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The House on the Hillside
KAY had been so long hunting out her color box, and the light had already begun to change so rapidly, that she gave up the idea of painting with a little sigh and sat, instead, looking out through the window, just noting in her mind the curve and line of the October hillside, the shape of tree and branch. Outside the house, beyond the little space of flower border with its zinnias and marigolds and the bank which Garry had terraced up, dragging big stones from the pasture through hot August days, the hillside dropped away in a slope of gray bowlders and red sumac, with the old twisted butternut tree just visible above the second stone wall, the last of its yellow leaves fluttering against the blue sky. Far below came the twist of the road again, winding downhill, and behind it rose hills and more hills, a blaze now of changing reds and purples. If only, Kay thought, one could really get those colors on paper so that they looked like something alive, as they were, not just splotches of this and that, with no shape to them!
It was hard, for Kay's eye always ran ahead of her hand. She could see just how things looked, know exactly what they meant to her, but when she tried to set them down and make other people see them, too, it was never the same. The pattern always came out different. Garry even, who had no more idea of drawing than a cat, who didn't care one bit about painting except that she loyally admired everything Kay did, could take a pencil stub in her brown fingers and set down what a tree or a cow looked like, the way it was built, and though her drawing was awkward and crude there could be no mistaking that it was a tree or a cow. That, father had explained once, was because Garry was interested not so much in what things looked like as in how they were made and the way they grew; she knew that every tree had its roots solidly in the ground, it wasn't just floating in air, and that the tree's trunk and the cow's legs were that exact shape because of the weight they had to support. Her mind took after father's, that could tell from just looking at some old dug-up bone what sort of an animal it must have belonged to.
There was so much more to being an artist than merely wanting to set down beautiful things, and Kay's one year at art school had just brought her to the stage of beginning to find this out. And it was going to seem more difficult than ever now, working by herself this winter. For art classes had had to stop with so many other things, and at nineteen, more perhaps than at any other age, life suddenly seems to be slipping by so fast that a year, even a month or a day, is far too precious to be spent on anything except the things one most wants to do. It was as if life were pushing one on and on and there wasn't a minute to waste. Martin and little Caroline were all right, and even Garry, at sixteen, didn't seem to have reached that stage yet and perhaps never would, for there always seemed a sense of leisure about Garry's undertakings, even when she worked her hardest. But Kay was all impatience. It showed in her movements, in her slim nervous build, in many ways that she herself recognized and in countless others that she didn't suspect.
A straight young figure in blue denim overalls passed the window, and a moment later Garry came in, pausing to drop an armful of fresh logs beside the hearth.
"It's going to turn cool tonight. I wouldn't wonder if we get a frost. Did mother say what time she'd be back?"
"I don't suppose she'll be very late. She said she'd get Edna to drive her back if there were a lot of parcels,"
Shopping, on the rare occasions when any of the Ellis family went into town, nine miles distant, usually did mean a lot of parcels; more than any one person could comfortably bring home by the state-road bus.
"What's for supper?" Garry asked.
"Bread and butter and fish cakes, unless mother brings something in."
"Those won't take long. We might have a cup of tea now while we're waiting. I got my cold-frame finished. I hope she remembers the putty."
"It's time the children were back," said Kay. "The school bus must have gone by ages ago. Did you see anything of them, Garry?"
"They're over at Rowe's, looking at the new calf." Garry's voice came back from the kitchen, above the clatter of pump and kettle. "It's a cute one, all red, with a white star and one white foot." She lighted the oil stove and came back to wait until the kettle should choose to boil. "Shopping is a pest in the country," she went on, shifting the wood on the fire to make it burn more cheerfully, her mind still on the cold-frame and its unglazed sash. "It isn't just thinking of what you want; you've got to think of everything you're going to be likely to want for weeks ahead. There's one thing about it; you've no chance to spend money even if you had it. Which reminds me, I found fifty cents just now in my last year's sweater pocket. I think it should go on cabbage seed for the future sustenance of the Ellis family."
"It had better go on a patch for the knees of your overalls," said her sister, "if you're really going to wear nothing else all day long."
Garry poked a brown earth-grimed finger at the tear across her knee. "Pretty far gone. The signs of honest toil. They are the only sensible wear for me, so don't grumble. If I had your figure, Kay, I might feel like adorning it. Do you remember that one time I went haywire and spent all my money on a printed georgette, and how I looked in it!"
Kay smiled. "You certainly did. No, frilly things never did suit you, you're right. You aren't the type. But I would like to design something that you would look perfectly stunning in." Her slender dark eyebrows drew together in the line that always made the family exclaim: "There—Kay's at it again!" "Brown velveteen ..." She studied Garry's straight nose and short rumpled hair that just missed being reddish and was more the color of a ripe chestnut. "Something quite plain but very well cut. Like a fencing suit. Even trousers, if you want them."
"They've been designed already, by Sears Roebuck, only they call them pants. So all that really stands between me and perfect elegance is about two dollars fifty. Poor Kay! I know you're dying to see your whole family clothed in purple and fine linen."
"Well, I don't see the sense of people letting themselves go just because they live in the country," Kay retorted, glancing at her own hands, well kept in spite of housework. Nothing could ever spoil Kay's hands, long and sensitive, not like Garry's square blunt fingers that seemed made for doing things and grubbing in the earth. "If you'd spend just ten minutes a day, Garry ..."
"You sound exactly like the radio! I comb my hair—well, sometimes—and I brush my teeth. No beautiful young man is ever going to come to me and say 'Dearest, what I particularly admire about you is your hands! Tell me how you manage to keep them so soft and white.' Heavens, there goes the kettle!"
She returned bearing two cups, one squat and white, the other, for Kay, belonging to the pretty flowered service of which a few pieces still survived from what Garry called "our palmy days."
"I do think, as a family," she went on, settling herself in the armchair, "we showed uncommonly good sense in deciding to stick it out here. I always wanted a winter in the country anyhow and the kids will have the time of their lives. I agree with mother that the thought of going back to town and hunting the kind of cheap apartment we'd have to put up with, this winter, would be pretty ghastly. Remember those awful places we looked at in the spring, that Cousin Caroline thought would be so nice and suitable, now that we have to 'economize' as she likes to call it? Finding this house for the summer was a godsend just when our lease ran out, and now we've got some of our own things around it begins to look all right."
"Do you suppose our unknown landlord would pay for some paint and wallpaper, as long as we're keeping the place on?" Kay wondered. "Do you think it would be any good asking?"
"Doubt it," Garry returned. "He seems a queer bird. You know when we first came up here the agent said the owner would rent the place until he needed to use it, but only from month to month. This was always the hired man's house, Neal Rowe told me, and that's why there isn't much land with it. He said he'd rent it just as it stood and he wouldn't do any fixing up, except repairs. The agent told mother he thought they were either going to pull this little house down or model it over into a guest house, when they get through fixing the big place up the hill. There was something about it interfering with their view. But that wouldn't be till some time next year, anyhow."
"It would be a shame to pull it down. I like this little house, only it does need things done to it, inside."
Kay looked round the homely low-beamed room she had spent so much care and thought on. The old shreds of paper had been scraped off and a coat of pale yellow calsomine hid the cracked plaster, but that queer drab paint still worried her. The old wide floor boards were pretty, though the old wide cracks between them made sweeping a burden and promised plenty of cold draughts when winter set in. Since their own furniture arrived from town the various odd-come-shorts with which the Ellises had managed during the summer had been banished to the attic, all but one old blue painted cupboard which had moved in from the kitchen, and which now stood, with a big Chinese bowl on it, between the two windows. If the familiar chairs and tables and the low-back couch weren't exactly early American, as Kay would have liked, they were plain and simple, and the chintz curtains went all right with the yellow walls. But Kay's real joy was the fireplace, wide and deep with its plain paneled mantel board and stone hearth, and the real Dutch oven at one side. No room could help but be lovely with a fireplace like that. Every time she came in her eyes turned to it with pleasure and it had done much to reconcile her to spending a winter in the house. For Kay was not fundamentally a country person, much as she loved the beauty of hills and sky. City life and all the things that went with it meant much more to her than they did to Garry or the two younger ones. Sometimes those long months ahead, with only the books one already knew by heart, no picture galleries, no parties or concerts or theaters or new films, and no friends near enough to drop in unexpectedly, seemed pretty blank and dreary. Kay believed in what she called civilization, and civilization to her meant just those things. Not that there would have been much chance of theaters this winter in any case, or any concerts except those rather dull affairs for which Cousin Carrie sometimes bought tickets in a good cause, to be passed on generously to her young nieces, just as she passed on occasional dresses that "poor Emily" and the children might be able to use. But at least they would be there if one did have a chance, and there was always the feeling of being close to things, of knowing what was going on if one couldn't share in it.
Garry, who had a queer trick sometimes of knowing just what was passing in another person's mind, said now: "You're the only one it will be tough on, Kay. You'll miss your galleries and exhibitions and all that stuff!"
"It won't be for always. Though I had wanted to keep on with the League classes this year. Probably much better for me to try what I can do by myself, instead of looking at what other people are doing and getting discouraged and muddled up in my ideas." Kay spoke rather more truly than she knew, for she never came home from a picture show without being swept by the desire to do something that would be like something else that she had seen there, in method at least. "And anyway the important thing is that daddie should for once have this chance to do work that he really enjoys, without having to worry about how we are getting on at home. He's never had such an opportunity before and I'm thankful mother persuaded him to take it, and hustled him off before he could change his mind."
"Yes, poor darling. Short notice is a blessing sometimes," Garry agreed. "If that other man had fallen sick three weeks before the expedition started instead of five days daddie would have had all that time to think it over in. All his life he's wanted to go on a job like this and the only chance he did get before he had to refuse. I think people should just go ahead and do what they want to do instead of worrying about other people all the time; that way things would work out sensibly all around. Parents especially. You turn some perfectly splendid chance down just because it doesn't seem to fit in with other things and then find out afterwards you could just as well have taken it, like the time daddie was asked to go to Asia Minor and Martin came down with typhoid. Scientists shouldn't have families anyway, but if they do they ought to forget them, once in a while, and I hope daddie will, from now on."
"What worried him is that it means a lot of extra expense and less money coming in. But if we manage all right this time he'll feel freer in the future when the next chance turns up. I wish it would be something where they needed an artist as well, though I don't suppose there'd ever be a likelihood of that," Kay sighed.
"You'd be wanting to improve on nature, and combine everything into color harmonies!" There was a sound of cheerful hooting from lower down the hill, and exclaiming, "There's Edna's car now!" Garry ran to the door.
Edna—she had a second name, but no one ever used it—had been the stay and comfort of the Ellis family ever since that first day that she drove them up from the station. She was the only woman taxi driver in that district, but the other drivers, far from resenting her competition, always had a good word for her and a friendly greeting whenever they passed on the roads. Being a shrewd person she had managed to build up more or less her own clientele. At the lake, a few miles the other side of town, there were one or two summer hotels and also a few boarding houses of the quiet old-fashioned kind where elderly people liked to stay and would return year after year. These always engaged Edna in preference to any other driver, for she drove carefully and was never in a hurry. Through catering—particularly to her "old ladies," as she called them all collectively—Edna found enough work to keep her busy through all the summer months. "They like me," she said, "because I take them for nice poky drives and always ride 'em easy over the bumps." Edna had an elderly mother herself, so she knew. In addition to her "old ladies" she took any occasional fares that might turn up without cutting into the other taxi drivers' regular business (which was why they were always ready to recommend her, in turn); she would take you into town for shopping and bring you back again, or, if you preferred, she would do your shopping for you at the charge of ten cents a store; and she was not above calling for the "help," including the colored maids, at the lake hotels and driving them in to the movies on their nights off. "They're right nice girls," she explained. "The other taxis won't bother with them so they've no way to get in and out and can't pay much anyway, and I take the whole bunch together and bring them back again at a quarter a head. If my old ladies ever got to know it I guess they'd have fits, but they never go riding after dark, so it's all right."
In appearance Edna might have been any age; she had probably looked just the same ten years ago and would look no older in ten years' time. She was New England through and through, with a quick tongue and a good sense of humor, as well as a sharp business mind. A drive with Edna was something more than a mere drive. She knew everyone for miles about, and would always toot her horn when she passed certain houses. ("Monday morning, and her wash ain't out. I bet she's off berry picking this minute!") Gossip was her middle name, and she had a fund of funny stories, for no peculiarity or odd twist of character ever escaped her. Above all Garry and the younger Ellises loved riding with Edna, especially after dark and along the back roads; her sharp eyes kept constant watch as she drove and she would interrupt one of her long stories to say casually: "There's a fox up that bank there; just watch now till I put the lights on him." And she would twist her steering wheel quickly to one side and as quickly back again, and in the momentary flash of headlights there would be the fox standing just where she said, one paw raised, his eyes shining steadily back at you from the darkness.
The two younger ones, twelve-year-old Martin and small Caroline, had heard her coming now and ran out from the Rowes' barnyard, a little lower down the road. Many drivers would have objected to two children suddenly hurling themselves at the running board just as the car was making that last steep and narrow twist on the hill, but Edna, being Edna, only shouted: "You hang on tight now, young 'uns, and look out for my paint!"
So with Martin clinging on one side and Caroline on the other the little gray Ford mounted the crest, eased itself cleverly between the big bowlder and the fence post and drew up beside the house, discharging its burden of two women, two children, and the accumulated packages of a week's shopping.
It was lucky Mrs. Ellis was fairly small, for even in the front seat she was wedged round with parcels, and had driven the last seven miles with a large white soup tureen under one arm and a parlor lamp, chimney and all, balanced on her knees, while from the rear the leg of a small upturned table threatened at every minute to poke her in the back. She disengaged herself carefully and stretched her legs with a breath of relief.
"Well, we got everything home safe, thanks to luck and Edna's driving."
Excerpted from Winterbound by MARGERY WILLIAMS BIANCO, Kate Seredy. Copyright © 1936 Margery Bianco. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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