Story type: Literature
“Keep the main-travelled road up the coulee–it’s the second house after crossin’ the crick. “
THE ride from Milwaukee to the Mississippi is a fine ride at any time, superb in summer. To lean back in a reclining chair and whirl away in a breezy July day, past lakes, groves of oak, past fields of barley being reaped, past hayfields, where the heavy grass is toppling before the swift sickle, is a panorama of delight, a road full of delicious surprises, where down a sudden vista lakes open, or a distant wooded hill looms darkly blue, or swift streams, foaming deep down the solid rock, send whiffs of cool breezes in at the window.
It has majesty, breadth. The farming has nothing apparently petty about it. All seems vigorous, youthful, and prosperous. Mr. Howard McLane in his chair let his newspaper fall on his lap and gazed out upon it with dreaming eyes. It had a certain mysterious glamour to him; the lakes were cooler and brighter to his eye, the greens fresher, and the grain more golden than to anyone else, for he was coming back to it all after an absence of ten years. It was, besides, his West. He still took pride in being a Western man.
His mind all day flew ahead of the train to the little town far on toward the Mississippi, where he had spent his boyhood and youth. As the train passed the Wisconsin River, with its curiously carved cliffs, its cold, dark, swift-swirling water eating slowly under cedar-clothed banks, Howard began to feel curious little movements of the heart, like a lover as he nears his sweetheart.
The hills changed in character, growing more intimately recognizable. They rose higher as the train left the ridge and passed down into the Black River valley, and specifically into the La Crosse valley. They ceased to have any hint of upheavals of rock, and became simply parts of the ancient level left standing after the water had practically given up its postglacial, scooping action.
It was about six o’clock as he caught sight of the dear broken line of hills on which his baby eyes had looked thirty-five years ago. A few minutes later and the train drew up at the grimy little station set in at the hillside, and, giving him just time to leap off, plunged on again toward the West. Howard felt a ridiculous weakness in his legs as he stepped out upon the broiling hot splintery planks of the station and faced the few idlers lounging about. He simply stood and gazed with the same intensity and absorption one of the idlers might show standing before the Brooklyn Bridge.
The town caught and held his eyes first. How poor and dull and sleepy and squalid it seemed! The one main street ended at the hillside at his left and stretched away to the north, between two rows of the usual village stores, unrelieved by a tree or a touch of beauty. An unpaved street, drab-colored, miserable, rotting wooden buildings, with the inevitable battlements-the same, only worse, was the town.
The same, only more beautiful still, was the majestic amphitheater of green wooded hills that circled the horizon, and toward which he lifted his eyes. He thrilled at the sight.
“Glorious!” he cried involuntarily.
Accustomed to the White Mountains, to the Allghenies, he had wondered if these hills would retain their old-time charm. They did. He took off his hat to them as he stood there. Richly wooded, with gently sloping green sides, rising to massive square or rounded tops with dim vistas, they glowed down upon the squalid town, gracious, lofty in their greeting, immortal in their vivid and delicate beauty.
He was a goodly figure of a man as he stood there beside his valise. Portly, erect, handsomely dressed, and with something unusually winning in his brown mustache and blue eyes, something scholarly suggested by the pinch-nose glasses, something strong in the repose of the head. He smiled as he saw how unchanged was the grouping of the old loafers on the salt barrels and nail kegs. He recognized most of them-a little dirtier, a little more bent, and a little grayer.
They sat in the same attitudes, spat tobacco with the same calm delight, and joked each other, breaking into short and sudden fits of laughter, and pounded each other on the back, just as when he was a student at the La Crosse Seminary and going to and fro daily on the train.
They ruminated on him as he passed, speculating in a perfectly audible way upon his business.
“Looks like a drummer. “
“No, he ain’t no drummer. See them Boston glasses?”
“That’s so. Guess he’s a teacher. “
“Looks like a moneyed cuss. “
“Bos’n, I guess. “
He knew the one who spoke last-Freeme Cole, a man who was the fighting wonder of Howard’s boyhood, now degenerated into a stoop-shouldered, faded, garrulous, and quarrelsome old man. Yet there was something epic in the old man’s stories, something enthralling in the dramatic power of recital.
Over by the blacksmith shop the usual game of quaits” was in progress, and the drug clerk on the corner was chasing a crony with the squirt pump, with which he was about to wash the windows. A few teams stood ankle-deep in the mud, tied to the fantastically gnawed pine pillars of the wooden awnings. A man on a load of hay was “jawing” with the attendant of the platform scales, who stood below, pad and pencil in hand.
“Hit ‘im! hit ‘im! Jump off and knock ‘im!” suggested a bystander, jovially.
Howard knew the voice.
“Talk’s cheap. Takes money t’ buy whiskey,” he said when the man on the load repeated his threat of getting off and whipping the scalesman.
“You’re William McTurg,” Howard said, coming up to him.
“I am, sir,” replied the soft-voiced giant turning and looking down on the stranger with an amused twinkle in his deep brown eyes. He stood as erect as an Indian, though his hair and beard were white.
“I’m Howard McLane. “
“Ye begin t’ look it,” said McTurg, removing his right hand from his pocket. “How are yeh?”
“I’m first-rate. How’s Mother and Grant?”
“Saw ‘im plowing corn as I came down. Guess he’s all right. Want a boost?”
“Well, yes. Are you down with a team?”
“Yep.’Bout goin’ home. Climb right in. That’s my rig, right there,” nodding at a sleek bay colt hitched in a covered buggy. “Heave y’r grip under the seat. “
They climbed into the seat after William had lowered the buggy top and unhitched the horse from the post. The loafers were mildly curious. Guessed Bill had got hooked onto by a lightnin’-rod peddler, or somethin’ o’ that kind.
“Want to go by river, or ’round by the hills?”
“Hills, I guess. “
The whole matter began to seem trivial, as if he had only been away for a month or two.
William McTurg was a man little given to talk. Even the coming back of a nephew did not cause any flow of questions or reminiscences. They rode in silence. He sat a little bent forward, the lines held carelessly in his hands, his great leonine head swaying to and fro with the movement of the buggy.
As they passed familiar spots, the younger man broke the silence with a question.
“That’s old man McElvaine’s place, ain’t it?”
“Old man living?”
“I guess he is. Husk more corn ‘n any man he c’n hire. “
On the edge of the village they passed an open lot on the left, marked with circus rings of different eras.
“There’s the old ball ground. Do they have circuses on it just the same as ever?”
“Just the same. “
“What fun that field calls up! The games of ball we used to have! Do you play yet?”
“Sometimes. Can’t stoop so well as I used to. ” He smiled a little. ” Too much fat. “
It all swept back upon Howard in a flood of names and faces and sights and
sounds; something sweet and stirring somehow, though it had little of esthetic charm at the time. They were passing along lanes now, between superb fields of corn, wherein plowmen were at work. Kingbirds flew from post to post ahead of them; the insects called from the grass. The valley slowly outspread below them. The workmen in the fields were “turning out” for the night; they all had a word of chaff with McTurg.
Over the western wall of the circling amphitheater the sun was setting. A few scattering clouds were drifting on the west wind, their shadows sliding down the green and purple slopes. The dazzling sunlight flamed along the luscious velvety grass, and shot amid the rounded, distant purple peaks, and streamed in bars of gold and crimson across the blue mist of the narrower upper coulee.
The heart of the young man swelled’ with pleasure almost like pain, and the eyes of the silent older man took on a far-off, dreaming look, as he gazed at the scene which had repeated itself a thousand times in his life, but of whose beauty he never spoke.
Far down to the left was the break in the wall through which the river ran on its way to join the Mississippi. As they climbed slowly among the hills, the valley they had left grew still more beautiful, as the squalor of the little town was hid by the dusk of distance. Both men were silent for a long time. Howard knew the peculiarities of his companion too well to make any remarks or ask any questions, and besides it was a genuine pleasure to ride with one who could feel that silence was the only speech amid such splendors.
Once they passed a little brook singing in a mourn-fully sweet way its eternal song over its pebbles. It called back to Howard the days when he and Grant, his younger brother, had fished in this little brook for trout, with trousers rolled above the knee and wrecks of hats upon their heads.
“Any trout left?” he asked.
“Not many. Little fellers. ” Finding the silence broken, William asked the first question since he met Howard. “Le’s see: you’re a show feller now? B’long to a troupe?”
“Yes, yes; I’m an actor. “
“Pretty well. “
That seemed to end William’s curiosity about the matter.
“Ah, there’s our old house, ain’t it?” Howard broke out, pointing to one of the houses farther up the coulee. “It’ll be a surprise to them, won’t it?”
“Yep; only they don’t live there. “
“What! They don’t!”
Howard was silent for some moments. “Who lives on the Dunlap place?”
“’Nother Dutchman. “
“Where’s Grant living, anyhow?”
“Farther up the conlee. “
“Well, then I’d better get out here, hadn’t I?”
“Oh, I’ll drive yeh up. “
“No, I’d rather walk. “
The sun had set, and the coulee was getting dusk when Howard got out of McTurg’s carriage and set off up the winding lane toward his brother’s house. He walked slowly to absorb the coolness and fragrance and color of the hour. The katydids sang a rhythmic song of welcome to him. Fireflies were in the grass. A whippoorwill in the deep of the wood was calling weirdly, and an occasional night hawk, flying high, gave his grating shriek, or hollow boom, suggestive and resounding.
He had been wonderfully successful, and yet had carried into his success as a dramatic author as well as actor a certain puritanism that made him a paradox to his fellows. He was one of those actors who are always in luck, and the best of it was he kept and made use of his luck. Jovial as he appeared, he was inflexible as granite against drink and tobacco. He retained through it all a certain freshness of enjoyment that made him one of the best companions in the profession; and now as he walked on, the hour and the place appealed to him with great power. It seemed to sweep away the life that came between.
How close it all was to him, after all! In his restless life, surrounded by the giare of electric lights, painted canvas, hot colors, creak of machinery, mock trees, stones, and brooks, he had not lost but gained appreciation for the coolness, quiet and low tones, the shyness of the wood and field.
In the farmhouse ahead of him a light was shining as he peered ahead, and his heart gave another painful movement. His brother was awaiting him there, and his mother, whom he had not seen for ten years and who had grown unable to write. And when Grant wrote, which had been more and more seldom of late, his letters had been cold and curt.
He began to feel that in the pleasure and excitement of his life he had grown away from his mother and brother. Each summer he had said, “Well, now I’ll go home this year sure. ” But a new play to be produced, or a yachting trip, or a tour of Europe, had put the homecoming off; and now it was with a distinct consciousness of neglect of duty that he walked up to the fence and looked into the yard, where William had told him his brother lived.
It was humble enough–a small white house, story-and-a-half structure, with a wing, set in the midst of a few locust trees; a small drab-colored barn, with a sagging ridge pole; a barnyard full of mud, in which a few cows were standing, fighting the flies and waiting to be milked. An old man was pumping water at the well; the pigs were squealing from a pen nearby; a child was crying.
Instantly the beautiful, peaceful valley was forgotten. A sickening chill struck into Howard’s soul as he looked at it all. In the dim light he could see a figure milking a cow. Leaving his valise at the gate, he entered and walked up to the old man, who had finished pumping and was about to go to feed the hogs.
“Good evening,” Howard began. “Does Mr. Grant McLane live here?”
“Yes, sir, he does. He’s right over there milkin’. “
“I’ll go over there an–”
“Don’t b’lieve I would. It’s darn muddy over there. It’s been turrible rainy. He’ll be done in a minute, anyway. “
“Very well; I’ll wait. “
As he waited, he could hear a woman’s fretful voice, and the impatient jerk and jar of kitchen things, indicative of ill temper or worry. The longer he stood absorbing this farm scene, with all its sordidness, dullness, triviality, and its endless drudgeries, the lower his heart sank. All the joy of the homecoming was gone, when the figure arose from the cow and approached the gate, and put the pail of milk down on the platform by the pump.
“Good evening,” said Howard out of the dusk.
Grant stared a moment. “Good. evening. “
Howard knew the voice, though it was older and deeper and more sullen. “Don’t you know me, Grant? I am Howard.
The man approached him, gazing intently at his face. “You are?” after a pause. “Well, I’m glad to see yeh, but I can’t shake hands. That damned cow had laid down in the mud. “
They stood and looked at each other. Howard’s cuffs, collar, and shirt, alien in their elegance, showed through the dusk, and a glint of light shot out from the jewel of his necktie, as the light from the house caught it at the right angle. As they gazed in silence at each other, Howard divined something of the hard, bitter feeling which came into Grant’s heart as he stood there, ragged, ankle-deep in muck, his sleeves rolled up, a shapeless old straw hat on his head.
The gleam of Howard’s white hands angered him. When he spoke, it was in a hard, gruff tone, full of rebellion.
“Well, go in the house and set down. I’ll be in soon’s I strain the milk and wash the dirt off my hands. “
“She’s ’round somewhere. Just knock on the door under the porch ’round there. “
Howard went slowly around the corner of the house, past a vilely smelling rain barrel, toward the west
. A gray-haired woman was sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, her hands in her lap, her eyes fixed on the faintly yellow sky, against which the hills stood dim purple silhouettes and the locust trees were etched as fine as lace. There was sorrow, resignation, and a sort of dumb despair in her attitude.
Howard stood, his throat swelling till it seemed as if he would suffocate. This was his mother–the woman who bore him, the being who had taken her life in her hand for him; and he, in his excited and pleasurable life, had neglected her!
He stepped into the faint light before her. She turned and looked at him without fear. “Mother!” he said. She uttered one little, breathing, gasping cry, called his name, rose, and stood still. He bounded up the steps and took her in his arms.
“Mother! Dear old Mother!”
In the silence, almost painful, which followed, an angry woman’s voice could be heard inside: “I don’t care. I ain’t goin’ to wear myself out fer him. He c’n eat out here with us, or else–”
Mrs. McLane began speaking. “Oh, I’ve longed to see yeh, Howard. I was afraid you wouldn’t come till–too late. “
“What do you mean, Mother? Ain’t you well?”
“I don’t seem to be able to do much now ‘cept sit around and knit a little. I tried to pick some berries the other day, and I got so dizzy I had to give it up. “
“You mustn’t work. You needn’t work. Why didn’t you write to me how you were?” Howard asked in an agony of remorse.
“Well, we felt as if you probably had all you could do to take care of yourself. “
“Are you married, Howard?”
“No, Mother; and there ain’t any excuse for me–not a bit,” he said, dropping back into her colloquialisms. “I’m ashamed when I think of how long it’s been since I saw you. I could have come. “
“It don’t matter now,” she interrupted gently. “It’s the way things go. Our boys grow up and leave us. “
“Well, come in to supper,” said Grant’s ungracious voice from the doorway. “Come, Mother. “
Mrs. McLane moved with difficulty. Howard sprang to her aid, and leaning on his arm she went through the little sitting room, which was unlighted, out into the kitchen, where the supper table stood near the cookstove.
“How, this is my wife,” said Grant in a cold, peculiar tone.
Howard bowed toward a remarkably handsome young woman, on whose forehead was a scowl, which did not change as she looked at him and the old lady.
“Set down, anywhere,” was the young woman’s cordial invitation.
Howard sat down next to his mother, and facing the wife, who had a small, fretful child in her arms. At Howard’s left was the old man, Lewis. The supper was spread upon a gay-colored oilcloth, and consisted of a pan of milk, set in the midst, with bowls at each plate. Beside the pan was a dipper and a large plate of bread, and at one end of the table was a dish of fine honey.
A boy of about fourteen leaned upon the table, his bent shoulders making him look like an old man. His hickory shirt, like that of Grant, was still wet with sweat, and discolored here and there with grease, or green from grass. His hair, freshly wet and combed, was smoothed away from his face, and shone in the light of the kerosene lamp. As he ate, he stared at Howard, as if he would make an inventory of each thread of the visitor’s clothing.
“Did I look like that at his age?” thought Howard.
“You see we live jest about the same’s ever,” said Grant as they began eating, speaking with a grim, almost challenging inflection.
The two brothers studied each other curiously, as they talked of neighborhood scenes. Howard seemed incredibly elegant and handsome to them all, with his rich, soft clothing, his spotless linen, and his exquisite enunciation and ease of speech. He had always been “smooth-spoken,” and he had become “elegantly persuasive,” as his friends said of him, and it was a large factor in his success.
Every detail of the kitchen, the heat, the flies buzzing aloft, the poor furniture, the dress of the people–all smote him like the lash of a wire whip. His brother was a man of great character. He could see that now. His deep-set, gray eyes and rugged face showed at thirty a man of great natural ability. He had more of the Scotch in his face than Howard, and he looked much older.
He was dressed, like the old man and the boy, in a checked shirt without vest. His suspenders, once gay-colored, had given most of their color to his shirt, and had marked irregular broad bands of pink and brown and green over his shoulders. His hair was uncombed, merely pushed away from his face. He wore a mustache only, though his face was covered with a week’s growth of beard. His face was rather gaunt and was brown as leather.
Howard could not eat much. He was disturbed by his mother’s strange silence and oppression, and sickened by the long-drawn gasps with which the old man ate his bread and milk, and by the way the boy ate. He had his knife gripped tightly in his fist, knuckles up, and was scooping honey upon his bread.
The baby, having ceased to be afraid, was curious, gazing silently at the stranger.
“Hello, little one! Come and see your uncle. Eh? ‘Course ‘e will,” cooed Howard in the attempt to escape the depressing atmosphere. The little one listened to his inflections as a kitten does, and at last lifted its arms in sign of surrender.
The mother’s face cleared up a little. “I declare, she wants to go to you. “
“’Course she does. Dogs and kittens always come to me when I call ’em. Why shouldn’t my own niece come?”
He took the little one and began walking up and down the kitchen with her, while she pulled at his beard and nose. “I ought to have you, my lady, in my new comedy. You’d bring down the house. “
“You don’t mean to say you put babies on the stage, Howard,” said his mother in surprise.
“Oh, yes. Domestic comedy must have a baby these days. “
“Well, that’s another way of makin’ a livin’, sure,” said Grant. The baby had cleared the atmosphere a little. “I s’pose you fellers make a pile of money. “
“Sometimes we make a thousand a week; oftener we don’t. “
“A thousand dollars!” They all stared.
“A thousand dollars sometimes, and then lose it all the next week in another town. The dramatic business is a good deal like gambling–you take your chances. “
“I wish you weren’t in it, Howard. I don’t like to have my son–”
“I wish I was in somethin’ that paid better’n farmin’. Anything under God’s heavens is better’n farmin’,” said Grant.
“No, I ain’t laid up much,” Howard went on, as if explaining why he hadn’t helped them. “Costs me a good deal to live, and I need about ten thousand dollars lee-way to work on. I’ve made a good living, but I–I ain’t made any money. “
Grant looked at him, darkly meditative.
Howard went on:
“How’d ye come to sell the old farm? I was in hopes–”
“How’d we come to sell it?” said Grant with terrible bitterness. ” We had something on it that didn’t leave anything to sell. You probably don’t remember anything about it, but there was a mortgage on it that eat us up in just four years by the almanac. ‘Most killed Mother to leave it. We wrote to you for money, but I don’t s’pose you remember that. “
“No, you didn’t. “
“Yes, I did. “
“When was it? I don’t–why, it’s–I never received it. It must have been that summer I went with Rob Mannmg to Europe. ” Howard put the baby down and faced his brother. “Why, Grant, you didn’t think I refused to help?”
“Well, it locked that way. We never heard a word from yeh all summer, and when y’
did write, it was all about yerself ‘n plays ‘n things we didn’t know anything about. I swore to God I’d never write to you again, and I won’t. “
“But, good heavens! I never got it. “
“Suppose you didn’t. You might of known we were poor as Job’s off-ox. Everybody is that earns a living. We fellers on the farm have to earn a livin’ for ourselves and you fellers that don’t work. I don’t blame yeh. I’d do it if I could. “
“Grant, don’t talk so! Howard didn’t realize–”
“I tell yeh I don’t blame ‘im. Only I don’t want him to come the brotherly business over me, after livin’ as he has–that’s all. ” There was a bitter accusation in the man’s voice.
Howard leaped to his feet, his face twitching. “By God, I’ll go back tomorrow morning!” he threatened.
“Go, an’ be damned! I don’t care what yeh do,” Grant growled, rising and going out.
“Boys,” called the mother, piteously, “it’s terrible to see you quarrel. “
“But I’m not to blame, Mother,” cried Howard in a sickness that made him white as chalk. “The man is a savage. I came home to help you all, not to quarrel. “
“Grant’s got one o’ his fits on,” said the young wife, speaking for the first time. “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’ll be all right in the morning. “
“If it wasn’t for you, Mother, I’d leave now and never see that savage again. “
He lashed himself up and down in the room, in horrible disgust and hate of his brother and of this home in his heart. He remembered his tender anticipations of the homecoming with a kind of self-pity and disgust. This was his greeting!
He went to bed, to toss about on the hard, straw-filled mattress in the stuffy little best room. Tossing, writhing under the bludgeoning of his brother’s accusing inflections, a dozen times he said, with a half-articulate snarl:
“He can go to hell! I’ll not try to do anything more for him. I don’t care if he is my brother; he has no right to jump on me like that. On the night of my return, too. My God! he is a brute, a savage!”
He thought of the presents in his trunk and valise which he couldn’t show to him that night, after what had been said. He had intended to have such a happy evening of it, such a tender reunion! It was to be so bright and cheery!
In the midst of his cursings, his hot indignation, would come visions of himself in his own modest rooms. He seemed to be yawning and stretching in his beautiful bed, the sun shining in, his books, foils, pictures around him, to say good morning and tempt him to rise, while the squat little clock on the mantel struck eleven warningly.
He could see the olive walls, the unique copper-and-crimson arabesque frieze (his own selection), and the delicate draperies; an open grate full of glowing coals, to temper the sea winds; and in the midst of it, between a landscape by Enneking and an Indian in a canoe in a canyon, by Brush, he saw a somber landscape by a master greater than Millet, a melancholy subject, treated with pitiless fidelity.
A farm in the valley! Over the mountains swept jagged, gray, angry, sprawling clouds, sending a freezing, thin drizzle of rain, as they passed, upon a man following a plow. The horses had a sullen and weary look, and their manes and tails streamed sidewise in the blast. The plowman clad in a ragged gray coat, with uncouth, muddy boots upon his feet, walked with his head inclined toward the sleet, to shield his face from the cold and sting of it. The soil rolled away, black and sticky and with a dull sheen upon it. Nearby, a boy with tears on his cheeks was watching cattle, a dog seated near, his back to the gale.
As he looked at this picture, his heart softened. He looked down at the sleeve of his soft and fleecy nightshirt, at his white, rounded arm, muscular yet fine as a woman’s, and when he looked for the picture it was gone. Then came again the assertive odor of stagnant air, laden with camphor; he felt the springless bed under him, and caught dimly a few soap-advertising lithographs on the walls. He thought of his brother, in his still more in hospitable bedroom, disturbed by the child, condemned to rise at five o’clock and begin another day’s pitiless labor. His heart shrank and quivered, and the tears started to his eyes.
“I forgive him, poor fellow! He’s not to blame. “
HE woke, however, with a dull, languid pulse and an oppressive melancholy on his heart. He looked around the little room, clean enough, but oh, how poor! how barren! Cold plaster walls, a cheap washstand, a wash set of three pieces, with a blue band around each; the windows, rectangular, and fitted with fantastic green shades.
Outside he could hear the bees humming. Chickens were merrily moving about. Cowbells far up the road were sounding irregularly. A jay came by and yelled an insolent reveille, and Howard sat up. He could hear nothing in the house but the rattle of pans on the back side of the kitchen. He looked at his watch and saw it was half-past seven. His brother was in the field by this time, after milking, currying the horses, and eating breakfast –had been at work two hours and a half.
He dressed himself hurriedly in a neglige shirt with a windsor scad, light-colored, serviceable trousers with a belt, russet shoes, and a tennis hat–a knockabout costume, he considered. His mother, good soul, thought it a special suit put on for her benefit and admired it through her glasses.
He kissed her with a bright smile, nodded at Laura the young wife, and tossed the baby, all in a breath, and with the manner, as he himself saw, of the returned captain in the war dramas of the day.
“Been to breakfast?” He frowned reproachfully. “Why didn’t you call me? I wanted to get up, just as I used to, at sunrise. “
“We thought you was tired, and so we didn’t–”
“Tired! Just wait till you see me help Grant pitch hay or something. Hasn’t finished his haying, has he?”
‘No, I guess not. He will today if it don’t rain again. “
“Well, breakfast is all ready–Howard,” said Laura, hesitating a little on his name. –
“Good! I am ready for it. Bacon and eggs, as I’m a jay! Just what I was wanting. I was saying to myself.’Now if they’ll only get bacon and eggs and hot biscuits and honey–‘ Oh, say, mother, I heard the bees humming this morning; same noise they used to make when I was a boy, exactly. must be the same bees. Hey, you young rascal! come here and have some breakfast with your uncle. “
“I never saw her take to anyone so quick,” Laura smiled. Howard noticed her in particular for the first time. She had on a clean calico dress and a gingham apron, and she looked strong and fresh and handsome. Her head was intellectual, her eyes full of power. She seemed anxious to remove the impression of her unpleasant looks and words the night before. Indeed, it would have been hard to resist Howard’s sunny good nature.
The baby laughed and crowed. The old mother could not take her dim eyes off the face of her son, but sat smiling at him as he ate and rattled on. When he rose from the table at last, after eating heartily and praising it all, he said with a smile:
“Well, now I’ll just telephone down to the express and have my trunk brought up. I’ve got a few little things in there you’ll enjoy seeing. But this fellow,” indicating the baby, “I didn’t take into account. But never mind; Uncle Howard make that all right. “
“You ain’t goin’ to lay it up agin Grant, be you, my son?” Mrs. McLane faltered as they went out into the best room.
“Of course not! He didn’t mean it. Now, can’t you send word down and have my trunk brought up? Or shall I have to walk down?”
“I guess I’ll see somebody goin’ down,” said Laura.
“All right. Now for the hayfield,” he
smiled and went out into the glorious morning.
The circling hills the same, yet not the same as at night. A cooler, tenderer, more subdued cloak of color upon them. Far down the valley a cool, deep, impalpable, blue mist lay, under which one divined the river Ian, under its elms and basswoods and wild grapevines. On the shaven slopes of the hills cattle and sheep were feeding, their cries and bells coming to the ear with a sweet suggestiveness. There was something immemorial in the sunny slopes dotted with red and brown and gray cattle.
Walking toward the haymakers, Howard felt a twinge of pain and distrust. Would he ignore it all and smile?
He stopped short. He had not seen Grant smile in so long–he couldn’t quite see him smiling. He had been cold and bitter for years. When he came up to them, Grant was pitching on; the old man was loading, and the boy was raking after.
“Good morning,” Howard cried cheerily. The old man nodded, the boy stared. Grant growled something, without looking up. These ” finical” things of saying good morning and good night are not much practiced in such homes as Grant McLane’s.
“Need some help? I’m ready to take a hand. Got on my regimentals this morning. “
Grant looked at him a moment.
“You look like it. “
“Gimme a hold on that fork, and I’ll show you. I’m not so soft as I look, now you bet. “
He laid hold upon the fork in Grant’s hands, who released it sullenly and stood back sneering. Howard struck the fork into the pile in the old way, threw his left hand to the end of the polished handle, brought it down into the hollow of his thigh, and laid out his strength till the handle bent like a bow. “Oop she rises!” he called laughingly, as the whole pile began slowly to rise, and finally rolled upon the high load.
“Oh, I ain’t forgot how to do it,” he laughed as he looked around at the boy, who was studying the jacket and hat with a devouring gaze.
Grant was studying him too, but not in admiration.
“I shouldn’t say you had,” said the old man, tugging at the forkful.
‘Mighty funny to come out here and do a little of this. But if you had to come here and do it all the while, you wouldn’t look so white and soft in the hands,” Grant said as they moved on to another pile. “Give me that fork. You’ll be spoiling your fine clothes. “
“Oh, these don’t matter. They’re made for this kind of thing. “
“Oh, are they? I guess I’ll dress in that kind of a rig. What did that shirt cost? I need one. “
“Six dollars a pair; but then it’s old. “
“And them pants,” he pursued; “they cost six dollars, too, didn’t they?”
Howard’s face darkened. He saw his brother’s purpose. He resented it. “They cost fifteen dollars, if you want to know, and the shoes cost six-fifty. This ring on my cravat cost sixty dollars, and the suit I had on last night cost eighty-five. My suits are made by Breckstein, on Fifth Avenue and Twentieth Street, if you want to patronize him,” he ended brutally, spurred on by the sneer in his brother’s eyes. “I’ll introduce you. “
“Good idea,” said Grant with a forced, mocking smile. “I need just such a get up for haying and corn plowing. Singular I never thought of it. Now my pants cost eighty-five cents, s’penders fifteen, hat twenty, shoes one-fifty; stockin’s I don’t bother about. “
He had his brother at a disadvantage, and he grew fluent and caustic as he went on, almost changing places with Howard, who took the rake out of the boy’s hands and followed, raking up the scatterings.
“Singular we fellers here are discontented and mulish, am’t it? Singular we don’t believe your letters when you write, sayin’, ‘I just about make a live of it’? Singular we think the country’s goin’ to hell, we fellers, in a two dollar suit, wadin’ around in the mud or sweatin’ around in the hayfield, while you fellers lay around New York and smoke and wear good clothes and toady to millionaires?”
Howard threw down the rake and folded his arms.’My God! you’re enough to make a man forget the same mother bore us!”
“I guess it wouldn’t take much to make you forget that. You ain’t put much thought on me nor her for ten years. “
The old man cackled, the boy grinned, and Howard, sick and weak with anger and sorrow, turned away and walked down toward the brook. He had tried once more to get near his brother and had failed. O God! how miserably, pitiably! The hot blood gushed all over him as he thought of the shame and disgrace of it.
He, a man associating with poets, artists, sought after by brilliant women, accustomed to deference even from such people, to be sneered at, outfaced, shamed, shoved aside, by a man in a stained hickory shirt and patched overalls, and that man his brother! He lay down on the bright grass, with the sheep all around him, and writhed and groaned with the agony and despair of it.
And worst of all, underneath it was a consciousness that Grant was right in distrusting him. He had neglected him; he had said, “I guess they’re getting along all right. ” He had put them behind him when the invitation to spend summer on the Mediterranean or in the Adirondacks came.
“What can I do? What can I do?” he groaned.
The sheep nibbled the grass near him, the jays called pertly, ” Shame, shame,” a quail piped somewhere on the hillside, and the brook sung a soft, soothing melody that took away at last the sharp edge of his pain, and he sat up and gazed down the valley, bright with the sun and apparently filled with happy and prosperous people.
Suddenly a thought seized him. He stood up so suddenly the sheep fled in affright. He leaped the brook, crossed the flat, and began searching in the bushes on the hillside. “Hurrah!” he said with a smile.
He had found an old road which he used to travel when a boy–a road that skirted the edge of the valley, now grown up to brush, but still passable for footmen. As he ran lightly along down the beautiful path, under oaks and hickories, past masses of poison ivy, under hanging grapevines, through clumps of splendid hazelnut bushes loaded with great sticky, rough, green burrs, his heart threw off part of its load.
How it all came back to him! How many days, when
the autumn sun burned the frost off the bushes, had he gathered hazelnuts here with his boy and girl friends–Hugh and Shelley McTurg, Rome Sawyer, Orrin McIlvaine, and the rest! What had become of them all? How he had forgotten them!
This thought stopped him again, and he fell into a deep muse, leaning against an oak tree and gazing into the vast fleckless space above. The thrilling, inscrutable mystery of life fell upon him like a blinding light. Why was he living in the crush and thunder and mental unrest of a great city, while his companions, seemingly his equal, in powers, were milking cows, making butter, and growing corn and wheat in the silence and drear monotony of the farm?
His boyish sweethearts! Their names came back to his ear now with a dull, sweet sound as of faint bells. He saw their faces, their pink sunbonnets tipped back upon their necks, their brown ankles flying with the swift action of the scurrying partridge. His eyes softened; he took off his hat. The sound of the wind and the leaves moved him almost to tears.
A woodpecker gave a shrill, high-keyed, sustained cry, “Ki, ki, ki!” and he started from his reverie, the dapples of sun and shade falling upon his lithe figure as he hurried on down the path.
He came at last to a field of corn that tan to the very wall of a large weather-beaten house, the sight of which made his breathing quicker. It was the place where he was born. The mystery of his life began there. In the branches of those poplar and hickory trees he had swung and sung in the rushing breeze, fearless as a squir
rel Here was the brook where, like a larger Kildee, he with Grant had waded after crawfish, or had stolen upon some wary trout, rough-cut pole in hand.
Seeing someone in the garden, he went down along the corn row through the rustling ranks of green leaves. An old woman was picking berries, a squat and shapeless figure.
“Good morning,” he called cheerily.
“Morgen,” she said, looklng up at him with a startled and very red face. She was German in every line of her body.
“Ich bin Herr McLane,” he said after a pause.
“So?” she replied with a questioning inflection.
“Yah; ich bin Herr Grant’s bruder. “
“Ach, So!” she said with a downward inflection. “Ich no spick Inglish. No spick Inglis. “
“Ich bin durstig,” he said. Leaving her pans, she went with him to the house, which was what he wanted to see.
“Ich bin hier geboren. “
“Ach, so!” She recognized the little bit of sentiment, and said some sentences m German whose general meaning was sympathy. She took him to the cool cellar where the spring had been trained to run into’ a tank containing pans of cream and milk, she gave him a cool draught from a large tin cup, and then at his request they went upstairs. The house was the same, but somehow seemed cold and empty. It was clean and sweet, but it had so little evidence of being lived in. The old part, which was built of logs, was used as best room, and modeled after the best rooms of the neighboring Yankee homes, only it was emptier, without the cabinet organ and the rag carpet and the chromoes.
The old fireplace was bricked up and plastered–the fireplace beside which in the far-off days he had lain on winter nights, to hear his uncles tell tales of hunting, or to hear them play the violin, great dreaming giants that they were.
The old woman went out and left him sitting there, the center of a swarm of memories coming and going like so many ghostly birds and butterflies.
A curious heartache and listlessness, a nerveless mood came on him. What was it worth, anyhow–success? Struggle, strife, trampling on someone else. His play crowding out some other poor fellow’s hope. The hawk eats the partridge, the partridge eats the flies and bugs, the bugs eat each other, and the hawk, when he in his turn is shot by man. So, in the world of business, the life of one man seemed to him to be drawn from the life of another man, each success to spring from other failures.
He was like a man from whom all motives had been withdrawn. He was sick, sick to the heart. Oh, to be a boy again! An ignorant baby, pleased with a block and string, with no knowledge and no care of the great unknown! To lay his head again on his mother’s bosom and rest! To watch the flames on the hearth!
Why not? Was not that the very thing to do? To buy back the old farm? It would cripple him a little for the next season, but he could do it. Think of it! To see his mother back in the old home, with the fireplace restored, the old furniture in the sitting room around her, and fine new things in the parlor!
His spirits rose again. Grant couldn’t stand out when he brought to him a deed of the farm. Surely his debt would be canceled when he had seen them all back in the wide old kitchen. He began to plan and to dream. He went to the windows and looked out on the yard to see how much it had changed.
He’d build a new barn and buy them a new carriage. His heart glowed again, and his lips softened into their usual feminine grace–lips a little full and falling easily into curves.
The old German woman came in at length, bringing some cakes and a bowl of milk, smiling broadly and hospitably as she waddled forward.
“Ach! Goot!” he said, smacking his lips over the pleasant draught.
“Wo ist ihre goot mann?” he inquired, ready for business.
WHEN Grant came in at noon, Mrs. McLane met him at the door with a tender smile on her face.
“Where’s Howard, Grant?”
“I don’t know,” he replied in a tone that implied “I don’t care. “
The dim eyes clouded with quick tears.
“Ain’t you seen him?”
“Not since nine o’clock. “
“Where d’you think he is?”
“I tell yeh I don’t know. He’ll take care of himself; don’t worry. “
He flung off his hat and plunged into the wash basin. His shirt was wet with sweat and covered with dust of the hay and fragments of leaves. He splashed his burning face with the water, paying no further attention to his mother. She spoke again, very gently, in reproof:
“Grant, why do you stand out against Howard so?”
“I don’t stand out against him,” he replied harshly, pausing with the towel in his hands. His eyes were hard and piercing. “But if he expects me to gush over his coming back, he’s fooled, that’s all. He’s left us to paddle our own canoe all this while, and, so far as I’m concerned, he can leave us alone hereafter. He looked out for his precious hide mighty well, and now he comes back here to play big gun and pat us on the head. I don’t propose to let him come that over me. “
Mrs. McLane knew too well the temper of her son to say any more, but she inquired about Howard of the old hired man.
“He went off down the valley. He ‘n’ Grant had s’m words, and he pulled out down toward the old farm. That’s the last I see of ‘im. “
Laura took Howard’s part at the table. “Pity you can’t be decent,” she said, brutally direct as usuaL “You treat Howard as if he was a–a–I do’ know what. “
“wrn you let me alone?”
“No, I won’t. If you think I’m going to set by an’ agree to your bullyraggin’ him, you’re mistaken. It’s a shame! You’re mad ’cause he’s succeeded and you ain’t. He ain’t to blame for his brains. If you and I’d had any, we’d ‘a’ succeeded, too. It ain’t our fault and it ain’t his; so what’s the use?”
There was a look came into Grant’s face that the wife knew. It meant bitter and terrible silence. He ate his dinner without another word.
It was beginning to cloud up. A thin, whitish, ‘all-pervasive vapor which meant rain was dimming the sky, and be forced his hands to their utmost during the afternoon in order to get most of the down hay in before the rain came. He was pitching hay up into the barn when Howard came by just before one o’clock.
It was windless there. The sun fell through the white mist with undiminished fury, and the fragrant hay sent up a breath that was hot as an oven draught. Grant was a powerful man, and there was something majestic in his action as he rolled the huge flakes of hay through the door. The sweat poured from his face like rain, and he was forced to draw his dripping sleeve across his face to clear away the blinding sweat that poured into his eyes.
Howard stood and looked at him in silence, remembering how often he had worked there in that furnace heat, his muscles quivering, cold chills running over his flesh, red shadows dancing before his eyes.
His mother met him at the door anxiously, but smiled as she saw his pleasant face and cheerful eyes.
“You’re a little late, m’ son. “
Howard spent most of the afternoon sitting with his mother on the porch, or under the trees, lying sprawled out like a boy, resting at times with sweet forgetfulness of the whole world, but feeling a dull pain whenever he remembered the stern, silent man pitching hay in the hot sun on the torrid side of the barn.
His mother did not say anything about the quarrel; she feared to reopen it. She talked mainly of old times in a gentle monotone of reminiscence, while he listened, looking up into her patient face.
The heat slowly lessened as the sun sank down toward the dun clouds rising like a more distant and majestic line of mountains beyond the western hills. The sound of cowbel
ls came irregularly to the ear, and the voices and sounds of the haying fields had a jocund, thrilling effect on the ear of the city dweller.
He was very tender. Everything conspired to make him simple, direct, and honest.
“Mother, if you’ll only forgive me for staying away so long, I’ll surely come to see you every summer. “
She had nothing to forgive. She was so glad to have him there at her feet–her great, handsome, successful boy! She could only love him and enjoy him every moment of the precious days. If Grant would only reconcile himself to Howard! That was the great thorn in her flesh.
Howard told her how he had succeeded.
“It was luck, Mother. First I met Cooke, and he introduced me to Jake Saulsman of Chicago. Jake asked me to go to New York with him, and–I don’t know why–took a fancy to me some way. He introduced me to a lot of the fellows in New York, and they all helped me along. I did nothing to merit it. Everybody helps me. Anybody can succeed in that way. “
The doting mother thought it not at all strange that they all helped him.
At the supper table Grant was gloomily silent, ignoring Howard completely. Mrs. McLane sat and grieved silently, not daring to say a word in protest. Laura and the baby tried to amuse Howard, and under cover of their talk the meal was eaten.
The boy fascinated Howard. He “sawed wood” with a rapidity and uninterruptedness which gave alarm. He had the air of coaling up for a long voyage.
“At that age,” Howard thought, “I must have gripped my knife in my right hand so, and poured my tea into my saucer so. I must have buttered and bit into a huge slice of bread just so, and chewed at it with a smacking sound in just that way. I must have gone to the length of scooping up honey with my knife blade. “
It was magically, mystically beautiful over all this squalor and toil and bitterness, from five till seven–a moving hour. Again the falling sun streamed in broad banners across the valleys; again the blue mist lay far down the coulee over the river; the cattle called from the hills in the moistening, sonorous air; the bells came in a pleasant tangle of sound; the air pulsed with the deepening chorus of katydids and other nocturnal singers.
Sweet and deep as the very springs of his life was all this to the soul of the elder brother; but in the midst of it, the younger man, in ill-smelling clothes and great boots that chafed his feet, went out to milk the cows–on whose legs the flies and mosquitoes swarmed, bloated with blood–to sit by the hot side of the cow and be lashed with her tall as she tried frantically to keep the savage insects from eating her raw.
“The poet who writes of milking the cows does it from the hammock, looking on,” Howard soliloquized as he watched the old man Lewis racing around the filthy yard after one of the young heifers that had kicked over the pail in her agony with the flies and was unwilling to stand still and be eaten alive.
“So, so! you beast!” roared the old man as he finally cornered the shrinking, nearly frantic creature.
“Don’t you want to look at the garden?” asked Mrs. McLane of Howard; and they went out among the vegetables and berries.
The bees were coming home heavily laden and crawling slowly into the hives. The level, red light streamed through the trees, blazed along the grass, and lighted a few old-fashioned flowers into red and gold flame. It was beautiful, and Howard looked at it through his half-shut eyes as the painters do, and turned away with a sigh at the sound of blows where the wet and grimy men were assailing the frantic cows.
“There’s Wesley with your trunk,” Mrs. McLane said, recalling him to himself.
Wesley helped him carry the trunk in and waved off thanks.
“Oh, that’s all right,” he said; and Howard knew the Western man too well to press the matter of pay.
As he went in an hour later and stood by the trunk, the dull ache came back into his heart. How he had failed! It seemed like a bitter mockery now to show his gifts.
Grant had come in from his work, and with his feet released from his chafing boots, in his wet shirt and milk-splashed overalls, sat at the kitchen table reading a newspaper which he held close to a small kerosene lamp. He paid no attention to anyone. His attitude, Curiously like his father’s, was perfectly definite to Howard. It meant that from that time forward there were to be no words of any sort between them. It meant that they were no longer brothers, not even acquaintances. “How inexorable that face!” thought Howard.
He turned sick with disgust and despair, and would have closed his trunk without showing any of the presents, only for the childish expectancy of his mother and Laura.
“Here’s something for you, Mother,” he said, assuming a cheerful voice as he took a fold of fine silk from the trunk and held it up. ” All the way from Paris. “
He laid it on his mother’s lap and stooped and kissed her, and then turned hastily away to hide the tears that came to his own eyes as he saw her keen pleasure.
“And here’s a parasol for Laura. I don’t know how I came to have that in here. And here’s General Grant’s autobiography for his namesake,” he said with an effort at carelessness, and waited to hear Grant rise.
“Grant, won’t you come in?” asked his mother quiveringly.
Grant did not reply nor move. Laura took the handsome volumes out and laid them beside him on the table. He simply pushed them to one side and went on with his reading.
Again that horrible anger swept hot as flame over Howard. He could have cursed him. His hands shook as he handed out other presents to his mother and Laura and the baby. He tried to joke.
“I didn’t know how old the baby was, so she’ll have to grow to some of these things. “
But the pleasure was all gone for him and for the rest. His heart swelled almost to a feeling of pain as he looked at his mother. There she sat with the presents in her lap. The shining silk came too late for her. It threw into appalling relief her age, her poverty, her work-weary frame. “My God!” he almost cried aloud, “how little it would have taken to lighten her life!”
Upon this moment, when it seemed as if he could endure no more, came the smooth voice of William McTurg:
“Hello, Uncle Bill! Come in. “
“That’s what we came for,” laughed a woman’s voice.
“Is that you, Rose?” asked Laura.
“It’s me–Rose,” replied the laughing girl as she bounced into the room and greeted everybody in a breathless sort of way.
“You don’t mean little Rosy?”
“Big Rosy now,” said William.
Howard looked at the handsome girl and smiled, saying in a nasal sort of tone, “Wal, wal! Rosy, how you’ve growed since I saw yeh!”
“Oh, look at all this purple and fine linen! Am I left out?”
Rose was a large girl of twenty-five or thereabouts, and was called an old maid. She radiated good nature from every line of her buxom self. Her black eyes were full of drollery, and she was on the best of terms with Howard at once. She had been a teacher, but that did not prevent her from assuming a peculiar directness of speech. Of course they talked about old friends.
“Where’s Rachel?” Howard inquired. Her smile faded away.
“Shellie married Orrin Mcllvaine. They’re way out in Dakota. Shellie’s havin’ a hard row of stumps. “
There was a little silence.
“Gone West. Most all the boys have gone West. That’s the reason there’s so many old maids. “
“You don’t mean to say–”
“I don’t need to say–I’m an old maid. Lots of the girls are. “
“It don’t pay to marry these days. “
“Are you mar
“Not yet. ” His eyes lighted up again in a humorous way.
“Not yet! That’s good! That’s the way old maids all talk. “
“You don’t mean to tell me that no young fellow comes prowling around?”
“Oh, a young Dutchrnan or Norwegian once in a while. Nobody that counts. Fact is, we’re getting like Boston–four women to one man; and when you consider that we’re getting more particular each year, the outlook is–well, it’s dreadful!”
“It certainly is. “
“Marriage is a failure these days for most of us. We can’t live on the farm, and can’t get a living in the city, and there we are. ” She laid her hand on his arm. “I declare, Howard, you’re the same boy you used to be. I ain’t a bit afraid of you, for all your success. “
“And you’re the same girl? No, I can’t say that. It seems to me you’ve grown more than I have–I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally,” he explained as he saw her smile in the defensive way a fleshy girl has, alert to ward off a joke.
They were in the midst of talk, Howard telling one of his funny stories, when a wagon clattered up to the door and merry voices called loudly:
“Whoa, there, Sampson!”
“Hullo, the house!”
Rose looked at her father with a smile in her black eyes exactly like his. They went to the door.
“Hullo! What’s wanted?”
“Grant McLane live here?”
“Yup. Right here. “
A moment later there came a laughing, chatting squad of women to the door. Mrs. McLane and Laura stared at each other in amazement. Grant went outdoors.
Rose stood at the door as if she were hostess.
“Come in, Nettie. Glad to see yeh–glad to see yeh! Mrs. Mcllvaine, come right in! Take a seat. Make yerself to home, do! And Mrs. Peavey! Wal, I never! This must be a surprise party. Well, I swan! How many more o’ ye air they?”
All was confusion, merriment, handshakings as Rose introduced them in her roguish way.
“Folks, this is Mr. Howard McLane of New York. He’s an actor, but it hain’t spoiled him a bit as I can see. How, this is Nettie Mcllvaine–Wilson that was. “
Howard shook hands with Nettie, a tall, plain girl with prominent teeth.
“This is Ma Mcllvaine. “
“She looks just the same,” said. Howard, shaking her hand and feeling how hard and work-worn it was.
And so amid bustle, chatter, and invitations “to lay off y’r things an’ stay awhile,” the women got disposed about the room at last Those that had rocking chairs rocked vigorously to and fro to hide their embarrassment. They all talked in loud voices.
Howard felt nervous under this furtive scrutiny. He wished his clothes didn’t look so confoundedly dressy. Why didn’t he have sense enough to go and buy a fifteen-dollar suit of diagonals for everyday wear.
Rose was the life of the party. Her tongue rattled on m the most delightful way.
“It’s all Rose an’ Bill’s doin’s,” Mrs. Mcllvaine explained. “They told us to come over an’ pick up anybody we see on the road. So we did. “
Howard winced a little at her familiarity of tone. He couldn’t help it for the life of him.
“Well, I wanted to come tonight because I’m going away next week, and I wanted to see how he’d act at a surprise party again,” Rose explained.
“Married, I s’pose,” said Mrs. Mcllvaine abruptly.
“No, not yet. “
“Good land! Why, y’ Inns’ be thirty-five, now. Must a dis’p’inted y’r mam not to have a young ‘un to call ‘er granny. “
The men came clumping in, talking about haying and horses. Some of the older ones Howard knew and greeted, but the younger ones were mainly too much changed. They were all very ill at ease. Most of them were in compromise dress–something lying between working “rig” and Sunday dress. Most of them had on clean shirts and paper collars, and wore their Sunday coats (thick woolen garments) over rough trousers. All of them crossed their legs at once, and most of them sought the wall and leaned back perilously upon the hind legs of their chairs, eyeing Howard slowly.
For the first few minutes the presents were the subjects of conversation. The women especially spent a good deal of talk upon them.
Howard found himself forced to taking the initiative, so he inquired about the crops and about the farms.
“I see you don’t plow the hills as we used to. And reap’. What a job it ust to be. It makes the hills more beautiful to have them covered with smooth grass and cattle. “
There was only dead silence to this touching upon the idea of beauty.
“I s’pose it pays reasonably. “
“Not enough to kill,” said one of the younger men. “You c’n see that by the houses we live in–that is, most of us. A few that came in early an’ got land cheap, like Mcllvaine, here–he got a lift that the rest of us can’t get. “
“I’m a free trader, myself,” said one young fellow, blushing and looking away as Howard turned and said cheerily:
“So’m I. “
The rest semed to feel that this was a tabooed subject –a subject to be talked out of doors, where one could prance about and yell and do justice to it.
Grant sat silently in the kitchen doorway, not saying a word, not looking at his. brother.
“Well, I don’t never use hot vinegar for mine,” Mrs. Mcllvaine was heard to say. “I jest use hot water, an’ I rinse ’em out good, and set ’em bottom-side up in the sun. I do’ know but what hot vinegar would be more cleansin’. “
Rose had the younger folks in a giggle with a droll telling of a joke on herself.
“How’d y’ stop ’em from laffin’?”
“I let ’em laugh. Oh, my school is a disgrace–so one director says. But I like to see children laugh. It broadens their cheeks. “
“Yes, that’s all handwork. ” Laura was showing the baby’s Sunday clothes.
“Goodness Peter! How do you find time to do so much?”
“I take time. “
Howard, being the lion of the evening, tried his best to be agreeable. He kept near his mother, because it afforded her so much pride and satisfaction, and because he was obliged to keep away from Grant, who had begun to talk to the men. Howard talked mainly about their affairs, but still was forced more and more into talking of life in the city. As he told of the theater and the concerts, a sudden change fell upon them; they grew sober, and he felt deep down in the hearts of these people a melancholy which was expressed only elusively with little tones or sighs. Their gaiety was fitful.
They were hungry for the world, for art–these young people. Discontented and yet hardly daring to acknowledge it; indeed, few of them could have made definite statement of their dissatisfaction. The older people felt it less. They practically said, with a sigh of pathetic resignation:
“Well, I don’t expect ever to see these things now. . “
A casual observer would have said, “What a pleasant bucolic–this little surprise party of welcome!” But Howard with his native ear and eye had no such pleasing illusion. He knew too well these suggestions of despair and bitterness. He knew that, like the smile of the slave, this cheerfulness was self-defense; deep down was another self.
Seeing Grant talking with a group of men over by the kitchen door, he crossed over slowly and stood listening. Wesley Cosgrove–a tall, rawboned young fellow with a grave, almost tragic face–was saying:
“Of course I ain’t. Who is? A man that’s satisfied to live as we do is a fool. “
“The worst of it is,” said Grant without seeing Howard, a man can’t get out of it during his lifetime, and l don’t know that he’ll have any chance in the next–the speculator’ll be there ahead of us. “
The rest laughed, but Grant went on grily:
“Ten years ago Wes, here, could have got land in Dakota pretty easy, but now it’s about all a feller’s life’s worth to try it. I tell you things seem shuttin’ down on us fellers. “
“Plenty o’ land to rent?” suggested someone.
“Yes, in terms that skin a man alive. More than that, farmin’ ain’t so free a life as it used to be. This cattle-raisin’ and butter-makin’ makes a nigger of a man. Binds him right down to the grindstone, and he gets nothin’ out of it–that’s what rubs it in. He simply wallers around in the manure for somebody else. I’d like to know what a man’s life is worth who lives as we do? How much higher is it than the lives the niggers used to live?”
These brutally bald words made Howard thrill witb emotion like some great tragic poem. A silence fell on the group.
“That’s the God’s truth, Grant,” said young Cosgrove after a pause.
“A man like me is helpless,” Grant was saying. “Just like a fly in a pan of molasses. There ain’t any escape for him. The more he tears around, the more liable he is to rip his legs off. “
“What can he do?”
The men listened in silence.
“Oh, come, don’t talk politics all night!” cried Rose, breaking in. ” Come, let’s have a dance. Where’s that fiddle?”
“Fiddle!” cried Howard, glad of a chance to laugh. “Well, now! Bring out that fiddle. Is it William’s?”
“Yes, Pap’s old fiddle. “
“Oh, gosh! he don’t want to hear me play,” protested William. ” He’s heard s’ many fiddlers. “
“Fiddlers! I’ve heard a thousand violinists, but not fiddlers. Come, give us ‘Honest John.’”
William took the fiddle in his work-calloused and crooked hands and began tuning it. The group at the kitchen door turned to listen, their faces lighting up a little. Rose tried to get a set on the floor.
“Oh, good land!” said some. “We’re all tuckered out. What makes you so anxious?”
“She wants a chance to dance with the New Yorker. “
“That’s it exactly,” Rose admitted.
“Wal, if you’d churned and mopped and cooked for hayin’ hands as I have today, you wouldn’t be so full o’ nonsense. “
“Oh, bother! Life’s short. Come quick, get Bettie out. Come, Wes, never mind your hobbyhorse. “
By incredible exertion she got a set on the floor, and William got the fiddle in tune. Howard looked across at Wesley, and thought the change in him splendidly dramatic. His face had lighted up into a kind of deprecating, boyish smile. Rose could do anything with him.
William played some of the old tunes that had a thousand associated memories in Howard’s brain, memories of harvest moons, of melon feasts, and of clear, cold winter nights. As he danced, his eyes filled with a tender, luminous light. He came closer to them all than he had been able to do before. Grant had gone out into the kitchen.
After two or three sets had been danced, the company took seats and could not be stirred again. So Laura and Rose disappeared for a few moments, and returning, served strawberries and cream, which she “just happened to have in the house. “
And then William played again. His fingers, now grown more supple, brought out clearer, firmer tones. As he played, silence fell on these people. The magic of music sobered every face; the women looked older and more careworn, the men slouched sullenly in their chairs or leaned back against the wall.
It seemed to Howard as if the spirit of tragedy had entered this house. Music had always been William’s unconscious expression of his unsatisfied desires. He was never melancholy except when he played. Then his eyes grew somber, his drooping face full of shadows.
He played on slowly, softly, wailing Scotch tunes and mournful Irish songs. He seemed to find in the songs of these people, and especially in a wild, sweet, low-keyed Negro song, some expression for his indefinable inner melancholy.
He played on, forgetful of everybody, his long beard sweeping the violin, his toilworn hands marvelously obedient to his will.
At last he stopped, looked up with a faint, deprecating smile, and said with a sigh:
“Well, folkses, time to go home. “
The going was quiet. Not much laughing. Howard stood at the door and said good night to them all, his heart very tender.
“Come and see us,” they said.
“I will,” he replied cordially. “I’ll try and get around to see everybody, and talk over old times, before I go back. “
After the wagons had driven out of the yard, Howard turned and put his arm about his mother’s neck.
“A little. “
“Well, now, good night. I’m going for a little stroll. ” His brain was too active to sleep. He kissed his mother good night and went out into the road, his hat in his hand, the cool, moist wind on his hair.
It was very dark, the stars being partly hidden by a thin vapor. On each side the hills rose, every line familiar as the face of an old friend. A whippoorwill called occasionally from the hillside, and the spasmodic jangle of a bell now and then told of some cow’s battle with the mosquitoes.
As he walked, he pondered upon the tragedy he had rediscovered in these people’s lives. Out here under the inexorable spaces of the sky, a deep distaste of his own life took possession of him. He felt like giving it all up. He thought of the infinite tragedy of these lives which the world loves to call “peaceful and pastoral. ” HIS mind went out in the aim to help them. What could he do to make life better worth living? Nothing. They must live and die practically as he saw them tonight.
And yet he knew this was a mood, and that in a few hours the love and the habit of life would come back upon him and upon them; that he would go back to the city in a few days; that these people would live on and make the best of it.
“I’ll make the best of it,” he said at last, and his thought came back to his mother and Grant.
The next day was a rainy day; not a shower, but a steady rain–an unusual thing in midsummer in the West. A cold, dismal day in the fireless, colorless farmhouses. It came to Howard in that peculiar reaction which surely comes during a visit of this character, when thought is a weariness, when the visitor longs for his own familiar walls and pictures and books, and longs to meet his friends, feeling at the same time the tragedy of life which makes friends nearer and more congenial than blood relations.
Howard ate his breakfast alone, save Baby and Laura, its mother, going about the room. Baby and mother alike insisted on feeding him to death. Already dyspeptic pangs were setting in.
“Now ain’t there something more I can–”
“Good heavens! No!” he cried in dismay. “I’m likely to die of dyspepsia now. This honey and milk, and these delicious hot biscuits–”
“I’m afraid it ain’t much like the breakfasts you have in the city. “
“Well, no, it ain’t,” he confessed. “But this is the kind a man needs when he lives in the open air. “
She sat down opposite him, with her elbows on the table, her chin in her palm, her eyes full of shadows.
“I’d like to go to a city once. I never saw a town bigger’n Lumberville. I’ve never seen a play, but I’ve read of ’em in the magazines. It must be wonderful; they say they have wharves and real ships coming up to the wharf, and people getting off and on. How do they do it?”
“Oh, that’s too long a story to tell. It’s a lot of machinery and paint and canvas. If I told you how it was done, you wouldn’t enjoy it so well when you come on and see it. “
“Do you ever expect to see me in New York?”
“Why, yes. Why not? I expect Grant to come On and br
ing you all some day, especially Tonikins here. Tonikins, you hear, sir? I expect you to come on you’ for birfday, sure. ” He tried thus to stop the woman’s gloomy confidence.
‘I hate farm life,” she went on with a bitter inflection. “It’s nothing but fret, fret and work the whole time, never going any place, never seeing anybody but a lot of neighbors just as big fools as you are. I spend my time fighting flies and washing dishes and churning. I’m sick of it all. “
Howard was silent. What could he say to such an indictment? The ceiling swarmed with flies which the cold rain had driven to seek the warmth of the kitchen. The gray rain was falling with a dreary sound outside, and down the kitchen stovepipe an occasional drop fell on the stove with a hissing, angry sound.
The young wife went on with a deeper note:
“I lived in Lumberville two years, going to school, and I know a little something of what city life is. If I was a man, I bet I wouldn’t wear my life out on a farm, as Grant does. I’d get away and I’d do something. I wouldn’t care what, but I’d get away. “
There was a certain volcanic energy back of all the woman said that made Howard feel she’d make the attempt. She didn’t know that the struggle for a. place to stand on this planet was eating the heart and soul out of men and women in the city, just as in the country. But he could say nothing. If be had said in conventional phrase, sitting there in his soft clothing, “We must make the best of it all,” the woman could justly have thrown the dishcloth in his face. He could say nothing.
“I was a fool for ever marrying,” she went on, while the baby pushed a chair across the room. “I made a decent living teaching, I was free to come and go, my money was my own. Now I’m fled right down to a churn or a dishpan, I never have a cent of my own. He’s growlin’ round half the time, and there’s no chance of his ever being different. “
She stopped with a bitter sob in her throat. She forgot she was talking to her husband’s brother. She was conscious only of his sympathy.
As if a great black cloud had settled down upon him, Howard felt it all–the horror, hopelessness, immanent tragedy of it all. The glory of nature, the bounty and splendor of the sky, only made it the more benumbing. He thought of a sentence Millet once wrote:
I see very well the aureole of the dandelions, and the sun also, far down there behind the hills, flinging his glory upon the clouds. But not alone that–I see in the
plains the smoke of the tired horses at the plough, or, on a stony-hearted spot of ground, a back-broken man trying to raise himself upright for a moment to breathe.
The tragedy is surrounded by glories–that is no invention of mine.
Howard arose abruptly and went back to his little bedroom, where he walked up and down the floor till he was calm enough to write, and then he sat down and poured it all out to “Dearest Margaret,” and his first sentence was this:
“If it were not for you (just to let you know the mood I’m in)–if it were not for you, and I had the world in my hands, I’d crush it like a puffball; evil so predominates, suffering is so universal and persistent, happiness so fleeting and so infrequent. “
He wrote on for two hours, and by the time he had sealed and directed several letters he felt calmer, but still terribly depressed. The rain was still falling, sweeping down from the half-seen hills, wreathing the wooded peaks with a gray garment of mist and filling the valley with a whitish cloud.
It fell around the house drearily. It ran down into the tubs placed to catch it, dripped from the mossy pump, and drummed on the upturned milk pails, and upon the brown and yellow beehives under the maple trees. The chickens seemed depressed, but the irrepressible bluejay screamed amid it all, with the same insolent spirit, his plumage untarnished by the wet. The barnyard showed a horrible mixture of mud and mire, through which Howard caught glimpses of the men, slumping to and fro without more additional protection than a ragged coat and a shapeless felt hat.
In the sitting room where his mother sat sewing there was not an ornament, save the etching he had brought. The clock stood on a small shell, its dial so much defaced that one could not tell the time of day; and when it struck, it was with noticeably disproportionate deliberation, as if it wished to correct any mistake into which the family might have fallen by reason of its illegible dial.
The paper on the walls showed the first concession of the Puritans to the Spirit of Beauty, and was made up of a heterogeneous mixture of flowers of unheard-of shapes and colors, arranged in four different ways along the wall. There were no books, no music, and only a few newspapers in sight–a bare, blank, cold, drab- colored shelter from the rain, not a home. Nothing cozy, nothing heartwarming; a grim and horrible shed.
“What are they doing? It can’t be they’re at work such a day as this,” Howard said, standing at the window.
“They find plenty to do, even on rainy days,” answered his mother. ” Grant always has some job to set the men at. It’s the only way to live. “
“I’ll go out and see them. ” He turned suddenly. “Mother, why should Grant treat me so? Have I deserved it?”
Mrs. McLane sighed in pathetic hopelessness. “I don’t know, Howard. I’m worried about Grant. He gets more an’ more downhearted an’ gloomy every day. Seem’s if he’d go crazy. He don’t care how he looks any more, won’t dress up on Sunday. Days an’ days he’ll go aroun’ not sayin’ a word. I was in hopes you could help him, Howard. “
“My coming seems to have had an opposite effect. He hasn’t spoken a word to me, except when he had to, since I came. Mother, what do you say to going home with me to New York?”
“Oh, I couldn’t do that!” she cried in terror. “I couldn’t live in a big city–never!”
“There speaks the truly rural mind,” smiled Howard at his mother, who was looking up at him through her glasses with a pathetic forlornness which sobered him again. “Why, Mother, you could live in Orange, New Jersey, or out in Connecticut, and be just as lonesome as you are here. You wouldn’t need to live in the city. I could see you then every day or two. “
“Well, I couldn’t leave Grant an’ the baby, anyway,” she replied, not realizing how one could live in New Jersey and do business daily in New York.
“Well, then, how would you like to go back into the old house?” he said, facing her.
The patient hands fell to the lap, the dim eyes fixed in searching glance on his face. There was a wistful cry in the voice.
“Oh, Howard! Do you mean–”
He came and sat down by her, and put his arm about her and hugged her hard. “I mean, you dear, good, patient, work-weary old Mother, I’m going to buy back the old farm and put you in it. “
There was no refuge for her now except in tears, and she put up her thin, trembling old hands about his neck and cried in that easy, placid, restful way age has.
Howard could not speak. His throat ached with remorse and pity. He saw his forgetfulness of them all once more without relief–the black thing it was!
“There, there, Mother, don’t cry!” he said, torn with anguish by her tears. Measured by man’s tearlessness, her weeping seemed terrible to him. “I didn’t realize how things were going here. It was all my fault–or, at least, most of it. Grant’s letter didn’t reach me. I thought you were still on the old farm. But no matter; it’s all over now. Come, don’t cry any more, Mother dear. I’m going to take care of you now. “
It had been years since the poor, lonely woman had felt such warmth of love. Her sons had been like her husband, chary of expressing their affection; and like most Puritan families, there was littl
e of caressing among them. Sitting there with the rain on the roof and driving through the trees, they planned getting back into the old house. Howard’s plan seemed to her full of splendor and audacity. She began to understand his power and wealth now, as he put it into concrete form before her.
“I wish I could eat Thanksgiving dinner there with you,” he said at last, “but it can’t be thought of. However, I’ll have you all in there before I go home. I’m going out now and tell Grant. Now don’t worry any more; I’m going to fix it all up with him, sure. ” He gave her a parting hug.
Laura advised him not to attempt to get to the barn; but as he persisted in going, she hunted up an old rubber coat for him. ” You’ll mire down and spoil your shoes,” she said, glancing at his neat calf gaiters.
“Darn the difference!” he laughed in his old way. “Besides, I’ve got rubbers. “
“Better go round by the fence,” she advised as he stepped out into the pouring rain.
How wretchedly familiar it all was! The miry cow yard, with the hollow trampled out around the horse trough, the disconsolate hens standing under the wagons and sheds, a pig wallowing across its sty, and for atmosphere the desolate, falling rain. It was so familiar he felt a pang of the old rebellious despair which seized him on such days in his boyhood.
Catching up courage, he stepped out on the grass, opened the gate, and entered the barnyard. A narrow ribbon of turf ran around the fence, on which he could walk by clinging with one hand to the rough boards. In this way he slowly made his way around the periphery, and came at last to the open barn door without much harm.
It was a desolate interior. In the open floorway Grant, seated upon a half-bushel, was mending a harness. The old man was holding the trace in his hard brown hands; the boy was lying on a wisp of hay. It was a small barn, and poor at that. There was a bad smell, as of dead rats, about it, and the rain fell through the shingles here and there. To the right, and below, the horses stood, looking up with their calm and beautiful eyes, in which the whole scene was idealized.
Grant looked up an instant and then went on with his work.
“Did yeh wade through?” grinned Lewis, exposing his broken teeth.
“No, I kinder circumambiated the pond. ” He sat down on the little toolbox near Grant. “Your barn is good deal like that in ‘The Arkansas Traveller.’ Needs a new roof, Grant. ” His voice had a pleasant sound, full of the tenderness of the scene through which he had just been. “In fact, you need a new barn. “
“I need a good many things more’n I’ll ever get,” Grant replied shortly.
“How long did you say you’d been on this farm?”
“Three years this fall. “
“I don’t s’pose you’ve been able to think of buying–Now hold on, Grant,” he cried, as Grant threw his head back. “For God’s sake, don’t get mad again! Wait till you see what I’m driving at. “
“I don’t see what you’re drivin’ at, and I don’t care.
All I want you to do is to let us alone. That ought to be easy enough for you. “
“I tell you, I didn’t get your letter. I didn’t know you’d lost the old farm. ” Howard was determined not to quarrel. “I didn’t suppose–”
“You might ‘a’ come to see. “
“Well, I’ll admit that. All I can say in excuse is that since I got to managing plays I’ve kept looking ahead to making a big hit and getting a barrel of money–just as the old miners used to hope and watch. Besides, you don’t understand how much pressure there is on me. A hundred different people pulling and hauling to have me go here or go there, or do this or do that. When it isn’t yachting, it’s canoeing, or
He stopped. His heart gave a painful throb, and a shiver ran through him. Again he saw his life, so rich, so bright, so free, set over against the routine life in the little low kitchen, the barren sitting room, and this still more horrible barn. Why should his brother sit there in wet and grimy clothing mending a broken trace, while he enjoyed all the light and civilization of the age?
He looked at Grant’s fine figure, his great strong face; recalled his deep, stern, masterful voice. “Am I so much superior to him? Have not circumstances made me and destroyed him?”
“Grant, for God’s sake, don’t sit there like that! I’ll admit I’ve been negligent and careless. I can’t understand it all myself. But let me do something for you now. I’ve sent to New York for five thousand dollars. I’ve got terms on the old farm. Let me see you all back there once more before I return. “
“I don’t want any of your charity. “
“It ain’t charity. It’s only justice to you. ” He rose. “Come now, let’s get at an understanding, Grant. I can’t go on this way. I can’t go back to New York and leave you here like this. “
Grant rose, too. “I tell you, I don’t ask your help. You can’t fix this thing up with money. If you’ve got more brains ‘n I have, why it’s all right. I ain’t got any right to take anything that I don’t earn. “
“But you don’t get what you do earn. It ain’t your fault. I begin te see it now. Being the oldest, I had the best chance. I was going to town to school while you were plowing and husking corn. Of course I thought you’d be going soon, yourself. I had three years the start of you. If you’d been in my place, you might have met a man like Cooke, you might have gone to New York and have been where I am’.
“Well, it can’t be helped now. So drop it. “
“But it must be!” Howard said, pacing about, his hands in his coat pockets. Grant had stopped work, and was gloomily looking out of the door at a pig nosing in the mud for stray grains of wheat at the granary door:
“Good God! I see it all now,” Howard burst out in an impassioned tone. “I went ahead with my education, got my start in life, then Father died, and you took up his burdens. Circumstances made me and crushed you. That’s all there is about that. Luck made me and cheated you. It ain’t right. “
His voice faltered. Both men were now oblivious of their companions and of the scene. Both were thinking of the days when they both planned great things in the way of an education, two ambitious, dreamful boys.
“I used to think of you, Grant, when I pulled out Monday morning in my best suit–cost fifteen dollars in those days. ” He smiled a little at the recollection. “While you in overalls and an old ‘wammus’ was going out into the field to plow, or husk corn in the mud. It made me feel uneasy, but, as I said, I kept saying to myself, ‘His turn’ll come in a year or two.’ But it didn’t. “
His voice choked. He walked to the door, stood a moment, came back. His eyes were full of tears.
“I tell you, old man, many a time in my boardinghouse down to the city, when I thought of the jolly times I was having, my heart hurt me. But I said: ‘It’s no use to cry. Better go on and do the best you can, and then help them afterward. There’ll only be one more miserable member of the family if you stay at home.’ Besides, it seemed right to me to have first chance. But I never thought you’d be shut off, Grant. If I had, I never would have gone on. Come, old man, I want you to believe that. ” His voice was very tender now and almost humble.
“I don’t know as I blame yeh for that, How,” said Grant slowly. It was the first time he had called Howard by his boyish nickname. His voice was softer, too, and higher in key. But he looked steadily away.
“I went to New York. People liked my work. I was very successful, Grant; more successful than you realize. I could have helped you at any time. There’s no use lying about it. And I ought to have done it; but some way–it’s no excuse, I don’t mean it for an excuse, only an explanation–some way I got in with the boys. I don’t mean I was a drinker and all that. But I bought pictures and kept a horse and a yacht, and of course I had to pay my share of all expeditions, and–oh, what’s the use!”
He broke off, turned, and threw his open palms out toward his brother, as if throwing aside the last attempt at an excuse.
“I did neglect you, and it’s a damned shame! and I ask your forgiveness. Come, old man!”
He held out his hand, and Grant slowly approached and took it. There was a little silence. Then Howard went on, his voice trembling, the tears on his face.
“I want you to let me help you, old man. That’s the way to forgive me. Will you?”
“Yes, if you can help me. “
Howard squeezed his hand. “That’s right, old man. Now you make me a boy again. Course I can help you. I’ve got ten–”
“I don’t mean that, How. ” Grant’s voice was very grave. “Money can’t give me a chance now. “
“What do you mean?”
“I mean life ain’t worth very much to me. I’m too old to take a new start. I’m a dead failure. I’ve come to the conclusion that life’s a failure for ninety-nine per cent of us. You can’t help me now. It’s too late. “
The two men stood there, face to face, hands clasped, the one fair-skinned, full-lipped, handsome in his neat sult; the other tragic, somber in his softened mood, his large, long, rugged Scotch face bronzed with sun and scarred with wrinkles that had histories, like saber cuts on a veteran, the record of his battles.