Ernest Poole.

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father one day she took him into a small forlorn building, a mere cabin of
one room. The white paint had long been worn away, the windows were all
broken, half the old shingles had dropped from the roof and on the
flagpole was no flag. It was the district schoolhouse where for nearly half
his life Deborah's grandfather had taught a score of pupils. Inside were a
blackboard, a rusty stove, a teacher's desk and a dozen forms, grown mouldy
and worm-eaten now. A torn and faded picture of Lincoln was upon one wall,
half hidden by a spider's web and by a few old dangling rags which once had
been red, white and blue. Below, still clinging to the wall, was an old
scrap of paper, on which in a large rugged hand there had been written long
ago a speech, but it had been worn away until but three words were
legible - "conceived and dedicated - "

"Tell me about your school," she said. "All you can remember." Seated at
her grandfather's desk she asked Roger many questions. And his
recollections, at first dim and hazy, began to clear a little.

"By George!" he exclaimed. "Here are my initials!"

He stooped over one of the benches.

"Oh, dearie! Where?" He pointed them out, and then while he sat on the rude
old bench for some time more she questioned him.

"But your school was not all here," she said musingly at last, "it was up
on the farm, besides, where you learned to plough and sow and reap and take
care of the animals in the barn, and mend things that were broken, and - oh,
turn your hand to anything. But millions of children nowadays are growing
up in cities, you see."

Half frowning and half smiling she began to talk of her work in town. "What
is there about her," Roger asked, "that reminds me so of my mother?" His
mind strayed back into the past while the low quiet voice of his daughter
went on, and a wistful expression crept over his face. What would she do
with the family name? What life would she lead in those many years?...
"What a mother she would make." The words rose from within him, but in a
voice which was not his own. It was Deborah's grandmother speaking, so
clearly and distinctly that he gave a start almost of alarm.

"And if you don't believe they'll do it," Deborah was saying, "you don't
know what's in children. Only we've got to help bring it out." What had she
been talking about? He remembered the words "a new nation" - no more. "We've
got to grope around in the dark and hunt for new ways and learn as we go.
And when you've once got into the work and really felt the thrill of it
all - well, then it seems rather foolish and small to bother about your own
little life."

* * * * *

Roger spent much of his time alone. He took long rides on William along
crooked, hilly roads. As the afternoon drew to its end, the shadows would
creep up the mountain sides to their summits where glowed the last rays of
the sun, painting the slate and granite crags in lovely pink and purple
hues. And sometimes mighty banks of clouds would rear themselves high
overhead, gigantic mountains of the air with billowy, misty caverns, cliffs
and jagged peaks, all shifting there before his eyes. And he would think of
Judith his wife. And the old haunting certainty, that her soul had died
with her body, was gone. There came to him the feeling that he and his wife
would meet again. Why did this hope come back to him? Was it all from the
glory of the sun? Or was it from the presence, silent and invisible, of
those many other mortals, folk of his own flesh and blood, who at their
deaths had gone to their graves to put on immortality? Or was this
deepening faith in Roger simply a sign of his growing old age?

He frowned at the thought and shook it off, and again stared up at the
light on the hills. "You will live on in our children's lives." Was there
no other immortality?

He often thought of his boyhood here. On a ride one day he stopped for a
drink at a spring in a grove of maples surrounding a desolate farmhouse not
more than a mile away from his own. And through the trees as he turned to
go he saw the stark figure of a woman, poorly clad and gaunt and gray. She
stood motionless watching him with a look of sullen bitterness. She was the
last of "the Elkinses," a mountain family run to seed. As he rode away he
saw in the field a boy with a pitchfork in his hands, a meager ragged
little chap. He was staring into the valley at a wriggling, blue smoke
serpent made by the night express to New York. And something leaped in
Roger, for he had once felt just like that! But the woman's harsh voice cut
in on his dream, as she shouted to her son below, "Hey! Why the hell you
standin' thar?" And the boy with a jump of alarm turned back quickly to his
work. At home a few days later, George with a mysterious air took his
grandfather into the barn, and after a pledge of secrecy he said in swift
and thrilling tones, "You know young Bill Elkins? Yes, you do - the boy up
on the Elkins place who lives alone with his mother. Well, look here!"
George swallowed hard. "Bill has cleared out - he's run away! I was up at
five this morning and he came hiking down the road! He had a bundle on his
back and he told me he was off for good! And was he scared? You bet he was
scared! And I told him so and it made him mad! 'Aw, you're scared!' I said.
'I ain't neither!' he said. He could barely talk, but the kid had his
nerve! 'Where you going?' I asked. 'To New York,' he said. 'Aw, what do you
know of New York?' I said. And then, by golly, he busted right down. 'Gee!'
he said, 'Gee! Can't you lemme alone?' And then he beat it down the road!
You could hear the kid breathe, he was hustling so! He's way off now, he's
caught the train! He wants to be a cabin boy on a big ocean liner!" For a
moment there was silence. "Well?" the boy demanded, "What do you think of
his chances?"

"I don't know," said Roger huskily. He felt a tightening at his throat.
Abruptly he turned to his grandson.

"George," he asked, "what do _you_ want to be?" The boy flushed under his
freckles.

"I don't know as I know. I'm thinking," he answered very slowly.

"Talk it over with your mother, son."

"Yes, sir," came the prompt reply. "But he won't," reflected Roger.

"Or if you ever feel you want to, have a good long talk with me."

"Yes, sir," was the answer. Roger stood there waiting, then turned and
walked slowly out of the barn. How these children grew up inside of
themselves. Had boys always grown like that? Well, perhaps, but how strange
it was. Always new lives, lives of their own, the old families scattering
over the land. So the great life of the nation swept on. He kept noticing
here deserted farms, and one afternoon in the deepening dusk he rode by a
graveyard high up on a bare hillside. A horse and buggy were outside, and
within he spied a lean young woman neatly dressed in a plain dark suit.
With a lawn mower brought from home she was cutting the grass on her family
lot. And she seemed to fit into the landscape. New England had grown very
old.

* * * * *

Late one night toward the end of July, there came a loud honk from down the
hill, then another and another. And as George in his pajamas came rushing
from his bedroom shouting radiantly, "Gee! It's dad!" - they heard the car
thundering outside. Bruce had left New York at dawn and had made the run in
a single day, three hundred and eleven miles. He was gray with dust all
over and he was worn and hollow eyed, but his dark visage wore a look of
solid satisfaction.

"I needed the trip to shake me down," he pleaded, when Edith scolded him
well for this terrific manner of starting his vacation. "I had to have it
to cut me off from the job I left behind me. Now watch me settle down on
this farm."

But it appeared he could not settle down. For the first few days, in his
motor, he was busy exploring the mountains. "We'll make 'em look foolish.
Eh, son?" he said. And with George, who mutely adored him, he ran all about
them in a day. Genially he gave everyone rides. When he'd finished with the
family, he took Dave Royce the farmer and his wife and children, and even
both the hired men, for Bruce was an hospitable soul. But more than anyone
else he took George. They spent hours working on the car, and at times when
they came into the house begreased and blackened from their work, Edith
reproved them like bad boys - but Deborah smiled contentedly.

But at the end of another week Bruce grew plainly restless, and despite his
wife's remonstrances made ready to return to town. When she spoke of his
hay fever he bragged to her complacently of his newly discovered cure.

"Oh, bother your little blue bugs!" she cried.

"The bugs aren't blue," he explained to her, in a mild and patient voice
that drove Edith nearly wild. "They're so little they have no color at all.
Poor friendly little devils - "

"Bruce!" his wife exploded.

"They've been almighty good to me. You ought to have heard my friend the
Judge, the last night I was with him. He patted his bottle and said to me,
'Bruce, my boy, with all these simple animals right here as our companions
why be a damn fool and run off to the cows?' And there's a good deal in
what he says. You ought to be mighty thankful, too, that my summer
pleasures are so mild. If you could see what some chaps do - "

And Bruce started back for the city. George rode with him the first few
miles, then left him and came trudging home. His spirits were exceedingly
low.

As August drew toward a close, Deborah, too, showed signs of unrest. With
ever growing frequency Roger felt her eagerness to return to her work in
New York.

"You're as bad as Bruce," he growled at her. "You don't have to be back,"
he argued. "School doesn't begin for nearly three weeks."

"There's the suffrage campaign," she answered. He gave her a look of
exasperation.

"Now what the devil has suffrage to do with your schools?" he demanded.

"When the women get the vote, we'll spend more money on the children."

"Suppose the money isn't there," was Roger's grim rejoinder.

"Then we'll act like old-fashioned wives, I suppose," his daughter answered
cheerfully, "and keep nagging till it is there. We'll keep up such a
nagging," she added, in sweet even tones, "that you'll get the money by
hook or crook, to save yourselves from going insane."

After this he caught her reading in the New York papers the list of
campaign meetings each night, meetings in hot stifling halls or out upon
deafening corners. And as she read there came over her face a look like
that of a man who has given up tobacco and suddenly sniffs it among his
friends. She went down the last night of August.

* * * * *

Roger stayed on for another two weeks, on into the best time of the year.
For now came the nights of the first snapping frosts when the dome of the
heavens was steely blue, and clear sparkling mornings, the woods aflame
with scarlet and gold. And across the small field below the house, at
sunset Roger would go down to the copse of birches there and find it filled
with glints of light that took his glance far in among the slender, creamy
stems of the trees, all slowly swaying to and fro, the leafage rich with
autumn hues, warm orange, yellow and pale green. Lovely and silent and
serene. So it had been when he was a boy and so it would be when he was
dead. Countless trees had been cut down but others had risen in their
stead. Now and then he could hear a bird warbling.

Long ago this spot had been his mother's favorite refuge from her busy day
in the house. She had almost always come alone, but sometimes Roger
stealing down would watch her sitting motionless and staring in among the
trees. Years later in his reading he had come upon the phrase, "sacred
grove," and at once he had thought of the birches. And sitting here where
she had been, he felt again that boundless faith in life resplendent,
conquering death, and serenely sweeping him on - into what he did not fear.
For this had been his mother's faith. Sometimes in the deepening dusk he
could almost see her sitting here.

"This faith in you has come from me. This is my memory living on in you, my
son, though you do not know. How many times have I held you back, how many
times have I urged you on, roused you up or soothed you, made you hope or
fear or dream, through memories of long ago. For you were once a part of
me. I moulded you, my little son. And as I have been to you, so you will be
to your children. In their lives, too, we shall be there - silent and
invisible, the dim strong figures of the past. For this is the power of
families, this is the mystery of birth."

Suddenly he started. What was it that had thrilled him so? Only a tall dark
fir in the birches. But looming in there like a shadowy phantom it had
recalled a memory of a dusk far back in his boyhood, when seeing a shadow
just like this he had thought it a ghost in very truth and had run for the
house like a rabbit! How terribly real that fright had been! The
recollection suddenly became so vivid in his mind, that as though a veil
had been lifted he felt the living presence here, close by his side, of a
small barefoot mountain lad, clothed in sober homespun gray, but filled
with warm desires, dreams and curiosities, exploring upon every hand, now
marching boldly forward, now stealing up so cautiously, now galloping away
like mad! "I was once a child." To most of us these are mere words. To few
is it ever given to attain so much as even a glimpse into the warm and
quivering soul of that little stranger of long ago. We do not know how we
were made.

"I moulded you, my little son. And as I have been to you, so you will be to
your children. In their lives, too, we shall be there."

Darker, darker grew the copse and the chill of the night descended. But to
Roger's eyes there was no gloom. For he had seen a vision.




CHAPTER XV


On his return to the city, Roger found that Deborah's school had apparently
swept all other interests out of her mind. Baird hardly ever came to the
house, and she herself was seldom there except for a hasty dinner at night.
The house had to run itself more or less; and though Annie the cook was
doing her best, things did not run so smoothly. Roger missed little
comforts, attentions, and he missed Deborah most of all. When he came down
to his breakfast she had already left the house, and often she did not
return until long after he was in bed. She felt the difference herself, and
though she did not put it in words her manner at times seemed to beg his
forbearance. But there were many evenings when her father found it
difficult to hold to the resolve he had made, to go slowly with his
daughter until he could be more sure of his ground. She was growing so
intense again. From the school authorities she had secured a still wider
range and freedom for her new experiment, and she was working day and night
to put her ideas into effect.

"It's only too easy," she remarked, "to launch an idea in this town. The
town will put it in headlines at once, and with it a picture of yourself in
your best bib and tucker, looking as though you loved the whole world. And
you can make a wonderful splurge, until they go on to the next new thing.
The real trouble comes in working it out."

And this she had set out to do. Many nights in the autumn Roger went down
to the school, to try to get some clear idea of this vision of hers for
children, which in a vague way he could feel was so much larger than his
own, for he had seen its driving force in the grip it had upon her life. At
first he could make nothing of it at all; everywhere chaos met his eyes.
But he found something formless, huge, that made to him a strong appeal.

The big building fairly hummed at night with numberless activities.
Fathers, mothers and children came pouring in together and went skurrying
off to their places. They learned to speak English, to read and write;
grown men and women scowled and toiled over their arithmetic. They worked
at trades in the various shops; they hammered and sawed and set up type;
they cooked and sewed and gossiped. "The Young Galician Socialist Girls"
debated on the question: "Resolved that woman suffrage has worked in
Colorado." "The Caruso Pleasure Club" gave a dance to "The Garibaldi
Whirlwinds." An orchestra rehearsed like mad. They searched their memories
for the songs and all the folk tales they had heard in peasant huts in
Italy, in hamlets along rocky coasts, in the dark old ghettos of crowded
towns in Poland and in Russia. And some of these songs were sung in school,
and some of these tales were dramatized here. Children and parents all took
part. And speakers emerged from the neighborhood. It was at times
appalling, the number of young Italians and Jews who had ideas to give
forth to their friends on socialism, poverty, marriage and religion, and
all the other questions that rose among these immigrants jammed into this
tenement hive. But when there were too many of these self-appointed guides,
the neighborhood shut down on them.

"We don't want," declared one indignant old woman, "that every young loafer
should shout in our face!"

Roger was slowly attracted into this enormous family life, and yielding to
an impulse he took charge of a boys' club which met on Thursday evenings
there. He knew well this job of fathering a small jovial group of lads; he
had done it before, many years ago, in the mission school, to please his
wife; he felt himself back on familiar ground. And from this point of
vantage, with something definite he could do, he watched with an interest
more clear the school form steadily closer ties with the tenements that
hedged it 'round, gathering its big family. And this family by slow degrees
began to make itself a part of the daily life of Roger's house. Committees
held their meetings here, teachers dropped in frequently, and Roger invited
the boys in his club to come up and see him whenever they liked.

His most frequent visitor was Johnny Geer, the cripple. He was working in
Roger's office now and the two had soon become close friends. John kept
himself so neat and clean, he displayed such a keen interest in all the
details of office work, and he showed such a beaming appreciation of
anything that was done for him.

"That boy is getting a hold on me lately almost like a boy of my own,"
Roger said one evening when Allan Baird was at the house. "He's the
pluckiest young un I ever met. I've put him to work in my private office,
where he can use the sofa to rest, and I've made him my own
stenographer - partly because he's so quick at dictation and partly to try
to make him slow down. He has the mind of a race horse. He runs at night to
libraries until I should think he'd go insane. And his body can't stand it,
he's breaking down - though whenever I ask him how he feels, he always says,
'Fine, thank you.'" Here Roger turned to Allan. "I wish you'd take the
boy," he said, "to the finest specialist in town, and see what can be done
for his spine. I'll pay any price."

"There won't be any price," said Allan, "but I'll see to it at once."

He had John examined the same week.

"Well?" asked Roger when next they met.

"Well," said Baird, "it isn't good news."

"You mean he's hopeless?" Allan nodded:

"It's Pott's disease, and it's gone too far. John is eighteen. He may live
to be thirty."

"But I tell you, Baird, I'll do anything!"

"There's almost nothing you can do. If he had been taken when he was a
baby, he might have been cured and given a chance. But the same mother who
dropped him then, when she was full of liquor, just went to the druggist on
her block, and after listening to his advice she bought some patent
medicine, a steel jacket and some crutches, and thought she'd done her
duty."

"But there must be something we can do!" retorted Roger angrily.

"Yes," said Baird, "we can make him a little more comfortable. And
meanwhile we can help Deborah here to get hold of other boys like John and
give 'em a chance before it's too late - keep them from being crippled for
life because their mothers were too blind and ignorant to act in time."
Baird's voice had a ring of bitterness.

"Most of 'em love their children," Roger said uneasily. Baird turned on him
a steady look.

"Love isn't enough," he retorted. "The time is coming very soon when we'll
have the right to guard the child not only when it's a baby but even before
it has been born."

Roger drew closer to John after this. Often behind the beaming smile he
would feel the pain and loneliness, and the angry grit which was fighting
it down. And so he would ask John home to supper on nights when nobody else
was there. One day late in the afternoon they were walking home together
along the west side of Madison Square. The big open space was studded with
lights sparkling up at the frosty stars, in a city, a world, a universe
that seemed filled with the zest and the vigor of life. Out of these lights
a mighty tower loomed high up into the sky. And stopping on his crutches, a
grim small crooked figure in all this rushing turmoil, John set his jaws,
and with his shrewd and twinkling eyes fixed on the top of the tower, he
said,

"I meant to tell you, Mr. Gale. You was asking me once what I wanted to be.
And I want to be an architect."

"Do, eh," grunted Roger. He, too, looked up at that thing in the stars, and
there was a tightening at his throat. "All right," he added, presently,
"why not start in and be one?"

"How?" asked John alertly.

"Well, my boy," said Roger, "I'd hate to lose you in the office - "

"Yes, sir, and I'd hate to go." Just then the big clock in the tower began
to boom the hour, and a chill struck into Roger.

"You'd have to," he said gruffly. "You haven't any time to lose! I mean,"
he hastily added, "that for a job as big as that you'd need a lot of
training. But if it's what you want to be, go right ahead. I'll back you.
My son-in-law is a builder at present. I'll talk to him and get his advice.
We may be able to arrange to have you go right into his office, begin at
the bottom and work straight up." In silence for a moment John hobbled on
by Roger's side.

"I'd hate to leave your place," he said.

"I know," was Roger's brusque reply, "and I'd hate to lose you. We'll have
to think it over."

A few days later he talked with Bruce, who said he'd be glad to take the
boy. And at dinner that night with Deborah, Roger asked abruptly,

"Why not let Johnny come here for a while and use one of our empty
bedrooms?"

With a quick flush of pleased surprise, Deborah gave her father a look that
embarrassed him tremendously.

"Well, why not?" he snapped at her. "Sensible, isn't it?"

"Perfectly."

And sensible it turned out to be. When John first heard about it, he was
apparently quite overcome, and there followed a brief awkward pause while
he rapidly blinked the joy from his eyes. But then he said, "Fine, thank
you. That's mighty good of you, Mr. Gale," in as matter of fact a tone as
you please. And he entered the household in much the same way, for John had
a sense of the fitness of things. He had always kept himself neat and
clean, but he became immaculate now. He dined with Roger the first night,
but early the next morning he went down to the kitchen and breakfasted
there; and from this time on, unless he were especially urged to come up to
the dining room, John took all his meals downstairs. The maids were
Irish - so was John. They were good Catholics - so was John. They loved the
movies - so did John. In short, it worked out wonderfully. In less than a
month John had made himself an unobtrusive and natural part of the life of
Roger's sober old house. It had had to stretch just a little, no more.




CHAPTER XVI


But that winter there was more in the house than Deborah's big family.
Though at times Roger felt it surging in with its crude, immense vitality,
there were other times when it was not so, and the lives of his other two
daughters attracted his attention, for both were back again in town.

Laura and her husband had returned from abroad in October, and in a small
but expensive apartment in a huge new building facing on Park Avenue they
had gaily started the career of their own little family, or "ménage," as
Laura called it. This word had stuck in Roger's mind, for he had a
suspicion that a "ménage" was no place for babies. Grimly, when he went
there first to be shown the new home by its mistress, he looked about him
for a room which might be made a nursery. But no such room was in evidence.


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Online LibraryErnest PooleHis Family → online text (page 9 of 22)