It seemed as if the long blue-and-gold autumn in the Platte valley would never end that year. All through November women still went about the town of Haverford in the cloth tailored suits which were the wear in 1902, with perhaps a little fur piece about the throat; no one had thought of putting on a winter coat. The trees that hung over the cement sidewalks still held swarms of golden leaves; the great cottonwoods along the river gleamed white and silver against a blue sky that was just a little softer than in summer. The air itself had a special graciousness. Even people who had some right to grumble that the rainfall had been scant and the corn burned in the tassel, came out into their yards every morning with the feeling that things would be better next year and life was a good gamble.
On such a morning Mrs. Alec Ramsay, widow of one of the founders of Haverford, was sitting by the wide window of her front parlour, in her favourite tapestry winged-chair. She was an old woman now, quite seventy, though the people of Haverford could scarcely realize it; she had been a commanding figure in their lives for so long. Moreover, she did not look her age; she was still erect and handsome, there was something regal in her carriage and manner. Her neighbours did remark that she had softened with time, had become more reflective and sympathetic. Ten years ago she would not have been sitting in a deeply cushioned chair at nine o’clock in the morning of a fine autumn day. She would have been driving into the country, or marketing on Main Street, or taking the fast train to Omaha for a day’s shopping. She still drove out, or walked, every afternoon; but in the morning she was rather quiet, as if she had to husband the energy that had once been an unfailing source. And she was more interested in other people, all people, now than she used to be. This morning she was looking out of her window to watch the children go by on their way to school; little boys in knee-pants and shirt-waists, little girls in starched gingham dresses. “Run, Molly, run!” she called to a little fat one who came scampering along just as the last bell began to ring.
When the bell stopped, and all the children of the town were safely penned in three red brick schoolhouses, then the older people came along, going to the post-office for their morning mail:
Doctor Bridgeman’s plump wife, who walked to reduce; Jerry Sleeth, the silent, Seventh-day Advent carpenter; Father MacCormac, the Catholic priest; flighty little Mrs. Jackmann, who sang at funerals — and on every other possible occasion. One after another they came along the sidewalk in front of the house, under the arching elm trees, which were still shaggy with crumpled gold and amethyst leaves.
Suddenly Mrs. Ramsay turned in her chair and spoke to her daughter, Madge Norwall, who had come down from Omaha on a visit. Mrs. Norwall was in the back room of the long double parlour, knitting a sweater for a son in college.
“Madge, there goes Lucy Gayheart. She’s so changed, poor child, you’d scarcely know her. She never used to pass without looking in.”
The slender girl who was coming down the sidewalk did not glance to right or left, nor could one say that she was looking before her. She was definitely not looking at all, Mrs. Norwall thought. Her head was bent forward a little and her shoulders were drawn together, as if she were trying to slip past unnoticed. Mrs. Ramsay could not let her go by like that; she leaned forward and tapped on the window-pane with her big cameo ring. The girl stopped, flashed a glance at the window, smiled, waved her hand faintly, and hurried on.
Mrs. Ramsay watched the diminishing figure with a wistful, anxious look in her still lovely blue eyes, — a blue that was light and silvery clear, like the blue of sapphires. Lucy had always walked rapidly, but with a difference. It used to be as if she were hurrying toward something delightful, and positively could not tarry. Now it was as if she were running away from something, or walking merely to tire herself out.
Mrs. Norwall had come into the front room and was looking out over her mother’s shoulder.
“I wonder what it is,” murmured Mrs. Ramsay. “Some people say it was a love-affair in Chicago. And some say it is because she lost her position there. I can’t see her taking a thing like that much to heart.”
“And still others say,” the daughter added, “that it’s because Harry Gordon jilted her and married Miss Arkwright.”
“No such thing!” Mrs. Ramsay threw her head back with a flash of her old fire. “If there was any jilting done, Lucy did it. He’d have been glad enough to get her. I knew, the moment I saw them together, he’d married this lantern-jawed woman out of pique. Certainly Lucy is much too good for him.”
“Harry’s a grand business man, and he’s very handsome,” said Mrs. Norwall teasingly.
“Handsome on the outside, perhaps. I should call it fine-looking, myself. Rough Scotch at heart. I saw plenty of his kind in Scotland; never too proud to save a shilling, for all their swank and bluster.”
Mrs. Norwall smiled and went on with her sweater. Mrs. Ramsay looked out of the window and watched the people going by; nodded and smiled if they happened to look in, but she scarcely saw them. Her thoughts were elsewhere. Presently she sighed and said, as if to herself:
“Whatever it was, I wish it hadn’t happened. Poor little Lucy!”
Mrs. Norwall glanced up from her work, almost startled by something beautiful in her mother’s voice. It was not the quick, passionate sympathy that used to be there for a sick child or a friend in trouble. No, it was less personal, more ethereal. More like the Divine compassion. And her mother used to be so stormy, SO personal! If growing old did that to one’s voice and one’s understanding, one need not dread it so much, the daughter was thinking.
Lucy Gayheart hurried on with no particular thought in her mind except that she would go home by another way; she would go up Main Street as far as the old high school, and turn west a good four blocks north of Mrs. Ramsay’s. She had loved and admired Mrs. Ramsay all her life, and for that reason she couldn’t bear to see her now. Once, since she first came home in September, Lucy had stopped at Mrs. Ramsay’s house, but it was all she could do to sit through a short call. Her throat closed up, and her mind seemed frozen stiff. Her old friend could not help her — only one person in Haverford could help her. She was going to the post-office now on the chance of seeing him, as she had gone on many another morning. All the business men went for their mail at about half past nine. Suddenly she remembered that the school-bell had rung a long while ago. She might be too late; she hurried faster.
The double doors of the post-office were hooked back because of the warm weather. Men were going in and coming out. Lucy went to her father’s box and slowly turned the combination lock about, purposely getting it wrong. She was waiting for someone. In a few moments Harry Gordon came in. The bank lock-box was a little way beyond Jacob Gayheart’s. He passed behind Lucy without seeing her, opened his box, and threw the letters into a leather bag he carried. As he turned to leave, Lucy stood directly in his way.
“Good morning, Harry.”
He looked up, pulled off his hat, and exclaimed:
“Why, GOOD morning, Lucy!” As if he were very much surprised to see her here; as if she had never been away and never come back; as if there had never been any special friendship between them. His voice had just that impersonal cordiality he had with unimportant customers or their womenfolk. She might have been a girl from one of the farms on which he held a claim he would gladly be rid of. And his eyes seemed to look at her through thick glasses, though he never wore any. Keen, sparkling, pale blue eyes, as cold as icicles. He was not stiff with her, — perfectly casual; and he went out of the post-office and down the street with that easy, confident stride with which he used to go out on the diamond in old baseball days, when he was the best pitcher in the Platte valley and Lucy was a little girl watching from the grand-stand.
Again and again since she came back to Haverford they had met like this; and it was always just the same: the same affectation of surprise, the same look, the same tone of voice — to one who knew all the shades of his voice so well. If he had been embarrassed or curt, she might have got round it. But there was no breaking through this particular manner of his. Poor farmers couldn’t break through it when Harry proposed a settlement little to their advantage and much to his own. He had a natural vigorous heartiness which was as convincing as his fresh complexion. It was so open and unlike the manner of a skinflint, that a slowwitted man couldn’t realize he had agreed to a hard bargain until it was over and he was driving home in his wagon.
If she could only get a message to him, Lucy was thinking as she walked away. She wanted little more than a friendly look when he passed her on the street, the sort of look he used to give her, careless and jolly. It would be enough if he would stop on the street-corner occasionally and tell her a funny story in his real voice, which very few people ever heard, and look at her with the real kindness that used to be like a code sign between them whenever they met.
Lucy did not go directly home, though she knew Pauline was waiting for the morning paper. She went up to the north end of town, to the little Lutheran church, and sat down on the steps. It lay higher than the rest of Haverford, at the edge of the open country, and one could look out over the low hills, chequered with brown, furrowed wheat-fields, to the windings of the Platte River. She sat down there because she was tired, and then she forgot to think about the time. The sunlight fell warm on the wooden steps. An osage orange hedge shut out the only house that was near by, and the place was quiet and friendly. Presently she heard a bell, — the school-bell! Then it must be eleven o’clock. She hurried home as fast as she could.
Pauline was in the dining-room, setting the table. Lucy went straight to her.
“I’m sorry I forgot to bring the paper home, Pauline. I went for a walk and was gone longer than I meant to be.”
“Oh, that’s all right!” said Pauline in the cheery tone which meant that it wasn’t right at all.
Lucy put the paper down and went quickly upstairs to her own room. Good heavens, why had she become so sensitive to people’s voices! Everyone she met spoke to her in an unnatural, guarded tone. Her father’s seemed to be the only honest voice in town.
Pauline called to her that lunch was ready. She came downstairs and took her place at the table, opposite her sister. Mr. Gayheart always lunched in town, at the Bohemian beer saloon. Pauline brought in a platter of mutton chops; the coffeepot and vegetables were already on the table. “Any important letters?” she asked as she sat down.
“Important? No.” Lucy supposed she must mean a letter calling her back to Chicago.
Pauline chattered away. As a little girl Lucy had trained herself to close her mind when her sister went rambling on. (Even then it had seemed to her that most women talked too much.) Now, as then, she tried to keep her mind on something outside the house. Pauline had a very informal way of eating when they were alone; neglected her food to talk, and then gobbled. Lucy couldn’t dismiss things of that kind lightly as she used to. They chafed her and made her shrink into herself.
Suddenly Pauline came out with something which she really wanted to say, and then Lucy heard her.
“There, I nearly forgot after all! Mrs. Ramsay telephoned and said she very particularly wanted you to come in this evening. She wants just you, because I was there last week, the day after Madge came. You know we ALL liked Madge. Can you realize she has a boy in college this year?”
“Yes, I remember him. We called him Toddy. His real name was Theodore, wasn’t it? I suppose I’ll have to go.”
“Of course you will. You were always a special favourite.” Pauline gave a generous emphasis to this sentence. And it was generous of her, Lucy admitted; for Mrs. Ramsay had always treated Pauline like Pauline and Lucy like Lucy. But was generosity ever a grace when it came with a pull? Wasn’t it like the quality of mercy and the gentle dew? Her sister broke in upon her reverie.
“Lucy, you’re not eating anything again! That’s why you’ve lost your colour. You know, it’s not becoming to you to be pale. There’s a new preparation of cod-liver oil — ”
Lucy interrupted her firmly. “Pauline, I took that medicine when I first came home to please you, not because I thought it would do me any good. It doesn’t help people to eat when they are not hungry. I worked too hard last summer, and had a kind of nervous smash-up at the end of it. The only thing that will help me is to be alone a great deal. That’s why I came home, and why I don’t go to see people. That’s why I begged you to leave the orchard, too. I didn’t lose my job, as some of our friends seem to think. My coming away put Professor Auerbach to a great deal of trouble. But he wouldn’t let me try to work when I was sick.”
“Well, Lucy,” said Pauline as she began gathering up the dishes, “that’s the most reasonable explanation of things you’ve given me yet. Of course I want to help you to get well. But if you expect people to help you, you must tell them a little about what is the matter. And you certainly have kept us in the dark.”
“I know.” Lucy spoke contritely, but she drew closer back within herself and looked at the floor. “I’m not a very reasonable person. You’ve had a good deal to put up with. I think I’m beginning to get a little steadier.”
Pauline had spoken kindly, and she still meant to be kind when she went on:
“You must be plain and outspoken with your own folks, Lucy, and not theatrical. We aren’t that kind, and we don’t know how to behave.”
“Yes, I understand, Pauline.” Lucy spoke very low. She was not angry, but she went upstairs to her own room without once meeting her sister’s eyes.
A few moments later Pauline saw her go out of the house carrying an old carriage robe, and disappear into the apple orchard behind the garden.
All afternoon Lucy lay in the sun under a low-branching apple tree, on the dry, fawn-coloured grass. The orchard covered about three acres and sloped uphill. From the far end, where she was lying, Lucy looked down through the rows of knotty, twisted trees. Little red apples still clung to the boughs, and a few withered grey-green leaves. The orchard had been neglected for years, and now the fruit was not worth picking. Through this long, soft, late-lingering autumn Lucy had spent most of her time out here.
There is something comforting to the heart in the shapes of old apple trees that have been left to grow their own way. Out here Lucy could remember and think, and try to realize what had happened to her: remember how the kind Auerbachs had come to her that morning (long ago it seemed) and taken her home with them. Paul had understood, without being told, that she must get away, must go home, that she wished never to see Chicago again.
Mrs. Auerbach did all her packing for her, made explanations to the bakery people, got her railway ticket, took Lucy to the train. She had even made up a little package of “keepsakes” at Sebastian’s studio, before his lawyer came in to clean everything out; some of the handkerchiefs left in his drawer, a pair of his gloves, photographs of himself and his friends, a few of his books, scores he had marked. She selected these things without consulting Lucy and sent them by express to Haverford. They now lay in the bottom of Lucy’s trunk. They meant nothing to her; she couldn’t bear to look at them.
To have one’s heart frozen and one’s world destroyed in a moment — that was what it had meant. She could not draw a long breath or make a free movement in the world that was left. She could breathe only in the world she brought back through memory. It had been, and it was gone. When she looked about this house where she had grown up, she felt so alien that she dreaded to touch anything. Even in her own bed she lay tense, on her guard against something that was trying to snatch away her beautiful memories, to make her believe they were illusions and had never been anything else. Only out here in the orchard could she feel safe. Here those feelings with which she had once lived came back to her.
Her father’s house was accounted comfortable; she could recall that she used to take pride in it. But all those wooden dwellings in Western towns were flimsily built, — built for people without nerves. The partitions were too thin, especially between the upstairs chambers. Her own room was next Pauline’s. She could not cry, or switch on her light, or turn over in bed, without knowing that her sister heard her.
Out here in the orchard she could even talk to herself; it was a great comfort. She loved to repeat lines from some of Sebastian’s songs, trying to get exactly his way of saying the words, his accent, his phrasing. She tried to sing them a little. It made her cry, but it melted the cold about her heart and brought him back to her more than anything else did. Even that first air she ever played for him, “Oh that I knew . . . where I might find Him. . .” she used to sing it over and over, softly, passionately, until she choked with tears. But it helped her to say those things aloud to her heart, as if something of him were still living in this world. In her sleep she sometimes heard him sing again, and both he and she were caught up into an unearthly beauty and joy. “So shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in their heavenly Father’s realm.” It was like that, when she heard him in her sleep.
But sometimes she was afraid of sleep, and did not go to bed, but sat up in a little chair by the window for hours rather than take that chance. There had been nights when she lost consciousness only to drop into an ice-cold lake and struggle to free a drowning man from a white thing that clung to him. His eyes were always shut as if he were already dead; but the green eyes of the other, behind his shoulder, were open, full of terror and greed. She awoke from such dreams cold and exhausted with her struggle to break that cowardly embrace. Then she would lie awake for the rest of the night, shivering. Why had she never told Sebastian she knew this man was destined to destroy him? Why hadn’t she thrown herself at his feet and pleaded with him to beware of Mockford, that he was cowardly, envious, treacherous, and she knew it!
After one of these terrible nights Lucy was afraid to trust herself with anyone. A very little thing might shatter her self-control. She would come out here under the apple trees, cold and frightened and unsteady, and slowly the fright would wear away and the hard place in her breast grow soft. And now the orchard was going to be cut down; the old trees were feeling the sun for the last time this fall.
Just behind the orchard was the pasture where Mr. Gayheart used to graze a horse, in the days when he kept one. Two years ago Pauline had this field ploughed up and planted in Spanish onions. She marketed very profitable crops, and that sealed the fate of the orchard.
Lucy had been at home only a few weeks when she was awakened one morning by the sound of an ax. She listened languidly for a moment, then suddenly realized that it wasn’t somebody chopping wood. The sound was not like that at all; there was no vibration. The ax was cutting into something alive. She sprang out of bed, caught up a dressing-gown, and ran to her father’s big room at the back of the house, which looked out over the yard and the orchard. Her father was in the bathroom, shaving. From his window she could see a man in the orchard, cutting down an apple tree. She ran down the back stairs to the kitchen, where Pauline was getting breakfast, and told her to go out to the orchard, quick! Someone was cutting a tree.
Pauline looked sidewise out of her rather small eyes. Her voice was not quite natural as she tried to answer carelessly.
“I told Poole to come today, but I didn’t tell him to come so early. I’m sorry if he wakened you.”
“But what’s the matter with the tree? Why is he cutting it?”
Pauline broke an egg into the hot saucepan. “Hadn’t I told you we are going to clear away the old orchard?”
“Clear away — Oh, where is Father?”
Startled by the frantic note in her sister’s voice, Pauline pushed the eggs to the back of the stove and turned round.
“Father has agreed to it. You surely must know, Lucy, that he turns in very little money toward the running of this house. My onion crops have done a good deal for us. I am having the orchard cut down this fall and the ground prepared, so that I can put it into onions and potatoes in the spring. I can’t be going out to the farms all the time to look things over, and I’m sure the tenants cheat me. But here I can have a crop under my eyes and make a good thing of it. I have to turn some trick, to keep the place going.”
“But, Pauline, don’t do it this fall. Don’t do it now, when I’m so miserable!”
“Try to be reasonable, Lucy. I’ve made all the arrangements, and if I put it off I lose a year’s crop.”
Lucy was still scarcely awake. She caught Pauline’s chubby hand and broke out wildly: “I can’t stand it, I can’t! It’s all I have in the world just now. Leave it this year, and I’ll pay you back what you lose, truly I will. I’ll soon be making money again, and I’ll pay you every cent. Pauline, go out and send that man away! Listen, it’s down! He’ll begin on another. I can’t stand it!” Lucy dropped into a chair, and her head sank upon her bare arms on the kitchen table. Her hair was hanging in two braids over her shoulders which were shaking with bitter sobs. Pauline frowned darkly, but her own eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t doubt the desperateness of Lucy’s distress, and she looked so helpless. Not since she was a child had she ever begged for anything like that. Pauline bent over the table and gave her sister an awkward, spasmodic hug.
“There, there, Sister. I didn’t know you would take it so hard. I’ll let it stand till next fall. But won’t you feel just the same about it then?”
Lucy lifted her face. “I won’t be here then. I’ll be off making my living, somewhere. I know you have to make up for Father’s easy ways.” She said this very low, and swallowed a lump in her throat. “But if you’ll just — just humour me this year, you’ll never be sorry. Some time you’ll understand.”
“All right, my dear. I’ll go and send Poole away. And you go upstairs now and put your clothes on. Take this cup of coffee along, and drink it while you dress.”
Lucy took it with gratitude, and went up the back stairs slowly, meekly, like a child who has been whipped until, as they say, its will is broken.
At the top of the stairs, before the door of his bedroom, stood a man who was also afraid of Pauline. He was freshly shaven, in a clean shirt, with bay rum on his greying hair and goatee. He took the coffee-cup from Lucy, put it on his dresser, and then took her in his arms. He kissed her with love, as he always did when he kissed her at all, on her lips and eyes and hair. He said not a word, but, keeping his arm around her, went with her to her own door, carrying the coffee.
As Lucy was coming in from the orchard just before sunset, she found Pauline waiting for her on the back porch, with a cape over her shoulders.
“Lucy, you’ll take cold, you shouldn’t be out there after four o’clock without a coat on. I never could make you wear clothes enough when you were little. It’s just the same now. Mrs. Ramsay called up again and wants to speak to you. You will have to go there tonight.”
Lucy said she supposed she must. There was only one thing she really liked to do in the evening. She and her father had been playing some sonatas of Mozart after he came home from the shop. He had a harsh tone on the violin, but he seemed to enjoy playing with her so much that she enjoyed it, too.
After supper she walked toward the town and turned into the street that people jokingly called Quality Street, because Mrs. Ramsay lived at one end of it and the Gordons at the other. Mrs. Ramsay was sitting in her high-backed chair beside the big front window, the shades up and the silk curtains drawn back. This had always been her way, though her house was so near the sidewalk that every passer-by could gaze in; her neighbours sometimes said it looked as if she were giving a reception to the street. As a little girl Lucy had loved to come to this house; such comfortable rooms, old-fashioned furniture, and soft, flowered carpets. She used to like the feeling that here there was a long distance between the parlour and the kitchen, that they were not always being mixed up together as they were at home. Mrs. Ramsay was then the only woman in town who kept two maids; now Mrs. Harry Gordon kept a man and his wife, Pauline had told her.
Lucy kissed Mrs. Ramsay’s cheek and sat down at her side, on the bamboo stool with the red cushion where she used to sit when she was learning to crochet. Nothing ever changed in this house, and there was something in the air of it that one was glad to come back to. The house had some reality, had colour and warmth, because the woman who made it and ruled it had those things in her nature.
“Lucy, dear, you aren’t treating me as well as you always used to. Have I grown too old for you, at last?”
Lucy murmured that she didn’t like to visit her friends when she was dull and out of sorts. She had stayed in the city and worked all summer, and that didn’t turn out very well. “When fall came, I was not good for anything. My teacher’s wife packed my things for me — and I let her do it, think of that!”
Mrs. Ramsay patted her hand. So it wasn’t that Lucy had displeased her teacher and been sent away, as some people said.
“Well, my dear, if you don’t feel like talking, you might come in and play for me sometimes. I had the piano tuned as soon as I heard you were home. And there it stands. Madge never touches it.”
Lucy brightened. “Would you like that? I think I would! We have only the old upright at home, you know. The one in father’s shop is a little better, but it bothers me to have people coming in and out. I didn’t use to mind it when I was a girl.”
“A girl? Good gracious, what are you now, I’d like to know? No, you mustn’t practise much while you are at home. You look tired, my dear, and you walk tired. You need a long rest in country air, and there’s no air like the Platte valley. Denver’s too high, and Chicago’s too low. There are no autumns like ours, anywhere. The fall we spent in Scotland, I count lost out of my life. Mr. Ramsay would have it, and he got enough of it!”
Yes, Lucy said, she was glad to be at home. A whole year of the city had been too much.
“But it was a good year, wasn’t it? You must have been enjoying your work, or you wouldn’t have stayed. And I hope you had plenty of fun along with it. I don’t like to see young people with talent take it too seriously. Life is short; gather roses while you may. I’m sure you gathered a few.”
Lucy smiled indulgently. “A few.”
“Make it as many as you can, Lucy. Nothing really matters but living. Get all you can out of it. I’m an old woman, and I know. Accomplishments are the ornaments of life, they come second. Sometimes people disappoint us, and sometimes we disappoint ourselves; but the thing is, to go right on living. You’ve hardly begun yet. Don’t let a backward spring discourage you. There’s a long summer before you, and everything rights itself in time.”
Lucy sat wondering why it was she could not talk to her old friend. On her way down here tonight, she had been thinking she would ask Mrs. Ramsay to summon Harry Gordon to this very parlour some afternoon (no one refused any request of hers), to give her a chance to talk with him, and to be present at the interview. But now she found she couldn’t do it. She rose with a sigh and went over to the piano.
She played for nearly an hour. She liked playing on this piano again; it was the only good one in town. Long ago she had supposed it must be one of the best in the world. Mrs. Ramsay sat straight in her high-backed chair, her elbow on the arm, her head resting lightly on the tips of her fingers.
Had Mrs. Ramsay turned and looked out of the window, she would have seen a man’s tall figure go somewhat pompously by. (The blind was still up, and the interior of the lighted room was as clear to the passer-by as a stage setting when the theatre is dark.) At the corner he did not go straight north as his way led, but turned and walked west, along the sidewalk that bordered Mrs. Ramsay’s flower garden and carriage-house. He had been seized by a fierce impulse to go straight to her front door and into the parlour, — he almost did it. Now he meant to walk round the block and look in on that scene again. But by the time he reached the west corner he had recovered himself, and he resumed his way north. It had only knocked him out of his course one block, his pride told him; that wasn’t much of a knock!
In little towns, lives roll along so close to one another; loves and hates beat about, their wings almost touching. On the sidewalks along which everybody comes and goes, you must, if you walk abroad at all, at some time pass within a few inches of the man who cheated and betrayed you, or the woman you desire more than anything else in the world. Her skirt brushes against you. You say good-morning, and go on. It is a close shave. Out in the world the escapes are not so narrow.
Lucy returned from her call on Mrs. Ramsay in a cheerful mood and went to bed. At about four o’clock in the morning Pauline was awakened by a cry of fright in the next room, a cry of pleading and terror. Then there was a smothered whimpering that made her shiver. Once a puppy, run over by a wagon in front of their house, had cried like that.
It was not the first time Lucy had cried in her sleep. Usually she soon wakened, and then Pauline could hear her turning in bed and changing her pillows. She had never gone in to speak to her sister; she was afraid, really. There was something the matter with Lucy, no doubt of that, and Pauline was glad she had let the apple orchard alone. It must be good for her to be out there in the sun.
In her own way Pauline loved her sister, though there had been moments when she certainly hated her. Personal hatred and family affection are not incompatible; they often flourish and grow strong together. Everything that was most individual and characteristic in Lucy she resented; but she was loyal to whatever she thought was Gayheart. When someone praised Lucy’s playing, Pauline usually said: “Oh, yes, all the Gayhearts are musical! If my voice had been cultivated. . .” Pauline was the soprano and director of the Lutheran choir.
Pauline was a much more complex person than her sister: her bustling, outright manner was not quite convincing, for all its vehemence. One felt that it had very little to do with her real feelings and opinions — whatever they might be. She was, so to speak, always walking behind herself. The plump, talkative little woman one met on the way to choir practice, or at afternoon teas, was a mannikin which Pauline pushed along before her; no one had ever seen the pusher behind that familiar figure, and no one knew what that second person was like. Indeed, Pauline told herself that she “put up a front.” She thought it very necessary to do so. Her father was queer, not at all like the real business men of the town; and Lucy, certainly, was not like other people. Someone had to be “normal” (a word Pauline used very often) and keep up the family’s standing in the community.
When Lucy was a child, Pauline was very fond and proud of her, as if she were a personal ornament reflecting credit on herself. She was only eighteen when her mother’s death left Lucy entirely to her care. Friends and neighbours often praised the way in which she brought the little girl up. Pauline had loved looking after her, indeed, though she was often perplexed by the child’s wild bursts of temper and her trick of running away. It was not until Lucy was old enough to go to high school that Pauline began to be jealous of her. Then she realized that everyone, even the Lutheran pastor and the Frau Pastor, had one manner with her and another one with Lucy. Mrs. Ramsay and Harry Gordon’s mother were always sending for Lucy on one pretext or another. Pauline was asked to their houses only when they gave a church supper, or a benefit for the firemen. And Lucy’s father spoiled her; that was Pauline’s sorest jealousy. If at breakfast she told Lucy to come directly home after school and help her with the ironing, Mr. Gayheart was very apt to say that she must stop first at the shop and do her practising.
After months of brooding, Pauline went into her father’s room one Sunday afternoon and told him she would like to have a talk with him. Was she to go on having all the care of the house, now that Lucy was old enough to share it? Was that fair to her, or good for Lucy?
Mr. Gayheart put down his newspaper and turned in his chair to face his daughter.
“It is more important that she does her music well and sits at the piano where I can watch her. If there is too much to do here, get one of Kohlmeyer’s daughters to help you. You can get one for a dollar a day.”
Pauline protested that it was not herself, but Lucy she was thinking of. Was it good for a girl to grow up heedless, and always to be waited on?
“I mean her to grow up at the piano. She will do more good there, and that is where she belongs.” Gayheart took up his paper again.
“The piano is in the parlour,” Pauline said to herself, as she went back to her own room. “It has always been like that; the parlour cat and the kitchen cat.”
Mr. Gayheart thought his elder daughter a girl of good common sense; she must see that Lucy was different, everybody saw that; therefore she should make no fuss about it.
Harry Gordon was less obtuse. He knew that Pauline was jealous. Whenever he met her on the street, or when she came into the bank on business, he made a point of being cordial, and he always sent her a big box of candy at Christmas time. He seldom went to the house, however, even to see Lucy; merely called for her to take her for a drive or to a dance.
Pauline knew she would be quite as popular in the town as Lucy, if she were as pretty. Indeed, she was popular. People said: “Pauline is levelheaded.” Since that was the role she affected, she shouldn’t have minded. But she did mind, very much. People were always stopping her on the street to ask when Lucy would be back from Chicago. The old ladies beamed at her with expectant eyes when they said how pretty Lucy was growing, as if Pauline should beam, too. She did her best, but a rather greenish, glow-worm gleam it was.
Lucy had never been aware of any of these hidden feelings in her sister. Her thoughts ran outward, and she was usually all aglow about something, if it were only the weather. She hadn’t the least idea of what Pauline was really like — never considered it. Pauline had brought her up, taken care of her when she was sick, made birthday and Christmas parties for her. Pauline was “good,” and good people were usually fussy and a little tiresome. Home, for some reason, was a place where she never felt entirely free, except in the orchard and the attic. Though Lucy would stoutly have denied such a charge, the truth was that Pauline’s housekeeping was more pretentious than efficient. In spite of her bustling manner Pauline was really, like her father, very indolent.
Where there is one grievance, there are likely to be many. Pauline had never felt that her father could afford to send Lucy away to study. Lucy had earned nothing during her first two winters in Chicago. Mr. Gayheart paid for her lessons and her living expenses. That was why he was always short of money, and why Pauline had to raise onions. If Lucy had been apologetic and humble, and had practised small economies, she would have been less to blame in her sister’s eyes. But not at all; she never seemed to think about money. When she had any, she spent it gaily. She refused to be poor in spirit. One expectation had enabled Pauline to put up with Lucy’s easy ways and to endure this alarming drain on the family resources. The one thing Lucy could have done to repay her family for the “sacrifices” they had made for her would have been to marry Harry Gordon. Pauline had counted on that, and now it had come to nothing — worse than nothing. People were feeling sorry for the Gayhearts. Pauline held her chin high, but her pride smarted at the thought that Lucy had been jilted. She was jealous of Lucy and for Lucy at the same time.
Lucy was going slowly along the street in the centre of the town, approaching the Platte Valley Bank. She had in her handbag a draft from Chicago, for the balance she had left on deposit there. She had been carrying this draft about for more than a week, passing and repassing the bank in the hope of seeing Harry Gordon at the cashier’s window and surprising him before he could retreat to his private office. This morning she looked in once again as she went by; Milton Chase, the young cashier, was at the window. Lucy walked deliberately on to the end of the main street, and went into the Union Pacific railway station.
After lingering about the waiting-room for a while, reading the posters, she walked back to the bank. There stood Harry in the cashier’s cage. It was bound to happen some time. She went in quickly, straight to the window.
“Good morning, Harry. Can I open a very small account with you while I am at home?”
“Why, certainly! Milton,” he called over his shoulder to his cashier, “a moment, please.”
Milton came, and Harry stepped aside and motioned him to the window. Then he spoke directly to Milton, in his best business manner. “Miss Gayheart wants to open an account with us. Just fix her up with a pass-book. And I want you to give her your personal attention. Anything we can do to accommodate her, we’ll be glad to do, you understand.” With this he left the cage.
Lucy did not know what followed, except that she came out of the bank with a pass-book and a little cheque-book in her bag. So this, too, had failed.
She had thought if she could confront Harry at the window she would have courage to ask him to see her in his private office for a moment, and she would tell him — she did not know exactly what. Perhaps she would make him understand that she had told him a falsehood in the dining-room of the Auditorium that night. And she would ask him if he couldn’t feel kindly toward her, for old times’ sake, and speak kindly when they happened to meet. That was all she wanted, and it would mean a great deal to her.
And why, she wondered, as she walked home blindly, her eyes turned inward, would it mean so much? She didn’t know. Perhaps it was an illusion, like the feeling she had in Chicago that if she once got home she wouldn’t suffer so much. Perhaps it was because he was big and strong, and a little hard. He knew the world better than anyone else here, he had some imagination. He rose and fell, he was alive, he moved. He was not anchored, he was not lazy, he was not a sheep. Conceited and canny he was most days of the month; but on occasion something flashed out of him. There was a man underneath all those layers of caution; he wasn’t tame at the core. If he should put his hand on her, or look directly into her eyes and flash the old signal, she believed it would waken something and start the machinery going to carry her along.
Crazy little Fairy Blair came home for Thanksgiving. On the very day she arrived she ran after Lucy on the street, in a grass-green cap and sweater.
“Hello, Lucy, wait a minute!” she called. Catching up with Lucy, she took her arm. “I’ll walk along with you. I have a trade-last for you. One of my fraternity sisters has a brother studying with Professor Auerbach, Sidney Gilchrist, do you know him? He says Auerbach is crazy about you, and tells everyone you’re his star pupil. Doesn’t that please you? Oh, you’re so haughty, always! And oh, Lucy! That Mr. Saint Sebastian who was drowned in Italy, wasn’t he the singer you played for?”
Lucy had not heard that name spoken since she left Chicago. “Yes, he was.” She could feel Fairy’s sharp, mischievous little eyes.
“Terrible thing, wasn’t it? Died trying to save a lame man, the paper said. Weren’t you dreadfully upset? It must have been thrilling to play for him. Sidney said it put you in the upper circle all right!”
Fairy had heard that no one in town knew what was the matter with Lucy, and she thought she had a clew. That same afternoon she telephoned Pauline and asked her to come in for tea. (They called it tea, but it was always coffee and cake.) Fairy made haste to tell Pauline about the accident on Lake Como, and what Sidney Gilchrist had written his sister; that Lucy was desperately in love with Sebastian, and Professor Auerbach had been afraid she would go out of her mind.
Pauline went home very much relieved. Her sister had been here nearly three months, and this was the first hint she had got as to what had really happened. At least, it wasn’t so bad as some people thought; the man hadn’t jilted her. Pauline believed that to be jilted was almost the worst thing that could befall a respectable girl. Now she knew what to think of that moaning she sometimes heard at night; a shock like that would probably give one bad dreams.
She felt sorry for Lucy, — and a little in awe of her, for the first time in her life. Women like Pauline have a secret respect for romantic chapters. Lucy had been dignified, she reflected; she hadn’t run about telling her troubles. She should, of course, have confided in her sister. She behaved strangely. Yet she, Pauline, would behave just so under similar circumstances; she was sure of it. Lucy was certainly a Gayheart.
When Pauline entered the house she greeted her sister in her usual cheery tone, but she was conscious of a certain awkwardness. Lucy was setting the table for supper, so Pauline came into the dining-room and sat down for a moment.
“Are you going to do anything special this evening?” she asked.
“I thought I might go down to play for Mrs. Ramsay. It’s Saturday night, so Father will go back to the shop after supper.”
“Lucy,” Pauline began in a deeply confidential tone, “I don’t know what we ought to do about Mrs. Harry Gordon.”
“Do about her? Why, what do you mean?”
“She’s never returned my call. I can’t think why. Maybe she is waiting for you to call, before she returns mine. She coming here a bride, and we being old residents, perhaps she expects us all to come.”
“Now don’t be contrary, Lucy! We who live here have to consider such things.”
“Yes, yes, I know. But I shan’t go to see her until she has been to see you. Let’s let it rest at that.”
As Lucy had been lost by a song, so she was very nearly saved by one. Two weeks before Christmas a travelling opera company, on their way to Denver to sing for the holiday season, gave a single performance in Haverford. Lucy had noticed the posters as she came and went about the town, but she hadn’t even stopped to read them. One evening at the supper table her father took three blue tickets from his pocket.
“Girls, I think we must go to hear The Bohemian Girl next week.”
From his manner Lucy could see that he was looking forward to this entertainment. He began asking her to tell him about the operas she had heard in Chicago. Pauline remarked that the “local talent” was to give Pinafore in February.
“That Gilbert and Sullivan stuff, I can’t see much in it,” said Mr. Gayheart. “If you want something light and amusing, now, there is Die Fledermaus. Or La Belle Helene. You never heard it, Lucy? I was crazy about that opera when I was a boy. The Bohemian Girl is a little old-fashioned, maybe, but it’s very nice.”
On the evening of the performance Mr. Gayheart came home early. He took a bath and shaved very carefully, put on his best black suit, a white waistcoat, and his patent-leather shoes. When he came downstairs before supper, his daughters knew he expected to be admired.
“Do put on your new evening dress, Lucy. It will please him,” Pauline whispered as they went to their rooms.
Lucy had meant never to wear that dress again, but she relented. Her father had so little to make him feel gay.
When they were getting ready to start, a light snow began to fall, and Mr. Gayheart was fearful for his patent leathers. He put his hand affectionately on Lucy’s bare shoulder. “A little shawl or something, maybe, to carry along? I don’t want you to take cold down there.”
Lucy straightened his black necktie and slipped her arm around his neck for a moment, remembering the days in his shop when he used to keep his ear on her practising while he looked through a glass into the insides of watches.
Mr. Gayheart set off through the snow flurry, a daughter on either arm. He liked to reach the Opera House early and watch the people come in. (The theatre in every little Western town was then called an opera house.) On the way he told Lucy the manager of the house had put in folding chairs in place of the old straight-back wooden ones; otherwise she would find the hall just the same as when she played on the stage for her own commencement exercises, nearly four years ago.
When the conductor, who was also the pianist, appeared, Mr. Gayheart settled back with satisfaction, and the curtain rose on the hunting scene. The chorus was fair, the tenor had his good points; but before the first act was over, the three Gayhearts were greatly interested in the soprano. She was a fair-skinned woman, slender and graceful, but far from young. She sang so well that Lucy wondered how she had ever drifted into a little road company like this one. Her voice was worn, to be sure, like her face, and there was not much physical sweetness left in it. But there was another kind of sweetness; a sympathy, a tolerant understanding. She gave the old songs, even the most hackneyed, their full value. When she sang: “I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls,” she glided delicately over the too regular stresses, and subtly varied the rhythm. She gave freshness to the foolish old words because she phrased intelligently; she was tender with their sentimentality, as if they were pressed flowers which might fall apart if roughly handled.
Why was it worth her while, Lucy wondered. Singing this humdrum music to humdrum people, why was it worth while? This poor little singer had lost everything: youth, good looks, position, the high notes of her voice. And yet she sang so well! Lucy wanted to be up there on the stage with her, helping her do it. A wild kind of excitement flared up in her. She felt she must run away tonight, by any train, back to a world that strove after excellence — the world out of which this woman must have fallen.
It was long before Lucy got to sleep that night. The wandering singer had struck something in her that went on vibrating; something that was like a purpose forming, and she could not stop it. When she awoke in the morning, it was still there, beating like another heart. Day after day it kept up in her. She could give her attention to other things, but it was always there. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of something, about to take some plunge or departure.
The day before Christmas opened with a hard snow-storm. When the Gayhearts looked out of their windows the ground was already well covered, the porches and the hedge fence were drifted white. At breakfast Mr. Gayheart said that when he went down to make the furnace fire at six o’clock, the snow must have been falling for some time.
Lucy spent the morning tramping about in the storm on errands for Pauline. She took boxes of Christmas cakes to all their old friends, carried a pudding in its mould out to the Lutheran pastor’s house at the north end of town, where there was no sidewalk and she had to wade through deep snowdrifts. The storm brought back the feeling children have about Christmas, that it is a time of miracles, when the angels are near the earth, and any wayside weed may suddenly become a rose bush or a Christmas tree.
Pauline was delighted to see Lucy so like herself again. She invented errands to keep her going. But late in the afternoon she thought her sister looked tired, and sent her upstairs to her own room to rest until supper time.
Lucy did not feel tired, she was throbbing with excitement, and with the feeling of wonder in the air. She put the blinds up high and sat down in a rocking-chair to watch the bewildering, silent descent of the snow, over all the neighbours’ houses, the trees and gardens. She was alone on the upper floor. The daylight in her room grew greyer and darker. Lights in the house across the street began to shine softly through the storm. She tried to feel at peace and to breathe more slowly, but every nerve was quivering with a long-forgotten restlessness. How often she had run out on a spring morning, into the orchard, down the street, in pursuit of something she could not see, but knew! It was there, in the breeze, in the sun; it hid behind the blooming apple boughs, raced before her through the neighbours’ gardens, but she could never catch up with it. Clement Sebastian had made the fugitive gleam an actual possession. With him she had learned that those flashes of promise could come true, that they could be the important things in one’s life. He had never told her so; he was, in his own person, the door and the way to that knowledge.
Tonight, through the soft twilight, everything in her was reaching outward, straining forward. She could think of nothing but crowded streets with life streaming up and down, windows full of roses and gardenias and violets — she wanted to hold them all in her hands, to bury her face in them. She wanted flowers and music and enchantment and love, — all the things she had first known with Sebastian. What did it mean, — that she wanted to go on living again? How could she go on, alone?
Suddenly something flashed into her mind, so clear that it must have come from without, from the breathless quiet. What if — what if Life itself were the sweetheart? It was like a lover waiting for her in distant cities — across the sea; drawing her, enticing her, weaving a spell over her. She opened the window softly and knelt down beside it to breathe the cold air. She felt the snowflakes melt in her hair, on her hot cheeks. Oh, now she knew! She must have it, she couldn’t run away from it. She must go back into the world and get all she could of everything that had made him what he was. Those splendours were still on earth, to be sought after and fought for. In them she would find him. If with all your heart you truly seek Him, you shall ever surely find Him. He had sung that for her in the beginning, when she first went to him. Now she knew what it meant.
She crouched closer to the window and stretched out her arms to the storm, to whatever might lie behind it. Let it come! Let it all come back to her again! Let it betray her and mock her and break her heart, she must have it!
On Christmas Day Lucy wrote to Paul Auerbach to wish him a happy New Year, and to tell him that she wanted to go back to him, if he had any work for her to do. “I have found out that I can’t run away from my own feelings,” she wrote. “The only way for me, is to do the things I used to do and to do them harder.”
An answer came from him the following week; a long, kind letter which must have taken most of his Sunday morning. He and Mrs. Auerbach were greatly relieved to hear that she felt this change. The young man who had taken over Lucy’s pupils when she left so suddenly had been promised his position until the first of April, when he was going abroad to study. If Lucy would come on about the middle of March, she could stay with them, and Mrs. Auerbach would help her to find a room and get comfortably settled before she went to work. “You will have a warm welcome in the house of your old friend and teacher,
Lucy had hoped she could go at once. Perhaps by March she would have lost her courage and be sunk in apathy again. But she could not ask her father for money, not with Pauline’s narrow eyes always watching. She must look out for herself from now on, and she could do it. She must wait.
Lucy thought she ought to begin to study again, so she tried going to her father’s shop every day and working on the sample piano. But Jacob Gayheart did not keep his ear open as he used to. He had gone backward in his music: he neglected it for chess. Soon after Christmas he had fallen away from playing duets with Lucy in the evening. He said he had to stay later at the shop, but his daughters knew that he was playing chess by telephone with a celebrated player who was visiting a cousin in North Platte. To be sure, he didn’t often have a chance to match his skill with such an opponent.
Mr. Gayheart had let the shop get so dusty that it wasn’t a pleasant place to practise in. The space round the piano was full of broken music-stands and brass instruments that were never cleaned, and the walls were hung with dusty band uniforms. It embarrassed Lucy when people came in for watches and clocks that should have been repaired weeks ago.
If she stayed at home to practise, there were so many things to put her out. She was restless now, and trifles got on her nerves. No matter how orderly she managed to keep her own room, she couldn’t help being aware that just on the other side of that thin partition her sister’s room was in confusion. There was no doubting it, for Pauline left her door open. It was Pauline’s custom not to make her bed until noon; she managed to get out of it in the morning without throwing off the blankets, leaving it like a mole-hill, with the very shape of her body.
“Lucy,” she said one morning, “what’s got into you, to be turning your mattress and sweeping your room every day? You never used to be so fussy.”
“A little Italian showed me how a sleeping-room ought to be kept. I learned something besides music last winter,” Lucy replied as she went downstairs.
Pauline squinted. That remark nettled her, really hurt her feelings. She kept recalling it for days afterwards.
Lucy did what she could on the shop piano in the morning, and every afternoon she walked; through the town, and out the road to the north, where the land lay high and she could look down over the Platte valley. She began to notice things about the country that she had never taken much heed of before. She believed she was bidding the country good-bye this winter, and that made her eye more searching. One thing she watched for, every afternoon. Long before sunset an unaccountable pink glow appeared in the eastern sky, about half-way between the zenith and the horizon. It was not a cloud, it had not the depth of a reflection: it was thin and bright like the colour on a postcard. On sunny afternoons it was sure to be there, a pink rouge on the hard blue cheek of the sky. From her window she could watch this colour come above the tall, wide-spreading cottonwood trees of the town park, where her father led the band concerts in summer. Did that pink flush use to come there, in the days when she was running up and down these sidewalks, or was it a new habit the light had taken on?
If there was anyone in Haverford who could tell her, it would be Harry Gordon. He was the only man here who noticed such things, and he was deeply, though unwillingly, moved by them. When she used to go duck-shooting with him she had found that he knew every tree and shrub and plant they ever came upon. Harry kept that side of himself well hidden. He could feel things without betraying himself, because he was so strong. If only she could have that strength behind her instead of against her! It was more than physical strength; it was something that could keep up to the bitter end, that could take hold and never let go. She was so without any such power that even to think of it heartened her a little. Perhaps some day they would be friends again. He was conceited and hard to teach, but she believed he would go on learning about life; because he had more depth than the people around him, and never pretended to like anything he didn’t like. Quite the other way; he played at being a common fellow, and he wasn’t. He was full of that energy which moves quietly, but always moves. It might get a man almost anywhere, she thought. And the people who hadn’t it, even those with nice tastes, like her father, never got anywhere.
The weeks can be very long in the Platte valley, Lucy found. She began to feel trapped, shut up in a little town in winter. That long, soft, brooding autumn had been like a kind companion. Now the hard facts of country life were upon her. The weather grew windy and bitter cold; the town and all the country round were the colour of cement. The tides that raced through the open world never came here. There was never anything to make one leap beyond oneself or to carry one away. One’s mind got stuffy, like the houses.
Toward the end of January came another heavy snowfall; then a thaw, followed by a week of biting cold. The street, the roads, the yard, the orchard, were stretches of lumpy ice and frozen snow. Why didn’t Professor Auerbach send for her now? If she could only walk past the Arts Building once again, see the hall porter, and George, the elevator man! If she could go to the concert hall where she had first heard Sebastian; sit in a corner, and remember! Some day she would be able to rent his old studio, and she would live there always. There must be ways of making money in this world; she had never seriously tried, but now she would.
One morning Pauline went to help the Methodist women get the basement of the church ready for a chicken-and-waffle supper, so Lucy practised at home. She had found she could, if she were alone in the house. At noon Pauline came in, resolutely cheerful (her sister was a hard person to live with just now). When they sat down to lunch, she announced what she believed to be good news.
“Lucy, my dear, I’ve done pretty well for you this morning. I’ve got two piano pupils for you.”
Lucy looked up and grew red.
“Pupils? I don’t want any. I am not going to teach in Haverford.”
Pauline didn’t flush; she grew paler. “But seriously, Lucy, don’t you think you ought to be doing something? You must know that Father gets deeper into debt all the time. We made a great sacrifice to send you away to study. I always supposed you’d want to pay back at least part of what it cost us.”
“I will, some time. I can’t see that anybody made a great sacrifice. It was Father’s own idea that I should study music. I was never extravagant, certainly. I got along on less than most of the students.”
Her careless tone made her sister indignant.
“More than sixteen hundred dollars you cost us in those first two years. I have the cheque stubs, and I know.”
“So much as that?” Lucy asked in the same indifferent manner.
“That is a great deal, for us. You might have sent back just a little after you began to earn something, to show good intentions.”
“I thought of it, but I bought clothes instead. When I was teaching I had to be decently dressed.”
Both the sisters had stopped eating and both were making a pretence of drinking coffee. Pauline went on to say, as mildly as she could, that she had thought Lucy would like to take a few pupils, now that she was feeling better. “People here have always appreciated you. I wonder you haven’t had applications before this. I’m afraid some of Fairy Blair’s talk must have got around.”
Lucy knew that she could go away and avoid a scene, but she didn’t care.
“Just what do you mean?” she asked coldly.
The same thing happened to Pauline’s face that happened to sour milk when she poured boiling water into it to make cottage cheese; it clabbered, the flesh curdled.
“The stories about you and that singer. Such things will get out, and Fairy isn’t one to keep them. Now people are saying that when Harry Gordon went to Chicago last spring and saw how things were, he threw you over.”
Lucy laughed disagreeably. “Threw me over, did he? Well, one story’s as good as another. I don’t care what they say. So you kept Father’s cheque stubs, Pauline? How like you! You needn’t worry. I’m going back to teach under Auerbach again. It’s been arranged for weeks. The date is set for March, but I can easily go sooner.” She had risen and was standing against the light of the window.
Pauline broke out bitterly. “Lucy, why are you so mean! Why do you hide things from us, and treat us like strangers?”
“I suppose I feel that way,” Lucy said as she went up the back stairs.
While Pauline was washing the dishes she cried a little, shed a few waxy tears that came hard. You brought a child up, slaved for her and dressed her prettily, did all the work and let her have all the holidays (the parlour cat and the kitchen cat!) — and this was what came of it. You coddled her as if she were a superior being, and she treated you like the housekeeper. And she used to be so proud of her little sister!
When Pauline left the kitchen and came into the sitting-room, she looked out of the window to see who might be passing. Why, there was Lucy! In her hat and coat, out of doors, out in the road, hurrying away from the house and walking toward the country. And she was carrying something, in a black bag. Could it be her skating-shoes?
Pauline caught up a shawl and ran out into the yard.
“Lucy!” she called; then louder: “Lucy, wait!”
But Lucy never turned. She seemed, indeed, to quicken her pace. Pauline went back into the house. “Just the way she used to run off when she was little!” She dropped her shawl. “I wonder if she knows the old skating-place was ruined last spring when the river changed its bed? She’ll have her walk for nothing.”
Surely she wouldn’t be crazy enough to try the ice out there? The bank had been torn up by the flood, and anyone could see that the river itself now flowed where the shallow arm used to be. Pauline considered telephoning the livery man to drive out after Lucy and tell her she wouldn’t find any skating. But Lucy might be very much annoyed at any such interference. Probably it was the walk she wanted. Pauline remembered how she used to shut her eyes to Lucy’s truancies; the child usually got over her tempers out on the highroad, but if she were shut up for a punishment it only made her worse.
Lucy found the walking bad enough. The roads had been rutted during the thaw, and afterwards the deep cuts made by the wagon-wheels had frozen hard. Yesterday’s snowfall had packed into them. Her foot kept catching in the walls of the ruts. On either side of the wheel-tracks the mud had frozen in jagged ridges, rough and sharp like mushroom coral. Since yesterday few countrymen had been abroad, and the horses’ hoofs had not yet broken down these frozen incrustations. Lucy couldn’t remember that her feet had ever got so cold when she was walking; but this was not walking, really, it was plodding, and breaking through.
She was going west, directly against the wind, and she had often to turn and stand still to catch her breath. After she was a mile out of town, not a single sleigh or wagon passed her. It was still too early for the farmers who had gone to town in the morning to be driving homeward. The country looked very dreary, certainly. If only the sun would break through! But it made a mere glassy white spot in the low grey sky. In that cold light even the fresh snow looked grey, and the frozen weeds sticking up through it. In the draws, between the low hills, thickets of wild plum bushes were black against the drifts; they should have been thatched with yesterday’s snow, but today’s sharp wind had stripped them bare.
After the first mile Lucy began to feel very tired. The wind seemed to blow harder out here in the open country; it brought the tears to her eyes, and she had to keep wiping them away to see the road clearly. At last she determined to beg a ride from anyone who came by, even if he were going toward town. It was almost too cold to skate; and there would be the long walk home.
She had got over another mile when she heard the sound of sleigh-bells behind her. She turned her back to the wind, and listened. Only one man in the country had such bells. It must be Harry Gordon. There was no place to hide; she wouldn’t hide. Perhaps this was the chance she had been hoping for. She stepped behind a telephone post and waited. She felt even colder than before, and her heart beat fast. She was afraid, after all. There he came in his cutter, over the brow of a hill, down into a draw where he was lost to sight, then out on the very hill upon which she was standing. She stepped into the middle of the road, in front of him, and held up her hand. He pulled in his horses and stopped.
“Harry, could you give me a lift as far as Thompson’s pasture? I find it’s pretty rough walking.” She was standing with her back to the wind, her skirts blown forward, holding her muff against her cheek. She looked very slight and appealing out there all alone.
Harry’s eyes were watery from the cold; he seemed more than ever to look at her through glasses. He began in that voice of cheery friendliness which meant nothing at all, with the usual shade of surprise in it:
“Well, now, I’m just awfully sorry, but I’m not going out that way at all! I turn north right here at the corner. I have an important appointment with a man up in Harlem. I’m nearly an hour late as it is, and I’ve got to make up time on the road. Wish I weren’t in such a hurry.” He touched his fur cap with his glove and drove on.
Lucy sent just one cry after him, angry and imperious, “Harry!” as if she had the right to call him back. His big shoulders never moved. His sharp-shod horses trotted on, the sleigh-bells singing, and turned north at the section corner a hundred yards away. The cutter with the upright seated figure moved along against the grey snow-drifted pasture land until at last it disappeared behind a group of distant straw stacks.
When Lucy next stopped to take breath, she found herself a long way nearer the river bend. For a moment she had leaned against the telephone post back yonder, but only for a moment. Such a storm of pain and anger boiled up in her that she felt strong enough to walk into the next county. Her blood was racing, and she was no longer conscious of the cold. She forgot to look where she put her feet; they took care of themselves.
She couldn’t have imagined such rudeness, such an insult! She was young, she was strong, she would show them they couldn’t crush her. She would get away from these people who were cruel and stupid — stupid as the frozen mud in the road. If she let herself think, she would cry. She must not give in to it, she must hurry on.
When she reached the river bank she sat down just long enough to take off her walking-shoes, and put on the other pair with skates attached. Her hands trembled so that she could scarcely pull the leather laces taut and tie them. She was angry with herself, too. That she should have given him the chance to leave her in the road, as he had left her in the dining-room that night in Chicago! But how could anyone be armed against such boorishness and spite? Catching up a stick, she got to her feet and took a few long strokes close to the shore. She was not looking about her, she saw nothing — she would get away from this frozen country and these frozen people, go back to light and freedom such as they could never know.
Without looking or thinking she struck toward the centre for smoother ice. A soft, splitting sound brought her to herself in a flash, and she saw dark lines running in the ice about her. She turned sharply, but the cracks ran ahead of her. A sheet of ice broke loose and tipped, and she plunged to her waist into cold water.
Lucy was more stimulated than frightened; she had got herself into a predicament, and she must keep her wits about her. The water couldn’t be very deep. She still had both elbows on the ice; as soon as she touched bottom she could manage. (It never occurred to her that this was the river itself.) She was groping cautiously with her feet when she felt herself gripped from underneath. Her skate had caught in the fork of a submerged tree, half-buried in sand by the spring flood. The ice cake slipped from under her arms and let her down.
At half-past three, when the wind had grown so bitter, Pauline telephoned her father to drive out and pick Lucy up on the west road. Mr. Gayheart went to the livery barn a few doors from his shop and told Gullford, the driver, to put in two horses. Then he asked his friend the tailor to go with him for a sleigh-ride. Mr. Gayheart was not a man to look for trouble. But as they drove on and on and still did not meet his daughter, he grew uneasy.
When they reached the place on the shore from which the young people used to go skating, they found the ice out in the stream cracked and broken. So she couldn’t have tarried here. She must have taken some other road, or gone to pay a call at one of the farms. The driver noticed something, out where the ice was bad; he said it looked like a red scarf.
Mr. Gayheart jumped out of the sleigh. He contradicted Gullford, but begged him to look again, to go out on the ice.
“I’m a little afraid to go out there, Mr. Gayheart; it’s rotten. But don’t get excited. Stay where you are, and I’ll have a look around.”
Gullford went slowly along the shore, considering what was to be done. He knew that was a scarf out there. Presently he stopped and bent over. Under a willow bush at the river’s edge he found a pair of shoes and overshoes. He called Schneider, the tailor, and asked him to stay here with Mr. Gayheart while he whipped up his team and went to the neighbouring farms for help.
In less than an hour farm wagons and sleds were coming toward the river, bringing ropes, poles, lanterns, hay-rakes. One wagon brought a heavy row-boat that had been used in times of freshet. It was already dark, and the men who had come together agreed they could do nothing until morning. Mr. Gayheart kept begging them to try, declaring that he would not leave the river bank that night. While the older men talked and hesitated, four young lads dragged the old boat out into the rotten ice and groped below with their poles and hay-rakes. It did not take them a great while. The sunken tree that had caught Lucy’s skate still held her there; she had not been swept on by the current.
When Harry Gordon and his singing sleighbells came over the hills from Harlem that night, he overtook a train of lanterns and wagons crawling along the frozen land. In one of those wagons they were taking Lucy Gayheart home.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07