"Mother," said Elly, coming up close to Marise, as she stood unpacking the dishes, "I was looking inside that old diary, the one in the red leather cover, your grandmother's, I guess, the diary she wrote when she was a young lady. And she was having a perfectly dreadful time whether she could believe the Doctrine of the Trinity. She seemed to feel so bad about it. She wrote how she couldn't sleep nights, and cried, and everything. It was the Holy Ghost she couldn't make any sense out of. Mother, what in the world is the Doctrine of the Trinity?
"For mercy's sakes!" cried Cousin Hetty. "I never saw such a family! Elly, what won't you be up to, next? I can't call that a proper thing for a little girl to talk about, right out, so."
"Mother, you tell me," said Elly, looking up into her mother's face with the expression of tranquil trust which was like a visible radiance. Marise always felt scared, she told herself, when Elly looked at her like that. She made a little helpless shrugged gesture of surrender with her shoulders, setting down on the table a plate of cold sliced lamb. "Elly, darling, I can't stop just this minute to tell you about it, and anyhow I don't understand any more about it than Grandmother did. But I don't care if I don't. The first quiet minute we have together, I'll tell you enough so you can understand why she cared."
"All right, when I go to bed tonight I'll remind you to," Elly made the engagement definite. She added, with a shout, "Oh, Mother, chicken sandwiches! Oh, I didn't know we were going to have chicken sandwiches. Mother, can't we begin now? I'm awfully hungry."
"Hello," said Neale, looking back toward the house. "Here comes Eugenia, arisen from her nap. Paul, run back into the house and bring out another chair. Marise, have you explained who Eugenia is?"
"Oh la, la, no!" exclaimed Marise. "I forgot they didn't know her. Quick, you do it, Neale."
"Old friend of my wife's, sort of half-cousin several-times removed, schoolmates in France together, the kind of old family friend who comes and goes in the house at will," said Neale rapidly. "Cultivated, artistic, and so on."
"Oh, Neale, how slightingly you put it!" cried Marise under her breath. "She's made herself into one of the rarest and most finished creations!"
Neale went on rapidly, in a low tone as the newcomer stepped slowly down the path, "She toils not, neither does she spin . . . doesn't have to. Highbrow, very, and yet stylish, very! Most unusual combination." He added as final information, "Spinster, by conviction," as he stepped forward to greet her.
The other two men stood up to be presented to the newcomer, who, making everything to Marise's eyes seem rough and countrified, advanced towards them, self-possessed, and indifferent to all those eyes turned on her. In her gleaming, supple dress of satin-like ivory jersey, she looked some tiny, finished, jewel-object, infinitely breakable, at which one ought only to look if it were safely behind glass.
"There is someone of Marsh's own world, the 'great world' he speaks of," thought Marise. She was not aware of any wistfulness in her recognition of this fact, but she was moved to stand closer to her husband, and once as she moved about, setting the table, to lay her fingers for an instant on his hand.
"We're going to have ice-cream, Eugenia," announced Paul, leaning on the arm of her chair after she and all the others were seated again.
"That's good news," she said equably. She laid a small, beautiful hand on the child's shoulder, and with a smooth, imperceptible movement, set him a little further from her. Paul did not observe this manoeuver, but his mother did, with an inward smile. "Paul, don't hang on Eugenia like that," she called to him.
"But she smells so sweet!" protested the little boy.
Mr. Welles held out a sympathizing hand and drew the child to him. He too had seen that gesture.
"Come here, all you little folks," ordered Marise, now seriously beginning to serve the meal, "and start waiting on the table."
"Cold lamb!" cried Cousin Hetty with enthusiasm. "I'm so glad. Agnes won't touch mutton or lamb. She says they taste so like a sheep. And so we don't often have it."
"Paul, can you be trusted to pour the hot chocolate?" asked his mother. "No, Neale, don't get up. I want to see if the children can't do it all."
* * * * *
From where she sat at the foot of the table, she directed the operations. The children stepped about, serious, responsible, their rosy faces translucent in the long, searching, level rays sent up by the sun, low in The Notch. Dishes clicked lightly, knives and forks jingled, cups were set back with little clinking noises on saucers. All these indoor sounds were oddly diminished and unresonant under the open sky, just as the chatting, laughing flow of the voices, even though it rose at times to bursts of mirth which the children's shouts made noisy, never drowned out the sweet, secret talk of the brook to itself.
Marise was aware of all this, richly and happily aware of the complexities of an impression whose total seemed to her, for the moment, felicity itself. It pleased her, all, every bit of it, pleased and amused her; the dear children, Paul worshiping at the shrine of Eugenia's elegancies, Mark the absurd darling with that grotesque sword between his legs, Elly devouring her favorite sandwich with impassioned satisfaction and wondering about the Holy Ghost; Cousin Hetty, ageless, pungent, and savory as one of her herbs; Mr. Welles, the old tired darling come into his haven, loving Paul as he would his own grandson; Eugenia orchid-like against their apple-blossom rusticity; Marsh . . . how tremendously more simpatico he had seemed this afternoon than ever before, as though one might really like him, and not just find him exciting and interesting; Neale, dear Neale with his calm eyes into which it did everyone good to look. All of them at ease, friendly, enjoying food, the visible world, and each other. Where, after all, were those traditional, troubling, insoluble intricacies of human relationships which had been tormenting her and darkening her sky? It was all so good and simple if one could only remain good and simple oneself. There was no lightning to fear in that lucent sunset air.
* * * * *
Presently, as the talk turned on flowers and the dates of their blooming, Eugenia said to her casually, "Marisette, here we are the first of June and past, and the roses here are less advanced than they were at Tivoli the last of March. Do you remember the day when a lot of us sat outdoors and ate a picnic dinner, just as we do now? It was the day we climbed Monte Cavo."
Marise explained, "Miss Mills is a friend who dates back even before my husband's time, back to our student days in Rome." To Eugenia she said, "You're giving us both away and showing how long ago it is, and how you've forgotten about details. We never could have climbed up Monte Cavo, the day we went to Tivoli. They don't go on the same excursion, at all."
"That's true," agreed Eugenia indifferently, "you're right. Monte Cavo goes with the Rocca di Papa expedition."
Before she could imagine a possible reason, Marise felt her hands go cold and moist. The sky seemed to darken and lower above her. Eugenia went on, "And I never went to Rocca di Papa with you, at all, I'm sure of that. That was a trip you took after you had dropped me for Neale. In fact, it was on that very expedition that you got formally engaged, don't you remember? You and Neale walked over from Monte Cavo and only just caught the last car down."
* * * * *
Ridiculous! Preposterous! Marise told herself that it was not possible that her hands were trembling so. It was merely a physical reaction, such as one had when startled by some trivial sudden event. But she couldn't make them stop trembling. She couldn't make them stop.
What nonsense to be so agitated. Nobody could remember the name from that evening, weeks and weeks ago. And what if they did? What could they make of it?
It seemed to her that dusk had fallen in the garden. Where was that lucent sunset air?
She heard Eugenia's voice going on, and Neale chiming in with a laugh, and did not understand what they said. Surely everybody must have forgotten.
She hazarded a quick glance at Mr. Welles' face and drew a long breath of relief. He had forgotten, that was evident. She looked beyond him to Marsh. He too would certainly have forgotten.
He was waiting for her eyes. And when they met his, she felt the lightning flash. He had not forgotten.
Marsh suddenly found it unbearable. He wasn't used to keeping the curb on himself like this, and he hadn't the least intention of learning how to do it. A fierce, physical irritability overcame him, and he stopped short in the hall, just because he could not stand the silly chatter that was always flowing from these silly people about their foolish affairs. If they only knew what he was leaving unsaid!
He had not meant to make Marise halt, too, his movement having been a mere unconsidered reflex, but of course she did stop, apparently surprised by the brusqueness of his action, and faced him there in the dusky hall-way. She was so close to him that he could see every detail of her face and person, just as he could at night when he closed his eyes; so close that for an instant he felt her breath on his face. He ground his teeth, minded, that instant, to throw down the trumpery little wall of convention. It couldn't stand, he knew with an experienced certainty of his own power that it couldn't stand for an instant against him. The day he chose to put his shoulder to it, down it would go in a heap of rubble.
But the wall was not all. Usually it was all. But with this woman it was nothing, a mere accident. Beyond it she stood, valid, and looked at him out of those long eyes of hers. What was in her mind? She looked at him now, quietly, just as usual, made some light casual remark, and effortlessly, as though she had some malign and invincible charm, she had passed from out his power again, and was walking with that straight, sure tread of hers, down to the door.
If he could have done it, he would have struck at her from behind.
He could get no hold on her, could not take the first step. All during those weeks and weeks, he had thrown out his net, and had caught enough facts, Lord knows. But had he any certainty that he had put them together right? He had not yet caught in her any one tone or look or phrase that would give him the unmistakable clue. He had set down words and words and words that would tell him what her life really was, if he only knew the alphabet of her language. He might be making a fool of himself with his almost certainty that she was conscious of having outgrown, like a splendid tropical tree, the wretched little kitchen-garden where fate had transplanted her. When he could stamp down his heat of feeling and let his intelligence have a moment's play, he was perfectly capable of seeing that he might be misinterpreting everything he had observed. For instance, that evening over the photograph-album with her betrayal of some strong feeling of distaste for the place near Rome. It was evident, from her tone, her look, her gesture, that the name of it brought up some acutely distasteful memory to her, but that could mean anything, or nothing. It might be merely some sordid accident, as that a drunken workman had said something brutal to her there. Women of her sort, he knew, never forgot those things. Or any one of a thousand such incidents. He would never know the significance of that gesture of shrinking of hers.
As he walked behind her, he looked hard at her back, with its undulating, vase-like beauty, so close to him; and felt her immeasurably distant. She opened the door now and went out into the sunlight, stepping a little to one side as though to make room for him to come up beside her. He found that he knew every turn of her head, every poise of her shoulders and action of her hands, the whole rhythm of her body, as though they were his own. And there she passed from him, far and remote.
A sudden certainty of fore-ordained defeat came over him, as he had never known before. He was amazed at the violence of his pain, intolerable, intolerable!
* * * * *
She turned her head quickly and caught his eyes in this instant of inexplicable suffering.
* * * * *
What miraculous thing happened then? It seemed to him that her face wavered in golden rays, from the radiance of her eyes. For she did not withdraw her gaze. She looked at him with an instant, profound sympathy and pity, no longer herself, transfigured, divine by the depth of her humanity.
The sore bitterness went out from his heart.
* * * * *
A voice called. She turned away. He felt himself following her. He looked about him, light-headed with relief from pain. The quiet, flowering world shimmered rainbow-like. What a strange power one human being could have with another that a look could be an event!
He walked more slowly, feeling with a curious pleasure the insatiable desire for possession ebbing from him. Why not let it ebb entirely? Why not enjoy the ineffable sweetness of what he could have? That was what would please her, what she would like, what she would give, freely. In this moment of hush, he quite saw how it would be possible, although he had never for a moment before in his life believed it. Yes, possible and lovely. After all, he must stop sometime, and take the slower pace. Why not now, when there was a certain and great prize to be won . . . ?
* * * * *
People talked around him. He talked and did not know his own words. Marise spun those sparkling webs of nonsense of hers, and made him laugh, but the next moment he could not have told what she had said. He must somehow have been very tired to take such intense pleasure in being at rest.
Her husband came, that rough and energetic husband. The children came, the children whose restless, selfish, noisy preying on their mother usually annoyed him so, and still the charm was not broken. Marise, as she always did when her husband and children were there, retreated into a remote plane of futile busyness with details that servants should have cared for; answering the children's silly questions, belonging to everyone, her personal existence blotted out. But this time he felt still, deep within him, the penetrating sweetness of her eyes as she had looked at him.
A tiresome, sophisticated friend of Marise's came, too, somehow intruding another personality into the circle, already too full, and yet he was but vaguely irritated by her. She only brought out by contrast the thrilling quality of Marise's golden presence. He basked in that, as in the sunshine, and thought of nothing else.
Possibilities he had never dreamed of, stretched before him, possibilities of almost impersonal and yet desirable existence. Perhaps this was the turning-point of his life. He supposed there really was one, sometime, for everybody.
* * * * *
". . . Rocca di Papa . . ." someone had said. Or had he dreamed it? He awoke with an inward bound, like a man springing up from sleep at a sudden noise. His first look was for Marise. She was pale. He had not dreamed it.
The voice went on . . . the newcomer's, the one they called Eugenia . . . yes, she had known them in Italy. Marise had just said they had been friends before her marriage.
The voice went on. How he listened as though crouched before the keyhole of a door! Only three or four sentences, quite casual and trivial in content, pronounced in that self-consciously cosmopolitan accent. Then the voice stopped.
It had said enough for him. Now he knew. Now he had that clue.
He had the sensation of rising to his full height, exultantly, every faculty as alert as though he had never been drugged to sleep by those weak notions of renunciation. The consciousness of power was like a sweet taste in his mouth. The deep, fundamental, inalienable need for possession stretched itself, titanic and mighty, refreshed, reposed, and strengthened by the involuntary rest it had had.
* * * * *
He fixed his eyes on Marise, waiting for the first interchange of a look. He could see that her hands were trembling; and smiled to himself. She was looking at the old man.
Now, in a moment she would look at him.
There were her eyes. She had looked at him. Thunder rolled in his ears.
HEARD FROM THE STUDY
From his desk in the inner room where he finally buckled down to those estimates about the popple-wood casters, Neale could follow, more or less closely, as his attention varied, the evening activities of the household.
First there had been the clinking and laughter from the dining-room and kitchen where Marise and the children cleared off the table and washed the dishes. How sweet their voices sounded, all light and gay! Every occasion for being with their mother was fun for the kids. How happy Marise made them! And how they throve in that happiness like little plants in the sunshine!
When you really looked at what went on about you, how funny and silly lots of traditional ideas did seem. That notion, solemnly accepted by the would-be sophisticated moderns, for instance, that a woman of beauty and intelligence was being wasted unless she was engaged in being the "emotional inspiration" of some man's life: which meant in plain English, stimulating his sexual desire to that fever-heat which they called impassioned living. As if there were not a thousand other forms of deep fulfilment in life. People who thought that, how narrow and cramped they seemed, and blinded to the bigness and variety of life! But then, of course, everybody hadn't had under his eyes a creature genuinely rich and various, like Marise, and hadn't seen how all children feasted on her charm like bees on honey, and how old people adored her, and how, just by being herself, she enriched and civilized every life that touched her, and made every place she lived in a home for the human spirit. And Heaven knew she was, with all that, the real emotional inspiration of a man's life, a man who loved her a thousand times more than in his ignorant and passionate youth.
* * * * *
Come, this wasn't work. He might as well have stayed out with the family and helped with the dishes. This was being like Eugenia Mills, who always somehow had something to do upstairs when there was any work to do downstairs. Eugenia was a woman who somehow managed to stand from under life, anyhow, had been the most successful draft-dodger he knew. No call had been urgent enough to get her to the recruiting station to shoulder her share of what everybody had to do. But what did she get out of her successful shirking? She was in plain process of drying up and blowing away.
He turned to his desk and drew out the papers which had the figures and estimates on that popple. He would see if the Warner woodlot had as much popple and basswood on it as they thought. It would, of course, be easiest to get it off that lot, if there were enough of it to fill the order for casters. The Hemmingway lot and the Dornwood lot oughtn't to be lumbered except in winter, with snow for the sleds. But you could haul straight downhill from the Warner lot, even on wheels, using the back lane in the Eagle Rocks woods. There was a period of close attention to his papers, when he heard nothing at all of what went on in the rooms next his study. His mind was working with the rapid, trained exactitude which was a delight to him, with a sure, firm grasp on the whole problem in all its complicated parts.
Finally he nodded with satisfaction, pushed the papers away, and lighted his pipe, contentedly. He had it by the tail.
He leaned back in his chair, drawing on the newly lighted pipe and ruminating again. He thought to himself that he would like to see any other man in the valley who could make an estimate like that, and be sure of it, who would know what facts to gather and where to get them, on the cost of cutting and hauling in different seasons, on mill-work and transportation and overhead expenses, and how to market and where, and how to get money and how to get credit and how to manage these cranky independent Yankees and the hot-tempered irresponsible Canucks. It was all very well for advanced radicals to say that the common workmen in a business were as good as the head of the concern. They weren't and that was all there was to be said about it. Any one of them, any single one of his employees, put in his place as manager, would run the business into a hole as deep as hell inside six months. And if you put the whole lot of them at it, it would only be six weeks instead of six months before the bust-up.
There again, what people kept saying about life, things clever people said and that got accepted as the clever things to say, how awfully beside the mark they seem to you, when you found out actual facts by coming up against them. What a difference some first-hand experience with what you were talking about, did make with what you said. What clever folks ought to say was not that the workmen were as good as the head or the same sort of flesh and blood, because they weren't; but that the head exploited his natural capacities out of all proportion, getting such an outrageous share of the money they all made together, for doing what was natural to him, and what he enjoyed doing. Take himself for instance. If by some freak, he could make more money out of being one of the hands, would he go down in the ranks, stand at a machine all day and cut the same wooden shapes, hour after hour: or drive a team day after day where somebody else told him to go? You bet your life he wouldn't! He didn't need all the money he could squeeze out of everybody concerned, to make him do his job as manager. His real pay was the feeling of managing, of doing a job he was fitted for, and that was worth doing.
How fine it had always been of Marise to back him up in that view of the business, not to want him to cheat the umpire, even if he could get away with it, even though it would have meant enough sight more money for them, even though the umpire didn't exist as yet, except in his own conscience, in his own idea of what he was up to in his business. Never once had Marise had a moment of that backward-looking hankering for more money that turned so many women into pillars of salt and their husbands into legalized sneak-thieves.
He pulled out some of the letters from Canada about the Powers case, and fingered them over a little. He had brought them home this evening, and it wasn't the first time either, to try to get a good hour alone with Marise to talk it over with her. He frowned as he reflected that he seemed to have had mighty little chance for talking anything over with Marise since his return. There always seemed to be somebody sticking around; one of the two men next door, who didn't have anything to do but stick around, or Eugenia, who appeared to have settled down entirely on them this time. Well, perhaps it was just as well to wait a little longer and say nothing about it, till he had those last final verifications in his hands.
What in thunder did Eugenia come to visit them for, anyhow? Their way of life must make her sick. Why did she bother? Oh, probably her old affection for Marise. They had been girls together, of course, and Marise had been good to her. Women thought more of those old-time relations than men. Well, he could stand Eugenia if she could stand them, he guessed. But she wasn't one who grew on him with the years.
He had less and less patience with those fussy little ways, found less and less amusing those frequent, small cat-like gestures of hers, picking off an invisible thread from her sleeve, rolling it up to an invisible ball between her white finger and thumb, and casting it delicately away; or settling a ring, or brushing off invisible dust with a flick of a polished finger-nail; all these manoeuvers executed with such leisure and easy deliberation that they didn't make her seem restless, and you knew she calculated that effect. A man who had had years with a real, living woman like Marise, didn't know whether to laugh or swear at such mannerisms and the self-consciousness that underlay them.
There she was coming down the stairs now, when she heard Marise at the piano, with the children, and knew there was no more work to be done. Pshaw! He had meant to go out and join the others, but now he would wait a while, till he had finished his pipe. A pipe beside Eugenia's perfumed cigarettes always seemed so gross. And he wanted to lounge at his ease, stretch out in his arm-chair with his feet on another. Could you do that, with Eugenia fashion-plating herself on the sofa?
He leaned back smoking peacefully, listening to Marise's voice brimming up all around the children's as they romped through "The raggle-taggle gypsies, oh!"
What a mastery of the piano Marise had, subduing it to the slender pipe of those child-voices as long as they sang, and rolling out sumptuous harmonies in the intervals of the song. Lucky kids! Lucky kids! to have childhood memories like that.
He heard Paul say, "Now let's sing 'Massa's in the cold, cold ground,'" and Elly shriek out, "No, Mother, no! It's so terribly sad! I can't stand it!" And Paul answer with that certainty of his always being in the right, "Aw, Elly, it's not fair. Is it, Mother, fair to have Elly keep us from singing one of the nicest songs we have, just because she's so foolish?"
His father frowned. Queer about Paul. He'd do anything for Elly if he thought her in trouble, would stand up for her against the biggest bully of the school-yard. But he couldn't keep himself from . . . it was perhaps because Paul could not understand that . . . now how could Marise meet this little problem in family equity, he wondered? Her solutions of the children's knots always tickled him.
She was saying, "Let's see. Elly, it doesn't look to me as though you had any right to keep Paul from singing a song he likes. And, Paul, it doesn't seem as though you had any right to make Elly listen to a song that makes her cry. Let's settle it this way. We can't move the piano, but we can move Elly. Elly dear, suppose you go 'way out through the kitchen and shut both doors and stand on the back porch. Toucle will probably be there, looking out, the way she does evenings, so you won't be alone. I'll send Mark out to get you when we're through. And because it's not very much fun to stand out in the dark, you can stop and get yourself a piece of cocoanut cake as you go through the pantry."
Neale laughed silently to himself as he heard the doors open and shut and Elly's light tread die away. How perfectly Marise understood her little daughter! It wasn't only over the piano that Marise had a mastery, but over everybody's nature. She played on them as surely, as richly as on any instrument. That's what he called real art-in-life. Why wasn't it creative art, as much as anything, her Blondin-like accuracy of poise among all the conflicting elements of family-life, the warring interests of the different temperaments, ages, sexes, natures? Why wasn't it an artistic creation, the unbroken happiness and harmony she drew out of those elements, as much as the picture the painter drew out of the reds and blues and yellows on his palette? If it gave an actor a high and disinterested pleasure when he had an inspiration, or heard himself give out a true and freshly found intonation, or make exactly the right gesture, whether anybody in the audience applauded him or not, why wouldn't the mother of a family and maker of a home have the same pleasure, and by heck! just as high and disinterested, when she had once more turned the trick, had an inspiration, and found a course that all her charges, young and old, could steer together? Well, there was one, anyhow, of Marise's audience who often gave her a silent hand-clap of admiration.
The wailing, lugubrious notes of the negro lament rose now, Paul's voice loud and clear and full of relish. "It takes a heavy stimulant to give Paul his sensations," thought his father. "What would take the hide right off of Elly, just gives him an agreeable tingle." His pipe went out as he listened, and he reached for a match. The song stopped. Someone had come in. He heard Paul's voice cry joyfully, "Oh goody, Mr. Welles, come on up to the piano."
Neale leaned forward with a slightly unpleasant stirring of his blood and listened to see if the old man had come alone. No, of course he hadn't. He never did.
There was Eugenia's voice saying, "Good-evening, Mr. Marsh." She would move over for him on the sofa and annex him with a look. Well, let her have him. He was her kind more than theirs, the Lord knew. Probably he was used to having that sort of woman annex him.
Neale moved his head restlessly and shifted his position. His pipe and his arm-chair had lost their savor. The room seemed hot to him and he got up to open a window. Standing there by the open sash, looking out into the blue, misty glory of an overclouded moonlight night, he decided that he would not go in at all, and join them. He felt tired and out of sorts, he found. And they were such infernal talkers, Eugenia and Marsh. It wore you out to hear them, especially as you felt all the time that their speculations on life and human nature were so far off, that it would be just wasting your breath to try to set them right. He'd stay here in the study and smoke and maybe doze off a little, till they went away. Marise had known he had business figuring to do, and she would have a perfectly valid excuse to give them for his non-appearance. Not that he had any illusions as to anybody there missing him at all.