Adventures in Friendship/Chapter V
THE STORY OF ANNA
It is the prime secret of the Open Road (but I may here tell it aloud) that you are to pass nothing, reject nothing, despise nothing upon this earth. As you travel, many things both great and small will come to your attention; you are to regard all with open eyes and a heart of simplicity. Believe that everything belongs somewhere; each thing has its fitting and luminous place within this mosaic of human life. The True Road is not open to those who withdraw the skirts of intolerance or lift the chin of pride. Rejecting the least of those who are called common or unclean, it is (curiously) you yourself that you reject. If you despise that which is ugly you do not know that which is beautiful. For what is beauty but completeness? The roadside beggar belongs here, too; and the idiot boy who wanders idly in the open fields; and the girl who withholds (secretly) the name of the father of her child.
I remember as distinctly as though it happened yesterday the particular evening three years ago when I saw the Scotch Preacher come hurrying up the road toward my house. It was June. I had come out after supper to sit on my porch and look out upon the quiet fields. I remember the grateful cool of the evening air, and the scents rising all about me from garden and roadway and orchard. I was tired after the work of the day and sat with a sort of complete comfort and contentment which comes only to those who work long in the quiet of outdoor places. I remember the thought came to me, as it has come in various forms so many times, that in such a big and beautiful world there should be no room for the fever of unhappiness or discontent.
And then I saw McAlway coming up the road. I knew instantly that something was wrong. His step, usually so deliberate, was rapid; there was agitation in every line of his countenance. I walked down through the garden to the gate and met him there. Being somewhat out of breath he did not speak at once. So I said:
"It is not, after all, as bad as you anticipate."
"David," he said, and I think I never heard him speak more seriously, "it is bad enough."
He laid his hand on my arm.
"Can you hitch up your horse and come with me—right away?"
McAlway helped with the buckles and said not a word. In ten minutes, certainly not more, we were driving together down the lane.
"Do you know a family named Williams living on the north road beyond the three corners?" asked the Scotch Preacher.
Instantly a vision of a somewhat dilapidated house, standing not unpicturesquely among ill-kept fields, leaped to my mind.
"Yes," I said; "but I can't remember any of the family except a gingham girl with yellow hair. I used to see her on her way to school,"
"A girl!" he said, with a curious note in his voice; "but a woman now."
He paused a moment; then he continued sadly:
"As I grow older it seems a shorter and shorter step between child and child. David, she has a child of her own,"
"But I didn't know—she isn't—"
"A woods child," said the Scotch Preacher.
I could not find a word to say. I remember the hush of the evening there in the country road, the soft light fading in the fields. I heard a whippoorwill calling from the distant woods.
"They made it hard for her," said the Scotch Preacher, "especially her older brother. About four o'clock this afternoon she ran away, taking her baby with her. They found a note saying they would never again see her alive. Her mother says she went toward the river."
I touched up the mare. For a few minutes the Scotch Preacher sat silent, thinking. Then he said, with a peculiar tone of kindness in his voice.
"She was a child, just a child. When I talked with her yesterday she was perfectly docile and apparently contented. I cannot imagine her driven to such a deed of desperation. I asked her: 'Why did you do it, Anna?' She answered, 'I don't know: I—I don't know!' Her reply was not defiant or remorseful: it was merely explanatory."
He remained silent again for a long time.
"David," he said finally, "I sometimes think we don't know half as much about human nature as we—we preach. If we did, I think we'd be more careful in our judgments."
He said it slowly, tentatively: I knew it came straight from his heart. It was this spirit, more than the title he bore, far more than the sermons he preached, that made him in reality the minister of our community. He went about thinking that, after all, he didn't know much, and that therefore he must be kind.
As I drove up to the bridge, the Scotch Preacher put one hand on the reins. I stopped the horse on the embankment and we both stepped out.
"She would undoubtedly have come down this road to the river," McAlway said in a low voice.
It was growing dark. When I walked out on the bridge my legs were strangely unsteady; a weight seemed pressing on my breast so that my breath came hard. We looked down into the shallow, placid water: the calm of the evening was upon it; the middle of the stream was like a rumpled glassy ribbon, but the edges, deep-shaded by overhanging trees, were of a mysterious darkness. In all my life I think I never experienced such a degree of silence—of breathless, oppressive silence. It seemed as if, at any instant, it must burst into some fearful excess of sound.
Suddenly we heard a voice—in half-articulate exclamation. I turned, every nerve strained to the uttermost. A figure, seemingly materialized out of darkness and silence, was moving on the bridge.
"Oh!—McAlway," a voice said.
Then I heard the Scotch Preacher in low tones.
"Have you seen Anna Williams?"
"She is at the house," answered the voice.
"Get your horse," said the Scotch Preacher.
I ran back and led the mare across the bridge (how I remember, in that silence, the thunder of her hoofs on the loose boards!) Just at the top of the little hill leading up from the bridge the two men turned in at a gate. I followed quickly and the three of us entered the house together. I remember the musty, warm, shut-in odour of the front room. I heard the faint cry of a child. The room was dim, with a single kerosene lamp, but I saw three women huddled by the stove, in which a new fire was blazing. Two looked up as we entered, with feminine instinct moving aside to hide the form of the third.
"She's all right, as soon as she gets dry," one of them said.
The other woman turned to us half complainingly:
"She ain't said a single word since we got her in here, and she won't let go of the baby for a minute."
"She don't cry," said the other, "but just sits there like a statue."
McAlway stepped forward and said:
The girl looked up for the first time. The light shone full in her face: a look I shall never forget. Yes, it was the girl I had seen so often, and yet not the girl. It was the same childish face, but all marked upon with inexplicable wan lines of a certain mysterious womanhood. It was childish, but bearing upon it an inexpressible look of half-sad dignity, that stirred a man's heart to its profoundest depths. And there was in it, too, as I have thought since, a something I have seen in the faces of old, wise men: a light (how shall I explain it?) as of experience—of boundless experience. Her hair hung in wavy dishevelment about her head and shoulders, and she clung passionately to the child in her arms.
The Scotch Preacher had said, "Well—Anna?" She looked up and replied:
"They were going to take my baby away."
"Were they!" exclaimed McAlway in his hearty voice. "Well, we'll never permit that. Who's got a better right to the baby than you, I'd like to know?"
Without turning her head, the tears came to her eyes and rolled unheeded down her face.
"Yes, sir, Dr. McAlway," the man said, "I was coming across the bridge with the cows when I see her standing there in the water, her skirts all floating around her. She was hugging the baby up to her face and saying over and over, just like this: 'I don't dare! Oh, I don't dare! But I must. I must,' She was sort of singin' the words: 'I don't dare, I don't dare, but I must.' I jumped the railing and run down to the bank of the river. And I says, 'Come right out o' there'; and she turned and come out just as gentle as a child, and I brought her up here to the house."
It seemed perfectly natural at this time that I should take the girl and her child home to Harriet. She would not go back to her own home, though we tried to persuade her, and the Scotch Preacher's wife was visiting in the city, so she could not go there. But after I found myself driving homeward with the girl—while McAlway went over the hill to tell her family—the mood of action passed. It struck me suddenly, "What will Harriet say?" Upon which my heart sank curiously, and refused to resume its natural position.
In the past I had brought her tramps and peddlers and itinerant preachers, all of whom she had taken in with patience—but this, I knew, was different. For a few minutes I wished devoutly I were in Timbuctu or some other far place. And then the absurdity of the situation struck me all at once, and I couldn't help laughing aloud.
"It's a tremendous old world," I said to myself. "Why, anything may happen anywhere!"
The girl stirred, but did not speak. I was afraid I had frightened her.
"Are you cold?" I asked.
"No, sir," she answered faintly.
I could think of nothing whatever to say, so I said it:
"Are you fond of hot corn-meal mush?"
"Yes, sir," very faintly.
"With cream on it—rich yellow cream—and plenty of sugar?"
"Well, I'll bet a nickel that's what we're going to get!"
We drove up the lane and stopped at the yard gate. Harriet opened the door. I led the small dark figure into the warmth and light of the kitchen. She stood helplessly holding the baby tight in her arms—as forlorn and dishevelled a figure as one could well imagine.
"Harriet," I said, "this is Anna Williams."
Harriet gave me her most tremendous look. It seemed to me at that moment that it wasn't my sister Harriet at all that I was facing, but some stranger and much greater person than I had ever known. Every man has, upon occasion, beheld his wife, his sister, his mother even, become suddenly unknown, suddenly commanding, suddenly greater than himself or any other man. For a woman possesses the occult power of becoming instantly, miraculously, the Accumulated and Personified Customs, Morals and Institutions of the Ages. At this moment, then, I felt myself slowly but surely shrinking and shriveling up. It is a most uncomfortable sensation to find one's self face to face with Society-at-Large. Under such circumstances I always know what to do. I run. So I clapped my hat on my head, declared that the mare must be unharnessed immediately, and started for the door. Harriet followed. Once outside she closed the door behind her.
"David, David, DAVID," she said.
It occurred to me now for the first time (which shows how stupid I am) that Harriet had already heard the story of Anna Williams. And it had gained so much bulk and robustity in travelling, as such stories do in the country, that I have no doubt the poor child seemed a sort of devastating monster of iniquity. How the country scourges those who do not walk the beaten path! In the, careless city such a one may escape to unfamiliar streets and consort with unfamiliar people, and still find a way of life, but here in the country the eye of Society never sleeps!
For a moment I was appalled by what I had done. Then I thought of the Harriet I knew so well: the inexhaustible heart of her. With a sudden inspiration I opened the kitchen door and we both looked in. The girl stood motionless just where I left her: an infinitely pathetic figure.
"Harriet," I said, "that girl is hungry—and cold."
Well, it worked. Instantly Harriet ceased to be Society-at-Large and became the Harriet I know, the Harriet of infinite compassion for all weak creatures. When she had gone in I pulled my hat down and went straight for the barn. I guess I know when it's wise to be absent from places.
I unharnessed the mare, and watered and fed her; I climbed up into the loft and put down a rackful of hay; I let the cows out into the pasture and set up the bars. And then I stood by the gate and looked up into the clear June sky. No man, I think, can remain long silent under the stars, with the brooding, mysterious night around about him, without feeling, poignantly, how little he understands anything, how inconsequential his actions are, how feeble his judgments.
And I thought as I stood there how many a man, deep down in his heart, knows to a certainty that he has escaped being an outcast, not because of any real moral strength or resolution of his own, but because Society has bolstered him up, hedged him about with customs and restrictions until he never has had a really good opportunity to transgress. And some do not sin for very lack of courage and originality: they are helplessly good. How many men in their vanity take to themselves credit for the built-up virtues of men who are dead! There is no cause for surprise when we hear of a "foremost citizen," the "leader in all good works," suddenly gone wrong; not the least cause for surprise. For it was not he that was moral, but Society. Individually he had never been tested, and when the test came he fell. It will give us a large measure of true wisdom if we stop sometimes when we have resisted a temptation and ask ourselves why, at that moment, we did right and not wrong. Was it the deep virtue, the high ideals in our souls, or was it the compulsion of the Society around us? And I think most of us will be astonished to discover what fragile persons we really are—in ourselves.
I stopped for several minutes at the kitchen door before I dared to go in. Then I stamped vigorously on the boards, as if I had come rushing up to the house without a doubt in my mind—I even whistled—and opened the door jauntily. And had my pains for nothing!
The kitchen was empty, but full of comforting and homelike odours. There was undoubtedly hot mush in the kettle. A few minutes later Harriet came down the stairs. She held up one finger warningly. Her face was transfigured.
"David," she whispered, "the baby's asleep."
So I tiptoed across the room. She tiptoed after me. Then I faced about, and we both stood there on our tiptoes, holding our breath—at least I held mine.
"David," Harriet whispered, "did you see the baby.?"
"No," I whispered.
"I think it's the finest baby I ever saw in my life."
When I was a boy, and my great-aunt, who lived for many years in a little room with dormer windows at the top of my father's house, used to tell me stories (the best I ever heard), I was never content with the endings of them. "What happened next?" I remember asking a hundred times; and if I did not ask the question aloud it arose at least in my own mind.
If I were writing fiction I might go on almost indefinitely with the story of Anna; but in real life stories have a curious way of coming to quick fruition, and withering away after having cast the seeds of their immortality.
"Did you see the baby?" Harriet had asked. She said no word about Anna: a BABY had come into the world. Already the present was beginning to draw the charitable curtains of its forgetfulness across this simple drama; already Harriet and Anna and all the rest of us were beginning to look to the "finest baby we ever saw in all our lives."
I might, indeed, go into the character of Anna and the whys and wherefores of her story; but there is curiously little that is strange or unusual about it. It was just Life. A few days with us worked miraculous changes in the girl; like some stray kitten brought in crying from the cold, she curled herself up comfortably there in our home, purring her contentment. She was not in the least a tragic figure: though down deep under the curves and dimples of youth there was something finally resistant, or obstinate, or defiant—which kept its counsel regarding the past.
It is curious how acquaintanceship mitigates our judgments. We classify strangers into whose careers the newspapers or our friends give us glimpses as "bad" or "good"; we separate humanity into inevitable goathood and sheephood. But upon closer acquaintance a man comes to be not bad, but Ebenezer Smith or J. Henry Jones; and a woman is not good, but Nellie Morgan or Mrs. Arthur Cadwalader. Take it in our own cases. Some people, knowing just a little about us, might call us pretty good people; but we know that down in our hearts lurk the possibilities (if not the actual accomplishment) of all sorts of things not at all good. We are exceedingly charitable persons—toward ourselves. And thus we let other people live!
The other day, at Harriet's suggestion, I drove to town by the upper road, passing the Williams place. The old lady has a passion for hollyhocks. A ragged row of them borders the dilapidated picket fence behind which, crowding up to the sociable road, stands the house. As I drive that way it always seems to look out at me like some half-earnest worker, inviting a chat about the weather or the county fair; hence, probably, its good-natured dilapidation. At the gate I heard a voice, and a boy about three years old, in a soiled gingham apron, a sturdy, blue-eyed little chap, whose face was still eloquent of his recent breakfast, came running to meet me. I stopped the mare. A moment later a woman was at the gate between the rows of hollyhocks; when she saw me she began hastily to roll down her sleeves.
"Why, Mr. Grayson!"
"How's the boy, Anna?"
And it was the cheerful talk we had there by the roadside, and the sight of the sturdy boy playing in the sunshine—and the hollyhocks, and the dilapidated house—that brought to memory the old story of Anna which I here set down, not because it carries any moral, but because it is a common little piece out of real life in which Harriet and I have been interested.