Saturday's Child by Kathleen Thompson Norris
Part Three. Service
The train went on and on and on; through woods wrapped in dripping mist, and fields smothered in fog. The unseasonable August afternoon wore slowly away. Betsey, fitting her head against the uncomfortable red velvet back of the seat, dozed or seemed to doze. Mrs. Carroll opened her magazine over and over again, shut it over and over again, and stared out at the landscape, eternally slipping by. William Oliver, seated next to Susan, was unashamedly asleep, and Susan, completing the quartette, looked dreamily from face to face, yawned suppressedly, and wrestled with "The Right of Way."
They were making the six hours' trip to the big forest for a month's holiday, and it seemed to each one of the four that they had been in the train a long, long time. In the racks above their heads were coats and cameras, suit-cases and summer hats, and a long cardboard box, originally intended for "Gents' medium, ribbed, white," but now carrying fringed napkins and the remains of a luncheon.
It had all been planned a hundred times, under the big lamp in the Sausalito sitting-room. The twelve o'clock train--Farwoods Station at five--an hour's ride in the stage--six o'clock. Then they would be at the cabin, and another hour--say--would be spent in the simplest of housewarming. A fire must be built to dry bedding after the long months, and to cook bacon and eggs, and just enough unpacking to find night-wear and sheets. That must do for the first night.
"But we'll sit and talk over the fire," Betsey would plead. "Please, Mother! We'll be all through dinner at eight o'clock I"
The train however was late, nearly half-an-hour late, when they reached Farwoods. The stage, pleasant enough in pleasant weather, was disgustingly cramped and close inside. Susan and Betsey were both young enough to resent the complacency with which Jimmy climbed up, with his dog, beside the driver.
"You let him stay in the baggage-car with Baloo all the way, Mother," Betts reproached her, flinging herself recklessly into the coach, "and now you're letting him ride in the rain!"
"Well, stop falling over everything, for Heaven's sake, Betts!" Susan scolded. "And don't step on the camera! Don't get in, Billy,-- I say don't get in! Well, why don't you listen to me then! These things are all over the floor, and I have to---"
"I have to get in, it's pouring,--don't be such a crab, Sue!" Billy said pleasantly. "Lord, what's that! What did I break?"
"That's the suitcase with the food in it," Susan snapped. "Please wait a minute, Betts!--All right," finished Susan bitterly, settling herself in a dark corner, "tramp over everything, I don't care!"
"If you don't care, why are you talking about it?" asked Betts.
"He says that we'll have to get out at the willows, and walk up the trail," said Mrs. Carroll, bending her tall head, as she entered the stage, after a conversation with the driver. "Gracious sakes, how things have been tumbled in! Help me pile these things up, girls!"
"I was trying to," Susan began stiffly, leaning forward to do her share. A sudden jolt of the starting stage brought her head against Betts with a violent concussion. After that she sat back in magnificent silence for half the long drive.
They jerked and jolted on the uneven roads, the rain was coming down more steadily now, and finally even Jimmy and the shivering Baloo had to come inside the already well-filled stage.
It was quite dark when they were set down at the foot of the overgrown trail, and started, heavily loaded, for the cabin. Wind sighed and swept through the upper branches of the forest, boughs creaked and whined, the ground underfoot was spongy with moisture, and the air very cold.
The cabin was dark and deserted looking; a drift of tiny redwood branches carpeted the porch. The rough steps ran water. Once inside, they struck matches and lighted a candle.
Cold, darkness and disorder everybody had expected to find. But it was a blow to discover that the great stone fireplace, the one real beauty of the room, and the delight of every chilly evening, had been brought down by some winter gale. A bleak gap marked its once hospitable vicinity, cool air rushed in where the breath of dancing flames had so often rushed out, and, some in a great heap on the hearth, and some flung in muddy confusion to the four corners of the room, the sooty stones lay scattered.
It was a bad moment for everyone. Betsey began to cry, her weary little head on her mother's shoulder.
"This won't do!" Mrs. Carroll said perplexedly. "B-r-r-r-r! How cold it is!"
"This is rotten," Jimmy said bitterly. "And all the fellows are going to the Orpheum to-night too!" he added enviously.
"It's warm here compared to the bedroom," Susan, who had been investigating, said simply. "The blankets feel wet, they're so cold!"
"And too wet for a camp-fire--" mused the mother.
"And the stage gone!" Billy added.
A cold draught blew open the door and set the candle guttering.
"Oh, I'm so cold!" Susan said, hunching herself like a sick chicken.
The rest of the evening became family history. How they took their camping stove and its long tin pipe from the basement, and set it up in the woodshed that, with the little bedroom, completed the cabin, how wood from the cellar presently crackled within, how suitcases were opened by maddening candle-light, and wet boots changed for warm slippers, and wet gowns for thick wrappers. How the kettle sang and the bacon hissed, and the coffee-pot boiled over, and everybody took a turn at cutting bread. Deep in the heart of the rain-swept, storm-shaken woods, they crowded into the tiny annex, warm and dry, so lulled by the warm meal and the warm clothes that it was with great difficulty that Mrs. Carroll roused them all for bed at ten o'clock.
"I'm going to sleep with you, Sue," announced Betsey, shivering, and casting an envious glance at her younger brother who, with Billy, was to camp for that night in the kitchen, "and if it's like this to-morrow, I vote that we all go home!"
But they awakened in all the fragrant beauty and stillness of a great forest, on a heavenly August morning. Sunshine flooded the cabin, when Susan opened her eyes, and the vista of redwood boughs beyond the window was shot with long lines of gold. Everywhere were sweetness and silence; blots of bright gold on feathery layers of soft green. High-arched aisles stretched all about the cabin like the spokes of a great wheel; warm currents, heavy with piney sweetness, drifted across the crystal and sparkling brightness of the air. The rain was gone; the swelled creek rushed noisily down a widened course; it was cool now, but the day would be hot. Susan, dressing with her eyes on the world beyond the window, was hastened by a sudden delicious odor of boiling coffee, and the delightful sound of a crackling wood fire.
Delightful were all the sights and sounds and duties of the first days in camp. There must be sweeping, airing, unpacking in the little domicile. Someone must walk four miles to the general store for salt, and more matches, and pancake flour. Someone must take the other direction, and climb a mile of mountain every day or two for milk and eggs and butter. The spring must be cleared, and a board set across the stream; logs dragged in for the fire, a pantry built of boxes, for provisions, and ship-shape disposition made of mugs and plates.
Billy sharpened cranes for their camp-kitchen, swung the kettles over a stone-lined depression, erected a protection of flat redwood boughs. And under his direction the fireplace was rebuilt.
"It just shows what you can do, if you must!" said Susan, complacently eying the finished structure.
"It's handsomer than ever!" Mrs. Carroll said. The afternoon sunlight was streaming in across the newly swept hearth, and touching to brighter colors the Navajo blanket stretched on the floor. "And now we have one more happy association with the camp!' she finished contentedly.
"Billy is wishing he could transfer all his strikers up here," said Susan dimpling. "He thinks that a hundred miles of forest are too much for just a few people!"
"They wouldn't enjoy it," he answered seriously, "they have had no practice in this sort of life. They'd hate it. But of course it's a matter of education---"
"Help! He's off!" said the irreverent Susan, "now he'll talk for an hour! Come on, Betts, I have to go for milk!"
Exquisite days these for them all, days so brimming with beauty as to be forever memorable. Susan awoke every morning to a rushing sense of happiness, and danced to breakfast looking no more than a gay child, in her bluejacket's blouse, with her bright hair in a thick braid. Busy about breakfast preparations, and interrupted by a hundred little events in the forest or stream all about her, Billy would find her. There was always a moment of heat and hurry, when toast and oatmeal and coffee must all be brought to completion at once, and then they might loiter over their breakfast as long as they liked.
Afterward, Susan and Mrs. Carroll put the house in order, while the others straightened and cleaned the camp outside. Often the talks between the two women ran far over the time their work filled, and Betsey would come running in to ask Mother and Susan why they were laughing. Laughter was everywhere, not much was needed to send them all into gales of mirth.
Usually they packed a basket, gathered the stiff, dry bathing suits from the grass, and lunched far up in the woods. Fishing gear was carried along, although the trout ran small, and each fish provided only a buttery, delicious mouthful. Susan learned to swim and was more proud of her first breathless journey across the pool than were the others with all their expert diving and racing. Mrs. Carroll swam well, and her daughters were both splendid swimmers.
After the first dip, they lunched on the hot shingle, and dozed and talked, and skipped flat stones on the water, until it was time to swim again. All about them the scene was one of matchless beauty. Steep banks, aquiver with ferns, came down on one side of the pool, to the very edge of the crystal water; on the other, long arcades, shot with mellow sunlight, stretched away through the forest. Bees went by on swift, angry journeys, and dragon-flies rested on the stones for a few dazzling palpitating seconds, and were gone again. Black water-bugs skated over the shallows, throwing round shadows on the smooth floor of the pool.
Late in the afternoon, the campers would saunter home, crossing hot strips of meadow, where they started hundreds of locusts into flight, or plunging into the cool green of twilight woods. Back at the camp, there would be the crackle of wood again, with all the other noises of the dying forest day. Good odors drifted about, broiling meat and cooking wild berries, chipmunks and gray squirrels and jays chattered from the trees overhead; there was a whisking of daring tails, a flutter of bold wings.
Daylight lasted for the happy meal, and stars came out above their camp-fire. And while they talked or sang, or sat with serious young eyes watching the flames, owls called far away through the wood, birds chuckled sleepily in the trees, and, where moonlight touched the stream, sometimes a trout rose and splashed.
When was it that Billy always began to take his place at Susan's side, at the campfire, their shoulders almost touching in the dark? When was it that, through all the careless, happy companionship that bound them all, she began to know, with a thrill of joy and pain at her heart, that there were special looks for her, special glad tones for her? She did not know.
But she did know that suddenly all the world seemed Billy,--Billy's arm to cross a stream, Billy's warning beside the swimming pool, Billy's laughter at her nonsense, and Billy's eyes when she looked up from musing over her book or turned, on a trail, to call back to the others, following her. She knew why the big man stumbled over words, grew awkward and flushed when she turned upon him the sisterly gaze of her blue eyes.
And with the knowledge life grew almost unbearably sweet. Susan was enveloped in some strange golden glory; the mere brushing of her hair, or shaking out of her bathing-suit became a rite, something to be done with an almost suffocating sense of significance. Everything she did became intensified, her laughter and her tears were more ready, her voice had new and sweeter notes in it, she glowed like a rose in the knowledge that he thought her beautiful, and because he thought her sweet and capable and brave she became all of these things.
She did not analyze him; he was different from all other men, he stood alone among them, simply because he was Billy. He was tall and strong and clean of heart and sunny of temper, yes--but with these things she did not concern herself,--he was poor, too, he was unemployed, he had neither class nor influence to help him,--that mattered as little.
He was Billy,--genial and clever and good, unconventional, eager to learn, full of simple faith in human nature, honest and unaffected whether he was dealing with the president of a great business, or teaching Jim how to play his reel for trout,--and he had her whole heart. Whether she was laughing at his arguments, agreeing with his theories, walking silently at his side through the woods, or watching the expressions that followed each other on his absorbed face, while he cleaned his gun or scrutinized the detached parts of Mrs. Carroll's coffee-mill, Susan followed him with eyes into which a new expression had crept. She watched him swimming, flinging back an arc of bright drops with every jerk of his sleek wet head; she bent her whole devotion on the garments he brought her for buttons, hoping that he did not see the trembling of her hands, or the rush of color that his mere nearness brought to her face. She thrilled with pride when he came to bashfully consult her about the long letters he wrote from time to time to Clem Cudahy or Joseph Rassette, listened eagerly to his talks with the post-office clerk, the store-keeper, the dairymen and ranchers up on the mountain.
And always she found him good. "Too good for me," said Susan sadly to herself. "He has made the best of everything that ever came his way, and I have been a silly fool whenever I had half a chance."
The miracle was worked afresh for them, as for all lovers. This was no mere attraction between a man and a maid, such as she had watched all her life, Susan thought. This was some new and rare and wonderful event, as miraculous in the eyes of all the world as it was to her.
"I should be Susan Oliver," she thought with a quick breath. An actual change of name--how did other women ever survive the thrill and strangeness of itl "We should have to have a house," she told herself, lying awake one night. A house--she and Billy with a tiny establishment of their own, alone over their coffee-cups, alone under their lamp! Susan's heart went out to the little house, waiting for them somewhere. She hung a dream apron on the door of a dream kitchen, and went to meet a tired dream-Billy at the door---
He would kiss her. The blood rushed to her face and she shut her happy eyes.
A dozen times a day she involved herself in some enterprise from which she could not extricate herself without his help. Billy had to take heavy logs out of her arms, had to lay a plank across the stretch of creek she could not cross, had to help her down from the crotch of a tree with widespread brotherly arms.
"I thought--I--could--make--it!" gasped Susan, laughing, when he swam after her, across the pool, and towed her ignominiously home.
"Susan, you're a fool!" scolded Billy, when they were safe on the bank, and Susan, spreading her wet hair about her, siren-wise, answered meekly: "Oh, I know it!"
On a certain Saturday Anna and Philip climbed down from the stage, and the joys of the campers were doubled as they related their adventures and shared all their duties and delights. Susan and Anna talked nearly all night, lying in their canvas beds, on a porch flooded with moonlight, and if Susan did not mention Billy, nor Anna allude to the great Doctor Hoffman, they understood each other for all that.
The next day they all walked up beyond the ranch-house, and followed the dripping flume to the dam. And here, beside a wide sheet of blue water, they built their fire, and had their lunch, and afterward spent a long hour in the water. Quail called through the woods, and rabbits flashed out of sight at the sound of human voices, and once, in a silence, a doe, with a bright-eyed fawn clinking after her on the stones, came down to the farther shore for a drink.
"You ought to live this sort of life all the time, Sue!" Billy said idly, as they sat sunning themselves on the wide stone bulkhead that held back the water.
"I? Why?" asked Susan, marking the smooth cement with a wet forefinger.
"Because you're such a kid, Sue--you like it all so much!"
"Knowing what you know of me, Bill, I wonder that you can think of me as young at all," the girl answered drily, suddenly somber and raising shamed eyes to his.
"How do you mean?" he stammered, and then, suddenly enlightened, he added scornfully, "Oh, Lord!"
"That---" Susan said quietly, still marking the hot cement, "will keep me from ever--ever being happy, Bill---" Her voice thickened, and she stopped speaking.
"I don't look at that whole episode as you do, Sue," Billy said gruffly after a moment's embarrassed silence. "I don't believe chance controls those things. I often think of it when some man comes to me with a hard-luck story. His brother cheated him, and a factory burned down, and he was three months sick in a hospital-- yes, that may all be true! But follow him back far enough and you'll find he was a mean man from the very start, ruined a girl in his home town, let his wife support his kids. It's years ago now perhaps, but his fate is simply working out its natural conclusion. Somebody says that character is fate, Sue,--you've always been sweet and decent and considerate of other people, and your fate saved you through that. You couldn't have done anything wrong--it's not in you!"
He looked up with his bright smile but Susan could hear no more. She had scrambled to her feet while he was speaking, now she stopped only long enough to touch his shoulder with a quick, beseeching pressure. The next instant she was walking away, and he knew that her face was wet with tears. She plunged into the pool, and swam steadily across the silky expanse, and when he presently joined her, with Anna and Betts, she was quite herself again.
Quite her old self, and the life and heart of everything they did. Anna laughed until the tears stood in her eyes, the others, more easily moved, went from one burst of mirth to another. They were coming home past the lumber mill when Billy fell in step just beside her, and the others drifted on without them. There was nothing in that to startle Susan, but she did feel curiously startled, and a little shy, and managed to keep a conversation going almost without help.
"Stop here and watch the creek," said Billy, at the mill bridge. Susan stopped, and they stood looking down at the foaming water, tumbling through barriers, and widening, in a ruffled circle, under the great wheel.
"Was there ever such a heavenly place, Billy?"
"Never," he said, after a second. Susan had time to think his voice a little deep and odd before he added, with an effort, "We'll come back here often, won't we? After we're married?"
"Oh, are we going to be married?" Susan said lightly.
"Well, aren't we?" He quietly put his arm about her, as they stood at the rail, so that in turning her innocent, surprised eyes, she found his face very near. Susan held herself away rigidly, dropped her eyes. She could not answer.
"How about it, Sue?" he asked, very low and, looking up, she found that he was half-smiling, but with anxious eyes. Suddenly she found her eyes brimming, and her lip shook. Susan felt very young, a little frightened.
"Do you love me, Billy?" she faltered. It was too late to ask it, but her heart suddenly ached with a longing to hear him say it.
"Love you I" he said scarcely above his breath. "Don't you know how I love you! I think I've loved you ever since you came to our house, and I gave you my cologne bottle!"
There was no laughter in his tone, but the old memory brought laughter to them both. Susan clung to him, and he tightened his arms about her. Then they kissed each other.
Half an hour behind the others they came slowly down the home trail. Susan had grown shy now and, although she held his hand childishly, she would not allow him to kiss her again. The rapid march of events had confused her, and she amused him by a plea for time "to think."
"Please, please don't let them suspect anything tonight, Bill!" she begged. "Not for months! For we shall probably have to wait a long, long time!"
"I have a nerve to ask any girl to do it!" Billy said gloomily.
"You're not asking any girl. You're asking me, you know!"
"But, darling, you honestly aren't afraid? We'll have to count every cent for awhile, you know!"
"It isn't as if I had been a rich girl," Susan reminded him.
"But you've been a lot with rich people. And we'll have to live in some place in the Mission, like Georgie, Sue!"
"In the Mission perhaps, but not like Georgie! Wait until you eat my dinners, and see my darling little drawing-room! And we'll go to dinner at Coppa's and Sanguinetti's, and come over to Sausalito for picnics,--we'll have wonderful times! You'll see!"
"I adore you," said Billy, irrevelantly.
"Well," Susan said, "I hope you do! But I'll tell you something I've been thinking, Billy," she resumed dreamily, after a silence.
"And pwhats dthat, me dar-r-rlin'?"
"Why, I was thinking that I'd rather---" Susan began hesitatingly, "rather have my work cut out for me in this life! That is, I'd rather begin at the bottom of the ladder, and work up to the top, than be at the top, through no merit of my own, and live in terror of falling to the bottom! I believe, from what I've seen of other people, that we'll succeed, and I think we'll have lots of fun doing it!"
"But, Sue, you may get awfully tired of it!"
"Everybody gets awfully tired of everything!" sang Susan, and caught his hand for a last breathless run into camp.
At supper they avoided each other's eyes, and assumed an air of innocence and gaiety. But in spite of this, or because of it, the meal moved in an unnatural atmosphere, and everyone present was conscious of a sense of suspense, of impending news.
"Betts dear, do listen!--the salt," said Mrs. Carroll. "You've given me the spoons and the butter twice! Tell me about to-day," she added, in a desperate effort to start conversation. "What happened?"
But Jimmy choked at this, Betsey succumbed to helpless giggling, and even Philip reddened with suppressed laughter.
"Don't, Betts!" Anna reproached her.
"You're just as bad yourself!" sputtered Betsey, indignantly.
"I?" Anna turned virtuous, outraged eyes upon her junior, met Susan's look for a quivering second, and buried her flushed and laughing face in her napkin.
"I think you're all crazy!" Susan said calmly.
"She's blushing!" announced Jimmy.
"Cut it out now, kid," Billy growled. "It's none of your business!"
"What's none of his business?" carroled Betsey, and a moment later joyous laughter and noise broke out,--Philip was shaking William's hand, the girls were kissing Susan, Mrs. Carroll was laughing through tears. Nobody had been told the great news, but everybody knew it.
Presently Susan sat in Mrs. Carroll's lap, and they all talked of the engagement; who had suspected it, who had been surprised, what Anna had noticed, what had aroused Jimmy's suspicions. Billy was very talkative but Susan strangely quiet to-night.
It seemed to make it less sacred, somehow, this open laughter and chatter about it. Why she had promised Billy but a few hours ago, and here he was threatening never to ask Betts to "our house," unless she behaved herself, and kissing Anna with the hilarious assurance that his real reason for "taking" Susan was because she, Anna, wouldn't have him! No man who really loved a woman could speak like that to another on the very night of his engagement, thought Susan. A great coldness seized her heart, and pity for herself possessed her. She sat next to Mrs. Carroll at the camp-fire, and refused Billy even the little liberty of keeping his fingers over hers. No liberties to-night!
And later, tucked by Mrs. Carroll's motherly hands into her little camp bed on the porch, she lay awake, sick at heart. Far from loving Billy Oliver, she almost disliked him! She did not want to be engaged this way, she wanted, at this time of all times in her life, to be treated with dignity, to be idolized, to have her every breath watched. How she had cheapened everything by letting him blurt out the news this way! And now, how could she in dignity draw back---
Susan began to cry bitterly. She was all alone in the world, she said to herself, she had never had a chance, like other girls! She wanted a home to-night, she wanted her mother and father---!
Her handkerchief was drenched, she tried to dry her eyes on the harsh hem of the sheet. Her tears rushed on and on, there seemed to be no stopping them. Billy did not care for her, she sobbed to herself, he took the whole thing as a joke! And, beginning thus, what would he feel after a few years of poverty, dark rooms and unpaid bills?
Even if he did love her, thought Susan bursting out afresh, how was she to buy a trousseau, how were they to furnish rooms, and pay rent, "one always has to pay a month's rent in advance!" she thought gloomily.
"I believe I am going to be one of those weepy, sensitive women, whose noses are always red," said Susan, tossing restlessly in the dark. "I shall go mad if I can't get to sleep!" And she sat up, reached for her big, loose Japanese wrapper and explored with bare feet for her slippers.
Ah--that was better! She sat on the top step, her head resting against the rough pillar of the porch, and felt a grateful rush of cool air on her flushed face. Her headache lessened suddenly, her thoughts ran more quietly.
There was no moon yet. Susan stared at the dim profile of the forest, and at the arch of the sky, spattered with stars. The exquisite beauty of the summer night soothed and quieted her. After a time she went noiselessly down the dark pathway to the spring- house for a drink.
The water was deliciously cool and fresh. Susan, draining a second cup of it, jumped as a voice nearby said quietly:
"Don't be frightened--it's me, Billy!"
"Heaven alive--how you scared me!" gasped Susan, catching at the hand he held out to lead her back to the comparative brightness of the path. "Billy, why aren't you asleep?"
"Too happy, I guess," he said simply, his eyes on her.
She held his hands at arm's length, and stared at him wistfully.
"Are you so happy, Bill?" she asked.
"Well, what do you think?" The words were hardly above a whisper, he wrenched his hands suddenly free from her, and she was in his arms, held close against his heart. "What do you think, my own girl?" said Billy, close to her ear.
"Heavens, I don't want him to care this much!" said the terrified daughter of Eve, to herself. Breathless, she freed herself, and held him at arm's length again.
"Billy, I can't stay down here--even for a second--unless you promise not to!"
"But darling--however, I won't! And will you come over here to the fence for just a minute--the moon's coming up!"
Billy Oliver--the same old Billy!--trembling with eagerness to have Susan Brown--the unchanged Susan!--come and stand by a fence, and watch the moon rise! It was very extraordinary, it was pleasant, and curiously exciting, too.
"Well---" conceded Susan, as she gathered her draperies about her, and went to stand at the fence, and gaze childlishly up at the stars. Billy, also resting elbows on the old rail, stood beside her, and never moved his eyes from her face.
The half-hour that followed both of them would remember as long as they lived. Slowly, gloriously, the moon climbed up the dark blue dome of the sky, and spread her silver magic on the landscape; the valley below them swam in pale mist, clean-cut shadows fell from the nearby forest.
The murmur of young voices rose and fell--rose and fell. There were little silences, now and then Susan's subdued laughter. Susan thought her lover magnificent in the moonlight; what Billy thought of the lovely downcast face, the loose braid of hair that caught a dull gleam from the moon, the slender elbows bare on the rail, the breast that rose and fell, under her light wraps, with Susan's quickened breathing, perhaps he tried to tell her.
"But I must go in!" she protested presently. "This has been wonderful, but I must go in!"
"But why? We've just begun talking--and after all, Sue, you're going to be my wife!"
The word spurred her. In a panic Susan gave him a swift half-kiss, and fled, breathless and dishevelled, back to the porch. And a moment later she had fallen into a sleep as deep as a child's, her prayer of gratitude half-finished.