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It was sunday morning. The year was 1920, the place was Middlehope in eastern Pennsylvania, in the United States of America. Joan Richards, lying softly relaxed and asleep in her bed, opened her eyes quietly and fully to see the sunshine of June streaming into her window. The light illuminated every touch of blue in her blue and ivory room and fell upon the delicately faded cornflowers in the wallpaper. A small summery wind stirred the cream-colored ruffled curtains at the windows. The room was alive with wind and sunlight.
A rush of strong joy swept through her. She was home at last, home to stay. All her senior year of college she was conscious of being through with her girlhood, impatient to begin her woman's life. All during the last months she had been breaking away, bit by bit, from things which in the years before had absorbed her. Now even the final promises cried out across the campus, to write, to visit, never to forget, were tinged with unreality. In the life to come would she want to keep what she had? Who would stay—what friend fit her need now? She wanted everything as it came, to the full, packed, running over. She was confident of the years, reckless with plenty of time in her long life, plenty of vigor in her big body, plenty of everything needful for whatever she wanted to do. There was such plenty in her that for this hour she could push aside even her own plenty and lie in a happy pause. Later, when life came rushing at her, she would choose this and this. Today she would not choose—only enjoy.
She yawned and stretched herself and smiled. When she stretched, her head and feet touched the ends of the bed. She was always too big for her bed. She was always outgrowing everything—everything except home! She was glad her first morning at home was Sunday. She loved Sunday mornings in this old manse where they had lived since she was born, although on Sundays it was not really theirs. It belonged to the Presbyterian Brick Church, which belonged to the people of Middlehope, except those who were Baptists and Methodists. But these were not many. Middlehope was the Presbyterians, and perhaps the Episcopalians, like the Kinneys, who were too few to have a church of their own and so came to the Brick Church. Once a month her father held a special service for them, and read the Evening or Morning Prayer. She liked it. She liked the slight sense of pomp it introduced into the white-painted old church. She liked the robe her father wore. On other Sundays he wore his frock coat, buttoned tightly about his tall and slender body. There were a few people, like Mrs. Winters and Mr. Parson, who stayed away on Episcopal Sundays, but her father always did what he thought was right, anyway.
A clock struck somewhere in the house and echoed mellowly through the long hall to her room. She counted the slow musical notes. Eight. It was time to get up. In the minister's house on Sunday, breakfast must be over by nine. She sat up in bed, and then in the mirror facing her bed she saw herself, too big, always too big, but still surprisingly pretty.
She wanted desperately to be pretty. She so loved pretty people. In college she had often wondered if she could be called pretty. But perhaps she was really too tall. Perhaps at best she was only good-looking. There were even a few months in her sophomore year when she wore shirtwaists and mannish ties with success. Then she had revolted against them. She secretly loved wearing very feminine things, like the nightgown she had on. Above its pink lacy ruffles her head rose nobly, her long golden-brown braid over her shoulder. She admired her self a moment, her very clear blue-green eyes, her rather large red mouth, her smooth pale skin. Then she was guilty with her vanity. "Pretty is as pretty does," her mother always said. Curious how her mother's little moralities had lain so heavily on her when she was a child—could lie so heavily on her now if she let them! She would not let them. Nothing in life should ever make her sad—nothing, nothing! She wanted only pleasant things, pleasant thoughts, safety from suffering.
She lay back and savored deeply and with joy the fresh wind, the pretty color of the room, herself, her freedom. She was young and strong and free. Intensity flowed in and about her. She put herself wholly into this moment, into this instant of sunshine, at this hour on a quiet morning, in this house of peace. She felt an exquisite sharpening of every sense. Here it was quiet. Here it was safe. Here she was little again, a happy little child for an hour, waking as she had waked so many mornings of her life to the security of the walls about her, to food hot and delicious upon the table, to her mother's face on the right of her at breakfast and her father on the left, and across from her Francis and Rose, her brother and sister. They made a warm circle of intimacy and safety about her. She loved them ardently.
And beyond the garden gate was Middlehope, almost as near as her own family. Faces sprang into her mind—Mrs. Winters, Miss Kinney, old Mr. Parker—they would all be in church today, all eager to see her. She was richly surrounded by them all, waiting to love her because she was young and beautiful. Surely she was beautiful? In the quiet of the house, on this June morning, she lay waiting, waiting, sure of everything, about to begin richly but prolonging the delicious childlike hour.
Then through the intense Sunday stillness she heard a murmur, a dual murmur, a clear full voice sharply subdued, a lower steadier insistence. She could not catch the words, she had never been able to catch the words. This murmur she had heard at times all her life, coming from behind the closed doors of her parents' bedroom next to hers. As a child she had listened, sensitive to every atmosphere in her world, and hence troubled. Was it possible her father and mother were quarreling? But her mother always came out of the closed door with her usual brisk cheerful step.
"Now then, Joan darling," she would say pleasantly, "are you ready for breakfast?"
It could not be quarreling. At the table as a little girl she paused over her porridge and looked from one face to the other searchingly. But there was no new thing to see. Her mother's dark rosy face was cheerful, the eyes snapping and brown, her curly brown hair rising like a ruff from her forehead. Her father's pale serene face held its habitual high look. She was relieved. These two who were her childhood gods sat undisturbed upon their thrones. She forgot them and was at ease again. They were all happy. Everything was pleasant.
Yet in this moment she paused. The old sense of childish foreboding fell upon her once more. Were they not quarreling? Had it been quarreling all these years? She turned on her side and listened. She heard her mother's voice rise swiftly almost into articulateness and then stop. What was that muffled throb? Was her mother sobbing? She had a moment's panic, the panic of a child who sees an adult weep, and is struck to the heart, since if these weep, too, none are safe from trouble.
But soon, even as she listened, there was a knock, quick and firm, and the door opened and her mother came in, very fresh in her lavender print frock. The brown ruff above her forehead was waved with white now, and she was a little stout and compact. She spoke in her clear warm thrushy voice, and her face changed into a lighting smile. A smile made a great change in her mother's resolute face. "Still a-bed, lazy bones?" Her swift bright eyes darted about the room and she picked up a pair of stockings and laid them straightened across the back of a chair and her rich voice flowed on in tolerance, "Stay in bed if you like, dear. Father won't mind if you miss church this once." How silly to imagine this sure and comforting woman sobbing behind a closed door! She leaped out of bed and wrapped her mother about in long eager young arms and bent from her height and kissed her. "I don't want to miss anything!" she cried.
Her mother's cheeks flushed darkly. She received the embrace warmly but with shyness.
"You've grown so I hardly know you. You take after Paul's family, growing so—" she said, half-embarrassed. "When I think of you I still think of a little girl about twelve with two pigtails and suddenly there you are, taller by a head than I am!" She looked up into her daughter's eyes. "I'm almost afraid of you," she said. Her face sobered and the two looked at each other in an instant's gravity. There was strangeness between them. The girl could not bear it.
"I'm the same!" she whispered, frightened, looking down, her head drooping. The undertone of a lost child was in her voice, and her mother recognized it and knew her again.
"Of course you are," she replied quickly. "Now, dear, if you are coming—then don't be too late."
So her mother was herself, practical, able, managing. Under the familiar dominion things were right again. She was happy and safe once more. She began to brush out her hair, humming the tune they would perhaps be singing later in the Brick Church, since it was her father's favorite: "How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord." The sunshine brightened gloriously with the mounting day. Out of what had been the silence of dawn now sounds arose, the clack of the latch at the gate, her father's quiet measured step down the stairs, Hannah's quick dump of coal into the kitchen range, her brother's shout for a clean shirt, the tinkle of the piano. Rose was playing a hymn gently. Everything had begun in the house.
She came into the breakfast room a little late but sure of their love. She was the eldest daughter in the home, the dearly beloved, the young queen. She caught the fond look in her mother's eyes and smiled regally. Though with her lips her mother might say "Pretty is as pretty does," her eyes were proud upon her daughter.
"I do like that green dress," she said. "I'm glad we got it instead of the white one. It won't show soil so much, either. And you can wear those ruffles real well—though you are so big."
Thus her lips spoke staidly and with composure. But in her mother's eyes the girl saw other words. "Joan is lovely—Joan is what I dreamed I might be—she is big and lovely and strong. She will do everything I have not been able to do." All this was clear in her mother's eyes before she turned away and began to pour out the coffee. Then she subdued her pride decently. Rose cried out, "Oh, Joan, you are lovely!" But the mother said quietly, "Sit down, dear. Father is waiting to say grace."
At this Joan looked penitently at her father, waiting to give thanks before he could eat. She wanted to please him, too. She cried out eagerly, "I'm sorry, Father dear!" He did not reply, but waited mildly. By his peaceful remote look she knew he could never see that her dress was green and ruffled and her hair shining in its large soft mass at her neck. He was a man of God. Her mother was warm and quick and human and she knew her children's bodies intimately and loved them with secret passion, secret because she was afraid of showing herself out, lest something, lest somebody, have a hold whereby to thrust and injure her heart through her children. If anyone praised them she answered tranquilly, "They're good children and that is enough." But her very tone showed that it was not really enough. They were a great deal more and she knew it and rejoiced in it.
But the father knew nothing about his children except that they had souls to be saved. He painfully hoped and believed they were saved. He could not forbear, even in his thanks to God for daily food, to slip in a petition that was really for them, since he knew his own soul of course was safe. "Save us, O Lord, we beseech Thee, and if this day be the day of death for any of us, accept our souls and let us live with Thee to all eternity. Amen."
Death and eternity—these two words took shape and meaning when he spoke of them in his deep grave way. God also lived for the brief moment of his address. This man could call upon God, and out of the sureness of his belief God was summoned and lived. But when his voice ceased and all their eyes were opened again, God and Death and Eternity returned to their shadows and were no more.
Instead there was life, this life in this room, the painted yellow walls, the fluttering white curtains, the worn brown carpet, the books overflowing from the rest of the house, books everybody had read and were done with, but which could not be thrown away because they were books. Upon the shining table were the very means of life, fruit and milk and bread and butter and eggs and bacon and a glass pot of marmalade which caught and held the sun deeply—so deeply that when Rose reached for it Joan said, "Put it back in the sunbeam, Rose. It's ambrosia in the sun."
Rose smiled and set it back, ready to please her sister. But she was silent, for she seldom spoke if she were not questioned.
Then the door opened with a burst and Francis came in. He looked at his mother first and she looked at him and the pride she took in her children blazed in her look.
"Come here, son," she said. "Let me tie your tie again."
"Can't ever get a bow right," he said, smiling wryly. He folded his long legs and dropped before her, kneeling, and leaned his arms upon her lap and gazed into her face confidently. She pulled the ends of his red tie loose and set it again with neat compact movements. She had bought the tie and chosen it red because her son was as brown as she was and she loved red secretly, although she felt it now a color unbecoming to her age and she would not wear it except as an edge to a collar or as a seldom seen lining. When she was young she had always a red dress among her others. But now instead she loved her son's round dark chin above a red tie, and she liked to put a red rose in his buttonhole. The blackness of his hair and eyes were richer for red. Now as she finished he clasped his arms about her waist and pressed his face into her bosom.
"You smell nice, Mom," he murmured.
She patted him on the cheek and straightened a lock of his hair. There was no embarrassment in her when her son made his love to her. She was not shy of him as she was of her daughters.
"Go and eat your breakfast before it is cold," she said, and to the maid Hannah she said, "Bring in fresh rolls for Francis." The boy rose and moving with the lazy grace of his too swiftly growing youth, he dropped into his chair and began to eat. But now his father saw him and spoke to him. "Are you not going to give thanks to God?" he asked.
The boy looked at him coldly, unwillingly. Then meeting that clear solemn priestly look he wavered and bent his head an instant and moved his lips, and so placated the man of God who was his father. But he did not summon God.
So the early morning life went on with energy in this room. Hannah brought in fresh bread and fresh coffee, and they all ate robustly except the father, who took his food sparingly. But to this they were all accustomed. Until he had delivered himself to his people of what he had learned newly about God he would not eat heartily.
For his hungry body was his temptation. He loved food. When he was a child he grew fast and he was always hungry, always eating so much that his brothers laughed at him. Then, after he was converted by the missionary in his thirteenth year, he began to know that he must fight to subdue his big body. For how could a man save his soul if his body were master? He had sat at his mother's dinner table on that cold November Sunday, among all his vigorous brothers and sisters, and had let his piled plate stand before him. "I will take one-third of everything—no more," he promised God. The rich smell of the chicken gravy moved in his nostrils. The fragrance of baked potatoes, of golden mashed turnips, of hot biscuits, made him faint. There was the sharp sweetness of honey, the spice of the pickled peaches and the heavy intoxicating perfume of hot mince pies. Across the table the missionary ate delicately, refusing much.
"You don't eat, Mr. Barnes!" his mother cried, despair on her round face. What could be done with anybody who did not eat? In this great farmhouse everybody ate.
The missionary had smiled thinly and a little sadly at her. "I have eaten poorly for so long that now my stomach will not feast. It has the habit of poverty and prefers it."
Excerpted from The Time Is Noon by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1966 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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