The Prairie Child
by Arthur Stringer
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

Thursday the Fifteenth

Struthers and I have been house-cleaning, for this is the middle of May, and our reluctant old northern spring seems to be here for good. It has been backward, this year, but the last of the mud has gone, and I hope to have my first setting of chicks out in a couple of days. Dinkie wants to start riding Buntie to school, but his pater says otherwise. Gershom goes off every morning, with Calamity Kate hitched to the old buckboard, with my two kiddies packed in next to him and provender enough for himself and the kiddies and Calamity Kate under the seat. The house seems very empty when they are away. But some time about five, every afternoon, I see them loping back along the trail. Then comes the welcoming bark of old Bobs, and a raid on the cooky-jar, and traces of bread-and-jelly on two hungry little faces, and the familiar old tumult about the reanimated rooms of Casa Grande. Then Poppsy—I beg her ladyship's pardon, for I mean, of course, Pauline Augusta—has to duly inspect her dolls to assure herself that they are both well-behaved and spotless as to apparel, for Pauline Augusta is a stickler as to decorum and cleanliness; and Dinkie falls to working on his air-ship, which he is this time making quite independent of Whinnie, whose last creation along that line betrayed a disheartening disability for flight. But even this second effort, I'm afraid, is doomed to failure, for more than once I've seen Dinkie back away and stand regarding his incompetent flier with a look of frustration on his face. He is always working over machinery—for he loves anything with wheels—and I'm pretty well persuaded that the twentieth-century mania of us grown-ups for picking ourselves to pieces is nothing more than a development of this childish hunger to get the cover off things and see the works go round. Dinkie makes wagons and carts and water-wheels, but some common fatality of incompetence overtakes them all and they are cast aside for enterprises more novel and more promising. He announces, now, that he intends to be an engineer. And that recalls the time when I was convinced in my own soul that he was destined for a life of art, since he was forever asking me to draw him "a li'l' man," and later on fell to drawing them himself. He would do his best to inscribe a circle and then emboss it with perfectly upright hair, as though the person in question had just been perusing the most stirring of penny-dreadfuls. Then he would put in two dots of eyes, and one abbreviated and vertical line for the nose, and another elongated and horizontal line for the mouth, and arms with extended and extremely elocutionary fingers, to say nothing of extremely attenuated legs which invariably toed-out, to make more discernible the silhouette of the ponderously booted feet. I have several dozen of these "li'l' men" carefully treasured in an old cigar-box. But he soon lost interest in these purely anthropocentric creations and broadened out into the delineation of boats and cars and wheel-barrows and rocking-chairs and tea-pots, lying along the floor on his stomach for an hour at a time, his tongue moving sympathetically with every movement of his pencil. He held the latter clutched close to the point by his stubby little fingers.

I had to call a halt on all such artistry, however, for he startled me, one day, by suddenly going crosseyed. It came, of course, from working with his nose too close to the paper. I imagined, with a sinking heart, that it was an affliction which was to stay with him for the rest of his natural life. But a night's sleep did much to restore the over-taxed eye-muscles and before the end of a week they had entirely righted themselves.

To-morrow Dinkie will probably want to be an aeronaut, and the next day a cowboy, and the next an Indian scout, for I notice that his enthusiasms promptly conform to the stimuli with which he chances to be confronted. Last Sunday he asked me to read Macaulay's Horatius to him. I could see, after doing so, that it was going to his head exactly as a second Clover-Club cocktail goes to the head of a sub-deb. On Tuesday, when I went out about sun-down to get him to help me gather the eggs, I found that he had made a sword by nailing a bit of stick across a slat from the hen-house, and also observed that he had possessed himself of my boiler-top. So I held back, slightly puzzled. But later on, hearing much shouting and clouting and banging of tin, I quietly investigated and found Dinkie in the corral-gate, holding it against all comers. So earnest was he about it, so rapt was he in that solemn business of warfare, that I decided to slip away without letting him see me. He was sixteen long centuries away from Casa Grande, at that moment. He was afar off on the banks of the Tiber, defending the Imperial City against Lars Porsena and his footmen. All Rome was at his back, cheering him on, and every time his hen-coop slat thumped that shredded old poplar gate-post some proud son of Tuscany bit the dust.

Sunday the Twenty-Fifth

Duncan, it's plain to see, is still in the doldrums. He is uncommunicative and moody and goes about his work with a listlessness which is more and more disturbing to me. He surprised his wife the other day by addressing her as "Lady Selkirk," for the simple reason, he later explained, that I propose to be monarch of all I survey, with none to dispute my domain. And a little later he further intimated that I was like a miser with a pot of gold, satisfied to live anywhere so long as my precious family-life could go clinking through my fingers.

That was last Sunday—a perfect prairie day—when I sat out on the end of the wagon-box, watching Poppsy and Dinkie. I sat in the warm sunlight, in a sort of trance, staring at those two children as they went about their solemn business of play. They impressed me as two husky and happy-bodied little beings and I remembered that whatever prairie-life had cost me, it had not cost me the health of my family. My two bairns had been free of those illnesses and infections which come to the city child, and I was glad enough to remember it. But I was unconscious of Dinky-Dunk's cynic eye on me as I sat there brooding over my chicks. When he spoke to me, in fact, I was thinking how odd it was that Josie Langdon, on the very day before her marriage, should have carried me down to the lower end of Fifth Avenue and led me into the schoolroom of the Church of the Ascension, and asked me to study Sorolla's Triste Herencia which hangs there.

I can still see that wonderful canvas where the foreshore of Valencia, usually so vivacious with running figures and the brightest of sunlight on dancing sails, had been made the wine-dark sea of the pagan questioner with the weight of immemorial human woe to shadow it. Josie had been asking me about marriage and children, for even she was knowing her more solemn moments in the midst of all that feverishly organized merriment. But I was surprised, when she slipped a hand through my arm, to see a tear run down her nose. So I looked up again at Sorolla's picture of the naked little cripples snatching at their moment's joy along the water's edge, at his huddled group of maimed and cast-off orphans trying to be happy without quite knowing how. I can still see the stunted little bodies, naked in sunlight that seemed revealing without being invigorating, clustered about the guardian figure of the tall old priest in black, the somberly benignant old figure that towered above the little wrecks on crutches and faced, as majestic as Millet's Sower, as austere and unmoved as Fate itself, a dark sea overhung by a dark sky. Sorolla was great in that picture, to my way of thinking. He was great in the manner in which he attunes nature to a human mood, in which he gives you the sunlight muffled, in some way, like the sunlight during a partial eclipse, and keys turbulence down to quietude, like the soft pedal that falls on a noisy street when a hearse goes by.

Josie felt it, and I felt it, that wordless thinning down of radiance, that mysterious holding back of warmth, until it seemed to strike a chill into the bones. It was the darker wing of Destiny hovering over man's head, deepening at the same time that it shadows the receding sky-line, so that even the memory of it, a thousand miles away, could drain the jocund blitheness out of the open prairie and give an air of pathos and solitude to my own children playing about my feet. Sorolla, I remembered, had little ones of his own. He knew. Life had taught him, and in teaching, had enriched his art. For the artist, after all, is the man who cuts up the loaf of his own heart, and butters it with beauty, and at tuppence a slice hands it to the hungry children of the world.

So when Dinky-Dunk laughed at me, for going into a trance over my own children, I merely smiled condoningly back at him. I felt vaguely sorry for him. He wasn't getting out of them what I was getting. He was being cheated, in some way, out of the very harvest for which he had sowed and waited. And if he had come to me, in that mood of relapse, if he had come to me with the slightest trace of humility, with the slightest touch of entreaty, on his face, I'd have hugged his salt-and-peppery old head to my bosom and begged to start all over again with a clean slate....

Gershom and I get along much better than I had expected. There's nothing wrong with the boy except his ineradicable temptation to impart to you his gratuitous tidbits of information. I can't object, of course, to Gershom having a college education: what I object to is his trying to give me one. I don't mind his wisdom, but I do hate to see him tear the whole tree of knowledge up by the roots and floor one with it. He has just informed me that there are estimated to be 30,000,000,000,000 red blood corpuscles in this body of mine, and I made him blink by solemnly challenging him to prove it. Quite frequently and quite sternly, too, he essays to correct my English. He reproved me for saying: "Go to it, Gershom!" And he declared I was in error in saying "The goose hangs high," as that was merely a vulgar corruption for "The goose whangs high," the "whanging" being the call of the wild geese high in the air when the weather is settled and fair. We live and learn!

But I can't help liking this pedagogic old Gershom who takes himself and me and all the rest of the world so seriously. I like him because he shares in my love for Dinkie and stands beside Peter himself in the fondly foolish belief that Dinkie has somewhere the hidden germ of greatness in him. Not that my boy is one of those precocious little bounders who are so precious in the eyes of their parents and so odious to the eyes of the rest of the world. He is a large-boned boy, almost a rugged-looking boy, and it is only I, knowing him as I do, who can fathom the sensibilities housed in that husky young body. There is a misty broodiness in his eyes which leaves them indescribably lovely to me as I watch him in his moments of raptness. But that look doesn't last long, for Dinkie can be rough in play and at times rough in speech, and deep under the crust of character I imagine I see traces of his Scottish father in him. I watch with an eagle eye for any outcroppings of that Caledonian-granite strain in his make-up. I inspect him as Chinkie used to inspect his fruit-trees for San Jose scale, for if there is any promise of hardness or cruelty there I want it killed in the bud.

But I don't worry as I used to, on that score. He may be rough-built, but moods cluster thick about him, like butterflies on a shelf of broken rock. And he is both pliable and responsive. I can shake him, when in the humor, by the mere telling of a story. I can control his color, I can excite him and exalt him, and bring him to the verge of tears, if I care to, by the mere tone of my voice as I read him one of his favorite tales out of one of Peter's books. But I shrink, in a way, from toying with those feelings. It seems brutal, cruel, merciless. For he is, after all, a delicate instrument, to be treated with delicacy. The soul of him must be kept packed away, like a violin, in its case of reserve well-padded with discretion. Two things I see in him: tenseness and beauty. And these are things which are lost, with rough handling. He shrinks away from brutality. Always, when he came to the picture of Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple, in Whinstane Sandy's big old illustrated Bible, he used to cover with one small hand a certain child on the temple steps as though to protect to the last that innocent one from the falling columns and cornices.

But I'm worried, at times, about Dinky-Dunk's attitude toward the boy. There are ways in which he demands too much from the child. His father is often unnecessarily rough in his play with him, seeming to take a morose delight in goading him to the breaking point and then lamenting his lack of grit, edging him on to the point of exasperation and then heaping scorn on him for his weakness. More than once I've seen his father actually hurt him, although the child was too proud to admit it. Dinky-Dunk, I think, really wants his boy to be a bigger figure in the world than his dad. Milord's a middle-aged man now and knows his limitations. He has realized just how high the supremest high-water mark of his life will stand. And being human, he must nurse his human regrets over his failures in life. So now he wishes to see his thwarted powers come to fuller fruit in his offspring. I'm afraid he'd even run the risk of sacrificing the boy's happiness for the sake of knowing Dinkie's wagon was to be hitched to the star of success. For I know my husband well enough to realize that he has always hankered after worldly success, that his god, if he had any, has always been the god of Power. I, too, want to see my son a success. But I want him to be happy first. I want to see him get some of the things I've been cheated out of, that I've cheated myself out of. That's the only way now I can get even with life. I can't live my own days over again. But I can catch at the trick of living them over again in my Dinkie.

Thursday the Twenty-Ninth

We have arrived at an armistice, Dinky-Dunk and I. It was forced on us, for things couldn't have gone on in the old intolerable manner. Dinky-Dunk, I fancy, began to realize that he hadn't been quite fair, and started making oblique but transparent enough efforts at appeasement. When he sat down close beside me, and I moved away, he said in a spirit of exaggerated self-accusation: "I'm afraid I've got a peach-stain on my reputation!" I retorted, at that, that she had never impressed me as much of a peach. Whereupon he merely laughed, as though it were a joke out of a Midnight Revue. Then he clipped a luridly illustrated advertisement of a nerve-medicine out of his newspaper and pinned it on my bedroom door, after I had ignored his tentative knock thereon the night before. The picture showed an anemic and woebegone couple haggling and shaking their fists at each other, while a large caption announced that "Thousands of Married Folks Lead a Cat and Dog Life—Are Cross, Crabbed and Grumpy!"—all of which could be obviated if they used Oxygated Iron.

What made it funny, of course, was the ridiculousness of the drawing. Then Dinky-Dunk, right before the blushing Gershom, accused me of being a love-piker. I could sniff which way the wind was blowing, but I sat tight. Then, to cap the climax, my husband announced that he had something for me which was surely going to melt my mean old prairie heart. And late that afternoon he came trundling up to Casa Grande with nothing more nor less than an old prairie-schooner.

It startled me, when I first caught sight of it. But its acquisition was not so miraculous as it might have seemed. Dinky-Dunk, who is a born dickerer, has been trading some of his ranch-stock for town-lots on the outskirts of Buckhorn. On the back of one of these lots stood a tumble-down wooden building, and hidden away in this building was the prairie-schooner. Something about it had caught his fancy, so he had insisted that it be included in the deal. And home he brought it, with Tithonus and Tumble-Weed yoked to its antique tongue and his own Stetsoned figure high on the driving seat. They had told Dinky-Dunk it wasn't a really-truly authentic prairie-schooner, since practically all of the trekking north of the Fiftieth Parallel has been done by means of the Red River cart. But Dinky-Dunk, after looking more carefully over the heavy-timbered running-gear and the cumbersome iron-work, and discovering even the sturdy hooks under its belly from which the pails and pots of earlier travelers must have hung, concluded that it was one of the genuine old-timers, one of the "Murphies" once driven by a "bull-whacker" and drawn by "wheelers" and "pointers." Where it originally came from, Heaven only knows. But it had been used, five years before, for a centenary procession in the provincial capital and had emerged into the open again last summer for a town-booming Rodeo twenty miles down the steel from Buckhorn. It looked like the dinosaur skeleton in the Museum of Natural History, with every vestige of its tarpaulin top gone. But Whinnie has already sewed together a canvas covering for its weather-beaten old roof-ribs, and has put clean wheat-straw in its box-bottom, so that it makes a kingly place for my two kiddies to play. I even spotted Dinkie, enthroned high on the big driving-seat, with a broken binder-whip in his hand, imagining he was one of the original Forty-Niners pioneering along the unknown frontiers of an unknown land. I could see him duck at imaginary arrows and frenziedly defend his family from imaginary Sioux with an imaginary musket. And I stood beside it this morning, dreaming of the adventures it must have lumbered through, of the freight it must have carried and the hopes it must have ferried as it once crawled westward along the floor of the world, from water-hole to lonely water-hole. I've been wondering if certain perforations in its side-boards can be bullet-holes and if certain dents and abrasions in its timbers mean the hostile arrows of skulking Apaches when women and children crouched low behind the ramparts of this tiny wooden fortress. I can't help picturing what those women and children had to endure, and how trivial, after all, are our puny hardships compared with theirs.

And I don't intend to dwell on those hardships. I'm holding out the hand of compromise to my fellow-trekker. Existence is only a prairie-schooner, and we have to accommodate ourselves to it. And I thank Heaven now that I can see things more clearly and accept them more quietly. That's a lesson Time teaches us. And Father Time, after all, has to hand us something to make up for so mercilessly permitting us to grow old. It leaves us more tolerant. We're not allowed to demand more life, but we can at least ask for more light. So I intend to be cool-headedly rational about it all. I'm going to keep Reason on her throne. I'm going to be a bitter-ender, in at least one thing: I'm going to stick to my Dinky-Dunk to the last ditch. I'm going to patch up the old top and forget the old scars. For we're in the same schooner, and we must make the most of it. And if I have to eat my pot of honey on the grave of all our older hopes, I'm at least going to dig away at that pot until its bottom is scraped clean. I'm going to remain the neck-or-nothing woman I once prided myself on being. I'm even going to overlook Dinky-Dunk's casual cruelty in announcing, when I half-jokingly inquired why he preferred other women to his own Better-Half, that no horse eats hay after being turned out to fresh grass. I'm going on, I repeat, no matter what happens. I'm going on to the desperate end, like my own Dinkie with the chocolate-cake when I warned him he'd burst if he dared to eat another piece and he responded: "Then pass the cake, Mummy—and everybody stand back!"

Tuesday the Fourth

Sursum corda is the word—so here goes! I am determined to be blithe and keep the salt of humor sprinkled thick across the butter-crock of concession. Dinky-Dunk watches me with a guarded and wary eye and Pauline Augusta does not always approve of me. Yesterday, when I got on Briquette and made that fire-eater jump the two rain-barrels put end to end Dinky-Dunk told me I was too old to be taking a chance like that. So I promptly and deliberately turned a somersault on the prairie-sod, just to show him I wasn't the old lady he was trying to make me out. Gershom, who'd just got back with the children and was unhitching Calamity Kate, retreated with his eyebrows up, toward the stable. And on the youthful face of Pauline Augusta I saw nothing but pained incredulity touched with reproof, for Poppsy is not a believer in the indecorous. She has herself staidly intimated that she'd prefer the rest of the family to address her as "Pauline Augusta" instead of "Poppsy" which still so unwittingly creeps into our talk. So hereafter we must be more careful. For Pauline Augusta can already sew a fine seam and array her seven dolls with a preciseness and neatness which is to be highly commended.

On Saturday, when we motored into Buckhorn for supplies, I escorted Pauline Augusta to Hunk Granby, the town barber, to have her hair cut Dutch. Her lip quivered and she gave every indication of an outbreak, for she was mortally afraid of that strange man and his still stranger clipping-machine. But I spotted a concert-guitar on a bench at the back of Hunk's emporium and as it was the noon-hour and there was no audience, I rendered a jazz obbligato to the snip of the scissors.

"Say, Birdie, you'll sure have me buck and wing dancin' if you keep that up!" remarked the man of the shears. I merely smiled and gave him Texas Tommy, cum gusto, whereupon he acknowledged he was having difficulty in making his feet behave. We became quite a companionable little family, in fact, as the bobbing process went on, and when Dinky-Dunk called for us as he'd promised he was patently scandalized to find his superannuated old soul-mate sight-reading When Katy Couldn't Katy Wouldn't—it was a new one to me—in the second ragged plush shaving-chair of a none too clean barber-shop festooned with lithographs which would have made old Anthony Comstock turn in his grave. But you have to be feathered to the toes like a ptarmigan in this northern country so that rough ways and rough winds can't strike a chill into you. The barber, in fact, refused to take any money for Dutching my small daughter's hair, proclaiming that the music was more than worth it. But my husband, with a dangerous light in his eye, insisted on leaving four bits on the edge of the shelf loaded down with bottled beautifiers, and escorted us out to the muddy old devil-wagon where Dinkie sat awaiting us.

"Dinky-Dunk," I said with a perfectly straight face as we climbed in, "what is it gives me such a mysterious influence over men?"

Instead of answering me, he merely ground his gears as though they had been his own teeth. So I repeated my question.

"Why don't you ask that school-teacher of yours?" he demanded.

"But what," I inquired, "has Gershom got to do with it?"

He turned and inspected me with such a pointed stare that we nearly ran into a Bain wagon full of bagged grain.

"You don't suppose I can't see that that beanpole's fallen in love with you?" he rudely and raucously challenged.

"Why, I feel exactly like a mother to that poor boy," I innocently protested.

"Mother nothing!" snorted my lord and master. "Any fool could see he's going mushy on you!"

I pretended to be less surprised than I really was, but it gave me considerable to think over. My husband was wrong, in a way, but no woman feels bad at the thought that somebody is fond of her. It's nice to know there's a heart or two at which one can still warm one's outstretched hands. The short-cut to ruin, with a man, is the knowledge that women are fond of him. But let a woman know that she is not unloved and she walks the streets of Heaven, to say nothing of nearly breaking her neck to make herself worthy of those transporting affections.

But I soon had other things to think of, that afternoon, for Dinkie and I had a little secret shopping to do. And in the midst of it I caught the familiar tawny look which occasionally comes into my man-child's eyes. It's the look of dreaming, the look of brooding wildness where some unknown Celtic great-great-grandfather of a great-great-grandfather stirs in his moorland grave like a collie-dog in his afternoon sleep. And it all arose out of nothing more than a blind beggar sitting on an upturned nail-keg at the edge of the sidewalk and rather miraculously playing a mouth-organ and a guitar at one and the same time. The guitar was a dog-eared old instrument that had most decidedly seen better days, stained and bruised and greasy-looking along the shank. The mouth-organ was held in position by two wires that went about the beggar's neck, to leave his hands free for strumming on the larger instrument. The music he made was simple enough, rudimentary old waltz-tunes and plaintive old airs that I hadn't heard for years. But I could see it go straight to the head of my boy. His intent young face took on the fierce emptiness of a Barres lion overlooking some time-worn desert. He forgot me, and he forgot the shopping that had kept him awake about half the night, and he forgot Buckhorn and the fact that he was a small boy on the streets of a bald little prairie town. He was thousands of years and thousands of miles away from me. He was a king's son in Babylon, commanding the court-musicians to make sweet discourse for him. He was Saul harkening to David. He was a dreamy-eyed Pict listening to music wafted at dusk from a Roman camp about which helmeted sentries paced. He was a medieval prince, falsely imprisoned, leaning from dark and lonely towers to catch the strains of some wandering troubadour from his native Southlands. He was a Magyar chieftain listening to the mountain-side music of valleyed goat-herders with a touch of madness to it. It engulfed him and entranced him and awoke ancestral tom-toms in his blood. And I waited beside him until the afternoon sunlight grew thinner and paler and my legs grew tired, for I knew that his hungry little soul was being fed. His eye met mine, when it was all over, but he had nothing to say. I could see, however, that he had been stirred to the depths,—and by a tin mouth-organ and a greasy-sided guitar!

To-night I found Dinkie poring over the pictures in my Knight edition of Shakespeare. He seemed especially impressed, as I stopped and looked over his shoulder, by a steel engraving of Gerome's Death of Caesar, where the murdered emperor lies stretched out on the floor of the Forum, now all but empty, with the last of the Senators crowding out through the door. Two of the senatorial chairs are overturned, and Caesar's throne lies face-down on the dais steps. So Dinkie began asking questions about a drama which he could not quite comprehend. But they were as nothing to the questions he asked when he turned to another of the Gerome pictures, this one being the familiar old Cleopatra and Caesar. He wanted to know why the lady hadn't more clothes on, and why the big black man was hiding down behind her, and what Caesar was writing a letter for, and why he was looking at the lady the way he did. So, glancing about to make sure that Dinky-Dunk was within ear-shot, I did my best to explain the situation to little Dinkie.

"Caesar, my son, was a man who set out in the world to be a great conqueror. But when he got quite bald, as you may see by the picture, and had reached middle age, he forgot about being a great conqueror. He even forgot about being so comfortably middle-aged and that it was not easy for a man of his years to tumble gracefully into love, for those romantic impulses, my son, are associated more with irresponsible youth and are apt to be called by rather an ugly name when they occur in advanced years. But Caesar fell in love with the lady you see in the picture, whose name was Cleopatra and who was one of the greatest man-eaters that ever came out of Egypt. She had a weakness for big strong men, and although certain authorities have claimed that she was a small and hairy person with a very uncertain temper, she undoubtedly set a very good table and made her gentlemen friends very comfortable, for Caesar stayed feasting and forgetting himself for nearly a year with her. It must have been very pleasant, for Caesar loved power, and intended to be one of the big men of his time. But the lady also loved power, and was undoubtedly glad to see that she could make Caesar forget about going home, though it was too bad that he forgot, for always, even after he had lived to write about all the great things he had done in the world, people remembered more about his rather absurd infatuation for the lady than about all the battles he had won and all the prizes he had captured. And the lady, of course——"

But I was interrupted at this point. And it was by Dinky-Dunk.

"Oh, hell!" he said as he flung down his paper and strode out into the other room. And those exits, I remembered, were getting to be a bit of a habit with my harried old Diddums.

Sunday the Fifth

The Day of Rest seems to be the only day left to me now for my writing. There are no idlers in the neighborhood of Casa Grande. The days are becoming incredibly long, but they still seem over-short for all there is to do. The men are much too busy on the land to give material thought to any thing so womanish as a kitchen-garden. So I have my own garden to see to. And sometimes I work there until I'm almost ready to drop. On a couple of nights, recently, when it came watering-time, even these endless evenings had slipped into such darkness that I could scarcely see the plants I was so laboriously irrigating by hand. It wasn't until the water turned the soil black that the growing green stood pallidly out against the mothering dark earth.... But it is delightful work. I really love it. And I love to see things growing. After the bringing up of a family, the bringing up of a garden surely comes next.

Yet too much work, I find, can make tempers a trifle short. I spoke rather sharply to Dinky-Dunk yesterday regarding the folly of leaving firearms about the house where children can reach them. And he was equally snappy as he flung his ugly old Colt in its ugly old holster up over the top corner of our book-cabinet. So, to get even with him, when Dinkie came in with some sort of wide-petaled field-flower and asked if I didn't want my fortune told, I announced I rather fancied it was pretty well told already.... Scotty, by the way, now follows Dinkie to school and waits outside and comes loping home with him again. And my two bairns have a new and highly poetic occupation. It is that of patiently garnering youthful potato-bugs and squashing the accumulated harvest between two bricks.

Sunday the Twelth

I have been examining Gershom with a more interested eye. And when he changed color, under that inspection, I apologized for making him blush. And as that only added to his embarrassment, I artlessly asked him what a blush really was. That, of course, was throwing the rabbit straight back into the brier-patch, as far as Gershom was concerned. For he promptly and meticulously informed me that a blush was a miniature epilepsy, a vasomotor impulse leading to the dilation or constriction of the facial blood-vessels, some psychologists even claiming the blush to be a vestigial survival of the prehistoric flight-effort of the heart, coming from the era of marriage by capture, when to be openly admired meant imminent danger.

"That isn't a bit pretty," I told Gershom. "It's as horrid as what my husband said about handshaking originating in man's desire to be dead sure his gentleman friend didn't have a knife up his sleeve, for use before the greeting was over. It would have been so much nicer, Gershom, if you could have told me that the first blush was born on the same day as the first kiss."

"Kissing," that youth solemnly informed me, "was quite unknown to primitive man. It evolved, in fact, out of the entirely self-protective practice of smelling, to determine the health of a prospective mate, though this in turn evolved into the ceremonial habit of the rubbing together of noses, which is still the form of affectionate salutation largely prevalent among the natives of the South Sea Islands."

"What a perfectly horrible origin for such a heavenly pastime," I just as solemnly announced to Gershom, who studied me with a stern and guarded eye, and having partaken of his eleventh flap-jack, escaped to the stable and the matutinal task of harnessing Calamity Kate.

Sunday the Second

Summer is here, in earnest, and the last few days have been hot and windless. School is over, for the next eight weeks, and I shall have my kiddies close beside me. Gershom, after a ten-day trip down to Minneapolis for books and clothes, is going to come back to Casa Grande and help Dinky-Dunk on the land, as long as the holidays last. He thinks it will build him up a bit. He is also solemnly anxious to study music. He feels it would round out his accomplishments, which, he acknowledged, have threatened to become overwhelmingly scientific. So I'm to give Gershom music lessons in exchange for his tutoring Dinkie. They will be rather awful, I'm afraid, for Gershom has about as much music in his honest old soul as Calamity Kate. I may not teach him much. But all the time, I know, I will be learning a great deal from Gershom. He informed me, last night, that he had carefully computed that the Bible mentioned nineteen different precious stones, one hundred and four trees or plants, six metals, thirty-five animals, thirty-nine birds, six fishes, twenty insects, and eleven reptiles.

As I've already said, summer is here. But it doesn't seem to mean as much to me as it used to, for my interests have been taken away from the land and more and more walled up about my family. Dinky-Dunk's grain, however, has come along satisfactorily, and there is every promise of a good crop. Yet this entirely fails to elate my husband. Every small mischance is a sort of music-cue nowadays to start him singing about the monotony of prairie-life. Ranching, he protests, isn't the easy game it used to be, now that cattle can't be fattened on the open range and now that wheat itself is so much lower in price. One has to work for one's money, and watch every dollar. And my Diddums keeps railing about the government doing so little for the farmer and driving the men off the land into the cities. He has fallen into the habit of protesting he can see nothing much in life as a back-township hay-tosser and that all the big chances are now in the big centers. I had been hoping that this was a new form of spring-fever which would eventually work its way out of his system. But I can see now that the matter is something more mental than physical. He hasn't lost his strength, but he has lost his driving power. He is healthy enough, Heaven knows. Indeed, he impresses me as being a bit too much that way, for he has quite lost his old-time lean and hungry look and betrays a tendency to take on a ventral contour unmistakably aldermanic. He may be heavy, but he is hard-muscled and brown as an old meerschaum. There is a canker, however, somewhere about the core of his heart. And I can see him more clearly than I used to. He is a strong man, but he is a strong man without earnestness. And being such, I vaguely apprehend in him some splendid failure. For the wings that soar to success in this world are plumed with faith and feathered with conviction.

It did not surprise me this morning when Dinky-Dunk announced that he felt a trifle stale and suggested that the family take a holiday on Tuesday and trek out to Dead-Horse Lake for the day. We're to hitch Tumble-Weed and Tithonus to the old prairie-schooner—for we'll be taking side-trails where no car could venture—and pike off for a whole blessed day of care-free picnicking. So to-morrow Struthers and I will be solemnly busy in the kitchen concocting suitable dishes to be taken along in the old grub-box, and when that is over we'll patch together something in the form of bathing-suits, for there'll be a chance for a dip in the slough-water, and our kiddies have arrived at an age imposing fit and proper apparel on their sadly pagan but chastened parents.

Wednesday the Fifth

We have had our day at Dead-Horse Lake, but it wasn't the happy event I had anticipated. Worldly happiness, I begin to feel, usually dies a-borning: it makes me think of wistaria-bloom, for invariably one end is withering away before the other end is even in flower. At any rate, we were off early, the weather was perfect, and the sky was an inverted tureen of lazulite blue. Dinkie drove the team part of the way, his dad smoked beside him up on the big driving-seat, and I raised my voice in song until Pauline Augusta fell asleep and had to be bedded down in the wagon-straw and covered with a blanket.

Dead-Horse Lake is really a slough, dolorously named because a near-by rancher once lost eight horses therein, the foolish animals wandering out on ice that was too thin to hold them up.

We were hungry by the time we had hobbled out our teams and gathered wood and made a fire. And after dinner Dinky-Dunk fell asleep and the children and I tried to weave a willow basket, which wasn't a success. Poppsy, in fact, cut her finger with her pater's pocket-knife and because of this physical disability declined to don her bathing-suit when we made ready for the water.

The slough-water was enticingly warm, under the hot July sun, and we ventured in at the west end where a firmer lip of sand and alkali gave us footing. And I enjoyed the swim, although Dinky-Dunk made fun of my improvised bathing-suit. It seemed like old times, to bask lazily in the sun and float about on my back with my fingers linked under my head. My lord and master even acknowledged that my figure wasn't so bad as he had expected, in a lady of my years. I splashed him for that, and he dove for my ankles, and nearly drowned me before I could get away.

It was all light-hearted enough, until Dinky-Dunk happened to notice that Dinkie wasn't enjoying the water as an able-bodied youngster ought. The child, in fact, was afraid of it—which was only natural, remembering what a land-bird he had been all his life. His father, apparently, decided to carry him out and give him a swimming-lesson.

I was on shore by this time, trying to sun out my sodden mop of hair, which I had fondly imagined I could keep dry. I heard Dinkie's cry as his father captured him, and I called out to Dinky-Dunk, through my combed out tresses, to have a heart.

Dinky-Dunk called back that the Indian way, after all, was the only way to teach a youngster. I didn't give much thought to the matter until the two of them were out in deeper water and I heard Dinkie's scream of stark terror. It came home to me then that the Indian method in such things was to toss the child into deep water and leave him there to struggle for his life.

Dinky-Dunk, I suppose, hadn't intended to do quite that. But the boy was naturally terrified at being carried out beyond his depth, and when I looked up I could see his bony little body struggling to free itself. That timidity, I take it, angered the boy's father. And he intended to cure it. He was doing his best, in fact, to fling the clutching and clawing little body away from him when I heard those repeated short screams of horror and promptly took a hand in the matter. Something snapped in my skull, and I saw red. I hated my husband for what he was doing. I hated him for the mere thought that he could do it. And I hated him for calling out that this was what people got by mollycoddling their children.

But that didn't stop me. I made for Dinky-Dunk like a hundred-weight of wildcats. I went through the water like a hell-diver, and without quite knowing what I was doing I got hold of him and tried to garrote him. I don't remember what I said, but I have a hazy idea it was not the most ladylike of language. He stared at me, as I tore Dinkie away from him, stared at me with a hard and slightly incredulous eye. For I'm afraid I was ready to fight with my teeth and nails, if need be, and I suppose my expression wasn't altogether angelic. We were both shaking, at any rate, when we got back to dry land. Dinky-Dunk stood staring at us, for a silent moment or two, with a look of black disgust on his wet face. I'm even afraid it was something more than disgust. Then he strode away and proceeded to dress on the other side of the prairie-schooner, without so much as a second look at us. And then he went off for the horses, absenting himself a quite unnecessary length of time. But I took advantage of that to have a talk with Dinkie.

"Dinkie," I said, "you and I are going to walk out into that water, and this time you're not going to be afraid!"

I could see his eye searching mine, although he did not speak.

I put one hand on the wet tangle of his hair.

"Will you come?" I asked him.

He took a deep breath. Then he looked at the slough-water. Then he looked back into my eyes.

"Yes," he said, though I noticed his lips were not so red as usual.

So side by side and hand in hand the two of us walked out into Dead-Horse Lake. His eyes questioned me, once, as the water came up about his armpits. But he shut his teeth tight and made no effort to draw back. I could see the involuntary spasms of his chest as that terrifying flood closed in about his little body, yet he was ready enough to show me he wasn't a coward. And when I saw that he had met and faced his ordeal I turned him about and led him quietly back to land. We were both prouder and happier for what had just happened. We didn't even need to talk about it, for each knew that the other understood. What still disturbs me, though, is something not in my boy's make-up, but in my own. During the long and silent drive home I noticed a mark on my husband's neck. And I was the termagant who must have put it there, though I have no memory of doing so. But from it I realize that I haven't the control over myself every civilized and self-respecting woman should have. I begin to see that I can't altogether trust myself where my female-of-the-species affections are involved. I'm no better, I'm afraid, than the Bengal tigress which Dinky-Dunk once intimated I was, the Bengal tigress who will battle so unreasoningly for her offspring. It may be natural in mothers, whether they wear fur or feathers or lisle-thread stockings—but it worries me. I was an engine running wild. And when you run wild you are apt to run into catastrophe.

Friday the Seventh

Dinky-Dunk is on his dignity. He has put a fence around himself to keep me at a distance, the same as he puts a fence around his haystacks to keep off the cattle. We are coolly polite to each other, but that is as far as it goes. There is something radically wrong with this home, as a home, but I seem helpless to put the matter right. It's about all I have left, in this life of mine, but I'm in some way failing in my duty as a house-wife. "Home" is a beautiful word, and home-life should be beautiful. Any sacrifice and any concession a woman is willing to make to keep that home, and to keep ugliness out of it, ought to be well considered by the judge of her final destinies. I'm ready to do my part, but I don't know where to begin. I'm depressed by a teasing sense of frustration, not quite tangible enough to fight, like cobwebs across your face. It's not easy to carry around the milk of human kindness after they've pretty well kicked the bottom out of your can!

Torrid and tiring are these almost endless summer days. But it's what the grain needs, and who am I to look this gift-horse of heat in the face. Yet there are two things, I must confess, in which the prairie is sadly lacking. One is trees; and the other is shade, the cool green sun-filtering shade of woodlands where birds can sing and mossy little brooks can babble. I've been longing all day for just an hour up in an English cherry tree, with the pectoral smell of the leaves against my face and the chance of eating at least half my own weight of fresh fruit. But even in the matter of its treelessness, I'm told, the prairie is reforming. There are men living who remember when there were no trees west of Brandon, except in the coulees and the river-bottoms. Now that fire no longer runs wild, however, the trees are creeping in, mile by mile and season by season. Already the eastern line of natural bush country reaches to about ten miles from Regina two hundred miles west. Oxbow and Estevan, Dinky-Dunk once told me, had no trees whatever when first settled, though much of that country now has a comfortable array of bluffs. And forestry, of course, is giving nature a friendly push along, in the matter. In the meantime, we have to accommodate ourselves to the conditions that prevail, just as the birds of the air must do. Here the haughty crow of the east is compelled to nest in the low willows of the coulee and raise its young within hand-reach of mother earth. Like our women, it can enjoy very little privacy of family life. The only thing that saves us and the crows, I suppose, is that the men-folks of this country are too preoccupied with their own ends to go around bird-nesting. They are too busy to break up homes, either in willow-tops or women's hearts.... I ought to be satisfied. But I've been dogged, this last day or two, by a longing to be scudding in a single-sticker off Orienta Point again or to motor-cruise once more along the Sound in a smother of spray.

Thursday the Thirteenth

Dinky-Dunk has been called to Calgary on business. It sounds simple enough, in these Unpretentious Annals of an Unloved Worm, but I can't help feeling that it marks a trivially significant divide in the trend of things. It depresses me more than I can explain. My depression, I imagine, comes mostly from the manner in which Duncan went. He was matter-of-fact enough about it all, but I can't get rid of the impression that he went with a feeling very much like relief. His manner, at any rate, was not one to invite cross-examination, and he insisted, to the end, on regarding his departure as an every-day incident in the life of a preoccupied rancher. So I caught my cue from him, and was as quiet about it all as he could have wished. But under the crust was the volcano....

The trouble with the tragedies of real life is that they are never clear-cut. It takes art to weave a selvage about them or fit them into a frame. But in reality they're as ragged and nebulous as wind-clouds. The days drag on into weeks, and the weeks into months, and life on the surface seems to be running on, the same as before. There's the same superficial play of all the superficial old forces, but in the depths are dangers and uglinesses and sullen bombs of emotional TNT we daren't even touch!

Heigho! I nearly forgot my sursum-corda role. And didn't old Doctor Johnson say that peevishness was the vice of narrow minds? So here's where we tighten up the belt a bit. But we humans, who come into the world alone, and go out of it alone, are always hungering for companionship which we can't quite find. Our souls are islands, with a coral-reef of reserve built up about them. Last night, when I was patching some of Gershom's undies for him, I wickedly worked an arrow-pierced heart, in red yarn, on one leg of his B.V.D.'s. This morning, I noticed, his eye evaded mine and there was marked constraint in his manner. I even begin to detect unmistakable signs of nervousness in him when we happen to be alone together. And during his last music lesson there was a vibrata of emotion in his voice which made me think of an April frog in a slough-end.

Even my little Dinkie, day before yesterday, asked me if I'd mind not bathing him any more. He explained that he thought he could manage very nicely by himself now. It seemed trivial enough, and yet, in a way, it was momentous. I am to be denied the luxury of tubbing my own child. I, who always loved even the smell of that earthy and soil-grubbing young body, who could love it when it wasn't any too clean and could glory in its musky and animal-like odors as well as the satin-shine of the light on its well-soaped little ribs, must now stand aside before the reservations of sex. It makes me feel that I've reached still another divide on the continent of motherhood.

This afternoon, when I wandered into the study, I observed Dinkie stooping over a Chesterfield pillow with his right hand upraised in a perplexingly dramatic manner. He turned scarlet when he saw me standing there watching him. But the question in my eyes did not escape him.

"I was pr'tendin' to be King Arthur when he found out Guinevere was in love with Launcelot," he rather lamely explained as he walked away to the window and stood staring out over the prairie. But for the life of me I can't understand what should have turned his thoughts into that particular channel of romance. Those are matters with which the young and the innocent should have nothing to do. They are matters, in fact, which it behooves even the old and the wary to eschew.

Sunday the Sixteenth

It seems strange, in such golden summer weather, that every man and woman and child on this sunbathed footstool of God shouldn't be sanely and supremely happy.... My husband, I am glad to say, is once more back in his home. And I have been realizing, the last few days, that home is an empty and foolish place without its man about. It's a ship without a captain, a clan without a chief. Yet I found it both depressing and humbling to be brought once more face to face with that particular fact.

Dinky-Dunk, on the other hand, has come back with both an odd sense of elation and an odd sense of estrangement. He has taken on a vague something which I find it impossible to define. He is blither and at the same time he is more solemnly abstracted. And he protests that his journey was a success.

"I'm going to ride two horses, from now on," he announced to me this morning. "I've got my chance and I'm going to grab it. I've swapped my Buckhorn lots for some inside Calgary stuff and I'm lumping everything that's left of my Coast deal for a third-interest in those Barcona coal-fields. There's a quarter of a million waiting there for the people with money enough to swing it. And I'm going to edge in while it's still open."

"But is it possible to ride two horses?" I asked, waywardly depressed by all this new-found optimism.

"It's got to be possible, until we find out which horse is the better traveler," announced Dinky-Dunk. Then he added, without caring to meet my eye: "And I can't say I see much promise of action out of this particular end of the team."

I must have flamed red, at that speech, for I thought at the moment he was referring to me. It was only after I'd turned the thing over in my mind, as I helped Struthers put together our new butter-worker, that I saw he really referred to Casa Grande. But my husband knows I will never part with this ranch. He will never be so foolish as to ask me to do that. Yet one thing is plain. His heart is no longer here. He will stick to this prairie farm of ours only for what he can get out of it.

Dinkie warmed the cockles of my heart by telling me this afternoon when we were out salting the horses that he never wanted to go away from Casa Grande and his mummy. The child, I imagine, had overheard some of this morning's talk. He put his arm around my knees and hugged me tight. And I could see the tawny look come into his hazel eyes speckled with brown. My Dinkie is a prairie child. His soul is not a cramped little soul, but has depth and wideness and undiscerned mysteries.

Sunday the Thirtieth

Two weeks have slipped by. Two weeks have gone, and left no record of their going. But a prairie home is a terribly busy one, at times, and it's idleness that leads to the ink-pot. I'm still trying to make the best of a none too promising situation, and I'll thole through, as Whinstane Sandy puts it. After breakfast this morning, in fact, when Pauline Augusta was swept by one of those little gales of lonesomeness to which children and women are so mysteriously subjected, she climbed up into my lap and I rocked her on my shoulder as I might have rocked a baby. Dinky-Dunk wandered in and inspected that performance with a slightly satiric eye. So, resenting his expression, I promptly began to sing:

"Bye-bye, Baby Bunting, Daddy's gone a-hunting, To gather up a pile of tin To wrap the Baby Bunting in!"

Dinky-Dunk, when the significance of this lilted flippancy of mine had sunk home, regarded me with a narrowed and none too friendly eye.

"Feeling a bit larkier than usual this morning, aren't you?" he inquired with what was merely a pretense at carelessness.

It was merely a pretense, I know, because we'd been over the old ground the night before, and the excursion hadn't added greatly to the happiness of either of us. Duncan, in fact, had rather horrified me by actually asking if I thought there was a chance of his borrowing eleven thousand dollars from Peter Ketley.

"We can't all trade on that man's generosity!" I cried, without giving much thought to the manner in which I was expressing myself.

"Oh, that's the way you feel about it!" retorted my husband. And I could see his face harden into Scotch granite. I could also see the look of perplexity in my small son's eyes as he stood studying his father.

"Is there anything abnormal in my feeling the way I do?" I parried, resenting the beetling brow of the Dour Man.

"Not if you regard him as your personal and particular fairy god-father," retorted my husband.

"I've no more reason for regarding him as that," I said as calmly as I could, "than I have for regarding him as a professional money-lender."

Duncan must have seen from my face that it would be dangerous to go much further. So he merely shrugged a flippant shoulder.

"They tell me he's got more money than he knows what to do with," he said with a heavy jocularity which couldn't quite rise.

"Then lightening his burdens is a form of charity we can scarcely afford to indulge in," I none too graciously remarked. And I saw my husband's face harden again.

"Well, I've got to have ready money and I've got to have it before the year's out," was his retort. He told me, when the air had cleared a little, that he'd have to open an office in Calgary as soon as harvesting was over. There was already too much at stake to take chances. Then he asked me if there were any circumstances under which I'd be willing to sell Casa Grande. And I told him, quite promptly and quite definitely, that there was none.

"Then how about the old Harris Ranch?" he finally inquired.

"But why should we sell that?" I asked. Alabama Ranch, I knew, was in my name, and I had always regarded it as a sort of nest-egg for the children. It was something put by for a rainy day, something to fall back on, if ill-luck ever overtook us again.

"Because I can double and treble every dollar we get out of it, inside of a year," averred Dinky-Dunk.

"But how am I to know that?" I contended, hating to seem hard and selfish and narrow in the teeth of an ambitious man's enterprise.

"You'd have to take my word for it," retorted my husband.

"But we've more than ourselves to consider," I contended, knowing he'd merely scoff at that harping on the old string of the children.

"That's why I intend to get out of this rut!" he cried with unexpected bitterness. And a few minutes later he made the suggestion that he'd deed Casa Grande entirely over to me if I'd consent to the sale of Alabama Ranch and give him a chance to swing the bigger plans he intended to swing.

The suggestion rather took my breath away. My rustic soul, I suppose, is stupidly averse to change. But I realize that when you travel in double-harness you can't forever pull back on your team-mate. So I've asked Dinky-Dunk to give me a few days to think the thing over.

Wednesday the Second

Casa Grande has had an invasion of visitors. It was precious old Percy and his Olga who blew in on us, after being swallowed up by the Big Silence for almost four long years. They came without warning, which is the free and easy way of the westerner, appearing in a mud-splattered and dust-covered Ford that had carried them blithely over two hundred and thirty miles of prairie trails. And with them they brought a quartet of rampageous young buckaroos who promptly turned our sedate homestead into a rodeo.

Percy himself is browner and stouter and more rubicund than I might have expected, with just a sprinkling of gray under his lopsided Stetson to announce that Time hasn't been standing still for any of us. But one would never have taken him for an ex-lunger. And there is a wholesomeness about the man, for all his quietness, which draws one to him. Olga herself still again impressed me as a Zorn etching come to life, as a Norse myth in petticoats, with the same old largeness of limb and the same old suggestion of sky-line vastnesses about her. She still looks as though the Lord had made her when the world was young and the women of Homer did their spinning in the sunlight. Some earlier touch of morning freshness is gone from her, it's true, for you can't move about with four little toddlers in your wake and still suggest the budding vine. But that morning freshness has been supplanted by a full and mellow noonday contentedness which is not without its placid appeal. To her husband, at any rate, she seems mysteriously perfect. He can still sit and stare at her with a startlingly uxorious eye. And she, in turn, bathes him in that pale lunar stare of meditative approval which says plainer than words just how much her "man" means to her.

Percy and his family stayed overnight with us and hit the trail again yesterday morning. An old friend of Percy's from Brasenose has taken a parish some forty odd miles south of Buckhorn—a parish, by the way, which ought to shake a little of the Oxford dreaminess out of his system—and Olga and her husband are "packing" their newly-arrived Toddler Number Four down to the new curate to have him christened.

We were all a bit shy and constrained, during our first hour together but this soon wore away. It wasn't long before Olga's offspring and mine were fraternizing together, over-running the bathroom tub and emptying our water-tank, and making a concerted attack on one of Dinky-Dunk's self-binders, which would have been dismantled in short order, if Percy hadn't gone out to investigate the cause of the sudden quiet.

"My boy loves everything with wheels," explained the proud Olga, in extenuation of her Junior's oil-blackened fingers.

That brought me up short, for I was on the point of making the same statement about my Dinkie. After thinking it over, in fact, I realized that every normal boy loves everything with wheels. And it began to dawn on me that there was nothing so extraordinary, after all, in my son's fondness for machinery. I began to see that he was merely one of a very wide-spread clan, when, an hour later, the entire excited six united in playing Indian about the haystacks, and kept it up until even the docile Pauline Augusta was driven to revolt against so persistently being the Pale-face captive. She announced that she was tired of being scalped. So, for variety's sake, the boys turned to riding and roping and hog-tying one another like the true little westerners they were, and many an imaginary brand was planted on many a bleating set of ribs.

But now they are gone, and I've been thinking a great deal about Olga. I fancy I have even been envying her a little. She's of that annealing softness which can rivet and hold a family together. I've even been trying to solace myself with the claim that she's a trifle ox-like in her make-up. But that is not being just to Olga. She makes a perfect wife. She is as tranquil-minded as summer moonlight on a convent-roof. She is as soft-spoken as a wind-harp swinging in an abbey door. She surrenders to the will of her husband and neither frets nor questions nor walks with discontent. I suppose she has a will of her own, packed somewhere away in that benignant big body of hers, but she never obtrudes it. She placidly awaits her time, as the bosom of the prairie awaits its harvesting. And I've been wondering if that really isn't the best type of woman for married life, the autumnally contented and pensively quiet woman who can remain unruffled by man and his meanderings.

I wasn't built according to that plan, and I suppose I've had to pay for it. I've just about concluded, in fact, that I would have been a hard nut for any man to crack. I've never been conspicuous for my efforts at self-obliteration. I've a temper that's as brittle as a squirrel bone. I'm too febrile and flightly, too chameleon-mooded and critical. The modern wife should be always a conservative. She should hold back her husband's impulses of nervous expenditure, conserving his tranquil-mindedness about the same as cotton-waste in a journal-box conserves oil. Heaven knows I started with theories enough—but I must be a good deal like old Schramm, that teacher of Heine's who was so busy inditing a study of Universal Peace that his boys had all the chance they could wish for pummeling one another. But I've been thinking, Reuben. And I'm going to see if I can't save what's left of the ship. I'm no Renaissance cherub on a cloudlet, but I'm going to knuckle down and see if I can't jibe along a little better with my old Dinky-Dunk. I've decided to back off and give him his chance. If he's set on selling Alabama Ranch, on the terms he's mentioned, I'm not going to object. He's determined to make money, to advance. And I don't want to see him accusing me of lying down in the shafts!... What is more, I'm going out in the fields, when the push is on, to help stook the wheat. That may wear me down and make me a little more like Olga.

Thursday the Tenth

It's difficult to be a woman, as the over-sensitive Jean Christophe once remarked. Men are without those confounding emotions which women seem to be both cursed with and blessed with. When I announced to Dinky-Dunk my willingness to part with Alabama Ranch, he took it quite as a matter of course. He betrayed no tendency to praise me for my sacrifices, for my willingness to surrender to strangers the land which had once been our home, the acres on which we'd once been happy and heavy-hearted. He merely remarked that under the circumstances it seemed the most sensible thing to do. There's a one-horse lawyer in Buckhorn who has been asking about the Harris Ranch and Dinky-Dunk says he suspects this inquiring one has a client up his sleeve.

What I had looked forward to as a talk which might possibly beat down a few of the barriers of reserve between us proved a bit of a disappointment. My husband refused to accept me as a heroine. And on his way out, as ill-luck would have it, he stopped to observe Pauline Augusta struggling over a letter to her "Uncle Peter." It was a maiden effort along that line and she was dictating her messages to Dinkie, who, in turn, was laboriously and carefully inscribing them on my writing-pad, with a nose and a sympathetically working tongue not more than ten inches away from the paper. Pauline Augusta, in fact, had just proclaimed to her amanuensis that "we had a geese for dinner to-day" when her father stopped to size up the situation.

"To whom are you describing the home circle?" questioned Pauline Augusta's parent, with an intonation that didn't escape me.

"It's a letter to Uncle Peter," explained Dinkie's little sister. And I could see Duncan's face harden.

"It's funny my whole family should fall for that damned Quaker!" were the words he flung over his shoulder at me as he walked out of the room.

Tuesday the Fifth

School has started again. And it's a solemn business, this matter of planting wisdom in little prairie heads. Dinky-Dunk, who has been up to his ears in haying and is now watching his grain with a nervous eye, remarked that our offspring would be once more mingling with Mennonites and Swedes and Galicians and Ukrainians. I resented that speech, though I said nothing in reply to it. But I decided to investigate Gershom's school.

So yesterday afternoon I drove over in the car. I had a blow-out on the way, a blow-out which I had to patch up with my own hands, so I arrived too late to inspect Gershom conducting his classes. It was almost four, in fact, before I got there, so I pulled up beside the school-gate and sat waiting for the children to come out. And as I sat there in the car-seat, under a sky of unimaginable blue, with the prairie wind whipping my face, I couldn't help studying that bald little temple of learning which stood out so clear-cut in the sharp northern sunlight. It was a plain little frame building set in one corner of a rancher's half-section, an acre of land marked off by a wire fence where the two trails crossed, the two long trails that melted away in the interminable distance. It seemed a lonely little house of scholarship, with its playground worn so bare that even two months of idleness had given scant harborage for the seeds that wind and bird must have brought there. But as I stared at it it seemed to take on a dignity all its own, the dignity of a fixed and far-off purpose. It was the nest of a nation's greatness. It was the outpost of civilization. It was the advance-guard of pioneering man, driving the wilderness deeper and deeper into the North. It was life preparing wistfully for the future.

From it I heard a sudden shrill chorus of voices and the clatter of feet, and I knew that the day's work was over. I saw the children emerge, like bees out of a beehive, and loneliness no longer reigned over that bald yard in the betraying northern sunlight. Yet they were not riotous, those children confronting the wine-like air of the open. They were more subdued than I had looked for, since I could only too easily remember one of my earlier calls for Dinkie at noon, when I found the entire class turned out and riding a rancher's pig, a heavy brood-sow that had in some luckless moment wandered into the school-yard and had been chased and raced until it was too weary to resent a young barbarian mounting its broad back and riding thereon, to the shouts of the other boys and the shrill cries of the girls. But now, from my car-seat, I could see Gershom surrounded by a multi-colored group of little figures, as he stopped to fix a strap-buckle on the school-bag of one of his pupils. And as he stood there in the slanting afternoon sunlight surrounded by his charges he suddenly made me think of the tall old priest in Sorolla's Triste Herencia surrounded by his waifs. I caught the echo of something benignant and Lincoln-like from that raw-boned figure in the big-lensed eye-glasses and the clothes that didn't quite fit him. And my respect for Gershom went up like a Chinook-fanned thermometer. He took those children of his seriously. He liked them. He was trying to give them the best that was in him. And that solemn purpose saved him, redeemed him, ennobled his baldness just as it ennobled the baldness of the four-square little frame building behind him. I don't know why it was, but for some reason or other that picture of the northern prairie and the gaunt school-teacher surrounded by his pupils in the thinning afternoon sunlight became memorable to me. It photographed itself on my mind, not sharply, but softened with a fringing prism of feeling, like a picture taken with what camera-men call a "soft-focus." It touched my heart, in some way, and threatened to bring a choke up into my foolish old throat.

It was Pauline Augusta who saw me first. She came toward the car with her strapped school-books and her lunch-box in her hand and a prim little smile on her slightly freckled face. She impressed me as a startingly shabby figure, in the old sealskin coat which I had made over for her, worn clean to the hide along the front, for even those early autumn days found a chill in the air when the sun began to get low. She had just climbed in beside me when I caught sight of Dinkie. I saw him come down the school-steps, stuffing something into the pocket of his reefer-jacket as he came. He looked startlingly tall, for a boy of his years. He seemed deep in thought. There was, indeed, an air of remoteness about him which for a moment rather startled me, an air of belonging, not to me, but to the world into which he was peering with such ardent young eyes. Then he caught sight of me, and at the same moment his face both lightened and brightened. He came toward the car quietly, none the less, and with that slightly sidewise twist of the body which overtakes him in his occasional moments of embarrassment, for it was plain that he stood averse to any undue display of emotion before his playmates. He merely said, "Hello, Mummy" and smiled awkwardly. But after he had climbed up into the car and wormed down between Pauline Augusta and me, and after I had tucked the old bear-robe about them and called out to Gershom that I'd carry my kiddies home, I could feel Dinkie's arm push shyly in behind my back and work its way as far around my waist as it was able to reach. He didn't speak. But his solemn little face gazed up at me, with its habitual hungry look, and I could see the hazel specks in the brown iris of the upturned eye as the arm tightened its hold on me. It made me ridiculously happy. For I knew that my boy loved me. And I love him. I love him so much that it brings a tapering spear-head of pain into my heart, and at the very moment I'm so happy I feel a tear just under the surface.

Sunday the Tenth

I have been reading Peter's latest letter to Dinkie, reading it for the second time. It is not so frolicsome as many of its fellows, but it impresses me as typical of its sender.

"I've to-day told fourteen cents' worth of postage-stamps to carry out to you, dear Dinkie, a copy of my own Tales from Homer, which may be muddy with a few big words but which the next year or two will surely see tramped down into easier going. You may not like it now, but later on, I know, you will like it better. For it tells of heroes and battles and travels which only a boy can really understand. It tells of the wanderings and adventures of strong and simple-hearted men, men who are as scarce, nowadays, as the shining helmets they used to wear. It tells of women superb and simple and lovely as goddesses, such as your own prairie might give birth to, such as your own mother must always seem to us. It tells of flashing temples and cities of marble overlooking singing seas of sapphire, of stately ships venturing over dark waters and landing on unknown islands, of siege and sword-fights and caves and giants and sea-goddesses and magic songs, and all that sunnier and simpler life which the world, as a prosaic old grown-up, has left behind....

"But I'm wrong in this, perhaps, for out in the land where you live there is still largeness and the gold-green ache of wonder beyond every sky-line. And I can't help envying you, Dinkie, for being a part of that world which is so much more heroic than mine. I live where a very shabby line of horse-cars used to run; and you live where the buffaloes used to run. I hear the rattle of the ash-cans in the morning; and you hear the song of the wind playing on the harp of summer. I pay five hundred dollars a year to wander about a smoky club no bigger than your corral; you wander about a Big Outdoors that rambles off up to the Arctic Circle itself. And you open a window at night and see the Aurora Borealis in all its beauty; and I open mine and observe an electric roof-sign announcing that Somebody's Tonic will take away my tired feeling. You put up your blind and see God's footstool bright with dew and dizzy with distance; I put up mine and overlook a wall of brick and mortar with one window wherein a fat man shaves himself. And you can go out in the morning and pick yellow crowfoot and range lilies; and all we can pick about this place of ours are milk-bottles and morning-papers packed full of murder and theft and tax-notices!"

Much of that letter, I know, was over Dinkie's head. But it carried a message or two to Dinkie's mother which in some way threw her heart into high. It was different from the letter that came the week before, the one arriving two days ahead of Kingsley's Water Babies with six lines of Hagedorn inscribed on its fly-leaf:

"And here you are to live, and help us live. Bend close and listen, bird with folded wings. Here is life's secret: Keep the upward glance; Remember Aries is your relative, The Moon's your uncle, and those twinkling things Your sisters and your cousins and your aunts!"

This letter seemed like the Peter Ketley we knew best, the sad-eyed Peter with the feather of courage in his cap, the Peter who could caper and make you forget that his heart had ever been heavy. For he wrote:

"This time, Dinkie-Boy, I'm going to tell you about the sea. For the water-tank, as I remember it, is the biggest sea you have at Casa Grande—unless you count the mud when winter breaks up! And your prairie, with its long waves of green, is, I suppose, really a sea that has gone to sleep. But I mean the truly honest-to-goodness sea which has tides and baby-whales and steamers and cramps and sea-serpents in it. You saw it once at Santa Monica, I know, though you may have been too small to remember. But yesterday, I motored to a place called Atlantic City where they sell picture post-cards and push you in a wheeled chair and let you sit on the sand and watch the Water Babies, whom the policemen send to jail if they so much as walk along the beach without their stockings on. These Water Babies were not in a bottle—like the ones you'll read about in the book—but I think there was a bottle or two in some of them, from the way they acted. But one of them was in a pickle, for Father Neptune caught her in his under-tow—which you must not mix up with his under-toe, something with which only the mermaids are familiar—and a life-guard had to swim out and bring her in. And a few minutes after that I saw a real beach-comber. I had read about them in the South Sea Islands, but had never seen one before. This one sat under a striped parasol, with a mirror between her knees, and combed and combed her hair until it was quite dry again. I was disappointed in her knees, because I was hoping, at first, she wouldn't have any, but would be a mermaid who had come up on the sand to sun herself and would have a long and tapering tail covered with scales like a tarpon's. But all she had was beach-shoes tied with silk ribbons, and I preferred watching the water. For when I watch the ocean I always feel like Mr. Hood and wish I was at least three small boys, so that I could pull off my three pairs of shoes and stockings and go paddling up to my six bare knees and let the rollers slap against my three startled little tummies and have thirty toes to step on the squids and star-fish with. And when I went back to the board-walk and watched all the gulls (I don't think I ever saw so many of 'em in one place at once) I couldn't help thinking it was too bad the Pilgrim Fathers didn't wait for three centuries and land at a bright and lively place like this, since it would have made them so much jollier and fizzier. They'd probably have turned the Mayflower into a diving-float and we'd never have had any Blue Laws to break and that curious thing known as The New England Conscience to keep us from being as happy as we feel we ought to be."

Sunday the Twenty-Fourth

Harvest is on us, and Casa Grande hums like a beehive. There are three extra "hands" to feed, and Whinnie is going about with a moody eye because Struthers is directing more attention than necessary toward one of the smooth-spoken cutthroats now nesting in our bunk-house. His name is Cuba Sebeck and in times of peace he professes to be a horse-wrangler. Struthers, intent on showing Whinnie that he is not the only man in her world, is placidly but patiently showering the lanky Cuba with a barrage of her fluffiest pastries. She has also given her hair an extra strong wash of sage-tea, which is Struthers' pet and particular way of putting on war-paint. Whinnie, I notice, shuts himself up after supper with that copy of Burns' poems we gave him last Christmas, morosely exiling himself from all the laughing and gaming and pow-wowing which takes place in the long cool twilights, just outside the bunk-house. Cuba undertook to serenade the dour one by donning certain portions of Struthers' apparel and playing my old banjo under his window. Whinnie quietly retaliated by emptying his bath-water on the musician's head—and the language was indescribable. I have been forced to speak to Dinky-Dunk, in fact, about the men's profanity before my children. It is something I will not endure. My husband, on the other hand, refuses to take the matter very seriously. But I have been keeping a close eye over my kiddies—and woe betide the horse-wrangler who uses unseemly language within their hearing. So far they seem to have gone through it unscathed, about the same as a child can go through the indecorous moments of The Arabian Nights, which stands profoundly wicked to only Arabs and old gentlemen.

Wednesday the Twenty-Eighth

Summer is slipping away. The days are shortening and there have been light frosts at night, but not enough to hurt Dinky-Dunk's late oats, which he has been watching with a worried eye. There is a saber-blade edge to the evening air now and we have been having some glorious displays of Northern Lights. I can't help feeling that these Merry Dancers of the Pole, as some one has called them, make up for what the prairie may lack in diversity. Dusk by dusk they drown our world in color, they smother our skies in glory. They are terrifying, sometimes, to the tenderfoot, giving him the feeling that his world is on fire. Poor old Struthers, during an especially active display, invariably gets out her Bible. Used to them as I am, I find they can still touch me with awe. They make me lonesome. They seem like the search-lights of God, showing up my human littlenesses of soul. They are Armadas of floating glory reminding me there are seas I can never traverse. And the farther north one goes, of course, the more magnificent the displays.

Last night we watched the auroral bands gather and grow in a cold green sky, straight to the north of us, and then waver and deepen until they reached the very zenith, where they hung, swaying curtains of fire. No wonder the redskins call that wild pageantry of color the ghost-dance of their gods. Even as we watched them, opal and gold and rose and orange and green, we could see them come wheeling down on our little world like an army of angels with incandescent swords. It made one imagine that the very heavens were aflame, going up in quivering veils of white and red and green. And when it was over I listened to a long argument about the Aurora Borealis, or the Aurora Polaris, as Gershom insisted it should be called.

Dinky-Dunk contended that one could hear these Northern Lights overhead, on a clear night. He described the sound as sometimes a faint crackling, like that of a comb drawn through your hair, and sometimes as a soft rustling noise, like the rustling of a silk petticoat heard through a closed door, coming closer and closer as the display wavered farther and farther toward the south.

Gershom was disposed to dispute this, so our old Klondiker, Whinstane Sandy, was called in to give evidence. He did so promptly and positively, saying he'd heard the Lights many a night in the Far North. Gershom is still unconvinced, but intends to look up his authorities on the matter. He attributes them to sun-spots and asserts it's a well-known fact they often put the telephone and telegraph wires out of commission. He has proposed that we sit up and study them some night, through his telescope, which he is disinterring from the bottom of his trunk....

My lord and master is going about with a less clouded eye, for he has succeeded in selling the Harris Ranch, and selling it for thirty-five hundred dollars more than he had expected. It is to go, eventually, to some tenderfoot out of the East, to some tenderfoot who can have very little definite knowledge of land-values in this jumping-off place on the edge of the world. But may that tenderfoot, whoever he is, be happy in his new home! Dinky-Dunk is now forever figuring up what he will get for his grain. He's preoccupied with his plans for branching out in the business world. His heart is no longer in his work here. I sometimes feel that we're all merely accidents in his life. And that feeling leaves me with a heart so heavy that I have to keep busy, or I'd fall to luxuriating in that self-pity which is good for neither man nor beast.

Yet Dinky-Dunk is not all hardness. He surprises me, now and then, by disturbing little gestures of boyishness. He announced to me the other night that the only way to get any use out of a worn-out husband was to revamp him, with the accent on the vamp. I understood what he meant, and I think I actually changed color a trifle. But I know of nothing more desolating than trying to make love to a man either against his will or against your own will. It would be a terrible thing to have him tell you there was no longer any kick in your kisses. So I remain on my dignity. I am companionable, and nothing more. When we were saying good-by, the last time he went off to the city, and he looked up at my perfunctory and quite meaningless peck on his cheek, I felt myself blushing before his quiet and half-quizzical stare. Then he laughed a little as he turned away and pulled on his gauntlets. "The sweeter the champagne, I suppose, the colder it should be served!" he rather cryptically remarked as he climbed into the waiting car. And yesterday he let his soul emerge from its tent of reticence when he climbed up on the wagon-box to stare out over his sea of all but ripened wheat. "Come, money!" he said, with his arms stretched out before him. Now, that was a trick which he had caught from my little Dinkie. I don't know how or where the boy first picked up the habit, but when he particularly wants something he stands solemnly out in the open, with his two little arms outstretched, as though he were supplicating Heaven itself, and says "Come, jack-knife!" or "Come, jelly-roll!" or "Come, rain!" according to his particular desires of the particular moment. I think he really caught it from an illustration in The Arabian Nights, from the picture of Cassim grandiloquently proclaiming "Open Sesame!" He is an imaginative little beggar. "Mummy," he said to me the other night, "see all the moonlight that's been spilled on the grass!" But children are made that way. Even my sage little Poppsy, when a marigold-leaf fell in the bowl of our solitary gold-fish, cried out to me: "See, Mummy, our fish has had a baby!" Sex is still an enigma to her, as much an enigma as it was away last spring when, not being quite sure whether her new kitten was a little boy-cat or a little girl-cat, she sagaciously christened it "Willie-Alice." And a few weeks later, when the unmistakable appearance of tail-feathers finally persuaded even her optimistic young heart that the two chicks which had been bequeathed to her were dishearteningly masculine in their tendencies, she officially re-christened the apostate "Elaine" and "Rowena," and thereafter solemnly accepted them as "Archie" and "Albert." And while speaking of this mysteriously ramifying factor of sex, I am compelled to acknowledge that I encountered a rather disturbing little back-flare of Freudian hell-fire only a couple of evenings ago. It took my thoughts galloping back to the time in our post-nuptial era when Dinky-Dunk went Berserker and chased me around the haystacks with my hair flying. I'd taken Dinkie upon my lap, and, without quite knowing it, sat stroking his frowsy young head. My thoughts, in fact, were a thousand miles away. Then, still without giving much attention to what I was doing, I squeezed that warm little body up close against my own. I was astounded, the next moment, to see my small offspring turn on me with all the lusty fierceness of the cave man. He got his arms about me and buried his face in my neck and kissed me as no gentleman, big or little, should ever kiss a lady. His small body was shaken with a subliminal and quite unexpected gust of feeling, just as I've seen a June-time garden shaken by an unexpected gust of wind. It passed away, of course, about as quickly as it came—but with it went a scattering of the white petals of childhood unconcern.

I don't suppose my poor little Dinkie has yet awakened to the fact that his body is a worn river-bed down which must race the freshets of far-off racial instincts. But the thing disturbed me more than I'd be willing to admit. There are murky corridors in the house of life. They stand there, and they must be faced. There are rooms where the air must be kept stirring, corners into which the clear sanity of sunlight must be thrown. Dinkie, since he has stepped into his first experience in the keeping of rabbits, has been asking me a number of rather disconcerting questions. His father, I notice, has the habit of half-diffidently referring the boy to me, just as I nursed the earlier habit of referring him to his father. But some time soon Dinkie and I will have to have a serious talk about this thing called Life, this Life which is so much more uncompromisingly brutal than the child-mind can conceive....

By the way, there's a lot of nonsense talked about motherhood softening women. It may soften them in some ways, but there are many others in which it hardens them. It draws their power of love together into a fixed point, just as the lens of a burning-glass concentrates the vague warmth of the sun into one small and fiercely illuminated area. It is a form of selfishness, I suppose, but it is a selfishness nature imposes upon us. And it is sanctified by the end it serves. At every turn, now, I find that I am thinking of my children. I seem to have my eyes set steadily on something far, far ahead. I'm not quite certain just what this something is. It's a sort of secret between me and the Master of Life. But the memory of it makes my days more endurable. It allows me to face the future without a quaver of regret. I am a woman, and I am no longer young. But it gives me courage to laugh in the teeth of Time.

And to laugh, to laugh whatever happens—that is the great thing! It isn't age I dread. But I'd hate to lose that lightness with which those blessed ones we call the young can move through the world, that self-renewing freshness which converts every daybreak into a dewy new world and mints every sunrise into a brand new life ... I asked Gershom to-day if he could possibly tell me how many Parker House rolls a square mile of wheat running forty bushels to the acre would make. And he surprised me by inquiring how many quarts of buttermilk it would take to shingle a cow. Gershom is widening out a bit....

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse