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Elizabeth and Dave by Muriel Campbell Dyar

 

When the town doctor, coming out to Turkey Ridge, had given as his verdict that Elizabeth's one chance of life—he could not say how slim the chance in that plain room, having within it the pleasant noise of bees and the spring sun on the floor—lay in her going to the great hospital in the city, it was Davie who fell to sobbing in his worn hands.

“I'll jest die at home, Davie,” she said in her quiet voice.

“You'll take the money put away for our buryin' an' go, dearie!” Davie cried out fiercely. His gaunt frame, stooped as a scholar's, shook so pitifully with his grief, she had not the heart to gainsay him, but after she promised him it only shook the more.

“Why, Davie,” she chided, brightly, “ain't I always been a-wantin' to see the city streets with the hurryin' people, 'n' tall houses, 'n' churches with towers on 'em? They ain't many folks on th' Ridge'll hev sech a lettin'-out as mine.”

“If I only had 'nough saved to go too,” he mourned.

She answered him simply: “An' who'd I hev to write to me, with you goin' 'long? It'll seem terrible nice to hear from somebody. I always did love letters. Sence Cousin Tabby died I ain't had one.”

“You won't be afeard travellin' so far by yourself?” he asked then, awestruck. Davie had the diffidence of the untravelled. Few men ever left the small farming district of Turkey Ridge for a journey; but if one did so, and the trip were long, he had thereafter a bolder bearing.

“Afeard?” She gave a little trembling laugh which would have deceived no one but a dull old man, now smitten suddenly by sorrow. “The idee o' my bein' afeard! They ain't a mite o' danger o' gettin' run over er lost er nothin'—not a mite.”

Under the pretext of bending to hunt for a lost pin she hid the sad fear in her eyes—a fear of all the greater world which was beyond Davie, from whom she had not been parted since her marriage.

But throughout the time of her preparation she went bravely. She would herself have put in order for leaving the house kept spotless even while her disease had crept upon her, but the news of the doctor's words had gone up through the group of farmhouses, huddled like timid sheep on the road, and the kindly neighbor women left their own work, very heavy in the spring-time, to take her household burdens. In a community where no great things ever came save two, and these two birth and death, misfortune drew soul to soul. Because of her gathering weakness she yielded that others should do the tasks which had always hitherto been hers, but she could not be prevented from the packing of the little leather trunk that had held her wedding things. “You're jest makin' me out a foolish, lazy body,” she said, her lips seen quivering for the first time. Then, fearful lest she should seem ungrateful for the kindness of her friends, she made haste to ask where, in the trunk, to put her staid, coarse linen, and where her best cap with its fine bow of lavender ribbon, and would they if they were she take her mending-basket along in hopes there might be moments for Davie's socks?

Many a loving offering was tucked in with her belongings to go with her. Now blue-eyed Annie Todd knocked at the door, bringing a bunch of healing herbs from her mother, who could not leave for reason of her nursing baby. Then old Mr. Bayne drove into the dooryard with a pair of knitted bedroom slippers, wrapped carefully in a newspaper. Next Kerrenhappuch Green, perturbed in his long jaw, pottered down to fetch the pinball which his daughter had forgotten when she came to help. Mrs. Glegg, who had lately lost her idiot son, Benje, gave a roll of soft flannel. Miss Panthea Potter contributed a jar of currant jam, three years sealed, and pretended that she was not moved. The minister copied out a verse from the Psalms and fixed it so cunningly about a gold piece that, proud as a girl in her poverty, Elizabeth could not refuse the gentle gift. It was he, too, possessing the advantage of a clerkly hand, who arranged for Elizabeth's admission to the free ward of the hospital, and wrote to his niece Mary, living by good fortune in the city, to have a care over her while there. He told that Mary had a kind, good-humored face, and was herself country born.

“I'll be better able to thank ye all fittenly,” the white-haired old woman said, “when I come back to ye well 'n' strong.”

The last day before she was to start, all that was possible being done for her, she and Davie were left to themselves, at the minister's suggestion. Forty years before, Davie had brought her to the house, yet in her soft marriage dress. The wedding journey had been the coming up at sunset to the Ridge from her home in the valley, behind his plough-horses, lifting their plodding hoofs as in the furrows. On the clean straw in the back of the wagon rested her small trunk and a hive of bees, shrouded in calico. Tied to the tail-piece was a homesick heifer. While he unhitched the horses and placed her dowry, she entered his door to lay off her bonnet tremulously in the living-room.

Alone with the clumsy carpet-loom which made his winter's work, and his tired week-day hat hanging from a peg against the wall, she had a deep moment. Joining him on the door-step, they sat side by side watching in silence the light die over the scanty fields handed down to him by his father, who had grown bent and weary in wrenching a living from them as he was aging. Neither was young; both were marked by the swift homeliness of the hard-working; but the look on their faces was that which falls when two have gotten an immortal youth and beauty in each other's hearts.

It had been their custom on each succeeding spring to go, if the anniversary ware pleasant, to sit again at evening on the door-step with the sweetness of the straggling spice-bush upon it. Now as they sat there a silence came upon them like that of their wedding-day. Elizabeth broke it first.

“Davie,” she whispered, “if I'd say I'd jest like to run through the house a minute by myself, you won't think it queer?”

“No, no,” answered Davie, something gripping his chest.

She went slowly, her slippers flapping back and forth on her heels. She sought first the tidy kitchen with its scoured tins, then the living-room with the old loom still in the corner, then the parlor. Here she drew a long, shaken breath. Every Ridge woman loved her parlor with an inherited devotion. Many unrecorded self-sacrifices furnished it. Elizabeth's lay hallowed to her. It was her Place Beautiful. There was a pale, striped paper on the sacred walls, and on the floor an ingrain carpet, dully blue. At the windows were ruffled white curtains—the ruffles and sheer lengths of lawn had lain long in her dreams. The mantel-piece held a row of shells, their delicate pink linings showing, and on either end china vases filled with sprays of plumy grass. Above was the marriage certificate, neatly framed. On the centre-table were sundry piteous ornaments, deeply rooted in her affections. The chairs and the single sofa, angular and sombre, were set about with proud precision. They had been the result of years of careful hoarding of egg-money, and were, to Elizabeth, the achievement of her living.

Holding on to the banister, she climbed the stairs forlornly to the upper chambers. In her own room Davie found her by and by. She was sitting up very straight in her rocker, a baby's long clothes on her lap. Her expression of pain was gone, and in its stead was the strange peace of a woman who sees her first-born. She looked up absently at her husband.

“Melindy Ethel,” her voice crooned, “was so little 'n' warm.”

“You must jest lay down 'n' rest, dearie,” he urged, anxiously. He took the things from her and laid them back, one by one, in the lower drawer of the high, glass-knobbed bureau whence she had taken them. The thin stuff of the little, listless sleeves and yellowed skirts clung to his roughened fingers; he freed them with gentleness.

“An' her hair would hev curled,” she said, when the last piece was in.

Davie had been kneeling among his vegetables that summer-time long since that Elizabeth had come to stand beside him in their garden, pushing from her forehead her heavy falling hair, then dark, in the way she had if very glad. Seeing that she had something to tell him, and wondering at her eyes, he waited for her to speak. She did not keep him long. For an instant her serene glance went up to the blue sky. Then her hands stretched out to him.

“Davie,” she began, “that old cradle of your ma's—” She broke off shyly.

Davie stayed on his knees. He could not at once answer her, but could only grope toward her blindly. Presently her touch calmed him.

“It rocks from head to foot,” he quavered in joy, “'stead o' from side to side—the motion's better for 'em.”

Striving to go well through her troubled months until her hour should come, Elizabeth smiled often at Davie, and sometimes the smile was a tender laugh in her throat—Davie clumping excitedly over the farm about his work; Davie bringing home from town the cautious purchase of a child's sack, and crying out in exultation, “It's got tossels on it!” Davie storing singular treasures in a box in the garret—seed-pods which rattled when you shook them; scarlet wood-berries, gay and likely to please; a tin whistle, a rubber ball, a doll with joints, and a folded paper having written on it, “For Croup a poultis of onions and heeting the feet”; and Davie, his importance dropped from him as a garment, coming to put his head down against her shoulder.

“I dun'no',” he said to her, “as a man better feel too uppity 'bout becomin' a pa. It's an awful solemn undertakin', an' the more you think it over the solemner it gets. Seems to me it's somethin' like playin' the fiddle. There can't jest anybody rush in an' play a real good time on a fiddle—takes a terrible lot o' preparin' 'n' hard work to tech them little strings to music. An' mebbe the man that can tech 'em the best is him that's always been clean 'n' honest 'n' real grave. I'm beginnin' to feel so no 'count—why, I dun'no' a note o' fiddle music!”

“Oh, Davie,” she had comforted, “it don't seem to me that the man jest born good 'd play the sweetest, but the one who had fought for things.”

While she turned the tiny hems and ran the wonderful seams, Davie, winter-bound, sat on the tall stool before his loom, the bobbins wound with rags for a hit and miss. Weaving eked out a slender income. His father's finger-tips, too, had become stained by colors of warp and woof after the end of the pig-killing had been announced by the children racing with the bladders through the thin snow.

On Christmas day he brought down the cradle from the garret, and wiped its gathered dust from it with a white cloth. To please him, Elizabeth spread it ready with the sheets and blankets. The sight of the pillow unmanned him. “The idee o' that stove smokin' so Christmas!” he choked. She turned to him quickly. Their seamed hands met as in that joyous moment among the vegetables, but this time they clasped above a dusted cradle. In view of the increased expenses before the household they made each other no gifts; only Davie put a fir bough and a teething-ring in his box.

Then he wove as though the clack of his shuttle were the beat of a drum going by, then in a vast impatience, then with the bridle hanging on the rim of the manger by the plough-horse which had a saddle gait.

The morning that he clambered, frightened, into the saddle a great cold wave was on the Ridge, with a fierce wind continually blowing. Smoke curled up from the chimneys to perish against the sunny sky. Cattle left in the open crowded in the lee of the straw-stacks, their rough flanks crawling, and in the folds the ewes, yet frail from their travail, stood stung and still, mothering their weak-kneed lambs. Beside the thud of the horse's hoofs toward town there was no sound on the road save a little, dry cracking of the frost. The doctor, as he started in his carriage for Davie's house, drew his robes closely about him and scowled at the fierceness of the blast; but Davie, riding far ahead, his elbows flying wildly up and down, did not know that he had forgotten to fasten his shabby overcoat. Crouched by the silent loom, he clutched helplessly at the hit and miss as Elizabeth went down into that loneliest of all earth's agonies.

But from the beginning the child hung a doomed thing on her breast. After three months they followed her up to the burying-ground, the murmuring of its cedars never again to be wholly out of their ears. Away from the grave Davie gave an exceedingly bitter cry—“She's little to leave!” But Elizabeth's tears fell back in her heart unshed. She waved her handkerchief to Melindy Ethel. “But she's brave like her pa,” she said. And Davie stiffened.

Memories of these and other days, mingled with forebodings for the parting, were so heavy upon him that he could get no farther in the night's devotions than the reading of the Bible chapter.

“I can't pray to-night, 'Lisbeth,” he said.

Propped with pillows for the last rest before her journey, she was still faithfully brave. “Mebbe the Lord'll jest take care o' me, anyway, bein' as I've tried to do his ways.” The old man did not know how wistful was her speech.

In the morning she was early dressed in her decent black. To those who came for the leave-taking she bade good-by with gentle courtesy. Kerrenhappuch Green lent his buggy because of its comfortable seat, but Davie drove her carefully over the six miles to the station. No shriek of an engine's whistle disturbed the quiet of Turkey Ridge; to go into wider ways one must needs start from the nearest town. Once she looked back at the house, set like an ancient brown bird's nest on the narrow fields.

The yellow-bodied stage, going every other day across the country, brought the minister the letter from his niece with the happy tidings of Elizabeth's safe arrival, under her guidance, at the city hospital. The stage-driver viewed the missive with professional interest as he delivered it. The majority of his passengers paid him monotonously in butter or eggs for his services, his trips were tedious, and his ideals were limited. To read and digest all postals and to conjecture at the contents of all envelopes were his reward for handing out the mail at the turning of the lanes. The minister jogged down instantly to Davie's in his sulky, slapping the lines vigorously, if ineffectually, over the back of his brown mare, which understood, with a truly feminine insight, his perplexity before her character. Davie dropped his hoe and ran stumbling to meet him. He read the pages in a tremble. There was something for him from Elizabeth at the bottom of the last one. “Dear Davie,” it ran, “are you well an' lookin' jest the same? Don't get lonesome for me. I ain't missin' you a mite.”

During the period that she was resting for the operation Mary wrote daily, and every time the letter came the minister jogged down to the farmhouse, for the words were really from the old wife to Davie. Very cheerful words they were for the most part. “If Davie's askin' how the streets look, tell him I can't jest tell, for I come in the night, but the noise is amazin'.” “Tell Davie I can see a church tower from the window, an' it's higher 'n' we ever dreamt of its bein', an' sweeter.” “Tell Davie to lay listenin' to feet goin' up and down on stones is grand.” “Tell Davie I hev seen the surgeon an' that I never thought a great man'd be so kind. I was all in a flutter over him, but when he'd come 'n' had seen me, whatever'd I do but tell him 'bout him 'n' Melindy Ethel, an' the meetin'-house, an' how the road runs by in front o' the farm. An' he said he knew, an' not to mind—as ma ust to. Ain't it strange 'bout his knowin'?”

The letters to Elizabeth were a tremendous labor, for Davie was no speller, and always bashful in the presence of ink. He had only little happenings for his pen—he wrote with his tongue forming the painful syllables about his mouth. But to her they were infinite things—the May rose was blossomed in the garden, and a pair of robins were nesting on a ledge of the loom on finding the room so still; the speckled hen scratched up the pease, and the black cow's calf was lamed; the house dog pined for her and whimpered at the doors, letting the cats lick the edges of his dish; the neighbors had sent donations of a loaf of rye bread, a pitcher of broth, and the half of a new pressed cheese; Kerrenhappuch Green sat with him in the evenings, and he, Davie, was not getting lonesome nor missing her at all. But the one blotted “'Lisbeth, 'Lisbeth,” told the true tale of the empty house.

When no letter came from Mary he toiled, white as lint, in his potato-field. There followed two days of sick suspense; then the minister waved to him at the gray fence-rails. So greatly did he dread to hear the news he longed to know, he could not stir from the spot where he stood, but waited, a strained, pathetic figure, for him to make his way across the even furrows. On the fatherly, near-sighted countenance, as he drew nearer, was to be seen such a shining brightness that straightway Davie knew that she whom he loved had issued from her trial. The two men, alike weather-beaten and seamed by a humble work—the shepherd no less than the sheep of his flock anxiously tilling a rocky farm,—had the reticence which is learned in hill solitudes, but in the “Thank God, Davie,” and the breaking “Yes, sir,” much was spoken.

Now Davie slackened his toil and opened all the windows of the house to freshen the low-ceilinged rooms for Elizabeth's returning. Every morning he picked bunches of spring flowers and arranged them in stiff bouquets on the tables and old bureaus. He took out his Sunday suit from the closet and rebrushed it carefully and laid it with a clean collar and his musty tie. He began to carry himself all at once with something of an air, and he developed a reckless and unnatural enthusiasm about the weather; for to be darkly critical of the season after the thaw was a local point of masculine etiquette which hitherto he had scrupulously observed. The spring had always been in his judgment, sympathetically received, “too terrible warm,” or “pointin' right to a late frost that'll kill everything,” or, were it not palpably a failure, “so durned nice now that the summer'll be mean.” But with the good news coming from the hospital he was ready to declare in response to friendly greetings: “It's the beatin'est time I ever come 'cross. Dun'no' when I hev heerd so many bluebirds or sech chirky ones. An' the sky's wonderful an' the ground's jest right. It's goin' to be a dreadful good year for farmin'.”

There was in his mind no premonition of trouble on his receiving from the lumbering stage an envelope directed to him in Elizabeth's own hand. It was only that she was getting able to write to him herself. He took it unopened up to the bench by the May rose to read its contents at his leisure away from the stage-driver's curious gaze. “Dear Davie,” the letter said, “the city streets is so wearyin' an' I'm comin' home. If I ain't so well as we hoped, don't mind. 'Tain't like I was young to leave. Mary's comin' with me, for she's long been wantin' to visit the Ridge. Could you meet me with your wagon, Davie?”

She could not tell, what she did not know, that the money for Mary's journey had been sent to her by the minister for his old friend's needs.

       * * * * *

The afternoon was very soft and fair when Davie met the train incoming to town from the city. The farms on Turkey Ridge were illumined with growing things like the faint, precious pages of a missal. Doves fluttered on the lowly roofs. Everywhere was the calling of birds and the smell of broken earth. The minister and Mary fell behind along the way. Kerrenhappuch Green, caught walking westward to the creek, his stale pockets bulged by bait, hid with a simple delicacy in the roadside bushes from Davie's face. Only the children hastening from school nodded to him as he passed them, nor hushed the loud clatter of their burring tongues.

It was not for young children to be stricken by that sight upon the road—the pair of patient horses drawing slowly homeward in the shining of the sun a wagon fresh lined with straw, on which lay a homely mother, smiling with old lips; and above her, on the seat, humbly bowed in his Sunday suit, a gray-haired man whose cheeks were wet with tears.

 
 
 

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