The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
IV. A Man that Had a Well in His Own Court
In the kitchen court called the "Airy" at Abraham Van Elten's, there was one of those old family wells which our ancestors used to locate so artlessly. And when it tapped the kitchen drain, and typhoid took the elder children, and the mother followed the children, it was called the will of God. A gloomy distinction rested on the house. Abraham felt the importance attaching to any supreme experience in a community where life runs on in the middle key.
A young doctor who had been called in at the close of the last case went prying about the premises, asking foolish questions that angered Abraham. It is easier for some natures to suffer than to change. If the farmer had ever drunk water himself, except as tea or coffee, or mixed with something stronger, he must have been an early victim, to his own crass ignorance. He was a vigorous, heavy-set man, a grand field for typhoid. But he prospered, and the young doctor was turned down with the full weight and breadth of the Van Elten thumb, or the Broderick; Abraham's build was that of his maternal grandmother, Hillotje Broderick.
On the Ridge, which later developed into a valuable slate quarry, there was a spring of water, cold and perpetual, flowing out of the trap-formation. Abraham had piped this water down to his barns and cattle-sheds; it furnished power for the farm-work. But to bring it to the house, in obedience to the doctor's meddlesome advice, would be an acknowledgment of fatal mistakes in the past; would raise talk and blame among the neighbors, and do away with the honor of a special visitation; would cost no trifle of money; would justify the doctor's interference, and insult the old well of his father and his father's father, the fountain of generations. To seal its mouth and bid its usefulness cease in the house where it had ministered for upwards of a hundred years was an act of desecration impossible to the man who in his stolid way loved the very stones that lined its slimy sides. The few sentiments that had taken hold on Abraham's arid nature went as deep as his obstinacy and clung as fast as his distrust of new opinions and new men. The question of water supply was closed in his house; but the well remained open and kept up its illicit connection with the drain.
Old Becky, keeper of the widower's keys, had followed closely the history of those unhappy "cases;" she had listened to discussions, violent or suppressed, she had heard much talk that went on behind her master's back.
Employers of that day and generation were masters; and masters are meant to be outwitted. Emily, the youngest and last of the flock, was now a child of four, dark like her mother, sturdy and strong like her father. On an August day soon after the mother's funeral, Becky took her little charge to the well and showed her a tumbler filled, with water not freshly drawn.
"See them little specks and squirmy things?" Emmy saw them. She followed their wavering motion in the glass as the stern forefinger pointed. "Those are little baby snakes," said Becky mysteriously. "The well is full of 'em. Sometimes you can see 'em, sometimes you can't, but they're always there. They never grow big down the well; it's too dark 'n' cold. But you drink that water and the snakes will grow and wriggle and work all through ye, and eat your insides out, and you'll die. Your mother"--in a whisper--"she drunk that water, and she died. Your sister Ruth, and Dirck, and Jimmy, they drunk it, and they died. Now if Emmy wants to die"--Large eyes of horror fastened on the speaker's face. "No--o, she don't want to die, the Loveums! She don't want Becky to have no little girl left at all! No; we mustn't ever drink any of that bad water--all full of snakes, ugh! But if Emmy's thirsty, see here! Here's good nice water. It's going to be always here in this pail--same water the little lambs drink up in the fields. Becky 'll take Emmy up on the hill sometime and show where the little lambs drink."
Grief had not clouded the farmer's oversight in petty things. He noticed the innocent pail on the area bench, never empty, always specklessly clean.
"What is this water?" he asked.
Becky was surly. "Drinking water. Want some?"
"What's it doing here all the time?"
"I set it there for Emmy. She can't reach up to the bucket."
Abraham tasted the water suspiciously. The well-water was hard, with a tang of iron. The spring soft, and less cold for its journey to the barn.
"Where did you get this water?"
"Help yourself. There's plenty more."
"Becky, where did this water come from? Out o' the well?"
Becky gave a snort of exasperation. "Sam Lewis brought it from the barn! I'm too lame to be histin' buckets. I've got the rheumatiz' awful in my back and shoulders, if ye want to know!"
"Becky, you're lying to me. You've been listening to what don't concern you. Now, see here. You are not going to ask the men to carry water for you. They've got something else to do. There's your water, as handy as ever a woman had it; use that or go without."
Abraham caught up the pail and flung its contents out upon the grass, scattering the hens that came sidling back with squawks of inquiring temerity.
When next Emmy came for water, the old woman took her by the hand in silence and led her into the dim meat-cellar, a half-basement with one low window level with the grass. There was the pail, safe hidden behind the soft-soap barrel.
"I had to hide it from your pa," Becky whispered. "Don't you never let him know you're afraid o' the well-water. He drunk it when he was a little boy. He don't believe in the snakes. But there wa'n't none then. It's when water gets old and rotten. You can believe what Becky says. She knows! But you mustn't ever tell. Your father 'd be as mad as fire if he knowed I said anything about snakes. He'd send me right away, and some strange woman would come, and maybe she'd whip Emmy. Emmy want Becky to go?" Sobs, and little arms clinging wildly to Becky's aproned skirts. "No, no! Well, she ain't goin'. But Emmy mustn't tell tales or she might have to. Tattlers are wicked anyway. 'Telltale tit! Your tongue shall be slit, and all the little dogs'--There! run now! There's your poppy. Don't you never,--never!"
Emmy let her eyes be wiped, and with one long, solemn, secret look of awed intelligence she ran out to meet her father. She did not love him, and the smile with which she met him was no new lesson in diplomacy. But her first secret from him lay deep in the beautiful eyes, her mother's eyes, as she raised them to his.
"Ain't that wonderful!" said Becky, with a satisfied sigh, watching her. "Safe as a jug! An' she not five years old!" For vital reasons she had taught the child an ugly lesson. Such lessons were common enough in her experience of family discipline. She never thought of it again.
That year which took Emmy's mother from her brought to the child her first young companion and friend. Adam Bogardus came as chore-boy to the farm,--an only child himself, and sensitive through the clashing of gentle instincts with rough and inferior surroundings; brought up in that depressed God-fearing attitude in which a widow not strong, and earning her bread, would do her duty by an only son. Not a natural fighter, she took what little combativeness he had out of him, and made his school-days miserable--a record of humiliations that sunk deep and drove him from his kind. He was a big, clumsy, sagacious boy, grave as an old man, always snubbed and condescended to, yet always trusted. Little Emmy made him her bondslave at sight. His whole soul blossomed in adoration of the beautiful, masterful child who ordered him about as her vassal, while slipping a soft little trustful hand in his. She trotted at his heels like one of the lambs or chickens that he fed. She brought him into perpetual disgrace with Becky, for wasting his time through her imperious demands. She was the burden, the delight, the handicap, the incentive, and the reward of his humble apprenticeship. And when he was promoted to be one of the regular hands she followed him still, and got her pleasure out of his day's work. No one had such patience to tell her things, to wait for her and help her over places where her tagging powers fell short. But though she bullied him, she looked up to him as well. His occupations commanded her respect. He was the god of the orchards and of the cider-making; he presided at all the functions of the farm year. He was a perfect calendar besides of country sports in their season. He swept the ice pools in the meadow for winter sliding, after his day's work was done. He saved up paper and string for kite-making in March. He knew when willow bark would slip for April's whistles. In the first heats of June he climbed the tall locust-trees to put up a swing in which she could dream away the perfumed hours. At harvest she waited in the meadow for him to toss her up on the hay-loads, and his great arms received her when she slid off in the barn. She knelt at his feet on the bumping boards of the farm-wagon while he braced himself like a charioteer, holding the reins above her head. He threshed the nut-trees and routed marauding boys from her preserves, and carved pumpkin lanterns to light her to her attic chamber on cold November nights, where she would lie awake watching strange shadows on the sloping roof, half worshiping, half afraid of her idol's ugliness in the dark.
These were some of Paul's illustrations of that pastoral beginning, and no doubt they were sympathetically close to the truth. He lingered over them, dressing up his mother's choice instinctively to the little aristocrat beside him.
When Emmy grew big enough to go to the Academy, three miles from the farm, it was all in the day's work that Adam should take her and fetch her home. He combined her with the mail, the blacksmith, and other village errands. Whoever met her father's team on those long stony hills of Saugerties would see his little daughter seated beside his hired man, her face turned up to his in endless confiding talk. It was a face, as we say, to dream of. But there were few dreamers in that little world. The farmers would nod gravely to Adam. "Abraham's girl takes after her mother; heartier lookin', though. Guess he'll need a set o' new tires before spring." The comments went no deeper.
Abraham was now well on in years; he made no visits, and he never drove his own team at night. When his daughter began to let down her frocks and be asked to evening parties, it was still Adam who escorted her. He sat in the kitchen while she was amusing herself in the parlor. She discussed her young acquaintances with him on their way home. The time for distinctions had come, but she was too innocent to feel them herself, and too proud to accept the standards of others. He was absolutely honest and unworldly. He thought it no treachery to love her for herself, and he believed, as most of us do, that his family was as good as hers or any other.
It would be hard to explain the old man's obliviousness. Perhaps he had forgotten his own youth; or class prejudice had gone so deep with him as to preclude the bare thought of a child of his falling in love with one of his "men." His imagination could not so insult his own blood. But when the awakening came, his passion of anger and resentment knew no bounds. To discharge his faithless employee out of hand would be the cripple throwing away his crutch. Though he called Adam one of his men, and though his pay was that of a common laborer, his duties had long been of a much higher order. Abraham had made a very good bargain out of the widow's son. Adam knew well that he could not be spared, and pitied the old man's helpless rage. He took his frantic insults as part of his senility, and felt it no unmanliness to appease it by giving his promise that he would speak no more of love to Emmy while he was taking her father's wages. But Emmy did not indorse this promise fully. To her it looked like weakness, and implied a sort of patience which did not become a lover such as she wished hers to be. The winter wore on uncomfortably for all. Towards spring, Becky's last illness and passing away brought the younger ones together again, and closer than before. Adam kept his promise through days and nights of sickroom intimacy; but though no word of love was spoken, each bore silent witness to what was loveliest in the other, and the bond between them deepened.
Then spring came, and its restlessness was strong upon them both. But it was Emmy to whom it meant action and rebellion.
They stood on the orchard hill one Sunday afternoon at the pause of the year. Buds were swelling and the edges of the woods wore a soft blush against the vaporous sky. The bare brown slopes were streaked with snow. A floe of winter ice, grinding upon itself with the tide, glared yellow as an old man's teeth in the setting sun. From across the river came the thunder of a train, bound north, two engines dragging forty cars of freight piled up by some recent traffic-jam; it plunged into a tunnel, and they waited, listening to the monster's smothered roar. Out it burst, its breath packed into clouds, the engines whooped, and round the curve where a point of cedars cut the sky the huge creature unwound itself, the hills echoing to its tread.
Emmy watched it out of sight, and breathed again. "Hundreds, hundreds going every day! It seems easy enough for everybody else. Oh, if I were a man!"
"What do you want I should do, Emmy?" Adam knew well what man she was thinking of.
"I want? Don't you ever want things yourself?"
"When I want a thing bad, I gen'ly think it's worth waiting for."
"People don't get things by waiting. I don't know how you can stand it,--to stay here year after year. And now you've tied yourself up with a promise, and you know you cannot keep it!"
"I'm trying to keep it."
"You couldn't keep it if you cared--really and truly--as some do!" She dropped her voice hurriedly. "To live here and eat your meals day after day and pass me like a stick or a stone!"
The slow blood burned in Adam's face and hammered in his pulses. His blue eyes were bashful through its heat. "I don't feel like a stick nor a stone. You know it, Emmy. You want to be careful," he added gently. "Would going away look as if I cared?"
"Why--why don't you ask me to go with you?" The girl tried to meet his eyes. She turned off her question with a proud laugh.
"Be--careful, child! You know why I can't take you up on that. Would you want we should leave him here alone--without even Becky? You're only trying me for fun."
"No; I am not!" Emmy was pale now. Her breast was rising in strong excitement. "If we were gone, he would know then what you are worth to him. Now, you're only Adam! He thinks he can put you down like a boy. He won't believe I care for you. There's only one way to show him--that is, if we do care. In one month he would be sending for us back. Then we could come, and you would take your right place here, and be somebody. You would not eat in the kitchen, then. Haven't you been like a son to him? And why shouldn't he own it?"
"But if he won't? Suppose he don't send for us to come back?"
"Then you could strike out for yourself. What was Tom Madden, before he went away to Colorado, or somewhere--where was it? And now everybody stops to shake hands with him;--he's as much of a man as anybody. If you could make a little money. That's the proof he wants. If you were rich, you'd be all right with him. You know that!"
"I'd hate to think it. But I'll never be rich. Put that out of your mind, Emmy. It don't run in the blood. I don't come of a money-making breed."
"What a silly thing to say! Of course, if you don't believe you can, you can't. Who has made the money here for the last ten years?"
"It was his capital done it. It ain't hard to make money after you've scraped the first few thousands together. But it's the first thousand that costs."
"How much have you got ahead?"
Adam answered awkwardly, "Eleven hundred and sixty odd." He did not like to talk of money to the girl who was the prayer, the inspiration, of his life. It hurt him to be questioned by her in this sordid way.
"You earned it all, didn't you?"
"I've took no risks. Here was my home. He give me the chance and he showed me how. And--he's your father. I don't like to talk about his money, nor about my own, to you."
"Oh, you are good, good! Nobody knows! But it's all wasted if you haven't got any push--anything inside of yourself that makes people know what you are. I wish I could put into you some of my fury that I feel when things get in my way! You have held yourself in too long. You can't--can't love a girl, and be so careful--like a mother. Don't you understand?"
"Stop right there, Emmy! You needn't push no harder. I can let go whenever you say so. But--do you understand, little girl? Man and wife it will have to be."
Emmy did not shrink at the words. Her face grew set, her dark eyes full of mystery fixed themselves on the slow-moving ice-floe grinding along the shore.
"I know," she assented slowly.
"I can't give you no farm, nor horses and carriages, nor help in the kitchen. It's bucklin' right down with our bare hands--me outside and you in? And you only eighteen. See what little hands--If I could do it all!"
"Your promise is broken," she whispered. "I made you break it. You will have to tell him now, or--we must go."
"So be!" said Adam solemnly. "And God do so to me and more also, if I have to hurt my little girl,--Emmy--wife!"
He folded her in his great arms clumsily--the man she had said was like a mother. He was almost as ignorant as she, and more hopeful than he had dared to seem, as to their worldly chances. But the love he had for her told him it was not love that made her so bold. The first touch of such love as his would have made her fear him as he feared her. And the subtle pain of this instinctive knowledge, together with that broken promise, shackled the wings of his great joy. It was not as he had hoped to win the crown of life.
Paul, it may be supposed, had never liked to think of his mother's elopement. It had been the one hard point to get over in his conception of his father, but he could never have explained it by such a scene as this. It would have hampered him terribly in his tale had he dreamed of it. He passed over the unfortunate incident with a romancer's touch, and dwelt upon his grandfather's bitter resentment which he resented as the son of his mother's choice. The Van Eltens and Brodericks all fared hardly at the hands of their legatee.
It was not only in the person of a hireling who had abused his trust that Abraham had felt himself outraged. There were old neighborhood spites and feuds going back, dividing blood from blood--even brothers of the same blood. There was trouble between him and his brother Jacob, of New York, dating from the settlement of their father's, Broderick Van Elten's, estate; and no one knows what besides that was private and personal may have entered into it. It was years since they had met, but Jacob kept well abreast of his brother's misfortunes. A bachelor himself, with no children to lose or to quarrel with, it was not displeasing to him to hear of the breaks in his brother's household.
"What, what, what! The last one left him,--run off with one of his men! What a fool the man must be. Can't he look after his women folks better than that? Better have lost her with the others. Two boys, and Chrissy, and the girl--and now the last girl gone off with his hired man. Poor Chrissy! Guess she had about enough of it. Things have come out pretty much even, after all! There was more love and lickin's wasted on Abe. Father was proudest of him, but he couldn't break him. Hi! but I've crawled under the woodshed to hear him yell, and father would tan him with a raw-hide, but he couldn't break him; couldn't get a sound out of him. Big, and hard, and tough--Chrissy thought she knew a man; she thought she took the best one."
With slow, cold spite Jacob had tracked his brother's path in life through its failures. Jacob had no failures, and no life.