IT was an old road, long fallen into disuse, winding up and down along the edge of a wild moorland that spread to the right over miles of treeless, bowlder-strewn hills. Mrs. Hathaway was climbing one of its grass-grown slopes talking to herself.
“‘We’re neither of us so spry as we once was, Mrs. Hathaway!’” she said, in angry imitation of another voice. “An’ I a good ten year an’ more younger ’n she! ‘I may not be so spry,’ says I, ‘but I’m goin’ to walk home over the Dogtown road—good-by to ye!’ an’ I left her standin’ there. Perhaps it wa’n’t jest right, bein’ as we’d started out together, but between her an’ that ’lectric car I’d ’a’ went about crazy by the time I’d got to Ad’line’s. There’s one of the pesky things now, wailin’ through the country like a soul in torment.” She stopped to listen and then, after a moment’s hesitation, seated herself on one of the broad ledges of granite that cropped out in the middle of the highway. “’Taint late, I guess,” she said, turning her face toward the sun, “not more’n five, anyhow. My, but it’s a pritty day! Kind o’ misty round the aidge, an’ the sky’s as full o’ yaller as a big light topaz. I s’pose ’taint reely so pritty as if ’twas clear, but somehow or nuther I have always liked it better so. There wa’n’t any foot-high o’ witch-grass in the wagon-ruts the last time I came along here; but ’xcept for that there’s mighty little change. Forty-two year! ’T don’t seem so long ago after all.”
She was looking back over the road she had come. The green lines of grass, following the curve of the stone walls on either side, wound through a meadow below and rounded the foot of an opposite hill. “We came along there,” she murmured, pausing dreamily between the sentences. “I had on an old pink gown an’ a white dimity sun-bonnet. I can see it now.—An’ I ain’t forgot a step o’ the way.—There’s other things that I ain’t forgot neither. So long as husband was living I kind o’ felt as if I hadn’t any right to come. But land! he’s dead, an’ husband’s dead, an’ as for me—well, I might as well enjoy myself for once in my own way. It can’t be very wrong, for ’taint so very cheerful!” With a half-whimsical smile, she rose, and continued her walk up the hill.
“It’s awful queer how we’re made,” she went on. “I wouldn’t ’a’ married him for no money, not for pounds o’ gold, counted out, an’ I told him so that day. ’Twas jest about here he began a-talkin’. I kind o’ think sometimes I was guided. ’Taint given to young things in their teens to know what’s best. An’ ’twas best, I s’pose. ’T any rate I haven’t wasted much thought repentin’ over it since. ’Twa’n’t easy though at the time. ‘Ye like me,’ he kep’ sayin’. ‘Ye know ye like me!’ ‘Yes,’ says I, ‘I’ll not deceive ye. I like ye, I like ye more’n enough; an’ you like me.’ ‘Love!’ says he, kind o’ fierce. ‘That’s not the way to talk,’ says I; ‘but even if it was, love o’ me ain’t goin’ to work no miracles in you, Joe Trumbull. What ye are now, ye’ll keep on bein’ till the end o’ the chapter. ‘An’ what am I now?’ says he. ‘Ye’re cake,’ says I. ‘Ye ain’t good solid bread an’ meat, an’ I’m not a-goin’ to take ye for a lifetime.’”
She strolled on a while in a brown study, using her umbrella as a walking-stick, her heavy gray shawl over her arm and a small leather satchel in her hand. The yellow haze of the September day lay low in the sky, and the road ran up into it. Mrs. Hathaway stopped to break some branches from the bay bushes that all along encroached upon the grass-grown wheel-tracks. “That’s the first bay I’ve handled since,” she said, raising it to her face and breathing in its pleasant fragrance. “An’ I hope I haven’t lied, when I’ve said I couldn’t bear it. ’Tain’t always the things you hate you can’t bear. ’Twas out there, in the Common, Joe cut me an armful of it.”
She watched the shadows of the clouds over the moors for a moment, and then went on her way, continuing steadily until she came to the top of the hill, whence the road sloped gently to end a few rods below in one more travelled that crossed it at right angles.
“Now what shall I do?” she murmured. “If I go home—” looking at the sun—“I’ll git there about a quarter to six. Ad’line’ll give me the baby to tend while she sets the table. The other four children’ll be rampin’ into everything. ’Bial’ll come in to hurry up tea, glowerin’ round the kitchen as if he’d cook the supper with his eyes. The knives’ll clatter on the dishes, and the lids’ll rattle on the stove, and the hull o’ the air’ll be full of the smell of fried fish. Times have been when I liked it—when I liked the little red speck in the damper o’ the grate, an’ when the smell o’ fish meant hunger, and the clatter meant home—but to-night—I don’t want to go back to it, at least not yit. It seems to me sometimes ’s if I’d lived in a mill-race for forty year. I ain’t never had time to be alone with my thoughts since the day I married husband. It’s been drive, drive, drive, from then to now, an’ sometimes I can’t help thinkin’ that if I’d taken more time to myself I’d ’a’ been better off—even if I hadn’t ’a’ been so well to do! I’ve had bread an’ meat enough, in all conscience, but—mighty little
cake! And yit—” with a stifled sigh—“I can’t truly say as I regret it. If I’d the same thing to do over, I’d—yis—I’d do it agin! An’ it’s not many women can say that after forty year, an’—mean it too!”
Still she looked down the hill undecided. A little to the right she could see the roof of a barn belonging to one of the houses on the cross-road. “If I go into the Common at all,” she said, “I am not a-goin’ by the Pollards’. Sure as I pass there some o’ them’ll sing out to know where I’m bound for, an’ if I tell ’em I’m goin’ on to Dogtown it’ll fly like wildfire. Ad’line’ll be at me to know why I didn’t come straight home, an’ ’Bial’ll be askin’ if I’ve taken leave o’ my senses. No, Sir! I ain’t lived sixty year in this world to be called to account by Ad’line Hathaway and ’Bial Bunker! An’ what’s more I’m not goin’ home till I’m a-mind to!”
With a resolute swing she wheeled about and walked back, until on looking over her shoulder she found the roof of the barn no longer in sight.
“It’s jest about here that we turned in,” she said, and crossing the wall on the side of the road next the moors, she tried the lower stones with her foot. They shook; she put her hand on the top and gave a vigorous push, springing away in alarm as two or three of the heavier bowlders tottered toward her and rolled downward. “It’s about as much as my life’s worth,” she muttered. All at once, as if to leave herself no option, she took her shawl and bag and flung them over the wall with a swing that landed them three or four feet on the other side. For a moment she eyed them grimly. “A woman’s got a right to be alone with her thoughts for once in her lifetime,” she declared, “if no more.” Cautiously she mounted, and at the top, carefully noting that her skirts were free, turned slowly about and went down the other side as if descending a ladder. “There!” she exclaimed, as she reached firm ground; “now, who ain’t so spry as she once was?”
She had entered a narrow upland meadow, and gathering up her shawl and satchel began to cross it diagonally in the direction of the Common. At the corner toward which she was walking stood an old shingled house battered and gray from the weather; the roof was torn in jagged rents, and the decaying glass in the shutterless windows reflected the westering sun in a glare of pale green. Below the house the meadow sloped abruptly to the narrowest portion of a great marsh that broadened out on either side in acres of rich color; for already the early frosts had begun to bronze its thick green bushes, and to streak it with flaming sumach, while long stretches of dead bay wove brittle branches in light traceries of amethyst above the splendid blue of the shadows. Beyond the marsh the Common swept eastward, one ridge after the other, a threatening, silent, far-reaching wilderness of half-parched grass, strewn with gigantic bowlders and dark tufts of bristling stunted pines.
Mrs. Hathaway slackened her pace a little: the windows in the old gray house quivered in the radiant heat of the afternoon like malignant eyes. “My, but it does look witchy!” she said. “I’ll jest go down to the marsh, an’ if it don’t seem any better from there I’ll turn home again.”
A few stepping-stones, green with slime, made it possible to cross the thick ooze through the middle of which a silent stream was crawling as if reluctant to reach its destination. Mrs. Hathaway picked her way carefully, trying each stone before she trusted it with her weight. Toward the middle one of them splashed viciously, sending a little shower of inky mud into her face. “There!” she said, impatiently, “if it hasn’t gone an’ done it agin, an’ I lookin’ out for it every step. It’s been moved, it’s been throwed forty feet into the marsh in my day, but it gets back every time. How it does it beats me. If ye took it and broke it into flinders to mend the road with, I’d be bound ye’d find it ag’in waitin’ to spoil your clothes the next time ye came along. It acts as if ’twas set here to warn ye off.” Nevertheless she went on, following upward the zigzag lines of the cattle-track.
In front of her and on either side undulating lines of stone wall ran out for miles over the moors, crossing each other at right angles, and in the smaller enclosures thus formed sunken grass-grown squares and heaps of broken brick and granite showed where long ago houses had stood of which only these outlines of cellars and ruins of chimneys remained. Mrs. Hathaway went up to one of these cellars and leaned over. “Here they are,” she said, in a low voice. “It’s wuss’n a grave. There’s a peace about places where People’ve gone to rest in due time, but out here ’t seems as if they’d lived in desolation an’ died in horror. No man knows where they came from, an’ they left no kin to tell where they lie. The place was well named Dogtown; they must ’a’ been a rough lot to choose it. Joe—he said they pressed the hull o’ the men for sailors on board the ship Constitution, an’ that they never none o’ ’em came back. My mother remembered some o’ the women that was left. There wa’n’t but two livin’ when she was a gal. The rest’d all gone crazy an’ died o’ starvation. They used to come down to Gloyshter sellin’ yarn, real gypsy-lookin’ creeters, dressed in sheepskins an’ rags, their eyes shinin’ with madness an’ hunger. My sakes, Id ’a’ gone mad myself if I’d ’a’ had to live here alone through the winter.” She turned, crossing the road, to reach the next enclosure. The walls were low, many of them broken, and the old woman climbed them one after the other with increasing ease, keeping along the brow of a hill that rose almost precipitously above the marsh.
“An’ they all went crazy, an’ died!” she muttered. “Deary me! I used to tell Joe he must ’a’ belonged to ’em somewheres back there—he was so keen to find out all he could about ’em. He was black-eyed an’ dark! My, but he was dark! An’ tall. Mighty handsome Joe was. He looked like a king—but,” she hastily concluded, looking up as if in answer to an accusation, “I ain’t sorry I didn’t have him!”
Suddenly she took a step forward with a quick exclamation of pleasure. Not far from where she stood a huge mass of rock jutted out over the marsh from the side of the hill; it was split horizontally like a yawning mouth. Mrs. Hathaway went toward it. “Well, now, if it isn’t the Whale’s Jaw,” she said. “Now how’d we get up? Must ’a’ been round behind.” The rock was near the top of the hill and after a little gentle climbing Mrs. Hathaway found herself on the other side, but here the bowlder was twenty-five or thirty feet high and quite perpendicular. With compressed lips and puzzled brows she returned. The great lower stone projected three or four feet beyond the upper one that rose like a roof above it; the crevice that had split them ran back to within nearly four feet of the ground, but it was so narrow that it was almost impossible to gain a foothold. It was a long step; Mrs. Hathaway tried it and then desisted. Even if she had succeeded, there was not a ledge nor a crack on the face of the upper rock to which she could cling. “It’s no use,” she said, disappointedly. “It’d take the legs o’ a fly to get up there. Joe must ’a’ helped me.”
She sat down in the dry grass at a short distance and looked at the rock wistfully. “I’d like to get up agin, first-rate,” she said. “I remember how we sat an’ looked out over the marsh that day, an’ I laughed at Joe for sayin’ you could find every color under the sun in it—it’s true, though,” she muttered, looking downward. “An’ it’s not the only thing my eyes was opened to because of Joe. Not as I thought o’ him!” defensively; “but there wa’n’t a blue shadow on the hills nor a glint o’ sunshine on the grass that Joe missed in passing. The very stone walls was as good as a rainbow to him. An’ the pink shroud that wraps things in the evenin’s; an’ the steel blue in the sands after sundown; an’ the deep green-brown in the shadows o’ moonlight nights; an’ the oily wobble the moonshine makes in movin’ waters—all o’ them I learned from Joe. An’ it’s made a lot o’ difference in my life; not as I saw any cause to talk about it, for there’s no use tellin’ folks things you see unless they’re goin’ to see ’em too. As for Ad’line an’ ’Bial, they’re so stuck in their ways that, if they thought they hadn’t ought to be there, they wouldn’t see the noses on each other’s faces. Talk about old folks gettin’ set! You don’t know what set is till ye find a man o’ forty who thinks he’s got all the good out o’ the old an’ sifted all the chaff out o’ the new.”
For a while longer she sat silent; then drawing a little sigh she rose somewhat stiffly to her feet. “Well,” she said, “that’d ought to be pritty enough to last me the rest o’ my life! But I ain’t satisfied yit.” Turning to the ascent behind her she began to climb through the short grass that covered the hill-side; in the low light of the sun it took on a faint shade of pink that was shared by all the scattered bowlders; even the blue sky seemed veiled with it. “When you look hard, it ain’t there; an’ yit you know it is,” said Mrs. Hathaway, reflectively. “That’s like lots o’ things.—Why, if there ain’t a new barn!”
A bare sloping roof seemed to rise from the midst of a little clump of evergreen a short distance beyond the top of the hill. “Now, who’s fool enough to build out here on the Common?” she said, walking hastily toward it. All at once she stopped and laughed. “If it ain’t the same stone as fooled me an’ Joe forty-two year ago! It does seem as if the critters knew what they was about! They’ll play the same old pranks on you every chance you give em. You think you’ll know better next time, but the very first turn you’re caught ag’in. It was here that those three steps was. I remember how Joe an I poked about ’em. I said they led up into the meetin’-house, an’ he said they led down into the grog-shop. We found that chain under a stone to one side o’ ’em.”
She went to the front of the barnlike bowlder and seated herself near the corner of it, on the top of the three stone steps she found there. “It does look more as if it had been the grogshop,” she said. “These steps must ’a’ led down from the road, for there’s the cellar an’ what’s left o’ the chimbly right over by the wall. The side o’ the house must ’a’ been built next the big rock, an’ the front door most likely was lower than the road. There’s that old stone.” She began to dig in the ground about the stone with the ferrule of her umbrella. It was a flat slab, not very large, leaning somewhat insecurely against the edge of the step below her. “It’s queer,” she went on reflectively, “how you’re more sorry over some small things than ye ever make out to be about most big ones. Now that chain Joe an’ I found here, he gave me the half on it; there was a medal hung to it with a sort o’ figger of an Indian on it, and I gave him a little brass cross to hang on his end because he’d let me have the medal. ’Twas kind o’ curious, but ’twa’n’t worth ten cents, an’ yit when Ad’line’s Jimmy lost that thing, a load come down on my heart that sometimes seems to me ain’t lifted yit. I remember jest how I came to do it. ’Twas the day after Joe’s row with the sheriff. It was in all the papers, an’ I felt kind o’ disgusted at a man o’ his time o’ life gittin’ into a fuss like that. So the next mornin’, as luck would have it, before I’d cooled down, I came across that chain, an’ I threw it out o’ the window to Jimmy. It kind o’ cut me when he began playin’ horse with it; I most took it back;—if I had, it’d been the only thing I ever took back in my life! But that evenin’ Jimmy came in without it, and when his father asked him where it was he said he sold it to a man for a quarter. ‘He asked me how I come by it,’ says Jimmy, ’an’ I told him my gran’mother threw it away that mornin’.That was a year ago next month. Joe was drowned that week. An’ then it came out how he was all right in that row with the sheriff!”
A long pause followed.
“I ain’t never been the same woman since,” she said, sighing heavily. “An’ yit Joe Trumbull wa’n’t nothin’ to me!—I wonder what he thought about when that wave come at him. The men said that when he saw ’twan’t no use tryin’ to row over it, he jest shipped his oars, and stood up in the dory, and faced it, with his arms folded and his head up. The green water arched over him an’ broke like a thousand white arms stretched down for him! Not a year ago! He was an old man then, Joe was.”
Mechanically she pushed harder at the stone below her; a final lunge sent it rolling to the bottom of the cellar, drawing something like a rusty chain out after it. Mrs. Hathaway made an inarticulate startled sound and picked up the chain. Her fingers trembled until the links rattled in her hand. It was a series of little carved wooden cylinders connected by wire loops. From one portion of it, which was broken, hung a curious copper coin, and fastened to the other end was a small cross tarnished almost to blackness.
Mrs. Hathaway dropped the broken chain in her lap, and sat staring at the sky. “O, Joe! O, my poor Joe!” she cried. “’Twas he that bought it from Jimmy, and brought it here to bury it in the old spot. O, my poor Joe!” She stretched her arms out before her as if in appeal, and then hid her face in her hands.
She did not sob, nor cry; she did not even move. The outer world had withdrawn from her and left her, heedless of passing time, in the midst of silence.
At last, gathering up her burdens, with the face of one whose thoughts are elsewhere, she staggered to her feet and began to climb the hill. Once at the top, she turned her back on the rocky waste, and looked out to the west, where white summits of gleaming sand rose above a pale blue sea. With an abrupt indrawing of the breath she stood still.
On the far edge of the horizon, formed by some artifice of light and of color, lay an impossible land of enchantment. Long hazy lines of rose-flushed shore and pale green hills like tinted shadows slowly grew under the broad downward-reaching beams of a hidden sun, which dazzled in unbearable radiance along the borders of the thick black cloud that hung before it. Great tears rolled over the old woman’s cheeks. She put her heavy wraps down at her feet, and with trembling hands drew off her thick gloves.
It was a sacrament.
“I was young, but now I am old,” she murmured; and her language was that in which she had always embodied her deepest emotions; “but O, my God, I thank Thee that Thou hast given me to see my youth again before I go hence and be no more. For my youth was lost ere I knew its worth, and age came upon my spirit before my time!”
For a while she stood and watched. The sun went down in a glowing suffusion of light that changed from flame to rose and lingered long in the sky. To those old eyes it carried a rapturous meaning like the passing of a Grail.
When the last tint had faded she turned from the sight of the dwellings of men to deeper solitudes. “I must be alone with my thoughts,” she murmured, but it was an inner voice: the chattering impulse of friendly self-communion had passed.
The day had been unusually warm, and the twilight lingered on the western slopes of the land before her. She was going toward the heart of the waste, taking no heed whither she turned, observing no land-marks. Occasionally she looked back, but it was merely to note whether the ridge behind had shut out all signs of human habitations.
The hills decoyed her onward, and in spite of the fatigue of unwonted emotion, as she began to feel the freedom of perfect solitude, a spirit of keen receptivity possessed her. She saw as she had never seen before, and in some inner corner of consciousness registered strange impressions. For now as the tender light faded, the repulsive shapes of that scowling landscape began to fix themselves on her brain. Long, lonely stretches of rock-covered moor spread vast and terrible all about her, and gray, towering masses of ragged granite reared their formless heads along the dim horizon: huge, wide-jawed creatures, like abhorrent reptiles of forgotten seas, yawned on the lower levels; and, where some primeval fury of fire had fused their inner surfaces, the red smooth stones formed themselves in livid ridges, like toothless gums.
Turning the corner of a little knoll she sprang aside as a tall bush-crowned wedge of rock, like a plumed Indian, seemed to start toward her. Behind it rose another bowlder, which from the midst of a thicket of green towered over all the country. Remembering it in other days, Mrs. Hathaway skirted a little tract of marshy ground near its base, and climbing an easy ascent to the top, seated herself some fifteen or twenty feet above the ground.
She was alone with her thoughts.
Broad slopes of trackless waste shut her in on every side, and behind them she knew that there were other broad slopes where the monsters lay prone, motionless, heavy, yet endued with a horrible under-life and evil power. That she had invented it all herself, as she came through the twilight, gave her a feeling of amusement and pleasure. The strong grip she held upon her firm old mind never yet had loosened; she could do things with her imagination that other women would not have dared. And now with her chin in her hand she communed with herself. Birds flew chirping in the air above her; a squirrel scolded bravely from the foot of the rock; and across the hills came the distressful bleating of some wretched creature abandoned to die, or lost in the wilderness. From afar sounded the long caw of a circling crow answered from side to side by its unclean followers, as they gathered in crowding rings above the distant spot whence the pitiful cries grew frequent.
Mrs. Hathaway sat as motionless as the stone beneath her. The full moon rose behind the hill, and the tall rock with its rigid burden showed for a time black against the broad orange disk and then passed below it. The silver light fell on the old woman’s shoulders, on her hands, but she did not heed. Totally unconscious of the slow darkening of the land at lower levels she was gazing steadfastly to the north and west where the pale light lingered latest, held by the counter-reflections of sea and sky. From a pasture to the left some cow-bells jangling intermittently roused her for a moment. “Some one is driving his cattle home off the Common,” she murmured; “I’ll wait till he gets by.” The bells rang on, neither approaching nor receding. Deceived by the continuance of the sound she fell back into thought again, while the darkness encroached from one coign of vantage to another, and the meeting shadows blended into night. Suddenly a bat brushed by her, and as her eyes followed it downward she saw the blackness of the valleys and gave a little exclamation of dismay.
“My John!” she said, with something of laughter in her voice, “’Bial Bunker an’ Ad’line’ll have enough to keep their minds busy for one while. Well, I guess I’ll know how to stop their talkin’, an’ as fer thinkin’—they’re welcome to think what they please an’ keep on thinkin’.”
She climbed carefully down the sloping back of the rock and retraced her steps leisurely, with a certain assurance as to the general direction she was taking, inwardly amused at the commotion her late return would cause at home.
The moon was still low, and the huge bowlders cast long inky shadows through which she picked her way with the sensation of one walking in a strong current of silently flowing water. The ground gradually became more and more encumbered with smaller rocks; stumbling over one of these she withdrew her hand with an exclamation of pain. It felt as if stung by a thousand nettles, for in the long ages of weary wear the shallow, cuplike surface at the top had fallen into decay and was filled with crumbling, gritty fragments of stone, sharp at the edges, like formless shells.
“I do believe I’ve come across one o’ them pesky cellars!” she said, as she slipped on the edge of a low terrace of turf. “What possessed those people to settle out here? My John, if here isn’t another! Seems as if I didn’t remember ’em as far out as this. Well, here’s an old fool for ye!” She had caught her foot on a rolling stone, and had fallen heavily to the ground. It was only a slight wrench, but as she sat rubbing the aching ankle she reflected severely on the bad judgment that had brought her to her present pass.
“How’d I look lyin’ out here on the Common with all the crows in creation circlin’ an’ cawin’ overhead? Well, there’s jest one thing to do, an’ that’s to wait till the moon gets high enough to shorten these pesky shadders, an’ so long ’s I’m goin’ to wait, I might as well wait in a dry place.” She ascended the hill, crossed a little ridge, and climbing to the top of the highest rock in sight sat down. “If I didn’t know I’d gone toward home,” she said, “I’d think I’d turned back again to the place I started from;” but there was no uneasiness in her tones.
“I s’pose ’twas a night like this when they swooped off all the men in Dogtown,” she said. “It beats me how they did it. If they’d made off with one or with two—but to take the hull kit an’ bilin’ o’ ’em’s more’n I can sense. Say they wa’n’t over twelve on ’em, they’d got their wimmen to back ’em, an’ they was fightin’ on their own ground, an’ so long’s they’d ’a’ had their sober senses—Humph!—” she made a little pause to let in a new idea. “Humph! ’Twouldn’t surprise me if they was drunk. Like’s not the wimmen were off some’ers, an’ the Constitution sailors crep’ up an’ kind o’ overpowered the men, an’ carried them off before they knew it. My, but ain’t it lonesome!”
Making a short calculation as to the length of time it would take the moon to reach a given point, Mrs. Hathaway moved a little lower, and spreading her shawl on the ledge behind her leaned back against it, and waited.
The pale light crept from stone to stone, and the lingering shadows of the bowlders drew inward. A transparent film began to blur all the outlines of the rocks, and the feathery heads of ripened grass lay soft on the hillsides like a mantle of rough fur. A thin low mist was rising from the bottoms of the ruined cellars, lurking in the corners, clinging and climbing slowly. The night had become so still that in the pointed tops of the little cedar-trees growing near her she could hear the wind whisper, stealing from bush to bush, as if carrying some secret summons.
“Well,” she said, politely, speaking in the tone with which she concluded her country calls, “It’s about time to start.—It’s lucky I know where I am,” she added, as she climbed from the rock, “for if I didn’t I’d be lost.—What’s that?”
She bent to pick something from the ground. Her face hardened as she took it; for even in that solitude the hereditary instinct of concealing what she felt asserted itself. “Now that’s kind o’ lucky,” she said, cheerfully, although her knees shook under her. “I must ’a’ been goin’ round in a circle, an’ dropped Ad’line’s umbrella when I started home the time I was here before. It’s good I found it—Ad’line’s that fussy. An’ yit it can’t be the same place! For one thing ’taint marshy, an’ ’tain’t so high. But then, if it isn’t that place, what place is it? I don’t remember nothin’ about that umbrella since I was by the three steps, an’ yit I’m almost certain I haven’t walked far enough over to be near them. Besides, I don’t see them, at least I think I don’t. It’s so gray you can’t tell what you do see.”
She stood a moment revising her ideas as to her whereabouts. At last, somewhat in disregard of her better judgment, she took a direction exactly the reverse of that in which she had been proceeding. She was moving as she thought toward home. “If I folly right along the ridge o’ the hill,” she reasoned, “I’ll come out on the aidge o’ the marsh, an’ then I’ll know where I be—am—I mean. I wish to goodness Ad’line hadn’t never taught school!” She closed her mouth suddenly on the last words with a little snap of the jaws. The telltale outburst of irritable anxiety had betrayed too much. Keeping as far as possible on high ground she walked on in worried silence as rapidly as she dared.
The whole hushed country had taken on a uniform gray almost as bewildering in its indistinctness as the shadows, and the treacherous light made it so necessary that she should fix her eves on the way before her, that she hardly noticed the faint puffs of air that were blowing in mist from every side. Coming at last to a stone wall she stopped to look about her before she climbed it.
“Seems to me it’s beginnin’ to thicken con siderable,” she said, after a thoughtful pause, looking far to the left into a deep velvet blackness of space that was spreading by imperceptible degrees toward the nearer gray. Suddenly on its outer edge a light flashed and was gone. “I’m all right,” she said, and there was great relief in her tones. “That’s the Ipswich light.” She waited to see it again, but it did not come; only the black pall widened and mounted.
Facing about Mrs. Hathaway gradually hastened her steps until her usually deliberate gait had quickened almost to a run. Behind her she could still see the colorless outlines of the hills, and as the transparent veils of moisture passed between them, the shadowy creatures of her early evening’s imaginations stirred sluggishly in their places, and a soft intermittent bellowing sounded from among them, as if they were calling to each other in some fearful, inarticulate language. Mrs. Hathaway ran on. “I always said, an’ I always believed,” she panted to herself, “that the Devil invented fog-horns!”
Suddenly she stopped: the ground fell away abruptly, and all below her was a white sea of fog. “That’s the marsh now; it’s lucky I hurried for it’s gettin’ so thick that I can’t find my way. Here’s the wall,” she said. “Now I go down hill a piece, an’ then go up a piece, an’ I see the big rock below the old shingled house. Down hill a piece, down hill a piece—” She kept murmuring it mechanically as she descended. “Seems to me I hadn’t ought to be facin’ the moon ag’in,” she muttercd uneasily, “but I know the wall goes here to the left. ’T must be later’n I thought. It’s good I hurried. Down hill a piece— What a moon!”
Great curtains of dull yellowish fog were opening and closing in the sky; and encircling the moon was a pale rainbow halo that contracted before the old woman’s straining eyes until the round disk showed a sickly green and then went out. She stumbled a moment in the darkness, but finally sank to the ground on a flat rock near the wall she had been following. “I’m beat!” she panted. “I’ve jest got to wait till that there moon comes out ag’in.”
The air was soft and quiet, and the thick damp, warm and lifeless; but overhead the black cloud-racks were sailing as if driven by a gale, while the mist-curtains gathered and withdrew incessantly. “It’ll be all right when she comes to that clear spot,” said Mrs. Hathaway, watching the moon.
Leaning back she closed her eyes, and suddenly a heavy sleep overpowered her. Sly creatures moved in and out among the wet bushes, slipping stealthily on the other side of the wall, and skurrying away with a rattle of small stones as the moon came to the clear space and shone down on the stern set face of the sleeper. The moon crossed to a fretted rack of black cloudlets, and passing among them tinted all their edges with pink. The heavy mist began to close again. Something brushed across the old woman’s hand. With a choked cry she rose to her feet and hurried on.
“Up a piece,” she muttered, “and then I strike the road. Up a piece!—My good God!” For from out of the mist a tall plumed figure seemed to start upon her, and while she knew what it was, even in the act of telling herself “’Twan’t nothin’ but a pesky little evergreen on top o’ a big rock,” terror overcame her and she ran blindly. In her panic the lowing monsters met her at every turn, grinning evilly, wry-necked, glancing over a hunched shoulder, with formless lips that curved at the corners in smiles of sly meaning.
There was treachery too in the air, for even her own senses, so long her slaves, were playing her false. She rushed from rock to rock in a terror of terror, until with a sudden gasp her reason seemed to return to her. Far ahead and a little above her she saw a green light shining like an evil eye. It seemed to come from windows in the front of a house. “Up a piece,” she repeated. “There, I knew it! Now it won’t be half an hour till I’m home.” She began to approach steadily, straightening her disordered dress and mentally rehearsing the little speeches with which she meant to excuse her lateness and explain her condition. There was something unfamiliar in the spot, however, that made her hesitate. It seemed to be a low hut or cabin, and the light she saw came from a small pane of glass let into the upper part of the narrow door. Three rough stone steps led down to the threshold, for the house was sunken below the level of the surrounding ground. Mrs. Hathaway stepped down one step, and leaning her arm against the door-jamb bent forward and looked in. The room was full of men—ten or twelve of them—lolling around a rough table, smoking and drinking. “Why, I don’t know a single one on ’em!” she said to herself in amazement. “Land o’ muzzey, they do beat the Dutch!” She watched some time in painful indecision. The strange clothing they wore impressed her as something unnatural. Long thick stockings, breeches to the knees, shoes with great pewter buckles, waistcoats reaching half-way down the thighs, with long flaps in front, and odd felt hats bent into the shape of a triangle. “Well, if they’re artists,” Mrs. Hathaway murmured, “they’re about the artis’iest I ever seen! Look ’s if they’d come out o’ an old hist’ry. Somehow I don’t like to knock. If there was a woman or two in there—!” Nevertheless she raised her knuckles and struck smartly on the panel, but no sound came. She might as well have knocked upon a stone. For a moment she was puzzled; then a startled look came over her face. “Nonsense,” she said aloud, “they’re as real as I be. Hallo, in there!” But not a head turned. Mrs. Hathaway shrank back, though she still kept her hand on the post.
Something prompted her to look over her shoulder. In the mist and gloom long shadowy figures seemed to be gathering; one, stooping, was stealing in on the right; to the left, from around the corner, a dark head and shoulders projected, hazy and black with the shrouded moon behind. They all closed in silently about her on the steps, and one slipping below her put his shoulders to the door. She was not frightened now, only incredulous, and yet filled with an astounding conviction. “Men!” she shouted. “Men! They are coming to take you. It’s the Press Gang! Rouse up!” But her voice came back into her face as from a dead wall. “Men! Men!” she screamed, pounding on the glass; her hands felt as if stung by a thousand nettles. Suddenly the light went out.
The old woman stood firm in the narrow doorway, but the whole shadowy company passed in as if she were but air! She heard the struggle, the hoarse breathing, the short shouts, and then they surged out again, rushing their prisoners into the blackness of the night—and Mrs. Hathaway still blocked the narrow way!
“They went through me,” she murmured. “It’s as if I didn’t be—for them!” And again terror took hold of her and swept her a prisoner with the rest.
How she came there she could never say, but that wild run ended in her finding herself on the dry level platform under the overhanging jaw of the Whale—finding herself, her burdens, and her cool clear mind intact.
“Well—I saw it,” she said, conclusively, “an’ I know I saw it. But nobody else will ever be the wiser, an’ as for me I’m not goin’ to be any the worse. I’m a-goin’ to smooth my hair an’ go to rest; an’ I’m a-goin’ to sleep. If there’s any ghost in the whole affair it’s me, myself; and I ain’t afraid o’ Dorcas Hathaway yit!”
She untied her bonnet, and after laying it in a crevice far under the rock, took from her satchel a heavy silk handkerchief which she threw over her head and knotted loosely under her chin. This done she rolled a small cape into a pillow, and wrapped herself closely in her large gray shawl.
The moon had cleared a space in the clouds and shone upon the broad bed of white tossing mist that filled the valley below her. “It’s like the sea out there,” she said, calmly. “I wonder how I got up. It seems as if Joe had taken me by the hand an’ helped me. I guess I’ll say my prayers.” A look of rigid austerity came over her face. With wide open eyes, bolt upright, she communed with her far-off God, framing her thoughts silently in language that cost her an effort.
With the sigh of broken tension she came back to her every-day modes of expression. “An’ now I’m a-goin’ to sleep,” she said, “an’ if I choose to think Joe Trumbull came to help me when I sorely needed it, who’s hurt? It’s out o’ all reason, an’ ’taint common sense, but there’s lots o’ things in this world—yis, an’ in ’tother world too—that ain’t been found out yit.”
She stretched herself upon the level bed of rock, and, rolling as far under the overhanging roof as she could, in a few moments was asleep.
The shadowy monsters of the mist-swept fields bellowed to each other softly, as an undercurrent to her dream. Translucent seas, with rosy shores, and fairy green-crowned hills came up before her, while the living glory of the after-glow thrilled through her heart like a draught from the cup of youth.
But afar in the distant hollows of the hills a low cry began that caught some waking corner of her drowsy senses, and she stirred uneasily. It gathered in volume imperceptibly; at no moment did the sound seem stronger than it had been a moment before; at times it was lost, and the old woman’s breathing grew more profound, but the breeze was increasing, and bore the sound forward, wailing nearer.
Mrs. Hathaway moved, raised her head to listen, and then turning on her side rested her elbow on the rock and supported her chin in her hand. The kerchief tied about her head had pushed forward like a cowl; under it her eyes, with deep hollows of fatigue, seemed to rule over the rest of her face. Motionless and intent she waited in the moonlight, with the attitude and stern beauty of a sibyl. Nearer the sound came, crying clearly, sobbing and groaning with long-drawn notes of anguish—the plaint of hopeless misery, the misery that neither reasons nor struggles, that only suffers. Closer it swept along the face of the rock, where the mist was drifting by in wreaths.
Bending over, the old woman looked down upon the surging billows beneath; out of them rose and sank, like rolling flotsam in a driving stream, gaunt women’s faces with dark maddened eyes, starving eyes, burning in deep sockets. Tattered raiment floated in dark streamers of terrible rags; hollow breasts came above the flow, half-covered in the skins of sheep, and long bare arms with claw-like hands tossed despairingly aloft over wild dishevelled heads lashed by elfin locks of strong black hair. Wailing they passed over the marsh, far down the valley in among the hills, until the sound of their crying grew so faint that even in ceasing it seemed to go on.
And the sibyl on the great rock lay motionless, wide-eyed and wakeful for hours, while the moon sank and the light of the approaching day slowly diffused through the sky above her.
“I have seen strange things,” she said at last, “strange things.”
She dressed carefully, and creeping along the ledge of the face of the rock managed to let herself down unhurt. Strong and erect she walked over the hills to the place where she had lingered at moonrise the night before. Climbing the bowlder she faced the east. “I will wait for God’s sun,” she said.
Rosy lights began to play through the wet grasses. Below her a deep pasture sloped down to a little stream, and up again to a distant rock-strewn summit. The mist had all blown away except here and there a curling wreath delicately colored in the dawn. As the edge of the sun crept above the ridge of the opposite hill she became aware of two figures descending toward the brook: they were a young man and a girl, the latter in a gown of faded pink. “I used to have a frock like that, myself,” she murmured.
They came down the hill, walking slowly. At the stream the man took the girl’s hands and lightly swung her over. “Joe did that for me,” said the old woman. “He looks like Joe. They’re comin’ up. It is Joe!”
She watched them with charmed eyes. The sun overtook them. The girl had thrown back the flapping bonnet that hung from her neck by the strings, and the level light gilded the edges of her dark hair. With one hand she was lifting her dress daintily from the dew. All at once she laid the other detainingly on her companion’s arm. He stopped, and looked down at her inquiringly. Putting her finger upon the middle of her cheek, she turned toward him, delightful and imperious. The man’s face flashed brilliantly with tender amusement; he threw his arm about her waist and stooped to kiss her.
With a little cry half laughter and half tears Mrs. Hathaway hid her face in her hands. “I loved him, I loved him, I loved him!” she sobbed. “It’s the only thing that lasts.”
“Deep as First Love” by Mary Tappan Wright was originally published in
Scribner’s Magazine v. 15, no. 2, Feb. 1894; reprinted in
A Truce, and Other Stories by Mary Tappan Wright, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, June 1895; second
edition edited by Brian Kunde, Mountain House, Fleabonnet Press, 2008.
The work of Mary Tappan Wright here reproduced is in the public domain. All other material in this edition is
©2008 by Brian Kunde.