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Eugene Gant yearns to escape his tumultuous family and his small North Carolina town. Gant's experiences mirror Wolfe's, but transformed by the author's imagination, they touch universality. The book has remained in print virtually non-stop since it was first published in 1929.
Rich in language and intense in emotion, this coming-of-age novel will captivate the new reader and captivate the longtime Wolfe fan. It includes ...
Eugene Gant yearns to escape his tumultuous family and his small North Carolina town. Gant's experiences mirror Wolfe's, but transformed by the author's imagination, they touch universality. The book has remained in print virtually non-stop since it was first published in 1929.
Rich in language and intense in emotion, this coming-of-age novel will captivate the new reader and captivate the longtime Wolfe fan. It includes an introduction by Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe's first editor.
"Wild, dark, beautiful and heroic." (New York Herald Tribune)
Thomas Wolfe's classic coming-of-age novel, first published in 1929, is a work of epic grandeur, evoking a time and place with extraordinary lyricism and precision. Set in Altamont, North Carolina, this semi-autobiographical novel tells the story of a restless young man who longs to escape his tumultuous family and his small town existence.
"Look Homeward, Angel is one of the most important novels of my life. . . . It's a wonderful story for any young person burning with literary ambition, but it also speaks to the longings of our whole lives; I'm still moved by Wolfe's ability to convey the human appetite for understanding and experience." -- Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Historian
"Wolfe made it possible to believe that the stuff of life, with all its awe and mystery and magic, could by some strange alchemy be transmuted to the page." -- William Gay, author of The Long Home
"As so many other American boys had before and have since, I discovered a version of myself in Look Homeward, Angel, and I became intoxicated with the elevated, poetic prose." -- Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek
A destiny that leads the English to the Dutch is strange enough; but one that leads from Epsom into Pennsylvania, and thence into the hills that shut in Altamont over the proud coral cry of the cock, and the soft stone smile of an angel, is touched by that dark miracle of chance which makes new magic in a dusty world.
Each of us is all the sums he has not counted: subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas.
The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern, because a London cutpurse went unhung. Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years. The minute-winning days, like flies, buzz home to death, and every moment is a window on all time.
This is a moment:
An Englishman named Gilbert Gaunt, which he later changed to Gant (a concession probably to Yankee phonetics), having come to Baltimore from Bristol in 1837 on a sailing vessel, soon let the profits of a public house which he had purchased roll down his improvident gullet. He wandered westward into Pennsylvania, eking out a dangerous living by matching fighting cocks against the champions of country barnyards, and often escaping after a night spent in a village jail, with his champion dead on the field of battle, without the clink of a coin in his pocket, and sometimes with the print of a farmer's big knuckles on his reckless face. But he always escaped, and coming at length among the Dutch at harvest time he was so touched by the plenty of their land that he cast out his anchors there. Within a year he married a rugged young widow with a tidy farm who like all the other Dutch had been charmed by his air of travel, and his grandiose speech, particularly when he did Hamlet in the manner of the great Edmund Kean. Every one said he should have been an actor.
The Englishman begot children — a daughter and four sons — lived easily and carelessly and bore patiently the weight of his wife's harsh but honest tongue. The years passed, his bright somewhat staring eyes grew dull and bagged, the tall Englishman walked with a gouty shuffle: one morning when she came to nag him out of sleep she found him dead of an apoplexy. He left five children, a mortgage and — in his strange dark eyes which now stared bright and open — something that had not died: a passionate and obscure hunger for voyages.
So, with this legacy, we leave this Englishman and are concerned hereafter with the heir to whom he bequeathed it, his second son, a boy named Oliver. How this boy stood by the roadside near his mother's farm, and saw the dusty Rebels march past on their way to Gettysburg, how his cold eyes darkened when he heard the great name of Virginia, and how the year the war had ended, when he was still fifteen, he had walked along a street in Baltimore, and seen within a little shop smooth granite slabs of death, carved lambs and cherubim, and an angel poised upon cold phthisic feet, with a smile of soft stone idiocy — this is a longer tale. But I know that his cold and shallow eyes had darkened with the obscure and passionate hunger that had lived in a dead man's eyes, and that had led from Fenchurch Street past Philadelphia. As the boy looked at the big angel with the carved stipe of lilystalk, a cold and nameless excitement possessed him. The long fingers of his big hands closed. He felt that he wanted, more than anything in the world, to carve delicately with a chisel. He wanted to wreak something dark and unspeakable in him into cold stone. He wanted to carve an angel's head.
Oliver entered the shop and asked a big bearded man with a wooden mallet for a job. He became the stone cutter's apprentice. He worked in that dusty yard five years. He became a stone cutter. When his apprenticeship was over he had become a man.
He never found it. He never learned to carve an angel's head. The dove, the lamb, the smooth joined marble hands of death, and letters fair and fine — but not the angel. And of all the years of waste and loss — the riotous years in Baltimore, of work and savage drunkenness, and the theatre of Booth and Salvini, which had a disastrous effect upon the stone cutter, who memorized each accent of the noble rant, and strode muttering through the streets, with rapid gestures of the enormous talking hands — these are blind steps and gropings of our exile, the painting of our hunger as, remembering speechlessly, we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, a door. Where? When?
He never found it, and he reeled down across the continent into the Reconstruction South — a strange wild form of six feet four with cold uneasy eyes, a great blade of nose, and a rolling tide of rhetoric, a preposterous and comic invective, as formalized as classical epithet, which he used seriously, but with a faint uneasy grin around the corners of his thin wailing mouth.
He set up business in Sydney, the little capital city of one of the middle Southern states, lived soberly and industriously under the attentive eye of a folk still raw with defeat and hostility and finally, his good name founded and admission won, he married a gaunt tubercular spin-stress, ten years his elder, but with a nest egg and an unshakable will to matrimony. Within eighteen months he was a howling maniac again, his little business went smash while his foot stayed on the polished rail, and Cynthia, his wife — whose life, the natives said, he had not helped to prolong — died suddenly one night after a hemorrhage.
So, all was gone again — Cynthia, the shop, the hard-bought praise of soberness, the angel's head — he walked through the streets at dark, yelling his pentameter curse at Rebel ways, and all their indolence; but sick with fear and loss and penitence, he wilted under the town's reproving stare, becoming convinced, as the flesh wasted on his own gaunt frame, that Cynthia's scourge was doing vengeance now on him.
He was only past thirty, but he looked much older. His face was yellow and sunken; the waxen blade of his nose looked like a beak. He had long brown mustaches that hung straight down mournfully.
His tremendous bouts of drinking had wrecked his health. He was thin as a rail and had a cough. He thought of Cynthia now, in the lonely and hostile town, and he became afraid. He thought he had tuberculosis and that he was going to die.
So, alone and lost again, having found neither order nor establishment in the world, and with the earth cut away from his feet, Oliver resumed his aimless drift along the continent. He turned westward toward the great fortress of the hills, knowing that behind them his evil fame would not be known, and hoping that he might find in them isolation, a new life, and recovered health.
The eyes of the gaunt spectre darkened again, as they had in his youth.
All day, under a wet gray sky of October, Oliver rode westward across the mighty state. As he stared mournfully out the window at the great raw land so sparsely tilled by the futile and occasional little farms, which seemed to have made only little grubbing patches in the wilderness, his heart went cold and leaden in him. He thought of the great barns of Pennsylvania, the ripe bending of golden grain, the plenty, the order, the clean thrift of the people. And he thought of how he had set out to get order and position for himself, and of the rioting confusion of his life, the blot and blur of years, and the red waste of his youth.
By God! he thought. I'm getting old! Why here?
The grisly parade of the spectre years trooped through his brain. Suddenly, he saw that his life had been channelled by a series of accidents: a mad Rebel singing of Armageddon, the sound of a bugle on the road, the mule-hoofs of the army, the silly white face of an angel in a dusty shop, a slut's pert wiggle of her hams as she passed by. He had reeled out of warmth and plenty into this barren land: as he stared out the window and saw the fallow unworked earth, the great raw lift of the Piedmont, the muddy red clay roads, and the slattern people gaping at the stations — a lean farmer gangling above his reins, a dawdling negro, a gap-toothed yokel, a hard sallow woman with a grimy baby — the strangeness of destiny stabbed him with fear. How came he here from the clean Dutch thrift of his youth into this vast lost earth of rickets?
The train rattled on over the reeking earth. Rain fell steadily. A brakeman came draftily into the dirty plush coach and emptied a scuttle of coal into the big stove at the end. High empty laughter shook a group of yokels sprawled on two turned seats. The bell tolled mournfully above the clacking wheels. There was a droning interminable wait at a junction-town near the foot-hills. Then the train moved on again across the vast rolling earth.
Dusk came. The huge bulk of the hills was foggily emergent. Small smoky lights went up in the hillside shacks. The train crawled dizzily across high trestles spanning ghostly hawsers of water. Far up, far down, plumed with wisps of smoke, toy cabins stuck to bank and gulch and hillside. The train toiled sinuously up among gouged red cuts with slow labor. As darkness came, Oliver descended at the little town of Old Stockade where the rails ended. The last great wall of the hills lay stark above him. As he left the dreary little station and stared into the greasy lamplight of a country store, Oliver felt that he was crawling, like a great beast, into the circle of those enormous hills to die.
The next morning he resumed his journey by coach. His destination was the little town of Altamont, twenty-four miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver's spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air: the range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: they were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.
Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain, and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.
In the haunting eternity of these mountains, rimmed in their enormous cup, he found sprawled out on its hundred hills and hollows a town of four thousand people.
There were new lands. His heart lifted.
This town of Altamont had been settled soon after the Revolutionary War. It had been a convenient stopping-off place for cattledrovers and farmers in their swing eastward from Tennessee into South Carolina. And, for several decades before the Civil War, it had enjoyed the summer patronage of fashionable people from Charleston and the plantations of the hot South. When Oliver first came to it it had begun to get some reputation not only as a summer resort, but as a sanitarium for tuberculars. Several rich men from the North had established hunting lodges in the hills, and one of them had bought huge areas of mountain land and, with an army of imported architects, carpenters and masons, was planning the greatest country estate in America — something in limestone, with pitched slate roofs, and one hundred and eighty-three rooms. It was modelled on the chateau at Blois. There was also a vast new hotel, a sumptuous wooden barn, rambling comfortably upon the summit of a commanding hill.
But most of the population was still native, recruited from the hill and country people in the surrounding districts. They were Scotch-Irish mountaineers, rugged, provincial, intelligent, and industrious.
Oliver had about twelve hundred dollars saved from the wreckage of Cynthia's estate. During the winter he rented a little shack at one edge of the town's public square, acquired a small stock of marbles, and set up business. But he had little to do at first save to think of the prospect of his death. During the bitter and lonely winter, while he thought he was dying, the gaunt scarecrow Yankee that flapped muttering through the streets became an object of familiar gossip to the townspeople. All the people at his boarding-house knew that at night he walked his room with great caged strides, and that a long low moan that seemed wrung from his bowels quivered incessantly on his thin lips. But he spoke to no one about it.
And then the marvellous hill Spring came, green-golden, with brief spurting winds, the magic and fragrance of the blossoms, warm gusts of balsam. The great wound in Oliver began to heal. His voice was heard in the land once more, there were purple flashes of the old rhetoric, the ghost of the old eagerness.
One day in April, as with fresh awakened senses, he stood before his shop, watching the flurry of life in the square, Oliver heard behind him the voice of a man who was passing. And that voice, flat, drawling, complacent, touched with sudden light a picture that had lain dead in him for twenty years.
"Hit's a comin'! Accordin' to my figgers hit's due June 11, 1886."
Oliver turned and saw retreating the burly persuasive figure of the prophet he had last seen vanishing down the dusty road that led to Gettysburg and Armageddon.
"Who is that?" he asked a man.
The man looked and grinned.
"That's Bacchus Pentland," he said. "He's quite a character. There are a lot of his folks around here."
Oliver wet his great thumb briefly. Then, with a thin grin, he said:
"Has Armageddon come yet?"
"He's expecting it any day now," said the man.
Then Oliver met Eliza. He lay one afternoon in Spring upon the smooth leather sofa of his little office, listening to the bright piping noises in the Square. A restoring peace brooded over his great extended body. He thought of the loamy black earth with its sudden young light of flowers, of the beaded chill of beer, and of the plumtree's dropping blossoms. Then he heard the brisk heel-taps of a woman coming down among the marbles, and he got hastily to his feet. He was drawing on his well brushed coat of heavy black just as she entered.
"I tell you what," said Eliza, pursing her lips in reproachful banter, "I wish I was a man and had nothing to do but lie around all day on a good easy sofa."
"Good afternoon, madam," said Oliver with a flourishing bow. "Yes," he said, as a faint sly grin bent the corners of his thin mouth, "I reckon you've caught me taking my constitutional. As a matter of fact I very rarely lie down in the daytime, but I've been in bad health for the last year now, and I'm not able to do the work I used to."
He was silent a moment; his face drooped in an expression of hangdog dejection. "Ah, Lord! I don't know what's to become of me!"
"Pshaw!" said Eliza briskly and contemptuously. "There's nothing wrong with you in my opinion. You're a big strapping fellow, in the prime of life. Half of it's only imagination. Most of the time we think we're sick it's all in the mind. I remember three years ago I was teaching school in Hominy Township when I was taken down with pneumonia. Nobody ever expected to see me come out of it alive but I got through it somehow; I well remember one day I was sitting down — as the fellow says, I reckon I was convalescin'; the reason I remember is Old Doctor Fletcher had just been and when he went out I saw him shake his head at my cousin Sally. 'Why Eliza, what on earth,' she said, just as soon as he had gone, 'he tells me you're spitting up blood every time you cough; you've got consumption as sure as you live.' 'Pshaw,' I said. I remember I laughed just as big as you please, determined to make a big joke of it all; I just thought to myself, I'm not going to give into it, I'll fool them all yet; 'I don't believe a word of it' (I said)," she nodded her head smartly at him, and pursed her lips, "'and besides, Sally' (I said) 'we've all got to go some time, and there's no use worrying about what's going to happen. It may come tomorrow, or it may come later, but it's bound to come to all in the end'."
"Ah Lord!" said Oliver, shaking his head sadly. "You hit the nail on the head that time. A truer word was never spoken."
Merciful God! he thought, with an anguished inner grin. How long is this to keep up? But she's a pippin as sure as you're born. He looked appreciatively at her trim erect figure, noting her milky white skin, her black-brown eyes, with their quaint child's stare, and her jet black hair drawn back tightly from her high white forehead. She had a curious trick of pursing her lips reflectively before she spoke; she liked to take her time, and came to the point after interminable divagations down all the lane-ends of memory and overtone, feasting upon the golden pageant of all she had ever said, done, felt, thought, seen, or replied, with egocentric delight.
Then, while he looked, she ceased speaking abruptly, put her neat gloved hand to her chin, and stared off with a thoughtful pursed mouth.
"Well," she said after a moment, "if you're getting your health back and spend a good part of your time lying around you ought to have something to occupy your mind." She opened a leather portmanteau she was carrying and produced a visiting card and two fat volumes. "My name," she said portentously, with slow emphasis, "is Eliza Pentland, and I represent the Larkin Publishing Company."
She spoke the words proudly; with dignified gusto. Merciful God! A book-agent! thought Gant.
"We are offering," said Eliza, opening a huge yellow book with a fancy design of spears and flags and laurel wreaths, "a book of poems called Gems of Verse for Hearth and Fireside as well as Larkin's Domestic Doctor and Book of Household Remedies, giving directions for the cure and prevention of over five hundred diseases."
"Well," said Gant, with a faint grin, wetting his big thumb briefly; "I ought to find one that I've got out of that."
"Why, yes," said Eliza, nodding smartly, "as the fellow says, you can read poetry for the good of your soul and Larkin for the good of your body."
"I like poetry," said Gant, thumbing over the pages, and pausing with interest at the section marked Songs of the Spur and Sabre. "In my boyhood I could recite it by the hour."
He bought the books. Eliza packed her samples, and stood up looking sharply and curiously about the dusty little shop.
"Doing any business?" she said.
"Very little," said Oliver sadly. "Hardly enough to keep body and soul together. I'm a stranger in a strange land."
"Pshaw!" said Eliza cheerfully. "You ought to get out and meet more people. You need something to take your mind off yourself. If I were you, I'd pitch right in and take an interest in the town's progress. We've got everything here it takes to make a big town — scenery; climate, and natural resources, and we all ought to work together. If I had a few thousand dollars I know what I'd do," — she winked smartly at him, and began to speak with a curiously masculine gesture of the hand forefinger extended, fist loosely clenched. "Do you see this corner here — the one you're on? It'll double in value in the next few years. Now, here!" she gestured before her with the loose masculine gesture. "They're going to run a street through there some day as sure as you live. And when they do —" she pursed her lips reflectively; "that property is going to be worth money."
She continued to talk about property with a strange meditative hunger. The town seemed to be an enormous blueprint to her: her head was stuffed uncannily with figures and estimates — who owned a lot, who sold it, the sale-price, the real value, the future value, first and second mortgages, and so on. When she had finished, Oliver said with the emphasis of strong aversion, thinking of Sydney:
"I hope I never own another piece of property as long as I live — save a house to live in. It is nothing but a curse and a care, and the taxcollector gets it all in the end."
Eliza looked at him with a startled expression, as if he had uttered a damnable heresy.
"Why, say! That's no way to talk!" she said. "You want to lay something by for a rainy day, don't you?"
"I'm having my rainy day now," he said gloomily. "All the property I need is eight feet of earth to be buried in."
Then, talking more cheerfully, he walked with her to the door of the shop, and watched her as she marched primly away across the square, holding her skirts at the curbs with ladylike nicety. Then he turned back among his marbles again with a stirring in him of a joy he thought he had lost forever.
The Pentland family, of which Eliza was a member, was one of the strangest tribes that ever came out of the hills. It had no clear title to the name of Pentland: a Scotch-Englishman of that name, who was a mining engineer, the grandfather of the present head of the family, had come into the hills after the Revolution, looking for copper, and lived there for several years, begetting several children by one of the pioneer women. When he disappeared the woman took for herself and her children the name of Pentland.
The present chieftain of the tribe was Eliza's father, the brother of the prophet Bacchus, Major Thomas Pentland. Another brother had been killed during the Seven Days. Major Pentland's military title was honestly if inconspicuously earned. While Bacchus, who never rose above the rank of Corporal, was blistering his hard hands at Shiloh, the Major, as commander of two companies of Home Volunteers, was guarding the stronghold of the native hills. This stronghold was never threatened until the closing days of the war, when the Volunteers, ambuscaded behind convenient trees and rocks, fired three volleys into a detachment of Sherman's stragglers, and quietly dispersed to the defense of their attendant wives and children.
The Pentland family was as old as any in the community, but it had always been poor, and had made few pretenses to gentility. By marriage, and by intermarriage among its own kinsmen, it could boast of some connection with the great, of some insanity, and a modicum of idiocy. But because of its obvious superiority, in intelligence and fibre, to most of the mountain people it held a position of solid respect among them.
The Pentlands bore a strong clan-marking. Like most rich personalities in strange families their powerful group-stamp became more impressive because of their differences. They had broad powerful noses, with fleshy deeply scalloped wings, sensual mouths, extraordinarily mixed of delicacy and coarseness, which in the process of thinking they convolved with astonishing flexibility, broad intelligent foreheads, and deep flat cheeks, a trifle hollowed. The men were generally ruddy of face, and their typical stature was meaty, strong, and of middling height, although it varied into gangling cadaverousness.
Major Thomas Pentland was the father of a numerous family of which Eliza was the only surviving girl. A younger sister had died a few years before of a disease which the family identified sorrowfully as "poor Jane's scrofula." There were six boys: Henry, the oldest, was now thirty, will was twenty-six, Jim was twenty-two, and Thaddeus, Elmer and Greeley were, in the order named, eighteen, fifteen, and eleven. Eliza was twenty-four.
The four oldest children, Henry, Will, Eliza, and Jim, had passed their childhood in the years following the war. The poverty and privation of these years had been so terrible that none of them ever spoke of it now, but the bitter steel had sheared into their hearts, leaving scars that would not heal.
The effect of these years upon the oldest children was to develop in them an insane niggardliness, an insatiate love of property, and a desire to escape from the Major's household as quickly as possible.
"Father," Eliza had said with ladylike dignity, as she led Oliver for the first time into the sitting-room of the cottage, "I want you to meet Mr. Gant."
Major Pentland rose slowly from his rocker by the fire, folded a large knife, and put the apple he had been peeling on the mantel. Bacchus looked up benevolently from a whittled stick, and Will, glancing up from his stubby nails which he was paring as usual, greeted the visitor with a birdlike nod and wink. The men amused themselves constantly with pocket knives.
Major Pentland advanced slowly toward Gant. He was a stocky fleshy man in the middle fifties, with a ruddy face, a patriarchal beard, and the thick complacent features of his tribe.
"It's W. O. Gant, isn't it?" he asked in a drawling unctuous voice.
"Yes," said Oliver, "that's right."
"From what Eliza's been telling me about you," said the Major, giving the signal to his audience, "I was going to say it ought to be L. E. Gant."
The room sounded with the fat pleased laughter of the Pentlands.
"Whew!" cried Eliza, putting her hand to the wing of her broad nose. "I'll vow, father! You ought to be ashamed of yourself."
Gant grinned with a thin false painting of mirth.
The miserable old scoundrel, he thought. He's had that one bottled up for a week.
"You've met Will before," said Eliza.
"Both before and aft," said Will with a smart wink.
When their laughter had died down, Eliza said: "And this — as the fellow says — is Uncle Bacchus."
"Yes, sir," said Bacchus beaming, "as large as life an' twice as sassy.
"They call him Back-us everywhere else," said Will, including them all in a brisk wink, "but here in the family we call him Behind-us."
"I suppose," said Major Pentland deliberately, "that you've served on a great many juries?"
"No," said Oliver, determined to endure the worst now with a frozen grin. "Why?"
"Because," said the Major looking around again, "I thought you were a fellow who'd done a lot of courtin'."
Then, amid their laughter, the door opened, and several of the others came in — Eliza's mother, a plain worn Scotchwoman, and Jim, a ruddy porcine young fellow, his father's beardless twin, and Thaddeus, mild, ruddy, brown of hair and eye, bovine, and finally Greeley, the youngest, a boy with lapping idiot grins, full of strange squealing noises at which they laughed. He was eleven, degenerate, weak, scrofulous, but his white moist hands could draw from a violin music that had in it something unearthly and untaught.
And as they sat there in the hot little room with its warm odor of mellowing apples, the vast winds howled down from the hills, there was a roaring in the pines, remote and demented, the bare boughs clashed. And as they peeled, or pared, or whittled, their talk slid from its rude jocularity to death and burial: they drawled monotonously, with evil hunger, their gossip of destiny, and of men but newly lain in the earth. And as their talk wore on, and Gant heard the spectre moan of the wind, he was entombed in loss and darkness, and his soul plunged downward in the pit of night, for he saw that he must die a stranger — that all, all but these triumphant Pentlands, who banqueted on death — must die.
And like a man who is perishing in the polar night, he thought of the rich meadows of his youth: the corn, the plum tree, and ripe grain. Why here? O lost!
Oliver married Eliza in May. After their wedding trip to Philadelphia, they returned to the house he had built for her on Woodson Street. With his great hands he had laid the foundations, burrowed out deep musty cellars in the earth, and sheeted the tall sides over with smooth trowellings of warm brown plaster. He had very little money, but his strange house grew to the rich modelling of his fantasy: when he had finished he had something which leaned to the slope of his narrow uphill yard, something with a high embracing porch in front, and warm rooms where one stepped up and down to the tackings of his whim. He built his house close to the quiet hilly street; he bedded the loamy soil with flowers; he laid the short walk to the high veranda steps with great square sheets of colored marble; he put a fence of spiked iron between his house and the world.
Then, in the cool long glade of yard that stretched four hundred feet behind the house he planted trees and grape vines. And whatever he touched in that rich fortress of his soul sprang into golden life: as the years passed, the fruit trees — the peach, the plum, the cherry, the apple — grew great and bent beneath their clusters. His grape vines thickened into brawny ropes of brown and coiled down the high wire fences of his lot, and hung in a dense fabric, upon his trellises, roping his domain twice around. They climbed the porch end of the house and framed the upper windows in thick bowers. And the flowers grew in rioting glory in his yard — the velvet-leaved nasturtium, slashed with a hundred tawny dyes, the rose, the snowball, the redcupped tulip, and the lily. The honey-suckle drooped its heavy mass upon the fence; wherever his great hands touched the earth it grew fruitful for him.
For him the house was the picture of his soul, the garment of his will. But for Eliza it was a piece of property, whose value she shrewdly appraised, a beginning for her hoard. Like all the older children of Major Pentland she had, since her twentieth year, begun the slow accretion of land: from the savings of her small wage as teacher and bookagent, she had already purchased one or two pieces of earth. On one of these, a small lot at the edge of the public square, she persuaded him to build a shop. This he did with his own hands, and the labor of two negro men: it was a two-story shack of brick, with wide wooden steps, leading down to the square from a marble porch. Upon this porch, flanking the wooden doors, he placed some marbles; by the door, he put the heavy simpering figure of an angel.
But Eliza was not content with his trade: there was no money in death. People, she thought, died too slowly. And she foresaw that her brother Will, who had begun at fifteen as helper in a lumber yard, and was now the owner of a tiny business, was destined to become a rich man. So she persuaded Gant to go into partnership with Will Pentland: at the end of a year, however, his patience broke, his tortured egotism leaped from its restraint, he howled that Will, whose business hours were spent chiefly in figuring upon a dirty envelope with a stub of a pencil, paring reflectively his stubby nails, or punning endlessly with a birdlike wink and nod, would ruin them all. Will therefore quietly bought out his partner's interest, and moved on toward the accumulation of a fortune, while Oliver returned to isolation and his grimy angels.
The strange figure of Oliver Gant cast its famous shadow through the town. Men heard at night and morning the great formula of his curse to Eliza. They saw him plunge to house and shop, they saw him bent above his marbles, they saw him mould in his great hands — with curse, and howl, with passionate devotion — the rich texture of his home. They laughed at his wild excess of speech, of feeling, and of gesture. They were silent before the maniac fury of his sprees, which occurred almost punctually every two months, and lasted two or three days. They picked him foul and witless from the cobbles, and brought him home — the banker, the policeman, and a burly devoted Swiss named Jannadeau, a grimy jeweller who rented a small fenced space among Gant's tombstones. And always they handled him with tender care, feeling something strange and proud and glorious lost in that drunken ruin of Babel. He was a stranger to them: no one — not even Eliza — ever called him by his first name. He was — and remained thereafter — "Mister" Gant.
And what Eliza endured in pain and fear and glory no one knew. He breathed over them all his hot lion-breath of desire and fury: when he was drunk, her white pursed face, and all the slow octopal movements of her temper, stirred him to red madness. She was at such times in real danger from his assault: she had to lock herself away from him. For from the first, deeper than love, deeper than hate, as deep as the unfleshed bones of life, an obscure and final warfare was being waged between them. Eliza wept or was silent to his curse, nagged briefly in retort to his rhetoric, gave like a punched pillow to his lunging drive-and slowly, implacably had her way. Year by year, above his howl of protest, he did not know how, they gathered in small bits of earth, paid the hated taxes, and put the money that remained into more land. Over the wife, over the mother, the woman of property, who was like a man, walked slowly forth.
In eleven years she bore him nine children of whom six lived. The first, a girl, died in her twentieth month, of infant cholera; two more died at birth. The others outlived the grim and casual littering. The oldest, a boy, was born in 1885. He was given the name of Steve. The second, born fifteen months later, was a girl — Daisy. The next, likewise a girl — Helen — came three years later. Then, in 1892, came twins-boys — to whom Gant, always with a zest for politics, gave the names of Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. And the last, Luke, was born two years later, in 1894.
Twice, during this period, at intervals of five years, Gant's periodic spree lengthened into an unbroken drunkenness that lasted for weeks. He was caught, drowning in the tides of his thirst. Each time Eliza sent him away to take a cure for alcoholism at Richmond. Once, Eliza and four of her children were sick at the same time with typhoid fever. But during a weary convalescence she pursed her lips grimly and took them off to Florida.
Eliza came through stolidly to victory. As she marched down these enormous years of love and loss, stained with the rich dyes of pain and pride and death, and with the great wild flare of his alien and passionate life, her limbs faltered in the grip of ruin, but she came on, through sickness and emaciation, to victorious strength. She knew there had been glory in it: insensate and cruel as he had often been, she remembered the enormous beating color of his life, and the lost and stricken thing in him which he would never find. And fear and a speechless pity rose in her when at times she saw the small uneasy eyes grow still and darken with the foiled and groping hunger of old frustration. O lost!
In the great processional of the years through which the history of the Gants was evolving, few years had borne a heavier weight of pain, terror, and wretchedness, and none was destined to bring with it more conclusive events than that year which marked the beginning of the twentieth century. For Gant and his wife, the year 1900, in which one day they found themselves, after growing to maturity in another century — a transition which must have given, wherever it has happened, a brief but poignant loneliness to thousands of imaginative people — had coincidences, too striking to be unnoticed, with other boundaries in their lives.
In that year Gant passed his fiftieth birthday: he knew he was half as old as the century that had died, and that men do not often live as long as centuries. And in that year, too, Eliza, big with the last child she would ever have, went over the final hedge of terror and desperation and, in the opulent darkness of the summer night, as she lay flat in her bed with her hands upon her swollen belly, she began to design her life for the years when she would cease to be a mother.
In the already opening gulf on whose separate shores their lives were founded, she was beginning to look, with the infinite composure, the tremendous patience which waits through half a lifetime for an event, not so much with certain foresight, as with a prophetic, brooding instinct. This quality, this almost Buddhistic complacency which, rooted in the fundamental structure of her life, she could neither suppress nor conceal, was the quality he could least understand, that infuriated him most. He was fifty: he had a tragic consciousness of time — he saw the passionate fulness of his life upon the wane, and he cast about him like a senseless and infuriate beast. She had perhaps a greater reason for quietude than he, for she had come on from the cruel openings of her life, through disease, physical weakness, poverty, the constant imminence of death and misery: she had lost her first child, and brought the others safely through each succeeding plague; and now, at forty-two, her last child stirring in her womb, she had a conviction, enforced by her Scotch superstition, and the blind vanity of her family, which saw extinction for others but not for itself, that she was being shaped to a purpose.
As she lay in her bed, a great star burned across her vision in the western quarter of the sky; she fancied it was climbing heaven slowly. And although she could not have said toward what pinnacle her life was moving, she saw in the future freedom that she had never known, possession and power and wealth, the desire for which was mixed inextinguishably with the current of her blood. Thinking of this in the dark, she pursed her lips with thoughtful satisfaction, unhumorously seeing herself at work in the carnival, taking away quite easily from the hands of folly what it had never known how to keep.
"I'll get it!" she thought, "I'll get it. Will has it! Jim has it. And I'm smarter than they are." And with regret, tinctured with pain and bitterness, she thought of Gant:
"Pshaw! If I hadn't kept after him he wouldn't have a stick to call his own to-day. What little we have got I've had to fight for; we wouldn't have a roof over our heads; we'd spend the rest of our lives in a rented house " — which was to her the final ignominy of shiftless and improvident people.
And she resumed: "The money he squanders every year in licker would buy a good lot: we could be well-to-do people now if we'd started at the very beginning. But he's always hated the very idea of owning anything: couldn't bear it, he told me once, since he lost his money in that trade in Sydney. If I'd been there, you can bet your bottom dollar there'd been no loss. Or, it'd be on the other side," she added grimly.
And lying there while the winds of early autumn swept down from the Southern hills, filling the black air with dropping leaves, and making, in intermittent rushes, a remote sad thunder in great trees, she thought of the stranger who had come to live in her, and of that other stranger, author of so much woe, who had lived with her for almost twenty years. And thinking of Gant, she felt again an inchoate aching wonder, recalling the savage strife between them, and the great submerged struggle beneath, founded upon the hatred and the love of property, in which she did not doubt of her victory, but which baffled her, foiled her.
"I'll vow!" she whispered. "I'll vow! I never saw such a man!"
Gant, faced with the loss of sensuous delight, knowing the time had come when all his Rabelaisian excess in eating, drinking, and loving must come under the halter, knew of no gain that could compensate him for the loss of libertinism; he felt, too, the sharp ache of regret, feeling that he had possessed powers, had wasted chances, such as his partnership with Will Pentland, that might have given him position and wealth. He knew that the century had gone in which the best part of his life had passed; he felt, more than ever, the strangeness and loneliness of our little adventure upon the earth: he thought of his childhood on the Dutch farm, the Baltimore days, the aimless drift down the continent, the appalling fixation of his whole life upon a series of accidents. The enormous tragedy of accident hung like a gray cloud over his life. He saw more clearly than ever that he was a stranger in a strange land among people who would always be alien to him. Strangest of all, he thought, was this union, by which he had begotten children, created a life dependent on him, with a woman so remote from all he understood.
He did not know whether the year 1900 marked for him a beginning or an ending; but with the familiar weakness of the sensualist, he resolved to make it an ending, burning the spent fire in him down to a guttering flame. In the first half of the month of January, still penitently true to the New Year's reformation, he begot a child: by Spring, when it was evident that Eliza was again pregnant, he had hurled himself into an orgy to which even a notable four months' drunk in 1896 could offer no precedent. Day after day he became maniacally drunk, until he fixed himself in a state of constant insanity: in May she sent him off again to a sanitarium at Piedmont to take the "cure," which consisted simply in feeding him plainly and cheaply, and keeping him away from alcohol for six weeks, a regime which contributed no more ravenously to his hunger than it did to his thirst. He returned, outwardly chastened, but inwardly a raging furnace, toward the end of June: the day before he came back, Eliza, obviously big with child, her white face compactly set, walked sturdily into each of the town's fourteen saloons, calling up the proprietor or the bar-man behind his counter, and speaking clearly and loudly in the sodden company of bar clientry:
"See here: I just came in to tell you that Mr. Gant is coming back tomorrow, and I want you all to know that if I hear of any of you selling him a drink, I'll put you in the penitentiary."
The threat, they knew, was preposterous, but the white judicial face, the thoughtful pursing of the lips, and the right hand, which she held loosely clenched, like a man's, with the forefinger extended, emphasizing her proclamation with a calm, but somehow powerful gesture, froze them with a terror no amount of fierce excoriation could have produced. They received her announcement in beery stupefaction, muttering at most a startled agreement as she walked out.
"By God," said a mountaineer, sending a brown inaccurate stream toward a cuspidor, "she'll do it, too. That woman means business."
"Hell!" said Tim O'Donnel, thrusting his simian face comically above his counter, "I wouldn't give W. O. a drink now if it was fifteen cents a quart and we was alone in a privy. Is she gone yet?
"There was vast whisky laughter.
"Who is she?" some one asked.
"She's Will Pentland's sister."
"By God, she'll do it then," cried several; and the place trembled again with their laughter.
Will Pentland was in Loughran's when she entered. She did not greet him. When she had gone he turned to a man near him, prefacing his remark with a birdlike nod and wink: "Bet you can't do that," he said.
Gant, when he returned, and was publicly refused at a bar, was wild with rage and humiliation. He got whisky very easily, of course, by sending a drayman from his steps, or some negro, in for it; but, in spite of the notoriety of his conduct, which had, he knew, become a classic myth for the children of the town, he shrank at each new advertisement of his behaviour; he became, year by year, more, rather than less, sensitive to it, and his shame, his quivering humiliation on mornings after, product of rasped pride and jangled nerves, was pitiable. He felt bitterly that Eliza had with deliberate malice publicly degraded him: he screamed denunciation and abuse at her on his return home.
All through the summer Eliza walked with white boding placidity through horror — she had by now the hunger for it, waiting with terrible quiet the return of fear at night. Angered by her pregnancy, Gant went almost daily to Elizabeth's house in Eagle Crescent, whence he was delivered nightly by a band of exhausted and terrified prostitutes into the care of his son Steve, his oldest child, by now pertly free with nearly all the women in the district, who fondled him with goodnatured vulgarity, laughed heartily at his glib innuendoes, and suffered him, even, to slap them smartly on their rumps, making for him roughly as he skipped nimbly away.
"Son," said Elizabeth, shaking Gant's waggling head vigorously, "don't you carry on, when you grow up, like the old rooster here. But he's a nice old boy when he wants to be," she continued, kissing the bald spot on his head, and deftly slipping into the boy's hand the wallet Gant had, in a torrent of generosity, given to her. She was scrupulously honest.
The boy was usually accompanied on these errands by Jannadeau and Tom Flack, a negro hack-man, who waited in patient constraint outside the latticed door of the brothel until the advancing tumult within announced that Gant had been enticed to depart. And he would go, either struggling clumsily and screaming eloquent abuse at his suppliant captors, or jovially acquiescent, bellowing a wanton song of his youth along the latticed crescent, and through the supper-silent highways of the town.
"Up in that back room, boys,
Up in that back room,
All among the fleas and bugs,
I pit-tee your sad doom."
Home, he would be cajoled up the tall veranda stairs, enticed into his bed; or, resisting all compulsion, he would seek out his wife, shut usually in her room, howling taunts at her, and accusations of unchastity, since there festered in him dark suspicion, fruit of his age, his wasting energy. Timid Daisy, pale from fright, would have fled to the neighboring arms of Sudie Isaacs, or to the Tarkintons; Helen, aged ten, even then his delight, would master him, feeding spoonfuls of scalding soup into his mouth, and slapping him sharply with her small hand when he became recalcitrant.
"You drink this! You better!"
He was enormously pleased: they were both strung on the same wires.
Again, he was beyond all reason. Extravagantly mad, he built roaring fires in his sitting-room, drenching the leaping fire with a can of oil; spitting exultantly into the answering roar, and striking up, until he was exhausted, a profane chant, set to a few recurrent bars of music, which ran, for forty minutes, somewhat like this:
"O-ho — Goddam,
O-ho — Goddam,
Goddam — Goddam."
— adopting usually the measure by which clock-chimes strike out the hour.
And outside, strung like apes along the wide wires of the fence, Sandy and Fergus Duncan, Seth Tarkinton, sometimes Ben and Grover themselves, joining in the glee of their friends, kept up an answering chant:
"Old man Gant
Came home drunk!
Old man Gant
Came home drunk!"
Daisy, from a neighbor's sanctuary, wept in shame and fear. But Helen, small thin fury, held on relentlessly: presently he would subside into a chair, and receive hot soup and stinging slaps with a grin. Upstairs Eliza lay, white-faced and watchfully.
So ran the summer by. The last grapes hung in dried and rotten clusters to the vines; the wind roared distantly; September ended.
One night the dry doctor, Cardiac, said: "I think we'll be through with this before to-morrow evening." He departed, leaving in the house a middle-aged country woman. She was a hard-handed practical nurse.
At eight o'clock Gant returned alone. The boy Steve had stayed at home for ready dispatch at Eliza's need; for the moment the attention was shifted from the master.
His great voice below, chanting obscenities, carried across the neighborhood: as she heard the sudden wild roar of flame up the chimney, shaking the house in its flight, she called Steve to her side, tensely: "Son, he'll burn us all up!" she whispered.
They heard a chair fall heavily below, his curse; they heard his heavy reeling stride across the dining-room and up the hall; they heard the sagging creak of the stair-rail as his body swung against it.
"He's coming!" she whispered, "He's coming! Lock the door, son!"
The boy locked the door.
"Are you there?" Gant roared, pounding the flimsy door heavily with his great fist. "Miss Eliza: are you there?" howling at her the ironical title by which he addressed her at moments like this.
And he screamed a sermon of profanity and woven invective: —
"Little did I reck," he began, getting at once into the swing of preposterous rhetoric which he used half furiously; half comically, "little did I reck the day I first saw her eighteen bitter years ago, when she came wriggling around the corner at me like a snake on her belly — [a stock epithet which from repetition was now heart-balm to him] — littie did I reck that — that — that it would come to this," he finished lamely. He waited quietly, in the heavy silence, for some answer, knowing that she lay in her white-faced calm behind the door, and filled with the old choking fury because he knew she would not answer.
"Are you there? I say, are you there, woman?" he howled, barking his big knuckles in a furious bombardment.
There was nothing but the white living silence.
"Ah me! Ah me!" he sighed with strong self-pity, then burst into forced snuffling sobs, which furnished a running accompaniment to his denunciation. "Merciful God!" he wept, "it's fearful, it's awful, it's croo-el. What have I ever done that God should punish me like this in my old age?"
There was no answer.
"Cynthia! Cynthia!" he howled suddenly, invoking the memory of his first wife, the gaunt tubercular spinstress whose life, it was said, his conduct had done nothing to prolong, but whom he was fond of supplicating now, realizing the hurt, the anger he caused to Eliza by doing so. "Cynthia! O Cynthia! Look down upon me in my hour of need! Give me succour! Give me aid! Protect me against this fiend out of Hell!"
And he continued, weeping in heavy snuffling burlesque: "O-boohoo-hoo! Come down and save me, I beg of you, I entreat you, I implore you, or I perish.
"Ingratitude, more fierce than brutish beasts," Gant resumed, getting off on another track, fruitful with mixed and mangled quotation. "You will be punished, as sure as there's a just God in heaven. You will all be punished. Kick the old man, strike him, throw him out on the street: he's no good any more. He's no longer able to provide for the family — send him over the hill to the poorhouse. That's where he belongs. Rattle his bones over the stones. Honor thy father that thy days may be long. Ah, Lord!
"'Look, in this place ran Cassius' dagger through;
See what a rent the envious Casca made;
Through this the well-beloved Brutus stabbed;
And, as he plucked his cursèd steel away,
Mark how the blood of Cæsar followed it —'"
"Jeemy," said Mrs. Duncan at this moment to her husband, "ye'd better go over. He's loose agin, an' she's wi' chile."
The Scotchman thrust back his chair, moved strongly out of the ordered ritual of his life, and the warm fragrance of new-baked bread.
At the gate, outside Gant's, he found patient Jannadeau, fetched down by Ben. They spoke matter-of-factly, and hastened up the steps as they heard a crash upstairs, and a woman's cry. Eliza, in only her night-dress, opened the door:
"Come quick!" she whispered. "Come quick!"
"By God, I'll kill her," Gant screamed, plunging down the stairs at greater peril to his own life than to any other. "I'll kill her now, and put an end to my misery."
He had a heavy poker in his hand. The two men seized him; the burly jeweller took the poker from his hand with quiet strength.
"He cut his head on the bed-rail, mama," said Steve descending. It was true: Gant bled.
"Go for your Uncle Will, son. Quick!" He was off like a hound.
"I think he meant it that time," she whispered.
Duncan shut the door against the gaping line of neighbors beyond the gate.
"Ye'll be gettin' a cheel like that, Mrs. Gant."
"Keep him away from me! Keep him away!" she cried out strongly.
"Aye, I will that!" he answered in quiet Scotch.
She turned to go up the stairs, but on the second step she fell heavily to her knees. The country nurse, returning from the bathroom, in which she had locked herself, ran to her aid. She went up slowly then between the woman and Grover. Outside Ben dropped nimbly from the low eave on to the lily beds: Seth Tarkinton, clinging to fence wires, shouted greetings.
Gant went off docilely, somewhat dazed, between his two guardians: as his huge limbs sprawled brokenly in his rocker, they undressed him. Helen had already been busy in the kitchen for some time: she appeared now with boiling soup.
Gant's dead eyes lit with recognition as he saw her.
"Why baby," he roared, making a vast maudlin circle with his arms, "how are you?" She put the soup down; he swept her thin body crushingly against him, brushing her cheek and neck with his stiff-bristled mustache, breathing upon her the foul rank odor of rye whisky.
"Oh, he's cut himself!" the little girl thought she was going to cry.
"Look what they did to me, baby," he pointed to his wound and whimpered.
Will Pentland, true son of that clan who forgot one another never, and who saw one another only in times of death, pestilence, and terror, came in.
"Good evening, Mr. Pentland," said Duncan.
"Jus' tolable," he said, with his bird-like nod and wink, taking in both men good-naturedly. He stood in front of the fire, paring meditatively at his blunt nails with a dull knife. It was his familiar gesture when in company: no one, he felt, could see what you thought about anything, if you pared your nails.
The sight of him drew Gant instantly from his lethargy: he remembered the dissolved partnership; the familiar attitude of Will Pentland, as he stood before the fire, evoked all the markings he so heartily loathed in the clan — its pert complacency, its incessant punning, its success.
"Mountain Grills!" he roared. "Mountain Grills! The lowest of the low! The vilest of the vile!"
"Mr. Gant! Mr. Gant!" pleaded Jannadeau.
"What's the matter with you, W. O.?" asked Will Pentland, looking up innocently from his fingers. "Had something to eat that didn't agree with you?" — he winked pertly at Duncan, and went back to his fingers.
"Your miserable old father," howled Gant, "was horsewhipped on the public square for not paying his debts." This was a purely imaginative insult, which had secured itself as truth, however, in Gant's mind, as had so many other stock epithets, because it gave him heart-cockle satisfaction.
"Horsewhipped upon his public square, was he?" Will winked again, unable to resist the opening. "They kept it mighty quiet, didn't they?" But behind the intense good-humored posture of his face, his eyes were hard. He pursed his lips meditatively as he worked upon his fingers.
"But I'll tell you something about him, W. O.," he continued after a moment, with calm but boding judiciousness. "He let his wife die a natural death in her own bed. He didn't try to kill her."
"No, by God!" Gant rejoined. "He let her starve to death. If the old woman ever got a square meal in her life she got it under my roof. There's one thing sure: she could have gone to Hell and back, twice over, before she got it from old Tom Pentland, or any of his sons."
Will Pentland closed his blunt knife and put it in his pocket.
"Old Major Pentland never did an honest day's work in his life," Gant yelled, as a happy afterthought.
"Come now, Mr. Gant!" said Duncan reproachfully.
"Hush! Hush!" whispered the girl fiercely, coming before him closely with the soup. She thrust a smoking ladle at his mouth, but he turned his head away to hurl another insult. She slapped him sharply across the mouth.
"You drink this!" she whispered. And grinning meekly as his eyes rested upon her, he began to swallow soup.
Will Pentland looked at the girl attentively for a moment, then glanced at Duncan and Jannadeau with a nod and wink. Without saying another word, he left the room, and mounted the stairs. His sister lay quietly extended on her back.
"How do you feel, Eliza?" The room was heavy with the rich odor of mellowing pears; an unaccustomed fire of pine sticks burned in the grate: he took up his place before it, and began to pare his nails.
"Nobody knows — nobody knows," she began, bursting quickly into a rapid flow of tears, "what I've been through." She wiped her eyes in a moment on a corner of the coverlid: her broad powerful nose, founded redly on her white face, was like flame.
"What you got good to eat?" he said, winking at her with a comic gluttony.
"There are some pears in there on the shelf, Will. I put them there last week to mellow."
He went into the big closet and returned in a moment with a large yellow pear; he came back to the hearth and opened the smaller blade of his knife.
"I'll vow, Will," she said quietly after a moment. "I've had all I can put up with. I don't know what's got into him. But you can bet your bottom dollar I won't stand much more of it. I know how to shift for myself," she said, nodding her head smartly. He recognized the tone.
He almost forgot himself: "See here, Eliza," he began, "if you were thinking of building somewhere, I" — but he recovered himself in time — "I'll make you the best price you can get on the material," he concluded. He thrust a slice of pear quickly into his mouth.
She pursed her mouth rapidly for some moments.
"No," she said. "I'm not ready for that yet, Will. I'll let you know." The loose wood-coals crumbled on the hearth.
"I'll let you know," she said again. He clasped his knife and thrust it in a trousers pocket.
"Good night, Eliza," he said. "I reckon Pett will be in to see you. I'll tell her you're all right."
He went down the stairs quietly, and let himself out through the front door. As he descended the tall veranda steps, Duncan and Jannadeau came quietly down the yard from the sitting-room.
"How's W. O.?" he asked.
"Ah, he'll be all right now," said Duncan cheerfully. "He's fast asleep."
"The sleep of the righteous?" asked Will Pentland with a wink.
The Swiss resented the implied jeer at his Titan. "It is a gread bitty," began Jannadeau in a low guttural voice, "that Mr. Gant drinks. With his mind he could go far. When he's sober a finer man doesn't live."
"When he's sober?" said Will, winking at him in the dark. "What about when he's asleep."
"He's all right the minute Helen gets hold of him," Mr. Duncan remarked in his rich voice. "It's wonderful what that little girl can do to him."
"Ah, I tell you!" Jannadeau laughed with guttural pleasure. "That little girl knows her daddy in and out."
The child sat in the big chair by the waning sitting-room fire: she read until the flames had died to coals — then quietly she shovelled ashes on them. Gant, fathoms deep in slumber, lay on the smooth leather sofa against the wall. She had wrapped him well in a blanket; now she put a pillow on a chair and placed his feet on it. He was rank with whisky stench; the window rattled as he snored.
Thus, drowned in oblivion, ran his night; he slept when the great pangs of birth began in Eliza at two o'clock; slept through all the patient pain and care of doctor, nurse, and wife.
The baby was, to reverse an epigram, an unconscionable time in getting born; but when Gant finally awoke just after ten o'clock next morning,
whimpering from tangled nerves, and the quivering shame of dim remembrance, he heard, as he drank the hot coffee Helen brought to him, a loud, long lungy cry above.
"Oh, my God, my God," he groaned. And he pointed toward the sound. "Is it a boy or a girl?"
"I haven't seen it yet, papa," Helen answered. "They won't let us in. But Doctor Cardiac came out and told us if we were good he might bring us a little boy."
There was a terrific clatter on the tin roof, the scolding country voice of the nurse: Steve dropped like a cat from the porch roof to the lily bed outside Gant's window.
"Steve, you damned scoundrel," roared the manor-lord with a momentary return to health, "what in the name of Jesus are you doing?"
The boy was gone over the fence.
"I seen it! I seen it!" his voice came streaking back.
"I seen it too!" screamed Grover, racing through the room and out again in simple exultancy.
"If I catch you younguns on this roof agin," yelled the country nurse aloft, "I'll take your hide off you."
Gant had been momentarily cheered when he heard that his latest heir was a male; but he walked the length of the room now, making endless plaint.
"Oh my God, my God! Did this have to be put upon me in my old age? Another mouth to feed! It's fearful, it's awful, it's croo-el," and he began to weep affectedly. Then, realizing presently that no one was near enough to be touched by his sorrow, he paused suddenly and precipitated himself toward the door, crossing the dining-room, and, going up the hall, making loud lament:
"Eliza! My wife! Oh, baby, say that you forgive me!" He went up the stairs, sobbing laboriously.
"Don't you let him in here!" cried the object of this prayer sharply with quite remarkable energy.
"Tell him he can't come in now," said Cardiac, in his dry voice, to the nurse, staring intently at the scales. "We've nothing but milk to drink, anyways," he added.
Gant was outside.
"Eliza, my wife! Be merciful, I beg of you. If I had known —"
"Yes," said the country nurse opening the door rudely, "if the dog hadn't stopped to lift his leg he'd a-caught the rabbit! You get away from here!" And she slammed it violently in his face.
He went downstairs with hang-dog head, but he grinned slyly as he thought of the nurse's answer. He wet his big thumb quickly on his tongue.
"Merciful God!" he said, and grinned. Then he set up his caged lament.
"I think this will do," said Cardiac, holding up something red, shiny, and puckered by its heels, and smacking it briskly on its rump, to liven it a bit.
The heir apparent had, as a matter of fact, made his debut completely equipped with all appurtenances, dependences, screws, cocks, faucets, hooks, eyes, nails, considered necessary for completeness of appearance, harmony of parts, and unity of effect in this most energetic, driving, and competitive world. He was the complete male in miniature, the tiny acorn from which the mighty oak must grow, the heir of all ages, the inheritor of unfulfilled renown, the child of progress, the darling of the budding Golden Age and, what's more, Fortune and her Fairies, not content with well-nigh smothering him with these blessings of time and family, saved him up carefully until Progress was rotten-ripe with glory.
"Well, what are you going to call it?" inquired Dr. Cardiac, referring thus, with shocking and medical coarseness, to this most royal imp.
Eliza was better tuned to cosmic vibrations. With a full, if inexact, sense of what portended, she gave to Luck's Lad the title of Eugene, a name which, beautifully, means "well born," but which, as any one will be able to testify, does not mean, has never meant, "well bred."
This chosen incandescence, to whom a name had already been given, and from whose centre most of the events in this chronicle must be seen, was borne in, as we have said, upon the very spear-head of history. But perhaps, reader, you have already thought of that? You haven't? Then let us refresh your historical memory.
By 1900, Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler had almost finished saying the things they were reported as saying, and that Eugene was destined to hear, twenty years later; most of the Great Victorians had died before the bombardment began; William McKinley was up for a second term, the crew of the Spanish navy had returned home in a tugboat.
Abroad, grim old Britain had sent her ultimatum to the South Africans in 1899; Lord Roberts ("Little Bobs," as he was known affectionately to his men) was appointed commander-in-chief after several British reverses; the Transvaal Republic was annexed to Great Britain in September 1900, and formally annexed in the month of Eugene's birth. There was a Peace Conference two years later.
Meanwhile, what was going on in Japan? I will tell you: the first parliament met in 1891, there was a war with China in 1894-95, Formosa was ceded in 1895. Moreover, Warren Hastings had been impeached and tried; Pope Sixtus the Fifth had come and gone; Dalmatia had been subdued by Tiberius; Belisarius had been blinded by Justinian; the wedding and funeral ceremonies of Wilhelmina Charlotte Caroline of Brandenburg Ansbach and King George the Second had been solemnized, while those of Berengaria of Navarre to King Richard the First were hardly more than a distant memory; Diocletian, Charles the Fifth, and Victor Amadeus of Sardinia, had all abdicated their thrones; Henry James Pye, Poet Laureate of England, was with his fathers; Cassiodorus, Quintilian, Juvenal, Lucretius, Martial, and Albert the Bear of Brandenburg had answered the last great roll-call; the battles of Antietam, Smolensko, Drumclog, Inkerman, Marengo, Cawnpore, Killiecrankie, Sluys, Actium, Lepanto, Tewkesbury, Brandywine, Hohenlinden, Salamis, and the Wilderness had been fought both by land and by sea; Hippias had been expelled from Athens by the Alcæmonidae and the Lacedæmonians; Simonides, Menander, Strabo, Moschus, and Pindar had closed their earthly accounts; the beatified Eusebius, Athanasius, and Chrysostom had gone to their celestial niches; Menkaura had built the Third Pyramid; Aspalta had led victorious armies; the remote Bermudas, Malta, and the Windward Isles had been colonized. In addition, the Spanish Armada had been defeated; President Abraham Lincoln assassinated, and the Halifax Fisheries Award had given $5,500,000 to Britain for twelve-year fishing privileges. Finally, only thirty or forty million years before, our earliest ancestors had crawled out of the primeval slime; and then, no doubt, finding the change unpleasant, crawled back in again.
Such was the state of history when Eugene entered the theatre of human events in 1900.
We would give willingly some more extended account of the world his life touched during the first few years, showing, in all its perspectives and implications, the meaning of life as seen from the floor, or from the crib, but these impressions are suppressed when they might be told, not through any fault of intelligence, but through lack of muscular control, the powers of articulation, and because of the recurring waves of loneliness, weariness, depression, aberration, and utter blankness which war against the order in a man's mind until he is three or four years old.
Lying darkly in his crib, washed, powdered, and fed, he thought quietly of many things before he dropped off to sleep — the interminable sleep that obliterated time for him, and that gave him a sense of having missed forever a day of sparkling life. At these moments, he was heartsick with weary horror as he thought of the discomfort, weakness, dumbness, the infinite misunderstanding he would have to endure before he gained even physical freedom. He grew sick as he thought of the weary distance before him, the lack of co-ordination of the centres of control, the undisciplined and rowdy bladder, the helpless exhibition he was forced to give in the company of his sniggering, pawing brothers and sisters, dried, cleaned, revolved before them.
He was in agony because he was poverty-stricken in symbols: his mind was caught in a net because he had no words to work with. He had not even names for the objects around him: he probably defined them for himself by some jargon, reinforced by some mangling of the speech that roared about him, to which he listened intently day after day, realizing that his first escape must come through language. He indicated as quickly as he could his ravenous hunger for pictures and print: sometimes they brought him great books profusely illustrated, and he bribed them desperately by cooing, shrieking with delight, making extravagant faces, and doing all the other things they understood in him. He wondered savagely how they would feel if they knew what he really thought: at other times he had to laugh at them and at their whole preposterous comedy of errors as they pranced around for his amusement, waggled their heads at him, tickled him roughly, making him squeal violently against his will. The situation was at once profoundly annoying and comic: as he sat in the middle of the floor and watched them enter, seeing the face of each transformed by a foolish leer, and hearing their voices become absurd and sentimental whenever they addressed him, speaking to him words which he did not yet understand, but which he saw they were mangling in the preposterous hope of rendering intelligible that which has been previously mutilated, he had to laugh at the fools, in spite of his vexation.
And left alone to sleep within a shuttered room, with the thick sunlight printed in bars upon the floor, unfathomable loneliness and sadness crept through him: he saw his life down the solemn vista of a forest aisle, and he knew he would always be the sad one: caged in that little round of skull, imprisoned in that beating and most secret heart, his life must always walk down lonely passages. Lost. He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one, that imprisoned in the dark womb of our mother, we come to life without having seen her face, that we are given to her arms a stranger, and that, caught in that insoluble prison of being, we escape it never, no matter what arms may clasp us, what mouth may kiss us, what heart may warm us. Never, never, never, never, never.
He saw that the great figures that came and went about him, the huge leering heads that bent hideously into his crib, the great voices that rolled incoherently above him, had for one another not much greater understanding than they had for him: that even their speech, their entire fluidity and ease of movement were but meagre communicants of their thought or feeling, and served often not to promote understanding, but to deepen and widen strife, bitterness, and prejudice.
His brain went black with terror. He saw himself an inarticulate stranger, an amusing little clown, to be dandled and nursed by these enormous and remote figures. He had been sent from one mystery into another: somewhere within or without his consciousness he heard a great bell ringing faintly, as if it sounded undersea, and as he listened, the ghost of memory walked through his mind, and for a moment he felt that he had almost recovered what he had lost.
Sometimes, pulling himself abreast the high walls of his crib, he glanced down dizzily at the patterns of the carpet far below; the world swam in and out of his mind like a tide, now printing its whole sharp picture for an instant, again ebbing out dimly and sleepily, while he pieced the puzzle of sensation together bit by bit, seeing only the dancing fire-sheen on the poker, hearing then the elfin clucking of the sun-warm hens, somewhere beyond in a distant and enchanted world. Again, he heard their morning-wakeful crowing clear and loud, suddenly becoming a substantial and alert citizen of life; or, going and coming in alternate waves of fantasy and fact, he heard the loud, faery thunder of Daisy's parlor music. Years later, he heard it again, a door opened in his brain: she told him it was Paderewski's "Minuet."
His crib was a great woven basket, well mattressed and pillowed within; as he grew stronger, he was able to perform extraordinary acrobatics in it, tumbling, making a hoop of his body, and drawing himself easily and strongly erect: with patient effort he could worm over the side on to the floor. There, he would crawl on the vast design of the carpet, his eyes intent upon great wooden blocks piled chaotically on the floor. They had belonged to his brother Luke: all the letters of the alphabet, in bright multi-colored carving, were engraved upon them.
Holding them clumsily in his tiny hands, he studied for hours the symbols of speech, knowing that he had here the stones of the temple of language, and striving desperately to find the key that would draw order and intelligence from this anarchy. Great voices soared far above him, vast shapes came and went, lifting him to dizzy heights, depositing him with exhaustless strength. The bell rang under the sea.
One day when the opulent Southern Spring had richly unfolded, when the spongy black earth of the yard was covered with sudden, tender grass, and wet blossoms, the great cherry tree seethed slowly with a massive gem of amber sap, and the cherries hung ripening in prodigal clusters, Gant took him from his basket in the sun on the high front porch, and went with him around the house by the lily bed, taking him back under trees singing with hidden birds, to the far end of the lot.
Here the earth was unshaded, dry, clotted by the plough. Eugene knew by the stillness that it was Sunday: against the high wire fence there was the heavy smell of hot dock-weed. On the other side, Swain's cow was wrenching the cool coarse grass, lifting her head from time to time, and singing in her strong deep voice her Sunday exuberance. In the warm washed air, Eugene heard with absolute clearness all the brisk backyard sounds of the neighborhood, he became acutely aware of the whole scene, and as Swain's cow sang out again, he felt the flooded gates in him swing open. He answered "Moo!" phrasing the sound timidly but perfectly, and repeating it confidently in a moment when the cow answered.
Gant's delight was boundless. He turned and raced back toward the house at the full stride of his legs. And as he went, he nuzzled his stiff mustache into Eugene's tender neck, mooing industriously and always getting an answer.
"Lord a' mercy!" cried Eliza, looking from the kitchen window as he raced down the yard with breakneck strides, "He'll kill that child yet."
And as he rushed up the kitchen steps — all the house, save the upper side was off the ground — she came out on the little latticed veranda, her hands floury, her nose stove-red.
"Why, what on earth are you doing, Mr. Gant?"
"Moo-o-o! He said 'Moo-o-o!' Yes he did!" Gant spoke to Eugene rather than to Eliza.
Eugene answered him immediately: he felt it was all rather silly, and he saw he would be kept busy imitating Swain's cow for several days, but he was tremendously excited, nevertheless, feeling now that that wall had been breached.
Eliza was likewise thrilled, but her way of showing it was to turn back to the stove, hiding her pleasure, and saying: "I'll vow, Mr. Gant. I never saw such an idiot with a child."
Later, Eugene lay wakefully in his basket on the sitting-room floor, watching the smoking dishes go by in the eager hands of the combined family, for Eliza at this time cooked magnificently, and a Sunday dinner was something to remember. For two hours since their return from church, the little boys had been prowling hungrily around the kitchen: Ben, frowning proudly, kept his dignity outside the screen, making excursions frequently through the house to watch the progress of cookery; Grover came in and watched with frank interest until he was driven out; Luke, his broad humorous little face split by a wide exultant smile, rushed through the house, squealing exultantly:
"Weenie, weedie, weeky
Weenie, weedie, weeky,
Weenie, weedie, weeky,
Wee, Wee, Wee."
He had heard Daisy and Josephine Brown doing Cæsar together, and his chant was his own interpretation of Cæsar's brief boast: "Veni, Vidi, Vici."
As Eugene lay in his crib, he heard through the open door the dining-room clatter, the shrill excitement of the boys, the clangor of steel and knife as Gant prepared to carve the roast, the repetition of the morning's great event told over and over without variation, but with increasing zest.
"Soon," he thought, as the heavy food fragrance floated in to him, "I shall be in there with them." And he thought lusciously of mysterious and succulent food.
All through the afternoon upon the veranda Gant told the story, summoning the neighbors and calling upon Eugene to perform. Eugene heard clearly all that was said that day: he was not able to answer, but he saw now that speech was imminent.
Thus, later, he saw the first two years of his life in brilliant and isolated flashes. His second Christmas he remembered vaguely as a period of great festivity: it accustomed him to the third when it came. With the miraculous habitude children acquire, it seemed that he had known Christmas forever.
He was conscious of sunlight, rain, the leaping fire, his crib, the grim jail of winter: the second Spring, one warm day, he saw Daisy go off to school up the hill: it was the end of the noon recess, she had been home for lunch. She went to Miss Ford's School For Girls; it was a red brick residence on the corner at the top of the steep hill: he watched her join Eleanor Duncan just below. Her hair was braided in two long hanks down her back: she was demure, shy, maidenly, a timid and blushing girl; but he feared her attentions to him, for she bathed him furiously, wreaking whatever was explosive and violent beneath her placidity upon his hide. She really scrubbed him almost raw. He howled piteously. As she climbed the hill, he remembered her. He saw she was the same person.
He passed his second birthday with the light growing. Early in the following Spring he became conscious of a period of neglect: the house was deadly quiet; Gant's voice no longer roared around him, the boys came and went on stealthy feet. Luke, the fourth to be attacked by the pestilence, was desperately ill with typhoid: Eugene was intrusted almost completely to a young slovenly negress. He remembered vividly her tall slattern figure, her slapping lazy feet, her dirty white stockings, and her strong smell, black and funky. One day she took him out on the side porch to play: it was a young Spring morning, bursting moistly from the thaw of the earth. The negress sat upon the side-steps and yawned while he grubbed in his dirty little dress along the path, and upon the lily bed. Presently, she went to sleep against the post. Craftily, he wormed his body through the wide wires of the fence, into the cindered alley that wound back to the Swains', and up to the ornate wooden palace of the Hilliards.
They were among the highest aristocracy of the town: they had come from South Carolina, "near Charleston," which in itself gave them at that time a commanding prestige. The house, a huge gabled structure of walnut-brown, which gave the effect of many angles and no plan, was built upon the top of the hill which sloped down to Gant's; the level ground on top before the house was tenanted by lordly towering oaks. Below, along the cindered alley, flanking Gant's orchard, there were high singing pines.
Mr. Hilliard's house was considered one of the finest residences in the town. The neighborhood was middle-class, but the situation was magnificent, and the Hilliards carried on in the grand manner, lords of the castle who descended into the village, but did not mix with its people. All of their friends arrived by carriage from afar; every day punctually at two o'clock, an old liveried negro drove briskly up the winding alley behind two sleek brown mares, waiting under the carriage entrance at the side until his master and mistress should come out. Five minutes later they drove out, and were gone for two hours.
This ritual, followed closely from his father's sitting-room window, fascinated Eugene for years after: the people and the life next door were crudely and symbolically above him.
He felt a great satisfaction that morning in being at length in Hilliard's alley: it was his first escape, and it had been made into a forbidden and enhaloed region. He grubbed about in the middle of the road, disappointed in the quality of the cinders. The booming courthouse bell struck eleven times.
Now, exactly at three minutes after eleven every morning, so unfailing and perfect was the order of this great establishment, a huge gray horse trotted slowly up the hill, drawing behind him a heavy grocery wagon, musty, spicy; odorous with the fine smells of grocery-stores and occupied exclusively by the Hilliard victuals, and the driver, a young negro man who, at three minutes past eleven every morning, according to ritual, was comfortably asleep. Nothing could possibly go wrong: the horse could not have been tempted even by a pavement of oats to betray his sacred mission. Accordingly he trotted heavily up the hill, turned ponderously into the alley ruts, and advanced heavily until, feeling the great circle of his right forefoot obstructed by some foreign particle, he looked down and slowly removed his hoof from what had recently been the face of a little boy.
Then, with his legs carefully straddled, he moved on, drawing the wagon beyond Eugene's body, and stopping. Both negroes awoke simultaneously; there were cries within the house, and Eliza and Gant rushed out of doors. The frightened negro lifted Eugene, who was quite unconscious of his sudden return to the stage, into the burly arms of Doctor McGuire, who cursed the driver eloquently. His thick sensitive fingers moved swiftly around the bloody little face and found no fracture.
He nodded briefly at their desperate faces: "He's being saved for Congress," said he. "You have bad luck and hard heads, W. O."
"You Goddamned black scoundrel," yelled the master, turning with violent relief upon the driver. "I'll put you behind the bars for this." He thrust his great length of hands through the fence and choked the negro, who mumbled prayers, and had no idea what was happening to him, save that he was the centre of a wild commotion.
The negro girl, blubbering, had fled inward.
"This looks worse than it is," observed Dr. McGuire, laying the hero upon the lounge. "Some hot water, please." Nevertheless, it took two hours to bring him round. Every one spoke highly of the horse.
"He had more sense than the nigger," said Gant, wetting his thumb.
But all this, as Eliza knew in her heart, was part of the plan of the Dark Sisters. The entrails had been woven and read long since: the frail shell of skull which guarded life, and which might have been crushed as easily as a man breaks an egg, was kept intact. But Eugene carried the mark of the centaur for many years, though the light had to fall properly to reveal it.
When he was older, he wondered sometimes if the Hilliards had issued from their high place when he had so impiously disturbed the order of the manor. He never asked, but he thought not: he imagined them, at the most, as standing superbly by a drawn curtain, not quite certain what had happened, but feeling that it was something unpleasant, with blood in it.
Shortly after this, Mr. Hilliard had a "No-Trespassing" sign staked up in the lot.
Luke got well after cursing doctor, nurse, and family for several weeks: it was stubborn typhoid.
Gant was now head of a numerous family; which rose ladderwise from infancy to the adolescent Steve — who was eighteen — and the maidenly Daisy. She was seventeen and in her last year at high school. She was a timid, sensitive girl, looking like her name — Daisy-ish industrious and thorough in her studies: her teachers thought her one of the best students they had ever known. She had very little fire, or denial in her; she responded dutifully to instructions; she gave back what had been given to her. She played the piano without any passionate feeling for the music; but she rendered it honestly with a beautiful rippling touch. And she practised hours at a time.
It was apparent, however, that Steve was lacking in scholarship. When he was fourteen, he was summoned by the school principal to his little office, to take a thrashing for truancy and insubordination. But the spirit of acquiescence was not in him: he snatched the rod from the man's hand, broke it, smote him solidly in the eye, and dropped gleefully eighteen feet to the ground.
This was one of the best things he ever did: his conduct in other directions was less fortunate. Very early, as his truancy mounted, and after he had been expelled, and as his life hardened rapidly in a defiant viciousness, the antagonism between the boy and Gant grew open and bitter. Gant recognized perhaps most of his son's vices as his own: there was little, however, of his redeeming quality. Steve had a piece of tough suet where his heart should have been.
Of them all, he had had very much the worst of it. Since his childhood he had been the witness of his father's wildest debauches. He had not forgotten. Also, as the oldest, he was left to shift for himself while Eliza's attention focussed on her younger children. She was feeding Eugene at her breast long after Steve had taken his first two dollars to the ladies of Eagle Crescent.
He was inwardly sore at the abuse Gant heaped on him; he was not insensitive to his faults, but to be called a "good-for-nothing bum," "a worthless degenerate," "a pool-room loafer," hardened his outward manner of swagger defiance. Cheaply and flashily dressed, with pegtop yellow shoes, flaring striped trousers, and a broad-brimmed straw hat with a colored band, he would walk down the avenue with a preposterous lurch, and a smile of strained assurance on his face, saluting with servile cordiality all who would notice him. And if a man of property greeted him, his lacerated but overgrown vanity would seize the crumb, and he would boast pitifully at home: "They all know Little Stevie! He's got the respect of all the big men in this town, all right, all right! Every one has a good word for Little Stevie except his own people. Do you know what J. T. Collins said to me to-day?"
"What say? Who's that? Who's that?" asked Eliza with comic rapidity, looking up from her darning.
"J. T. Collins — that's who! He's only worth about two hundred thousand. 'Steve,' he said, just like that, 'if I had your brains'" — He would continue in this way with moody self-satisfaction, painting a picture of future success when all who scorned him now would flock to his standard.
"Oh, yes," said he, "they'll all be mighty anxious then to shake Little Stevie's hand."
Gant, in a fury, gave him a hard beating when he had been expelled from school. He had never forgotten. Finally, he was told to go to work and support himself: he found desultory employment as a soda-jerker, or as delivery boy for a morning paper. Once, with a crony, Gus Moody, son of a foundry-man, he had gone off to see the world. Grimy from vagabondage they had crawled off a freight-train at Knoxville, Tennessee, spent their little money on food, and in a brothel, and returned, two days later, coal-black but boastful of their exploit.
"I'll vow," Eliza fretted, "I don't know what's to become of that boy." It was the tragic flaw of her temperament to get to the vital point too late: she pursed her lips thoughtfully, wandered off in another direction, and wept when misfortune came. She always waited. Moreover, in her deepest heart, she had an affection for her oldest son, which, if it was not greater, was at least different in kind from what she bore for the others, His glib boastfulness, his pitiable brag, pleased her: they were to her indications of his "smartness," and she often infuriated her two studious girls by praising them. Thus, looking at a specimen of his handwriting, she would say:
"There's one thing sure: he writes a better hand than any of the rest of you, for all your schooling."
Steve had early tasted the joys of the bottle, stealing, during the days when he was a young attendant of his father's debauch, a furtive swallow from the strong rank whisky in a half-filled flask: the taste nauseated him, but the experience made good boasting for his fellows.
At fifteen, he had found, while smoking cigarettes with Gus Moody, in a neighbor's barn, a bottle wrapped in an oats sack by the worthy citizen, against the too sharp examination of his wife. When the man had come for secret potation some time later, and found his bottle half-empty, he had grimly dosed the remainder with Croton oil: the two boys were nauseously sick for several days.
One day, Steve forged a check on his father. It was some days before Gant discovered it: the amount was only three dollars, but his anger was bitter. In a pronouncement at home, delivered loudly enough to publish the boy's offense to the neighborhood, he spoke of the penitentiary, of letting him go to jail, of being disgraced in his old age — a period of his life at which he had not yet arrived, but which he used to his advantage in times of strife.
He paid the check, of course, but another name — that of "forger" — was added to the vocabulary of his abuse. Steve sneaked in and out of the house, eating his meals alone for several days. When he met his father little was said by either: behind the hard angry glaze of their eyes, they both looked depthlessly into each other; they knew that they could withhold nothing from each other, that the same sores festered in each, the same hungers and desires, the same crawling appetites polluted their blood. And knowing this, something in each of them turned away in grievous shame.
Gant added this to his tirades against Eliza; all that was bad in the boy his mother had given him.
"Mountain Blood! Mountain Blood!" he yelled. "He's Greeley Pent-land all over again. Mark my words," he continued, after striding feverishly about the house, muttering to himself and bursting finally into the kitchen, "mark my words, he'll wind up in the penitentiary."
And, her nose reddened by the spitting grease, she would purse her lips, saying little, save, when goaded, to make some return calculated to infuriate and antagonize him.
"Well, maybe if he hadn't been sent to every dive in town to pull his daddy out, he would turn out better."
"You lie, Woman! By God, you lie!" he thundered magnificently but illogically.
Gant drank less: save for a terrifying spree every six or eight weeks, which bound them all in fear for two or three days, Eliza had little to complain of on this score. But her enormous patience was wearing very thin because of the daily cycle of abuse. They slept now in separate rooms upstairs: he rose at six or six-thirty, dressed and went down to build the fires. As he kindled a blaze in the range, and a roaring fire in the sitting-room, he muttered constantly to himself, with an occasional oratorical rise and fall of his voice. In this way he composed and polished the flood of his invective: when the demands of fluency and emphasis had been satisfied he would appear suddenly before her in the kitchen, and deliver himself without preliminary, as the grocer's negro entered with pork chops or a thick steak:
"Woman, would you have had a roof to shelter you to-day if it hadn't been for me? Could you have depended on your worthless old father, Tom Pentland, to give you one? Would Brother Will, or Brother Jim give you one? Did you ever hear of them giving any one anything? Did you ever hear of them caring for anything but their own miserable hides? Did you? Would any of them give a starving beggar a crust of bread? By God, no! Not even if he ran a bakery shop! Ah me! 'Twas a bitter day for me when I first came into this accursed country: little did I know what it would lead to. Mountain Grills! Mountain Grills!" and the tide would reach its height.
At times, when she tried to reply to his attack, she would burst easily into tears. This pleased him: he liked to see her cry. But usually she made an occasional nagging retort: deep down, between their blind antagonistic souls, an ugly and desperate war was being waged. Yet, had he known to what lengths these daily assaults might drive her, he would have been astounded: they were part of the deep and feverish discontent of his spirit, the rooted instinct to have an object for his abuse.
Moreover, his own feeling for order was so great that he had a passionate aversion for what was slovenly, disorderly, diffuse. He was goaded to actual fury at times when he saw how carefully she saved bits of old string, empty cans and bottles, paper, trash of every description: the mania for acquisition, as yet an undeveloped madness in Eliza, enraged him.
"In God's name!" he would cry with genuine anger. "In God's name! Why don't you get rid of some of this junk?" And he would move destructively toward it.
"No you don't, Mr. Gant!" she would answer sharply. "You never know when those things will come in handy."
It was, perhaps, a reversal of custom that the deep-hungering spirit of quest belonged to the one with the greatest love of order, the most pious regard for ritual, who wove into a pattern even his daily tirades of abuse, and that the sprawling blot of chaos, animated by one all-mastering desire for possession, belonged to the practical, the daily person.
Gant had the passion of the true wanderer, of him who wanders from a fixed point. He needed the order and the dependence of a home — he was intensely a family man: their clustered warmth and strength about him was life. After his punctual morning tirade at Eliza, he went about the rousing of the slumbering children. Comically, he could not endure feeling, in the morning, that he was the only one awake and about.
His waking cry, delivered by formula, with huge comic gruffness from the foot of the stairs, took this form:
"Steve! Ben! Grover! Luke! You damned scoundrels: get up! In God's name, what will become of you! You'll never amount to anything as long as you live."
He would continue to roar at them from below as if they were wakefully attentive above.
"When I was your age, I had milked four cows, done all the chores, and walked eight miles through the snow by this time."
Indeed, when he described his early schooling, he furnished a landscape that was constantly three feet deep in snow, and frozen hard. He seemed never to have attended school save under polar conditions.
And fifteen minutes later, he would roar again: "You'll never amount to anything, you good-for-nothing bums! If one side of the wall caved in, you'd roll over to the other."
Presently now there would be the rapid thud of feet upstairs, and one by one they would descend, rushing naked into the sitting-room with their clothing bundled in their arms. Before his roaring fire they would dress.
By breakfast, save for sporadic laments, Gant was in something approaching good humor. They fed hugely: he stoked their plates for them with great slabs of fried steak, grits fried in egg, hot biscuits, jam, fried apples. He departed for his shop about the time the boys, their throats still convulsively swallowing hot food and coffee, rushed from the house at the warning signal of the mellow-tolling final nine-o'clock school bell.
He returned for lunch — dinner, as they called it — briefly garrulous with the morning's news; in the evening, as the family gathered in again, he returned, built his great fire, and launched his supreme invective, a ceremony which required a half hour in composition, and another three-quarters, with repetition and additions, in delivery. They dined then quite happily.
So passed the winter. Eugene was three; they bought him alphabet books, and animal pictures, with rhymed fables below. Gant read them to him indefatigably: in six weeks he knew them all by memory.
Through the late winter and spring he performed numberless times for the neighbors: holding the book in his hands he pretended to read what he knew by heart. Gant was delighted: he abetted the deception. Every one thought it extraordinary that a child should read so young.
In the Spring Gant began to drink again; his thirst withered, however, in two or three weeks, and shamefacedly he took up the routine of his life. But Eliza was preparing for a change.
It was 1904; there was in preparation a great world's exposition at Saint Louis: it was to be the visual history of civilization, bigger, better, and greater than anything of its kind ever known before. Many of the Altamont people intended to go: Eliza was fascinated at the prospect of combining travel with profit.
"Do you know what?" she began thoughtfully one night, as she laid down the paper, "I've a good notion to pack up and go."
"Go? Go where?"
"To Saint Louis," she answered. "Why, say — if things work out all right, we might simply pull out and settle down there." She knew that the suggestion of a total disruption of the established life, a voyage to new lands, a new quest of fortune fascinated him. It had been talked of years before when he had broken his partnership with Will Pentland.
"What do you intend to do out there? How are the children going to get along?"
"Why, sir," she began smugly, pursing her lips thoughtfully, and smiling cunningly, "I'll simply get me a good big house and drum up a trade among the Altamont people who are going."
"Merciful God, Mrs. Gant!" he howled tragically, "you surely wouldn't do a thing like that. I beg you not to."
"Why, pshaw, Mr. Gant, don't be such a fool. There's nothing wrong in keeping boarders. Some of the most respectable people in this town do it." She knew what a tender thing his pride was: he could not bear to be thought incapable of the support of his family — one of his most frequent boasts was that he was "a good provider." Further, the residence of any one under his roof not of his blood and bone sowed the air about with menace, breached his castle walls. Finally, he had a particular revulsion against lodgers: to earn one's living by accepting the contempt, the scorn, and the money of what he called "cheap boarders" was an almost unendurable ignominy.
She knew this but she could not understand his feeling. Not merely to possess property, but to draw income from it was part of the religion of her family, and she surpassed them all by her willingness to rent out a part of her home. She alone, in fact, of all the Pentlands was willing to relinquish the little moated castle of home; the particular secrecy and privacy of their walls she alone did not seem to value greatly. And she was the only one of them that wore a skirt.
Eugene had been fed from her breast until he was more than three years old: during the winter he was weaned. Something in her stopped; something began.
She had her way finally. Sometimes she would talk to Gant thoughtfully and persuasively about the World's Fair venture. Sometimes, during his evening tirades, she would snap back at him using the project as a threat. Just what was to be achieved she did not know. But she felt it was a beginning for her. And she had her way finally.
Gant succumbed to the lure of new lands. He was to remain at home: if all went well he would come out later. The prospect, too, of release for a time excited him. Something of the old thrill of youth touched him. He was left behind, but the world lurked full of unseen shadows for a lonely man. Daisy was in her last year at school: she stayed with him. But it cost him more than a pang or two to see Helen go. She was almost fourteen.
In early April, Eliza departed, bearing her excited brood about her, and carrying Eugene in her arms. He was bewildered at this rapid commotion, but he was electric with curiosity and activity.
The Tarkintons and Duncans streamed in: there were tears and kisses. Mrs. Tarkinton regarded her with some awe. The whole neighborhood was a bit bewildered at this latest turn.
"Well, well — you never can tell," said Eliza, smiling tearfully and enjoying the sensation she had provided. "If things go well we may settle down out there."
"You'll come back," said Mrs. Tarkinton with cheerful loyalty. "There's no place like Altamont."
They went to the station in the street-car: Ben and Grover gleefully sat together, guarding a big luncheon hamper. Helen clutched nervously a bundle of packages. Eliza glanced sharply at her long straight legs and thought of the half-fare.
"Say," she began, laughing indefinitely behind her hand, and nudging Gant, "she'll have to scrooch up, won't she? They'll think you're mighty big to be under twelve," she went on, addressing the girl directly.
Helen stirred nervously.
"We shouldn't have done that," Gant muttered.
"Pshaw!" said Eliza, "No one will ever notice her."
He saw them into the train, disposed comfortably by the solicitous Pullman porter.
"Keep your eye on them, George," he said, and gave the man a coin. Eliza eyed it jealously.
He kissed them all roughly with his mustache, but he patted his little girl's bony shoulders with his great hand, and hugged her to him. Something stabbed sharply in Eliza.
They had an awkward moment. The strangeness, the absurdity of the whole project, and the monstrous fumbling of all life, held them speechless.
"Well," he began, "I reckon you know what you're doing."
"Well, I tell you," she said, pursing her lips, and looking out the window, "you don't know what may come out of this."
He was vaguely appeased. The train jerked, and moved off slowly. He kissed her clumsily.
"Let me know as soon as you get there," he said, and he strode swiftly down the aisle.
"Good-by, good-by," cried Eliza, waving Eugene's small hand at the long figure on the platform. "Children," she said, "wave good-by to your papa." They all crowded to the window. Eliza wept.
Eugene watched the sun wane and redden on a rocky river, and on the painted rocks of Tennessee gorges: the enchanted river wound into his child's mind forever. Years later, it was to be remembered in dreams tenanted with elvish and mysterious beauty. Stilled in great wonder, he went to sleep to the rhythmical pounding of the heavy wheels.
They lived in a white house on the corner. There was a small plot of lawn in front, and a narrow strip on the side next to the pavement. He realized vaguely that it was far from the great central web and roar of the city — he thought he heard some one say four or five miles. Where was the river?
Two little boys, twins, with straight very blond heads, and thin, mean faces, raced up and down the sidewalk before the house incessantly on tricycles. They wore white sailor-suits, with blue collars, and he hated them very much. He felt vaguely that their father was a bad man who had fallen down an elevator shaft, breaking his legs.
The house had a back yard, completely enclosed by a red board fence. At the end was a red barn. Years later, Steve, returning home, said: "That section's all built up out there now." Where?
One day in the hot barren back yard, two cots and mattresses had been set up for airing. He lay upon one luxuriously, breathing the hot mattress, and drawing his small legs up lazily. Luke lay upon the other. They were eating peaches.
A fly grew sticky on Eugene's peach. He swallowed it. Luke howled with laughter.
"Swallowed a fly! Swallowed a fly!"
He grew violently sick, vomited, and was unable to eat for some time. He wondered why he had swallowed the fly when he had seen it all the time.
The summer came down blazing hot. Gant arrived for a few days, bringing Daisy with him. One night they drank beer at the Delmar Gardens. In the hot air, at a little table, he gazed thirstily at the beaded foaming stein: he would thrust his face, he thought, in that chill foam and drink deep of happiness. Eliza gave him a taste; they all shrieked at his bitter surprised face.
Years later he remembered Gant, his mustache flecked with foam, quaffing mightily at the glass: the magnificent gusto, the beautiful thirst inspired in him the desire for emulation, and he wondered if all beer were bitter, if there were not a period of initiation into the pleasures of this great beverage.
Faces from the old half-forgotten world floated in from time to time. Some of the Altamont people came and stayed at Eliza's house. One day, with sudden recollective horror he looked up into the brutal shaven face of Jim Lyda. He was the Altamont sheriff; he lived at the foot of the hill below Gant. Once, when Eugene was past two, Eliza had gone to Piedmont as witness in a trial. She was away two days; he was left in care of Mrs. Lyda. He had never forgotten Lyda's playful cruelty the first night.
Now, one day, this monster appeared again, by devilish sleight, and Eugene looked up into the heavy evil of his face. Eugene saw Eliza standing near Jim; and as the terror in the small face grew, Jim made as if to put his hand violently upon her. At his cry of rage and fear, they both laughed: for a blind moment or two Eugene for the first time hated her: he was mad, impotent with jealousy and fear.
At night the boys, Steve, Ben, and Grover, who had been sent out at once to seek employment by Eliza, returned from the Fair Grounds, chattering with the lively excitement of the day's bustle. Sniggering furtively, they talked suggestively about the Hoochy-koochy: Eugene understood it was a dance. Steve hummed a monotonous, suggestive tune, and writhed sensually. They sang a song; the plaintive distant music haunted him. He learned it:
"Meet me in Saint — Lou — iss, loo — ee,
Meet me at the Fair,
If you see the boys and girlies,
Tell them I'll be there.
We will dance the Hoochy-Koochy —"
and so on.
Sometimes, lying on a sunny quilt, Eugene grew conscious of a gentle peering face, a soft caressing voice, unlike any of the others in kind and quality, a tender olive skin, black hair, sloeblack eyes, exquisite, rather sad, kindliness. He nuzzled his soft face next to Eugene's, fondled and embraced him. On his brown neck he was birth-marked with a raspberry: Eugene touched it again and again with wonder. This was Grover — the gentlest and saddest of the boys.
Eliza sometimes allowed them to take him on excursions. Once, they made a voyage on a river steamer: he went below and from the side-openings looked closely upon the powerful yellow snake, coiling slowly and resistlessly past.
The boys worked on the Fair Grounds. They were call-boys at a place called the Inside Inn. The name charmed him: it flashed constantly through his brain. Sometimes his sisters, sometimes Eliza, sometimes the boys pulled him through the milling jungle of noise and figures, past the rich opulence and variety of the life of the Fair. He was drugged in fantasy as they passed the East India tea-house, and as he saw tall turbaned men who walked about within and caught for the first time, so that he never forgot, the slow incense of the East. Once in a huge building roaring with sound, he was rooted before a mighty locomotive, the greatest monster he had ever seen, whose wheels spun terrifically in grooves, whose blazing furnaces, raining hot red coals into the pit beneath, were fed incessantly by two grimed fire-painted stokers. The scene burned in his brain like some huge splendor out of Hell: he was appalled and fascinated by it.
Again, he stood at the edge of the slow, terrific orbit of the Ferris Wheel, reeled down the blaring confusion of the midway, felt his staggering mind converge helplessly into all the mad phantasmagoria of the carnival; he heard Luke's wild story of the snake-eater, and shrieked in agony when they threatened to take him in.
Once Daisy, yielding to the furtive cat-cruelty below her mild placidity, took him with her through the insane horrors of the scenic railway; they plunged bottomlessly from light into roaring blackness, and as his first yell ceased with a slackening of the car, rolled gently into a monstrous lighted gloom peopled with huge painted grotesques, the red maws of fiendish heads, the cunning appearances of death, nightmare, and madness. His unprepared mind was unrooted by insane fear: the car rolled downward from one lighted cavern to another, and as his heart withered to a pea, he heard from the people about him loud gusty laughter, in which his sister joined. His mind, just emerging from the unreal wilderness of childish fancy, gave way completely in this Fair, and he was paralyzed by the conviction, which often returned to him in later years, that his life was a fabulous nightmare and that, by cunning and conspirate artifice, he had surrendered all his hope, belief, and confidence to the lewd torture of demons masked in human flesh. Half-sensible, and purple with gasping terror, he came out finally into the warm and practical sunlight.
His last remembrance of the Fair came from a night in early autumn: with Daisy again he sat upon the driver's seat of a motor bus, listening for the first time to the wonder of its labored chugging, as they rolled, through ploughing sheets of rain, around the gleaming roads, and by the Cascades, pouring their water down before a white building jewelled with ten thousand lights.
The summer had passed. There was the rustling of autumn winds, a whispering breath of departed revelry: carnival was almost done.
And now the house grew very still: he saw his mother very little, he did not leave the house, he was in the care of his sisters, and he was constantly admonished to silence.
One day Gant came back a second time. Grover was down with typhoid.
"He said he ate a pear at the Fair grounds," Eliza repeated the story for the hundredth time. "He came home and complained of feeling sick. I put my hand on his head and he was burning up. 'Why, child,' I said, 'what on earth —?'"
Her black eyes brightened in her white face: she was afraid. She pursed her lips and spoke hopefully.
"Hello, son," said Gant, casually entering the room; his heart shrivelled as he saw the boy.
Eliza pursed her lips more and more thoughtfully after each visit the doctor made; she seized every spare crumb of encouragement and magnified it, but her heart was sick. Then one night, tearing away the mask suddenly, she came swiftly from the boy's room.
"Mr. Gant," she said in a whisper, pursing her lips. She shook her white face at him silently as if unable to speak. Then, rapidly, she concluded: "He's gone, he's gone, he's gone!"
Eugene was deep in midnight slumber. Some one shook him, loosening him slowly from his drowsiness. Presently he found himself in the arms of Helen, who sat on the bed holding him, her morbid stricken little face fastened on him. She spoke to him distinctly and slowly in a subdued voice, charged somehow with a terrible eagerness:
"Do you want to see Grover?" she whispered. "He's on the cooling board."
He wondered what a cooling board was; the house was full of menace. She bore him out into the dimly lighted hall, and carried him to the rooms at the front of the house. Behind the door he heard low voices. Quietly she opened it; the light blazed brightly on the bed. Eugene looked, horror swarmed like poison through his blood. Behind the little wasted shell that lay there he remembered suddenly the warm brown face, the soft eyes, that once had peered down at him: like one who has been mad, and suddenly recovers reason, he remembered that forgotten face he had not seen in weeks, that strange bright loneliness that would not return. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
Eliza sat heavily on a chair, her face bent sideways on her rested hand. She was weeping, her face contorted by the comical and ugly grimace that is far more terrible than any quiet beatitude of sorrow. Gant comforted her awkwardly but, looking at the boy from time to time, he went out into the hall and cast his arms forth in agony, in bewilderment.
The undertakers put the body in a basket and took it away.
"He was just twelve years and twenty days old," said Eliza over and over, and this fact seemed to trouble her more than any other.
"You children go and get some sleep now," she commanded suddenly and, as she spoke, her eye fell on Ben who stood puzzled and scowling, gazing in with his curious old-man's look. She thought of the severance of the twins; they had entered life within twenty minutes of each other; her heart was gripped with pity at the thought of the boy's loneliness. She wept anew. The children went to bed. For some time Eliza and Gant continued to sit alone in the room. Gant leaned his face in his powerful hands. "The best boy I had," he muttered. "By God, he was the best of the lot."
And in the ticking silence they recalled him, and in the heart of each was fear and remorse, because he had been a quiet boy, and there were many, and he had gone unnoticed.
"I'll never be able to forget his birthmark," Eliza whispered, "Never, never."
Then presently each thought of the other; they felt suddenly the horror and strangeness of their surroundings. They thought of the vine-wound house in the distant mountains, of the roaring fires, the tumult, the cursing, the pain, of their blind and tangled lives, and of blundering destiny which brought them here now in this distant place, with death, after the carnival's close.
Eliza wondered why she had come: she sought back through the hot and desperate mazes for the answer:
"If I had known," she began presently, "if I had known how it would turn out —"
"Never mind," he said, and he stroked her awkwardly. "By God!" he added dumbly after a moment. "It's pretty strange when you come to think about it."
And as they sat there more quietly now, swarming pity rose in them — not for themselves, but for each other, and for the waste, the confusion, the groping accident of life.
Gant thought briefly of his four and fifty years, his vanished youth, his diminishing strength, the ugliness and badness of so much of it; and he had the very quiet despair of a man who knows the forged chain may not be unlinked, the threaded design unwound, the done undone.
"If I had known. If I had known," said Eliza. And then: "I'm sorry." But he knew that her sorrow at that moment was not for him or for herself, or even for the boy whom idiot chance had thrust in the way of pestilence, but that, with a sudden inner flaming of her clairvoyant Scotch soul, she had looked cleanly, without pretense for the first time, upon the inexorable tides of Necessity, and that she was sorry for all who had lived, were living, or would live, fanning with their prayers the useless altar flames, suppliant with their hopes to an unwitting spirit, casting the tiny rockets of their belief against remote eternity, and hoping for grace, guidance, and delivery upon the spinning and forgotten cinder of this earth. O lost.
They went home immediately. At every station Gant and Eliza made restless expeditions to the baggage-car. It was gray autumnal November: the mountain forests were quilted with dry brown leaves. They blew about the streets of Altamont, they were deep in lane and gutter, they scampered dryly along before the wind.
The car ground noisily around the curve at the hill-top. The Gants descended: the body had already been sent on from the station. As Eliza came slowly down the hill, Mrs. Tarkinton ran from her house sobbing. Her eldest daughter had died a month before. The two women gave loud cries as they saw each other, and rushed together.
In Gant's parlor, the coffin had already been placed on trestles, the neighbors, funeral-faced and whispering, were assembled to greet them. That was all.
The death of Grover gave Eliza the most terrible wound of her life: her courage was snapped, her slow but powerful adventure toward freedom was abruptly stopped. Her flesh seemed to turn rotten when she thought of the distant city and the Fair: she was appalled before the hidden adversary who had struck her down.
With her desperate sadness she encysted herself within her house and her family, reclaimed that life she had been ready to renounce, lived laborious days and tried to drink, in toil, oblivion. But the dark lost face gleamed like a sudden and impalpable faun within the thickets of memory: she thought of the mark on his brown neck and wept.
During the grim winter the shadows lifted slowly. Gant brought back the roaring fires, the groaning succulent table, the lavish and explosive ritual of the daily life. The old gusto surged back in their lives.
And, as the winter waned, the interspersed darkness in Eugene's brain was lifted slowly, days, weeks, months began to emerge in consecutive brightness; his mind came from the confusion of the Fair: life opened practically.
Secure and conscious now in the guarded and sufficient strength of home, he lay with well-lined belly before the roasting vitality of the fire, poring insatiably over great volumes in the bookcase, exulting in the musty odor of the leaves, and in the pungent smell of their hot hides. The books he delighted in most were three huge calf-skin volumes called Ridpath's History of the World. Their numberless pages were illustrated with hundreds of drawings, engravings, wood-cuts: he followed the progression of the centuries pictorially before he could read. The pictures of battle delighted him most of all. Exulting in the howl of the beaten wind about the house, the thunder of great trees, he committed himself to the dark storm, releasing the mad devil's hunger all men have in them, which lusts for darkness, the wind, and incalculable speed. The past unrolled to him in separate and enormous visions; he built unending legends upon the pictures of the kings of Egypt, charioted swiftly by soaring horses, and something infinitely old and recollective seemed to awaken in him as he looked on fabulous monsters, the twined beards and huge beast-bodies of Assyrian kings, the walls of Babylon. His brain swarmed with pictures — Cyrus directing the charge, the spear-forest of the Macedonian phalanx, the splintered oars, the numberless huddle of the ships at Salamis, the feasts of Alexander, the terrific melee of the knights, the shattered lances, the axe and the sword, the massed pikemen, the beleaguered walls, the scaling ladders heavy with climbing men hurled backward, the Swiss who flung his body on the lances, the press of horse and foot, the gloomy forests of Gaul and Cæsarean conquests. Gant sat farther away, behind him, swinging violently back and forth in a stout rocker, spitting clean and powerful spurts of tobacco-juice over his son's head into the hissing fire.
Or again, Gant would read to him with sonorous and florid rhetoric passages from Shakespeare, among which he heard most often Marc Antony's funeral oration, Hamlet's soliloquy, the banquet scene in Macbeth, and the scene between Desdemona and Othello before he strangles her. Or, he would recite or read poetry, for which he had a capacious and retentive memory. His favorites were: "O why should the spirit of mortal be proud" ("Lincoln's favorite poem," he was fond of saying); "'We are lost,' the captain shouted, As he staggered down the stairs"; "I remember, I remember, the house where I was born"; "Ninety and nine with their captain, Rode on the enemy's track, Rode in the gray light of morning, Nine of the ninety came back"; "The boy stood on the burning deck"; and "Half a league, half a league, half a league onward."
Sometimes he would get Helen to recite "Still sits the schoolhouse by the road, a ragged beggar sunning; Around it still the sumachs grow, and blackberry vines are running."
And when she had told how grasses had been growing over the girl's head for forty years, and how the gray-haired man had found in life's harsh school how few hated to go above him, because, you see, they love him, Gant would sigh heavily, and say with a shake of his head:
"Ah me! There was never a truer word spoken than that."
The family was at the very core and ripeness of its life together. Gant lavished upon it his abuse, his affection, and his prodigal provisioning. They came to look forward eagerly to his entrance, for he brought with him the great gusto of living, of ritual. They would watch him in the evening as he turned the corner below with eager strides, follow carefully the processional of his movements from the time he flung his provisions upon the kitchen table to the re-kindling of his fire, with which he was always at odds when he entered, and on to which he poured wood, coal and kerosene lavishly. This done, he would remove his coat and wash himself at the basin vigorously, rubbing his great hands across his shaven, tough-bearded face with the cleansing and male sound of sand-paper. Then he would thrust his body against the door jamb and scratch his back energetically by moving it violently to and fro. This done, he would empty another half can of kerosene on the howling flame, lunging savagely at it, and muttering to himself.
Then, biting off a good hunk of powerful apple tobacco, which lay ready to his use on the mantel, he would pace back and forth across his room fiercely, oblivious of his grinning family who followed these ceremonies with exultant excitement, as he composed his tirade. Finally, he would burst in on Eliza in the kitchen, plunging to the heart of denunciation with a mad howl.
His turbulent and undisciplined rhetoric had acquired, by the regular convention of its usage, something of the movement and directness of classical epithet: his similes were preposterous, created really in a spirit of vulgar mirth, and the great comic intelligence that was in the family — down to the youngest — was shaken daily by it. The children grew to await his return in the evening with a kind of exhilaration. Indeed, Eliza herself, healing slowly and painfully her great hurt, got a certain stimulation from it; but there was still in her a fear of the periods of drunkenness, and latently, a stubborn and unforgiving recollection of the past.
But, during that winter, as death, assaulted by the quick and healing gaiety of children, those absolute little gods of the moment, lifted itself slowly out of their hearts, something like hopefulness returned to her. They were a life unto themselves — how lonely they were they did not know, but they were known to every one and friended by almost no one. Their status was singular — if they could have been distinguished by caste, they would probably have been called middle-class, but the Duncans, the Tarkintons, all their neighbors, and all their acquaintances throughout the town, never drew in to them, never came into the strange rich color of their lives, because they had twisted the design of all orderly life, because there was in them a mad, original, disturbing quality which they did not suspect. And companionship with the elect — those like the Hilliards — was equally impossible, even if they had had the gift or the desire for it. But they hadn't.
Gant was a great man, and not a singular one, because singularity does not hold life in unyielding devotion to it.
As he stormed through the house, unleashing his gathered bolts, the children followed him joyously, shrieking exultantly as he told Eliza he had first seen her "wriggling around the corner like a snake on her belly," or, as coming in from freezing weather he had charged her and all the Pentlands with malevolent domination of the elements.
"We will freeze," he yelled, "we will freeze in this hellish, damnable, cruel and God-forsaken climate. Does Brother Will care? Does Brother Jim care? Did the Old Hog, your miserable old father, care? Merciful God! I have fallen into the hands of fiends incarnate, more savage, more cruel, more abominable than the beasts of the field. Hellhounds that they are, they will sit by and gloat at my agony until I am done to death."
He paced rapidly about the adjacent wash-room for a moment, muttering to himself, while grinning Luke stood watchfully near.
"But they can eat!" he shouted, plunging suddenly at the kitchen door. "They can eat — when some one else will feed them. I shall never forget the Old Hog as long as I live. Cr-unch, Cr-unch, Cr-unch," — they were all exploded with laughter as his face assumed an expression of insane gluttony, and as he continued, in a slow, whining voice intended to represent the speech of the late Major: "'Eliza, if you don't mind I'll have some more of that chicken,' when the old scoundrel had shovelled it down his throat so fast we had to carry him away from the table."
As his denunciation reached some high extravagance the boys would squeal with laughter, and Gant, inwardly tickled, would glance around slyly with a faint grin bending the corners of his thin mouth. Eliza herself would laugh shortly, and then exclaim roughly: "Get out of here! I've had enough of your goings-on for one night."
Sometimes, on these occasions, his good humor grew so victorious that he would attempt clumsily to fondle her, putting one arm stiffly around her waist, while she bridled, became confused, and half-attempted to escape, saying: "Get away! Get away from me! It's too late for that now." Her white embarrassed smile was at once painful and comic: tears pressed closely behind it. At these rare, unnatural exhibitions of affection, the children laughed with constraint, fidgeted restlessly, and said: "Aw, papa, don't."
Eugene, when he first noticed an occurrence of this sort, was getting on to his fifth year: shame gathered in him in tangled clots, aching in his throat; he twisted his neck about convulsively, smiling desperately as he did later when he saw poor buffoons or mawkish scenes in the theatre. And he was never after able to see them touch each other with affection, without the same inchoate and choking humiliation: they were so used to the curse, the clamor, and the roughness, that any variation into tenderness came as a cruel affectation.
But as the slow months, gummed with sorrow, dropped more clearly, the powerful germinal instinct for property and freedom began to reawaken in Eliza, and the ancient submerged struggle between their natures began again. The children were growing up — Eugene had found playmates — Harry Tarkinton and Max Isaacs. Her sex was a fading coal.
Season by season, there began again the old strife of ownership and taxes. Returning home, with the tax-collector's report in his hand, Gant would be genuinely frantic with rage.
"In the name of God, Woman, what are we coming to? Before another year we'll all go to the poorhouse. Ah, Lord! I see very well where it will all end. I'll go to the wall, every penny we've got will go into the pockets of those accursed swindlers, and the rest will come under the sheriff's hammer. I curse the day I was ever fool enough to buy the first stick. Mark my words, we'll be living in soup-kitchens before this fearful, this awful, this hellish and damnable winter is finished."
She would purse her lips thoughtfully as she went over the list, while he looked at her with a face of strained agony.
"Yes, it does look pretty bad," she would remark. And then: "It's a pity you didn't listen to me last summer, Mr. Gant, when we had a chance of trading in that worthless old Owenby place for those two houses on Carter Street. We could have been getting forty dollars a month rent on them ever since."
"I never want to own another foot of land as long as I live," he yelled. "It's kept me a poor man all my life, and when I die they'll have to give me six feet of earth in Pauper's Field." And he would grow broodingly philosophic, speaking of the vanity of human effort, the last resting-place in earth of rich and poor, the significant fact that we could "take none of it with us," ending perhaps with "Ah me! It all comes to the same in the end, anyway."
Or, he would quote a few stanzas of Gray's Elegy, using that encyclopædia of stock melancholy with rather indefinite application:
"— Await alike th' inevitable hour,
The paths of glory lead but to the grave."
But Eliza sat grimly on what they had.
Gant, for all his hatred of land ownership, was proud of living under his own shelter, and indeed proud in the possession of anything that was sanctified by his usage, and that gave him comfort. He would have liked ready and unencumbered affluence — the possession of huge sums of money in the bank and in his pocket, the freedom to travel grandly, to go before the world spaciously. He liked to carry large sums of money in his pocket, a practice of which Eliza disapproved, and for which she reprimanded him frequently. Once or twice, when he was drunk, he had been robbed: he would brandish a roll of bills about under the stimulation of whisky, and dispense large sums to his children — ten, twenty, fifty dollars to each, with maudlin injunctions to "take it all! Take it all, God damn it!" But next day he was equally assiduous in his demands for its return: Helen usually collected it from the sometimes unwilling fingers of the boys. She would give it to him next day. She was fifteen or sixteen years old, and almost six feet high: a tall thin girl, with large hands and feet, big-boned, generous features, behind which the hysteria of constant excitement lurked.
The bond between the girl and her father grew stronger every day: she was nervous, intense, irritable, and abusive as he was. She adored him. He had begun to suspect that this devotion, and his own response to it, was a cause more and more of annoyance to Eliza, and he was inclined to exaggerate and emphasize it, particularly when he was drunk, when his furious distaste for his wife, his obscene complaint against her, was crudely balanced by his maudlin docility to the girl.
And Eliza's hurt was deeper because she knew that just at this time, when her slightest movement goaded him, did what was most rawly essential in him reveal itself. She was forced to keep out of his way, lock herself in her room, while her young daughter victoriously subdued him.
The friction between Helen and Eliza was often acute: they spoke sharply and curtly to each other, and were painfully aware of the other's presence in cramped quarters. And, in addition to the unspoken rivalry over Gant, the girl was in the same way, equally, rasped by the temperamental difference of Eliza — driven to fury at times by her slow, mouth-pursing speech, her placidity, the intonations of her voice, the deep abiding patience of her nature.
They fed stupendously. Eugene began to observe the food and the seasons. In the autumn, they barrelled huge frosty apples in the cellar. Gant bought whole hogs from the butcher, returning home early to salt them, wearing a long work-apron, and rolling his sleeves half up his lean hairy arms. Smoked bacons hung in the pantry, the great bins were full of flour, the dark recessed shelves groaned with preserved cherries, peaches, plums, quinces, apples, pears. All that he touched waxed in rich pungent life: his Spring gardens, wrought in the black wet earth below the fruit trees, flourished in huge crinkled lettuces that wrenched cleanly from the loamy soil with small black clots stuck to their crisp stocks; fat red radishes; heavy tomatoes. The rich plums lay bursted on the grass; his huge cherry trees oozed with heavy gum jewels; his apple trees bent with thick green clusters. The earth was spermy for him like a big woman.
Spring was full of cool dewy mornings, spurting winds, and storms of intoxicating blossoms, and in this enchantment Eugene first felt the mixed lonely ache and promise of the seasons.
In the morning they rose in a house pungent with breakfast cookery, and they sat at a smoking table loaded with brains and eggs, ham, hot biscuit, fried apples seething in their gummed syrups, honey, golden butter, fried steak, scalding coffee. Or there were stacked batter-cakes, rum-colored molasses, fragrant brown sausages, a bowl of wet cherries, plums, fat juicy bacon, jam. At the mid-day meal, they ate heavily: a huge hot roast of beef, fat buttered lima-beans, tender corn smoking on the cob, thick red slabs of sliced tomatoes, rough savory spinach, hot yellow corn-bread, flaky biscuits, a deep-dish peach and apple cobbler spiced with cinnamon, tender cabbage, deep glass dishes piled with preserved fruits — cherries, pears, peaches. At night they might eat fried steak, hot squares of grits fried in egg and butter, pork-chops, fish, young fried chicken.
For the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts four heavy turkeys were bought and fattened for weeks: Eugene fed them with cans of shelled corn several times a day, but he could not bear to be present at their executions, because by that time their cheerful excited gobbles made echoes in his heart. Eliza baked for weeks in advance: the whole energy of the family focussed upon the great ritual of the feast. A day or two before, the auxiliary dainties arrived in piled grocer's boxes — the magic of strange foods and fruits was added to familiar fare: there were glossed sticky dates, cold rich figs, cramped belly to belly in small boxes, dusty raisins, mixed nuts — the almond, pecan, the meaty nigger-toe, the walnut, sacks of assorted candies, piles of yellow Florida oranges, tangerines, sharp, acrid, nostalgic odors.
Seated before a roast or a fowl, Gant began a heavy clangor on his steel and carving knife, distributing thereafter Gargantuan portions to each plate. Eugene feasted from a high chair by his father's side, filled his distending belly until it was drum-tight, and was permitted to stop eating by his watchful sire only when his stomach was impregnable to the heavy prod of Gant's big finger.
"There's a soft place there," he would roar, and he would cover the scoured plate of his infant son with another heavy slab of beef. That their machinery withstood this hammer-handed treatment was a tribute to their vitality and Eliza's cookery.
Gant ate ravenously and without caution. He was immoderately fond of fish, and he invariably choked upon a bone while eating it. This happened hundreds of times, but each time he would look up suddenly with a howl of agony and terror, groaning and crying out strongly while a half-dozen hands pounded violently on his back.
"Merciful God!" he would gasp finally, "I thought I was done for that time."
"I'll vow, Mr. Gant," Eliza was vexed. "Why on earth don't you watch what you're doing? If you didn't eat so fast you wouldn't always get choked."
The children, staring, but relieved, settled slowly back in their places.
He had a Dutch love of abundance: again and again he described, the great stored barns, the groaning plenty of the Pennsylvanians.
On his journey to California, he had been charmed in New Orleans by the cheapness and profusion of tropical fruits: a peddler offered him a great bunch of bananas for twenty-five cents, and Gant had taken them at once, wondering desperately later, as they moved across the continent, why, and what he was going to do with them.
This journey to California was Gant's last great voyage. He made it two years after Eliza's return from St. Louis, when he was fifty-six years old. In the great frame was already stirring the chemistry of pain and death. Unspoken and undefined there was in him the knowledge that he was at length caught in the trap of life and fixity, that he was being borne under in this struggle against the terrible will that wanted to own the earth more than to explore it. This was the final flare of the old hunger that had once darkened in the small gray eyes, leading a boy into new lands and toward the soft stone smile of an angel.
And he returned from nine thousand miles of wandering, to the bleak bare prison of the hills on a gray day late in winter.
In the more than eight thousand days and nights of this life with Eliza, how often had he been wakefully, soberly and peripatetically conscious of the world outside him between the hours of one and five A.M.? Wholly, for not more than nineteen nights — one for the birth of Leslie, Eliza's first daughter; one for her death twenty-six months later, cholera infantis; one for the death of Major Tom Pentland, Eliza's father, in May, 1902; one for the birth of Luke; one, on the train westbound to Saint Louis, en route to Grover's death; one for the death in the Playhouse (1893) of Uncle Thaddeus Evans, an aged and devoted negro; one, with Eliza, in the month of March, 1897, as deathwatch to the corpse of old Major Isaacs; three at the end of the month of July, 1897, when it was thought that Eliza, withered to a white sheeting of skin upon a bone frame, must die of typhoid; again in early April, 1903, for Luke, typhoid death near; one for the death of Greeley Pentland, aged twenty-six, congenial scrofulous tubercular, violinist, Pentlandian punster, petty check-forger, and six weeks' jailbird; three nights, from the eleventh to the fourteenth of January, 1905, by the rheumatic crucifixion of his right side, participant in his own grief, accuser of himself and his God; once in February, 1896, as deathwatch to the remains of Sandy Duncan, aged eleven; once in September, 1895, penitentially alert and shamefast in the City "calaboose"; in a room of the Keeley Institute at Piedmont, North Carolina, June 7, 1896; on March 17, 1906, between Knoxville, Tennessee, and Altamont, at the conclusion of a seven weeks' journey to California.
How looked the home-earth then to Gant the Far-Wanderer? Light crept grayly, melting on the rocky river, the engine smoke streaked out on dawn like a cold breath, the hills were big, but nearer, nearer than he thought. And Altamont lay gray and withered in the hills, a bleak mean wintry dot. He stepped carefully down in squalid Toytown, noting that everything was low, near, and shrunken as he made his Gulliverian entry. He had a roof-and-gulley high conviction; with careful tucked-in elbows he weighted down the heated Toytown street-car, staring painfully at the dirty pasteboard pebbledash of the Pisgah Hotel, the brick and board cheap warehouses of Depot Street, the rusty clapboard flimsiness of the Florence (Railway Men's) Hotel, quaking with beef-fed harlotry.
So small, so small, so small, he thought. I never believed it. Even the hills here. I'll soon be sixty.
His sallow face, thin-flanked, was hang-dog and afraid. He stared wistful-sullenly down at the rattan seat as the car screeched round into the switch at the cut and stopped; the motorman, smoke-throated, slid the door back and entered with his handle. He closed the door and sat down yawning.
"Where you been, Mr. Gant?"
"California," said Gant.
"Thought I hadn't seen you," said the motorman.
There was a warm electric smell and one of hot burnt steel.
But two months dead! But two months dead! Ah, Lord! So it's come to this. Merciful God, this fearful, awful, and damnable climate. Death, death! Is it too late? A land of life, a flower land. How clear the green clear sea was. And all the fishes swimming there. Santa Catalina. Those in the East should always go West. How came I here? Down, down — always down, did I know where? Baltimore, Sydney — In God's name, why? The little boat glass-bottomed, so you could look down. She lifted up her skirts as she stepped down. Where now? A pair of pippins.
"Jim Bowles died while you were gone, I reckon," said the motorman.
"What!" howled Gant. "Merciful God!" he clucked mournfully downward. "What did he die of?" he asked.
"Pneumonia," said the motorman. "He was dead four days after he was took down."
"Why he was a big healthy man in the prime of life," said Gant. "I was talking to him the day before I went away," he lied, convincing himself permanently that this was true. "He looked as if he had never known a day's sickness in his life."
"He went home one Friday night with a chill," said the motorman, "and the next Tuesday he was gone."
There was a crescent humming on the rails. With his thick glove finger he pushed away a clearing in the window-coated ice scurf and looked smokily out on the raw red cut-bank. The other car appeared abruptly at the end of the cut and curved with a skreeking jerk into the switch.
"No, sir," said the motorman, sliding back the door, "you never know who'll go next. Here to-day and gone to-morrow. Hit gits the big 'uns first sometimes."
He closed the door behind him and jerkily opened three notches of juice. The car ground briskly off like a wound toy.
In the prime of life, thought Gant. Myself like that some day. No, for others. Mother almost eighty-six. Eats like a horse, Augusta wrote. Must send her twenty dollars. Now in the cold clay, frozen. Keep till Spring. Rain, rot, rain. Who got the job? Brock or Saul Gudger? Bread out of my mouth. Do me to death — the stranger. Georgia marble, sandstone base, forty dollars.
"A gracious friend from us is gone,
A voice we loved is fled,
But faith and memory lead us on:
He lives; he is not dead."
Four cents a letter. Little enough, God knows, for the work you do. My letters the best. Could have been a writer. Like to draw too. And all of mine! I would have heard if anything — he would have told me. I'll never go that way. All right above the waist. If anything happens it will be down below. Eaten away. Whisky holes through all your guts. Pictures in Cardiac's office of man with cancer. But several doctors have to agree on it. Criminal offense if they don't. But, if worst comes to worst — all that's outside. Get it before it gets up in you. Still live. Old man Haight had a flap in his belly. Ladled it out in a cup. McGuire-damned butcher. But he can do anything. Cut off a piece here, sew it on there. Made the Hominy man a nose with a piece of shinbone. Couldn't tell it. Ought to be possible. Cut all the strings, tie them up again. While you wait. Sort of job for McGuire — rough and ready. They'll do it some day. After I'm gone. Things standing thus, unknown — but kill you maybe. Bull's too big. Soon now the Spring. You'd die. Not big enough. All bloody in her brain. Full filling fountains of bull-milk. Jupiter and what's-her-name.
But westward now he caught a glimpse of Pisgah and the western range. It was more spacious there. The hills climbed sunward to the sun. There was width to the eye, a smoking sun-hazed amplitude, the world convoluting and opening into the world, hill and plain, into the west. The West for desire, the East for home. To the east the short near mileaway hills reeked protectively above the town. Birdseye, Sunset. A straight plume of smoke coiled thickly from Judge Buck Sevier's smutwhite clapboard residence on the decent side of Pisgah Avenue, thin smoke-wisps rose from the nigger shacks in the ravine below. Breakfast. Fried brains and eggs with streaky rashers of limp bacon. Wake, wake, wake, you mountain grills! Sleeps she yet, wrapped dirtily in three old wrappers in stale, airless yellow-shaded cold. The chapped hands sick-sweet glycerined. Gum-headed bottles, hairpins, and the bits of string. No one may enter now. Ashamed.
A paper-carrier, number 7, finished his route on the corner of Vine Street, as the car stopped, turned eastwards now from Pisgah Avenue toward the town core. The boy folded, bent, and flattened the fresh sheets deftly, throwing the block angularly thirty yards upon the porch of Shields the jeweller; it struck the boarding and bounded back with a fresh plop. Then he walked off with fatigued relief into time toward the twentieth century, feeling gratefully the ghost-kiss of absent weight upon his now free but still leaning right shoulder.
About fourteen, thought Gant. That would be Spring of 1864. The mule camp at Harrisburg. Thirty a month and keep. Men stank worse than mules. I was in third bunk on top. Gil in second. Keep your damned dirty hoof out of my mouth. It's bigger than a mule's. That was the man. If it ever lands on you, you bastard, you'll think it is a mule's, said Gil. Then they had it. Mother made us go. Big enough to work, she said. Born at the heart of the world, why here? Twelve miles from Gettysburg. Out of the South they came. Stove-pipe hats they had stolen. No shoes. Give me a drink, son. That was Fitzhugh Lee. After the third day we went over. Devil's Den. Cemetery Ridge. Stinking piles of arms and legs. Some of it done with meat-saws. Is the land richer now? The great barns bigger than the houses. Big eaters, all of us. I hid the cattle in the thicket. Belle Boyd, the Beautiful Rebel Spy. Sentenced to be shot four times. Took the despatches from his pocket while they danced. Probably a little chippie.
Hog-chitlins and hot cracklin' bread. Must get some. The whole hog or none. Always been a good provider. Little I ever had done for me.
The car still climbing, mounted the flimsy cheap-boarded browngray smuttiness of Skyland Avenue.
America's Switzerland. The Beautiful Land of the Sky Jesus God! Old Bowman said he'll be a rich man some day. Built up all the way to Pasadena. Come on out. Too late now. Think he was in love with her. No matter. Too old. Wants her out there. No fool like — White bellies of the fish. A spring somewhere to wash me through. Clean as a baby once more. New Orleans, the night Jim Corbett knocked out John L. Sullivan. The man who tried to rob me. My clothes and my watch. Five blocks down Canal Street in my nightgown. Two A.M. Threw them all in a heap — watch landed on top. Fight in my room. Town full of crooks and pick-pockets for prizefight. Make good story. Policeman half hour later. They come out and beg you to come in. Frenchwomen. Creoles. Beautiful Creole heiress. Steamboat race. Captain, they are gaining. I will not be beaten. Out of wood. Use the bacon she said proudly. There was a terrific explosion. He got her as she sank the third time and swam to shore. They powder in front of the window, smacking their lips at you. For old men better maybe. Who gets the business there? Bury them all above ground. Water two feet down. Rots them. Why not? All big jobs. Italy. Carrara and Rome. Yet Brutus is an hon-or-able man. What's a Creole? French and Spanish. Has she any nigger blood? Ask Cardiac?
The car paused briefly at the car-shed, in sight of its stabled brothers. Then it moved reluctantly past the dynamic atmosphere of the Power and Light Company, wheeling bluntly into the gray frozen ribbon of Hatton Avenue, running gently up hill near its end into the frore silence of the Square.
Ah, Lord! Well do I remember. The old man offered me the whole piece for $1,000 three days after I arrived. Millionaire to-day if —
The car passed the Tuskegee on its eighty-yard climb into the Square. The fat slick worn leather-chairs marshalled between a freshrubbed gleaming line of brass spittoons squatted massively on each side of the entry door, before thick sheets of plate-glass that extended almost to the sidewalks with indecent nearness.
Many a fat man's rump upon the leather. Like fish in a glass case. Travelling man's wet chewed cigar, spit-limp on his greasy lips. Staring at all the women. Can't look back long. Gives advantage.
A negro bellboy sleepily wafted a gray dust-cloth across the leather. Within, before the replenished crackle-dance of the wood-fire, the nightclerk sprawled out in the deep receiving belly of a leather divan.
The car reached the Square, jolted across the netting of north-south lines, and came to a halt on the north side, facing east. Scurfing a patch away from the glazed window, Gant looked out. The Square in the wan-gray frozen morning walled round him with frozen unnatural smallness. He felt suddenly the cramped mean fixity of the Square: this was the one fixed spot in a world that writhed, evolved, and changed constantly in his vision, and he felt a sick green fear, a frozen constriction about his heart because the centre of his life now looked so shrunken. He got very definitely the impression that if he flung out his arms they would strike against the walls of the mean three-and-four-story brickbuilt buildings that flanked the Square raggedly.
Anchored to earth at last, he was hit suddenly by the whole cumulation of sight and movement, of eating, drinking, and acting that had gathered in him for two months. The limitless land, wood, field, hill, prairie, desert, mountain, the coast rushing away below his eyes, the ground that swam before his eyes at stations, the remembered ghosts of gumbo, oysters, huge Frisco seasteaks, tropical fruits swarmed with the infinite life, the ceaseless pullulation of the sea. Here only, in his unreal-reality, this unnatural vision of what he had known for twenty years, did life lose its movement, change, color.
The Square had the horrible concreteness of a dream. At the far southeastern edge he saw his shop: his name painted hugely in dirty scaly white across the brick near the roof: W. O. Gant — Marbles, Tombstones, Cemetery Fixtures. It was like a dream of hell, when a man finds his own name staring at him from the Devil's ledger; like a dream of death, when he who comes as mourner finds himself in the coffin, or as witness to a hanging, the condemned upon the scaffold.
A sleepy negro employed at the Manor Hotel clambered heavily up and slumped into one of the seats reserved for his race at the back. In a moment he began to snore gently through his blubbered lips.
At the east end of the Square, Big Bill Messler, with his vest half-unbuttoned over his girdled paunch-belly, descended slowly the steps of the City Hall, and moved soundingly off with country leisure along the cold-metallic sidewalk. The fountain, ringed with a thick bracelet of ice, played at quarter-strength a sheening glut of ice-blue water.
Cars droned separately into their focal positions; the carmen stamped their feet and talked smokily together; there was a breath of beginning life. Beside the City Hall, the firemen slept above their wagons: behind the bolted door great hoofs drummed woodenly.
A dray rattled across the east end of the Square before the City Hall, the old horse leaning back cautiously as he sloped down into the dray market by the oblique cobbled passage at the southeast that cut Gant's shop away from the market and "calaboose." As the car moved eastward again, Gant caught an angular view of Niggertown across this passage. The settlement was plumed delicately with a hundred tiny fumes of smoke.
The car sloped swiftly now down Academy Street, turned, as the upper edge of the negro settlement impinged steeply from the valley upon the white, into Ivy Street, and proceeded north along a street bordered on one side by smutty pebble-dash cottages, and on the other by a grove of lordly oaks, in which the large quaking plaster pile of old Professor Bowman's deserted School for Young Ladies loomed desolately, turning and stopping at the corner, at the top of the Woodson Street hill, by the great wintry, wooden, and deserted barn of the Ivy Hotel. It had never paid.
Gant kneed his heavy bag before him down the passage, depositing it for a moment at the curbing before he descended the hill. The unpaved frozen clay fell steeply and lumpily away. It was steeper, shorter, nearer than he thought. Only the trees looked large. He saw Duncan come out on his porch, shirtsleeved, and pick up the morning paper. Speak to him later. Too long now. As he expected, there was a fat coil of morning smoke above the Scotchman's chimney, but none from his own.
He went down the hill, opening his iron gate softly, and going around to the side entrance by the yard, rather than ascend the steep veranda steps. The grape vines, tough and barren, writhed about the house like sinewy ropes. He entered the sitting-room quietly. There was a strong odor of cold leather. Cold ashes were strewn thinly in the grate. He put his bag down and went back through the wash-room into the kitchen. Eliza, wearing one of his old coats, and a pair of fingerless woollen gloves, poked among the embers of a crawling little fire.
"Well, I'm back," Gant said.
"Why, what on earth!" she cried as he knew she would, becoming flustered and moving her arms indeterminately. He laid his hand clumsily on her shoulder for a moment. They stood awkwardly without movement. Then he seized the oil-can, and drenched the wood with kerosene. The flame roared up out of the stove.
"Mercy, Mr. Gant," cried Eliza, "you'll burn us up!"
But, seizing a handful of cut sticks and the oil-can, he lunged furiously toward the sitting-room.
As the flame shot roaring up from the oiled pine sticks, and he felt the fire-full chimney-throat tremble, he recovered joy. He brought back the width of the desert; the vast yellow serpent of the river, alluvial with the mined accretions of the continent; the rich vision of laden ships, masted above the sea-walls, the world-nostalgic ships, bearing about them the filtered and concentrated odors of the earth, sensual negroid rum and molasses, tar, ripening guavas, bananas, tangerines, pineapples in the warm holds of tropical boats, as cheap, as profuse, as abundant as the lazy equatorial earth and all its women; the great names of Louisiana, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, California; the blasted fiend-world of the desert, and the terrific boles of trees, tunnelled for the passage of a coach; water that fell from a mountain-top in a smoking noiseless coil, internal boiling lakes flung skywards by the punctual respiration of the earth, the multitudinous torture in form of granite oceans, gouged depthlessly by canyons, and iridescent with the daily chameleon-shift beyond man, beyond nature, of terrific colors, below the un-human iridescence of the sky.
Eliza, still excited, recovering speech, followed him into the sitting-room, holding her chapped gloved hands clasped before her stomach while she talked.
"I was saying to Steve last night, 'It wouldn't surprise me if your papa would come rolling in at any minute now' — I just had a feeling, I don't know what you'd call it," she said, her face plucked inward by the sudden fabrication of legend, "but it's pretty strange when you come to think of it. I was in Garret's the other day ordering some things, some vanilla extract, soda and a pound of coffee when Aleck Carter came up to me. 'Eliza,' he said, 'when's Mr. Gant coming back — I think I may have a job for him?' 'Why, Aleck,' I said, 'I don't much expect him before the first of April.' Well, sir, what do you know — I had no sooner got out on the street — I suppose I must have been thinking of something else, because I remember Emma Aldrich came by and hollered to me and I didn't think to answer her until she had gone on by, so I called out just as big as you please to her, 'Emma!' — the thing flashed over me all of a sudden — I was just as sure of it as I'm standing here — 'what do you think? Mr. Gant's on his way back home'."
Jesus God! thought Gant. It's begun again.
Her memory moved over the ocean-bed of event like a great octopus, blindly but completely feeling its way into every seacave, rill, and estuary, focussed on all she had done, felt and thought, with sucking Pentlandian intentness, for whom the sun shone, or grew dark, rain fell, and mankind came, spoke, and died, shifted for a moment in time out of its void into the Pentlandian core, pattern and heart of purpose.
Meanwhile, as he laid big gleaming lumps of coal upon the wood, he muttered to himself, his mind ordering in a mounting sequence, with balanced and climactic periods, his carefully punctuated rhetoric.
Yes, musty cotton, baled and piled under long sheds of railway sidings; and odorous pine woodlands of the level South, saturated with brown faery light, and broken by the tall straight leafless poles of trees; a woman's leg below an elegantly lifted skirt mounting to a carriage in Canal Street (French or Creole probably); a white arm curved reaching for a window shade, French-olive faces window-glimmering, the Georgia doctor's wife who slept above him going out, the unquenchable fish-filled abundance of the unfenced, blue, slow cat-slapping lazy Pacific; and the river, the all-drinking, yellow, slow-surging snake that drained the continent. His life was like that river, rich with its own deposited and onward-borne agglutinations, fecund with its sedimental accretions, filled exhaustlessly by life in order to be more richly itself, and this life, with the great purpose of a river, he emptied now into the harbor of his house, the sufficient haven of himself, for whom the gnarled vines wove round him thrice, the earth burgeoned with abundant fruit and blossom, the fire burnt madly.
"What have you got for breakfast?" he said to Eliza.
"Why," she said, pursing her lips meditatively, "would you like some eggs?"
"Yes," said he, "with a few rashers of bacon and a couple of pork sausages."
He strode across the dining-room and went up the hall.
"Steve! Ben! Luke! You damned scoundrels!" he yelled. "Get up!"
Their feet thudded almost simultaneously upon the floor.
"Papa's home!" they shrieked.
Mr. Duncan watched butter soak through a new-baked roll. He looked through his curtain angularly down, and saw thick acrid smoke biting heavily into the air above Gant's house.
"He's back," said he, with satisfaction.
So, at the moment looking, Tarkinton of the paints said: "W. O.'s back."
Thus came he home, who had put out to land westward, Gant the Far-Wanderer.
Eugene was loose now in the limitless meadows of sensation: his sensory equipment was so complete that at the moment of perception of a single thing, the whole background of color, warmth, odor, sound, taste established itself, so that later, the breath of hot dandelion brought back the grass-warm banks of Spring, a day, a place, the rustling of young leaves, or the page of a book, the thin exotic smell of tangerine, the wintry bite of great apples; or, as with Gulliver's Travels, a bright windy day in March, the spurting moments of warmth, the drip and reek of the earth-thaw, the feel of the fire.
He had won his first release from the fences of home — he was not quite six, when, of his own insistence, he went to school. Eliza did not want him to go, but his only close companion, Max Isaacs, a year his senior, was going, and there was in his heart a constricting terror that he would be left alone again. She told him he could not go: she felt, somehow, that school began the slow, the final loosening of the cords that held them together, but as she saw him slide craftily out the gate one morning in September and run at top speed to the corner where the other little boy was waiting, she did nothing to bring him back. Something taut snapped in her; she remembered his furtive backward glance, and she wept. And she did not weep for herself, but for him: the hour after his birth she had looked in his dark eyes and had seen something that would brood there eternally, she knew, unfathomable wells of remote and intangible loneliness: she knew that in her dark and sorrowful womb a stranger had come to life, fed by the lost communications of eternity, his own ghost, haunter of his own house, lonely to himself and to the world. O lost.
Busy with the ache of their own growing-pains, his brothers and sisters had little time for him: he was almost six years younger than Luke, the youngest of them, but they exerted over him the occasional small cruelties, petty tormentings by elder children of a younger, interested and excited by the brief screaming insanity of his temper when, goaded and taunted from some deep dream, he would seize a carving knife and pursue them, or batter his head against the walls.
They felt that he was "queer" — the other boys preached the smug cowardice of the child-herd, defending themselves, when their persecutions were discovered, by saying they would make a "real boy" of him. But there grew up in him a deep affection for Ben who stalked occasionally and softly through the house, guarding even then with scowling eyes, and surly speech, the secret life. Ben was a stranger: some deep instinct drew him to his child-brother, a portion of his small earnings as a paper-carrier he spent in gifts and amusement for Eugene, admonishing him sullenly, cuffing him occasionally, but defending him before the others.
Gant, as he watched his brooding face set for hours before a firelit book of pictures, concluded that the boy liked books, more vaguely, that he would make a lawyer of him, send him into politics, see him elected to the governorship, the Senate, the presidency. And he unfolded to him time after time all the rude American legendry of the country boys who became great men because they were country boys, poor boys, and hard-working farm boys. But Eliza thought of him as a scholar, a learned man, a professor, and with that convenient afterthought that annoyed Gant so deeply, but by which she firmly convinced herself, she saw in this book-brooder the fruit of her own deliberate design.
"I read every moment I could get the chance the summer before he was born," she said. And then, with a complacent and confidential smile which, Gant knew, always preceded some reference to her family, she said: "I tell you what: it may all come out in the Third Generation."
"The Third Generation be Goddamned!" answered Gant furiously.
"Now, I want to tell you," she went on thoughtfully, speaking with her forefinger, "folks have always said that his grandfather would have made a fine scholar if —"
"Merciful God!" said Gant, getting up suddenly and striding about the room with an ironical laugh. "I might have known that it would come to this! You may be sure," he exclaimed in high excitement, wetting his thumb briefly on his tongue, "that if there's any credit to be given I won't get it. Not from you! You'd rather die than admit it! No, but I'll tell you what you will do! You'll brag about that miserable old freak who never did a hard day's work in his life."
"Now, I wouldn't be so sure of that if I were you," Eliza began, her lips working rapidly.
"Jesus God!" he cried, flinging about the room with his customary indifference to reasoned debate. "Jesus God! What a travesty! A travesty on Nature! Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned!" he exclaimed, indefinitely but violently, and then as he strode about, he gave way to loud, bitter, forced laughter.
Thus, pent in his dark soul, Eugene sat brooding on a fire-lit book, a stranger in a noisy inn. The gates of his life were closing him in from their knowledge, a vast aerial world of fantasy was erecting its fuming and insubstantial fabric. He steeped his soul in streaming imagery, rifling the book-shelves for pictures and finding there such treasures as With Stanley in Africa, rich in the mystery of the jungle, alive with combat, black battle, the hurled spear, vast snake-rooted forests, thatched villages, gold and ivory; or Stoddard's Lectures, on whose slick heavy pages were stamped the most-visited scenes of Europe and Asia; a Book of Wonder, with enchanting drawings of all the marvels of the age — Santos Dumont in his balloon, liquid air poured from a kettle, all the navies of the earth lifted two feet from the water by an ounce of radium (Sir William Crookes), the building of the Eiffel Tower, the Flatiron Building, the stick-steered automobile, the submarine. After the earthquake in San Francisco there was a book describing it, its cheap green cover lurid with crumbling towers, shaken spires, toppling many-storied houses plunging into the splitting flame-jawed earth. And there was another called Palaces of Sin, or The Devil in Society, purporting to be the work of a pious millionaire, who had drained his vast fortune in exposing the painted sores that blemish the spotless-seeming hide of great position, and there were enticing pictures showing the author walking in a silk hat down a street full of magnificent palaces of sin.
Out of this strange jumbled gallery of pictures the pieced-out world was expanding under the brooding power of his imagination: the lost dark angels of the Doré "Milton" swooped into cavernous Hell beyond this upper earth of soaring or toppling spires, machine wonder, maced and mailed romance. And, as he thought of his future liberation into this epic world, where all the color of life blazed brightest far away from home, his heart flooded his face with lakes of blood.
He had heard already the ringing of remote church bells over a country-side on Sunday night; had listened to the earth steeped in the brooding of dark, and the million-noted little night things; and he had heard thus the far retreating wail of a whistle in a distant valley and faint thunder on the rails; and he felt the infinite depth and width of the golden world in the brief seductions of a thousand multiplex and mixed mysterious odors and sensations, weaving, with a blinding interplay and aural explosions, one into the other.
He remembered yet the East India Tea House at the Fair, the sandalwood, the turbans, and the robes, the cool interior and the smell of India tea; and he had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent, the cool clarion earth, the wet loaminess of the garden, the pungent breakfast smells and the floating snow of blossoms. He knew the inchoate sharp excitement of hot dandelions in young Spring grass at noon; the smell of cellars, cobwebs, and built-on secret earth; in July, of watermelons bedded in sweet hay, inside a farmer's covered wagon; of cantaloupe and crated peaches; and the scent of orange rind, bitter-sweet, before a fire of coals. He knew the good male smell of his father's sitting-room; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent; of the blistered varnished wood upon the hearth; of the heated calf-skin bindings; of the flat moist plug of apple tobacco, stuck with a red flag; of wood-smoke and burnt leaves in October; of the brown tired autumn earth; of honeysuckle at night; of warm nasturtiums; of a clean ruddy farmer who comes weekly with printed butter, eggs and milk; of fat limp underdone bacon and of coffee; of a bakery-oven in the wind; of large deephued stringbeans smoking-hot and seasoned well with salt and butter; of a room of old pine boards in which books and carpets have been stored, long closed; of Concord grapes in their long white baskets.
Yes, and the exciting smell of chalk and varnished desks; the smell of heavy bread-sandwiches of cold fried meat and butter; the smell of new leather in a saddler's shop, or of a warm leather chair; of honey and of unground coffee; of barrelled sweet-pickles and cheese and all the fragrant compost of the grocer's; the smell of stored apples in the cellar, and of orchard-apple smells, of pressed-cider pulp; of pears ripening on a sunny shelf, and of ripe cherries stewing with sugar on hot stoves before preserving; the smell of whittled wood, of all young lumber, of sawdust and shavings; of peaches stuck with cloves and pickled in brandy; of pinesap, and green pine-needles; of a horse's pared hoof; of chestnuts roasting, of bowls of nuts and raisins; of hot cracklin, and of young roast pork; of butter and cinnamon melting on hot candied yams.
Yes, and of the rank slow river, and of tomatoes rotten on the vine; the smell of rain-wet plums and boiling quinces; of rotten lily-pads; and of foul weeds rotting in green marsh scum; and the exquisite smell of the South, clean but funky, like a big woman; of soaking trees and the earth after heavy rain.
Yes, and the smell of hot daisy-fields in the morning; of melted puddling-iron in a foundry; the winter smell of horse-warm stables and smoking dung; of old oak and walnut; and the butcher's smell of meat, of strong slaughtered lamb, plump gouty liver, ground pasty sausages, and red beef; and of brown sugar melted with slivered bitter chocolate; and of crushed mint leaves, and of a wet lilac bush; of magnolia beneath the heavy moon, of dogwood and laurel; of an old caked pipe and Bourbon rye, aged in kegs of charred oak; the sharp smell of tobacco; of carbolic and nitric acids; the coarse true smell of a dog; of old imprisoned books; and the cool fernsmell near springs; of vanilla in cake-dough; and of cloven ponderous cheeses.
Yes, and of a hardware store, but mostly the good smell of nails; of the developing chemicals in a photographer's dark-room; and the young-life smell of paint and turpentine; of buckwheat batter and black sorghum; and of a negro and his horse, together; of boiling fudge; the brine smell of pickling vats; and the lush undergrowth smell of southern hills; of a slimy oyster-can, of chilled gutted fish; of a hot kitchen negress; of kerosene and linoleum; of sarsaparilla and guavas; and of ripe autumn persimmons; and the smell of the wind and the rain; and of the acrid thunder; of cold starlight, and the brittle-bladed frozen grass; of fog and the misted winter sun; of seed-time, bloom, and mellow dropping harvest.
And now, whetted intemperately by what he had felt, he began, at school, in that fecund romance, the geography, to breathe the mixed odors of the earth, sensing in every squat keg piled on a pier-head a treasure of golden rum, rich port, fat Burgundy; smelling the jungle growth of the tropics, the heavy odor of plantations, the salt-fish smell of harbors, voyaging in the vast, enchanting, but unperplexing world.
Now the innumerable archipelago had been threaded, and he stood, firm-planted, upon the unknown but waiting continent.
He learned to read almost at once, printing the shapes of words immediately with his strong visual memory; but it was weeks later before he learned to write, or even to copy, words. The ragged spume and wrack of fantasy and the lost world still floated from time to time through his clear schoolday morning brain, and although he followed accurately all the other instruction of his teacher, he was walled in his ancient unknowing world when they made letters. The children made their sprawling alphabets below a line of models, but all he accomplished was a line of jagged wavering spear-points on his sheet, which he repeated endlessly and rapturously, unable to see or understand the difference.
"I have learned to write," he thought.
Then, one day, Max Isaacs looked suddenly, from his exercise, on Eugene's sheet, and saw the jagged line."
That ain't writin'," said he.
And clubbing his pencil in his warted grimy hand, he scrawled a copy of the exercise across the page.
The line of life, that beautiful developing structure of language that he saw flowing from his comrade's pencil, cut the knot in him that all instruction failed to do, and instantly he seized the pencil, and wrote the words in letters fairer and finer than his friend's. And he turned, with a cry in his throat, to the next page, and copied it without hesitation, and the next, the next. They looked at each other a moment with that clear wonder by which children accept miracles, and they never spoke of it again.
"That's writin' now," said Max. But they kept the mystery caged between them.
Eugene thought of this event later; always he could feel the opening gates in him, the plunge of the tide, the escape; but it happened like this one day at once. Still midget-near the live pelt of the earth, he saw many things that he kept in fearful secret, knowing that revelation would be punished with ridicule. One Saturday in Spring, he stopped with Max Isaacs above a deep pit in Central Avenue where city workmen were patching a broken watermain. The clay walls of their pit were much higher than their heads; behind their huddled backs there was a wide fissure, a window in the earth which opened on some dark subterranean passage. And as the boys looked, they gripped each other suddenly, for past the fissure slid the flat head of an enormous serpent; passed, and was followed by a scaled body as thick as a man's; the monster slid endlessly on into the deep earth and vanished behind the working and unwitting men. Shaken with fear they went away, they talked about it then and later in hushed voices, but they never revealed it.
He fell now easily into the School-Ritual; he choked his breakfast with his brothers every morning, gulped scalding coffee, and rushed off at the ominous warning of the final bell, clutching a hot paper-bag of food, already spattered hungrily with grease blots. He pounded along after his brothers, his heart hammering in his throat with excitement and, as he raced into the hollow at the foot of the Central Avenue hill, grew weak with nervousness, as he heard the bell ringing itself to sleep, jerking the slatting rope about in its dying echoes.
Ben, grinning evilly and scowling, would thrust his hand against the small of his back and rush him screaming, but unable to resist the plunging force behind, up the hill.
In a gasping voice he would sing the morning song, coming in pantingly on the last round of a song the quartered class took up at intervals:
"— Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream."
Or, in the frosty Autumn mornings:
"Waken, lords and ladies gay,
On the mountain dawns the day."
Or the Contest of the West Wind and the South Wind. Or the Miller's Song:
"I envy no man, no, not I,
And no one envies me."
He read quickly and easily; he spelled accurately. He did well with figures. But he hated the drawing lesson, although the boxes of crayons and paints delighted him. Sometimes the class would go into the woods, returning with specimens of flowers and leaves — the bitten flaming red of the maple, the brown pine comb, the brown oak leaf. These they would paint; or in Spring a spray of cherry-blossom, a tulip. He sat reverently before the authority of the plump woman who first taught him: he was terrified lest he do anything common or mean in her eyes.
The class squirmed: the little boys invented tortures or scrawled obscenities to the little girls. And the wilder and more indolent seized every chance of leaving the room, thus: "Teacher, may I be excused?" And they would go out into the lavatory, sniggering and dawdling about restlessly.
He could never say it, because it would reveal to her the shame of nature.
Once, deathly sick, but locked in silence and dumb nausea, he had vomited finally upon his cupped hands.
He feared and hated the recess periods, trembled before the brawling confusion of the mob and the playground, but his pride forbade that he skulk within, or secrete himself away from them. Eliza had allowed his hair to grow long; she wound it around her finger every morning into fat Fauntleroy curls; the agony and humiliation it caused him was horrible, but she was unable or unwilling to understand it, and mouth-pursingly thoughtful and stubborn to all solicitation to cut it. She had the garnered curls of Ben, Grover, and Luke stored in tiny boxes: she wept sometimes when she saw Eugene's, they were the symbol of his babyhood to her, and her sad heart, so keen in marking departures, refused to surrender them. Even when his thick locks had become the luxuriant colony of Harry Tarkinton's lice, she would not cut them: she held his squirming body between her knees twice a day and ploughed his scalp with a fine-toothed comb.
As he made to her his trembling passionate entreaties, she would smile with an affectation of patronizing humor, make a bantering humming noise in her throat, and say: "Why, say — you can't grow up yet. You're my baby." Suddenly baffled before the yielding inflexibility of her nature, which could be driven to action only after incessant and maddening prods, Eugene, screaming-mad with helpless fury, would understand the cause of Gant's frenzy.
At school, he was a desperate and hunted little animal. The herd, infallible in its banded instinct, knew at once that a stranger had been thrust into it, and it was merciless at the hunt. As the lunch-time recess came, Eugene, clutching his big grease-stained bag, would rush for the playground pursued by the yelping pack. The leaders, two or three big louts of advanced age and deficient mentality, pressed closely about him, calling out suppliantly, "You know me, 'Gene. You know me"; and still racing for the far end, he would open his bag and hurl to them one of his big sandwiches, which stayed them for a moment, as they fell upon its possessor and clawed it to fragments, but they were upon him in a moment more with the same yelping insistence, hunting him down into a corner of the fence, and pressing in with outstretched paws and wild entreaty. He would give them what he had, sometimes with a momentary gust of fury, tearing away from a greedy hand half of a sandwich and devouring it. When they saw he had no more to give, they went away.
The great fantasy of Christmas still kept him devout. Gant was his unwearied comrade; night after night in the late autumn and early winter, he would scrawl petitions to Santa Claus, listing interminably the gifts he wanted most, and transmitting each, with perfect trust, to the roaring chimney. As the flame took the paper from his hand and blew its charred ghost away with a howl, Gant would rush with him to the window, point to the stormy northern sky, and say: "There it goes! Do you see it?"
He saw it. He saw his prayer, winged with the stanch convoying winds, borne northward to the rimed quaint gables of Toyland, into frozen merry Elfland: heard the tiny silver anvil-tones, the deep-lunged laughter of the little men, the stabled cries of aerial reindeer. Gant saw and heard them, too.
He was liberally dowered with bright-painted gimcracks upon Christmas Day; and in his heart he hated those who advocated "useful" gifts. Gant bought him wagons, sleds, drums, horns — best of all, a small fireman's ladder wagon: it was the wonder, and finally the curse, of the neighborhood. During his unoccupied hours, he lived for months in the cellar with Harry Tarkinton and Max Isaacs: they strung the ladders on wires above the wagon, so that, at a touch, they would fall in accurate stacks. They would pretend to doze in their quarters, as firemen do, would leap to action suddenly, as one of them imitated the warning bell: "Clang-a-lang-a-lang." Then, quite beyond reason, Harry and Max yoked in a plunging team, Eugene in the driver's seat, they would leap out through the narrow door, gallop perilously to a neighbor's house, throw up ladders, open windows, effect entries, extinguish imaginary flames, and return oblivious to the shrieking indictment of the housewife.
For months they lived completely in this fantasy, modelling their actions on those of the town's firemen, and on Jannadeau, who was the assistant chief, child-proud over it: they had seen him, at the sound of the alarm, rush like a madman from his window in Gant's shop, leaving the spattered fragments of a watch upon his desk, and arriving at his duty just as the great wagon hurtled at full speed into the Square. The firemen loved to stage the most daring exhibitions before the gaping citizenry; helmeted magnificently, they hung from the wagons in gymnastic postures, one man holding another over rushing space, while number two caught in mid-air the diving heavy body of the Swiss, who deliberately risked his neck as he leaped for the rail. Thus, for one rapturous moment they stood poised triangularly over rocking speed: the spine of the town was chilled ecstatically.
And when the bells broke through the drowning winds at night, his demon rushed into his heart, bursting all cords that held him to the earth, promising him isolation and dominance over sea and land, inhabitation of the dark: he looked down on the whirling disk of dark forest and field, sloped over singing pines upon a huddled town, and carried its grated guarded fires against its own roofs, swerving and pouncing with his haltered storm upon their doomed and flaming walls, howling with thin laughter above their stricken heads and, fiend-voiced, calling down the bullet wind.
Or, holding in fief the storm and the dark and all the black powers of wizardry, to gaze, ghoul-visaged, through a storm-lashed windowpane, briefly planting unutterable horror in grouped and sheltered life; or, no more than a man, but holding, in your more than mortal heart, demoniac ecstasy, to crouch against a lonely storm-swept house, to gaze obliquely through the streaming glass upon a woman, or your enemy, and while still exulting in your victorious dark all-seeing isolation, to feel a touch upon your shoulder, and to look, haunter-haunted, pursuerpursued, into the green corrupted hell-face of malignant death.
Yes, and a world of bedded women, fair glimmers in the panting darkness, while winds shook the house, and he arrived across the world between the fragrant columns of delight. The great mystery of their bodies groped darkly in him, but he had found there, at the school, instructors to desire — the hair-faced louts of Doubleday. They struck fear and wonder into the hearts of the smaller, gentler boys, for Doubleday was that infested region of the town-grown mountaineers, who lurked viciously through the night, and came at Hallowe'en to break the skulls of other gangs in rock warfare.
There was a boy named Otto Krause, a cheese-nosed, hair-faced, inch-browed German boy, lean and swift in the legs, hoarse-voiced and full of idiot laughter, who showed him the gardens of delight. There was a girl named Bessie Barnes, a black-haired, tall, bold-figured girl of thirteen years who acted as model. Otto Krause was fourteen, Eugene was eight: they were in the third grade. The German boy sat next to him, drew obscenities on his books, and passed his furtive scrawled indecencies across the aisle to Bessie.
And the nymph would answer with a lewd face, and a contemptuous blow against her shapely lifted buttock, a gesture which Otto considered as good as a promise, and which tickled him into hoarse sniggers.
Bessie walked in his brain.
In their furtive moments at school, he and Otto amused each other by drawing obscenities in their geographies, bestowing on the representations of tropical natives sagging breasts and huge organs. And they composed on tiny scraps of paper dirty little rhymes about teachers and principal. Their teacher was a gaunt red-faced spinster, with fierce glaring eyes: Eugene thought always of the soldier and the tinder and the dogs he had to pass, with eyes like saucers, windmills, the moon. Her name was Miss Groody, and Otto, with the idiot vulgarity of little boys, wrote of her:
"Old Miss Groody
Has Good Toody"
And Eugene, directing his fire against the principal, a plump, soft, foppish young man whose name was Armstrong, and who wore always a carnation in his coat, which, after whipping an offending boy, he was accustomed to hold delicately between his fingers, sniffing it with sensitive nostrils and lidded eyes, produced in the first rich joy of creation scores of rhymes, all to the discredit of Armstrong, his parentage, and his relations with Miss Groody.
He was obsessed; he spent the entire day now in the composition of poetry — all bawdy variations of a theme. And he could not bring himself to destroy them. His desk was stuffed with tiny crumpled balls of writing: one day, during the geography lesson, the woman caught him. His bones turned to rubber as she bore down on him glaring, and took from the concealing pages of his book the paper on which he had been writing. At recess she cleared his desk, read the sequence, and, with boding quietness, bade him to see the principal after school.
"What does it mean? What do you reckon it means?" he whispered dryly to Otto Krause.
"Oh, you'll ketch it now!" said Otto Krause, laughing hoarsely.
And the class tormented him slily, rubbing their bottoms when they caught his eye, and making grimaces of agony.
He was sick through to his guts. He had a loathing of physical humiliation which was not based on fear, from which he never recovered. The brazen insensitive spirit of the boys he envied but could not imitate: they would howl loudly under punishment, in order to mitigate it, and they were vaingloriously unconcerned ten minutes later. He did not think he could endure being whipped by the fat young man with the flower: at three o'clock, white-faced, he went to the man's office.
Armstrong, slit-eyed and thin lipped, began to swish the cane he held in his hand through the air as Eugene entered. Behind him, smoothed and flatted on his desk, was stacked the damning pile of rhymed insult.
"Did you write these?" he demanded, narrowing his eyes to little points in order to frighten his victim.
"Yes," said Eugene.
The principal cut the air again with his cane. He had visited Daisy several times, had eaten at Gant's plenteous board. He remembered very well.
"What have I ever done to you, son, that you should feel this way?" he said, with a sudden change of whining magnanimity.
"N-n-nothing," said Eugene.
"Do you think you'll ever do it again?" said he, becoming ominous again.
"N-no, sir," Eugene answered, in the ghost of a voice.
"All right," said God, grandly, throwing away his cane. "You can go."
His legs found themselves only when he had reached the playground.
But oh, the brave autumn and the songs they sang; harvest, and the painting of a leaf; and "half-holiday to-day"; and "up in the air so high"; and the other one about the train — "the stations go whistling past"; the mellow days, the opening gates of desire, the smoky sun, the dropping patter of dead leaves.
"Every little snowflake is different in shape from every other."
"Good grashus! All of them, Miss Pratt?"
"All of the little snowflakes that ever were. Nature never repeats herself."
Ben's beard was growing: he had shaved. He tumbled Eugene on the leather sofa, played with him for hours, scraped his stubble chin against the soft face of his brother. Eugene shrieked.
"When you can do that you'll be a man," said Ben.
And he sang softly, in his thin humming ghost's voice:
"The woodpecker pecked at the schoolhouse door,
He pecked and he pecked till his pecker got sore.
The woodpecker pecked at the schoolhouse bell,
He pecked and he pecked till his pecker got well."
They laughed — Eugene with rocking throatiness, Ben with a quiet snicker. He had aqueous gray eyes, and a sallow bumpy skin. His head was shapely, the forehead high and bony. His hair was crisp, maple-brown. Below his perpetual scowl, his face was small, converging to a point: his extraordinarily sensitive mouth smiled briefly, flickeringly, inwardly — like a flash of light along a blade. And he always gave a cuff instead of a caress: he was full of pride and tenderness.
Yes, and in that month when Prosperpine comes back, and Ceres' dead heart rekindles, when all the woods are a tender smoky blur, and birds no bigger than a budding leaf dart through the singing trees, and when odorous tar comes spongy in the streets, and boys roll balls of it upon their tongues, and they are lumpy with tops and agated marbles; and there is blasting thunder in the night, and the soaking millionfooted rain, and one looks out at morning on a stormy sky, a broken wrack of cloud; and when the mountain boy brings water to his kinsmen laying fence, and as the wind snakes through the grasses hears far in the valley below the long wail of the whistle, and the faint clangor of a bell; and the blue great cup of the hills seems closer, nearer, for he had heard an inarticulate promise: he has been pierced by Spring, that sharp knife.
And life unscales its rusty weathered pelt, and earth wells out in tender exhaustless strength, and the cup of a man's heart runs over with dateless expectancy, tongueless promise, indefinable desire. Something gathers in the throat, something blinds him in the eyes, and faint and valorous horns sound through the earth.
The little girls trot pigtailed primly on their dutiful way to school; but the young gods loiter: they hear the reed, the oatenstop, the running goat-hoofs in the spongy wood, here, there, everywhere: they dawdle, listen, fleetest when they wait, go vaguely on to their one fixed home, because the earth is full of ancient rumor and they cannot find the way. All of the gods have lost the way.
But they guarded what they had against the barbarians. Eugene, Max, and Harry ruled their little neighborhood: they made war upon the negroes and the Jews, who amused them, and upon the Pigtail Alley people, whom they hated and despised. Catlike they prowled about in the dark promise of night, sitting at times upon a wall in the exciting glare of the corner lamp, which flared gaseously, winking noisily from time to time.
Or, crouched in the concealing shrubbery of Gant's yard, they waited for romantic negro couples climbing homewards, jerking by a cord, as their victims came upon the spot, a stuffed black snake-appearing stocking. And the dark was shrill with laughter as the loud rich comic voices stammered, stopped, and screamed.
Or they stoned the cycling black boy of the markets, as he swerved down gracefully into an alley. Nor did they hate them: clowns are black. They had learned, as well, that it was proper to cuff these people kindly, curse them cheerfully, feed them magnanimously. Men are kind to a faithful wagging dog, but he must not walk habitually upon two legs. They knew that they must "take nothin' off a nigger," and that the beginnings of argument could best be scotched with a club and a broken head. Only, you couldn't break a nigger's head.
They spat joyously upon the Jews. Drown a Jew and hit a nigger.
The boys would wait on the Jews, follow them home shouting "Goose Grease! Goose Grease!" which, they were convinced, was the chief staple of Semitic diet; or with the blind acceptance of little boys of some traditional, or mangled, or imaginary catchword of abuse, they would yell after their muttering and tormented victim: "Veeshamadye Veeshamadye!" confident that they had pronounced the most unspeakable, to Jewish ears, of affronts.
Eugene had no interest in pogroms, but it was a fetich with Max. The chief object of their torture was a little furtive-faced boy, whose name was Isaac Lipinski. They pounced cattishly at him when he appeared, harried him down alleys, over fences, across yards, into barns, stables, and his own house; he moved with amazing speed and stealth, escaping fantastically, teasing them to the pursuit, thumbing his fingers at them, and grinning with wide Kike constant derision.
Or, steeped catlike in the wickedness of darkness, adrift in the brooding promise of the neighborhood, they would cluster silently under a Jew's home, grouped in a sniggering huddle as they listened to the rich excited voices, the throaty accentuation of the women; or convulsed at the hysterical quarrels which shook the Jew-walls almost nightly.
Once, shrieking with laughter, they followed a running fight through the streets between a young Jew and his father-in-law, in which each was pursued and pummelled, or pursuing and pummelling; and on the day when Louis Greenberg, a pale Jew returned from college, had killed himself by drinking carbolic acid, they stood curiously outside the dingy wailing house, shaken by sudden glee as they saw his father, a bearded orthodox old Jew, clothed in rusty, greasy black, and wearing a scarred derby, approach running up the hill to his home, shaking his hands in the air, and wailing rhythmically:
"Oi, yoi yoi yoi yoi,
Oi yoi yoi yoi yoi,
Oi yoi yoi yoi yoi."
But the whiteheaded children of Pigtail Alley they hated without humor, without any mitigation of a most bitter and alienate hate. Pigtail Alley was a muddy rut which sprawled down hill off the lower end of Woodson Street, ending vaguely in the rank stench of a green-scummed marsh bottom. On one side of this vile road there was a ragged line of whitewashed shacks, inhabited by poor whites, whose children were almost always white-haired, and who, snuff-mouthed bony women, and tobacco-jawed men, sprawled stupidly in the sun-stench of their rude wide-boarded porches. At night a smoky lamp burned dismally in the dark interiors, there was a smell of frying cookery and of unclean flesh, strident rasping shrews' cries, the drunken maniacal mountain drawl of men: a scream and a curse.
Once, in the cherry time, when Gant's great White Wax was loaded with its clusters, and the pliant and enduring boughs were dotted thickly by the neighbor children, Jews and Gentiles alike, who had been herded under the captaincy of Luke, and picked one quart of every four for their own, one of these white-haired children had come doubtfully, mournfully, up the yard.
"All right, son," Luke, who was fifteen, called out in his hearty voice. "Get a basket and come on up."
The child came up the gummed trunk like a cat: Eugene rocked from the slender spiral topmost bough, exulting in his lightness, the tree's resilient strength, and the great morning-clarion fragrant backyard world. The Alley picked his bucket with miraculous speed, skinned spryly to the ground and emptied it into the heaping pan, and was halfway up the trunk again when his gaunt mother streaked up the yard toward him.
"You, Reese," she shrilled, "what're you doin' hyar?" She jerked him roughly to the ground and cut across his brown legs with a switch. He howled.r
"You git along home," she ordered, giving him another cut.
She drove him along, upbraiding him in her harsh voice, cutting him sharply with the switch from moment to moment when, desperate with pride and humiliation, he slackened his retreat to a slow walk, or balked mulishly, howling again, and speeding a few paces on his short legs, when cut by the switch.
The treed boys sniggered, but Eugene, who had seen the pain upon the gaunt hard face of the woman, the furious pity of her blazing eyes, felt something open and burst stabbingly in him like an abscess.
"He left his cherries," he said to his brother.
Or, they jeered Loney Shytle, who left a stale sharp odor as she passed, her dirty dun hair covered in a wide plumed hat, her heels out of her dirty white stockings. She had caused incestuous rivalry between her father and her brother, she bore the scar of her mother's razor in her neck, and she walked, in her rundown shoes, with the wide stifflegged hobble of disease.
One day as they pressed round a trapped alley boy, who backed slowly, fearfully, resentfully into a reeking wall, Willie Isaacs, the younger brother of Max, pointing with sniggering laughter, said:
"His mother takes in washin'."
And then, almost bent double by a soaring touch of humor, he added:
"His mother takes in washin' from an ole nigger."
Harry Tarkinton laughed hoarsely. Eugene turned away indefinitely, craned his neck convulsively, lifted one foot sharply from the ground.
"She don't!" he screamed suddenly into their astounded faces. "She don't!"
Harry Tarkinton's parents were English. He was three or four years older than Eugene, an awkward, heavy, muscular boy, smelling always of his father's paints and oils, coarse-featured, meaty sloping jaw and a thick catarrhal look about his nose and mouth. He was the breaker of visions; the proposer of iniquities. In the cool thick evening grass of Gant's yard one sunset, he smashed forever, as they lay there talking, the enchantment of Christmas; but he brought in its stead the smell of paint, the gaseous ripstink, the unadorned, sweating, and imageless passion of the vulgar. But Eugene couldn't follow his barn-yard passion: the strong hen-stench, the Tarkintonian paint-smell, and the rank-mired branch-smell which mined under the filthy shambles of the backyard, stopped him.
Once, in the deserted afternoon, as he and Harry plundered through the vacant upper floor of Gant's house, they found a half-filled bottle of hair-restorer.
"Have you any hairs on your belly?" said Harry.
Eugene hemmed; hinted timidly at shagginess; confessed. They undid their buttons, smeared oily hands upon their bellies, and waited through rapturous days for the golden fleece.
"Hair makes a man of you," said Harry.
More often, as Spring deepened, he went now to Gant's shop on the Square. He loved the scene: the bright hill-cooled sun, the blown sheets of spray from the fountain, the garrulous firemen emerging from the winter, the lazy sprawling draymen on his father's wooden steps, snaking their whips deftly across the pavement, wrestling in heavy horseplay, Jannadeau in his dirty fly-specked window prying with delicate monocled intentness into the entrails of a watch, the reeking mossiness of Gant's fantastical brick shack, the great interior dustiness of the main room in front, sagging with gravestones — small polished slabs from Georgia, blunt ugly masses of Vermont granite, modest monuments with an urn, a cherub figure, or a couchant lamb, ponderous fly-specked angels from Carrara in Italy which he bought at great cost, and never sold — they were the joy of his heart.
Behind a wooden partition was his ware-room, layered with stone-dust — coarse wooden trestles on which he carved inscriptions, stacked tool-shelves filled with chisels, drills, mallets, a pedalled emery wheel which Eugene worked furiously for hours, exulting in its mounting roar, piled sandstone bases, a small heat-blasted cast-iron stove, loose piled coal and wood.
Between the workroom and the ware-room, on the left as one entered, was Gant's office, a small room, deep in the dust of twenty years, with an old-fashioned desk, sheaves of banded dirty papers, a leather sofa, a smaller desk layered with round and square samples of marble and granite. The dirty window, which was never opened, looked out on the sloping market Square, pocketed obliquely off the public Square, and filled with the wagons of draymen and county peddlers, and on the lower side on a few Poor White houses and on the warehouse and office of Will Pentland.
Eugene would find his father, leaning perilously on Jannadeau's dirty glass showcase, or on the creaking little fence that marked him off, talking politics, war, death, and famine, denouncing the Democrats, with references to the bad weather, taxation, and soup-kitchens that attended their administration, and eulogizing all the acts, utterances, and policies of Theodore Roosevelt. Jannadeau, guttural, judiciously reasonable, statistically argumentative, would consult, in all disputed areas, his library — a greasy edition of the World Almanac, three years old, saying, triumphantly, after a moment of dirty thumbing: "Ah — just as I thought: the municipal taxation of Milwaukee under Democratic administration in 1905 was $2.25 the hundred, the lowest it had been in years. I cannot imagine why the total revenue is not given." And he would argue with animation, picking his nose with his blunt black fingers, his broad yellow face breaking into flaccid creases, as he laughed gutturally at Gant's unreason.
"And you may mark my words," proceeded Gant, as if he had never been interrupted, and had heard no dissenting judgment, "if they get in again we'll have soup-kitchens, the banks will go to the wall, and your guts will grease your backbone before another winter's over."
Or, he would find his father in the workroom, bending over a trestle, using the heavy wooden mallet with delicate care, as he guided the chisel through the mazes of an inscription. He never wore work-clothes; he worked dressed in well brushed garments of heavy black, his coat removed, and a long striped apron covering all his front. As Eugene saw him, he felt that this was no common craftsman, but a master, picking up his tools briefly for a chef-d'oeuvre.
"He is better at this than any one in all the world," Eugene thought, and his dark vision burned in him for a moment, as he thought that his father's work would never, as men reckon years, be extinguished, but that when that great skeleton lay powdered in earth, in many a tangled undergrowth, in the rank wilderness of forgotten churchyards, these letters would endure.
And he thought with pity of all the grocers and brewers and clothiers who had come and gone, with their perishable work a forgotten excrement, or a rotted fabric; or of plumbers, like Max's father, whose work rusted under ground, or of painters, like Harry's, whose work scaled with the seasons, or was obliterated with newer brighter paint; and the high horror of death and oblivion, the decomposition of life, memory, desire, in the huge burial-ground of the earth stormed through his heart. He mourned for all the men who had gone because they had not scored their name upon a rock, blasted their mark upon a cliff, sought out the most imperishable objects of the world and graven there some token, some emblem that utterly they might not be forgotten.
Again, Eugene would find Gant moving with bent strides across the depth of the building, tearing madly along between the sentinel marbles that aisled the ware-room, muttering, with hands gripped behind him, with ominous ebb and flow. Eugene waited. Presently, when he had shuttled thus across his shop some eighty times, he would leap, with a furious howl, to his front door, storming out upon the porch, and delivering his Jeremiad to the offending draymen:
"You are the lowest of the low, the vilest of the vile. You lousy good-for-nothing bums: you have brought me to the verge of starvation, you have frightened away the little business that might have put bread in my mouth, and kept the wolf from my door. By God, I hate you, for you stink a mile off. You low degenerates, you accursed reprobates; you would steal the pennies from a dead man's eyes, as you have from mine, fearful, awful, and bloodthirsty mountain grills that you are!"
He would tear back into the shop muttering, to return almost at once, with a strained pretense at calmness, which ended in a howl:
"Now I want to tell you: I give you fair warning once and for all. If I find you on my steps again, I'll put you all in jail."
They would disperse sheepishly to their wagons, flicking their whips aimlessly along the pavements.
"By God, somethin's sure upset the ole man."
An hour later, like heavy buzzing flies, they would drift back settling from nowhere on the broad steps.
As he emerged from the shop into the Square, they would greet him cheerfully, with a certain affection.
"'Day, Mr. Gant."
"Good day, boys," he would answer kindly, absently. And he would be away with his gaunt devouring strides.
As Eugene entered, if Gant were busy on a stone, he would say gruffly, "Hello, son," and continue with his work, until he had polished the surface of the marble with pumice and water. Then he would take off his apron, put on his coat, and say, to the dawdling, expectant boy: "Come on. I guess you're thirsty."
And they would go across the Square to the cool depth of the drugstore, stand before the onyx splendor of the fountain, under the revolving wooden fans, and drink chill gaseous beverages, limeade so cold it made the head ache, or foaming ice-cream soda, which returned in sharp delicious belches down his tender nostrils.
Eugene, richer by twenty-five cents, would leave Gant then, and spend the remainder of the day in the library on the Square. He read now rapidly and easily; he read romantic and adventurous novels, with a tearing hunger. At home he devoured Luke's piled shelves of five cent novels: he was deep in the weekly adventures of Young Wild West, fantasied in bed at night of virtuous and heroic relations with the beautiful Arietta, followed Nick Carter, through all the mazes of metropolitan crime, Frank Merriwell's athletic triumphs, Fred Fearnot, and the interminable victories of The Liberty Boys of'76 over the hated Redcoats.
He cared not so much for love at first as he did for material success: the straw figures of women in boys' books, something with hair, dancing eyes, and virtuous opinions, impeccably good and vacant, satisfied him completely: they were the guerdon of heroism, something to be freed from villainy on the nick by a blow or a shot, and to be enjoyed along with a fat income.
At the library he ravaged the shelves of boys' books, going unweariedly through all the infinite monotony of the Algers — Pluck and Luck, Sink or Swim, Grit, Jack's Ward, Jed the Poor-house Boy — and dozens more. He gloated over the fat money-getting of these books (a motif in boys' books that has never been sufficiently recognized); all of the devices of fortune, the loose rail, the signalled train, the rich reward for heroism; or the full wallet found and restored to its owner; or the value of the supposedly worthless bonds; or the discovery of a rich patron in the city, sunk so deeply into his desires that he was never after able to quench them.
And all the details of money — the value of the estate usurped by the scoundrelly guardian and his caddish son, he feasted upon, reckoning up the amount of income, if it were not given, or if it were, dividing the annual sum into monthly and weekly portions, and dreaming on its purchasing power. His desires were not modest — no fortune under $250,000 satisfied him: the income of $100,000 at six per cent would pinch one, he felt, from lavishness; and if the reward of virtue was only twenty thousand dollars, he felt bitter chagrin, reckoning life insecure, and comfort a present warmth.
He built up a constant exchange of books among his companions, borrowing and lending in an intricate web, from Max Isaacs, from "Nosey" Schmidt, the butcher's son, who had all the rich adventures of the Rover Boys; he ransacked Gant's shelves at home, reading translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey at the same time as Diamond Dick, Buffalo Bill, and the Algers, and for the same reason; then, as the first years waned and the erotic gropings became more intelligible, he turned passionately to all romantic legendry, looking for women in whom blood ran hotly, whose breath was honey, and whose soft touch a spurting train of fire.
And in this pillage of the loaded shelves, he found himself wedged firmly into the grotesque pattern of Protestant fiction which yields the rewards of Dionysus to the loyal disciples of John Calvin, panting and praying in a breath, guarding the plumtree with the altar fires, outdoing the pagan harlot with the sanctified hussy.
Aye, thought he, he would have his cake and eat it too — but it would be a wedding-cake. He was devout in his desire to be a good man; he would bestow the accolade of his love upon nothing but a Virgin; he would marry himself to none but a Pure Woman. This, he saw from the books, would cause no renunciation of delight, for the good women were physically the most attractive.
He had learned unknowingly what the exquisite voluptuary finds, after weary toil, much later — that no condition of life is so favorable to his enjoyment as that one which is rigidly conventionalized. He had all the passionate fidelity of a child to the laws of the community: all the filtered deposit of Sunday Morning Presbyterianism had its effect.
He entombed himself in the flesh of a thousand fictional heroes, giving his favorites extension in life beyond their books, carrying their banners into the gray places of actuality, seeing himself now as the militant young clergyman, arrayed, in his war on slum conditions, against all the moneyed hostility of his fashionable church, aided in his hour of greatest travail by the lovely daughter of the millionaire tenement owner, and winning finally a victory for God, the poor, and himself.
...They stood silently a moment in the vast deserted nave of Saint Thomas'. Far in the depth of the vast church Old Michael's slender hands pressed softly on the organ-keys. The last rays of the setting sun poured in a golden shaft down through the western windows, falling for a moment, in a cloud of glory, as if in benediction, on Mainwaring's tired face.
"I am going," he said presently.
"Going?" she whispered. "Where?"
The organ music deepened.
"Out there," he gestured briefly to the West. "Out there — among His people."
"Going?" She could not conceal the tremor of her voice. "Going? Alone?"
He smiled sadly. The sun had set. The gathering darkness hid the suspicious moisture in his gray eyes.
"Yes, alone," he said. "Did not One greater than I go out alone some nineteen centuries ago?"
"Alone? Alone?" A sob rose in her throat and choked her.
"But before I go," he said, after a moment, in a voice which he strove in vain to render steady, "I want to tell you —" He paused a moment, struggling for mastery of his feelings.
"Yes?" she whispered.
"— That I shall never forget you, little girl, as long as I live. Never." He turned abruptly to depart.
"No, not alone! You shall not go alone!" she stopped him with a sudden cry.
He whirled as if he had been shot.
"What do you mean? What do you mean?" he cried hoarsely.
"Oh, can't you see! Can't you see!" She threw out her little hands imploringly, and her voice broke.
"Grace! Grace! Dear heaven, do you mean it!"
"You silly man! Oh, you dear blind foolish boy! Haven't you known for ages — since the day I first heard you preach at the Murphy Street settlement?"
He crushed her to him in a fierce embrace; her slender body yielded to his touch as he bent over her; and her round arms stole softly across his broad shoulders, around his neck, drawing his dark head to her as he planted hungry kisses on her closed eyes, the column of her throat, the parted petal of her fresh young lips.
"Forever," he answered solemnly. "So help me God."
The organ music swelled now into a triumphant paean, filling with its exultant melody the vast darkness of the church. And as Old Michael cast his heart into the music, the tears flowed unrestrained across his withered cheeks, but smilingly happily through his tears, as dimly through his old eyes he saw the two young figures enacting again the age-old tale of youth and love, he murmured,
"I am the resurrection and the life, Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end"...
Eugene turned his wet eyes to the light that streamed through the library windows, winked rapidly, gulped, and blew his nose heavily. Ah, yes! Ah, yes!
...The band of natives, seeing now that they had no more to fear, and wild with rage at the losses they had suffered, began to advance slowly toward the foot of the cliff, led by Taomi, who, dancing with fury, and hideous with warpaint, urged them on, exhorting them in a shrill voice.
Glendenning cursed softly under his breath as he looked once more at the empty cartridge belts, then grimly, as he gazed at the yelling horde below, slipped his two remaining cartridges into his Colt.
"For us ?" she said, quietly. He nodded?
"It is the end?" she whispered, but without a trace of fear.
Again he nodded, and turned his head away for a moment. Presently he lifted his gray face to her.
"It is death, Veronica," he said, "and now I may speak."
"Yes, Bruce," she answered softly.
It was the first time he had ever heard her use his name, and his heart thrilled to it.
"I love you, Veronica," he said. "I have loved you ever since I found your almost lifeless body on the beach, during all the nights I lay outside your tent, listening to your quiet breathing within, love you most of all now in this hour of death when the obligation to keep silence no longer rests upon me."
"Dearest, dearest," she whispered, and he saw her face was wet with tears. "Why didn't you speak? I have loved you from the first."
She leaned toward him, her lips half-parted and tremulous, her breathing short and uncertain, and as his bare arms circled her fiercely their lips met in one long moment of rapture, one final moment of life and ecstasy, in which all the pent longing of their lives found release and consummation now at this triumphant moment of their death.
A distant reverberation shook the air. Glendenning looked up quickly, and rubbed his eyes with astonishment. There, in the island's little harbor were turning slowly the lean sides of a destroyer, and even as he looked, there was another burst of flame and smoke, and a whistling fiveinch shell burst forty yards from where the natives had stopped. With a yell of mingled fear and baffled rage, they turned and fled off toward their canoes. Already, a boat, manned by the lusty arms of a blue-jacketed crew, had put off from the destroyer's side, and was coming in toward shore.
"Saved! We are saved!" cried Glendenning, and leaping to his feet he signalled the approaching boat. Suddenly he paused.
"Damn!" he muttered bitterly. "Oh, damn!"
"What is it, Bruce?" she asked.
He answered her in a cold harsh voice.
"A destroyer has just entered the harbor. We are saved, Miss Mullins. Saved!" And he laughed bitterly.
"Bruce! Dearest! What is it? Aren't you glad? Why do you act so strangely? We shall have all our life together."
"Together?" he said, with a harsh laugh. "Oh no, Miss Mullins. I know my place. Do you think old J. T. Mullins would let his daughter marry Bruce Glendenning, international vagabond, jack of all trades, and good at none of them? Oh no. That's over now, and it's good-by. I suppose," he said, with a wry smile, "I'll hear of your marriage to some Duke or Lord, or some of those foreigners some day. Well, good-by, Miss Mullins. Good luck. We'll both have to go our own way, I suppose." He turned away.
"You foolish boy! You dear bad silly boy!" She threw her arms around his neck, clasped him to her tightly, and scolded him tenderly. "Do you think I'll ever let you leave me now?"
"Veronica," he gasped. "Do you mean it?"
She tried to meet his adoring eyes, but couldn't: a rich wave of rosy red mantled her cheek, he drew her rapturously to him and, for the second time, but this time with the prophecy of eternal and abundant life before them, their lips met in sweet oblivion...
Ah, me! Ah, me! Eugene's heart was filled with joy and sadness — with sorrow because the book was done. He pulled his clotted handkerchief from his pocket and blew the contents of his loaded heart into it in one mighty, triumphant and ecstatic blast of glory and sentiment. Ah, me! Good old Bruce-Eugene.
Lifted, by his fantasy, into a high interior world, he scored off briefly and entirely all the grimy smudges of life: he existed nobly in a heroic world with lovely and virtuous creatures. He saw himself in exalted circumstances with Bessie Barnes, her pure eyes dim with tears, her sweet lips tremulous with desire: he felt the strong handgrip of Honest Jack, her brother, his truehearted fidelity, the deep eternal locking of their brave souls, as they looked dumbly at each other with misty eyes, and thought of the pact of danger, the shoulder-to-shoulder drive through death and terror which had soldered them silently but implacably.
Eugene wanted the two things all men want: he wanted to be loved, and he wanted to be famous. His fame was chameleon, but its fruit and triumph lay at home, among the people of Altamont. The mountain town had for him enormous authority: with a child's egotism it was for him the centre of the earth, the small but dynamic core of all life. He saw himself winning Napoleonic triumphs in battle, falling, with his fierce picked men, like a thunderbolt upon an enemy's flank, trapping, hemming, and annihilating. He saw himself as the young captain of industry, dominant, victorious, rich; as the great criminal-lawyer bending to his eloquence a charmed court — but always he saw his return from the voyage wearing the great coronal of the world upon his modest brows.
The world was a phantasmal land of faery beyond the misted hem of the hills, a land of great reverberations, of genii-guarded orchards, winedark seas, chasmed and fantastical cities from which he would return into this substantial heart of life, his native town, with golden loot.
He quivered deliciously to temptation — he kept his titillated honor secure after subjecting it to the most trying inducements: the groomed beauty of the rich man's wife, publicly humiliated by her brutal husband, defended by Bruce-Eugene, and melting toward him with all the pure ardor of her lonely and womanly heart, pouring the sad measure of her life into his sympathetic ears over the wineglasses of her candled, rich, but intimate table. And as, in the shaded light, she moved yearningly toward him, sheathed plastically in her gown of rich velvet, he would detach gently the round arms that clung about his neck, the firm curved body that stuck gluily to his. Or the blonde princess in the fabulous Balkans, the empress of gabled Toyland, and the Doll Hussars-he would renounce, in a great scene upon the frontiers, her proffered renunciation, drinking eternal farewell on her red mouth, but wedding her to himself and to the citizenship of freedom when revolution had levelled her fortune to his own.
But, steeping himself in ancient myths, where the will and the deed were not thought darkly on, he spent himself, quilted in golden meadows, or in the green light of woods, in pagan love. Oh to be king, and see a fruity wide-hipped Jewess bathing on her roof, and to possess her; or a cragged and castled baron, to execute le droit de seigneur upon the choicest of the enfeoffed wives and wenches, in a vast chamber loud with the howling winds and lighted by the mad dancing flames of great logs!
But even more often, the shell of his morality broken to fragments by his desire, he would enact the bawdy fable of school-boys, and picture himself in hot romance with a handsome teacher. In the fourth grade his teacher was a young, inexperienced, but well-built woman, with carrot-colored hair, and full of reckless laughter.
He saw himself, grown to the age of potency, a strong, heroic, brilliant boy, the one spot of incandescence in a backwoods school attended by snag-toothed children and hair-faced louts. And, as the mellow autumn ripened, her interest in him would intensify, she would "keep him in" for imaginary offenses, setting him, in a somewhat confused way, to do some task, and gazing at him with steady yearning eyes when she thought he was not looking.
He would pretend to be stumped by the exercise: she would come eagerly and sit beside him, leaning over so that a few fine strands of carrot-colored hair brushed his nostrils, and so that he might feel the firm warmth of her white-waisted arms, and the swell of her tightskirted thighs. She would explain things to him at great length, guiding his fingers with her own warm, slightly moist hand, when he pretended not to find the place; then she would chide him gently, saying tenderly:
"Why are you such a bad boy?" or softly: "Do you think you're going to be better after this?"
And he, simulating boyish, inarticulate coyness, would say: "Gosh, Miss Edith, I didn't mean to do nothin'."
Later, as the golden sun was waning redly, and there was nothing in the room but the smell of chalk and the heavy buzz of the old October flies, they would prepare to depart. As he twisted carelessly into his overcoat, she would chide him, call him to her, arrange the lapels and his necktie, and smooth out his tousled hair, saying:
"You're a good-looking boy. I bet all the girls are wild about you."
He would blush in a maidenly way and she, bitten with curiosity, would press him:
"Come on, now. Who's your girl?"
"I haven't got one, honest, Miss Edith."
"You don't want one of these silly little girls, Eugene," she would say, coaxingly. "You're too good for them — you're a great deal older than your years. You need the understanding a mature woman can give you."
And they would walk away in the setting sun, skirting the pine-fresh woods, passing along the path red with maple leaves, past great ripening pumpkins in the fields, and under the golden autumnal odor of persimmons.
She would live alone with her mother, an old deaf woman, in a little cottage set back from the road against a shelter of lonely singing pines, with a few grand oaks and maples in the leaf-bedded yard.
Before they came to the house, crossing a field, it would be necessary to go over a stile; he would go over first, helping her down, looking ardently at the graceful curve of her long, deliberately exposed, silk-clad leg.
As the days shortened, they would come by dark, or under the heavy low-hanging autumnal moon. She would pretend to be frightened as they passed the woods, press in to him and take his arm at imaginary sounds, until one night, crossing the stile, boldly resolved upon an issue, she would pretend difficulty in descending, and he would lift her down in his arms. She would whisper:
"How strong you are, Eugene." Still holding her, his hand would shift under her knees. And as he lowered her upon the frozen clotted earth, she would kiss him passionately, again and again, pressing him to her, caressing him, and under the frosted persimmon tree fulfilling and yielding herself up to his maiden and unfledged desire.
"That boy's read books by the hundreds," Gant boasted about the town. "He's read everything in the library by now."
"By God, W. O., you'll have to make a lawyer out of him. That's what he's cut out for." Major Liddell spat accurately, out of his high cracked voice, across the pavement, and settled back in his chair below the library windows, smoothing his stained white pointed beard with a palsied hand. He was a veteran.
But this freedom, this isolation in print, this dreaming and unlimited time of fantasy, was not to last unbroken. Both Gant and Eliza were fluent apologists for economic independence: all the boys had been sent out to earn money at a very early age.
"It teaches a boy to be independent and self-reliant," said Gant, feeling he had heard this somewhere before.
"Pshaw!" said Eliza. "It won't do them a bit of harm. If they don't learn now, they won't do a stroke of work later on. Besides, they can earn their own pocket money." This, undoubtedly, was a consideration of the greatest importance.
Thus, the boys had gone out to work, after school hours, and in the vacations, since they were very young. Unhappily, neither Eliza nor Gant were at any pains to examine the kind of work their children did, contenting themselves vaguely with the comfortable assurance that all work which earned money was honest, commendable, and formative of character.
By this time Ben, sullen, silent, alone, had withdrawn more closely than ever into his heart: in the brawling house he came and went, and was remembered, like a phantom. Each morning at three o'clock, when his fragile unfurnished body should have been soaked in sleep, he got up under the morning stars, departed silently from the sleeping house, and went down to the roaring morning presses and the inksmell that he loved, to begin the delivery of his route. Almost without consideration by Gant and Eliza he slipped quietly away from school after the eighth grade, took on extra duties at the paper's office and lived, in sufficient bitter pride, upon his earnings. He slept at home, ate perhaps one meal a day there, loping home gauntly at night, with his father's stride, thin long shoulders, bent prematurely by the weight of the heavy paper bag, pathetically, hungrily Gantian.
He bore encysted in him the evidence of their tragic fault: he walked alone in the darkness, death and the dark angels hovered, and no one saw him. At three-thirty in the morning, with his loaded bag beside him, he sat with other route boys in a lunch room, with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, laughing softly, almost noiselessly, with his flickering exquisitely sensitive mouth, his scowling gray eyes.
At home he spent hours quietly absorbed in his life with Eugene, playing with him, cuffing him with his white hard hands from time to time, establishing with him a secret communication to which the life of the family had neither access nor understanding. From his small wages he gave the boy sums of spending-money, bought him expensive presents on his birthdays, at Christmas, or some special occasion, inwardly moved and pleased when he saw how like Mæcenas he seemed to Eugene, how deep and inexhaustible to the younger boy were his meagre resources. What he earned, all the history of his life away from home, he kept in jealous secrecy.
"It's nobody's business but my own. By God, I'm not asking any of you for anything," he said, sullenly and irritably, when Eliza pressed him curiously. He had a deep scowling affection for them all: he never forgot their birthdays, he always placed where they might find it, some gift, small, inexpensive, selected with the most discriminating taste. When, with their fervent over-emphasis, they went through long ecstasies of admiration, embroidering their thanks with florid decorations, he would jerk his head sideways to some imaginary listener, laughing softly and irritably, as he said:
"Oh for God's sake! Listen to this, won't you!"
Perhaps, as pigeon-toed, well creased, brushed, white-collared, Ben loped through the streets, or prowled softly and restlessly about the house, his dark angel wept, but no one else saw, and no one knew. He was a stranger, and as he sought through the house, he was always aprowl to find some entrance into life, some secret undiscovered door — a stone, a leaf, — that might admit him into light and fellowship. His passion for home was fundamental, in that jangled and clamorous household his sullen and contained quiet was like some soothing opiate on their nerves: with quiet authority, white-handed skill, he sought about repairing old scars, joining with delicate carpentry old broken things, prying quietly about a short-circuited wire, a defective socket.
"That boy's a born electrical engineer," said Gant. "I've a good notion to send him off to school." And he would paint a romantic picture of the prosperity of Mr. Charles Liddell, the Major's worthy son, who earned thousands by his electrical wizardry, and supported his father. And he would reproach them bitterly, as he dwelt on his own merit and the worthlessness of his sons:
"Other men's sons support their fathers in their old age — not mine! Not mine! Ah Lord — it will be a bitter day for me when I have to depend on one of mine. Tarkinton told me the other day that Rafe has given him five dollars a week for his food ever since he was sixteen. Do you think I could look for such treatment from one of mine? Do you? Not until Hell freezes over — and not then!" And he would refer to the hardships of his own youth, cast out, so he said, to earn his living, at an age which varied, according to his temper, at from six to eleven years, contrasting his poverty to the luxury in which his own children wallowed.
"No one ever did anything for me," he howled. "But everything's been done for you. And what gratitude do I get from you? Do you ever think of the old man who slaves up there in his cold shop in order to give you food and shelter? Do you? Ingratitude, more fierce than brutish beasts!" Remorseful food stuck vengefully in Eugene's throat.
Eugene was initiated to the ethics of success. It was not enough that a man work, though work was fundamental; it was even more important that he make money — a great deal if he was to be a great success-but at least enough to "support himself." This was for both Gant and Eliza the base of worth. Of so and so, they might say:
"He's not worth powder enough to kill him. He's never been able to support himself," to which Eliza, but not Gant, might add:
"He hasn't a stick of property to his name." This crowned him with infamy.
In the fresh sweet mornings of Spring now, Eugene was howled out of bed at six-thirty by his father, descended to the cool garden, and there, assisted by Gant, filled small strawberry baskets with great crinkled lettuces, radishes, plums, and green apples — somewhat later, with cherries. With these packed in a great hamper, he would peddle his wares through the neighborhood, selling them easily and delightfully, in a world of fragrant morning cookery, at five or ten cents a basket. He would return home gleefully with empty hamper in time for breakfast: he liked the work, the smell of gardens, of fresh wet vegetables; he loved the romantic structure of the earth which filled his pocket with chinking coins.
He was permitted to keep the money of his sales, although Eliza was annoyingly insistent that he should not squander it, but open a bank account with it with which, one day, he might establish himself in business, or buy a good piece of property. And she bought him a little bank, into which his reluctant fingers dropped a portion of his earnings, and from which he got a certain dreary satisfaction from time to time by shaking it close to his ear and dwelling hungrily on all the purchasable delight that was locked away from him in the small heavy bullionchinking vault. There was a key, but Eliza kept it.
But, as the months passed, and the sturdy child's body of his infancy lengthened rapidly to some interior chemical expansion, and he became fragile, thin, pallid, but remarkably tall for his age, Eliza began to say: "That boy's big enough to do a little work."
Every Thursday afternoon now during the school months, and thence until Saturday, he was sent out upon the streets to sell The Saturday Evening Post, of which Luke held the local agency. Eugene hated the work with a deadly sweltering hatred; he watched the approach of Thursday with sick horror.
Luke had been the agent since his twelfth year: his reputation for salesmanship was sown through the town; he came with wide grin, exuberant vitality, wagging and witty tongue, hurling all his bursting energy into an insane extraversion. He lived absolutely in event: there was in him no secret place, nothing withheld and guarded — he had an instinctive horror of all loneliness.
He wanted above all else to be esteemed and liked by the world, and the need for the affection and esteem of his family was desperately essential. The fulsome praise, the heartiness of hand and tongue, the liberal display of sentiment were as the breath of life to him: he was overwhelmingly insistent in the payment of drinks at the fountain, the bringer-home of packed ice-cream for Eliza, and of cigars to Gant and, as Gant gave publication to his generosity, the boy's need for it increased — he built up an image of himself as the Good Fellow, witty, unselfish, laughed at but liked by all — as Big-Hearted Unselfish Luke. And this was the opinion people had of him.
Many times in the years that followed, when Eugene's pockets were empty, Luke thrust a coin roughly and impatiently in them, but, hard as the younger boy's need might be, there was always an awkward scene — painful, embarrassed protestations, a distressful confusion because Eugene, having accurately and intuitively gauged his brother's hunger for gratitude and esteem, felt sharply that he was yielding up his independence to a bludgeoning desire.
He had never felt the slightest shame at Ben's bounty: his enormously sensitized perception had told him long since that he might get the curse of annoyance, the cuff of anger, from his brother, but that past indulgences would not be brandished over him, and that even the thought of having bestowed gifts would give Ben inward shame. In this, he was like Ben: the thought of a gift he made, with its self-congratulatory implications, made him writhe.
Thus, before he was ten, Eugene's brooding spirit was nettled in the complexity of truth and seeming. He could find no words, no answers to the puzzles that baffled and maddened him: he found himself loathing that which bore the stamp of virtue, sick with weariness and horror at what was considered noble. He was hurled, at eight years, against the torturing paradox of the ungenerous-generous, the selfish-unselfish, the noble-base, and unable to fathom or define those deep springs of desire in the human spirit that seek public gratification by virtuous pretension, he was made wretched by the conviction of his own sinfulness.
There was in him a savage honesty, which exercised an uncontrollable domination over him when his heart or head were deeply involved. Thus, at the funeral of some remote kinsman, or of some acquaintance of the family, for whom he had never acquired any considerable affection, he would grow bitterly shamefast if, while listening to the solemn drone of the minister, or the sorrowful chanting of the singers, he felt his face had assumed an expression of unfelt and counterfeited grief: as a consequence he would shift about matter-of-factly, cross his legs, gaze indifferently at the ceiling, or look out of the window with a smile, until he was conscious his conduct had attracted the attention of people, and that they were looking on him with disfavor. Then, he felt a certain grim satisfaction as if, although having lost esteem, he had recorded his life.
But Luke flourished hardily in all the absurd mummery of the village: he gave heaping weight to every simulation of affection, grief, pity, good-will, and modesty — there was no excess that he did not underscore heavily, and the world's dull eye read him kindly.
He spun himself outward with ceaseless exuberance: he was genuinely and whole-heartedly involved. There was in him no toilsome web that might have checked him, no balancing or restraining weight — he had enormous energy, hungry gregariousness, the passion to pool his life.
In the family, where a simple brutal tag was enough for the appraisal of all fine consciences, Ben went simply as "the quiet one," Luke as the generous and unselfish one, Eugene as the "scholar." It served. The generous one, who had never in all his life had the power to fasten his mind upon the pages of a book, or the logic of number, for an hour together, resented, as he see-sawed comically from one leg to another, stammering quaintly, whistling for the word that stuck in his throat, the brooding abstraction of the youngest.
"Come on, this is no time for day-dreaming," he would stammer ironically. "The early bird catches the worm — it's time we went out on the street."
And although his reference to day-dreams was only part of the axiomatic mosaic of his speech, Eugene was startled and confused, feeling that his secret world, so fearfully guarded, had been revealed to ridicule. And the older boy, too, smarting from his own dismal performances at school, convinced himself that the deep inward turning of the spirit, the brooding retreat into the secret place, which he recognized in the mysterious hypnotic power of language over Eugene, was not only a species of indolence, for the only work he recognized was that which strained at weight or sweated in the facile waggery of the tongue, but that it was moreover the indulgence of a "selfish" family-forgetting spirit. He was determined to occupy alone the throne of goodness.
Thus, Eugene gathered vaguely but poignantly, that other boys of his age were not only self-supporting, but had for years kept their decrepit parents in luxury by their earnings as electrical engineers, presidents of banks, or members of Congress. There was, in fact, no excess of suggestion that Gant did not use upon his youngest son — he had felt, long since, the vibration to every tremor of feeling of the million-noted little instrument, and it pleased him to see the child wince, gulp, tortured with remorse. Thus, while he piled high with succulent meat the boy's platter, he would say sentimentally:
"I tell you what: there are not many boys who have what you have. What's going to become of you when your old father's dead and gone?" And he would paint a ghastly picture of himself lying cold in death, lowered forever into the damp rot of the earth, buried, forgotten — an event which, he hinted sorrowfully, was not remote.
"You'll remember the old man, then," he would say. "Ah, Lord! You never miss the water till the well goes dry," noting with keen pleasure the inward convulsion of the childish throat, the winking eyes, the tense constricted face.
"I'll vow, Mr. Gant," Eliza bridled, also pleased, "you oughtn't to do that to the child."
Or, he would speak sadly of "Little Jimmy," a legless little boy whom he had often pointed out to Eugene, who lived across the river from Riverside, the amusement park, and around whom he had woven a pathetic fable of poverty and orphanage which was desperately real now to his son. When Eugene was six, Gant had promised him carelessly a pony for Christmas, without any intention of fulfilling his promise. As Christmas neared he had begun to speak touchingly of "Little Jimmy," of the countless advantages of Eugene's lot and, after a mighty struggle, the boy had renounced the pony, in a scrawled message to Elfland, in favor of the cripple. Eugene never forgot: even when he had reached manhood the deception of "Little Jimmy" returned to him, without rancor, without ugliness, only with pain for all the blind waste, the stupid perjury, the thoughtless dishonor, the crippling dull deceit.
Luke parroted all of his father's sermons, but earnestly and witlessly, without Gant's humor, without his chicanery, only with his sentimentality. He lived in a world of symbols, large, crude, and gaudily painted, labelled "Father," "Mother," "Home," "Family," "Generosity," "Honor," "Unselfishness," made of sugar and molasses, and gummed glutinously with tear-shaped syrup.
"He's one good boy," the neighbors said.
"He's the cutest thing," said the ladies, who were charmed by his stutter, his wit, his good nature, his devout attendance on them.
"That boy's a hustler. He'll make his mark," said all the men in town.
And it was as the smiling hustler that he wanted to be known. He read piously all the circulars the Curtis Publishing Company sent to its agents: he posed himself in the various descriptive attitudes that were supposed to promote business — the proper manner of "approach," the most persuasive manner of drawing the journal from the bag, the animated description of its contents, in which he was supposed to be steeped as a result of his faithful reading — "the good salesman," the circulars said, "should know in and out the article he is selling" — a knowledge that Luke avoided, but which he replaced with eloquent invention of his own.
The literal digestion of these instructions resulted in one of the most fantastical exhibitions of print-vending ever seen: fortified by his own unlimited cheek, and by the pious axioms of the exhortations that "the good salesman will never take no for his answer," that he should "stick to his prospect" even if rebuffed, that he should "try to get the customer's psychology," the boy would fall into step with an unsuspecting pedestrian, open the broad sheets of The Post under the man's nose, and in a torrential harangue, sown thickly with stuttering speech, buffoonery, and ingratiation, delivered so rapidly that the man could neither accept nor reject the magazine, hound him before a grinning public down the length of a street, backing him defensively into a wall, and taking from the victim's eager fingers the five-cent coin that purchased his freedom.
"Yes, sir. Yes, sir," he would begin in a sonorous voice, dropping wide-leggedly into the "prospect's" stride. "This week's edition of The Saturday Evening Post, five cents, only a nickel, p-p-p-purchased weekly by t-t-two million readers. In this week's issue you have eighty-six pages of f-f-fact and fiction, to say n-n-nothing of the advertisements. If you c-c-c-can't read you'll get m-m-more than your money's worth out of the p-p-pictures. On page 13 this week, we have a very fine article, by I-I-I-Isaac F. Marcosson, the f-f-f-famous traveller and writer on politics; on page 29, you have a story by Irvin S. Cobb, the g-g-g-greatest living humorist, and a new story of the prize-ring by J-J-Jack London. If you b-b-bought it in a book, it'd c-c-cost you a d-d-dollar-and-a-half."
He had, besides these chance victims, an extensive clientry among the townsfolk. Swinging briskly and cheerily down the street, full of greetings and glib repartee, he would accost each of the grinning men by a new title, in a rich stammering tenor voice:
"Colonel, how are you! Major — here you are, a week's reading hot off the press. Captain, how's the boy?"
"How are you, son?"
"Couldn't be better, General — slick as a puppy's belly!"
And they would roar with wheezing, red-faced, Southern laughter:
"By God, he's a good 'un. Here, son, give me one of the damn things. I don't want it, but I'll buy it just to hear you talk."
He was full of pungent and racy vulgarity: he had, more than any of the family, a Rabelaisian earthiness that surged in him with limitless energy, charging his tongue with unpremeditated comparisons, Gargantuan metaphors. Finally, he wet the bed every night in spite of Eliza's fretting complaints: it was the final touch of his stuttering, whistling, cheerful, vital, and comic personality — he was Luke, the unique, Luke, the incomparable: he was, in spite of his garrulous and fidgeting nervousness, an intensely likable person — and he really had in him a bottomless well of affection. He wanted bounteous praise for his acts, but he had a deep, genuine kindliness and tenderness.
Every week, on Thursday, in Gant's dusty little office, he would gather the grinning cluster of small boys who bought The Post from him, and harangue them before he sent them out on their duties:
"Well, have you thought of what you're going to tell them yet? You know you can't sit around on your little tails and expect them to look you up. Have you got a spiel worked out yet? How do you approach 'em, eh?" he said, turning fiercely to a stricken small boy. "Speak up, speak up, G-G-G-God-damn it — don't s-s-stand there looking at me. Haw!" he said, laughing with sudden wild idiocy, "look at that face, won't you?"
Gant surveyed the proceedings from afar with Jannadeau, grinning.
"All right, Christopher Columbus," continued Luke, goodhumoredly, "What do you tell 'em, son?"
The boy cleared his throat timidly: "Mister, do you want to buy a copy of The Saturday Evening Post?"
"Oh, twah-twah," said Luke, with mincing delicacy, as the boys sniggered, "sweet twah-twah! Do you expect them to buy with a spiel like that? My God, where are your brains? Sail into them. Tackle them, and don't take no for an answer. Don't ask them if they want to buy. Dive into them: 'Here you are, sir — hot off the press.' Jesus Christ," he yelled, looking at the distant court-house clock with sudden fidget, "we should have been out an hour ago. Come on — don't stand there: here are your papers. How many do you want, you little Kike?" — for he had several Jews in his employ: they worshipped him and he was very fond of them — he liked their warmth, richness, humor.
"Twenty!" he yelled. "You little loafer — you'll t-t-take fifty. G-g-go on, you c-c-can sell 'em all this afternoon. By G-G-God, papa," he said, pointing to the Jews, as Gant entered the office, "it l-l-looks like the Last S-S-Supper, don't it? All right!" he said, smacking across the buttocks a small boy who had bent for his quota. "Don't stick it in my face." They shrieked with laughter. "Dive in to them now. Don't let 'em get away from you." And, laughing and excited, he would send them out into the streets.
To this kind of employment and this method of exploitation Eugene was now initiated. He loathed the work with a deadly, an inexplicable loathing. But something in him festered deeply at the idea of disposing of his wares by the process of making such a wretched little nuisance of himself that riddance was purchased only at the price of the magazine. He writhed with shame and humiliation, but he stuck desperately to his task, a queer curly-headed passionate little creature, who raced along by the side of an astonished captive, pouring out of his dark eager face a hurricane of language. And men, fascinated somehow by this strange eloquence from a little boy, bought.
Sometimes the heavy paunch-bellied Federal judge, sometimes an attorney, a banker would take him home, bidding him to perform for their wives, the members of their families, giving him twenty-five cents when he was done, and dismissing him. "What do you think of that!" they said.
His first and nearest sales made, in the town, he would make the long circle on the hills and in the woods along the outskirts, visiting the tubercular sanitariums, selling the magazines easily and quickly — "like hot cakes" as Luke had it — to doctors and nurses, to white unshaven, sensitive-faced Jews, to the wisp of a rake, spitting his rotten lungs into a cup, to good-looking young women who coughed slightly from time to time, but who smiled at him from their chairs, and let their warm soft hands touch his slightly as they paid him.
Once, at a hillside sanitarium, two young New York Jews had taken him to the room of one of them, closed the door behind him, and assaulted him, tumbling him on the bed, while one drew forth a pocket knife and informed him he was going to perform a caponizing operation on him. They were two young men bored with the hills, the town, the deadly regime of their treatment, and it occurred to him years later that they had concocted the business, days ahead, in their dull lives, living for the excitement and terror they would arouse in him. His response was more violent than they had bargained for: he went mad with fear, screamed, and fought insanely. They were weak as cats, he squirmed out of their grasp and off the bed cuffing and clawing tigerishly, striking and kicking them with blind and mounting rage. He was released by a nurse who unlocked the door and led him out into the sunlight, the two young consumptives, exhausted and frightened, remaining in their room. He was nauseated by fear and by the impacts of his fists on their leprous bodies.
But the little mound of nickels and dimes and quarters chinked pleasantly in his pockets: leg-weary and exhausted he would stand before a gleaming fountain burying his hot face in an iced drink. Sometimes conscience-tortured, he would steal an hour away from the weary streets and go into the library for a period of enchantment and oblivion: he was often discovered by his watchful and bustling brother, who drove him out to his labor again, taunting and spurring him into activity.
"Wake up! You're not in Fairyland. Go after them."
Eugene's face was of no use to him as a mask: it was a dark pool in which every pebble of thought and feeling left its circle — his shame, his distaste for his employment was obvious, although he tried to conceal it: he was accused of false pride, told that he was "afraid of a little honest work," and reminded of the rich benefits he had received from his big-hearted parents.
He turned desperately to Ben. Sometimes Ben, loping along the streets of the town, met him, hot, tired, dirty, wearing his loaded canvas bag, scowled fiercely at him, upbraided him for his unkempt appearance, and took him into a lunch-room for something to eat — rich foaming milk, fat steaming kidney-beans, thick apple-pie.
Both Ben and Eugene were by nature aristocrats. Eugene had just begun to feel his social status — or rather his lack of one; Ben had felt it for years. The feeling at bottom might have resolved itself simply into a desire for the companionship of elegant and lovely women: neither was able, nor would have dared, to confess this, and Eugene was unable to confess that he was susceptible to the social snub, or the pain of caste inferiority: any suggestion that the companionship of elegant people was preferable to the fellowship of a world of Tarkintons, and its blowsy daughters, would have been hailed with heavy ridicule by the family, as another indication of false and undemocratic pride. He would have been called "Mr. Vanderbilt" or "the Prince of Wales."
Ben, however, was not to be intimidated by their cant, or deceived by their twaddle. He saw them with bitter clarity, answered their pretensions with soft mocking laughter, and a brief nod upwards and to the side to the companion to whom he communicated all his contemptuous observation — his dark satiric angel: "Oh, my God! Listen to that, won't you?"
There was behind his scowling quiet eyes, something strange and fierce and unequivocal that frightened them: besides, he had secured for himself the kind of freedom they valued most — the economic freedom — and he spoke as he felt, answering their virtuous reproof with fierce quiet scorn.
One day, he stood, smelling of nicotine, before the fire, scowling darkly at Eugene who, grubby and tousled, had slung his heavy bag over his shoulder, and was preparing to depart.
"Come here, you little bum," he said. "When did you wash your hands last?" Scowling fiercely, he made a sudden motion as if to strike the boy, but he finished instead by re-tying, with his hard delicate hands, his tie.
"In God's name, mama," he burst out irritably to Eliza, "haven't you got a clean shirt to give him? You know, he ought to have one every month or so."
"What do you mean? What do you mean?" said Eliza with comic rapidity, looking up from a basket of socks she was darning. "I gave him that one last Tuesday."
"You little thug!" he growled, looking at Eugene with a fierce pain in his eyes. "Mama, for heaven's sake, why don't you send him to the barber's and get that lousy hair cut off? By God, I'll pay for it, if you don't want to spend the money."
She pursed her lips angrily and continued to darn. Eugene looked at him dumbly, gratefully. After Eugene had gone, the quiet one smoked moodily for a time, drawing the fragrant smoke in long gulps down into his thin lungs. Eliza, recollective and hurt at what had been said, worked on.
"What are you trying to do with your kid, mama?" he said in a hard quiet voice, after a silence. "Do you want to make a tramp out of him?"
"What do you mean? What do you mean?"
"Do you think it's right to send him out on the streets with every little thug in town?"
"Why, I don't know what you're talking about, boy," she said impatiently. "It's no disgrace for a boy to do a little honest work, and no one thinks so."
"Oh, my God," he said to the dark angel. "Listen to that!"
Eliza pursed her lips without speaking for a time.
"Pride goeth before a fall," she said after a moment. "Pride goeth before a fall."
"I can't see that that makes much difference to us," said he. "We've got no place to fall to."
"I consider myself as good as any one," she said, with dignity. "I hold my head up with any one I meet."
"Oh, my God," Ben said to his angel. "You don't meet any one. I don't notice any of your fine brothers or their wives coming to see you."
This was true, and it hurt. She pursed her lips.
"No mama," he continued after a moment's pause, "you and the Old Man have never given a damn what we've done so long as you thought you might save a nickel by it."
"Why, I don't know what you're talking about, boy," she answered. "You talk as if you thought we were Rich Folks. Beggars can't be choosers."
"Oh, my God," he laughed bitterly. "You and the Old Man like to make out you're paupers, but you've a sock full of money."
"I don't know what you mean," she said angrily.
"No," he said, with his frequent negative beginning, after a moody silence, "there are people in this town without a fifth what we've got who get twice as much out of it. The rest of us have never had anything, but I don't want to see the kid made into a little tramp."
There was a long silence. She darned bitterly, pursing her lips frequently, hovering between quiet and tears.
"I never thought," she began after a long pause, her mouth tremulous with a bitter hurt smile, "that I should live to hear such talk from a son of mine. You had better watch out," she hinted darkly, "a day of reckoning cometh. As sure as you live, as sure as you live. You will be repaid threefold for your unnatural," her voice sank to a tearful whisper, "your unnatural conduct!" She wept easily.
"Oh, my God," answered Ben, turning his lean, gray, bitter, bumpy face up toward his listening angel. "Listen to that, won't you?"
Eliza saw Altamont not as so many hills, buildings, people: she saw it in the pattern of a gigantic blueprint. She knew the history of every piece of valuable property — who bought it, who sold it, who owned it in 1893, and what it was now worth. She watched the tides of traffic cannily; she knew by what corners the largest number of people passed in a day or an hour; she was sensitive to every growing-pain of the young town, gauging from year to year its growth in any direction, and deducing the probable direction of its future expansion. She judged distances critically, saw at once where the beaten route to an important centre was stupidly circuitous, and looking in a straight line through houses and lots, she said:
"There'll be a street through here some day."
Her vision of land and population was clear, crude, focal — there was nothing technical about it: it was extraordinary for its direct intensity. Her instinct was to buy cheaply where people would come; to keep out of pockets and culs de sac, to buy on a street that moved toward a centre, and that could be given extension.
Thus, she began to think of Dixieland. It was situated five minutes from the public square, on a pleasant sloping middleclass street of small homes and boarding-houses. Dixieland was a big cheaply constructed frame house of eighteen or twenty drafty high-ceilinged rooms: it had a rambling, unplanned, gabular appearance, and was painted a dirty yellow. It had a pleasant green front yard, not deep but wide, bordered by a row of young deep-bodied maples: there was a sloping depth of one hundred and ninety feet, a frontage of one hundred and twenty. And Eliza, looking toward the town, said: "They'll put a street behind there some day."
In winter, the wind blew howling blasts under the skirts of Dixieland: its back end was built high off the ground on wet columns of rotting brick. Its big rooms were heated by a small furnace which sent up, when charged with fire, a hot dry enervation to the rooms of the first floor, and a gaseous but chill radiation to those upstairs.
The place was for sale. Its owner was a middle-aged horse-faced gentleman whose name was the Reverend Wellington Hodge: he had begun life favorably in Altamont as a Methodist minister, but had run foul of trouble when he began to do double service to the Lord God of Hosts and John Barleycorn — his evangelical career came to an abrupt ending one winter's night when the streets were dumb with falling snow. Wellington, clad only in his winter heavies, made a wild sortie from Dixieland at two in the morning, announcing the kingdom of God and the banishment of the devil, in a mad marathon through the streets that landed him panting but victorious in front of the Post Office. Since then, with the assistance of his wife, he had eked out a hard living at the boarding-house. Now, he was spent, disgraced, and weary of the town.
Besides, the sheltering walls of Dixieland inspired him with horror — he felt that the malign influence of the house had governed his own disintegration. He was a sensitive man, and his promenades about his estate were checked by inhibited places: the cornice of the long girdling porch where a lodger had hanged himself one day at dawn, the spot in the hall where the consumptive had collapsed in a hemorrhage, the room where the old man cut his throat. He wanted to return to his home, a land of fast horses, wind-bent grass, and good whisky — Kentucky. He was ready to sell Dixieland.
Eliza pursed her lips more and more thoughtfully, went to town by way of Spring Street more and more often.
"That's going to be a good piece of property some day," she said to Gant.
He made no complaint. He felt suddenly the futility of opposing an implacable, an inexorable desire.
"Do you want it?" he said.
She pursed her lips several times: "It's a good buy," she said.
"You'll never regret it as long as you live, W. O.," said Dick Gudger, the agent.
"It's her house, Dick," said Gant wearily. "Make out the papers in her name."
She looked at him.
"I never want to own another piece of property as long as I live," said Gant. "It's a curse and a care, and the tax-collector gets all you have in the end."
Eliza pursed her lips and nodded.
She bought the place for seventy-five hundred dollars. She had enough money to make the first payment of fifteen hundred. The balance was to be paid in installments of fifteen hundred dollars a year. This she knew she had to pay chiefly from the earnings of the house.
In the young autumn when the maples were still full and green, and the migratory swallows filled secretly the trees with clamor, and swooped of an evening in a black whirlwind down, drifting at its funnel end, like dead leaves, into their chosen chimney, Eliza moved into Dixieland. There was clangor, excitement, vast curiosity in the family about the purchase, but no clear conception of what had really happened. Gant and Eliza, although each felt dumbly that they had come to a decisive boundary in their lives, talked vaguely about their plans, spoke of Dixieland evasively as "a good investment," said nothing clearly. In fact, they felt their approaching separation instinctively: Eliza's life was moving by a half-blind but inevitable gravitation toward the centre of its desire — the exact meaning of her venture she would have been unable to define, but she had a deep conviction that the groping urge which had led her so blindly into death and misery at Saint Louis had now impelled her in the right direction. Her life was on the rails.
And however vaguely, confusedly, and casually they approached this complete disruption of their life together, the rooting up of their clamorous home, when the hour of departures came, the elements resolved themselves immutably and without hesitation.
Eliza took Eugene with her. He was the last tie that bound her to all the weary life of breast and cradle; he still slept with her of nights; she was like some swimmer who ventures out into a dark and desperate sea, not wholly trusting to her strength and destiny, but with a slender cord bound to her which stretches still to land.
With scarcely a word spoken, as if it had been known anciently and forever, Helen stayed with Gant.
The time for Daisy's marriage was growing near: she had been sought by a tall middle-aged shaven life-insurance agent, who wore spats, collars of immaculate starchiness five inches in height, who spoke with an unctuous and insane croon, chortling gently in his throat from time to time for no reason at all. His name was Mr. McKissem, and she had screwed up enough courage, after an arduous siege, to refuse him, upon the private grounds of insanity.
She had promised herself to a young South Carolinian, who was connected rather vaguely with the grocery trade. His hair was parted in the middle of his low forehead, his voice was soft, drawling, amiable, his manner hearty and insistent, his habits large and generous. He brought Gant cigars on his visits, the boys large boxes of assorted candies. Every one felt that he had favorable prospects.
As for the others — Ben and Luke only — they were left floating in limbo; for Steve, since his eighteenth year, had spent most of his life away from home, existing for months by semi-vagabondage, scrappy employment, and small forgeries upon his father, in New Orleans, Jacksonville, Memphis, and reappearing to his depressed family after long intervals by telegraphing that he was desperately sick or, through the intermediacy of a crony who borrowed the title of "doctor" for the occasion, that he was dying, and would come home in a box if he was not sent for in the emaciated flesh.
Thus, before he was eight, Eugene gained another roof and lost forever the tumultuous, unhappy, warm centre of his home. He had from day to day no clear idea where the day's food, shelter, lodging was to come from, although he was reasonably sure it would be given: he ate wherever he happened to hang his hat, either at Gant's or at his mother's; occasionally, although infrequently, he slept with Luke in the sloping, alcoved, gabled back room, rude with calcimine, with the high drafty steps that slanted to the kitchen porch, with the odor of old stacked books in packing-cases, with the sweet orchard scents. There were two beds; he exulted in his unaccustomed occupancy of an entire mattress, dreaming of the day of manlike privacy. But Eliza did not allow this often: he was riven into her flesh.
Forgetful of him during the day's press, she summoned him at night over the telephone, demanding his return, and upbraiding Helen for keeping him. There was a bitter submerged struggle over him between Eliza and her daughter: absorbed in the management of Dixieland for days, she would suddenly remember his absence from meals, and call for him angrily across the phone.
"Good heavens, mama," Helen would answer irritably. "He's your child, not mine. I'm not going to see him starve."
"What do you mean? What do you mean? He ran off while dinner was on the table. I've got a good meal fixed for him here. H-m! A good meal."
Helen put her hand over the mouthpiece, making a face at him as he stood catlike and sniggering by, burlesquing the Pentland manner, tone, mouthing.
"H-m! Why, law me, child, yes — it's good soup."
He was convulsed silently.
And then aloud: "Well, it's your own lookout, not mine. If he doesn't want to stay up there, I can't help it."
When he returned to Dixieland, Eliza would question him with bitter working lips; she would prick at his hot pride in an effort to keep him by her.
"What do you mean by running off to your papa's like that? If I were you, I'd have too much pride for that. I'd be a-sha-a-med!" Her face worked with a bitter hurt smile. "Helen can't be bothered with you. She doesn't want you around."
But the powerful charm of Gant's house, of its tacked and added whimsy, its male smell, its girdling rich vines, its great gummed trees, its roaring internal seclusiveness, the blistered varnish, the hot calfskin, the comfort and abundance, seduced him easily away from the great chill tomb of Dixieland, particularly in winter, since Eliza was most sparing of coal.
Gant had already named it "The Barn"; in the morning now, after his heavy breakfast at home, he would swing gauntly toward town by way of Spring Street, composing en route the invective that he had formerly reserved to his sitting-room. He would stride through the wide chill hall of Dixieland, bursting in upon Eliza, and two or three negresses, busy preparing the morning meal for the hungry boarders who rocked energetically upon the porch. All of the objections, all of the abuse that had not been uttered when she bought the place, were vented now.
"Woman, you have deserted my bed and board, you have made a laughing stock of me before the world, and left your children to perish. Fiend that you are, there is nothing that you would not do to torture, humiliate and degrade me. You have deserted me in my old age; you have left me to die alone. Ah, Lord! It was a bitter day for us all when your gloating eyes first fell upon this damnable, this awful, this murderous and bloody Barn. There is no ignominy to which you will not stoop if you think it will put a nickel in your pocket. You have fallen so low not even your own brothers will come near you. 'Nor beast, nor man hath fallen so far.'"
And in the pantries, above the stove, into the dining-room, the rich voices of the negresses chuckled with laughter.
"Dat man sho' can tawk!"
Eliza got along badly with the negroes. She had all the dislike and distrust for them of the mountain people. Moreover, she had never been used to service, and she did not know how to accept or govern it graciously. She nagged and berated the sullen negro girls constantly, tortured by the thought that they were stealing her supplies and her furnishings, and dawdling away the time for which she paid them. And she paid them reluctantly, dribbling out their small wages a coin or two at a time, nagging them for their laziness and stupidity.
"What have you been doing all this time? Did you get those back rooms done upstairs?"
"No'm," said the negress sullenly, slatting flatfootedly down the kitchen.
"I'll vow," Eliza fretted. "I never saw such a good-for-nothing shiftless darkey in my life. You needn't think I'm going to pay you for wasting your time."
This would go on throughout the day. As a result, Eliza would often begin the day without a servant: the girls departed at night muttering sullenly, and did not appear the next morning. Moreover, her reputation for bickering pettiness spread through the length and breadth of Niggertown. It became increasingly difficult for her to find any one at all who would work for her. Completely flustered when she awoke to find herself without help, she would immediately call Helen over the telephone, pouring her fretful story into the girl's ears and entreating assistance:
"I'll declare, child, I don't know what I'm going to do. I could wring that worthless nigger's neck. Here I am left all alone with a house full of people."
"Mama, in heaven's name, what's the matter? Can't you keep a nigger in the house? Other people do. What do you do to them, anyway?"
But, fuming and irritable, she would leave Gant's and go to her mother's, serving the tables with large heartiness, nervous and animated good-humor. All the boarders were very fond of her: they said she was a fine girl. Every one did. There was a spacious and unsparing generosity about her, a dominant consuming vitality, which ate at her poor health, her slender supply of strength, so that her shattered nerves drew her frequently toward hysteria, and sometimes toward physical collapse. She was almost six feet tall: she had large hands and feet, thin straight legs, a big-boned generous face, with the long full chin slightly adroop, revealing her big gold-traced upper teeth. But, in spite of this gauntness, she did not look hard-featured or raw-boned. Her face was full of heartiness and devotion, sensitive, whole-souled, hurt, bitter, hysterical, but at times transparently radiant and handsome.
It was a spiritual and physical necessity for her to exhaust herself in service for others, and it was necessary for her to receive heavy slatherings of praise for that service, and especially necessary that she feel her efforts had gone unappreciated. Even at the beginning, she would become almost frantic reciting her grievances, telling the story of her service to Eliza in a voice that became harsh and hysterical:
"Let the least little thing go wrong and she's at the phone. It's not my place to go up there and work like a nigger for a crowd of old cheap boarders. You know that, don't you? Don't you?"
"Yes'm," said Eugene, meekly serving as audience.
"But she'd die rather than admit it. Do you ever hear her say a word of thanks? Do I get," she said laughing suddenly, her hysteria crossed for the moment with her great humor, "do I get so much as 'go-to-hell' for it?"
"No!" squealed Eugene, going off in fits of idiot laughter.
"Why, law me, child. H-m! Yes. It's good soup," said she, touched with her great earthy burlesque.
He tore his collar open, and undid his trousers, sliding to the floor in an apoplexy of laughter.
"Sdop! Sdop! You're g-g-gilling me!"
"H-m! Why, law me! Yes," she continued, grinning at him as if she hoped to succeed.
Nevertheless, whether Eliza was servantless or not, she went daily at dinner, the mid-day meal, to help at table, and frequently at night when Gant and the boys ate with Eliza instead of at home. She went because of her deep desire to serve, because it satisfied her need for giving more than was returned, and because, in spite of her jibes, along with Gant, at the Barn, and the "cheap boarders," the animation of feeding, the clatter of plates, the braided clamor of their talk, stimulated and excited her.
Like Gant, like Luke, she needed extension in life, movement, excitement: she wanted to dominate, to entertain, to be the life of the party. On small solicitation, she sang for the boarders, thumping the cheap piano with her heavy accurate touch, and singing in her strong, vibrant, somewhat hard soprano a repertory of songs classical, sentimental, and comic. Eugene remembered the soft cool nights of summer, the assembled boarders and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," which Gant demanded over and over; "Love Me and the World Is Mine"; "Till the Sands of the Desert Grow Cold"; "Dear Old Girl, the Rob-bin Sings Above You"; "The End of a Perfect Day"; and "Alexander's Rag-Time Band," which Luke had practised in a tortured house for weeks, and sung with thunderous success in the High School Minstrels.
Later, in the cool dark, Gant, rocking violently, would hold forth on the porch, his great voice carrying across the quiet neighborhood, as he held the charmed boarders by his torrential eloquence, his solution of problems of state, his prejudiced but bold opinion upon current news.
"— And what did we do, gentlemen? We sank their navy in an action that lasted only twenty minutes, stormed at by shot and shell, Teddy and his Rough Riders took the hill at Santiago — it was all over, as you well know, in a few months. We had declared war with no thought of ulterior gain; we came because the indignation of a great people had been aroused at the oppression of a smaller one, and then, with a magnanimity well worthy the greatest people of the face of the earth, we paid our defeated enemy twenty millions of dollars. Ah, Lord! That was magnanimity indeed! You don't think any other nation would have done that, do you?"
"No, sir," said the boarders emphatically.
They didn't always agree with his political opinions — Roosevelt was the faultless descendant of Julius Cæsar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Abraham Lincoln — but they felt he had a fine head and would have gone far in politics.
"That man should have been a lawyer," said the boarders.
And yet, there was surging into these chosen hills the strong thrust of the world, like a kissing tide, which swings lazily in with a slapping glut of waters, and recoils into its parent crescent strength, to be thrown farther inward once again.
It was an element of Eliza's primitive and focal reasoning that men and women withered by the desert would seek an oasis, that those who were thirsty would seek water, and that those panting on the plains would look into the hills for comfort and relief. She had that bull's-eye accuracy which has since been celebrated, when plum-picking's over, under the name of "vision."
The streets, ten years before raw clay, were being paved: Gant went into frenzies over the paving assessments, cursed the land, the day of his birth, the machinations of Satan's children. But Eugene followed the wheeled casks of boiling tar; watched the great roller, a monster that crushed him in night-mares, powder the layered rock; felt, as he saw the odorous pressed tongue of pavement lengthen out, a swelling ecstasy.
From time to time, a stilted Cadillac gasped cylindrically up the hill past Dixieland: Eugene said a spell, as it faltered, for its success — Jim Sawyer, a young blood, came for Miss Cutler, the Pittsburgh beauty: he opened a door behind in the fat red belly. They got in.
Sometimes, when Eliza awoke to find her servants gone, he was sent down into Niggertown to capture a new one: in that city of rickets he searched into their fetid shacks, past the slow stench of little rills of mire and sewage, in fetid cellars, through all the rank labyrinth of the hill-sprawled settlement. He came, in the hot sealed dungeons of their rooms, to know the wild grace of their bodies, thrown upon a bed, their rich laughter, their smell of the jungle tropics stewed in with frying cookery and a boiling wash.
"Do you want a job?"
"Whose little boy are you?"
"Mrs. Eliza Gant's."
Silence. Presently: "Dere's a gal up de street at Mis' Cawpening's who's lookin' fo' wuk. You go see huh."
Eliza watched them with a falcon's eye for thefts. Once, with a detective, she searched a departed girl's room in Niggertown, finding there sheets, towels, spoons that had been stolen from her. The girl went to the penitentiary for two years. Eliza loved the commotion of law, the smell and tension of the courts. Whenever she could go to law she did so: she delighted in bringing suit against people, or in having suit brought against her. She always won.
When her boarders defaulted payments she seized their belongings triumphantly, delighting particularly in eleventh-hour captures at the railway station, with the aid of an obedient constabulary, and ringed by the attentive offal of the town.
Eugene was ashamed of Dixieland. And he was again afraid to express his shame. As with The Post, he felt thwarted, netted, trapped. He hated the indecency of his life, the loss of dignity and seclusion, the surrender to the tumultuous rabble of the four walls which shield us from them. He felt, rather than understood, the waste, the confusion, the blind cruelty of their lives — his spirit was stretched out on the rack of despair and bafflement as there came to him more and more the conviction that their lives could not be more hopelessly distorted, wrenched, mutilated, and perverted away from all simple comfort, repose, happiness, if they set themselves deliberately to tangle the skein, twist the pattern. He choked with fury: he thought of Eliza's slow speech, her endless reminiscence, her maddening lip-pursing, and turned white with constricted rage.
He saw plainly by this time that their poverty, the threat of the poorhouse, the lurid references to the pauper's grave, belonged to the insensate mythology of hoarding; anger smouldered like a brand in him at their sorry greed. There was no place sacred unto themselves, no place fixed for their own inhabitation, no place proof against the invasion of the boarders.
As the house filled, they went from room to little room, going successively down the shabby scale of their lives. He felt it would hurt them, coarsen them: he had even then an intense faith in food, in housing, in comfort — he felt that a civilized man must begin with them; he knew that wherever the spirit had withered, it had not withered because of food and plumbing.
As the house filled, in the summer season, and it was necessary to wait until the boarders had eaten before a place could be found for him, he walked sullenly about beneath the propped back porch of Dixieland, savagely exploring the dark cellar, or the two dank windowless rooms which Eliza rented, when she could, to negresses.
He felt now the petty cruelty of village caste. On Sunday for several years, he had bathed, brushed, arrayed his anointed body in clean underwear and shirting and departed, amid all the pleasurable bustle of Sunday morning, for the Presbyterian Sunday School. He had by this time been delivered from the instruction of the several spinsters who had taught his infant faith the catechism, the goodness of God, and the elements of celestial architecture. The five-cent piece which formerly he had yielded up reluctantly, thinking of cakes and ale, he now surrendered more gladly, since he usually had enough left over for cold gaseous draughts at the soda-fountain.
In the fresh Sunday morning air he marched off with brisk excitement to do duty at the altars, pausing near the church where the marshalled ranks of the boys' military school split cleanly into regimented Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians.
The children assembled in a big room adjacent to the church, honeycombed to right and left with small classrooms, which they entered after the preliminary service was finished. They were exhorted from the platform by the superintendent, a Scotch dentist with a black-gray beard, fringed by a small area of embalmed skin, whose cells, tissues, and chemical juices seemed to have been fixed in a state of ageless suspension, and who looked no older from one decade to another.
He read the text, or the parable of the day's study, commented on it with Cæsarean dryness and concision, and surrendered the service to his assistant, a shaven, spectacled, Wilsonian-looking man, also Scotch, who smiled with cold affection at them over his high shiny collar, and led them through the verses of a hymn, heaving up his arms and leering at them encouragingly, as they approached the chorus. A sturdy spin-stress thumped heavily upon a piano which shook like a leaf.
Eugene liked the high crystal voices of the little children, backed by the substantial marrow of the older boys and girls, and based on the strong volume of the Junior and Senior Baraccas and Philatheas. They sang:
"Throw out the lifeline, throw out the lifeline,
Someone is sinking to-day-ee" —
on the mornings when the collection went for missionary work. And they sang:
"Shall we gather at the river,
The bew-tee-ful, the bew-tee-ful r-hiver."
He liked that one very much. And the noble surge of "Onward, Christian Soldiers."
Later, he went into one of the little rooms with his class. The sliding doors rumbled together all around; presently there was a quiet drone throughout the building.
He was now in a class composed entirely of boys. His teacher was a tall white-faced young man, bent and thin, who was known to all the other boys as secretary of the Y.M.C.A. He was tubercular; but the boys admired him because of his former skill as a baseball and basketball player. He spoke in a sad, sugary, whining voice; he was oppressively Christ-like; he spoke to them intimately about the lesson of the day, asking them what it might teach them in their daily lives, in acts of obedience and love to their parents and friends, in duty, courtesy, and Christian charity. And he told them that when they were in doubt about their conduct they should ask themselves what Jesus would say: he spoke of Jesus often in his melancholy, somewhat discontented voice — Eugene became vaguely miserable as he talked, thinking of something soft, furry, with a wet tongue.
He was nervous and constrained: the other boys knew one another intimately — they lived on, or in the neighborhood of, Montgomery Avenue, which was the most fashionable street in town. Sometimes, one of them said to him, grinning: "Do you want to buy The Saturday Evening Post, Mister?"
Eugene, during the week, never touched the lives of any of them, even in a remote way. His idea of their eminence was grossly exaggerated; the town had grown rapidly from a straggling village — it had few families as old as the Pentlands, and, like all resort towns, its caste system was liquidly variable, depending chiefly upon wealth, ambition, and boldness.
Harry Tarkinton and Max Isaacs were Baptists, as were most of the people, the Scotch excepted, in Gant's neighborhood. In the social scale the Baptists were the most populous and were considered the most common: their minister was a large plump man with a red face and a white vest, who reached great oratorical effects, roaring at them like a lion, cooing at them like a dove, introducing his wife into the sermon frequently for purposes of intimacy and laughing, in a programme which the Episcopalians, who held the highest social eminence, and the Presbyterians, less fashionable, but solidly decent, felt was hardly chaste. The Methodists occupied the middle ground between vulgarity and decorum.
This starched and well brushed world of Sunday morning Presbyterianism, with its sober decency, its sense of restraint, its suggestion of quiet wealth, solid position, ordered ritual, seclusive establishment, moved him deeply with its tranquillity. He felt concretely his isolation from it, he entered it from the jangled disorder of his own life once a week, looking at it, and departing from it, for years, with the sad heart of a stranger. And from the mellow gloom of the church, the rich distant organ, the quiet nasal voice of the Scotch minister, the interminable prayers, and the rich little pictures of Christian mythology which he had collected as a child under the instruction of the spinsters, he gathered something of the pain, the mystery, the sensuous beauty of religion, something deeper and greater than this austere decency.
It was the winter, and the sullen dying autumn that he hated most at Dixieland — the dim fly-specked lights, the wretched progress about the house in search of warmth, Eliza untidily wrapped in an old sweater, a dirty muffler, a cast-off man's coat. She glycerined her cold-cracked hands. The chill walls festered with damp: they drank in death from the atmosphere: a woman died of typhoid, her husband came quickly out into the hall and dropped his hands. They were Ohio people.
Upstairs, upon a sleeping porch, a thin-faced Jew coughed through the interminable dark.
"In heaven's name, mama," Helen fumed, "why do you take them in? Can't you see he's got the bugs?"
"Why, no-o," said Eliza, pursing her lips. "He said he only had a little bronchial trouble. I asked him about it, and he laughed just as big as you please: 'Why, Mrs. Gant,' he said —" and there would follow an endless anecdote, embellished with many a winding rivulet. The girl raged: it was one of Eliza's basic traits to defend blindly whatever brought her money.
The Jew was a kind man. He coughed gently behind his white hand and ate bread fried in battered egg and butter. Eugene developed a keen appetite for it: innocently he called it "Jew Bread" and asked for more. Lichenfels laughed gently, coughed — his wife was full of swart rich laughter. The boy did small services for him: he gave him a coin from week to week. He was a clothier from a New Jersey town. In the Spring he went to a sanitarium; he died there later.
In the winter a few chill boarders, those faces, those personalities which become mediocre through repetition, sat for hours before the coals of the parlor hearth, rocking interminably, dull of voice and gesture, as hideously bored with themselves and Dixieland, no doubt, as he with them.
He liked the summers better. There came slow-bodied women from the hot rich South, dark-haired white-bodied girls from New Orleans, corn-haired blondes from Georgia, nigger-drawling desire from South Carolina. And there was malarial lassitude, tinged faintly with yellow, from Mississippi but with white biting teeth. A red-faced South Carolinian, with nicotined fingers, took him daily to the baseball games; a lank yellow planter, malarial from Mississippi, climbed hill, and wandered through the fragrant mountain valleys with him; of nights he heard the rich laughter of the women, tender and cruel, upon the dark porches, heard the florid throat-tones of the men; saw the yielding stealthy harlotry of the South — the dark seclusion of their midnight bodies, their morning innocence. Desire, with bloody beak, tore at his heart like jealous virtue: he was moral for that which was denied him.
Of mornings he stayed at Gant's with Helen playing ball with Buster Isaacs, a cousin of Max, a plump jolly little boy who lived next door; summoned later by the rich incense of Helen's boiling fudge. She sent him to the little Jewish grocery down the street for the sour relishes she liked so well: tabled in mid-morning they ate sour pickles, heavy slabs of ripe tomatoes, coated with thick mayonnaise, amber percolated coffee, fig-newtons and ladyfingers, hot pungent fudge pebbled with walnuts and coated fragrantly with butter, sandwiches of tender bacon and cucumber, iced belchy soft-drinks.
His trust in her Gantian wealth was boundless: this rich store of delight came from inexhaustible resources. Warm lively hens cackled cheerfully throughout the morning neighborhood; powerful negroes brought dripping ice in iron talons from their smoking wagons; he stood beneath their droning saws and caught the flying ice-pulp in his hands; he drank in the combined odor of their great bodies together with the rich compost of the refrigeration, and the sharp oiliness of the dining-room linoleum; and in the horsehair walnut parlor at mid-day, good with the mellow piano-smell and the smell of stale varnished wood, she played for him, and made him sing: "William Tell," "My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice," "The Song Without Words," "Celeste Aïda," "The Lost Chord," her long throat lean and tendoned as her vibrant voice rang out.
She took insatiable delight in him, stuffing him with sour and sugared relishes, tumbling him, in a random moment of her restless activity, upon Gant's lounge, and pinioning him while she slapped his squirming face sharply with her big hand.
Sometimes, frantic with some swift tangle of her nerves, she would attack him viciously, hating him for his dark brooding face, his full scalloped underlip, his deep absorption in a dream. Like Luke, and like Gant, she sought in the world ceaseless entertainment for her restless biting vitality: it infuriated her to see other people seek absorption within themselves — she hated him at times when, her own wires strumming, she saw his dark face brooding over a book or on some vision. She would tear the book from his hands, slap him, and stab him with her cruel savage tongue. She would pout out her lip, goggle her face about stupidly on a drooping neck, assume an expression of dopey idiocy, and pour out on him the horrible torrent of her venom.
"You little freak — wandering around with your queer dopey face. You're a regular little Pentland — you funny little freak, you. Everybody's laughing at you. Don't you know that? Don't you? We're going to dress you up as a girl, and let you go around like that. You haven't got a drop of Gant blood in you — papa's practically said as much — you're Greeley all over again; you're queer. Pentland queerness sticking out all over you."
Sometimes her sweltering and inchoate fury was so great that she threw him on the floor and stamped on him.
He did not mind the physical assault so much as he did the poisonous hatred of her tongue, insanely clever in fashioning the most wounding barbs. He went frantic with horror, jerked unexpectedly from Elfland into Hell, he bellowed madly, saw his bountiful angel change in a moment to a snake-haired fury, lost all his sublime faith in love and goodness. He rushed at the wall like an insane little goat, battered his head screaming again and again, wished desperately that his constricted and overloaded heart would burst, that something in him would break, that somehow, bloodily, he might escape the stifling prisonhouse of his life.
This satisfied her desire; it was what deeply she had wanted — she had found purging release in her savage attack upon him, and now she could drain herself cleanly in a wild smother of affection. She would seize him, struggling and screaming, in her long arms, plaster kisses all over his red mad face, soothing him with hearty flattery addressed in the third person:
"Why, he didn't think I meant it, did he? Didn't he know I was only joking? Why, he's strong as a little bull, isn't he? He's a regular little giant, that's what he is. Why, he's perfectly wild, isn't he? His eyes popping out of his head. I thought he was going to knock a hole in the wall. — Yes, ma'am. Why, law me, yes, child. It's good soup," resorting to her broad mimicry in order to make him laugh. And he would laugh against his will between his sobs, in a greater torture because of this agony of affection and reconciliation than because of the abuse.
Presently, when he had grown quiet, she would send him off to the store for pickles, cakes, cold bottled drinks; he would depart with red eyes, his cheeks furrowed dirtily by his tears, wondering desperately as he went down the street why the thing had happened, and drawing his foot sharply off the ground and craning his neck convulsively as shame burnt in him.
There was in Helen a restless hatred of dullness, respectability. Yet she was at heart a severely conventional person, in spite of her occasional vulgarity, which was merely a manifestation of her restless energy, a very naïve, a childishly innocent person about even the simple wickedness of the village. She had several devoted young men on her list — plain, hard-drinking country types: one, a native, lean, red-faced, alcoholic, a city surveyor, who adored her; another, a strapping florid blond from the Tennessee coal fields; another, a young South Carolinian, townsman of her older sister's fiancé.
These young men — Hugh Parker, Jim Phelps, and Joe Cathcart, were innocently devoted; they liked her tireless and dominant energy, the eager monopoly of her tongue, her big sincerity and deep kindliness. She played and sang for them — threw all her energy into entertaining them. They brought her boxes of candy, little presents, were divided jealously among themselves, but united in their affirmation that she was "a fine girl."
And she would get Jim Phelps and Hugh Parker to bring her a drink of whisky as well: she had begun to depend on small potations of alcohol for the stimulus it gave her fevered body — a small drink was enough to operate electrically in her blood: it renewed her, energized her, gave her a temporary and hectic vitality. Thus, although she never drank much at a time and showed, beyond the renewed vitality and gaiety, no sign of intoxication, she nibbled at the bottle.
"I'll take a drink whenever I can get it," she said.
She liked, almost invariably, young fast women. She liked the hectic pleasure of their lives, the sense of danger, their humor and liberality. She was drawn magnetically to all the wedded harlotry, which, escaping the Sunday discipline of a Southern village, and the Saturday lust of sodden husbands, came gaily to Altamont in summer. She liked people who, as she said, "didn't mind taking a little drink now and then."
She liked Mary Thomas, a tall jolly young prostitute who came from Kentucky: she was a manicurist in an Altamont Hotel.
"There are two things I want to see," said Mary, "a rooster's you-know-what and a hen's what-is-it." She was full of loud compelling laughter. She had a small room with a sleeping porch, at the front of the house upstairs. Eugene brought her some cigarettes once: she stood before the window in a thin petticoat, her feet wide apart, her long sensual legs outlined against the light.
Helen wore her dresses, hats, and silk stockings. Sometimes they drank together. And, with humorous sentimentality, she defended her.
"Well, she's no hypocrite. That's one thing sure. She doesn't care who knows it." Or,
"She's no worse than a lot of your little goody-goodies, if the truth's known. She's only more open about it."
Or again, irritated at some implied criticism of her own friendliness with the girl, she would say angrily:
"What do you know about her? You'd better be careful how you talk about people. You'll get into trouble about it some day."
Nevertheless, she was scrupulous in her public avoidance of the girl and, illogically, in a moment of unreasoning annoyance she would attack Eliza:
"Why do you keep such people in your house, mama? Every one in town knows about her. Your place is getting the reputation of a regular chippyhouse all over town."
Eliza pursed her lips angrily:
"I don't pay any attention to them," she said. "I consider myself as good as any one. I hold my head up, and I expect every one else to do likewise. You don't catch me associating with them."
It was part of her protective mechanism. She pretended to be proudly oblivious to any disagreeable circumstance which brought her in money. As a result, by that curious impalpable advertisement which exists among easy women, Dixieland became known to them — they floated casually in — the semi-public, clandestine prostitutes of a tourist town.
Helen had drifted apart from most of her friends of high school days — the hard-working plain-faced Genevieve Pratt, daughter of a schoolmaster, "Teeney" Duncan, Gertrude Brown. Her companions now were livelier, if somewhat more vulgar, young women — Grace Deshaye, a plumber's daughter, an opulent blonde; Pearl Hines, daughter of a Baptist saddlemaker: she was heavy of body and face, but she had a powerful rag-time singing voice.
Her closest companion, however, was a girl whose name was Nan Gudger: she was a brisk, slender, vital girl, with a waist so tightly corsetted that a man's hands might go around it. She was the trusted, accurate, infallible bookkeeper of a grocery store. She contributed largely to the support of her family — a mother whom Eugene looked upon with sick flesh, because of the heavy goitre that sagged from her loose neck; a crippled sister who moved about the house by means of crutches and the propulsive strength of her powerful shoulders; and two brothers, hulking young thugs of twenty and eighteen years, who always bore upon their charmed bodies fresh knife-wounds, blue lumps and swellings, and other marks of their fights in poolroom and brothel. They lived in a two-story shack of rickety lumber on Cling-man Street: the women worked uncomplainingly in the support of the young men. Eugene went here with Helen often: she liked the vulgarity, the humor, the excitement of their lives — and it amused her particularly to listen to Mary's obscene earthy conversation.
Upon the first of every month, Nan and Mary gave to the boys a portion of their earnings, for pocket money and for their monthly visit to the women of Eagle Crescent.
"Oh, surely not, Mary? Good heavens!" said Helen with eager unbelief.
"Why, hell yes, honey," said Mary, grinning her coarse drawl, taking her snuff-stick out of the brown corner of her mouth, and holding it in her strong hand. "We always give the boys money fer a woman once a month."
"Oh, no! You're joking," Helen said, laughing.
"Good God, child, don't you know that?" said Mary, spitting inaccurately at the fire, "Hit's good fer their health. They'd git sick if we didn't."
Eugene began to slide helplessly toward the floor. He got an instant panorama of the whole astonishing picture of humor and solemn superstition — the women contributing their money, in the interests of sanitation and health, to the debauches of the two grinning hairy nicotined young louts.
"What're you laughin' at, son?" said Mary, gooching him roughly in the ribs, as he lay panting and prostrate. "You ain't hardly out of didies yet."
She had all the savage passion of a mountaineer: crippled, she lived in the coarse heat of her brothers' lust. They were crude, kindly, ignorant, and murderous people. Nan was scrupulously respectable and well-mannered: she had thick negroid lips that turned outward, and hearty tropical laughter. She replaced the disreputable furniture of the house by new shiny Grand Rapids chairs and tables. There was a varnished bookcase, forever locked, stored with stiff sets of unread books — The Harvard Classics, and a cheap encyclopædia.
When Mrs. Selborne first came to Dixieland from the hot South she was only twenty-three but she looked older. Ripeness with her was all: she was a tall heavy-bodied blonde, well kept and elegant. She moved leisurely with a luxurious sensual swing of the body: her smile was tender and full of vague allurement, her voice gentle, her sudden laughter, bubbling out of midnight secrecy, rich and full. She was one of several handsome and bacchic daughters of a depleted South Carolinian of good family; she had married at sixteen a red heavy man who came and went from her incomparable table, eating rapidly and heartily, muttering, when pressed, a few shy-sullen words, and departing to the closed leather-and-horse smell of his little office in the livery-stable he owned. She had two children by him, both girls: she moved with wasted stealth around all the quiet slander of a South Carolina mill-town, committing adultery carefully with a mill owner, a banker, and a lumber man, walking circumspectly with her tender blonde smile by day past all the sly smiles of town and trade, knowing that the earth was mined below her feet, and that her name, with clerk and merchant, was a sign for secret laughter. The natives, the men in particular, treated her with even more elaborate respect than a woman is usually given in a Southern town, but their eyes, behind the courteous unctions of their masks, were shiny with invitation.
Eugene felt when he first saw her, and knew about her, that she would never be caught and always known. His love for her was desperate. She was the living symbol of his desire — the dim vast figure of love and maternity, ageless and autumnal, waiting, corn-haired, deep-breasted, blonde of limb, in the ripe fields of harvest — Demeter, Helen, the ripe exhaustless and renewing energy, the cradling nurse of weariness and disenchantment. Below the thrust of Spring, the sharp knife, the voices of the young girls in the darkness, the sharp inchoate expectancies of youth, his deep desire burned inextinguishably: something turned him always to the older women.
When Mrs. Selborne first came to Dixieland her oldest child was seven years old, her youngest five. She received a small check from her husband every week, and a substantial one from the lumber man. She brought a negro girl with her: she was lavish in her dispensations to the negress, and to her children: this wastefulness, ease of living, and her rich seductive laughter fascinated Helen, drew her to the older woman.
And, at night, as Eugene listened to the low sweet voice of the woman, heard the rich sensual burst of her laughter, as she sat in the dark porch with a commercial traveller or some merchant in the town, his blood grew bitter with the morality of jealousy: he withered with his hurt, thought of her little sleeping children, and, with a passionate sense of fraternity, of her gulled husband. He dreamed of himself as the redemptive hero, saving her in an hour of great danger, making her penitent with grave reproof, accepting purely the love she offered.
In the morning, he breathed the seminal odor of her fresh bathed body as she passed him, gazed desperately into the tender sensuality of her face and, with a sense of unreality, wondered what change darkness wrought in this untelling face.
Steve returned from New Orleans after a year of vagabondage. The old preposterous swagger, following the ancient whine, reappeared as soon as he felt himself safely established at home again.
"Stevie doesn't have to work," said he. "He's smart enough to make the others work for him." This was his defiance to his record of petty forgeries against Gant: he saw himself as a clever swindler although he had never had courage to swindle any one except his father. People were reading the Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford stories: there was an immense admiration for this romantic criminal.
Steve was now a young man in the first twenties. He was somewhat above the middle height, bumpy of face and sallow of skin, with a light pleasing tenor voice. Eugene had a feeling of disgust and horror whenever his oldest brother returned: he knew that those who were physically least able to defend themselves, which included Eliza and himself, would bear the brunt of his whining, petty bullying, and drunken obscenity. He did not mind the physical abuse so much as he did its cowardly stealth, weakness, and slobbering reconciliations.
Once, Gant, making one of his sporadic efforts to get his son fixed in employment, had sent him out to a country graveyard to put up a small monument. Eugene was sent along. Steve worked steadily in the hot sun for an hour, growing more and more irritable because of the heat, the rank weedy stench of the graveyard, and his own deep antipathy to work. Eugene waited intensely for the attack he knew was coming.
"What are you standing there for?" screamed Big Brother at length, looking up in an agony of petulance. He struck sharply at the boy's shin with a heavy wrench he held in his hand, knocking him to the ground, and crippling him for the moment. Immediately, he was palsied, not with remorse, but with fear that he had injured him badly and would be discovered.
"You're not hurt, are you, buddy? You're not hurt?" he began in a quivering voice, putting his unclean yellow hands upon Eugene. And he made the effort at reconciliation Eugene so dreaded, whimpering, blowing his foul breath upon his brother's cringing flesh, and entreating him to say nothing of the occurrence when he went home. Eugene became violently nauseated: the stale odor of Steve's body, the clammy and unhealthy sweat that stank with nicotine, the touch of his tainted flesh filled him with horror.
There still remained, however, in the cast and carriage of his head, in his swagger walk, the ghost of his ruined boyishness: women were sometimes attracted to him. It was his fortune, therefore, to secure Mrs. Selborne for his mistress the first summer she came to Dixieland. At night her rich laughter welled up from the dark porch, they walked through the quiet leafy streets, they went to Riverside together, walking beyond the lights of the carnival into the dark sandy paths by the river.
But, as her friendship with Helen ripened, as she saw the revulsion of the Gants against their brother, and as she began to see what damage she had already done to herself by her union with this braggart who had brandished her name through every poolroom in town as a tribute to his own power, she cast him off, quietly, implacably, tenderly. When she returned now, summer by summer, she met with her innocent and unwitting smile all of his obscene innuendoes, his heavily suggestive threats, his bitter revelations behind her back. Her affection for Helen was genuine, but it was also, she felt, strategic and useful. The girl introduced her to handsome young men, gave parties and dances at Gant's and Eliza's for her, was really a partner in her intrigues, assuring her of privacy, silence, and darkness, and defending her angrily when the evil whispering began.
"What do you know about her? You don't know what she does. You'd better be careful how you talk about her. She's got a husband to defend her, you know. You'll get your head shot off some day." Or, more doubtfully:
"Well, I don't care what they say, I like her. She's mighty sweet. After all, what can we say about her for sure? No one can prove anything on her."
And in the winters now she made short visits to the South Carolina town where Mrs. Selborne lived, returning with an enthusiastic description of her reception, the parties "in her honor," the food, the lavish entertainment. Mrs. Selborne lived in the same town as Joe Gam-bell, the young clerk to whom Daisy was engaged. He was full of sly hints about the woman, but before her his manner was obsequious, confused, reverential, and he accepted without complaint the presents of food and clothing which she sent him after their marriage.
Daisy had been married in the month of June following Eliza's purchase of Dixieland: the wedding was arranged on a lavish scale, and took place in the big dining-room of the house. Gant and his two older sons grinned sheepishly in unaccustomed evening dress, the Pentlands, faithful in their attendance at weddings and funerals, sent gifts and came. Will and Pett gave a heavy set of carving steels.
"I hope you always have something to use them on," said Will, flensing his hand, and winking at Joe Gambell.
Eugene remembered weeks of frantic preparation, dress fittings, rehearsals, the hysteria of Daisy, who stared at her nails until they went blue, and the final splendor of the last two days — the arriving gifts, the house, unnaturally cheerful with rich carpets and flowers, the perilous moment when their lives joined, the big packed dining-room, the droning interminable Scotch voice of the Presbyterian minister, the mounting triumph of the music when the grocery clerk got his bride. Later, the confusion, the greetings, the hysteria of the women. Daisy sobbing uncontrollably in the arms of a distant cousin, Beth Pentland, who had come up with her hearty red husband, the owner of a chain of small groceries in a South Carolina town, bringing gifts and a giant watermelon, and whose own grief was enhanced by the discovery, after the wedding, that the dress she had worked on weeks in advance she had put on, in her frenzy, wrong side out.
Thus Daisy passed more or less definitely out of Eugene's life, although he was to see her briefly on visits, but with decreasing frequency, in the years that followed. The grocery clerk was making the one daring gesture of his life: he was breaking away from the cotton town, in which all the years of his life had been passed, and from the long lazy hours of grocery clerks, the languorous gossip of lank cotton farmers and townsmen, to which he had been used. He had found employment as a commercial traveller for a food products company: his headquarters was to be in Augusta, Georgia, but he was to travel into the far South.
This rooting up of his life, this adventure into new lands, the effort to improve his fortune and his state, was his wedding gift to his wife — a bold one, but imperilled already by distrust, fear, and his peasant suspicion of new scenes, new faces, new departures, of any life that differed from that of his village.
"There's no place like Henderson," said he, with complacent and annoying fidelity, referring to that haven of enervation, red clay, ignorance, slander, and superstition, in whose effluent rays he had been reared.
But he went to Augusta, and began his new life with Daisy in a lodging house. She was twenty-one, a slender, blushing girl who played the piano beautifully, accurately, academically, with a rippling touch, and no imagination. Eugene could never remember her very well.
In the early autumn after her marriage, Gant made the journey to Augusta, taking Eugene with him. The inner excitement of both was intense; the hot wait at the sleepy junction of Spartanburg, the ride in the dilapidated day coaches of the branch line that ran to Augusta, the hot baked autumnal land, rolling piedmont and pine woods, every detail of the landscape they drank in with thirsty adventurous eyes. Gant's roving spirit was parched for lack of travel: for Eugene, Saint Louis was a faint unreality, but there burned in him a vision of the opulent South, stranger even than his passionate winter nostalgia for the snow-bound North, which the drifted but short-lived snows in Altamont, the seizure of the unaccustomed moment for sledding and skating on the steep hills awakened in him with a Northern desire, a desire for the dark, the storm, the winds that roar across the earth and the triumphant comfort of warm walls which only a Southerner perhaps can know.
And he saw the town of Augusta first not in the drab hues of reality, but as one who bursts a window into the faery pageant of the world, as one who has lived in prison, and finds life and the earth in rosy dawn, as one who has lived in all the fabulous imagery of books, and finds in a journey only an extension and verification of it — so did he see Augusta, with the fresh washed eyes of a child, with glory, with enchantment.
They were gone two weeks. He remembered chiefly the brown stains of the recent flood, which had flowed through the town and inundated its lower floors, the broad main street, the odorous and gleaming drugstore, scented to him with all the spices of his fancy, the hills and fields of Aiken, in South Carolina, where he sought vainly for John D. Rockefeller, a legendary prince who, he heard, went there for sport, marvelling that two States could join imperceptibly, without visible markings, and the cotton gin where he saw the great press mash the huge raw bales cleanly into tight bundles half their former size.
Once, some children on the street had taunted him because of his long hair, and he had fallen into a cursing fury; once, in a rage at some quarrel with his sister, he set off on a world adventure, walking furiously for hours down a country road by the river and cotton fields, captured finally by Gant who sought for him in a hired rig.
They went to the theatre: it was one of the first plays he had seen. The play was a biblical one, founded on the story of Saul and Jonathan, and he whispered to Gant from scene to scene the trend of coming events — a precocity which pleased his father mightily, and to which he referred for months.
Just before they came home, Joe Gambell, in a fit of concocted petulance, resigned his position, and announced that he was returning to Henderson. His adventure had lasted three months.
In the years that followed, up to his eleventh or twelfth year when he could no longer travel on half fares, Eugene voyaged year by year into the rich mysterious South. Eliza, who, during her first winter at Dixieland, had been stricken by severe attacks of rheumatism, induced partly by kidney trouble, which caused her flesh to swell puffily, and which was diagnosed by the doctor as Bright's Disease, began to make extensive, although economical, voyages into Florida and Arkansas in search of health and, rather vaguely, in search of wealth.
She always spoke hopefully of the possibility of opening a boardinghouse at some tropical winter resort, during the seasons there and in Altamont. In winter now, she rented Dixieland for a few months, sometimes for a year, although she really had no intention of allowing the place to slip through her fingers during the profitable summer season: usually, she let the place go, more or less deliberately, to some unscrupulous adventuress of lodging houses, good for a month's or two months' rent, but incapable of the sustained effort that would support it for a longer time. On her return from her journey, with rents in arrears, or with some other violation of the contract as an entering wedge, Eliza would surge triumphantly into battle, making a forced entrance with police, plain clothes men, warrants, summonses, writs, injunctions, and all the other artillery of legal warfare, possessing herself forcibly, and with vindictive pleasure, of her property.
But she turned always into the South — the North for her was a land which she threatened often to explore, but which secretly she held in suspicion: there was in her no deep animosity because of an old war, her feeling was rather one of fear, distrust, alienation — the "Yankee" to whom she humorously referred was foreign and remote. So, she turned always into the South, the South that burned like Dark Helen in Eugene's blood, and she always took him with her. They still slept together.
His feeling for the South was not so much historic as it was of the core and desire of dark romanticism — that unlimited and inexplicable drunkenness, the magnetism of some men's blood that takes them into the heart of the heat, and beyond that, into the polar and emerald cold of the South as swiftly as it took the heart of that incomparable romanticist who wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, beyond which there is nothing. And this desire of his was unquestionably enhanced by all he had read and visioned, by the romantic halo that his school history cast over the section, by the whole fantastic distortion of that period where people were said to live in "mansions," and slavery was a benevolent institution, conducted to a constant banjo-strumming, the strewn largesses of the colonel and the shuffle-dance of his happy dependents, where all women were pure, gentle, and beautiful, all men chivalrous and brave, and the Rebel horde a company of swagger, death-mocking cavaliers. Years later, when he could no longer think of the barren spiritual wilderness, the hostile and murderous intrenchment against all new life — when their cheap mythology, their legend of the charm of their manner, the aristocratic culture of their lives, the quaint sweetness of their drawl, made him writhe — when he could think of no return to their life and its swarming superstition without weariness and horror, so great was his fear of the legend, his fear of their antagonism, that he still pretended the most fanatic devotion to them, excusing his Northern residence on grounds of necessity rather than desire.
Finally, it occurred to him that these people had given him nothing, that neither their love not their hatred could injure him, that he owed them nothing, and he determined that he would say so, and repay their insolence with a curse. And he did.
So did his boundaries stretch into enchantment — into fabulous and solitary wonder broken only by Eliza's stingy practicality, by her lack of magnificence in a magnificent world, by the meals of sweet rolls and milk and butter in an untidy room, by the shoe boxes of luncheon carried on the trains and opened in the diner, after a lengthy inspection of the menu had led to the ordering of coffee, by the interminable quarrels over price and charges in almost every place they went, by her commands to him to "scrooch up" when the conductor came through for the tickets, for he was a tall lank boy, and his half-fare age might be called to question.
She took him to Florida in the late winter following Gant's return from Augusta: they went to Tampa first, and, a few days later, to Saint Petersburg. He plowed through the loose deep sand of the streets, fished interminably with jolly old men at the end of the long pier, devoured a chest full of dime novels that he found in the rooms she had rented in a private house. They left abruptly, after a terrific quarrel with the old Cracker who ran the place, who thought himself tricked out of the best part of a season's rent, and hurried off to South Carolina on receipt of a hysterical message from Daisy which bade her mother to "come at once." They arrived in the dingy little town, which was sticky with wet clay, and clammy with rain, in late March: Daisy's first child, a boy, had been born the day before. Eliza, annoyed at what she considered the useless disruption of her holiday, quarrelled bitterly with her daughter a day or two after her arrival, and departed for Altamont with the declaration, which Daisy ironically applauded, that she would never return again. But she did.
The following winter she went to New Orleans at the season of the Mardi Gras, taking her youngest with her. Eugene remembered the huge cisterns for rain-water, in the back yard of Aunt Mary's house, the heavy window-rattling thunder of Mary's snores at night, and the vast pageantry of carnival on Canal Street: the storied floats, the smiling beauties, the marching troops, the masks grotesque and fantastical. And once more he saw ships at anchor at the foot of Canal Street; and their tall keels looked over on the street behind the sea walls; and in the cemeteries all the graves were raised above the ground "because," said Oll, Gant's nephew, "the water rots 'em."
And he remembered the smells of the French market, the heavy fragrance of the coffee he drank there, and the foreign Sunday gaiety of the city's life — the theatres open, the sound of hammer and saw, the gay festivity of crowds. He visited the Boyles, old guests at Dixieland, who lived in the old French quarter, sleeping at night with Frank Boyle in a vast dark room lighted dimly with tapers: they had as cook an ancient negress who spoke only French, and who returned from the Market early in the morning bearing a huge basket loaded with vegetables, tropical fruits, fowls, meats. She cooked strange delicious food that he had never tasted before — heavy gumbo, garnished steaks, sauced fowls.
And he looked upon the huge yellow snake of the river, dreaming of its distant shores, the myriad estuaries lush with tropical growth that fed it, all the romantic life of plantation and canefields that fringed it, of moonlight, of dancing darkies on the levee, of slow lights on the gilded river boat, and the perfumed flesh of black-haired women, musical wraiths below the phantom drooping trees.
They had but shortly returned from Mardi Gras when, one howling night in winter, as he lay asleep at Gant's, the house was wakened by his father's terrible cries. Gant had been drinking heavily, day after fearful day. Eugene had been sent in the afternoons to his shop to fetch him home, and at sundown, with Jannadeau's aid, had brought him, behind the negro's spavined horse, roaring drunk to his house. There followed the usual routine of soup-feeding, undressing, and holding him in check until Doctor McGuire arrived, thrust his needle deeply into Gant's stringy arm, left sleeping-powders, and departed. The girl was exhausted; Gant himself had ravaged his strength, and had been brought down by two or three painful attacks of rheumatism.
Now, he awoke in the dark, possessed by his terror and agony, for the whole right side of his body was paralyzed by such pain as he did not know existed. He cursed and supplicated God alternately in his pain and terror. For days doctor and nurse strove with him, hoping that the leaping inflammation would not strike at his heart. He was gnarled, twisted, and bent with a savage attack of inflammatory rheumatism. As soon as he had recovered sufficiently to travel, he departed, under Helen's care, for Hot Springs. Almost savagely, she drove all other assistance from him, devoting every minute of the day to his care: they were gone six weeks — occasionally post-cards and letters describing a life of hotels, mineral baths, sickness and lameness, and the sport of the blooded rich, came to add new colors to Eugene's horizon: when they returned Gant was able again to walk, the rheumatism had been boiled from his limbs, but his right hand, gnarled and stiff, was permanently crippled. He was never again able to close it, and there was something strangely chastened in his manner, a gleam of awe and terror in his eyes.
But the union between Gant and his daughter was finally consummated. Before Gant lay, half-presaged, a road of pain and terror which led on to death, but as his great strength dwindled, palsied, broke along that road, she went with him inch by inch, welding beyond life, beyond death, beyond memory, the bond that linked them.
"I'd have died if it hadn't been for that girl," he said over and over. "She saved my life. I couldn't get along without her." And he boasted again and again of her devotion and loyalty, of the expenses of his journey, of the hotels, the wealth, the life they both had seen.
And, as the legend of Helen's goodness and devotion grew, and his dependence upon her got further advertisement, Eliza pursed her lips more and more thoughtfully, wept sometimes into the spitting grease of a pan, smiled, beneath her wide red nose, a smile tremulous, bitter, terribly hurt.
"I'll show them," she wept. "I'll show them." And she rubbed thoughtfully at a red itching patch that had appeared during the year upon the back of her left hand.
She went to Hot Springs in the winter that followed. They stopped at Memphis for a day or two: Steve was at work there in a paint store; he slipped quickly in and out of saloons, as he took Eugene about the city, leaving the boy outside for a moment while he went "in here to see a fellow" — a "fellow" who always sent him forth, Eugene thought, with an added impetuosity to his swagger.
Dizzily they crossed the river: at night he saw the small bleared shacks of Arkansas set in malarial fields.
Eliza sent him to one of the public schools of Hot Springs: he plunged heavily into the bewildering new world — performed brilliantly, and won the affection of the young woman who taught him, but paid the penalty of the stranger to all the hostile and banded little creatures of the class. Before his first month was out, he had paid desperately for his ignorance of their customs.
Eliza boiled herself out at the baths daily; sometimes, he went along with her, leaving her with a sensation of drunken independence, while he went into the men's quarters, stripping himself in a cool room, entering thence a hot one lined with couches, shutting himself in a steam-closet where he felt himself momently dwindling into the raining puddle of sweat at his feet, to emerge presently on trembling legs and to be rolled and kneaded about magnificently in a huge tub by a powerful grinning negro. Later, languorous, but with a feeling of deep purification, he lay out on one of the couches, victoriously his own man in a man's world. They talked from couch to couch, or walked pot-belliedly about, sashed coyly with bath towels — malarial Southerners with malarial drawls, paunch-eyed alcoholics, purple-skinned gamblers, and broken down prizefighters. He liked the smell of steam and of the sweaty men.
Eliza sent him out on the streets at once with The Saturday Evening Post.
"It won't hurt you to do a little light work after school," said she. And as he trudged off with his sack slung from his neck, she would call after him:
"Spruce up, boy! Spruce up! Throw your shoulders back. Make folks think you're somebody." And she gave him a pocketful of printed cards, which bore this inscription:
SPEND YOUR SUMMERS AT DIXIELAND
In Beautiful Altamont, America's Switzerland.
Rates Reasonable — Both Transient and Tourist.
Apply Eliza E. Gant, Prop.
"You've got to help me drum up some trade, if we're to live, boy," she said again, with the lip-pursing, mouth-tremulous jocularity that was coming to wound him so deeply, because he felt it was only an obvious mask for a more obvious insincerity.
He writhed as he saw himself finally a toughened pachyderm in Eliza's world — sprucing up confidently, throwing his shoulders back proudly, making people "think he was somebody" as he cordially acknowledged an introduction by producing a card setting forth the joys of life in Altamont and at Dixieland, and seized every opening in social relations for the purpose of "drumming up trade." He hated the jargon of the profession, which she had picked up somewhere long before, and which she used constantly with such satisfaction — smacking her lips as she spoke of "transients," or of "drumming up trade." In him, as in Gant, there was a silent horror of selling for money the bread of one's table, the shelter of one's walls, to the guest, the stranger, the unknown friend from out the world; to the sick, the weary, the lonely, the broken, the knave, the harlot, and the fool.
Thus, lost in the remote Ozarks, he wandered up Central Avenue, fringed on both sides by the swift-sloping hills, for him, by the borders of enchantment, the immediate portals of a land of timeless and neverending faery. He drank endlessly the water that came smoking from the earth, hoping somehow to wash himself clean from all pollution, beginning his everlasting fantasy of the miraculous spring, or the bath, neck-high, of curative mud, which would draw out of a man's veins each drop of corrupted blood, dry up in him a cancerous growth, dwindle and absorb a cyst, remove all scorbutic blemishes, scoop and suck and thread away the fibrous slime of all disease, leaving him again with the perfect flesh of an animal.
And he gazed for hours into the entrances of the fashionable hotels, staring at the ladies' legs upon the verandas, watching the great ones of the land at their recreations, thinking, with a pang of wonder, that here were the people of Chambers, of Phillips, of all the society novelists, leading their godlike lives in flesh, recording their fiction. He was deeply reverential before the grand manner of these books, particularly before the grand manner of the English books: there people loved, but not as other people, elegantly; their speech was subtle, delicate, exquisite; even in their passions there was no gross lust or strong appetite-they were incapable of the vile thoughts or the meaty desire of common people. As he looked at the comely thighs of the young women on horses, fascinated to see their shapely legs split over the strong good smell of a horse, he wondered if the warm sinuous vibration of the great horse-back excited them, and what their love was like. The preposterous elegance of their manner in the books awed him: he saw seduction consummated in kid gloves, to the accompaniment of subtle repartee. Such thoughts, when he had them, filled him with shame at his own baseness — he imagined for these people a love conducted beyond all the laws of nature, achieving the delight of animals or of common men by the electrical touch of a finger, the flicker of an eye, the intonation of a phrase — exquisitely and incorruptibly.
And as they looked at his remote fabulous face, more strange now that its thick fringing curls had been shorn, they bought of him, paying him several times his fee, with the lazy penitence of wasters.
Great fish within the restaurant windows swam in glass wells — eels coiled snakily, white-bellied trout veered and sank: he dreamed of strange rich foods within.
And sometimes men returned in carriages from the distant river, laden with great fish, and he wondered if he would ever see that river. All that lay around him, near but unexplored, filled him with desire and longing.
And later, again, along the sandy coast of Florida, with Eliza, he wandered down the narrow lanes of Saint Augustine, raced along the hard packed beach of Daytona, scoured the green lawns of Palm Beach, before the hotels, for cocoanuts, which Eliza desired as souvenirs, filling a brown tow sack with them and walking, with the bag hung from his shoulders, down the interminable aisles of the Royal Poinciana or the Breakers, target of scorn, and scandal, and amusement from slave and prince; or traversed the spacious palm-cool walks that cut the peninsula, to see, sprawled in the sensual loose sand the ladies' silken legs, the brown lean bodies of the men, the long seaplunges in the unending scroll-work of the emerald and infinite sea, which had beat in his brain from his father's shells, which had played at his mountain heart, but which never, until now, had he seen. Through the spattered sunlight of the palms, in the smooth walks, princess and lord were wheeled: in latticed bar-rooms, droning with the buzzing fans, men drank from glacéd tall glasses.
Or again, they came to Jacksonville, lived there for several weeks near Pett and Greeley; he studied under a little crippled man from Harvard, going to lunch with his teacher at a buffet, where the man consumed beer and pretzels. Eliza protested the tuition when she left: the cripple shrugged his shoulders, took what she had to offer. Eugene twisted his neck about, and lifted his foot from the ground.
Thus did he see first, he the hill-bound, the sky-girt, of whom the mountains were his masters, the fabulous South. The picture of flashing field, of wood, and hill, stayed in his heart forever: lost in the dark land, he lay the night-long through within his berth, watching the shadowy and phantom South flash by, sleeping at length, and waking suddenly, to see cool lakes in Florida at dawn, standing quietly as if they had waited from eternity for this meeting; or hearing, as the train in the dark hours of morning slid into Savannah, the strange quiet voices of the men upon the platform, the boding faint echoes of the station, or seeing, in pale dawn, the phantom woods, a rutted lane, a cow, a boy, a drab, dull-eyed against a cottage door, glimpsed, at this moment of rushing time, for which all life had been aplot, to flash upon the window and be gone.
The commonness of all things in the earth he remembered with a strange familiarity — he dreamed of the quiet roads, the moonlit woodlands, and he thought that some day he would come to them on foot, and find them there unchanged, in all the wonder of recognition. They had existed for him anciently and forever.
Eugene was almost twelve years old.
Copyright © 1929 by Charles Scribner's Sons
LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe
Look Homeward, Angel is the epic coming-of-age story of Eugene Gant, a brilliant and restless young man whose passion for a greater intellectual life shapes his adolescent years in rural North Carolina. Wolfe's vivid characterization of the incomparable Gants — including Eugene's charismatic and alcoholic father and his miserly real estate tycoon mother — and his detailed observations of small town life form the foundation for this classic work of American literature. The most famous novel from one of our greatest authors, Look Homeward, Angel is a truly unforgettable masterpiece.
Discussion Questions for Robert Morgan's Introduction
1. In his introduction to Look Homeward, Angel, Robert Morgan quotes Harold Bloom as saying of Wolfe's work, "One cannot discuss the literary merits of Thomas Wolfe; he has none." Yet he also discredits Bloom by noting that Wolfe has had one of the biggest influences on contemporary fiction after Hemingway and Faulkner. Why do you think the work of Faulkner and Hemingway has remained extremely popular with critics and readers while Wolfe's work has floated under the radar? What elements of Wolfe's work do you find more accessible to you as a reader? What are the major differences between Wolfe's work and the work of Faulkner, Hemingway, and his other contemporaries?
2. Part of Wolfe's great legacy is that he has captured the imagination of young readers for decades. In his introduction Morgan says that when he read Wolfe's work as an older reader "the choral sections, the rhapsodic passages, seemed less interesting than the realism andsatire." What other elements of Look Homeward, Angel do you think enhance its appeal for younger readers? What elements of the novel can you relate to at this point in your life? Who would you recommend this novel to? Discuss the ways that Wolfe's work might appeal to readers of many ages and backgrounds.
3. Robert Morgan says in his introduction that he has been heavily influenced by Wolfe's work. If you have read the work of Robert Morgan (his most well known book is the Oprah Book Club pick Gap Creek) discuss the influence of Wolfe's work on his writing. Which Southern writers has Wolfe influenced the most? What qualities do Southern novels have that make them so appealing to wide audiences?
4. Which other contemporary writers do you think have been influenced by Wolfe? What do you consider Wolfe's greatest achievement in writing Look Homeward, Angel?
Discussion Questions for Look Homeward, Angel
1. In the years since Look Homeward, Angel was first published literary critics have argued over whether Wolfe's style is brilliantly experimental or undisciplined and unstructured. How would you describe Wolfe's style? What do you think of it? How would you compare it to the styles of his contemporaries, such as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce and Dorothy Parker?
2. From the time Eugene is a baby, Wolfe writes, "He understood that men were forever strangers to one another, that no one ever comes really to know any one...." (p. 31). This idea comes up many times throughout the novel. Do you agree with Eugene? How do the events of Eugene's life reinforce his initial feeling that this is true?
3. From Gant's drunkenness to Steve's abusive behavior to Eliza's self-centeredness, many of Eugene's family members have unlikable qualities. Knowing that Look Homeward, Angel is heavily autobiographical; how objective would you imagine Wolfe has been in retelling the story of his family? Which of Eugene's family members do you find most sympathetic, and why? Are you sympathetic to Eugene?
4. What do you think of the way race and race relations are handled in the novel? Think about the way Wolfe depicts Jews and African-Americans. How do you think Wolfe's attitude toward race compares to the attitudes of his contemporaries?
5. What different meanings does the title hold? Think of Gant's stone angels, Ben's conversation with "his angel", and Eugene's feelings toward Margaret Leonard, whom he also considers "his angel."
6. The Leonards become something of a second family for Eugene. How does their role compare with that of his biological family? What do the Leonards provide Eugene aside from his education?
7. What is Eugene's attitude toward women? Discuss the way women act as a catalyst in his life. Consider Eliza, Helen, Laura James, the woman Eugene encounters on his paper route, Mrs. Pert, and Margaret Leonard. What does Eugene want and expect from the various women in his life? How important is romantic love in Wolfe's world?
8. How does Eugene's struggle with his family and his birthplace parallel the struggle that all Americans face?
9. Near the end of the novel Gant tells Eliza, "You've had a hard life. If I'd acted different, we might have got along together" (p. 466). Discuss Eliza and Gant's relationship. How does their relationship influence their children's lives?
10. What effect does Ben's death have on the various members of his family? How does it change them? What does it symbolize to Eugene? What does Ben's death say about his life?
11. In a novel so concerned with realism, why do you think Wolfe chose to end the novel with a scene between Eugene and Ben's ghost? How does this scene relate to the novel's overarching themes?
12. At the end of Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe writes that Eugene "stood for the last time by the angels of his father's porch...like a man who stands upon a hill above the town he has left, yet does not say 'The Town is near,' but turns his eyes upon the distant soaring ranges" (p. 522). What do you think this last passage means? What do you imagine happens to Eugene once he leaves for Harvard?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1. Check out http://www.exploreasheville.com for information on Asheville, North Carolina, the town where Thomas Wolfe grew up and the inspiration for the setting of Look Homeward, Angel. The site includes information on guided tours available at Wolfe's boyhood home, an old boardinghouse on which he based his descriptions of Dixieland. Sign up for a tour if you're in the area!
2. At your book club meeting, serve ice cream sodas or a pitcher of refreshing limeade, the childhood treats Eugene enjoyed with his father. Find recipes at http://drink.allrecipes.com/az/Limd.asp and http://www.recipezaar.com/130633. Or, host an entire potluck dinner of traditional Southern dishes such as fried chicken and buttermilk biscuits.
3. In Of Time and the River, Wolfe's sequel to Look Homeward, Angel, Eugene goes to Harvard and embarks upon his adult life. If your book club enjoyed Look Homeward, Angel, read the sequel and discuss the way Wolfe has evolved and changed as a writer.
4. For more information on Wolfe, visit www.thomaswolfe.org and www.wolfememorial.com.
2. Describe the structure of Look Homeward, Angel. Discuss Wolfe's literary voice and his use of dramatic episodes and lyricism. How does Wolfe use both angels and trains symbolically? What significance does the title Look Homeward,Angel gather in the course of the novel?
3 In what ways does the novel powerfully represent the American struggle to go beyond the limitations of home and hometown? In what ways is the novel a search for America as well?
4. Describe the conflict which rages inside of Eugene Gant? How does it become the underlying force in the story?
5. Look Homeward, Angel is concerned with family and breaking away. Discuss this theme as it emerges in the book as well as in the exchanges between Eugene and Eliza, Eugene and Mr. Gant, Eugene and Ben.
6. Wolfe clearly states in the opening pages: "That we are born alone -- all of us who ever lived or will live -- that we live alone, and die alone, and that we are strangers to one another, and never come to know one another." How does this sentiment pervade the novel? How does Wolfe develop it as a leitmotiv? Who else in the novel, besides Eugene, is alone?
7. Women play a significant role in Wolfe's novel, especially Eliza, Margaret, Laura James, and Helen. What distinguishes Wolfe's female characters? What do they all have in common? How do these women shape events? What impact do they have on Eugene's growth and ultimate transformation?
8. Discuss the impetus Wolfe's male charactersprovide Eugene. What characterizes Wolfe's male characters? How do Mr. Gant, Ben, Steve, and Luke contribute to Eugene's ultimate fate? What role do Wolfe's male characters play in the events, in the family?
9. How might Wolfe perceive his own characters? Does he offer any insights into their troubles? Does he treat them sympathetically? If so, how? In what ways do Wolfe's characters, in particular Eugene, try to win love? What keeps them from obtaining it? Do Wolfe's characters ever break through to one another? If so, who, how, and when?
10. Beginning with the death of Mr. Gant's grandfather, to the death of Mr. Gant's first child, death is a constant presence in Look Homeward, Angel. What impact does Ben's death have on the Gant family? Specifically, how does it alter Eugene's life and perspective? Why is Ben's death ironic in the novel? How does the story build to this climax? What does Ben's death accomplish that his life could not?
11. Why might Wolfe have ended the novel with a visitation of Ben's ghost with Eugene? What is its significance both for Eugene and for the novel?
12. What vision of human nature does Look Homeward, Angel seem to express? Does Wolfe prove or suggest a vision of an ideal world? What might it be?
Posted September 4, 2012
Look Homeward, Angel is Thomas Wolfe's masterwork, the novel that made his reputation. Born in Asheville, NC, in 1900, he was educated at the University of North Carolina and at Harvard. He spent his time teaching and traveling, building his reputation as one of America's master novelists. Wolfe died in 1938.
The novel tells the life of the Gant family in a small mountain town in North Carolina. It is widely acknowledged that the town is Asheville, NC and that the book is a thinly disguised account of Wolfe's own life there.
The Gant family was made of Oliver and Eliza Gant and their children, Steve, Luke, the twins Ben and Grover, the girls Daisy and Helen, and the baby, Eugene. Eugene is the individual whose life most closely mimics Wolfe's own. The family is portrayed for the twenty years of Eugene's childhood and early manhood, as he grows up and learns that he must move on to achieve what he wants from life.
The daily lives of the Gant family are richly portrayed, each detail building upon the next to demonstrate daily life in the mountain region of North Carolina from 1900 to 1920. Oliver is a stone mason, Eliza becomes the owner of a boardinghouse. They both are so consumed with the thought of money and what it takes to make a living that they neglected the emotional lives of their children. The children are left to provide emotional support for each other, to force their way through life trying, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing to achieve their goals.
Education was a great good, although expensive and those who had the opportunity to get an education were reminded daily of their great fortune. Wolfe details the daily working life of laborers, of those revered in small towns such as lawyers, doctors and politicians. He covers the relationships between men and women, and those between the races. The first Great War and the iinfluenza epidemic are covered. The United States was changing and the Gant family is a representation of how the country changed over this time period.
This book is recommended for readers interested in knowing how daily life was in western North Carolina during the early years of the 19th century as the population moved from a rural to a city focus. It is intricately detailed and moves the reader through the daily life of this family and the constant questions of why we are here and what we are to do with our lives.
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Posted January 27, 2007
Read the book just to appreciate beautiful, evocative prose. The wonderful images he could conjure have lived with me for many years.
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Posted October 14, 2000
I've read passages in LHA four and five times the way a glutton can't stop gorging on ice cream -- headache be damned. Wolfe is that good. BAD NEWS: Wolfe didn't blaze a path for us, the readers, through his dense jungle of some of the most convoluted, yet funniest, most luxurious 19th Century prose ever written. So, you stand forewarned, you're going to have to pick and choose your own way. Take it slow. WARNING: LHA is NOT for readers and other mountain grills under the age of 50 for whom the alexin of their entertainment is a digital kalidiscope of pulsating video images backed by a cacophony of metal and strings. Nevertheless, young readers, try LHA -- Wolfe wrote it for you. Young Gene is all of you coming-of-age types out there. MORE TROUBLE: This is Wolfe's first book, and it's loaded with 200+ thinly disguised denizens of Asheville, NC, many of whose children and grandchildren still grumble and cuss about Wolfe's evil portrayal of their kinfolk in LHA. FINALLY THIS: Wolfe applauded Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics loudly enough to irritate Hitler; Wolfe was bothered by the treatment of Jews in Europe. During the few years prior to his death at age 38 in 1938, Wolfe was gaining a social conscience. Yet, unmistakeably, many of the 522 pages of LHA stink of antisemitism and racism. Wolfe was politically correct for his times, as a Harvard-educated, Scribner-published author of the 1920s-1930s, but readers today will have to drill down deep to rationalize some of the more visceral passages drawn by Wolfe of 'Niggertown' or 'Pigtail Alley.' ENJOY
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A wonderful surprise. I picked this off the store shelf with no prior knowledge of the author or of the title. Thomas Wolf convincingly captured
the daily lives of an early twentieth family with a delightful sense of poetic imagination. His evocation of time and place is a joy to read. Although the story would lag a bit from time to time, the reader is eager to return to the characters and anticipate resolutions to their dilemmas. The lives of the Gants resonated with me long after I finished the novel. Wolfe is a solid, careful writer with a sense of intriguing idealistic realism.
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Posted October 27, 2007
Wolfe was gifted in prose, modeled his writing after great authors of his time, his prose apparently a priority over literary genius, which we think of as a gift of words exercised in the service of something huge, like compassion, truth, beauty or human potential¿something that uplifts or encourages, something larger than one¿s self. Except for the racism, which the author was ignorant of¿and we must keep in mind this was written about three quarters of a century ago¿this is an accomplished novel for its time. Many authors use the novel format to lament the cruel injustices that happened to them. His father, Oliver had just met his future wife¿s family. ¿And as they sat there in the hot little room with its warm odor of mellowing apples, the vast winds howled down from the hills, there was a roaring in the pines, remote and demented, the bare boughs clashed. And as they peeled, or pared, or whittled, their talk slid from its rude jocularity to death and burial: they drawled monotonously, with evil hunger, their gossip of destiny, and of men but newly lain in the earth.¿ This is American realism as it came to prominence between the World Wars, a movement that attempted to shake loose from the tradition. Look Homeward, Angel concerns the history of Eugene Gant, actually Wolfe himself, from a few years before his birth in North Carolina to his departure for graduate school at Harvard University. Learning to deal with an alcoholic father and warped mother, and older siblings, he explores the town from its wealthiest mansions to it most degraded poverty and racism, shows promise in school, reads incessantly and plots himself the drama king that is his life. He falls in love, attends college, and after struggling finds a place of prominence for himself there. Eugene's melodramatic account of his love for a boarder in his mother's hotel takes on Shakespearian quality. He comes home, loses a favorite brother to tuberculosis and discovers the comforts of alcohol himself. He confronts his family's collective idiosyncrasies and leaves heading North, harboring the conviction that no one has ever suffered like this before. Maybe he realized that his experiences are universal, but he has the rare ability to dramatize the story. ¿¿But , amid the fumbling march of races to extinction, the giant rhythms of the earth remained. The seasons passed in their majestic processionals, and germinal Spring returned forever on the land¿new crops, new men, new harvests, and new gods.¿ His descriptions are vivid and his sensuality overwhelming. This is the effect of his prose. Trish New, author of The Thrill of Hope, South State Street Journal, and Memory Flatlined.
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Posted April 1, 2005
When i first read this book i thought it was boring. It doesn't start to get interesting until part 3. However i recommend this book because the language is absolutely beautiful and because everyone can relate to it. This book has a very deep meaning. But be warned the beauty of this book just might make u cry like me!
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Posted July 25, 2013
Posted March 22, 2012
This book would've been really good had the unnecessary parts been cut out....like about 200 pages. The author would go on and on about insignificant details. Found the relative parts of the book interesting though.
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Posted March 23, 2009
I really wanted to love this book. I am from NC and understand and appreciate the conflict of having ideas bigger than the place one lives. I love his use of language. But it really lacks focus and true meaning. It was quite difficult to get past the baseness of his character. The sexism and racism that he unapologetically indulges himself in with no redemption.
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Posted October 7, 2004
At its worst, Wolfe's prose evokes all the gusto of watching an old man picking nails out a wall. At its best, it inspires moments of pathos and joy unparalleled, an insatiable wanderlust ad infinitum, and the detached, bittersweet feeling of being at odds with everything and everyone, most of all yourself. Did it require all these pages? Probably not- but such was the man's style. Read it for the wonderful moments caught between lulls.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 10, 2001
I recommend Look Homeward, Angel to anyone searching for his or her identity. Therefore, I recommend it to everyone since we should all search for understanding ourselves forever and ever. We can all appreciate parts of this book. High school-aged students might be able to handle it if they are pensive readers¿ If you grow weary from heavily worded literature, this book may not keep your interest all the time. At times, I felt like I was forcing myself to tolerate the repetition of Wolfe¿s seemingly favorite word choices¿`loamy,¿ `spermy,¿ `inchoate,¿ to name a few. Also, the tone of the book is a bit overly dramatic and heavy, like an unnecessarily emotional woman; you may feel like plugging your ears. Otherwise, this book invokes the remarkable and unsettling sensation of never quite understanding one¿s place in this world¿feeling restless and apart from it all. Without a doubt, I know that not everything in this book reached me¿but I know it¿s there, and that¿s why I will read it again and hopefully appreciate it more someday. `O lost!¿ for now, perhaps.
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