"Yes, and it is pretty hard to keep them in a state of uncertainty about you when there are four certain children between you, but I go over to visit my mother at Hillsboro as often as she'll have the caravan and plead with Billy Harvey or Hampton Dibrell to keep me out until I'm late for dinner every time they pick me up for a little charitable spin. That and other deceptions have kept Mark Morgan uncertainly happy so far, but if I am pushed to the wall I'll—I'll go to the Reverend Mr. Goodloe's study for ministerial counsel like you did last Friday afternoon, Harriet," was Nell's contribution to the discussion, which she delivered over the head of the Suckling on her breast.
"Now how did you get hold of that choice bit of scandal, Nellie?" asked Harriet, with serene interest as she bit off a tag of purple silk thread from the stem of one of her violets.
"Billy Harvey says that scandal is a yellow pup that dogs a parson's heels, to which everybody throws some kind of bone," remarked Jessie. Jessie always vigorously represses Billy in his own presence and then quotes him eternally when he is absent.
"Mother Spurlock had come over from the Settlement to see him about the state of the treasury of the Mothers' Aid Class, and she stopped in to get a bundle of clothes I had for her," Nell answered Harriet's question. "She said she didn't mind the hour lost if the parson could give a 'wee bit of comfort' to your 'wrestling' soul. I didn't like to tell her that I thought it might be Mr. Goodloe who was wrestling—for life and liberty—for you and I have been friends since we could toddle, Harriet, but it was temptation to share my anxiety with her." And serenely Nellie patted the back of the drowsing Suckling.
"Wrong this time, Nell," answered Harriet, as she placed still another violet. "I was doing the wrestling, but I went to the mat. I gave up twenty-five dollars and took the directorship of that Mothers' Aid. Never having been a mother, I pointed out to him that I was not exactly qualified, but he laid stress upon my energy and business acumen and I gave up. I mentioned you for the honor, but those marvelous eyes of his glowed with some sort of inner warmth and he said that you had all you could do and would need help from me just as the women at the Settlement do. I'm going to present your Susan with a frock out of that linen and real Valenciennes I bought in the city last week for a blouse for my own self, and I'm going to give the making to that little Burns woman, who sews so beautifully and cheaply to support her seven offspring, while Mr. Burns supports 'The Last Chance' saloon down at the end of the road. In that way I'll be aiding two of Mr. Goodloe's flock at the same time, and when I told him my decision he laughed and said be sure and have it made two inches shorter than you made Sue's frocks, because her bare knees ought not to be hid from the world. That was about all that transpired in the whole hour of spiritual conference you are spreading the scandal about, and you ought to be ashamed."
Suddenly something in me made me determine to have it out with those four women and see what results I could get. I felt thirsty for knowledge of the wellsprings of other people's lives.
"Harriet," I demanded, "just why did you join Mr. Goodloe's church?"
"Let's see," answered Harriet, as she poised a violet and gave herself up to introspection.
"Mr. Goodloe?" I asked squarely, and my honesty drew its spark from hers.
"Mostly," she answered briefly. "And I believe in the church as an institution," she added, with honest justice to herself.
"I think it is absolutely horrid of you to ask a question like that, Charlotte," said Nell, as she turned the fretting Suckling over on her knee and began another series of pats. "We all of us went to church and Sunday school when we were children."
"Up to the time I left, not a single one of you ever had gone to church with any kind of regularity and not a one of you had ever supported its institutions. I've been here less than a week and each one of you has in some way shown me how bored you are with the relation. That's all the case I have against your or any church—just that the members are bored. Also, do any of you get any help in your daily lives, aside from the emotional pleasure it is to you to hear your minister sing twice a week, which would be as great or greater if he sang love and waltz songs from light opera for you?"
And as I asked my question I looked quickly from one to the other of the four women seated with me under the roof of the Poplars and tried to search out what was in their hearts. I knew them and their lives with the cruel completeness it is given to friends to know each other in small towns like Goodloets and I could probe with a certain touch. And as they all sat silent with me, each one driven to self-question by my demand, I threw the flash of a searchlight into each of them. These are some of the things that stood out in the illumination:
Harriet Henderson has always been in love with Mark Morgan, since her shoe-top-dress days, and she married Roger Henderson because Mark was as poor as she before the Phosphate Company gave him his managership. Nell and the babies are the nails driven in her heart every day and she loves them all passionately. She is only twenty-eight and life will be long for her. She needs help to live it. Whence will the help come?
Nell married Mark when she was eighteen and has produced a result every year and a half since. She loves him mildly and he loves her after a fashion, but her endurance is wearing thin. His mother had seven children and he thinks that an ideal number, though she was one generation nearer the pioneer woman and also had a nurse trained in slavery who was a wizard with children. Mark wants to have a lot of joy of life and so far he drags poor exhausted Nell with him. It is a question how long she can stand the social pace and the over-production. What is going to help her when she breaks down? How will she hold him faithful while she rears and trains all the kiddies? Where will she get spirit to love him and work out their salvation? Also Harriet is always there. Something will have to help Nell. What?
Billy loves Nell and doesn't know it. He loved her before she was married. The children make him rage superficially and burn inwardly. He gambles and drinks, but is honest and adorable. What is going to make a real man of him?
Jessie Litton's mother died in a private sanitarium for the mentally unbalanced and she knows all about it. She loves Hampton Dibrell and never looks in his direction or is a moment alone with him. He is in the unattached state of ease where any woman can get him if she cares to try, and Jessie has to keep her hands behind her.
Letitia is serenely happy with not a dark corner that I know of. She loves Cliff Gray and always will. Cliff is faithful and as good as gold, but he will hang around Jessie, who encourages him, because she is lonely and considers him safely tied up with Letitia. Mr. Cockrell is the best lawyer in town and Mrs. Cockrell the most devoted wife and mother. I can only feel that Letitia Cockrell needs a jolt and I don't see where it is coming from.
And I? I am lonely. And I feel that the constant anxiety about father is more than I can bear, worse now when I realize what he has been and could be—and that I love him. He is the hardest drinker in Goodloets and yet never is drunk. He is soaked from the beginning of one day to another. He began to drink like that the day my mother died and I have always known that I was helpless to help him. The weakness was in him, only supported by her strength so long as she was there. He was the most brilliant mind in the state, and was one of the supreme judges when mother died. Now Mr. Cockrell manages his business for him and I have lately come to know that I must sit by and watch him disintegrate. I cannot endure it now, as I have been doing. What is going to help me in this—shame for him? I have gone away to my mother's people to forget and left him to Dabney, and I've come home—to begin the suffering all over. I'll never leave him again. What's going to help me?
And there is something deeper—a race something that fairly eats the heart out of my pride. On almost every page of the history of the Harpeth Valley the name of Powers occurs. One Powers man has been governor of the state, and there have been two United States congressmen and a senator of our house. Father is the last of the line. Because race instinct is the strongest in women, I am the one who suffers as I see my family die out. What is going to help me? A few gospel hymns in a tenor voice the like of which I should have to pay at least three dollars to hear in the Metropolitan? The scene on the porch rose in my mind, but I felt that I both doubted and feared such succor.
And I am in still deeper depths. Nickols is the son of father's first cousin, and has father's full name, Nickols Morris Powers, and he is the last of his branch of the house. Father loves him and is proud of him and nothing ever enters his mind except that I will marry Nickols and start the family all over again. And this is the tragedy. I love Nickols and am entirely unsatisfied with him. He is the Whistler nocturne that my Sorolla nature demands, and he eternally makes me hold out my hand to grasp—nothing. He stands just beyond. I am unable to decide whether he does or does not love me. In New York he lives his life among the artists and fashionable people with whom his highly successful profession throws him, and I don't see why he cares to come back here where he was born and reared, in pursuit of a woman like me. I am as elemental as a shock of wheat back on one of father's meadows and Nickols is completely evolved. He laughs at race pride and resents mine. For six months I had been in New York living with Aunt Clara in Uncle Jonathan Van Eyek's old house down on Gramercy just to go into Nickols' life with him. I went about in the white lights of both Murray Hill and Greenwich Village for about one hundred and eighty-five evenings, and then I fled back to my garden and the poplars—and my anxiety. I thought I had come home to be free and I found the same old chains. And then had come Nickols' telegram of pursuit in the midnight after I had stood by in the shadow and watched a strong man pray and a weak man battle with himself. I was frightened, frightened at the future, and what was going to help me?
"I don't actually understand a word of Gregory Goodloe's sermons, really understand them, I mean, but it helps me to see that somebody truly believes that there is something somewhere that will straighten out tangles—in life as well as thread."
Harriet broke in on my still hunt into my own and other people's inner shrines as she snapped a bit of tangled purple silk thread, knotted it and began all over again on the violet.
"I don't care what he preaches about—he's soothing and I need a little repose in my life after—Oh, what is the matter now?" And as she finished speaking Nell Morgan arose and went with the Suckling asquirm in her arms to meet the large noise that was arriving down the front walk.
The delegation was headed by young Charlotte, whose blue eyes flamed across a very tip-tilted nose that bespoke mischief. Jimmy stolidly brought up the rear with small Sue clinging loyally to his dirty little paddie, which she only let go to run and bury her cornsilk topknot in Harriet's outspread arms, where she was engulfed into safety until only the most delicious dimpled pink knees protruded above dusty white socks and equally dusty white canvas sandals. Though within a few months of four, Sue had discovered Harriet, and never failed to take advantage of her.
"What is the matter?" again demanded Nell, as the vocal chords of Charlotte ceased reverberating and her countenance resumed a more normal color and expression.
"A rock flew and the minister's window got broked." Charlotte gave forth this announcement with a diplomacy that might have been admirable exerted in a juster cause.
"Who had the rock?" demanded the mother sternly.
"Jimmy," was the decided answer, given with a threatening glance at the son of the house of Morgan, who quailed in his socks and sandals and began an attempt to screw one of his toes under one of the flagstones of the walk. I knew in an instant that that rock had never left the hand of small James, but the clash of Nell's wits with young Charlotte is so constant that at times the maternal ones are dulled. The accused must have psychically scented my sympathy, for he lifted large, scared, pleading eyes to mine for a brief second and then dropped them again. I went to the rescue.
"Sue, who broke the window?" I asked, as I extricated the four-year-old witness from Harriet's chiffon and violets. I doubted if young Susan had attained the years of prevarication as yet. I was right.
"Tarlie," was the positive answer. "Boom—book—crk!" was the graphic description of the crash she added as she squirmed back among the violets and the needles and the thread.
"Charlotte!" exclaimed Nell, in real despair.
"Jimmy did have the rock in his pocket, and he just lent it to me to throw at a bird right above the window. It was a nice round one, and he brought it from home to see if he could kill anything. It most killed the minister, and the rock is a little bluggy. Isn't it, Jimmy? He's got it in his pocket for keeps."
"Yes," answered young James, with the brevity with which he usually made responses to the loquacity of his sister.
"Do you mean that you hit Mr. Goodloe, as well as broke the window?" demanded Nell in still more horror, as she came down two of the front steps.
"He didn't mind," answered Charlotte. "He liked it, because he made us both learn a verse of a hymn to sing for punish, and Sue can sing it, too. Come on, Sue!" and before any of us could recover from our horror at the violence the young parson had suffered at the hands of the marauders, Charlotte had lined the other two up on either hand and begun her exhibition of the benefit arising from the throwing of the rock. It was a very good example of the good that may result from evil, which is one of the puzzling reverses of one of the Christian tenets.
"'Work, for the night is coming, Work through the morning hours, Work while the dew is sparkling, Work 'mid springing flowers,'"
trilled Charlotte in a high, buzzy young voice, while Jimmy piped in a few notes lower. Baby Sue's little, clear jumble of words in perfect tune was so bewitchingly sweet that Harriet again engulfed her, while the outraged mother, not so easily beguiled, sailed down the steps and around through the garden toward the chapel, driving the two older offenders before her to the scene of the crime.
"Who is going to help Nell train up liars and murderers into good citizens?" I asked myself in my depths, as I joined with the others in the admiring laugh at young Charlotte's dramatic powers.
"Mr. Goodloe is the most wonderful thing I ever saw with kiddies," said Jessie Litton, as she rose to her feet to begin leave-taking. "Yes, I must go, for father expects me to luncheon," she added, at my remonstrance.
"I'm going to kidnap Sue while I can, and I may never bring her back. I must fly!" said Harriet, and she departed hastily to the small roadster she had parked beside the gate. "Come on, Letitia, and let me take you home," she called over her shoulder, and Letitia followed to secure the short spin around the corner to the old Cockrell home, which was set back from the street behind a tall hedge of waxy-leaved Cherokee roses. Thus almost in the twinkling of an eye I was left alone, which state, however, did not last more than a few seconds, for around the corner of the house from the chapel, from which direction the whole world seemed to be going or coming, arrived Mrs. Elsie Spurlock, beaming the welcome to me that had always found a ready response.
And in another twinkling of eyes, both of mine and hers, I had taken her bundle from her, seated her in the largest rocking chair, and she had untied her bonnet strings, which denoted that she had come for a genuine visit.
"Well, dearie, dearie me, the sight of you is good for tired eyes, Charlotte," she bumbled in her rich, deep old voice. As she spoke she tucked a white wisp of a curl back into place beneath the second water wave that protruded from under the little white widow's ruche in her bonnet and continued to beam at me. "I met Nellie Morgan and her Annarugans hurrying to pray a pardon from Mr. Goodloe for that rock which might have killed him, if thrown an inch to the right, instead of only nicking that yellow head of his, the Lord be praised!"
"What was that same Lord doing when he let the rock fly from Charlotte's hand to within an inch of the Reverend Mr. Goodloe's life, Mother Spurlock?" I asked her, with the old warfare over the same old subject rising at the very first minute of our meeting. I have wondered sometimes in the last few years if the wrestling with me over her faith was not ordained for the purpose of strengthening Mother Spurlock's powers of patient argument. She is the only person in the world to whom I speak from the depths, and the relief of her sweetened and seasoned wisdom is the straw at which I often clutch to save myself.
"I surmise that He guided the hand of that child so that the verse of the hymn, and the chastisement of the rod I hope Nellie will inflict, might work together for her good. All of us must at times let a little blood for another's good—heart's blood, very often, not just that from our scalps or shins." And as she answered me without a moment's hesitation she enveloped me in loving question. "Are you always going to occupy the anxious seat in front of the Lord, child? Still, sit as long as you like and go on questioning Him. You'll find the answer."
"The whole town seems to have gone into your fold and left me on the 'anxious seat' alone," I answered, as I drew my chair nearer to her and took her lined, strong old hand in mine.
"That Billy Harvey passes the collection plate up the aisle on Sunday and plays poker all Saturday night till Sunday morning down at the Last Chance, in a room in front of the one in which poor Pat Burns, who carries a hod for his money, loses his all. Mary Burns sews all day and half the night to feed him and the children, but she puts her pittance into Billy's plate every Sunday, and I know that she gets the strength to go on from day to day from the words that come from the same pulpit he sets the plate behind. That is, we call the table out at your Country Club a pulpit, until we get our own in the chapel from which to praise the Lord. So you see that there are some sheep who have a taint of goat hair in their wool still left—I won't say with you—out in the world. And speaking of that world, have you come back to say good-bye to us?"
"I don't know yet, Mother Spurlock," I answered her candidly. "I ran away from that world, but it is coming after me on Friday."
"You'll be sent into the vineyard where you are most needed, and there you'll serve," she said, with a far-away look coming into her eyes as she let her glances roam out to the dim hills of Paradise Ridge. A flood of love and reverence rose in my heart for her as I sat quiet and let her spirit roam. Mother Spurlock had been the gayest young matron in Goodloets, living in the great old Spurlock home with handsome, rollicking young George Spurlock for a husband, and three babies around her knees, and in one short year she had been left with only one large and three tiny graves out in the placid home of the dead, beyond the river bend. The babies had been taken by that relentless child foe, diphtheria, and young George, reckless with grief, had let a half-broken horse break his neck. The young woman, aged by her grief, had sold the great house to the next of kin and moved down into an old brick cottage that sat "beside the road" in a gnarled old apple orchard, and had become the "friend to man." Through the orchard and past the door of the Little House ran the path that led from the Settlement to the Town, and through her heart and hands flowed most of the love and charity that bound the rich and poor, brother to brother. Mother Spurlock was never without a bundle in which she carried labor of the poor sold for the gold of the rich, or gifts from the rich back to the needy. I thought of all the long years of service in the vineyard into which her tragedy had thrown her, and I bent and picked up the bundle at our feet and held it with reverent hands.
"Just a few baby things that Nellie Morgan gave me to fix up a poor little Mother Only in the village," she came back from her reverie to say cheerfully, as she saw me with the bundle in my hand. Mother Spurlock always refers to the children without the sanction of the law for their birth as the Mother Onlies, and somehow, when she speaks it, the name carries a world of tenderness into the heart of the hearer.
"Whose now?" I asked her gently, because in a way Mother Spurlock and I bore one another's burdens of spirit.
"Hattie Garrett's, and it's a week old now. It is one of the saddest things that ever happened in the village, and we none of us understand. You remember, she taught the district school down in the Settlement."
"As none of us understood about Martha Ensley. Is that all a mystery still?" I asked, and I stroked the bundle of tiny garments.
"Yes, and now she's gone nobody knows where, day before yesterday. Jacob, her father, was rough and violent with her, but only from grief, and she forgave all that. I'm troubled sorely, for she is gentle, and not one to fight the world alone. She must have gone to the city, the good Lord help her!"
"He will—He is," I answered quickly, then stopped because I knew I must not tell what I had overheard—should I say in the confessional?
"Praise God! to hear you speak such words. Sometimes a body's faith gets out of her heart past her mind and proclaims itself before the higher criticism gets a chance to throttle it," the invincible old warrior exclaimed with a delighted twinkle in her young blue eyes at having caught me with religious goods on me. "He will, He will take care of us all, not that He doesn't expect us to put in about sixteen hours of the day helping Him to do it for ourselves and others. That reminds me that I seem to be growing to this chair. Luella May Spain has got a nice place to work in the telegraph station with Mr. Pate, and if she's to look neat she needs a few white shirt waists. I could get them in this bundle. If I get too many things from you and Harriet this morning to carry myself, Hampton will take me down the hill in his car when he goes to lunch, not that I wouldn't be frightened to death to ride with him except on the Lord's mission."
"Do you think that fact would keep Hampton from being run down by Harriet when she cuts corners bias, as she insists on doing?" I asked, as I started in the door to procure the toilet necessaries to Luella May's telegraphic career, whether it devastated my supply of tennis clothes or not. Nothing that any woman or any member of her family in Goodloets wears or eats is secure from Mother Spurlock, and we have all submitted to the fact with the greatest docility.
"I know it does; and three shirt waists will be enough if you add a neat black belt," was the answer that followed me through the hall. "Bless my life, Nickols Powers, I was glad to see you at prayer meeting last week, even if you and William Cockrell were just caught up out at your Club in your chess game," I heard her exclaim, to draw a laughing answer in father's most genial rumble. Then I heard him call loudly for Dabney, and when Sallie descended with my bundle, that contained a complete telegraphic outfit for Luella May which showed a decided leaning to tennis style, she met Dabney on the front threshold with a rough parcel from which I saw a shirt sleeve and a blue serge trouser leg protrude.
"Thank you, Nickols. Since his accident, Bill Hanks has thinned out to just about your size. Now he can go back to his job neatly and respectably clad," Mother Spurlock was saying.
"The citizens of Goodloets had better take the habit of wearing a double suit of clothing for fear of having Elsie Spurlock strip them in public to beyond the law," father grumbled in great pleasure, after he had packed her and her bundles in Hampton's car. Father always calls Mother Spurlock "Elsie," and once or twice I have seen a faint blush creep to her cheeks and a glint flash from her eyes, but he blandly goes on doing it. I wonder—
"Father," I said, as we went slowly up the front walk together, "Nickols will be here on Friday; will you have Dabney get his rooms in the north wing ready for him? He likes that light, and he can use the long green room for a studio when he sketches."
"That's good," answered father heartily. He likes Nickols and Nickols manages him beautifully, by giving him all he wants to drink whenever he suggests it, even introducing him to new Manhattan beverages. There is perpetual war between Dabney, who knows father's nervous limit, and Nickols, who doesn't care just as long as things and human beings that surround him are kept pleasant. It is all right for the rest of the world to have delirium tremens, just so they do it out of his sight and hearing.
"I wonder just what Nickols will think of Goodloe," father added, with a slightly strained laugh. "You thought he would be enraged at Goodloe and me for building the chapel and weeding the garden. Perhaps he will be unhappy."
"I don't believe your weeding would make anybody unhappy, father," I answered with a laugh, choosing to ignore the issue of the building of the chapel until Nickols was upon the scene and we could decide just what to do.
"Been over the whole garden twice and eaten several meals in the sweat of my brow—that is, I took a cold shower before coming to the table, my daughter," father said, and he looked ashamed of himself for being proud of his own spurt of normality. I caught my breath, but I was wise enough not to show my astonishment. "Goodloe is the most insinuating person I ever met, and I advise you to be careful. He makes men do just as he wants them to, and I should say that women would eat out of his hand."
"I suppose I ought to eat a bite or two from his fingers to pay for all the work he has got out of you and Dabney. I never saw the garden so beautiful or so early. Look, father, the peonies are budding, two weeks ahead of their usual time!"
"They'd be damned ungrateful not to grow industriously, after the way Dab and I have sprained our old backs spading and feeding them according to spiritual direction that stood over us with a rake," answered father, with proud if profane enthusiasm. There was a faint pink glow in his haggard, thin cheeks, and he took from his pocket a huge knife I had never seen him use before and began carefully to cut away a few dead twigs from a budding rose vine.
"Your mother always put a rose from this vine at my plate for breakfast, and you got yours from that pink bush over there by the sun dial," he said, with a softness in his voice that I had not heard since my tenth summer, in which my mother had died. I tingled all over, but held on to myself.
"You go tell that old black lazybones to come here with his spade this minute. I told him about digging in this mulch yesterday before the dahlias sprouted, and he hasn't done it. I'm not going to do it for him, like I put the fertilizer around the lilacs, just to save him from Goodloe. Tell him to come right here to me, and not to let grass grow in his shoe tracks," and father picked up a hoe from the walk beside the neglected dahlias and began doing the work he had just declared against. I fled around to the kitchen, and something lent wings to my feet.
"Oh, Dab, what does it mean that father is really taking an interest in the garden?" I demanded of the faithful old black friend, whom I found enveloped in a kitchen apron helping his wife bring the dinner to a serving head.
"Praise God, his salvation am commenced, if it don't kill me before he gits it," answered Dab, as he put his hand to his back and groaned.
"They has been jest one-half a demijohn of devil heart whisky ordered up outen that cellar in over a month, and I b'lieve this here no account nigger drunk a pint of that," Mammy added to his answer. "Last month it was two demijohns they had up, and before that it was three or four. That parson done it with readin' and talkin' and hoein'. Glory! I wants to hold my breath and shout at the same time, and I would if I could trust this pullet in the skillet to either you or Dabney whilst I did it. The Lord wouldn't listen to no shoutin' from a cook whose chicken was frying black while she did her praisin'," and as she spoke Mammy began a low humming, swaying from table to stove with a rhythm in the swing of her fat body that had a certain dignified beauty to it. It was crude emotion, and I knew it, but I felt it work in my own body as I let the significance of what she had told me about the lessening amount of whiskey father had been consuming add itself to the scene upon the back porch and sink fully into my consciousness. I don't know what might have happened to my shouting Methodist grandmother's worldly though emotional descendant if father's voice, sharp and clear, with a note of command I had forgotten it possessed, had not interrupted me.
"Charlotte! Dab!" it called; and we both answered with all speed.
"That Parson Goodloe have got the power to draw the teeth of seven devils, and you both consider the words of his mouth or he'll git the teeth outen yourn," Mammy called after us in ambiguous warning.
And upon our arrival on the scene of action being executed upon the dahlias, we found the commander of the devils awaiting us, though in his hands was no forked instrument of dentistry, but in one he held a large slice of rye bread thickly spread with butter, and the other was disarmed by a ripe red apple. As we drew near he finished a direction to father and took a huge bite out of the slab of bread that left a gap as wide as one would expect a Harpeth jaguar to make.
"Harrowing deep makes great growth in all plant life," he was saying past the slice of bread with agricultural prosiness to father, who had completely sweated down the very high and stiff collar which he always wore swathed in a wide tie of black after a Henry Clay cut, in a savage attack with the hoe upon the mulch that was smothering the dahlias in richness.
"Does the same deep digging result hold true in biological and psychic life?" puffed father, and then he leaned on his hoe and looked up at the young man towering over him. In his eyes was the appeal of disappointed age calling to the ideals of flaming strength and youth in the deep-jeweled eyes that answered with a look of passionate tenderness as the parson poised the bread for another bite.
"'Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth,' Mr. Powers, is the direct data we have on that subject," he said. Then he, for the first time, observed the approach of Dabney and myself, of which his widening smile and the quick lowering of the slab of rye pone gave notice to father, who exploded accordingly.
"You black son-of-a-gun! Why didn't you rake off these dahlias as I told you to yesterday? Now you get his hide, Parson!" was the greeting that Dabney received, while I was ignored by all concerned.
"That hinge in your back rusty again, Dabney?" questioned the parson, with leonine mildness.
"I been upsot by my young mistis coming home," answered Dabney, with a quick glance at me as if to indicate me as a substantial excuse for any crimes. I stood convicted, for I do use Dabney continually in all my hospitalities.
"We understand, Dabney," was the answer he got from the feeding Jaguar, who gave me that glint of a laugh that I had learned to expect and to—dread. I knew what he meant to imply, and I also knew that he knew that I understood that he considered me a disturbing element. Then he again raised the half-demolished hunk of bread to his mouth, stopped and regarded the apple in meditative indecision. From head to heels he was clothed in the most exquisite white flannel and buckskin tennis clothes, but for all their civilized worldliness he resembled nothing so much as a feeding king of the forest in the poise of his wonderful head and equally wonderful body. I glanced quickly at his face with its gentle, deep, comprehending lines, in positive fear of him, and I found reassurance in the smile that curled his strong red mouth and glinted at me from his brilliant eyes under dull gold. Then, after the smile, he decided for the apple rather than further conversation, and was just going to set his white teeth in its rosy cheek when I stopped him with an almost involuntary exclamation.
"Don't!" I pleaded. "Dinner is just ready, and you'll spoil it if you eat all that bread and butter and apple." Just exactly a week before, at almost that exact hour, the Reverend Gregory Goodloe had refused the cup of tea I had stood holding for him in my hand for five minutes on the front porch of the Poplars, and I had taken a resolve that never would he again receive a food invitation from me. I didn't count Mammy's "snack" eaten on the Harpeth adventure. I didn't understand myself and my sudden rush of dismay at the idea of a spoiled dinner for him, but I couldn't stop myself as I added:
"Mammy has apple dumplings and hard sauce; please don't—I mean please do come in to dinner with us."
"Thank you, but as you see I've about dined," he answered me, as with a laugh he held out his fragments. "Jefferson was feeling badly and I sent him to bed instead of the parsonage kitchen." Mammy had told me that the Reverend Mr. Goodloe had taken hers and Dabney's cherished and perfectly worthless only son as his sole domestic dependence, and Mammy had added the fact that Jeff had "shot nary crap since the parson rescued him from the jaw of the jail."
"Huh," ejaculated Dabney over the hoe he had taken from father and was using at his direction while father lined the border beside the bed with his sharp spade. I knew the contempt in his voice was for the illness of Jefferson, and the Reverend Mr. Goodloe and I both laughed as he took the last bite of the brown slab and then held out the unbitten side of the apple to me.
"You eat your fruit with me, not in dumplings with hard sauce," he said, and there was a wooing note in his voice as if he pleaded for that friendliness from me to heal a hurt.
"No, I won't eat out of your hand," I answered, with a cool emphasis on the "I." And I looked him straight in the eyes, for I wanted him to know that I had thoroughly understood his refusal of my invitation couched so gently, but which I considered in reality haughty and resentful, especially as I had been his guest in his car. "We'll wait until you get your shower, father, and not much longer," I said to father, as I turned and went along the flagstones to the steps that led to the balcony upon which opened the long windows of the dining room. I was furious and I was hurt.
At times I become acutely conscious that I am very imperious, but it is not entirely my fault. My friends have depended upon my clear head, in which father's brain seems to work with a kind of feminine vigor, and I have always felt that the superior force with which I have loved and cherished them made it all right. I've always stood by them and used myself mercilessly for their exigencies, and I suppose I have ruled them as mercilessly. I rarely encounter another will, and to clash into one as strong as mine drew the sparks of my nature. The blaze was soon over, but I—smouldered.
During dinner I was deeply interested in father's plans for my garden, which brilliantly carried the plans Nickols and I had made to what I saw in another year would be a marvelously artistic completeness. But under the joy of hearing him talk as I had never really heard him since I was old enough to appreciate his scintillating delicious choice of words and phrases, I was hot and sore at the thought of my duty to render gratitude where gratitude was due for having him like that.
"It will be perfectly wonderful, father, and Nickols had not worked it out to anything like that completeness. He will be wild about it, but won't it take a lot of money? And where did you get your inspiration?" I asked the question, though I hated the answer I knew it must receive.
"The plans are entirely my own," answered father, with a pleased flush making even brighter his dulled eyes and cheeks, faintly glowing from the shower at which Dabney had officiated a few minutes before. I had not failed to notice that we had sat down and were halfway through dinner and father's hand had not motioned Dabney towards the decanter and ice and siphon on the sideboard. "I must confess that the inspiration came from a kind of rage when Goodloe said to me how much it was to be regretted that all the great gardens in the North are being made out of a sort of patchwork of English, French, Italian and even Japanese influences. You couldn't expect anything more of the inhabitants of the part of the country in the veins of whose people flow just about that mixture of blood, but in the Harpeth Valley we have been Americans for two and a half centuries, and I'll show 'em an American garden if it does unhinge both mine and Dabney's backs and make Cockrell swear I'm crazy when he audits my accounts once every month. No, Madam, your own grandmother and great-grandmother, in conjunction with Goodloe's maternal ancestors, conceived and laid out the beginning of the great American garden, and we will combine to produce it."
"What about Nickols' plans?" I asked, trying hard to raise indignation in my heart and voice at the thought of Nickols Morris Powers' work, for which the people of wealth in the North were beginning fairly to clamor, being criticized and laid aside at the inspiration of the Methodist parson across the lilac hedge. And I succeeded better than I expected, for I saw father lose color and tremble with his own rage, which he always quells with drink.
"That sunken garden is Italian, and I'm going to tear it out and put—Oh, my daughter; forgive me, but I forgot, in this queer nature frenzy that has come over me of late and which I do not at all understand, that the garden is yours, was your mother's and grandmother's. So far the plans have just been begun, and nothing that you and Nickols have done—Dabney, pour me three fingers of the 1875 Bourbon." And in a second I saw father grow white and shaking with mortification at what he felt to be an unmannerly trespass upon another's rights. My father has been a drunkard for nearly twenty years, but he is still a great gentleman. Slowly he drank the whiskey, every drop of which seemed to go to my heart like cold lead.
"But, father!" I exclaimed, determined to win him back. Dabney was putting the silver stopper in the decanter over by the sideboard, and I thought I saw a sob shake his bent old shoulders as his black hands trembled. "I'd like to know if I'm not as purely American as you are, and have I not the same right to want, demand and work for an American nationalism, even in a garden, as you have? I'll have you know, sir, that the future of the nation is in the hands of the women. We can produce pure Americans or let the whole country go hybrid." And as I spoke I let my temper rise to a point which I hoped would shock father and take his mind from the decanter and the ice. "I demand that you allow me to carry out your plans for my garden, and that you help me do it to the limit of the hinges in your back and Dabney's. And, Dabney, don't let me hear another word about that hinge until those dahlias are in bloom. Also get me a half dozen bottles of dynamite to blow out that Italian garden. I never did like it."
"Yes'm," answered Dabney, meekly but comprehendingly, for he hastily flung a napkin over the ice and gently set the decanter back in its rack. "But dynamite, it comes in sticks and not in bottles. And it would shake the roots of them old poplars clean most down to hell."
"How'll we get that sunken garden out, then, father?" I asked, and I saw the life and color come back to his face in a flood of humor.
"We might try filling it in," he answered, and then we both laughed at ourselves, with Dabney joining in.
THE TRISTAN LOVE SONG
After dinner father and I sat out on the porch in the soft, warm breeze that waved a misty spring moonlight around us, and talked garden until after ten o'clock. He was brilliant and delightful, but three times he made trips to ice bowl and decanter on the sideboard.
"It will be a great relief and happiness to me if Nickols does sanction and set the seal of artistic approval upon our plans," he said, with feverish but happy eyes. "You see, Nickols will represent the cosmopolitan in judgment upon the normally developed insular. I remember once that Mr. Justice Harlan said that in an opinion on freight rates I had sent up to him I had represented both the cosmopolitan and the insular interest with astonishing equity, and I told him that I considered that it took at least six generations of insular mind culture to see any kind of national equity. The same thing holds good with a garden. It takes the sixth generation on a piece of land to produce a garden, and then it has to be laid out around a library full of the ideals of poet and scholar. In about three years I can, with your permission, present the American nation with a garden that will represent the best ideals of Americans; and I must go to bed if I expect to get up and hunt the early worm. I can never decide which is the harder work, the capture of that creature of tradition or the arousing of Dabney to perform that task. You, Dabney."
"Yes, sir," came a sleepy groan from just within the door, and in a second the old black face was lit up with father's candle until the white wool above shone like a halo as it appeared from out the gloom. And I sat and watched the two old gentlemen, one black and one white, toil slowly up the steps and down the wide hall of the Poplars.
"Father must come back; the nation needs him," I said fiercely under my breath as I noticed that in Dabney's hand swung the ice bucket where I had been accustomed to see it swing for years, but which I had not seen him carry before since I came home. "And that's how you help him fight to come back," I arraigned myself with bitter scorn. "You have no faith nor spiritual sources yourself, and you throw him back into degradation when something is helping him crawl out. What's helping him? No matter what it is, you are a coward to obstruct it."
And for a long hour I sat thus raging at myself and questioning hopelessly, while the young moon rose higher and higher over the tops of the silvery poplars and young spring slipped about in the lights and shadows, invisible except for perfumed wreathings of gossamer mist. Above, I heard father pacing up and down his rooms, slowly, almost feebly. Sometimes he would hesitate; then I would hear him stop beside the window, where I knew the ice bowl and the decanter were placed upon a table which had stood beside the head of his bed so burdened since my early childhood. I had always dreaded his moroseness and instinctively felt the cause of it. I had never really loved him until just the last few days, and now I felt my love rise in a tide that threatened to overwhelm me.
"Oh, I found him, and now I've thrown him away," I sobbed to myself. Then, as I sat listening, I heard the faltering steps come out into the hall above, descend the steps one by one, go through the dark dining room groping pitifully, and down the side steps out into the beloved garden. Silently I watched the tall figure with the white hair silvered radiantly by the moonlight go slowly down the path, past the old graybeard poplars, and even up to the lilac hedge that ran as a bulwark in front of the dark chapel door, which I could see was ajar as it always is.
"He's going for help," I muttered to myself, and I felt the padding of fear pursuing me, while also something of the Methodist grandmother within me began a queer calling and a tightening at my throat.
Then something happened that interested me so that I lost all personal anxiety. Father stopped beside the hedge and picked up something from the grass. I saw it was a long, heavy hoe. Walking over to a long bed of early roses he and Dabney had been fertilizing in the late afternoon, he bent feebly and began to dig the food into their roots. As he swung the long handle, each blow upon the soft earth became more decided. I crept down behind the old snowball bush to be nearer him; I didn't dare go to him in his fight, because I had in my selfish heedlessness brought it all on, but in a little while he was not alone, for a bent old figure with grizzled white wool sticking out from under a red flannel nightcap came quietly along the path with a hoe in his hand, fell in directly behind his master, and began a rhythmic blow-answering-blow contest with the fragrant earth and the demon within the man. For at least an hour the two old friends worked up and down the long bed, until I could see father begin to totter with weakness.
"Now, come on, Mas' Nick, honey, and go to bed. I'll pour a bucket of cistern water over you and rub you down so as you'll sleep like a bug in a rug," the staunch old comrade crooned, with a mother note in his voice, as he took father's heavy hoe and shouldered it with his.
"I think evening exercise is good for me, Dabney," answered father with all the dignity and command come back into his voice. "Put both those hoes in the tool house this time, and I'll not tell Mr. Goodloe you left one down by the lilac hedge."
"Yes, sir, thanky, sir, fer not telling him," answered Dabney, as he followed his master to the tool house under the back steps, deposited the garden implements where he was directed, and then again followed his idol in through the long dining room window and was lost in the shadow.
I went back to the front steps, again sank down, put my arms on my knees, and let my head fall upon my clasped hands. As I sat there alone, with the dark house yawning behind me in its emptiness, someone sat down beside me and laid a warm, strong hand on my interlaced and strained fingers for just about half a second.
"Please forgive me about the apple dumplings and the hard sauce," a merry, very lovely voice pleaded.
"I went out to Old Harpeth with you when you asked me; but I loathe going to church—I haven't been in one since I was strong enough to rebel—and I'm not going to yours," was the apology I graciously offered in return for that about the apple dumplings. "But I'd pay fifty dollars for a tenth row seat to hear you sing Tristan in the Metropolitan any day if I had to go hungry for a week to pay for it," I added, as I laughed as softly as he had pleaded. All the sorrow and strain of the last hours had vanished at the touch of his hand, and I felt like an impish, teasing child.
"I'll sing some of it for you now, if you'll give fifty cents to Mother Spurlock for the Children's Day Picnic. And it'll be a bargain you are getting," was the unexpected offer I encountered.
"And a freezer of vanilla ice cream to boot," I assented, generously.
And then something happened to me the like of which I know never happened to anybody in all the world, and that could happen only the once to me. Gregory Goodloe drew a little closer to me and bent his great gold head until his face was just off my left shoulder, and in his powerful, rich, fascinating voice, which he muted down in a way that made it sound as if he were singing through a golden cloud, he sang Tristan's immortal love agony in a way that shut out all the rest of the universe and left me alone with him in a space swayed by his pleading until my mortal body shook in actual pain.
"Don't! I can't stand it!" I gasped, as I seized his wrist in my strong hands and wrung it. "Stop!"
The last tender note breathed itself into the air that seemed to hold it in a long caress until it died away, and sobs shook me as I held on desperately to his wrist. I felt that I must be comforted. And I was! Again the gentle fingers were laid over mine for a still smaller fraction of a second, and then again the beautiful, clear voice began to sing to me, just to me, out of the whole world.
"'Abide with me, fast falls the even tide,'" he chanted, and then waited while my sobs died away and I let go my drowning grasp on his wrist.
"That's just what I mean. That's just why I wouldn't have any more respect for myself if I should go to your church than if I joined in one of Mammy's foot-washings down at the river and fell in a fit of shouting in which it took two burly coons to 'hold my spirit down,' as she describes those gymnastics to me. I hate you and I hate my friends for indulging in religion, because it is just as 'potent an agent of intoxication' as exists to-day, and it blinds us to the need of work along scientific lines for the immediate improvement of the race. What right have we to intoxicate reason with religion? If religion is anything it must be reason." I fairly hurled my words of half-baked skepticism at him, with the vision of father and Dabney digging in the garden, still in my eyes.
"I felt just as you do about it a year ago to-day," he answered me quietly. "As you state the case of religion as emotion versus reason, it doesn't exist. Religion is reason plus emotion, and when you combine the two the eyes of your soul are open, whereas they had been closed. Nobody can tell you about it, but you begin really to live when you see and comprehend. Yes, it is going to take all the scientific reason the world possesses to start its salvation, but it will not get far without 'emotion,' as you call what I know is love of God, and, through that love, compassion for man."
"The assumption that every man is blind who does not believe as you do, stops all argument," I said scornfully.
"I didn't come to talk religion with you; I came over to get that apple dumpling off my conscience, as I couldn't digest it because it wasn't there. I preach twice, on Sunday and on Wednesday night, and I'm in my study behind the altar every afternoon that I'm not playing tennis. I'll be there any time by appointment." The worldly and protective raillery in that young Methodist minister's voice almost interrupted my religious researches, but I was in depths that were strange to me, and I was floundering for a line out.
"I'll never be there," I flared at him, then went on with my floundering. "If a man is blind, how can he gain the sight that you arrogate to yourself?"
"A great man once prayed, 'Lord, help thou my unbelief,'" was the gentle answer in which was that queer note of apostolic surety with which I heard him address the woman in the garden that night.
"I can't pray—there's nothing there," I said in a very small voice that I could scarcely recognize as my own. "Oh, I mean that we are all floundering, and where can we get the lifeline? Where did you get the line that you think will pull you out of the vortex?"
Then for a long moment he and I sat again involved in the emptiness of the universe that Tristan's love song had opened for us, and I knew that with ruthless feet I had entered his Holy of Holies and was being allowed to stand across the threshold.
"Forgive me," I gasped.
"I never felt that I could tell it before," he said, slowly, and the bounds of the emptiness retreated still further away as he turned so that he sat facing me and again bent his dull gold head closer to mine. In a second I knew why in my mind I had been calling him a Harpeth jaguar. It was just my pictorial expression for the word freedom, the freedom that comes from power. I knew that mentally and bodily I was looking upon the first free man I had ever encountered, and I was abashed.
"Don't tell me," I said, with a gentleness in my voice I had never heard before, and that came from something that I felt to be strangely like meekness, though I had never before met that emotion in myself.
"You know the romance of my father's life," the soft voice went on, speaking as if I had not interrupted him, "but nobody knows the tragedy. Love for my mother came upon him like an arrow shot out of ambush, and he married into a worldly, pleasure-loving, agnostic circle of people who all adored and flattered him until he—he became confused and doubting. He had transgressed the law: 'yoke not yourselves with unbelievers,' and he suffered. She never understood. It killed him, and when he had been dead nearly twenty years I found the diary he kept the months before he died. It was last year, just after her death. It was a cry to me, who at that time was a mere babe, and it—it lighted the flame he had almost let go out. As I read, the apostolic call came to me and I answered. I was starting to the front in France, and I went on. My year there was a series of experiences that gave me my surety. One day it came more clearly than ever. I had gone out into one of the trenches of the first line, because I am so strong that I can carry any man back to the stretchers across my back or in my arms. I have carried two at a time. There were nineteen men in the trench, and I made the twentieth. Suddenly a machine gun found the range and mowed them all down like cornstalks or wheat heads. Only I was left standing, bleeding under my left ribs. I raised my voice and praised God for my surety of immortality, and then fell. While I was practically dying in the hospital with a clip in my lung I got suddenly and unaccountably well and strong, and felt I must come back to try and help others to see what we must see to assure every man of his immortality. When the race awakens to that fact there will be no more use for machine guns. I may not help much, but I can only try. Perhaps I do only work through the emotions as yet, but I believe that my ministry will have its fruits. I can wait." And the humility and patience in his voice beat against my heart and bruised it so that I cried out.
"Oh, why did you come here?" I positively moaned, as he and I both rose and I put out my hand as if to force him out of that aloneness in which we stood together.
"America must lead the world in spiritual as well as material regeneration, and this is the only real and dispassionate America, with no foreign pull on its vitals. You must wake up; the cry has been heard to 'Come over and help.' Why do you fight the—"
"I can't help fighting. I must do what I conscientiously believe—" I was saying with my hand still outstretched against him, when suddenly the still place around us was invaded with a crash and its invisible walls thrown down.
"Charlotte!" came in Nickols' languid, fascinating voice that always draws me to the edge of his world. "And Greg Goodloe, by all that is good and holy—in tennis flannels!"
BREASTING THE GALE
In the radiant moonlight I saw the lithe muscles of the Jaguar grow taut and stiff, and I felt rather than saw his long, strong hands clench themselves. I was about to stretch out my arms and ward off something that seemed like danger to Nickols, standing down at the bottom of the steps, smiling up at us in the moonlight with his mocking, fascinating smile, when suddenly the anger seemed to flow away from the body of the parson and he smiled down into the upturned eyes with great gentleness as we started down the steps together.
"I didn't interrupt the salvation of Charlotte's soul, did I?" Nickols asked, as he took my outstretched hand in his left hand and raised it to his lips as he held out his right to the Reverend Mr. Goodloe. So real had been that fraction of an instant when I had stood between the two men that I almost felt the sensation of alarm a second time as I saw Nickols' slender, magical, artist's fingers laid in the slim, powerful hand of the Reverend Mr. Goodloe, but the gentle voice reassured me as the Harpeth Jaguar answered the intruder, or what he must have felt to be the intruder, for I had something of that feeling myself at the advent of my lover at the moment he had chosen for his arrival.
"The trouble began about apple dumplings and hard sauce," I said, as quickly as my wits would act.
"How are you, Nickols Powers, since we separated 'somewhere in France,' you with your sketch books and I with my hospital stretchers? I got a dandy lung clip; did you bring away any lead?" And the parson's voice was gentle and cordial and full of a laughing reminiscence.
"Didn't smell powder after I left you," answered Nickols, as we all ascended the steps and stood in a group before the door. "I got my books full of sketches of bits of treasures that the war might destroy, and beat it back to civilization. Did the Madonna of the Red Cross you had in tow come across as sentimentally as was threatened?" Nickols' voice was as cordial as the Reverend Goodloe's, but something in me made me resent the question and the manner it was asked.
"She was killed in a field hospital just a few weeks after we left her—'somewhere in France.' She got God's welcome!" was the answer that came to the laughing question in a quiet, reverent voice. And as he spoke the parson started down the steps, then turned for his farewell.
"That—or sweet oblivion," said Nickols, as he came to the edge of the steps and looked down at the Harpeth Jaguar coolly. I again got the sense of danger from the tall, lithe figure that stood in the moonlight, radiant before us in the shadow. "We'll contest that point warmly while we contest the meeting house Charlotte writes me that you planted in our garden—of Eden."
"I can contest—if I must," was the serene answer that came back at us from over the white silk-clad shoulder. "Good night, both of you, and I hope to see you both again soon. Smell the lilacs bursting bud in your garden—of Eden!" With which farewell he left us to our greetings.
"That's some man to be lost in the ranks of the shibboleths," said Nickols with generous ease, as we watched the last glint of the moon on the yellow head disappearing around the corner. "Degrees from three old colleges, millions, women lovers in millions, all thrown away to sing psalms for a few rustics in little old Goodloets. Can you beat it? But, blast him, he can't take away my loving welcome with his fatal beauty," and as he spoke, with a tender laugh Nickols held out his arms to me. I went into them and he held me close.
"I couldn't stay away—with Goodloe and the meeting house in the ring against me," he whispered, and he tried to raise my head for the kiss I had been holding from him all the long winter of our engagement, claiming to want it only under the roof of the Poplars. I burrowed my face in his shoulder and held to him with such fervor that it was impossible for him to raise my head.
"Not yet," was my muffled pleading.
"Again, damn that huge blond giant for being in the way of my getting my own on the first-sight wave," said Nickols with a good-humored laugh, as he pushed me from him. "Take your time. I like ripe fruit—and kisses. Did you say Goodloe had come over to steal apple dumplings and you had caught him in the act? I never was so hungry before and one of Mrs. Dabney's apple dumplings with that hard sugar stuff smothered with cream—well, of course I could wait until breakfast, but I'd be mighty weak. Your night train carries no dining car."
"I feel sure that there is at least a half panful in the pantry; let's go see," I answered with delight at the practical turn the scene had taken, and I led him into the dark house, turned on one or two lights and went with him back into the culinary department of the Poplars.
And as I had predicted so we found the larder supplied. With a huge plate of the pastry encrusted apples, smothered with all the cream from one of Mammy's pans of milk, and a tall bottle from the sideboard, Nickols led the way out of the long windows onto the south balcony over which the moon, now high in the heavens, poured the radiance of a new-toned daylight. I followed him with some glasses and sugar and a bowl of cracked ice that I had found in its usual place in the corner of the refrigerator.
"Pretty good substitute for the affectionate sweet I thought of all the way down from New York," said Nickols with an adorable laugh, as he lifted the first spoonful, dripping with cream, to his mouth. Then with the food almost bestowed he paused and looked out beyond the garden toward the chapel, which loomed up gray and shimmering in the silver light.
"Great heavens!" he ejaculated, and for a long minute the spoon was poised while his eyes fairly devoured the scene spread out before him against the background of Paradise Ridge.
"If you don't like it we can get rid of it," I said, as I poured his drink over the ice tinkling against the side of the glass.
"Not like it!" exclaimed Nickols, as he rose with the spoonful of dumplings dashed back into the plate. "That is the most wonderful and beautiful landscape effect I have ever beheld. That is just what our garden needed. I suppose I would have seen it and put some sort of a pavilion there, but that squat and perfect old church would have been beyond me."
"Oh, I'm glad!" I exclaimed, as he sank back on the step beside me, took the glass from my hand, drank deeply and this time began a determined attack upon the plate in his hand. And then as he ate I told him all about father and his plans for the garden and his own improvement and to what I hoped the work was leading him. But somehow I couldn't bring myself to describe the scene which had that night been enacted in the garden—I couldn't. "Oh, I am so glad you are not furious and will maybe be willing to encourage him, even if it does mean to encourage the Methodist Church and the minister thereof. You are wonderful, Nickols," I finished with a squeeze of his arm that very nearly jostled the cream out of the spoon upon his gray tweed trousers.
"I'd be a wonderful ass not to take advantage of Judge Nickols Powers' brain and money, plus Gregory Goodloe's brain and training and money combined, to get a result that will be worth a hundred thousand dollars to me and all the fame I can conveniently wear. Encourage 'em? Just watch me! Only what the judge thinks will take two years can be done in one season if we get experts down to do it, which we will. Trees two hundred years old can be moved for a few thousand dollars, as well as plants in bloom that would require years to transplant. I know the man to do it: Wilkerson of White Plains. I'll telegraph him in the morning."
"He won't interfere with—with father, will he?" I asked anxiously.
"Not a bit—he'll just make what the judge and Gregory plan for year after next, grow and bloom there in a couple of months. Wilkerson is not a creator, he's just nature keyed up to the nth power. And also I'll give him for a bait the Jeffries estate I was hesitating about making a bid for. All the big fellows are after it. Old man Jeffries has made two barrels of money in the last ten years in oil and he is going to build an estate up on the Hudson that will make the world gasp. I hadn't put in a bid, but this idea of the judge's and Greg's, with the whole village grouped about it, has given me the keynote to win the thing from the whole bunch of American architects. He wants the village built as well as the estate. That American garden idea will bowl him over. He's progressively and rabidly American. The bids don't close until December, so I'll have time to get real photographs and sketches. Me for the reformed judge and the parson!"
"This is the most wonderful thing I ever heard and I want father pushed to the limit with the planning. I don't care where the parson comes in, just so I don't have to join the church to get the garden," I said, as I tinkled the ice in Nickols' empty glass, while he consumed the last bit of cream from the empty plate.
"Oh, I'll join the church if it is needed to push the garden," said Nickols with a laugh, as he lit a cigarette and puffed a smoke ring out toward the gray little chapel. "Most people who join churches do it for some kind of pull, social or business, or a respectability stamp or to be white-washed. I'll put on a frock coat and pass the plate if it will help the parson evolve another phase of gardenism."
"Billy gets home from his poker game at the Last Chance, down in the Settlement, on Sunday morning, just in time to bathe and get into his frock coat to perform that office," I said with a laugh that had a hint of recklessness tinged with contempt.
"I'll see Billy through both ceremonials," said Nickols. "Has Billy come into the fold?"
"He has! So have all the rest," I answered. "I am the only black sheep and they are all backsliding down on me. I am getting, and will get, the blame of it all as a corrupter of public morals."
"Why don't you join and then do as you please with the official stamp of Christianity upon you?" Nickols asked, as he puffed comfortably away in the moonlight.
One of the things that cause me the deepest hurt is to try to get Nickols to look down into my depths and read one, just any one, of the hieroglyphics there. I know each time I open my nature to him he is going to turn aside, and yet I will try. As his arm stole around me I made another one of the attempts that I always know beforehand are doomed to failure.
"There is something in me, a quality of mind that seems to be judicial, which insists that as a cold scheme for existence in this universe nothing compares with that of life followed by eternal redemption through personal effort interpreted by a mediator. The bare Christian tenets have a nobility that it kills me to see belittled by the bored, half-hearted observances of most of its protestants, who in turn are not to be blamed for being half-hearted and bored by the dogmas and restrictions and littleness with which the great bare scheme has been enmeshed and clothed. The Methodist Church positively forbids Billy to play poker or drink, but it just as positively forbids him to see Pavlowa dance or Beerbohm Tree play Falstaff or Forbes Robertson incarnate Hamlet. And look at its wretched machinery—they allow a young man to give his life and expect inspiration from him at six hundred dollars a year with a wife and two dozen children, which he has been encouraged to bring down upon himself, dependent on that same six hundred dollars. The great men who are expected to direct our spiritual destinies don't get as much money as many ordinary grocers and certainly not enough to support their obligations with dignity. What is true of the Methodist Church is true of all the rest, in perhaps a greater degree. So with their smallness and their pettiness and their befogging stupidity I feel that they may be denying thinkers like you and me the use of their scheme and we'll have to find another for ourselves if we want immortality."
"Do we want that immortality?" asked Nickols easily. "This world is a pretty good old place if you don't regard the 'shalt nots,' but isn't it long enough to live the allotted time? What do we want to do it all over again for, that is, provided we do all the pleasant things while we have the chance? I don't want to see any play twice, even a masterpiece. I wouldn't want to live again unless I had been a Christian in this life and felt that I wanted to come back and do a lot of the things I had just heard about and previously hadn't tried."
"Certainly I wouldn't want another life that is as unsatisfied as this," I murmured, more to myself than to Nickols.
"Do the things that satisfy," he urged again, and I could see a deviltry dancing at me out of the corner of his eyes that I resented deeply without exactly knowing why.
"Harriet Henderson can't get Mark Morgan's love or—his children, and Nell Morgan is unattainable for Billy. Though they have all the world's goods and go a pace that pleases them, they are unsatisfied. If they don't get the new deal that immortality promises they lose the whole thing," I answered straight out from the shoulder. "And what about those who die in infancy and—and you and me?"
"If you'll just kiss me and hush preaching to me I'll be entirely satisfied and ready to die as soon as I have lifted that fifty thousand out of old Jeffries with the judge's and the Reverend Gregory's garden and done a few more commissions. Try kissing me and see if you don't feel more cheerful," Nickols answered with a laugh, as he drew me close to him. I sadly shut up the doors of my depths, warded off the kiss—why, I didn't know—and persuaded him to go up to his rooms which I had seen Sallie and Dabney put in order that afternoon.
It was midnight when I parted with Nickols at the head of the old winding stairs in the fragrant darkness, lit only by the silver light of the night from a long window at the front of the hall. He held me close for a half second as he whispered:
"Let me make you happy. I understand."
"I don't understand, and until I do I'd make you miserable, dear," I whispered back as I drew myself out of his reluctant arms and went into my own door.
Then for a long midnight hour I stood at my deep window and looked out over the garden, past the squat steeple silvering beyond the lilac hedge, to Paradise Ridge in the dim distance, and tried to read my own hieroglyphics. I needed help. Nickols had come after me to Goodloets in a spirit of gentle determination and I knew the fight would be to the finish. And why should I fight? Any woman ought to be proud to marry Nickols Morris Powers, especially a woman who had loved him since her heart had been developed to the knowledge of love. Very unostentatiously and with perfect good taste Nickols had let me see that Marie VanClive with her Knickerbocker ancestry and her Manhattan land-grants fortune was very decidedly interested in him in her cultured and perfected young way, and young Mrs. Houston had herself shown me the same thing on one of the week-end flights we had had on her yacht. And beyond all that my own heart told me that Nickols was desirable. His gentleness and his tenderness and his daring and his humor were irresistible to a woman. And his lazy acquiescence in life was peaceful and inviting to my own strenuosity. I felt as if I had always been an eagle breasting the gale with no place to alight, and now Nickols was calling to me from an eyrie on a mountain side to come and rest and be mated and comforted.
"I'm tired of loneliness and I think I'll drift and be happy," I murmured, as I fell asleep with my back to the silver steeple against the dim hills.
The next morning I awoke with the same resolve in my heart, to be happy if wicked, and proceeded to execute it with a great vigor. And in the execution of that resolve dear old Goodloets almost had some of the moss of its century's repose scraped off of its back.
First and foremost, we all danced, day and night. We had really begun the giddy whirl the summer before when we had built the little clubhouse over in the oak grove by the river's edge, just between the Town and the Settlement, so that we would no longer feel the limit and limitations to our gliding of anybody's double parlors, and conservative Goodloets had been duly shocked thereat.
"Ladies did not dance outside of their own and their friends' private homes in my day," Mrs. Cockrell had sighed, as she finished the petal of the rose she was embroidering upon some of Letitia's lingerie.
"I'd rather they danced in their den of iniquity than to execute these modern gyrations in my home," had responded Harriet's mother, Mrs. Sproul, as she finished the hundredth round on the shawl she was knitting. Harriet's report of the conversation had been received with great hilarity that evening at dinner at the Club.
But Goodloets had had a year in which to recover from the shock of the institution of the Country Club when I started in to enjoy myself. Having church services there on Sundays and Wednesdays during the winter had done much to remove the prejudice in the minds of the conservative. I suspected the Reverend Mr. Goodloe of a great deal of worldly wisdom when I saw how he had been able to persuade the directors, Hampton Dibrell and Mark and Cliff, to let him do such a weird thing. Mrs. Sproul and Mrs. Cockrell and their friends had first been tolled out to prayer meeting and then had come to witness a tennis match. Billy, in great glee, recounted to me the first time they had stayed to dinner with him and father and Mr. Cockrell. They had been enjoying the prayer meetings to the utmost and had come out with Mother Spurlock by mistake on a Tuesday night, which was the regular dinner dance night. It was some time before they discovered their mistake, for they were immensely enjoying their visit with Mother Spurlock, and when the dancing began Billy had seized Mother Elsie in his arms and danced her the whole length of the room. The music had been too much for her feet in their sensible shoes, and very suddenly they had unfolded their wings after thirty long years of rest and had fairly flown up and down and backwards and forwards with Billy's in a sedate version of one of the phases of the tango. Mrs. George Spurlock had been the best dancer in Goodloets when time was young.
"Do you think that it was the devil that tempted you, Mother Elsie?" I asked her about it one day when she had a leisure moment for teasing.
"Effie Burns' youngest baby was born exactly while I was dancing, and we will have six months' trouble with her because her band was not put on properly," was her answer, as she took up her parcel of five pairs of only slightly worn stockings that five girls in the Settlement needed worse than I needed darns, and departed in a great hurry. "Oh, but you should have seen Hattie Sproul's eyes while I danced," she called back over her shoulder as she went through the gate.
And so in the second summer of the Club's existence there had been no bridle upon its gayeties—I had almost used the word license, and I suppose it would have been a just one under the circumstances. Billy called it "The Bucket of the Lost Lid," and every individual member did exactly as he or she chose. The sideboard out on the back porch made as good a bar as any in the state with old Uncle Wilks to officiate, and in the wing in one of the private dining rooms a huge wheel stood with its face to the wall during the day, but came complacently out of its corner when night descended. On the porch could always be found either Mrs. James Knight or Mrs. Buford Cunningham. They neither of them had children, hated home and were serenely happy sitting on the front porch knitting silk scarfs and gossiping with all comers, while James and Buford hung around the sideboard at the back. They were institutions and all of the unmarried boys and girls, men and women, widowed and widowered, came and went at will, with the liberty that the chaperonage of their certain presence allowed.
"Suppose one of 'em should fall dead and the other have to attend her funeral," Nickols remarked one Saturday night at a dinner table not more than twelve feet away from the two couples. "The scandal that would soon disrupt this town for lack of their free chaperonage would be like an earthquake. None of you would have a shred of respectability with which to drape yourselves to appear in public."
"They don't wear much respectability anyway in the eyes of the Settlement," said Billy, as he mixed the champagne cup with old Wilks standing admiringly by. "The floor manager ordered Luella May Spain off the floor at the dance they had in the lodge room over the Last Chance last Saturday night for appearing in one of Harriet's last year dancing frocks Mother Spurlock had collected for her, though they do say that Luella May had sewed in two inches of tucker and put in sleeves. How's that for an opinion passed upon the high and mighty from the meek and lowly?"
"I'd been in mourning a year. That was my coming out gown and I felt—" Harriet was saying when Billy laughed and interrupted her.
"And you came out, Harriet dear," he assured her, as he poured her champagne cup and his and signaled Wilks to serve the rest of us.
On the surface all of the joy that most of Goodloets was having was real and brilliant and spontaneous, all the dancing and drinking and high playing, but under the surface there were dark currents that ran in many directions. Young Ted Montgomery and Billy played poker one Saturday night until daylight out at the Club, and Bessie Thornton and Grace Payne had "staid by" and were having bacon and eggs with them when the sun rose. Judge Payne, Grace's father, has been a widower ten years and Grace, with the four younger "pains," as Billy calls them, has run wild away from him and her grandmother, old Madam Payne, who lives in a world of crochet needles and silk thread with Mrs. Cockrell and Mrs. Sproul. One night I went with Billy in his car to take Grace home and he had to wait until I tiptoed to her room with my arm around her and put her to bed, while Harriet was doing the same thing with Bessie Thornton. Those girls are not much over twenty and they are only a little more "liberated," as they call it, than the rest of their friends. Ted Montgomery loves Grace, when he is himself and not at the card table, but what chance have they to form a union of any solidity and permanence? Billy's nephew, Clive Harvey, has always loved Bessie Thornton, but he is teller in the Goodloets bank and almost never sees her. He is one of the stewards in the Harpeth Jaguar's church, and the suffering on his slim young face hurts me like a blow every time I meet him. What's going to satisfy him, no matter what pace he should choose to go or how many things he is driven by unhappiness to indulge himself in?
And it was true that everything done up in the town had its effect down in the Settlement. The lodge hall over the Last Chance was the only hall available for the young people in the Settlement to dance, and the bar of the East Chance, at which old Jacob Ensley officiated, was no better stocked than the lockers at the Country Club. And all of us knew that very frequently Billy and Nickols and the rest of our friends went down to dance and drink with the girls from the mills and the shops. Billy had told me once that Milly Burt, who stays at the cigar stand in the Goodloe Hotel in Goodloets, dances so much like me and is so perfumed with my especial sachet from France, Mother Spurlock having collected the chiffon blouse from me for her to wear at the entertainment of the Epworth League, that he came very near addressing her by my name in giving her the invitation to the dance.
"Settlement or Town, they all add up to the sum of girl," he laughed, as he told me about that Saturday night frolic in the Last Chance.
It was the day after Billy's account of the ball at the Last Chance, in which Luella May and Milly and the rest had frolicked in what ought to have been a perfectly harmless way, that Mother Spurlock came to spend the afternoon with me and in which we wrestled until I was almost on the mat—not quite.
"Goodloets has always been the gayest town in the state, but it has now reached the place of the most wicked," she said, after a few preliminary shots had been exchanged. "Every dignity of tradition seems to have been dropped and everybody is dance or play or drink or speed mad. You are the most influential personality in the whole town and I want you to call a halt."
"But aren't they all happy? Isn't everybody getting the most out of life? The men are all working to their capacity and making more money than they ever have before. Why shouldn't they play hard?" I answered her, as I seated myself in the broad window seat of my room opposite the wide maternal ancestral rocker she had chosen.
"Are they happy?" she asked, with her keen eyes on my face.
"They seem to be," I parried.
"Well, as far as personal happiness is concerned I think it is not worth talking about. It is the good of the whole for which I am working, for which I am contending to-day. What you women do, who are not obliged to add to the work of the world that you may live in it, is not of any great importance; it is for the toilers in the vineyard that I plead. The girls and young men in this town cannot dance and drink and play all night and do the constructive work of the community in the daytime. If Luella May Spain falls asleep or nods at her typewriter and fails to get out the telegram to you or Nickols which Mr. Tate has shouted to her off the keys, do you excuse her because she has been fatiguing herself until midnight trying to learn some new dance that Billy Harvey has brought down to the Last Chance from your Country Club? You would not! She would be fired on your complaint."
"But are we responsible for how the girls and men in the Settlement spend their evenings?" I demanded with a fine show of indignation, but with a thrill of fear in my heart. There has always been something in Luella May Spain's shy and admiring glances that drew me and I have always lingered to chat with her a few minutes if business called me into the station. The last time I had spoken to her, not a week before, she had seemed pale and listless and had answered me with indifference.
"You and your class are the ones in power and what you do and what you think is a moral influence that reaches and permeates every soul in this town. You are not about your Father's business; and those less powerful of brain and character follow you in by-paths from the straight road. They are his Little Ones and you lead their feet into brambles. Oh, Charlotte!" And Mother Spurlock stretched out her hands to me in entreaty.
"I'm not a leader," I denied her. "I don't see a foot ahead of me. I'm not worth anything. I'm just living and trying to have a good time doing it. You have got a leader, there over the hedge; why don't they follow him and not me?"
"Before you came Gregory Goodloe had services three times a week at your Country Club, at which the Settlement met the Town. You were not willing that even those few hours should be given over to the learning of the Father's will from one whose mind and soul are ready to teach, and you swept away his pews and his influence. And your dance tunes, to which even I yielded, ring in the ears of his flock to drown out the echoes of God's hymns. And now those who had begun to lean on him and to follow him are turning to persecute him. When Jacob Ensley is drunk he openly charges him with inveigling Martha away and hiding her. He was in a dangerous state one night a week ago and Billy Harvey had to lock him up in his own wine cellar to keep him and a few of his hangers-on from 'going after the parson,' who was down there praying with old Jennie Neil as she died. He doesn't know his danger from Jacob and I think Billy ought to tell him. All Goodloets has admired and aped you since your birth, and now that you discountenance him they are again following you. There were only ten people at prayer meeting last night in the chapel, and the Wednesday before you turned him out of the Club which had offered him its hospitality, there were one hundred and thirty, Settlement and Town about evenly represented. You are responsible for that prayer meeting last night. You may be responsible for the result of one of Jacob's drunken fits. Sometime you'll have to answer for what you do."
"No, Mother Spurlock, I'm not responsible for the failure of Gregory Goodloe to get to the heart of your people and hold them happy to his services and observances, and I'm certainly not responsible for his personal safety. What he offers is not enough to satisfy. His members prefer their Country Club and their Last Chance and their knitting and embroidery. What we all need from the Country Club to the Last Chance is something that makes us want to be constructive, race constructive, so that life will be desirable on through immortality, if there is such a thing. I can't get a glimpse of it. Can you?" and I questioned her beseechingly.
"I can. I do! I have faith in my Father's plan to lead me through 'deep waters' into 'pleasant pastures,'" she answered me, as her eyes looked past me out at Paradise Ridge beyond the chapel.
"Then give it to me," I demanded.
"I can't. You must seek it yourself, and when you get it you will be able to pour it out into the hearts of others as living water. I serve by using my two talents of mercy and love, but God will some day give you ten and you will have to return an hundred fold. He has given the ten to Gregory Goodloe, and now is the night of his despair, but his morning will dawn. You can't dance down and drink down and gamble down and lust down a man like that. He can bide his time until his sheep come to the fold to be fed and warmed in his bosom."
"What practical thing can I do to make you believe that I do not mean to pull down any structure that another human is building up with the hope it is for the good of the whole, Mother Spurlock?" I demanded of her, goaded to the last point of endurance.
"The dedication services of the chapel will be next Sunday. Come, bring Nickols and your father, and let the Town and Settlement see your respect for Mr. Goodloe and for his church," she demanded, as she rose to go, with patient defeat but a lingering hope in her voice and manner.
"Endorse something that means nothing to me?" I asked with pained patience. "You say the people follow me; shall I lead them to drink from a spring that I consider dry, that is dry and has no water for my thirst? No, Mother Spurlock, if the people among whom I have been born trust me I will only lead them by going into paths I know and in which I walk for my own good or pleasure."
"To the Last Chance?"
"At least they get joy there that makes toil easier or offsets the grind," I answered her.
"Is that your final—" she was asking me with her deep, wise old eyes searching me, when she was interrupted by the banging open of my door and the inburst of young Charlotte, young James as ever at her heels, with Sue clinging to his hand. To-day, however, Charlotte had added one to her cohorts, for she led by the hand a very dirty specimen of the masculine gender, somewhat larger than herself and with a flaming red head.
"This is Mikey Burns, Aunt Charlotte, and he's a nice little boy that's dirty and hungry because his mother has got seven like him. Won't you wash him and feed him so we can play with him? The preacher cleaned up four for us to play with yesterday and they are still clean enough. If you clean Mikey I can have a baseball nine, with Sue to get the balls that we don't hit. She gets balls nicely and Mikey throws lots straighter than I can. Jimmy can hit 'em, too, with a wide stick."
"I tan git 'em," declaimed small Sue with great pride.
"I can pitch 'em," also declared Mikey, with evident desire to back up his patroness. "But not as good as her," and his admiration amounted to adoration, as he raised his young eyes to Charlotte.
"You see, Oh, you see, even to the second generation they follow," laughed Mother Spurlock, as she escaped through the door and left me with my practical demonstration of class leadership.
"Wash him, Auntie Charlotte, wash him," Charlotte continued to insist. "I made Jimmy steal some of his things for him while nurse was downstairs. Here they are," and young James, the thief and aforementioned murderer, gave up his stolen goods. "And Mr. Nickols says that all the Settlement children will go to school with us in the nice schoolhouse he and Judge Powers and Minister are going to build in front of Mother Spurlock's orchard. That is a law and then we'll have good times, all of us. There is not many children in the Town and they are all too dressed up, but it is a million down in the Settlement and we are going to have two baseball nines and two armies to battle with. I asked Mr. Nickols to have a place to wash the Settlements and he said he had thought of that and is going to have five shower baths. If you'll just wash Mikey for me I'll help you. I can attend to Jimmy's ears for nurse real good, can't I, Jimmy?"
"Yes," responded Jimmy with brotherly pride.
"No," remonstrated Mikey with abject fear, for the sake of his ears or propriety I was not sure.
I got past the question by motioning him into my bathroom and sending Charlotte and Sue to bring Dabney. Dabney is Charlotte's slave and was soon under way to execute her commands upon Mikey while I beguiled her from the superintendence thereof down into the garden with me, where from my window I could see Nickols and father in deep conclave over some drawings. Father had discarded his Henry Clay costume and looked young and alive in some of Nickols' flannels and linen. They looked up with interest as I came down the flagstone walk with Charlotte trotting on my one side and wee Sue clinging on the other.
"I'm glad you have come, daughter," said father, as he held up one of the large blue prints before me. "Now you can help Nickols and me locate the exact spot for the public school building. See, here is the public square of Goodloets, with the courthouse in the middle."
"That courthouse is as good as any minor hotels de ville in any of the small towns in France," said Nickols, as he came and stood beside me, looking over my shoulder at the map. "The Farmers' Bank and one or two of the very old brick stores are good, too," he added.
"Now, this is Main Street that leads past us down into the Settlement. Here is the Poplars, here the chapel, and this is Elsie Spurlock's house. Nickols and the parson are inclined to place the schoolhouse right opposite, but I am afraid it is too near the Settlement and too far from the Town. Do you suppose the Town children will be able to walk so far?"
"Do you really—really plan to have the Town and the Settlement go to school together?" I gasped.
"Well, Goodloe thinks that the ideal public school system is only to be executed in a democratic—" father was saying, when Nickols interrupted him.
"What does it matter where the two and a half kids from the decadent old families that are dying out go to school? Their sterile parents can motor 'em down to education!" he exclaimed. "Right here is the logical place for the school with the meadow behind it to give a bit of distance, the oak grove back of that, the Country Club beyond, with the river beginning to curve it in. It solidifies and unifies the landscape of the whole town and puts all the community centers where they belong. The Town and Settlement straggled a bit before, but the chapel and the school will unite them! Braid says the schoolhouse can be built of weathered stone and concrete and finished by September fifth, in time to start school. Wilkerson can begin immediately putting out his hedges and the Reverend Gregory is down there now finishing laying out the playground with his ball park."
"That's it—that's the baseball nine Dabney is washing Mikey for!" exclaimed Charlotte, catching up with the conversation. "And when we all go to school with the Settlements and they are clean some, and Mildred Payne and Grace Sproul and some of the others get dirty a little, nobody will know the difference and we can play ball and scouts and everything Minister teaches us. That school makes enough children to do things. We haven't got enough for anything, but the Settlements have, and it is mighty good of them to come up and let us play with them."
"Keep up with the times, Charlotte; don't be a back number. Miss Olymphia Lassiter's school may have held you and Nell, but it will never hold young Charlotte," Nickols jeered, as father began to roll up the map and speak to a young man that the great Wilkerson of White Plains had sent down to juggle with the flora and fauna of the Harpeth Valley.
WATER AND OIL
I turned from Nickols' raillery and surveyed the great American garden. The weeks had flown from May to late July and father's plans were beginning to be materialized. Where the sunken garden had been filled in a wide stone well house, the like of which can be found at many of the farmhouses in the Harpeth Valley, had been built and a chain wheel and bucket drew up the water from the deep cistern, which was supplied with underground pipes from the south wing of the Poplars.