MARIA THOMPSON DAVIESS
"THE MELTING OF MOLLY" ETC.
BERNICE LANIER DICKINSON
I. THE BOOK OF FOOD
II. THE BOOK OF SHELTER
III. THE BOOK OF LAUGHTER
IV. THE BOOK OF LOVE
"I GOT A CALL—A LAND CALL THAT I HAD TO ANSWER"
THE BYRD WAS ATTIRED IN MINIATURES OF SAM'S OVERALLS
OVER PARADISE RIDGE
THE BOOK OF FOOD
Nobody knows what starts the sap along the twigs of a very young, tender, and green woman's nature. In my case it was Samuel Foster Crittenden, though how could he have counted on the amount of Grandmother Nelson that was planted deep in my disposition, ready to spring up and bear fruit as soon as I was brought in direct acquaintance with a seed-basket and a garden hoe? Also why should Sam's return to a primitive state have forced my ancestry up to the point of flowering on the surface? I do hope Sam will not have to suffer consequences, but I can't help it if he does. What's born in us is not our fault.
"Yes, Betty, I know I'm an awful shock to you as a farmer. I ought to have impressed it on you more thoroughly before you—you saw me in the act. I'm sorry, dear," Sam comforted me gently and tenderly as I wept with dismay into the sleeve of his faded blue overalls.
"I can't understand it," I sniffed as I held on to his sustaining hand while I balanced with him on the top of an old, moss-covered stone wall he had begged me to climb to for a view of Harpeth Valley which he thought might turn my attention from him. "Have you mislaid your beautiful ambitions anywhere?"
"I must have planted them along with my corn crop, I reckon," he answered, quietly, as he steadied his shoulder against an old oak-tree that grew close to the fence and then steadied my shoulder against his.
"It is just for a little while, to get evidence about mud and animals and things like that, isn't it?" I asked, with great and undue eagerness, while an early blue jay flitted across from tree-top to tree-top in so happy a spirit that I sympathized with the admiring lady twit that came from a bush near the wall. "You are going back out into the world where I left you, aren't you?"
"No," answered Sam, in an even tone of voice that quieted me completely; it was the same he had used when he made me stand still the time his fishhook caught in my arm at about our respective sixth and tenth years. "No, I'm going to be just a farmer. It's this way, Betty. That valley you are looking down into has the strength to feed hundreds of thousands of hungry men, women, and children when they come down to us over Paradise Ridge from the crowded old world; but men have to make her give it up and be ready for them. At first I wasn't sure I could, but now I'm going to put enough heart and brain and muscle into my couple of hundred acres to dig out my share of food, and that of the other folks a great strapping thing like I am ought to help to feed. I'll plow your name deep into the potato-field, dear," he ended, with a laugh, as he let go my hand, which he had almost dislocated while his eyes smoldered out over the Harpeth Valley, lying below us like an earthen cup full of green richness, on whose surface floated a cream of mist.
"It just breaks my heart to see you away from everything and everybody, all burned up and scratched up and muddy, and—and—" I was saying as he lifted me back into the road again beside my shiny new Redwheels that looked like an enlarged and very gay sedan-chair.
"Look, look, Betty!" Sam interrupted my distress over his farmer aspect, which was about to become tearful, and his eyes stopped regarding me with sad seriousness and lit with affectionate excitement as he peered into the bushes on the side of the road. "There's my lost heifer calf! You run your car on up to my house beyond the bend there and I'll drive her back through the woods to meet you. Get out and head her off if she tries to pass you." With which command he was gone just as I was about to begin to do determined battle for his rescue.
I did not run my car up to his farm-house. I "negotiated a turn" just as the man I bought it from in New York had taught me to do; only he hadn't counted on a rail fence on one side, a rock wall just fifty feet across from it, and two stumps besides. It was almost like a maxixe, but I finally got headed toward Providence Road, down which, five miles away, Hayesboro is firmly planted in a beautiful, dreamy, vine-covered rustication.
"Oh, I wonder if it could be a devil that is possessing Sam?" I asked myself, stemming with my tongue a large tear that was taking a meandering course down my cheek because I was afraid to take either hand off the steering-gear for fear I would run into a slow, old farm horse, with a bronzed overalled driver and wagon piled high with all sorts of uninteresting crates and bales and unspeakable pigs and chickens. As I skidded past them I told myself I had more than a right to weep over Sam when I thought of the last time I had seen him before this distressing interview; the contrast was enough to cause grief.
It had happened the night after Sam's graduation in June and just the night before I had sailed with Mabel Vandyne and Miss Greenough for a wander-year in Europe. Sam was perfectly wonderful to look at with his team ribbon in the buttonhole of his dress-coat, and I was very proud of him. We were all having dinner at the Ritz with two of Sam's classmates and the father of one, Judge Vandyne, who is one of the greatest corporation lawyers in New York. He had just offered Sam a chance in his offices, together with his own son.
"You'll buck right on up through center just as you do on the gridiron, old man, to the Supreme bench before you are forty. I'm glad the governor will have you, for I'll never make it. Oh, you Samboy!" said Peter Vandyne, who was their class poet and who adored Sam from every angle—from each of which Sam reciprocated.
And all the rest raised their glasses and said:
The waiters even knew who Sam was on account of the last Thanksgiving game, and beamed on him with the greatest awe and admiration. And I beamed with the rest, perhaps even more proudly. Still, that twinkle in Sam's hazel eyes ought to have made me uneasy even then. I had seen it often enough when Sam had made up his mind to things he was not talking about.
"The ladies and all of us," answered Sam to Peter's toast, as he raised his glass and set it down still full, then grinned at me as he said, so low that the others couldn't hear, "Will you meet me in Hayesboro after a year and a day, Betty?"
I don't see why I didn't understand and begin to defend Sam from himself right then instead of going carelessly and light-heartedly to Europe and letting him manage his own affairs. I didn't even write to him, except when I saw anything that interested or moved me, and then I just scribbled "remind me to tell you about this" on a post-card and sent it to him. You can seal some friends up in your heart and forget about them, and when you take them out they are perfectly fresh and good, but they may have changed flavor. That is what Sam did, and I am not surprised that the rural flavor of what he offered me out there in dirt lane shocked me slightly. I didn't think then that I liked it and I also felt that I wished I had stayed by Sam at that wobbling period of his career; but, on the other hand, it was plainly my duty to go to Europe with Mabel and Peter Vandyne and Miss Greenough. The inclination to do two things at once is a sword that slices you in two, as the man in the Bible wanted to do to the baby to make enough of him for the two mothers; and that is the way I felt about Peter and Sam as I whirled along the road. I am afraid Sam is going to be the hardest to manage. He is harder than Peter by nature. If Sam had just taken to drink instead of farming I would have known better what to do. I reformed Peter in one night in Naples when he took too much of that queer Italian wine merely because it was his birthday. I used tears, and he said it should never happen again. I don't believe it has, or he wouldn't have got an act and a half of his "Epic of American Life" finished as he told me he had done when I dined with him in New York the night I landed. I missed Peter dreadfully when he left us in London in June, and so did Miss Greenough and Mabel, though she is his sister. We all felt that if he had been with us it wouldn't have taken us all these months of that dreadful war to get comfortably home. Peter said at the dock that he hadn't drawn a full breath since war had been declared until he got my feet off the gang-plank on to American soil. He needn't have worried quite as much as that, for we had a lovely, exciting time visiting at the Gregorys' up in Scotland while waiting for state-rooms. And it was while hearing all those Scotchmen and Englishmen talk about statesmanship and jurisprudence and international law that I realized how America would need great brains later on, more and more, as she would have to arbitrate, maybe, for the whole world.
I smiled inwardly as I listened, for didn't I know that in just a few years the nation would have Samuel Foster Crittenden to rely on? Sam is a statesman by inheritance, for he has all sorts of remarkable Tennessee ancestry back of him from Colonial times down to his father's father, who was one of the great generals of our own Civil War. And as I listened to those splendid men talk about military matters, just as Judge Crittenden had talked to Sam and me about his father, the general, ever since we were big enough to sit up and hear about it, and discuss what American brains and character could be depended upon to do, I glowed with pride and confidence in Sam. I'm glad I didn't know then about the collapsed structure of my hopes for him that Sam was even then secretly unsettling. At the thought my hand trembled on the wheel and I turned my car hastily away from two chickens and a dog in the road and my mind from the anxiety of Sam to further pleasant thoughts of Peter.
I don't believe Judge Vandyne's thoughts of Peter are as pleasant as mine, for Peter doesn't go to the office at all any more; he spends his waking moments at a club where players and play-writers and all men play a great deal of the time. I forget its name, but it makes the judge mad to mention it.
"The dear old governor's mind is gold-bound," said Peter, sadly, after we came away from luncheon with the judge down in Wall Street. "Why should I grub filthy money when he has extracted the bulk of it that he has? I must go forward and he must realize that he should urge me on up. I ought not to be tied down to unimportant material things. I must not be. You of all people understand me and my ambitions, Betty." As he said it he leaned toward me across the tea-table at the Astor, where we had dropped exhaustedly down to finish the discussion on life which the judge's practical tirade had evoked.
"But then, Peter, you know it was a very great thing Judge Vandyne showed his bank how to do about that international war loan. In England and Scotland they speak of him with bated breath. It was so brilliant that it saved awful complications for Belgium."
"Oh, he's the greatest ever—in all material ways," answered Peter, with hasty loyalty and some pride, "but I was speaking of those higher things, Betty, of the spirit. The things over which your soul and mine seem to draw near to each other. Betty, the second act of 'The Emergence' is almost finished, and Farrington is going to read it himself when I have it ready. He told me so at the club just yesterday. You know he awarded my junior prize for the 'Idyl.' Think of it—Farrington!" And Peter leaned forward and took my hand.
"Oh, Peter, I am so glad!" I said, with a catch of joy in my breath, but I drew away my hand. I knew I liked Peter in many wonderful ways, but in some others I was doubtful. I had only known Peter the three years I've been away from Hayesboro, being finished in the North, and even if I did room with his sister at the Manor on the Hudson and travel with her a year, it is not the same as being born next door to him, as in the case of Sam, for instance. But then I ought not to compare Peter and Sam. Peter is of so much finer clay than Sam. Just thinking about clay made me remember those unspeakable boots of Sam's I had encountered out on the road, and again I determinedly turned my thoughts back to that wonderful afternoon with Peter at the Astor a few short days ago. Miss Greenough kept telling Mabel and me all over Europe to look at everything as material to build nests of pleasant thoughts for our souls to rest in, as Ruskin directed in the book she had. I've made one that will last me for life of Peter, who is the most beautiful man in the whole wide world; also of the yellow shade on the Astor lamp, the fountain, and the best chicken sandwich I ever ate. It will be a warmer place to plump down in than most of the picture-galleries and cathedrals I had used for nest-construction purposes at Miss Greenough's direction.
Yes, I drew my hand away from Peter's, but a little thing like that would never stop a poet; and before the waiter had quite swept us out with the rest of the tea paraphernalia to make way for that of dinner he had made me see that I was positively necessary to his career, especially as both his father and Mabel are so unsympathetic. It is a great happiness to a woman to feel necessary to a man, though she may not enjoy it entirely.
"Oh, I know I can write it all—all that is in my heart if I feel that it is—is for you, dearest dear Betty," was the last thing that Peter said as he put me on a train headed for the Harpeth Valley that night.
I didn't answer—I don't know that I ever did answer Peter anything, but he never noticed that when he thought of how my loving him would help out with the play.
Just here I was musing so deeply on the intricacies of love that I nearly ran over a nice, motherly old cow that had come to the middle of the road with perfectly good faith in me when she saw me coming. And as I rounded her off well to the left again my thoughts skidded back to Sam and the way he had treated me as less than a heifer calf after I had not seen him for a year, and she had just seen him that morning at feeding-time.
"Head off that saucy young cow, indeed!" I sniffed, as I ran the car into the side yard between my home and the old Crittenden house.
"I wonder if he really expected me to be waiting there in that lane for him?" I questioned myself. And the answer I got from the six-year-old girl that is buried alive in me was that Sam did expect me to do as he told me, and that something serious might happen if I didn't. As I turned Redwheels over to old Eph, who adores it because it is the only one he ever had his hands on, I felt a queer sinking somewhere in the heart of that same young self. I always had helped Sam—and suppose that unspeakable animal had got lost to him for ever just because I hadn't done as he told me! I reached out my hand for the runabout to start right back; then I realized it was too late. The night had erected a lovely spangled purple tent of twilight over Hayesboro, and the all-evening performances were about to begin.
Lovely women were lighting lamps and drawing shades or meeting the masculine population at front gates with babies in their arms or beau-catcher curls set on their cheeks with deadly intent. Negro cooks were hustling suppers on their smoking stoves, and one of the doves that lives up in the vines under the eaves of my home moaned out and was answered by one from under the vines that grow over the gables at the Crittendens'. I haven't felt as lonesome as all that since the first week of Sam's freshman year at college. As I looked across the lilac hedge, which was just beginning to show a green sap tint along its gray branches, I seemed to see my poor little blue-ginghamed, pigtailed self crouched at Judge Crittenden's feet on the front steps, sobbing my lonely heart away while he smoked his sorrow down with a long brier pipe, and the Byrd chirped his little three-year-old protest in concert with us both. Most eighteen-year-old men would have resented having a motherless little brother and a long-legged girl neighbor eternally at their heels, but Sam never had; or, if he did, he gently kicked the Byrd and me out of the way, and we never knew that was what he was doing. We even loved him for the kicks. Then as the tears misted across my eyes a woman with a baby in her arms came out and called in two children who were playing under the old willow-tree over by the side gate—the willow that had belonged to Sam and me—and my eyes dried themselves with indignant astonishment.
"Who are those people over at the Crittendens', mother?" I asked, in a stern voice, as I walked in and interrupted mother counting the fifteenth row on a lace mat she was making.
"Why, the Burtons bought the place from Sam after the judge's death. Don't you remember I wrote you about it, Betty dear?" she answered, with the gentle placidity with which she has always met all my tragic moments. Mother raised seven boys before she produced me, and her capacity for any sort of responsive excitement gave out long before I needed it. After her sons a woman seems to consider a daughter just a tame edition of a child. Mother has calmly crocheted herself through every soul-storm I have ever had, and she is the most dear and irresponsible parent an executive girl would wish to have leave her affairs alone. As for daddy, he has always smiled and beckoned me away from her into a corner and given me what I was making a stand for. My father loves me with such confidence that he pays no attention to me whatever except when he thinks it is about time for him to write my name on a check. His phosphate deals have made him rich in an un-Hayesboro-like way, and all the boys are in business for him in different states, except the oldest one, who is Congressman from this district, and one other who is in a Chicago bank. Yes, I know I have the most satisfactorily aloof family in the wide world. I can just go on feeding on their love and depend upon them not to interfere with any of my plans for living life. However, if anything happens to me I can be sure that their love will spring up and growl.
Now, when I stalked into the room and asked about the Crittenden home, daddy reared his head from his evening paper and immediately took notice of whatever it was in my voice that sounded as if something had hurt me.
"Daddy," I asked him, with a little gulp, "did Sam—Sam sell his ancestral home even to the third and fourth generation and go to farming just for sheer wickedness?"
"No, madam, he did not," he answered, looking at me over his glasses, and I could see a pain straighten out the corners of his mouth under his fierce white mustache. "The judge's debts made a mortgage that nicely blanketed the place, and Sam had only to turn it over to the creditors and walk out to that little two-hundred-acre brier-patch the judge had forgot to mortgage."
"Then Sam can sell it for enough to go out and take his place in the world," I said, with the greatest relief in my voice.
"He could, but he won't," answered daddy, looking at me with keen sympathy. "I tried that out on him. Just because that brier-patch has never had a deed against it since the grant from Virginia to old Samuel Foster Crittenden of 1793 he thinks it is his sacred duty to go out and dig a hole in a hollow log for Byrd and himself and get in it to sentimentalize and starve."
"Oh, I think that is a beautiful thought about the land, and I wish I had known it earlier! But could they be really hungry—hungry, daddy?" I said, with a sudden vacant feeling just under my own ribs in the region between my heart and my stomach.
"Oh no," answered daddy, comfortably. "They both looked fat enough the last time I saw Sam coming to town in a wagon with Byrd, leading a remarkably fine Jersey calf. We'll go out in that new flying-machine you brought home with you and pull them out of their burrow some day when you get the time. Fine boy, that; and, mother, when is that two-hundred-pound black beauty in your kitchen going to have supper?"
I didn't tell daddy I had gone to the ends of the earth to hunt for Sam in less than thirty-six hours after I had landed in Hayesboro, but I went up to my room to slip into something clean and springy, walking behind a thin mist of tears of pure sentiment. That was the third time in about seven hours I had been crying over Sam Crittenden, and then I had to eat a supper of fried chicken and waffles that would have been delicious if it hadn't been flavored by restrained sobs in my throat. I was so mad at my disloyal thoughts about a beautiful character, which Sam's reverence for his ancestral land proves his to be, and so afraid of what I had done to him about the calf, and so hungry to see him, that by the time the apple-float came on the table I thought it would have to be fed to me by old Eph. Mother made it worse by remarking, as she put a lovely dab of thick cream right on top of my saucer:
"Did you hear, father, that all of Sam's cows had been sick and that he has lost his two finest calves?"
I couldn't stand any more. I gulped the cream, remarked huskily on how warm the April night was, and escaped down the front walk to the old purple lilac-bush by the gate where up to my seventh year I had always kept house with and for Sam whenever he would enter into the bonds of an imaginary marriage with me for an hour or two. Sam made a good father of a hollyhock doll family whenever he undertook the relation, and provided liberally for us all in the way of honey, locusts, and grass nuts.
"And I, maybe, let him lose the last calf he has when he is noble and poor and alone," I sobbed into my silk sleeve, which was so thin that I shivered in the cool April moonlight as I leaned against the gate and looked away out at the dim blue hills that rim the Harpeth Valley, at the foot of one of which I seemed to see Sam's and Byrd's hollow log.
"Hello, Bettykin! Out putting our hollyhock family to bed?" laughed a crisp, comforting, jolly voice right at my elbow as a big, rough hand ruffled my beautifully smoothed hair and then gave a friendly shake to my left shoulder. "How do you find all our children after a three-year foreign sojourn?"
"I told you five years ago, when I put it up on my head, to stop ruffing my hair, Sam Crittenden; and did you find that cow?" I answered, with both defiance and anxiety in my voice.
"I did," answered Sam, cheerfully, "but how did I lose you in the shuffle? I tied her up in the shack with a rope and then beat it in all these five miles, partly by foot and partly by a neighbor's buggy, to find and—er—rope you in. I am glad to see you are standing quietly at the bars waiting for me, and as soon as I've greeted your mother and Dad Hayes and got a little of the apple-float that I bet was the fatted calf they killed for your prodigal return, I'll foot it the five miles back in a relieved and contented frame of mind."
"How did you happen to let your cows get sick, Sam?" I demanded, sternly, instead of putting my arms around his neck to tell him how noble I had found out he was, and how glad I was that he had come all that way to see me, and not to be mad at me because I didn't obey him out in the lane.
"I don't know, Betty, I just don't know," answered Sam, as he lit a corn-cob pipe and leaned closer to me in a thoughtful manner. "Cows are such feminine things and so contrary. I don't know what I will do if I lose any more. I—I may get discouraged."
"Have you had a doctor?" I asked, briskly and unfeelingly, though I did take his big rough hand in my own and hold on to it with a sympathy that was not in my voice.
"No, I've sorter doctored them by a book I have. The only good veterinary doctor about here lives way over by Spring Hill, and it would take him a day to drive over and back, besides costing me about ten dollars. Still, I ought to get him. Buttercup is pretty sick," answered Sam, and I could see that his broad shoulders under his well-cut blue serge coat of last season seemed to sag with the weight of his animal responsibilities.
"I can take my car over to Spring Hill in less than an hour, get the doctor, and have you and the doctor out to those animals by ten. This moon will last all night; and you go get the apple-float from mother while I make Eph run out the car and jump into my corduroys. Come on, quick!" And as I talked I opened the gate, drew him in, and started leading him up the front walk by the sleeve of his coat.
"Not if I know myself, Betty, will I let you undertake such a red-cross expedition as that. They'll have to wait. I came in to call on you and whisper sweet nothings to you in the parlor while you tell me—"
"Eat the float in a hurry if you want it," I interrupted him, as I deposited him beside mother, who was still sipping a last cup of coffee with her jelly-cake, and went for my room and my motor clothes.
And it was one grand dash that Redwheels and I made out Providence Road and over Paradise Ridge down to Spring Hill in less than thirty-five minutes. In the moonlight the road was like a lovely silver ribbon that we wound up on a spool under the machine, and a Southern spring breeze seemed to be helping the gasoline to waft us on more rapidly in our flight as it stung our faces with its coolness, which was scented with the sap that was just beginning to rise against bark and bud in the meadows and woods past which we sped.
"It will be great to die together, won't it, Betty?" said Sam once as Redwheels ran a few yards on two wheels, then tried the opposite two before it settled back to the prosaic though comfortable use of four as we took a flying leap across a little creek ditch.
"We can't die sentimentally; we've got to get back to those suffering cows," I answered him, firmly, as I whirled into Spring Hill and stopped Redwheels, panting and hot, in front of the dry-goods, feed, and drug store. There I knew we could find out anything we wanted to know about the whereabouts or profession of any of the fifteen hundred inhabitants of the little old hamlet which has nestled under the hills for a hundred years or more. "Ask where the cow physician lives. Quick!"
And at my urge Sam sprang out and across the old, uneven brick pavement that lay between us and the store door. Then in less than two minutes he appeared with a round, red-faced, white-headed old man who wheezed chuckles as he talked.
His fear of the car was only equaled by his fascination at the idea of the long ride in it, which would be the first motor-driven sortie he had ever made out into life.
"Air ye sure, little missie, that you can drive the contraption so as not to run away with us? Old folks is tetchy, like a basket of pullet eggs," he said, as Sam seated him in the back seat and sprang to my side.
"I wish I had a rope to tie him in," he muttered, as he sank into his seat. "If you run as you did coming, we'll sure lose him. He'll bounce like a butter-ball."
"I'm not taking any risks," I answered, and it was with greatest mildness that we sauntered up Paradise Ridge and started down the other side. And as I drove along carefully my mind began to work out into the byways of the situation. I don't see how my athletic and executive generation is going to do its appointed work in its day if we are going to go on using the same set of social conventions that tied up our mothers. As we neared the cross-road that turned off to Sam's brier-patch I began to wonder how long it would take me to rush back into Hayesboro, bundle mother into Redwheels, and get back to the cows. It was just a quarter after nine o'clock, but I knew she would be sleepy and would have to be forced to come with me very gently and slowly. Still, I didn't see how I could go on out into the woods with only Sam and the Butterball which was wheezing out cow conversation to Sam that I was intensely interested in and ought to have been listening to rather than wasting force on foolish proprieties. I was about to turn and take Sam's advice on the matter when he suddenly laid his fingers on my arm and said:
"Stop a minute, Betty. What's that roosting on that stone wall?" And as he spoke he peered out toward a strange, huge bird sitting by the side of the road.
I stopped just about opposite the object and Sam sprang out.
"You, Byrd Crittenden, where did you come from?" I heard Sam demand of the huddled bundle as he lifted it off the wall. It was attired in scanty night-drawers and a short coat, and shivered as it stood, first on one foot and then on the other.
"I ain't a-going to stay in no country with a hoot-owl, Sam. I'm going to somewhere that a lady lives at, too." And the manful little voice broke as the bunch shivered up against Sam's legs.
"Honest, Byrd, I thought you were asleep and wouldn't wake up till morning. You never did before; but when I go—go gallivanting, have I got to take you or not go?" And Sam's voice was bravely jocular.
"Bring him here to me, Sam," I cried out, quickly. "Come in here with Betty, Byrd." And I cuddled his long, thin, little legs down under my lap-blanket beyond the steering-gear. "You didn't forget Betty while she was away, did you?" I asked, as we snuggled to each other and I started the motor, while Dr. Chubb chuckled and Sam still stood in the middle of the moonlit road as if uncertain what to do next.
"Yes, I forgot you," answered Byrd, candidly, though I had adored him since his birth; "but I like to go see Mother Hayes and eat jelly-cake. Can I go home with you?"
"No. I'm going as fast as I can with you to your home to keep you from freezing to death," I answered, quickly adopting this recovered old friend in the double capacity of an excuse and a chaperon. "Just sit here in the seat by me and watch me get us all back to your house in a hurry. You sit with the doctor, Sam."
"Oh no, Betty," answered Sam, quickly. "It is only a little over a mile now, and the doctor and Byrd and I can walk it all right. You come out in the morning and—"
"I'm going on with the doctor to those cows, Sam, and if you want to go with us, get in quick," I answered, in a tone of voice I have used on Sam once or twice in our lives with great effect. He hopped in and I started at top speed.
"Hic-chew! Fine goer that," wheezed the doctor, and I didn't know whether he alluded to me or Redwheels. But there was evident relish of real pace in his voice, so I speeded up and shot away from the main road into the hard dirt lane in good style.
"I'm a bird—I'm a bird!" shouted the picked fledgling at my side as we whizzed under dark cedar boughs that waved funereal plumes over our heads, and over stumps and stones with utter disregard of the heavy new tires. One of the lessons I learned early is that men are timid of a woman's driving them in any vehicle, and I was surprised that I at last rounded the bend and drew up beside a long, low shed which Sam had calmly pointed out to me, without having had a single remonstrance from the back seat.
"Moo," came in a gentle, sad voice from the depths of the shed as we all began to disembark at the same time.
"Well, one is alive, anyway," said Sam as he set Byrd on the ground and held up his arms to me. "It's good to have you back, Betty," he whispered, in an undertone, as he turned me against his shoulder to set me down. "It 'll all go right now that you are here to—"
"Now tell us what to do, Doctor." I interrupted him determinedly, because I felt that it was not the occasion for friendly sentimentalities.
If at any time in the three years that preceded that night I had foreseen the way I was to spend it I would have been justified in flatly refusing to carry out my horoscope. Suppose, for instance, while I was in the midst of the wonderful dinner Peter Vandyne's cousin, Count Henri de Berssan, gave me in Brussels, a week before the storm broke that carried him before cannon and bayonet, I had seen a mental picture of myself six months from that minute, out in the woods on the side of a Harpeth hill under an old cedar-pole shed with my jacket off, my embroidered blouse sleeves rolled to the shoulder, filling a tin can, which had a long spout to be poked down a cow's throat, with a vile, greasy mixture out of a black bottle, at the directions of a shirt-sleeved little man and a red-headed farmer in blue overalls, while a wisp of a boy writhed in and out and around and under a pathetic old Jersey cow, who was being rescued from the jaws of death. Now I wonder just what I would have done to escape such an experience? Slated myself for Belgian widowhood, perhaps, as a kinder fate, or stayed right there in New York to help Peter on "The Emergence." I wonder if Peter ever saw a dear, big-eyed, trustful old Jersey cow have medicine poured down her throat. It is called "drenching." I wish he could see it before he finishes that play. The sight produces a peculiar kind of emotion that might be worth recording in an all-comprehensive drama of American life. In fact, I know that what I felt at the end was worth recording in any kind of literature, by any kind of a poet—if we were equal to it. Old Dr. Chubb leaned breathlessly against a rough post, I staggered down on an upturned bucket, and Sam reached out his long, blue-overalled arms and embraced Buttercup's neck and buried his head on her patient shoulder, just as a faint streak of April dawn showed behind the oak-trees, for we realized then that the dreadful cramp was gone and that she could chew the wisp of hay offered by Byrd.
"Hic-chew! All out of the woods," wheezed Dr. Chubb, as he looked at old Buttercup and the two other young cows we had been working over all night, with as fine an exaltation of achievement as any I ever saw, not excepting that of an American man of letters I witnessed take his degree at Oxford.
But Sam's head was still bowed on old Buttercup's back and I went and stood beside him.
"Will I ever learn how to take care the right way of—of life?" he said under his breath, as he stood up straight and tall with the early light streaming over his great mop of sun-bronzed hair and the bare breast from which his open shirt fell away.
"I'll help you," I said, as I came still nearer and leaned against Buttercup's warm, yellow side so closely that she looked around from her meal from the Byrd's hand and mooed with grateful affection plus surprise to find us still standing by her so determinedly. "That is, if—if—I can learn myself."
"You haven't found out you are a woman yet, have you, Betty?" answered Sam, with a laugh that embarrassed me. I would have considered it ungrateful if it hadn't sounded so comfortable and warm out in the cold of the dawn—which had come before I realized that midnight had passed, about which time I had intended to go home. But how could a person feel guilty while playing Good Samaritan to a cow? I didn't.
Then, as the streak of new day widened into a soft pink flush over the tops of the bare trees that etched their fine twigs into an archaic pattern against a purple sky lit by the gorgeous flame of the morning star retreating before the coming sun, we all collected buckets and rags and bottles and sponges. In Indian file we were led by Sam around the hill, up a steep path that was bordered by coral-strung buck-bushes and rasping blackberry brush, and to his little farm-house perched on a plateau almost up to the top of the hill. It was long and low, with a wide red roof that seemed to hover in the whitewashed walls and green shutters; while white smoke from an old gray-rock, mud-daubed chimney melted away among the tree-tops into the lavender of the coming day. It looked like a great brooding white hen setting in a nest of radiant woods, and I felt like a little cold chicken as Sam led the way through the low, wide door for me to creep under the sheltering wings. In about two seconds we were all sheltered in complete comfort. At a huge fire that was a great glow of oak coals old Mammy Kitty, who had superintended Sam's birth and childhood, as well as "neighbored" mine, was gently stirring a mixture that smelled like the kind of breakfast nectar they must have in heaven, while she also balanced a steaming coffee-pot on a pair of crossed green sticks at one corner of the chimney. In the ashes I could see little mounds which I afterward found to be flaky, nutty com-pones, and I flew to kneel at her side with my head on her gaudy neckerchief.
"Dah, dah, dah, child," she crooned, as she smiled a queer, loving, old smile that showed me how glad she was to see me, but never another word did she utter. I almost never remember hearing Mammy say an articulate word; but all children and those grown up who have any child left in their hearts can understand her croon. It is cradle music—to the initiated.
"Mammy's rheumatism is mighty bad, but she can still shake up corn ash cake and chicken hash with the best," said Sam, coming over to warm his hands and tower above us, while Byrd volunteered to lead Dr. Chubb out to what he called the wash-up bench on the back porch.
I looked up at Sam as he stood above me in a mingling of fire-glow and the early morning light with his low-beamed, deep-toned humble home as a background, and he—he loomed.
"I—I love this place," I positively gasped, as I moved still closer to Mammy and stirred the spoon in the pot of hash.
"Shelter, fire, a chicken in the pot, and a woman crouched on the hearth stirring it—what more could any man want or get, no matter how he worked?" answered Sam, as he looked down at me with the smolder in his blue-flecked hazel eyes to which Peter had once written a poem called "On the Gridiron."
"Yes, but what would you do if you didn't have Mammy?" I ventured back, as I bent across Mammy's knee and began to stir more vigorously while she shook up her coffee-pot and raked a few last coals over the cakes for their complete browning. "You always were a good provider, Sam," I added, under the excitement of the bubbling over of the coffee.
"Yes, locusts for hollyhock children and the wife of a summer day who—"
"Whew-shk! but my stomick have got a breakfas' notice," interrupted Dr. Chubb. He and the Byrd had come into the room as hungry as ravening wolves.
While Mammy stirred and shoveled off ashes I fed all three men to the point of utter repletion, feeding myself from Sam's plate as I brought the food back and forth. He didn't want me to wait on them, and I suppose that is the reason I insisted on it, and partly ate his breakfast while doing it, just as an act of defiance.
"You taught me to eat out of your hand, even when it was unspeakably dirty, and you had only saved me about two good bites and the core," I answered one of his remonstrances.
"But think of the pain it was to save even a third of a tea-cake in your pocket when your stomach was so near it," he answered as he finished the bottom half of a pone I had spread thick with the juicy hash before I had greedily eaten the upper crust.
"I'd rather eat my breakfast out of my own plate and let ladies eat they's. Sam has to tie up cows that eat out of other's stalls, and the old white rooster has to be put in a coop 'cause he gobbles the hen feed; but 'cause you are company he lets you do it," the Byrd remarked, all in one breath between two pieces of his pone. At which Dr. Chubb wheezed and chuckled delightedly and Sam roared.
"Women critters ain't ever so free with vittels as men; they have to kinder toll 'em along to nibble feed, and life, too," remarked the doctor of distressed animals as we all rose from the table just as the sun burst in on the situation from over Paradise Ridge.
And while he and the Byrd went to again look at the invalids, and Mammy Kitty removed the dishes into a little cupboard that served as butler's pantry and storeroom, Sam showed me the rest of his house—which consisted of his own room, that "leaned-to" the long living-room opposite that of Mammy Kitty, and a back porch. That little room made me feel queer and choky. It was neat and poor; and a narrow, old mahogany bed, that had always been in the Crittenden nursery, was pushed back under the low side. It had a shelf or two with a curtain of dark chintz under which farm clothes hung, a gun in the corner, a jolly little wood stove, and close beside Sam's bed was the young Byrd's cot with its little pillow my mother had made for him before he was ushered into the world on the day his mother left it. I could almost see the big rough hand go out to comfort the little fledgling in the dark. I choked still further, and turned hurriedly out on to the low, wide old porch that ran all the way across the back of the house and which apparently was bath-room, refrigerator, seed-rack as to its beams, and the general depositing-place of the farm; but not before I had remarked, hanging by his door, a grass basket I had woven for Sam to bring locust pods to the hollyhock family. Then I fled, only stopping to squeeze Mammy over her dish-pan and get my hat off the cedar pegs that stuck out of the side of the old chimney to serve just such a purpose.
I found Dr. Chubb and the Byrd, who was now attired in overalls of the exact shade and cut of Sam's, standing by Redwheels with their mouths and eyes wide open in rapture.
"Well, 'fore I die I've saw a horse with steel innards and rid it," remarked the old doctor. "Machines is jest the common sense of God Almighty made up by men, 'ste'd er animals made up by His-self. But I must git on, missie, or some critter over at Spring Hill will have a conniption and die in it fer lack of a drench or a dose."
I left Sam and the Byrd standing in the sunshine at the gate of cedar poles that Sam had set up at the entrance of his wilderness, and I don't believe I would have had the strength of character to go until I had been introduced to every stick and stone on the farm if I hadn't wanted so much to find out all about cows from Dr. Chubb. I drove slowly and extracted the whole story from his enthusiastic old mind. What I don't know about the bovine family now is not worth knowing, and I believe I would enjoy undertaking to doctor a Texas herd. We parted with vows of eternal mutual interest, and I expect to cherish that friendship. It is not every day a girl has the chance to meet and profit by such wisdom as a successful seventy-year-old veterinary surgeon is obliged to possess.
As I went up the stairs to my room I met mother coming down to her half-after-eight breakfast, and she was mildly surprised that I had not come home at a proper time and gone to bed; but when she heard that I had been with Sam's sick cows all night she was perfectly satisfied, even pleased. Mother rarely remembers that I am a girl. She has thought in masculine terms so long that it is impossible for her to get her mind to bear directly on the small feminine proprieties.
"That's right, Betty, be a doer, no matter whom you do, even if it is Sam's cow," said daddy, when I had finished my eulogy of Dr. Chubb and beautiful old Mrs. Buttercup. Then he kissed mother and me and went on down to his office, while she followed him to the gate, crocheting and quite forgetting me.
Completely exhausted, but feeling really more effective in life than I ever had before, even at the Astor tea-table (because Peter had been perfectly well and Sam's cows hadn't), I took a magazine with an entrancing portrayal of a Belgian soldier apparently eleven feet tall on the cover and went out on the side porch to sit in the cool spring sunshine and pick up the pieces of myself. When I put myself together again I found that I made something that looked like an illustration to a farm article rather than the frontispiece to an American epic. Still, if for a friend I could grasp a farm problem with that executive enthusiasm, had I any reason to doubt that I would have any trouble in helping along an epic of American life? I decided that I would not, and settled down to find out about the eleven-foot Belgian before I crept off for a nap, when an interruption came and I had to prop my eyes open. It was Eph with a letter and the information that Redwheels had shed a bolt in its flight last night. I settled the bolt question with a quarter and turned to the letter. It was from Peter, and I knew by the amount of ink splashed all over the envelope that it must contain a high explosive splashed on the inside.
Peter Vandyne really is a wonderful man, and he will enrich American letters greatly after he has had time to live a lot of the things he has planned to write. Farrington, the great producer and dramatist, had read the first act of his epic and said good things about it, Farrington is not a friend of Peter's sister, Mabel, nor does he own or want to buy any of Judge Vandyne's stock in railroads or things. He's just really the dean of the American stage. Could anybody blame Peter if he had used ten pounds of paper, if paper comes by the pound, and a quart of ink telling about it? But he didn't; about five of the seven pages were all about me and Farrington. I never was so astonished. The morning I got home I had written Peter about how all my friends had been glad to see me, and the way the different ones had shown it, and Peter had read that part to Mr. Farrington and he had said that Peter ought to get me to supply some of the human comedy that Peter's play lacked. Peter knows so much about life from his literary researches that it goes off and hides from him when he sets out in search for it, and I understood immediately what the great dramatist meant, though Peter probably did not.
So weave some of your heart spells for me, dearest dear Betty [Peter wrote], I am sending you the manuscript of Act I and part of Act II, and I know you will read them carefully and let me know fully what you think of them. Criticize them from your splendid human viewpoint. The dear old governor has been rather hard on me of late, and I may have to go into the office yet. Death! Help, rescue me, dear, for to put a play across will be my salvation from his prejudices. I must do it this summer, and then—then by the new year perhaps I can lay the gems of success at your feet. May I come down and talk to you soon about it all? No one knows what's in my heart but you, my own Betty. May I come?
I was extremely happy and excited over the poetical way in which Peter was calling on my common sense to help him in his crisis, but I felt weighted down with the responsibility. Yes, I understood the great Farrington. He felt as I did—that Peter's genius needed to see and help old Dr. Chubb drench Buttercup with a can of condition-mixture. Now, could I supply all that, or enough of it to keep Peter from being murdered in his father's office? The inky bundle at my side began to look as if it weighed a ton, but my loyalty and affection for Peter made me know that I must put my back to the burden and raise it somehow. If it had been a simple burden, like three sick cows, it would have been easier to take upon my shoulders. Then suddenly, as I was about to be in a panic about it all, the thought of the cows reminded me of Sam, and immediately, in my mind, I shared the weight of the manuscript with him and began to breathe easier. The way Sam and Peter love each other inspires positive awe in my heart, though Mabel says it is provoking when they go off to their fraternity fishing-camp for week-ends instead of coming to her delightful over-Sunday parties out on Long Island. Judge Vandyne feels as I do about it, and he loves Sam as much as Peter does, though I don't believe that he has any deeper affection for Peter than Sam has. I've been intending to read up about David and Jonathan, but I feel sure, from dim memories, that their histories about describe Peter and Sam. I couldn't for the life of me see why any woman should resent "a love that passes the love of" her, and I am sure she wouldn't if one of them was a poet born to enlighten the world. Yes, I breathed easier at the thought of Sam's affection for Peter, and went back to the case of the giant Belgian, though I don't think the artist quite intended him to be taken that way.
Just as I had turned the front page I was interrupted by Clyde Tolbot, who came whistling down the street and broke out all over with smiles when he saw me out sunning myself.
"Gee! Betty, but it is good to see you at home!" he said.
They wore almost the exact words Sam had used, but they sounded different. The sound is about all that is different in any of the things men say to girls when they like them a lot. Tolly and I are very appreciative of each other, and always have been.
"You are going to settle down and have a royal good time, aren't you, Betty? I learned a new foxtrot up in Louisville last week I'm dying to teach you, and now that Sue Bankhead has got a great big dance machine we can fox almost every night. Will you come with me this evening?"
"I wish I could, Tolly," I said, with utter sincerity, for Tolly is the very best dancer in the Harpeth Valley, not excepting Tom Pollard over at Hillsboro. "But, Tolly, I must give up all thought of social pleasures for a time." I spoke with a dignified reserve that fitted the spirit that I ought to have when undertaking a great responsibility, though I did want to dance. "I have some hard mental work to do."
"Well, blast old Hayesboro for a sad hole! You are going to go in for brain athletics, Sam Crittenden for farmer heroics, and the only movie that has peeped into town is going to be closed because it ran a Latin Quarter film the afternoon the ladies stopped in from the United Charities sewing circle, expecting a Cuban missionary thriller. I might as well have my left foot amputated, it itches so for good dancing." Tolly was so furious that I was positively sorry for him, and to comfort and calm him I told him all about Peter's letter and the play, and the way I had to read and criticize and help. He sniffed at the idea of Peter, but the dramatist impressed him slightly.
"Say, that old boy is the real thing, Betty, child. He's the sure win-out on Broadway. But how long will it take you to write that play for your mollycoddle poet? You can get through with it before the Country Club gets going good, can't you? We've had a new floor in the dancing-pavilion built, and the directors ordered a foxy music machine last night."
"Oh yes, I ought to be able to tell Peter all I know in two and a half months," I answered, ignoring Tolly's disrespect for my poet friend.
"And a lot you don't know," Tolly added, with the candor of real affection. "I wish Sam, the old calf, could be weaned from his cows and take the position your dad is offering him at the Phosphate Works, so he would be able to shake a foot occasionally. Can't you handle him a bit, Betty? It's as if he just came out and looked at life and then dived back in a hollow log."
"I—I don't know," I answered, doubtfully. A pang shot through me at the thought of any one extracting Sam from that wonderful retreat in the woods, but then also this news of the honors that were coming to Peter made me long to have Samuel Foster Crittenden come forth and take his place in the world beside his friends. Sam, I felt sure, was made to shine, not to have his light hid under a farm basket. Why, even Tolly, there beside me on the steps, was the head of the new Electric Light Company that Hayesboro has had a little over a year. He did it all himself, though he had failed to pass his college examinations when he went up for them with Sam.
"I'm proud of the way you've been doing things, Tolly," I added, warmly, putting my thoughts of Sam away where I keep them when I'm not using them.
"Oh, I'm just an old money-grubber and nobody's genius child, but I'll rustle the gold boys to get up to New York to see your play, Betty, and send you a wagon-load of florist's spinnach on the first night," answered Tolly, beaming at my words of praise.
"Oh, Tolly, please don't think I'm going to write a play," I answered, quickly. "I'm—well, I'm just going to tell Peter a whole lot of useful things I find out about life. You see, Tolly, Peter's father has so many millions of dollars that it has been almost impossible for Peter to climb over them into real life as we have. I have to do it for him. Please pity Peter, Tolly, and tell me what you think would be nice in his play if you find anything."
"Well—er—well, I have right in stock at present a little love-interest tale I could unfold to you, Betty, about—Help! There comes the gentle child Edith up the street now. I must go. I am too coarse-grained for association with her." And before I could stop him he was gone through the house and out the back way. That is the way it always is with Tolly and Edith, either they are inseparable or entirely separate. They can't seem to be coexistent citizens, and they have been fighting this way since they both had on rompers. I wondered what Tolly had been doing now.
"Clyde Tolbot needn't have gone just because I came. I can endure him when I have other people to help me," said Edith, as she kissed me and sat down sadly. She is always sad when Tolly has been sinful.
"What has Tolly been doing now?" I asked her, as I put that fascinating Belgian face down on the floor and ruthlessly sat upon him, for the step was getting cold, though the sun was delicious and had drawn out a nice old bumblebee from his winter quarters to scout about the budding honeysuckle over our heads.
"I am so hurt that I wouldn't tell anybody about it but you, dear, but last night as he walked home with me, after we had been dancing down at Sue's to the new phonograph, he—he put his arm almost around me and I think—I think he was going to kiss me if I hadn't prevented him—that is, he did kiss my hair—I think." Edith is the pale-nun type, and I wish she could have seen how lovely she was with the blush that even the failure of Tolly to kiss her brought up under her deep-blue eyes. Edith didn't get any farther north to school than Louisville, and her maiden aunt, Miss Editha Shelby Morris Carruthers, brought her up perfectly beautifully. I didn't know how to comfort her because I had been two years at the Manor on the Hudson and then a year in Europe, and, though nobody ever has directly kissed me, a girl's hand and hair don't seem to count out in the world.
To take Edith's mind off Tolly's perfidy I told her about the play, and she was as impressed as anybody could wish her to be, and promised to stand by me and make people understand why I couldn't dance and picnic like other people because of this great work I had to do for a dear friend. I told her not to tell anybody but Sue, and she went home completely comforted by her friendly interest in Peter and me. In fact, she really adored the idea of helping me help Peter, and seemed to forget her anger at Tolly with a beautiful spirit.
About that time Eph solemnly called me in to lunch. Eph is a nice, jolly old negro until he gets a white linen jacket and apron on, and then he turns into a black mummy. I think it is because I used to want to talk to him at the table when I still sat in a high chair. I don't believe he has any confidence in my discretion even now, and that is why he seats me with such a grand and forbidding display of ceremony.
"Betty dear," said mother, after Eph had served her chicken soup and passed her the beaten biscuits, "I found an old note-book of my mother's that has all the wonderful things she did to the negroes and other live stock on her farm out in Harpeth Valley. You know she ran the whole thousand acres herself after father's death in her twenty-seventh year, and she was a wonderful woman, though she did have three girls and only one son. There is a section of her notes devoted to cows and their diseases, and Sam might be interested to hear how she managed them so that even then her cows sold for enormous sums. Suppose you look over it and tell him about it."
"Oh, I will. Thank you, mother!" I answered, as I took three little brown biscuits, to Eph's affectionate delight, and also as a shock to his proprieties.
I had planned to open the bundle and begin my work for Peter right after dinner, but I sat down and devoured whole that note-book of my maternal ancestor's. I never was so thrilled over anything, and the chapter on gardening really reads like a beautiful idyl of summer. It changed my entire nature. As I read I glowed to think that I could go right to Sam's wilderness and try it all out. I didn't own any land, and it might take a little time to force daddy to buy me some, and the planting season and fever were upon me. There is a wide plateau to the south of Sam's living-room, and I had in my mind cleared it of bushes, enriched it with all the wonderful things grandmother had directed, beginning with beautiful dead leaves, and I was planting out the row of great blush peonies in my mind as I intended to plant it in Sam's garden when the tall old clock in the hall toned out four long strokes. Then I remembered that I wanted to go down to the post-office to get my mail and to see everybody and hear the news. So with the greatest reluctance I tucked the garden idyl in the old desk which had been that very Grandmother Nelson's, and heaved Peter's heavy manuscript in on top of it.
No mass-meeting, no picnic, and no function out in the great world, even New-Year's reception at the White House or afternoon tea at the Plaza, could be half the fun that going to the Hayesboro post-office for the afternoon mail is. I think the distinct flavor is imparted by the fact that all our forefathers and foremothers have done it before us. The Hayesboro resurrection will be held right there, I feel sure.
And if mail-time is fun usually, it is great when all the news is about you and your friends all swarm around you with interest. Everybody had heard about Peter and his play, though neither Edith nor Tolly thought they had told, and that he was soon coming down to visit me, and, of course, that meant to visit all of Hayesboro. Miss Henrietta Spain, who teaches literature from spelling to the English poets, in the Hayesboro Academy, had read Peter's new poem—the one the Literary Opinion had copied last month—and she was pink with excitement over the prospect of having such a genius in our midst,
"Look out that you don't get put in the play on the other side of the footlights, Hayes," said the mayor, slapping daddy on the back. "Be careful how you have a poet sitting around your house."
"The South has long waited to have a genius come down and write a fitting epic about her Homeric drama of Civil War, Elizabeth," said old Colonel Menefee. "Let your young friend come, and I can give him material, beginning with that Bedford Forest charge just before Chickamauga that—"
"And just remember," interrupted Mrs. Winston Polk, "how Elizabeth's mother, Betty's own Grandmother Nelson, rode fifty miles and back in twenty-four hours to get Morgan to send wagons for her barnful of corn to feed his soldiers, though she and her negroes were dependent on what she could grow between then and frost. She never faltered, but—"
"The Nashville and Louisville papers all wrote up the way Clyde Tolbot swam Salt River and stopped the L. & N. express from going down in the cut during the storm last year," Edith hastened to say when Mrs. Folk's breath had given out. Tolly's ugly good face was beautiful to see when she spoke of him thus, though Edith didn't notice it.
When you start a Harpeth Valley town to telling how wonderful it is to the third and fourth generation back, it is like a seething torrent and can go on for ever. I glowed to think of all the wonderful things I could write Peter, and we all started home from the post-office as late as supper hour would admit.
After I got home, escorted by the reunited Edith and Tolly, as well as by Billy Robertson, who wants to be Peter's hero, though he wasn't directly saying so, I sat down determinedly to write to Peter at inspiring length and make him feel how I valued his confidence in me, also to mention the war drama. Just then I raised my eyes and that wonderful notebook had pushed a corner of itself out of the desk from under the manuscript. I couldn't use my mind advising between a modern epic and a war drama while it was plowed up ready for peonies, so I decided to wait and ask Sam's advice about advising Peter, and I read the rest of the peony pages in comfort. Right then, too, I made up my mind that I was going to get ground bone to plant at the roots of all the peonies if I had to use my own skeleton to do it and would only see them bloom with astral eyes.
I was still reading when the supper-bell rang, and was only interested in reminiscences of Grandmother Nelson during the meal.
"No, ma'am, Miss Caroline, you got it wrong. Ole Mis' didn't divide clover pinks 'cepting every third year 'stid of second. Hers bloomed, they did," Eph interrupted mother to say, indulging in perhaps his first speech while waiting on the table during the long and honorable life as a butler which that grandmother had started at his sixth year. He then retired in the blackest consternation, and his yellow granddaughter, the house-girl, brought in the wine-jelly.
One thing is certain—I must contrive some way to get Sam back and forth to me from The Briers in less time than it takes him to walk five miles. He has got just one old roan plow mare and he won't ride her after he has worked her all day, and I am afraid it won't do for me to go after him with Redwheels every time I want him. I can go about two-thirds of the time, but he must be allowed some liberty about expressing his desire for my company. Of course a tactful woman can go nine-tenths of the way in all things to meet a man she likes, and he'll think she hasn't even started from home; but she ought to be honorable enough not to do it at that rate. I believe in liberty for men as well as women.
Still, I can't express the strain it was on me to wait until after eight o'clock for Sam with Grandmother Nelson's farm-book on my knee, and I don't want to do it ever again, especially if the Byrd or Mammy or the cows or any of the other live stock might be sick. I felt that it must be midnight before I got Sam seated by me on the deep old mahogany sofa in front of one nice April blaze in behind the brass fender, and under another from Tolly's power-house. He was pretty tired, as he had been up since daylight, but the cows were all right and on feed again, Mammy wasn't any stiffer than usual, and he had promised the Byrd the first chicken that the old Dominicker hatched out to stay at home and let him come to see me. Mammy had sent me five fresh eggs, and Sam presented them with a queer pod of little round black seeds, and a smile that wouldn't look me in the face.
"Hollyhocks! I climbed over the Johnson fence about two miles from town and stole them for you," he said, as he squirmed around from me and picked a brown burr off the leg of his trousers.
"Aren't they sweeties?" I exclaimed, not noticing his entirely unnecessary bashfulness. "And that is just what I want to talk to you about." With which I produced my ancestral treasure, and with our heads close together we dove into it, didn't come up until after ten o'clock, and then were breathless.
"Oh, Sam, can I do all these things out at your farm?" I exclaimed, and I fairly clung against his shoulder while his strong, rough hand folded over mine as the husk did over the hollyhock seeds I had been holding warm and moist in my palm.
"All of them, and then some, Betty," he answered, blowing away a wisp of my hair that he had again roughed up instead of shaking hands in greeting, despite my reproof. "I'll plow up that southern plot for you just after daylight to-morrow, and every minute I can take from grubbing at the things I have to work to make the eats for all of us I'll put in on the posy-garden for you."
"I'm much obliged to you for the plowing, but I'll be out at about nine o'clock and I'll bring my own spade and hoe and rake and things. I think I'll take those two young white lilacs that are crowded over by the fence in the front yard to start the garden. Don't you think lilacs would be a lovely corner for a garden like my grandmother's, Sam?"
"I—I think it would be nice to—plant the hollyhock seeds you have in your hand the first thing, Betty," answered Sam, with the gridiron smolder in his eyes which snapped up into a twinkle as he added, "Could you help me set onions for a few hours later on?"
"Oh, I'd adore it!" I answered, enthusiastically. "Of course, I mean to help plant all the eat things, too. I may like them best. Let's see what grandmother says about onions." And I began to ruffle back the pages of the book that Sam held in both his hands for me.
"Good gracious! Betty, couldn't the old lady write!" exclaimed Sam, a half-hour later, after we had finished with onions and many other profitable vegetables. "Why, that description of her hog's dying with cholera and the rescue reads like a—a Greek tragedy in its simplicity."
"Oh, Sam," I exclaimed in dismay, "that reminds me, I forgot to tell you about the play, and now you ought to go home, with all those five miles to walk and plowing to do at daylight." "Play? What play? Won't it keep?" asked Sam, as he rose and reached for his hat on the table. "Let's enjoy this last ten minutes before my hike, down at the gate."
"Oh no, it won't keep, and I don't know exactly what I will do about it and the garden. Here's Peter's letter; read it for yourself," I wailed, as I drew the splashed letter out from the ruffle in the front of my dress where I had stuck it for safe keeping, and handed it to Sam. If I hadn't been so distressed by the collision of the play and the garden in my heart I never would have been so dishonorable as to let Sam read the last paragraph in Peter's letter, which was more affectionate than I felt was really right for Peter to write me, even after the Astor tea-party, and which had troubled me faintly until I had forgotten about it in my excitement about Farrington and the play. I saw Sam's hand shake as he read that last page, and he held it away from me and finished it, as I remembered and gasped and reached for it.
"Good old Pete," said Sam, in a voice that shook as his hand did while he handed me back the letter. "It is a great chance for him, and if you can help you'll have to go to it, Betty. Pete only needs ballast, and you are it—he seems to think."
"But how will I find time enough from making our garden to help make his play?" I asked as I rose and clung to his sleeve as I had done in all serious moments of my life, even when his coat-sleeve had been that of a roundabout jacket. My heart was weak and jumpy as I asked the question.
"Betty," said Sam, gently, lifting my hand from his arm into his for a second and then handing it firmly back to me, "that garden was just a dream you and I have been having this evening. It can't be. Don't you see, dear, I am in a hard hand-to-hand struggle with my land, which is all I possess, for—for bread for myself and the kiddie, and I—I can't have a woman's flower-garden. It looks as if you and old Petie can do a real literary stunt together. Just get at it, and God bless you both. Good night now; I must sprint." And as he spoke he was through one of the long windows and out on the front porch in the moonlight.
"Oh, wait, Sam, wait!" I gasped, as I flew after him and clung to him determinedly.
"Well," he said, patiently, as he stood on the step below me and turned his bronze head away from me out toward his dim hills sleeping in the soft mystery of the moonlight.
"I will, Sam, I will have that garden," I said, with the same angry determination in my voice I had used when I had clung to him and kicked and fought to go to places with him when he didn't want me, and when my skirts were several inches above my bare knees and his feet were scratched and innocent of shoes.
"Betty," said Sam, as he shook me away from him and then took my shoulders under their thin covering of chiffon in his plow-calloused, big, warm hands, "forget it! There are lots of dream gardens out in the world you can play in when you have time away from the bright lights. Everybody grows 'em without a lick of work. I have to work mine or starve. Good night!" Then with a rough of my hair down across my eyes he was out in the moonlit road, running away from me to his hollow log in a way he had never done before, no matter how I had tagged him.
I ran as far as the gate to watch him out of sight, and then I put my head down against the tall old post that had been one of Sam's perches when he wanted to climb away from me in former years, and sobbed and sobbed. I had never expected Sam to cast me off.
Girls' hearts are covered all over with little thin crystallizations of affection, and men ought to be very careful not to smash any of them with their superior strength. Sam had hurt me so that I didn't even dare think about it. I knew he was poor, and I hadn't expected him to plow and plant things for me while I went about in a picture-hat snipping them with garden scissors. I had asked him to let me set onions and weed beans and drop peas and corn for him and share his poverty and hard work as a true friend, and he had shut his cedar-pole gate in my face and heart. And I didn't understand why. I tried to think it was his affection for Peter that made him thus rudely switch my mind from him and his garden to Peter and his need of me, which Sam may have thought was greater than the need of his onions and turnip salad; but I don't see how Sam could have construed cruelty to me as generosity to Peter.
"Please God," I prayed out into the everlasting hills toward which Sam was running away from me and from which I had heard intoned "cometh help," "give me dirt to work in somewhere except in just a yard if I can't have Sam's. Help me to get somebody to help me to raise things for people to eat and milk, as well as to inspire a play. I'll do both things, but I must have earth with rotted leaves in it. Amen."
Then I went to bed heartbroken for life, and my sad eyes closed on the little glimpse which my window framed of Old Harpeth, the tallest hill in Paradise Ridge, while my hand still folded in the moist hollyhock seeds.
THE BOOK OF SHELTER
Peter's play is remarkable; it really is. He has collected all the great and wonderful things that life in America contains and put them together in a way that reads as if Edgar Allan Poe had helped Henry James to construct it, though they had forgotten to ask Mark Twain to dinner and had never heard of John Burroughs. I felt when I got through the first act as if I had been living for a week shut into an old Gothic cathedral aisle decorated by marble-carved inspired words, and I was both cold and hungry. The more I read of Peter's play the more congenial I felt with Farrington. I had enough education to see that it was a genuine literary achievement, but I had heart enough to know that something had to be done to rescue all his characters from the arctic region. Could I do it single-handed even for a person I cared as much for as I did for Peter? I decided that I could not, and that the only way I could prove my loyalty and affection for Peter was to abase myself before Sam Crittenden and his cruelty to me, and get his help. Only for Peter would I have done such a thing, which in the end I didn't have to do at all.
Since the night Sam refused me the use of his farm and put me out of his life for ever I had not seen him until by his own intention. Or maybe it was Tolly's.
"See here, Betty, what you need is a good fox or tango and you had better come to it up at Sue's to-night."
Tolly had broken in upon my despairing meditations over the way in which Peter's hero talks wicked business and congested charity to the poor little heroine in the very first act while she is full of a beautiful affection Peter didn't seem to see, and ready to pour it forth to the hero before he started out on a long life mission. Maybe it was sorrowing with her at being thus suppressed by everybody that made me write her case to Peter with such fervor. I had just finished the letter when Tolly came to my rescue with the offer of a nice warm dance to nourish me up.
"Don't make me kidnap you, Betty; go fluff and rose up a bit," he commanded, as he seated himself on the front steps with a determination which was as business-like as his management of the Electric Light Company.
"I think I had better go to Sue's to thaw out some of my loneliness over this play," I answered him as I looked up with desperation and a smudge on my face. Then I went to my room and left Tolly alone with Peter's poor little heroine. "Say, tell the poet to get the man with the dinner-pail who is eating hunk sandwiches at lunch-time on the pavement in front of any construction job in New York to tell him what he did and said to his girl at the firemen's ball the night before, and then translate it into some of this first-class poetry. That'll be a great play," said Tolly, as I came down-stairs just as he had turned page twenty-five of Peter's manuscript. Tolly's coarseness doesn't affect me as it does Edith because there is always so much point to it.
"You don't quite understand Peter and his play, Tolly, dear," I said, with dignity, though I felt exactly the same way about it and hadn't known how to express it in human interest terms as well as Tolly.
"I sure don't," answered Tolly, cheerfully, and not at all as if I had put him in his place in regard to his criticism of our epic. "Come on; let's hurry. Everybody is waiting for us."
It was good to be in a buzz of girls and men once more for the first time in two weeks since I settled down to do my worst or best by Peter, with my Grandmother Nelson's garden-book locked up in the preserve-closet down in the darkest corner of the cellar, and Sam lost in the fastness of The Briers.
Everybody wanted to dance with me at the same time, and the girls kissed me into a lovely, warm cheerfulness. The girls in Hayesboro are the sustaining kind of friends, like pound-cake, sweetened and beautifully frosted. "Has he consented to let the hero kiss the poor thing's hand before he goes to fight the case of the miners?" Julia whispered, warmly, as she took a few tango steps with me in her arms before Billy Robertson claimed her and Tolly picked me up to juggle with me in his new Kentucky version of the fox-trot.
"I'm expecting a letter to-morrow," I answered her as Tolly slid me away three steps, skidded two, and slid back four. And then, having begun, I danced; all of me danced; even my heart, which had started out as heavy as lead, got into the feather class before I went around the room three times. It is strange how even great responsibilities melt away before dance music like icicles on the southern side of the house. It was in a perfectly melted condition that I at last dropped from Tolly's grasp into a pair of new arms which cradled me against a broad breast with such gentleness that I might have thought it was mother come to the dance if I hadn't caught a whiff of cedar woodsiness when I turned my nose into a miniature brier-patch of blue-berried cedar in the buttonhole of the coat against which my face was pressed as my feet caught step with a pair of smart shoes bearing a smear of moss loam on one side.
"Sam!" I gasped, with emotional indignation that had a decided trace of joy.
"Yes, I feel that way, too," answered Sam, roughing my hair slightly with his chin as both his hands were employed holding me to him while we slid and skidded and slid again. "I don't forgive you; I never shall," I said, haughtily, as I drew away from him the fraction of an inch that came very near making us collide with Sue and Billy, who were dancing wildly, but in perfect accord.
"You'll have to when you hear the worst," answered Sam, as he firmly pressed my shoulder into his while he manoeuvered me first past Edith and Tolly and then across right in front of Pink Herriford, who weighs all of two hundred, dancing with Julia Buford, who must tip the scales at one hundred and sixty. It was a hairbreadth rapture of escape.
"Is anything the matter with the cows or anybody else?" I demanded, anxiously, from his shoulder.
"Oh, Sam, has anything died at The Briers?"
"Worse," he answered again, while he defied Tolly with a double cross and then took a chance with Pink and Julia as I pressed him closer with my arms and my questions.
"Dance me out on the porch through the window and tell me, Sam," I demanded.
"Not when this music and Julia and Pink hold out like that, Bettykin. It'll be bad enough when you do hear it," answered Sam, laughing down at me with the same wide-mouthed smile he had always used on me when holding something over my head and making me reach up for it. "Besides, it has been two whole weeks since I've—had you," he added, and again his strong arms cradled as well as guided. Getting back into some people's atmosphere is like recovering the use of a lung a person had temporarily lost; breathing improves. I've always breathed easily in Sam's friendship. That was why I could dance with him as I did even up to the last bar of the music. Then he swung me out through one of the long windows on to the porch under the dusky spring starlight.
"I hate to tell you, Betty, though I have walked a five-mile blister on my left heel in these dancing-shoes just to break the news to you," Sam answered my repeated demand to be told his "worse."
"Oh, Sam, a real blister?" I exclaimed, losing sight of the threatened catastrophe at the thought of his blistered heel. I knew how tender Sam's feet were, for I had doctored them since infancy. I used to pay tribute in the form of apples and tea-cakes for the privilege of binding up his ten and twelve year old wounded toes, and I suppose I hadn't really got over my liking for thus operating.
"Oh, not all from the walk," answered Sam, as he smiled down on me consolingly. "I've got a brand-new mule and I nearly plowed him and myself to death to-day. I don't seem to be well heeled enough to plow and dance both."
"What did you plow, Sam?" I came close up to his shoulder so that the bit of woods in his buttonhole grazed my cheek as my head drooped with an embarrassed hope.
"I plowed for the early potatoes on the south slope and—and—"
"I'm thinking of growing a crop of—hollyhocks, if I get time to plant 'em."
"Where did you plow, Sam?"
"In spots all over the place."
"Well, then, about a hundred feet south by southwest from my door-step, if you must have it. Great sakes! do you think this heel is going to swell, Betty, from your deep experience?"
"I—I'm so happy, Sam," I faltered, with more emotion than I knew Sam liked, but I think all apologies ought to be met enthusiastically at the front gate, whether they intended to come in or not.
"Well, I'm not—I'm blistered." He again plaintively referred to his sufferings which I had forgotten in my joy at having him back in the bonds of friendship, even if slightly damaged.
"Come over home with me and I'll plaster it so it won't break or swell. You know I know how," I answered, eagerly.
"Cold cream and an old handkerchief like you used to keep. Um—um! the thought is good, Betty," he answered, as he stood on his left foot for a second and then lifted it as if he were a huge crane.
"Come, now, so I can get the cream before mother goes to bed," I said, with energy; and I led him, faintly remonstrating, through the Bankhead back gate that opens opposite ours.
Mother was glad to see Sam, heel and all, and sympathetically supplied the cream and handkerchief and a needle and thread without laying down the mat she was putting in a difficult hundred-and-fifty round on. Mother is so used to Sam that she forgets that he is not her fifth or sixth son, and she treats him accordingly. After she had given us all the surgical necessities she retired into the living-room by the lamp to put her mind entirely on the mat, in perfect confidence that I could do the right thing by my wounded neighbor. And I did.
First, as I had always done, I bathed Sam's great big pink-and-white foot in hot water and then in cold, sitting on the floor with a bath-towel in my lap to get at it while Sam wriggled and squirmed at both hot and cold just as he had always done.
"Go on, boil me," he said, as I poured the last flash of heat from the tea-kettle on the floor beside me.
"Now a frost," he groaned, as I dashed ice-water out of a pitcher on the blister and lifted the foot into my lap on the bath-towel.
"If you touch the bottom of my foot I'll yell 'murder,'" he said as I began to pat all around the blister in the gentlest and most considerate manner possible. I knew he meant what he said, so I was careful as I wound and clipped and sewed.
"I never fixed as nice a one as that for you before," I said, with pride, as he drew on his silk sock with its huge hole over as neat a bandage as it was possible for human hands to accomplish. "I love to tie you up, Sam."
"Thank you, and I return the compliment," answered Sam, both smouldering and smiling down at me as if he were saying something to tease me. "And now as a reward for your kindness I am going to knock you down with some news." And as he spoke we went on out to the porch, Sam walking like a new man.
"Oh, the 'worse' thing! I had forgotten about that. Tell me, Sam," I answered, as I leaned against one of the pillars of the porch and he seated himself on the railing beside me.
"Well," said Sam, slowly, "this is not worse for you, just for me; that is, at the present speaking, with nothing but the hay-loft handy. I don't know just how I'll manage."
"Pete," answered Sam.
"What about Peter? Oh, Sam, Peter isn't ill, is he?" And I reached out and clutched Sam's arm frantically. It takes alarm to test the depths of one's affection for a friend. I found mine for Peter deeper than I knew. If anything had happened, Sam would know it first. "Don't be cruel to me, Sam." And I shook his arm.
"Forgive me, Betty," said Sam, quickly. "Pete's all right and he'll be here to demonstrate it to you just as soon as I can get a stall built for him out at The Briers."
"At The Briers? Peter?" I gasped.
"Even at that humble abode, Betty, whose latch-string is always out to friends," answered Sam. And I felt his arm stiffen under my fingers in a way for which I could see no reason.
"Just as I was going to begin my garden," I wailed. And Sam's stiff arm limbered again and made a motion toward my hair that I dodged. "What does he want?"
"Direct life. I can give it to him," answered Sam. "At least that is what he asked for in his letter to me. I don't know what he will request in the one I wager you get by the morning mail."
"Why, I had been writing him all that he needed of that, and we are going to be so busy gardening, how can we help him live it also? Peter does require so much affectionate attention." I positively wailed this to Sam, in the most ungenerous spirit.
"Betty dear," said Sam, gently, as he puffed at a little brier which he had substituted for the adorable cob on account of the formality of Sue's dance, which we could hear going on comfortably without us, beyond the privet hedge whose buds were just beginning to give forth a delicious tang, "Peter is a great, queer kind of sensitive plant that it may be we will have to help cultivate. You know that for several years his poems have really got across in great style with the writing world, and I'm proud of him and—I—I—well, I love him. Suppose, just suppose, dear, that Keats had had a great hulking farmer like me to stand by. Don't you think that maybe the world would have had some grown-man stuff from him that would have counted? I always have thought of that when I looked at old Pete and promised myself to back him up with my brawn and nerve when he needed it. Why, in the '13 game it was Pete's flaming face up on the corner of the stadium that put the ginger in me to carry across as I did. Yes, I am going to put Pete's hand to my plow and his legs under old Buttercup at milking-time if it kills us both, if that is what he needs or you have made him think he needs."
"Oh, Sam, I'm ashamed! I'm ashamed of not wanting precious Peter in my garden. He can have half of all of it. You know I love him dearly. I'll work all day with him and attend to all his blisters and get everybody to give him work and help him."
"Well, I don't believe I'd do all that to him, Betty," answered Sam, with a laugh. Then his eyes glinted past mine for a second. "And say, Betty, you know my blisters are kind of—kind of old friends to you; Pete's might not have so many—many landmarks for you to work by," he added, as he knocked the ashes carefully out of the brier and picked up his hat. "Let's go for one fox, and then I'll trot on out to my patch."
"I'll get Tolly to run you out in Redwheels while I do my promised dances, and then I'll be out early in the morning to help plan about Peter. And—and, Sam, do you want to—to give me that garden?"
"Everything that is is yours, Bettykin," he answered as we went down the steps out on to the springy greening grass and across to the back gate.
Some friends taste like bread and butter and peach preserves. Sam does and he's a peach.
When I got back to the Bankheads' everybody was wondering where we had been, and as Sam and Tolly got right off in the car without answering any questions, I was left to explain about Sam's foot and Peter. I paid no attention at all to Billy Robertson when he said his foot was blistered, too; but I told them how beautiful Peter was, and how distinguished, and all about the poor young Keats that most of them hadn't grieved over since their Junior years at school, telling it all in such an eloquent way that Julia's great blue eyes filled with tears, and I saw I could depend on her to be nice to our friend.