Chapter III - Lonesomeness

When the rusty hands of the office clock marked half-past four, the editor-in-chief of the "Carlow County Herald" took his hand out of his hair, wiped his pen on his last notice from the White-Caps, put on his coat, swept out the close little entry, and left the sanctum for the bright June afternoon.

He chose the way to the west, strolling thoughtfully out of town by the white, hot, deserted Main Street, and thence onward by the country road into which its proud half-mile of old brick store buildings, tumbled-down frame shops and thinly painted cottages degenerated. The sun was in his face, where the road ran between the summer fields, lying waveless, low, gracious in promise; but, coming to a wood of hickory and beech and walnut that stood beyond, he might turn his down-bent-hat-brim up and hold his head erect. Here the shade fell deep and cool on the green tangle of rag and iron weed and long grass in the corners of the snake fence, although the sun beat upon the road so dose beside. There was no movement in the crisp young leaves overhead; high in the boughs there was a quick flirt of crimson where two robins hopped noiselessly. No insect raised resentment of the lonesomeness: the late afternoon, when the air is quite still, had come; yet there rested--somewhere--on the quiet day, a faint, pleasant, woody smell. It came to the editor of the "Herald" as he climbed to the top rail of the fence for a seat, and he drew a long, deep breath to get the elusive odor more luxuriously--and then it was gone altogether.

"A habit of delicacies," he said aloud, addressing the wide silence complainingly. He drew a faded tobacco-bag and a brier pipe from his coat pocket and filled and lit the pipe. "One taste--and they quit," he finished, gazing solemnly upon the shining little town down the road. He twirled the pouch mechanically about his finger, and then, suddenly regarding it, patted it caressingly. It had been a giddy little bag, long ago, satin, and gay with embroidery in the colors of the editor's university; and although now it was frayed to the verge of tatters, it still bore an air of pristine jauntiness, an air of which its owner in no wise partook. He looked from it over the fields toward the town in the clear distance and sighed softly as he put the pouch back in his pocket, and, resting his arm on his knee and his chin in his hand, sat blowing clouds of smoke out of the shade into the sunshine, absently watching the ghostly shadows dance on the white dust of the road.

A little garter snake crept under the fence beneath him and disappeared in the underbrush; a rabbit progressing timidly on his travels by a series of brilliant dashes and terror-smitten halts, came within a few yards of him, sat up with quivering nose and eyes alight with fearful imaginings-- vanished, a flash of fluffy brown and white. Shadows grew longer; the brier pipe sputtered feebly in depletion and was refilled. A cricket chirped and heard answer; there was a woodland stir of breezes; and the pair of robins left the branches overhead in eager flight, vacating before the arrival of a great flock of blackbirds hastening thither ere the eventide should be upon them. The blackbirds came, chattered, gossiped, quarrelled, and beat each other with their wings above the smoker sitting on the top fence rail.

But he had remembered--it was Commencement. To-day, a thousand miles to the east, a company of grave young gentlemen sat in semi-circular rows before a central altar, while above them rose many tiers of mothers and sisters and sweethearts, listening to the final word. He could see it all very clearly: the lines of freshly shaven, boyish faces, the dainty gowns, the flowers and bright eyes above, and the light that filtered in through stained glass to fall softly over them all, with, here and there, a vivid splash of color, Gothic shaped. He could see the throngs of white-clad loungers under the elms without, under-classmen, bored by the Latin addresses and escaped to the sward and breeze of the campus; there were the troops of roistering graduates trotting about arm in arm, and singing; he heard the mandolins on the little balconies play an old refrain and the university cheering afterward; saw the old professor he had cared for most of all, with the thin white hair straggling over his silken hood, following the band in the sparse ranks of his class. And he saw his own Commencement Day--and the station at the junction where he stood the morning after, looking across the valley at the old towers for the last time; saw the broken groups of his class, standing upon the platform on the other side of the tracks, waiting for the south-bound train as he and others waited for the north-bound--and they all sang "Should auld acquaintance be forgot;" and, while they looked across at each other, singing, the shining rails between them wavered and blurred as the engine rushed in and separated them and their lives thenceforth. He filled his pipe again and spoke to the phantoms gliding over the dust--"Seven years!" He was occupied with the realization that there had been a man in his class whose ambition needed no restraint, his promise was so complete--in the strong belief of the university, a belief he could not help knowing-- and that seven years to a day from his Commencement this man was sitting on a fence rail in Indiana.

Down the road a buggy came creaking toward him, gray with dust, the top canted permanently to one side, old and frayed, like the fat, shaggy, gray mare that drew it; her unchecked, despondent head lowering before her, while her incongruous tail waved incessantly, like the banner of a storming party. The editor did not hear the flop of the mare's feet nor the sound of the wheels, so deep was his reverie, till the vehicle was nearly opposite him. The red-faced and perspiring driver drew rein, and the journalist looked up and waved a long white hand to him in greeting.

"Howdy' do, Mr. Harkless?" called the man in the buggy. "Soakin' in the weather?" He spoke in shouts, though neither was hard of hearing.

"Yes; just soaking," answered Harkless; "it's such a gypsy day. How is Mr. Bowlder?"

"I'm givin' good satisfaction, thankye, and all at home. She's in town; goin' in after her now."

"Give Mrs. Bowlder my regards," said the journalist, comprehending the symbolism. "How is Hartley?"

The farmer's honest face shaded over, a second. "He's be'n steady ever sence the night you brought him out home; six weeks straight. I'm kind of bothered about to-morrow--It's show-day and he wants to come in town with us, and seems if I hadn't any call to say no. I reckon he'll have to take his chances--and us, too." He raised the reins and clucked to the gray mare; "Well, she'll be mad I ain't there long ago. Ride in with me?"

"No, I thank you. I'll walk in for the sake of my appetite."

"Wouldn't encourage it too much--livin' at the Palace Hotel,'" observed Bowlder. "Sorry ye won't ride." He gathered the loose ends of the reins in his hands, leaned far over the dashboard and struck the mare a hearty thwack; the tattered banner of tail jerked indignantly, but she consented to move down the road. Bowlder thrust his big head through the sun-curtain behind him and continued the conversation: "See the White-Caps ain't got ye yet."

"No, not yet." Harkless laughed.

"Reckon the boys 'druther ye stayed in town after dark," the other called back; then, as the mare stumbled into a trot, "Well, come out and see us-- if ye kin spare time from the jedge's." The latter clause seemed to be an afterthought intended with humor, for Bowlder accompanied it with the loud laughter of sylvan timidity, risking a joke. Harkless nodded without the least apprehension of his meaning, and waved farewell as Bowlder finally turned his attention to the mare. When the flop, flop of her hoofs had died out, the journalist realized that the day was silent no longer; it was verging into evening.

He dropped from the fence and turned his face toward town and supper. He felt the light and life about him; heard the clatter of the blackbirds above him; heard the homing bees hum by, and saw the vista of white road and level landscape, framed on two sides by the branches of the grove, a vista of infinitely stretching fields of green, lined here and there with woodlands and flat to the horizon line, the village lying in their lap. No roll of meadow, no rise of pasture land, relieved their serenity nor shouldered up from them to be called a hill. A second great flock of blackbirds was settling down over the Plattville maples. As they hung in the fair dome of the sky below the few white clouds, it occurred to Harkless that some supping god had inadvertently peppered his custard, and now inverted and emptied his gigantic blue dish upon the earth, the innumerable little black dots seeming to poise for a moment, then floating slowly down from the heights.

A farm-bell rang in the distance, a tinkling coming small and mellow from far away, and at the lonesomeness of that sound he heaved a long, mournful sigh. The next instant he broke into laughter, for another bell rang over the fields, the court-house bell in the Square. The first four strokes were given with mechanical regularity, the pride of the custodian who operated the bell being to produce the effect of a clock-work bell such as he had once heard in the court-house at Rouen; but the fifth and sixth strokes were halting achievements, as, after four o'clock, he often lost count on the strain of the effort for precise imitation. There was a pause after the sixth, then a dubious and reluctant stroke--seven--a longer pause, followed by a final ring with desperate decision--eight! Harkless looked at his watch; it was twenty minutes of six.

As he crossed the court-house yard to the Palace Hotel, he stopped to exchange a word with the bell-ringer, who, seated on the steps, was mopping his brow with an air of hard-earned satisfaction.

"Good-evening, Schofields'," he said. "You came in strong on the last stroke, to-night."

"What we need here," responded the bell-ringer, "is more public-spirited men. I ain't kickin' on you, Mr. Harkless, no sir; but we want more men like they got in Rouen; we want men that'll git Main Street paved with block or asphalt; men that'll put in factories, men that'll act and not set round like that ole fool Martin and laugh and polly-woggle and make fun of public sperrit, day in and out. I reckon I do my best for the city."

"Oh, nobody minds Tom Martin," answered Harkless. "It's only half the time he means anything by what he says."

"That's jest what I hate about him," returned the bell-ringer in a tone of high complaint; "you can't never tell which half it is. Look at him now!" Over in front of the hotel Martin was standing, talking to the row of coatless loungers who sat with their chairs tilted back against the props of the wooden awning that projected over the sidewalk. Their faces were turned toward the court-house, and even those lost in meditative whittling had looked up to laugh. Martin, his hands in the pockets of his alpaca coat, his rusty silk hat tilted forward till the wide brim rested almost on the bridge of his nose, was addressing them in his one-keyed voice, the melancholy whine of which, though not the words, penetrated to the courthouse steps.

The bell-ringer, whose name was Henry Schofield, but who was known as Schofield's Henry (popularly abbreviated to Schofields') was moved to indignation. "Look at him," he cried. "Look at him! Everlastingly goin' on about my bell! Let him talk, jest let him talk." The supper gong boomed inside the hotel and Harkless bade the bell-ringer good-night. As he moved away the latter called after him: "He don't disturb nobody. Let him talk. Who pays any 'tention to him I'd like to know?" There was a burst of laughter from the whittlers. Schofields' sat in patient silence for a full minute, as one who knew that no official is too lofty to escape the anathemas of envy. Then he sprang to his feet and shook his fist at Martin, who was disappearing within the door of the hotel. "Go to Halifax!" he shouted.

The dining-room of the Palace Hotel was a large, airy apartment, rustling with artistically perforated and slashed pink paper that hung everywhere, at this season of the year, to lend festal effect as well as to palliate the scourge of flies. There were six or seven large tables, all vacant except that at which Columbus Landis, the landlord, sat with his guests, while his wife and children ate in the kitchen by their own preference. Transient trade was light in Plattville; nobody ever came there, except occasional commercial travellers who got out of town the instant it was possible, and who said awful things if, by the exigencies of the railway time-table, they were left over night.

Behind the host's chair stood a red-haired girl in a blue cotton gown; and in her hand she languidly waved a long instrument made of clustered strips of green and white and yellow tissue paper fastened to a wooden wand; with this she amiably amused the flies except at such times as the conversation proved too interesting, when she was apt to rest it on the shoulder of one of the guests. This happened each time the editor of the "Herald" joined in the talk. As the men seated themselves they all nodded to her and said, "G'd evening, Cynthy." Harkless always called her Charmion; no one knew why. When he came in she moved around the table to a chair directly opposite him, and held that station throughout the meal, with her eyes fixed on his face. Mr. Martin noted this manoeuvre--it occurred regularly twice a day--with a stealthy smile at the girl, and her light skin flushed while her lip curled shrewishly at the old gentleman. "Oh, all right, Cynthy," he whispered to her, and chuckled aloud at her angry toss of the head.

"Schofields' seemed to be kind of put out with me this evening," he remarked, addressing himself to the company. "He's the most ungratefullest cuss I ever come up with. I was only oratin' on how proud the city ought to be of him. He fairly keeps Plattville's sportin' spirit on the gog; 'die out, wasn't for him. There's be'n more money laid on him whether he'll strike over and above the hour, or under and below, or whether he'll strike fifteen minutes before time, or twenty after, than--well, sir, we'd all forgit the language if it wasn't for Schofields' bell to keep us talkin'; that's my claim. Dull days, think of the talk he furnishes all over town. Think what he's done to promote conversation. Now, for instance, Anna Belle Bardlock's got a beau, they say"--here old Tom tilted back in his chair and turned an innocent eye upon a youth across the table, young William Todd, who was blushing over his griddle-cakes--"and I hear he's a good deal scared of Anna Belle and not just what you might call brash with her. They say every Sunday night he'll go up to Bardlocks' and call on Anna Belle from half-past six till nine, and when he's got into his chair he sets and looks at the floor and the crayon portraits till about seven; then he opens his tremblin' lips and says, 'Reckon Schofields' must be on his way to the court-house by this time.' And about an hour later, when Schofields' hits four or five, he'll speak up again, 'Say, I reckon he means eight.' 'Long towards nine o'clock, they say he skews around in his chair and says, 'Wonder if he'll strike before time or after,' and Anna Belle answers out loud, 'I hope after,' for politeness; but in her soul she says, 'I pray before'; and then Schofields' hits her up for eighteen or twenty, and Anna Belle's company reaches for his hat. Three Sundays ago he turned around before he went out and said, 'Do you like apple-butter?' but never waited to find out. It's the same programme every Sunday evening, and Jim Bardlock says Anna Belle's so worn out you wouldn't hardly know her for the blithe creature she was last year--the excitement's be'n too much for her!"

Poor William Todd bent his fiery face over the table and suffered the general snicker in helpless silence. Then there was quiet for a space, broken only by the click of knives against the heavy china and the indolent rustle of Cynthia's fly-brush.

"Town so still," observed the landlord, finally, with a complacent glance at the dessert course of prunes to which his guests were helping themselves from a central reservoir, "Town so still, hardly seems like show-day's come round again. Yet there's be'n some shore signs lately: when my shavers come honeyin' up with, 'Say, pa, ain't they no urrands I can go for ye, pa? I like to run 'em for you, pa,'--'relse, 'Oh, pa, ain't they no water I can haul, or nothin', pa?'--'relse, as little Rosina T. says, this morning, 'Pa, I always pray fer you pa,' and pa this and pa that-you can rely either Christmas or show-day's mighty close."

William Todd, taking occasion to prove himself recovered from confusion, remarked casually that there was another token of the near approach of the circus, as ole Wilkerson was drunk again.

"There's a man!" exclaimed Mr. Martin with enthusiasm. "There's the feller for my money! He does his duty as a citizen more discriminatin'ly on public occasions than any man I ever see. There's Wilkerson's celebration when there's a funeral; look at the difference between it and on Fourth of July. Why, sir, it's as melancholy as a hearse-plume, and sympathy ain't the word for it when he looks at the remains, no sir; preacher nor undertaker, either, ain't half as blue and respectful. Then take his circus spree. He come into the store this afternoon, head up, marchin' like a grenadier and shootin' his hand out before his face and drawin' it back again, and hollering out, 'Ta, ta, ta-ra-ta, ta, ta-tara'--why, the dumbest man ever lived could see in a minute show's 'comin' to-morrow and Wilkerson's playin' the trombone. Then he'd snort and goggle like an elephant. Got the biggest sense of appropriateness of any man in the county, Wilkerson has. Folks don't half appreciate him."

As each boarder finished his meal he raided the glass of wooden toothpicks and went away with no standing on the order of his going; but Martin waited for Harkless, who, not having attended to business so concisely as the others, was the last to leave the table, and they stood for a moment under the awning outside, lighting their cigars.

"Call on the judge, to-night?" asked Martin.

"No," said Harkless. "Why?"

"Didn't you see the lady with Minnie and the judge at the lecture?"

"I caught a glimpse of her. That's what Bowlder meant, then."

"I don't know what Bowlder meant, but I guess you better go out there, young man. She might not stay here long."