The Lane that had No Turning/Uncle Jim

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UNCLE JIM

HE was no uncle of mine, but it pleased me that he let me call him Uncle Jim.

It seems only yesterday that, for the first time, on a farm "over the border," from the French province, I saw him standing by a log outside the wood-house door, splitting maple knots. He was all bent by years and hard work, with muscles of iron, hands gnarled and lumpy, but clinching like a vice; grey head thrust forward on shoulders which had carried forkfuls of hay and grain, and leaned to the cradle and the scythe, and been heaped with cordwood till they were like hide and metal; white straggling beard and red watery eyes, which, to me, were always hung with an intangible veil of mystery—though that, maybe, was my boyish fancy. Added to all this he was so very deaf that you had to speak clear and loud into his ear; and many people he could not hear at all, if their words were not sharp-cut, no matter how loud. A silent, withdrawn man he was, living close to Mother Earth, twin-brother of Labour, to whom Morning and Daytime were sounding-boards for his axe, scythe, saw, flail, and milking-pail, and Night a round hollow of darkness into which he crept, shutting the doors called Silence behind him, till the impish page of Toil came tapping again, and he stepped awkwardly into the working world once more. Winter and summer saw him putting the kettle on the fire a few minutes after four o’clock, in winter issuing with lantern from the kitchen door to the stable and barn to feed the stock; in summer sniffing the grey dawn and looking out on his fields of rye and barley, before he went to gather the cows for milking and take the horses to water.

For forty years he and his worn-faced wife bowed themselves beneath the yoke, first to pay for the hundred-acre farm, and then to bring up and educate their seven children. Something noble in them gave them ambitions for their boys and girls which they had never had for themselves; but when had gone the forty years, in which the little farm had twice been mortgaged to put the eldest son through college as a doctor, they faced the bitter fact that the farm had passed from them to Rodney, the second son, who had come at last to keep a hotel in a town fifty miles away. Generous-hearted people would think that these grown-up sons and daughters should have returned the old people’s long toil and care by buying up the farm and handing it back to them, their rightful refuge in the decline of life. But it was not so. They were tenants where they had been owners, dependants where they had been givers, slaves where once they were, masters. The old mother toiled without a servant, the old man without a helper, save in harvest time.

But the great blow came when Rodney married the designing milliner who flaunted her wares opposite his bar-room; and, somehow, from the date of that marriage, Rodney’s good fortune and the hotel declined. When he and his wife first visited the little farm after their marriage the old mother shrank away from the young woman’s painted face, and ever afterwards an added sadness showed in her bearing and in her patient smile. But she took Rodney’s wife through the house, showing her all there was to show, though that was not much. There was the little parlour with its hair-cloth chairs, rag carpet, centre table, and iron stove with black pipes, all gaily varnished. There was the parlour bedroom off it, with the one feather-bed of the house bountifully piled up with coarse home-made blankets, topped by a silk patchwork quilt, the artistic labour of the old wife’s evening hours while Uncle Jim peeled apples and strung them to dry from the rafters. There was a room, dining-room in summer, and kitchen dining-room in winter, as clean as aged hands could scrub and dust it, hung about with stray pictures from illustrated papers, and a good old clock in the corner "ticking" life, and youth, and hope away. There was the buttery off that, with its meagre china and crockery, its window looking out on the field of rye, the little orchard of winter apples, and the hedge of cranberry bushes. Upstairs were rooms with no ceilings, where, lying on a corn-husk bed, you reached up and touched the sloping roof, with windows at the end only, facing the buckwheat field, and looking down two miles towards the main road—for the farm was on a concession or side-road, dusty in summer, and in winter sometimes impassable for weeks together. It was not much of a home, as any one with the mind’s eye can see, but four stalwart men and three fine women had been born, raised, and quartered there, until, with good clothes, and speaking decent English and tolerable French, and with money in their pockets, hardly got by the old people, one by one they issued forth into the world.

The old mother showed Rodney’s wife what there was for eyes to see, not forgetting the three hives of bees on the south side, beneath the parlour window. She showed it with a kind of pride, for it all seemed good to her, and every dish, and every chair, and every corner in the little house had to her a glory of its own, because of those who had come and gone—the firstlings of her flock, the roses of her little garden of love, blooming now in a rougher air than ranged over the little house on the hill. She had looked out upon the pine woods to the east and the meadow-land to the north, the sweet valley between the rye-field and the orchard, and the good honest air that had blown there for forty years, bracing her heart and body for the battle of love and life, and she had said through all, Behold it is very good.

But the pert milliner saw nothing of all this; she did not stand abashed in the sacred precincts of a home where seven times the Angel of Death had hovered over a birth-bed. She looked into the face which Time’s finger had anointed, and motherhood had etched with trouble, and said:

"’Tisn’t much, is it? Only a clap-board house, and no ceilings upstairs, and rag carpets—pshaw!"

And when she came to wash her hands for dinner, she threw aside the unscented, common bar-soap, and, shrugging her narrow shoulders at the coarse towel, wiped her fingers on her cambric handkerchief. Any other kind of a woman, when she saw the old mother going about with her twisted wrist—a doctor’s bad work with a fracture—would have tucked up her dress, and tied on an apron to help. But no, she sat and preened herself with the tissue-paper sort of pride of a vain milliner, or nervously shifted about, lifting up this and that, curiously supercilious, her tongue rattling on to her husband and to his mother in a shallow, foolish way. She couldn’t say, however, that anything was out of order or ill-kept about the place. The old woman’s rheumatic fingers made corners clean, and wood as white as snow, the stove was polished, the tins were bright, and her own dress, no matter what her work, neat as a girl’s, although the old graceful poise of the body had twisted out of drawing.

But the real crisis came when Rodney, having stood at the wood-house door and blown the dinner-horn as he used to do when a boy, the sound floating and crying away across the rye-field, the old man came—for, strange to say, that was the one sound he could hear easily, though, as he said to himself, it seemed as small as a pin, coming from ever so far away. He came heavily up from the barn-yard, mopping his red face and forehead, and now and again raising his hand to shade his eyes, concerned to see the unknown visitors, whose horse and buggy were in the stable-yard. He and Rodney greeted outside warmly enough, but there was some trepidation too in Uncle Jim’s face—he felt trouble brewing; and there is no trouble like that which comes between parent and child. Silent as he was, however, he had a large and cheerful heart, and nodding his head he laughed the deep, quaint laugh which Rodney himself of all his sons had—and he was fonder of Rodney than any. He washed his hands in the little basin outside the wood-house door, combed out his white beard, rubbed his red, watery eyes, tied a clean handkerchief round his neck, put on a rusty but clean old coat, and a minute afterwards was shaking hands for the first time with Rodney’s wife. He had lived much apart from his kind, but he had a mind that fastened upon a thought and worked it down until it was an axiom. He felt how shallow was this thin, flaunting woman of flounces and cheap rouge; he saw her sniff at the brown sugar—she had always had white at the hotel; and he noted that she let Rodney’s mother clear away and wash the dinner things herself. He felt the little crack of doom before it came.

It came about three o’clock. He did not return to the rye-field after dinner, but stayed and waited to hear what Rodney had to say. Rodney did not tell his little story well, for he foresaw trouble in the old home; but he had to face this and all coming dilemmas as best he might. With a kind of shame-facedness, yet with an attempt to carry the thing off lightly, he told Uncle Jim, while, inside, his wife told the old mother, that the business of the hotel had gone to pot (he did not say who was the cause of that), and they were selling out to his partner and coming to live on the farm.

"I’m tired anyway of the hotel job," said Rodney. "Farming’s a better life. Don’t you think so, dad?"

"It’s better for me, Rod," answered Uncle Jim, "it’s better for me."

Rodney was a little uneasy. "But won’t it be better for me?" he asked.

"Mebbe," was the slow answer, "mebbe, mebbe so."

"And then there’s mother, she’s getting too old for the work, ain’t she?"

"She’s done it straight along," answered the old man, "straight along till now."

"But Millie can help her, and we’ll have a hired girl, eh?"

"I dunno, I dunno," was the brooding answer; "the place ain’t going to stand it."

"We’ll get more out of it," answered Rodney. "I’ll stock it up, I’ll put more under barley. All the thing wants is working, dad. Put more in, get more out. Now ain’t that right?"

The other was looking off towards the rye-field, where, for forty years, up and down the hillside, he had travelled with the cradle and the scythe, putting all there was in him into it, and he answered, blinking along the avenue of the past:

"Mebbe, mebbe!"

Rodney fretted under the old man’s vague replies, and said: "But darn it all, can’t you tell us what you think?"

His father did not take his eyes off the rye-field. "I’m thinking," he answered, in the same old-fashioned way, "that I’ve been working here since you were born, Rod. I’ve blundered along, somehow, just boggling my way through. I ain’t got anything more to say. The farm ain’t mine any more, but I’ll keep my scythe sharp and my axe ground just as I always did, and I’m for workin’ as I’ve always worked as long as I’m let to stay."

"Good Lord, dad, don’t talk that way! Things ain’t going to be any different for you and mother than they are now. Only, of course——" He paused.

The old man pieced out the sentence: "Only, of course, there can’t be two women rulin’ one house, Rod, and you know it as well as I do."

Exactly how Rodney’s wife told the old mother of the great change Rodney never knew; but when he went back to the house the grey look in his mother’s face told him more than her words ever told. Before they left that night the pink milliner had already planned the changes which were to celebrate her coming and her ruling.

So Rodney and his wife came, all the old man prophesied in a few brief sentences to his wife proving true. There was no great struggle on the mother’s part; she stepped aside from governing, and became as like a servant as could be. An insolent servant-girl came, and she and Rodney’s wife started a little drama of incompetency, which should end as the hotel-keeping ended. Wastefulness, cheap luxury, tawdry living, took the place of the old, frugal, simple life. But the mother went about with that unchanging sweetness of face, and a body withering about a fretted soul. She had no bitterness, only a miserable distress. But every slight that was put upon her, every change, every new-fangled idea, from the white sugar to the scented soap and the yellow buggy, rankled in the old man’s heart. He had resentment both for the old wife and himself, and he hated the pink milliner for the humiliation that she heaped upon them both. Rodney did not see one-fifth of it, and what he did see lost its force, because, strangely enough, he loved the gaudy wife who wore gloves on her bloodless hands as she did the house-work and spent numberless afternoons in trimming her own bonnets. Her peevishness grew apace as the newness of the experience wore off. Uncle Jim seldom spoke to her, as he seldom spoke to anybody, but she had an inkling of the rancour in his heart, and many a time she put blame upon his shoulders to her husband, when some unavoidable friction came.

A year, two years, passed, which were as ten upon the shoulders of the old people, and then, in the dead of winter, an important thing happened. About the month of March Rodney’s first child was expected. At the end of January Rodney had to go away, expecting to return in less than a month. But, in the middle of February, the woman’s sacred trouble came before its time. And on that day there fell such a storm as had not been seen for many a year. The concession road was blocked before day had well set in; no horse could go ten yards in it. The nearest doctor was miles away at Pontiac, and for any man to face the journey was to connive with death. The old mother came to Uncle Jim, and, as she looked out of a little unfrosted spot on the window at the blinding storm, told him that the pink milliner would die. There seemed to be no other end to it, for the chances were a hundred to one against the strongest man making a journey for the doctor, and another hundred to one against the doctor’s coming.

No one knows whether Uncle Jim could hear the cries from the torture-chamber, but, after standing for a time mumbling to himself, he wrapped himself in a heavy coat, tied a muffler about his face, and went out. If they missed him they must have thought him gone to the barn, or in the drive-shed sharpening his axe. But the day went on and the old mother forgot all the wrongs that she had suffered, and yearned over the trivial woman who was hurrying out into the Great Space. Her hours seemed numbered at noon, her moments measured as it came towards sundown, but with the passing of the sun the storm stopped, and a beautiful white peace fell on the world of snow, and suddenly out of that peace came six men; and the first that opened the door was the doctor. After him came Uncle Jim, supported between two others.

Uncle Jim had made the terrible journey, falling at last in the streets of the county town with frozen hands and feet, not a dozen rods from the doctor’s door. They brought him to, he told his story, and, with the abating of the storm, the doctor and the villagers drove down to the concession road, and then made their way slowly up across the fields, carrying the old man with them, for he would not be left behind.

 

An hour after the doctor entered the parlour bedroom the old mother came out to where the old man sat, bundled up beside the fire with bandaged hands and feet.

"She’s safe, Jim, and the child too," she said softly.

The old man twisted in his chair, and blinked into the fire. "Dang my soul!" he said.

The old woman stooped and kissed his grey tangled hair. She did not speak, and she did not ask him what he meant; but there and then they took up their lives again and lived them out.