Chapter VIII - Glad Afternoon: The Girl By The Blue Tent-pole
They walked slowly back along the pike toward the brick house. The whiteruffed fennel reached up its dusty yellow heads to touch her skirts as she passed, and then drooped, satisfied, against the purple iron-weed at the roadside. In the noonday silence no cricket chirped nor locust raised its lorn monotone; the tree shadows mottled the road with blue, and the level fields seemed to pant out a dazzling breath, the transparent "heat-waves" that danced above the low corn and green wheat.
He was stooping very much as they walked; he wanted to be told that he could look at her for a thousand years. Her face was rarely and exquisitely modelled, but, perhaps, just now the salient characteristic of her beauty (for the salient characteristic seemed to be a different thing at different times) was the coloring, a delicate glow under the white skin, that bewitched him in its seeming a reflection of the rich benediction of the noonday sun that blazed overhead.
Once he had thought the way to the Briscoe homestead rather a long walk; but now the distance sped malignantly; and strolled they never so slow, it was less than a "young bird's flutter from a wood." With her acquiescence he rolled a cigarette, and she began to hum lightly the air of a song, a song of an ineffably gentle, slow movement.
That, and a reference of the morning, and, perhaps, the smell of his tobacco mingling with the fragrance of her roses, awoke again the keen reminiscence of the previous night within him. Clearly outlined before him rose the high, green slopes and cool cliff-walls of the coast of Maine, while his old self lazily watched the sharp little waves through halfclosed lids, the pale smoke of his cigarette blowing out under the rail of a waxen deck where he lay cushioned. And again a woman pelted his face with handfuls of rose-petals and cried: "Up lad and at 'em! Yonder is Winter Harbor." Again he sat in the oak-raftered Casino, breathless with pleasure, and heard a young girl sing the "Angel's Serenade," a young girl who looked so bravely unconscious of the big, hushed crowd that listened, looked so pure and bright and gentle and good, that he had spoken of her as "Sir Galahad's little sister." He recollected he had been much taken with this child; but he had not thought of her from that time to this, he supposed; had almost forgotten her. No! Her face suddenly stood out to his view as though he saw her with his physical eye--a sweet and vivacious child's face with light-brown hair and gray eyes and a short upper lip. . . . And the voice. . . .
He stopped short and struck his palms together. "You are Tom Meredith's little cousin!"
"The Great Harkless!" she answered, and stretched out her hand to him.
"I remember you!"
"Isn't it time?"
"Ah, but I never forgot you," he cried. "I thought I had. I didn't know who it was I was remembering. I thought it was fancy, and it was memory. I never forgot your voice, singing--and I remembered your face too; though I thought I didn't." He drew a deep breath. "That was why----"
"Tom Meredith has not forgotten you," she said, as he paused.
"Would you mind shaking hands once more?" he asked. She gave him her hand again. "With all my heart. Why?"
"I'm making a record at it. Thank you."
"They called me 'Sir Galahad's little sister' all one summer because the Great John Harkless called me that. You danced with me in the evening."
"Ah," she said, shaking her head, "you were too busy being in love with Mrs. Van Skuyt to remember a waltz with only me! I was allowed to meet you as a reward for singing my very best, and you--you bowed with the indulgence of a grandfather, and asked me to dance."
"Like a grandfather? How young I was then! How time changes us!"
"I'm afraid my conversation did not make a great impression upon you," she continued.
"But it did. I am remembering very fast. If you will wait a moment, I will tell you some of the things you said."
The girl laughed merrily. Whenever she laughed he realized that it was becoming terribly difficult not to tell her how adorable she was. "I wouldn't risk it, if I were you," she warned him, "because I didn't speak to you at all. I shut my lips tight and trembled all over every bit of the time I was dancing with you. I did not sleep that night, because I was so unhappy, wondering what the Great Harkless would think of me. I knew he thought me unutterably stupid because I couldn't talk to him. I wanted to send him word that I knew I had bored him. I couldn't bear for him not to know that I knew I had. But he was not thinking of me in any way. He had gone to sea again in a big boat, the ungrateful pirate, cruising with Mrs. Van Skuyt."
"How time does change us!" said John. "You are wrong, though; I did think of you; I have al----"
"Yes," she interrupted, tossing her head in airy travesty of the stage coquette, "you think so--I mean you say so--now. Away with you and your blarneying!"
And so they went through the warm noontide, and little he cared for the heat that wilted the fat mullein leaves and made the barefoot boy, who passed by, skip gingerly through the burning dust with anguished mouth and watery eye. Little he knew of the locust that suddenly whirred his mills of shrillness in the maple-tree, and sounded so hot, hot, hot; or those others that railed at the country quiet from the dim shade around the brick house; or even the rain-crow that sat on the fence and swore to them in the face of a sunny sky that they should see rain ere the day were done.
Little the young man recked of what he ate at Judge Briscoe's good noon dinner: chicken wing and young roas'n'-ear; hot rolls as light as the fluff of a summer cloudlet; and honey and milk; and apple-butter flavored like spices of Arabia; and fragrant, flaky cherry-pie; and cool, rich, yellow cream. Lige Willetts was a lover, yet he said he asked no better than to Just go on eating that cherry-pie till a sweet death overtook him; but railroad sandwiches and restaurant chops might have been set before Harkless for all the difference it would have made to him.
At no other time is a man's feeling of companionship with a woman so strong as when he sits at table with her-not at a "decorated" and becatered and bewaitered table, but at a homely, appetizing, wholesome home table like old Judge Briscoe's. The very essence of the thing is domesticity, and the implication is utter confidence and liking. There are few greater dangers for a bachelor. An insinuating imp perches on his shoulder, and, softly tickling the bachelor's ear with the feathers of an arrow-shaft, whispers: "Pretty nice, isn't it, eh? Rather pleasant to have that girl sitting there, don't you think? Enjoy having her notice your butter-plate was empty? Think it exhilarating to hand her those rolls? Looks nice, doesn't she? Says 'Thank you' rather prettily? Makes your lonely breakfast seem mighty dull, doesn't it? How would you like to have her pour your coffee for you to-morrow, my boy? How would it seem to have such pleasant company all the rest of your life? Pretty cheerful, eh?"
When Miss Sherwood passed the editor the apple-butter, the casual, matterof-course way she did it entranced him in a strange, exquisite wonderment. He did not set the dish down when she put it in his hand, but held it straight out before him, just looking at it, until Mr. Willetts had a dangerous choking fit, for which Minnie was very proud of Lige; no one could have suspected that it was the veil of laughter. When Helen told John he really must squeeze a lemon into his iced tea, he felt that his one need in life was to catch her up in his arms and run away with her, not anywhere in particular, but just run and run and run away.
After dinner they went out to the veranda and the gentlemen smoked. The judge set his chair down on the ground, tilted back in it with his feet on the steps, and blew a wavery domed city up in the air. He called it solid comfort. He liked to sit out from under the porch roof, he said; he wanted to see more of the sky. The others moved their chairs down to join him in the celestial vision. There had blown across the heaven a feathery, thin cloud or two, but save for these, there was nothing but glorious and tender, brilliant blue. It seemed so clear and close one marvelled the little church spire in the distance did not pierce it; yet, at the same time, the eye ascended miles and miles into warm, shimmering ether. Far away two buzzards swung slowly at anchor, half-way to the sun.
said Harkless, pointing them out to Helen.
"You seem to get a good deal of fun out of this kind of weather," observed Lige, as he wiped his brow and shifted his chair out of the sun.
"I expect you don't get such skies as this up in Rouen," said the judge, looking at the girl from between half-closed eyelids.
"It's the same Indiana sky, I think," she answered.
"I guess maybe in the city you don't see as much of it, or think as much about it. Yes, they're the Indiana skies," the old man went on.
"There aren't any others anywhere that ever seemed much like them to me. They've been company for me all my life. I don't think there are any others half as beautiful, and I know there aren't any as sociable. They were always so." He sighed gently, and Miss Sherwood fancied his wife must have found the Indiana skies as lovely as he had, in the days of long ago. "Seems to me they are the softest and bluest and kindest in the world."
"I think they are," said Helen, "and they are more beautiful than the 'Italian skies,' though I doubt if many of us Hoosiers realize it; and-- certainly no one else does."
The old man leaned over and patted her hand. Harkless gasped. "'Us Hoosiers!'" chuckled the judge. "You're a great Hoosier, young lady! How much of your life have you spent in the State? 'Us Hoosiers!'"
"But I'm going to be a good one," she answered, gaily, "and if I'm good enough, when I grow up maybe I'll be a great one."
The buckboard had been brought around, and the four young people climbed in, Harkless driving. Before they started, the judge, standing on the horse-block in front of the gate, leaned over and patted Miss Sherwood's hand again. Harkless gathered up the reins.
"You'll make a great Hoosier, all right," said the old man, beaming upon the girl. "You needn't worry about that, I guess, my dear."
When he said "my dear," Harkless spoke to the horses.
"Wait," said the judge, still holding the girl's hand. "You'll make a great Hoosier, some day; don't fret. You're already a very beautiful one." Then he bent his white head and kissed her, gallantly. John said: "Good afternoon, judge"; the whip cracked like a pistol-shot, and the buckboard dashed off in a cloud of dust.
"Every once in a while, Harkless," the old fellow called after them, "you must remember to look at the team."
The enormous white tent was filled with a hazy yellow light, the warm, dusty, mellow light that thrills the rejoicing heart because it is found nowhere in the world except in the tents of a circus--the canvas-filtered sunshine and sawdust atmosphere of show day. Through the entrance the crowd poured steadily, coming from the absorptions of the wild-animal tent to feast upon greater wonders; passing around the sawdust ellipse that contained two soul-cloying rings, to find seats whence they might behold the splendors so soon to be unfolded. Every one who was not buying the eternal lemonade was eating something; and the faces of children shone with gourmand rapture; indeed, very often the eyes of them were all you saw, half-closed in palate-gloating over a huge apple, or a bulky oblong of popcorn, partly unwrapped from its blue tissue-paper cover; or else it might be a luscious pink crescent of watermelon, that left its ravisher stained and dripping to the brow.
Here, as in the morning, the hawkers raised their cries in unintermittent shrillness, offering to the musically inclined the Happy Evenings Songbook, alleged to contain those treasures, all the latest songs of the day, or presented for the consideration of the humorous the Lawrence Lapearl Joke-book, setting forth in full the art of comical entertainment and repartee. (Schofields' Henry bought two of these--no doubt on the principle that two were twice as instructive as one--intending to bury himself in study and do battle with Tom Martin on his own ground.)
Here swayed the myriad palm-leaf fans; here paraded blushing youth and rosy maiden, more relentlessly arm-in-arm than ever; here crept the octogenarian, Mr. Bodeffer, shaking on cane and the shoulder of posterity; here waddled Mr. Snoddy, who had hurried through the animal tent for fear of meeting the elephant; here marched sturdy yeomen and stout wives; here came William Todd and his Anna Belle, the good William hushed with the embarrassments of love, but looking out warily with the white of his eye for Mr. Martin, and determined not to sit within a hundred yards of him; here rolled in the orbit of habit the bacchanal, Mr. Wilkerson, who politely answered in kind all the uncouth roarings and guttural ejaculations of jungle and fen that came from the animal tent; in brief, here came with lightest hearts the population of Carlow and part of Amo.
Helen had found a true word: it was a big family. Jim Bardlock, broadly smiling and rejuvenated, shorn of depression, paused in front of the "reserve" seats, with Mrs. Bardlock on his arm, and called loudly to a gentleman on a tier about the level of Jim's head: "How are ye? I reckon we were a little too smart fer 'em, this morning, huh?" Five or six hundred people--every one within hearing--fumed to look at Jim; but the gentleman addressed was engaged in conversation with a lady and did not notice.
"Hi! Hi, there! Say! Mr. Harkless!" bellowed Jim, informally. The people turned to look at Harkless. His attention was arrested and his cheek grew red.
"What is it?" he asked, a little confused and a good deal annoyed.
"I don't hear what ye say," shouted Jim, putting his hand to his ear.
"What is it?" repeated the young man. "I'll kill that fellow to-night," he added to Lige Willetts. "Some one ought to have done it long ago."
"I say, WHAT IS IT?"
"I only wanted to say me and you certainly did fool these here Hoosiers this morning, huh? Hustled them two fellers through the court-house, and nobody never thought to slip round to the other door and head us off. Ha, ha! We were jest a leetle too many fer 'em, huh?"
From an upper tier of seats the rusty length of Mr. Martin erected itself joint by joint, like an extension ladder, and he peered down over the gaping faces at the Town Marshal. "Excuse me," he said sadly to those behind him, but his dry voice penetrated everywhere, "I got up to hear Jim say 'We' again."
Mr. Bardlock joined in the laugh against himself, and proceeded with his wife to some seats, forty or fifty feet distant. When he had settled himself comfortably, he shouted over cheerfully to the unhappy editor: "Them shell-men got it in fer you, Mr. Harkless."
"Ain't that fool shet up yit?" snarled the aged Mr. Bodeffer, indignantly. He was sitting near the young couple, and the expression of his sympathy was distinctly audible to them and many others. "Got no more regards than a brazing calf-disturbin' a feller with his sweetheart!"
"The both of 'em says they're goin' to do fer you," bleated Mr. Bardlock. "Swear they'll git their evens with ye."
Mr. Martin rose again. "Don't git scared and leave town, Mr. Harkless," he called out; "Jim'll protect you."
Vastly to the young man's relief the band began to play, and the equestrians and equestriennes capered out from the dressing-tent for the "Grand Entrance," and the performance commenced. Through the long summer afternoon it went on: wonders of horsemanship and horsewomanship; hairraising exploits on wires, tight and slack; giddy tricks on the high trapeze; feats of leaping and tumbling in the rings; while the tireless musicians blatted inspiringly through it all, only pausing long enough to allow that uproarious jester, the clown, to ask the ring-master what he would do if a young lady came up and kissed him on the street, and to exploit his hilarities during the short intervals of rest for the athletes.
When it was over, John and Helen found themselves in the midst of a densely packed crowd, and separated from Miss Briscoe and Lige. People were pushing and shoving, and he saw her face grow pale. He realized with a pang of sympathy how helpless he would feel if he were as small as she, and at his utmost height could only see big, suffocating backs and huge shoulders pressing down from above. He was keeping them from crowding heavily upon her with all his strength, and a royal feeling of protectiveness came over him. She was so little. And yet, without the remotest hint of hardness, she gave him such a distinct impression of poise and equilibrium, she seemed so able to meet anything that might come, to understand it--even to laugh at it--so Americanly capable and sure of the event, that in spite of her pale cheek he could not feel quite so protective as he wished to feel.
He managed to get her to one of the tent-poles, and placed her with her back to it. Then he set one of his own hands against it over her head, braced himself and stood, keeping a little space about her, ruggedly letting the crowd surge against him as it would; no one should touch her in rough carelessness.
"Thank you. It was rather trying in there," she said, and looked up into his eyes with a divine gratitude.
"Please don't do that," he answered in a low voice.
"Look like that."
She not only looked like that, but more so. "Young man, young man," she said, "I fear you're wishful of turning a girl's head."
The throng was thick around them, garrulous and noisy, but they two were more richly alone together, to his appreciation, than if they stood on some far satellite of Mars. He was not to forget that moment, and he kept the picture of her, as she leaned against the big blue tent-pole, there, in his heart: the clear gray eyes lifted to his, the delicate face with the color stealing back to her cheeks, and the brave little figure that had run so straight to him out of the night shadows. There was something about her, and in the moment, that suddenly touched him with a saddening sweetness too keen to be borne; the forget-me-not finger of the flying hour that could not come again was laid on his soul, and he felt the tears start from his heart on their journey to his eyes. He knew that he should always remember that moment. She knew it, too. She put her hand to her cheek and turned away from him a little tremulously. Both were silent.
They had been together since early morning. Plattville was proud of him. Many a friendly glance from the folk who jostled about them favored his suit and wished both of them well, and many lips, opening to speak to Harkless in passing, closed when their owners (more tactful than Mr. Bardlock) looked a second time.
Old Tom Martin, still perched alone On his high seat, saw them standing by the tent-pole, and watched them from under his rusty hat brim. "I reckon it's be'n three or four thousand years since I was young," he sighed to himself; then, pushing his hat still further down over his eyes: "I don't believe I'd ort to rightly look on at that." He sighed again as he rose, and gently spoke the name of his dead wife: "Marjie,--it's be'n lonesome, sometimes. I reckon you're mighty tired waitin' for me, ever since sixtyfour--yet maybe not; Ulysses S. Grant's over on your side now, and perhaps you've got acquainted with him; you always thought a good deal more of him than you did of me."
"Do you see that tall old man up there?" said Helen, nodding her head toward Martin. "I think I should like to know him. I'm sure I like him."
"That is old Tom Martin."
"I was sorry and ashamed about all that conspicuousness and shouting. It must have been very unpleasant for you; it must have been so, for a stranger. Please try to forgive me for letting you in for it."
"But I liked it. It was 'all in the family,' and it was so jolly and goodnatured, and that dear old man was so bright. Do you know," she said softly, "I don't think I'm such a stranger--I--I think I love all these people a great deal--in spite of having known them only two days."
At that a wild exhilaration possessed him. He wanted to shake hands with everybody in the tent, to tell them all that he loved them with his whole heart, but, what was vastly more important, she loved them a great deal --in spite of having known them only two days!
He made the horses prance on the homeward drive, and once, when she told him that she had read a good many of his political columns in the "Herald," he ran them into a fence. After this it occurred to him that they were nearing their destination and had come at a perversely sharp gait; so he held the roans down to a snail's pace (if it be true that a snail's natural gait is not a trot) for the rest of the way, while they talked of Tom Meredith and books and music, and discovered that they differed widely about Ibsen.
They found Mr. Fisbee in the yard, talking to Judge Briscoe. As they drove up, and before the horses had quite stopped, Helen leaped to the ground and ran to the old scholar with both her hands outstretched to him. He looked timidly at her, and took the hands she gave him; then he produced from his pocket a yellow telegraph envelope, watching her anxiously as she received it. However, she seemed to attach no particular importance to it, and, instead of opening it, leaned toward him, still holding one of his hands.
"These awful old men!" Harkless groaned inwardly as he handed the horses over to the judge. "I dare say he'll kiss her, too." But, when the editor and Mr. Willetts had gone, it was Helen who kissed Fisbee.
"They're coming out to spend the evening, aren't they?" asked Briscoe, nodding to the young men as they set off down the road.
"Lige has to come whether he wants to or not," Minnie laughed, rather consciously; "It's his turn to-night to look after Mr. Harkless."
"I guess he won't mind coming," said the judge.
"Well," returned his daughter, glancing at Helen, who stood apart, reading the telegram to Fisbee, "I know if he follows Mr. Harkless he'll get here pretty soon after supper--as soon as the moon comes up, anyway."
The editor of the "Herald" was late to his supper that evening. It was dusk when he reached the hotel, and, for the first time in history, a gentleman sat down to meat in that house of entertainment in evening dress. There was no one in the diningroom when he went in; the other boarders had finished, and it was Cynthia's "evening out," but the landlord came and attended to his guests' wants himself, and chatted with him while he ate.
"There's a picture of Henry Clay," remarked Landis, in obvious relevancy to his companion's attire, "there's a picture of Henry Clay somewheres about the house in a swallow-tail coat. Governor Ray spoke here in one in early times, Bodeffer says, except it was higher built up 'n yourn about the collar, and had brass buttons, I think. Ole man Wimby was here to-night," the landlord continued, changing the subject. "He waited around fer ye a good while. He's be'n mighty wrought up sence the trouble this morning, an' wanted to see ye bad. I don't know 'f you seen it, but that feller 't knocked your hat off was mighty near tore to pieces in the crowd before he got away. 'Seems some the boys re-cog-nized him as one the Cross-Roads Skillets, and sicked the dogs on him, and he had a pretty mean time of it. Wimby says the Cross-Roads folks'll be worse 'n ever, and, says he, 'Tell him to stick close to town,' says he. 'They'll do anything to git him now,' says he, 'and resk anything.' I told him you wouldn't take no stock in it, but, see here, don't you put nothin' too mean fer them folks. I tell you, Mr. Harkless, plenty of us are scared fer ye."
The good fellow was so earnest that when the editor's meal was finished and he would have departed, Landis detained him almost by force until the arrival of Mr. Willetts, who, the landlord knew, was his allotted escort' for the evening. When Lige came (wearing a new tie, a pink one he had hastened to buy as soon as his engagements had allowed him the opportunity), Mr. Landis hissed a savage word of reproach for his tardiness in his ear, and whisperingly bade him not let the other out of reach that night, to which Willetts replied with a nod implying his trustworthiness; and the young men set off in the darkness.
Harkless wondered if his costume were not an injustice to his companion, but he did not regret it; he would wear his best court suit, his laces and velvets, for deference to that lady. It was a painful thing to remember his dusty rustiness of the night before, the awful Carlow cut of his coat, and his formless black cravat; the same felt hat he wore again to-night, perforce, but it was brushed--brushed almost to holes in spots, and somehow he had added a touch of shape to it. His dress-coat was an antique; fashions had changed, no doubt; he did not know; possibly she would recognize its vintage--but it was a dress-coat.
Lige walked along talking; Harkless answering "Yes" and "No" at random. The woodland-spiced air was like champagne to him; the road under foot so elastic and springy that he felt like a thoroughbred before a race; he wanted to lift his foot knee-high at every step, he had so much energy to spare. In the midst of a speech of Lige's about the look of the wheat he suddenly gave out a sigh so deep, so heartfelt, so vibrant, so profound, that Willetts turned with astonishment; but when his eye reached his companion's face, Harkless was smiling. The editor extended his hand.
"Shake hands, Lige," he cried.
The moon peeped over the shoulder of an eastern wood, and the young men suddenly descried their long shadows stretching in front of them. Harkless turned to look at the silhouetted town, the tree-tops and roofs and the Methodist church spire, silvered at the edges.
"Do you see that town, Willetts?" he asked, laying his fingers on his companion's sleeve. "That's the best town in the United States!"
"I always kind of thought you didn't much like it," said the other, puzzled. "Seemed to me you always sort of wished you hadn't settled here."
A little further on they passed Mr. Fisbee. He was walking into the village with his head thrown back, a strange thing for him. They gave him a friendly greeting and passed on.
"Well, it beats me!" observed Lige, when the old man was out of hearing. "He's be'n there to supper again. He was there all day yesterday, and with 'em at the lecture, and at the deepo day before and he looks like another man, and dressed up--for him--to beat thunder----What do you expect makes him so thick out there all of a sudden?"
"I hadn't thought about it. The judge and he have been friends a good while, haven't they?"
"Yes, three or four years; but not like this. It beats me! He's all upset over Miss Sherwood, I think. Old enough to be her grandfather, too, the old----"
His companion stopped him, dropping a hand on his shoulder.
They were at the corner of the Briscoe picket fence, and a sound lilted through the stillness--a touch on the keys that Harkless knew. "Listen," he whispered.
It was the "Moonlight Sonata" that Helen was playing. "It's a pretty piece," observed Lige after a time. John could have choked him, but he answered: "Yes, it is seraphic."
"Who made it up?" pursued Mr. Willetts.
"Foreigner, I expect. Yet in some way or another makes me think of fishing down on the Wabash bend in Vigo, and camping out nights like this; it's a mighty pretty country around there--especially at night."
The sonata was finished, and then she sang--sang the "Angel's Serenade." As the soft soprano lifted and fell in the modulations of that song there was in its timbre, apart from the pure, amber music of it, a questing, seeking pathos, and Willetts felt the hand on his shoulder tighten and then relax; and, as the song ended, he saw that his companion's eyes were shining and moist.
"'O bright, translucent, cerulean hue,
Let my wide wings drift on in you,'"
Skies as blue
As the eyes of children when they smile at you.'