The Riverman by Stewart Edward White
Sunday afternoon, Orde, leaving Newmark to devices of his own, walked slowly up the main street, turned to the right down one of the shaded side residence streets that ended finally in a beautiful glistening sand-hill. Up this he toiled slowly, starting at every step avalanches and streams down the slope. Shortly he found himself on the summit, and paused for a breath of air from the lake.
He was just above the tops of the maples, which seen from this angle stretched away like a forest through which occasionally thrust roofs and spires. Some distance beyond a number of taller buildings and the red of bricks were visible. Beyond them still were other sand- hills, planted raggedly with wind-twisted and stunted trees. But between the brick buildings and these sand-hills flowed the river-- wide, deep, and still--bordered by the steamboat landings on the town side and by fishermen's huts and net-racks and small boats on the other. Orde seated himself on the smooth, clean sand and removed his hat. He saw these things, and in imagination the far upper stretches of the river, with the mills and yards and booms extending for miles; and still above them the marshes and the flats where the river widened below the Big Bend. That would be the location for the booms of the new company--a cheap property on which the partners had already secured a valuation. And below he dropped in imagination with the slackening current until between two greater sand-hills than the rest the river ran out through the channel made by two long piers to the lake--blue, restless, immeasurable. To right and left stretched the long Michigan coast, with its low yellow hills topped with the green of twisted pines, firs, and beeches, with always its beach of sand, deep and dry to the very edge of its tideless sea, strewn with sawlogs, bark, and the ancient remains of ships.
After he had cooled he arose and made his way back to a pleasant hardwood forest of maple and beech. Here the leaves were just bursting from their buds. Underfoot the early spring flowers--the hepaticas, the anemones, the trilium, the dog-tooth violets, the quaint, early, bright-green undergrowths--were just reaching their perfection. Migration was in full tide. Birds, little and big, flashed into view and out again, busy in the mystery of their northward pilgrimage, giving the appearance of secret and silent furtiveness, yet each uttering his characteristic call from time to time, as though for a signal to others of the host. The woods were swarming as city streets, yet to Orde these little creatures were as though invisible. He stood in the middle of a great multitude, he felt himself under the observation of many bright eyes, he heard the murmuring and twittering that proclaimed a throng, he sensed an onward movement that flowed slowly but steadily toward the pole; nevertheless, a flash of wings, a fluttering little body, the dip of a hasty short flight, represented the visible tokens. Across the pale silver sun of April their shadows flickered, and with them flickered the tracery of new leaves and the delicacy of the lace- like upper branches.
Orde walked slowly farther and farther into the forest, lost in an enjoyment which he could not have defined accurately, but which was so integral a portion of his nature that it had drawn him from the banks and wholesale groceries to the woods. After a while he sat down on a log and lit his pipe. Ahead the ground sloped upward. Dimly through the half-fronds of the early season he could make out the yellow of sands and the deep complementary blue of the sky above them. He knew the Lake to lie just beyond. With the thought he arose. A few moments later he stood on top the hill, gazing out over the blue waters.
Very blue they were, with a contrasting snowy white fringe of waves breaking gently as far up the coast as the eye could reach. The beach, on these tideless waters, was hard and smooth only in the narrow strip over which ran the wash of the low surf. All the rest of the expanse of sand back to the cliff-like hills lay dry and tumbled into hummocks and drifts, from which projected here a sawlog cast inland from a raft by some long-past storm, there a slab, again a ship's rib sticking gaunt and defiant from the shifting, restless medium that would smother it. And just beyond the edge of the hard sand, following the long curves of the wash, lay a dark, narrow line of bark fragments.
The air was very clear and crystalline. The light-houses on the ends of the twin piers, though some miles distant, seemed close at hand. White herring gulls, cruising against the blue, flashed white as the sails of a distant ship. A fresh breeze darkened the blue velvet surface of the water, tumbled the white foam hissing up the beach, blew forward over the dunes a fine hurrying mist of sand, and bore to Orde at last the refreshment of the wide spaces. A woman, walking slowly, bent her head against the force of this wind.
Orde watched her idly. She held to the better footing of the smooth sand, which made it necessary that she retreat often before the inrushing wash, sometimes rather hastily. Orde caught himself admiring the grace of her deft and sudden movements, and the sway of her willowy figure. Every few moments she turned and faced the lake, her head thrown back, the wind whipping her garments about her.
As she drew nearer, Orde tried in vain to catch sight of her face. She looked down, watching the waters advance and recede; she wore a brimmed hat bent around her head by means of some sort of veil tied over the top and beneath her chin. When she had arrived nearly opposite Orde she turned abruptly inland, and a moment later began laboriously to climb the steep sand.
The process seemed to amuse her. She turned her head sidewise to watch with interest the hurrying, tumbling little cascades that slid from her every step. From time to time she would raise her skirts daintily with the tips of her fingers, and lean far over in order to observe with interest how her feet sank to the ankles, and how the sand rushed from either side to fill in the depressions. The wind carried up to Orde low, joyous chuckles of delight, like those of a happy child.
As though directed by some unseen guide, her course veered more and more until it led directly to the spot where Orde stood. When she was within ten feet of him she at last raised her head so the young man could see something besides the top of her hat. Orde looked plump into her eyes.
"Hullo!" she said cheerfully and unsurprised, and sank down cross- legged at his feet.
Orde stood quite motionless, overcome by astonishment. Her face, its long oval framed in the bands of the gray veil and the down- turned brim of the hat, looked up smiling into his. The fresh air had deepened the colour beneath her skin and had blown loose stray locks of the fine shadow-filled hair. Her red lips, with the quaintly up-turned corners, smiled at him with a new frankness, and the black eyes--the eyes so black as to resemble spots--had lost their half-indolent reserve and brimmed over quite frankly with the joy of life. She scooped up a handful of the dry, clean sand from either side of her, raised it aloft, and let it trickle slowly between her fingers. The wind snatched at the sand and sprayed it away in a beautiful plume.
"Isn't this real fun?" she asked him.
"Why, Miss Bishop!" cried Orde, finding his voice. "What are you doing here?"
A faint shade of annoyance crossed her brow.
"Oh, I could ask the same of you; and then we'd talk about how surprised we are, world without end," said she. "The important thing is that here is sand to play in, and there is the Lake, and here are we, and the day is charmed, and it's good to be alive. Sit down and dig a hole! We've all the common days to explain things in."
Orde laughed and seated himself to face her. Without further talk, and quite gravely, they commenced to scoop out an excavation between them, piling the sand over themselves and on either side as was most convenient. As the hole grew deeper they had to lean over more and more. Their heads sometimes brushed ever so lightly, their hands perforce touched. Always the dry sand flowed from the edges partially to fill in the result their efforts. Faster and faster they scooped it out again. The excavation thus took on the shape of a funnel. Her cheeks glowed pink, her eyes shone like stars. Entirely was she absorbed in the task. At last a tiny commotion manifested itself in the bottom of the funnel. Impulsively she laid her hand on Orde's, to stop them. Fascinated, they watched. After incredible though lilliputian upheavals, at length appeared a tiny black insect, struggling against the rolling, overwhelming sands. With great care the girl scooped this newcomer out and set him on the level ground. She looked up happily at Orde, thrusting the loose hair from in front of her eyes.
"I was convinced we ought to dig a hole," said she gravely. "Now, let's go somewhere else."
She arose to her feet, shaking the sand free from her skirts.
"I think, through these woods," she decided. "Can we get back to town this way?"
Receiving Orde's assurance, she turned at once down the slope through the fringe of scrub spruces and junipers into the tall woods. Here the air fell still. She remarked on how warm it seemed, and began to untie from over her ears the narrow band of veil that held close her hat.
"Yes," replied Orde. "The lumber-jacks say that the woods are the poor man's overcoat."
She paused to savour this, her head on one side, her arms upraised to the knot.
"Oh, I like that!" said she, continuing her task. In a moment or so the veil hung free. She removed it and the hat, and swung them both from one finger, and threw back her head.
"Hear all the birds!" she said.
Softly she began to utter a cheeping noise between her lips and teeth, low and plaintive. At once the volume of bird-sounds about increased; the half-seen flashes became more frequent. A second later the twigs were alive with tiny warblers and creepers, flirting from branch to branch, with larger, more circumspect chewinks, catbirds, and finches hopping down from above, very silent, very grave. In the depths of the thickets the shyer hermit and olive thrushes and the oven birds revealed themselves ghost-like, or as sea-growths lift into a half visibility through translucent shadows the colour of themselves. All were very intent, very earnest, very interested, each after his own manner, in the comradeship of the featherhood he imagined to be uttering distressful cries. A few, like the chickadees, quivered their wings, opened their little mouths, fluttered down tiny but aggressive against the disaster. Others hopped here and there restlessly, uttering plaintive, low- toned cheeps. The shyest contented themselves by a discreet, silent, and distant sympathy. Three or four freebooting Jays, attracted not so much by the supposed calls for help as by curiosity, fluttered among the tops of the trees, uttering their harsh notes.
Finally, the girl ended her performance in a musical laugh.
"Run away, Brighteyes," she called. "It's all right; nobody's damaged."
She waved her hand. As though at a signal, the host she had evoked melted back into the shadows of the forest. Only the chickadee, impudent as ever, retreated scolding rather ostentatiously, and the jays, splendid in their ornate blue, screamed opinions at each other from the tops of trees.
"How would you like to be a bird?" she inquired.
"Hadn't thought," replied Orde.
"Don't you ever indulge in vain and idle speculations?" she inquired. "Never mind, don't answer. It's too much to expect of a man."
She set herself in idle motion down the slope, swinging the hat at the end of its veil, pausing to look or listen, humming a little melody between her closed lips, throwing her head back to breathe deep the warm air, revelling in the woods sounds and woods odours and woods life with entire self-abandonment. Orde followed her in silence. She seemed to be quite without responsibility in regard to him; and yet an occasional random remark thrown in his direction proved that he was not forgotten. Finally they emerged from the beach woods.
They faced an open rolling country. As far as the eye could reach were the old stumps of pine trees. Sometimes they stood in place, burned and scarred, but attesting mutely the abiding place of a spirit long since passed away. Sometimes they had been uprooted and dragged to mark the boundaries of fields, where they raised an abatis of twisted roots to the sky.
The girl stopped short as she came face to face with this open country. The inner uplift, that had lent to her aspect the wide- eyed, careless joy of a child, faded. In its place came a new and serious gravity. She turned on him troubled eyes.
"You do this," she accused him quite simply.
For answer he motioned to the left where below them lay a wide and cultivated countryside--farmhouses surrounded by elms; compact wood lots of hardwood; crops and orchards, all fair and pleasant across the bosom of a fertile nature.
"And this," said he. "That valley was once nothing but a pine forest--and so was all the southern part of the State, the peach belt and the farms. And for that matter Indiana, too, and all the other forest States right out to the prairies. Where would we be now, if we hadn't done that?" he pointed across at the stump-covered hills.
Mischief had driven out the gravity from the girl's eyes. She had lowered her head slightly sidewise as though to conceal their expression from him.
"I was beginning to be afraid you'd say 'yes-indeed,'" said she.
Orde looked bewildered, then remembered the Incubus, and laughed.
"I haven't been very conversational," he acknowledged.
"Certainly not!" she said severely. "That would have been very disappointing. There has been nothing to say." She turned and waved her hat at the beech woods falling sombre against the lowering sun.
"Good-bye," she said gravely, "and pleasant dreams to you. I hope those very saucy little birds won't keep you awake." She looked up at Orde. "He was rather nice to us this afternoon," she explained, "and it's always well to be polite to them anyway." She gazed steadily at Orde for signs of amusement. He resolutely held his face sympathetic.
"Now I think we'll go home," said she.
They made their way between the stumps to the edge of the sand-hill overlooking the village. With one accord they stopped. The low- slanting sun cast across the vista a sleepy light of evening.
"How would you like to live in a place like that all your life?" asked Orde.
"I don't know." She weighed her words carefully. "It would depend. The place isn't of so much importance, it seems to me. It's the life one is called to. It's whether one finds her soul's realm or not that a place is liveable or not. I can imagine entering my kingdom at a railway water-tank," she said quaintly, "or missing it entirely in a big city."
Orde looked out over the raw little village with a new interest.
"Of course I can see how a man's work can lie in a small place," said he; "but a woman is different."
"Why is a woman different?" she challenged. "What is her 'work,' as you call it; and why shouldn't it, as well as a man's, lie in a small place? What is work--outside of drudgery--unless it is correspondence of one's abilities to one's task?"
"But the compensations--" began Orde vaguely.
"Compensations?" she cried. "What do you mean? Here are the woods and fields, the river, the lake, the birds, and the breezes. We'll check them off against the theatre and balls. Books can be had here as well as anywhere. As to people: in a large city you meet a great many, and they're all busy, and unless you make an especial and particular effort--which you're not likely to--you'll see them only casually and once in a great while. In a small place you know fewer people; but you know them intimately." She broke off with a half- laugh. "I'm from New York," she stated humorously, "and you've magicked me into an eloquent defense of Podunk!" She laughed up at Orde quite frankly. "Giant Strides!" she challenged suddenly. She turned off the edge of the sand-hill, and began to plunge down its slope, leaning far back, her arms extended, increasing as much as possible the length of each step. Orde followed at full speed. When the bottom was reached, he steadied her to a halt. She shook herself, straightened her hat, and wound the veil around it. Her whole aspect seemed to have changed with the descent into the conventionality of the village street. The old, gentle though capable and self-contained reserve had returned. She moved beside Orde with dignity.
"I came down with Jane and Mrs. Hubbard to see Mr. Hubbard off on the boat for Milwaukee last night," she told him. "Of course we had to wait over Sunday. Mrs. Hubbard and Jane had to see some relative or other; but I preferred to take a walk."
"Where are you staying?" asked Orde.
"At the Bennetts'. Do you know where it is?"
"Yes," replied Orde.
They said little more until the Bennetts' gate was reached. Orde declined to come in.
"Good-night," she said. "I want to thank you. You did not once act as though you thought I was silly or crazy. And you didn't try, as all the rest of them would, to act silly too. You couldn't have done it; and you didn't try. Oh, you may have felt it--I know!" She smiled one of her quaint and quizzical smiles. "But men aren't built for foolishness. They have to leave that to us. You've been very nice this afternoon; and it's helped a lot. I'm good for quite a long stretch now. Good-night."
She nodded to him and left him tongue-tied by the gate.
Orde, however, walked back to the hotel in a black rage with himself over what he termed his imbecility. As he remembered it, he had made just one consecutive speech that afternoon.
"Joe," said he to Newmark, at the hotel office, "what's the plural form of Incubus? I dimly remember it isn't 'busses.'"
"Incubi," answered Newmark.
"Thanks," said Orde gloomily.