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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Dark Star - Chapter 2. Brookhollow
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The Dark Star - Chapter 2. Brookhollow Post by :katetaylor Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :1091

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The Dark Star - Chapter 2. Brookhollow

CHAPTER II. BROOKHOLLOW

The mother, shading the candle with her work-worn hand, looked down at the child in silence. The subdued light fell on a freckled cheek where dark lashes rested, on a slim neck and thin shoulders framed by a mass of short, curly chestnut hair.

Though it was still dark, the mill whistle was blowing for six o'clock. Like a goblin horn it sounded ominously through Ruhannah's dream. She stirred in her sleep; her mother stole across the room, closed the window, and went away carrying the candle with her.

At seven the whistle blew again; the child turned over and unclosed her eyes. A brassy light glimmered between leafless apple branches outside her window. Through the frosty radiance of sunrise a blue jay screamed.

Ruhannah cuddled deeper among the blankets and buried the tip of her chilly nose. But the grey eyes remained wide open and, under the faded quilt, her little ears were listening intently.

Presently from the floor below came the expected summons:

"Ruhannah!"

"Oh, _please_, mother!"

"It's after seven----"

"I know: I'll be ready in time!"

"It's after seven, Rue!"

"I'm so cold, mother dear!"

"I closed your window. You may bathe and dress down here."

"B-r-r-r! I can see my own breath when I breathe!"

"Come down and dress by the kitchen range," repeated her mother. "I've warm water all ready for you."

The brassy light behind the trees was becoming golden; slim bluish shadows already stretched from the base of every tree across frozen fields dusted with snow.

As usual, the lank black cat came walking into the room, its mysterious crystal-green eyes brilliant in the glowing light.

Listening, the child heard her father moving heavily about in the adjoining room.

Then, from below again:

"Ruhannah!"

"I'm going to get up, mother!"

"Rue! Obey me!"

"I'm _up_! I'm on my way!" She sprang out amid a tempest of bedclothes, hopped gingerly across the chilly carpet, seized her garments in one hand, comb and toothbrush in the other, ran into the hallway and pattered downstairs.

The cat followed leisurely, twitching a coal-black tail.

"Mother, could I have my breakfast first? I'm so hungry----"

Her mother turned from the range and kissed her as she huddled close to it. The sheet of zinc underneath warmed her bare feet delightfully. She sighed with satisfaction, looked wistfully at the coffeepot simmering, sniffed at the biscuits and sizzling ham.

"Could I have one little taste before I----"

"Come, dear. There's the basin. Bathe quickly, now."

Ruhannah frowned and cast a tragic glance upon the tin washtub on the kitchen floor. Presently she stole over, tested the water with her finger-tip, found it not unreasonably cold, dropped the night-dress from her frail shoulders, and stepped into the tub with a perfunctory shiver--a thin, overgrown child of fifteen, with pipestem limbs and every rib anatomically apparent.

Her hair, which had been cropped to shoulder length, seemed to turn from chestnut to bronze fire, gleaming and crackling under the comb which she hastily passed through it before twisting it up.

"Quickly but thoroughly," said her mother. "Hasten, Rue."

Ruhannah seized soap and sponge, gasped, shut her grey eyes tightly, and fell to scrubbing with the fury of despair.

"Don't splash, dear----"

"Did you warm my towel, mother?"--blindly stretching out one thin and dripping arm.

Her mother wrapped her in a big crash towel from head to foot.

Later, pulling on stockings and shoes by the range, she managed to achieve a buttered biscuit at the same time, and was already betraying further designs upon another one when her mother sent her to set the table in the sitting-room.

Thither sauntered Ruhannah, partly dressed, still dressing.

By the nickel-trimmed stove she completed her toilet, then hastily laid the breakfast cloth and arranged the china and plated tableware, and filled the water pitcher.

Her father came in on his crutches; she hurried from the table, syrup jug in one hand, cruet in the other, and lifted her face to be kissed; then she brought hot plates, coffeepot, and platters, and seated herself at the table where her father and mother were waiting in silence.

When she was seated her father folded his large, pallid, bony hands; her mother clasped hers on the edge of the table, bowing her head; and Ruhannah imitated them. Between her fingers she could see the cat under the table, and she watched it arch its back and gently rub against her chair.

"For what we are about to receive, make us grateful, Eternal Father. This day we should go hungry except for Thy bounty. Without presuming to importune Thee, may we ask Thee to remember all who awake hungry on this winter day.... Amen."

Ruhannah instantly became very busy with her breakfast. The cat beside her chair purred loudly and rose at intervals on its hind legs to twitch her dress; and Ruhannah occasionally bestowed alms and conversation upon it.

"Rue," said her mother, "you should try to do better with your algebra this week."

"Yes, I do really mean to."

"Have you had any more bad-conduct marks?"

"Yes, mother."

Her father lifted his mild, dreamy eyes of an invalid. Her mother asked:

"What for?"

"For wasting my time in study hour," said the girl truthfully.

"Were you drawing?"

"Yes, mother."

"Rue! Again! Why do you persist in drawing pictures in your copy books when you have an hour's lesson in drawing every week? Besides, you may draw pictures at home whenever you wish."

"I don't exactly know why," replied the girl slowly. "It just happens before I notice what I am doing.... Of course," she explained, "I do recollect that I oughtn't to be drawing in study hour. But that's after I've begun, and then it seems a pity not to finish."

Her mother looked across the table at her husband:

"Speak to her seriously, Wilbour."

The Reverend Mr. Carew looked solemnly at his long-legged and rapidly growing daughter, whose grey eyes gazed back into her father's sallow visage.

"Rue," he said in his colourless voice, "try to get all you can out of your school. I haven't sufficient means to educate you in drawing and in similar accomplishments. So get all you can out of your school. Because, some day, you will have to help yourself, and perhaps help us a little."

He bent his head with a detached air and sat gazing mildly at vacancy--already, perhaps, forgetting what the conversation was about.

"Mother?"

"What, Rue?"

"What am I going to do to earn my living?"

"I don't know."

"Do you mean I must go into the mill like everybody else?"

"There are other things. Girls work at many things in these days."

"What kind of things?"

"They may learn to keep accounts, help in shops----"

"If father could afford it, couldn't I learn to do something more interesting? What do girls work at whose fathers can afford to let them learn how to work?"

"They may become teachers, learn stenography and typewriting; they can, of course, become dressmakers; they can nurse----"

"Mother!"

"Yes?"

"Could I choose the business of drawing pictures? I know how!"

"Dear, I don't believe it is practical to----"

"Couldn't I draw pictures for books and magazines? Everybody says I draw very nicely. You say so, too. Couldn't I earn enough money to live on and to take care of you and father?"

Wilbour Carew looked up from his reverie:

"To learn to draw correctly and with taste," he said in his gentle, pedantic voice, "requires a special training which we cannot afford to give you, Ruhannah."

"Must I wait till I'm twenty-five before I can have my money?" she asked for the hundredth time. "I do so need it to educate myself. Why did grandma do such a thing, mother?"

"Your grandmother never supposed you would need the money until you were a grown woman, dear. Your father and I were young, vigorous, full of energy; your father's income was ample for us then."

"Have I got to marry a man before I can get enough money to take lessons in drawing with?"

Her mother's drawn smile was not very genuine. When a child asks such questions no mother finds it easy to smile.

"If you marry, dear, it is not likely you'll marry in order to take lessons in drawing. Twenty-five is not old. If you still desire to study art you will be able to do so."

"Twenty-five!" repeated Rue, aghast. "I'll be an old woman."

"Many begin their life's work at an older age----"

"Mother! I'd rather marry somebody and begin to study art. Oh, _don't you think that even now I could support myself by making pictures for magazines? Don't you, mother dear?"

"Rue, as your father explained, a special course of instruction is necessary before one can become an artist----"

"But I _do draw very nicely!" She slipped from her chair, ran to the old secretary where the accumulated masterpieces of her brief career were treasured, and brought them for her parents' inspection, as she had brought them many times before.

Her father looked at them listlessly; he did not understand such things. Her mother took them one by one from Ruhannah's eager hands and examined these grimy Records of her daughter's childhood.

There were drawings of every description in pencil, in crayon, in mussy water-colours, done on scraps of paper of every shape and size. The mother knew them all by heart, every single one, but she examined each with a devotion and an interest forever new.

There were many pictures of the cat; many of her parents, too--odd, shaky, smeared portraits all out of proportion, but usually recognisable.

A few landscapes varied the collection--a view or two of the stone bridge opposite, a careful drawing of the ruined paper mill. But the majority of the subjects were purely imaginary; pictures of demons and angels, of damsels and fairy princes--paragons of beauty--with castles on adjacent crags and swans adorning convenient ponds.

Her mother rose after a few moments, laid aside the pile of drawings, went to the kitchen and returned with her daughter's schoolbooks and lunch basket.

"Rue, you'll be late again. Get on your rubbers immediately."

The child's shabby winter coat was already too short in skirt and sleeve, and could be lengthened no further. She pulled the blue toboggan cap over her head, took a hasty osculatory leave of her father, seized books and lunch basket, and followed her mother to the door.

Below the house the Brookhollow road ran south across an old stone bridge and around a hill to Gayfield, half a mile away.

Rue, drawing on her woollen gloves, looked up at her mother. Her lip trembled very slightly. She said:

"I shouldn't know what to do if I couldn't draw pictures.... When I draw a princess I mean her for myself.... It is pleasant--to pretend to live with swans."

She opened the door, paused on the step; the frosty breath drifted from her lips. Then she looked back over her shoulder; her mother kissed her, held her tightly for a moment.

"If I'm to be forbidden to draw pictures," repeated the girl, "I don't know what will become of me. Because I really live there--in the pictures I make."

"We'll talk it over this evening, darling. Don't draw in study hour any more, will you?"

"I'll try to remember, mother."

* * * * *

When the spindle-limbed, boyish figure had sped away beyond sight, Mrs. Carew shut the door, drew her wool shawl closer, and returned slowly to the sitting-room. Her husband, deep in a padded rocking-chair by the window, was already absorbed in the volume which lay open on his knees--the life of the Reverend Adoniram Judson--one of the world's good men. Ruhannah had named her cat after him.

His wife seated herself. She had dishes to do, two bedrooms, preparations for noonday dinner--the usual and unchangeable routine. She turned and looked out of the window across brown fields thinly powdered with snow. Along a brawling, wintry-dark stream, fringed with grey alders, ran the Brookhollow road. Clumps of pines and elms bordered it. There was nothing else to see except a distant crow in a ten-acre lot, walking solemnly about all by himself.

... Like the vultures that wandered through the compound that dreadful day in May ... she thought involuntarily.

But it was a far cry from Trebizond to Brookhollow. And her husband had been obliged to give up after the last massacre, when every convert had been dragged out and killed in the floating shadow of the Stars and Stripes, languidly brilliant overhead.

For the Sublime Porte and the Kurds had had their usual way at last; there was nothing left of the Mission; school and converts were gone; her wounded husband, her baby, and herself refugees in a foreign consulate; and the Turkish Government making apologies with its fat tongue in its greasy cheek.

The Koran says: "Woe to those who pray, and in their prayers are careless."

The Koran also says: "In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful: What thinkest thou of him who treateth our religion as a lie?"

Mrs. Carew and her crippled husband knew, now, what the Sublime Porte thought about it, and what was the opinion of the Kurdish cavalry concerning missionaries and converts who treated the Moslem religion as a lie.

She looked at her pallid and crippled husband; he was still reading; his crutches lay beside him on the floor. She turned her eyes to the window. Out there the solitary crow was still walking busily about in the frozen pasture. And again she remembered the vultures that hulked and waddled amid the debris of the burned Mission.

Only that had been in May; and above the sunny silence in that place of death had sounded the unbroken and awful humming of a million million flies....

* * * * *

And so, her husband being now hopelessly broken and useless, they had come back with their child, Ruhannah, to their home in Brookhollow.

Here they had lived ever since; here her grey life was passing; here her daughter was already emerging into womanhood amid the stark, unlovely environments of a country crossroads, arid in summer, iron naked in winter, with no horizon except the Gayfield hills, no outlook save the Brookhollow road. And that led to the mill.

She had done what she could--was still doing it. But there was nothing to save. Her child's destiny seemed to be fixed.

Her husband corresponded with the Board of Missions, wrote now and then for the _Christian Pioneer_, and lived on the scanty pension allowed to those who, like himself, had become incapacitated in line of duty. There was no other income.

There was, however, the six thousand dollars left to Ruhannah by her grandmother, slowly accumulating interest in the Mohawk Bank at Orangeville, the county seat, and not to be withdrawn, under the terms of the will, until the day Ruhannah married or attained, unmarried, her twenty-fifth year.

Neither principal nor interest of this legacy was available at present. Life in the Carew family at Brookhollow was hard sledding, and bid fair to continue so indefinitely.

* * * * *

The life of Ruhannah's father was passed in reading or in gazing silently from the window--a tall, sallow, bearded man with the eyes of a dreaming martyr and the hands of an invalid--who still saw in the winter sky, across brown, snow-powdered fields, the minarets of Trebizond.

In reading, in reflection, in dreaming, in spiritual acquiescence, life was passing in sombre shadows for this middle-aged man who had been hopelessly crushed in Christ's service; and who had never regretted that service, never complained, never doubted the wisdom and the mercy of his Leader's inscrutable manoeuvres with the soldiers who enlist to follow Him. As far as that is concerned, the Reverend Wilbour Carew had been born with a believing mind; doubt of divine goodness in Deity was impossible for him; doubt of human goodness almost as difficult.

Such men have little chance in a brisk, busy, and jaunty world; but they prefer it should be that way with them. And of these few believers in the goodness of God and man are our fools and gentlemen composed.

On that dreadful day, the Kurd who had mangled him so frightfully that he recovered only to limp through life on crutches bent over him and shouted in his face:

"Now, you Christian dog, before I cut your throat show me how this Christ of yours can be a god!"

"Is it necessary," replied the missionary faintly, "to light a candle in order to show a man the midday sun?"

Which was possibly what saved his life, and the lives of his wife and child. Your Moslem adores and understands such figurative answers. So he left the Reverend Mr. Carew lying half dead in the blackened doorway and started cheerfully after a frightened convert praying under the compound wall.

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