THE PRAIRIE CHILD
By ARTHUR STRINGER
"Are All Men Alike and the Lost Titian," "The Prairie Mother," "The Prairie Wife," "The Wine of Life," "The Door of Dread," "The Man Who Couldn't Sleep," etc.
With Frontispiece by
E. F. WARD
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Printed in U. S. A.
The Pictorial Review Company
The Bobbs-Merrill Company
Printed in the United States of America
THE PRAIRIE CHILD
Friday the Eighth of March
"But the thing I can't understand, Dinky-Dunk, is how you ever could."
"Could what?" my husband asked in an aerated tone of voice.
I had to gulp before I got it out.
"Could kiss a woman like that," I managed to explain.
Duncan Argyll McKail looked at me with a much cooler eye than I had expected. If he saw my shudder, he paid no attention to it.
"On much the same principle," he quietly announced, "that the Chinese eat birds' nests."
"Just what do you mean by that?" I demanded, resenting the fact that he could stand as silent as a December beehive before my morosely questioning eyes.
"I mean that, being married, you've run away with the idea that all birds' nests are made out of mud and straw, with possibly a garnish of horse hairs. But if you'd really examine these edible nests you'd find they were made of surprisingly appealing and succulent tendrils. They're quite appetizing, you may be sure, or they'd never be eaten!"
I stood turning this over, exactly as I've seen my Dinkie turn over an unexpectedly rancid nut.
"Aren't you, under the circumstances, being rather stupidly clever?" I finally asked.
"When I suppose you'd rather see me cleverly stupid?" he found the heart to suggest.
"But that woman, to me, always looked like a frog," I protested, doing my best to duplicate his pose of impersonality.
"Well, she doesn't make love like a frog," he retorted with his first betraying touch of anger. I turned to the window, to the end that my Eliza-Crossing-the-Ice look wouldn't be entirely at his mercy. A belated March blizzard was slapping at the panes and cuffing the house-corners. At the end of a long winter, I knew, tempers were apt to be short. But this was much more than a matter of barometers. The man I'd wanted to live with like a second "Suzanne de Sirmont" in Daudet's Happiness had not only cut me to the quick but was rubbing salt in the wound. He had said what he did with deliberate intent to hurt me, for it was only too obvious that he was tired of being on the defensive. And it did hurt. It couldn't help hurting. For the man, after all, was my husband. He was the husband to whom I'd given up the best part of my life, the two-legged basket into which I'd packed all my eggs of allegiance. And now he was scrambling that precious collection for a cheap omelette of amorous adventure. He was my husband, I kept reminding myself. But that didn't cover the entire case. No husband whose heart is right stands holding another woman's shoulder and tries to read her shoe-numbers through her ardently upturned eyes. It shows the wind is not blowing right in the home circle. It shows a rent in the dyke, a flaw in the blade, a breach in the fortress-wall of faith. For marriage, to the wife who is a mother as well, impresses me as rather like the spliced arrow of the Esquimos: it is cemented together with blood. It is a solemn matter. And for the sake of mutter-schutz, if for nothing else, it must be kept that way.
There was a time, I suppose, when the thought of such a thing would have taken my breath away, would have chilled me to the bone. But I'd been through my refining fires, in that respect, and you can't burn the prairie over twice in the same season. I tried to tell myself it was the setting, and not the essential fact, that seemed so odious. I did my best to believe it wasn't so much that Duncan Argyll McKail had stooped to make advances to this bandy-legged she-teacher whom I'd so charitably housed at Casa Grande since the beginning of the year—for I'd long since learned not to swallow the antique claim that of all terrestrial carnivora only man and the lion are truly monogamous—but more the fact it had been made such a back-stairs affair with no solitary redeeming touch of dignity.
Dinky-Dunk, I suppose, would have laughed it away, if I hadn't walked in on them with their arms about each other, and the bandy-legged one breathing her capitulating sighs into his ear. But there was desperation in the eyes of Miss Alsina Teeswater, and it was plain to see that if my husband had been merely playing with fire it had become a much more serious matter with the lady in the case. There was, in fact, something almost dignifying in that strickenly defiant face of hers. I was almost sorry for her when she turned and walked white-lipped out of the room. What I resented most, as I stood facing my husband, was his paraded casualness, his refusal to take a tragic situation tragically. His attitude seemed to imply that we were about to have a difference over a small thing—over a small thing with brown eyes. He could even stand inspecting me with a mildly amused glance, and I might have forgiven his mildness, I suppose, if it had been without amusement, and that amusement in some way at my expense. He even managed to laugh as I stood there staring at him. It was neither an honest nor a natural laugh. It merely gave me the feeling that he was trying to entrench himself behind a raw mound of mirth, that any shelter was welcome until the barrage was lifted.
"And what do you intend doing about it?" I asked, more quietly than I had imagined possible.
"What would you suggest?" he parried, as he began to feel in his pockets for his pipe.
And I still had a sense, as I saw the barricaded look come into his face, of entrenchments being frantically thrown up. I continued to stare at him as he found his pipe and proceeded to fill it. I even wrung a ghostly satisfaction out of the discovery that his fingers weren't so steady as he might have wished them to be.
"I suppose you're trying to make me feel like the Wicked Uncle edging away from the abandoned Babes in the Woods?" he finally demanded, as though exasperated by my silence. He was delving for matches by this time, and seemed disappointed that none was to be found in his pockets. I don't know why he should seem to recede from me, for he didn't move an inch from where he stood with that defensively mocking smile on his face. But abysmal gulfs of space seemed to blow in like sea-mists between him and me, desolating and lonely stretches of emptiness which could never again be spanned by the tiny bridges of hope. I felt alone, terribly alone, in a world over which the last fire had swept and the last rains had fallen. My throat tightened and my eyes smarted from the wave of self-pity which washed through my body. It angered me, ridiculously, to think that I was going to break down at such a time.
But the more I thought over it the more muddled I grew. There was something maddening in the memory that I was unable to act as my instincts prompted me to act, that I couldn't, like the outraged wife of screen and story, walk promptly out of the door and slam it epochally shut after me. But modern life never quite lives up to its fiction. And we are never quite free, we women who have given our hostages to fortune, to do as we wish. We have lives other than our own to think about.
"But it's all been so—so dishonest!" I cried out, stopping myself in the middle of a gesture which might have seemed like wringing my hands.
That, apparently, gave Dinky-Dunk something to get his teeth into. The neutral look went out of his eye, to be replaced by a fortifying stare of enmity.
"I don't know as it's any more dishonest than the long-distance brand of the same thing!"
I knew, at once, what he meant. He meant Peter. He meant poor old Peter Ketley, whose weekly letter, year in and year out, came as regular as clockwork to Casa Grande. Those letters came to my son Dinkie, though it couldn't be denied they carried many a cheering word and many a companionable message to Dinkie's mother. But it brought me up short, to think that my own husband would try to play cuttle-fish with a clean-hearted and a clean-handed man like Peter. The wave that went through my body, on this occasion, was one of rage. I tried to say something, but I couldn't. The lion of my anger had me down, by this time, with his paw on my breast. The power of speech was squeezed out of my carcass. I could only stare at my husband with a denuding and devastating stare of incredulity touched with disgust, of abhorrence skirting dangerously close along the margins of hate. And he stared back, with morose and watchful defiance on his face.
Heaven only knows how it would have ended, if that tableau hadn't gone smash, with a sudden offstage clatter and thump and cry which reminded me there were more people in the world than Chaddie McKail and her philandering old husband. For during that interregnum of parental preoccupation Dinkie and Poppsy had essayed to toboggan down the lower half of the front-stairs in an empty drawer commandeered from my bedroom dresser. Their descent, apparently, had been about as precipitate as that of their equally adventurous sire down the treads of my respect, for they had landed in a heap on the hardwood floor of the hall and I found Dinkie with an abraded shin-bone and Poppsy with a cut lip. My Poppsy was more frightened at the sight of blood than actually hurt by her fall, and Dinkie betrayed a not unnatural tendency to enlarge on his injuries in extenuation of his offense. But that suddenly imposed demand for first-aid took my mind out of the darker waters in which it had been wallowing, and by the time I had comforted my kiddies and completed my ministrations Dinky-Dunk had quietly escaped from the house and my accusatory stares by clapping on his hat and going out to the stables....
And that's the scene which keeps pacing back and forth between the bars of my brain like a jaguar in a circus-cage. That's the scene I've been living over, for the last few days, thinking of all the more brilliant things I might have said and the more expedient things I might have done. And that's the scene which has been working like yeast at the bottom of my sodden batter of contentment, making me feel that I'd swell up and burst, if all that crazy ferment couldn't find some relief in expression. So after three long years and more of silence I'm turning back to this, the journal of one irresponsible old Chaddie McKail, who wanted so much to be happy and who has in some way missed the pot of gold that they told her was to be found at the rainbow's end.
It seems incredible, as I look back, that more than three, long years should slip away without the penning of one line in this, the safety-valve of my soul. But the impulse to write rather slipped away from me. It wasn't that there was so little to record, for life is always life. But when it burns clearest it seems to have the trick of consuming its own smoke and leaving so very little ash. The crowded even tenor of existence goes on, with its tidal ups and downs, too listlessly busy to demand expression. Then the shock of tempest comes, and it's only after we're driven out of them that we realize we've been drifting so long in the doldrums of life. Then it comes home to us that there are the Dark Ages in the history of a woman exactly as there were the Dark Ages in the history of Europe. Life goes on in those Dark Ages, but it doesn't feel the call to articulate itself, to leave a record of its experiences. And that strikes me, as I sit here and think of it, as about the deepest tragedy that can overtake anything on this earth. Nothing, after all, is sadder than silence, the silence of dead civilizations and dead cities and dead souls. And nothing is more costly. For beauty itself, in actual life, passes away, but beauty lovingly recorded by mortal hands endures and goes down to our children. And I stop writing, at that word of "children," for miraculously, as I repeat it, I see it cut a window in the unlighted house of my heart. And that window is the bright little Gothic oriel which will always be golden and luminous with love and will always send the last shadow scurrying away from the mustiest corner of my tower of life. I have my Dinkie and my Poppsy, and nothing can take them away from me. It's on them that I pin my hope.
Sunday the Seventeenth
I've been thinking a great deal over what's happened this last week or so. And I've been trying to reorganize my life, the same as you put a house to rights after a funeral. But it wasn't a well-ordered funeral, in this case, and I was denied even the tempered satisfaction of the bereaved after the finality of a smoothly conducted burial. For nothing has been settled. It's merely that Time has been trying to encyst what it can not absorb. I felt, for a day or two, that I had nothing much to live for. I felt like a feather-weight who'd faced a knock-out. I saw Pride go to the mat, and take the count, and if I was dazed, for a while, I suppose it was mostly convalescence from shock. Then I tightened my belt, and reminded myself that it wasn't the first wallop Fate had given me, and remembered that in this life you have to adjust yourself to your environment or be eliminated from the game. And life, I suppose, has tamed me, as a man who once loved me said it would do. The older I get the more tolerant I try to be, and the more I know of this world the more I realize that Right is seldom all on one side and Wrong on the other. It's a matter of give and take, this problem of traveling in double-harness. I can even smile a little, as I remember that college day in my teens when Matilda-Anne and Katrina and Fanny-Rain-in-the-Face and myself solemnly discussed man and his make-up, over a three-pound box of Maillard's, and resolutely agreed that we would surrender our hearts to no suitor over twenty-six and marry no male who'd ever loved another woman—not, at least, unless the situation had become compensatingly romanticized by the death of any such lady preceding us in our loved one's favor. Little we knew of men and ourselves and the humiliations with which life breaks the spirit of arrogant youth! For even now, knowing what I know, I've been doing my best to cooper together a case for my unstable old Dinky-Dunk. I've been trying to keep the thought of poor dead Lady Alicia out of my head. I've been wondering if there's any truth in what Dinky-Dunk said, a few weeks ago, about a mere father being like the male of the warrior-spider whom the female of the species stands ready to dine upon, once she's assured of her progeny.
I suppose I have given most of my time and attention to my children. And it's as perilous, I suppose, to give your heart to a man and then take it even partly away again as it is to give a trellis to a rose-bush and then expect it to stand alone. My husband, too, has been restless and dissatisfied with prairie life during the last year or so, has been rocking in his own doldrums of inertia where the sight of even the humblest ship—and the Wandering Sail in this case always seemed to me as soft and shapeless as a boned squab-pigeon!—could promptly elicit an answering signal.
But I strike a snag there, for Alsina has not been so boneless as I anticipated. There was an unlooked-for intensity in her eyes and a mild sort of tragedy in her voice when she came and told me that she was going to another school in the Knee-Hill country and asked if I could have her taken in to Buckhorn the next morning. Some one, of course, had to go. There was one too many in this prairie home that must always remain so like an island dotting the lonely wastes of a lonely sea. And triangles, oddly enough, seem to flourish best in city squares. But much as I wanted to talk to Alsina, I was compelled to respect her reserve. I even told her that Dinkie would miss her a great deal. She replied, with a choke in her voice, that he was a wonderful child. That, of course, was music to the ears of his mother, and my respect for the tremulous Miss Teeswater went up at least ten degrees. But when she added, without meeting my eye, that she was really fond of the boy, I couldn't escape the impression that she was edging out on very thin ice. It was, I think, only the silent misery in her half-averted face which kept me from inquiring if she hadn't rather made it a family affair. But that, second thought promptly told me, would seem too much like striking the fallen. And we both seemed to feel, thereafter, that silence was best.
Practically nothing passed between us, in fact, until we reached the station. I could see that she was dreading the ordeal of saying good-by. That unnamed sixth sense peculiar to cab-drivers and waiters and married women told me that every moment on the bald little platform was being a torture to her. As the big engine came lumbering up to a standstill she gave me one quick and searching look. It was a look I shall never forget. For, in it was a question and something more than a question. An unworded appeal was there, and also an unworded protest. It got past my outposts of reason, in some way. It came to me in my bitterness like the smell of lilacs into a sick-room. I couldn't be cruel to that poor crushed outcast who had suffered quite as much from the whole ignoble affair as I had suffered. I suddenly held out my hand to her, and she took it, with that hungry questioning look still on her face.
"It's all right," I started to say. But her head suddenly went down between her hunched-up shoulders. Her body began to shake and tears gushed from her eyes. I had to help her to the car steps.
"It was all my fault," she said in a strangled voice, between her helpless little sobs.
It was brave of her, of course, and she meant it for the best. But I wish she hadn't said it. Instead of making everything easier for me, as she intended, she only made it harder. She left me disturbingly conscious of ghostly heroisms which transposed what I had tried to regard as essentially ignoble into some higher and purer key. And she made it harder for me to look at my husband, when I got home, with a calm and collected eye. I felt suspiciously like Lady Macbeth after the second murder. I felt that we were fellow-sharers of a guilty secret it would never do to drag too often into the light of every-day life.
But it will no more stay under cover, I find, than a dab-chick will stay under water. It bobs up in the most unexpected places, as it did last night, when Dinkie publicly proclaimed that he was going to marry his Mummy when he got big.
"It would be well, my son, not to repeat the mistakes of your father!" observed Dinky-Dunk. And having said it, he relighted his quarantining pipe and refused to meet my eye. But it didn't take a surgical operation to get what he meant into my head. It hurt, in more ways than one, for it struck me as suspiciously like a stone embodied in a snowball—and even our offspring recognized this as no fair manner of fighting.
"Then it impresses you as a mistake?" I demanded, seeing red, for the coyote in me, I'm afraid, will never entirely become house-dog.
"Isn't that the way you regard it?" he asked, inspecting me with a non-committal eye.
I had to bite my lip, to keep from flinging out at him the things that were huddled back in my heart. But it was no time for making big war medicine. So I got the lid on, and held it there.
"My dear Dinky-Dunk," I said with an effort at a gesture of weariness, "I've long since learned that life can't be made clean, like a cat's body, by the use of the tongue alone!"
Dinky-Dunk did not look at me. Instead, he turned to the boy who was watching that scene with a small frown of perplexity on his none too approving face.
"You go up to the nursery," commanded my husband, with more curtness than usual.
But before Dinkie went he slowly crossed the room and kissed me. He did so with a quiet resoluteness which was not without its tacit touch of challenge.
"You may feel that way about the use of the tongue," said my husband as soon as we were alone, "but I'm going to unload a few things I've been keeping under cover."
He waited for me to say something. But I preferred remaining silent.
"Of course," he floundered on, "I don't want to stop you martyrizing yourself in making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I'm getting a trifle tired of this holier-than-thou attitude. And——"
"And?" I prompted, when he came to a stop and sat pushing up his brindled front-hair until it made me think of the Corean lion on the library mantel, the lion in pottery which we invariably spoke of as the Dog of Fo. My wintry smile at that resemblance seemed to exasperate him.
"What were you going to say?" I quietly inquired.
"Oh, hell!" he exclaimed, with quite unexpected vigor.
"I hope the children are out of hearing," I reminded him, solemn-eyed.
"Yes, the children!" he cried, catching at the word exactly as a drowning man catches at a lifebelt. "The children! That's just the root of the whole intolerable situation. This hasn't been a home for the last three or four years; it's been nothing but a nursery. And about all I've been is a retriever for a creche, a clod-hopper to tiptoe about the sacred circle and see to it there's enough flannel to cover their backs and enough food to put into their stomachs. I'm an accident, of course, an intruder to be faced with fortitude and borne with patience."
"This sounds quite disturbing," I interrupted. "It almost leaves me suspicious that you are about to emulate the rabbit and devour your young."
Dinky-Dunk fixed me with an accusatory finger.
"And the fact that you can get humor out of it shows me just how far it has gone," he cried with a bitterness which quickly enough made me sober again. "And I could stand being deliberately shut out of your life, and shut out of their lives as far as you can manage it, but I can't see that it's doing either them or you any particular good."
"But I am responsible for the way in which those children grow up," I said, quite innocent of the double entendre which brought a dark flush to my husband's none too happy face.
"And I suppose I'm not to contaminate them?" he demanded.
"Haven't you done enough along that line?" I asked.
He swung about, at that, with something dangerously like hate on his face.
"Whose children are they?" he challenged.
"You are their father," I quietly acknowledged. It rather startled me to find Dinky-Dunk regarding himself as a fur coat and my offspring as moth-eggs which I had laid deep in the pelt of his life, where we were slowly but surely eating the glory out of that garment and leaving it as bald as a prairie dog's belly.
"Well, you give very little evidence of it!"
"You can't expect me to turn a cart-wheel, surely, every time I remember it?" was my none too gracious inquiry. Then I sat down. "But what is it you want me to do?" I asked, as I sat studying his face, and I felt sorriest for him because he felt sorry for himself.
"That's exactly the point," he averred. "There doesn't seem anything to do. But this can't go on forever."
"No," I acknowledged. "It seems too much like history repeating itself."
His head went down, at that, and it was quite a long time before he looked up at me again.
"I don't suppose you can see it from my side of the fence?" he asked with a disturbing new note of humility in his voice.
"Not when you force me to stay on the fence," I told him. He seemed to realize, as he sat there slowly moving his head up and down, that no further advance was to be made along that line. So he took a deep breath and sat up.
"Something will have to be done about getting a new teacher for that school," he said with an appositeness which was only too painfully apparent.
"I've already spoken to two of the trustees," I told him. "They're getting a teacher from the Peg. It's to be a man this time."
Instead of meeting my eye, he merely remarked: "That'll be better for the boy!"
"In what way?" I inquired.
"Because I don't think too much petticoat is good for any boy," responded my lord and master.
"Big or little!" I couldn't help amending, in spite of all my good intentions.
Dinky-Dunk ignored the thrust, though it plainly took an effort.
"There are times when even kindness can be a sort of cruelty," he patiently and somewhat platitudinously pursued.
"Then I wish somebody would ill-treat me along that line," I interjected. And this time he smiled, though it was only for a moment.
"Supposing we stick to the children," he suggested.
"Of course," I agreed. "And since you've brought the matter up I can't help telling you that I always felt that my love for my children is the one redeeming thing in my life."
"Thanks," said my husband, with a wince.
"Please don't misunderstand me. I'm merely trying to say that a mother's love for her children has to be one of the strongest and holiest things in this hard old world of ours. And it seems only natural to me that a woman should consider her children first, and plan for them, and make sacrifices for them, and fight for them if she has to."
"It's so natural, in fact," remarked Dinky-Dunk, "that it has been observed in even the Bengal tigress."
"It is my turn to thank you," I acknowledged, after giving his statement a moment or two of thought.
"But we're getting away from the point again," proclaimed my husband. "I've been trying to tell you that children are like rabbits: It's only fit and proper they should be cared for, but they can't thrive, and they can't even live, if they're handled too much."
"I haven't observed any alarming absence of health in my children," I found the courage to say. But a tightness gathered about my heart, for I could sniff what was coming.
"They may be all right, as far as that goes," persisted their lordly parent. "But what I say is, too much cuddling and mollycoddling isn't good for that boy of yours, or anybody else's boy." And he proceeded to explain that my Dinkie was an ordinary, every-day, normal child and should be accepted and treated as such or we'd have a temperamental little bounder on our hands.
I knew that my boy wasn't abnormal. But I knew, on the other hand, that he was an exceptionally impressionable and sensitive child. And I couldn't be sorry for that, for if there's anything I abhor in this world it's torpor. And whatever he may have been, nothing could shake me in my firm conviction that a child's own mother is the best person to watch over his growth and shape his character.
"But what is all this leading up to?" I asked, steeling myself for the unwelcome.
"Simply to what I've already told you on several occasions," was my husband's answer. "That it's about time this boy of ours was bundled off to a boarding-school."
I sat back, trying to picture my home and my life without Dinkie. But it was unbearable. It was unthinkable.
"I shall never agree to that," I quietly retorted.
"Why?" asked my husband, with a note of triumph which I resented.
"For one thing, because he is still a child, because he is too young," I contended, knowing that I could never agree with Dinky-Dunk in his thoroughly English ideas of education even while I remembered how he had once said that the greatness of England depended on her public-schools, such as Harrow and Eton and Rugby and Winchester, and that she had been the best colonizer in the world because her boys had been taken young and taught not to overvalue home ties, had been made manlier by getting off with their own kind instead of remaining hitched to an apron-string.
"And you prefer keeping him stuck out here on the prairie?" demanded Dinky-Dunk.
"The prairie has been good enough for his parents, this last seven or eight years," I contended.
"It hasn't been good enough for me," my husband cried out with quite unlooked-for passion. "And I've about had my fill of it!"
"Where would you prefer going?" I asked, trying to speak as quietly as I could.
"That's something I'm going to find out as soon as the chance comes," he retorted with a slow and embittered emphasis which didn't add any to my peace of mind.
"Then why cross our bridges," I suggested, "until we come to them?"
"But you're not looking for bridges," he challenged. "You don't want to see anything beyond living like Doukhobours out here on the edge of Nowhere and remembering that you've got your precious offspring here under your wing and wondering how many bushels of Number-One-Hard it will take to buy your Dinkie a riding pinto!"
"Aren't you rather tired to-night?" I asked with all the patience I could command.
"Yes, and I'm talking about the thing that makes me tired. For you know as well as I do that you've made that boy of yours a sort of anesthetic. You put him on like a nose-cap, and forget the world. He's about all you remember to think about. Why, when you look at the clock, nowadays, it isn't ten minutes to twelve. It's always Dinkie minutes to Dink. When you read a book you're only reading about what your Dinkie might have done or what your Dinkie is some day to write. When you picture the Prime Minister it's merely your Dinkie grown big, laying down the law to a House of Parliament made up of other Dinkies, rows and rows of 'em. When the sun shines you're wondering whether it's warm enough for your Dinkie to walk in, and when the snow begins to melt you're wondering whether it's soft enough for the beloved Dinkie to mold into snowballs. When you see a girl you at once get busy speculating over whether or not she'll ever be beautiful enough for your Dinkie, and when one of the Crowned Heads of Europe announces the alliance of its youngest princess you fall to pondering if Dinkie wouldn't have made her a better husband. And when the flowers come out in your window-box you wonder if they're fair enough to bloom beside your Dinkie. I don't suppose I ever made a haystack that you didn't wonder whether it wasn't going to be a grand place for Dinkie to slide down. And when Dinkie draws a goggle-eyed man on his scribbler you see Michael Angelo totter and Titian turn in his grave. And when Dinkie writes a composition of thirty crooked lines on the landing of Hengist you feel that fate did Hume a mean trick in letting him pass away before inspecting that final word in historical record. And heaven's just a row of Dinkies with little gold harps tucked under their wings. And you think you're breathing air, but all you're breathing is Dinkies, millions and millions of etherealized Dinkies. And when you read about the famine in China you inevitably and adroitly hitch the death of seven thousand Chinks in Yangchow on to the interests of your immortal offspring. And I suppose Rome really came into being for the one ultimate end that an immortal young Dinkie might possess his full degree of Dinkiness and the glory that was Greece must have been merely the tom-toms tuning up for the finished dance of our Dinkie's grandeur. Day and night, it's Dinkie, just Dinkie!"
I waited until he was through. I waited, heavy of heart, until his foolish fires of revolt had burned themselves out. And it didn't seem to add to his satisfaction to find that I could inspect him with a quiet and slightly commiserative eye.
"You are accusing me," I finally told him, "of something I'm proud of. And I'm afraid I'll always be guilty of caring for my own son."
He turned on me with a sort of heavy triumph.
"Well, it's something that you'll jolly well pay the piper for, some day," he announced.
"What do you mean by that?" I demanded.
"I mean that nothing much is ever gained by letting the maternal instinct run over. And that's exactly what you're doing. You're trying to tie Dinkie to your side, when you can no more tie him up than you can tie up a sunbeam. You could keep him close enough to you, of course, when he was small. But he's bound to grow away from you as he gets bigger, just as I grew away from my mother and you once grew away from yours. It's a natural law, and there's no use crocking your knees on it. The boy's got his own life to live, and you can't live it for him. It won't be long, now, before you begin to notice those quiet withdrawals, those slippings-back into his own shell of self-interest. And unless you realize what it means, it's going to hurt. And unless you reckon on that in the way you order your life you're not only going to be a very lonely old lady but you're going to bump into a big hole where you thought the going was smoothest!"
I sat thinking this over, with a ton of lead where my heart should have been.
"I've already bumped into a big hole where I thought the going was smoothest," I finally observed.
My husband looked at me and then looked away again.
"I was hoping we could fill that up and forget it," he ventured in a valorously timid tone which made it hard, for reasons I couldn't quite fathom, to keep my throat from tightening. But I sat there, shaking my head from side to side.
"I've got to love something," I found myself protesting. "And the children seem all that is left."
"How about me?" asked my husband, with his acidulated and slightly one-sided smile.
"You've changed, Dinky-Dunk," was all I could say.
"But some day," he contended, "you may wake up to the fact that I'm still a human being."
"I've wakened up to the fact that you're a different sort of human being than I had thought."
"Oh, we're all very much alike, once you get our number," asserted my husband.
"You mean men are," I amended.
"I mean that if men can't get a little warmth and color and sympathy in the home-circle they're going to edge about until they find a substitute for it, no matter how shoddy it may be," contended Dinky-Dunk.
"But isn't that a hard and bitter way of writing life down to one's own level?" I asked, trying to swallow the choke that wouldn't stay down in my throat.
"Well, I can't see that we get much ahead by trying to sentimentalize the situation," he said, with a gesture that seemed one of frustration.
We sat staring at each other, and again I had the feeling of abysmal gulfs of space intervening between us.
"Is that all you can say about it?" I asked, with a foolish little gulp I couldn't control.
"Isn't it enough?" demanded Dinky-Dunk. And I knew that nothing was to be gained, that night, by the foolish and futile clash of words.
Tuesday the Twenty-Third
I've been doing a good deal of thinking over what Dinky-Dunk said. I have been trying to see things from his standpoint. By a sort of mental ju-jutsu I've even been trying to justify what I can't quite understand in him. But it's no use. There's one bald, hard fact I can't escape, no matter how I dig my old ostrich-beak of instinct under the sands of self-deception. There's one cold-blooded truth that will have to be faced. My husband is no longer in love with me. Whatever else may have happened, I have lost my heart-hold on Duncan Argyll McKail. I am still his wife, in the eyes of the law, and the mother of his children. We still live together, and, from force of habit, if from nothing else, go through the familiar old rites of daily communion. He sits across the table from me when I eat, and talks casually enough of the trivially momentous problems of the minute, or he reads in his slippers before the fire while I do my sewing within a spool-toss of him. But a row of invisible assegais stand leveled between his heart and mine. A slow glacier of green-iced indifferency shoulders in between us; and gone forever is the wild-flower aroma of youth, the singing spirit of April, the mysterious light that touched our world with wonder. He is merely a man, drawing on to middle age, and I am a woman, no longer young. Gone now are the spring floods that once swept us together. Gone now is the flame of adoration that burned clean our altar of daily intercourse and left us blind to the weaknesses we were too happy to remember. For there was a time when we loved each other. I know that as well as Duncan does. But it died away, that ghostly flame. It went out like a neglected fire. And blowing on dead ashes can never revive the old-time glow.
"So they were married and lived happy ever afterward!" That is the familiar ending to the fairy-tales I read over and over again to my Dinkie and Poppsy. But they are fairy-tales. For who lives happy ever afterward? First love chloroforms us, for a time, and we try to hug to our bosoms the illusion that Heaven itself is only a sort of endless honeymoon presided over by Lohengrin marches. But the anesthetic wears away and we find that life isn't a bed of roses but a rough field that rewards us as we till it, with here and there the cornflower of happiness laughing unexpectedly up at us out of our sober acres of sober wheat. And often enough we don't know happiness when we see it. We assuredly find it least where we look for it most. I can't even understand why we're equipped with such a hunger for it. But I find myself trending more and more to that cynic philosophy which defines happiness as the absence of pain. The absence of pain—that is a lot to ask for, in this life!
I wonder if Dinky-Dunk is right in his implication that I am getting hard? There are times, I know, when I grate on him, when he would probably give anything to get away from me. Yet here we are, linked together like two convicts. And I don't believe I'm as hard as my husband accuses me of being. However macadamized they may have made life for me, there's at least one soft spot in my heart, one garden under the walls of granite. And that's the spot which my two children fill, which my children keep green, which my children keep holy. It's them I think of, when I think of the future—when I should at least be thinking a little of my grammar and remembering that the verb "to be" takes the nominative, just as discontented husbands seem to take the initiative! That's why I can't quite find the courage to ask for freedom. I have seen enough of life to know what the smash-up of a family means to its toddlers. And I want my children to have a chance. They can't have that chance without at least two things. One is the guardianship of home life, and the other is that curse of modern times known as money. We haven't prospered as we had hoped to, but heaven knows I've kept an eagle eye on that savings-account of mine, in that absurdly new and resplendent red-brick bank in Buckhorn. Patiently I've fed it with my butter and egg money, joyfully I've seen it grow with my meager Nitrate dividends, and grimly I've made it bigger with every loose dollar I could lay my hands on. There's no heroism in my going without things I may have thought I needed, just as there can be little nobility in my sticking to a husband who no longer loves me. For it's not Chaddie McKail who counts now, but her chicks. And I'll have to look for my reward through them, for I'm like Romanes' rat now, too big to get into the bottle of cream, but wary enough to know I can dine from a tail still small enough for insertion. I'm merely a submerged prairie-hen with the best part of her life behind her.
But it bothers me, what Duncan says about my always thinking of little Dinkie first. And I'm afraid I do, though it seems neither right nor fair. I suppose it's because he was my first-born—and having come first in my life he must come first in my thoughts. I was made to love somebody—and my husband doesn't seem to want me to love him. So he has driven me to centering my thoughts on the child. I've got to have something to warm up to. And any love I may lavish on this prairie-chick of mine, who has to face life with the lack of so many things, will not only be a help to the boy, but will be a help to me, the part of Me that I'm sometimes so terribly afraid of.
Yet I can't help wondering if Duncan has any excuses for claiming that it's personal selfishness which prompts me to keep my boy close to my side. And am I harming him, without knowing it, in keeping him here under my wing? Schools are all right, in a way, but surely a good mother can do as much in the molding of a boy's mind as a boarding-school with a file of Ph.D.'s on its staff. But am I a good mother? And should I trust myself, in a matter like this, to my own feelings? Men, in so many things, are better judges than women. Yet it has just occurred to me that all men do not think alike. I've been sitting back and wondering what kindly old Peter would say about it. And I've decided to write Peter and ask what he advises. He'll tell the truth, I know, for Peter is as honest as the day is long....
I've just been up to make sure the children were properly covered in bed. And it disturbed me a little to find that without even thinking about it I went to Dinkie first. It seemed like accidental corroboration of all that Duncan has been saying. But I stood studying him as he lay there asleep. It frightened me a little, to find him so big. If it's true, as Duncan threatens, that time will tend to turn him away from me, it's something that I'm going to fight tooth and nail. And I've seen no sign of it, as yet. With every month and every year that's added to his age he grows more companionable, more able to bridge the chasm between two human souls. We have more interests in common, more things to talk about. And day by day Dinkie is reaching up to my clumsily mature way of looking at life. He can come to me with his problems, knowing I'll always give him a hearing, just as he used to come to me with his baby cuts and bruises, knowing they would be duly kissed and cared for. Yet some day, I have just remembered, he may have problems that can't be brought to me. But that day, please God, I shall defer as long as possible. Already we have our own little secrets and private compacts and understandings. I don't want my boy to be a mollycoddle. But I want him to have his chance in the world. I want him to be somebody. I can't reconcile myself to the thought of him growing up to wear moose-mittens and shoe-packs and stretching barb-wire in blue-jeans and riding a tractor across a prairie back-township. I refuse to picture him getting bent and gray wringing a livelihood out of an over-cropped ranch fourteen miles away from a post-office and a world away from the things that make life most worth living. If he were an ordinary boy, I might be led to think differently. But my Dinkie is not an ordinary boy. There's a spark of the unusual, of the exceptional, in that laddie. And I intend to fan that spark, whatever the cost may be, until it breaks out into genius.
Sunday the Twenty-Eighth
I've had scant time for introspection during the last five days, for Struthers has been in bed with lumbago, and the weight of the housework reverted to me. But Whinstane Sandy brought his precious bottle of Universal Ointment in from the bunk-house, and while that fiery mixture warmed her lame back, the thought of its origin probably warmed her lonely heart. I have suddenly wakened up to the fact that Struthers is getting on a bit. She is still the same efficient and self-obliterating mainstay of the kitchen that she ever was, but she grows more "sot" in her ways, more averse to any change in her daily routine, and more despairing of ever finally and completely capturing that canny old Scotsman whom we still so affectionately designate as Whinnie, in short for Whinstane Sandy. Whinnie, I'm afraid, still nurses the fixed idea that everything in petticoats and as yet unwedded is after him. And it is only by walking with the utmost circumspection that he escapes their wiles and by maintaining an unbroken front withstands their unseemly advances.
The new school-teacher has arrived, and is to live with us here at Casa Grande. I have my reasons for this. In the first place, it will be a help to Dinkie in his studies. In the second place, it means that the teacher can pack my boy back and forth to school, in bad weather, and next month when Poppsy joins the ranks of the learners, can keep a more personal eye on that little tot's movements. And in the third place the mere presence of another male at Casa Grande seems to dilute the acids of home life.
Gershom Binks is the name of this new teacher, and I have just learned that in the original Hebrew "Gershom" not inappropriately means "a stranger there." He is a sophomore (a most excellent word, that, when you come to inquire into its etymology!) from the University of Minnesota and is compelled to teach the young idea, for a time, to accumulate sufficient funds to complete his course, which he wants to do at Ann Arbor. And Gershom is a very tall and very thin and very short-sighted young man, with an Adam's apple that works up and down with a two-inch plunge over the edge of his collar when he talks—which he does somewhat extensively. He wears glasses with big bulging lenses, glasses which tend to hide a pair of timid and brown-October-aleish eyes with real kindliness in them. He looks ill-nourished, but I can detect nothing radically wrong with his appetite. It's merely that, like Cassius, he thinks too much. And I'm going to fatten that boy up a bit, before the year is out, or know the reason why. He may be a trifle self-conscious and awkward, but he's also amazingly clean of both body and mind, and it will be no hardship, I know, to have him under our roof. And for all his devotion to Science, he reads his Bible every night—which is more than Chaddie McKail does! He rather took the wind out of my sails by demanding, the first morning at breakfast, if I knew that one half-ounce of the web of the spider—the arachnid of the order Araneida, he explained—if stretched out in a straight line would reach from the city of Chicago to the city of Paris. I told him that this was a most wonderful and a most interesting piece of information and hoped that some day we could verify it by actual test. Yet when I inquired whether he meant merely the environs of the city of Paris, or the very heart of the city such as the Place de l'Opera, he studied me with the meditative eye with which Huxley must have once studied beetles.
Dinky-Dunk, I notice, is as restive as a bull-moose in black-fly season. He's doing his work on the land, as about every ranch-owner has to, whether he's happily married or not, but he's doing it without any undue impression of its epical importance. I heard him observe, yesterday, that if he could only get his hands on enough ready money he'd like to swing into land business in a live center like Calgary. He has a friend there, apparently, who has just made a clean-up in city real estate and bought his wife a Detroit Electric and built a home for himself that cost forty thousand dollars. I reminded Dinky-Dunk, when he had finished, that we really must have a new straining-mesh in the milk-separator. He merely looked at me with a sour and morose eye as he got up and went out to his team.
Surely these men-folks are a dissatisfied lot! Gershom to-night complained that his own name of "Gershom Binks" impressed him as about the ugliest name that was ever hitched on to a scholar and a gentlemen. And later on, after I'd opened my piano and tried to console myself with a tu'penny draught of Grieg, he inspected the instrument and informed me that it was really evolved from the six-stringed harps of the fourth Egyptian dynasty, which in the fifth dynasty was made with a greatly enlarged base, thus giving the rudimentary beginning of a soundboard.
I am learning a lot from Gershom! And so are my kiddies, for that matter. I begin, in fact, to feel like royalty with a private tutor, for every night now Dinkie and Poppsy and Gershom sit about the living-room table and drink of the founts of wisdom. But we have a teacher here who loves to teach. And he is infinitely patient and kind with my little toddlers. Dinkie already asks him questions without number, while Poppsy gratefully but decorously vamps him with her infantine gazes. Then Gershom—Heaven bless his scholastic old high-browed solemnity—has just assured me that Dinkie betrays many evidences of an exceptionally bright mind.
Friday the Second
My husband yesterday accused me of getting moss-backed. He had been harping on the city string again and asked me if I intended to live and die a withered beauty on a back-trail ranch.
That "withered beauty" hurt, though I did my best to ignore it, for the time at least. And Dinky-Dunk went on to say that it struck him as one of life's little ironies that I should want to stick to the sort of life we were leading, remembering what I'd come from.
"Dinky-Dunk," I told him, "it's terribly hard to explain exactly how I feel about it all. I suppose I could never make you see it as I see it. But it's a feeling like loyalty, loyalty to the land that's given us what we have. And it's also a feeling of disliking to see one old rule repeating itself: what has once been a crusade becoming merely a business. To turn and leave our land now, it seems to me, would make us too much like those soulless soil-robbers you used to rail at, like those squatters who've merely squeezed out what they could and have gone on, like those land-miners who take all they can get and stand ready to put nothing back. Why, if we were all like that, we'd have no country here. We'd be a wilderness, a Barren Grounds that went from the Border up to the Circle. But there's something bigger than that about it all. I love the prairie. Just why it is, I don't know. It's too fundamental to be fashioned into words, and I never realized how deep it was until I went back to the city that time. One can just say it, and let it go at that: I love the prairie. It isn't merely its bigness, just as it isn't altogether its freedom and its openness. Perhaps it's because it keeps its spirit of the adventurous. I love it the same as my children love The Arabian Nights and The Swiss Family Robinson. I thought it was mostly cant, once, that cry about being next to nature, but the more I know about nature the more I feel with Pope that naught but man is vile, to speak as impersonally, my dear Diddums, as the occasion will permit. I'm afraid I'm like that chickadee that flew into the bunk-house and Whinnie caught and put in a box-cage for Dinkie. I nearly die at the thought of being cooped up. I want clean air and open space about me."
"I never dreamed you'd been Indianized to that extent," murmured my husband.
"Being Indianized," I proceeded, "seems to carry the inference of also being barbarized. But it isn't quite that, Dinky-Dunk, for there's something almost spiritually satisfying about this prairie life if you've only got the eyes to see it. I think that's because the prairie always seems so majestically beautiful to me. I can see your lip curl again, but I know I'm right. When I throw open my windows of a morning and see that placid old never-ending plain under its great wash of light something lifts up in my breast, like a bird, and no matter how a mere man has been doing his best to make me miserable that something stands up on the tip of my heart and does its darnedest to sing. It impresses me as life on such a sane and gigantic scale that I want to be an actual part of it, that I positively ache to have a share in its immensities. It seems so fruitful and prodigal and generous and patient. It's so open-handed in the way it produces and gives and returns our love. And there's a completeness about it that makes me feel it can't possibly be wrong."
"The Eskimo, I suppose, feels very much the same in his little igloo of ice with a pot of whale-blubber at his elbow," observed my husband.
"You're a brute, my dear Diddums, and more casually cruel than a Baffin-land cannibal," I retorted. "But we'll let it pass. For I'm talking about something that's too fundamental to be upset by a bitter tongue. There was a time, I know, when I used to fret about the finer things I thought I was losing out of life, about the little hand-made fripperies people have been forced to conjure up and carpenter together to console them for having to live in human beehives made of steel and concrete. But I'm beginning to find out that joy isn't a matter of geography and companionship isn't a matter of over-crowded subways. And the strap-hangers and the train-catchers and the first-nighters can have what they've got. I don't seem to envy them the way I used to. I don't need a Louvre when I've got the Northern Lights to look at. And I can get along without an AEolian Hall when I've got a little music in my own heart—for it's only what you've got there, after all, that really counts in this world!"
"All of which means," concluded my husband, "that you are most unmistakably growing old!"
"You have already," I retorted, "referred to me as a withered beauty."
Dinky-Dunk studied me long and intently. I even felt myself turning pink under that prolonged stare of appraisal.
"You are still easy to look at," he over-slangily and over-generously admitted. "But I do regret that you aren't a little easier to live with!"
I could force a little laugh, at that, but I couldn't quite keep a tremor out of my voice when I spoke again.
"I'm sorry you see only my bad side, Dinky-Dunk. But it's kindness that seems to bring everything that is best out of us women. We're terribly like sliced pineapple in that respect: give us just a sprinkling of sugar, and out come all the juices!"
It was Dinky-Dunk's color that deepened a little as he turned and knocked out his pipe.
"That's a Chaddie McKail argument," he merely observed as he stood up. "And a Chaddie McKail argument impresses me as suspiciously like Swiss cheese: it doesn't seem to be genuine unless you can find plenty of holes in it."
I did my best to smile at his humor.
"But this isn't an argument," I quietly corrected. "I'd look at it more in the nature of an ultimatum."
That brought him up short, as I had intended it to do. He stood worrying over it as Bobs and Scotty worry over a bone.
"I'm afraid," he finally intoned, "I've been repeatedly doing you the great injustice of underestimating your intelligence!"
"That," I told him, "is a point where I find silence imposed upon me."
He didn't speak until he got to the door.
"Well, I'm glad we've cleared the air a bit anyway," he said with a grim look about his Holbein Astronomer old mouth as he went out.
But we haven't cleared the air. And it disturbs me more than I can say to find that I have reservations from my husband. It bewilders me to see that I can't be perfectly candid with him. But there are certain deeper feelings that I can no longer uncover in his presence. Something holds me back from explaining to him that this fixed dread of mine for all cities is largely based on my loss of little Pee-Wee. For if I hadn't gone to New York that time, to Josie Langdon's wedding, I might never have lost my boy. They did the best they could, I suppose, before their telegrams brought me back, but they didn't seem to understand the danger. And little did I dream, before the Donnelly butler handed me that first startling message just as we were climbing into the motor to go down to the Rochambeau to meet Chinkie and Tavvy, that within a week I was to sit and watch the cruelest thing that can happen in this world. I was to see a small child die. I was to watch my own Pee-Wee pass quietly away.
I have often wondered, since, why I never shed a tear during all those terrible three days. I couldn't, in some way, though the nurse herself was crying, and poor old Whinnie and Struthers were sobbing together next to the window, and dour old Dinky-Dunk, on the other side of the bed, was racking his shoulders with smothered sobs as he held the little white hand in his and the warmth went forever out of the little fingers where his foolish big hand was trying to hold back the life that couldn't be kept there. The old are ready to die, or can make themselves ready. They have run their race and had their turn at living. But it seems cruel hard to see a little tot, with eagerness still in his heart, taken away, taken away with the wonder of things still in his eyes. It stuns you. It makes you rebel. It leaves a scar that Time itself can never completely heal.
Yet through it all I can still hear the voice of valorous old Whinnie as he patted my shoulder and smiled with the brine still in the seams of his furrowed old face. "We'll thole through, lassie; we'll thole through!" he said over and over again. Yes; we'll thole through. And this is only the uncovering of old wounds. And one must keep one's heart and one's house in order, for with us we still have the living.
But Dinky-Dunk can't completely understand, I'm afraid, this morbid hankering of mine to keep my family about me, to have the two chicks that are left to me close under my wing. And never once, since Pee-Wee went, have I actually punished either of my children. It may be wrong, but I can't help it. I don't want memories of violence to be left corroding and rankling in my mind. And I'd hate to see any child of mine cringe, like an ill-treated dog, at every lift of the hand. There are better ways of controlling them, I begin to feel, than through fear. Their father, I know, will never agree with me on this matter. He will always insist on mastery, open and undisputed mastery, in his own house. He is the head of this Clan McKail, the sovereign of this little circle. For we can say what we will about democracy, but when a child is born unto a man that man unconsciously puts on the purple. He becomes the ruler and sits on the throne of authority. He even seeks to cloak his weaknesses and his mistakes in that threadbare old fabrication about the divine right of kings. But I can see that he is often wrong, and even my Dinkie can see that he is not always right in his decrees. More and more often, of late, I've observed the boy studying his father, studying him with an impersonal and critical eye. And this habit of silent appraisal is plainly something which Duncan resents, and resents keenly. He's beginning to have a feeling, I'm afraid, that he can't quite get at the boy. And there's a youthful shyness growing up in Dinkie which seems to leave him ashamed of any display of emotion before his father. I can see that it even begins to exasperate Duncan a little, to be shut out behind those incontestable walls of reserve. It's merely, I'm sure, that the child is so terribly afraid of ridicule. He already nurses a hankering to be regarded as one of the grown-ups and imagines there's something rather babyish in any undue show of feeling. Yet he is hungry for affection. And he aches, I know, for the approbation of his male parent, for the approval of a full-grown man whom he can regard as one of his own kind. He even imitates his father in the way in which he stands in front of the fire, with his heels well apart. And he gives me chills up the spine by pulling short on one bridle-rein and making Buntie, his mustang-pony, pirouette just as the wicked-tempered Briquette sometimes pirouettes when his father is in the saddle. Yet Dinky-Dunk's nerves are a bit ragged and there are times when he's not always just with the boy, though it's not for me to confute what the instinctive genius of childhood has already made reasonably clear to Dinkie's discerning young eye. But I can not, of course, encourage insubordination. All I can do is to ignore the unwelcome and try to crowd it aside with happier things. I want my boy to love me, as I love him. And I think he does. I know he does. That knowledge is an azure and bottomless lake into which I can toss my blackest pebbles of fear, my flintiest doubts of the future.
Sunday the Fourth
I wish I could get by the scruff of the neck that sophomoric old philosopher who once said nothing survives being thought of. For I've been learning, this last two or three days, just how wide of the mark he shot. And it's all arisen out of Dinky-Dunk's bland intimation that I am "a withered beauty." Those words have held like a fish-hook in the gills of my memory. If they'd come from somebody else they mightn't have meant so much. But from one's own husband—Wow!—they go in like a harpoon. And they have given me a great deal to think about. There are times, I find, when I can accept that intimation of slipping into the sere and yellow leaf without revolt. Then the next moment it fills me with a sort of desperation. I refuse to go up on the shelf. I see red and storm against age. I refuse to bow to the inevitable. My spirit recoils at the thought of decay. For when you're fading you're surely decaying, and when you're decaying you're approaching the end. So stop, Father Time, stop, or I'll get out of the car!
But we can't get out of the car. That's the tragic part of it. We have to go on, whether we like it or not. We have to buck up, and grin and bear it, and make the best of a bad bargain. And Heaven knows I've never wanted to be one of the Glooms! I've no hankering to sit with the Sob Sisters and pump brine over the past. I'm light-hearted enough if they'll only give me a chance. I've always believed in getting what we could out of life and looking on the sunny side of things. And the disturbing part of it is, I don't feel withered—not by a jugful! There are mornings when I can go about my homely old duties singing like a prairie Tetrazzini. There are days when I could do a hand-spring, if for nothing more than to shock my solemn old Dinky-Dunk out of his dourness. There are times when we go skimming along the trail with the crystal-cool evening air in our faces and the sun dipping down toward the rim of the world when I want to thank Somebody I can't see for Something-or-other I can't define. Dum vivimus vivamus.
But it seems hard to realize that I'm a sedate and elderly lady already on the shady side of thirty. A woman over thirty years old—and I can remember the days of my intolerant youth when I regarded the woman of thirty as an antiquated creature who should be piously preparing herself for the next world. And it doesn't take thirty long to slip into forty. And then forty merges into fifty—and there you are, a nice old lady with nervous indigestion and knitting-needles and a tendency to breathe audibly after ascending the front-stairs. No wonder, last night, it drove me to taking a volume of George Moore down from the shelf and reading his chapter on "The Woman of Thirty." But I found small consolation in that over-uxorious essay, feeling as I did that I knew life quite as well as any amorous studio-rat who ever made copy out of his mottled past. So I was driven, in the end, to studying myself long and intently in the broken-hinged mirrors of my dressing-table. And I didn't find much there to fortify my quailing spirit. I was getting on a bit. I was curling up a little around the edges. There was no denying that fact. For I could see a little fan-light of lines at the outer corner of each eye. And down what Dinky-Dunk once called the honeyed corners of my mouth went another pair of lines which clearly came from too much laughing. But most unmistakably of all there was a line coming under my chin, a small but tell-tale line, announcing the fact that I wasn't losing any in weight, and standing, I suppose, one of the foot-hills which precede the Rocky-Mountain dewlaps of old age. It wouldn't be long, I could see, before I'd have to start watching my diet, and looking for a white hair or two, and probably give up horseback riding. And then settle down into an ingle-nook old dowager with a hassock under my feet and a creak in my knees and a fixed conviction that young folks never acted up in my youth as they act up nowadays.
I tried to laugh it away, but my heart went down like a dredge-dipper. Whereupon I set my jaw, which didn't make me look any younger. But I didn't much care, for the mirror had already done its worst.
"Not muchee!" I said as I sat there making faces at myself. "You're still one of the living. The bloom may be off in a place or two, but you're sound to the core, and serviceable for many a year. So sursum corda! 'Rung ho! Hira Singh!' as Chinkie taught us to shout in the old polo days. And that means, Go in and win, Chaddie McKail, and die with your boots on if you have to."
I was still intent on that study of my robust-looking but slightly weather-beaten map when Dinky-Dunk walked in and caught me in the middle of my Narcissus act.
"'All is vanity saith the Preacher,'" he began. But he stopped short when I swung about at him. For I hadn't, after all, been able to carpenter together even a whale-boat of consolation out of my wrecked schooner of hope.
"Oh, Kakaibod," I wailed, "I'm a pie-faced old has-been, and nobody will ever love me again!"
He only laughed, on his way out, and announced that I seemed to be getting my share of loving, as things went. But he didn't take back what he said about me being withered. And the first thing I shall do to-morrow, when Gershom comes down to breakfast, will be to ask him how old Cleopatra was when she brought Antony to his knees and how antiquated Ninon D'Enclos was when she lost her power over that semi-civilized creature known as Man. Gershom will know, for Gershom knows everything.
Wednesday the Seventh
Gershom has been studying some of my carbon-prints. He can't for the life of him understand why I consider Dewing's Old-fashioned Gown so beautiful, or why I should love Childe Hassam's Church at Old Lyme or see anything remarkable about Metcalf's May Night. But I cherish them as one cherishes photographs of lost friends.
A couple of the Horatio Walker's, he acknowledged, seemed to mean something to him. But Gershom's still in the era when he demands a story in the picture and could approach Monet and Degas only by way of Meissonier and Bouguereau. And a print, after all, is only a print. He's slightly ashamed to admire beauty as mere beauty, contending that at the core of all such things there should be a moral. So we pow-wowed for an hour and more over the threadbare old theme and the most I could get out of Gershom was that the lady in The Old-fashioned Gown reminded him of me, only I was more vital. But all that talk about landscape and composition and line and tone made me momentarily homesick for a glimpse of Old Lyme again, before I go to my reward.
But the mood didn't last. And I no longer regret what's lost. I don't know what mysterious Divide it is I have crossed over, but it seems to be peace I want now instead of experience. I'm no longer envious of the East and all it holds. I'm no longer fretting for wider circles of life. The lights may be shining bright on many a board-walk, at this moment, but it means little to this ranch-lady. What I want now is a better working-plan for that which has already been placed before me. Often and often, in the old days, when I realized how far away from the world this lonely little island of Casa Grande and its inhabitants stood, I used to nurse a ghostly envy for the busier tideways of life from which we were banished. I used to feel that grandeur was in some way escaping me. I could picture what was taking place in some of those golden-gray old cities I had known: The Gardens of the Luxembourg when the horse-chestnuts were coming out in bloom, and the Chateau de Madrid in the Bois at the luncheon hour, or the Pre Catalan on a Sunday with heavenly sole in lemon and melted butter and a still more heavenly waltz as you sat eating fraises des bois smothered in thick creme d'Isigny. Or the Piazzi di Spagna on Easter Sunday with the murmur of Rome in your ears and the cars and carriages flashing through the green-gold shadows of the Pincio. Or Hyde Park in May, with the sun sifting through the brave old trees and flashing on the helmets of the Life Guards as the King goes by in a scarlet uniform with the blue Order of the Garter on his breast, or Park Lane on a glorious light-and-shadow afternoon in June and a dip into the familiar old Americanized clangor at the Cecil; or Chinkie's place in Devonshire about a month earlier, sitting out on the terrace wrapped in steamer-rugs and waiting for the moon to come up and the first nightingale to sing. Of Fifth Avenue shining almost bone-white in the clear December sunlight and the salted nuts and orange-blossom cocktails at Sherry's, or the Plaza tea-room at about five o'clock in the afternoon with the smell of Turkish tobacco and golden pekoe and hot-house violets and Houbigant's Quelque-fleurs all tangled up together. Or the City of Wild Parsley in March with a wave of wild flowers breaking over the ruins of Selinunte and the tumbling pillars of the Temple of Olympian Zeus lying time-mellowed in the clear Sicilian sunlight!
They were all lovely enough, and still are, I suppose, but it's a loveliness in some way involved with youth. So the memory of those far-off gaieties, which, after all, were so largely physical, no longer touch me with unrest. They're wine that's drunk and water that's run under the bridge. Younger lips can drink of that cup, which was sweet enough in its time. Let the newer girls dance their legs off under the French crystals of the Ritz, and powder their noses over the Fountain of the Sunken Boat, and eat the numbered duck so reverentially doled out at La Tour d'Argent and puff their cigarettes behind the beds of begonias and marguerites at the Chateau Madrid. They too will get tired of it, and step aside for others. For the petal falls from the blossom and the blossom plumps out into fruit. And all those golden girls, when their day is over, must slip away from those gardens of laughter. When they don't, they only make themselves ridiculous. For there's nothing sadder than an antique lady of other days decking herself out in the furbelows of a lost youth. And I've got Dinky-Dunk's overalls to patch and my bread to set, so I can't think much more about it to-night. But after I've done my chores, and before I go up to bed, I'm going to read Rabbi Ben Ezra right through to the end. I'll do it in front of the fire, with my feet up and with three Ontario Northern Spy apples on a plate beside me, to be munched as Audrey herself might have munched them, oblivious of any Touchstone and his reproving eyes.
I have stopped to ponder, however, how much of this morbid dread of mine for big cities is due to that short and altogether unsatisfactory visit to New York, to that sense of coming back a stranger and finding old friends gone and those who were left with such entirely new interests.
I was out of it, completely and dishearteningly out of it. And my clothes were all wrong. My hats were wrong; my shoes were wrong; and every rag I had on me was in some way wrong. I was a tourist from the provinces. And I wasn't up-to-date with either what was on me or was in me. I didn't even know the new subway routes or the telephone rules or the proper places to go for tea. The Metropolitan looked cramped and shoddy and Tristan seemed shoddily sung to me. There was no thrill to it. And even The Jewels of the Madonna impressed me as a bit garish and off color, with the Apache Dance of the last act almost an affront to God and man. I even asked myself, when I found that I had lost the trick of laughing at bridal-suite farces, if it was the possession of children that had changed me. For when you're with children you must in some way match their snowy innocence with a kindred coloring of innocence, very much as the hare and the weasel and the ptarmigan turn white to match the whiteness of our northern winter. Yet I was able to wring pure joy out of Rachmaninoff's playing at Carnegie Hall, with a great man making music for music's sake. I loved the beauty and balance and splendid sanity of that playing, without keyboard fire-works and dazzle and glare. But Rachmaninoff was the exception. Even Central Park seemed smaller than of old, and I couldn't remember which drives Dinky-Dunk and I had taken in the historic old hansom-cab after our equally historic marriage by ricochet. Fifth Avenue itself was different, the caterpillar of trade having crawled a little farther up the stalk of fashion, for the shops, I found, went right up to the Park, and the old W. K. house where we once danced our long-forgotten Dresden China Quadrille, in imitation of the equally forgotten Eighty-Three event, confronted me as a beehive of business offices. I couldn't quite get used to the new names and the new faces and the new shops and the side-street theaters and the thought of really nice girls going to a prize-fight in Madison Square Garden, and the eternal and never-ending talk about drinks, about where and how to get them, and how to mix them, and how much Angostura to put into 'em, and the musty ale that used to be had at Losekam's in Washington, and the Beaux Arts cocktails that used to come with a dash of absinthe, and the shipment of pinch-neck Scotch which somebody smuggled in on his cruiser-yacht from the east end of Cuba, and so-forth and so-forth until I began to feel that the only important thing in the world was the possession and dispensation of alcohol. And out of it I got the headache without getting the fun. I had the same dull sense of being cheated which came to me in my flapper days when I fell asleep with a mouthful of contraband gum and woke up in the morning with my jaw-muscles tired—I'd been facing all the exertion without getting any of the satisfaction.
The one bright spot to me, in that lost city of my childhood, was the part of Madison Avenue which used to be known as Murray Hill, the right-of-way along the west sidewalk of which I once commandeered for an afternoon's coasting. I could see again, as I glanced down the familiar slope, the puffy figure of old Major Elmes, who in those days was always pawing somebody, since he seemed to believe with Novalis that he touched heaven when he placed his hand on a human body. I could see myself sky-hooting down that icy slope on my coaster, approaching the old Major from the rear and peremptorily piping out: "One side, please!" For I was young then, and I expected all life to make way for me. But the old Major betrayed no intention of altering his solemnly determined course at any such juvenile suggestion, with the result that he sat down on me bodily, and for the next two blocks approached his club in Madison Square in a manner and at a speed which he had in no wise anticipated. But, Eheu, how long ago it all seemed!
Saturday the Tenth
Peter has written back in answer to my question as to the expediency of sending my boy off to a boarding-school. He put all he had to say in two lines. They were:
"I had a mother like Dinkie's, I'd stick to her until the stars were dust."
That was very nice of Peter, of course, but I don't imagine he had any idea of the peck of trouble he was going to stir up at Casa Grande. For Dinky-Dunk picked up the sheet of paper on which that light-hearted message had been written and perused the two lines, perused them with a savagery which rather disturbed me. He read them for the second time, and then he put them down. His eye, as he confronted me, was a glacial one.
"It's too bad we can't run this show without the interference of outsiders," he announced as he stalked out of the room.
I've been thinking the thing over, and trying to get my husband's view-point. But I can't quite succeed. There has always been a touch of the satyric in Dinky-Dunk's attitude toward Peter's weekly letter to my boy. He has even intimated that they were written in a new kind of Morse, the inference being that they were intended to carry messages in cipher to eyes other than Dinkie's. But Peter is much too honest a man for any such resort to subterfuge. And Dinky-Dunk has always viewed with a hostile eye the magazines and books and toys which big-hearted Peter has showered out on us. Peter always was ridiculously open-handed. And he always loved my Dinkie. And it's only natural that our thoughts should turn back to where our love has been left. Peter, I know, gets quite as much fun out of those elaborately playful letters to Dinkie as Dinkie does himself. And it's left the boy more anxious to learn, to the end that he may pen a more respectable reply to them.
Some of Peter's gifts, it is true, have been embarrassingly ornate, but Peter, who has been given so much, must have remembered how little has come to my kiddies. It was my intention, for a while, to talk this over with Dinky-Dunk, to try to make him see it in a more reasonable light. But I have now given up that intention. There's a phantasmal something that holds me back....
I dreamt last night that my little Dinkie was a grown youth in a Greek academy, wearing a toga and sitting on a marble bench overlooking a sea of lovely sapphire. There both Peter and Percy, also arrayed in togas, held solemn discourse with my offspring and finally agreed that once they were through with him he would be the Wonder of the Age....
Dinky-Dunk asked me point-blank to-day if I'd consider the sale of Casa Grande, provided he got the right price for the ranch. I felt, for a moment, as though the bottom had been knocked out of my world. But it showed me the direction in which my husband's thoughts have been running of late. And I just as pointedly retorted that I'd never consent to the sale of Casa Grande. It's not merely because it's our one and only home. It's more because of the little knoll where the four Manitoba maples have been set and the row of prairie-roses have been planted along the little iron fence, the little iron fence which twice a year I paint a virginal white, with my own hands. For that's where my Pee-Wee sleeps, and that lonely little grave must never pass out of my care, to be forgotten and neglected and tarnished with time. It's not a place of sorrow now, but more an altar, duly tended, the flower-covered bed of my Pee-Wee, of my poor little Pee-Wee who was so brimming with life and love. He used to make me think of a humming-bird in a garden—and now all I have left of him is my small chest of toys and trinkets and baby-clothes. God, I know, will be good to that lonely little newcomer in His world of the statelier dead, in His gallery of whispering ghosts. Oh, be good to him, God! Be good to him, or You shall be no God of mine! I can't think of him as dead, as going out like a candle, as melting into nothingness as the little bones under their six feet of earth molder away. But my laddie is gone. And I must not be morbid. As Peter once said, misery loves company, but the company is apt to seek more convivial quarters. Yet something has gone out of my life, and that something drives me back to my Dinkie and my Poppsy with a sort of fierceness in my hunger to love them, to make the most of them.
Gershom, who has been giving Poppsy a daily lesson at home, has just inquired why she shouldn't be sent to school along with Dinkie. And her father has agreed. It gave me the wretched feeling, for a moment or two, that they were conspiring to take my last baby away from me. But I have to bow to the fact that I no longer possess one, since Poppsy announced her preference, the other day, for a doll "with real livings in it." She begins to show as fixed an aversion to baby-talk as that entertained by old Doctor Johnson himself, and no longer yearns to "do yidin on the team-tars," as she used to express it. The word "birthday" is still "birfday" with her, and "water" is still "wagger," but she now religiously eschews all such reiterative diminutives as "roundy-poundy" and "Poppsy-Woppsy" and "beddy-bed." She has even learned, after much effort, to convert her earlier "keam of feet" into the more legitimate and mature "cream of wheat." And now that she has a better mastery of the sibilants the charm has rather gone out of the claim, which I so laboriously taught her, that "Daddy is all feet," meaning, of course, that he was altogether sweet—which he gave small sign of being when he first caught the point of my patient schooling. She is not so quick-tongued as her brother Dinkie, but she has a natural fastidiousness which makes her long for alignment with the proprieties. She is, in fact, a conformist, a sedate and dignified little lady who will never be greatly given to the spilling of beans and the upsetting of apple-carts. She is, in many ways, amazingly like her pater. She will, I know, be a nice girl when she grows up, without very much of that irresponsibility which seems to have been the bugbear of her maternal parent. I'm even beginning to believe there's something in the old tradition about ancestral traits so often skipping a generation. At any rate, that crazy-hearted old Irish grandmother of mine passed on to me a muckle o' her wildness, the mad County Clare girl who swore at the vicar and rode to hounds and could take a seven-barred gate without turning a hair and was apt to be always in love or in debt or in hot water. She died too young to be tamed, I'm told, for say what you will, life tames us all in the end. Even Lady Hamilton took to wearing red-flannel petticoats before she died, and Buffalo Bill faded down into plain Mr. William Cody, and the abducted Helen of Troy gave many a day up to her needlework, we are told, and doubtlessly had trouble with both her teeth and her waist measurement.
Dinky-Dunk is proud of his Poppsy and has announced that it's about time we tucked the "Poppsy" away with her baby-clothes and resorted to the use of the proper and official "Pauline Augusta." So Pauline we shall try to have it, after this. There are several things, I think, which draw Dinky-Dunk and his Poppsy—I mean his Pauline—together. One is her likeness to himself. Another is her tractability, though I hate to hitch so big a word on to so small a lady. And still another is the fact that she is a girl. There's a subliminal play of sex-attraction about it, I suppose, just as there probably is between Dinkie and me. And there's something very admirable in Pauline Augusta's staid adoration of her dad. She plays up to him, I can see, without quite knowing she's doing it. She's hungry for his approval, and happiest, always, in his presence. Then, too, she makes him forget, for the time at least, his disappointment in a soul-mate who hasn't quite measured up to expectations! And I devoutly thank the Master of Life and Love that my solemn old Dinky-Dunk can thus care for his one and only daughter. It softens him, and keeps the sordid worries of the moment from vitrifying his heart. It puts a rainbow in his sky of every-day work, and gives him something to plan and plot and live for. And he needs it. We all do. It's our human and natural hunger for companionship. And as he observed not long ago, if that hunger can't be satisfied at home, we wander off and snatch what we can on the wing. Some day when they're rich, I overheard Dinky-Dunk announcing the other night, Pauline Augusta and her Dad are going to make the Grand Tour of Europe. And there, undoubtedly, do their best to pick up a Prince of the Royal Blood and have a chateau in Lombardy and a villa on the Riviera and a standing invitation to all the Embassy Balls!
Well, not if I know it. None of that penny-a-liner moonshine for my daughter. And as she grows older, I feel sure, I'll have more influence over her. She'll begin to realize that the battle of life hasn't scarred up for nothing this wary-eyed old mater who's beginning to know a hawk from a henshaw. I've learned a thing or two in my day, and one or two of them are going to be passed on to my offspring.