All things make me glad, and sorry too
All things make me glad, and sorry too
By the time he was nineteen Vance Weston had graduated from the College of Euphoria, Illinois, where his parents then lived, had spent a week in Chicago, invented a new religion, and edited for a few months a college magazine called Getting There, to which he had contributed several love poems and a series of iconoclastic essays. He had also been engaged for a whole week to the inspirer of the poems, a girl several years older than himself called Floss Delaney, who was the somewhat blown-upon daughter of an unsuccessful real estate man living in a dejected outskirt of the town.
Having soared to these heights, and plumbed these depths, it now remained to young Weston to fix upon the uses to which his varied aptitudes and experiences could most advantageously be put.
Of all the events so far befalling him, none seemed to Vance Weston as important as having invented a new religion. He had been born into a world in which everything had been, or was being, renovated, and it struck him as an anomaly that all the religions he had heard of had been in existence ever since he could remember; that is, at least sixteen years. This seemed to him the more unaccountable because religion, of one sort or another, seemed to play a considerable, if rather spasmodic or intermittent, part in the lives of most of the people he knew, and because, from the first dawn of consciousness, he had heard everybody adjuring everybody else not to get into a rut, but to go ahead with the times, as behoved all good Americans.
The evolution of his own family was in its main lines that of most of the families he had known. Since the time of Mrs. Weston's marriage, when Grandma was teaching school at Pruneville, Nebraska, and the whole family depended on her earnings, till now, when she and Grandfather took their ease in an eight-room Colonial cottage in a suburb of Euphoria, and people came from as far as Chicago to consult Mr. Weston about real estate matters, the family curve had been continually upward. Lorin Weston, who had wandered out to Pruneville to try and pick up a job on the local newspaper, had immediately seen the real estate possibilities of that lamentable community, had put his last penny into a bit of swampy land near the future railway station, got out at a big rise when the railway came, and again plumped his all on another lot of land near where his mother-in-law had found out that the new high school was to be built. Then there had come a stagnant period in the development of Pruneville, and Mr. Weston had moved his wife and young family to Hallelujah, Mo., where he had repeated the same experiment with increasing profit. While he was there, a real estate man from Advance came over to take a look round, talked to Weston about Advance, and awakened his curiosity. To Advance the family went, compensated by a bigger and better house for the expense of having to leave Hallelujah. At Advance the Weston son and heir was born, and named after his birthplace, which had deserved well of Mr. Weston, since he was able, when Vance was nine or ten, to leave there for Euphoria, buy up nearly the whole of the Pig Lane side of the town, turn it into the Mapledale suburb, and build himself a house with lawn, garage, sleeping porch and sun parlour, which was photographed for the architectural papers, and made Mrs. Weston the envy of the Alsop Avenue church sewing circle. Even Grandma Scrimser, who had never been much of a hand at making or keeping money, and was what the minister of the Alsop Avenue church called "idealistic," did not question the importance of material prosperity, or the value of Mr. Weston's business "brightness," and somewhere in the big lumber room of her mind had found a point where otherworldliness and "pep" lay down together in amity.
This being so—and such phrases as "back number," "down and out," "out of the running," and the like having never been used in young Vance's hearing save in a pejorative sense—he wondered how it was that the enlightened millions, with whom it was a sign of "pep" and prosperity to go in for almost annual turnovers in real estate, stocks, automobiles, wives and husbands, were content to put up year after year with the same religion, or religions rather, since nearly everybody he knew had a different one.
Vance Weston, in truth, could not dissociate stability from stagnation, any more in religion than in business. All the people he had heard of who hadn't got a move on at the right minute, in whatever direction, were down and out. Even the most high-minded among the ministers admitted this, and emphasized religion as the greatest known shortcut to Success. (If you'd come and join their Sunday evening classes for young men, and subscribe to Zion's Spotlight, you'd find out why.) Yet, in spite of this, nobody had managed, in Vance Weston's lifetime, to evolve a new religion, and they were all still trying to catch a new generation with the old bait.
Thinking about religion ran in Vance's family—at least on his mother's side. Grandma Scrimser had always cared about it more than about anything else. At sixty-five she was still a magnificent-looking woman, rather like pictures of a German prima donna made up as a Walkyrie; with stormy black eyebrows, short yellowish-white hair (years before the young ones began to be bobbed), and a broad uncertain frame which reminded Vance (after he had acquired lights on modern art) of a figure by an artist who had genius but didn't know how to draw.
As a girl Grandma was said to have been gloriously beautiful; and Vance could well believe it. Indeed, she made no secret of it herself—why should she, when she regarded it only as an inconvenient accident, a troublesome singularity, and (she had been known to admit in confidential moments) an obstacle to Grandpa Scrimser's advance to Perfection? Perfection was Grandma's passion—ladies were Grandpa's. While his wife was young her beauty might have served to circumscribe his yearnings if only she had chosen to make use of it. But the idea of beauty as a gift to be used, trained, exercised, and directed was to her not so much immoral as unintelligible. She regarded herself as afflicted with a Greek nose, masses of wavy amber hair, and a richly glowing dusky complexion, as other women might have borne the cross of a birthmark or a crooked spine. She could not understand "what people saw in it," or in the joys to which it was the golden gateway. As to these joys she professed a contemptuous incredulity. What she wanted was to reform the world; and beauty and passion were but hindrances to her purpose. She wanted to reform everything—it didn't particularly matter what: cooking, marriage, religion (of course religion), dentistry, saloons, corsets—even Grandpa. Grandpa used to complain that in cooking she had never got very far on the way to Perfection—only just far enough to give him dyspepsia. But since she would not indulge his conjugal sentiments unduly he was grateful that at least the pursuit of Perfection left her little time to investigate his private affairs; so that, on the whole, the marriage was accounted a happy one, and the four children born of it were taught to revere both parents, though for different reasons. Grandma, of course, was revered for being a mother in Israel; Grandpa for having once made a successful real estate deal, and for being the best Fourth of July orator anywhere in Drake County. They were a magnificent-looking couple, too, and when Old Home Weeks began to be inaugurated throughout the land, Mr. and Mrs. Scrimser were in great demand in tableaux representing The Old Folks at Home, Mrs. Scrimser spinning by the kitchen hearth, and Grandpa (with his new set removed, to bring out his likeness to George Washington) leaning on a silver-headed crutch stick, his nutcracker chin reposing on a spotless stock. But Grandma liked better figuring as the Pioneer Wife in a log cabin, with Grandpa (the new set in place again) garbed in a cowpuncher's rig, aiming his shotgun through a crack in the shutters, and the children doing Indian war whoops behind the scenes. "I couldn't ever have sat still long enough to spin the house linen, like the woman in that Lady Washington picture; but I guess I'd have been a real good pioneer's wife," she explained, not unboastfully.
"You've always kept house as if you was one," Grandpa would grumble, pushing away his tepid coffee and shrivelled bacon; and Mrs. Scrimser would answer: "I'm sorry your breakfast don't just suit you today, father; but I guess it won't set you back much on the path to Eternity. I had to let the hired girl go to that camp meeting last night, and they always come back from their meetings as limp as rags, so I had her cook your bacon before she went."
"Oh, Christ," Grandpa ejaculated; and his daughter, Mrs. Lorin Weston, shook her head severely at little Vance, as much as to say that he was not to listen when Grandpa talked like that, or, alternatively, that Grandpa hadn't really said what little Vance thought he had.
Grandma Scrimser was of course more interested than anyone in the idea of Vance's new religion. In the first place, she agreed with him that a new one was needed, though she still thought the Rock of Ages was the best foundation any religion could have, and hoped Vance wouldn't make them give up singing old hymns. It took some time to make her understand that perhaps there wouldn't be any more hymns, or any sort of formal worship, but just a mystical communion between souls to whom the same revelation had been vouchsafed. "You be careful now, Vance, how you're mystical," she chid him; "time and again I've known that to end in a baby." But as Vance developed his theory he had the sense that she could not understand what he was talking about. Her education had not prepared her to follow him beyond the simply phase of pious ejaculation and contrition.
Vance's parents were totally unaffected by old Mrs. Scrimser's transcendental yearnings. When Grandpa Scrimser's digestion gave out, or he needed a change, he always packed his grip and moved in from the suburb where he and Grandma now lived to spend a week with the Westons. His other daughter, who had inherited her mother's neglected beauty, inherited also her scorn of comfort and her zeal for reform, and in the cause of temperance and high thinking dragged after her from one lecture platform to another a dyspeptic husband who was dying of a continual diet of soda biscuits and canned food. But Mrs. Lorin Weston, a small round-faced woman with a resolute mouth, had always stayed at home, looked after her children, fed her husband well, and, whenever he made a "turnover," bought a picture or a piano cover to embellish one or the other of their successive dwellings. She took a wholesome interest in dress, had herself manicured once a week after they moved to Euphoria, and by the time they had built their new house on Mapledale Avenue had saved up enough to have a sun parlour with palms and a pink gramophone, which was the envy of the neighbourhood.
As for Lorin Weston, a dry smallish man, no taller than his wife, he was like one of the shrivelled Japanese flowers which suddenly expand into bloom when put in water. Mr. Weston's natural element was buying and selling real estate; and he could not understand how any normal human being could exist in any other, or talk about anything else. If pressed, he would probably have admitted that an organized society necessitated the existence of policemen, professors, lawyers, judges, dentists, and even ministers of religion (to occupy the women: he had read Ingersoll, and his own views were Voltairean). But though he might have conceded as much theoretically, he could not conceive how, in practice, any sane man could be in anything but real estate. As in the case of all geniuses, the exercise of his gift came to him so naturally that he could no more imagine anyone earning money in other ways than he could imagine living without breathing. He did indeed take a subordinate interest in house building, because people who intended to build houses had first to buy land, and also because if you have the nerve to run up a likely-looking little house on an unpromising lot of land, you may be able to sell the house and lot together for a considerably bigger sum than they cost you, and even to start a real estate boom in soil where nothing of the sort has ever grown. Inspired by such considerations, he developed a pretty taste in suburban architecture, and was often consulted by builders and decorators as to some fancy touch in hall or sleeping porch, while Mrs. Weston's advice was invaluable in regard to kitchen and linen closet. Between them they served their trade like a religion, Mrs. Weston putting into it her mother's zeal for souls and Mr. Weston making clients come to the suburbs as his mother-in-law made them come to Jesus.
The Mapledale suburb, which was entirely Mr. Weston's creation, was Euphoria's chief source of pride, and always the first thing shown to distinguished visitors after the Alsop Building, the Dental College, and the Cedarcrest cemetery; and as success was the only criterion of beauty known to young Vance he took it for granted that whatever his father said was beautiful must be so. Nevertheless, there were moments when he felt the need to escape from the completeness of the Mapledale house, and go out to Crampton where Grandpa and Grandma Scrimser had settled down in a house lent to them rent-free by their son-in-law in the hope that they might help to "open up" Crampton. So far this hope had not been realized, and Crampton remained a bedraggled village, imperfectly joined up with the expanding Euphoria; but Lorin Weston could afford to wait, and was glad to do his parents-in-law a good turn.
Mrs. Weston did not often go to Crampton; especially did she avoid doing so when her sister Saidie Toler was there. The road to Crampton was so bad that it knocked the Chevrolet all to pieces, and besides Mrs. Weston really could not bear to see a good eight-room house, that people might have been so comfortable in, going all to pieces because Grandma would choose her help for their religious convictions and their plainness (she didn't trust Grandpa), and because she and Saidie were always rushing about to religious meetings, or to lectures on Sanitation (if she'd only looked at her own drains!), or on Diet (when you'd eaten Grandma's food!), or whatever the newest religious, moral, or medical fad was. Generally, too, there would be some long-haired fanatic there, holding forth about the last "new" something or other in religion or morals, as eloquently as Mrs. Weston herself discoursed on refrigerators and electric cookers. These prophets got on Mrs. Weston's nerves, and so did Saidie, with her slovenly blonde beauty, already bedraggled as if she left it out overnight, the way careless people do their cars. Mrs. Weston admired her mother, and felt, in a somewhat resentful way, the domination of her powerful presence; but she hated the confusion that Grandma lived in, and preferred to invite the Scrimsers and Saidie to Sunday dinner in Mapledale Avenue, and feel they were being impressed by her orderly establishment, and the authority of Mr. Weston's conversation.
Vance Weston did not much fancy his grandmother's house, or her food either; the whole place, compared with his own home, was retrograde and uncomfortable. Yet he had an unaccountable liking for the rutty lanes of Crampton, its broken-down fences, and the maple-shaded meadow by the river. He liked the way the trees overhung the Scrimser yard, the straggling lilacs, and the neglected white rose over the porch. And he was always stimulated, sometimes amused, and sometimes a little awed and excited, by Grandma Scrimser's soaring talk and Grandpa's racy commentaries. The prophets did not impress him, and his aunt Saidie he positively disliked; but he loved the old couple, and did not wonder that Euphoria still called on them to figure at national celebrations. The town had nothing else as grand to show.
Crampton, unfinished, sulky, and indifferent, continued to languish outside the circle of success. The trolley ran out there now, but few settlers had followed it. Yet Lorin Weston, who was by common consent the brightest realtor in Drake County, still believed in Crampton, and kept up the hopes of the investors he had lured there. On the strength of his belief, a row of cheap cottages was springing up along the road to Euphoria, and already the realtor's eye saw garages and lawn mowers in the offing.
One warm spring day, Vance Weston strode along between the ruts, past squares of Swedish market-gardening and raw pastures waiting for the boom. These were the days when he liked the expectancy of Crampton better than the completeness of Euphoria—days of the sudden prairie spring, when the lilacs in his grandmother's dooryard were bursting, and the maples by the river fringing themselves with rosy keys, when the earth throbbed with renewal and the heavy white clouds moved across the sky like flocks of teeming ewes. In a clump of trees near the road a bird began over and over its low tentative song, and in the ditches a glossy-leaved weed, nameless to Vance, spangled the mud with golden chalices. He felt a passionate desire to embrace the budding earth and everything that stirred and swelled in it. He was irritated by the fact that he did not know the name of the bird, or of the yellow flowers. "I should like to give everything its right name, and to know why that name was the right one," he thought; the names of things had always seemed to him as closely and mysteriously a part of them as his skin or eyelashes of himself. What was the use of all he had been taught in college if the commonest objects on this familiar earth were so remote and inexplicable? There were botany manuals, and scientific books on the shapes and action of clouds; but what he wanted to get at was something deeper, something which must have belonged to flowers and clouds before ever man was born to dissect them. Besides, he wasn't in the mood for books, with this spring air caressing him… .
A little way down a lane to his right stood the tumbledown house in which Harrison Delaney, Floss's father, lived. Though Harrison Delaney, like Mr. Weston, was in the real estate business, his career had differed in every respect from his rival's, and Mr. Weston had been known to say, in moments of irritation, that the fact of Delaney's living at Crampton was enough to keep the boom back. Harrison Delaney was in fact one of the Awful Warnings which served to flavour the social insipidity of thousands of Euphorias. There wasn't a bright businessman in the place who couldn't put his finger on the exact causes of his failure. It had all come, they pointed out, of his never being on the spot, missing real estate transactions, missing business opportunities, deals of every sort and kind—just sort of oversleeping himself whenever there was anything special to get up for.
Almost every family in Vance Weston's social circle could point to an Awful Warning of this type; but few were as complete, as singularly adapted for the purpose, as Harrison Delaney at fifty. You felt, the minute you set eyes on him, that nothing more would ever happen to him. He had wound his life up, as a man might wind up an unsuccessful business, and was just sitting round with the unexpectant look of a stockbroker on a country vacation, out of reach of the ticker. There—that was the very expression! Harrison Delaney always looked as if he was out of reach of the ticker. Only he wasn't worried or fretful, as most men are in such a case—he was just indifferent. No matter what happened he was indifferent. He said he guessed his making a fuss wouldn't alter things—it never had. So, when everybody was talking about Floss's going with that married drummer from Chicago, who turned up at Euphoria every so often in the year, and hired a car, and went off with her on long expeditions—well, her father just acted as if he didn't notice; and when the Baptist minister called, and dropped a hint to him, Harrison Delaney said he supposed it was Nature speaking, and he didn't believe he was the size to interfere with Nature, and anyhow he thought maybe one of these days the drummer would get a divorce and marry Floss—which of course he never did.
It was in going out to see his grandparents that Vance had first met Floss Delaney. That was before the trolley was running. Their bicycles used to flash past each other along the rutty road, and one day he found her down in the mud, with a burst tire and a sprained ankle, and helped her home. At first it was not the girl who interested him, but her father. Vance knew all about Delaney, the byword of Euphoria; but something in the man's easy indifferent manner, his way of saying: "Oh, come in, Weston, won't you?" instead of hailing his visitor as "Vance," his few words of thanks for the help rendered to his daughter, the sound of his voice, his very intonation—all differentiated him from the bright businessman he had so signally failed to be, and made Vance feel that failure also had its graces. Euphoria, he knew, felt this, however obscurely; it had to admit that he had the manners and address of a man born to make his mark. Even when he was finally down and out he was still put on committees to receive distinguished visitors. Somebody would lend him a black coat and somebody else a new hat, because there was a general though unexpressed sentiment that on such occasions he was more at ease than their most successful men, including even the president of the college and the minister of the Alsop Avenue church. But all this could not do away with the fact that he was a failure, and could serve the rising community of Euphoria only as the helots served the youth of Sparta. A fellow ought to be up on Society and Etiquette, and how to behave at a banquet, and what kind of collar to wear, and what secret societies to belong to; but the real business of life was to keep going, to get there—and "There" was where money was, always and exclusively.
These were the axioms that Vance had been brought up on; but when, after Floss's accident, he dropped in from time to time to ask how she was, he found a strange attraction in listening to Harrison Delaney's low, slightly drawling speech, and noticing the words he used—always good English words, rich and expressive, with hardly a concession to the local vernacular, or the passing epidemics of slang.
It was only when Floss began to get about again that she exercised her full magic. One day when Vance called he found her alone; and after that, instead of seeking out Harrison Delaney, he avoided him, and the pair met outside of the house… . His body and soul still glowed with the memory of it. But there was no use in thinking of that now. She'd been going with another fellow all the time … he knew it … and how she'd lied to him! He'd been a fool; and luckily it was all over. But he still averted his eyes from the house down the lane, where, only a few short months ago, he used to hang about after dark till she came out. On summer evenings they would go down to the maples by the river; there was a clump of bushes where you could lie hidden, breast to breast, and watch the moon and the white cloud reflections sail by, and the constellations march across the sky on their invisible bridges… .
The Scrimsers' house had a Colonial porch, an open fireplace in the hall, and a view over the river. The door yard was always rather untidy; Mrs. Scrimser had planting plans, and meant some day to carry them out. But she would first have had to cut down a lot of half-dead bushes, and there never seemed to be anybody to do it, what with Grandpa's sciatica, and the hired man's coming so irregularly, and Grandma being engaged in tidying up everybody else's door yard, materially and morally.
When Vance reached the porch she was sitting there in her rocking chair, her blown hair tossed back from her broad yellowish forehead, and her spectacles benevolently surveying the landscape. A lawn mower straddled the path and she called out to her grandson: "It's the hired man's day, but he's gone to a big camp meeting at Swedenville, and your grandfather began to cut the grass so that we'd have everything looking nice when your father and mother come out on Sunday; but then he remembered he had an appointment at Mandel's grocery, so I don't see how it'll get done."
"Well, perhaps I'll do it when I cool off," said Vance, sitting down.
They all knew about Grandpa's appointments. As soon as he was asked to put his hand to a domestic job he either felt a twinge of sciatica, or remembered that he'd promised to meet a man at Mandel's grocery, or at the Elkington Hotel at Euphoria.
Mrs. Scrimser turned her eloquent gray eyes on her grandson. "Don't a day like this almost make you feel as if you could get to God right through that blue up there?" she said, pointing heavenward with a big knotted hand. She had forgotten already about the abandoned lawn mower, and the need of tidying up. Whenever she saw her grandson all the groping aspirations in her unsatisfied nature woke and trembled into speech. But Vance did not care to hear about her God, who, once you stripped Him of her Biblical verbiage, was merely the Supreme Moralist of a great educational system in which Mrs. Scrimser held an important job.
"No, I don't feel as if anything would take me near God. And I don't exactly want to get near Him anyhow; what I want is to get way out beyond Him, out somewhere where He won't look any bigger than a speck, and the god in me can sort of walk all round Him."
Mrs. Scrimser glowed responsively: all the audacities enchanted her. "Oh, I see what you mean, Vanny," she cried. All her life she had always been persuaded that she saw what people meant; and the conviction had borne her triumphantly from one pinnacle of credulity to another. But her grandson smiled away her enthusiasm. "No, you don't; you don't see my god at all; I mean, the god in me."
His grandmother flushed up in her disappointment. "Why don't I, Vanny? I know all about the Immanence of God," she objected, almost resentfully.
Vance shook his head. It wasn't much fun arguing with his grandmother about God, but it was better than hearing eternally about new electric cleaners from his mother, or about real estate from Mr. Weston, or the reorganization of school grades from his sister Pearl. Vance respected efficiency, and even admired it; but of late he had come to feel that as a diet for the soul it was deficient in nourishment. He wondered that Mrs. Weston, who was such an authority on diet, had never thought of applying the moral equivalent of the vitamin test to the life they all led at Mapledale. He had an idea they were starving to death there without knowing it. But old Mrs. Scrimser at least knew that she was hungry, and his mind wandered back more indulgently to what she was saying.
"The trouble is," he began, groping about in his limited vocabulary, "I don't seem to want anybody else's God. I just want to give mine full swing." And at this point he forgot his grandmother's presence, and his previous experience of her incomprehension, and began to develop his own dream for his own ears. "And I don't even want to know what he is—not by reasoning him out, I mean. People didn't have to wait to learn about oxygen, and the way the lungs work, before they began to breathe, did they? And that's the way I feel about what I call my god—the sort of something in me that was there before I'd ever thought about it, and that stretches out and out, and takes in the stars and the ages, and very likely doesn't itself know why or how. What I want is to find out how to release that god, fly him up like a kite into the Infinite, way beyond creeds and formulas, and try to relate him to all the other … the other currents … that seem to be circling round you, a day like this … so that you get caught up in them yourself … and carried beyond Time and Space, and Good and Bad, to where the whole blamed thing is boiling over … Oh, hell take it, I don't know!" he groaned, and flung his head back despairingly.
Mrs. Scrimser listened, beaming, benedictory, her arms extended. "Oh Vanny, when you talk like that I do feel your call so clearly! You surely have inherited your grandfather's gift for speaking. You could fill the Alsop Avenue church clear away under the gallery, right now. 'The boy preacher'—they can often reach right down into the soul where the older men can't get a hearing. Don't you think, dear, such a gift ought to make you decide to go straight to Jesus?" She lifted her clasped hands with a "Nunc dimittis" gesture full of devotional sublimity. "If I could only hear you in the pulpit once I'd lay me down so peacefully," she murmured.
Vance's dream dropped with a crash to the floor of the porch, and lay there between them in rainbow splinters. The Alsop Avenue church! The pulpit! The ministry! This familiar way of talking about "Jesus" as if He were somebody waiting round the corner at Mandel's grocery for a telephone call—and this woman, who had listened for forty years to her husband's windy eloquence and sanctimonious perfidies, and who was still full of faith in the power of words and the magic attributes of Biblical phraseology! It almost made Vance hate the Bible to hear her, though its haunting words and cadences were the richest of his mental possessions… . But why had he again let himself go, trying to carry her up with him to the dizzy heights of speculation, as if some tiny winged insect should struggle to lift the lawn mower down there in the path? Vance looked sulkily away at the straggling unkempt distances from which she had managed to brush all the magic, so that where he had seen flowers and heard birds he now beheld only a starved horizon imprisoned behind crooked telegraph poles, and partly blotted out by Mandel's grocery.
"Vance—I haven't said anything to offend you?" his grandmother questioned, laying her big hand on his.
He shook his head. "No. Only you don't understand."
She took off her moist spectacles and wiped them. "Well, I guess God created women so's to give the men somebody to say that to," she remarked, with a philosophic smile.
Her grandson smiled also. He never failed to appreciate her humour; but today he was still quivering from his vain effort at expression, and her misunderstanding of it; and he had nothing more to say.
"Well, I guess I'll go along," he said, getting up.
Mrs. Scrimser never argued with her own family, and she walked with him in silence down the path and halted at the barricade of the mowing-machine. From there they could look across a few vacant lots and, dodging Mandel's grocery, bathe their eyes in the liquid gold of the sunset beyond the river.
"I used to think heaven was down there—on summer nights!" the boy broke out, pointing toward the budding maples by the river. In his own ears his words sounded sardonic, incredibly old and embittered; but the mention of heaven could evoke no such sensations in his grandmother's soul.
"I guess heaven is wherever we love Nature and our fellow beings enough," she said, laying her arm about his shoulder. It occurred to neither of them to remove the mower from the path, and they parted there, casually but fondly, as the habit was in Euphoria households, Vance bestriding the machine while his grandmother, arrested by it, stood gazing after him. "Only remember that, Vanny—that Love is everywhere!" she called after him. Large and full of benediction she stood between the lilac bushes and waved farewell.
Vance walked on in a fog of formless yearnings. His own words had loosened them, as the spring air and the yellow blossoms in the ditch had loosened his words. Twilight fell and the old spell of Crampton fell with it. He passed by the lane that led to Harrison Delaney's, but when he came to the field path descending to the river he paused, caught back into his early dream. Everything which had bound him to that scene was over and done with—he had served his sentimental apprenticeship and paid the price. But it was hard, at nineteen, and on a spring evening, to know this, and to feel himself forever excluded from the fellowship of the young and the happy. He supposed other fellows had been through it and survived—in books they told you so. But this evening his soul was like a desert.
He'd never looked at a girl since Floss—never meant to. Taken it out in writing poetry instead. Sometimes, for a few moments, doing that almost replaced her caresses, seemed to bring her as close as if words were warm and palpable like flesh. Then that illusion passed, and he was out again in the desert… . Once in a while, by way of experiment, he would give himself a kind of mental pinch where the ache had been, just to be sure he felt nothing—literally nothing. But when the trees by the river budded, and the buds were black against a yellow sky, the ache would spring back and catch him in the heart as you see lumbago suddenly catch a man between the shoulders. For a long time he stood gazing across the field and remembering how he used to go and hide down by the river, and spy out through the bushes for Floss. Or, oftener, she'd be there first, and her strong young arms would pull him down to her… . There was no danger now in remembering these things. She had left Euphoria; he had heard she had a job in a department store at Dakin, on the other side of Chicago. He suspected his father of having managed that… . The scene of their brief passion was deserted, and for him it would always remain so. That was life, he supposed. His bitterness gradually passed; he remembered her kisses and forgave her. Leaning on the fence, he pulled out a cigarette and thought big manly thoughts about her, and about Woman in general.
"Well," he interrupted himself suddenly, "I don't suppose you expected to be the only fellow to meet a girl down under those bushes, did you, Vance Weston?" The remark was provoked by the sight of a man sauntering across lots to the edge of the maple grove. Even at that distance he had the air of someone who would as soon not be seen, but is doing all he can not to betray the fact. The sight instantly altered Vance's mood, and he continued to lean on the fence, puffing ironically at his cigarette and whistling a vaudeville tune. The light was growing faint, the man was almost too far away to be recognized; but as he approached, Vance saw a tall spare figure moving with the jauntiness of an elderly man trying to look young who is jerked back at every step by his stiff joints. The gait was familiar; so, as the figure drew still nearer, was the frock coat flung open from a crumpled waistcoat, and the sombrero brim of the felt hat. Presently he lifted the hat and wiped his forehead; and the last slant of sunset lit up his swarthy face, the dominant nose and weak handsome mouth, and the white-and-black mane tossed back from his forehead. Vance, amused and vaguely curious, stood staring at the apparition of his grandfather.
You never could tell about Grandpa—they all knew it in the family, and put up with the fact as you put up with the weather. Still, to come on him here, slinking along on the edge of the grove, and mopping his forehead as if he had been running to catch the trolley; well, it was funny. Something at once dashing and furtive about his air made Vance remember an occasion when, as a small boy, he had gone Christmas shopping with his mother, and they had run into Grandpa, mopping his forehead in the same way, and hurrying toward them round the corner of a certain street that Vance and his schoolmates were always forbidden to play in. The little boy had instantly guessed that something was wrong when his mother, instead of exclaiming: "Why, there's Grandpa!" had abruptly remembered that, good gracious, she'd never ordered the yeast from Sproul's Bakery, and had jerked Vance back there without seeming to notice Mr. Scrimser. Such subterfuges are signposts on the road to enlightenment.
Vance continued to smile sardonically at the remembrance of this episode, and the thought of how far behind him his guileless infancy lay. For a moment he felt inclined to hail his grandfather; then something about the old man's air and movements made him decide to turn away. "Guess it's about time to step round to Sproul's for the yeast," he chuckled to himself; but as he averted his glance it was arrested by the approach of another figure. The light was failing fast and Vance was a good hundred yards from the river; but in the thickest dusk, and at a greater distance, he would have known the quick movements, the light outline, of the girl slipping through the trees toward Mr. Scrimser… . "But she isn't here … she isn't here … I know she isn't!" stormed through the boy in a rush of useless denial. He stood rooted to the earth while everything she had ever been to him, every look and intonation, every scent and breath and touch that had bound him to her, and made them one, flooded over him in fiery remembrance. He had never been able to imagine what excruciating physical pain was like, the kind you felt when you were smashed under a train, or torn by a whirling engine in a factory—but he knew, he found out in the glare of that blinding instant, that when the soul is smitten deeply enough it seems to become one with the body, to share all the body's capacity for suffering a distinct and different anguish in each nerve and muscle. He saw—or thought he saw—the two figures come together in the dimness, just where, so often, he had caught Floss Delaney to his first embrace; then he stumbled away, unseeing. A trolley swung along, making for the lights of Euphoria. He hailed it and got on board.
The family were at supper. The dining room was exquisitely neat. The Lithuanian girl shoved the dishes in hot through the slide and set them down on the table without noise: Grandpa always said his youngest daughter could have taught an Eskimo to wait on table. The faces under the hanging lamp reflected something of the comfort and satisfaction of the scene. Pearl had got an advance of salary, and Mr. Weston had put through the sale of an old business building at a price even he had not hoped for.
"I guess we'll take that vacation at the Lakes you girls are always talking about," he said, and glanced about the table for approval. But Mrs. Weston wrinkled her mouth (she frowned with her mouth as other people do with their foreheads), and said, wouldn't they better let the Lakes alone this year and put in that new electric cold-storage affair the drummer had called about day before yesterday, and taken the measures for? He said they'd get it at a big reduction if they gave the order now, and paid down a third of the amount when he called back.
Pearl, the eldest daughter, who was small and brisk, with a mouth like her mother's, said, well, she didn't much care, only she'd like to know sometime soon what they'd decided, because if they didn't go to the Lakes she thought she'd go camping with a friend at the School of Hope, in Sebaska County; but the younger, Mae, who was taller and less compact, with an uncertain promise of prettiness, murmured that the other girls' folks all got away to the Lakes for August, and she didn't see why they shouldn't without such a fuss.
"Well, we've got you and Vance to fuss about, for one thing," Mrs. Weston replied. "Here you are, seventeen and nineteen, and not knowing yet how you're going to earn your living, or when you're going to begin."
Mae, in an irritated tone, rejoined that she knew well enough what she wanted to do; she wanted to go to Chicago and study art, like Leila Duxberry—
"Oh, Chicago! There'll be an art school right here next year, in connection with the college, just as good, and nothing like as expensive," said Mrs. Weston, who was always jealous of any signs of independence in her flock.
Mae shrugged, and cast her eyes toward the ceiling, as if to say that conversation on any lower level had no further interest for her.
Mr. Weston drummed on the table, and took a second helping of pickles. "Well, and what about Advance G. Weston, Esq.? Got any idea what you planning to specialize in, sonny?"
Vance opened his lips to answer. He had always known that his father wanted him to be a real estate man, not only wanted but meant him to be, indeed could not conceive of any other career for him, whatever the women said, or the boy's own view of his vocation was, any more than a king on a well-established throne could picture any job but kingship for his heir. The Free Speaker had once headlined Mr. Weston as the King of Drake County Realtors and Mr. Weston had accepted the title with a modest dignity. Vance knew all this; but the time for temporizing was over. He meant to answer his father then and there, and to say: "I guess I'd better go on a newspaper." For he had made up his mind to be a writer, and if possible a poet, and he had never heard of any way to Parnassus save that which led through the columns of the daily press, and ranged from baseball reports to the exposure of business scandals. But as he was about to speak, something hot and choking welled up into his throat, and the brightly lit definite table with the dull definite faces about it suddenly melted into a mist.
He pushed back his chair uncertainly. "I've got a headache—I guess I'll go upstairs," he muttered to the whirling room. He saw the surprise in their faces, and became aware of Pearl vaguely detaching herself from the blur and moving toward him, anxious, inquisitive; but he pushed her back, gasping: "All right … don't fuss … Oh, just leave me alone, can't you, all of you?" and got himself out of the room, and upstairs to his own, where he fell on his bed in a storm of dry sobs without a tear… .
Two of the doctors said it was a malarial microbe; possibly he'd been bitten by an anopheles mosquito in those marshy fields out toward Crampton, or down by the river. The third doctor, a bacteriologist from the college laboratory, thought it was walking typhoid, and he might likely as not have picked it up drinking the river water, if he was in the habit of going out to Crampton—family living there? Oh, that it?—Well, the Crampton water was rank poison; they had a good many cases of the same sort every spring and summer… . That doctor was never sent for again; and the family noticed that Lorin Weston suddenly began to move once more in the matter of carrying the Euphoria water out to Crampton. The question was always a troublesome one; whenever it was raised it stirred up a hornet's nest of other matters connected with municipal and state politics, questions of the let-sleeping-dogs-lie sort; and it had been a relief to Mrs. Weston when her husband, the previous year, told her he had asked the Euphoria Free Speaker (the leading morning paper) to drop the Crampton Water Supply Investigation. The Free Speaker had done so, and the next week Mr. Weston had bought a new Buick, and remarked at table that he didn't know any greater waste of time than muckraking. Now the affair was all to be gone into again, and Mrs. Weston knew it was because of what that other doctor had said, the one who had not been asked to come back. But she kept her own counsel, as she always did where business or politics were concerned, and nursed her son, and told her husband not to be so nervous or he'd only make the boy worse… .
Vance caught a confused echo of this through the blur of those indistinct weeks—weeks of incessant tossings of the body, incessant gropings of the mind. The doctors said if it had been anybody but Mrs. Weston they'd have taken him right off to the fever ward of the hospital; but with Mrs. Weston they knew everything would be done just as well as if he'd been in the ward, that the disinfection would be attended to, and the fever chart accurately kept, and folks not allowed to barge in… . So he had been moved into the sepulchral spare room, which was the pride of Mrs. Weston's heart because nobody had ever inhabited it, or ever would, and because it had taken the place of that awful sanctuary of her youth, the unused "best parlour."
A month passed before Vance was strong enough to be moved back into his own room. He looked at it with alien eyes. He had been "down to normal" for some days, and that morning the doctors had told Mrs. Weston that she could unpin the chart from the foot of the bed, and give him a bit of broiled chicken. He ate it hungrily, and then lay back in the unutterable weariness of recovery.
He had begun to see the family again: his father first, awkward and inarticulate with the awe of a sorrow just escaped; Pearl concise and tactful, Mae as self-engrossed as ever, and having to be dragged away by her mother because she stayed too long and talked too much. Grandma was laid up with rheumatism, but sent messages and fresh eggs, and the announcement that she had been in constant communication with one of her household prophets, who was conducting a "Spirit of Service" meeting at the neighbouring town of Swedenborg, and that Vance had been remembered there daily in the prayers of the assistants.
Vance listened to it all as though he were dead and the family chatter came to him through his mound in the Cedarcrest cemetery. He had not known for how long, after recovery from illness, the mind continues in the airless limbo between life and death.
He was still drowsing there when his door opened, and he heard his grandfather's booming voice: "Say, old fellow, I guess you've had enough of the women praying over you by this time, haven't you, and it'll buck you up some to swap stories again with a man of your own age."
There he was, in the room, close to the bed, powerful, impending, the black-and-white mane tossed back boldly from his swarthy forehead, the white teeth flashing through the straggling drop of his dyed moustache, the smell of tobacco and eau de cologne emanating from the folds of his sagging clothes, from the tip of the handkerchief in his breast pocket and his long dark hands, which the boy saw spreading out over him as Mr. Scrimser bent paternally to the bed.
"Oh, Grandfather, don't—I say don't!" Vance raised himself on the pillows, the sweat breaking out over his weak body, his arms defensively outstretched. "Don't—don't! Go away—go away!" he repeated with the weak cry of a child, covering his eyes with his hands.
He heard Mr. Scrimser's movement of recoil, and bewildered stammer, and knew that in another moment Mrs. Weston or the girls would be summoned, and he would be hemmed in again by fever charts, thermometers, and iced compresses. He lowered his hands, and sitting upright looked straight into his grandfather's evasive eyes.
"You—you damned old lecher, you," he said in a low but perfectly firm voice. Mr. Scrimser stared, and he stared back. Gradually the grandfather lowered his piebald crest, and retreated across the narrow little room to the door.
"You're—you're sick yet, Vanny. Of course I won't stay if you don't want me to," he stammered. As he turned Vance said to himself: "He understands; he won't bother me anymore." His head fell back on the pillows.
For a few days he was less well. The doctor said he had seen too many people, and Mrs. Weston relieved her nerves by lecturing her husband and Mae on their thoughtlessness in tiring the boy out. It occurred to no one to incriminate Mr. Scrimser, who had just popped his head in and made one of his jokes. Mrs. Weston could have certified that her father had not been more than two minutes in the room. Mr. Scrimser was noted in Euphoria as a professional brightener-up. He was full of tact in the sickroom, and in great request to cheer the long hours of convalescence. As he left the house his daughter said: "You must pop in again tomorrow, Father, and get a laugh out of Vance"; and Mr. Scrimser rejoined in his rolling voice: "You can count on me, Marcia, if he's not too busy receiving visitors." But he did not return, and Mrs. Scrimser sent word that he had his sciatica back on him, and she was trying to see what prayers at the "Spirit of Service" meetings would do.
On the third day after his grandfather's visit, Vance, who was now sitting up in an armchair, asked his mother for paper and his fountain pen. Mrs. Weston, to whom all literary activities, even to the mere writing of a letter, represented untold fatigue, said protestingly: "What do you want to write for? It'll just make your head ache." But Vance said he was only going to jot down something, and she gave him what he wanted. When she was gone he took the pen, and wrote across the paper: "Damn him—I hate him—I hate—hate—hate—" He added a long line of obscene and blasphemous denunciation.
His hand was still unsteady, but he formed the letters slowly and carefully, with a sort of morbid satisfaction in the doing. He had fancied that writing them out would in some mysterious way dispel the awful sense of loneliness which had repossessed him since he had come back to life. But after his first burst of anger he felt no relief, and dropped back again into the solitude which had isolated him from his kind ever since the afternoon when he had leaned against the fence and looked across the maple grove to the river. Yet relief he must have—and at once—or chuck up this too hideous business of living. He closed his eyes and tried to picture himself, when he was well again, taking up his usual pursuits and pleasures; and he turned from the vision, soul-sick. The fair face of the world had been besmirched, and he felt the first agony of youth at such profanation.
The oppression was intolerable. He was like a captive walled into a dark airless cell, and the walls of that cell were Reality, were the life he would in future be doomed to. The impulse to end it all here and now possessed him. He had tried out the whole business and found it wanting; been the round of it, and come back gorged with disgust. The negativeness of death would be better, a million times better. He got to his feet and walked unsteadily across the room to the door. He knew where his father's revolver was kept. Mrs. Weston had only one weakness: she was afraid of burglars, and her husband always had a revolver in the drawer of the night table between their beds. Vance made his way along the passage, resting his hand against the wall to steady his steps. The house was silent and empty. His mother and the girls were out, and the Lithuanian would be downstairs in her kitchen. He reached his parents' room, walked feebly to the table between the beds, and opened the drawer. The revolver was not there… .
Vance's brain reeled. He might have looked elsewhere, might have hunted … but a sudden weakness overcame him and he sat down in the nearest chair. Was it the weakness of his state, or a secret reluctance to pursue his quest, the unconfessed fear that he might find what he was looking for? He asked himself the question, and could not answer. But as he sat there he became conscious that, even in the halting progress from his room to the spot where he had supposed death waited—even during that transit, so short in space, so long in time, he had felt the arms of Life, the ancient mother, reaching out to him, winding about him, crushing him fast again to her great careless bosom. He was glad—he knew now he was glad—that he had not found the weapon.
He crawled back to his room and his armchair, pulled the blanket over his knee, and sat there, faint and frightened. His heart was still beating convulsively. It was incredible, what a coward illness had made of him. But he was resolved not to be beaten, not to accept any makeshift compromise between his fear of life and his worse fear of death. If life it was to be, well—he'd live!
The writing paper lay on the table at his side. He turned over the page on which he had scrawled his senseless curses, and sat with his pen over the blank paper; then he wrote out, slowly and carefully, at the top of the page: "One Day." Yes—that was the right title for the story he meant to tell. One day had sufficed to dash his life to pieces… .
He began hastily, feverishly, the words rushing from his pen like water from a long-obstructed spring, and as the paragraphs grew it seemed to him that at last he had found out a way of reconciling his soul to its experiences. He would set them down just as they had befallen him in all their cruel veracity, but as if he were relating the tragedy of somebody else.
Mrs. weston, turning over old Christmas cards in the course of the spring cleaning (which Vance's illness had deplorably delayed), came on one giving a view of Iceboating On The Hudson, and said: "Lucilla Tracy—why, now, I don't know's anybody's ever acknowledged that card… ."
The doctors said that Vance ought to get away for the hot weather—clear away, to a new place with new air and new associations. Nineteen was a nasty age to have a shake-up of that kind, they said; it took time to build up a growing body after such a tumble. The family'd better not talk to the boy about looking round for a job till the autumn—just let him lie fallow through the hot months, somewhere by the sea if it could be managed.
The sea seemed a long way off to the Weston family, and especially to Mrs. Weston, who could never understand why anybody whose parlour windows looked out on Mapledale Avenue, Euphoria, should ever want to go anywhere else, even to Chicago. But she had been frightened about the boy, and her husband, she knew, was frightened still. After consultation between the two it was decided to ask Vance himself where he would like to go. His father put the question, and Vance immediately said: "New York."
The announcement was staggering. New York was almost as far away as Europe; it was ten times more expensive; it was as hot in summer as Chicago; it was a place a man went to when he'd made his pile; a place you took your family to for a week's blow-out when you'd been on the right side of the market. It was Mr. Weston who piled up these definitions; his wife, with nervous frowning lips, remarked that such a long journey would wear Vance out, and do away beforehand with all the good of the rest he had been ordered to take; and that, if the sea was too far off, she didn't see why the air of the Lakes wasn't just as bracing. And there he'd have the family to look after him; if he went, that would make Father decide to take them all to the Lakes, she guessed. She looked at her husband in a way that made him so decide on the spot.
But Vance said, in that pale obstinate way he had acquired since his illness: "I want to go to New York. It's easy enough to get down to the sea from there."
Mr. Weston laughed. "Yes, but it ain't so darned easy to get there first." Vance was silent, and the family exchanged perturbed glances. But just then Mrs. Scrimser came lumbering in, cured of her rheumatism (by the "Spirit of Service" prayers—which unhappily had not succeeded with her husband), but moving heavily, as usual, with a stick to support her big rambling frame. She sat down among them in the sleeping porch, where Vance now took his daily rest cure, listened to their perplexity, and said with her dreamy prophetic smile: "There's only once in a life when anybody wants one particular thing so bad that nothing else on earth'll do instead. I wouldn't wonder if wanting a thing that way wasn't about the nearest we ever get to happiness." She turned her softly humorous eyes on her grandson. "I guess Vanny'll have to go East."
It was then that Mrs. Weston remembered her cousin Lucilla Tracy's postcard. "That place of Lorburn Tracy's isn't so far from New York," she remarked, "up there on the Hudson. And Vance'd have good country air, anyhow, and good milk. May be Lucilla'd be glad to take him in as a boarder for a few weeks. I don't believe they're any too well off, from what she said last time she wrote to me. Since Lorburn's death I guess she and the children have had pretty hard times making the two ends meet. Anyhow, I ought to answer that card… ."
Vance said nothing: the suggestion came to him as a surprise. He knew that Paul's Landing, where his mother's cousin lived, was not above an hour and a half by rail from New York, and his heart was beginning to beat excitedly, though he maintained an air of indifference.
But Lorin Weston was not indifferent. He seized on the suggestion as an unforseen way of indulging his son without too great an expenditure of money—an important consideration in view of the heavy cost of Vance's illness, and the complications and embarrassments likely to result from Weston's move in raising again the vexed question of the Crampton water supply.
"Say—why don't we ring Lucilla up right now," he suggested, getting to his feet with the haste of a man accustomed to prompt solution. Mrs. Weston raised no objection, and Mrs. Scrimser nodded approvingly. "That's great, Lorin. I guess Lucilla'll be only too glad. Her boy must be about Vanny's age, mustn't he, Marcia?" Marcia thought he must, and mother and daughter lost themselves in reminiscences of the early history of Lucilla Tracy, whom they had not seen since she had come out on a visit to them at Advance, years before, when Vance was a baby. The Tracys had been well-off then, and the young couple had been on their wedding trip to the Grand Canyon, and had stopped off on the way to see the bride's western relatives. Mrs. Scrimser and Mrs. Weston recalled Lucilla as having been very pretty, with stylish New York clothes; they thought Mr. Tracy's father owned a big "works" of some sort, on the Hudson; and he himself was editor of the principal newspaper at Paul's Landing, where there had always been Tracys and Lorburns, since long before the Revolution, so he told them.
"Dear me, don't it take you right back to Historic Times, hearing about things like that?" Grandma glowed reminiscently; but Mrs. Weston shivered a little at the opening of such interminable vistas. She liked to think of everybody living compactly and thrivingly, as she did herself, hemmed in by a prosperous present, and securely shut off from the icy draughts of an unknown past. "I guess the family's going way back like that don't always help the children to go forward," she said sententiously; and at that very moment her husband reappeared with an announcement which seemed to confirm her worst suspicions. It was simply that the Tracys had no telephone.
No telephone! The Westons had never heard of such a case before. Mrs. Weston began by saying it couldn't be possible, it must be a mistake, they were always making mistakes at the Information office; had Lorin said it was Mrs. Lorburn Tracy, at Paul's Landing, New York? Was he sure he'd heard right? It simply couldn't be, she reiterated, beginning to think that if it were, the Tracys must be "peculiar," and she wouldn't want to trust any child of hers to them, least of all Vance, after such an illness. She thought they'd better give up the idea altogether.
But Mrs. Scrimser was older, and her mind could reach back to days when, even in the enlightened West, she had known cases of people living in out-of-the-way places, or who were just simply too poor… .
"But I don't want Vance to go to an out-of-the-way place. Suppose he was sick, how'd they ever get hold of a doctor?"
"Well, if it's because they're not well enough off," her husband interrupted, "it'll be a godsend to them to have Vance as a boarder, and I guess, from what I remember of Lucilla, she'll be real good to him, and get a doctor somehow, as quick as his own mother would."
Mrs. Weston looked at him witheringly. "What you know of Lucilla Tracy is exactly nothing, Lorin; and you say that only because you remember she was pretty, and had on a showy pink dress with ruffles." But Mr. Weston, unperturbed, said, well, he didn't know as those were such bad points in a woman; and anyhow he'd go along to the telegraph office and wire, and then they'd see. He guessed they'd be pretty well able to judge by the answer.
At the Grand Central Station, a week later, Vance was met by his young cousin, Upton Tracy. Upton was a spindly boy of about sixteen, with wistful gray eyes and a pleasant smile. He told Vance he had a job with a nurseryman at Paul's Landing, but the manager had let him off for the afternoon so that he could come to New York to meet his cousin.
Vance hoped that Upton would not see how glad he was to be met. He was still weak after his illness, and the long railway journey—the first of that length that he had ever taken—had exhausted him more than he had expected. When he got into the train at Chicago his heart was beating so excitedly at the idea of seeing New York that he had nearly forgotten all his disgusts and disillusionments, and had secretly made up his mind to stop over for a night in the metropolis before going on to join his relatives at Paul's Landing. But now, in his tired state, and oppressed as he was by the sense of inferiority produced by untired conditions and surroundings, he felt unequal to coping with this huge towering wilderness of masonry where Vance Weston of Euphoria was of no more account to any one among the thousands inhabiting it than a single raindrop to the ocean.
He had been furious with his mother for suggesting that one of the Tracys should meet him at the station in New York, and had sworn that he would never again let his family treat him like a "softy"; but when Upton's wistful face appeared in the heedless indifferent throng on the platform, Vance felt the relief of a frightened child that has lost its way. "Comes of being sick," he grumbled to himself as his cousin pointed to the red carnation which was to identify him. Vance, who, at Euphoria, would have condescended to the shy boy at his side, now felt still shyer himself, and was grateful to Upton for having so little to say, and for assuming as a matter of course that they were just to wait in the station till the next train left for Paul's Landing. Luckily it left in half an hour.
His mother had said: "You just let me know if you see anything over there that's so much better than Euphoria," and he had smiled and made no answer. But the request came back to him with a shock of something like humiliation when he and Upton stepped out of the station at Paul's Landing. There was the usual bunch of Fords waiting there, and next to them, under the pale green shade of some crooked-boughed locust trees, a queer-looking group of old carts and carryalls, with drooping horses swishing off the flies and mournfully shaking their heads. The scene was like something in a film of the Civil War, one of those films that were full of horses with swishing tails and draggly manes. One of the horses, the oldest and mournfullest looking, with a discoloured white mane like a smoker's beard, was tied to a chewed-off post; Upton went up and unhitched him, and the horse shook his head in melancholy recognition.
"We're a good way from the trolley, so one of the neighbours lent me his team to come and get you," Upton explained, lifting Vance's luggage into the back of a buggy which seemed at least coeval with the horse. Vance could not have walked a step at that moment, much less carried the smallest of his two bags, so he was grateful to the unknown neighbour; but when he remembered how, if you went to stay with a chum at Swedenborg or Dakin, or anywhere in his home state, you buzzed away from the station in a neat Ford (if it wasn't in a stylish Chevrolet or the family Buick), a sense of dejection was added to his profound fatigue. His mother had said: "You wait and see—" and he was seeing.
The old horse jogged them through Paul's Landing, a long crooked sort of town on a high ridge, with gardens full of big trees, and turfy banks sloping down from rambling shabby-looking houses. Now and then a narrower street dipped downhill to their left, and Vance caught a glimpse of lustrous gray waters spreading lakelike to distant hills. "The Hudson," Upton said, flicking his stump of a whip; and at the moment the name stirred Vance more than the sight of the outspread waters. They drove on down a long street between shops, garages, business buildings, all more or less paintless and dilapidated, with sagging awnings lowered against the premature spring heat; then uphill along a rutty lane between trees and small frame houses even shabbier than the others, though some had pretty flowers before them, and lilacs and syringas blooming more richly than Grandma Scrimser's.
"This is it," said Upton, in a voice still shyer and more apologetic. "It" was a small wooden house, painted dark brown, with the paint peeling off, and a broken-down trellis arbour in a corner of the front yard. There were shade trees over the house, and a straggling rose on the verandah; but the impression made by the whole place was of something neglected and dingy, something left in a backwater, like the sad Delaney house from which Vance still averted his thoughts.
"You seem to have lots of trees around everywhere," he remarked to Upton, wishing he could think of something more striking to say.
"Aren't there as many out your way?" Upton rejoined.
"I dunno," Vance mumbled, suddenly on his guard against admitting any inferiority in Euphoria, even to the amount of shade afforded by its trees. "I suppose they're just different—the way everything else is," he added.
Mrs. Tracy, who now appeared on the doorstep, was certainly different—not only from the gay bride in showy pink who had dazzled her western relatives on her wedding tour, but also from any of the women of Vance's family. She was small and slight, like Mrs. Weston, but without the latter's sharpness of outline and incisiveness of manner. There was something fluctuant and shadowy about Mrs. Tracy, as there was about her overshaded dooryard; but she had a kind of phantom prettiness, something seen through a veil not so much of years as of failure. She looked, not careless of her beauty, like Grandma Scrimser, but disheartened about it, as Vance suspected she was about everything else in life. But the sweetness of her smile of welcome was something his own mother could not have compassed. "I guess it'll be all right here," Vance thought, his contracted nerves relaxing.
"You look very tired; the journey must have been awful. Come right in and have some supper," Mrs. Tracy said, slipping her arm through his.
It was funny—but pleasant, too, as a novelty—sitting around a table lit by a queer smelly oil lamp with an engraved globe on it, in a little dining room with a dark brown wallpaper and an unwieldy protruding sideboard which had evidently been picked up at a bargain because it wouldn't fit in anywhere. Mrs. Tracy sat opposite, smiling at Vance wistfully across the teacups, and asking gentle questions about everybody out at Euphoria. She remembered what a pretty little house the Westons had lived in at Advance, when she'd gone there on her honeymoon, and Vance was a baby; and when Vance smiled away her commendation, and said they'd got a much bigger house now at Euphoria, she replied that she supposed his mother'd made it all lovely, and then rambled off to questions about the wonderful Grandma Scrimser and Aunt Saidie Toler. Vance noticed that she remembered a great deal more about all of them than they did about her, and he said to himself that she had what Grandma Scrimser called a Family Bible sort of mind.
Upton dropped into the seat between his mother and Vance, and while the meal was in progress a thin fair girl in a pale blue blouse and a very short skirt wandered into the room, shook hands awkwardly with the newcomer, and seated herself in the remaining chair.
"Laura Lou's always late—aren't you?" Mrs. Tracy said, in her tone of smiling acceptance. "I presume your sisters aren't always on time for meals, are they, Vance?"
Vance laughed, and said no, they drove his mother wild sometimes, and Laura Lou laughed too, but without looking at him, though his one glimpse of her heavy-lidded gray eyes with thick dark lashes made him desirous of another. Her face, however, was not pretty; too drawn and thin, like her brother's, and with rather high cheekbones which Vance thought ugly, and ash blonde hair flopping untidily over her forehead. She was not more than fifteen, he conjectured, an age essentially uninteresting to him; and as she refused to talk, and drooped her head sheepishly over her plate of cold meat and potatoes (which he saw she hardly touched), Vance's attention soon wandered from her. He had reached the stage of fatigue when everything about one is at once exciting and oppressive, and in spite of his friendly feeling toward his hosts he longed desperately for solitude and sleep.
But sleep was after all impossible. It was not the musty shut-up smell of his queer little room, nor the surprise of being unable to have a hot bath after his long cindery journey (the Tracy water supply being as primitive as their lighting and their means of locomotion); what kept him awake was something stronger even than youth's exhaustless faculty of self-repair, of sleeping through, and in spite of, any number of anxieties and discomforts—a burning inward excitement shadowed but not overcome by his sense of vague disappointment.
Vance did not know exactly what he had expected of the East, except a general superabundance of all the things he had been taught to admire—taller houses, wider streets, fresher paint, more motors, telephones, plumbing, than Euphoria possessed, or could ever imagine achieving. Yet here he was in a town close to New York, and in a house belonging to people of his own standing—and he had been brought thither in a broken-down buggy, and the house was the shabbiest he had ever seen except Harrison Delaney's, with none of the conveniences of civilized life, and kindly people who appeared too used to doing without them to make any excuse for their absence. Vance knew, by hearsay, of poverty; but almost all the people he had grown up among, if not as prosperous as his own family, were at least beyond any appearance of want; or rather, what they wanted, and felt the privation of, and hustled around to get were luxuries evidently not even aspired to by the Tracys. Vance supposed it came from the mysterious lack of vitality he felt in both Mrs. Tracy and her son; perhaps if Mr. Tracy hadn't died years ago it would have been different. Certainly they wouldn't have gone on ever since living in the same place and the same house—proof in itself of an absence of initiative which no Euphorian could understand. No, if Mr. Tracy had lived he would have got Upton onto a better job by this time (they left truck gardens to Poles and Dagoes at Euphoria), and he himself would have got a drive on, and moved to a live place, and done something to lift his family to the level where electric light, hot water, the telephone, a wireless, and a Ford in a cement garage are no longer privileges but necessities.
Not that Vance was a "softy"; he would have been indignant at the suggestion. Holiday camping in the backwoods had not only made him familiar with a rough life in the open but given him a passionate taste for it. When America had entered the war, Euphoria, true to her slogan—"Me for the Front Row"—had also entered it with energy, and Vance, aged fifteen, had drilled, shouted, and scouted with all the other boys. Two or three times since then he had gone with his father prospecting in remote districts, in search of real estate ventures of a speculative kind, and they had lodged in the roughest of farmhouses, miles away from telephone or city water, and Vance had gloried in the discomfort and enjoyed his morning wash under the pump. But that was in the wilderness, the new country not yet captured and tamed by business enterprise; whereas Paul's Landing was like a place that enterprise of every sort had passed by, as if all its inhabitants had slept through the whole period of industrial development which Vance Weston had been taught to regard as humanity's supreme achievement. If Euphoria values were the right ones—and he had no others to replace them with—then the people who did not strive for them were predestined down-and-outers, as repugnant to the religion of business as the thief and the adulterer to the religion of Christianity. And here, in the very part of his immense country which represented all that western wealth strove for and western ambition dreamed of, Vance found himself in a community apparently unaware that such strivings and ambitions existed. "Seems as if they'd all slept right round the clock," Vance thought, remembering the torpid look of the main street, its draggled awnings and horse-drawn vehicles, and beginning to feel as if the Tracy house were not an isolated phenomenon but part of some huge geological accident. "As if they'd been caught centuries ago under a landslide, and just gone on living there, like those toads they find alive inside a stone—" and on this confused analogy the young traveller fell asleep.
Vance slept nearly as long as he had metaphorically accused the inhabitants of Paul's Landing of doing. When he woke he saw a pattern of rippling foliage on the ceiling of his room, and a bar of sunlight lying across the floor. The air that came in through the window was sultry with heat, and flies buzzed against the pane. Looking about him at the streaked and faded wallpaper, his clothes heaped up on a broken-down verandah chair, and the water jug with a chipped spout on the old-fashioned washstand, he felt a qualm of homesickness, and thought longingly of the spring sunsets across the fields at Crampton, and the perfume of his grandmother's neglected lilacs. So strong was the impression that the perfume was actually in his nostrils. He raised himself on his elbow, and there, on the pillow, lay a spray of white lilac, filling the room with June.
"Well, that's nice of them," Vance thought, burying his face in the ivory-coloured clusters. He remembered his grandmother's once saying, as they sat on the Crampton porch on a hot June evening: "I guess that box of ointment Mary Magdalen broke over our Lord's feet must have been made out of lilacs," and he had liked the fancy, and wished he knew how to make a poem out of it, rich and heavy with perfumed words. His grandmother's random fancies often stirred his imagination in this way.
Upton, he supposed, or perhaps Mrs. Tracy, must have come in while he was asleep, and dropped the flower on his pillow because he had told them there were lilacs at Grandma Scrimser's. "Upton most likely," he mused. "Good little fellow—seems to have gardens on the brain." He took another deep whiff of the flower, tumbled out of bed, filled the cracked basin with water, and plunged his head into it. After that the currents of activity reawoke, and he hurried through his washing and dressing, impatient to be down, for his watch told him it was after midday, and he was ashamed to be so late on his first morning.
His window looked out on the back of the house. Close to it were the trees which had drawn their fitful pencillings on the ceiling above his bed; and beyond was a small patch of vegetables, divided in oblongs by currant and gooseberry bushes, and fenced off from other vegetable gardens which sloped up the hillside to the irregular fringes of a wood. More trees—trees everywhere, trees taller, fuller and more heavy-branched, he thought, than those of his native prairies. Up the hillside they domed themselves in great bluish masses, one against the other, like the roofs of some mysterious city built of leaves. Vance was pleased with that fancy too, and would have liked to stop and put it into verse, as well as his grandmother's idea about the lilacs. The rhyming faculty, long abeyant, stirred in him again under the spell of the unfamiliar scene, and the caress of the summer morning, and he forgot about his haste to leave his room, and his scruples lest breakfast should have been kept for him, and sat down at the table in the window, pulling his pen and a scrap of paper from his pocket. Since his little-boyhood his pockets had never been without scraps of paper.
"Arcane, aloof, and secret as the soul—" He liked that, for the first line of the poem about the city built of leaves, which was of course a forest. Secret as the soul. There were times when his own soul was like a forest, full of shadows and murmurs—arcane, aloof—a place to lose one's way in, a place fearsome, almost, to be alone in. And then: secret. That too was true. He often felt as if his own soul were a stranger inside of him, a stranger speaking a language he had never learned, or had forgotten. And there again was a good idea; the idea of the mysterious stranger within one's self, closer than one's bones and yet with a face and speech forever unknown to one. His heart was beating with a rush of inarticulate eloquence, words and waves of feeling struggling to fit into each other and become thought and music.
"Heavy with all the scent of summers gone—" how would that do for the lilac? No, too heavy. He wanted to say that the mere scent of the lilac was rich enough for bees to make honey out of it; to say that lightly, whirringly, like bees humming about before they settle. And then one organ note at the close, where the box of ointment is broken, and Christ likens the Magdalen's gesture to the perfume of holiness, the lovely fragrance it should give out, but so often does not. Scentless holiness … there too was something to write about. How one image beckoned another! And he couldn't stop them, often couldn't detain them long enough to trace their lineaments before they vanished… .
He scribbled on in the stuffy untidy room, beside his tumbled bed, the flies banging against the windowpane, the bar of hot sunlight wheeling slowly across the wall, scribbled on oblivious of time and place, of his wholesome morning hunger, of the fact that he was in a strange household where his nonappearance might be inconvenient or perplexing. Words for one poem, then for the other, continued to surge up, mingling, confused and exciting, in his half-awakened brain. Sometimes he lingered on one for the sake of its own beauty, and suddenly a new poem would bud from it, as if the word had been a seed plunged into the heated atmosphere of his imagination. Disconnected, unmeaning, alluring, they strung themselves out on one bit of paper after another, till he threw down his pen and buried his rumpled head in his hands.
Through his dream he heard a knock, and started up. It was Mrs. Tracy coming in with a cup of coffee. He mustn't mind about having slept so long, she told him at once—it was the best thing for him, after his illness and the long journey. "Sleep is the young people's best doctor," she said with one of her sad smiles. "But you didn't eat much last night, and you'd better drink this coffee right off, while it's hot. It won't keep you from wanting your dinner by and by, I hope." She put the tray down beside him while he stammered his excuses, and went on, in the same friendly tone, with a glance at the litter of paper at his elbow: "If you've got any work to get through, I guess you'll be cooler down on the back porch than here; there's a little breeze from the river. We always get one of these heat waves in June."
Vance thanked her, and said he would come down at once, and she added, designating the lilac blossom in his coat: "But I see you've been down already, haven't you? You're like me—you love lilacs."
"Then it wasn't she who brought it," he thought; and answered, colouring, that, yes, he thought they had the best smell of any flower he knew, but he hadn't been down yet, and he guessed Upton must have brought the flower in while he was sleeping.
Mrs. Tracy, he thought, coloured a little too; there was a hint of surprise in her eyes. "Why, maybe he did," she acquiesced; and slid away on her soft soles, leaving him to his belated coffee.
The day passed uneventfully. In spite of his long sleep Vance still felt the weariness of convalescence, and the excitement of his changed surroundings. Disappointment also, the feeling that he was somehow being cheated out of hoped-for experiences, oppressed his tired nerves and left him for the moment without initiative, so that after dinner he was glad to accept Mrs. Tracy's suggestion that he should return to the back porch and stretch out in the hammock.
Upton had hurried home for dinner, the nursery where he was employed not being far away; but Laura Lou's seat was empty. Mrs. Tracy explained that she usually returned from school for the midday meal, but that she had accepted an invitation from a friend that day, and would not be back till evening.
Upton, his shyness worn off, talked eagerly about his work; his employer was hybridizing gladioluses, he explained, and also experimenting in crosses between Japanese and European tree-peonies. All this evidently meant nothing to Mrs. Tracy, who had a stock set of questions ready (Vance perceived) for both of her children, and had learned how to interrogate Upton about his horticultural experiments, and Laura Lou about her studies, without understanding their answers, or even affecting to. She struck Vance as a woman who had lived all her life among people whose language she could not speak, and had learned to communicate with them by signs, like a deaf-mute, while ministering watchfully to their material needs.
Having settled Vance in the hammock she went off with a slatternly woman who came in from one of the next houses to help with the washing; and Vance lay in the warm shade, and dozed, or let his mind wander over his half-written poems. But whenever he tried to write poetry nowadays the same thing happened: after the first few lines, which almost wrote themselves, the inspiration died out, or rather he felt that he didn't know what to say next—that if his mind had contained more of the stuff of experience, words would have flocked of their own accord for its expression. He supposed it must take a good deal of experience to furnish the material for even a few lines of poetry; and though he was not prepared to admit that very little had happened to him, he could not but remember that he was only nineteen, and that there had not been time yet for any great accumulation of events. He finished the Magdalen poem about the lilacs, but haltingly, the expression flagging with the vision—and when it was done he leaned back, lit a cigarette, and thought with a smile what his restless inquisitive sister Mae would have said if she had known how he was spending his first day within reach of New York. "Well, I'll get there all the same, and get to a newspaper office too," he thought, setting his teeth in a last effort at doggedness before sleep once more overcame him.
That evening at supper Laura Lou again came in late. She wore a faded yellow muslin which became her, and looked flushed and animated; but she contributed no more to the conversation than on the previous day. Mrs. Tracy seemed tired, and more discouraged than ever—Vance supposed it was the washing. When supper was over, and they were going back to the porch, she said she guessed she'd go to bed early; and would Upton be sure to remember to put out the lamp in the hall, and fasten the door chain when they went upstairs? Upton said he would, and Mrs. Tracy turned back to speak through the window of the dining room, where she was clearing the table unaided by either of her children. "Don't forget now, Upton; tomorrow's Saturday, and it's the Willows afternoon."
"All right, Mother; I won't."
"You say that; and then you get home hours late for dinner," his mother insisted nervously. "I wouldn't wonder if Miss Halo came down herself tomorrow," she added in an anxious tone.
"Oh, no, she won't—not in this heat."
"You always say that too, Upton; and then when you least expect it, she does come, or Mrs. Spear does, and you're not there when they arrive. And of course they want to know where you are, and if we mean to keep on with the job or not; and I get all the blame. And I don't see how I can get to the Willows myself tomorrow, with all the ironing still to do… ."
"Well, you needn't, Mother. Laura Lou'll have to go with me; that's all."
"Oh, will I?" murmured Laura Lou. She spoke under her breath, but loud enough for Vance to hear, as she sat in the summer darkness close to the hammock to which he had returned.
"Yes, Laura Lou'll have to. You will, darling?" Mrs. Tracy, without waiting for the answer, which she perhaps feared would be negative, picked up a candlestick from the sideboard and slowly mounted the stairs.
Left alone, the young people relapsed into silence. Upton was evidently tired by his day's work, and Vance was embarrassed by the presence of an inarticulate schoolgirl whose replies to his remarks took the form of a nervous giggle. "I wish her mother'd made her go to bed too," he thought. He offered a cigarette to Upton, and then held out the packet to Laura Lou, who shook her head with another giggle.
"She's tried, but they made her sick," said Upton cruelly.
"Well, they do." Her face wrinkled up as if she were about to cry. To change the subject, Vance questioned: "What did your mother mean by tomorrow being the afternoon for the Willows? What are the Willows?"
Upton answered indifferently: "It's old Miss Lorburn's place, out the other side of Paul's Landing. Nobody's lived there since she died, ages ago, and she left a funny will, and we have to go out once a fortnight and see to the house being aired and the knickknacks dusted. There's a sort of hired man lives on the place, but he isn't allowed into Miss Lorburn's rooms, and Mother and I have to see that they're kept clean, and just the way she left them."
"Was this Miss Lorburn a relative of your father's?"
"Oh, very distant, I guess. She left the place to one of her nephews, an old bachelor who never comes there; and it's he who arranged for Mother to keep an eye on things."
Vance meditated, his interest beginning to stir. "What sort of a place is it?"
"I don't know, nothing particular. Just an old house."
An old house! Upton spoke the words indifferently, almost contemptuously: they seemed to signify nothing to him. But they stirred Vance's blood. An old house! It occurred to him that he had never seen a really old house in his life. But Upton was young—a good deal younger than himself. What did he mean by the epithet? His perspectives were probably even shorter than Vance's.
"How old? As old as this house?" Vance questioned.
"Oh, ages older. My father used to go there when he was a little boy. It was an old house then. He could just remember seeing old Miss Lorburn, Mother says. She lived to be very old. She was a friend of my grandfather's, I believe. It's a dreary place anyhow. Laura Lou hates it. She says the rooms are full of ghosts, and she's scared of it. But I say it's because she hates missing her Saturday afternoon at the movies."
"Upton—" Laura Lou again protested.
"Well, you do. And Mother don't like you to go to the Willows because you break things. But you'll have to, tomorrow."
Laura Lou made no answer, and Vance pursued his interrogatory. "And who are those ladies your mother spoke about, who come in and raise a row?"
"Oh, Mrs. Spear and her daughter. Mrs. Spear was a Lorburn. They won't come tomorrow—not in this heat. If they're here—and I'm not sure they are anyhow—"
"Here? At Paul's Landing?"
"Well, they live up at Eaglewood, another Lorburn place, a couple of miles from here, up the mountain. There's a grand view of the river from there. It's in the guidebooks. And they're supposed to come down to the Willows now and then, and keep an eye on us, the way we do on the hired man."
"How many Lorburn places are there round here?"
"They owned pretty near the whole place before the Revolution. Now there's only these two houses left."
"I suppose they had a big real estate boom, and got rid of everything?"
Upton chuckled incredulously in the dusk. "I don't believe there's ever been much boom of any kind about the Lorburns. They just got poorer and poorer and died off, I guess."
Vance was genuinely puzzled. "Well, I don't see why they couldn't have worked up a boom and unloaded the stuff on somebody," he murmured. Then he remembered Harrison Delaney's incapacity in the same line, and his grandmother's caustic comments on old families that have run to seed. He was glad that no aristocratic blood clogged his own lively circulation, and that, anyhow, there were no old families in a go-ahead place like Euphoria.
Upton got up and stretched his thin arms above his head. "Well, I'm going to get a move on toward bed. It was about 150 in that fernhouse this afternoon." He groped his way between them, and went into the hall, banging the screen door after him in the instinctive defence against mosquitoes. From where Vance lay in the hammock he could see Upton put the chain across the front door, and bolt it.
Suddenly, close to him in the darkness, he heard Laura Lou say: "You've had that old lilac in your buttonhole all day. It smells all faded." She bent above him and snatched it out of his coat. Instinctively he put up his hand to prevent her; his poem had made the withered blossom sacred. "Oh, don't—" But his hand, instead of the lilac, caught her soft fingers. They quivered, frightened yet entreating, and the warmth of her touch rushed through him, tempting, persuading; but she was no more than a little girl, awkward and ignorant, and he was under her mother's roof. Besides, if it had not been for the heat and the darkness, and his mood of sensuous lassitude, he did not believe that even the touch of her soft skin would have roused him; the raw flapper had no charm for his unripe senses.
"Here—give it back! Listen to me, Laura Lou!" But she sprang out of reach with one of her maddening giggles, and he let her hand go, and the lilac with it, indifferently.
Upton came clumping back to the porch. "Going up to bed too?" he asked. Vance assented and tumbled out of the hammock. "All right. Then I'll put the lamp out. Come along, Laura Lou." To Vance he added: "Mother left a candle on the upper landing," and he reached up to the swinging lamp, pulled it down, and filled the passage with the stench of its extinction. Laura Lou had already slipped up ahead of them to her mother's room.