XIII. Curtain
 

A greater freedom followed this confession, as was natural. It became the basis for lighter confidences and bits of autobiography that came to the surface easily after this tremendous effort at sincerity. Paul found that he could speak even of the family past, into which by degrees he began to fit the real man in place of that bucolic abstraction which had walked the fields of fancy. He had never dared to actuate the "hired man," his father, on a basis of fact. He knew the speech and manners of the class from which he came,--knew men of that class, and talked with them every summer at Stone Ridge; but he had brooded so deeply over the tragic and sentimental side of his father's fate as to have lost sight of the fact that he was a man.

Reality has its own convincing charm, not inconsistent with plainness or even with commonness. To know it is to lose one's taste for toys of the imagination. Paul, at last, could look back almost with, a sense of humor at the doll-like progenitor he had played with so long. But when it came to placing the real man, Adam Bogardus, beside that real woman, once his wife, their son could but own with awe that there is mercy in extinction, after all; in the chance, however it may come to us, for slipping off those cruel disguises that life weaves around us.

In the strange, wakeful nights, full of starvation dreams, he saw his mother as she would look on state occasions in the hostess's place at her luxurious table; the odor of flowers, the smell of meats and wines, tantalized and sickened him. Christine would come in her dancing frocks, always laughing, greedy in her mirth; but Moya, face to face, he could never see. It was torture to feel her near him, a disembodied embrace. Passionate panegyrics and hopeless adjurations he would pour out to that hovering loveliness just beyond his reach. The agony of frustration would waken him, if indeed it were sleep that dissolved his consciousness, and he would be irritable if spoken to.

The packer broke in, one morning, on these unnerving dreams. "You wouldn't happen to have a picture of her along with you?"

Paul stared at him.

"No, of course you wouldn't! And I'd be 'most afeard to look at it, if you had. She must have changed considerable. Time hasn't stood still with her any more than the rest of us."

"I have no picture of my mother," Paul replied.

The packer saw that his question had jarred; he had waited weeks to ask it. He passed it off now with one of his homely similes. "If you was to break a cup clean in two, and put the halves together again while the break was fresh, they'd knit so you wouldn't hardly see a crack. But you take one half and set it in the chainy closet and chuck the other half out on the ash-heap,--them halves won't look much like pieces of the same cup, come a year or two. The edges won't jine no more than the lips of an old cut that's healed without stitches. No; married folks they grow together or they grow apart, and they're a-doing of the one or the other every minute of the time, breaks or no breaks. Does she go up to the old place summers?"

"Not lately, except on business," said Paul. "A company was formed to open slate quarries on the upper farm, a good many years ago. They are worth more than all the land forty times over."

"I always said so; always told the old man he had a gold mine in that ridge. Was this before he died?"

"Long after. It was my mother's scheme mainly. She controls it now. She is a very strong business woman."

"She got her training, likely, from that uncle in New York. He had the business head. The old man had no more contrivance than one of the bulls in his pastures. He could lock horns and stay there, but it wa'nt no trouble to outflank him. More than once his brother Jacob got to the windward of him in a bargain. He was made a good deal like his own land. Winters of frost it took to break up that ground, and sun and rain to meller it, and then't was a hatful of soil to a cartful of stone. The plough would jump the furrows if you drew it deep. My arms used to ache as if they'd been pounded, with the jar of them stones. They used to tell us children a story how Satan, he flew over the earth a-sowing it with rocks and stones, and as he was passing over our county a hole bu'st through his leather apron and he lost his whole load right slam there. I could 'a' p'inted out the very spot where the heft on it fell. Ten Stone meadow, so-called. Ten million stone! I was pickin' stone in that field all of one summer when I was fifteen year old. We built a mile of fence with it.

"Them quarries must have brought a mint of money into the country. Different sort of labor, too. Well, the world grows richer and poorer every year. More difference every year between the way rich folks and poor folks live. I wouldn't know where I belonged, 't ain't likely, if I was to go back there. I'd be way off! One while I used to think a good deal about going back, just to take a look around. It comes over me lately like hunger and thirst. I think about the most curious things when I'm asleep--foolish, like a child! I can smell all the good home smells of a frosty morning: apple pomace, steaming in the barnyard; sausage frying; Becky scouring the brass furnace-kittle with salt and vinegar. Killin' time, you know--makes you think of boiling souse and head-cheese. You ever eat souse?" The packer sucked in his breath with a lean smile. "It ain't best to dwell on it. But you can't help yourself, at night. I can smell Becky's fresh bread, in my dreams, just out of the brick oven. Never eat bread cooked in a stove till I came out here. I never drunk any water like that spring on the ridge. Last night I was back there, and the maples were all yellow like sunshine. Once it was spring, and apple-blooms up in the hill orchard. And little Emmy, a-setting on the fence, with her bunnit throwed back on her neck. 'Addy!' she called, way across the lot; 'Addy, come, help me down!' She was a master hand for venturin' up on places, but she didn't like the gettin' down.

"Well, she 'a learned the ups and downs by this time. She don't need Addy to help her. I'd have helped a big sight more if I had kep' my distance. It's a thing so con-demned foolish and unnecessary--I can't be reconciled to it noway!"

"You see only one side of it," said Paul. Unspeakable thoughts had kept pace with his father's words. "Nothing that happens, happens through us--or to us--alone. There was a girl I knew, outside. She was as happy, when I knew her first, as you say my mother used to be. Then she met some one--a man--and the shadow of his life crossed hers. He would have wrapped her up in it and put out her sunshine if he had stayed in the same world. Now she can be herself again, after a while. It cannot take long to forget a person you have known only a little over a year."

The packer rose on one elbow. He reached across and shook his son.

"Where is that girl? Answer me! Take your face out of your hands!"

"At Bisuka Barracks. She is the commandant's daughter. I came out to marry her."

"What possessed ye not to tell me?"

"Why should I tell you? We buried the wedding-day months back, in the snow."

"Boy, boy!" the packer groaned.

"What difference can it make now?"

"All the difference--all the difference there is! I thought you were out here touring it with them fool boys and they were all the chance you had for help outside. You suppose her father is going to see her git left? They'll get in here, if they have to crawl on their bellies or climb through the tree-limbs. They know how! And we've wasted the grub and talked like a couple of women!"

"Oh, don't--don't torment me!" Paul groaned. "It was all over. Can't you leave the dead in peace!"

"We are not the dead! I 'most wish we were. Boy, I've got a big word to say to you about that. Come closer!" The packer's speech hoarsened and failed. They could only hear each other breathe. Then it seemed to the packer that his was the only breath in the darkness. He listened. A faint cheer arose in the forest and a crashing of the dead underlimbs of the pines.

He turned frantically upon his son, but no pledge could be extorted now. Paul's lips were closed. He had lost consciousness.