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He was named Sidney, for the sake of elegance, just as his parents had for elegance in their Brooklyn parlor a golden-oak combination bookcase, desk, and shield-shaped mirror. But Sidney Dow was descended from generations of Georges and Johns, of Lorens and Lukes and Nathans.
He was little esteemed in the slick bustle of his city school. He seemed a loutish boy, tall and heavy and slow-spoken, and he was a worry to his father. For William Dow was an ambitious parent. Born on a Vermont farm, William felt joyously that he had done well in the great city of Brooklyn. He had, in 1885, when Sidney was born, a real bathroom with a fine tin tub, gas lights, and a handsome phaeton with red wheels, instead of the washtub in the kitchen for Saturday-night baths, the kerosene lamps, and the heavy old buggy which his father still used in Vermont. Instead of being up at 5:30, he could loll abed till a quarter of seven, and he almost never, he chuckled in gratification at his progress, was in his office before a quarter to eight.
But the luxury of a red-wheeled carriage and late lying did not indicate that William’s Yankee shrewdness had been cozened by urban vice, or that he was any less solid and respectable than old George, his own father. He was a deacon in the Universalist church, he still said grace before meals, and he went to the theater only when Ben–Hur was appearing.
For his son, Sidney, William Dow had even larger ambitions. William himself had never gone to high school, and his business was only a cautious real-estate and insurance agency, his home a squatting two-story brick house in a red, monotonous row. But Sidney — he should go to college, he should be a doctor or a preacher or a lawyer, he should travel in Europe, he should live in a three-story graystone house in the Forties in Manhattan, he should have a dress suit and wear it to respectable but expensive hops!
William had once worn dress clothes at an Odd Fellows’ ball, but they had been rented.
To enable Sidney to attain all these graces, William toiled and sacrificed and prayed. American fathers have always been as extraordinary as Scotch fathers in their heroic ambitions for their sons — and sometimes as unscrupulous and as unwise. It bruised William and often it made him naggingly unkind to see that Sidney, the big slug, did not “appreciate how his parents were trying to do for him and give him every opportunity.” When they had a celebrated Columbia Heights physician as guest for dinner, Sidney merely gawked at him and did not at all try to make an impression.
“Suffering cats! You might have been one of your uncles still puttering around with dirty pitchforks back on the farm! What are you going to do with yourself, anyway?” raged William.
“I guess maybe I’d like to be a truck driver,” mumbled Sidney.
Yet, even so, William should not have whipped him. It only made him sulkier.
To Sidney Dow, at sixteen, his eagerest memories were of occasional weeks he had spent with his grandfather and uncles on the Vermont farm, and the last of these was seven years back now. He remembered Vermont as an enchanted place, with curious and amusing animals — cows, horses, turkeys. He wanted to return, but his father seemed to hate the place. Of Brooklyn, Sidney liked nothing save livery stables and occasional agreeable gang fights, with stones inside iced snowballs. He hated school, where he had to cramp his big knees under trifling desks, where irritable lady teachers tried to make him see the importance of A’s going more rapidly than B to the town of X, a town in which he was even less interested than in Brooklyn — school where hour on hour he looked over the top of his geography and stolidly hated the whiskers of Longfellow, Lowell, and Whittier. He hated the stiff, clean collar and the itchy, clean winter underwear connected with Sunday school. He hated hot evenings smelling of tarry pavements, and cold evenings when the pavements were slippery.
But he didn’t know that he hated any of these things. He knew only that his father must be right in saying that he was a bad, disobedient, ungrateful young whelp, and in his heart he was as humble as in his speech he was sullen.
Then, at sixteen, he came to life suddenly, on an early June morning, on his grandfather’s farm. His father had sent him up to Vermont for the summer, had indeed exiled him, saying grimly, “I guess after you live in that tumbledown big old shack and work in the fields and have to get up early, instead of lying abed till your majesty is good and ready to have the girl wait on you — I guess that next fall you’ll appreciate your nice home and school and church here, young man!” So sure of himself was his father that Sidney was convinced he was going to encounter hardship on the farm, and all the way up, in the smarting air of the smoker on the slow train, he wanted to howl. The train arrived at ten in the evening, and he was met by his uncle Rob, a man rugged as a pine trunk and about as articulate.
“Well! Come for the summer!” said Uncle Rob; and after they had driven three miles: “Got new calf — yeh, new calf”; and after a mile more: “Your pa all right?” And that was all the conversation of Uncle Rob.
Seven years it was since Sidney had been in any country wilder than Far Rockaway, and the silent hills of night intimidated him. It was a roaring silence, a silence full of stifled threats. The hills that cut the stars so high up on either side the road seemed walls that would topple and crush him, as a man would crush a mosquito between his two palms. And once he cried out when, in the milky light from the lantern swung beneath the wagon, he saw a porcupine lurch into the road before them. It was dark, chill, unfriendly and, to the boy, reared to the lights and cheery voices of the city, even though he hated them, it was appallingly lonely.
His grandfather’s house was dark when they arrived. Uncle Rob drove into the barn, jerked his thumb at a ladder up to the haymow and muttered, “Y’sleep up there. Not allowed t’ smoke. Take this lantern when we’ve unharnessed. Sure to put it out. No smoking in the barn. Too tired to help?”
Too tired? Sidney would have been glad to work till daylight if Uncle Rob would but stay with him. He was in a panic at the thought of being left in the ghostly barn where, behind the pawing of horses and the nibble of awakened cows, there were the sounds of anonymous wild animals — scratchings, squeaks, patterings overhead. He made the task as slow as possible, though actually he was handy with horses, for the livery stables of Brooklyn had been his favorite refuge and he had often been permitted to help the hostlers, quite free.
“Gee, Uncle Rob, I guess I’m kind of all thumbs about unharnessing and like that. Seven years since I been here on the farm.”
“That so? G’night. Careful of that lantern now. And no smoking!”
The barn was blank as a blind face. The lantern was flickering, and in that witching light the stalls and the heap of sleighs, plows, old harness, at the back wall of the barn were immense and terrifying. The barn was larger than his whole house in Brooklyn, and ten times as large it seemed in the dimness. He could not see clear to the back wall, and he imagined abominable monsters lurking there. He dashed at the ladder up to the haymow, the lantern handle in his teeth and his imitation-leather satchel in one hand.
And the haymow, rising to the darkness of its hand-hewn rafters, seemed vaster and more intimidating than the space below. In one corner a space had been cleared of hay for a cot, with a blanket and a pea-green comforter, and for a chair and a hinged box. Sidney dashed at the cot and crawled into it, waiting only to take off his shoes and jacket. Till the lantern flame died down to a red rim of charred wick, he kept it alight. Then utter darkness leaped upon him.
A rooster crowed, and he startled. Past him things scampered and chittered. The darkness seemed to swing in swift eddies under the rafters, the smell of dry hay choked him — and he awoke to light slipping in silver darts through cracks in the roof, and to jubilant barn swallows diving and twittering.
“Gee, I must have fell asleep!” he thought. He went down the ladder, and now, first, he saw the barn.
Like many people slow of thought and doubtful of speech, Sidney Dow had moments of revelation as complete as those of a prophet, when he beheld a scene or a person or a problem in its entirety, with none of the confusing thoughts of glibber and more clever people with their minds forever running off on many tracks. He saw the barn — really saw it, instead of merely glancing at it, like a normal city boy. He saw that the beams, hand-hewn, gray with sixty years, were beautiful; that the sides of the stalls, polished with rubbing by the shoulders of cattle dead these fifty years, were beautiful; that the harrow, with its trim spikes kept sharp and rustless, was beautiful; that most beautiful of all were the animals — cows and horses, chickens that walked with bobbing heads through the straw, and a calf tethered to the wall. The calf capered with alarm as he approached it; then stood considering him with great eyes, letting him stroke its head and at last licking his hand. He slouched to the door of the barn and looked down the valley. More radiant in that early morning light than even the mountain tops covered with maples and hemlock were the upland clearings with white houses and red barns.
“Gosh, it looks nice! It’s — it’s sort of — it looks nice! I didn’t hardly get it when I was here before. But gee”— with all the scorn of sixteen —“I was just a kid then!”
With Uncle Rob he drove the cows to pasture; with Uncle Ben he plowed; with his grandfather, sourly philanthropic behind his beard, he split wood. He found an even greater menagerie than in the barn — turkeys, geese, ducks, pigs and, in the woods and mowings, an exciting remnant of woodchucks, chipmunks, rabbits, and infrequent deer. With all of them — uncles and grandfather, beasts, wild or tame — he felt at home. They did not expect him to chatter and show off, as had his gang in Brooklyn; they accepted him. That, perhaps, more than any ancestral stoutness, more than the beauty of the land, made a farmer of him. He was a natural hermit, and here he could be a hermit without seeming queer.
And a good farmer he was — slow but tireless, patient, unannoyed by the endless work, happy to go to bed early and be up at dawn. For a few days his back felt as though he were burning at the stake, but after that he could lift all day in the hayfield or swing the scythe or drive the frisky young team. He was a good farmer, and he slept at night. The noises which on his first night had fretted his city-tortured nerves were soporific now, and when he heard the sound of a distant train, the barking of a dog on the next farm, he inarticulately told himself that they were lovely.
“You’re pretty fair at working,” said Uncle Rob, and that was praise almost hysterical.
Indeed, in one aspect of labor, Sidney was better than any of them, even the pine-carved Uncle Rob. He could endure wet dawns, wild winds, all-day drenching. It seems to be true that farmers are more upset by bad weather than most outdoor workers — sailors, postmen, carpenters, brakemen, teamsters. Perhaps it is because they are less subject to higher authority; except for chores and getting in the hay, they can more nearly do things in their own time, and they build up a habit of taking shelter on nasty days. Whether or no, it was true that just the city crises that had vexed Sidney, from icy pavements to sudden fire alarms, had given him the ability to stand discomforts and the unexpected, like a little Cockney surprisingly stolid in the trenches.
He learned the silent humor of the authentic Yankee. Evenings he sat with neighbors on the bench before the general store. To a passing stranger they seemed to be saying nothing, but when the stranger had passed, Uncle Rob would drawl, “Well, if I had fly nets on my hosses, guess I’d look stuck-up too!” and the others would chuckle with contempt at the alien.
This, thought Sidney, was good talk — not like the smart gabble of the city. It was all beautiful, and he knew it, though in his vocabulary there was no such word as “beautiful,” and when he saw the most flamboyant sunset he said only, “Guess going to be clear tomorrow.”
And so he went back to Brooklyn, not as to his home but as to prison, and as a prison corridor he saw the narrow street with little houses like little cells.
Five minutes after he had entered the house, his father laughed. “Well, did you get enough of farming? I guess you’ll appreciate your school now! I won’t rub it in, but I swear, how Rob and Ben can stand it —”
“I kind of liked it, Dad. I think I’ll be a farmer. I— kind of liked it.”
His father had black side whiskers, and between them he had thin cheeks that seemed, after Uncle Rob and Uncle Ben, pallid as the under side of a toadstool. They flushed now, and William shouted:
“You’re an idiot! What have I done to have a son who is an idiot? The way I’ve striven and worked and economized to give you a chance to get ahead, to do something worth while, and then you want to slip right back and be ordinary, like your uncles! So you think you’d like it! You’re a fool! Sure you like it in summer, but if you knew it like I do — rousted out to do the chores five o’clock of a January morning, twenty below zero, and maybe have to dig through two feet of snow to get to the barn! Have to tramp down to the store, snowstorm so thick you can’t see five feet in front of you!”
“I don’t guess I’d mind it much.”
“Oh, you don’t! Don’t be a fool! And no nice company like here — go to bed with the chickens, a winter night, and no nice lodge meeting or church supper or lectures like there is here!”
“Don’t care so much for those things. Everybody talking all the while. I like it quiet, like in the country.”
“Well, you will care so much for those things, or I’ll care you, my fine young man! I’m not going to let you slump back into being a rube like Ben, and don’t you forget it! I’ll make you work at your books! I’ll make you learn to appreciate good society and dressing proper and getting ahead in the world and amounting to something! Yes, sir, amounting to something! Do you think for one moment that after the struggle I’ve gone through to give you a chance — the way I studied in a country school and earned my way through business college and went to work at five dollars a week in a real-estate office and studied and economized and worked late, so I could give you this nice house and advantages and opportunity — No, sir! You’re going to be a lawyer or a doctor or somebody that amounts to something, and not a rube!”
It would have been too much to expect of Sidney’s imagination that he should have seen anything fine and pathetic in William’s fierce ambition. That did not move him, but rather fear. He could have broken his father in two, but the passion in this blenched filing-case of a man was such that it hypnotized him.
For days, miserably returned to high school, he longed for the farm. But his mother took him aside and begged: “You mustn’t oppose your father so, dearie. He knows what’s best for you, and it would just break his heart if he thought you were going to be a common person and not have something to show for all his efforts.”
So Sidney came to feel that it was some wickedness in him that made him prefer trees and winds and meadows and the kind cattle to trolley cars and offices and people who made little, flat, worried jokes all day long.
He barely got through high school. His summer vacations he spent in warehouses, hoisting boxes. He failed to enter medical school, botched his examinations shockingly — feeling wicked at betraying his father’s ambitions — and his father pushed him into a second-rate dental school with sketchy requirements, a school now blessedly out of existence.
“Maybe you’d be better as a dentist anyway. Requires a lot of manipulation, and I will say you’re good with your hands,” his father said, in relief that now Sidney was on the highway to fortune and respectability.
But Sidney’s hands, deft with hammer and nails, with reins or hoe or spade, were too big, too awkward for the delicate operations of dentistry. And in school he hated the long-winded books with their queer names and shocking colored plates of man’s inwards. The workings of a liver did not interest him. He had never seen a liver, save that of a slain chicken. He would turn from these mysteries to a catalogue of harvesting machinery or vegetable seed. So with difficulty he graduated from this doubtful school, and he was uneasy at the pit of his stomach, even when his father, much rejoicing now, bought for him a complete dental outfit, and rented an office, on the new frontier of the Bronx, in the back part of a three-story redbrick apartment house.
His father and mother invited their friends over from Brooklyn to admire the office, and served them coffee and cake. Not many of them came, which was well, for the office was not large. It was really a single room, divided by a curtain to make a reception hall. The operating room had pink-calcimined walls and, for adornment, Sidney’s diploma and a calendar from a dental supply house which showed, with no apparent appropriateness, a view of Pike’s Peak.
When they had all gone, mouthing congratulations, Sidney looked wistfully out on the old pasture land which, fifteen years later, was to be filled solidly with tall, cheap apartment houses and huge avenues with delicatessen shops and movie palaces. Already these pastures were doomed and abandoned. Cows no longer grazed there. Gaunt billboards lined the roads and behind their barricades were unkempt waste lands of ashes and sodden newspapers. But they were open grass, and they brought back the valleys and uplands of Vermont. His great arms were hungry for the strain of plowing, and he sighed and turned back to his shining new kit of tools.
The drill he picked up was absurd against his wide red palm. All at once he was certain that he knew no dentistry, and that he never would; that he would botch every case; that dreadful things would happen — suits for malpractice —
Actually, as a few and poorly paying neighborhood patients began to come in, the dreadful things didn’t happen. Sidney was slow, but he was careful; if he did no ingenious dental jeweling, he did nothing wrong. He learned early what certain dentists and doctors never learn — that nature has not yet been entirely supplanted by the professions. It was not his patients who suffered; it was he.
All day long to have to remain indoors, to stand in one place, bent over gaping mouths, to fiddle with tiny instruments, to produce unctuous sounds of sympathy for cranks who complained of trivial aches, to try to give brisk and confident advice which was really selling talk — all this tortured him.
Then, within one single year, his mother died, his grandfather died on the Vermont farm, Uncle Rob and Uncle Ben moved West, and Sidney met the most wonderful girl in the world. The name of this particular most wonderful girl in the world, who unquestionably had more softness and enchantment and funny little ways of saying things than Helen of Troy, was Mabelle Ellen Pflugmann, and she was cultured; she loved the theater, but rarely attended it; loved also the piano, but hadn’t time, she explained, to keep up her practice, because, her father’s laundry being in a state of debility, for several years she had temporarily been cashier at the Kwiturwurry Lunch.
They furnished a four-room apartment and went to Vermont for their honeymoon. His grandfather’s farm — Sidney wasn’t quite sure just who had bought it — was rented out to what the neighborhood considered foreigners — that is, Vermonters from way over beyond the Ridge, fifteen miles away. They took in Sidney and Mabelle. She enjoyed it. She told how sick she had become of the smell and dish clatter of the ole lunch and the horrid customers who were always trying to make love to her. She squealed equally over mountains and ducklings, sunsets and wild strawberries, and as for certain inconveniences — washing with a pitcher and bowl, sleeping in a low room smelling of the chicken run, and having supper in the kitchen with the menfolks in shirt sleeves — she said it was just too darling for words — it was, in fact, sweet. But after ten days of the fortnight on which they had planned, she thought perhaps they had better get back to New York and make sure all the furniture had arrived.
They were happy in marriage. Mabelle saw him, and made him see himself, as a man strong and gallant but shy and blundering. He needed mothering, she said, and he got it and was convinced that he liked it. He was less gruff with his patients, and he had many more of them, for Mabelle caused him to be known socially. Till marriage he had lived in a furnished room, and all evening he had prowled alone, or read dentistry journals and seed catalogues. Now Mabelle arranged jolly little parties — beer and Welsh rabbit and a game of five hundred. If at the Kwiturwurry Lunch she had met many light fellows, West Farms Lotharios, she had also met estimable but bohemian families of the neighborhood — big traveling men whose territory took them as far west as Denver, assistant buyers from the downtown department stores, and the office manager of a large insurance agency.
Mabelle, a chatelaine now, wanted to shine among them, and wanted Sidney to shine. And he, feeling a little cramped in a new double-breasted blue serge coat, solemnly served the beer, and sometimes a guest perceived that here was an honest and solid dentist upon whom to depend. And once they gave a theater party — six seats at a vaudeville house.
Yet Sidney was never, when he awoke mornings, excited about the adventure of standing with bent, aching shoulders over patients all this glorious coming day.
They had two children in three years and began to worry a little about the rent bill and the grocery bill, and Sidney was considerably less independent with grumbling patients than he had been. His broad shoulders had a small stoop, and he said quite humbly, “Well, I’ll try my best to fix ’em to your satisfaction, Mrs. Smallberg,” and sometimes his thick fingers tapped nervously on his chin as he talked. And he envied now, where once he had despised them, certain dental-school classmates who knew little of dentistry, but who were slick dressers and given to verbal chuckings under the chin, who had made money and opened three-room offices with chintz chairs in the waiting room. Sidney still had his old office, with no assistant, and the jerry-built tenement looked a little shabby now beside the six-story apartment houses of yellow brick trimmed with marble which had sprung up all about it.
Then their children, Rob and Willabette, were eight and six years old, and Mabelle began to nag Sidney over the children’s lack of clothes as pretty as those of their lovely little friends at school.
And his dental engine — only a treadle affair at that — was worn out. And his elbows were always shiny. And in early autumn his father died.
His father died, muttering, “You’ve been a good boy, Sid, and done what I told you to. You can understand and appreciate now why I kept you from being just a farmer and gave you a chance to be a professional man. I don’t think Mabelle comes from an awful good family, but she’s a spunky little thing, and real bright, and she’ll keep you up to snuff. Maybe some day your boy will be a great, rich banker or surgeon. Keep him away from his Vermont relations — no ambition, those folks. My chest feels so tight! Bless you, Sid!”
He was his father’s sole heir. When the will was read in the shabby lawyer’s office in Brooklyn, he was astonished to find that his father had still owned — that he himself now owned — the ancestral Vermont home. His slow-burning imagination lighted. He was touched by the belief that his father, for all his pretended hatred of the place, had cherished it and had wanted his son to own it. Not till afterward did he learn from Uncle Rob that William, when his own father had died, had, as eldest son, been given the choice of the farm or half the money in the estate, and had taken the farm to keep Sidney away from it. He had been afraid that if his brothers had it they would welcome Sidney as a partner before he became habituated as a dentist. But in his last days, apparently, William felt that Sidney was safely civilized now and caught. With the farm Sidney inherited some three thousand dollars — not more, for the Brooklyn home was mortgaged.
Instantly and ecstatically, while the lawyer droned senseless advice, Sidney decided to go home. The tenant on his farm — his! — had only two months more on his lease. He’d take it over. The three thousand dollars would buy eight cows — well, say ten — with a cream separator, a tractor, a light truck, and serve to put the old buildings into condition adequate for a few years. He’d do the repairing himself! He arched his hands with longing for the feel of a hammer or a crowbar.
In the hall outside the lawyer’s office, Mabelle crowed: “Isn’t it — oh, Sid, you do know how sorry I am your father’s passed on, but won’t it be just lovely! The farm must be worth four thousand dollars. We’ll be just as sensible as can be — not blow it all in, like lots of people would. We’ll invest the seven thousand, and that ought to give us three hundred and fifty dollars a year — think of it, an extra dollar every day! You can get a dress suit now, and at last I’ll have some decent dresses for the evening, and we’ll get a new suit for Rob right away — how soon can you get the money? did he say? — and I saw some lovely little dresses for Willabette and the cutest slippers, and now we can get a decent bridge table instead of that rickety old thing, and —”
As she babbled, which she did, at length, on the stairs down from the office, Sidney realized wretchedly that it was going to take an eloquence far beyond him to convert her to farming and the joys of the land. He was afraid of her, as he had been of his father.
“There’s a drug store over across. Let’s go over and have an ice-cream soda,” he said mildly. “Gosh, it’s hot for September! Up on the farm now it would be cool, and the leaves are just beginning to turn. They’re awful pretty — all red and yellow.”
“Oh, you and your old farm!” But in her joy she was amiable.
They sat at the bright-colored little table in the drug store, with cheery colored drinks between them. But the scene should have been an ancient castle at midnight, terrible with wind and lightning, for suddenly they were not bright nor cheery, but black with tragedy.
There was no manner of use in trying to cajole her. She could never understand how he hated the confinement of his dental office; she would say, “Why, you get the chance of meeting all sorts of nice, interesting people, while I have to stay home,” and not perceive that he did not want to meet nice, interesting people. He wanted silence and the smell of earth! And he was under her spell as he had been under his father’s. Only violently could he break it. He spoke softly enough, looking at the giddy marble of the soda counter, but he spoke sternly:
“Look here, May. This is our chance. You bet your sweet life we’re going to be sensible and not blow in our stake! And we’re not going to blow it in on a lot of clothes and a lot of fool bridge parties for a lot of fool folks that don’t care one red hoot about us except what they get out of us! For that matter, if we were going to stay on in New York —”
“Which we most certainly are, young man!”
“Will you listen to me? I inherited this dough, not you! Gee, I don’t want to be mean, May, but you got to listen to reason, and as I’m saying, if we were going to stay in the city, the first thing I’d spend money for would be a new dental engine — an electric one.
“Need it like the mischief — lose patients when they see me pumping that old one and think I ain’t up-to-date — which I ain’t, but that’s no skin off their nose!”
Even the volatile Mabelle was silent at the unprecedented length and vigor of his oration.
“But we’re not going to stay. No, sir! We’re going back to the old farm, and the kids will be brought up in the fresh air instead of a lot of alleys. Go back and farm it —”
She exploded then, and as she spoke she looked at him with eyes hot with hatred, the first hatred he had ever known in her:
“Are you crazy? Go back to that hole? Have my kids messing around a lot of manure and dirty animals and out working in the hayfield like a lot of cattle? And attend a little one-room school with a boob for a teacher? And play with a lot of nitwit brats? Not on your life they won’t! I’ve got some ambition for ’em, even if you haven’t!”
“Why, May, I thought you liked Vermont and the farm! You were crazy about it on our honeymoon, and you said —”
“I did not! I hated it even then. I just said I liked it to make you happy. That stifling little bedroom, and kerosene lamps, and bugs, and no bathroom, and those fools of farmers in their shirt sleeves — Oh, it was fierce! If you go, you go without the kids and me! I guess I can still earn a living! And I guess there’s still plenty of other men would like to marry me when I divorce you! And I mean it!”
She did, and Sidney knew she did. He collapsed as helplessly as he had with his father.
“Well, of course, if you can’t stand it —” he muttered.
“Well, I’m glad you’re beginning to come to your senses! Honest, I think you were just crazy with the heat! But listen, here’s what I’ll do: I won’t kick about your getting the electric dental doodingus if it don’t cost too much. Now how do you go about selling the farm?”
There began for this silent man a secret life of plotting and of lies. Somehow — he could not see how — he must persuade her to go to the farm. Perhaps she would die — But he was shocked at this thought, for he loved her and believed her to be the best woman living, as conceivably she may have been. But he did not obey her and sell the farm. He lied. He told her that a Vermont real-estate dealer had written that just this autumn there was no market for farms, but next year would be excellent. And the next year he repeated the lie, and rented the farm to Uncle Rob, who had done well enough on Iowa cornland but was homesick for the hills and sugar groves and placid maples of Vermont. Himself, Sidney did not go to the farm. It was not permitted.
Mabelle was furious that he had not sold, that they had only the three thousand — which was never invested — for clothes and bridge prizes and payments on the car and, after a good deal of irritated talk, his electric dental engine.
If he had always been sullenly restless in his little office, now he was raging. He felt robbed. The little back room, the view — not even of waste land now, but of the center of a cheap block and the back of new tenements — the anguish of patients, which crucified his heavy, unspoken sympathy for them, and that horrible, unending series of wide-stretched mouths and bad molars and tongues — it was intolerable. He thought of meadows scattered with daisies and devil’s-paintbrush, of dark, healing thundershowers pouring up the long valley. He must go home to the land!
From the landlord who owned his office he got, in the spring a year and a half after his father’s death, the right to garden a tiny patch amid the litter and cement areaways in the center of the block. Mabelle laughed at him, but he stayed late every evening to cultivate each inch of his pocket paradise — a large man, with huge feet, setting them carefully down in a plot ten feet square.
The earth understood him, as it does such men, and before the Long Island market gardeners had anything to display, Sidney had a row of beautiful radish plants. A dozen radishes, wrapped in a tabloid newspaper, he took home one night, and he said vaingloriously to Mabelle, “You’ll never get any radishes like these in the market! Right out of our own garden!”
She ate one absently. He braced himself to hear a jeering “You and your old garden!” What he did hear was, in its uncaring, still worse: “Yes, they’re all right, I guess.”
He’d show her! He’d make her see him as a great farmer! And with that ambition he lost every scruple. He plotted. And this was the way of that plotting:
Early in July he said, and casually, “Well, now we got the darn car all paid for, we ought to use it. Maybe we might take the kids this summer and make a little tour for a couple weeks or so.”
She sounded suspicious, and in his newborn guile he droned, “Oh, wherever you’d like. I hear it’s nice up around Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes. Maybe come back by way of Pennsylvania, and see Valley Forge and all them famous historical sites.”
“Well, yes, perhaps. The Golheims made a tour last summer and — they make me sick! — they never stop talking about it.”
They went. And Mabelle enjoyed it. She was by no means always a nagger and an improver; she was so only when her interests or what she deemed the interests of her children were threatened. She made jokes about the towns through which they passed — any community of less than fifty thousand was to her New Yorkism a “hick hole”— and she even sang jazz and admired his driving, which was bad.
They had headed north, up the Hudson. At Glens Falls he took the highway to the right, instead of left toward the Great Lakes, and she, the city girl, the urban rustic, to whom the only directions that meant anything were East Side and West Side as applied to New York, did not notice, and she was still unsuspicious when he grumbled. “Looks to me like I’d taken the wrong road.” Stopping at a filling station, he demanded, “How far is it to Lake George? We ought to be there now.”
“Well, stranger, way you’re headed, it’ll be about twenty-five thousand miles. You’re going plumb in the wrong direction.”
“I’ll be darned! Where are we? Didn’t notice the name of the last town we went through.”
“You’re about a mile from Fair Haven.”
“Well, I’ll be darned! Just think of that! Can’t even be trusted to stay in one state and not skid across the border line!”
Mabelle was looking suspicious, and he said with desperate gayety, “Say, do you know what, May? We’re only forty miles from our farm! Let’s go have a look at it.” Mabelle made a sound of protest, but he turned to the children, in the back seat amid a mess of suitcases and tools and a jack and spare inner tubes, and gloated, “Wouldn’t you kids like to see the farm where I worked as a kid — where your grandfather and great-grandfather were born? And see your Granduncle Rob? And see all the little chicks, and so on?”
“Oh, yes!” they shrilled together.
With that enthusiasm from her beloved young, with the smart and uniformed young filling-station attendant listening, Mabelle’s talent for being righteous and indignant was gagged. Appearances! She said lightly to the filling-station man, “The doctor just doesn’t seem to be able to keep the road at all, does he? Well, Doctor, shall we get started?”
Even when they had gone on and were alone and ready for a little sound domestic quarreling, she merely croaked, “Just the same, it seems mighty queer to me!” And after another mile of brooding, while Sidney drove silently and prayed: “Awfully queer!”
But he scarcely heard her. He was speculating, without in the least putting it into words, “I wonder if in the early summer evenings the fireflies still dart above the meadows? I wonder if the full moon, before it rises behind the hemlocks and sugar maples along the Ridge, still casts up a prophetic glory? I wonder if sleepy dogs still bark across the valley? I wonder if the night breeze slips through the mowing? I, who have for fortress and self-respect only a stuffy office room — I wonder if there are still valleys and stars and the quiet night? Or was that all only the dream of youth?”
They slept at Rutland, Sidney all impatient of the citified hotel bedroom. It was at ten in the morning — he drove in twenty minutes the distance which thirty years ago had taken Uncle Rob an hour and a half — that he drove up to the white house where, since 1800, the Dows had been born.
He could see Uncle Rob with the hayrake in the south mowing, sedately driving the old team and ignoring the visitors.
“I guess he prob’ly thinks we’re bootleggers,” chuckled Sidney. “Come on, you kids! Here’s where your old daddy worked all one summer! Let’s go! . . . Thirsty? Say, I’ll give you a drink of real spring water — not none of this chlorinated city stuff! And we’ll see the menagerie.”
Before he had finished, Rob and Willabette had slipped over the rear doors of the car and were looking down into the valley with little sounds of excitement. Sidney whisked out almost as quickly as they, while Mabelle climbed down with the dignity suitable to a dweller in the Bronx. He ignored her. He clucked his children round the house to the spring-fed well and pumped a bucket of water.
“Oh, it’s so cold, Daddy. It’s swell!” said Rob.
“You bet your life it’s cold and swell. Say! Don’t use words like ‘swell’! They’re common. But hell with that! Come on, you brats! I’ll show you something!”
There were kittens, and two old, grave, courteous cats. There was a calf — heaven knows by how many generations it was descended from the calf that on a June morning, when Sidney was sixteen, had licked his fingers. There were ducklings, and young turkeys with feathers grotesquely scattered over their skins like palm trees in a desert, and unexpected more kittens, and an old, brown-and-white, tail-wagging dog, and a pen of excited little pigs.
The children squealed over all of them until Mabelle caught up, puffing a little.
“Well,” she said, “the kits are kind of cute, ain’t they?” Then, darkly: “Now that you’ve got me here, Sid, with your plans and all!”
Uncle Rob crept up, snarling, “What you folks want? . . . By gracious, if it ain’t Sid! This your wife and children? Well, sir!”
It was, Sidney felt, the climax of his plot, and he cried to his son, “Rob! This is your granduncle, that you were named for. How’d you like to stay here on the farm instead of in New York?”
“Hot dog! I’d love it! Them kittens and the li’l’ ducks! Oh, they’re the berries! You bet I’d like to stay!”
“Oh, I’d love it!” gurgled his sister.
“You would not!” snapped Mabelle. “With no bathroom?”
“We could put one in,” growled Sidney.
“On what? On all the money you’d make growing orchids and bananas here, I guess! You kids — how’d you like to walk two miles to school, through the snow, in winter?”
“Oh, that would be slick! Maybe we could kill a deer,” said young Rob.
“Yes, and maybe a field mouse could kill you, you dumb-bell! Sure! Lovely! All evening with not a dog-gone thing to do after supper!”
“Why, we’d go to the movies! Do you go to the movies often, Granduncle Rob?”
“Well, afraid in winter you wouldn’t get to go to the movies at all. Pretty far into town,” hesitated Uncle Rob.
“Not — go — to — the — movies?” screamed the city children, incredulous. It was the most terrible thing they had ever heard of.
Rob, Jr., mourned, “Oh, gee, that wouldn’t be so good! Say, how do the hicks learn anything if they don’t go to the movies? But still, we could go in the summer, Ma, and in the winter it would be elegant, with sliding and hunting and everything. I’d love it!”
Mabelle cooked supper, banging the pans a good deal and emitting opinions of a house that had no porcelain sink, no water taps, no refrigerator, no gas or electricity. She was silent through supper, silent as Sidney, silent as Uncle Rob. But Sidney was exultant. With the children for allies, he would win. And the children themselves, they were hysterical. Until Mabelle screamed for annoyance; they leaped up from the table, to come back with the most unspeakable and unBronxian objects — a cat affectionately carried by his hind leg, but squealing with misunderstanding of the affection, a dead mole, an unwiped oil can, a muck-covered spade.
“But, Mother,” they protested, “in the city you never find anything, except maybe a dead lemon.”
She shooed them off to bed at eight; herself, sniffily, she disappeared at nine, muttering to Sidney, “I hope you and your boy friend, Uncle Rob, chew the rag all night and get it out of your systems!”
He was startled, for indeed the next step of his plot did concern Uncle Rob and secret parleys.
For half an hour he walked the road, almost frightened by the intensity of stillness. He could fancy catamounts in the birch clumps. But between spasms of skittish city nerves he stretched out his arms, arched back his hands, breathed consciously. This was not just air, necessary meat for the lungs; it was a spirit that filled him.
He knew that he must not tarry after 9:30 for his intrigue with Uncle Rob. Uncle Rob was seventy-five, and in seventy-five times three hundred and sixty-five evenings he had doubtless stayed up later than 9:30 o’clock several times — dancing with the little French Canuck girls at Potsdam Forge as a young man, sitting up with a sick cow since then, or stuck in the mud on his way back from Sunday-evening meeting. But those few times were epochal. Uncle Rob did not hold with roistering and staying up till all hours just for the vanities of the flesh.
Sidney crept up the stairs to Uncle Rob’s room.
Mabelle and Sidney had the best bedroom, on the ground floor; young Rob and Bette had Grampa’s room, on the second; Uncle Rob lived in the attic.
City folks might have wondered why Uncle Rob, tenant and controller of the place, should have hidden in the attic, with three good bedrooms below him. It was simple. Uncle Rob had always lived there since he was a boy.
Up the narrow stairs, steep as a rock face, Sidney crept, and knocked.
“Who’s there!” A sharp voice, a bit uneasy. How many years was it since Uncle Rob had heard anyone knock at his bedroom door?
“It’s me, Rob — Sid.”
“Oh, well — well, guess you can come in. Wait ‘ll I unlock the door.”
Sidney entered his uncle’s room for the first time in his life. The hill people, anywhere in the world, do not intrude or encourage intrusion.
Perhaps to fastidious and alien persons Uncle Rob’s room would have seemed unlovely. It was lighted by a kerosene lamp, smoking a little, with the wick burned down on one side. There was, for furniture, only a camp cot, with a kitchen chair, a washstand and a bureau. But to make up for this paucity, the room was rather littered. On the washstand, beside a pitcher dry from long disuse, there were a mail-order catalogue, a few packets of seed, a lone overshoe, a ball of twine, a bottle of applejack, and a Spanish War veteran’s medal. The walls and ceiling were of plaster so old that they showed in black lines the edges of every lath.
And Sidney liked it — liked the simplicity, liked the freedom from neatness and order and display, liked and envied the old-bach quality of it all.
Uncle Rob, lying on the bed, had prepared for slumber by removing his shoes and outer clothing. He blinked at Sidney’s amazing intrusion, but he said amiably enough, “Well, boy?”
“Uncle Rob, can’t tell you how glad I am to be back at the old place!”
“Look, I— Golly, I feel skittish as a young colt! Hardly know the old doc, my patients wouldn’t! Rob, you got to help me. Mabelle don’t want to stay here and farm it — maybe me and you partners, eh? But the kids and I are crazy to. How I hate that ole city! So do the kids.”
“Sure they do. Didn’t you hear how they said they wouldn’t mind tramping to school and not having any movies?”
“Sid, maybe you’ll understand kids when you get to be a granddad. Kids will always agree with anything that sounds exciting. Rob thinks it would be dandy to hoof it two miles through the snow to school. He won’t! Not once he’s done it!” Uncle Rob thrust his hands behind his skinny, bark-brown old neck on the maculate pillow. He was making perhaps the longest oration of his life. The light flickered, and a spider moved indignantly in its web in a corner. “No,” said Uncle Rob, “he won’t like it. I never did. And the schoolmaster used to lick me. I hated it, crawling through that snow and then get licked because you’re late. And jiminy — haven’t thought of it for thirty years, I guess, maybe forty, but I remember how some big fellow would dare you to put your tongue to your lunch pail, and it was maybe thirty below, and your tongue stuck to it and it took the hide right off! No, I never liked any of it, especially chores.”
“Rob, listen! I’m serious! The kids will maybe kind of find it hard at first, but they’ll get to like it, and they’ll grow up real folks and not city saps. It’ll be all right with them. I’ll see to that. It’s Mabelle. Listen, Rob, I’ve got a swell idea about her, and I want you to help me. You get hold of the ladies of the township — the Grange members and the Methodist ladies and like that. You tell ’em Mabelle is a swell city girl, and it would be dandy for the neighborhood if they could get her to stay here. She’s grand, but she does kind of fall for flattery, and in the Bronx she ain’t so important, and if these ladies came and told her they thought she was the cat’s pajamas, maybe she’d fall for it, and then I guess maybe she might stay, if the ladies came —”
Uncle Rob had been rubbing his long and prickly chin and curling his toes in his gray socks.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, first place, the ladies round here would be onto your Mabelle. They ain’t so backwoods as they was in your time. Take Mrs. Craig. Last three winters, her and her husband, Frank, have packed up the flivver and gone to Florida. But that ain’t it. Fact is, Sid, I kind of sympathize with Mabelle.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I never was strong for farming. Hard life, Sid. Always thought I’d like to keep store or something in the city. You forget how hard the work is here. You with your easy job, just filling a few teeth! No, I can’t help you, Sid.”
“I see. All right. Sorry for disturbing you.”
As he crept downstairs in bewilderment, Sidney prayed — he who so rarely prayed —“O Lord, doesn’t anybody but me love the land any more? What is going to happen to us? Why, all our life comes from the land!”
He knew that in the morning he would beg Mabelle to stay for a fortnight — and that she would not stay. It was his last night here. So all night long, slow and silent, he walked the country roads, looking at hemlock branches against the sky, solemnly shaking his head and wondering why he could never rid himself of this sinfulness of longing for the land; why he could never be grown-up and ambitious and worthy, like his father and Mabelle and Uncle Rob.
This web edition published by:
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University of Adelaide
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