A Lady of Yesterday by Elia W. Peattie
"A LIGHT wind blew from the gates of the sun," the morning she first walked down the street of the little Iowa town. Not a cloud flecked the blue; there was a humming of happy insects; a smell of rich and moist loam perfumed the air, and in the dusk of beeches and of oaks stood the quiet homes. She paused now and then, looking in the gardens, or at a group of children, then passed on, smiling in content.
Her accent was so strange, that the agent for real estate, whom she visited, asked her, twice and once again, what it was she said.
"I want," she had repeated smilingly, "an upland meadow, where clover will grow, and mignonette."
At the tea-tables that night, there was a mighty chattering. The brisk village made a mystery of this lady with the slow step, the foreign trick of speech, the long black gown, and the gentle voice. The men, concealing their curiosity in presence of the women, gratified it secretly, by sauntering to the tavern in the evening. There the keeper and his wife stood ready to convey any neighborly intelligence.
"Elizabeth Astrado" was written in the register, -- a name conveying little, unaccompanied by title or by place of residence.
"She eats alone," the tavern-keeper's wife confided to their eager ears, "and asks for no service. Oh, she's a curiosity! She's got her story, -- you'll see!"
In a town where every man knew every other man, and whether or not he paid his taxes on time, and what his standing was in church, and all the skeletons of his home, a stranger alien to their ways disturbed their peace of mind.
"An upland meadow where clover and mignonette will grow," she had said, and such an one she found, and planted thick with fine white clover and with mignonette. Then, while the carpenters raised her cabin at the border of the meadow, near the street, she passed among the villagers, mingling with them gently, winning their good-will, in spite of themselves.
The cabin was of unbarked maple logs, with four rooms and a rustic portico. Then all the villagers stared in very truth. They, living in their trim and ugly little homes, accounted houses of logs as the misfortune of their pioneer parents. A shed for wood, a barn for the Jersey cow, a rustic fence, tall, with a high swinging gate, completed the domain. In the front room of the cabin was a fireplace of rude brick. In the bedrooms, cots as bare and hard as a nun's, and in the kitchen the domestic necessaries; that was all. The poorest house-holder in the town would not have confessed to such scant furnishing. Yet the richest man might well have hesitated before he sent to France for hives and hives of bees, as she did, setting them up along the southern border of her meadow.
Later there came strong boxes, marked with many marks of foreign transportation lines, and the neighbor-gossips, seeing them, imagined wealth of curious furniture; but the man who carted them told his wife, who told her friend, who told her friend, that every box to the last one was placed in the dry cemented cellar, and left there in the dark.
"An' a mighty ridic'lous expense a cellar like that is, t' put under a house of that char'cter," said the man to his wife -- who repeated it to her friend.
"But that ain't all," the carpenter's wife had said when she heard about it all, "Hank says there is one little room, not fit for buttery nor yet fur closit, with a window high up -- well, you ken see yourself -- an' a strong door. Jus' in passin' th' other day, when he was there, hangin' some shelves, he tried it, an' it was locked!"
"Well!" said the women who listened.
However, they were not unfriendly, these brisk gossips. Two of them, plucking up tardy courage, did call one afternoon. Their hostess was out among her bees, crooning to them, as it seemed, while they lighted all about her, lit on the flower in her dark hair, buzzed vivaciously about her snow-white linen gown, lighted on her long, dark hands. She came in brightly when she saw her guests, and placed chairs for them, courteously, steeped them a cup of pale and fragrant tea, and served them with little cakes. Though her manner was so quiet and so kind, the women were shy before her. She, turning to one and then the other, asked questions in her quaint way.
"You have children, have you not?"
Both of them had.
"Ah," she cried, clasping those slender hands, "but you are very fortunate! Your little ones, -- what are their ages?"
They told her, she listening smilingly.
"And you nurse your little babes -- you nurse them at the breast?"
The modest women blushed. They were not used to speaking with such freedom. But they confessed they did, not liking artificial means.
"No," said the lady, looking at them with a soft light in her eyes, "as you say, there is nothing like the good mother Nature. The little ones God sends should lie at the breast. 'Tis not the milk alone that they imbibe; it is the breath of life, -- it is the human magnetism, the power, -- how shall I say? Happy the mother who has a little babe to hold!"
They wanted to ask a question, but they dared not -- wanted to ask a hundred questions. But back of the gentleness was a hauteur, and they were still.
"Tell me," she said, breaking her reverie, "of what your husbands do. Are they carpenters? Do they build houses for men, like the blessed Jesus? Or are they tillers of the soil? Do they bring fruits out of this bountiful valley?"
They answered, with a reservation of approval. "The blessed Jesus!" It sounded like popery.
She had gone from these brief personal matters to other things.
"How very strong you people seem," she had remarked. "Both your men and your women are large and strong. You should be, being appointed to subdue a continent. Men think they choose their destinies, but indeed, good neighbors, I think not so. Men are driven by the winds of God's will. They are as much bidden to build up this valley, this storehouse for the nations, as coral insects are bidden to make the reefs with their own little bodies, dying as they build. Is it not so?"
"We are the creatures of God's will, I suppose," said one of her visitors, piously.
She had given them little confidences in return.
"I make my bread," she said, with childish pride, "pray see if you do not think it excellent!" And she cut a flaky loaf to display its whiteness. One guest summoned the bravado to inquire, --
"Then you are not used to doing housework?"
"I?" she said, with a slow smile, "I have never got used to anything, -- not even living." And so she baffled them all, yet won them.
The weeks went by. Elizabeth Astrado attended to her bees, milked her cow, fed her fowls, baked, washed, and cleaned, like the simple women about her, saving that as she did it a look of ineffable content lighted up her face, and she sang for happiness. Sometimes, amid the ballads that she hummed, a strain slipped in of some great melody, which she, singing unaware, as it were, corrected, shaking her finger in self- reproval, and returning again to the ballads and the hymns. Nor was she remiss in neighborly offices; but if any were ailing, or had a festivity, she was at hand to assist, condole, or congratulate, carrying always some simple gift in her hand, appropriate to the occasion.
She had her wider charities too, for all she kept close to her home. When, one day, a story came to her of a laborer struck down with heat in putting in a culvert on the railroad, and gossip said he could not speak English, she hastened to him, caught dying words from his lips, whispered a reply, and then what seemed to be a prayer, while he held fast her hand, and sank to coma with wistful eyes upon her face. Moreover 'twas she who buried him, raising a cross above his grave, and she who planted rose-bushes about the mound.
"He spoke like an Italian," said the physician to her warily.
"And so he was," she had replied.
"A fellow-countryman of yours, no doubt?"
"Are not all men our countrymen, my friend?" she said, gently. "What are little lines drawn in the imagination of men, dividing territory, that they should divide our sympathies? The world is my country -- and yours, I hope. Is it not so?"
Then there had also been a hapless pair of lovers, shamed before their community, who, desperate, impoverished, and bewildered at the war between nature and society, had been helped by her into a new part of the world. There had been a widow with many children, who had found baskets of cooked food and bundles of well-made clothing on her step. And as the days passed, with these pleasant offices, the face of the strange woman glowed with an ever-increasing content, and her dark, delicate beauty grew.
John Hartington spent his vacation at Des Moines, having a laudable desire to see something of the world before returning to his native town, with his college honors fresh upon him. Swiftest of the college runners was John Hartington, famed for his leaping too, and measuring widest at the chest and waist of all the hearty fellows at the university. His blond curls clustered above a brow almost as innocent as a child's; his frank and brave blue eyes, his free step, his mellow laugh, bespoke the perfect animal, unharmed by civilization, unperplexed by the closing century's fallacies and passions. The wholesome oak that spreads its roots deep in the generous soil, could not be more a part of nature than he. Conscientious, unimaginative, direct, sincere, industrious, he was the ideal man of his kind, and his return to town caused a flutter among the maidens which they did not even attempt to conceal. They told him all the chat, of course, and, among other things, mentioned the great sensation of the year, -- the coming of the woman with her mystery, the purchase of the sunny upland, the planting it with clover and with mignonette, the building of the house of logs, the keeping of the bees, the barren rooms, the busy, silent life, the charities, the never-ending wonder of it all. And then the woman -- kind, yet different from the rest, with the foreign trick of tongue, the slow, proud walk, the delicate, slight hands, the beautiful, beautiful smile, the air as of a creature from another world.
Hartington, strolling beyond the village streets, up where the sunset died in daffodil above the upland, saw the little cot of logs, and out before it, among blood-red poppies, the woman of whom he had heard. Her gown of white gleamed in that eerie radiance, glorified, her sad great eyes bent on him in magnetic scrutiny. A peace and plenitude of power came radiating from her, and reached him where he stood, suddenly, and for the first time in his careless life, struck dumb and awed. She, too, seemed suddenly abashed at this great bulk of youthful manhood, innocent and strong. She gazed on him, and he on her, both chained with some mysterious enchantment. Yet neither spoke, and he, turning in bewilderment at last, went back to town, while she placed one hand on her lips to keep from calling him. And neither slept that night, and in the morning when she went with milking pail and stool out to the grassy field, there he stood at the bars, waiting. Again they gazed, like creatures held in thrall by some magician, till she held out her hand and said, --
"We must be friends, although we have not met. Perhaps we ARE old friends. They say there have been worlds before this one. I have not seen you in these habiliments of flesh and blood, and yet -- we may be friends?"
John Hartington, used to the thin jests of the village girls, and all their simple talk, rose, nevertheless, enlightened as he was with some strange sympathy with her, to understand and answer what she said.
"I think perhaps it may be so. May I come in beside you in the field? Give me the pail. I'll milk the cow for you."
She threw her head back and laughed like a girl from school, and he laughed too, and they shook hands. Then she sat near him while he milked, both keeping silence, save for the p-rring noise he made with his lips to the patient beast. Being through, she served him with a cupful of the fragrant milk; but he bade her drink first, then drank himself, and then they laughed again, as if they both had found something new and good in life.
Then she, --
"Come see how well my bees are doing." And they went. She served him with the lucent syrup of the bees, perfumed with the mignonette, -- such honey as there never was before. He sat on the broad doorstep, near the scarlet poppies, she on the grass, and then they talked -- was it one golden hour -- or two? Ah, well, 'twas long enough for her to learn all of his simple life, long enough for her to know that he was victor at the races at the school, that he could play the pipe, like any shepherd of the ancient days, and when he went he asked her if he might return.
"Well," laughed she, "sometimes I am lonely. Come see me -- in a week."
Yet he was there that day at twilight, and he brought his silver pipe, and piped to her under the stars, and she sung ballads to him, -- songs of Strephon and times when the hills were young, and flocks were fairer than they ever be these days.
"To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," and still the intercourse, still her dark loveliness waxing, still the weaving of the mystic spell, still happiness as primitive and as sweet as ever Eden knew.
Then came a twilight when the sweet rain fell, and on the heavy air the perfumes of the fields floated. The woman stood by the window of the cot, looking out. Tall, graceful, full of that subtle power which drew his soul; clothed in white linen, fragrant from her fields, with breath freighted with fresh milk, with eyes of flame, she was there to be adored. And he, being man of manliest type, forgot all that might have checked the words, and poured his soul out at her feet. She drew herself up like a queen, but only that she might look queenlier for his sake, and, bending, kissed his brow, and whispered back his vows.
And they were married.
The villagers pitied Hartington.
"She's more than a match for him in years -- an' in some other ways, as like as not," they said. "Besides, she ain't much inclined to mention anything about her past. 'Twon't bear the tellin' probably."
As for the lovers, they laughed as they went about their honest tasks, or sat together arms encircling each at evening, now under the stars, and now before their fire of wood. They talked together of their farm, added a field for winter wheat, bought other cattle, and some horses, which they rode out over the rolling prairies side by side. He never stopped to chat about the town; she never ventured on the street without him by her side. Truth to tell, their neighbors envied them, marvelling how one could extract a heaven out of earth, and what such perfect joy could mean.
Yet, for all their prosperity, not one addition did they make to that most simple home. It stood there, with its bare necessities, made beautiful only with their love. But when the winter was most gone, he made a little cradle of hard wood, in which she placed pillows of down, and over which she hung linen curtains embroidered by her hand.
In the long evenings, by the flicker of the fire, they sat together, cheek to cheek, and looked at this little bed, singing low songs together.
"This happiness is terrible, my John," she said to him one night, -- a wondrous night, when the eastern wind had flung the tassels out on all the budding trees of spring, and the air was throbbing with awakening life, and balmy puffs of breeze, and odors of the earth. "And we are growing young. Do you not think that we are very young and strong?"
He kissed her on the lips. "I know that you are beautiful," he said.
"Oh, we have lived at Nature's heart, you see, my love. The cattle and the fowls, the honey and the wheat, the cot -- the cradle, John, and you and me! These things make happiness. They are nature. But then, you cannot understand. You have never known the artificial --"
"And you, Elizabeth?"
"John, if you wish, you shall hear all I have to tell. 'Tis a long, long, weary tale. Will you hear it now? Believe me, it will make us sad."
She grasped his arm till he shrank with pain.
"Tell what you will and when you will, Elizabeth. Perhaps, some day -- when --" he pointed to the little crib.
"As you say." And so it dropped.
There came a day when Hartington, sitting upon the portico, where perfumes of the budding clover came to him, hated the humming of the happy bees, hated the rustling of the trees, hated the sight of earth.
"The child is dead," the nurse had said, "as for your wife, perhaps --" but that was all. Finally he heard the nurse's step upon the floor.
"Come, "she said, motioning him. And he had gone, laid cheek against that dying cheek, whispered his love once more, saw it returned even then, in those deep eyes, and laid her back upon her pillow, dead.
He buried her among the mignonette, levelled the earth, sowed thick the seed again.
"'Tis as she wished," he said.
With his strong hands he wrenched the little crib, laid it piece by piece upon their hearth, and scattered then the sacred ashes on the wind. Then, with hard-coming breath, broke open the locked door of that room which he had never entered, thinking to find there, perhaps, some sign of that unguessable life of hers, but found there only an altar, with votive lamps before the Blessed Virgin, and lilies faded and fallen from their stems.
Then down into the cellar went he, to those boxes, with the foreign marks. And then, indeed, he found a hint of that dead life. Gowns of velvet and of silk, such as princesses might wear, wonders of lace, yellowed with time, great cloaks of snowy fur, lustrous robes, jewels of worth, -- a vast array of brilliant trumpery. Then there were books in many tongues, with rich old bindings and illuminated page, and in them written the dead woman's name, -- a name of many parts, with titles of impress, and in the midst of all the name, "Elizabeth Astrado," as she said.
And that was all, or if there were more he might have learned, following trails that fell within his way, he never learned it, being content, and thankful that he had held her for a time within his arms, and looked in her great soul, which, wearying of life's sad complexities, had simplified itself, and made his love its best adornment.