MORE and more I cut loose from the explanatory guiding strings of my sister and the family, even from the requested information of specialists, and wandered by myself in search of the widening daily acquaintance which alone could make life seem real again.
It was an easy world to wander in. The standard of general courtesy and intelligence of the officials, and of the average passer-by, was as much above what I remembered as the standard in Boston used to be above that of New York.
As most of the business was public business one could study and inquire freely. As much work as could be advantageously localized was so arranged, this saving in transportation. The clothing industry, for in stance, instead of being carried on in swarming centers, and then distributed all over the country, formed part of the pleasant everyday work in each community and was mostly in the hands of women.
As a man I could appreciate little of the improved quality of fabrics, save as I noticed their beauty, and that my own clothes wore longer, and both looked and felt more agreeable. But women told me how satisfying it was to know that silk was silk, and wool, wool. This improvement in textile values, with the outgrowing of that long obsession called fashion, reduced the labor of clothes-making materially.
Women’s clothes, I found, as I strolled were very delicate and fine, and had a gracious dignity and sanity far removed from the frantic concoctions I remembered in the windows;—shredded patchwork of muslin and lace, necessarily frail and short-lived even as ornaments, never useful, and costing arduous labor in construction, with corresponding expense to the purchaser.
The robes and gowns were a joy to the eye. Some showed less taste than others, naturally, but nowhere was to be seen the shameless ugliness so common in my youth.
Beauty and peace, I found, care, leisure, quietness, plenty of gaiety, too, both in young and old. It struck me that the young (people, owing to their wider and sounder upbringing, were more serious, and that older people, owing to their safer, easier lives, were jollier. These sweet-faced, broad-minded young women did not show so much giggling inanity as once seemed necessary to them; and a young man, even a young man in college, did not, therefore, find pleasure in theft, cruelty, gross practical jokes and destruction of property.
As I noted this, I brought myself up with a start. It looked as if Nellie had written it. Surely, when I was in college—and there rose up within me a memory of the crass, wasteful follies that used to be called “pranks” in my time, and considered perfectly natural in young men. I had not minded them in those days. It gave me a queer feeling to see by my own words how my judgment was affected already.
I explored the city from end to end, and satisfied myself that there was no poverty in it, no street that was not clean, no house that was not fit for human habitation. That is, as far as I could judge from an outside view.
Among the masses of people, after their busy mornings, there were vast numbers who used the afternoons for learning, the easy, interesting, endless learning now carried on far and wide. The more they learned the more they wanted to know; and the best minds, free for research work, and upheld in it by the deepening attention of the world, constantly pushed on the boundaries of knowledge.
There were some hospitals yet, but as one to a hundred of what used to be, of higher quality, and fuller usefulness. There were some of what I should have called prisons, though the life inside was not only as comfortable as that without, but administered with a stricter care for the advantage of those within.
There were the moral sanitariums—healthful and beautiful, richly endowed with the world’s best methods of improvement, and managed by the world’s best people. It made me almost dizzy to try to take in this opposite pole of judgment on the criminal.
Out of town I found that the park-like roads, so generally in use, by no means interfered with the wide stretches of what I used to call “real country.” Intensive agriculture took less ground, rather more; and the wide use of food-bearing trees had restored the wooded aspect, so pleasant in every sense.
The small country towns were of special interest to me; I visited scores of them; each differing from the others, all beautiful and clean and busy. They were numerous too; replacing the areas of scattered lonely farmhouses, with these comfortable and pretty groups, each in its home park, with its standard of convenience as high as that in any town.
The smallest group had its power plant, supplying all the houses with heat, light and water, had its child gardens, its Town House and Club House, its workshops and foodshops as necessary as its postoffices.
The Socialized industries ensured employment to every citizen, and provided all the necessaries of life—larger order this than it used to be. Quite above this broad base of social control, the life of the people went on; far freer and more open to individual development than it had ever had a chance to be in the whole history of the world.
This I frankly conceded. I found I was making more concessions in my note-book than I had yet made to either Nellie or Owen. They encouraged me to travel about by myself. In fact, my sister was now about to resume her college position and Owen was going with her.
They both advised me not to settle upon any work for a full year.
“That’s little enough time in which to cover thirty,” Nellie said, patting my shoulder. “But you’re doing splendidly, John. We are proud of you. And there’s no hurry. You know there’s enough from our mine to enable you to join the leisure class’—if you want to!”
I had no idea of doing this, as she well knew, but I did feel it necessary to get myself in some way grafted on to this new world before I took up regular employment. I found that there was not much call for ancient languages in the colleges, even if I had been in touch with the new methods; but there remained plenty of historical work, for which I had now a special fitness. Indeed some of my new scientific friends assured me I could be of the utmost service, with my unique experience.
So I was not worried about what to do, nor under any pressure about doing it. But the more I saw of all these new advantages, the more I was obliged to admit that they were advantages; the more I traveled and read and learned, the more lonesome and homesick I became.
It was a beautiful world, but it was not my world. It was like a beautiful dream, but seemed a dream nevertheless. I could no longer dispute that it was possible for people to be “healthy, wealthy and wise”; and happy, too—visibly happy—here they all were; working and playing and enjoying life as naturally as possible. But they were not the people I used to know; those, too, were like Frank Borderson and Morris Banks—changed so that they seemed more unreal than the others.
The beauty and peace and order of the whole thing wore on—me. I wanted to hear the roar of the elevated—to smell the foul air of the subway and see the people pile in, pushing and angry, as I still remembered in my visits to New York.
I wanted to see some neglected-looking land, some ragged suburbs, some far-away farmhouse alone under its big elms, with its own barns in odorous proximity, its own cows, boy-driven, running and stumbling home to be milked.
I wanted a newspaper which gave me the excitement of guessing what the truth was, I wanted to see some foolish, crazily dressed, giggling girls, and equally foolish boys, but better dressed and less giggling, given to cigarettes and uproarious “good times.”
I was homesick, desperately homesick. So without saying a word to anyone I betook myself to old Slide-face, to see Uncle Jake.
All the way down—and I went by rail—no air travel for this homecoming!—I felt an increasing pleasure in the familiar look of things. The outlines of the Alleghanies had not changed. I would not get out at any town, the shining neatness of the railroad station was enough; but the sleeping cars were a disappointment. The beds were wide, soft, cool, the blankets of light clean wool, the air clear and fresh, the noise and jar almost gone. Oh, well, I couldn’t expect to have everything as it used to be, of course.
But when I struck out, on foot, from Paintertown, and began to climb the road that led to my old home, my heart was in my mouth. It was a better road, of course—but I hardly noticed that. All the outlying farms were better managed and the little village groups showed here and there—but I shut my eyes to these things.
The hills were the same—the hills I had grown up among. They couldn’t alter the face of the earth much—that was still recognizable. Our own house I did not visit—both father and mother were gone, and the little wooden building replaced by a concrete mining office. Nellie had told me about all this; it was one reason why I had not come back before.
But now I went past our place almost with my eyes shut; and kept on along the road to Uncle Jake’s. He had been a rich man, as farmers went, owning the land for a mile or two on every side, owning Slide-face as a matter of fact; and as he made enough from the rich little upland valley where the house stood, to pay his taxes, he owned it still.
The moment I reached his boundary I knew it, unmistakably. A ragged, home-made sign, sagging from its nails, announced “Private Road. No trespassers allowed.” Evidently they heeded the warning, for the stony, washed-out roadbed was little traveled.
My heart quite leaped as I set foot on it. It was not “improved” in the least from what I remembered in my infrequent visits. My father and Uncle Jake had “a coldness” between them; which would have been a quarrel, I fancy, if father had not been a minister, so I never saw much of these relations.
Drusilla I remembered well enough, though, a pretty, babyish thing, and Aunt Dorcas’s kind, patient, tired smile, and the fruit cakes she made.
Up and up, through the real woods, ragged and thick with dead boughs, fallen trunks and underbrush, not touched by any forester, and finally, around the shoulder of Slide-face, to the farm.
I stood still and drew in a long breath of utter satisfaction. Here was something that had not changed. There was an old negro plowing, the same negro I remembered, apparently not a day older. It is wonderful ( how little they do change with years. His wool showed white though, as he doffed his ragged cap and greeted me with cheerful cordiality as Mass’ John.
“We all been hearin’ about you, Mass’ John. We been powerful sorry ‘bout you long time, among de heathen,” he said. “You folks’ll be glad to see you!”
“Well, young man!” said Uncle Jake, with some show of cordiality; “better late than never. We wondered if you intended to look up your country relations.”
But Aunt Dorcas put her thin arms around my neck and kissed me, teary kisses with little pats and exclamations. “To think of it! Thirty years among savages! We heard about it from Nellie—she wrote us, of course. Nellie’s real good to Keep us posted.”
“She never comes to see us!” said my Uncle. “Nor those youngsters of hers. We’ve never had them here but once. They’re too ‘advanced’ for old-fashioned folks.”
Uncle Jake’s long upper lip set firmly; I remembered that look, as he used to sit in his wagon and talk with mother at our gate, refusing to come in, little sunny-haired Drusilla looking shyly at me from under her sunbonnet the while.
Where was Drusilla? Surely not—that! A frail, weak, elderly, quiet, little woman stood there by Aunt Dorcas, her smooth fine, ash-brown hair drawn tightly back to a flat knot behind, her dull blue calico dress falling starkly about her.
She came forward, smiling, and held out a thin work-worn hand. “We’re so glad to see you, Cousin John,” she said. “We certainly are.”
They made much of me in the old familiar ways I had so thirsted for. The sense of family background, of common knowledge and experience was comforting in the extreme, the very furnishings and clothes as I recalled them. I told them what a joy it was.
This seemed to please Uncle Jake enormously.
“I thought you’d do it,” he said. “Like to find one place that hasn’t been turned upside down by all these new-fangled notions. Dreadful things have been goin’ on, John, while you were amongst them Feejees.”
I endeavored to explain to him something of the nature and appearance of the inhabitants of Tibet, but it made small impression. Uncle Jake’s mind was so completely occupied by what was in it, that any outside fact or idea had small chance of entry.
“They’ve got wimmin votin’ now, I understand,” he pursued; “I don’t read the papers much, they are so ungodly, but I’ve heard that. And they’ve been meddlin’ with Divine Providence in more ways than one—but I keep out of it, and so does Aunt Dorcas and the girl here.”
He looked around at my Aunt, who smiled her gentle, faithful smile, and at Drusilla, who dropped her eyes and flushed faintly. I suspected her of secret leanings toward the movement of the world outside.
“I don’t allow my family off the farm,” he went on, “except when we go to meetin’, and that’s not often. There’s hardly an orthodox preacher left, seems to me; hut we go up to the Ridge meetin’ house sometimes.”
“I should think you would find it a little dull—don’t you?” I ventured.
Drusilla flashed a grateful look at me.
“Nothing of the sort,” he answered. “I was horn on this farm, and it’s big enough for anybody to be contented on. Your Aunt was born over in Hadley Holler—and she’s contented enough. As for Drusilly—” he looked at her again with real affection, “Drusilly’s always been a good girl—never made any trouble in her life. Unless ’twas when she pretty near married that heretic minister—eh, Drusilly?”
My cousin did not respond warmly to this sally, but neither did she show signs of grief. I was conscious of a faint satisfaction that she had not married the heretic minister.
They made me very welcome, so welcome indeed that as days passed, Uncle Jake even broached the subject of my remaining there.
“I’ve got no son,” he said, “and a girl can’t run the farm. You stay here, John, and keep things goin’, and I’ll will it to you—what do you say? You ain’t married, I see. Just get you a nice girl—if there’s any left, and settle down here.”
I thanked him warmly, but said I must have time to consider—that I had thought of accepting other work which offered.
He was most insistent about it. “You better stay here, John. Here’s pure air and pure food—none of these artificial kickshaws I hear of folks havin’ nowadays. We smoke our own hams just as we used to do in my grandfather’s time—there’s none better. We buy sugar and rice and coffee and such as that; but I grind my own corn in the little mill there on the creek—reckon I’m the only one who uses it now. And your Aunt runs her loom to this day. Drusilly can, too, but she ‘lows she hates to do it. Girls aren’t what they used to be when I was young!”
It did not seem possible that Uncle Jake had ever been young. His sturdy, stooping frame, his hard, ruddy features were the same at seventy as I remembered them at forty, only the hair, whitened and thinned, was different.
My bedroom was exactly as when I last slept in it, on my one visit to the farm as a boy of fifteen. Drusilla had seemed only a baby then—a slender little five-year old. She had followed me about in silence, with adoring eyes, and I had teased her!—I hated to think of how I had teased her.
The gold in her hair was all dulled and faded, the rose-leaf color of her cheeks had faded, too, and her blue eyes wore a look of weary patience. She worked hard. Her mother was evidently feeble now, and the labor required in that primitive home was considerable.
The old negro brought water from the spring and milked the cows, but all the care of the dairy, the cooking for the family, the knitting and sewing and mending and the sweeping, scrubbing and washing was in the hands of Aunt Dorcas and Drusilla.
She would make her mother sit down and chat with me, while Uncle Jake smoked his cob pipe, but she herself seemed always at work.
“There’s no getting any help nowadays,” said my Uncle. “Even if we needed it. Old Joe there stayed on—he was here before I was born. Joe must be eighty or over—there’s no telling the age of niggers. But the young ones are too uppity for any use. They want to be paid out of all reason, and treated like white folks at that!”
He boasted that he had never worn a shirt or a pair of socks made off the place. “In my father’s time we raised a heap of cotton and sold it. Plenty of niggers then. Now I manage to get enough for my own use, and we spin and weave it on the spot!”
I watched Aunt Dorcas at her wheel and loom, and rubbed my eyes. It was only in the remote mountain regions that these things were done when I was young, and to see it now seemed utterly incredible. But Uncle Jake was proud of it.
“I don’t believe there’s another wheel agoin’ in the whole country,” he said. “The mountains ain’t what they used to be, John. They’ve got the trees all grafted up with new kinds of foolishness—nuts and fruit and one thing’n another—and unheard-of kinds of houses and schools, and play-acting everywhere. I can’t abide it,”
He set his jaw firmly, making the stiff white beard stand out at a sharp angle. “The farm’ll keep us for my time,” he concluded; “but I should hate to have it all ‘reformed’ and torn to pieces after I’m gone.” And he looked meaningly at me.
I lingered on, still enjoying the sense of family affection, but my satisfaction in the things about me slowly cooling.
A cotton quilt was heavier but not so warm as a woolen blanket. Homespun sheets were durable, doubtless, but not comfortable. The bathing to be done in a small steep-sided china basin, with water poured from a pitcher the outlines of which were more concave than convex, was laborious and unsatisfying.
The relish of that “hog and hominy” and the beaten biscuit, the corn pone, the molasses and pork gravy of my youth, wore off as the same viands reappeared on the table from day to day and week to week, and seemed ceaselessly present within me.
It was pleasant to listen to Aunt Dorcas’s gentle reminiscences of the past years, of my father and mother in their youth, of my infancy, and Drusilla’s. She grieved that she had not more to tell. “I never was one to visit much,” she said.
But it was saddening to find that the dear old lady could talk of absolutely nothing else. In all her sixty-eight years she had known nothing else; her father’s home and her husband’s, alike in their contents and in their labors, her own domestic limitations, and those of her neighbors, and her church paper—taken for forty years, and arbitrarily discontinued by Uncle Jake because it had grown too liberal.
“It never seemed over-liberal to me,” she said softly, “and I do miss it. I wouldn’t a’believed ‘Id a’missed anything so much. It used to come every week, and I kept more acquainted with what the rest of this circuit was doing. But your Uncle Jake is so set against liberalism!”
I turned to my cousin for some wider exchange of thoughts, and strove with all the remembered arts of my youth, and all the recently acquired wisdom of my present years, to win her confidence.
It was difficult at first. She was shy with the dumb shyness of an animal; not like a wild animal, frankly curious, not like a hunted animal, which runs away and hides, but like an animal in a menagerie, a sullen, hopeless timidity, due to long restriction. Life had slipped by her, all of it, as far as she knew. She had been an “old maid” for twenty-five years—they call them that in these mountains if they are not married at twenty. Her father’s domineering ways had discouraged most of the few young men she had known, and he had ruthlessly driven away the only one who came near enough to be dismissed.
Then it was only the housework, and caring for her mother as she grew older. The one pleasure of her own she ever had was in her flowers. She had transplanted wild ones, had now and then been given “a slip” by remote neighbors—in past years; and those carefully nurtured blossoms were all that brought color and sweetness into her gray life.
She did not complain. For a long time I could not get her to talk to me at all about herself, and when she did it was without hope or protest. She had practically no education—only a few years in a country school in childhood, and almost no reading, writing, conversation, any sort of knowledge of the life of the world about her.
And here she lived, meek, patient, helpless, with neither complaint nor desire, endlessly working to make comfortable the parents who must some day leave her alone—to what?
My thirty years in Tibet seemed all at once a holiday Compared to this thirty years on an upland farm in the Alleghanies of Carolina. My loss of life—what was it to this loss? I, at least, had never known it, not until I was found and brought back, and she had known it every day and night for thirty years. I had come back at fifty-five, regaining a new youth in a new world. She apparently had had no youth, and now was old—older at forty-five than women of fifty and sixty whom I had met and talked with recently.
I thought of them, those busy, vigorous, eager, active women, of whom no one would ever predicate either youth or age; they were just women, permanently, as men were men. I thought of their wide, free lives, their absorbing work and many minor interests, and the big, smooth, beautiful, moving world in which they lived, and my heart went out to Drusilla as to a baby in a well.
“Look here, Drusilla,” I said to her at last, “I want you to marry me. We’ll go away from here; you shall see something of life, my dear—there’s lot of time yet.”
She raised those quiet blue eyes and looked at me, a long, sweet, searching look, and then shook her head with gentle finality. “O, no,” she said. “Thank you,’ Cousin John, but I could not do that.”
And then, all at once I felt more lonely and out of life than when the first shock met me.
“O, Drusilla!” I begged; “Do-do! Don’t you see, if you won’t have me nobody ever will? I am all alone in the world, Drusilla; the world has all gone away from me! You are the only woman alive who would understand. Dear cousin—dear little girl—you’ll have to marry me—out of pity!” And she did.
Nobody would know Drusilla now. She grew young at a rate that seemed a heavenly miracle. To her the world was like heaven, and, being an angel was natural to her anyway.
I grew to find the world like heaven, too—if only for what it did to Drusilla.
This web edition published by: eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54