Dorinda Oakley, daughter of a land‐poor farmer in Virginia, at 20 goes to work in Nathan Pedlar's store. She falls in love with Jason Greylock, weak‐willed son of the village doctor, and forgets her purpose of helping her father to rebuild the farm, but soon before their planned wedding Jason is forced to marry a former fiancée. Bitterly disillusioned and pregnant, Dorinda seeks work in New York City …
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If I might select one of my books for the double-edged blessing of immortality, that book would be, I think, Barren Ground. Not only is this the kind of novel I like to read and had always wished to write, but it became for me, while I was working upon it, almost a vehicle of liberation. After years of tragedy and the sense of defeat that tragedy breeds in the mind, I had won my way to the other side of the wilderness, and had discovered, with astonishment, that I was another and a very different person. When I looked back, all my earlier work, except Virginia, the evocation of an ideal, appeared so thin that it seemed two-dimensional. All the forms in which I had thought and by which I had lived, even the substance of things and the very shape of my universe, had shifted and changed. The past was still there, but it was scarcely more solid than the range of clouds on the horizon. And while I realized this, I knew also that different and better work was ahead. Many other writers may have had this experience. I do not know. It is not a conversion of which one speaks often and naturally.
As a young girl, thinking over my first book, I had resolved that I would write of the South not sentimentally, as a conquered province, but dispassionately, as a part of the larger world. I had resolved that I would write not of Southern characteristics, but of human nature. Now, at this turning-point in my life, these early resolutions awoke again with a fresh impulse. It is true that I have portrayed the Southern landscape, with which I am familiar, that I have tried to be accurate in detail, to achieve external verisimilitude; but this outward fidelity, though important, is not essential to my interpretation of life. The significance of my work, the quickening spirit, would not have varied, I believe, had I been born anywhere else. For me, the novel is experience illumined by imagination, and the word "experience" conveys something more than an attitude or a gesture. In Barren Ground, as in The Sheltered Life, I felt that the scene, apart from the human figures, possessed an added dimension, a universal rhythm deeper and more fluid than any material texture. Beneath the lights and shadows there is the brooding spirit of place, but, deeper still, beneath the spirit of place there is the whole movement of life.
For the setting of this book, I went back into the past and gathered vivid recollections of my childhood. The country is as familiar to me as if the landscape unrolled both within and without. I had known every feature for years, and the saturation of my subject with the mood of sustained melancholy was effortless and complete. The houses, the roads, the woods, the endless fields of broomsedge and scrub pine, the low immeasurable horizon,—all these objects I had seen with the remembering eyes of a child. And time, like a mellow haze, had preserved the impressions unaltered. They were the lighter semblances folded over the heart of the book.
But Dorinda, though she had been close to me for ten years before I began her story, is universal. She exists wherever a human being has learned to live without joy, wherever the spirit of fortitude has triumphed over the sense of futility. The book is hers; and all minor themes, episodes, and impressions are blended with the one dominant meaning that character is fate. Blended by life, not imposed by the novel. Though I wrote always toward an end that I saw (I can imagine no other way of writing a book), Dorinda was free, while the theme was still undeveloped, to grow, to change, to work out her own destiny. From many parts of the world she has written to me; from Scotland, from Germany, from Australia, from South Africa, and at least once from China.
ELLEN GLASGOWRichmond, Virginia, January, 1933.
A girl in an orange-coloured shawl stood at the window of Pedlar's store and looked, through the falling snow, at the deserted road. Though she watched there without moving, her attitude, in its stillness, gave an impression of arrested flight, as if she were running toward life.
Bare, starved, desolate, the country closed in about her. The last train of the day had gone by without stopping, and the station of Pedlar's Mill was as lonely as the abandoned fields by the track. From the bleak horizon, where the flatness created an illusion of immensity, the broomsedge was spreading in a smothered fire over the melancholy brown of the landscape. Under the falling snow, which melted as soon as it touched the earth, the colour was veiled and dim; but when the sky changed the broomsedge changed with it. On clear mornings the waste places were cinnamon-red in the sunshine. Beneath scudding clouds the plumes of the bent grasses faded to ivory. During the long spring rains, a film of yellow-green stole over the burned ground. At autumn sunsets, when the red light searched the country, the broomsedge caught fire from the afterglow and blazed out in a splendour of colour. Then the meeting of earth and sky dissolved in the flaming mist of the horizon.
At these quiet seasons, the dwellers near Pedlar's Mill felt scarcely more than a tremor on the surface of life. But on stormy days, when the wind plunged like a hawk from the swollen clouds, there was a quivering in the broomsedge, as if coveys of frightened partridges were flying from the pursuer. Then the quivering would become a ripple and the ripple would swell presently into rolling waves. The straw would darken as the gust swooped down, and brighten as it sped on to the shelter of scrub pine and sassafras. And while the wind bewitched the solitude, a vague restlessness would stir in the hearts of living things on the farms, of men, women, and animals. "Broomsage ain't jest wild stuff. It's a kind of fate," old Matthew Fairlamb used to say.
Thirty years ago, modern methods of farming, even methods that were modern in the benighted eighteen-nineties, had not penetrated to this thinly settled part of Virginia. The soil, impoverished by the war and the tenant system which followed the war, was still drained of fertility for the sake of the poor crops it could yield. Spring after spring, the cultivated ground appeared to shrink into the "old fields," where scrub pine or oak succeeded broomsedge and sassafras as inevitably as autumn slipped into winter. Now and then a new start would be made. Some thrifty settler, a German Catholic, perhaps, who was trying his fortunes in a staunch Protestant community, would buy a mortgaged farm for a dollar an acre, and begin to experiment with suspicious, strange-smelling fertilizers. For a season or two his patch of ground would respond to the unusual treatment and grow green with promise. Then the forlorn roads, deep in mud, and the surrounding air of failure, which was as inescapable as a drought, combined with the cutworm, the locust, and the tobacco-fly, against the human invader; and where the brief harvest had been, the perpetual broomsedge would wave.
The tenant farmers, who had flocked after the ruin of war as buzzards after a carcass, had immediately picked the featureless landscape as clean as a skeleton. When the swarming was over only three of the larger farms at Pedlar's Mill remained undivided in the hands of their original owners. Though Queen Elizabeth County had never been one of the aristocratic regions of Virginia, it was settled by sturdy English yeomen, with a thin but lively sprinkling of the persecuted Protestants of other nations. Several of these superior pioneers brought blue blood in their veins, as well as the vigorous fear of God in their hearts; but the great number arrived, as they remained, "good people," a comprehensive term, which implies, to Virginians, the exact opposite of the phrase, "a good family." The good families of the state have preserved, among other things, custom, history, tradition, romantic fiction, and the Episcopal Church. The good people, according to the records of clergymen, which are the only surviving records, have preserved nothing except themselves. Ignored alike by history and fiction, they have their inconspicuous place in the social strata midway between the lower gentility and the upper class of "poor white," a position which encourages the useful rather than the ornamental public virtues.
With the end of free labour and the beginning of the tenant system, authority passed from the country to the towns. The old men stayed by the farms, and their daughters withered dutifully beside them; but the sons of the good people drifted away to the city, where they assumed control of democracy as well as of the political machine which has made democracy safe for politics. An era changed, not rudely, but as eras do change so often, uncomfortably. Power, defying Jeffersonian theory and adopting Jeffersonian policy, stole again from the few to the many. For the good people, conforming to the logic of history, proceeded immediately to enact their preferences, prejudices, habits, and inhibitions into the laws of the state.
At Pedlar's Mill, where the old wooden mill, built a hundred years before by the first miller Pedlar, was now a picturesque ruin, a few stalwart farmers of Scotch-Irish descent rose above the improvident crowd of white and black tenants, like native pines above the shallow wash of the broomsedge. These surviving landowners were obscure branches of the great Scotch-Irish families of the upper Valley of Virginia. Detached from the parent tree and driven by chance winds out of the highlands, they had rooted afresh in the warmer soil of the low country, where they had conquered the land not by force, but by virtue of the emphatic argument that lies in fortitude.
James Ellgood, whose mother was a McNab, owned Green Acres, the flourishing stock farm on the other side of the railroad. It is true that an uncle in the far West had left him a small fortune, and for five years he had put more into the soil than he had got out of it. But in the end Green Acres had repaid him many times, which proved, as old Matthew, who was a bit of a philosopher, pointed out, that "it wa'n't the land that was wrong, but the way you had treated it."
On the near side of the station, secluded behind a barricade of what people called the back roads, which were strangled in mud from November to June, stood Five Oaks, the ruined farm of the Greylocks. Though the place was still held insecurely in the loose clutches of old Doctor Greylock, who resembled an inebriated Covenanter, the abandoned acres were rapidly growing up in sumach, sassafras, and fife-everlasting. The doctor had been a man of parts and rural prominence in his day; but the land and scarcity of labour had worn on his nerves, and he was now slowly drinking himself to death, attended, beyond the social shadow-line, by an anonymous brood of mulatto offspring.
Adjoining Five Oaks, and running slightly in front of it on one side, with a long whitewashed house situated a stone's throw from the main road, there was Old Farm, which belonged to Joshua Oakley and Eudora Abernethy, his wife. The Oakleys, as the saying ran in the neighbourhood, were "land poor." They owned a thousand acres of scrub pine, scrub oak, and broomsedge, where a single cultivated corner was like a solitary island in some chaotic sea.
Early in the nineteenth century, John Calvin Abernethy, a retired missionary from India and Ceylon, came from the upper Valley into the region of the Shenandoah, with a neat Scotch-Irish inheritance in his pocket. His reputation, as historians remark, had preceded him; and his subsequent career proved that he was not only an eloquent preacher of the Gospel, but a true explorer of the spirit as well, the last of those great Presbyterian romantics whose faith ventured on perilous metaphysical seas in the ark of the Solemn League and Covenant. Since there was no canny bargain to be driven, at the moment, in the Shenandoah Valley, John Abernethy regretfully left the highlands for the flat country, where he picked up presently, at a Dutch auction, the thousand acres of land and fifty slaves which had belonged to one William Golden Penner. One may charitably infer that the fifty slaves constituted a nice point in theology; but with ingenious Presbyterian logic and circumscribed Presbyterian imagination, John Calvin reconciled divine grace with a peculiar institution. The fifty slaves he sold farther south, and the price of black flesh he devoted to the redemption of black souls in the Congo. Dramatic, yet not altogether lacking in delicate irony. For he had observed in foreign fields that divine grace has strange gestures; and life, as even Presbyterians know, is without logic. To a thrifty theologian, bent on redemption with economy, there are few points of ethics too fine-spun for splitting. From which it must not be concluded that the first Virginian Abernethy was unworthy of his high calling. He was merely, like the rest of us, whether theologians or laymen, seasoned with the favourite fruit of his age. Though he might occasionally seek a compromise in simple matters of conduct, realizing the fall of man and the infirmity of human nature, where matters of doctrine were concerned his conscience was inflexible. His piety, running in a narrow groove, was deep and genuine; and he possessed sufficient Integrity, firmness, and frugality to protect his descendants from decay for at least three generations. A few years after he had settled near Pedlar's Mill, a small Presbyterian church, built of brick and whitewashed within and without, rose on the far side of the railroad, where it stands now at the gate of Green Acres. Conversion, which had begun as a vocation with John Calvin Abernethy, became a habit; and with the gradual running to seed of the Methodists in the community, the Presbyterian faith sprang up and blossomed like a Scotch thistle in barren ground.
In his long white house, encircled by the few cultivated fields in the midst of his still-virgin acres, John Calvin Abernethy lived with learning, prudence, and piety until he was not far from a hundred. He had but one son, for unlike the Scotch-Irish of the Valley, his race did not multiply. The son died in middle age, struck down by an oak he was felling, and his only child, a daughter, was reared patiently but sternly by her grandfather. When, in after years, this granddaughter, whose name was Eudora, fell a victim of one of those natural instincts which Presbyterian theology has damned but never wholly exterminated, and married a member of the "poor white" class, who had nothing more to recommend him than the eyes of a dumb poet and the head of a youthful John the Baptist, ()Id Abernethy blessed the marriage and avoided, as far as possible, the connection. Knowing the aptitude of the poor for futility, he employed his remaining years on earth in accumulating a comfortable inheritance for his great-grandchildren. When he was dead, his granddaughter's husband, young Joshua Oakley, worked hard, after the manner of his class, to lose everything that was left. He was a good man and a tireless labourer; but that destiny which dogs the footsteps of ineffectual spirits pursued him from the hour of his birth. His wife, Eudora, who resembled her grandfather, recovered promptly from the natural instinct, and revealed shortly afterwards signs of suppressed religious mania.
Of this union of the positive and the negative virtues, three children survived. Two of these were sons, Josiah and Rufus; the other was a daughter, Dorinda, the girl who, having thrown the orange shawl over her head, had come out of the store, and stood now with the snow in her face and her eager gaze on the road.
She was a tall girl, not beautiful, scarcely pretty even according to the waxen type of the 'nineties; but there was a glow of expression, an April charm, in her face. Her eyes were her one memorable feature. Large, deep, radiant, they shone beneath her black lashes with a clear burning colour, as blue as the spring sky after rain. Above them her jutting eyebrows, very straight and thick, gave a brooding sombreness to her forehead, where her abundant hair was brushed back in a single dark wave. In repose her features were too stern, too decisive. Her nose, powdered with golden freckles, was a trifle square at the nostrils; her mouth, with its ripe, beestung lower lip, was wide and generous; the pointed curve of her chin revealed, perhaps, too much determination in its outward thrust. But the rich dark red in her cheeks lent vividness to her face, and when she smiled her eyes and mouth lighted up as if a lamp shone within. Against the sordid background of the store, her head in the brilliant shawl was like some exotic flower.
Straight, tranquil, thin and fugitive as mist, the snow was falling. Though the transparent flakes vanished as soon as they reached the earth, they diffused in their steady flight an impression of evanescence and unreality. Through this shifting medium the familiar scene appeared as insubstantial as a pattern of frost on the grass. It was as if the secret spirit of the land had traced an image on the flat surface, glimmering, remote, unapproachable, like the expression of an animal that man has forced into sullen submission. There were hours at twilight, or beneath the shredded clouds of the sunrise, when the winter landscape reminded Dorinda of the look in the faces of overworked farm horses. At such moments she would find herself asking, with the intellectual thrill of the heretic, "I wonder if everything has a soul?" The country had been like this, she knew, long before she was born. It would be like this, she sometimes thought, after she and all those who were living with her were dead. For the one thing that seemed to her immutable and everlasting was the poverty of the soil.
Without knowing that she looked at it, her gaze rested on the bare station; on the crude frame buildings, like houses that children make out of blocks; on the gleaming track which ran north and south; on the old freight car, which was the home of Butcher, the lame negro who pumped water into the engines; on the litter of chips and shavings and dried tobacco, stems which strewed the ground between the telegraph poles and the hitching-rail by the store. Farther away, in the direction of Whippernock River, she could see the vague shape of the ruined mill, and beyond this, on the other side of the track, the sunken road winding in scallops through interminable acres of broomsedge. Though the snow had fallen continuously since noon, the air was not cold, and the white glaze on the earth was scarcely heavier than hoar-frost.
For almost a year now, ever since Mrs. Pedlar had fallen ill of consumption, and Dorinda had taken her place in the store, the girl had listened eagerly for the first rumble of the approaching trains. Until to-day the passing trains had been a part of that expected miracle, the something different in the future, to which she looked ahead over the tedious stretch of the present. There was glamour for her in the receding smoke. There was adventure in the silver-blue of the distance. The glimpse of a rapidly disappearing face; a glance from strange eyes that she remembered; the shadowy outline of a gesture; these tenuous impressions ran like vivid threads in her memory. Her nature, starved for emotional realities, and nourished on the gossamer substance of literature, found its only escape in the fabrication of dreams. Though she had never defined the sensation in words, there were moments when it seemed to her that her inner life was merely a hidden field in the landscape, neglected, monotonous, abandoned to solitude, and yet with a smothered fire, like the wild grass, running through it. At twenty, her imagination was enkindled by the ardour that makes a woman fall in love with a religion or an idea. Some day, so ran the bright thread of her dream, the moving train would stop, and the eyes that had flashed into hers and passed by would look at her again. Then the stranger who was not a stranger would say, "I knew your face among a thousand, and I came back to find you." And the train would rush on with them into the something different beyond the misty edge of the horizon. Adventure, happiness, even unhappiness, if it were only different!
That was yesterday. To-day the miracle had occurred, and the whole of life had blossomed out like a flower in the sun. She had found romance, not in imagination, not in the pallid fiction crushed among the tomes in her great-grandfather's library, but driving on one of the muddy roads through the broomsedge. To the casual observer there was merely a personable young man, the son of old Doctor Greylock, making the scattered rural calls of a profession which his father was too drunk to pursue. A pleasant young man, intelligent, amiable, still wearing with a difference the thin veneer of the city. Though he was, perhaps, a trifle too eager to please, this was a commendable fault, and readily overlooked in an irreproachable son who had relinquished his ambition in order to remain with his undeserving old father. Filial devotion was both esteemed and practised in that pre-Freudian age, before self-sacrifice had been dethroned from its precarious seat among the virtues; and to give up one's career for a few months, at most for a possible year, appeared dutiful rather than dangerous to a generation that knew not psychoanalysis.
And he was not only an admirable young man, he was, what admirable young men frequently are not, attractive as well. His dark red hair, burnished to a copper glow, grew in a natural wave; his sparkling eyes were brown-black like chinkapins in the autumn; his skin was tanned and slightly freckled, with a healthy glow under the surface; his short moustache, a shade lighter than his hair, lent mystery to a charming, if serious, mouth, and his smile, indiscriminating in its friendliness, was wholly delightful. To Dorinda, meeting him in the early morning as she was walking the two miles from Old Farm to the store, it was as if an April flush had passed over the waste places. She recognized love with the infallible certainty of intuition. It was happiness, and yet in some strange way it was shot through with a burning sensation which was less pleasure than pain. Though her perceptions were more vivid than they had ever been, there was an unreality about her surroundings, as if she were walking in some delicious trance. Beautiful as it was, it seemed to be vanishing, like a beam of light, in the very moment when she felt it flooding her heart. Yet this sense of unreality, of elusiveness, made it more precious. Watching the empty roads, through the veil' of snow, she asked herself every minute, "Will he come this way again? Shall I wait for him, or shall I let him pass me in the road? Suppose he goes back another way! Suppose he has forgotten—"
The door behind her opened, and old Matthew Fairlamb came hobbling out with the help of his stout hickory stick. Though he was approaching ninety, he was still vigorous, with a projecting thatch of hair as colourless as straw and the aquiline profile of a Roman senator. In his youth, and indeed until his old age, when his son William succeeded him, he had been the best carpenter at Pedlar's Mill. His eyes were bleared now, and his gums toothless; but he had never lost his shrewd Scotch-Irish understanding or his sense of humour, which broke out in flashes as swift and darting as dry-weather lightning.
"You'd better be startin' home, Dorinda," he remarked as he passed her. "The snow means to keep up, and yo' Ma will begin to worry about you." Turning, he peered at her with his cackling laugh. "Yo' face looks like a May mornin' to my old eyes," he added. "I ain't seen you about here fur a couple of weeks."
With her gaze still on the distance, Dorinda answered impatiently, "No, Ma had one of her bad spells, and I had to help out at home. But no matter how sick she is she never gives up, and she never worries about anything smaller than eternal damnation."
"Yes, she's a pious one," old Matthew conceded. "It's faith, I reckon, that's kept her gain', sence the Lord must know He ain't made it none too easy for her."
"Oh, it's hard work that she lives on," replied Dorinda. "She says if she were to stop working, she'd drop down dead like a horse that is winded. She never stops, not even on Sundays, except when she is in church."
Old Matthew's hilarity dwindled into a sigh. "Well, thar ain't much rest to be got out of that," he rejoined sympathetically. "I ain't contendin' against the doctrine of eternal damnation," he hastened to explain, "but as long as yo' Ma is obleeged to work so hard, 'tis a pity she ain't got a mo' restful belief." Then, as he observed her intent gaze, he inquired suspiciously, "You don't see nary a turnout on the road, do you?"
The dark red in the girl's cheeks brightened to carnation. "Why, of course not. I was just watching the snow."
But his curiosity, once aroused, was as insatiable as avarice. "I don't reckon you've seen whether young Doctor Greylock has gone by or not?"
She shook her head, still blushing. "No, I haven't seen him. Is anybody sick at your place?"
"It ain't that," returned the old man. "I was just thinkin' he might give me a lift on the way. It ain't more'n half a mile to my place, but half a mile looks different to twenty and to eighty-odd years. He's a spry young chap, and would make a good match for you, Dorinda," he concluded, in merciless accents.
Dorinda's head was turned away, but her voice sounded smothered. "You needn't worry about that." (Why did old age make people so hateful?) "I haven't seen him but once since he came home."
"Well, he'll look long befo' he finds a likelier gal than you. I ain't seen him more than a few times myself; but in these parts, whar young men are as skeerce as wild turkeys, he won't have to go beggin'. Geneva Ellgood would take him in a minute, I reckon, an' her Pa is rich enough to buy her a beau in the city, if she wants one, hee-hee!" His malicious cackle choked him. "They do say that young Jason was sweet on her in New York last summer," he concluded when he had recovered.
For the first time Dorinda turned her head and looked in his face. "If everybody believed your gossip, Mr. Fairlamb, nobody at Pedlar's Mill would be speaking to anybody else."
Old Matthew's mouth closed like a nut-cracker; but she saw from the twinkle in his bleared eyes that he had construed her reprimand into a compliment. "Thar's some of 'em that wouldn't lose much by that," he returned, after a pause. "But to come back to young Jason, he's got a job ahead of him if he's goin' to try farmin' at Five Oaks, an' he'll need either a pile of money or a hard-workin' wife."
"Oh, he doesn't mean to stay here. As soon as his father dies, he will go back to New York."
The detestable cackle broke out again. "The old man ain't dead yit. I've known some hard drinkers to have long lives, an' thar ain't nothin' more wearin' on the young than settin' down an' waitin' fur old folks to die. Young Jason is a pleasant-mannered boy, though he looks a bit too soft to stand the hard wear of these here roads. I ain't got nothin' to say aginst him, but if he'd listen to the warnin' of eighty-odd years, he'd git away before the broomsage ketches him. Thar's one thing sartain sure, you've got to conquer the land in the beginning, or it'll conquer you before you're through with it."
It was all true. She had heard it before, and yet, though she knew it was true, she refused to believe it. Whether it was true or not, she told herself passionately, it had no connection with Jason Greylock. The bright vision she had seen in the road that morning flickered and died against the sombre monochrome of the landscape.
"I must go in," she said, turning away. "I haven't time to stand talking." Old Matthew would never stop, she knew, of his own accord. When his cackle rose into a laugh the sound reminded her of the distant who—who—whoee of an owl.
"Well, I'll be gittin' along too," replied the old man. "My eyes ain't all they used to be, and my legs ain't fur behind 'em. Remember me to yo' Ma, honey, and tell her I'll be lookin' over jest as soon as the mud holes dry up."
"Yes, I'll tell her," answered the girl more gently. Old Matthew had known her great-grandfather; he had added the wings to the house at Old Farm and built the Presbyterian church on the other side of the track. In the prime of his life, forty years ago, he had been the last man at Pedlar's Mill to see Gordon Kane, her mother's missionary lover, who had died of fever in the Congo. It was old Matthew, Dorinda had heard, who had broken the news of Kane's death to the weeping Eudora, while she held her wedding dress in her hands. Disagreeable as he had become, it was impossible for the girl to forget that his long life was bound up with three generations of her family.
When she entered the store, she felt for a moment that she should suffocate in the heated air from the wood stove at the far end. The stuffy smell, a mingling of turpentine, varnish, bacon, coffee, and kerosene oil, was so different from the crystal breath of the falling snow that it rushed over her like warm ashes, smothering, enveloping. Yet there was nothing strange to her in the scene or the atmosphere. She was accustomed to the close, dry heat and to the heavy odours of a place where everything that one could not raise on a farm was kept and sold. For eleven months she had worked here side by side with Nathan Pedlar, and she was familiar with the usual stock-in-trade of a country store. In a minute she could put her hand on any object from a plough-share to a darning-needle.
"You'd better be going home early," said Nathan Pedlar, looking round from the shelf he was putting in order. "The snow may get heavier toward sunset."
He was a tall, lank, scraggy man, with a face that reminded Dorinda of a clown that she had once seen in a circus. Only the clown's nose was large and red, and Nathan's looked as if it had been mashed in by a blow. Aunt Mehitable Green, the coloured midwife, insisted that his features had been born like other children's, but that his mother had rolled on him in her sleep when he was a baby, and had flattened his nose until it would never grow straight again. Though he possessed a reserve of prodigious strength, he failed to be impressive even as an example of muscular development. Dorinda had worked with him every day for eleven months, and yet she found that he had made as little impression upon her as a pine tree by the roadside. Looking at him, she saw clearly his gaunt round shoulders beneath the frayed alpaca coat, his hair and eyebrows and short moustache, all the colour of dingy rabbit fur, and his small grey eyes with blinking lids; but the moment after he had passed out of her sight, the memory of him would become as fluid as water and trickle out of her mind. A kind but absurd man, this was the way she thought of him, honest, plodding, unassuming, a man whose "word was as good as his bond," but whose personality was negligible. The truth about him, though Dorinda never suspected it, was that he had come into the world a quarter of a century too soon. He was so far in advance of his age that his position inspired ridicule instead of respect in his generation. When his lagging age had caught up with Nathan Pedlar, it had forgotten what its prophet had prophesied. Though he made a comfortable living out of the store, and had put by enough to enable him to face old age with equanimity, he was by nature a farmer, and his little farm near the mill yielded a good harvest. Unlike most Southern farmers, he was not afraid of a theory, and he was beginning to realize the value of rotation in crops at a period when a corn-field at Pedlar's Mill was as permanent as a graveyard. Already he was experimenting with alfalfa, though even the prosperous James Ell-good made fun of "the weed with the highfalutin' name from the Middle West." For it was a part of Nathan's perverse destiny that people asked his advice with recklessness and accepted it with deliberation.
"I am going as soon as I speak to Rose Emily," Dorinda replied. "Did the doctor say she was better this morning?"
Nathan's hands, which were fumbling among the boxes on the long shelf, became suddenly still.
"No, he didn't say so," he answered, without turning. Something in his tone made Dorinda catch her breath sharply. "He didn't say she was worse, did he?"
At this Nathan pushed the boxes away and leaned over the counter to meet her eyes. His face was bleak with despair, and Dorinda's heart was wrung as she looked at him. She had often wondered how Rose Emily could have married him. Poverty would have been happiness, she felt, compared with so prosaic a marriage; yet she knew that, according to the standards of Pedlar's Mill, Nathan was an exceptional husband.
"Perhaps she'll pick up when the spring comes," she added when he did not reply.
Nathan shook his head and swallowed as if a pebble had lodged in his throat. "That's what I'm hoping," he answered. "If she can just get on her feet again. There's nothing this side of heaven I wouldn't do to make her well."
For an instant she was afraid he would break down; but while she wondered what on earth she could say to comfort him, he turned back to the boxes. "I must get this place tidied up before night," he said in his usual tone, with the flat, dry cough which had become chronic.
While she watched him, Dorinda threw the shawl back on one arm and revealed her fine dark head. The heavy eyebrows and the clear stern line of her features stood out as if an edge of light had fallen over them, leaving the rest of her face in shadow. She was wearing an old tan ulster, faded and patched in places, and beneath the hem her brown calico dress and mud-stained country shoes were visible. Even at Pedlar's Mill the changing fashions were followed respectfully, if tardily, and in the middle 'nineties women walked the muddy roads in skirts which either brushed the ground or were held up on one side. But shabbiness and a deplorable fashion could not conceal the slim, flowing lines of her figure, with its gallant and spirited carriage.
"I'm going to say a word or two to Rose Emily before I start," she said in a cheerful voice. "I don't mind being late." Walking to the end of the store, beyond the wood stove, which felt like a furnace, she pushed back a curtain of purple calico, and turned the knob of a door. Inside the room a woman was sitting up in bed, crocheting a baby's sacque of pink wool.
"I thought you'd gone, Dorinda," she said, looking up. "The snow is getting thicker."
Propped up among her pillows, winding the pink wool through her fragile hands, Mrs. Pedlar faced death with the courage of a heroic illusion. Before her marriage, as Rose Emily Milford, she had taught school in the little schoolhouse near Pedlar's Mill, and Dorinda had been her favourite pupil. She was a small, intelligent-looking woman, pitiably thin, with prominent grey eyes, hair of a peculiar shade of wheaten red, and a brilliant flush on her high cheek bones.
Ball after ball of pink wool unwound on the patchwork quilt, and was crocheted into babies' sacques which she sold in the city; but crocheting, as she sometimes said, "did not take your mind off things as well as moving about," and it seemed to her that only since she had been ill had she begun to learn anything about life. The nearer she came to death, the more, by some perversity of nature, did she enjoy living. If death ever entered her mind, it was as an abstraction, like the doctrine of salvation by faith, never as a reality. Every afternoon she said, "If it is fine, I shall get up to-morrow." Every morning she sighed happily, "I think I'll wait till the evening."
The room was a small one, divided off from the brick store, which adjoined the new frame house Nathan had built for his bride; and there was a confusion of colour, for Mrs. Pedlar's surroundings reflected the feverish optimism of her philosophy. The rag carpet and the patchwork quilt were as gay as an autumn flower-bed; the kerosene lamp wore a ballet skirt of crimson crepe paper; earthen pots of begonias and geraniums filled the green wooden stands at the windows. On the hearthrug, before the open fire, three small children were playing with paper dolls, while the fourth, a baby of nine months, lay fast asleep in his crib, with the nipple of a bottle still held tight in his mouth.
"I'm glad I chose that orange colour for your shawl," said Mrs. Pedlar, in the excited manner that had come upon her with her rising temperature. "It goes so well with your black hair. You ought to be glad you're a big woman," she continued thoughtfully. "Somehow life seems to go easier with big women. I asked young Doctor Greylock if that wasn't true, and he said small women seemed to think so."
Dorinda laughed, and her laughter contained a thrill of joy. Some inward happiness had bubbled up and overflowed into her voice, her look, and her shy dreaming movements. There was sweetness for her in hearing of Jason Greylock; there was ecstasy in the thought that she might meet him again in the road. Yet the sweetness and the ecstasy were thin and far off, like music that comes from a distance. It seemed incredible that anything so wonderful should have happened at Pedlar's Mill.
In front of the fire, the three children (Minnie May, the eldest, was only ten) were busy with their paper dolls. They had made a doll's house out of a cracker box, with the frayed corners of the rug for a garden. "Now Mrs. Brown has lost her little girl, and she is going to Mrs. Smith's to look for her," Minnie May was saying impressively.
"You've got your hands full with those children," remarked Dorinda because she could think of nothing else that sounded natural. Her mind was not on the children; it was miles away in an enclosed garden of wonder and delight; but some casual part of her was still occupying her familiar place and living her old meaningless life.
"Yes, but they're good children. They can always amuse themselves. Minnie May cut those paper dolls out of an old fashion book, and the younger children are all crazy about them."
"Minnie May is a great help to you."
"Yes, she takes after her father. Nathan is the best man that ever lived. He never thinks of himself a minute."
"He gave me some sugar for Ma," Dorinda sighed as she answered, for the thought had stabbed through her like a knife that Rose Emily was dying. Here we are talking about sugar and paper dolls when she won't live through the summer.
"There's a pat of butter too," said Rose Emily. "I told Minnie May to put it in your basket. I don't see how your mother manages without butter."
"We've had to do without it since our cow died last fall. I'm saving up, after the taxes are paid, to buy one in the spring." Again the thought stabbed her. "As if cows made any difference when she has only a few months to live!" Were the trivial things, after all, the important ones?
"And Mrs. Brown found that her little girl had been run over and killed in the middle of the road," Minnie May whispered. "So she decided that all she could do for her was to have a handsome funeral and spend the ten dollars she'd saved from her chicken money. That's the graveyard, Bud, down there by the hole in the rug. Lena, stop twistin', or you'll pull it to pieces."
"Nathan says you can get a good cow from old Doctor Greylock for thirty dollars," said Mrs. Pedlar. "He's got one, that Blossom of his, that he wants to sell." Then an idea occurred to her and she concluded doubtfully, "Of course, everything may be changed now that Jason has come back."
"Yes, of course, everything may be changed," repeated Dorinda, and the words, though they were merely an echo, filled her with happiness. Life was burning within her. Even the thought of death, even the knowledge that her friend would not live through the summer, passed like a shadow over the flame that consumed her. Everything was a shadow except the luminous stillness, which was so much deeper than stillness, within her heart.
"He is just the same pleasant-mannered boy he used to be when I taught him," resumed Mrs. Pedlar. "You remember how mischievous he was at school."
Dorinda nodded. "I was only there a year with him before he went away."
"Yes, I'd forgotten. I asked him to-day if he remembered you, and he said he knew you as soon as he saw you in the road this morning." She paused for an instant while a vision flickered in her eyes. "It would be nice if he'd take a fancy to you, Dorinda, and I'm sure you're handsome enough, with your blue eyes and your high colour, for anybody to fall in love with, and you're better educated, too, than most city girls, with all the books you've read. I sent Minnie May to find you while he was here, but she brought Nathan instead; and the doctor had to hurry off to old Mrs. Flower, who is dying."
So they were all pushing them together! It was no wonder, thought Dorinda, since, as old Matthew said, young men were as scarce as wild turkeys, and everybody wanted to marry off everybody else. Almost unconsciously, the power of attraction was increased by an irresistible force. Since every one, even the intelligent Rose Emily, thought it so suitable!
"I've seen him only once since he came home," said the girl.
"Well, I told him about you, and he was very much interested. I believe he's a good young man, arid he seems so friendly and kindhearted. He asked after all the coloured people he used to know, and he was so pleased to hear how well they are getting on. His father couldn't remember anything about anybody, he told me. I reckon the truth is that the old doctor is befuddled with drink all the time." She laughed softly. "Jason has picked up a lot of newfangled ideas," she added. "He even called broomsedge bromegrass' till he found that nobody knew what he was talking about."
"Is he going to stay on?"
"Just for a little while, he says, until he can get the place off his hands. What he meant but didn't like to say, I suppose, was that he would stay as long as his father lives. The old man has got Bright's disease, you know, and he's already had two strokes of paralysis. The doctor up at the Court-House says it can't be longer than six months, or a year at the most."
Six months or a year! Well, anything might happen, anything did happen in six months or a year!
On the floor the children were busily pretending that the oblong hole in the rug was a grave. "Mrs. Brown bought a crape veil that came all the way down to the bottom of her skirt," Minnie May was whispering, alert and animated. "That paper doll in the veil is Mrs. Brown on the way to the funeral."
"Well, I'd better be going," Dorinda said, throwing the orange shawl over her head, while she thought, "I ought to have worn my hat, only the snow would have ruined my Sunday hat, and the other isn't fit to be seen."
Picking up the basket by the door, she looked over her shoulder at Rose Emily. "If the snow isn't too heavy, I'll be over early tomorrow, and help you with the children. I hope you'll feel better."
"Oh, I'm planning to get up in the morning," responded Rose Emily in her eager voice, smiling happily over the pink wool.
Outside, there was a little yard enclosed in white palings to which farmers tied their horses when the hitching-rail was crowded. Everything was bare now under the thin coating of snow, and the dried stalks of summer flowers were protruding forlornly from heaps of straw. Beyond the small white gate the Old Stage Road, as it was still called, ran past the cleared ground by the station and dipped into the band of pine woods beyond the Haney place, which had been divided and let "on shares" to negro tenants. Within the shadow of the pines, the character of the soil changed from the red clay on the hills to a sandy loam strewn with pine needles.
As Dorinda walked on rapidly, the shawl she wore made a floating orange cloud against the dim background of earth and sky. The snow was falling in larger flakes, like a multitude of frozen moths, and beneath the fluttering white wings the country appeared obscure, solitary, vaguely menacing. Though the road was quite deserted, except for the scarecrow figure of Black Tom, the county idiot, who passed her on his way to beg supper and a night's lodging at the station, the girl was not afraid of the loneliness. She had two miles to walk, and twilight was already approaching; but she knew every turn of the road, and she could, as she sometimes said to herself, "feel her way in the dark of the moon."
To-night, even if there had been wild beasts in the pines, she would not have turned back. A winged joy had risen out of the encompassing poverty and desolation. Though the world was colourless around her, there was a clear golden light in her mind; and through this light her thoughts were flying like swallows in the afterglow. Her old dreams had come back again, but they were different now, since they were infused with the warm blood of reality. She had found, in her mother's religious phraseology, a "kingdom of the spirit" to which she could retreat. She had only to close her eyes and yield herself to this clear golden light of sensation. She had only to murmur, "I wonder if I shall meet him again," and immediately the falling snow, the neglected fields, and the dark pines melted away. She was caught up, she was possessed, by that flying rapture which was like the swiftness of birds. With a phrase, with a thought, or by simply emptying her mind of impressions, she could bring back all the piercing sweetness of surrender.
And she had discovered the miracle for herself! No one, not even Rose Emily, had ever hinted to her of this secret ecstasy at the heart of experience. All around her people were pretending that insignificant things were the only important things. The eternal gestures of milking and cooking, of sowing and reaping! Existence, as far as she could see, was composed of these immemorial habits. Her mother, her father, her brother, Nathan and Rose Emily, all these persons whom she saw daily were engaged in this strange conspiracy of dissimulation. Not one of them had ever betrayed to her this hidden knowledge of life.
Beyond the old Haney place and the stretch of pines there were the pastures of Honeycomb Farm, where three old maids, Miss Texanna Snead, the postmistress, and her sisters Seena and Tabitha, who made dresses, lived on the ragged remnant of once fertile acres. Recently the younger brother William had returned from the West with a little property, and though the fortunes of the sisters were by no means affluent, the fields by the roadside were beginning to look less forlorn. A few bedraggled sheep, huddled together beyond the "worm" fence, stared at her through the hurrying snowflakes. Then, springing to their awkward legs, they wavered uncertainly for a minute, and at last scampered off, bleating foolishly. An old horse rested his head on the rails and gazed meditatively after her as she went by, and across the road several cows filed slowly on their way from the pasture to the cow-barn.
"That's a nice cow, that red one," thought Dorinda. "I wish she belonged to us," and then, with the inconsequence of emotion, "if I meet him, he will ask if he may drive me home."
There was the steady clop-clop of a horse's hoofs, and the rapid turning of wheels in the road behind her. Not for the world would she have slackened her pace or glanced over her shoulder, though her heart fluttered in her throat and she felt that she was choking.
She longed with all her soul to stop and look back; she knew, through some magnetic current, that he was pursuing her, that in a minute or two he would overtake her; yet she kept on rapidly, driven by a blind impulse which was superior to her will. She was facing the moment, which comes to all women in love, when life, overflowing the artificial boundaries of reason, yields itself to the primitive direction of instinct.
The wheels were grinding on a rocky place in the road. Though she hurried on, the beating of her heart was so loud in her ears that it filled the universe.
"I am going your way," he said, just as she had imagined he would. "Won't you let me drive you home?"
She stopped and turned, while all the glimmering light of the snow gathered in her orange shawl and deepened its hue. Around them the steep horizon seemed to draw closer.
"I live at Old Farm," she answered.
He laughed, and the sound quickened her pulses. She had felt this way in church sometimes when they sang the hymns she liked best, "Jesus, Lover of My Soul" or "Nearer, My God, to Thee."
"Oh, I know you live at Old Farm. You are Dorinda Oakley. Did you think I'd forgotten you?"
For an instant a divine dizziness possessed her. Without looking at him, she saw his eyes, black in the pallid snowflakes, his red hair, just the colour of the clay in the road, his charming boyish smile, so kind, so eager, so incredibly pathetic when she remembered it afterwards. She saw these disturbing details with the sense of familiarity which events borrow from the dream they repeat.
"I can't get out," he said, "because the mare is hungry and wants to go on. But you might get in."
She shook her head, and just as in every imaginary encounter with him, she could think of nothing to reply. Though her mind worked clearly enough at other times, she stood now in a trance between the rail fence, where the old horse was still watching her, and the wheel-ruts in the road. By some accident, for which nothing in her past experience had prepared her, all the laws of her being, thought, will, memory, habit, were suspended. In their place a force which was stronger than all these things together, a force with which she had never reckoned before, dominated her being. The powers of life had seized her as an eagle seizes its prey.
"Come, get in," he urged, and dumb with happiness, she obeyed him.
"I remember you very well," he said, smiling into her eyes. "You were little Dorinda Oakley, and you once poured a bottle of ink on my head to turn it black."
"I know—" If she had been talking in her sleep, it could not have seemed more unreal. At this moment, when of all the occasions in her life she longed to be most brilliant and animated, she was tongue-tied by an immobility which was like the drowsiness, only far pleasanter, that she felt in church on hot August afternoons.
"You've grown so tall," he resumed presently, "that at first I wondered a bit. Were your eyes always as big as they are now?"
Though she was drowning in bliss, she could only gaze at him stupidly. Why did love, when it came, take away all your ability to enjoy it?
"I didn't know you were coming back so soon," she said after a struggle.
"Well, Father got in such a fix I had to," he answered, with a slight frown which made his face, she thought, more attractive. The haunting pathos, which she detected but could not explain, looked out of his eyes; the pathos of heroic weakness confronting insurmountable obstacles. "Of course it isn't for ever," he said in a surprisingly cheerful voice. "Father had a second stroke a few weeks ago, and they sent for me because there was nobody to see that he was taken care of. But as soon as he gets better, or if he dies," his tone was kind but impersonal, "I'll go back again and take up my work. I had just got my degree, and was starting in for a year's experience in a big hospital. Until I came I thought it was for a few days. The doctor telegraphed that Father wouldn't last out the week; but he's picked up, and may go on for a while yet. I can't leave him until he is out of danger, and in the meantime I'm trying to enlighten the natives. God! what a country! Nobody seems to ask any more of life than to plod from one bad harvest to another. They don't know the first principles of farming, except of course Mr. Ellgood, who has made a success of Green Acres, and that clownish-looking chap who owns the store. I wonder what the first Pedlar's were like. The family must have been in the same spot for a hundred and fifty years."
"Oh, they've been there always. But most of the other farmers are tenants. Pa says that's why the land has gone bad. No man will work himself to death over somebody else's land."
"That's the curse of the tenant system. Even the negroes become thrifty when they own a piece of land. And I've noticed, by the way, that they are the best farmers about here. The negro who owns his ten or twelve acres is a better manager than the poor white with twice the number."
"I know," Dorinda assented; but she was not interested in a discussion of farming. All her life she had heard men talk of farming and of nothing else. Surely there were other things he could tell her! "I should think it would be dreary for you," she added, with a woman's antipathy to the impersonal.
Turning to her suddenly, he brushed the snowflakes from the fur robe over her knees. His gestures, like his personality, were firm, energetic, and indescribably casual. Against the brooding loneliness of the country his figure, for all its youthful audacity, appeared trivial and fugitive. It was as if the landscape waited, plunged in melancholy, for the passing of a ray of sunshine. Though he had sprung from the soil, he had returned to it a stranger, and there could be no sympathetic communion between him and the solitude. Neither as a lover nor as a conqueror could he hope to possess it in spirit.
"If I thought it was for ever, I'd take to drink or worse," he replied carelessly. "One can stand anything for a few weeks or even months; but a lifetime of this would be—" He broke off and looked at her closely. "How have you stood it?" he asked. "How does any woman stand it without going out of her head?"
Dorinda smiled. "Oh, I'm used to it. I even like it. Hills would make me feel shut in."
"Haven't you ever wanted to get away?"
"I used to think of it all the time. When I first went to the store, I was listening so hard for the trains that I couldn't hear anything else."
"And you got over it?"
Her lashes fluttered over the burning blue of her eyes. If only he could know how recently she had got over it! "Yes, I don't feel that way now."
"You've even kept your health, and your colour. But, of course, you're young."
"I'm twenty. When I'm forty I may feel differently. By that time I shan't have any books left to read."
He laughed. "By that time you'll probably begin listening again, harder than ever." He thought for a moment, and then added, with the optimism of inexperience, "While I'm here I'll try to get a few modern ideas into the heads of the natives. That will be worth while, I suppose. I ought to be able to teach them something in a few weeks."
If she had been older or wiser, she might have smiled at his assurance. As it was she repeated gently, innocent of ironical intention, "Yes, that will be worth while."
It was enough just to sit near him in silence; to watch, through lowered lashes, the tremor of his smile, the blinking of his eyelids, the way the pale reddish hair grew on the back of his neck, the indolent grasp with which he was holding the reins. It was enough, she felt, just to breathe in the stimulating smell of his cigarettes, so different from the heavy odour of country tobacco. And outside this enchanted circle in which they moved, she was aware of the falling snow, of the vague brown of the fields, of the sharp freshness of the approaching evening, of the thick familiar scents of the winter twilight. Far away a dog barked. The mingled effluvia of rotting leaves and manure-heaps in barnyards drifted toward her. From beyond a fence the sound of voices floated. These things belonged, she knew, to the actual world; they had no place in the celestial sphere of enchantment. Yet both the actual and the ideal seemed to occur within her mind. She could not separate the scent of leaves or the sound of distant voices from the tumult of her thoughts.
They passed Honeycomb Farm, and sped lightly over a mile of rutted track to the fork of the Old Stage Road, where a blasted oak of tremendous height stood beside the ruins of a burned cabin. On the other side of the way there was the big red gate of Five Oaks, and beyond it a sandy branch road ran farther on to the old brick house. The snow hid the view now; but on clear days the red roof and chimneys of the house were visible above the willow branches of Gooseneck Creek. Usually, as the mare knew, the doctor's buggy turned in at the big gate; but to-day it passed by and followed the main road, which dipped and rose and dipped again on its way to Old Farm. First there was a thin border of woods, flung off sharply, like an iron fretwork, against the sky; then a strip of corduroy road and a bridge of logs over a marshy stream; and beyond the bridge, on the right, stood, the open gate of Dorinda's home. The mare stumbled and the buggy swerved on the rocky grade to the lawn.
"That's a bad turn," remarked Jason.
"I know. Pa is always hoping that he will have time to fix it. We used to keep the gate shut, but it has sagged so that it has to stay open."
"They ought to mend the bridge first. Those holes are dangerous for horses."
Again she assented. Why, she wondered vaguely, did he emphasize the obvious?
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