Way Down Deep
By Ruth White
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2007 Ruth White
All rights reserved.
To understand the name Way Down Deep, one must go back to the eighteenth century and the days of adventurers and pioneers. For it was then that an Englishman by the name of Archibald Ward, while exploring the wild Appalachians, stumbled upon a deep hollow cradled between the hills in a place that later became known as West Virginia.
"This is perfect," Archibald said to himself. "I shall bring my loved ones here and start a settlement."
When he returned to civilization back east for the purpose of retrieving his family, people questioned Archibald about his findings, with the idea of perhaps following him to this wilderness.
"What kind of place is it?" they asked him.
"The timber is pale, the sod black, and a stream runs through it," Archibald told them. "And it is naturally sheltered like a nest way down deep in a narrow valley."
People did follow Archibald Ward and started a town in the way-down-deep hollow between the hills. The name caught on, but over the years was often shortened to Way Down. The stream became Way Down Deep Creek, but that being too much of a mouthful, was abridged to Deep Creek. Strictly speaking, however, the stream was not deep, nor was it a creek. It was a puny river.
In the 1840s the fourth Archibald Ward built a boardinghouse in Way Down, which he called The Roost. It remained in the same family one hundred years later, when Miss Arbutus Ward took possession of it at the death of her father. She was an only child and the last Ward left in town. Miss Arbutus had been helping out at The Roost since she was barely big enough to peep over the rim of the giant oak eating table. She knew no other life.
Miss Arbutus was—sad to say—plain and dull. Everybody said so. And there was no telling how old she was—somewhere over thirty. The townsfolk called her an old maid, but they would never use that distasteful term in her presence. She had been outside of Way Down only a few times in her girlhood, and never in her adult life. She preferred The Roost to any other place on earth, and felt most comfortable when she was there.
For a meager amount of money, a weary traveler could eat a wholesome supper at The Roost, sleep between clean sheets, and wake up to a hearty breakfast. The midday meal, which was locally called dinner, was not offered to guests.
Many boarders were total strangers who appeared out of nowhere and went back to nowhere after a day or two, and were never seen again. But some returning guests showed up periodically. The most common were traveling salesmen who came hawking everything from encyclopedias to vacuum cleaners to insurance. The Bible peddler was also a regular. He was a circuit-riding evangelist who, when he got wound up good, preached a right decent sermon to the folks living far back in the hollers. Another regular was Judge Elbert Deel, who was responsible for holding court in three counties.
As for the permanent residents of The Roost, there was an elegant lady who lived on the second floor and insisted on being called by her late husband's whole name.
"Mrs. Thornton Elkins," she would say in her thin, melodious voice. "That's who I am and always will be."
Mr. and Mrs. Thornton Elkins had been married for less than a year when Mr. Elkins was killed in a sawmill accident where he worked near Way Down. Mrs. Thornton Elkins came to The Roost to recuperate for a few weeks, then a few months, then a few years. When she ran out of money, she stayed on. The Wards knew that she had nowhere else to go. So what was a body to do? You certainly could not turn her out in the street, now could you?
Townspeople who knew Mrs. Thornton Elkins's situation sometimes dropped off bolts of dress material for her at The Roost, which she accepted without comment. She borrowed Miss Arbutus's sewing machine to make simple but stylish dresses for herself. Others donated various items known to be necessary to a refined lady of the day, and she got by.
There were less generous souls who were of the opinion that perhaps Mrs. Thornton Elkins should earn her keep by assisting Miss Arbutus in the kitchen, or in the laundry room, or in the garden. But they were not bold enough to broach the subject to that cultured lady, and such an idea would never enter Mrs. Thornton Elkins's head on its own, nor Miss Arbutus's either, for that matter.
There were three other tenants who made The Roost their home. One was Miss Worly, the town librarian. She also lived on the second floor, next to Mrs. Thornton Elkins. Miss Worly referred to her room as her "spacious pastel boudoir."
Because Miss Worly delighted in peppering her sentences with fancy words like whereby, heretofore, notwithstanding, in as much, moreover, and even albeit and i.e. on occasion, the kids in town called her Miss Wordy, but she didn't mind.
Two middle-aged bachelors occupied the third floor. They were Mr. Gentry, the high school band director, and Mr. Crawford, a somewhat gloomy man of independent means, who had been working for years on a book called A Colorful History of Way Down Deep, West Virginia. Nobody had ever seen a page of it, but when the townspeople asked him how the book was progressing, he always replied, "Splendidly! Splendidly!"
The other permanent guests at The Roost knew the truth—that Mr. Crawford had the dreadful habit of wasting perfectly good daylight, sleeping for hours and hours, while his clunky black typewriter collected dust.
In the early morning hours of the first day of summer, 1944, a small redheaded girl was abandoned in front of Way Down Deep's courthouse. Maybe she was two and a half, three at the most. Nobody could tell for sure, and the child could not say.
It was the circuit judge, Elbert Deel, who found her as he was going to court, after his breakfast at The Roost.
"She was in her petticoat, just sitting there on that bench where the old-timers like to hang out and swap lies," Judge Deel often recalled in later years to people who wanted to hear the story. "She was swinging her bare feet and babbling to herself."
As the stores began to open, the proprietors spotted the judge in front of the courthouse talking to a toddler with a mess of bright curls you couldn't miss from any point on Busy Street. Naturally, they had to go investigate.
Walter Rife, who ran the five-and-dime store owned by his mother, came first. He was followed by Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, the prominent Mr. Dales, Mr. Bevins, Mrs. Morgan, Mrs. Farmer, Mayor Chambers, Mrs. Shortt, Mr. Mullins, and everybody else all in a bunch.
"What is your name, dear child?" someone said to the girl.
The child pointed to herself, as small ones do, and said, "Me Woo-bee."
She nodded. "Me Woo-bee."
"Is she saying Ruby?"
"Yes, I think so. Ruby, is that your name, Ruby?"
The child smiled and nodded. "Me Woo-bee."
"Well, Ruby, where is your mommie? Where is your daddy?"
"What is your daddy's name?"
"What do other people call him?"
Ruby stuck her fingers in her mouth.
"How did you get here, Ruby?"
"Wide? Oh, ride? Ride in a car?"
"Ride what? Oh! A horsie? You came on a horse?"
Ruby nodded her red head vigorously. "Wide hossie."
The people looked at each other with puzzled expressions. They could not think of anybody hereabouts who rode a horse.
Sheriff Reynolds pushed his way to the center of the crowd, and stood looking at the child. He was in his shirtsleeves that day because his only uniform was at the dry cleaner's.
"What is it?" he said, as if he did not recognize Ruby as being a member of his own species.
"Somebody left her here."
"Her name's Ruby."
"Can we keep her?"
Mr. and Mrs. Doctor took Ruby to their offices for observation. Mr. Doctor was the town's only physician, and his wife, Mrs. Doctor, was the dentist. Their surname was Justus, but nobody ever called them by it.
Ruby promptly fell asleep, and Mrs. Doctor put her to bed.
"She must have been up all night," Mrs. Doctor said sympathetically. "Poor baby."
In Way Down, news was quick to make the rounds, and so it was that Miss Arbutus Ward heard about the child from one of her boarders. Though she was known in the town to be somewhat remote, and not fond of talking to people, she wasted no time in walking to the sheriff's office in the heat of the day, and stating her purpose.
"I want the girl, Sheriff," was exactly what Miss Arbutus said. "I'll take good care of her—that is, until you find her people." And she said no more. Just stood there as tall and thin as an evening shadow, waiting for his answer.
Sheriff Reynolds was so taken aback by Miss Arbutus's sudden appearance in his office, he didn't know how to react. For a long moment, he simply sat there gaping at her.
But to tell the truth, he couldn't say no to Miss Arbutus, or to anybody else for that matter. So he finally mumbled, "Okay."
To tell another truth, the sheriff's heart was way too soft and his mind too fuzzy for sheriffing. Why, he had no idea where to begin this investigation. He had no clues to go on, unless you took the horse into account, but nobody believed for a moment that Ruby came into their town on a horse. Just a child's fantasy.
The next day, in the town's only newspaper, The Way Down Deep Daily, there was a blurry picture of the little girl sitting on Mr. Doctor's desk, with the caption
DO YOU KNOW THIS CHILD?
The sheriff didn't know what else he should do, so he did nothing, and as the days and weeks went by, he did even less.
Way Down was a town that did not do things by the book. For example, they didn't know the meaning of social services. And that's why Ruby never became a ward of the county or the state, or any person, for that matter. Even Judge Deel looked the other way.
Besides, the good citizens of Way Down reckoned if Ruby's people were dumb enough to lose something as valuable as a child, then finders keepers, losers weepers.
However, they commiserated, Miss Arbutus was alone, bless her heart. She had lost her father, who was the last member of her family, only a few months earlier. So she was welcome to oversee the child's upbringing, if that was what she craved. And, obviously, it was.
Ruby was given a room of her own on the first floor right beside Miss Arbutus's chamber in the ancient rambling three-story boardinghouse. Miss Arbutus had slept in that same room as a child, and her parents had slept in the room which Miss Arbutus presently occupied.
Those first weeks Ruby didn't seem to miss her mommie or daddy or anybody else who might have been a part of her brief history. In fact, her previous life seemed to evaporate from her mind like fog in the morning sun. She settled into life at The Roost, as content as a cherub on a cloud.
A call went out to the community not to forget the tyke, and Miss Arbutus gratefully accepted small donations on Ruby's behalf. Thus the child thrived, and never wanted for anything.
The Way Down Deep School, located across the street from The Roost, educated all grades. When it seemed Ruby was the right age, she was sent there to learn to read and write, at which time it was necessary to give her a surname.
"She came to us in June," Miss Arbutus said. "We will call her Ruby June."
And so it was.
On a rainy evening when Ruby was about seven, a weary traveler rapped upon the door of The Roost, which was an unusual event. Most folks just barged right on in. But this man, who introduced himself as Lester Horton, had a reason for not coming in, and he held that reason with a frayed rope attached to a skinny neck. It was a billy goat.
"I have no money in my pockets," Lester Horton admitted to Miss Arbutus. To prove his statement true, he turned both pockets inside out, revealing nothing but lint. "And I am thumbing my way to Kentucky. Would you please take this baby goat here in exchange for food and shelter for the night?"
"You can stay," Miss Arbutus said, "but I'll not take your pet away from you."
"You might as well," the man said sadly, patting the animal's droopy drippy head. "I don't think the poor little thing will make it to Kentucky."
Miss Arbutus thought about that. "Very well," she said after a moment.
Ruby, who was standing behind Miss Arbutus looking at the goat, was tickled pink. She would be the only child in school who had a goat for a pet!
"I'll take him to the backyard," she volunteered.
"Come on in," Miss Arbutus said to Lester Horton. "Supper's on the table."
Lester Horton was so grateful to Miss Arbutus, he wept. He explained the tears by saying that he was going through a personal crisis.
Ruby named the goat Jethro, and under her care he soon found health. She placed an old rug on the back porch, where he curled up exactly like a dog to sleep at night. A half wall protected him from the elements.
During the day, when he was not busy at his job trimming the grass, Jethro romped and played in the enclosed backyard of The Roost. He developed a particular fondness for the woodpile against the fence, which he climbed daily. From the top he watched for Ruby to come home from school. He could also see most of the town, and often stood there to observe, with great interest, the daily goings-on of the townspeople.
One day, when a life insurance salesman from Hartford, Connecticut, parked his car beside the fence where the woodpile was located, Jethro's slow little goat brain fashioned an idea. Why not step off the wood and onto the roof of the car? He did so, and was absolutely delighted with himself, because from this vantage point the view was much better. The regulars at The Roost soon learned not to park their cars in that spot, but they did not warn the strangers. Why spoil Jethro's fun?
In subsequent years, which were kinder to him, Lester Horton often returned to Way Down to spend a night at The Roost—as a paying guest, of course—to see how the goat got on. He was only one among many visitors who sometimes came to The Roost even when they didn't have business in town.
Upon entering the third grade, Ruby was allowed to help Miss Arbutus take care of the boarders when she was not in school. Her first job was setting the giant oak table in the dining hall every breakfast and supper.
When she had conquered setting the table, filling the glasses with tea or lemonade, and drying the dishes, Ruby learned to take a feather duster to the antique furniture in the spacious common room, and in the bedrooms, while the guests were out.
In time Ruby was sweeping the front porch several times a week. It was wide and wrapped around the front and partially down each side of The Roost. White rocking chairs with small tables between them were scattered about. Boardinghouse guests enjoyed sitting out there and watching the world go by.
Almost every morning in warm weather Ruby found treasures on this porch. There were baskets full of ripe red cherries or strawberries, spring lettuce, pickling cucumbers, tomatoes, string beans, lima beans, beets, corn, melons, peaches, or blackberries—gifts from the townspeople.
As she grew older, Ruby learned to help Miss Arbutus put up the most abundant of these foods for cold weather. She loved to have Jethro at her heels in the backyard as she helped sterilize Mason jars and lids in a big pot of water set over a fire. She also loved puttering about the kitchen with Miss Arbutus, preparing the food for canning. Eventually she found herself helping with the actual cooking of meals, and she was proud.
Ruby also learned to care for the flowers that encircled the porch. Her favorites were the pansies. She adored those chubby faces peering up at her, eagerly looking forward to their daily drink of water. She talked to them, told them how beautiful they were, and watched them shamelessly primp and preen in the sunshine.
Ruby enjoyed all the jobs she was asked to do, but when it was learned that she preferred running errands on Busy Street to everything else, Miss Arbutus purchased a red Radio Flyer wagon for Ruby, and sent her out after school and on the weekends to buy this, to buy that.
Gradually Ruby took over all the shopping for the boardinghouse. It saved Miss Arbutus a lot of time and steps. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Way Down Deep by Ruth White. Copyright © 2007 Ruth White. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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