The Desert and The Sown by Mary Hallock Foote
Proud little Emmy, heiress no longer, had put her spirit into her farm-hand and incited him to the first rebellion of his life. They crossed the river at night, poling through floating ice, and climbed aboard one of those great through trains whose rushing thunder had made the girlish heart so often beat. This was long before the West Shore Line was built. Neither of them had ever seen the inside of a Pullman sleeper. Emmy could count the purchased meals she had eaten in her life; she had never slept in a hotel or hired lodging till after her marriage. Hardly any one could be so provincial in these days.
Adam Bogardus was a plodder in the West as he had been in the East. He was an honest man, and he was wise enough not to try to be a shrewd one. He tried none of the short-cuts to a fortune. Hard work suited him best, and no work was too hard for his iron strength and patient resolution. But it broke the spirit of a man in him to see his young wife's despair. Poverty frightened and quelled her. The deep-rooted security of her old home was something she missed every day of her makeshift existence. It was degradation to live in "rooms," or a room; to move for want of means to pay the rent. She pined for the good food she had been used to. Her health suffered through anxiety and hard work. She was too proud to complain, but the sight of her dumb unacceptance of what had come to her through him undoubtedly added the last straw to her husband's mental strain.
* * * * *
"It is hard for me to realize it as I once did," said Paul, as the story paused. "You make tragedy a dream. But there is a deep vein of tragedy in our blood. And my theory is that it always crops out in families where it's the keynote, as it were."
"Never mind, you old care-taker! We Middletons carry sail enough to need a ton or two of lead in our keel."
"But, you understand?"--
"I understand the distinction between what I call your good blood, and the sort of blood I thought you had. It explains a certain funny way you have with arms--weapons. Do you mind?"
"Not at all," said Paul coldly. "I hate a weapon. I am always ashamed of myself when I get one in my hand."
"You act that way, dear!"
"God made tools and the Devil made weapons."
"You are civil to my father's profession."
"Your father is what he is aside from his profession."
"You are quite mistaken, Paul. My father and his profession are one. His sword is a symbol of healing. The army is the great surgeon of the nation when the time comes for a capital operation."
"It grows harder to tell my story," said Paul gloomily;--"the short and simple annals of the poor."
"Now come! Have I been a snob about my father's profession?"
"No; but you love it, naturally. You have grown up with its pomp and circumstance around you. You are the history makers when history is most exciting."
"Go on with your story, you proud little Dutchman! When I despise you for your farming relatives, you can taunt me with my history making."
Paul was about two years old when his parents broke up in the Wood River country and came south by wagon on the old stage-road to Felton. Whenever he saw a "string-bean freighter's" outfit moving into Bisuka, if there was a woman on the driver's seat, he wanted to take off his hat to her. For so his mother sat beside his father and held him in her arms two hundred miles across the Snake River desert. The stages have been laid off since the Oregon Short Line went through, but there were stations then all along the road.
One night they made camp at a lonely place between Soul's Rest and Mountain Home. Oneman Station it was called; afterwards Deadman Station, when the keeper's body was found one morning stiff and cold in his bunk. He died in the night alone. Emily Bogardus had cause to hate the man when he was living, and his dreary end was long a shuddering remembrance to her, like the answer to an unforgiving prayer.
The station was in a hollow with bare hills around, rising to the highest point of that rolling plain country. The mountains sink below the plain, only their white tops showing. It was October. All the wild grass had been eaten close for miles on both sides of the road, but over a gap in the Western divide was the Bruneau Valley, where the bell-mare of the team had been raised. In the night she broke her hopples and struck out across the summit with the four mules at her heels. Towards morning a light snow fell and covered their tracks. Adam was compelled to hunt his stock on foot; the keeper refusing him a horse, saying he had got himself into trouble before through being friendly with the company's horses. He started out across the hills, expecting that the same night would see him back, and his wife was left in the wagon camp alone.
* * * * *
"I know this story very well," said Paul, "and yet I never heard it but once, when mother decided I was old enough to know all. But every word was bitten into me--especially this ugly part I am coming to. I wish it need not be told, yet all the rest depends on it; and that such an experience could come to a woman like my mother shows what exposure and humiliation lie in the straightest path if there is no money to smooth the way. You hear it said that in the West the toughest men will be chivalrous to a woman if she is the right sort of a woman. I'm afraid that is a romantic theory of the Western man.
"That night, before his team stampeded, as he sat by the keeper's fire, father had made up his mind that the less they had to do with that man the better. He may have warned mother; and she, left alone with the brute, did not know the wisdom of hiding her fear and loathing of him. He may have meant no more than a low kind of teasing, but her suffering was the same.
"Father did not come. She dared not leave the camp. She knew no place to go to, and in his haste, believing he would soon be with her again, he had taken all their little stock of funds. But he had left her his gun, and with this within reach of her hand in the shelter of the wagon hood, without fire and without cooked food, she kept a sleepless watch.
"The stages came and went; help was within sound of her voice, but she dared make no sign. The passengers were few at that season, always men, on the best of terms with the keeper. He had threatened--well, no matter--such a threat as a more sophisticated woman would have smiled at. She was simple, but she was not weak. It was a moral battle between them. There were hours when she held him by the power of her eye alone; she conquered, but it nearly killed her.
"One morning a man jumped down from the stage whose face she knew. He had recognized my father's outfit and he came to speak to her, amazed to find her in that place alone. There was no need to put her worst fear into words; he knew the keeper. He made the best he could of father's detention, but he assured her, as she knew too well, that she could not wait for him there. He was on his way East, and he took us with him as far as Mountain Home. To this day she believes that if Bud Granger had led the search, my father would have been found; but he went East to sell his cattle, the snows set in, and the search party came straggling home. The man, Granger, had left a letter of explanation, inclosing one from mother to father, with the keeper. He bribed and frightened him, but for years she used to agonize over a fear that father had come back and the keeper had withheld the letter and belied her to him with some devilish story that maddened him and drove him from her. Such a fancy might have come out of her mental state at that time. I believe that Granger left the letter simply to satisfy her. He must have believed my father was dead. He could not have conceived of a man's being lost in that broad country at that season; but my father was a man of hills and farms, all small, compact. The plains were another planet to him.
"The letter was found in the keeper's clothing after his death; no one ever came to claim it of his successor. Somewhere in this great wilderness a tired man found rest. What would we not give if we knew where!
"And she worked in a hotel in Mountain Home. Can you imagine it! Then Christine was born and the multiplied strain overcame her. Strangers took care of her children while she lay between life and death. She had been silent about herself and her past, but they found a letter from one of her old schoolmates asking about teachers' salaries in the West, and they wrote to her begging her to make known my mother's condition to her relatives if any were living. At length came a letter from grandfather--characteristic to the last. The old home was there, for her and for her children, but no home for the traitor, as he called father. She must give him up even to his name. No Bogardus could inherit of a Van Elten.
"She had not then lost all hope of father's return, and she never forgave her father for trying to buy her back for the price of what she considered her birthright. She settled down miserably to earn bread for her children. Then, when hope and pride were crushed in her, and faith had nothing left to cling to, there came a letter from Uncle Jacob, the bachelor, who had bided his time. Out of the division in his brother's house he proposed to build up his own; just as he would step in and buy depreciated bonds to hold them for a rise. He offered her a home and maintenance during his lifetime, and his estate for herself and her children when he was through. There were no conditions referring to our father, but it was understood that she should give up her own. This, mainly, to spite his brother, yet under all there was an old man's plea. She felt she could make the obligation good, though there might not be much love on either side. Perhaps it came later; but I remember enough of that time to believe that her children's future was dearly paid for. Grandfather died alone, in the old rat-ridden house up the Hudson. He left no will, to every one's surprise. It might have been his negative way of owning his debt to nature at the last.
"That is how we came to be rich; and no one detects in us now the crime of those early struggles. But my father was a hired man; and my mother has done every menial thing with those soft hands of hers." A softer one was folded in his own. Its answering clasp was loyal and strong.
"Is this the story you had not the courage to tell me?"
"This is the story I had the courage to tell you--not any too soon, perhaps you think?"
"And do you think it needed courage?"
"The question is what you think. What are we to do with Uncle Jacob's money? Go off by ourselves and have a good time with it?"
"We will not decide to-night," said Moya, tenderly subdued. But, though the story had interested and touched her, as accounting for her lover's saddened, conscience-ridden youth, it was no argument against teaching him what youth meant in her philosophy. The differences were explained, but not abolished.
"It was spite money, remember, not love money," he continued, reverting to his story. "It purchased my mother's compliance to one who hated her father, who forced her to listen, year after year, to bitter, unnatural words against him. I am not sure but it kept her from him at the last; for if Uncle Jacob had not stepped in and made her his, I can't help thinking she would have found somehow a way to the soft place in his heart. Something good ought to be done with that money to redeem its history."
"You must not be morbid, Paul."
"That sounds like mother," said Paul, smiling. "She is always jealous for our happiness; because she lost her own, I think, and paid so heavily for ours. She prizes pleasure and success, even worldly success, for us."
"I don't blame her!" cried Moya.
"No; of course not. But you mustn't both be against me, and Chrissy, too. She is so, unconsciously; she does not know the pull there is on me, through knowing things she doesn't dream of, and that I can never forget."
"No," said Moya. "I am sure she is perfectly unconscious. We exchanged biographies at school, and there was nothing at all like this in hers. Why was she never told?"
"She has always been too strained, too excitable. Every least incident is an emotion with her. When she laughs, her laugh is like a cry. Haven't you noticed that? Startle her, and her eyes are the very eyes of fear. Mother was wise, I think, not to pour those old sorrows into her little fragile cup."
"So she emptied them all into yours!"
"That was my right, of the elder and stronger. I wouldn't have missed the knowledge of our beginnings for the world. What a prosperous fool and ass I might have made of myself!"
"Morbid again," said Moya. "You belong to your own day and generation. You might as well wear country shoes and clothes because your father wore them."
"Still, if we have such a thing in this country as class, then you and I do not belong to the same class except by virtue of Uncle Jacob's money. Confess you are glad I am a Bevier and a Broderick and a Van Elten, as well as a Bogardus."
"I shall confess nothing of the kind. Now you do talk like a nouveau Paul, dear," said Moya, with her caressing eyes on his--they had paused under the lamp at the top of the steps--"I think your father must have been a very good man."
"All our fathers were," Paul averred, smiling at her earnestness.
"Yes, but yours in particular; because you are an angel; and your mother is quite human, is she not?--almost as human as I am? That carriage of the head,--if that does not mean the world!"--
"She has needed all her pride."
"I don't object to pride, myself," said the girl, "but you dwell so upon her humiliations. I see no such record in her face."
"She has had much to hide, you must remember."
"Well, she can hide things; but one's self must escape sometimes. What has become of little Emily Van Elten who ran away with her father's hired man? What has become of the freighter's wife?"
"She is all mother now. She brought us back to the world, and for our sakes she has learned to take her place in it. Herself she has buried."
"Yes; but which is--was herself?"
"And you cannot see her story in her face?"
"Not that story."
"Not the crushing reserve, the long suspense, the silence of a sorrow that even her children could not share?"
"I know her silence. Your mother is a most reticent woman. But is she now the woman of that story?"
"I don't understand you quite," said Paul. "How much are we ourselves after we have passed through fires of grief, and been recast under the pressure of circumstances! She was that woman once."
"The saddest part of the story to me is, that your father, who loved her so, and worked so hard for his family, should have served you all the better by his death."
"Oh, don't say that, dear! Who knows what is best? But one thing we do know. The sorrow that cut my mother's life in two brought you and me together. It rent the stratum on which I was born and raised it to the level of yours, my lady!"
"I shall not forget," whispered Moya with blissful irony, "that you are the Poor Man's son!"