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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTogether - Part Six - Chapter 55
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Together - Part Six - Chapter 55 Post by :Jay_White Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :671

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Together - Part Six - Chapter 55

PART SIX CHAPTER LV

It was a long, cold drive from the station at White River up into the hills. In the gloom of the December afternoon the aspect of the austere, pitiless northern winter was intensified. A thin crust of snow through which the young pines and firs forced their green tips covered the dead blackberry vines along the roadside. The ice of the brooks was broken in the centre like cracked sheets of glass, revealing the black water gurgling between the frozen banks. The road lay steadily uphill, and the two rough-coated farm horses pulled heavily at the stiff harness, slipping constantly in the track that was worn smooth and polished by the shoes of the wood-sleds. As the valley fell behind, the country opened out in broad sheets of snow-covered fields where frozen wisps of dead weeds fluttered above the crust. Then came the woods, dark with "black growth," and more distant hillsides, gray and black, where the leafless deciduous growth mingled with the evergreens. At infrequent intervals along the road appeared little farm-houses,--two rooms and an attic, with rickety outhouses and barns, all banked with earth to protect them from the winter. These were forlorn enough when they showed marks of life; but again and again they were deserted, with their special air of decay, the wind sucking through the paneless windows, the snow lying in unbroken drifts up to the rotting sills. Sometimes a lane led from the highroad to where one or perhaps two houses were hidden under the shelter of a hill, removed still farther from the artery of life. Already the lamps had begun to glimmer from these remote habitations, dotting the hillsides like widely scattered candles.

Lonely and desolate! These human beings lived in an isolation of snow and frozen earth. So thought Isabelle Lane, chilled beneath the old fur robe, cold to the heart.... Ahead the hills lifted with broader lines, higher, more lonely, and the gray clouds almost touched their tops. In a cleft of the range towards which the road was winding, there shone a saffron light, the last effort of the December sun to break through the heavy sky. And for a few moments there gleamed far away to the left a spot of bright light, marvellously clear and illuming, where the white breast of a clearing on the mountain had received these last few rays of sun. A warm golden pathway led through the forest to it from the sun. That distant spot of sunny snow was radiant, still, uplifting. Suddenly gloom again! The saffron glow faded from the Pass between the hills, and the north wind drew down into the valley, drifting the manes and the tails of the plodding horses. Soft wisps of snow circled and fell,--the heralding flakes of winter storm....

It seemed to Isabelle that she had been journeying on like this for uncounted time, and would plod on like this always,--chilled, numbed to the heart, moving through a frozen, lonely world far from the voices of men, remote from the multitudinous feet bent on the joyous errands of life.... She had sunk into a lethargy of body and mind, in which the cheerless physical atmosphere reflected the condition of being within,--something empty or dead, with a dull ache instead of consciousness....

The sleigh surmounted the long hill, swept at a trot around the edge of the mountain through dark woods, then out into an unexpected plateau of open fields. There was a cluster of lights in a small village, and they came to a sudden stop before a little brick house that was swathed in spruce boughs, like a blanket drawn close about the feet, to keep out the storm. The door opened and against the lighted room a small black figure stood out. Isabelle, stumbling numbly up the steps, fell into the arms of Margaret Pole.

"You must be nearly dead, poor dear! I have lighted a fire in your room upstairs.... I am so glad you have come. I have hoped for it so long!"

When they were before the blazing wood fire, Margaret unfastened Isabelle's long cloak and they stood, both in black, pale in the firelight, and looked at each other, then embraced without a word.

"I wanted to come," Isabelle said at last when she was settled into the old arm-chair beside the fire, "when you first wrote. But I was too ill. I seemed to have lost not only strength but will to move.... It's good to be here."

"They are the nicest people, these Shorts! He's a wheelwright and blacksmith, and she used to teach school. It's all very plain, like one of our mountain places in Virginia; but it's heavenly peaceful--removed. You'll feel in a day or two that you have left everything behind you, down there below!"

"And the children?"

"They are splendidly. And Ned is really getting better--the doctor has worked a miracle for the poor little man. We think it won't be long now before he can walk and do what the others do. And he is happy. He used to have sullen fits,--resented his misfortune just like a grown person. He's different now!"

There was a buoyant note in Margaret's deep tones. Pale as she was in her black dress and slight,--"the mere spirit of a woman," as Falkner had called her,--there was a gentler curve to the lips, less chafing in the sunken eyes.

'I suppose it is a great relief,' thought Isabelle,--'Larry's death, even with all its horror,--she can breathe once more, poor Margaret!'

"Tell me!" she said idly, as Margaret wheeled the lounge to the fire for Isabelle to rest on; "however did you happen to come up here to the land's end in Vermont--or is it Canada?"

"Grosvenor is just inside the line.... Why, it was the doctor--Dr. Renault, you know, the one who operated on Ned. I wanted to be near him. It was in July after Larry's death that we came, and I haven't been away since. And I shall stay, always perhaps, at least as long as the doctor can do anything for the little man. And for me.... I like it. At first it seemed a bit lonesome and far away, this tiny village shut in among the hills, with nobody to talk to. But after a time you come to see a lot just here in this mite of a village. One's glasses become adjusted, as the doctor says, and you can see what you have never taken the time to see before. There's a stirring world up here on Grosvenor Flat! And the country is so lovely,--bigger and sterner than my old Virginia hills, but not unlike them."

"And why does your wonderful doctor live out of the world like this?"

"Dr. Renault used to be in New York, you know,--had his own private hospital there for his operations. He had to leave the city and his work because he was threatened with consumption. For a year he went the usual round of cures,--to the Adirondacks, out West; and he told me that one night while he was camping on the plains in Arizona, lying awake watching the stars, it came to him suddenly that the one thing for him to do was to stop this health-hunt, go back where he came from, and go to work--and forget he was ill until he died. The next morning he broke camp, rode out to the railroad, came straight here from Arizona, and has been here ever since."

"But why _here_?"

"Because he came from Grosvenor as a boy. It must be a French family--Renault--and it is only a few miles north to the line.... So he came here, and the climate or the life or something suits him wonderfully. He works like a horse!"

"Is he interesting, your doctor?" Isabelle asked idly.

"That's as you take him," Margaret replied with a little smile. "Not from Conny Woodyard's point of view, I should say. He has too many blind sides. But I have come to think him a really great man! And that, my dear, is more than what we used to call 'interesting.'"

"But how can he do his work up here?"

"That's the wonderful part of it all! He's _made the world come to him,--what he needs of it. He says there is nothing marvellous in it; that all through the middle ages the sick and the needy flocked to remote spots, to deserts and mountain villages, wherever they thought help was to be found. Most great cures are not made even now in the cities."

"But hospitals?"

"He has his own, right here in Grosvenor Flat, and a perfect one. The great surgeons and doctors come up here and send patients here. He has all he can do, with two assistants."

"He must be a strong man."

"You will see! The place is Renault. It all bears the print of his hand. He says himself that given a man with a real idea, a persistent idea, and he will make the desert blossom like a garden or move mountains,--in some way he will make that idea part of the organism of life! ... There! I am quoting the doctor again, the third time. It's a habit one gets into up here!"

At the tinkle of a bell below, Margaret exclaimed:--

"It's six and supper, and you have had no real rest. You see the hours are primitive here,--breakfast at seven, dinner noon, and supper six. You will get used to it in a few days."

The dining room was a corner of the old kitchen that had been partitioned off. It was warm and bright, with an open fire, and the supper that Mrs. Short put on the table excellent. Mr. Short came in presently and took his seat at the head of the table. He was a large man, with a bony face softened by a thick grizzled beard. He said grace in a low voice, and then served the food. Isabelle noticed that his large hands were finely formed. His manner was kindly, in a subtle way that of the host at his own table; but he said little or nothing at first. The children made the conversation, piping up like little birds about the table and keeping the older people laughing. Isabelle had always felt that children at the table were a bore, either forward and a nuisance, or like little lynxes uncomfortably absorbing conversation, that was not suited to them. Perhaps that was because she knew few families where children were socially educated to take their place at the table, being relegated for the most part to the nurse or the governess.

Isabelle was much interested in Mr. Short. His wife, a thin, gray-haired woman, who wore spectacles and had a timid manner of speaking, was less of a person than the blacksmith. Sol Short, she found out later, had never been fifty miles from Grosvenor Flat in his life, but he had the poise, the self-contained air of a man who had acquired all needed worldly experience.

"Was it chilly coming up the Pass?" he asked Isabelle. "I thought 'twould be when it came on to blow some from the mountains. And Pete Jackson's horses _are slow."

"They seemed frozen!"

The large man laughed.

"Well, you would take your time if you made that journey twice a day most every day in the year. You can't expect them to get exactly excited over it, can you?"

"Mr. Short," Margaret remarked, "I saw a light this evening in the house on Wing Hill. What can it be?"

"Some folks from down state have moved in,--renters, I take it."

"How do you know that?"

"From the look of the stuff Bailey's boy was hauling up there this morning. It's travelled often."

"Mr. Short," Margaret explained merrily, "is the Grosvenor _Times_. His shop is the centre of our universe. From it he sees all that happens in our world--or his cronies tell him what he can't see. He knows what is going on in the remotest corner of the township,--what Hiram Bailey got for his potatoes, where Bill King sold his apples, whether Mrs. Beans's second son has gone to the Academy at White River. He knows the color and the power of every horse, the number of cows on every farm, the make of every wagon,--everything!"

"Not so bad as all that!" the blacksmith protested. It was evidently a family joke. "We don't gossip, do we, Jenny?"

"We don't gossip! But we keep our eyes open and tell what we see."

It was a pleasant, human sort of atmosphere. After the meal the two friends went back to Isabelle's couch and fire, Mrs. Short offering to put the youngest child to bed for Margaret.

"She likes to," Margaret explained. "Her daughter has gone away to college.... It is marvellous what that frail-looking woman can do; she does most of the cooking and housework, and never seems really busy. She prepared this daughter for college! She makes me ashamed of the little I accomplish,--and she reads, too, half a dozen magazines and all the stray books that come her way."

"But how can you stand it?" Isabelle asked bluntly; "I mean for months."

"Stand it? You mean the hours, the Strongs, Grosvenor? ... Why, I feel positively afraid when I think that some day I may be shaken out of this nest! You will see. It is all so simple and easy, so human and natural, just like Mr. Short's day's work,--the same thing for thirty years, ever since he married the school teacher and took this house. You'll hear him building the fires to-morrow before daylight. He is at his shop at six-thirty, home at twelve, back again at one, milks the cow at five, and supper at six, bed at nine. Why, it's an Odyssey, that day,--as Mr. Short lives it!"

Margaret opened the window and drew in the shutters. Outside it was very still, and the snow was falling in fine flakes.

"The children will be so glad to-morrow," she remarked, "with all this snow. They are building a large bob-sled under Mr. Short's direction.... No!" she resumed her former thread of thought. "It doesn't count so much as we used to think--the variety of the thing you do, the change,--the novelty. It's the mind you do it with that makes it worth while."

Isabelle stared at the ceiling which was revealed fitfully by the dying fire. She still felt dead, numb, but this was a peaceful sort of grave, so remote, so silent. That endless torturing thought--the chain of weary reproach and useless speculation, which beset every waking moment--had ceased for the moment. It was like quiet after a perpetual whirring sound.

She liked to look at Margaret, to feel her near, but she mused over her. She was changed. Margaret had had this disease, too, this weariness of living, the torturing doubt,--if this or that, the one thing or the other, had happened, it might have been different,--the haggling of defeated will! No wonder she was glad to be out of the city up here at peace....

"But one can't stay out of life for always," she remonstrated.

"Why not? What you call the world seems to get along very well without us, without any one in particular. And I don't feel the siren call, not yet!"

"But life can't be over at thirty-three,--one can't be really dead, I suppose."

"No,--just beginning!" Margaret responded with an elasticity that amazed Isabelle, who remembered the languid woman she had known so many years. "Just beginning," she murmured, "after the journey in the dark."

'Of course,' mused Isabelle, 'she means the relief from Larry, the anxiety over the boy,--all that she has had to bear. Yes, for her there is some beginning anew. She might possibly marry Rob Falkner now, if his wife got somebody else to look after her silly existence. Why shouldn't she? Margaret is still young,--she might even be pretty again.' And Isabelle wished to know what the situation was between Margaret and Falkner.

Nothing, it seemed, could make any difference to herself! She ached to tell some one of the despair in her heart, but even to Margaret she could not speak. Since that summer morning six months before when Vickers had died without a spoken word, she had never said his name. Her husband had mutely respected her muteness. Then she had been ill,--too ill to think or plan, too ill for everything but remembrance. Now it was all shut up, her tragedy, festering at the bottom of her heart like an undrained wound, poisoning her soul.... Suddenly in the midst of her brooding she woke with a start at something Margaret was saying, so unlike her reticent self.

... "You knew, of course, about Larry's death?"

"Yes, John told me."

"It was in the papers, too."

"Poor Margaret!--I was so sorry for you--it was terrible!"

"You mustn't think of it that way,--I mean for me. It was terrible that any human being should be where Larry got,--where he was hunted like a dog by his own acts, and in sheer despair made an end of himself. I often think of that--think what it must be not to have the courage to go on, not to feel the strength in yourself to live another hour!"

"It's always insanity. No sane person would do such a thing!"

"We call it insanity. But what difference does the name make?" Margaret said. "A human being falls into a state of mind where he is without one hope, one consideration,--all is misery. Then he takes what seems the only relief--death--as he would food or drink; that is sad."

"It was Larry's own doing, Margaret; he had his chance!"

"Of course, more than his chance--more than many chances. He was the kind of protoplasm that could not endure life, that carried in itself the seed of decay,--yet--yet--" She raised her pale face with the luminous eyes and said softly: "Sometimes I wonder if it had to be. When I look at little Ned and see how health is coming to that crippled body--the processes are righting themselves--sound and healthy, ready to be helped back to life--I wonder if it may not be so with other processes not wholly physical. I wonder! ... Did you ever think, Isabelle, that we are waiting close to other worlds,--we can almost hear from them with our ears,--but we only hear confusedly so far. Some day we may hear more clearly!"

Margaret had reverted, Isabelle concluded, to the religion of her father, the Bishop! What she was vaguely talking about was the Bishop's heaven, in which the widow and orphan were counselled to take comfort.

"I wish I could feel it,--what the church teaches," Isabelle replied. "But I can't,--it isn't real. I go to church and say over the creed and ask myself what it means, and feel the same way when I come out--or worse!"

"I don't mean religion--the church," Margaret smiled back. "That has been dead for me a long time. It's something you come to feel within you about life. I can't explain--only there might have been a light even for poor Larry in that last dreadful darkness! ... Some day I want to tell you all about myself, something I have never told any one,--but it will help to explain, perhaps.... Now you must go to bed,--I will send my black Sue up with your coffee in the morning."...

Isabelle, as she lay awake in the stillness, the absolute hush of the snowy night, thought of what Margaret had said about her husband. John had told her how Larry had gradually gone to the bad in a desultory, weak-kneed fashion,--had lost his clerkship in the A. and P. that Lane had got for him; then had taken to hanging about the downtown hotels, betting a little, drinking a little, and finally one morning the curt paragraph in the paper: "Found, in the North River, body of a respectably dressed man about forty years. Papers on him show that he was Lawrence Pole of Westchester," etc., etc.

And John's brief comment,--"Pity that he hadn't done it ten years ago." Yes, thought Isabella, pity that he was ever born, the derelict, ever came into this difficult world to complicate further its issues. Margaret apparently had towards this worthless being who had marred her life a softened feeling. But it was absurd of her now to think that she might have loved him!

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