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In Memory of L. H. W. by Dorothy Canfield

 

He began life characteristically, depreciated and disparaged. When he was a white, thin, big-headed baby, his mother, stripping the suds from her lean arms, used to inveigh to her neighbors against his existence. “Wa'n't it just like that do-less Lem Warren, not even to leave me foot-free when he died, but a baby coming!”

Do-less,” in the language of our valley, means a combination of shiftless and impractical, particularly to be scorned.

Later, as he began to have some resemblance to the appearance he was to wear throughout life, her resentment at her marriage, which she considered the one mistake of her life, kept pace with his growth. “Look at him!” she cried to anyone who would listen. “Ain't that Warren, all over? Did any of my folks ever look so like a born fool? Shut your mouth, for the Lord's sake, Lem, and maybe you won't scare folks quite so much.”

Lem had a foolish, apologetic grin with which he always used to respond to these personalities, hanging his head to one side and opening and shutting his big hands nervously.

The tumble-down, two-roomed house in which the Warrens lived was across the road from the schoolhouse, and Mrs. Warren's voice was penetrating. Lem was accepted throughout his school-life at the home estimate. The ugly, overgrown boy, clad in cast-off, misfit clothing was allowed to play with the other children only on condition that he perform all the hard, uninteresting parts of any game. Inside the schoolroom it was the same.

He never learned to shut his mouth, and his speech was always halting and indistinct, so that he not only did not recite well in class, but was never in one of the school entertainments. He chopped the wood and brought it in, swept the floor and made the fires, and then listened in grinning, silent admiration while the others, arrayed in their best, spoke pieces and sang songs.

He was not “smart at his books” and indeed did not learn even to read very fluently. This may have been partly because the only books he ever saw were old school books, the use of which was given him free on account of his mother's poverty. He was not allowed, of course to take them from the schoolroom. But if he was not good at book-learning he was not without accomplishments. He early grew large for his age, and strong from much chopping of wood and drawing of water for his mother's washings, and he was the best swimmer of all those who bathed in the cold, swift mountain stream which rushes near the schoolhouse. The chief consequence of this expertness was that in the summer he was forced to teach each succeeding generation of little boys to swim and dive. They tyrannized over him unmercifully—as, in fact, everyone did.

Nothing made his mother more furious than such an exhibition of what she called “Lem's meachin'ness.” “Ain't you got no stand-up in ye?” she was wont to exhort him angrily. “If you don't look out for yourself in this world, you needn't think anybody else is gunto!”

The instructions in ethics he received at her hands were the only ones he ever knew, for, up to his fourteenth year, he never had clothes respectable enough to wear to church, and after that he had other things to think of. Fourteen years is what we call in our State “over school age.” It was a date to which Mrs. Warren had looked forward with eagerness. After that, the long, unprofitable months of enforced schooling would be over, Lem would be earning steady wages, and she could sit back and “live decent.”

It seemed to her more than she could bear, that, almost upon her son's birthday, she was stricken down with paralysis. It was the first calamity for which she could not hold her marriage responsible, and her bitterness thereupon extended itself to fate in general. She cannot have been a cheerful house-mate during the next ten years, when Lem was growing silently to manhood.

He was in demand as “help” on the farms about him, on account of his great strength and faithfulness, although the farmers found him exasperatingly slow and, when it was a question of animals, not always sure to obey orders. He could be trusted to be kind to horses, unlike most hired men we get nowadays, but he never learned “how to get the work out of their hide.” It was his way, on a steep hill with a heavy load, to lay down the whip, get out, and put his own powerful shoulder to the wheel. If this failed, he unloaded part of the logs and made two trips of it. The uncertainty of his progress can be imagined. The busy and impatient farmer and sawyer at the opposite ends of his route were driven to exhaust their entire vocabulary of objurgation on him. He was, they used to inform him in conclusion, “the most do-less critter the Lord ever made!”

He was better with cows and sheep—“feller-feelin,” his mother said scornfully, watching him feed a sick ewe—and he had here, even in comparison with his fellow-men, a fair degree of success. It was indeed the foundation of what material prosperity he ever enjoyed. A farmer, short of cash, paid him one year with three or four ewes and a ram. He worked for another farmer to pay for the rent of a pasture and had, that first year, as everybody admitted, almighty good luck with them. There were several twin lambs born that spring and everyone lived. Lem used to make frequent night visits during lambing-time to the pasture to make sure that all was well.

I remember as a little girl starting back from some village festivity late one spring night and seeing a lantern twinkle far up on the mountainside. “Lem Warren out fussin' with his sheep,” some one of my elders remarked. Later, as we were almost home, we saw the lantern on the road ahead of us and stopped the horses, country-fashion, for an interchange of salutation. Looking out from under the shawl in which I was wrapped, I saw his tall figure stooping over something held under his coat. The lantern lighted his weather-beaten face and the expression of his eyes as he looked down at the little white head against his breast.

 “You're foolish, Lem,” said my uncle. “The ewe won't own it if you take it away so long the first night.”

“I—I—know,” stuttered Lem, bringing out the words with his usual difficulty; “but it's mortal cold up on the mounting for little fellers! I'll bring him up as a cosset.”

The incident reminded me vaguely of something I had read about, and it has remained in my memory.

After we drove on I remember that there were laughing speculations about what language old Ma'am Warren would use at having another cosset brought to the house. Not that it could make any more work for her, since Lem did all that was done about the housekeeping. Chained to her chair by her paralyzed legs, as she was, she could accomplish nothing more than to sit and cavil at the management of the universe all day, until Lem came home, gave her her supper, and put her to bed.

Badly run as she thought the world, for a time it was more favorable to her material prosperity than she had ever known it. Lem's flock of sheep grew and thrived. For years nobody in our valley has tried to do much with sheep because of dogs, and all Lem's neighbors told him that some fine morning he would find his flock torn and dismembered. They even pointed out the particular big collie dog who would most likely go “sheep-mad.” Lena's heavy face drew into anxious, grotesque wrinkles at this kind of talk, and he visited the uplying pasture more and more frequently.

One morning, just before dawn, he came, pale and shamefaced, to the house of the owner of the collie. The family, roused from bed by his knocking, made out from his speech, more incoherent than usual, that he was begging their pardon for having killed their dog. “I saw wh-where he'd bit th-the throats out of two ewes that w-was due to lamb in a few days and I guess I—I—I must ha' gone kind o' crazy. They was ones I liked special. I'd brought 'em up myself. They—they was all over blood, you know.”

They peered at him in the gray light, half-afraid of the tall apparition. “How could you kill a great big dog like Jack?” They asked wonderingly.

In answer he held out his great hands and his huge corded arms, red with blood up to the elbow. “I heard him worrying another sheep and I—I just—killed him.”

One of the children now cried out: “But I shut Jackie up in the woodshed last night!”

Someone ran to open the door and the collie bounded out. Lem turned white in thankfulness, “I'm mortal glad,” he stammered. “I felt awful bad—afterward. I knew your young ones thought a sight of Jack.”

“But what dog did you kill?” they asked.

Some of the men went back up on the mountain with him and found, torn in pieces and scattered wide in bloody fragments, as if destroyed by some great revenging beast of prey, the body of a big gray wolf. Once in a while one wanders over the line from the Canada forests and comes down into our woods, following the deer.

The hard-headed farmers who looked on that savage scene drew back from the shambling man beside them in the only impulse of respect they ever felt for him. It was the one act of his life to secure the admiration of his fellow-men; it was an action of which he himself always spoke in horror and shame.

Certainly his marriage aroused no admiration. It was universally regarded as a most addle-pated, imbecile affair from beginning to end. One of the girls who worked at the hotel in the village “got into trouble,” as our vernacular runs, and as she came originally from our district and had gone to school there, everyone knew her and was talking about the scandal. Old Ma'am Warren was of the opinion, spiritedly expressed, that “Lottie was a fool not to make that drummer marry her. She could have, if she'd gone the right way to work.” But the drummer remained persistently absent.

One evening Lem, starting for his sheep-pasture for his last look for the night, heard someone crying down by the river and then, as he paused to listen, heard it no more. He jumped from the bridge without stopping to set down his lantern, knowing well the swiftness of the water, and caught the poor cowardly thing as she came, struggling and gasping, down with the current. He took her home and gave her dry clothes of his mother's. Then leaving the scared and repentant child by his hearth, he set out on foot for the minister's house and dragged him back over the rough country roads.

When Ma'am Warren awoke the next morning, Lem did not instantly answer her imperious call, as he had done for so many years. Instead, a red-eyed girl in one of Mrs. Warren's own nightgowns came to the door and said shrinkingly: “Lem slept in the barn last night. He give his bed to me; but he'll be in soon. I see him fussin' around with the cow.”

Ma'am Warren stared, transfixed with a premonition of irremediable evil. “What you doin' here?” she demanded, her voice devoid of expression through stupefaction.

The girl held down her head. “Lem and I were married last night,” she said.

Then Mrs. Warren found her voice.

When Lem came in it was to a scene of the furious wrangling which was henceforth to fill his house.

“... to saddle himself with such trash as you!” his mother was saying ragingly.

His wife answered in kind, her vanity stung beyond endurance. “Well, you can be sure he'd never have got him a wife any other way! Nobody but a girl hard put to it would take up with a drivel-headed fool like Lem Warren!”

And then the bridegroom appeared at the door and both women turned their attention to him.

When the baby was born, Lottie was very sick. Lem took care of his mother, his wife, and the new baby for weeks and weeks. It was at lambing-time, and his flock suffered from lack of attention, although as much as he dared he left his sick women and tended his ewes. He ran in debt, too, to the grocery-stores, for he could work very little and earned almost nothing. Of course the neighbors helped out, but it was no cheerful morning's work to care for the vitriolic old woman, and Lottie was too sick for anyone but Lem to handle. We did pass the baby around from house to house during the worst of his siege, to keep her off Lem's hands; but when Lottie began to get better it was haying-time; everybody was more than busy, and the baby was sent back.

Lottie lingered in semi-invalidism for about a year and then died, Lem holding her hand in his. She tried to say something to him that last night, so the neighbors who were there reported, but her breath failed her and she could only lie staring at him from eyes that seemed already to look from the other side of the grave.

He was heavily in debt when he was thus left with a year-old child not his own, but he gave Lottie a decent funeral and put up over her grave a stone stating that she was “Charlotte, loved wife of Lemuel Warren,” and that she died in the eighteenth year of her life. He used to take the little girl and put flowers on the grave, I remember.

Then he went to work again. His sandy hair was already streaked with gray, though he was but thirty. The doctor said the reason for this phenomenon was the great strain of his year of nursing; and indeed throughout that period of his life no one knew when he slept, if ever. He was always up and dressed when anyone else was, and late at night we could look across and see his light still burning and know that he was rubbing Lottie's back or feeding little Susie.

All that was changed now, of course. Susie was a strong, healthy child who slept all through the night in her little crib by her stepfather's corded bed, and in the daytime went everywhere he did. Wherever he “worked out” he used to give her her nap wrapped in a horse blanket on the hay in the barn; and he carried her in a sling of his own contrivance up to his sheep-pasture. Old Ma'am Warren disliked the pretty, laughing child so bitterly that he was loath to leave her at home; but when he was there with her, for the first time he asserted himself against his mother, bidding her, when she began to berate the child's parentage, to “be still!” with so strange and unexpected an accent of authority that she was quite frightened.

Susie was very fond of her stepfather at first, but when she came of school age, mixed more with the other children, and heard laughing, contemptuous remarks about him, the frank and devouring egotism of childhood made her ashamed of her affection, ashamed of him with his uncouth gait, his mouth always sagging open, his stammering, ignorant speech, which the other children amused themselves by mocking. Though he was prospering again with his sheep, owned the pasture and his house now, and had even built on another room as well as repairing the older part, he spent little on his own adornment. It all went for pretty clothes for Susie, for better food, for books and pictures, for tickets for Susie to go to the circus and the county fair. Susie knew this and loved him by stealth for it, but the intolerably sensitive vanity of her twelve years made her wretched to be seen in public with him.

Divining this, he ceased going with her to school-picnics and Sunday-school parties, where he had been a most useful pack-animal, and, dressing her in her best with his big calloused hands, watched her from the window join a group of the other children. His mother predicted savagely that his “spoilin' on that bad-blooded young one would bring her to no good end,” and when, at fifteen, Susie began to grow very pretty and saucy and willful and to have beaux come to see her, the old woman exulted openly over Lem's helpless anxiety.

He was quite gray now, although not yet forty-five, and so stooped that he passed for an old man. He owned a little farm, his flock of sheep was the largest in the township, and Susie was expected to make a good marriage in spite of her antecedents.

And then Frank Gridley's oldest son, Ed, came back from business college with store clothes and city hats and polished tan shoes, and began idling about, calling on the girls. From the first, he and Susie ran together like two drops of water. Bronson Perkins, a cousin of mine, a big, silent, ruminative lad who had long hung about Susie, stood no show at all. One night in county-fair week, Susie, who had gone to the fair with a crowd of girl friends, was not at home at ten o'clock. Lem, sitting in his doorway and watching the clock, heard the approach of the laughing, singing straw-ride in which she had gone, with a long breath of relief; but the big hay-wagon did not stop at his gate.

He called after it in a harsh voice and was told that “Ed Gridley and she went off to the hotel to get supper. He said he'd bring her home later.”

Lem went out to the barn, hitched up the faster of his two heavy plow-horses and drove from his house to Woodville, eight miles and up-hill, in forty-five minutes. When he went into the hotel, the clerk told him that the two he sought had had supper served in a private room. Lem ascertained which room and broke the door in with one heave of his shoulders. Susie sprang up from the disordered supper-table and ran to him like a frightened child, clinging to him desperately and crying out that Ed scared her so!

“It's all right now, Susie,” he said gently, not looking at the man. “Poppa's come to take you home.”

The man felt his dignity wounded. He began to protest boisterously and to declare that he was ready to marry the girl—“now, this instant, if you choose!”

Lem put one arm about Susie. “I didn't come to make you marry her. I come to keep you from doin' it,” he said, speaking clearly for once in his life. “Susie shan't marry a hound that'd do this.” And as the other advanced threateningly on him, he struck him a great blow across the mouth that sent him unconscious to the ground.

Then Lem went out, paid for the broken lock, and drove home with Susie behind the foundered plow-horse.

The next spring her engagement to Bronson Perkins was announced, though everybody said they didn't see what use it was for folks to get engaged that couldn't ever get married. Mr. Perkins, Bronson's father, was daft, not enough to send him to the asylum, but so that he had to be watched all the time to keep him from doing himself a hurt. He had a horrid way, I remember, of lighting matches and holding them up to his bared arm until the smell of burning flesh went sickeningly through the house and sent someone in a rush to him. Of course it was out of the question to bring a young bride to such a home. Apparently there were years of waiting before them, and Susie was made of no stuff to endure a long engagement.

As a matter of fact, they were married that fall, as soon as Susie could get her things ready. Lem took old Mr. Perkins into the room Susie left vacant. “'Twon't be much more trouble taking care of two old people than one,” he explained briefly.

Ma'am Warren's comments on this action have been embalmed forever in the delighted memories of our people. We have a taste for picturesque and forceful speech.

From that time we always saw the lunatic and the bent shepherd together. The older man grew quieter under Lem's care than he had been for years, and if he felt one of his insane impulses overtaking him, ran totteringly to grasp his protector's arm until, quaking and shivering, he was himself again. Lem used to take him up to the sheep-pasture for the day sometimes. He liked it up there himself, he said, and maybe 'twould be good for Uncle Hi. He often reported with pride that the old man talked as sensible as anybody, “get him off where it's quiet.” Indeed, when Mr. Perkins died, six years later, we had forgotten that he was anything but a little queer, and he had known many happy, lucid hours with his grandchildren.

Susie and Bronson had two boys—sturdy, hearty children, in whom Lem took the deepest, shyest pride. He loved to take them off into the woods with him and exulted in their quick intelligence and strong little bodies. Susie got into the way of letting him take a good deal of the care of them.

It was Lem who first took alarm about the fall that little Frank had, down the cellar stairs. He hurt his spine somehow—our local doctor could not tell exactly how—and as the injury only made him limp a little, nobody thought much about it, until he began to have difficulty in walking. Then Lem sent for a doctor from Rutland who, as soon as he examined the child, stuck out his lower lip and rubbed his chin ominously. He pronounced the trouble something with a long name which none of us had ever heard, and said that Frank would be a hopeless cripple if it, were not cured soon. There was, he said, a celebrated doctor from Europe now traveling in this country who had a wonderful new treatment for this condition. But under the circumstances—he looked about the plain farm sitting-room—he supposed that was out of the question.

“What did the doctor from foreign parts ask?” queried Bronson, and, being informed of some of the customary prices for major operations, fell back hopeless. Susie, her pretty, childish face drawn and blanched into a wan beauty, put her arms about her sick little son and looked at her stepfather. He had never failed her.

He did not fail her now. He sold the land he had accumulated field by field; he sold the great flock of sheep, every one of which he could call by name; he mortgaged the house over the protesting head of his now bedridden mother; he sold the horse and cow, and the very sticks of furniture from the room where Susie had grown up and where the crazy grandfather of Susie's children had known a peaceful old age and death. Little Frank was taken to New York to the hospital to have the great surgeon operate on him—he is there yet, almost completely recovered and nearly ready to come home.

Back in Hillsboro, Lem now began life all over again, hiring out humbly to his neighbors and only stipulating that he should have enough free time to take care of his mother. Three weeks ago she had her last stroke of paralysis and, after lying speechless for a few days, passed away, grim to the last, by the expression in her fierce old eyes.

The day after her funeral Lem did not come to work as he was expected. We went over to his house and found, to our consternation, that he was not out of bed.

“Be ye sick, Lem?” asked my uncle.

He looked at us over the bedclothes with his old foolish, apologetic smile. “Kind o' lazy, I guess,” he whispered, closing his eyes.

The doctor was put out by the irregularity of the case.

“I can't make out anything really the trouble!” he said. “Only the wheels don't go round as fast as they ought. Call it failing heart action if you want a label.”

The wheels ran more and more slowly until it was apparent to all of us that before long they would stop altogether. Susie and Bronson were in New York with little Frank, so that Lem's care during his last days devolved on the haphazard services of the neighbors. He was out of his head most of the time, though never violent, and all through the long nights lay flat on his back, looking at the ceiling with bright, blank eyes, driving his ox-team, skidding logs, plowing in stony ground and remembering to favor the off-horse whose wind wasn't good, planting, hoeing, tending his sheep, and teaching obstinate lambs to drink. He used quaint, coaxing names for these, such as a mother uses for her baby. He was up in the mountain-pasture a good deal, we gathered, and at night, from his constant mention of how bright the stars shone. And sometimes, when he was in evident pain, his delusion took the form that Susie, or the little boys, had gone up with him, and got lost in the woods.

I was on duty the night he died. We thought a change was near, because he had lain silent all day, and we hoped he would come to himself when he awoke from this stupor. Near midnight he began to talk again, and I could not make out at first whether he was still wandering or not. “Hold on hard, Uncle Hi,” I heard him whisper.

A spoon fell out of my hand and clattered against a plate. He gave a great start and tried to sit up. “Yes, mother—coming!” he called hoarsely, and then looked at me with his own eyes. “I must ha' forgot about mother's bein' gone,” he apologized sheepishly.

I took advantage of this lucid interval to try to give him some medicine the doctor had left. “Take a swallow of this,” I said, holding the glass to his lips.

“What's it for?” he asked.

“It's a heart stimulant,” I explained. “The doctor said if we could get you through to-night you have a good chance.”

His face drew together in grotesque lines of anxiety. “Little Frank worse?”

“Oh, no, he's doing finely.”

“Susie all right?”

“Why, yes,” I said wonderingly.

“Nothing the matter with her other boy?”

“Why, no, no,” I told him. “Everybody's all right Here, just take this down.”

He turned away his head on the pillow and murmured something I did not catch. When I asked him what he said, he smiled feebly as in deprecation of his well-known ridiculous ways. “I'm just as much obliged to you,” he said, “but if everybody's all right, I guess I won't have any medicine.” He looked at me earnestly. “I'm—I'm real tired,” he said.

It came out in one great breath—apparently his last, for he did not move after that, and his ugly, slack-mouthed face was at once quite still. Its expression made me think of the time I had seen it as a child, by lantern-light, as he looked down at the new-born lamb on his breast.

 
 
 

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