Lydia of the Pines/Chapter 5

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pp. 75–93.



"A thousand deaths have fed my roots—yet to what end?"

The Murmuring Pine.

THE days slipped by, as days will, even though they are grief laden. Slowly and inarticulately for the most part, Lydia struggled to adjust herself to her new loss. She went back to school, after the quarantine was lifted and the familiar routine there helped her. She was a good student and was doing well in the eighth grade. During school hours her books absorbed her, and she worried through the evenings reading or sewing, with Florence Dombey always in her lap.

Florence Dombey was a great comfort to the child. She slept at night with her black head beside Lydia's yellow one. Sometimes she slipped into the middle of the bed and fat Lizzie rolled on her and woke with a groan.

"I'd just as soon sleep with a cannon-ball at my back," the good soul told Lydia. But she never uttered a more violent protest.

Lydia never entered the locked bedroom off the kitchen. Amos, self-absorbed and over-worked, asked no questions, but one night in April, John Levine saw Lydia at work on a night dress for Florence Dombey.

"Where does the young lady sleep?" he asked.

Lydia explained and Lizzie uttered her mild plaint, adding, "Lydia ought to be getting back to her own bed, now warm weather will be coming in."

Lydia caught her lower lip in her teeth but said nothing. Levine scrutinized the curly head bent over the sewing, then went on with his conversation with Amos. He was working quietly on his campaign, a year hence, for the office of sheriff and Amos, who was an influential Mason, was planning to use his influence for his friend. Lydia, absorbed in sad little memories over her sewing or happily drugged in some book, heeded these discussions only subconsciously.

Just before leaving, John asked for a drink of water and Amos went to the pump to bring in a fresh pail. He stopped while there to fuss over a barrel in which he had an old hen setting on some eggs he had got from Mrs. Norton. Lizzie had gone to bed early.

"Young Lydia," said John, as soon as they were alone, "come here."

When she was perched in her old place on his knee, "Don't you think it's time for you to get back to your own bedroom with its view of the lake?" he asked.

Lydia looked at him dumbly.

"You don't like to sleep in that stuffy bedroom with Lizzie, do you, dear?"

"No," replied the child. "She's fat and snores and won't have the window open—but—"

"But what?" Levine's voice was gentle.

"I'm afraid to sleep alone."

"Afraid? Lydia—not of any memory of dear little Patience!"

"No! No! but I have nightmares nearly every night—she—she's choking and I—I can't help her. Then I wake up and catch hold of Lizzie. Oh, don't make me sleep alone!"

"Why, my dear little girl—" John caught the child's thin hands in a firm, warm grip. She was trembling violently and her fingers twitched. "This won't do! That's what keeps the dark rings round your eyes, is it? Of course you shan't sleep alone! How does school go?"

"Fine," answered the child. "I hate grammar and diagramming, but the rest is easy."

"And what book are you reading now?"

"I'm starting 'David Copperfield.'"

"Here comes your father. It's bedtime, isn't it? Good night, my dear."

Lydia picked up Florence Dombey and went slowly off to bed as her father came in with a glass of water.

"That fool hen isn't fully convinced she wants a family," he said.

The bedroom door closed after Lydia.

"Amos," said John, "that child's nerves are all shot to pieces." He related his conversation with Lydia.

"What can I do?" asked Amos, with a worried air. "Seems to me she's just got to wear it out. It's awful hard she's had to be up against these things—but, I swan!—"

Levine grunted and put on his hat. "I wish she was my daughter," he said. "If you'll ask Brown to come around to the Elks Club to-morrow, I'll talk to him."

Amos nodded and John mounted his bicycle and rode away. On the Friday afternoon following when Lydia got home from school, she found the house apparently deserted. But there issued from the neighborhood of the kitchen a yipping and ki-yi-ing that would have moved a heart of stone. Lydia ran into the kitchen. The puppy wails came from behind the door of the old bedroom.

"Who's in there!" she called.

The yipping changed to deep barks of joy. Lydia tried the door. It opened easily and a great, blundering puppy hurled himself at her. Lydia was a dog lover.

"You love! You lamb!" she cried. She squatted on the floor and the pup crowded his great hulk into her lap, licking her face and wagging his whole body.

There was a note tied to his collar. Lydia untied it: "Dearest Young Lydia:— Here is a friend who wants to share your bedroom with you. You must bring him up to be a polite, obedient dog, and a credit to your other friend, John Levine."

"Oh!" squealed Lydia. "Oh! but why did they tie you in here!" She looked about the room. The old bed had been moved out and the dining-room couch moved in. The bureau had been shifted to another corner. There was nothing to be seen of all little Patience's belongings. It did not look like the same room.

As she clung to the squirming puppy and stared, Lizzie came in.

"Ain't it nice?" she asked. "Mr. Levine came out with the dog this afternoon and suggested the change. He helped me. We stored all the other things up in the attic. See the old quilt in the corner? That's for the dog to sleep on. Ain't he as big as an elephant! I'm afraid he'll eat as much as a man."

"He can have half of my food," cried Lydia. "Oh, Lizzie, isn't he beautiful!"

"Well, no," replied Lizzie, truthfully. "He looks to me as if some one had stepped on his face. You'd better take him out for a run."

John Levine never did a wiser or a kinder thing than to give the brindle English bulldog to Lydia. He was a puppy of nine months, well bred and strong. Lydia took him into her empty little heart with a completeness that belongs to the natural dog lover and that was enhanced by her bereavement. And he, being of a breed that is as amiable and loyal as it is unlovely to look upon, attached himself unalterably and entirely to Lydia. She and Kent cast about some time before deciding on a name. At first they thought seriously of naming him John, after the donor, but decided that this might lead to confusion. Then they discovered that Levine's middle name was Adam, and Adam the brindle bull became, forthwith.

Lydia made no objection to returning to the old room. It had lost its familiar outlines. And Adam, refusing the quilt on the floor, established himself on the foot of the couch where all night long he snuffled and snored and Lydia, who had objected to Lizzie's audible slumbers, now, waking with nightmares, heard Adam's rumbling with a sigh of relief, pressed her feet for comfort against his warm, throbbing body, and went off to sleep immediately.

In May the garden was planted and in June, Lydia graduated from the eighth grade, and the long summer vacation had begun. Margery Marshall, although Lydia's age, was not a good student and was two grades below her. After the episode of the note, Lydia made a conscientious effort to play with Margery at recess and when vacation began, she called for the banker's daughter regularly every week to go swimming.

Occasionally Elviry would invite her into the house to wait for Margery. At such times Lydia would stare with wondering delight at the marvels of the quartered oak, plush upholstered furniture, the "Body-Brussels" rugs, and the velour portières that adorned the parlor.

Outwardly this summer was much like the previous one, except that there was a quiet contentment about Amos in spite of his real mourning for his baby daughter, that had been foreign to him for years. It was the garden that did this. Not only was it a wonderful garden to look on and to eat from, but with it Amos paid for milk and butter from the Nortons and for a part of his groceries. This made possible the year's interest and payment on the note.

Lydia sewed for Florence Dombey, climbed trees, swam and played pirates with Kent. But as a matter of fact, the old childish zest for these things had gone. For Lydia's real childhood had left her that December night she had spent under the far corner of her father's bed. She had not prayed since then. Her young faith in the kindness and sweetness of life, badly shaken by her mother's death, had been utterly destroyed when little Patience had been taken from her.

With Adam at her heels, she took to solitary tramping through the neighboring woods where at times she met Indians from the reservation—a buck asleep on a log—a couple of squaws laughing and chatting while they ate food they had begged—an Indian boy, dusty and tired, resting after a trip to Lake City. Lydia was a little afraid of these dark folk, though they always smiled at her. She would jerk at Adam's collar and cuff his ears for growling, then make off toward home.

It was a walk of just a mile from the cottage to the High School. Lydia was very nervous about her first day at High School. Kent was entering at the same time and she would have liked to have asked to go with him but she knew he would resent violently being associated with a girl on so important an occasion.

So it was that one of the teachers observed a child in a faded but clean galatea sailor suit, with curly blond hair barely long enough to tie in her neck, standing in one of the lower halls after the mob of seven or eight hundred boys and girls had been successfully herded into the great Assembly room.

"What is your name, my dear?" asked the teacher.

Lydia silently presented her promotion card. The teacher nodded.

"Come along, Miss Dudley, or you'll miss the principal's speech."

She seated Lydia near her in the Assembly room, then looked her over curiously. The child's face was remarkably intelligent, a high bred little face under a finely domed head. The back of her ears and the back of her neck were dirty, and her thin hands were rough as if with housework. The galatea sailor suit was cheap and coarse.

"A sick mother or no mother," was the teacher's mental note. "I must inquire about her. Almost too bashful to breathe. Precocious mentally, a child physically. I'll look out for her to-day."

Miss Towne had the reputation of an unfeeling disciplinarian among the pupils, but Lydia did not know this. She only knew that by some miracle of kindness she came to understand the classroom system of recitations, that she was introduced to different teachers, that she learned how to decipher the hours of her recitations from the complicated chart on the Assembly room blackboard, and that at noon she started for home with a list of textbooks to be purchased, and a perfectly clear idea of what to do when she returned on the morrow.

The streets were full of children of all ages flocking toward the book stores. Lydia walked along slowly, thinking deeply. She knew that her list of books came to something over five dollars. She knew that this sum of money would floor her father and she knew that she would rather beg on the streets than start Amos on one of his tirades on his poverty.

She pegged along homeward, half elated over the excitement of the day, half depressed over her book problem. When she turned into the dirt road, Billy Norton overtook her. He was wearing a very high starched collar and a new suit of clothes. Billy was a senior and felt his superiority. Nevertheless, he wanted to tell his troubles—even to a first year pupil.

"Gee, don't I have the luck!" he groaned. "I could get on the School football team, I know it, if I didn't have to come home right after school to deliver milk. Hang it!"

Lydia looked at him quickly. "How much milk do you have to deliver?"

"Aw, just a snag. Two quarts up the road to Essers' and two to Stones'. They both got babies and have to have it. Think of putting me off the school team for four quarts of baby milk!"

"Oh, Billy," gasped Lydia, "I'll do it for you—if—Billy, have you got your freshman textbooks still?"

"Sure," answered the boy. "They're awful banged up, but I guess all the pages are there."

Lydia was breathless with excitement. "Billy, if you'll let me have your books, I'll carry the milk for you, all winter."

The big boy looked at the little girl, curiously.

"They're a ratty lot of old books, Lydia. Half the fun of having school books is getting new ones."

"I know that," she answered, flushing.

"Hanged if I'll do it. Let your dad get you new ones."

"He'd like to as well as any one, but he can't right now and I'm going to look out for my own. Oh, Billy, let me do it!"

"You can have 'em all and welcome," exclaimed Billy, with a sudden huskiness in his voice. "Gosh, you're awful little, Lydia."

Lydia stamped her foot. "I won't take anything for nothing. And I'm not little. I'm as strong as a horse."

"Well," conceded Billy, "just till after Thanksgiving is all I want. Come on along home now and we'll fix it up with Ma."

Ma Norton twisted Lydia around and retied her hair ribbon while she listened. They all knew Lydia's pride, so she quenched the impulse to give the child the books and said, "Till Thanksgiving is plenty of pay, Billy, and when the snow comes, the two mile extra walking will be too much. Get the books out of the parlor closet. You got a—a—ink on the back of your neck, Lydia. Wait till I get it off for you."

She wet a corner of a towel at the tea kettle and proceeded to scour the unsuspecting Lydia's neck and ears. "Children in the high school are apt to get ink in the back of their necks and ears," she said. "Always scrub there, Lydia! Remember!"

"Yes, Ma'm! Oh, gosh, what a big pile! Thank you ever so much, Billy. I'll be here right after school to-morrow, Mrs. Norton."

Lydia spent a blissful evening mending and cleaning Billy's textbooks, with Adam snoring under her feet and her father absorbed in his newspaper.

The delivering of the milk was no task at all, though had it not been for Adam trudging beside her with his rolling bulldog gait and his slavering ugly jaw, she would have been afraid in the early dusk of the autumn evenings.

The High School was a different world from that of the old ward school. The ward school, comprising children of only one neighborhood with the grades small, was a democratic, neighborly sort of place. The High School gathered together children from all over town, of all classes, from the children of lumber kings and college professors, to the offspring of the Norwegian day laborer and the German saloon keeper. There were even several colored children in the High School as well as an Indian lad named Charlie Jackson. In the High School, class feeling was strong. There were Greek letter societies in the fourth grade, reflecting the influence of the college on the lake shore. Among the well-to-do girls, and also among those who could less well afford it, there was much elaborate dressing. Dancing parties were weekly occurrences. They were attended by first year girls of fourteen and fifteen as well as by the older girls, each lass with an attendant lad, who called for her and took her home unchaperoned.

It took several months for Lydia to become aware of the complicated social life going on about her. She was so absorbed while in school in adjusting herself to the new type of school life,—a different teacher for each study, heavier lessons, the responsibility of collateral reading—that the Christmas holidays came before she realized that except in her class room work, she had nothing whatever in common with her classmates.

All fall she saw very little of Kent. He was on the freshman football squad and this was a perfectly satisfactory explanation of his dereliction—had he cared to make any—as far as Saturdays went. In the Assembly room because he had chosen the Classical course, his seat was far from Lydia's, who had chosen the English course.

Saturday was a busy day for Lydia at home. Old Lizzie, who was nearing sixty, was much troubled with rheumatism and even careless Lydia felt vaguely that the house needed a certain amount of cleaning once a week. So, of a Saturday morning, she slammed through the house like a small whirlwind, leaving corners undisturbed and dust in windrows, but satisfied with her efforts. Saturday afternoon, she worked in the garden when the day was fair, helping to gather the winter vegetables. Before little Patience's death she had gone to Sunday School, but since that time she had not entered a church. So Sunday became her feast day. She put in the entire morning preparing a Sunday dinner for her father and nearly always John Levine. After dinner, the three, with Adam, would tramp a mile up the road, stopping to lean over the bars and talk dairying with Pa Norton, winter wheat with Farmer Jansen, and hardy alfalfa with old Schmidt. Between farms, Amos and John always talked politics, local and national, arguing heatedly.

To all this, Lydia listened with half an ear. She loved these walks, partly because of the grown up talks, partly because Adam loved them, mostly because of the beauty of the wooded hills, the far stretch of the black fields, ready plowed for spring and the pale, tender blue of the sky that touched the near horizon. If she missed and needed playmates of her own age, she was scarcely conscious of the fact.

Christmas came and went, sadly and quietly. Lydia was glad when the holidays were over and she was back in school again. On her desk that first morning lay a tiny envelope, addressed to her. She opened it. In it was an invitation from Miss Towne to attend a reception she was tendering to the members of her Algebra and Geometry classes, freshmen and seniors.

For a moment Lydia was in heaven. It was her first formal invitation of any kind. Then she came rapidly to earth. She had nothing to wear! It was an evening party and she had no way to go or come. She put the precious card in her blouse pocket and soberly opened her Civil Government.

At recess, she sat alone as she was rather prone to do, in the window of the cloak room, when she heard a group of girls chattering.

"Who wants to go to grouchy old Towne's reception when you can go to a dance? I've got two bids to the Phi Pi's party," said a fourteen-year-old miss.

"Oh, we'll have to go or she'll flunk us in Algebra," said another girl. "I'll wear my pink silk organdy. What'll you wear?"

"My red silk. Maybe she'll let us dance. I suppose Charlie and Kent'll both want to take me."

"Terrible thing to be popular! Hasn't Kent the sweetest eyes! Do you know what he said to me the other night at the Evans' party?"

The girls drifted out of the cloak room. Lydia sat rigid. Pink organdy! Red silk! Kent's "sweetest eyes"! Then she looked down at the inevitable sailor suit, and at her patched and broken shoes. So far she had had few pangs about her clothes. But now for the first time she realized that for some reason, she was an alien, different from the other girls—and the realization made her heart ache.

The bell rang and she went to her recitation. It was in Civil Government. Lydia sat down dejectedly next to Charlie Jackson, the splendid, swarthy Indian boy of sixteen.

"Did you learn the preamble?" he whispered to Lydia. She nodded.

"He didn't say we had to," Charlie went on, "but I like the sound of it, so I did."

The rest of the class filed in, thirty youngsters of fourteen or fifteen, the boys surreptitiously shoving and kicking each other, the girls giggling and rearranging their hair. Mr. James rapped on his desk, and called on young Hansen.

"Can you give the preamble to the Constitution?" he asked, cheerfully.

The boy's jaw dropped. "You never told us to learn it," he said.

"No, I merely suggested that as Americans, you ought to learn it. I talked to you during most of yesterday's period about it. I wondered if you were old enough to take suggestions and not be driven through your books. Miss Olson?"

Miss Olson, whose hair was done in the latest mode, tossed her head pertly.

"I was too busy to learn anything extra."

Mr. James' eyebrows went up. "A dance last night, I suppose." He continued with his query half way round the class, then paused with a sigh. "Has any one in the class learned it?"

A muscular brown hand shot up, boldly. A thin white one timidly followed.

"Ah!" Mr. James' face brightened. "Miss Dudley, try it."

Lydia clutched the back of the seat before her and began timidly. Then the dignity and somewhat of the significance of the words touched her and her voice became rich and full.

"'We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.'"

"Good. Try it, Mr. Jackson."

The young Indian rose and began. "We, the people of the United States—" He too was letter perfect.

After he was seated, the teacher, a gray-haired, stern-faced man, looked at the two attentively.

"Miss Dudley," he said finally, "does the preamble mean anything to you?"

Lydia's round childish eyes regarded him steadfastly. "Two of my ancestors were delegates to the first Convention," she said hesitatingly. "One of 'em lived in a log farmhouse with loop holes in it. They used to shoot Indians—" she paused and looked at Charlie Jackson, then went on. "I—I like the sound of the words."

The teacher nodded. "And you, Jackson?"

The boy scowled. "I know the words are lies as far as Indians are concerned. And I know they needn't have been if whites weren't natural hogs. Anyhow, I'm the only real American in the class."

Lydia looked up at the brown face eagerly, questioningly. Mr. James nodded. "Quite right, Jackson."

Young Hansen spoke up. "We're all Americans. What's he giving us?"

"Has your father been naturalized, Hansen?" asked the teacher.

The Norwegian boy shook his head, shamefacedly.

"And were you born in this country?"

"I was a baby when they came over."

"Well then, are you an American, or aren't you? You don't really know, do you? And you haven't enough interest in the country you've lived in fourteen years to find out—or to know what was the impulse that gave birth to our laws, the thing that makes an American different from a Norwegian, for instance. The two people in the class who needed the preamble least are the ones that have learned it. I'm disappointed. We'll go on to the lesson. Reisenweber, what is a demesne?"

Lydia sat looking from the teacher's face to Charlie Jackson, and from Charlie to the blond faces of the other pupils. Vague wonderments were stirring in her mind; the beginnings of thoughts she never had had before. Tramping home that night through the snowy road she had a new set of thoughts. What had made her stiffen and at the same time feel sorry and ashamed when Charlie Jackson had said the Preamble was a lie for Indians! And could she, could she possibly in the two weeks before Miss Towne's reception make herself a dress that would be presentable?

Adam, slavering and slobbering, was waiting for her as usual by the front gate. His deep brown eyes always showed phosphorescent glimmers of excitement when Lydia came. He lunged up against her now with howls of delight and she knelt in the snow, as she always did, and hugged him. Then he seized her book strap and lugged her Algebra and English Composition up to the house.

Lizzie was as excited as Lydia when she heard of the invitation.

"There's that gray serge of your mother's," she said. "It's awful faded. And there's a piece of a light blue serge waist she had, Lydia, let's get 'em dyed red. Smitzky's will do it in a couple of days for us. They did lots of work for me in bygone days and I'll pay for it out of the grocery money."

"Do you think we can fix it so it won't look made over?" asked Lydia, torn between hope and doubt.

"Of course we can. You choose your pattern to-morrow and I'll get in to town in the morning with the goods, rheumatiz or no rheumatiz."

Amos heard of the invitation with real pleasure. Nor did the clothes problem trouble him. "Pshaw, wear that green Sunday dress of yours. You always look nice, Lydia; whatever you wear. And I'll take you up there and call for you. If all the boys in school was running after you, I wouldn't let one of 'em beau you round before you was eighteen. So put that kind of a bee out of your bonnet for good and all."

Lydia lived the next two weeks in the clouds. The new-old dress was finished the day before the reception. There had been minutes of despair in creating this festive garment. The dyeing process had developed unsuspected moth holes. The blue and the gray serge did not dye exactly the same shade, nor were they of quite the same texture. However, by twisting and turning and adding a yoke of black silk, which had for years been Lizzie's Sunday neck scarf, a result was produced that completely satisfied the little dressmaker and old Lizzie.

Miss Towne was the only daughter of one of the old New England families of Lake City. Teaching was an avocation with her and not a bread and butter necessity. She lived in one of the fine old stone houses that crowned the lake shore near the college. At eight o'clock on a Saturday evening, Amos left Lydia at the front door of the house, and in a few minutes Lydia was taking off her hat and coat in the midst of a chattering group of girls. The pink organdy was there as well as the red silk,—so were blue organdies and white, as well as dainty slippers.

After a general "Hello," Lydia slipped downstairs to find her hostess. Miss Towne, the grouchy, the strict and the stern Miss Towne, moving among her guests, saw the thin little figure hesitating in the doorway, saw the cobbled red dress, with skirt that was too short and sleeves that were too long and neck that was too tight, saw the carefully blacked school shoes, saw the intelligent high bred head nobly set on straight shoulders and the wonderful dusty gold of the curly hair, and the puzzled, bashful blue eyes.

"Oh, Lydia!" cried the grouchy Miss Towne, "weren't you a dear to come clear into town for my party. Mother—" this clearly for all the children to hear, "this is the pupil I've told you of, the one of whom we're all so proud. Come over here, Lydia."

Lydia moved carefully. Her most moth eaten breadth was at the back and it was difficult to cross the room without unduly exposing that back. But she reached the safe haven of Miss Towne's side before the bevy of multi-colored organdies entered the room.

Kent was there. He had brought the pink organdy. He waved a gay hand to Lydia, who waved back, gaily too. Her cheeks were beginning to burn scarlet, partly because a real party was a wonderful thing and partly because of the multi-colored organdies. Charlie Jackson was there. He lived with Dr. Fulton as office boy and general helper and the doctor was clothing and educating him. Charlie was half-back of the school football team, a famous player and a great favorite. The girls flirted with him. The boys were jealous of his favor. Even in the snob-ridden High School there was here a hangover of the pure democracy of childhood.

Miss Towne had provided games and refreshments bountifully. The elocution teacher recited some monologues and the music teacher sang. But it was a difficult matter to entertain these youngsters already accustomed to a grown up social life. Miss Towne had declared that there should be no dancing. But the games were neglected and the guests stood about in frankly bored groups. So when a bevy of organdies begged for permission to dance, Miss Towne, with obvious reluctance, gave in.

From that moment, the party was an assured success. Lydia, who had stuck like a little burr at Miss Towne's side all the evening, looked on with wonder and a growing lump in her throat.

"Don't you dance, my dear?" asked Mrs. Towne.

"Of course she doesn't, Mother," answered Miss Towne, "she's just a child. There's time enough for those things after High School. I don't know what's going to become of this generation."

This was small comfort to Lydia, watching the pretty groups twirl by.

Kent, hugging the pink organdy, stopped on the far side of the room from Lydia to get a drink of lemonade.

"Isn't Lydia's dress a scream," said Olga.

"Huh?" asked Kent in surprise. He followed his partner's glance across the room.