THE BRIMMING CUP
HARCOURT, BRACE AND COMPANY NEW YORK
By the same author
THE SQUIRREL-CAGE A MONTESSORI MOTHER MOTHERS AND CHILDREN HILLSBORO PEOPLE THE BENT TWIG THE REAL MOTIVE FELLOW CAPTAINS (With Sarah N. Cleghorn) UNDERSTOOD BETSY HOME FIRES IN FRANCE THE DAY OF GLORY THE BRIMMING CUP ROUGH-HEWN RAW MATERIAL THE HOME-MAKER MADE-TO-ORDER STORIES HER SON'S WIFE WHY STOP LEARNING? THE DEEPENING STREAM BASQUE PEOPLE FABLES FOR PARENTS SEASONED TIMBER
CHAPTER Page I. PRELUDE . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3 II. INTERLUDE . . . . . . . . . . . . . 23
III. OLD MR. WELLES AND YOUNG MR. MARSH. 29 IV. TABLE TALK. . . . . . . . . . . . . 48 V. A LITTLE GIRL AND HER MOTHER. . . . 64 VI. THINGS TAKE THEIR COURSE. . . . . . 80 VII. THE NIGHT-BLOOMING CEREUS . . . . . 91 VIII. WHAT GOES ON INSIDE . . . . . . . . 115 IX. THE GENT AROUND THE LADY. . . . . . 130 X. AT THE MILL . . . . . . . . . . . . 151
XI. IN AUNT HETTY'S GARDEN. . . . . . . 179 XII. HEARD FROM THE STUDY. . . . . . . . 199 XIII. ALONG THE EAGLE ROCK BROOK. . . . . 215 XIV. BESIDE THE ONION-BED. . . . . . . . 224 XV. HOME-LIFE . . . . . . . . . . . . . 241 XVI. MASSAGE-CREAM; THEME AND VARIATIONS 256 XVII. THE SOUL OF NELLY POWERS. . . . . . 266
XVIII. BEFORE THE DAWN . . . . . . . . . . 279 XIX. MR. WELLES LIGHTS THE FUSE. . . . . 285 XX. A PRIMAEVAL HERITAGE. . . . . . . . 294 XXI. THE COUNSEL OF THE STARS. . . . . . 302 XXII. EUGENIA DOES WHAT SHE CAN . . . . . 309 XXIII. MARISE LOOKS DOWN ON THE STARS. . . 323
XXIV. NEALE'S RETURN. . . . . . . . . . . 331 XXV. MARISE'S COMING-OF-AGE. . . . . . . 338 XXVI. MARISE LOOKS AND SEES WHAT IS THERE 360 XXVII. THE FALL OF THE BIG PINE. . . . . . 367 XXVIII. TWO GOOD-BYES . . . . . . . . . . . 380 XXIX. VIGNETTES FROM HOME-LIFE. . . . . . 390
THE BRIMMING CUP
SUNSET ON ROCCA DI PAPA
An Hour in the Life of Two Modern Young People
Lounging idly in the deserted little waiting-room was the usual shabby, bored, lonely ticket-seller, prodigiously indifferent to the grave beauty of the scene before him and to the throng of ancient memories jostling him where he stood. Without troubling to look at his watch, he informed the two young foreigners that they had a long hour to wait before the cable-railway would send a car down to the Campagna. His lazy nonchalance was faintly colored with the satisfaction, common to his profession, in the discomfiture of travelers.
Their look upon him was of amazed gratitude. Evidently they did not understand Italian, he thought, and repeated his information more slowly, with an unrecognizable word or two of badly pronounced English thrown in. He felt slightly vexed that he could not make them feel the proper annoyance, and added, "It may even be so late that the signori would miss the connection for the last tramway car back to Rome. It is a long walk back to the city across the Campagna."
They continued to gaze at him with delight. "I've got to tip him for that!" said the young man, reaching vigorously into a pocket.
The girl's answering laugh, like the inward look of her eyes, showed only a preoccupied attention. She had the concentrated absent aspect of a person who has just heard vital tidings and can attend to nothing else. She said, "Oh, Neale, how ridiculous of you. He couldn't possibly have the least idea what he's done to deserve getting paid for."
At the sound of her voice, the tone in which these words were pronounced, the ticket-seller looked at her hard, with a bold, intrusive, diagnosing stare: "Lovers!" he told himself conclusively. He accepted with a vast incuriosity as to reason the coin which the young foreigner put into his hand, and, ringing it suspiciously on his table, divided his appraising attention between its clear answer to his challenge, and the sound of the young man's voice as he answered his sweetheart, "Of course he hasn't any idea what he's done to deserve it. Who ever has? You don't suppose for a moment I've any idea what I've done to deserve mine?"
The ticket-seller smiled secretly into his dark mustache. "I wonder if my voice quivered and deepened like that, when I was courting Annunziata?" he asked himself. He glanced up from pocketing the coin, and caught the look which passed between the two. He felt as though someone had laid hands on him and shaken him. "Dio mio" he thought. "They are in the hottest of it."
The young foreigners went across the tracks and established themselves on the rocks, partly out of sight, just at the brink of the great drop to the Campagna. The setting sun was full in their faces. But they did not see it, seeing only each other.
Below them spread the divinely colored plain, crossed by the ancient yellow river, rolling its age-old memories out to the sea, a blue reminder of the restfulness of eternity, at the rim of the weary old land. Like a little cluster of tiny, tarnished pearls, Rome gleamed palely, remote and legendary.
* * * * *
The two young people looked at each other earnestly, with a passionate, single-hearted attention to their own meaning, thrusting away impatiently the clinging brambles of speech which laid hold on their every effort to move closer to each other. They did not look down, or away from each other's eyes as they strove to free themselves, to step forward, to clasp the other's outstretched hands. They reached down blindly, tearing at those thorny, clutching entanglements, pulling and tugging at those tenuous, tough words which would not let them say what they meant: sure, hopefully sure that in a moment . . . now . . . with the next breath, they would break free as no others had ever done before them, and crying out the truth and glory that was in them, fall into each other's arms.
The girl was physically breathless with this effort, her lips parted, her eyebrows drawn together. "Neale, Neale dear, if I could only tell you how I want it to be, how utterly utterly true I want us to be. Nothing's of any account except that."
She moved with a shrugging, despairing gesture. "No, no, not the way that sounds. I don't mean, you know I don't mean any old-fashioned impossible vows never to change, or be any different! I know too much for that. I've seen too awfully much unhappiness, with people trying to do that. You know what I told you about my father and mother. Oh, Neale, it's horribly dangerous, loving anybody. I never wanted to. I never thought I should. But now I'm in it, I see that it's not at all unhappiness I'm afraid of, your getting tired of me or I of you . . . everybody's so weak and horrid in this world, who knows what may be before us? That's not what would be unendurable, sickening. That would make us unhappy. But what would poison us to death . . . what I'm afraid of, between two people who try to be what we want to be to each other . . . how can I say it?" She looked at him in an anguish of endeavor, ". . . not to be true to what is deepest and most living in us . . . that would be the betrayal I'm afraid of. That's what I mean. No matter what it costs us personally, or what it brings, we must be true to that. We must!"
He took her hand in his silently, and held it close. She drew a long troubled breath and said, "You do think we can always have between us that loyalty to what is deep and living? It does not seem too much to ask, when we are willing to give up everything else for it, even happiness?"
He gave her a long, profound look. "I'm trying to give that loyalty to you this minute, Marise darling," he said slowly, "when I tell you now that I think it a very great deal to ask of life, a very great deal for any human beings to try for. I should say it was much harder to get than happiness."
She was in despair. "Do you think that?" She searched his face anxiously as though she found there more than in his speech. "Yes, yes, I see what you mean." She drew a long breath. "I can even see how fine it is of you to say that to me now. It's like a promise of how you will try. But oh, Neale, I won't want life on any other terms!"
She stopped, looking down at her hand in his. He tightened his clasp. His gaze on her darkened and deepened. "It's like sending me to get the apples of Hesperides," he said, looking older than she, curiously and suddenly older. "I want to say yes! It would be easy to say yes. Darling, darling Marise, you can't want it more than I! But the very intelligence that makes you want it, that makes me want it, shows me how mortally hard it would be! Think! To be loyal to what is deepest and most living in yourself . . . that's an undertaking for a life-time's effort, with all the ups and downs and growths of life. And then to try to know what is deepest and most living in another . . . and to try . . . Marise! I will try. I will try with all my might. Can anybody do more than try with all his might?"
Their gaze into each other's eyes went far beyond the faltering words they spoke. She asked him in a low voice, "Couldn't you do more for me than for yourself? One never knows, but . . . what else is love for, but to give greater strength than we have?"
There was a moment's silence, in which their very spirits met flame-like in the void, challenging, hoping, fearing. The man's face set. His burning look of power enveloped her like the reflection of the sun. "I swear you shall have it!" he said desperately, his voice shaking.
She looked up at him with a passionate gratitude. "I'll never forget that as long as I live!" she cried out to him.
The tears stood in his eyes as in hers.
For the fraction of an instant, they had felt each other there, as never before they had felt any other human being: they had both at once caught a moment of flood-tide, and both together had been carried up side by side; the long, inevitable isolation of human lives from birth onward had been broken by the first real contact with another human soul. They felt the awed impulse to cover their eyes as before too great a glory.
The tide ebbed back, and untroubled they made no effort to stop its ebbing. They had touched their goal, it was really there. Now they knew it within their reach. Appeased, assuaged, fatigued, they felt the need for quiet, they knew the sweetness of sobriety. They even looked away from each other, aware of their own bodies which for that instant had been left behind. They entered again into the flesh that clad their spirits, taking possession of their hands and feet and members, and taken possession of by them again. The fullness of their momentary satisfaction had been so complete that they felt no regret, only a simple, tender pleasure as of being again at home. They smiled happily at each other and sat silent, hand in hand.
* * * * *
Now they saw the beauty before them, the vast plain, the mountains, the sea: harmonious, serene, ripe with maturity, evocative of all the centuries of conscious life which had unrolled themselves there.
"It's too beautiful to be real, isn't it?" murmured the girl, "and now, the peaceful way I feel this minute, I don't mind it's being so old that it makes you feel a midge in the sunshine with only an hour or two of life before you. What if you are, when it's life as we feel it now, such a flood of it, every instant brimming with it? Neale," she turned to him with a sudden idea, "do you remember how Victor Hugo's 'Waterloo' begins?"
"I should say not!" he returned promptly. "You forget I got all the French I know in an American university."
"Well, I went to college in America, myself!"
"I bet it wasn't there you learned anything about Victor Hugo's poetry," he surmised skeptically. "Well, how does it begin, anyhow, and what's it got to do with us?"
The girl was as unamused as he at his certainty that it had something to do with them, or she would not have mentioned it. She explained, "It's not a famous line at all, nothing I ever heard anybody else admire. We had to learn the poem by heart, when I was a little girl and went to school in Bayonne. It starts out,
'Waterloo, Waterloo, morne plaine Comme une onde qui bout dans une urne trop pleine,'
And that second line always stuck in my head for the picture it made. I could see it, so vividly, an urn boiling over with the great gush of water springing up in it. It gave me a feeling, inside, a real physical feeling, I mean. I wanted, oh so awfully, sometime to be so filled with some emotion, something great and fine, that I would be an urn too full, gushing up in a great flooding rush. I could see the smooth, thick curl of the water surging up and out!"
She stopped to look at him and exclaim, "Why, you're listening! You're interested. Neale, I believe you are the only person in the world who can really pay attention to what somebody else says. Everybody else just goes on thinking his own thoughts."
He smiled at this fancy, and said, "Go on."
"Well, I don't know whether that feeling was already in me, waiting for something to express it, or whether that phrase in the poem started it. But it was, for ever so long, the most important thing in the world to me. I was about fourteen years old then, and of course, being a good deal with Catholics, I thought probably it was religious ecstasy that was going to be the great flood that would brim my cup full. I used to go up the hill in Bayonne to the Cathedral every day and stay there for hours, trying to work up an ecstasy. I managed nearly to faint away once or twice, which was something of course. But I couldn't feel that great tide I'd dreamed of. And then, little by little . . . oh, lots of things came between the idea and my thinking about it. Mother was . . . I've told you how Mother was at that time. And what an unhappy time it was at home. I was pretty busy at the house because she was away so much. And Father and I hung together because there wasn't anybody else to hang to: and all sorts of ugly things happened, and I didn't have the time or the heart to think about being 'an urn too full.'"
She stopped, smiling happily, as though those had not been tragic words which he had just spoken, thinking not of them but of something else, which now came out, "And then, oh Neale, that day, on the piazza in front of St. Peter's, when we stood together, and felt the spray of the fountains blown on us, and you looked at me and spoke out. . . . Oh, Neale, Neale, what a moment to have lived through! Well, when we went on into the church, and I knelt there for a while, so struck down with joy that I couldn't stand on my feet, all those wild bursts of excitement, and incredulity and happiness, that kept surging up and drenching me . . . I had a queer feeling, that awfully threadbare feeling of having been there before, or felt that before; that it was familiar, although it was so new. Then it came to me, 'Why, I have it, what I used to pray for. Now at last I am the urn too full!' And it was true, I could feel, just as I dreamed, the upsurging of the feeling, brimming over, boiling up, brimming over. . . . And another phrase came into my mind, an English one. I said to myself, 'The fullness of life.' Now I know what it is."
She turned to him, and caught at his hand. "Oh, Neale, now I do know what it is, how utterly hideous it would be to have to live without it, to feel only the mean little trickle that seems mostly all that people have."
"Well, I'll never have to get along without it, as long as I have you," he said confidently.
"And I refuse to live a minute, if it goes back on me!" she cried.
"I imagine that old folks would think we are talking very young," suggested the man casually.
"Don't speak of them!" She cast them away into non-existence with a gesture.
They sank into a reverie, smiling to themselves.
"How the fountains shone in the sun, that day," she murmured; "the spray they cast on us was all tiny opals and diamonds."
"You're sure you aren't going to be sorry to go back to America to live, to leave all that?" asked the man. "I get anxious about that sometimes. It seems an awful jump to go away from such beautiful historic things, back to a narrow little mountain town."
"I'd like to know what right you have to call it narrow, when you've never even seen it," she returned.
"Well, anybody could make a pretty fair guess that a small Vermont town isn't going to be so very wide," he advanced reasonably.
"It may not be wide, but it's deep," she replied.
He laughed at her certainty. "You were about eleven years old when you saw it last, weren't you?"
"No, you've got it wrong. It was when we came to France to live that I was eleven, and of course I stopped going to Ashley regularly for vacations then. But I went back for several summers in the old house with Cousin Hetty, when I was in America for college, after Mother died."
"Oh well, I don't care what it's like," he said, "except that it's the place where I'm going to live with you. Any place on earth would seem wide enough and deep enough, if I had you there."
"Isn't it funny," she mused, "that I should know so much more about it than you? To think how I played all around your uncle's mill and house, lots of times when I was a little girl, and never dreamed . . ."
"No funnier than all the rest of it," he demurred. "Once you grant our existing and happening to meet out of all the millions of people in the world, you can't think up anything funnier. Just the little two-for-a-cent queerness of our happening to meet in Rome instead of in Brooklyn, and your happening to know the town where my uncle lived and owned the mill he left me . . . that can't hold a candle for queerness, for wonderfulness, compared to my having ever laid eyes on you. Suppose I'd never come to Rome at all? When I got the news of Uncle Burton's death and the bequest, I was almost planning to sail from Genoa and not come to southern Italy at all."
She shook her head confidently. "You can't scare me with any such hideous possibilities. It's not possible that we shouldn't ever have met, both of us being in the world. Didn't you ever study chemistry? Didn't they teach you there are certain elements that just will come together, no matter how you mix them up with other things?"
He made no answer, gazing out across the plain far below them, mellowing richly in the ever-softening light of the sunset.
She looked doubtfully at his profile, rather lean, with the beginning already drawn of the deep American line from the Corner of the nose to the mouth, that is partly humorous and partly grim. "Don't you believe that, Neale, that we would have come together somehow, anyhow?" she asked, "even if you had gone straight back from Genoa to Ashley? Maybe it might have been up there after you'd begun to run the mill. Maybe I'd have gone back to America and gone up to visit Cousin Hetty again."
He was still silent.
She said urgently, as if in alarm, "Neale, you don't believe that we could have passed all our lives and never have seen each other?"
He turned on her his deep-set eyes, full of tenderness and humor and uncertainty, and shook his head. "Yes, dear, I do believe that," he said regretfully. "I don't see how I can help believing it. Why, I hadn't the faintest idea of going back to settle in Ashley before I met you. I had taken Uncle Burton's mill and his bequest of four thousand dollars as a sort of joke. What could I do with them, without anything else? And what on earth did I want to do with them? Nothing! As far as I had any plans at all, it was to go home, see Father and Mother for a while, get through the legal complications of inheritance, sell the mill and house . . . I wouldn't have thought of such a thing as bothering even to go to Ashley to look at them . . . and then take the money and go off somewhere, somewhere different, and far away: to China maybe. I was pretty restless in my mind, pretty sure that nothing in our civilization was worth the candle, you know, before you arrived on the scene to put everything in focus. And if I had done all that, while you were still here in Rome, running up and down your scales, honestly . . . I know I sound awfully literal . . . but I don't see how we ever could have met, do you, dear?"
He offered her this, with a look half of apology, half of simple courage.
She considered it and him seriously, studying his face and eyes, listening retrospectively to the accent of his words, and immensely astonished him by suddenly flashing a kiss on his cheek. "You're miraculous!" she said. "You don't know how it feels; as though I'd been floundering in a marsh, deeper and deeper, and then all at once, when I thought I'd come to know there wasn't anything in the world but marsh, to come out on beautiful, fine, clean earth, where I feel the very strength of ages under my feet. You don't know how good it seems to have a silly, romantic remark like what I said, answered the way you did, telling the truth; how good it feels to be pulled down to what's what, and to know you can do it and really love me too."
He had been so startled and moved by her kiss that he had heard her words but vaguely. "I don't seem to catch hold of all that. What's it all about?"
"It's all about the fact that I really begin to believe that you will be loyal and tell me the truth," she told him.
He saw cause for gravity in this, remembering the great moment so shortly back of them, and said with a surprised and hurt accent, "Didn't you believe me, when I said I would?"
She took up his hand in hers and said rapidly, "Dear Neale, I did believe it, for just a moment, and I can't believe anything good of anybody for longer than that, not really in my heart of hearts. And it's my turn to tell you some truth when I tell you about that unbelief, what I've hardly even ever told myself, right out in words."
He was listening now, fixing on her a look of profound, intelligent attention, as she went on, stumbling, reaching out for words, discarding those she found, only her steady gaze giving coherence to her statement. "You know, living the way I have . . . I've told you . . . I've seen a great deal more than most girls have. And then, half brought up in France with people who are clever and have their eyes wide open, people who really count, I've seen how they don't believe in humans, or goodness, or anything that's not base. They know life is mostly bad and cruel and dull and low, and above all that it's bound to fool you if you trust to it, or get off your guard a single minute. They don't teach you that, you know; but you see it's what they believe and what they spend all their energies trying to dodge a little, all they think they can. Then everything you read, except the silly little Bibliotheque-Rose sort of thing, makes you know that it's true . . . Anatole France, and Maupassant, and Schnitzler. Of course back in America you find lots of nice people who don't believe that. But they're so sweet you know they'd swallow anything that made things look pleasant. So you don't dare take their word for anything. They won't even look at what's bad in everybody's life, they just pretend it's not there, not in their husbands, or wives or children, and so you know they're fooled." She lowered her voice, which faltered a little, but she still continued to look straight into his eyes, "And as for love, why, I've just hated the sound of the name and . . . I'm horribly afraid of it, even now."
He asked her gravely, "Don't you love me? Don't you think that I love you?"
She looked at him piteously, wincing, bracing herself with an effort to be brave. "I must try to be as honest as I want you to be. Yes, I love you, Neale, with all my heart a thousand times more than I ever dreamed I could love anybody. But how do I know that I'm not somehow fooling myself: but that maybe all that huge unconscious inheritance from all my miserable ancestors hasn't got me, somehow, and you too? How do I know that I'm not being fooled by Nature and fooling you with fine words?"
She hesitated, probing deep into her heart, and brought out now, like a great and unexpected treasure, "But, Neale, listen! I don't think that about you! I don't believe you're being fooled. Why, I believe in you more than in myself!" She was amazed at this and radiant.
Then she asked him, "Neale, how do you manage about all this? What do you feel about all the capacity for being low and bad, that everybody has? Aren't you afraid that they'll get the best of us, inevitably, unless we let ourselves get so dull, and second-rate and passive, that we can't even be bad? Are you afraid of being fooled? Do you believe in yourself at all?"
He was silent for some time, his eyes steadily fixed on some invisible realm. When he spoke it was with a firm, natural, unshaken accent. "Why, yes, I think it very likely that I am being fooled all the time. But I don't think it matters the least bit in the world beside the fact that I love you. That's big enough to overtop everything else."
He raised his voice and spoke out boldly to the undefined specter in her mind. "And if it's the mating instinct you mean, that may be fooling both of us, because of our youth and bodily health . . . good heavens! Isn't our love deep enough to absorb that a million times over, like the water of a little brook flowing into the sea? Do you think that, which is only a little trickle and a harmless and natural and healthy little trickle, could unsalt the great ocean of its savor? Why, Marise, all that you're so afraid of, all that they've made you so afraid of, . . . it's like the little surface waves . . . well, call it the big storm waves if you want to . . . but nothing at all, the biggest of them, compared to the stillness in the depths of the sea. Why, I love you! Do I believe in myself? Of course I believe in myself, because I have you."
She drew a long sigh and, closing her eyes, murmured, "I feel as though I were lifted up on a great rock." After a moment, opening her eyes, she said, "You are better than I, you know. I'm not at all sure that I could say that. I never knew before that I was weak. But then I never met strength before."
"You're not weak," he told her; adding quaintly, "maybe a little overballasted; with brains and sensitiveness and under-ballasted with experience, that's all. But you haven't had much chance to take on any other cargo, as yet."
She was nettled at this, and leaving her slow, wide-winged poise in the upper airs, she veered and with swallow-like swiftness darted down on him. "That sounds patronizing and elder-brotherish," she told him. "I've taken on all sorts of cargo that you don't know anything about. In ever so many ways you seem positively . . . naive! You needn't go thinking that I'm always highstrung and fanciful. I never showed that side to anybody before, never! Always kept it shut up and locked down and danced and whooped it up before the door. You know how everybody always thinks of me as laughing all the time. I do wish everything hadn't been said already so many times. If it weren't that it's been said so often, I'd like to say that I have always been laughing to keep from crying."
"Why don't you say it, if that is what you mean?" he proposed.
She looked at him marveling. "I'm so fatuous about you!" she exclaimed; "the least little thing you say, I see the most wonderful possibilities in it. I know you'd say what you meant, no matter how many thousands had said it before. And since I know it's not stupidness in you, why, it seems to me just splendidly and simply courageous, a kind of courage I'd never thought of before. I see now, how, after all, those stupid people had me beaten, because I'd always thought that a person either had to be stupid so that he didn't know he was saying something everybody else had said, or else not say it, even if he wanted to, ever so much, and it was just what he meant."
"Don't you think maybe you're too much bothered about other people, anyhow?" he suggested, mildly; "whether they're stupid or have said things or not? What difference does it make, if it's a question of what you yourself feel? I'd be just as satisfied if you gave all your time to discovering the wonderful possibilities in what I say. It would give me a chance to conceal the fact that I get all out of breath trying to follow what you mean."
This surprised her into a sudden laugh, outright and ringing. He looked down at her sparkling face, brilliant in its mirth as a child's, and said seriously, "You must instantly think of something perfectly prosaic and commonplace to say, or I shall be forced to take you in my arms and kiss you a great many times, which might have Lord knows what effect on that gloomy-minded ticket-seller back of us who already has his suspicions."
She rose instantly to the possibilities and said smoothly, swiftly, whimsically, with the accent of drollery, "I'm very particular about what sort of frying-pan I use. I insist on having a separate one for the fritures of fish, and another for the omelets, used only for that: I'm a very fine and conscientious housekeeper, I'd have you know, and all the while we lived in Bayonne I ran the house because Mother never got used to French housekeeping ways. I was the one who went to market . . . oh, the gorgeous things you get in the Bayonne market, near enough Spain, you know, for real Malaga grapes with the aroma still on them, and for Spanish quince-paste. I bossed the old Basque woman we had for cook and learned how to cook from her, using a great many onions for everything. And I learned how to keep house by the light of nature, since it had to be done. And I'm awfully excited about having a house of my own, just as though I weren't the extremely clever, cynical, disillusioned, fascinating musical genius everybody knows me to be: only let me warn you that the old house we are going to live in will need lots done to it. Your uncle never opened the dreadful room he called the parlor, and never used the south wing at all, where all the sunshine comes in. And the pantry arrangements are simply humorous, they're so inadequate. I don't know how much of that four thousand dollars you are going to want to spare for remodeling the mill, but I will tell you now, that I will go on strike if you don't give me a better cook-stove than your Uncle's Toucle had to work with."
He had been listening with an appreciative grin to her nimble-witted chatter, but at this he brought her up short by an astonished, "Who had? What had? What's that . . . Toucle?"
She laughed aloud again, delighted at having startled him into curiosity. "Toucle. Toucle. Don't you think it a pretty name? Will you believe me when I say I know all about Ashley?"
"Oh, go on, tell me!" he begged. "You don't mean to say that my Uncle Benton had pep enough to have a scandal in his life?"
"What do you know about your uncle?"
"Oh, I'd seen him a few times, though I'd never been up to Ashley. As long as Grandfather was alive and the mill at Adams Center was running, Uncle Burton used to go there to see his father, and I always used to be hanging around Grandfather and the mill, and the woods. I was crazy about it all, as a boy, used to work right along with the mill-hands, and out chopping with the lumbermen. Maybe Uncle Burton noticed that." He was struck with a sudden idea, "By George, maybe that was why he left me the mill!" He cast his eye retrospectively on this idea and was silent for a moment, emerging from his meditation to say, wonderingly, "Well, it certainly is queer, how things come out, how one thing hangs on another. It's enough to addle your brains, to try to start to follow back all the ways things happen . . . ways you'd never thought of as of the least importance."
"Your Uncle Burton was of some importance to us," she told him. "Miss Oldham at the pension said that she had just met a new American, down from Genoa, and when I heard your name I said, 'Oh, I used to know an old Mr. Crittenden who ran a wood-working factory up in Vermont, where I used to visit an old cousin of mine,' and that was why Miss Oldham introduced us, that silly way, as cousins."
He said, pouncingly, "You're running on, inconsequently, just to divert my mind from asking you again who or what Toucle is."
"You can ask and ask all you like," she defied him, laughing. "I'm not going to tell you. I've got to have some secrets from you, to keep up the traditions of self-respecting womanhood. And anyhow I couldn't tell you, because she is different from everything else. You'll see for yourself, when we get there. If she's still alive." She offered a compromise, "I'll tell you what. If she's dead, I'll sit down and tell you about her. If she's still alive, you'll find out. She's an Ashley institution, Toucle is. As symbolic as the Cumean Sybil. I don't believe she'll be dead. I don't believe she'll ever be dead."
"You've let the cat out of the bag enough so I've lost my interest in her," he professed. "I can make a guess that she's some old woman, and I bet you I won't see anything remarkable in her. Except that wild name. Is it Miss Toucle, or Mrs. Toucle?"
The girl burst into laughter at this, foolish, light-hearted mirth which drenched the air all about her with the perfume of young gaiety. "Is it Miss Druid, or Mrs. Druid?" was all she would say.
She looked up at him, her eyes shining, and cried between her gusts of laughter, as if astonished, "Why, I do believe we are going to be happy together. I do believe it's going to be fun to live with you."
His appalled surprise that she had again fallen into the pit of incredulity was, this time, only half humorous. "For God's sake, what did you think!"
She answered, reasonably, "Well, nobody ever is happy together, either in books or out of them. Of all the million, million love-affairs that have happened, does anybody ever claim any one to have been happy?"
His breath was taken away. He asked helplessly, "Well, why are you marrying me?"
She replied very seriously, "Because I can't help myself, dear Neale. Isn't that the only reason you're marrying me?"
He looked at her long, his nostrils quivering a little, gave a short exclamation which seemed to carry away all his impatience, and finally said, quietly enough, "Why, yes, of course, if that's the way you want to put it. You can say it in a thousand thousand different ways."
He added with a sudden fury, "And never one of them will come anywhere near expressing it. Look here, Marise, I don't believe you have the faintest, faintest idea how big this thing is. All these fool clever ways of talking about it . . . they're just a screen set up in front of it, to my mind. It's enough sight bigger than just you or me, or happiness or unhappiness. It's the meaning of everything!"
She considered this thoughtfully. "I don't believe I really know what you mean," she said, "or anyhow that I feel what you mean. I have had dreams sometimes, that I'm in something awfully big and irresistible like a great river, flowing somewhere; but I've never felt it in waking hours. I wish I could. It's lovely in dreams. You evidently do, even awake."
He said, confidently, "You will, later on."
She ventured, "You mean, maybe, that I'm so shaken up by the little surface waves, chopping back and forth, that I don't feel the big current."
"It's there. Whether you feel it or not," he made final answer to her doubt.
She murmured, "I wonder if there is anything in that silly, old-fashioned notion that men are stronger than women, and that women must lean on men's strength, to live?"
"Everybody's got to lean on his own strength, sooner or later," he told her with a touch of grimness.
"You just won't be romantic!" she cried admiringly.
"I really love you, Marise," he answered profoundly; and on this rock-like assurance she sank down with a long breath of trust.
* * * * *
The sun was dipping into the sea now, emblazoning the sky with a last flaming half-circle of pure color, but the light had left the dusky edges of the world. Already the far mountains were dimmed, and the plain, passing from one deep twilight color to another more somber, was quietly sinking into darkness as into the strong loving arms of ultimate dissolution.
The girl spoke in a dreamy twilight tone, "Neale dear, this is not a romantic idea . . . honestly, I do wish we could both die right here and never go down to the plain any more. Don't you feel that? Not at all?"
His voice rang out, resonant and harsh as a bugle-note, "No, I do not, not at all, not for a single moment. I've too much ahead of me to feel that. And so have you!"
"There comes the cable-car, climbing up to get us," she said faintly. "And we will go down from this high place of safety into that dark plain, and we will have to cross it, painfully, step by step. Dare you promise me we will not lose our way?" she challenged him.
"I don't promise you anything about it," he answered, taking her hand in his. "Only I'm not a bit afraid of the plain, nor the way that's before us. Come along with me, and let's see what's there."
"Do you think you know where we are going, across that plain?" she asked him painfully; "even where we are to try to go?"
"No, I don't know, now," he answered undismayed. "But I think we will know it as we go along because we will be together."
* * * * *
The darkness, folding itself like a velvet mantle about the far mountains, deepened, and her voice deepened with it. "Can you even promise that we won't lose each other there?" she asked somberly.
At this he suddenly took her into his arms, silently, bending his face to hers, his insistent eyes bringing hers up to meet his gaze. She could feel the strong throbbing of his heart all through her own body.
She clung to him as though she were drowning. And indeed she felt that she was. Life burst over them with a roar, a superb flooding tide on whose strong swelling bosom they felt themselves rising, rising illimitably.
The sun had now wholly set, leaving to darkness the old, old plain, soaked with humanity.
March 15, 1920. 8:30 A.M.
Marise fitted little Mark's cap down over his ears and buttoned his blue reefer coat close to his throat.
"Now you big children," she said, with an anxious accent, to Paul and Elly standing with their school-books done up in straps, "be sure to keep an eye on Mark at recess-time. Don't let him run and get all hot and then sit down in the wind without his coat. Remember, it's his first day at school, and he's only six."
She kissed his round, smooth, rosy cheek once more, and let him go. Elly stooped and took her little brother's mittened hand in hers. She said nothing, but her look on the little boy's face was loving and maternal.
Paul assured his mother seriously, "Oh, I'll look out for Mark, all right."
Mark wriggled and said, "I can looken out for myself wivout Paul!"
Their mother looked for a moment deep into the eyes of her older son, so clear, so quiet, so unchanging and true. "You're a good boy, Paul, a real comfort," she told him.
To herself she thought, "Yes, all his life he'll look out for people and get no thanks for it."
* * * * *
She followed the children to the door, wondering at her heavy heart. What could it come from? There was nothing in life for her to fear of course, except for the children, and it was absurd to fear for them. They were all safe; safe and strong and rooted deep in health, and little Mark was stepping off gallantly into his own life as the others had done. But she felt afraid. What could she be afraid of? As she opened the door, their advance was halted by the rush upon them of Paul's dog, frantic with delight to see the children ready to be off, springing up on Paul, bounding down the path, racing back to the door, all quivering eager exultation. "Ah, he's going with the children!" thought Marise wistfully.
She could not bear to let them leave her and stood with them in the open door-way for a moment. Elly rubbed her soft cheek against her mother's hand. Paul, seeing his mother shiver in the keen March air, said, "Mother, if Father were here he'd make you go in. That's a thin dress. And your teeth are just chattering."
"Yes, you're right, Paul," she agreed; "it's foolish of me!"
The children gave her a hearty round of good-bye hugs and kisses, briskly and energetically performed, and went down the stone-flagged path to the road. They were chattering to each other as they went. Their voices sounded at first loud and gay in their mother's ears. Then they sank to a murmur, as the children ran along the road. The dog bounded about them in circles, barking joyfully, but this sound too grew fainter and fainter.
When the murmur died away to silence, there seemed no sound left in the stark gray valley, empty and motionless between the steep dark walls of pine-covered mountains.
* * * * *
Marise stood for a long time looking after the children. They were climbing up the long hilly road now, growing smaller and smaller. How far away they were, already! And that very strength and vigor of which she was so proud, which she had so cherished and fostered, how rapidly it carried them along the road that led away from her!
They were almost at the top of the hill now. Perhaps they would turn there and wave to her.
No, of course now, she was foolish to think of such a thing. Children never remembered the people they left behind. And she was now only somebody whom they were leaving behind. She felt the cold penetrate deeper and deeper into her heart, and knew she ought to go back into the house. But she could not take her eyes from the children. She thought to herself bitterly, "This is the beginning of the end. I've been feeling how, in their hearts, they want to escape from me when I try to hold them, or when I try to make them let me into their lives. I've given everything to them, but they never think of that. I think of it! Every time I look at them I see all those endless hours of sacred sacrifice. But when they look at me, do they see any of that? No! Never! They only see the Obstacle in the way of their getting what they want. And so they want to run away from it. Just as they're doing now."
She looked after them, yearning. Although they were so far, she could see them plainly in the thin mountain air. They were running mostly, once in a while stopping to throw a stone or look up into a tree. Then they scampered on like squirrels, the fox-terrier bounding ahead.
* * * * *
Now they were at the top where the road turned. Perhaps, after all, they would remember and glance back and wave their hands to her.
* * * * *
Now they had disappeared, without a backward look.
* * * * *
She continued gazing at the vacant road. It seemed to her that the children had taken everything with them.
* * * * *
A gust of icy wind blew down sharply from the mountain, still snow-covered, and struck at her like a sword. She turned and went back shivering, into the empty house.
OLD MR. WELLES AND YOUNG MR. MARSH
An Hour in the Life of Mr. Ormsby Welles, aet. 67
March 15, 1920. 3:00 P.M.
Having lifted the knocker and let it fall, the two men stood gazing with varying degrees of attention at the closed white-painted old door. The younger, the one with the round dark head and quick dark eyes, seemed extremely interested in the door, and examined it competently, its harmoniously disposed wide panels, the shapely fan-light over it, the small panes of greenish old glass on each side. "Beautiful old bits you get occasionally in these out-of-the-way holes," he remarked. But the older man was aware of nothing so concrete and material. He saw the door as he saw everything else that day, through a haze. Chiefly he was concerned as to what lay behind the door. . . . "My neighbors," he thought, "the first I ever had."
The sun shone down through the bare, beautiful twigs of the leafless elms, in a still air, transparent and colorless.
The handle of the door turned, the door opened. The older man was too astonished by what he saw to speak, but after an instant's pause the younger one asked if Mr. and Mrs. Crittenden were at home and could see callers. The lean, aged, leather-colored woman, with shiny opaque black eyes, opened the door wider and silently ushered them into the house.
As long as she was in sight they preserved a prudent silence as profound as hers, but when she had left them seated, and disappeared, they turned to each other with lifted eyebrows. "Well, what was that, do you suppose?" exclaimed the Younger. He seemed extremely interested and amused. "I'm not so sure, Mr. Welles, about your being safe in never locking your doors at night, as they all tell you, up here. With that for a neighbor!"
The older man had a friendly smile for the facetious intention of this. "I guess I won't have anything that'd be worth locking doors on," he said. He looked about him still smiling, his pleasant old eyes full of a fresh satisfaction in what he saw. The room was charming to his gaze, cheerful and homey. "I don't believe I'm going to have anything to complain of, with the folks that live in this house," he said, "any more than with any of the rest of it."
The other nodded. "Yes, it's a very good room," he agreed. After a longer inspection, he added with a slight accent of surprise, "An oddly good room; stunning! Look at the color in those curtains and the walls, and the arrangement of those prints over that Chippendale sewing-table. I wonder if it's accidental. You wouldn't think you'd find anybody up here who could achieve it consciously."
He got to his feet with a vigorous precision of movement which the other admired. "Well, he's grown to be considerable of a man," he thought to himself. "A pity his father couldn't have lived to see it, all that aliveness that had bothered them so much, down at last where he's got his grip on it. And enough of it, plenty of it, oceans of it, left so that he is still about forty times more alive than anybody else." He looked tolerantly with his tired elderly amusement at the other, stepping about, surveying the room and every object in it.
The younger brought himself up short in front of a framed photograph. "Why, here's a chateau-fort I don't know!" he said with an abrupt accent. He added, with some vehemence, "I never even heard of it, I'm sure. And it's authentic, evidently."
The older man sat perfectly still. He did not know what a shatto four was, nor had he the slightest desire to ask and bring the information down on him, given as the other would give it, pressingly, vividly, so that you had to listen whether you wanted to or not. Heaven knew he did not want to know about whatever it was, this time. Not about that, nor anything else. He only wanted to rest and have a little life before it was too late. It was already too late for any but the quietest sort. But that was no matter. He wouldn't have liked the other kind very well probably. He certainly had detested the sort of "life" he'd experienced in business. The quietest sort was what he had always wanted and never got. And now it really seemed as though he was going to have it. For all his fatigued pose in the old arm-chair, his heart beat faster at the idea. He hadn't got used to being free yet. He'd heard people say that when you were first married it was like that, you couldn't realize it. He'd heard one of the men at the office say that for a long time, every time he heard his bride's skirts rustle, he had to turn his head to make sure she was really there. Well, he would like now to get up and look out of that window and see if his garden was really there. His garden! He thought with a secret feeling, half pity and half shame, of those yellowed old seed catalogues which had come, varnished and brilliant and new, year after year, so long ago, which he'd looked at so hard and so long, in the evenings, and put away to get yellow and sallow like his face . . . and his hopes. It must be almost time to "make garden," he thought. He had heard them saying at the store that the sap was beginning to run in the maple-trees. He would have just time to get himself settled in his house . . . he felt an absurd young flush come up under his grizzled beard at this phrase . . . "his house," his own house, with bookshelves, and a garden. How he loved it all already! He sat very still, feeling those savagely lopped-off tendrils put out their curling fingers once more, this time unafraid. He sat there in the comfortable old arm-chair at rest as never before. He thought, "This is the way I'm going to feel right along, every day, all the time," and closed his eyes.
He opened them again in a moment, moved subconsciously by the life-time habit of making sure what Vincent was up to. He smiled at the keen look of alert, prick-eared attention which the other was still giving to that room! Lord, how Vincent did love to get things all figured out! He probably had, by this time, an exact diagram of the owners of the house all drawn up in his mind and would probably spend the hour of their call, seeing if it fitted. Not that they would have any notion he was doing anything but talk a blue streak, or was thinking of anything but introducing an old friend.
One thing he wanted in his garden was plenty of gladioli. Those poor, spindling, watery ones he had tried to grow in the window-box, he'd forget that failure in a whole big row all along the terrace, tall and strong, standing up straight in the country sunshine. What was the address of that man who made a specialty of gladioli? He ought to have noted it down. "Vincent," he asked, "do you remember the address of that Mr. Schwatzkummerer who grew nothing but gladioli?" Vincent was looking with an expression of extreme astonishment at the sheet of music on the piano. He started at the question, stared, recollected himself, laughed, and said, "Heavens, no, Mr. Welles!" and went back into his own world. There were lots of things, Mr. Welles reflected, that Vincent did not care about just as hard as he cared about others.
In a moment the younger man came and sat down on the short, high-armed sofa. Mr. Welles thought he looked puzzled, a very unusual expression on that face. Maybe, after all, he hadn't got the owners of the house so well-plotted out as he thought he ought to. He himself, going on with his own concerns, remarked, "Well, the name must be in the Long Island telephone directory. When you go back you could look it up and send me word."
"Whose name?" asked Vincent blankly.
"Schwatzkummerer," said the other.
"What!" cried Vincent incredulously, and then, "Oh yes," and then, "Sure, yes, I'll look it up. I'm going back Thursday on the night train. I won't leave the Grand Central without going to a telephone booth, looking it up, and sending it to you on a postcard, mailed there. It ought to be here on the morning mail Saturday."
The older man knew perfectly well that he was being a little laughed at, for his absorption in gladioli, and not minding it at all, laughed himself, peaceably. "It would take a great deal more than a little of Vincent's fun," he thought, "to make me feel anything but peaceable here." He was quite used to having people set him down as a harmless, worn-out old duffer, and he did not object to this conception of his character. It made a convenient screen behind which he could carry on his own observation and meditation uninterrupted.
"Here comes somebody," said Vincent and turned his quick eyes toward the door, with an eager expression of attention. He really must have been stumped by something in the room, thought Mr. Welles, and meant to figure it out from the owners of the house themselves.
The tall, quiet-looking lady with the long dark eyes, who now came in alone, excusing herself for keeping them waiting, must of course be Mrs. Crittenden, Mr. Welles knew. He wished he could get to his feet as Vincent did, looking as though he had got there by a bound or a spring and were ready for another. He lifted himself out of his arm-chair with a heaviness he knew seemed all the heavier by contrast, took the slim hand Mrs. Crittenden offered him, looked at her as hard as he dared, and sank again into the arm-chair, as she motioned him to do. He had had a long experience in judging people quickly by the expression of their faces, and in that short length of time he had decided thankfully that he was really, just as he had hoped, going to like his new neighbor as much as all the rest of it. He gave her a propitiatory smile, hoping she might like him a little, too, and hoping also that she would not mind Vincent. Sometimes people did, especially nice ladies such as evidently Mrs. Crittenden was. He observed that as usual Vincent had cut in ahead of everybody else, had mentioned their names, both of them, and was talking with that . . . well, the way he did, which people either liked very much or couldn't abide. He looked at Vincent as he talked. He was not a great talker himself, which gave him a great deal of practice in watching people who did. He often felt that he saw more than he heard, so much more did people's faces express than their words.
He noticed that the younger man was smiling a good deal, showing those fine teeth of his, and he had one of those instantaneously-gone, flash-light reminiscences of elderly people, . . . the day when Mr. Marsh had been called away from the office and had asked him to go with little Vincent to keep an appointment with the dentist. Heavens! How the kid had roared and kicked! And now he sat there, smiling, "making a call," probably with that very filling in his tooth, grown-up, not even so very young any more, with a little gray in his thick hair, what people often called a good-looking man. How life did run between your fingers! Well, he would close his hand tight upon what was left to him. He noticed further that as Vincent talked, his eyes fixed on his interlocutor, his vigorous hands caressed with a slow circular motion the rounded arms of his chair. "What a three-ringed circus that fellow is," he thought. "I bet that the lady thinks he hasn't another idea in his head but introducing an old friend, and all the time he's taking her in, every inch of her, and three to one, what he'll talk about most afterwards is the smooth hard feeling of those polished arm-chairs." Vincent was saying, ". . . and so, we heard in a round-about way too long to bother you with, about the small old house next door being for sale, and how very quiet and peaceful a spot this is, and the Company bought it for Mr. Welles for a permanent home, now he has retired."
"Pretty fine of them!" murmured the older man dutifully, to the lady.
Vincent went on, "Oh, it's only the smallest way for them to show their sense of his life-time devotion to their interests. There's no estimating what we all owe him, for his steadiness and loyalty and good judgment, especially during that hard period, near the beginning. You know, when all electrical businesses were so entirely on trial still. Nobody knew whether they were going to succeed or not. My father was one of the Directors from the first and I've been brought up in the tradition of how much the small beginning Company is indebted to Mr. Welles, during the years when they went down so near the edge of ruin that they could see the receiver looking in through the open door."
Welles moved protestingly. He never had liked the business and he didn't like reminders that he owed his present comfort to it. Besides this was reading his own epitaph. He thought he must be looking very foolish to Mrs. Crittenden. Vincent continued, "But of course that's of no great importance up here. What's more to the purpose is that Mr. Welles is a great lover of country life and growing things, and he's been forced to keep his nose on a city grindstone all his life until just now. I think I can guarantee that you'll find him a very appreciative neighbor, especially if you have plenty of gladioli in your garden."
This last was one of what Welles called "Vincent's sidewipes," which he could inlay so deftly that they seemed an integral part of the conversation. He wondered what Mrs. Crittenden would say, if Vincent ever got through his gabble and gave her a chance. She was turning to him now, smiling, and beginning to speak. What a nice voice she had! How nice that she should have such a voice!
"I'm more than glad to have you both come in to see me, and I'm delighted that Mr. Welles is going to settle here. But Mr. . . ." she hesitated an instant, recalled the name, and went on, "Mr. Marsh doesn't need to explain you any more. It's evident that you don't know Ashley, or you'd realize that I've already heard a great deal more about you than Mr. Marsh would be likely to tell me, very likely a good deal more than is true. I know for instance, . . ." she laughed and corrected herself, ". . . at least I've been told, what the purchase price of the house was. I know how Harry Wood's sister-in-law's friend told you about Ashley and the house in the first place. I know how many years you were in the service of the Company, and how your pension was voted unanimously by the Directors, and about the silver loving-cup your fellow employees in the office gave you when you retired; and indeed every single thing about you, except the exact relation of the elderly invalid to whose care you gave up so generously so much of your life; I'm not sure whether I she was an aunt or a second-cousin." She paused an instant to give them a chance to comment on this, but finding them still quite speechless, she went on. "And now I know another thing, that you like gladioli, and that is a real bond."
She was interrupted here by a great explosive laugh from Vincent. It was his comment on her speech to them, and for a time he made no other, eyeing her appreciatively as she and Mr. Welles talked garden together, and from time to time chuckling to himself. She gave him once a sidelong amused glance, evidently liking his capacity to laugh at seeing the ground cut away from under his feet, evidently quite aware that he was still thinking about that, and not at all about Mr. Welles and tulip-beds. Welles was relieved at this. Apparently she was going to "take" Vincent the right way. Some ladies were frightfully rubbed the wrong way by that strange great laugh of Vincent's. And what she knew about gardening! And not only about gardening in general, but about his own garden. He was astounded at her knowledge apparently of every inch of the quadrangle of soil back of his house, and at the revelations she made to him of what could lie sleeping under a mysterious blank surface of earth. Why, a piece of old ground was like a person. You had to know it, to have any idea of all that was hidden in its bosom, good and bad. "There never was such a place for pigweed as the lower end of your vegetable lot," she told him; "you'll have to get up nights to fight it if there is plenty of rain this summer." And again, "Be careful about not digging too close to the east wall of your terrace. There is a border of peonies there, splendid pink ones, and you're likely to break off the shoots. They don't show so early as the red ones near the walk, that get more sun."
"Did you ever use to live in that house?" he asked her, respectful of her mastery of its secrets.
She laughed. "No, oh no. We've lived right here all the eleven years of our life in Vermont. But there's another side to the local wireless information-bureau that let me know all about you before you ever got here. We all know all about everybody and everything, you know. If you live in the country you're really married to humanity, for better or for worse, not just on speaking terms with it, as you are in the city. Why, I know about your garden because I have stood a thousand, thousand times leaning on my hoe in my own garden, discussing those peonies with old Mrs. Belham who lived there before you." This seemed to bring up some picture into her mind at which she looked for a moment, turning from it to the man beside her, with a warmth in her voice which went to his heart. "It's been forlorn having that dear little old house empty and cold. I can't tell you how glad I am you have come to warm it, and live in it."
The wonder of it overcame Mr. Welles like a wave. "I can't believe I'm really going to!" he cried desperately. "It doesn't seem possible!" He felt shamed, knowing that he had burst out too violently. What could she know of what lay back of him, that he was escaped from! What could she think of him, but that he was a foolish, bitter old man?
She did not seem to think that, looking at him attentively as though she wanted to make out just what he meant. Perhaps she did make out, for she now said gently, "I believe you are going to like it, Mr. Welles. I believe you are going to find here what, . . . what you deserve to find." She said quietly, "I hope we shall be good neighbors to you."
She spoke so kindly, her look on him was so humane that he felt the water coming to his eyes. He was in a foolishly emotional state, these first days. The least little thing threw him off the track. It really did seem hardly possible that it was all true. That the long grind at the office was over, the business he had always hated and detested, and the long, hateful slavery at the flat finished at last, and that he had come to live out what was left to him in this lovely, peaceful valley, in that quiet welcoming little house, with this sweet woman next door! He swallowed. The corners of his mouth twitched. What an old lunatic he was. But he did not dare trust himself to speak again.
Now Vincent's voice rose. What a length of time Vincent had been silent,—he who never took a back seat for anybody! What had he been doing all this time, sitting there and staring at them with those awfully brilliant eyes of his? Very likely he had seen the silly weak tears so near the surface, had caught the sentimental twitch of the mouth. Yes, quite certainly, for, now he was showing his tact by changing the subject, changing it with a vengeance. "Mrs. Crittenden," he was saying, "my curiosity has been touched by that very fine photograph over there. I don't recognize the castle it shows."
"That's in Bayonne," she said, and paused, her eyes speculatively on him.
"No, Heavens no! You don't need to tell me that it's not Bayonne, New Jersey!" he answered her unspoken question violently. This made her laugh, opening her long eyes a little. He went on, "I've been as far as Pau, but never went into the Basque country."
"Oh, Pau." She said no more than this, but Welles had the impression that these words somehow had made a comment on Vincent's information. Vincent seemed to think so too, and curiously enough not to think it a very favorable comment. He looked, what he almost never looked, a little nettled, and spoke a little stiffly. "It's a very fine specimen," he said briefly, looking again at the photograph.
"Oh, it looks very much finer and bigger in the photograph than it really is," she told them. "It's only a bandbox of a thing compared with Coucy or Pierrefonds or any of the northern ones. It was built, you know, like the Cathedral at Bayonne, when the Plantagenets still held that country, but after they were practically pretty near English, and both the chateau and the Gothic cathedral seem queer aliens among the southern natives. I have the photograph up there on the wall only because of early associations. I lived opposite it long ago when I was a little girl."
This, to Mr. Welles, was indistinguishable from the usual talk of people who have been "abroad." To tell the truth they always sounded to him more or less "showing-off," though he humbly tried to think it was only because he could never take any part in such talk. He certainly did not see anything in the speech to make Vincent look at her, almost with his jaw dropped. He himself paid little attention to what she was now saying, because he could not keep his mind from the lingering sweet intonations of her voice. What difference did it make where she had lived as a little girl? She was going to live next door to him now; what an awfully nice woman she was, and quite a good-looking woman too, with a very nice figure, although not in her very first youth, of course. How old could she be? Between thirty and forty of course, but You couldn't tell where. His personal taste was not for such a long face as hers. But you didn't notice that when she smiled. He liked the way she did her black hair, too, so smooth and shining and close to her head. It looked as though she'd really combed and brushed it, and most women's hair didn't.
She turned to him now, again, and said, "Is this your very first call in Ashley? Because if it is, I mustn't miss the opportunity to cut in ahead of all the other gossips, and give you a great deal of information. You might just as well have it all in one piece now, and get it straight, as take it in little snippets from old Mrs. Powers, when she comes to bring your milk, this evening. You see I know that you are to get your milk of the Powers, and that they have plucked up courage to ask you eight cents a quart although the price around here has been, till now, six cents. You'll be obliged to listen to a great many more details from Mrs. Powers than from me, even those she knows nothing about. But of course you must be introduced to the Powers, in toto too. Old Mrs. Powers, a very lively old widow, lives on her farm nearly at the foot of Deer Hollow. Her married son and his family live with her. In this house, there is first of all my husband. I'm so sorry he is away in Canada just now, on lumbering business. He is Neale Crittenden, a Williams man, who in his youth had thoughts of exploring the world but who has turned out head of the 'Crittenden Manufacturing Company,' which is the high-sounding name of a smallish wood-working business on the other side of the field next our house. You can see the buildings and probably hear the saws from your garden. Properly speaking, you know, you don't live in Ashley but in 'Crittenden's' and your house constitutes one quarter of all the residences in that settlement. There are yours, and ours, the mill-buildings, the house where an old cousin of mine lives, and the Powers' house, although that is so far away, nearly half a mile, that it is really only a farm-house in the country. We, you see, are the suburb of Ashley."
Marsh laughed out again at this, and she laughed with him, their eyes, shining with amusement, meeting in a friendly glance.
"The mill is the most important member of Crittenden's, of course. Part of the mill-building is pre-Revolutionary, and very picturesque. In the life-time of my husband's uncle, it still ran by water-power with a beautiful, enormous old mossy water-wheel. But since we took it over, we've had to put in modern machinery very prosaically and run it on its waste of slabs, mostly. All sorts of small, unimportant objects are manufactured there, things you never heard of probably. Backs of hair-brushes, wooden casters to put under beds and chairs, rollers for cotton mills. As soon as my husband returns, I'll ask him to take you through it. That and the old church are the only historic monuments in town."
She stopped and asked him meditatively, "What else do you suppose I need to forestall old Mrs. Powers on? My old Cousin Hetty perhaps. She has a last name, Allen—yes, some connection with Ethan Allen. I am, myself. But everybody has always called her Miss Hetty till few people remember that she has another name. She was born there in the old house below 'the Burning,' and she has lived there for eighty years, and that is all her saga. You can't see her house from here, but it is part of Crittenden's all the same, although it is a mile away by the main road as you go towards the Dug-Way. But you can reach it in six or seven minutes from here by a back lane, through the Eagle Rock woods."
"What nice names!" Mr. Welles luxuriated in them. "The Eagle Rock woods. The Dug-Way. The Burning. Deer Hollow."
"I bet you don't know what they mean," Vincent challenged him. Vincent was always throwing challenges, at everything. But by this time he had learned how to dodge them. "No, I don't know, and I don't care if I don't," he answered happily.
It pleased him that Mrs. Crittenden found this amusing, so that she looked at him laughing. How her eyes glistened when she laughed. It made you laugh back. He risked another small attempt at facetiousness. "Go on with the census of Crittenden's," he told her. "I want to know all about my future fellow-citizens. You haven't even finished up this house, anybody but your husband."
"There is myself. You see me. There is nothing more to that. And there are the three children, Paul, Elly, and Mark, . . ." She paused here rather abruptly, and the whimsical accent of good-humored mockery disappeared. For an instant her face changed into something quite different from what they had seen. Mr. Welles could not at all make out the expression which very passingly had flickered across her eyes with a smoke-like vagueness and rapidity. He had the queerest fancy that she looked somehow scared,—but of course that was preposterous.
"Your call," she told them both, "happens to fall on a day which marks a turning-point in our family life. This is the very first day in ten years, since Paul's birth, that I have not had at least one of the children beside me. Today is the opening of spring term in our country school, and my little Mark went off this morning, for the first time, with his brother and sister. I have been alone until you came." She stopped for a moment. Mr. Welles wished that Vincent could get over his habit of staring at people so. She went on, "I have felt very queer indeed, all day. It's as though . . . you know, when you have been walking up and up a long flight of stairs, and you go automatically putting one foot up and then the other, and then suddenly . . . your upraised foot falls back with a jar. You've come to the top, and, for an instant, you have a gone feeling without your stairs to climb."
It occurred to Mr. Welles that really perhaps the reason why some nice ladies did not like Vincent was just because of his habit of looking at them so hard. He could have no idea how piercingly bright his eyes looked when he fixed them on a speaker like that. And now Mrs. Crittenden was looking back at him, and would notice it. He could understand how a refined lady would feel as though somebody were almost trying to find a key-hole to look in at her,—to have anybody pounce on her so, with his eyes, as Vincent did. She couldn't know, of course, that Vincent went pouncing on ladies and baggagemen and office boys, and old friends, just the same way. He bestirred himself to think of something to say. "I wish I could get up my nerve to ask you, Mrs. Crittenden, about one other person in this house," he ventured, "the old woman . . . the old lady . . . who let us in the door."
At the sound of his voice Mrs. Crittenden looked away from Vincent quickly and looked at him for a perceptible moment before she heard what he had said. Then she explained, smiling, "Oh, she would object very much to being labeled with the finicky title of 'lady.' That was Toucle, our queer old Indian woman,—all that is left of old America here. She belongs to our house, or perhaps I should say it belongs to her. She was born here, a million years ago, more or less, when there were still a few basket-making Indians left in the valley. Her father and mother both died, and she was brought up by the old Great-uncle Crittenden's family. Then my husband's Uncle Burton inherited the house and brought his bride here, and Toucle just stayed on. She always makes herself useful enough to pay for her food and lodging. And when his wife died an elderly woman, Toucle still just stayed on, till he died, and then she went right on staying here in the empty house, till my husband and I got here. We were married in Rome, and made the long trip here without stopping at all. It was dawn, a June morning, when we arrived. We walked all the way from the station at Ashley out to the old house, here at Crittenden's. And . . . I'll never forget the astounded expression on my husband's face when Toucle rose up out of the long grass in the front yard and bade me welcome. She'd known me as a little girl when I used to visit here. She will outlive all of us, Toucle will, and be watching from her room in the woodshed chamber on the dawn of Judgment Day when the stars begin to fall."
Mr. Welles felt a trifle bewildered by this, and showed it. She explained further, "But seriously, I must tell you that she is a perfectly harmless and quite uninteresting old herb-gatherer, although the children in the village are a little afraid of her, because she is an Indian, the only one they have ever seen. She really is an Indian too. She knows every inch of our valley and the mountains better than any lumberman or hunter or fisherman in Ashley. She often goes off and doesn't come back for days. I haven't the least idea where she stays. But she's very good to our children when she's here, and I like her capacity for monumental silence. It gives her very occasional remarks an oracular air, even though you know it's only because she doesn't often open her lips. She helps a little with the house-work, too, although she always looks so absent-minded, as though she were thinking of something very far away. She's quite capable of preparing a good meal, for all she never seems to notice what she's up to. And she's the last member of our family except the very coming-and-going little maids I get once in a while. Ashley is unlike the rest of the world in that it is hard to get domestic servants here.
"Now let me see, whom next to introduce to you. You know all your immediate neighbors now. I shall have to begin on Ashley itself. Perhaps our minister and his wife. They live in the high-porticoed, tall-pillared white old house next door to the church in the village, on the opposite side from the church-yard. They are Ashleyans of the oldest rock. Both of them were born here, and have always lived here. Mr. Bayweather is seventy-five years old and has never had any other parish. I do believe the very best thing I can do for you is to send you straight to them, this minute. There's nothing Mr. Bayweather doesn't know about the place or the people. He has a collection of Ashleyana of all sorts, records, deeds, titles, old letters, family trees. And for the last forty years he has been very busy writing a history of Ashley."
"A history of Ashley?" exclaimed Vincent.
"A history of Ashley," she answered, level-browed.
Mr. Welles had the impression that a "side-wipe" had been exchanged in which he had not shared.
Vincent now asked irrelevantly, "Do you go to church yourself?"
"Oh yes," she answered, "I go, I like to go. And I take the children." She turned her head so that she looked down at her long hands in her lap, as she added, "I think going to church is a refining influence in children's lives, don't you?"
To Mr. Welles' horror this provoked from Vincent one of his great laughs. And this time he was sure that Mrs. Crittenden would take offense, for she looked up, distinctly startled, really quite as though he had looked in through the key-hole. But Vincent went on laughing. He even said, impudently, "Ah, now I've caught you, Mrs. Crittenden; you're too used to keeping your jokes to yourself. And they're much too good for that."
She looked at him hard, with a certain wonder in her eyes.
"Oh, there's no necromancy about it," he told her. "I've been reading the titles of your books and glancing over your music before you came in. And I can put two and two together. Who are you making fun of to yourself? Who first got off that lovely speech about the refining influence of church?"
She laughed a little, half-uneasily, a brighter color mounting to her smooth oval cheeks. "That's one of Mrs. Bayweather's favorite maxims," she admitted. She added, "But I really do like to go to church."
Mr. Welles felt an apprehension about the turn things were taking. Vincent, he felt sure, was on the verge of being up to something. And he did not want to risk offending Mrs. Crittenden. He stood up. "Thank you very much for telling us about the minister and his wife, Mrs. Crittenden. I think we'll go right along down to the village now, and pay a call on them. There'll be time enough before dinner." Vincent of course got up too, at this, saying, "He's the most perfect old housekeeper, you know. He's kept the neatest flat for himself and that aged aunt of his for seventy years."
"Seventy!" cried Mr. Welles, scandalized at the exaggeration.
"Oh, more or less," said Vincent, laughing. Mr. Welles noticed with no enthusiasm that his eyes were extremely bright, that he smiled almost incessantly, that he stepped with an excess of his usual bounce. Evidently something had set him off into one of his fits of wild high spirits. You could almost feel the electricity sparkle from him, as it does from a cat on a cold day. Personally, Mr. Welles preferred not to touch cats when they were like that.
"When are you going back to the city, Mr. Marsh?" asked Mrs. Crittenden, as they said good-bye at the door.
Vincent was standing below her on the marble step. He looked up at her now, and something about his expression made Mr. Welles think again of glossy fur emitting sparks. He said, "I'll lay you a wager, Mrs. Crittenden, that there is one thing your Ashley underground news-service has not told you about us, and that is, that I've come up not only to help Mr. Welles install himself in his new home, but to take a somewhat prolonged rest-cure myself. I've always meant to see more of this picturesque part of Vermont. I've a notion that the air of this lovely spot will do me a world of good."
As Mr. Welles opened his mouth, perhaps rather wide, in the beginning of a remark, he cut in briskly with, "You're worrying about Schwatzkummerer, I know. Never you fear. I'll get hold of his address, all right." He explained briefly to Mrs. Crittenden, startled by the portentous name. "Just a specialist in gladiolus seeds."
"Bulbs!" cried Mr. Welles, in involuntary correction, and knew as he spoke that he had been switched off to a side-track.
"Oh well, bulbs be it," Vincent conceded the point indulgently. He took off his hat in a final salutation to Mrs. Crittenden, and grasping his elderly friend by the arm, moved with him down the flag-paved path.
An Hour in the Home Life of Mrs. Neale Crittenden, aet. 34
As she and Paul carried the table out to the windless, sunny side-porch, Marise was struck by a hospitable inspiration. "You and Elly go on setting the table," she told the children, and ran across the side-yard to the hedge. She leaned over this, calling, "Mr. Welles! Mr. Welles!" and when he came to the door, "The children and I are just celebrating this first really warm day by having lunch out of doors. Won't you and Mr. Marsh come and join us?"
By the time the explanations and protestations and renewals of the invitation were over and she brought them back to the porch, Paul and Elly had almost finished setting the table. Elly nodded a country-child's silent greeting to the newcomers. Paul said, "Oh goody! Mr. Welles, you sit by me."
Marise was pleased at the friendship growing up between the gentle old man and her little boy.
"Elly, don't you want me to sit by you?" asked Marsh with a playful accent.
Elly looked down at the plate she was setting on the table. "If you want to," she said neutrally.
Her mother smiled inwardly. How amusingly Elly had acquired as only a child could acquire an accent, the exact astringent, controlled brevity of the mountain idiom.
"I think Elly means that she would like it very much, Mr. Marsh," she said laughingly. "You'll soon learn to translate Vermontese into ordinary talk, if you stay on here."
She herself went through the house into the kitchen and began placing on the wheel-tray all the components of the lunch, telling them over to herself to be sure she missed none. "Meat, macaroni, spinach, hot plates, bread, butter, water . . . a pretty plain meal to invite city people to share. Here, I'll open a bottle of olives. Paul, help me get this through the door."
As he pulled at the other end of the wheeled tray, Paul said that Mark had gone upstairs to wash his hands, ages ago, and was probably still fooling around in the soap-suds, and like as not leaving the soap in the water.
"Paul the responsible!" thought his mother. As they passed the foot of the stairs she called up, "Mark! Come along, dear. Lunch is served. All ready," she announced as they pushed the tray out on the porch.
The two men turned around from where they had been gazing up at the mountain. "What is that great cliff of bare rock called?" asked Mr. Marsh.
"Those are the Eagle Rocks," explained Marise, sitting down and motioning them to their places. "Elly dear, don't spread it on your bread so thick. If Mr. Bayweather were here he could probably tell you why they are called that. I have known but I've forgotten. There's some sort of tradition, I believe . . . no, I see you are getting ready to hear it called the Maiden's Leap where the Indian girl leaped off to escape an unwelcome lover. But it's not that this time: something or other about Tories and an American spy . . . ask Mr. Bayweather."
"Heaven forfend!" exclaimed Mr. Marsh.
Marise was amused. "Oh, you've been lectured to on local history, I see," she surmised.
"I found it very interesting," said Mr. Welles, loyally. "Though perhaps he does try to give you a little too much at one sitting."
"Mr. Welles," said Paul, with his mouth full, "fishing season begins in ten days."
Marise decided that she would really have to have a rest from telling Paul not to talk with food in his mouth, and said nothing.
Mr. Welles confessed that he had never gone fishing in his life, and asked if Paul would take him.
"Sure!" said Paul. "Mother and I go, lots."
Mr. Marsh looked at Marise inquiringly. "Yes," she said, "I'm a confirmed fisherman. Some of the earliest and happiest recollections I have, are of fishing these brooks when I was a little girl."
"Here?" asked Mr. Welles. "I thought you lived in France."
"There's time in a child's life to live in various places," she explained. "I spent part of my childhood and youth here with my dear old cousin. The place is full of associations for me. Will you have your spinach now, or later? It'll keep hot all right if you'd rather wait."
"What is this delicious dish?" asked Mr. Marsh. "It tastes like a man's version of creamed chicken, which is always a little too lady-like for me."
"It's a blanquette de veau, and you may be sure I learned to make it in one of the French incarnations, not a Vermont one."
Paul stirred and asked, "Mother, where is Mark? He'll be late for school, if he doesn't hurry."
"That's so," she said, and reflected how often one used that phrase in response to one of Paul's solid and unanswerable statements.
Mark appeared just then and she began to laugh helplessly. His hands were wetly, pinkly, unnaturally clean, but his round, rosy, sunny little face was appallingly streaked and black.
Paul did not laugh. He said in horrified reproach, "Oh, Mark! You never touched your face! It's piggy dirty."
Mark was staggered for a moment, but nothing staggered him long. "I don't get microbes off my face into my food," he said calmly. "And you bet there aren't any microbes left on my hands." He went on, looking at the table disapprovingly, "Mother, there isn't a many on the table this day, and I wanted a many."
"The stew's awful good," said Paul, putting away a large quantity.
"'Very,' not 'awful,' and don't hold your fork like that," corrected Marise, half-heartedly, thinking that she herself did not like the insipid phrase "very good" nor did she consider the way a fork was held so very essential to salvation. "How much of life is convention, any way you arrange it," she thought, "even in such an entirely unconventional one as ours."
"It is good," said Mark, taking his first mouthful. Evidently he had not taken the remarks about his face at all seriously.
"See here, Mark," his mother put it to him as man to man, "do you think you ought to sit down to the table looking like that?"
Mark wriggled, took another mouthful, and got up mournfully.
Paul was touched. "Here, I'll go up with you and get it over quick," he said. Marise gave him a quick approving glance. That was the best side of Paul. You could say what you pleased about the faults of American and French family life, but at any rate the children didn't hate each other, as English children seemed to, in novels at least. It was only last week that Paul had fought the big French Canadian boy in his room at school, because he had made fun of Elly's rubber boots.