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A Lantern in Her Hand
IN HER HAND
BESS STREETER ALDRICH
Because the road was steep and long,
And through a dark and lonely land,
God set upon my lips a song
And put a lantern in my hand.
A Lantern in Her Hand
Cedartown sits beside a great highway which was once a buffalo trail. If you start in one direction on the highway—and travel far enough—you will come to the effete east. If you start in the opposite direction—and travel a few hundred miles farther—you will come to the distinctive west. Cedartown is neither effete nor distinctive, nor is it even particularly pleasing to the passing tourist. It is beautiful only in the eyes of those who live here and in the memories of the Nebraska-born whose dwelling in far places has given them moments of homesickness for the low rolling hills, the swell and dip of the ripening wheat, the fields of sinuously waving corn and the elusively fragrant odor of alfalfa.
There are weeks when drifting snow and sullen sleet hold the Cedartown community in their bitter grasp. There are times when hot winds come out of the southwest and parch it with their feverish breath. There are periods of monotonous drouth and periods of dreary rain; but between these onslaughts there are days so perfect, so filled with clover odors and the rich, pungent smell of newly turned loam, so sumac-laden and apple-burdened, that to the prairie-born there are no others as lovely by mountain or lake or sea.
The paved streets of Cedartown lie primly parallel over the obliterated tracks of the buffalo. The substantial buildings of Cedartown stand smartly over the dead ashes of Indian campfires. There are very few people left now in the community who have seen the transition,—who have witnessed the westward trek of the last buffalo, the flicker of the last burnt-out ember.
Old Abbie Deal was one of these.
Just outside the corporate limits of Cedartown stands the old Deal home. It was once a farm-house, but the acreage around it has been sold, and Cedartown has grown out to meet it, so that a newcomer could not know where the town ceased and the country began.
The house stands well back from the road in a big yard with a long double row of cedars connecting the formal parlor entrance and the small front gate. However, in the days when the Deals lived there, scarcely any one used the little gate, or walked up the grassy path between the cedars. All comers chose to enter by the wide carriage-gate standing hospitably open and beckoning a welcome to the lane road which runs past a row of Lombardy poplars to the sitting-room porch.
The house itself is without distinction. There were no architects in the community when the first of its rooms were built. “We’ll have the living-room there and the kitchen here,” one told old Asy Drumm. And old Asy, with few comments and much tobacco-chewing, placed the living-room there and the kitchen here. The result was weatherproof, sturdy and artless. When the country was new, homes, like dresses, were constructed more for wearing qualities than beauty.
Twice, onto the first wing-and-ell, old Asy, a little more glum and tobacco-stained, added a room, until the house had attained its present form. That form, now, is not unlike an aeroplane which has settled down between the cedars at the front and the cottonwood wind-break in the rear. The parlor, protruding toward the road, might contain the engine. The sitting-room to the left and a bedroom to the right seem the wings, while the dining-room, kitchen, and a summer kitchen beyond, trail out like the long tail of the thing. If one’s imagination is keen he can even fancy that the fan-shaped colored-glass window in the parlor may some day begin to whirl, propeller-like, and the whole house rise up over the cedars.
The interior of the house, during Abbie Deal’s lifetime, was a combination of old-fashioned things which she had accumulated through the years, and modern new ones which the grown children had given her. A dull-finished, beautifully-proportioned radio cabinet stood opposite a homemade, rudely painted what-not. A kitchen table, with a little declivity in one corner, in which old Doc Matthews had rolled pills in Civil War times, stood near a white enameled case which was the last word in refrigeration. A little crude oil-painting of a prairie sunset, which Abbie Deal had done in the ’seventies, hung across the room from a really exquisite study of the same subject, which a daughter, Mrs. Frederick Hamilton Baker, had done forty years later.
Abbie Deal kept everything that had ever come into the house. Every nail, every button, every string, was carefully hoarded. “This would make a strong bottom for one of the kitchen chairs some day,” old Abbie Deal would say, when in truth the bottom of the chair was as strong as its legs. Or, “Save those stubs of candles from the Christmas tree. I can melt them and run them into one big one.” The characteristic was a hang-over from the lean and frugal days when the country was new, when every tiny thing had its use. As a consequence, there was in the house the flotsam of all the years.
One of the daughters, Mrs. Harrison Scannell Rhodes, on her annual visit out from Chicago, protested once: “Mother, if the house only represented some one period! But it’s such a jumbled combination of things. They’re not antique. They’re just old.”
“And why should it?” Old lady Deal flared up a little. “I’m no one period. I’ve lived with spinning-wheels and telephones . . . with tallow-dips and electric lights. I’m not antique. I’m just old. It represents me, doesn’t it?”
You will infer from the retort that old Abbie Deal was a strong personality. And you will be quite right. The fact that she lived there in the old home until her eightieth year, over the protests of children and grandchildren, attested to that. At the time she was seventy, they began trying to pry her away from “The Cedars.” They talked over various plans for her—that she should go to Omaha to live with Mack,—to Lincoln to live with Margaret,—that she should have rooms at John’s right there in Cedartown,—that Grace should give up her teaching in Wesleyan University temporarily and stay at home. When they had quite definitely decided on the Lincoln home with Margaret, old Abbie Deal spoke. “I will do nothing of the kind,” she said with finality. “I am going to stay right here. And kindly let me alone. Because a woman is old, has she no rights?”
After that they did not press the matter. They “let her alone,” but they drove in frequently, for only the Chicago daughter lived far away. Sometimes, on Sundays, the lane road contained a half dozen high-powered cars parked there through the dinner hour and the afternoon. But not one son or daughter could ever become reconciled to the idea of driving away and leaving her there.
“When I think of fire . . .” one of them would say.
“Or of her getting sick in the night . . .”
“Or falling . . . and no one to help her . . .”
“Or any one of a dozen things . . .”
“Yes . . . something will happen to Mother some day.”
And they were quite right. Something happened to Mother. Last July on a late afternoon, while suppers cooked and children of the north end of town played “Run, Sheep, Run,” in her yard, old lady Deal died. A neighbor woman found her lying across the foot of the bed, fully dressed, while the slice of meat which she had been cooking, burned to a crisp.
Of the five middle-aged children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, not one was with her. They all came hastily in response to the messages. Within two hours’ time, a shining limousine, two big sedans, and a roadster all stood in the lane road. For the first time, when the cars turned into the driveway by the Lombardy poplars, no little old white-haired woman with bright brown eyes, had come hurrying out to give cheery greeting. That queer, solemn hush of death hung over the whole place. It was in the quivering droop of the cottonwoods,—in the deepening of the prairie twilight,—in the silence of the star-filled summer sky.
They all gathered in the parlor with its modern radio and its old-fashioned what-not, its elaborate new floor-lamp and its crude oil-painting. All of the children and several of the grandchildren were there. Mackenzie Deal, the Omaha banker, was there. John Deal, the Cedartown attorney and state legislator, was there. Mrs. Harrison Scannell Rhodes of Chicago, who had been visiting in Omaha, was there. Mrs. Frederick Hamilton Baker, of Lincoln, and Miss Grace Deal, of Wesleyan University, were there. They were people of poise, men and women not given to hysterical demonstration, but at the first gathering they all broke down. For a brief quarter of an hour there in the old parlor with its familiar objects, they let their grief have sway. For a little while there in the farm-home of their youth, they were but children whose mother had left them lonely when night was coming on.
When they had pulled themselves together, their greatest grief seemed to be that she died alone. In deepest remorse they blamed themselves. Standing there together in common sorrow, they said the same thing over and over to each other:
“Didn’t she seem as well as ever to you last week?”
“I’ll never forgive myself that I played bridge all afternoon.”
“Do you suppose she suffered much?”
“Or called for us?”
“Isn’t it dreadful? Poor Mother! So many of us . . . and not one of us here just when she needed us . . . and after all she’s done for us.”
Only one,—Laura Deal,—a twelve-year-old granddaughter, turned away from the window where she had been looking down the long double row of cedars, and said in a clear, steady voice: “I don’t think it was so dreadful. I think it was kind of nice. Maybe she didn’t miss you.” She looked slowly around the circle of her elders. “When you stop to think about it, maybe she didn’t miss you at all. One time Grandma told me she was the very happiest when she was living over all her memories. Maybe . . .” She hesitated, a little shy at expressing the thought in her heart, “Maybe she was doing that . . . then.”
This is the story of the old lady who died while the meat burned and the children played “Run, Sheep, Run,” across her yard.
Abbie Mackenzie was old Abbie Deal’s maiden name. And because the first eight years of her life were interesting only to her family, we shall skip over them as lightly as Abbie herself used to skip a hoop on the high, crack-filled sidewalks in the little village of Chicago, which stood at the side of a lake where the bulrushes grew.
We find her then, at eight, in the year 1854, camping at night on the edge of some timberland just off the beaten trail between Dubuque and the new home in Blackhawk County, Iowa, to which the little family was bound.
Abbie and a big sister of fifteen, Isabelle, were curled up together under two old patchwork quilts in one of the wagons. Another sister, Mary, and a little brother, Basil, were in the other wagon with their mother. Sixteen-year-old James and eleven-year-old Dennie, the men of the party, were sleeping near the oxen, so that the warmth of the animals’ bodies would keep them warm.
Because she had propped up a small section of the wagon’s canvas cover, Abbie could see out into the night. The darkness was a heavy, animate thing. It hung thickly about the wagon, vaguely weird, remotely fearsome. It seemed to see and hear and feel. It looked at Abbie with its stirs, heard her whispered words with its tree-leaves, felt of her warm little body with its cool breeze fingers. Something about the queer closeness of it almost frightened her. Something about the hushed silence of it made her think of her father who had died two years before. She summoned a picture of him into her mind, now,—recalling the paleness of his long, thin face, the neatness of his neckcloth, the gentle courtesy of his manner. Thinking of him so, she punched Isabelle with an active elbow. “Belle, tell me about Father and Mother.”
The big girl was a little impatient. “I’ve told you everything I remember.”
“Tell it again.”
“I should think you’d get tired of hearing the same thing.”
“Oh, I never do.”
“Well . . . Father were what they call an aristocrat. He lived in Aberdeen, Scotland, and his folks, the Mackenzies, had a town house and two country houses. He belonged to the landed gentry.”
“What’s landed gentry?”
“It means he were a gentleman and didn’t have to work.”
“Will James and Dennie be gentlemen?”
“Of course not. We lost all our money.”
“Tell how we lost it.” Abbie settled herself with complacence. There was an element of satisfaction in having had such a foreign substance at one time, even if it was long before her birth.
“Well . . . Father were a young man and never had to do nothing but enjoy hisself, and he were out one day following the hare and hounds . . .”
“Tell about that.”
“That’s hunting . . . a pack of hounds after a rabbit . . . and he got away from the rest of them and were lost.”
“No, dunce-cap, . . . you know I mean father. And he come to a peasant’s cottage.”
“Awful poor people that have to work. But don’t stop me every minute. I always forget where I were. Well . . . and he wanted a drink. And a sixteen-year-old peasant girl come out of the house. They were Irish, but I guess they were working for some folks in Scotland. Anyway it were Mother and she got a drink for him . . . were pulling up the rope and he took the rope and pulled it up hisself. Just think! A gentleman . . . and Mother were sixteen . . . just one year older than me. Abbie, do you suppose there’ll be an aristocratic landed gentleman out in Blackhawk County where we’re going?”
“No . . . I don’t think so. Go on.”
“Well, Mother were pretty . . . Irish girls about always are . . . and there were a rosebush and Father asked her for a rose and she pulled one for him. Abbie, don’t you tell anybody, but I’ve got a little rosebush done up in a wet rag in the wagon and I’m going to plant it out in Blackhawk County.”
“Ho! Ho! It takes years and years for a rosebush to grow big enough to have flowers to pull off for a-ris . . . for a-rist . . . for gentlemen. Go on.”
“Anyway, Father took his rose and went away and the next day he come back.”
“Were he lost again?”
“No, dunce-cap! He come back to see Mother a-purpose. And he come other days, even after that, and they would walk over the heather hills together.”
“What’s feather hills?”
“Not feather! Heather! . . . a little kind of weedy grass. And all the neighbors shook their heads and said they’d seen that thing happen before from the gentry . . . and . . .” Isabelle whispered solemnly, “no good ever come of it.”
“What did they say that for?”
“I can’t tell you now. You wouldn’t understand. When you’re as old as me, you will. But just the same, Father did marry her and took her to Aberdeen to the big Mackenzie house. Mother wore her best dress and her best head-shawl, but even then, all fixed up that nice way, the Mackenzies didn’t like her. Father’s mother were Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie and she were awful proud and I hate her for not liking Mother. I hate her so bad that I’m sorry I’m named for her. If Mother would let me, I’d change it to Rosamond. I read about a Rosamond and she . . .”
“Go on about her . . . not you.”
“Well . . . she were ashamed of Mother, but she had to take her in because she were Father’s wife, and she dressed her up grand and tried to make her different. But when Mother would go back to see her folks, she’d put on her peasant dress and wear her shawl on her head and slip away. And Sundays when the Mackenzies would go to the kirk . . .”
“Church. Where were I? Oh . . . the aristocrats set down below and the peasants all set up in the loft . . .”
“Like a hay loft?”
“No. Stop interrupting, or I won’t tell you one thing more. And Mother wouldn’t leave her folks, the O’Conners, so Father went and set with them and the Mackenzies were just sick with shame. Then Grandfather Mackenzie died, and a long time afterward . . . after Janet and James and Mary and Dennie and I were all born, Grandmother Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie . . .”
“I just admire to hear that name . . .”
“There you go again. Now I’m through telling it.”
“Please . . . I won’t stop you again.”
“Well . . . Grandmother died, too. Then Father come to America on a sailing vessel, just for a pleasure trip, and he were gone so long and folks thought he weren’t coming back at all . . . and Mother cried something terrible . . . and Father had signed a note for a man . . .”
“What’s signed a . . .? Oh, . . . go on.”
“And it made him lose all his money. Men come and put cards up on the house and stables while he were gone and the signs said there were going to be a roup there.”
“What’s . . .? Go on.”
“A roup’s an auction sale. There were fifteen saddle-horses in the stables, but after the roup cards went up Mother were not allowed to touch one on account of the law, and so her and James and Janet walked twenty-seven miles to have her father and mother come and bid in some of her things. She’s got ’em yet in that little wooden chest with calf-skin all over it. It’s in the other wagon and I know just what’s in it because I saw ’em. There’s a white silk shawl with big solid roses in the corners . . . all four corners . . . and a jeweled fan . . . and a breast-pin with lavender sets and a string of pearls. There are just as many things as there are girls in our family and Mother says each girl are to have one for a keepsake. I know which one I want . . . the silk shawl. I tried it on once when Mother were gone and I looked a lot like the painting of Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie that hung up on the landing of the stairway in the great hall. Course, you understand, Abbie, I never said I hated her looks . . .”
“Which one is Mother going to give me?”
“I don’t know. She aren’t going to give ’em to us until our wedding days. Of course, Janet didn’t get hers on her wedding day because she got married out here in Blackhawk County before we come, but Mother’ll give it to her to-morrow when we get there.”
“Go on . . . you’re forgetting the end of the story.”
“Oh, well, you know it anyway. When Father got back to Liverpool he heard all about the money and the property being lost, and the things being sold, and he never even went to Aberdeen but sent for Mother and all five of us children to come to Liverpool and we all crossed the ocean. I were seven and I can remember just as well . . . and when we got to New York, you were born.”
Abbie breathed a sigh of relief. It was a welcome respite after a narrow escape. With every telling of the story, almost it seemed for a time that she was not to be born.
“Now tell about the painting of Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie that hung on the landing of the stairway in the great hall.” Abbie rolled the magic words from her lips in delicious anticipation. This was the part she liked the best of all.
“Well . . . it were beauteous. It were in a great heavy gold frame . . . and as big as life. I can remember it just as well. In the picture she were young, you know . . .”
“And beautiful . . .” prompted Abbie.
“And beautiful. She had reddish-brown hair like yours . . . and she were standing by a kind-of . . . a table-thing, and she had on a velvet dress that swept down and around her . . . and she had a hat in her hand with a plume . . .”
“A flowing white plume,” corrected Abbie.
“A flowing white plume,” repeated the more matter-of-fact Isabelle. “And she had pretty hands and long slender fingers that tapered at the ends.”
Abbie held her hands up to the opening of the canvas on the wagon and peered at them in the moonlight. The fingers were long and slender and they tapered at the ends. She sighed with satisfaction, and slipped them under the old patched quilt.
“And nobody knows what become of the picture?” It was half statement, half question, as though from the vast fund of information which Isabelle possessed, she might, some day, suddenly remember what had become of the picture.
“No. It were sold at the roup. I don’t know who got it.”
Abbie sighed again, but not with satisfaction. Of all the beautiful things that were sold, she felt that she could have missed seeing any of them with better grace than the portrait. In her immature way, she resented the sale more than any other thing,—the passing of the lovely lady into other hands. Jewels, money, furniture,—they seemed lifeless, inanimate things beside the picture of the woman who was flesh of her flesh. It ought to have been saved. It was their own grandmother who stood there forever inside the heavy gold frame, in the dark velvet dress that swept around her,—and with the flowing white plume—and the long slender fingers that tapered at the ends.
“Well, I wish we had it here with us, Belle. We could have it all wrapped up in quilts in the wagon . . . and then some day out in Blackhawk County when we get rich, we could build us a grand house with a wide curving stairway and hang the picture on the landing . . . and everybody that come . . .”
“Abbie! Belle!” A voice came suddenly from the other wagon. “Sure’n you’re the talkers. Settle yoursel’s now. We want to get a good early start by sunup.”
Abbie started. From a dreamy journey into the fields of romance she had been drawn back to the prosaic world of reality by her mother’s voice. She could not quite reconcile good fat Mother with the romantic figure of the pretty girl at the well, picking a rose for an aristocratic gentleman. But then, Mother was almost an old woman, now,—thirty-seven.
Abbie turned to the opening in the canvas cover and looked out again at the night. Yellow-white, the moon rose higher over the dark clumps of trees. A thousand stars, looking down, paled at its rising. An owl gave its mournful call. The smell of burning maple boughs came from the fire. A wolf howled in the distance so that James got up and took out the other gun from the wagon. There was a constant tick-tacking in the timber,—all the little night creatures at their work. It was queer how it all hurt you,—how the odor of the night, the silver sheen of the moon, the moist feeling of the dew, the whispering of the night breeze, how, somewhere down in your throat it hurt you. It was sad, too, that this evening would never come again. The night winds were blowing it away. You could not stop the winds and you could not stop Time. It went on and on,—and on. To-morrow night would come and the moon would look down on this same spot,—the trees and the grass, the wagon-tracks and the dead campfire. But she would not be here. Her heart swelled with an emotion which she could not name. Tears came to her eyes. The telling of the story always brought that same feeling.
“Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie,” she said it over until it took upon itself the cadence of a melody, the rhythm of a poem. “I shall be like her,” she thought. “I have hair like her now and hands like her. I shall be lovely. And I shall do wonderful things . . . sing before big audiences and paint pictures inside of gold frames and write things in a book.” She wondered how you got things put in a book. There were some books in one of the wooden chests over in the other wagon. A man with a long name that began S-h-a-k-e-s . . . had made some of them. They had been Father’s. Mother didn’t read them. She didn’t read anything but her Bible. Even that was hard for her, so that she read the same verses over and over. Yes, she would be like Father and Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie, not like Mother’s family with their cottage on the side of the hill and their dark shawls over their heads. She would be rich and lovely . . . with a velvet dress and a long sweeping plume . . . under the moon . . . and the night wind, . . . that felt of your body with its long . . . slender fingers . . . that tapered at the ends . . .
Abbie Mackenzie slept,—little Abbie Mackenzie, with the mixture of the two strains of blood,—with the stout body of the O’Conners and the slender hands of the Mackenzies,—with the O’Conner sturdiness and the Mackenzie refinement. And she is to need them both,—the physical attributes of the peasant and the mental ones of the aristocrat,—the warm heart of the Irish and the steadfastness of the Scotch. Yes, Abbie Mackenzie is to need them both in the eighty years she is to live,—courage and love,—a song upon her lips and a lantern in her hand.
The sun, shining through the propped-up canvas of the wagon, wakened Abbie. Wide-eyed, she looked out through the aperture upon the same setting of the night before. But now it was changed. The child lived a life in each of two distinct worlds and it is not possible to say which one she most enjoyed. One of them was made of moonbeams and star-dust, of night winds and cloud fancies, of aristocratic gentlemen and lovely ladies. The other was the equally pleasant one of boiled potatoes and salt pork, of games with Basil and Mary, of riding a-top old Buck or picking wild flowers at the edge of the timber.
Just now the prosaic world of everyday seemed the more attractive of the two. James had replenished the night fire and Mother was cooking breakfast, with the odor of frying pork and corn-cakes strong on the air. The team of horses and the oxen were eating close by, the horses guzzling their grain noisily, the oxen chewing slowly and stolidly.
Maggie O’Conner Mackenzie was a heavy, dumpy woman, her body the shape of a pudding-bag tied in the middle. One shawl was wrapped around the shapeless figure and a smaller one, over her head, was knotted under her fat chin. Strands of heavy black hair showed around the edges of the head-shawl, and the face enclosed in its folds was round and smooth, fat and placid. Only her dark Irish eyes, the color of the blue-black waters at Kilkee, and a dimple in the middle of her rolling chin, gave a touch of reality to the old romance of the peasant girl.
This was the last day of the journey which had been of three weeks’ duration. (Six decades later James Mackenzie was to make the journey back with a grandson in one day.)
Breakfast over, the little cavalcade set out with much noisy chatter,—reminders not to forget this or that.
“Did ye put out the last o’ the fire, Dennie?”
“Fasten that buckle on Whitey’s bridle, Belle.”
The mother drove the horse team,—James, the oxen. Walking along beside the latter, James’ boyish “Gee” or “Haw” or “Whoa How” rang out with valiant attempts to make the notes stentorian. Buck was a red and white animal, Boy a brindle. As they walked, they swung their huge heads rhythmically from side to side, the brass buttons a-top their horns shining in the morning sun. Almost at the first rod’s length of the journey little Basil had to stop the procession to change from one wagon to the other. Belle rode on the seat with her mother, but, because it was early and cool, Abbie, Mary and Dennie walked behind, darting off the trail to gather Mayflowers or wild Bouncing-Bets. Sometimes they jumped over the young rosin-weeds and wild blue phlox and occasionally they caught on the back of the wagon, clutching onto the household goods and swinging their feet off the ground for a few moments.
About nine, they forded a stream. The oxen ahead crossed slowly, lumberingly, with many stops in that foolish, stolid way they had. When they were across, Mother Mackenzie drove her team into the creek bed. As the horses were going up the bank, one of them stumbled, crowding against its mate. There was a creaking, and backing, a shouting and a tipping. One sack of flour began tailing slowly, and then another and another. Eight sacks of flour, pushing against each other, slipped slowly into the water like fat, clumsy, old men, reluctant to wet their feet.
Maggie Mackenzie was out and managing her horses by way of their bridles, while James, running back from his own wagon, assisted in bringing order out of the catastrophe. Then some one called excitedly, “Look out for the bedding,” and two great pillows started floating down stream with majestic motion, as though the geese from which their contents had been plucked, were suddenly coming to life.
“Och!” And “Och!” The mother wrung her hands in distress. Eight sacks of flour and two pillows were a fortune.
Abbie and Dennie and little Basil, their laughter high with excitement, all ran along the side of the creek bed after the pillows. In the meantime, James and Belle were wading into the stream and pulling out the sacks. To the mother the disaster seemed more than she could bear. “Och! If I ever get there,” said Maggie O’Conner Mackenzie, “sure ’n’ I’ll never l’ave the spot.” Sure, and she never did. Many years later she died a quarter of a mile from the place where she first stepped out of the wagon.
When the last sack was retrieved, the entire family, with much dire foreboding, crowded around James, who was opening a sack to see how the contents fared. It was as though the whole of life’s future hung on the outcome. To their extreme relief the wet flour had formed but a thin paste, which, with a few moments drying in the sun, now high and hot, would form a crust and keep the precious contents unharmed.
In spite of the delay the family reached the settlement on the Cedar River by the middle of the afternoon and stopped near the log cabin of Tom Graves, the man whom the older sister Janet had come out to marry. Janet, herself, hearing the creaking of the wagons, came hurrying down the grassy trail to meet them, a three-weeks-old baby in her arms. The baby was something by way of surprise to the entire group of relatives, his arrival having taken place after the family had started westward.
Maggie O’Conner Mackenzie, with much clucking and chirping and adjustment of clothing, welcomed her first grandchild.
“Sure ’n’ he’s the big one. How did ye get along? Is he good? Did ye have a doctor or a neighbor woman?”
Janet answered them all even while her mother was still talking. Oh, yes, there was a doctor,—Doc Matthews over at town. Cedar Falls was quite a place. It had a saw-mill and a hotel and a store, a dozen log cabins, and a few frames ones. The school-house had the only tower bell in the state. For pay Tom was to haul in a load of wood for the doctor’s office stove,—he had a two-roomed house, part log and part frame.
The oxen behind them slathered and snorted. There was the smell in the air of newly-cut chips. The woods back of the cabin looked thick and impenetrable beyond the short arrows of the sun. And then Tom Graves, himself, came out of the timber, his ax, the insignia of the fight, on his shoulder.
“Here is my mother, Tom, and this is Belle and that one is Mary. And that boy is James and this one Dennie and here’s little Basil. And over there with the reddish-brown hair is Abbie,—we almost forgot her.”
So much was to be said, and all at once. “We’ve got a house all ready for you, Mother. It was Grandpa Deal’s sheep shed. The Deals have been here for three years, but they’ve moved down farther on the prairie now in a fine big log house, and you can have this until you get your own cabin done. We’ve cleaned it all out for you and hung a thick quilt over the opening, and if it storms you can come in with us.”
And so Maggie O’Conner Mackenzie, who had lived in the great Aberdeen town house and on the two Scotch country estates, was to make her bed now in a sheep shed.
Every one turned in to help with the settling. From the wagons they took out the walnut bedsteads and the bedding and the highboy. They brought in the heavy, cumbersome guns and the powder-horn and the splint-bottom chairs. Maggie Mackenzie brought in her flat-iron into which one put glowing hickory embers through an iron door, and she hung up the iron tallow-lamp with a home-spun wick hanging over the side like a tongue hanging grotesquely from the side of a mouth. If she could have foreseen that two granddaughters, Mrs. Harrison Scannell Rhodes and Mrs. Frederick Hamilton Baker, were going to stage a polite but intensive campaign over which one could have the old tallow-lamp in her sun parlor, a half century later, she would have shaken her fat sides with laughter.
Everything was out of the wagon now,—everything but one. Abbie, standing in the grassy trail in front of the old sheep shed, was watching for it. On tiptoe there in her ankle-length starched dress, her red-brown hair wound around her head and tucked into a snood, she was the picture of watchful waiting. She might have been carved in marble as “Expectancy.”
“Let me! Let me!” she called, when her mother was bringing out the calf-skin-covered box from under the wagon seat.
“If ye’ll carry it carefu’.”
No need to caution Abbie to be careful. In a warm feeling of pleasure over the temporary possession, she clasped her arms around its hairy sides and the “M.OC.” initials formed by nail-heads.
Inside the box lay all the accouterments of another life. In its skin-covered depths was all the equipment of an entirely different world. They were symbols of things in life to come. They represented the future in which she would some day live. She got down on her knees on the dirt floor, with its earthy odor, and pushed the little chest into the far, dark corner under her mother’s bed. Lovingly and lingeringly she relinquished her hold upon it. For a few moments she saw herself in that future, her red-brown hair in curls, over her shoulders a white silk shawl with roses in the corners, its folds held together with a lavender breastpin. There was a string of pearls around her neck, and she was waving a jeweled fan with long, white fingers that tapered at the ends. There was soft music playing. She came out on a high stage ready to sing. Lovely ladies and courtly men were clapping their hands. Some of them stood up. She smiled at them and waved her jeweled fan. . . .
“Abbie . . . Abbie . . . where are you?” Quite suddenly, the gorgeous trappings fell away. She was back in the everyday world, hearing loud voices calling her.
“Abbie!. . .” The voices were raised high in fright. She scrambled out backward from under the bed.
“Abbie . . . Abbie . . .” Dennis and Mary were running toward her, their faces white with fear. “The Indians are coming. A man here on horseback says the Indians are coming down the river.”
Abbie scrambled back under the bed and brought out the hairy chest in her arms. Not to any wild and heathenish Indian was Abbie Mackenzie intending to relinquish the only tangible tie that bound her to the lovely lady.
In the midst of the hurry and confusion and fright, Abbie gathered that they were all to get back into the wagons and “go down to Grandpa Deal’s,” wherever that was.
Everything that could be handled easily was thrown into the wagons. Janet rolled a fresh batch of bread and raised doughnuts into a homespun tablecloth. Tom tied old Whitey to the back of his wagon and put her new calf in the end of the box so she could see her offspring and not bellow for it. Abbie clutched the hairy chest in protecting arms. The cavalcade started lumberingly down the river road. Through the dark timber they drove, over spongy moist leaves, past thickets of sumac and hazel-brush, their hearts pounding in alarm, their bodies tense with fear, every tree the potential hiding place of an Indian.
Out of the cool river road and onto the hot, flat prairie they came as suddenly as one opens a door upon a bright, heated room. For two miles they drove over the faintly marked prairie trail, coming then to another wooded section and to the largest house in the community,—a big log structure which looked palatial to Abbie’s eyes after Tom Graves’ one-roomed cabin and the sheep shed.
Other horse and ox teams were hitched to the straw-roofed log stable. Other families were scurrying into the house with smoked hams and batches of bread and valued possessions in their arms. Not far from the back door of the big log house, Abbie, still grasping the hairy chest, stopped to watch a boy of twelve or thirteen caressing the sleek, quivering head of a young deer, tied to a tree by a strap around its neck.
A small, severe-looking woman in a black calico dress, with a black netting cap tied under her sharply pointed chin, was scolding nervously. “No, Willie, you can’t. I won’t have it. It’s bad enough to have the whole kit ’n’ bilin’ in the country comin’ ’n’ trackin’ up,—all the rag-shag ’n’ bob-tails bringin’ their stuff.”
“But, Mother,” the boy plead, “I’ll keep her by herself. I’ll get her up the loft stairs.”
“No,—you sha’n’t, Willie Deal.”
And then a big, powerful man came out,—a man with only one arm, his left sleeve pinned to the side of his coat. He had a shock of wiry black hair, and an equally wiry beard which gave him an unkempt look. But his eyes were blue and twinkling and kind,—they held the calmness of blue ice, but not its coldness.
He put his one hand on the boy’s dark head, now, and said quietly, “You’d best let her go, son. She’ll take care of herself,—and it’s only fair to give her her freedom.”
Without a word the boy cut the strap at the fawn’s throat, and even while he was unloosing the piece around her neck, she darted from him lightly, gracefully, into the hazel-brush.
Inside the big log house where all seemed confusion, Abbie, after a time, sought out the dark-haired boy.
“Do you think you’ll ever get her back?” she asked shyly.
“Your little deer.”
“Naw, . . . never.” The boy turned his head away.
Abbie’s heart seemed bursting with sorrow for him. There was that word again,—never. It was the saddest word! It made her throat hurt. Willie Deal would never, never have his little deer again.
With his head still averted, the boy said tensely, “I found her . . . ’n’ raised her . . . myself.”
Abbie put her hand out gently and touched the boy’s arm.
“I’m sorry.” Her voice held deep sympathy.
“Aw . . .” He threw up his fine dark head. “I didn’t care.”
But Abbie knew it was not so. Abbie knew that he cared.
It seems precarious business to take time to describe Grandpa and Grandma Deal, when a band of disgruntled Indians is reported on its way down the Shell Rock, but, pending its arrival, one ought to know a little of Gideon Deal and his wife. They were not yet out of their forties. Indeed, their youngest daughter, Regina, was only nine, but through older offspring scattered about the community, several grandchildren had been presented to them, and so, to differentiate them from other and younger Deals, the titles “Grandpa” and “Grandma” had been bestowed early upon them.
To the other settlers Grandpa Deal seemed as substantial as the native hickory timber in whose clearing he had built his house. He was both freighter and farmer. Two of the grown sons worked his place, while he himself drove the six-ox-team over the long trail to Dubuque and back, with freight for the whole community. For this,—and for his reputation as a wit,—he was known far and wide. To fully appreciate his wit, one must have taken Grandma Deal into account, for she was the background against which his droll sayings stood forth. The little wiry woman, fretful, energetic and humorless, was intolerant of wasting time in fun-making. Grandpa Deal, kind, easy-going and jolly, was always picking up every little saying of his partner’s to bandy it about with sly drollness. There was never any loud laughter on his part, just a twinkle in the sharp blue eyes appreciative of his outlook on life. Grandma Deal spent her time hustling about, darting in and out, scolding at Grandpa, finding fault with the children, the well-sweep, the weather, everything that came under her eagle eye or into her busy brain.
Just now, however, Grandma was not scolding. Grandpa was not joking. The news of impending disaster had brought them to a common ground of fear. Most of the other families of the community had gathered now in the larger and stronger Deal home in response to the rumor of the Indian uprising. Already the men were stationing guns near windows and barring and barricading doors. Several women were running bullets in the little salamander stove, a queer affair whose short legs in front and long legs in the back, gave it the appearance of an inverted giraffe. One woman was hysterical; another a little out of her mind from fear, kept wanting to go back out doors where there was air.
All night they waited for whatever Fate had in store for them. In the morning, a man rode up on horseback, a young boy, about Willie Deal’s age, behind him in the saddle. It was Doc Matthews, who had come to bring word that the hostile band of Indians had gone north.
Immediately there was the confusion of getting ready to leave. Grandpa Deal told those who lived farthest away to stay and make a visit for the day. Abbie could hear Grandma Deal sputtering about her husband’s freehanded hospitality.
The boy who came with Doc Matthews was his son Ed. He had been east all year to a boys’ boarding school. He was dressed in a nice suit and a flat white collar and a little round hat.
He stood and looked at Willie Deal in his homespun suit. Willie Deal stood and looked at Eddie Matthews from the Philadelphia boarding-school. Their contempt seemed mutual.
The Indian scare, then, had gone into nothing. The wagons went lumbering back across the prairie and through the damp, dark river road where the hazel-brush and sumac knotted together under the native oaks and hickories.
All summer long, the Mackenzies lived in the sheep shed, while their own log house was being built. James and Tom Graves were building it, and Dennie was helping, battening the inside with long split saplings and filling the chinks with mud.
All summer long, Abbie went happily in and out of the sheep shed with the patchwork quilt in front for the door. There were so many lovely things to do that one did not know how to find time for them all. There were flowers in the deep, dark recesses of the Big Woods,—wild honeysuckles and Bouncing-Bets and tall ferns that one could pretend were long, sweeping, white plumes.
Sometimes Abbie would take one of the longest of the ferns and, with a slender twig, pin it on a wild grapevine leaf or a plantain for a hat. Then she would drape one of her mother’s dark shawls around her sturdy little body, and standing on a grassy hillock in the clearing, pretend she was Isabelle Anders-Mackenzie, the lovely lady.
And then she had a whole set of dishes hidden in the hollow of an oak at the edge of the timberland. James had made them for her from acorns, removing the nut and whittling little handles for the cups. And she had a child for which she must care constantly. It was an elongated-shaped stone with a small round formation on the end for its head. She put little Basil’s outgrown dress on it and a knitted bonnet. She liked the feeling of the stone against her breast. It seemed heavy and like a real baby. Sometimes in carrying it about, her heart would swell in potential mother love for it. But sometimes there was no need to pretend about a baby, for there was Janet’s real, live one to hold and rock. Janet had a low, wooden trundle-bed for him that pushed under the big bed. It was rough on the outside and the ends were made from the sawed round disks of a tree.
One afternoon, Willie Deal came up to the Big Woods with his shaggy-haired father to see Tom Graves. Willie Deal had remembered Abbie and brought her a plant in a clay jar he had made. The plant was a green, lacy, fernlike thing, and there were three little, round, scarlet balls on it.
“Whatever are they?” Abbie wanted to know.
“They’re love apples,” Willie told her. “But don’t you ever dare put one up to your mouth. They’re tremendous poisonous.”
Abbie promised that she never, never would so much as touch the poison. For how could Willie Deal and Abbie Mackenzie in the ’fifties know anything about vitamine-filled tomatoes?
And then, in the fall, Janet’s baby was not quite well. No one seemed to know what the matter could be. Maggie O’Conner Mackenzie doctored him with castor oil and peppermint. Grandma Deal sent word by Tom Graves to give him sassafras tea and tie a little bag of asafetida around his neck. When he seemed no better, Janet, pale and worried, said maybe they ought to send for Dr. Matthews. Abbie was frightened beyond measure when she heard that, for she well knew that a doctor was the last resort for saving one who was sick. Tom went out immediately to saddle a horse and go for the doctor. Janet told Abbie to hold the baby while she went out to the lean-to kitchen for warm water. Mother Mackenzie had gone over to her own home for flannel cloths.
And then, Abbie was calling them and crying all in the same breath, “Janet, . . . Mother, . . . come quick . . . oh, come. . . .”
Janet was in the room like a flash, a wild bittern at the call of its young. Abbie could scarcely talk for crying: “I was just holding him as steady. He acted queer, . . . and threw up his arms. He got kind of bluish. What ought I to ’ve done?”
Doctor Matthews came with Tom. He said, yes, the baby was dead. Janet was wild with grief. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she rocked the little cold form back and forth in her arms and would not let them take him from her. Rachel, who lives again in every grieving mother, was crying for her child and would not be comforted.
Over in their own cabin, Abbie sobbed aloud on the bed. Suddenly she sat up, “I hate God,” she said. Maggie Mackenzie hushed her quickly and told her it was tremendous wicked to say that.
“But he made death. I hate death. I hate it.”
“The poor colleen,” her mother said to Belle. “She’s smart like the Mackenzies, . . . but faith . . . an’ she has the Irish heart.”
By the time Abbie was eleven, she was doing more work. Life was not all play now. One of her tasks was to thread the wicks into candle molds, for her slim fingers were more agile than her mother’s short, thick ones. She had to poke the long wick-string through all of the six molds, and carefully loop the tops over a stick to keep them from slipping. Her mother would then pour the hot tallow into the molds and set it away to harden. Abbie was always anxious to see the finished product slip out. She would watch her mother plunge the molds into hot water to loosen the hard grease, and then, “Let me, . . . let me,” she would call, and sometimes Maggie Mackenzie would let her carefully work the shining cream-colored candles out of their containers.
There were a dozen other tasks for her to perform,—drive the cows to drink, gather eggs from the chickens’ stolen nests among the sheds and stacks, and the daily one of going to school.
But even work could take upon itself a mask of fun. One could pretend, when threading the wicks into candle molds, that one was stringing pearls accidentally broken at the ball,—that the long walk through the hazel-brush to the schoolhouse was between rows of admiring spectators who, instead of a mere rustling in the wind, were whispering, “There she goes,—there goes Abbie Mackenzie, the singer.”
For Abbie was always singing from the elevation of her grassy knoll in the clearing. It made her happy to walk up the little incline, turn and bow to an unseen audience, throw up her head and let forth her emotions in song. Her heart would swell in a feeling of oneness with Nature and the Creator of it, and there would come to her a great longing for things she did not quite know or understand.
The log school-house sat in a clearing of timber just out of the river’s high-water line. The hazel-brush and sumac tangled together under its windows and there were butternut and black walnut trees behind it. The desks were rough shelves against the walls on three sides of the room, and in front of them were three long benches of equal height, so that a strapping six-foot boy or a tiny six-year-old girl could, with economy, use the same seats.