The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
XXIV. Indian Summer
The upper fields of Stone Ridge, so the farmers said, were infested that autumn by a shy and solitary vagrant, who never could be met with face to face, but numbers of times had been seen across the width of a lot, climbing the bars, or closing a gate, or vanishing up some crooked lane that quickly shut him from view.
"I would look after that old chap if I was you, Chauncey. He'll be smoking in your hay barns, and burn you out some o' these cold nights."
Chauncey took these neighborly warnings with good-humored indifference. "I haven't seen no signs of his doin' any harm," he said. "Anybody's at liberty to walk in the fields if there ain't a 'No Trespass' posted. I rather guess he makes his bed among the corn stouks. I see prints of someone's feet, goin' and comin'."
Mrs. Bogardus was more herself in those days than she had been at any time since the great North-western wilderness sent her its second message of fear. Old memories were losing their sting. She could bear to review her decision with a certain shrinking hardihood. Had the choice been given her to repeat, her action had been the same. In so far as she had perjured herself for the sake of peace in the family, she owned the sacrifice was vain; but her own personality was the true reason for what she had done. She was free in her unimpeachable widowhood--a mother who had never been at heart a wife. She feared no ghosts this keen autumn weather, at the summit of her conscious powers. Her dark eye unsheathed its glance of authority. It was an eye that went everywhere, and everywhere was met with signs that praised its oversight. Here was an out-worn inheritance which one woman, in less than a third of her lifetime, had developed into a competence for her son. He could afford to dream dreams of beneficence with his mother to make them good. Yes, he needed her still. His child was in her keeping; and, though brief the lease, that trust was no accident. It was the surest proof he could have given her of his vital allegiance. In the step which Paul and Moya were taking, she saw the first promise of that wisdom she had despaired of in her son. In the course of years he would understand her. And Christine? She rested bitterly secure in her daughter's inevitable physical need of her. Christine was a born parasite. She had no true pride; she was capable merely of pique which would wear itself out and pass into other forms of selfishness.
This woman had been governed all her life by a habit of decision, and a strong personality rooted in the powers of nature. Therefore she was seldom mistaken in her conclusions when they dealt with material results. Occasionally she left out the spirit; but the spirit leaves out no one.
Her long dark skirts were sweeping the autumn grass at sunset as she paced back and forth under the red-gold tents of the maples. It was a row of young trees she had planted to grace a certain turf walk at the top of the low wall that divided, by a drop of a few feet, the west lawn at Stone Ridge from the meadow where the beautiful Alderneys were pastured. The maples turned purple as the light faded out of their tops and struck flat across the meadow, making the grass vivid as in spring. Two spots of color moved across it slowly--a young woman capped and aproned, urging along a little trotting child. Down the path of their united shadows they came, and the shadows had reached already the dividing wall. The waiting smile was sweet upon the grandmother's features; her face was transformed like the meadow into a memory of spring. The child saw her, and waved to her with something scarlet which he held in his free hand. She admired the stride of his brown legs above their crumpled socks, the imperishable look of health on his broad, sweet glowing face. She lifted him high in her embrace and bore him up the hill, his dusty shoes dangling against her silk front breadths, his knees pressed tight against her waist, and over her shoulder he flourished the scarlet cardinal flower.
"Where have you been with him so long?" she asked the nursemaid.
"Only up in the lane, as far as the three gates, ma'am."
"Then where did he get this flower?"
"Oh," said the pretty Irish girl, half scared by her tone, and tempted to prevaricate. "Why--he must have picked it, I guess."
"Not in the lane. It's a swamp-flower. It doesn't grow anywhere within four miles of the lane!"
"It must have been the old man gev it him then," said the maid. "Is it unhealthy, ma'am? I tried to get it from him, but he screamed and fussed so."
"What old man do you mean?"
"Why, him that was passin' up the lane. I didn't see him till he was clean by--and Middy had the flower. I don't know where in the world he could have got it, else, for we wasn't one step out of the lane, was we, Middy! That's the very truth."
"But where were you when strangers were giving him flowers?"
"Why, sure, ma'am, I was only just a step away be the fence, having a word with one o' the boys. I was lookin' in the field, speakin' to him and he was lookin' at me with me back to the lane. 'There's the old man again,' he says, shiftin' his eye. I turned me round and there, so he was, but he was by and walkin' on up the lane. And Middy had the flower. He wouldn't be parted from it and squeezed it so tight I thought the juice might be bad on his hands, and he promised he'd not put it to his mouth. I kep' my eye on him. Ah, the nasty, na-asty flower! Give it here to Katy till I throw it!"
"There's no harm in the flower. But there is harm in strangers making up to him when your back is turned. Don't you know the dreadful things we read in the papers?"
Mrs. Bogardus said no more. It was Middy's supper-time. But later she questioned Katy particularly concerning this old man who was spoken of quite as if his appearance were taken for granted in the heart of the farm. Katy recalled one other day when she had seen him asleep as she thought in a corner of the fence by the big chestnut tree when she and the boy were nutting. They had moved away to the other side of the tree, but while she was busy hunting for nuts Middy had strayed off a bit and foregathered with the old man, who was not asleep at all, but stood with his back to her pouring a handful of big fat chestnuts into the child's little skirt, which he held up. She called to him and the old man had stepped back, and the nuts were spilled. Middy had cried and made her pick them up, and when that was done the stranger was gone quite out of sight.
Chauncey, too, was questioned, and testified that the old man of the fields was no myth. But he deprecated all this exaggerated alarm. The stranger was some simple-minded old work-house candidate putting off the evil day. In a few weeks he would have to make for shelter in one of the neighboring towns. Chauncey could not see what legal hold they had upon him even if they could catch him. He hardly came under the vagrancy law, since he had neither begged, nor helped himself appreciably to the means of subsistence.
"That is just the point," Mrs. Bogardus insisted. "He has the means--from somewhere--to lurk around here and make friends with that child. There may be a gang of kidnappers behind him. He is the harmless looking decoy. I insist that you keep a sharp lookout, Chauncey. There shall be a hold upon him, law or no law, if we catch him on our ground."
A cold rain set in. Paul and Moya wrote of delays in the house preparations, and hoped the grandmother was not growing tired of her charge. On the last of the rainy days, in a burst of dubious sunshine, came a young girl on horseback to have tea with Mrs. Bogardus. She was one of that lady's discoverers, so she claimed, Miss Sallie Remsen, very pretty and full of fantastic little affectations founded on her intense appreciation of the picturesque. She called Mrs. Bogardus "Madam," and likened her to various female personages in history more celebrated for strength of purpose than for the Christian virtues. Mrs. Bogardus, in her restful ignorance of such futilities, went no deeper into these allusions than their intention, which she took to be complimentary. Miss Sallie hugged herself with joy when the rain came down in torrents for a clear-up shower. Her groom was sent home with a note to inform her mother that Mrs. Bogardus wished to keep her overnight. All the mothers were flattered when Mrs. Bogardus took notice of their daughters,--even much grander dames than she herself could pretend to be.
They had a charming little dinner by themselves to the tune of the rain outside, and were having their coffee by the drawing-room fire; and Miss Sallie was thinking by what phrase one could do justice to the massive, crass ugliness of that self-satisfied apartment, furnished in the hideous sixties, when the word was sent in that Mrs. Dunlop wished to speak with Mrs. Bogardus. Something of Cerissa's injured importance survived the transmission of the message, causing Mrs. Bogardus to smile to herself as she rose. Cerissa was waiting in the dining-room. She kept her seat as Mrs. Bogardus entered. Her eyes did not rise higher than the lady's dress, which she examined with a fierce intentness of comparison while she opened her errand.
"I thought you'd like to know you've got a strange lodger down to the old house. I don't seem to ever get moved!" she enlarged. "I'm always runnin' down there after first one thing 'n' another we've forgot. This morning 't was my stone batter-pot. Chauncey said he thought it was getting cold enough for buckwheat cakes. I don't suppose you want to have stray tramps in there in the old house, building fires in the loom-room, where, if a spark got loose, it would blaze up them draughty stairs, and the whole house would go in a minute." Cerissa stopped to gain breath.
"Making fires? Are you sure of that? Has any smoke been seen coming out of that chimney?"
"Why, it's been raining so! And the trees have got so tall! But I could show you the shucks an' shells he's left there. I know how we left it!"
"You had better speak--No; I will see Chauncey in the morning." Mrs. Bogardus never, if she could avoid it, gave an order through a third person.
"Well, I thought I'd just step in. Chauncey said 't was no use disturbing you to-night, but he's just that way--so easy about everything! I thought you wouldn't want to be harboring tramps this wet weather when most anybody would be tempted to build a fire. I'm more concerned about what goes on down there now we're out of the house! I seem to have it on my mind the whole time. A house is just like a child: the more you don't see it the more you worry about it."
"I'm glad you have such a home feeling about the place," said Mrs. Bogardus, avoiding the onset of words. "Well, good-evening, Cerissa. Thank you for your trouble. I will see about it in the morning."
Mrs. Bogardus mentioned what she had just heard to Miss Sallie, who remarked, with her keen sense of antithesis, what a contrast that fireside must be to this.
"Oh, your lodger upon the cold ground,--making his little bit of a stolen blaze in that cavern of a chimney in the midst of the wet trees! What a nice thing to have an unwatched place like that where a poor bird of passage can creep in and make his nest, and not trouble any one. Think what Jean Valjeans one might shelter"--
"What 'angels unawares.'"
"It will be unawares, my dear,--very much unawares,--when I shelter any angels of that sort."
"Oh, you wouldn't turn him out, such weather as this?"
"The house is not mine, in the first place," Mrs. Bogardus explained as to a child. "I can't entertain tramps or even angels on my son's premises, when he's away."
"Oh, he! He would build the fires himself, and make up their beds," laughed Miss Sallie. "If he were here, I believe he would start down there now, and stock the place with everything you've got in the house to eat."
"I hope he'd leave us a little something for breakfast," said Mrs. Bogardus a trifle coldly. But she did not mention the cause of her uneasiness about this particular visitor. She never defended herself.
Miss Sallie was delighted with her callousness to the sentimental rebuke which had been rather rubbed in. It was so unmodern; one got so weary of fashionable philanthropy, women who talked of their social sympathies and their principles in life. She almost hoped that Mrs. Bogardus had neither. Certainly she never mentioned them.
"What did she say? Did she tell you what I said to her last night?" Cerissa questioned her husband feverishly after his interview with Mrs. Bogardus.
"She didn't mention your name," Chauncey took some pleasure in stating. "If you hadn't told me yourself, I shouldn't have known you'd meddled in it at all."
"What's she going to do about it?"
"How crazy you women are! 'Cause some poor old Sooner-die-than-work warms his bones by a bit of fire that wouldn't scare a chimbly swaller out of its nest! Don't you s'pose if there'd been any fire there to speak of, I'd 'a' seen it? What am I here for? Now I've got to drop everything, and git a padlock on that door, and lock it up every night, and search the whole place from top to bottom for fear there's some one in there hidin' in a rathole!"
"Chauncey! If you've got to do that I don't want you to go in there alone. You take one of the men with you; and you better have a pistol or one of the dogs anyhow. Suppose you was to ketch some one in there, and corner him! He might turn on you, and shoot you!"
"I wish you wouldn't work yourself up so about nothin' at all! Want me to make a blame jackass of myself raisin' the whole place about a potato-peel or a bacon-rind!"
"I think you might have some little regard for my feelings," Cerissa whimpered. "If you ain't afraid, I'm afraid for you; and I don't see anything to be ashamed of either. I wish you wouldn't go alone searching through that spooky old place. It just puts me beside myself to think of it!"
"Well, well! That's enough about it anyhow. I ain't going to do anything foolish, and you needn't think no more about it."
Whether it was the effect of his wife's fears, or his promise to her, or the inhospitable nature of his errand founded on suspicion, certainly Chauncey showed no spirit of rashness in conducting his search. He knocked the mud off his boots loudly on the doorsill before proceeding to attach the padlock to the outer door. He searched the loom-room, lighting a candle and peering into all its cobwebbed corners. He examined the rooms lately inhabited, unlocking and locking doors behind him noisily with increasing confidence in the good old house's emptiness. Still, in the fireplace in the loom-room there were signs of furtive cooking which a housekeeper's eye would infallibly detect. He saw that the search must proceed. It was not all a question of his wife's fears, as he opened the stair-door cautiously and tramped slowly up towards the tower bedroom. He could not remember who had gone out last, on the day the old secretary was moved down. There had been four men up there, and--yes, the key was still in the lock outside. He clutched it and it fell rattling on the steps. He swung the door open and stared into the further darkness beyond his range of vision. He waved his candle as far as his arm would reach. "Anybody in here?" he shouted. The silence made his flesh prick. "I'm goin' to lock up now. Better show up. It's the last chance." He waited while one could count ten. "Anybody in here that wants to be let free? Nobody's goin' to hurt ye."
To his anxious relief there was no reply. But as he listened, he heard the loud, measured tick, tick, of the old clock, appalling in the darkness, on the silence of that empty room. Chauncey could not have told just how he got the door to, nor where he found strength to lock it and drag his feet downstairs, but the hand that held the key was moist with cold perspiration as he reached the open air.
"Well, if that's rain I'd like to know where it comes from!" He looked up at the moon breaking through drifting clouds. The night was keen and clear.
"If I was to tell that to Cerissa she'd never go within a mile o' that house again! Maybe I was mistaken--but I ain't goin' back to see!"
Next morning on calmer reflection he changed his mind about removing the lawn-mower and other hand-tools from the loom-room as he had determined overnight should be done. The place continued to be used as a storeroom, open by day.
At night it was Chauncey's business to lock it up, and he was careful to repeat his search--as far as the stair-door. Never did the silent room above give forth a protest, a sound of human restraint or occupation. He reported to the mistress that all was snug at the old house, and nobody anywhere about the place.