Without a Home by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter V. The Rudiments of a Man
"Mother, I hain't no unison with it at all," said Farmer Atwood, leaning on the breakfast table and holding aloft a knife and fork--formidable implements in his hands, but now unemployed through perturbation of mind. "I hain't no unison with it--this havin' fine city folk right in the family. 'Twill be pretty nigh as bad as visiting one's rich relations. I had a week of that once, but, thank the Lord, I hain't been so afflicted since. I've seen 'em up at the hotel and riding by too often not to know 'em. They are half conceit and half fine feathers, and that doesn't leave many qualities as are suited to a farmhouse. Roger and me will have to be--what was it that lecturin' professor called it--'deodorized' every mornin' after feedin' and cleanin' the critters. We'll have to put on our go-to-meetin's, instead of sittin' down in our shirt-sleeves comfortable like. I hain't no unison with it, and it's been a-growing on me ever since that city chap persuaded you into being cook and chambermaid for his family." And Farmer Atwood's knife and fork came down into the dish of ham with an onslaught that would have appalled a Jew.
"The governor is right, mother," said the young man referred to as Roger. "We shall all be in strait-jackets for the summer."
The speaker could not have been much more than twenty years old, although in form he appeared a full-grown man. As he stood wiping his hands on a towel that hung in a corner of the large kitchen, which, except on state occasions, also served as dining and sitting-room, it might be noted that he was above medium height, broad-shouldered, and strongly built. When he crossed the room his coarse working dress could not disguise the fact that he had a fine figure and an easy bearing of the rustic, rough-and-ready style. He had been out in the tall, dew-drenched grass, and therefore had tucked the lower part of his trousers in his boot tops, and, like his father, dispensed with his coat in the warm June morning. As he drew a chair noisily across the floor and sat down at the table, it was evident that he had a good though undeveloped face. His upper lip was deeply shadowed by a coming event, to which he looked forward with no little pride, and his well-tanned cheeks could not hide a faint glow of youthful color. One felt at a glance that his varying expressions could scarcely fail to reveal all that the young man was now or could ever become, for his face suggested a nature peculiarly frank and rather matter-of-fact, or at least unawakened. The traits of careless good-nature and self-confidence were now most apparent. He had always been regarded as a clever boy at home, and his rustic gallantry was well received by the farmers' daughters in the neighborhood. What better proofs that he was about right could a young fellow ask? He was on such good terms with himself and the world that even the event which his father so deprecated did not much disturb his easy-going assurance. He doubted, in his thoughts, whether the city girls would "turn up their noses" at him, and if they did, they might, for all that he cared, for there were plenty of rural beauties with whom he could console himself. But, like his father, he felt that the careless undress and freedom of their farm life would be criticised by the new-comers. He proposed, however, to make as little change as possible in his habits and dress, and to teach the Jocelyns that country people had "as good a right to their ways as city people to theirs." Therefore the threatened invasion did not in the least prevent him from making havoc in the substantial breakfast that Mrs. Atwood and her daughter Susan put on the table in a haphazard manner, taking it from the adjacent stove as fast as it was ready. A stolid-looking hired man sat opposite to Roger, and shovelled in his food with his knife, with a monotonous assiduity that suggested a laborer filling a coal-bin. He seemed oblivious to everything save the breakfast, and with the exception of heaping his plate from time to time he was ignored by the family.
The men-folk were quite well along with their meal before Mrs. Atwood and Susan, flushed with their labors about the stove, were ready to sit down. They were accustomed to hear the farmer grumble, and, having carried their point, were in no haste to reply or to fight over a battle that had been won already. Roger led to a slight resumption of hostilities, however, by a disposition--well-nigh universal in brothers--to tease.
"Sue," he said, "will soon be wanting to get some feathers like those of the fine birds that will light in our door-yard this evening."
"That's it," snarled the farmer; "what little you make will soon be on your backs or streamin' away in ribbons."
"Well," said Mrs. Atwood, a little sharply, "it's quite proper that we should have something on our backs, and if we earn the money to put it there ourselves, I don't see why you should complain; as for ribbons, Sue has as good right to 'em as Roger to a span-new buggy that ain't good for anything but taking girls out in."
"What made you have the seat so narrow, Roger?" asked Sue; "you couldn't squeeze three people in to save your life."
"I'm content with one girl at a time," replied Roger, with a complacent shrug.
"And the same girl only one time, too, from what I hear. You've taken out all there are in Forestville haven't you?"
"Haven't got quite around yet. And then some prudent mothers do think the seat a trifle narrow, and the ones I'd like to take out most can't go. But there's plenty that can."
"And one is as good as another," added his sister, maliciously, "If she will only talk nonsense, and let you hold her from falling out when you whisk over the thank-e-ma'ams."
"I didn't have to go from home to learn that most girls talk nonsense," laughed Roger. "By the way, how did you learn about the thank-e-ma'ams? I didn't teach you."
"No, indeed! Sisters may fall out for all that brothers care."
"That depends on whose sisters they are," said Roger, rising. "I now perceive that mine has been well taken care of."
"You think other young men have your pert ways," retorted Sue, reddening. "My friends have manners."
"Oh, I see. They let you fall out, and then politely pick you up."
"Come, you are both in danger of falling out now," said the mother reprovingly.
Roger went off whistling to his work, and the hired man lumbered after him.
"Father," said Mrs. Atwood, "who'll go down to the river for the trunks?"
"Well, I s'pose I'll have to," grumbled Mr. Atwood. "Roger don't want to, and Jotham can do more work in the cornfield than me."
"I'm glad you're so sensible. Riding down to the river and back will be a good bit easier than hoeing corn all day. The stage will be along about five, I guess, and I'll get supper for 'em in the sittin'-room, so you can eat in your shirt-sleeves, if that'll quiet your mind."
With the aspect of a November day Mr. Atwood got out the great farm-wagon and jogged down to the landing on the Hudson, which was so distant as to insure his absence for several hours.
It was a busy day for Mrs. Atwood and Susan. Fresh bread and cake were to be baked, and the rooms "tidied up" once more. A pitcher that had lost its handle was filled with old-fashioned roses that persisted in blooming in a grass-choked flower-bed. This was placed in the room designed for Mrs. Jocelyn and the children, while the one flower vase, left unbroken from the days of Roger's boyish carelessness, adorned the smaller apartment that Mildred and Belle were to occupy, and this was about the only element of elegance or beauty that Susan was able to impart part to the bare little room. Even to the country girl, to whom the term "decorative art" was but a vague phrase, the place seemed meagre and hard in its outlines, and she instinctively felt that it would appear far more so to its occupants.
"But it's the best we can afford," she sighed; "and at the prices they'll pay us they shouldn't complain."
Still the day was full of pleasurable excitement and anticipation to the young girl. She was aware that her mother's tasks and her own would be greatly increased, but on the other hand the monotony of the farm-house life would be broken, and in the more distant future she saw a vista of new gowns, a jaunty winter hat with a feather, and other like conditions of unalloyed happiness. Susan had dwelt thus far in one of life's secluded valleys, and if she lost much because her horizon was narrow she was shielded from far more. Her fresh, full face had a certain pleasant, wholesome aspect, like the fields about her home in June, as she bustled about, preparing for the "city folks" whom her father so dreaded.
Roger's buggy was not yet paid for. It was the one great extravagance that Mr. Atwood had permitted for many a year. As usual, his wife had led him into it, he growling and protesting, but unable to resist her peculiar persistency. Roger was approaching man's estate, and something must be done to signalize so momentous an event. A light buggy was the goal of ambition to the young men in the vicinity, and Roger felt that he could never be a man without one. He also recognized it as the best means of securing a wife to his mind, for courting on a moonlit, shadowy road was far more satisfactory than in the bosom of the young woman's family. Not that he was bent on matrimony, but rather on several years of agreeable preparation for it, proposing to make tentative acquaintances, both numerous and miscellaneous.
In his impatience to secure this four-wheeled compendium of happiness he had mortgaged his future, and had promised his father to plant and cultivate larger areas. The shrewd farmer therefore had no prospect of being out of pocket, for the young man was keeping his word. The acres of the cornfield were nearly double those of the previous year, and on them Roger spent the long hot day in vigorous labor in preference to the easy task of going to the river for the luggage. Dusty and weary, but in excellent spirits over the large space that he and the hired man had "hilled up," he went whistling home through the long shadows of the June evening. The farm wagon stood in the door-yard piled with trunks. The front entrance of the house--rarely used by the family--was open, and as he came up the lane a young girl emerged from it, and leaned for a few moments against the outer pillar of the little porch, unconscious of the picture she made. A climbing rose was in bloom just over her head, and her cheeks, flushed with heat and fatigue, vied with them in color. She had exchanged her travelling-dress for one of light muslin, and entwined in her hair a few buds from the bush that covered the porch. If Roger was not gifted with a vivid imagination he nevertheless saw things very accurately, and before he reached the head of the lane admitted to himself that the old "front steps" had never been so graced before. He had seen many a rustic beauty standing there when his sister had company, but the city girl impressed him with a difference which he then could not understand. He was inclined to resent this undefined superiority, and he muttered, "Father's right. They are birds of too fine a feather for our nest."
He had to pass near her in order to reach the kitchen door, or else make a detour which his pride would not permit. Indeed, the youth plodded leisurely along with his hoe on his shoulder, and scrupled not to scrutinize the vision on the porch with the most matter-of-fact minuteness.
"What makes her so 'down in the mouth'?" he queried. "She doesn't fancy us barbarians, I suppose, and Forestville to her is a howling wilderness. Like enough she'll take me for an Indian."
Mildred's eyes were fixed on a great shaggy mountain in the west, that was all the more dark and forbidding in its own deep shadow. She did not see it, however, for her mind was dwelling on gloomier shadows than the mountain cast.
As he passed he caught her attention, and stepping toward him a little impatiently, she said,
"I suppose you belong to the premises?"
He made an awkward attempt at a bow, and said stiffly, "I'm one of the Atwood chattels."
The answer was not such as she expected, and she gave him a scrutinizing glance. "Surely, if I have ever seen a laborer, he's one," she thought, as with woman's quickness she inventoried his coarse, weather-stained straw hat, blue cotton shirt crossed by suspenders mended with strings, shapeless trousers, once black, but now of the color of the dusty cornfield, and shoes such as she had never seen on the avenue. Even if Roger's face had not been discolored by perspiration and browned by exposure, its contrast with the visage that memory kept before her but too constantly would not have been pleasing. Nothing in his appearance deterred her from saying briefly, "I wish you would bring those trunks to our rooms. We have already waited for them some little time, and Mr. Atwood said that his man would attend to them when he came home from his work."
"That's all right, but I'm not his man, and with another stiff bow he passed on.
"Roger," called Mrs. Atwood from the kitchen door, "where's Jotham?"
"Bringing home the cows."
"The ladies want their trunks," continued his mother, in a sharp, worried tone. "I wish you men-folks would see to 'em right away. Why couldn't you quit work a little earlier to-night?"
Roger made no reply, but proceeded deliberately to help himself to a wash-basin and water.
"Look here, Roger," said his mother, in a tone she seldom used, "if those trunks are not where they belong in ten minutes, Susan and I'll take 'em up ourselves."
"That would be a pretty story to go out," added his sister. "Little use your buggy would be to you then, for no nice girl would ride with you."
"Come, come, what's the use of such a bother!" said the young man irritably. "Mother knows that I'd carry the trunks up on Bald-Top before I'd let her touch them. That's the way it will always be with these city people, I suppose. Everybody must jump and run the moment they speak. Father's right, and we'll have to give up our old free-and-easy life and become porters and waiting-maids."
"I've heard enough of that talk," said Mrs. Atwood emphatically. "Your father's been like a drizzling northeaster all day. Now I give you men-folks fair warning. If you want any supper you must wake up and give me something better than grumbling. I'm too hot and tired now to argue over something that's been settled once for all."
The "warning" had the desired effect, for Mrs. Atwood was the recognized head of the commissary department, and, as such, could touch the secret springs of motives that are rarely resisted.
The open kitchen windows were so near that Mildred could not help overhearing this family jar, and it added greatly to her depression. She felt that they had not only lost their own home, but were also banishing the home feeling from another family. She did but scant justice to Mrs. Atwood's abundant supper, and went to her room at last with that most disagreeable of all impressions--the sense of being an intruder.
The tired children were soon at rest, for their time of sleepless trouble was far distant. Belle's pretty head drooped also with the roses over the porch as the late twilight deepened. To her and the little people the day had been rich in novelty, and the country was a wonderland of many and varied delights. In the eyes of children the Garden of Eden survives from age to age. Alas! the tendency to leave it survives also, and to those who remain, regions of beauty and mystery too often become angular farms and acres.
Mrs. Jocelyn and Mildred still more clearly illustrated the truth that the same world wears a different aspect as the conditions of life vary. They were going out into the wilderness. The river was a shining pathway, whose beauty was a mockery, for it led away from all that they loved best. The farmhouse was a place of exile, and its occupants a strange, uncouth people with whom they felt that they would have nothing in common. Mrs. Jocelyn merely looked forward to weeks of weary waiting until she could again join her husband, to whom in his despondency her heart clung with a remorseful tenderness. She now almost wished that they had lived on bread and water, and so had provided against this evil day of long separation and dreary uncertainty. Now that she could no longer rest in her old belief that there would be "some way" of tiding over every financial crisis, she became a prey to forebodings equally vague that there might be no way. That her husband could spend day after day seeking employment, offering, too, to take positions far inferior to the one he had lost, was a truth that at first bewildered and then disheartened her beyond measure. She felt that they must, indeed, have fallen on evil times when his services went a-begging.
To Mildred the present was dark, and the future most unpromising; but deep in her heart nestled the sustaining thought that she was not unloved, not forgotten. The will of others, not his own, kept her lover from her side. His weaknesses were of a nature that awakened her pity rather than contempt. If he had been a Hercules physically and a Bacon intellectually, but conceited, domineering, untruthful, and of the male flirt genus--from such weaknesses she would have shrunk with intense repugnance. Her friends thought her peculiarly gentle in disposition. They did not know--and she herself might rarely recognize the truth--that she was also very strong; her strength on its human side consisted in a simple, unswerving fidelity to her womanly nature and sense of right; on the Divine side, God's word was to her a verity. She daily said "Our Father" as a little child. Has the world yet discovered a purer or loftier philosophy?