The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
III. The Initial Love
"Let us be simple! Not every one can be, but we can. We can afford to be, and we know how!"
Moya was speaking rapidly, in her singularly articulate tones. A reader of voices would have pronounced hers the physical record of unbroken health and constant, joyous poise.
"Hear the word of your prophet Emerson!" she brought a little fist down upon her knee for emphasis, a hand several sizes larger closed upon it and held it fast. "Hear the word--are you listening? 'Only two in the Garden walked and with Snake and Seraph talked.'"
The young man's answer was an instant's impassioned silence. Too close it touched him, that vital image of the Garden. Then, with an effect of sternness, he said,--
"Have we the right to do as we please? Have we the courage that comes of right to cut ourselves off from all those calls and cries for help?"
"I have," said the girl; "I have just that right--of one who knows exactly what she wants, and is going to get it if she can!"
He laughed at her happy insolence, with which all the youth and nature in him made common cause.
"I shouldn't mind thinking about your Poor Man," she tripped along, "if he liked being poor, or if it seemed to improve him any; or if it were only now and then. But there is so dreadfully much of him! Once we begin, how should we ever think about anything else? He'd rise up and sit down with us, and eat and drink with us, and tell us what to wear. Every pleasure of our lives would be spoiled with his eternal 'Where do I come in?' It was simple enough in that garden, with only those two and nobody outside to feel injured. But we are those two, aren't we? Isn't everybody--once in a life, and once only?" She turned her face aside, slighting by her manner the excessive meaning of her words. "I ask for myself only what I think I have a right to give you--my absolute undivided attention for those first few years. They say it never lasts!" she hastened to add with playful cynicism.
Young Bogardus seemed incapable under the circumstances of any adequate reply. Free as they were in words, there was an extreme personal shyness between these proud young persons, undeveloped on the side of passion and better versed in theories of life than in life itself. They had separated the day after their sudden engagement, and their nearest approaches to intimacy had been through letters. Naturally the girl was the bolder, having less in herself to fear.
"That is what I call being simple," she went on briskly. "If you think we can be that in New York, let us live there. I could be simple there, but not with you, sir! That terrible East Side would be shaking its gory locks at us. We should feel that we did it--or you would! Then good-by to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness!"
"You are my life, liberty, and happiness, and I will be your almoner," said Paul, "and dispense you"--
"Dispense with me!" laughed the girl. "And what shall I be doing while you are dispensing me on the East Side? New York has other sides. While you go slumming with the Seraph, I shall be talking to the Snake! Now, do laugh!" she entreated childishly, turning her sparkling face to his.
"Am I expected to laugh at that?"
"Well, what shall we do? Don't make me harden my heart before it has had time to soften naturally. Give my poor pagan sympathies a little time to ripen."
"But you have lived in New York. Did you find it such a strain on your sympathies?"
"I was a visitor; and a girl is not expected to have sympathies. But to begin our home there: we should have to strike a note of some sort. How if my note should jar with yours? Paul, dear, it isn't nice to have convictions when one is young and going to be married. You know it isn't. It's not poetic, and it's not polite, and it's a dreadful bore!"
The altruist and lover winced at this. Allowing for exaggeration, which was the life of speech with her, he knew that Moya was giving him a bit of her true self, that changeful, changeless self which goes behind all law and "follows joy and only joy." Her voice dropped into its sweetest tones of intimacy.
"Why need we live in a crowd? Why must we be pressed upon with all this fuss and doing? Doing, doing! We are not ready to do anything yet. Every day must have its dawn;--and I don't see my way yet; I'm hardly awake!"
"Darling, hush! You must not say such things to me. For you only to look at me like that is the most terrible temptation of my life. You make me forget everything a man is bound--that I of all men am bound to remember."
"Then I will keep on looking! Behold, I am Happiness, Selfishness, if you like! I have come to stay. No, really, it's not nice of you to act as if you were under higher orders. You are under my orders. What right have we to choose each other if we are not to be better to each other than to any one else?--if our lives belong to any one who needs us, or our time and money, more than we need it ourselves? Why did you choose me? Why not somebody pathetic--one of your Poor Things; or else save yourself whole for all the Poor Things?"
"Now you are 'talking for victory,'" he smiled. "You don't believe we must be as consistent as all that. Hearts don't have to be coddled like pears picked for market. But I'm not preaching to you. The heavens forbid! I'm trying to explain. You don't think this whole thing with me is a pose? I know I'm a bore with my convictions; but how do we come by such things?"
"Ah! How do I come not to have any, or to want any?" she rejoined.
"Once for all, let me tell you how I came by mine. Then you will know just where and how those cries for help take hold on me."
"I don't wish to know. Preserve me from knowing! Why didn't you choose somebody different?"
He looked at her with all his passion in his eyes. "I did not choose. Did you?"
"It isn't too late," she whispered. Her face grew hot in the darkness.
"Yes; it is too late--for anything but the truth. Will you listen, sweet? Will you let the nonsense wait?"
"Deeper and deeper! Haven't we reached the bottom yet?"
"Go on! It's the dearest nonsense," she heard him say; but she detected pain in his voice and a new constraint.
"What is it? What is the 'truth'?"
"Oh, it's not so dreadful. Only, you always put me in quite a different class from where I belong, and I haven't had the courage to set you right."
"Children, children!" a young voice called, from the lighted walk above. Two figures were going down the line, one in uniform keeping step beside a girl in white who reefed back her skirts with one hand, the other was raised to her hair which was blowing across her forehead in bewitching disorder. Every gesture and turn of her shape announced that she was pretty and gay in the knowledge of her power. It was Chrissy, walking with Lieutenant Lane.
"Where are you--ridiculous ones? Don't you want to come with us?"
"'Now who were they?'" Paul quoted derisively out of the dark.
"We are going to Captain Dawson's to play Hearts. Come! Don't be stupid!"
"We are not stupid, we are busy!" Moya called back.
"Busy! Doing what?"
"Oh, deciding things. We are talking about the Poor Man."
"The poor men, she means." Christine's high laugh followed the lieutenant's speech, as the pair went on.
"He is a bore!" Moya declared. "We can't even use him for a joke."
"Speaking of Lane, dear?"
"The Poor Man. Are you sure that you've got a sense of humor, Paul? Can't we have charity for jokes among the other poor things?"
Paul had raised himself to the step beside her. "You are shivering," he said, "I must let you go in."
"I'm not shivering--I'm chattering," she mocked. "Why should I go in when we are going to be really serious?"
Paul waited a moment; his breath came short, as if he were facing a postponed dread. "Moya, dear," he began in a forced tone, "I can't help my constraints and convictions that bore you so, any more than you can help your light heart--God bless it--and your theory of class which to me seems mediaeval. I have cringed to it, like the coward a man is when he is in love. But now I want you to know me."
He took her hand and kissed it repeatedly, as if impressing upon her the one important fact back of all hypothesis and perilous efforts at statement.
"Well, are you bidding me good-by?"
"You must give me time," he said. "It takes courage in these days for a good American to tell the girl he loves that his father was a hired man."
He smiled, but there was little mirth and less color in his face.
"What absurdity!" cried Moya. Then glancing at him she added quickly, "My father is a hired man. Most fathers who are worth anything are!"
"My father was because he came of that class. His father was one before him. His mother took in tailoring in the village where he was born. He had only the commonest common-school education and not much of that. At eleven he worked for his board and clothes at my Grandfather Van Elten's, and from that time he earned his bread with his hands. Don't imagine that I'm apologizing," Paul went on rapidly. "The apology belongs on the other side. In New York, for instance, the Bogardus blood is quite as good as the Bevier or the Broderick or the Van Elten; but up the Hudson, owing to those chances or mischances that selected our farming aristocracy for us, my father's people had slipped out of their holdings and sunk to the poor artisan class which the old Dutch landowners held in contempt."
"We are not landowners," said Moya. "What does it matter? What does any of it matter?"
"It matters to be honest and not sail under false colors. I thought you would not speak of the Poor Man as you do if you knew that I am his son."
"Money has nothing to do with position in the army. I am a poor man's daughter."
"Ah, child! Your father gives orders--mine took them, all his life."
"My father has to take what he gives. There is no escaping 'orders.' Even I know that!" said Moya. A slight shiver passed over her as she spoke, laughing off as usual the touch of seriousness in her words.
"Why did you do that?" Paul touched her shoulder. "Is it the wind? There is a wind creeping down these steps." He improved the formation slightly in respect to the wind.
"Listen!" said Moya. "Isn't that your mother walking on the porch? Father, I know, is writing. She will be lonely."
"She is never lonely, more or less. It is always the same loneliness--of a woman widowed for years."
"How very much she must have cared for him!" Moya sighed incredulously. What a pity, she thought, that among the humbler vocations Paul's father should have been just a plain "hired man." Cowboy, miner, man-o'-war's man, even enlisted man, though that were bad enough--any of these he might have been in an accidental way, that at least would have been picturesque; but it is only the possession of land, by whatsoever means or title, that can dignify an habitual personal contact with it in the form of soil. That is one of the accepted prejudices which one does not meddle with at nineteen. "Youth is conservative because it is afraid." Moya, for all her fighting blood, was traditionally and in social ways much more in bonds than Paul, who had inherited his father's dreamy speculative habit of thought, with something of the farm-hand's distrust of society and its forms and shibboleth.
Paul's voice took a narrative tone, and Moya gave herself up to listening--to him rather more, perhaps, than to his story.
Few young men of twenty-four can go very deeply into questions of heredity. Of what follows here much was not known to Paul. Much that he did know he would have interpreted differently. The old well at Stone Ridge, for instance, had no place in his recital; and yet out of it sprang the history of his shorn generation. Had Paul's mother grown up in a houseful of brothers and sisters, governed by her mother instead of an old ignorant servant, in all likelihood she would have married differently--more wisely but not perhaps so well, her son would loyally have maintained. The sons of the rich farmers who would have been her suitors were men inferior to their fathers. They inherited the vigor and coarseness of constitution, the unabashed materialism of that earlier generation that spent its energies coping with Nature on its stony farms, but the sons were spared the need of that hard labor which their blood required. They supplied an element of force, but one of great corruption later, in the state politics of their time.