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Portrait of a Marriage
By Pearl S. Buck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1945 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
The June landscape of Pennsylvania was full of pictures. Young William Barton, surveying it from under an ancient ash tree upon a low hill, could not make his choice of which one he would paint. He sat upon the grass, his arms clasping his knees. There to the right of him was the Delaware River, a smooth flow of silver between green banks. To the left of him was a valley and in it a small town hidden except for church spires and sloping roofs set in trees. Below him was a farm, cows in the meadows and waving wheat and a red barn and an old stone farmhouse. In a field of red-brown earth a farmer was ploughing for corn.
He looked at the richness about him and asked himself if it were perhaps too rich and the beauty too lush for a canvas. Did such plenteousness also contain monotony? It needed an accent.
As if in answer to his demand he saw the accent appear. The door of the farmhouse opened and a girl in a blue dress and a white apron came briskly out into the sunshine. She had a bell in her hand and she rang it with a wide sweep of vigor. The sound came up the hill, clear and full.
"Can it be noon already?" he asked himself. He had no watch because he always said he did not want to know time when he painted. But if it were already midday, then he had let the morning pass without any work done. He looked up through the leafy green above him. The sun was poised at the zenith above the top of the trees, and moreover, he was hungry. The morning was over.
Feeling slightly ashamed of himself, he rose, took up his knapsack of paints and folding easel, and went down the hill toward the farmhouse. He would ask for a lunch and then perhaps, his conscience salvaging, he could find in the closer perspectives of the farmhouse the picture he wanted and had not been able to see in all the variety of the plenteous landscape spread about him.
He walked across a meadow and by a narrow lane between low hedges of uneven yew he approached the door into which the girl had returned. As he drew near he smelled meat roasting and he was suddenly ravenous. Certainly he must have food whether he had worked or not. He knocked at the Dutch door, whose upper half was open, and stood waiting, hatless, because he never wore a hat when he was walking in the country. Someone came toward the door. He could hear quick, firm steps upon a bare floor, the sort of steps a strong young girl would make. Then she came into his sight in the shadowy hall and then she stood in the half-open doorway.
"What do you want?" she asked him.
It was the same girl. He recognized her blue dress, her white apron. But now, close to her rosy face, he saw that she had blue eyes and brown hair and was very pretty. Her eyes, wide and quiet, looked at him with directness as she waited for him to speak.
"Could you—" he began, "I mean, I hope it doesn't seem rude for a complete stranger, but I happened to see you ring the bell and suddenly I was hungry. Would it be possible for you to let me have something to eat?"
Her rather resolute young face stayed grave. Not a tramp, her candid eyes were reflecting, because his clothes were too good, and he did not talk like a tramp.
"We don't give meals out," she said doubtfully.
William laughed. He had seen her clear little thoughts.
"I'm quite respectable," he said. "I happen to paint pictures, and I'm on a painting trip, that's all. And I will pay for my food, please."
Her red and white skin flushed. "'Tisn't that," she said. "It's just that—wait a minute, and I'll go speak to Pop."
She disappeared and William waited, looking about him with pleasure. The house was made of fieldstone, brown and dull red and streaked with weathered gold. In the chimney there was an oval of white marble inscribed, T. H. and M. H. 1805. Over the porch a trumpet vine climbed in full leaf but not yet flowering.
"Come in!" a man's voice shouted.
William turned with a slight smile. A grey-bearded farmer was coming toward the door. "Come in and have some dinner!" he shouted. He threw the lower door open and stood, shortbodied in his blue jeans. His shirt, opened at the throat, showed a mat of reddish hair.
"May I?" William said gratefully. Tonight when he reached home this would be an experience to tell his parents.
"How charming," his mother would say.
"Quite European," his father would agree.
They both knew the peasants of Europe better than the farmers of their own state. The irritation of a discussion about this with his father only a few days ago had been the spur that had driven him to a painting trip. He had argued that good pictures were waiting to be painted of American countryside, the more hotly because he knew it was partly because he did not want to go to Europe again this summer.
"The countryside here is raw," his father had said with his usual gentle certainty on any subject concerning art. "There is no depth. It has not been lived in long enough."
"I'd rather like to show you, sir," William had said. His father's unbelieving smile had compelled him to it. William had a deep stubbornness of his own—had to have it, he thought, because of his mother.
Now he entered the shadowy hall. The stone house was as cool as a cellar.
"Come right in," the farmer said heartily. "Harnsbarger's my name—and Harnsbargers' is the house. Four generations of us lived here, and my children'll be the fifth. We eat in the kitchen—straight ahead down the passage and then turn left."
"Thanks," William said. He felt quite at home with this sort of man. He liked simple people; they gave him a chance to be himself.
They were in the kitchen now, a big stone-floored room, and in the middle of the outer end wall was a wide fireplace in which a cook stove had been put. Above were great oak beams, smoked to a dark brown. By a window the table was set, and beside it a woman in a full-skirted brown dress was cutting bread. The pretty girl stood waiting at her own place.
"Ruth, put another plate," Mr. Harnsbarger ordered her. "Sit down," he said to William.
"You are Mrs. Harnsbarger," William said with his quick smile to the woman.
She nodded, too shy to smile or to speak.
"And you," William said to the girl, "are Miss Ruth Harnsbarger."
"Yes," the girl replied calmly.
They sat down and ate. The food was plain and delicious. No one spoke until hunger was first appeased. It was the way people should eat when they were hungry, William thought, the good food absorbing every hungry sense. He was often weary of the polite necessities for useless conversation at the meals in his parents' house where food seemed held unworthy of notice for its own sake. He liked the dishes set upon the table before his eyes instead of at his elbow upon a silver tray. His hunger quickened as he helped himself.
"You from around here?" Mr. Harnsbarger said suddenly. His plate was soon empty, and he passed it to his wife to be filled again.
"My home is in Philadelphia," William replied.
"Folks in business there?" Mr. Harnsbarger asked again.
"My father owns a railroad," William replied. He had not in years seen his father do anything that could be called work.
"Business good?" Mr. Harnsbarger went on, taking up a leg of chicken with fresh zest.
"It seems to be," William replied. He had never asked his father the question. From railroad dividends, he supposed, must come the money which kept the great house and gardens so beautifully neat and quiet, which paid for the pictures his father bought, and for his own years in Paris and his sister Louise's music. Louise had been married last winter, and the railroad, too, must have provided for her trousseau and wedding.
"Don't know nothing about that sort of business," Mr. Harnsbarger said frankly. He was gnawing the chicken from the bone, and William turned his eyes away.
They chanced to fall, quite naturally, upon the face across the table. A wonderfully pretty face, he thought again, and then it occurred to him that here was his picture. Why not? Here in this dusky old kitchen, with the dark, wide fireplace and the chimney piece for a background, he saw a picture Dutch in its light and dark interior and yet with that peculiar tridimensional depth he was beginning to develop as his own technique, which critics were already saying would be his peculiar gift to American painting. He hated the ordinary pretty girls with whom his world seemed surrounded, but this face was not ordinary in its prettiness. There was firmness in the way the red lips pressed each other, and a clear, warm determination shone out of the calm blue eyes. The combination of rounded pink cheeks and a smooth, full chin, broad forehead and straight nose was perfect in itself, and though there was nothing extraordinary in these features, yet there was character behind them. He made one of his impetuous decisions.
"I would like to paint your picture," he said warmly, leaning upon the table toward her.
They all looked at him, startled. Mr. Harnsbarger put down the chicken leg.
"I'd paint it here in this kitchen—" William went on.
"The kitchen!" the girl exclaimed. She was mortified, he could see, and he hastened to explain.
"It's a beautiful room to paint. The light from these small windows makes good shadows, and there is the black fireplace and you in that blue and white—"
"You wouldn't take her in her old clothes, yet," Mrs. Harnsbarger said. It was the first time she had spoken.
"I can't imagine anything better," William replied.
They were doubtful but flattered, he saw, and he pressed them, wanting the picture more earnestly each moment.
"Please!" he urged. "I have been looking everywhere to see what I could paint, and here it is. I won't disturb you—not much. I'll paint you while you work."
"I don't know as I'd want that," Ruth said doubtfully.
"Then you shall say what you'd like," William said eagerly. He leaped up and pushed a small, heavy old table to the window by the fireplace. "There, you could stand and put daisies in a jar—no, you must cut a loaf of bread!"
She hesitated a little, pleased, but looking from her father to her mother.
"I don't care," her father said in his loud voice. "Give the women their way is my motto. I got to get back to my field. Well, good day, mister!"
"Good day," William replied joyfully. The women he could persuade. "See, like this," he said. He took the girl's round, bare arm and led her gently to the table. "Like this," he said, posing her with quick touches upon her shoulders, her head, her hands.
From the table Mrs. Harnsbarger stared at him speechlessly. But he did not see her. He was watching something in the girl's eyes, a shy, dawning self-consciousness that made them liquid, that curved her sweet mouth and made her lips tremble.
"Why, you—you lovely thing!" he whispered. He rushed to the door and fetched his paintbox and easel and fastened his canvas. "Don't move!" he begged her, "don't change!" And he began to paint.
... He noticed suddenly and with unwillingness that the kitchen had begun to grow dim. He had painted all afternoon forgetting everything, even the girl standing before him. Twice Mrs. Harnsbarger had come to the door and stared in at them and gone away again. He had not spoken to her. But he was stopped now only by the fading of the colors in the twilight. He put down his brush and then he remembered the girl.
"Oh, how careless of me!" he cried. He saw her now, still patient in her pose. "How tired you are!"
She moved. "Seems a body shouldn't get tired just doin' nothin'," she murmured. She stood waiting, not knowing what would come next.
"Oh, but to do nothing is very wearisome," he said quickly. He was peering at his canvas, examining it minutely. It was good, he thought with rapture, very good. He would be proud to show it even to his father. But he would not risk those critical eyes until it was finished.
"May I leave my picture here overnight?" he asked. "I don't like carrying it back and forth when it's wet."
"'Twon't do no hurt, yet, if you do leave it," she said.
"Then where shall we put it out of the way?" he asked.
"I reckon the parlor'd be best," she said. She moved with a sturdy grace across the uneven floor and led the way while he followed, across a narrow passage into a square room whose blinds were drawn. She lit a candle on a table and he saw heavy, dark furniture and on the walls crayoned ancestral portraits. "Nobody comes here," she said.
"I'll be back tomorrow," he replied. He glanced swiftly about the incredible room as he set up his easel. He would describe this tonight at dinner, too.
But the kitchen, he thought, as he entered it again, was beautiful. That was because it was lived in. When people shaped a room to daily use, it became beautiful beyond their planning.
"I like this room," he said as he wiped his brushes. She stood watching him and at his words she lifted her eyes to his.
"This old kitchen?"
"This old kitchen," he repeated. He smiled as he put his paints away. Would it be worth while to explain to her the reasons for beauty? He decided it would not. Besides, why explain what she herself possessed in such abundance? He looked at her face with fresh appreciation and smiled into her eyes. Then he took up his knapsack and slung it over his shoulder.
"Good-by," he said.
She gave him in reply the smallest of smiles, and when he saw it he realized that it was the first time he had seen her face change its pure, grave tranquillity. He stopped, held by that change.
"Until tomorrow," he said.
She did not speak, but stood there, the smile upon her face. He went away, the look of her in his mind as clear as the picture he had half finished. All the way home he pondered that smile. Should he have put it upon her pictured face? He decided against it. No, lovely as the smile had been upon her lips, her gravity was lovelier.
So deep was he in his pondering that his father's house when he entered it seemed unfamiliar and remote. Yet this was the hall which he had entered year in, year out, of his whole life. A door opened and the butler came in noiselessly and took his knapsack and stick.
"Shall I do your brushes, Master William?"
William hesitated. He was always lazy about his brushes. Long ago he had taught old Martin to clean them. Now tonight, he wanted, without reason, to clean them himself.
"Thanks, I'll do them. I want to look at one or two of them."
"Very well, sir. I'll take them up."
"I'll take them up, thanks."
He took back the knapsack and mounted the stairs that swept in a great curve up three flights. At the top were his bedroom and his studio, hung with the pictures he had painted since he had first begun at eight. He kept them here, sensitively aware that his father thought none of them good enough to be hung in the gallery in the south wing. His father, as sensitive, said now and again, "Someday, my boy, you'll do a picture for me."
"I don't know if I ever can, Father."
"Of course, of course you can," the old gentleman insisted. To his wife in private he murmured doubtfully, "William has technique, Henrietta, but he has not found his inspiration."
Mrs. Barton had replied with her usual firmness, "I only hope that when he does find it, it will be a true one."
In his room now, William was aware of a curious feeling of daze. He was very tired. He had never before painted steadily for so many hours. Nothing before had been able to make him forget time and weariness. "I was inspired," he thought, wondering and half excited. Was this, he asked himself, the beginning of something new in his work, something for which all he had done as yet was only preparation? He had the feeling of power about to begin in him. Perhaps at last he had found his own material. Certainly he had painted today with swift ease and sureness. But was it good? He wished now he had brought the picture back with him. He was eager to examine it and see if it was really good. Or had he been deceived merely by the simplicity of his subject? He began to be impatient for the morrow, fearful lest he had been deceived.
In his uncertainty he decided to say nothing at all at the dinner table. He would not speak of his experience. He could not bear to speak of it, he decided in one of his characteristic impulses toward self-doubt. What if it were nothing?
He was glad he had so decided. When he went downstairs he found his sister Louise and her husband, Montrose Hubberd, unexpectedly in Philadelphia. That they were back in New York from a long honeymoon in Italy he had known, but their first visit had been arranged for the end of June, so that his parents could go back with Louise to Bar Harbor. On the stairs he heard Louise's high voice.
"Yes, we loved Italy, didn't we, Monty!"
A murmur signified Monty's reply. William disliked his brother-in-law without troubling to discover why. A tall, conventionally well-dressed figure, Monty was always a decoration to the background of any picture, but he never came out of that place. Thinking occasionally of the pale, flat-cheeked face with the dark mustache, William had wondered about the honeymoon. Could a woman honeymoon with Monty? But then, could a man honeymoon with Louise? It was difficult to imagine and smiling, he avoided it.
Excerpted from Portrait of a Marriage by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1945 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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