The Folly of Others/The Mother
HE turned to the left away from the station and the scattered houses of the village and began the easy ascent. The summer dusk was softly absorbing the remembered outlines of valley and hills, and even of the orchards and farm buildings on either side the road. The scent of the sweet clover came to him warm and spicy. It still grew all along the wayside. And beyond over the snake-fences clambered the blackberry vines which he had often despoiled, and the thorny wild-rose bushes, whose pale pink blossoms girls liked and made a fellow tear his hands to pieces to get for them. When he had reached the top of the hill—he thought of it as a hill from habit—and had begun the still more gradual descent on the other side, a light flashed through the dusk below. His heart jumped, for he knew that the lamp had been set in the front-parlor window for him, and he walked on swiftly, his eyes upon it.
His mother was standing at the edge of the road. In the deeper shadow of the old apple tree beside the gate he could just see the white blur of her apron. She called to him:
"Is that you, Tip?"
He dropped his bag and took her in bis arms, and she shed a tear or two on his coat sleeve. Then they went in through the gate, up the walk bordered with sweet alyssum. The front door stood wide open and a cheerful light streamed out. In the doorway sat an enormous gray cat, a stranger to Martin. Everything else was familiar, unchanged. Even the little old woman in her best black gown, pinned at the throat with the huge pink cameo brooch he had bought for her with his first earnings, had scarcely aged, it seemed to him. As she smiled up at him her eyes were still bright, and there was a faint pink in her delicate cheeks.
"I declare, mother, you haven't changed a bit," he said, as they stopped a moment by the door of the old-fashioned parlor.
"You have, Tip," she said, wistfully. "You're as gray as your father was when he died. And that beard changes you, too. But you're tired. Come into your room and wash and we'll talk afterward."
She led the way through the parlor, decorous with haircloth furniture and a marble-topped centre-table, into the best bedroom—arcanum to which as a boy he had never been allowed to penetrate. He had occupied it once, on the occasion of his visit in the capacity of Assemblyman—never before or since. In all the subsequent time it seemed not to have been disturbed. The starched and frilled "shams" upon the bed, the lace tidy on the best rocker, the drawn-work scarf on the bureau were the same. But there was a new-fashioned lamp upon the dresser and a vase of clove-pinks and mignonette. The windows, too, opening on the porch, had screens in them in stead of white mosquito-netting nailed across.
"It's just the same," he said, with a delighted smile.
"Yes. There hasn't anybody slept here since your father died. But I've aired and swept it regular once a week just the same, so it's as good as new." She laughed a little, eyeing him fondly. "Now you can brush the dust off you, and I'll get supper on. It's all ready."
The pitcher and bowl on the little stand were the very ones whose gilt bands and crinkled edges had once seemed to him the height of magnificence. The water in which he washed was rain water, soft and brown, and it had the well-remembered earthy fresh smell. There was magic in it. When he finished his simple toilet he seemed to have regained something of his youth. His face had lost for the time the haggard look, which was not all weariness. It softened and brightened as he looked around the little room before he went out.
In the sitting-room the round table was set under the hanging lamp, and the gray cat sat erect and supercilious in one of the cane-bottomed chairs. Martin made some slight overtures to this personage, but was received with such haughty indifference that he retreated to the hearth-rug. It was too warm for fires, and the grate had been filled with growing green plants in painted tins. Mrs. Martin came in from the kitchen carrying a plate of smoking biscuits in one hand and a little teapot in the other. They smiled at one another.
"I haven't got a very big supper for you," she said, contemplating the table, "but I tried to get the things you liked. There's cream toast and cold chicken, and honey and orange cake——"
"Jerusalem! What an appetite I must have had once," said Martin. "I'm certain I've never had it since, but perhaps that's because I couldn't have you to cook for me."
Then they talked, or Martin did, answering the questions which she had been keeping for him. She was too happy to eat, but she sat opposite, watching him with shining eyes. She told him that she had read every word of his speeches in the newspapers he had sent her, and even of the pamphlet on free coinage, which she thought wonderfully deep; and she asked about his home, and Mabel and the two children, whom she had never seen.
"They're all well, very well," he said, slowly. "The boy, they say, looks like me. His beard is just sprouting now, and I hold out hopes to him that some day the resemblance may be complete. I've got some photographs in my valise."
"I did think, perhaps, some of them would come with you—I should like to see them once, anyway."
Martin glanced at her and pressed his bearded lips together firmly before he spoke.
"The children are at the seashore at this time of year, you know, and Mabel—well, she couldn't get away very well—it's quite an undertaking to cross the continent in summer. But they'll—come some day."
"And after all I don't know but I'd rather have just you, Tip—it seems more like—like old times."
She glanced across the table and her lips trembled slightly. Martin divined that she was thinking of his father and of the last time the three had been together. Presently she began to speak to him of the old man's pride in his son and longing to see him before he died, and of his serenity when death came first. Her voice was even and her face bright as she spoke, but Martin found himself strangely moved as he had not been even when the news of death came.
They rose from the table and she began to gather up the supper dishes.
"Surely," said Martin, in surprise, "you don't do all the work of the house alone?"
"All the work?" She laughed. "How much do you suppose there is to do for one old woman and a cat? But I have Sophia Eleanora to wash and scrub. Sophia!"
She opened the kitchen door and called in a tall, bony, freckled young person.
"Sophia, you may clear the table and wash the dishes—all but the cups and saucers, you understand."
Sophia blushed furiously and kept her eyes down, but Martin felt certain as soon as his back was turned that she was taking an inventory of him from his gray hair down to the creased trousers of his tweed traveling suit for the subsequent refection of the neighbors. His mother's first words as she joined him on the porch corroborated this intuition.
"Sophia didn't know I was expecting you," she said, with evident satisfaction. "I knew we shouldn't have a minute's peace to-night if the neighbors knew. But they'll all know to-morrow."
Martin laughed and blew the smoke of his cigar out into the still air.
They sat late in the dusk, talking now and then in low tones, but silent for long intervals. The crickets and the tree frogs filled in the pauses with their drowsy chirpings. The lilacs and the sweet alyssum breathed out great waves of fragrance. The very air was peace.
When they went in at last she remembered the photographs.
"If you aren't too tired," she added, with a swift glance at his face.
"Not a bit—they're in my valise. I'll get them."
There were four—one of a fine-looking boy, one of a laughing girl face framed in loose, curling hair, and two of the dark, handsome Mabel, who had a strain of Spanish blood in her. She smiled at the pictures of the children, but something about the others—perhaps the low-cut evening dress—did not please her.
"She is very beautiful," she said, after a moment's hesitation.
"Yes," said Martin.
"She must be a great society woman—she looks like it. How young she looks, too."
"She is thirty-eight," said Martin, slowly. "Yes—she's fond of society and gayety—but I think she's fonder of the children and——"
"Of course—and you. And of course she don't allow such things to interfere with her home. From the pictures you sent me you must have a lovely home."
"I have—a very handsome house," said Martin. He sat down on the bed and fixed his eyes on the delicate old face bent over the photographs. "But some way it doesn't seem so much like—like home as this does—or as the little cottage we had in 'Frisco just after we were married. But I suppose it's natural—at least it is to me—to like the old things and the old ways best——"
He had spoken dreamily and his voice sank away, leaving the sentence unfinished. The old woman looked from his face to the photograph and back again. Then she laid the pictures on the bureau and came to his side, touching his shoulder wistfully.
"Dear, ain't you happy?" she asked.
He looked up at her with a faint smile.
"Not quite," he said. "Some day I'll tell you all about it and you'll comfort me as you used to."
"I wish I could." She lingered a moment longer. "Good-night, now. You look tired."
She kissed him softly and went out. For some time Martin sat still on the edge of the bed. His eyes were fixed and sad. But when in the darkness he stretched himself out between the fragrant sheets on the mattress that rustled and creaked with his every movement, the old careless peace, presage of dreamless sleep, seemed to enfold him. The drowsy sing-song of the night insects came in with the flower scent through the windows. In the next room he could hear his mother moving softly about. He was content, happy, to feel himself drift into forgetfulness. Once he was conscious that his door had opened softly. A vague impulse moved him to call to her, to speak out the grief in his heart. But he was silent.
On the afternoon of the next day, as they drove lazily along the gently-rolling country roads, this impulse recurred more strongly. The revelation of his unhappiness must be made sooner or later—the sooner the better, he felt—and yet it was hard to speak. It seemed almost as though his mother guessed and was trying to make it easier.
That morning while they were breakfasting at the forgotten hour of six (which rather to Martin's surprise seemed not without its advantages after all), she had said as she refilled his coffee cup:
"When it gets cooler this afternoon, Tip, I'm going to drive you over to the burying-ground. I want you should see where we laid your father—and the grand monument you ordered. It's just beautiful."
He spent his morning loitering about the old place, poking into nooks and comers where dim, filmy recollections clung with the cobwebs. He had interviewed two or three of the old fossils who remembered him as a boy, and had pleased himself in drawing out their stories of youthful exploits which he himself had forgotten. And he had slept away the early afternoon hours lying in the thick bright grass of the orchard under a patriarchal apple-tree.
The day was warm, but by four o'clock, when they set out, the air was less oppressive. Still, the small, fat pony elected to walk the greater part of the way, and to groan bitterly when he was obliged to drag the phaeton up anything. Martin laughed unfeelingly at him.
"I should like to take that horse out West and show him a Californian hill!" he said. "Straight up—hundreds of feet—with a narrow trail winding around on the edge of nothing! How would you like such a lump in your back yard?"
"Dear me, Tip, I should be afraid of it!"
He laughed again. "How good it seems to hear that old nickname again! I haven't heard it before for twenty years."
"Yes," she said, meditatively. "We called you Tip—short for Tippecanoe—on account of your being named for President Harrison. I remember the first real quarrel your father and I had was over naming you."
"Quarrel! What—you, too?"
"Yes—we two! You didn't suspect it, did you now? We'd got over it a good deal, though, by the time you were old enough to understand. You see, it made us kind of ashamed to think you should see it."
She laughed gently. "O yes, we had quarrels—lots of 'em—but we pulled through, and loved each other all the better to make up."
The last words came with a little hesitation. The New England reticence was almost too much for them. There was a pause. Here, surely, was Martin's opportunity. He glanced down at her face, touched now with a soft smile.
"Did you ever think perhaps you had made a mistake?" he asked abruptly.
"Mistake! In each other, you mean?"
"Well, in thinking you were suited—meant for each other—if there is such a thing. Did you ever imagine that you weren't, or were you always sure?"
She looked up. His eyes were fixed absently on the distant horizon. She felt the meaning of his question, and her voice trembled a little when at last she spoke.
"Yes. Sometimes it did seem as though it was all wrong. There was a time—three years after we were married—when I most lost hope. There seemed to be a wall growing up between us, and it got higher every day. At last it was so we hardly spoke except just when we had to."
"Then we found out somehow that we could love each other yet, and that it was easier to get along without other things than without—that."
Silence fell again. They did not look at each other. The pony dismally climbed the last hill and descended cautiously into the hollow where lay the little cemetery. There was a whitewashed picket fence about it to keep out stray cattle. Inside, the walks as well as the irregularly scattered mounds were overgrown with bright lush grass. Upon some of the graves this grass was cut short and even; upon others it grew long and unkempt, reaching up coarse fibres about the sagging tombstones. There was an evil suggestion in its luxuriance.
At the farther side of the enclosure, dominating proudly the lowly slabs and urns of gray and white, rose a shaft of red granite; at a little distance a long, low mound was covered with soft turf, this in turn almost hidden by long, graceful sprays of the climbing pink roses, the blossoms of which were faded now. Martin turned his back on the granite spire silently, but his mother glanced at it with gentle pride. He carried away the withered roses from the grave and dropped them over the fence. She knelt and kissed the green sod over the spot where the man's heart had once lain. Then they strewed over it fresh roses—a mass of pale, soft bloom—and, lingering, gazed down a few moments in silence.
"Isn't it good!" the little woman said, at last. "There's my place waiting for me beside him, and a place on the monument for my name."
Her eyes were oddly bright, and her gentle old face became resolute, almost austere.
"Tip," she said, "suppose your father, instead of lying there waiting for us, was buried somewhere out in the wide world, neither you nor I knowing where? It might have been, dear. If it hadn't been for God's mercy at the last minute you might have grown up without your father. Think of it! We two, that loved each other so, came near throwing away all those years of happiness like so much rubbish!"
"How?" Martin asked, almost inaudibly.
"We had a dreadful quarrel, Tip, when you were not three years old. I told you that about that time things were going pretty badly with us—we had grown apart and were both sure that we never could get on together again. You see, your father was grave and a student, like you, my dear—always tinkering at this invention or that, or reading some deep book, when he had a minute from his work—and I was young and fond of gadding—feather-headed, he told me——"
"I'm afraid so. Yes, I was pretty in those days, Tip, and real gay! You wouldn't believe it of your old mother, would you?"
"Go on," he said. An odd light came into his eyes, which looked away from her across the cemetery. He felt the hesitation, the difficulty, with which she spoke; he realized in part what this breaking down of a sacred reserve cost her. Her words, slow and tremulous, moved him strangely, for he divined the reason of their utterance.
"Well, one night all the trouble came to a head. I had—done something or other that your father thought foolish, and we had words. Then he got into one of his dreadful tempers. He was never one to say very much, but that night he told me he was going to—to leave me. He said I could stay in the house, and if I would have his mother to live with me I could keep you, my baby! And he wrote me a check for half the money he had in the bank—it was little enough, poor father! And then he went upstairs and packed his clothes. I can see myself now, Tip, as I sat there in the little parlor, in my foolish new gown, listening to the footsteps over my head. You were asleep in the little closet off our bedroom, and I wondered if he would go in and kiss you good-by. He did, and then he came downstairs. He had his hat on and a portmanteau in his hand. It was the one we had carried on our wedding-trip. He went through the house, locked all the doors, shook down the fire in the stove and wound the clock—just as usual. Then—he went out of the house."
"Well, and then?" came in a faraway tone from Martin's lips.
"Then—my heart seemed to break. I saw that it meant the ruin of two lives. I thought of my little child. What sort of a home could I make for him, a foolish young creature like me—alone? … Oh, Tip, some one must give in always! And"—her voice sank almost to a whisper—"I think it must be the one that loves—most."
She stood a moment longer, her eyes seeking his averted face. Then they went out together and drove slowly home through the lengthening shadows.
It was a silent journey. The man was thinking deeply—recalling his early home-life, perceiving, with a sudden inward vision, how the loving, forbearing harmony of that home had resolved from discord. For his own children he could wish nothing better than the memory of such peaceful happiness, as he could imagine nothing worse than an inheritance of broken family ties, of disunion, of a tradition of failure, which must be a stigma and a shame. And Mabel? She was still young, pretty, admired—and she was alone. It was not that he had not already thought of these things. But a new light had suddenly been shed upon the question; he found himself thinking from a subtly altered point of view. It seemed possible, where he had seen a blank wall before him, if not to go forward, at least partly to retrace his path.
When they reached the house he petitioned to be allowed to put the pony up himself, vice Sophia Eleanora, general factotum, and, in spite of his mother's protest, carried his point. He conscientiously rubbed down the fat beast, whose very mild exertions had resulted in a copious perspiration, and who regarded that unwonted attention with undiguised and rather contemptuous astonishment. Afterward, this fastidious gentleman took off his coat, rolled up his shirt sleeves, and performed his ablutions in the manner of his boyhood, under the pump, to his own entire satisfaction.
After supper he smoked a cigar or two on the porch in the moonlight, with the drowsy chirping of the crickets all about him, and his mother's placid presence in the shadow near him. Then he went in, saying he was going to write a letter.
After all, it might touch her—if he could catch and fix on paper something of the pathos, the tenderness of the drama which these old walls about him had beheld. The letter would startle her, certainly—would give her a new sensation. And Mabel was fond of new sensations. The novelty—and, above all, the unexpectedness—of his proposition might appeal to her. Martin smiled a little bitterly at this reflection. But, as he sat over his task, his face grew grave, then softened into tenderness. The ink ran from the end of his pen. Little phrases, forgotten since the days of his honeymoon, shaped themselves, beating with life, on the paper.
"Dear," he ended, "come to me here, in this quaint nook among the old hills, where time stands still, and the restlessness of the world we know has never entered. The realities of life are here—love and sorrow and faith. Come and learn for yourself how beautiful these are. Life and love are not ended yet for us."
It was long past midnight when he gathered up the closely-written pages, and, without trusting himself to read them over, enveloped and addressed them. "Even if she telegraphs," he said, "it will be six days before I can hear."
A week later a tall, gray-bearded man swung buoyantly up the hill from the station. With head erect, shoulders braced, eyes alive, he seemed to have dropped the burden of years in sight of some promised land of joy.