This same Allie has brought a lady's maid with her whom she addresses, more Anglico, simply by her surname of "Struthers." Struthers is a submerged and self-obliterating and patient-eyed woman of nearly forty, I should say, with a face that would be both intelligent and attractive, if it weren't so subservient. But I've a floaty sort of feeling that this same maid knows a little more than she lets on to know, and I'm wondering what western life will do to her. In one year's time, I'll wager a plugged nickel against an English sovereign, she'll not be sedately and patiently dining at second-table and murmuring "Yes, me Lady" in that meek and obedient manner. But it fairly took my breath, the adroit and expeditious manner in which Struthers had that welter of luggage unstrapped and unbuckled and warped into place and things stowed away, even down to her ladyship's rather ridiculous folding canvas bathtub. In little more than two shakes she had a shimmering litter of toilet things out on the dresser tops, and even a nickel alcohol-lamp set up for brewing the apparently essential cup of tea. It made me wish that I had a Struthers or two of my own on the string. And that made my thoughts go hurtling back to my old Hortense and how we had parted at the Hotel de L'Athenee, and to Theobald Gustav and his aunt the Baroness, and the old lost life that seemed such years and years away....
But I promptly put the lid down on those over-disturbing reminiscences. There should be no post-mortems in this family circle, no jeremiads over what has gone before. This is the New World and the new age where life is too crowded for regrets. I am a woman twenty-seven years old, married and the mother of three children. I am the wife of a rancher who went bust in a land-boom and is compelled to start life over again. I must stand beside him, and start from the bottom. I must also carry along with me all the hopes and prospects of three small lives. This, however, is something which I refuse to accept as a burden and a handicap. It is a weight attached to me, of course, but it's only the stabilizing weight which the tail contributes to the kite, allowing it, in the end, to fly higher and keep steadier. It won't seem hard to do without things, when I think of those kiddies of mine, and hard work should be a great and glorious gift, if it is to give them the start in life which they deserve. We'll no longer quarrel, Diddums and I, about whether Dinkie shall go to Harvard or McGill. There'll be much closer problems than that, I imagine, before Dinkie is out of his knickers. Fate has shaken us down to realities—and my present perplexity is to get possession of six new milk-pans and that new barrel-churn, not to mention the flannelette I simply must have for the Twins' new nighties!...
Saturday the Eleventh
These imperturbable English! I didn't know whether I should take off my hat to 'em or despise 'em. They seem to come out of a different mold to what we Americans do. Lady Alicia takes everything as a matter of course. She seems to have accepted one of the finest ranches west of the Peg as impassively as an old work-horse accepts a new shoe. Even the immensity of our western prairie-land hasn't quite stumped her. She acknowledged that Casa Grande was "quaint," and is obviously much more interested in Iroquois Annie, the latter being partly a Redskin, than in my humble self. I went up in her estimation a little, however, when I coolly accepted one of her cigarettes, of which she has brought enough to asphyxiate an army. I managed it all right, though it was nearly four long years since I'd flicked the ash off the end of one—in Chinkie's yacht going up to Monte Carlo. But I was glad enough to drop the bigger half of it quietly into my nasturtium window-box, when the lady wasn't looking.
The lady in question, by the way, seems rather disappointed to find that Casa Grande has what she called "central heating." About the middle of next February, when the thermometer is flirting with the forty-below mark, she may change her mind. I suppose the lady expected to get a lodge and a deer-park along with her new home, to say nothing of a picture 'all—open to the public on Fridays, admission one shilling—and a family ghost, and, of course, a terrace for the aforesaid ghost to ambulate along on moonlight nights.
But the thing that's been troubling me, all day long, is: Now that Lady Alicia has got her hand-made ranch, what's she going to do with it? I scarcely expect her to take me into her confidence on the matter, since she seems intent on regarding me as merely a bit of the landscape. The disturbing part of it all is that her aloofness is so unstudied, so indifferent in its lack of deliberation. It makes me feel like a bump on a log. I shouldn't so much mind being actively and martially snubbed, for that would give me something definite and tangible to grow combative over. But you can't cross swords with a Scotch mist.
With Dinky-Dunk her ladyship is quite different. I never see that look of mild impatience in her opaque blue eyes when he is talking. She flatters him openly, in fact, and a man takes to flattery, of course, as a kitten takes to cream. Yet with all her outspokenness I am conscious of a tremendous sense of reservation. Already, more than once, she has given me a feeling which I'd find it very hard to describe, a feeling as though we were being suspended over peril by something very fragile. It's the feeling you have when you stand on one of those frail little Alpine bridges that can sway so forebodingly with your own weight and remind you that nothing but a rustic paling or two separates you from the thousand-footed abysses below your heels.
But I mustn't paint the new mistress of Casa Grande all in dark colors. She has her good points, and a mind of her own, and a thought or two of her own. Dinky-Dunk was asking her about Egypt. That country, she retorted, was too dead for her. She couldn't wipe out of her heart the memory of what man had suffered along the banks of the Nile, during the last four thousand years, what millions of men had suffered there because of religion and war and caste.
"I could never be happy in a country of dead races and dead creeds and dead cities," protested Lady Alicia, with more emotion than I had expected. "And those are the things that always stare me in the face out there."
This brought the talk around to the New World.
"I rather fancy that a climate like yours up here," she coolly observed, "would make luxuries of furniture and dress, and convert what should be the accidents of life into essentials. You will always have to fight against nature, you know, and that makes man attach more importance to the quest of comfort. But when he lives in the tropics, in a surrounding that leaves him with few desires, he has time to sit down and think about his soul. That's why you can never have a great musician or a great poet in your land of blizzards, Cousin Dooncan. You are all kept too busy laying up nuts for the winter. You can't afford to turn gipsy and go off star-gazing."
"You can if you join the I. W. W.," I retorted. But the allusion was lost on her.
"I can't imagine a Shelley or a Theocritus up here on your prairie," she went on, "or a Marcus Aurelius in the real-estate business in Winnipeg."
Dinky-Dunk was able to smile at this, though I wasn't.
"But we have the glory of doing things," I contended, "and somebody, I believe, has summed up your Marcus Aurelius by saying he left behind him a couple of beautiful books, an execrable son, and a decaying nation. And we don't intend to decay! We don't live for the moment, it's true. But we live for To-morrow. We write epics in railway lines, and instead of working out sonnets we build new cities, and instead of sitting down under a palm-tree and twiddling our thumbs we turn a wilderness into a new nation, and grow grain and give bread to the hungry world where the gipsies don't seem quite able to make both ends meet!"
I had my say out, and Lady Alicia sat looking at me with a sort of mild and impersonal surprise. But she declined to argue about it all. And it was just as well she didn't, I suppose, for I had my Irish up and didn't intend to sit back and see my country maligned.
But on the way home to the Harris Ranch last night, with Dinky-Dunk silent and thoughtful, and a cold star or two in the high-arching heavens over us, I found that my little fire of enthusiasm had burnt itself out and those crazy lines of John Davidson kept returning to my mind:
"After the end of all things, After the years are spent, After the loom is broken, After the robe is rent, Will there be hearts a-beating, Will friend converse with friend, Will men and women be lovers, After the end?"
I felt very much alone in the world, and about as cheerful as a moonstruck coyote, after those lines had rattled in my empty brain like a skeleton in the wind. It wasn't until I saw the light in our wickiup window and heard Bobs' bay of welcome through the crystal-clear twilight that the leaden weight of desolation slipped off the ledge of my heart. But as I heard that deep-noted bark of gladness, that friendly intimation of guardianship unrelaxed and untiring, I remembered that I had one faithful and unexacting friend, even though it was nothing better than a dog.
Sunday the Twelfth
Dinky-Dunk rather surprised me to-day by asking why I was so stand-offish with his Cousin Allie. I told him that I wasn't in the habit of curling up like a kitten on a slab of Polar ice.
"But she really likes you, Tabbie," my husband protested. "She wants to know you and understand you. Only you keep intimidating her, and placing her at a disadvantage."
This was news to me. Lady Alicia, I'd imagined, stood in awe of nothing on the earth beneath nor the heavens above. She can speak very sharply, I've already noticed, to Struthers, when the occasion arises. And she's been very calm and deliberate, as I've already observed, in her manner of taking over Casa Grande. For she has formally taken it over, Dinky-Dunk tells me, and in a day or two we all have to trek to town for the signing of the papers. She is, apparently, going to run the ranch on her own hook, and in her own way. It will be well worth watching.
I was rather anxious to hear the particulars of the transfer to Lady Allie, but Dinky-Dunk seemed a little reluctant to go into details, and I didn't intend to make a parade of my curiosity. I can bide my time.... Yesterday I put on my old riding-suit, saddled Paddy, fed the Twins to their last mouthful, and went galloping off through the mud to help bring the cattle over to the Harris Ranch. I was a sight, in that weather-stained old suit and ragged toppers, even before I got freckled and splashed with prairie-mud. I was standing up in the stirrups laughing at Francois, who'd had a bad slip and fallen in a puddle just back of our old corral, when her Ladyship came out. She must have taken me for a drunken cowboy who'd rolled into a sheep-dip, for my nose was red and my old Stetson sombrero was crooked on the back of my head and even my hair was caked with mud. She called to me, rather imperiously, so I went stampeding up to her, and let Paddy indulge in that theatrical stop-slide of his, on his haunches, so that it wasn't until his nose was within two feet of her own that she could be quite sure she wasn't about to be run down.
Her eyes popped a little when she saw it was a woman on Paddy, though she'd refused to show a trace of fear when we went avalanching down on her. Then she studied my get-up.
"I should rather like to ride that way," she coolly announced.
"It's the only way," I told her, making Paddy pirouette by pressing a heel against his short-ribs. She meant, of course, riding astride, which must have struck her as the final word in audacity.
"I like your pony," next remarked Lady Alicia, with a somewhat wistful intonation in her voice.
"He's a brick," I acknowledged. Then I swung about to help Francois head off a bunch of rampaging steers. "Come and see us," I called back over my shoulder. If Lady Alicia answered, I didn't have time to catch what she said.
But that romp on Paddy has done me good. It shook the solemnity out of me. I've just decided that I'm not going to surrender to this middle-aged Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire stuff before my time. I'm going to refuse to grow old and poky. I'm going to keep the spark alive, the sacred spark of youth, even though folks write me down as the biggest loon west of the Dirt Hills. So dear Lord—this is my prayer—whatever You do to me, keep me alive. O God, don't let me, in Thy divine mercy, be a Dead One. Don't let me be a soured woman with a self-murdered soul. Keep the wine of youth in my body and the hope of happiness in my heart. Yea, permit me deeply to live and love and laugh, so that youth may abide in my bones, even as it did in that once-renowned Duchess of Lienster,
Who lived to the age of a hundred and ten, To die of a fall from a cherry-tree then!
My poor old Dinky-Dunk, by the way, meanders about these days so moody and morose it's beginning to disturb me. He's at the end of his string, and picked clean to the bone, and I'm beginning to see that it's my duty to buoy that man up, to nurse him back into a respectable belief in himself. His nerves are a bit raw, and he's not always responsible for his manners. The other night he came in tired, and tried to read, when Poppsy and Pee-Wee were both going it like the Russian Balalaika. To tell the truth, their little tummies were a bit upset, because the food purveyor had had too strenuous a day to be regular in her rounds.
"Can't you keep those squalling brats quiet?" Dinky-Dunk called out to me. It came like a thunder clap. It left me gasping, to think that he could call his own flesh and blood "squalling brats." And I was shocked and hurt, but I decided not to show it.
"Will somebody kindly page Lord Chesterfield?" I quietly remarked as I went to the Twins and wheeled them out to the kitchen, where I gave them hot peppermint and rubbed their backs and quieted them down again.
I suppose there's no such thing as a perfect husband. That's a lesson we've all got to learn, the same as all children, apparently, have to find out that acorns and horse-chestnuts aren't edible. For the nap wears off men the same as it does off clothes. I dread to have to write it down, but I begin to detect thinnesses in Dinky-Dunk, and a disturbing little run or two in the even web of his character. But he knows when he's played Indian and attempts oblique and rather shamefaced efforts to make amends, later on, when it won't be too noticeable. Last night, as I sat sewing, our little Dinkie must have had a bad dream, for he wakened from a sound sleep with a scream of terror. Dinky-Dunk went to him first, and took him up and sang to him, and when I glanced in I saw a rumply and tumbly and sleepy-eyed tot with his kinky head against his father's shoulder. As I took up my sewing again and heard Dinky-Dunk singing to his son, it seemed a proud and happy and contented sort of voice. It rose and fell in that next room, in a sort of droning bass, and for the life of me I can't tell why, but as I stopped in my sewing and sat listening to that father singing to his sleepy-eyed first-born, it brought the sudden tears to my eyes. It has been a considerable length of time, en passant, since I found myself sitting down and pumping the brine. I must be getting hardened in my old age.
Tuesday the Fourteenth
Lady Allie sent over for Dinky-Dunk yesterday morning, to fix the windmill at Casa Grande. They'd put it out of commission in the first week, and emptied the pressure-tank, and were without water, and were as helpless as a couple of canaries. We have a broken windmill of our own, right here at home, but Diddums went meekly enough, although he was in the midst of his morning work—and work is about to loom big over this ranch, for we're at last able to get on the land. And the sooner you get on the land, in this latitude, the surer you are of your crop. We daren't shave down any margins of chance. We need that crop....
I am really beginning to despair of Iroquois Annie. She is the only thing I can get in the way of hired help out here, and yet she is hopeless. She is sullen and wasteful, and she has never yet learned to be patient with the children. I try to soften and placate her with the gift of trinkets, for there is enough Redskin in her to make her inordinately proud of anything with a bit of flash and glitter to it. But she is about as responsive to actual kindness as a diamond-back rattler would be, and some day, if she drives me too far, I'm going off at half-cock and blow that breed into mince-meat.
By the way, I can see myself writ small in little Dinkie, my moods and waywardnesses and wicked impulses, and sudden chinooks of tenderness alternating with a perverse sort of shrinking away from love itself, even when I'm hungering for it. I can also catch signs of his pater's masterfulness cropping out in him. Small as he is, he disturbs me by that combative stare of his. It's almost a silent challenge I see in his eyes as he coolly studies me, after a proclamation that he will be spanked if he repeats a given misdeed.
I'm beginning to understand the meaning of that very old phrase about one's chickens coming home to roost. I can even detect sudden impulses of cruelty in little Dinkie, when, young and tender as he appears to the casual eye, a quick and wilful passion to hurt something takes possession of him. Yesterday I watched him catch up his one-eyed Teddy Bear, which he loves, and beat its head against the shack-floor. Sometimes, too, he'll take possession of a plate and fling it to the floor with all his force, even though he knows such an act is surely followed by punishment. It's the same with Poppsy and Pee-Wee, with whom he is apt to be over-rough, though his offenses in that direction may still be touched with just a coloring of childish jealousy, long and arduously as I struggle to implant some trace of fraternal feeling in his anarchistic little breast. There are even times, after he's been hugging my knees or perhaps stroking my cheek with his little velvet hands and murmuring "Maaa-maa!" in his small and bird-like coo, when he will suddenly turn savage and try to bite my patella or pull my ear out by the root.
Most of this cruelty, I think, is born of a sheer excess of animal spirits. But not all of it. Some of it is based on downright wilfulness. I have seen him do without things he really wanted, rather than unbend and say the necessary "Ta-ta" which stands for both "please" and "thanks" in his still limited vocabulary. The little Hun will also fall on his picture-books, at times, and do his best to tear the linen pages apart, flailing them about in the air with genuine Berserker madness. But along with this, as I've already said, he has his equally sudden impulses of affection, especially when he first wakens in the morning and his little body seems to be singing with the pure joy of living. He'll smooth my hair, after I've lifted him from the crib into my bed, and bury his face in the hollow of my neck and kiss my cheek and pat my forehead and coo over me until I squeeze him so hard he has to grunt. Then he'll probably do his best to pick my eyes out, if I pretend to be asleep, or experiment with the end of my nose, to see why it doesn't lift up like a door-knocker. Then he'll snuggle down in the crook of my arm, perfectly still except for the wriggling of his toes against my hip, and croon there with happiness and contentment, like a ring-neck dove.
Friday the Seventeenth
Lady Allie couldn't have been picked quite clean to the bone by the McKails, for she's announced her intention of buying a touring-car and a gasoline-engine and has had a conference with Dinky-Dunk on the matter. She also sent to Montreal for the niftiest little English sailor suit, for Dinkie, together with a sailor hat that has "Agamemnon" printed in gold letters on its band.
I ought to be enthusiastic about it, but I can't. Dinkie himself, however, who calls it his "new nailor nuit"—not being yet able to manage the sibilants—struts about in it proud as a peacock, and refuses to sit down in his supper-chair until Ikkie has carefully wiped off the seat of the same, to the end that the beloved nailor nuit might remain immaculate. He'll lose his reverence for it, of course, when he knows it better. It's a habit men have, big or little.
Lady Allie has confessed that she is succumbing to the charm of prairie life. It ought to make her more of a woman and less of a silk-lined idler. Dinky-Dunk still nurses the illusion that she is delicate, and manages to get a lot of glory out of that clinging-vine pose of hers, big oak that he is! But it is simply absurd, the way he falls for her flattery. She's making him believe that he's a twentieth-century St. Augustine and a Saint Christopher all rolled into one. Poor old Dinky-Dunk, I'll have to keep an eye on him or they'll be turning his head, for all its gray hairs. He is wax in the hand of designing beauty, as are most of the race of man. And the fair Allie, I must acknowledge, is dangerously appealing to the eye. It's no wonder poor old Dinky-Dunk nearly broke his neck trying to teach her to ride astride. But I intend to give her ladyship an inkling, before long, that I'm not quite so stupid as I seem to be. She mustn't imagine she can "vamp" my Kaikobad with impunity. It's a case of any port in a storm, I suppose, for she has to practise on somebody. But I must say she looks well on horseback and can lay claim to a poise that always exacts its toll of respect. She rides hard, though I imagine she would be unwittingly cruel to her mount. Yet she has been more offhanded and friendly, the last two or three times she has dropped over to the shack, and she is kind to the kiddies, especially Dinkie. She seems genuinely and unaffectedly fond of him. As for me, she thinks I'm hard, I feel sure, and is secretly studying me—trying to decipher, I suppose, what her sainted cousin could ever see in me to kick up a dust about!
Lady Allie's London togs, by the way, make me feel rather shoddy and slattern. I intend to swing in a little stronger for personal adornment, as soon as we get things going again. When a woman gives up, in that respect, she's surely a goner. And I may be a hard-handed and slabsided prairie huzzy, but there was a time when I stood beside the big palms by the fountain in the conservatory of Prince Ernest de Ligne's Brussels house in the Rue Montoyer and the Marquis of What-Ever-His-Name-Was bowed and set all the orders on his chest shaking when he kissed my hand and proclaimed that I was the most beautiful woman in Belgium!
Yes, there was such a time. But it was a long, long time ago, and I never thought then I'd be a rancher's wife with a barrel-churn to scald out once a week and a wheezy old pump to prime in the morning and a little hanging garden of Babylon full of babies to keep warm and to keep fed and to keep from falling on their boneless little cocos! I might even have married Theobald Gustav von Brockdorff and turned into an embassy ball lizard and ascended into the old family landau of his aunt the baroness, to disport along the boulevards therein very much like an oyster on the half-shell. I might have done all that, and I might not. But it's all for the best, as the greatest pessimist who ever drew the breath of life once tried to teach in his Candide. And in my career, as I have already written, there shall be no jeremiads.
Sunday the Nineteenth
I've been trying to keep tab on the Twins' weight, for it's important that they should gain according to schedule. But I've only Dinky-Dunk's bulky grain-scales, and it's impossible to figure down to anything as fine as ounces or even quarter-pounds on such a balancer. Yet my babies, I'm afraid, are not gaining as they ought. Poppsy is especially fretful of late. Why can't somebody invent children without colic, anyway? I have a feeling that I ought to run on low gear for a while. But that's a luxury I can't quite afford.
Last night, when I was dead-tired and trying to give the last licks to my day's work without doing a Keystone fall over the kitchen table, Dinky-Dunk said: "Why haven't you ever given a name to this new place? They tell me you have a genius for naming things—and here we are still dubbing our home the Harris shack."
"I suppose it ought to be an Indian name, in honor of Ikkie?" I suggested, doing my best to maintain an unruffled front. And Duncan Argyll absently agreed that it might just as well.
"Then what's the matter with calling it Alabama?" I mordantly suggested. "For as I remember it, that means 'Here we rest.' And I can imagine nothing more appropriate."
I was half-sorry I said it, for the Lord deliver me always from a sarcastic woman. But I've a feeling that the name is going to stick, whether we want it or not. At any rate, Alabama Ranch has rather a musical turn to it....
I wonder if there are any really perfect children in the world? Or do the good little boys and girls only belong to that sentimentalized mid-Victorian fiction which tried so hard to make the world like a cross between an old maid's herb-garden and a Sunday afternoon in a London suburb? I have tried talking with little Dinkie, and reasoning with him. I have striven long and patiently to blow his little spark of conscience into the active flame of self-judgment. And averse as I am to cruelty and hardness, much as I hate the humiliation of physical punishment, my poor kiddie and I can't get along without the slipper. I have to spank him, and spank him soundly, about once a week. I'm driven to this, or there'd be no sleep nor rest nor roof about our heads at Alabama Ranch. I don't give a rip what Barrie may have written about the bringing up of children—for he never had any of his own! He never had an imperious young autocrat to democratize. He never had a family to de-barbarize, even though he did write very pretty books about the subject. It's just another case, I suppose, where fiction is too cowardly or too finicky to be truthful. I had theories about this child-business myself, at one time, but my pipe of illusion has plumb gone out. It wasn't so many years ago that I imagined about all a mother had to do was to dress in clinging negligees, such as you see in the toilet-soap advertisements, and hold a spotless little saint on her knee, or have a miraculously docile nurse in cap and apron carry in a little paragon all done up in dotted Swiss and rose-pink, and pose for family groups, not unlike popular prints of the royal family in full evening dress, on Louis Quinze settees. And later on, of course, one could ride out with a row of sedate little princelings at one's side, so that one could murmur, when the world marveled at their manners, "It's blood, my dears, merely blood!"
But fled, and fled forever, are all such dreams. Dinkie prefers treading on his bread-and-butter before consuming it, and does his best to consume the workings of my sewing-machine, and pokes the spoons down through the crack in the kitchen floor, and betrays a weakness for yard-mud and dust in preference to the well-scrubbed boards of the sleeping porch, which I've tried to turn into a sort of nursery by day. Most fiction, I find, glides lightly over this eternal Waterloo between dirt and water—for no active and healthy child is easy to keep clean. That is something which you never, never, really succeed at. All that you can do is to keep up the struggle, consoling yourself with the memory that cleanness, even surgical cleanness, is only an approximation. The plain everyday sort of cleanness promptly resolves itself into a sort of neck and neck race with dirt and disorder, a neck and neck race with the soap-bar habitually running second. Sometimes it seems hopeless. For it's incredible what can happen to an active-bodied boy of two or three years in one brief but crowded afternoon. It's equally amazing what can happen to a respectably furnished room after a healthy and high-spirited young Turk has been turned loose in it for an hour or two.
It's a battle, all right. But it has its compensations. It has to, or the race would wither up like an unwatered cucumber-vine. Who doesn't really love to tub a plump and dimpled little body like my Dinkie's? I'm no petticoated Paul Peel, but I can see enough beauty in the curves of that velvety body to lift it up and bite it on its promptly protesting little flank. And there's unclouded glory in occasionally togging him out in spotless white, and beholding him as immaculate as a cherub, if only for one brief half-hour. It's the transiency of that spotlessness, I suppose, which crowns it with glory. If he was forever in that condition, we'd be as indifferent to it as we are to immortelles and wax flowers. If he was always cherubic and perfect, I suppose, we'd never appreciate that perfection or know the joy of triumphing over the mother earth that has an affinity for the finest of us.
But I do miss a real nursery, in more ways than one. The absence of one gives Dinkie the range of the whole shack, and when on the range he's a timber-wolf for trouble, and can annoy his father even more than he can me by his depredations. Last night after supper I heard an icy voice speaking from the end of the dining-room where Dinky-Dunk has installed his desk.
"Will you kindly come and see what your son has done?" my husband demanded, with a sort of in-this-way-madness-lies tone.
I stepped in through the kitchen door, ignoring the quite unconscious humor of "my son" under the circumstances, and found that Dinkie had provided a novel flavor for his dad by emptying the bottle of ink into his brand-new tin of pipe-tobacco. There was nothing to be done, of course, except to wash as much of the ink as I could off Dinkie's face. Nor did I reveal to his father that three days before I had carefully compiled a list of his son and heir's misdeeds, for one round of the clock. They were, I find, as follows:
Overturning a newly opened tin of raspberries, putting bread-dough in his ears; breaking my nail-buffer, which, however, I haven't used for a month and more; paring the bark, with the bread-knife, off the lonely little scrub poplar near the kitchen door, our one and only shade; breaking a drinking-glass, which was accident; cutting holes with the scissors in Ikkie's new service-apron; removing the covers from two of his father's engineering books; severing the wire joint in my sewing-machine belt (expeditiously and secretly mended by Whinnie, however, when he came in with the milk-pails); emptying what was left of my bottle of vanilla into the bread mixer; and last but not least, trying to swallow and nearly choking on my silver thimble, in which he seems to find never-ending disappointment because it will not remain fixed on the point of his nose.
It may sound like a busy day, but it was, on the whole, merely an average one. Yet I'll wager a bushel of number one Northern winter wheat to a doughnut ring that if Ibsen had written an epilogue for The Doll's House, Nora would have come crawling back to her home and her kiddies, in the end.
Wednesday the Twenty-second
Lady Allie is either dunderheaded or designing. She has calmly suggested that her rural phone-line be extended from Casa Grande to Alabama Ranch so that she can get in touch with Dinky-Dunk when she needs his help and guidance. Even as it is, he's called on about five times a week, to run to the help of that she-remittance-man in corduroy and dog-skin gauntlets and leggings.
She seems thunderstruck to find that she can't get the hired help she wants, at a moment's notice. Dinky-Dunk says she's sure to be imposed on, and that although she's as green as grass, she's really anxious to learn. He feels that it's his duty to stand between her and the outsiders who'd be only too ready to impose on her ignorance.
She rode over to see the Twins yesterday, who were sleeping out under the fly-netting I'd draped over them, the pink-tinted kind they put over fruit-baskets in the city markets and shops. Poppsy and Pee-Wee looked exactly like two peaches, rosy and warm and round.
Lady Allie stared at them with rather an abstracted eye, and then, idiot that she is, announced that she'd like to have twelve. But talk is cheap. The modern woman who's had even half that number has pretty well given up her life to her family. It's remarkable, by the way, the silent and fathomless pity I've come to have for childless women. The thought of a fat spinster fussing over a French poodle or a faded blond forlornly mothering a Pekinese chow gives me a feeling that is at least first cousin to sea-sickness.
Lady Allie, I find, has very fixed and definite theories as to the rearing of children. They should never be rocked or patted, or be given a "comfort," and they should be in bed for the night at sundown. There was a time I had a few theories of my own, but I've pretty well abandoned them. I've been taught, in this respect, to travel light, as the overland voyageurs of this country would express it, to travel light and leave the final resort to instinct.
Friday the Twenty-fourth
I was lazy last night, so both the ink-pot and its owner had a rest. Or perhaps it wasn't so much laziness as wilful revolt against the monotony of work, for, after all, it's not the 'unting as 'urts the 'osses, but the 'ammer, 'ammer, 'ammer on the 'ard old road! I loafed for a long time in a sort of sit-easy torpor, with Bobs' head between my knees while Dinky-Dunk pored over descriptive catalogues about farm-tractors, for by hook or by crook we've got to have a tractor for Alabama Ranch.
"Bobs," I said after studying my collie's eyes for a good many minutes, "you are surely one grand old dog!"
Whereupon Bobs wagged his tail-stump with sleepy content. As I bent lower and stared closer into those humid eyes of his, it seemed as though I were staring down into a bottomless well, through a peep-hole into Infinity, so deep and wonderful was that eye, that dusky pool of love and trust. It was like seeing into the velvet-soft recesses of a soul. And I could stare into them without fear, just as Bobs could stare back without shame. That's where dogs are slightly different from men. If I looked into a man's eye like that he'd either rudely inquire just what the devil I was gaping at or he'd want to ask me out to supper in one of those Pompeian places where a bald-headed waiter serves lobsters in a chambre particuliere.
But all I could see in the eye of my sedate old Bobs was love, love infinite and inarticulate, love too big ever to be put into words.
"Dinky-Dunk," I said, interrupting my lord and master at his reading, "if God is really love, as the Good Book says, I don't see why they ever started talking about the Lamb of God."
"Why shouldn't they?" asked Diddums, not much interested.
"Because lambs may be artless and innocent little things, but when you've got their innocence you've got about everything. They're not the least bit intelligent, and they're self-centered and self-immured. Now, with dogs it's different. Dogs love you and guard you and ache to serve you." And I couldn't help stopping to think about the dogs I'd known and loved, the dogs who once meant so much in my life: Chinkie's Bingo, with his big baptizing tongue and his momentary rainbow as he emerged from the water and shook himself with my stick still in his mouth; Timmie with his ineradicable hatred for cats; Maxie with all his tricks and his singsong of howls when the piano played; Schnider, with his mania for my slippers and undies, which he carried into most unexpected quarters; and Gyp, God bless him, who was so homely of face and form but so true blue in temper and trust.
"Life, to a dog," I went on, "really means devotion to man, doesn't it?"
"What are you driving at, anyway?" asked Dinky-Dunk.
"I was just wondering," I said as I sat staring into Bobs' eyes, "how strange it would be if, after all, God was really a dog, the loving and faithful Watch-Dog of His universe!"
"Please don't be blasphemous," Dinky-Dunk coldly remarked.
"But I'm not blasphemous," I tried to tell him. "And I was never more serious in my life. There's even something sacred about it, once you look at it in the right way. Just think of the Shepherd-Dog of the Stars, the vigilant and affectionate Watcher who keeps the wandering worlds in their folds! That's not one bit worse than the lamb idea, only we've got so used to the lamb it doesn't shock us into attention any more. Why, just look at these eyes of Bobs right now. There's more nobility and devotion and trust and love in them than was ever in all the eyes of all the lambs that ever frisked about the fields and sheep-folds from Dan to Beersheba!"
"Your theory, I believe, is entertained by the Igorrotes," remarked Dinky-Dunk as he made a pretense of turning back to his tractor-pamphlet. "The Igorrotes and other barbarians," he repeated, so as to be sure the screw was being turned in the proper direction.
"And now I know why she said the more she knew about men the better she liked dogs," I just as coldly remarked, remembering Madame de Stael. "And I believe you're jealous of poor old Bobs just because he loves me more than you do."
Dinky-Dunk put down his pamphlet. Then he called Bobs over to his side of the table. But Bobs, I noticed, didn't go until I'd nodded approval. So Dinky-Dunk took his turn at sitting with Bobs' nose in his hand and staring down into the fathomless orbs that stared up at him.
"You'll never get a lady, me lud, to look up at you like that," I told him.
"Perhaps they have," retorted Dinky-Dunk, with his face slightly averted.
"And having done so in the past, there's the natural chance that they'll do so in the future," I retorted, making it half a question and half a statement. But he seemed none too pleased at that thrust, and he didn't even answer me when I told him I supposed I was his Airedale, because they say an Airedale is a one-man dog.
"Then don't at least get distemper," observed my Kaikobad, very quietly, over the top of his tractor-catalogue.
I made no sign that I had heard him. But Dinky-Dunk would never have spoken to me that way, three short years ago. And I imagine he knows it. For, after all, a change has been taking place, insubstantial and unseen and subterranean, a settling of the foundations of life which comes not only to a building as it grows older but also to the heart as it grows older. And I'm worried about the future.
Monday the—Monday the I-forget-what
It's Monday, blue Monday, that's all I remember, except that there's a rift in the lute of life at Alabama Ranch. Yesterday of course was Sunday. And out of that day of rest Dinky-Dunk spent just five hours over at Casa Grande. When he showed up, rather silent and constrained and an hour and a half late for dinner, I asked him what had happened.
He explained that he'd been adjusting the carbureter on Lady Alicia's new car.
"Don't you think, Duncan," I said, trying to speak calmly, though I was by no means calm inside, "that it's rather a sacrifice of dignity, holding yourself at that woman's beck and call?"
"We happen to be under a slight debt of obligation to that woman," my husband retorted, clearly more upset than I imagined he could be.
"But, Dinky-Dunk, you're not her hired man," I protested, wondering how, without hurting him, I could make him see the thing from my standpoint.
"No, but that's about what I'm going to become," was his altogether unexpected answer.
"I can't say that I quite understand you," I told him, with a sick feeling which I found it hard to keep under. Yet he must have noticed something amusingly tragic in my attitude, for he laughed, though it wasn't without a touch of bitterness. And laughter, under the circumstances, didn't altogether add to my happiness.
"I simply mean that Allie's made me an offer of a hundred and fifty dollars a month to become her ranch-manager," Dinky-Dunk announced with a casualness that was patently forced. "And as I can't wring that much out of this half-section, and as I'd only be four-flushing if I let outsiders come in and take everything away from a tenderfoot, I don't see—"
"And such a lovely tenderfoot," I interrupted.
"—I don't see why it isn't the decent and reasonable thing," concluded my husband, without stooping to acknowledge the interruption, "to accept that offer."
I understood, in a way, every word he was saying; yet it seemed several minutes before the real meaning of a somewhat startling situation seeped through to my brain.
"But surely, if we get a crop," I began. It was, however, a lame beginning. And like most lame beginnings, it didn't go far.
"How are we going to get a crop when we can't even raise money enough to get a tractor?" was Dinky-Dunk's challenge. "When we haven't help, and we're short of seed-grain, and we can't even get a gang-plow on credit?"
It didn't sound like my Dinky-Dunk of old, for I knew that he was equivocating and making excuses, that he was engineering our ill luck into an apology for worse conduct. But I was afraid of myself, even more than I was afraid of Dinky-Dunk. And the voice of Instinct kept whispering to me to be patient.
"Why couldn't we sell off some of the steers?" I valiantly suggested.
"It's the wrong season for selling steers," Dinky-Dunk replied with a ponderous sort of patience. "And besides, those cattle don't belong to me."
"Then whose are they?" I demanded.
"They're yours," retorted Dinky-Dunk, and I found his hair-splitting, at such a time, singularly exasperating.
"I rather imagine they belonged to the family, if you intend it to remain a family."
He winced at that, as I had proposed that he should.
"It seems to be getting a dangerously divided one," he flung back, with a quick and hostile glance in my direction.
I was ready to fly to pieces, like a barrel that's lost its hoops. But a thin and quavery and over-disturbing sound from the swing-box out on the sleeping-porch brought me up short. It was a pizzicato note which I promptly recognized as the gentle Pee-Wee's advertisement of wakefulness. So I beat a quick and involuntary retreat, knowing only too well what I'd have ahead of me if Poppsy joined in to make that solo a duet.
But Pee-Wee refused to be silenced, and what Dinky-Dunk had just said felt more and more like a branding-iron against my breast. So I carried my wailing infant back to the dinner-table where my husband still stood beside his empty chair. The hostile eye with which he regarded the belcantoing Pee-Wee reminded me of the time he'd spoken of his own off-spring as "squalling brats." And the memory wasn't a tranquillizing one. It was still another spur roweling me back to the ring of combat.
"Then you've decided to take that position?" I demanded as I surveyed the cooling roast-beef and the fallen Yorkshire pudding.
"As soon as they can fix up my sleeping-quarters in the bunk-house over at Casa Grande," was Dinky-Dunk's reply. He tried to say it casually, but didn't quite succeed, for I could see his color deepen a little. And this, in turn, led to a second only too obvious gesture of self-defense.
"My monthly check, of course, will be delivered to you," he announced, with an averted eye.
"Why to me?" I coldly inquired.
"It wouldn't be of much use to me," he retorted. And I resented his basking thus openly in the fires of martyrdom.
"In that case," I asked, "what satisfaction are you getting out of your new position?"
That sent the color ebbing from his face again, and he looked at me as I'd never seen him look at me before. We'd both been mauled by the paw of Destiny, and we were both nursing ragged nerves and oversensitized spirits, facing each other as irritable as teased rattlers, ready to thump rocks with our head. More than once I'd heard Dinky-Dunk proclaim that the right sort of people never bickered and quarreled. And I remembered Theobald Gustav's pet aphorism to the effect that Hassen machts nichts. But life had its limits. And I wasn't one of those pink-eared shivery little white mice who could be intimidated into tears by a frown of disapproval from my imperial mate. And married life, after all, is only a sort of guerre d'usure.
"And you think you're doing the right thing?" I demanded of my husband, not without derision, confronting him with a challenge on my face and a bawling Pee-Wee on my hip.
"That child seems to have its mother's disposition," he murmured, ignoring my question.
"The prospects of its acquiring anything better from its father seem rather remote," I retorted, striking blindly. For that over-deft adding of insult to injury had awakened every last one of my seven sleeping devils. It was an evidence of cruelty, cold and calculated cruelty. And by this time little waves of liquid fire were running through my tingling body.
"Then I can't be of much service to this family," announced Dinky-Dunk, with his maddening note of mockery.
"I fail to see how you can be a retriever for a flabby-minded idler and the head of this household at one and the same time," I said out of the seething crater-fogs of my indignation.
"She's never impressed me as being flabby," he ventured, with a quietness which only a person who knew him would or could recognize as dangerous.
"Well, I don't share your admiration for her," I retorted, letting the tide of vitriol carry me along in its sweep.
Dinky-Dunk's face hardened.
"Then what do you intend doing about it?" he demanded.
That was a poser, all right. That was a poser which, I suppose, many a woman at some time in her life has been called on to face. What did I intend doing about it? I didn't care much. But I at least intended to save the bruised and broken hulk of my pride from utter annihilation.
"I intend," I cried out with a quaver in my voice, "since you're not able to fill the bill, to be head of this household myself."
"That sounds like an ultimatum," said Dinky-Dunk very slowly, his face the sickly color of a meerschaum-pipe bowl.
"You can take it any way you want to," I passionately proclaimed, compelled to raise my voice to the end that it might surmount Pee-Wee's swelling cries. "And while you're being lackey for Lady Alicia Newland I'll run this ranch. I'll run it in my own way, and I'll run it without hanging on to a woman's skirt!"
Dinky-Dunk stared at me as though he were looking at me through a leper-squint. But he had been brutal, was being brutal. And it was a case of fighting fire with fire.
"Then you're welcome to the job," I heard him proclaiming out of his blind white heat of rage. "After that, I'm through!"
"It won't be much of a loss," I shot back at him, feeling that he'd soured a bright and sunny life into eternal blight.
"I'll remember that," he said with his jaw squared and his head down. I saw him push his chair aside and wheel about and stride away from the Yorkshire pudding with the caved-in roof, and the roast-beef that was as cold as my own heart, and the indignantly protesting Pee-Wee who in some vague way kept reminding me that I wasn't quite as free-handed as I had been so airily imagining myself. For I mistily remembered that the Twins, before the day was over, were going to find it a very flatulent world. But I wasn't crushed. For there are times when even wives and worms will turn. And this was one of them.
Thursday the Thirtieth
It's a busy three days I've been having, and if I'm a bit tuckered out in body I'm still invincible in spirit. For I've already triumphed over a tangle or two and now I'm going to see this thing through. I'm going to see Alabama Ranch make good.
I teamed in to Buckhorn, with Dinkie and the Twins and Ikkie bedded down in the wagon-box on fresh wheat-straw, and had a talk with Syd Woodward, the dealer there. It took me just about ten minutes to get down to hard-pan with him, once he was convinced that I meant business. He's going to take over my one heavy team, Tumble-Weed and Cloud-Maker, though it still gives my heart a wrench to think of parting with those faithful animals. I'm also going to sell off fifteen or eighteen of the heaviest steers and turn back the tin Lizzie, which can be done without for a few months at least.
But, on the other hand, I'm going to have an 8-16 tractor that'll turn over an acre of land in little more than an hour's time, and turn it over a trifle better than the hired hand's usual "cut and cover" method, and at a cost of less than fifty cents an acre. Later on, I can use my tractor for hauling, or turn it to practically any other form of farm-power there may be a call for. I'm also getting a special grade of seed-wheat. There was a time when I thought that wheat was just merely wheat. It rather opened my eyes to be told that in one season the Shippers' Clearance Association definitely specified and duly handled exactly four hundred and twenty-eight grades of this particular grain. Even straight Northern wheat, without the taint of weed-seed, may be classified in any of the different numbers up to six, and also assorted into "tough," "wet," "damp," "musty," "binburnt" and half a dozen other grades and conditions, according to the season. But since I'm to be a wheat-grower, it's my duty to find out all I can about the subject.
I am also the possessor of three barrels of gasoline, and a new disk-drill, together with the needed repairs for the old drill which worked so badly last season. I've got Whinstane Sandy patching up the heavy sets of harness, and at daybreak to-morrow I'm going to have him out on the land, and also Francois, who has promised to stay with us another two weeks. It may be that I'll put Ikkie in overalls and get her out there too, for there's not a day, not an hour, to be lost. I want my crop in. I want my seed planted, and the sooner the better.
Whinstane Sandy, on account of his lame foot, can't follow a plow. But there's no reason he shouldn't run a tractor. If it wasn't for my bairns, of course, I'd take that tractor in hand myself. But my two little hostages to fortune cut off that chance. I've decided, however, to have Whinnie build a canopy-top over the old buckboard, and fit two strong frames, just behind the dashboard, that will hold a couple of willow-baskets, end to end. Then I can nest Poppsy and Pee-Wee in these two baskets, right under my nose, with little Dinkie beside me in the seat, and drive from one end of the ranch to the other and see that the work is being done, and done right. The Lord knows how I'll get back to the shack in time to rustle the grub—but we'll manage, in some way.
The Twins have been doing better, the last week or two. And I rather dread the idea of weaning them. If I had somebody to look after them I could, I suppose, get a breast-pump and leave their mid-morning and mid-afternoon luncheons in cold-storage for them, and so ride my tractor without interruption. I remember a New York woman who did that, left the drawn milk of her breast on ice, so that she might gad and shop for a half-day at a time. But the more I think it over the more unnatural and inhuman it seems. Yet to hunt for help, in this busy land, is like searching for a needle in a hay-stack. Already, in the clear morning air, one can hear the stutter and skip and cough of the tractors along the opalescent sky-line, accosting the morning sun with their rattle and tattle of harvests to be. And I intend to be in on the game.
Sunday the Second
I'm too busy to puddle in spilt milk or worry over things that are past. I can't even take time to rhapsodize over the kitchen-cabinet to which Whinnie put the finishing touches to-day at noon, though I know it will save me many a step. Poor old Whinnie, I'm afraid, is more a putterer than a plowman. He's had a good deal of trouble with the tractor, and his lame foot seems to bother him, on account of the long hours, but he proclaims he'll see me through.
Tractor-plowing, I'm beginning to discover, isn't the simple operation it sounds, for your land, in the first place, has to be staked off and marked with guidons, since you must know your measurements and have your headlands uniform and your furrows straight or there'll be a woeful mix-up before you come to the end of your job. The great trouble is that a tractor can't turn in its own length, as a team of horses can. Hence this deploying space must be wasted, or plowed later with horses, and your headlands themselves must be wide enough for the turning radius of your tractor. Some of the ranchers out here, I understand, even do their tractor-plowing in the form of a series of elongated figure-eights, beginning at one corner of their tract, claiming this reduces the time spent with plows out of the ground. But that looked too complex for me to tackle.
Then, too, machinery has one thing in common with man: they occasionally get out of kilter at the very time you expect most from them. So this morning I had to bend, if I did not actually break, the Sabbath by working on my tractor-engine. I put on Ikkie's overalls—for I have succeeded in coercing Ikkie into a jumper and the riding-seat of the old gang-plow—and went out and studied that tractor. I was determined to understand just what was giving the trouble.
It was two hours before I located the same, which was caused by the timer. But I've conquered the doggoned thing, and got her to spark right, and I went a couple of rounds, Sunday and all, just to make sure she was in working order. And neither my actions nor my language, I know, are those of a perfect lady. But any one who'd lamped me in that get-up, covered with oil and dust and dirt, would know that never again could I be a perfect lady. I'm a wiper, a greaser, a clodhopper, and, according to the sullen and brooding-eyed Ikkie, a bit of a slave-driver. And the odd part of it all is that I'm wringing a perverse sort of enjoyment out of the excitement and the novelty of the thing. I'm being something more than a mere mollusk. I'm making my power felt, and producing results. And self-expression, I find, is the breath of life to my soul. But I've scarcely time to do my hair, and my complexion is gone, and I've got cracks in my cheek-skin. I'm getting old and ugly, and no human being will ever again love me. Even my own babies gape at me kind of round-eyed when I take them in my arms.
But I'm wrong there, and I know I'm wrong. My little Dinkie will always love me. I know that by the way his little brown arms cling about my wind-roughened neck, by the way he burrows in against my breast and hangs on to me and hollers for his Mummsy when she's out of sight. He's not a model youngster, I know. I'm afraid I love him too much to demand perfection from him. It's the hard and selfish women, after all, who make the ideal mothers—at least from the standpoint of the disciplinarian. For the selfish woman refuses to be blinded by love, just as she refuses to be imposed upon and declines to be troubled by the thought of inflicting pain on those perverse little toddlers who grow so slowly into the knowledge of what is right and wrong. It hurts me like Sam-Hill, sometimes, to have to hurt my little man-child. When the inevitable and slow-accumulating spanking does come, I try to be cool-headed and strictly just about it—for one look out of a child's eyes has the trick of bringing you suddenly to the judgment-bar. Dinkie, young as he is, can already appraise and arraign me and flash back his recognition of injustice. More than once he's made me think of those lines of Frances Lyman's:
"Just a look of swift surprise From the depths of childish eyes, Yet my soul to judgment came, Cowering, as before a flame. Not a word, a lisp of blame: Just a look of swift surprise In the quietly lifted eyes!"
Saturday the Twenty-second
I've got my seed in, glory be! The deed is done; the mad scramble is over. And Mother Earth, as tired as a child of being mauled, lies sleeping in the sun.
If, as some one has said, to plow is to pray, we've been doing a heap of mouth-worship on Alabama Ranch this last few weeks. But the final acre has been turned over, the final long sea of furrows disked and plank-dragged and seeded down, and after the heavy rains of Thursday night there's just the faintest tinge of green, here and there, along my billiard-table of a granary-to-be.
But the mud is back, and to save my kitchen floor, last night, I trimmed down a worn-out broom, cut off most of the handle, and fastened it upside down in a hole I'd bored at one end of the lower door-step.
All this talk of mine about wheat sounds as though I were what they call out here a Soil Robber, or a Land Miner, a get-rich-quick squatter who doesn't bother about mixed farming or the rotation of crops, with no true love for the land which he impoverishes and leaves behind him when he's made his pile. I want to make my pile, it's true, but we'll soon have other things to think about. There's my home garden to be made ready, and the cattle and pigs to be looked after, and a run to be built for my chickens. The latter, for all their neglect, have been laying like mad and I've three full crates of eggs in the cellar, all dipped in water-glass and ready for barter at Buckhorn. If the output keeps up I'll store away five or six crates of the treated eggs for Christmas-season sale, for in midwinter they easily bring eighty cents a dozen.
And speaking of barter reminds me that both Dinkie and the Twins are growing out of their duds, and heaven knows when I'll find time to make more for them. They'll probably have to promenade around like Ikkie's ancestors. I've even run out of safety-pins. And since the enduring necessity for the safety-pin is evidenced by the fact that it's even found on the baby-mummies of ancient Egypt, and must be a good four thousand years old, I've had Whinnie supply me with some home-made ones, manufactured out of hair-pins.... My little Dinkie, I notice, is going to love animals. He seems especially fond of horses, and is fearless when beside them, or on them, or even under them—for he walked calmly in under the belly of Jail-Bird, who could have brained him with one pound of his wicked big hoof. But the beast seemed to know that it was a friend in that forbidden quarter, and never so much as moved until Dinkie had been rescued. It won't be long now before Dinkie has a pinto of his own and will go bobbing off across the prairie-floor, I suppose, like a monkey on a circus-horse. Even now he likes nothing better than coming with his mother while she gathers her "clutch" of eggs. He can scramble into a manger—where my unruly hens persist in making an occasional nest—like a marmoset. The delight on his face at the discovery of even two or three "cackle-berries," as Whinnie calls them, is worth the occasional breakage and yolk-stained rompers. For I share in that delight myself, since egg-gathering always gives me the feeling that I'm partaking of the bounty of Nature, that I'm getting something for next-to-nothing. It's the same impulse, really, which drives city women to the bargain-counter and the auction-room, the sublimated passion to adorn the home teepee-pole with the fruits of their cunning!
Tuesday the Twenty-fifth
Yesterday I teamed in to Buckhorn, for supplies. And as I drove down the main street of that squalid little western town I must have looked like something the crows had been roosting on. But just as I was swinging out of Syd Woodward's store-yard I caught sight of Lady Allie in her big new car, drawn up in front of the modestly denominated "New York Emporium." What made me stare, however, was the unexpected vision of Duncan Argyll McKail, emerging from the aforesaid "Emporium" laden down with parcels. These he carried out to the car and was dutifully stowing away somewhere down in the back seat, when he happened to look up and catch sight of me as I swung by in my wagon-box. He turned a sort of dull brick-red, and pretended to be having a lot of trouble with getting those parcels where they ought to be. But he looked exactly like a groom. And he knew it. And he knew that I knew he knew it. And if he was miserable, which I hope he was, I'm pretty sure he wasn't one-half so miserable as I was—and as I am. "Damn that woman!" I caught myself saying, out loud, after staring at my mottled old map in my dressing-table mirror.
I've been watching the sunset to-night, for a long time, and thinking about things. It was one of those quiet and beautiful prairie sunsets which now and then flood you with wonder, in spite of yourself, and give you an achey little feeling in the heart. It was a riot of orange and Roman gold fading out into pale green, with misty opal and pearl-dust along the nearer sky-line, then a big star or two, and then silence, the silence of utter peace and beauty. But it didn't bring peace to my soul. I could remember watching just such a sunset with my lord and master beside me, and turning to say: "Don't you sometimes feel, Lover, that you were simply made for joy and rapture in moments like this? Don't you feel as though your body were a harp that could throb and sing with the happiness of life?"
And I remembered the way my Dunkie had lifted up my chin and kissed me.
But that seemed a long, long time ago. And I wasn't in tune with the Infinite. And I felt lonely and old and neglected, with callouses on my hands and the cords showing in my neck, and my nerves not exactly what they ought to be. For Sunday, which is reckoned as a day of rest, had been a long and busy day for me. Dinkie had been obstreperous and had eaten most of the paint off his Noah's Ark, and had later burnt his fingers pulling my unbaked loaf-cake out of the oven, after eventually tiring of breaking the teeth out of my comb, one by one. Poppsy and Pee-Wee had been peevish and disdainful of each other's society, and Iroquois Annie had gruntingly intimated that she was about fed up on trekking the floor with wailing infants. But I'd had my week's mending to do, and what was left of the ironing to get through and Whinnie's work-pants to veneer with a generous new patch, and thirteen missing buttons to restore to the kiddies' different garments. My back ached, my finger-bones were tired, and there was a jumpy little nerve in my left temple going for all the world like a telegraph-key. And then I gave up.
I sat down and stared at that neatly folded pile of baby-clothes two feet high, a layer-cake of whites and faded blues and pinks. I stared at it, and began to gulp tragically, wallowing in a wave of self-pity. I felt so sorry for myself that I let my flat-iron burn a hole clean through the ironing-sheet, without even smelling it. That, I told myself, was all that life could be to me, just a round of washing and ironing and meal-getting and mending, fetch and carry, work and worry, from sun-up until sun-down, and many a time until midnight.
And what, I demanded of the frying-pan on its nail above the stove-shelf, was I getting out of it? What was it leading to? And what would it eventually bring me? It would eventually bring me crabbed and crow-footed old age, and fallen arches and a slabsided figure that a range-pinto would shy at. It would bring me empty year after year out here on the edge of Nowhere. It would bring me drab and spiritless drudgery, and faded eyes, and the heart under my ribs slowly but surely growing as dead as a door-nail, and the joy of living just as slowly but surely going out of my life, the same as the royal blue had faded out of Dinkie's little denim jumpers.
At that very moment, I remembered, there were women listening to symphony music in Carnegie Hall, and women sitting in willow-rockers at Long Beach contentedly listening to the sea-waves. There were women driving through Central Park, soft and lovely with early spring, or motoring up to the Clairemont for supper and watching the searchlights from the war-ships along the Hudson, and listening to the music on the roof-gardens and dancing their feet off at that green-topped heaven of youth which overlooks the Plaza where Sherman's bronze horse forever treads its spray of pine. There were happy-go-lucky girls crowding the soda-fountains and regaling themselves on fizzy water and fruit sirups, and dropping in at first nights or motoring out for sea-food dinners along lamp-pearled and moonlit boulevards of smooth asphalt. And here I was planted half-way up to the North Pole, with coyotes for company, with a husband who didn't love me, and not a jar of decent face-cream within fifteen miles of the shack! I was lost there in a sea of flat desolation, without companionable neighbors, without an idea, without a chance for any exchange of thought. I had no time for reading, and what was even worse, I had no desire for reading, but plodded on, like the stunned ox, kindred to the range animals and sister to the cow.
Then, as I sat luxuriating before my crowded banquet-table of misery, as I sat mopping my nose—which was getting most unmistakably rough with prairie-winds and alkali-water—and thinking what a fine mess I'd made of a promising young life, I fancied I heard an altogether too familiar C-sharp cry. So I got wearily up and went tiptoeing in to see if either Poppsy or Pee-Wee were awake.
But they were there, safe and sound and fast asleep, curled up like two plump little kittens, with their long lashes on their cheeks of peach-blow pink and their dewy little lips slightly parted and four little dimples in the back of each of the four little hands. And as I stood looking down at them, with a shake still under my breastbone, I couldn't keep from saying: "God bless your sleepy old bones!" Something melted and fell from the dripping eaves of my heart, and I felt that it was a sacred and God-given and joyous life, this life of being a mother, and any old maid who wants to pirouette around the Plaza roof with a lounge-lizard breathing winy breaths into her false hair was welcome to her choice. I was at least in the battle of life—and life is a battle which scars you more when you try to keep out of it than when you wade into it. I was a mother and a home-maker and the hope and buttress of the future. And all I wanted was a good night's sleep and some candid friend to tell me not to be a feather-headed idiot, but a sensible woman with a sensible perspective on things!
Friday the Twenty-seventh—Or Should It Be the Twenty-eighth
It has turned quite cold again, with frosts sharp enough at night to freeze a half-inch of ice on the tub of soft-water I've been so carefully saving for future shampoos. It's just as well I didn't try to rush the season by getting too much of my truck-garden planted. We're glad of a good fire in the shack-stove after sun-down. I've rented thirty acres from the Land Association that owns the half-section next to mine and am going to get them into oats. If they don't ripen up before the autumn frosts come and blight them, I can still use the stuff for green feed. And I've bargained for the hay-rights from the upper end of the section, but heaven only knows how I'll ever get it cut and stacked.
Whinnie had to kill a calf yesterday, for we'd run out of meat. As we're in a district that's too sparsely settled for a Beef Ring, we have to depend on ourselves for our roasts. But whatever happens, I believe in feeding my workers. I wonder, by the way, how the fair Lady Allie is getting along with her cuisine. Is she giving Dinky-Dunk a Beautiful Thought for breakfast, instead of a generous plate of ham and eggs? If she is, I imagine she's going to blight Romance in the bud.
I've just had a circular letter from the Women Grain Growers' Association explaining their fight for community medical service and a system of itinerant rural nurses. They're organized, and they're in earnest, and I'm with them to the last ditch. They're fighting for the things that this raw new country is most in need of. It will take us some time to catch up with the East. But the westerner's a scrambler, once he's started.
I can't get away from the fact, since I know them both, that there's a big gulf between the East and the West. It shouldn't be there, of course, but that doesn't seem to affect the issue. It's the opposition of the New to the Old, of the Want-To-Bes to the Always-Has-Beens, of the young and unruly to the settled and sedate. We seem to want freedom, and they seem to prefer order. We want movement, and they want repose. We look more feverishly to the future, and they dwell more fondly on the past. They call us rough, and we try to get even by terming them effete. They accentuate form, and we remain satisfied with performance. We're jealous of what they have and they're jealous of what we intend to be. We're even secretly envious of certain things peculiarly theirs which we openly deride. We're jealous, at heart, of their leisure and their air of permanence, of their accomplishments and arts and books and music, of their buildings and parks and towns with the mellowing tone of time over them. And as soon as we make money enough, I notice, we slip into their neighborhood for a gulp or two at their fountains of culture. Some day, naturally, we'll be more alike, and have more in common. The stronger colors will fade out of the newer fabric and we'll merge into a more inoffensive monotone of respectability. Our Navajo-blanket audacities will tone down to wall-tapestry sedateness—but not too, too soon, I pray the gods!
Speaking of Navajo reminds me of Redskins, and Redskins take my thoughts straight back to Iroquois Annie, who day by day becomes sullener and stupider and more impossible. I can see positive dislike for my Dinkie in her eyes, and I'm at present applying zinc ointment to Pee-Wee's chafed and scalded little body because of her neglect. I'll ring-welt and quarter that breed yet, mark my words! As it is, there's a constant cloud of worry over my heart when I'm away from the shack and my bairns are left behind. This same Ikkie, apparently, tried to scald poor old Bobs the other day, but Bobs dodged most of that steaming potato-water and decided to even up the ledger of ill-usage by giving her a well-placed nip on the hip. Ikkie now sits down with difficulty, and Bobs shows the white of his eye when she comes near him, which isn't more often than Ikkie can help—And of such, in these troublous Ides of March, and April and May, is the kingdom of Chaddie McKail!
Tuesday the Second
I may as well begin at the beginning, I suppose, so as to get the whole thing straight. And it started with Whinstane Sandy, who broke the wheel off the spring-wagon and the third commandment at one and the same time. So I harnessed Slip-Along up to the buckboard, and put the Twins in their two little crow's-nests and started out to help get my load out of that bogged trail, leaving Dinkie behind with Iroquois Annie.
There was a chill in the air and I was glad of my old coonskin coat. It was almost two hours before Whinnie and I got the spring-wagon out of its mud-bath, and the load on again, and a willow fence-post lashed under the drooping axle-end to sustain it on its journey back to Alabama Ranch. The sun was low, by this time, so I couldn't wait for Whinnie and the team, but drove on ahead with the Twins.
I was glad to see the smoke going up from my lonely little shack-chimney, for I was mud-splashed and tired and hungry, and the thought of fire and home and supper gave me a comfy feeling just under the tip of the left ventricle. I suppose it was the long evening shadows and the chill of the air that made the shack look so unutterably lonely as I drove up to it. Or perhaps it was because I stared in vain for some sign of life. At any rate, I didn't stop to unhitch Slip-Along, but gathered up my Twins and made for the door, and nearly stumbled on my nose over the broom-end boot-wiper which hadn't proved such a boon as I'd expected.
I found Iroquois Annie in front of my home-made dressing-table mirror, with my last year's summer hat on her head and a look of placid admiration on her face. The shack seemed very quiet. It seemed so disturbingly quiet that I even forgot about the hat.
"Where's Dinkie?" I demanded, as I deposited the Twins in their swing-box.
"He play somew'ere roun'," announced Ikkie, secreting the purloined head-gear and circling away from the forbidden dressing-table.
"But where?" I asked, with exceptional sharpness, for my eye had already traversed the most of that shack and had encountered no sign of him.
That sloe-eyed breed didn't know just where, and apparently didn't care. He was playing somewhere outside, with three or four old wooden decoy-ducks. That was all she seemed to know. But I didn't stop to question her. I ran to the door and looked out. Then my heart began going down like an elevator, for I could see nothing of the child. So I made the rounds of the shack again, calling "Dinkie!" as I went.
Then I looked through the bunk-house, and even tried the cellar. Then I went to the rainwater tub, with my heart up in my throat. He wasn't there, of course. So I made a flying circle of the out-buildings. But still I got no trace of him.
I was panting when I got back to the shack, where Iroquois Annie was fussing stolidly over the stove-fire. I caught her by the snake-like braid of her hair, though I didn't know I was doing it, at the moment, and swung her about so that my face confronted hers.
"Where's my boy?" I demanded in a sort of shout of mingled terror and rage and dread. "Where is he, you empty-eyed idiot? Where is he?"
But that half-breed, of course, couldn't tell me. And a wave of sick fear swept over me. My Dinkie was not there. He was nowhere to be found. He was lost—lost on the prairie. And I was shouting all this at Ikkie, without being quite conscious of what I was doing.
"And remember," I hissed out at her, in a voice that didn't sound like my own as I swung her about by her suddenly parting waist, "if anything has happened to that child, I'll kill you! Do you understand, I'll kill you as surely as you're standing in those shoes!"
I went over the shack, room by room, for still the third time. Then I went over the bunk-house and the other buildings, and every corner of the truck-garden, calling as I went.
But still there was no answer to my calls. And I had to face the steel-cold knowledge that my child was lost. That little toddler, scarcely more than a baby, had wandered away on the open prairie.
For one moment of warming relief I thought of Bobs. I remembered what a dog is sometimes able to do in such predicaments. But I also remembered that Bobs was still out on the trail with Whinnie. So I circled off on the undulating floor of the prairie, calling "Dinkie" every minute or two and staring into the distance until my eyes ached, hoping to see some moving dot in the midst of all that silence and stillness.
"My boy is lost," I kept saying to myself, in sobbing little whimpers, with my heart getting more and more like a ball of lead. And there could only be an hour or two of daylight left. If he wasn't found before night came on—I shut the thought out of my heart, and started back for the shack, in a white heat of desperation.
"If you want to live," I said to the now craven and shrinking Ikkie, "you get in that buckboard and make for Casa Grande. Drive there as fast as you can. Tell my husband that our boy, that my boy, is lost on the prairie. Tell him to get help, and come, come quick. And stop at the Teetzel ranch on your way. Tell them to send men on horses, and lanterns! But move, woman, move!"
Ikkie went, with Slip-Along making the buckboard skid on the uneven trail as though he were playing a game of crack-the-whip with that frightened Indian. And I just as promptly took up my search again, forgetting about the Twins, forgetting about being tired, forgetting everything.
Half-way between the fenced-in hay-stacks and the corral-gate I found a battered decoy-duck with a string tied to its neck. It was one of a set that Francois and Whinstane Sandy had whittled out over a year ago. It was at least a clue. Dinkie must have dropped it there.
It sent me scuttling back among the hay-stacks, going over the ground there, foot by foot and calling as I went, until my voice had an eerie sound in the cold air that took on more and more of a razor-edge as the sun and the last of its warmth went over the rim of the world. It seemed an empty world, a plain of ugly desolation, unfriendly and pitiless in its vastness. Even the soft green of the wheatlands took on a look like verdigris, as though it were something malignant and poisonous. And farther out there were muskegs, and beyond the three-wire fence, which would stand no bar to a wandering child, there were range-cattle, half-wild cattle that resented the approach of anything but a man on horseback. And somewhere in those darkening regions of peril my Dinky-Dink was lost.
I took up the search again, with the barometer of hope falling lower and lower. But I told myself that I must be systematic, that I must not keep covering the same ground, that I must make the most of what was left of the daylight. So I blocked out imaginary squares and kept running and calling until I was out of breath, then resting with my hand against my heart, and running on again. But I could find no trace of him.
He was such a little tot, I kept telling myself. He was not warmly dressed, and night was coming on. It would be a cold night, with several degrees of frost. He would be alone, on that wide and empty prairie, with terror in his heart, chilled to the bone, wailing for his mother, wailing until he was able to wail no more. Already the light was going, I realized with mounting waves of desperation, and no child, dressed as Dinkie was dressed, could live through the night. Even the coyotes would realize his helplessness and come and pick his bones clean.
I kept thinking of Bobs, more than of anything else, and wondering why Whinnie was so slow in getting back with his broken wagon, and worrying over when the men would come. I told myself to be calm, to be brave, and the next moment was busy picturing a little dead body with a tear-washed face. But I went on, calling as I went. Then suddenly I thought of praying.
"O God, it wouldn't be fair, to take that little mite away from me," I kept saying aloud. "O God, be good to me in this, be merciful, and lead me to him! Bring him back before it is too late! Bring him back, and do with me what You wish, but have pity on that poor little toddler! What You want of me, I will do, but don't, O God, don't take my boy away from me!"
I made promises to God, foolish, desperate, infantile promises; trying to placate Him in His might with my resolutions for better things, trying to strike bargains, at the last moment, with the Master of Life and Death—even protesting that I'd forgive Dinky-Dunk for anything and everything he might have done, and that it was the Evil One speaking through my lips when I said I'd surely kill Iroquois Annie.
Then I heard the signal-shots of a gun, and turned back toward the shack, which looked small and squat on the floor of the paling prairie. I couldn't run, for running was beyond me now. I heard Bobs barking, and the Twins crying, and I saw Whinnie. I thought for one fond and foolish moment, as I hurried toward the house, that they'd found my Dinkie. But it was a false hope. Whinnie had been frightened at the empty shack and the wailing babies, and had thought something might have happened to me. So he had taken my duck-gun and fired those signal-shots.
He leaned against the muddy wagon-wheel and said "Guid God! Guid God!" over and over again, when I told him Dinkie was lost. Then he flung down the gun and drew his twisted old body up, peering through the twilight at my face.
I suppose it frightened him a little.
"Dinna fear, lassie, dinna fear," he said. He said it in such a deep and placid voice that it carried consolation to my spirit, and brought a shadow of conviction trailing along behind it. "We'll find him. I say it before the livin' God, we'll find him!"
But that little candle of hope went out in the cold air, for I could see that night was coming closer, cold and dark and silent. I forgot about Whinnie, and didn't even notice which direction he took when he strode off on his lame foot. But I called Bobs to me, and tried to quiet his whimpering, and talked to him, and told him Dinkie was lost, the little Dinkie we all loved, and implored him to go and find my boy for me.
But the poor dumb creature didn't seem to understand me, for he cringed and trembled and showed a tendency to creep off to the stable and hide there, as though the weight of this great evil which had befallen his house lay on him and him alone. And I was trying to coax the whimpering Bobs back to the shack-steps when Dinky-Dunk himself came galloping up through the uncertain light, with Lady Alicia a few hundred yards behind him.
"Have you found him?" my husband asked, quick and curt. But there was a pale greenish-yellow tint to his face that made me think of Rocquefort cheese.
"No," I told him. I tried to speak calmly, determined not to break down and make a scene there before Lady Alicia, who'd reined up, stock-still, and sat staring in front of her, without a spoken word.
I could see Dinky-Dunk's mouth harden.
"Have you any clue—any hint?" he asked, and I could catch the quaver in his voice as he spoke.
"Not a thing," I told him, remembering that we were losing time. "He simply wandered off, when that Indian girl wasn't looking. He didn't even have a cap or a coat on."
I heard Lady Alicia, who had slipped down out of the saddle, make a little sound as I said this. It was half a gasp and half a groan of protest. For one brief moment Dinky-Dunk stared at her, almost accusingly, I thought. Then he swung his horse savagely about, and called out over our heads. Other horsemen, I found, had come loping up in the ghostly twilight where we stood. I could see the breath from their mounts' nostrils, white in the frosty air.
"You, Teetzel, and you, O'Malley," called my husband, in an oddly authoritative and barking voice, "and you on the roan there, swing twenty paces out from one another and circle the shack. Then widen the circle, each turn. There's no use calling, for the boy'll be down. He'll be done out. But don't speak until you see something. And for the love of God, watch close. He's not three yet, remember. He couldn't have got far away!"
I should have found something reassuring in those quick and purposeful words of command, but they only served to bring the horror of the situation closer home to me. They brought before me more graphically than ever the thought that I'd been trying to get out of my head, the picture of a huddled small body, with a tear-washed face, growing colder and colder, until the solitary little flame of life went completely out in the midst of that star-strewn darkness. Only too willingly, I knew, I would have covered that chilling body with the warmth of my own, though wild horses rode over me until the end of time. I tried to picture life without Dinkie. I tried to imagine my home without that bright and friendly little face, without the patter of those restless little feet, without the sound of those beleaguering little coos of child-love with which he used to burrow his head into the hollow of my shoulder.
It was too much for me. I had to lean against the wagon-wheel and gulp. It was Lady Alicia, emerging from the shack, who brought me back to the world about me. I could just see her as she stood beside me, for night had fallen by this time, night nearly as black as the blackness of my own heart.
"Look here," she said almost gruffly. "Whatever happens, you've got to have something to drink. I've got a kettle on, and I'm going back to make tea, or a pot of coffee, or whatever I can find."
"Tea?" I echoed, as the engines of indignation raced in my shaken body. "Tea? It sounds pretty, doesn't it, sitting down to a pink tea, when there's a human being dying somewhere out in that darkness!"
My bitterness, however, had no visible effect on Lady Alicia.
"Perhaps coffee would be better," she coolly amended. "And those babies of yours are crying their heads off in there, and I don't seem to be able to do anything to stop them. I rather fancy they're in need of feeding, aren't they?"
It was then and then only that I remembered about my poor neglected Twins. I groped my way in through the darkness, quite calm again, and sat down and unbuttoned my waist and nursed Poppsy, and then took up the indignant and wailing Pee-Wee, vaguely wondering if the milk in my breast wouldn't prove poison to them and if all my blood hadn't turned to acid.
I was still nursing Pee-Wee when Bud Teetzel came into the shack and asked how many lanterns we had about the place. There was a sullen look on his face, and his eyes refused to meet mine. So I knew his search had not succeeded.
Then young O'Malley came in and asked for matches, and I knew even before he spoke, that he too had failed. They had all failed.
I could hear Dinky-Dunk's voice outside, a little hoarse and throaty. I felt very tired, as I put Pee-Wee back in his cradle. It seemed as though an invisible hand were squeezing the life out of my body and making it hard for me to breathe. I could hear the cows bawling, reminding the world that they had not yet been milked. I could smell the strong coffee that Lady Alicia was pouring out into a cup. She stepped on something as she carried it to me. She stopped to pick it up—and it was one of Dinkie's little stub-toed button shoes.
"Let me see it," I commanded, as she made a foolish effort to get it out of sight. I took it from her and turned it over in my hand. That was the way, I remembered, mothers turned over the shoes of the children they had lost, the children who could never, never, so long as they worked and waited and listened in this wide world, come back to them again.
Then I put down the shoe, for I could hear one of the men outside say that the upper muskeg ought to be dragged.
"Try that cup of coffee now," suggested Lady Alicia. I liked her quietness. I admired her calmness, under the circumstances. And I remembered that I ought to give some evidence of this by accepting the hot drink she had made for me. So I took the coffee and drank it. The bawling of my milk-cows, across the cold night air, began to annoy me.
"My cows haven't been milked," I complained. It was foolish, but I couldn't help it. Then I reached out for Dinkie's broken-toed shoe, and studied it for a long time. Lady Alicia crossed to the shack door, and stood staring out through it....
She was still standing there when Whinnie came in, with the stable lantern in his hand, and brushed her aside. He came to where I was sitting and knelt down in front of me, on the shack-floor, with his heavy rough hand on my knee. I could smell the stable-manure that clung to his shoes.
"God has been guid to ye, ma'am!" he said in a rapt voice, which was little more than an awed whisper. But it was more his eyes, with the uncanny light in them making them shine like a dog's, that brought me to my feet. For I had a sudden feeling that there was Something just outside the door which he hadn't dared to bring in to me, a little dead body with pinched face and trailing arms.
I tried to speak, but I couldn't. I merely gulped. And Whinnie's rough hand pushed me back into my chair.
"Dinna greet," he said, with two tears creeping crookedly down his own seamed and wind-roughened face.
But I continued to gulp.
"Dinna greet, for your laddie's safe and sound!" I heard the rapt voice saying.
I could hear what he'd said, quite distinctly, yet his words seemed without color, without meaning, without sense.
"Have you found him?" called out Lady Alicia sharply.
"Aye, he's found," said Whinnie, with an exultant gulp of his own, but without so much as turning to look at that other woman, who, apparently, was of small concern to him. His eyes were on me, and he was very intimately patting my leg, without quite knowing it.
"He says that the child's been found," interpreted Lady Alicia, obviously disturbed by the expression on my face.