The Love of the World
“ JUDITH.” The challenge broke the silence of the old room a little wistfully.
“ Yes, mother.”
“When you have a house of your own, — you know you will have a house of your own some day, — you will remember, won’t you? and have it built with windows toward the south, toward the sun ? ”
“ I will remember and have it built close to the road, close enough to see people when they pass by. And I hope there will be plastered walls and some new furniture.”
“ Oh, I don’t know about the people
— or the plaster.” She looked about her, a little jealous for the small hewn-log house and the sombre room. It was a large room with two opposite doors, front and back, and a single window near the wide chimney. In a shadowed corner a few steep steps led up to the lowroofed chamber above. As for the furniture, hand-made and enduring, it, like the house, belonged to an earlier time when family needs were few. And yet in its arrangement, its spotlessness, in even so small a thing as the earthenware cup on the high mantel, which held a few red maple twigs with swelling buds, there was subtle evidence of a modern, more sensitive personality.
And in spite of the sombre grays and browns of walls and furniture there were touches of brighter color. A narrow giltbordered panel in the old clock-face set forth a winding river with a red turreted castle and green willows; on the high bed was an indigo and white counterpane, hand-woven in an intricate pattern of wheels; the window framed an oblong of blue sky crossed by the gray, lichened boughs of an oak; and red and yellow flames wavered ceaselessly in a deep fireplace.
The woman looked about her again, by all this somewhat comforted. “ Things need not be quite new,” she decided. “ But it is hard not to have the sun.”
If she had laid her gentle law through the slow years upon her unyielding environment, something of the character of that environment had in turn passed into herself and her child; was visible, one might fancy, watching the two this wintry afternoon: slightly in the girl, despite the preponderating softness and enticements of youth, noticeably in the well-knit aging woman in her clean dark dress, her skin fine in texture as a child’s but colorless, her hair white above the wide full brow, an extraordinary sweetness in her changeful expression, a more remarkable childlikeness in her blue eyes.
“ It is always hard not to have the sun,” she repeated.
Judith raised her eyes from her work. They were bluer than her mother’s, but not childlike, and her face was of a lovely freshness. She had been cutting with much precision folds for the trimming of a blue serge skirt. The rarity of a new dress made its making an affair of almost sacred importance. Concern for so trivial a thing as the sunlight savored of the profane. “ I am sure the sun is shining today,” she contended severely.
“ Not in this room. It has n’t since last fall. Have n’t you noticed that it does n’t come through the window in the winter-time ? ”
“ I’ve noticed that it has n’t shone anywhere for two weeks, until to-day. As to whether it comes or does n’t come into this room, I never noticed such a thing in my life.”
Her mother was sewing the blue serge folds together as Judith cut them. She laid her head somewhat wearily against the high back of her chair. “ Judith, you know I am sometimes homesick here without knowing anywhere else that I want to be.” The plaint of a child’s voice was in the words.
“ Well, it seems to me ” — reason was silencing unreason — “ you might have got used to it in all this time.”
“ Thirty years! Does n’t it seem so ? ” The words came with a mellow laugh. But Mary Hartsfield’s voice lent itself easily to laughter or tears. “And Mother Hartsfield for thirty years before me. Dear Mother Hartsfield.”
Judith looked at her curiously. For all their intimacy she had never grown accustomed to her mother’s swift mutations of feeling. “ Why did n’t you make father change things to suit you?” she asked.
“ Oh, they suited me then. I was just a girl, like you. Besides, I had him. And the dear books that were my father’s.” She looked up at them fondly, ranged on the two heavy shelves fastened high against the wall by the chimney. “ Those first eight years went by, oh, so quickly! People lived simply then, and things meant so much to them. And then, at last, you came, and John and I wondered how we had ever lived at all without you.”
She turned her face to the window. Across the lonely landscape through the bare branches of the trees she could distinguish the mossy roof and gray, unpainted walls of the country meeting-house.
“ You were the first baby that was ever baptized in the new Sharon church. Your father carried you over there in his arms. It was April; and on the way I gathered the pink and white wake-robins — the ground was thick with them — and filled a bowl for the little bare pine table inside the altar. It was the first time the members had ever seen flowers in a Methodist church, or any church, and they thought it a sin. Old grandsire Oliver came up to me after the service, as I sat near the front by the married women’s door, so as to slip out with you if you cried. I must have seemed very young to him. I seemed very young to myself. But I was not; I was nearly twenty-five. ‘Daughter,’ he said, pointing with his trembling purple old fingers, first at you, then at the little bowl of pink flowers on the table, ‘daughter, for that child’s sake learn to trample the world under your feet! ’ ”
She paused. “ He was a good old man, but he thought,”—sweetness and the softest of mirth were in her voice, — “ he thought pink and white wake-robins from the woods were — the world!”
Judith responded with the sharpness of youth demanding its right. “ Good or not, he need n’t have troubled himself. I don’t know when you ever had any of the world to trample on, or I either. The first new dress I’ve had in two years!” She caught up the blue-andwhite silk which had been bought for the bodice, and drew the soft uncut lengths across her chest close to her delicate chin. “ I suppose he would have told me to trample this silk under my feet too; but I won’t, will I? You beautiful thing! ” she apostrophized, searching hard for some adequate reflection of her youthful prettiness in the dim old mirror that slanted from the wall. She sighed a little. “ I might as well be sixty years old. If only I had a good looking-glass now, he might talk about the world! ”
Mary Hartsfield’s face grew sharp with longing. She spoke, but rather to herself than to Judith, little bitter pauses between her words. “ It does seem — that there might be — in the third generation, and for a girl not much past twenty — a new looking-glass! ”
In a moment she melted into tender apology. ” It would all be different if your father had lived. He died before he could recover from all he lost by Howard Alison; and I could not make what land there was left do more than support us. John’s family used to be better off than anybody’s in the neighborhood; they set the standard for the rest, just as my father and mother were looked up to for their learning and their manners. But now the people around us have good homes and more of everything than they used to have, and you and I have barely held by our own.”
One word in the explanation had caught Judith’s interest. “ Mother, was n’t Mr. Alison legally right in what he did to father ? ”
“Legally, perhaps; though nobody knows. But not morally. He had no moral right on his side whatever.”
It was almost as if for the moment her daughter had become her antagonist. A slow fire that burned always in her heart leaped up and touched her cheeks with crimson.
Judith dismissed the subject lightly. Well, it all happened a long time ago, and we need n’t worry about it now.”
“ Here are the last of the folds.” Her mother spoke with cold constraint, and laying them on the girl’s lap turned and lifted a white cloth from her own small workstand. It was a low black table with turned legs and a heavy drawer.
The bit of work looked oddly out of place on it: a square of blue satin, two small paint-brushes, and a box of colors.
Judith strained her eyes upon the materials. ” Why, you have n’t got any way at all with it,” she said.
Her mother held toward her the blue satin cushion which was intended to serve as her model. “ I could n’t do anything this morning. These little white flowers are not right. There are no flowers like that. I am trying to think how the leaves of a vine looked that I found last summer in the canebrake. I remember the blossom. It would make a prettier pattern than this.”
“ Yes, but what if it would ? Ella Mears bought that cushion when she was away, and Fanny Seabrook wants one made like it. She does n’t care whether the flowers on it are like real flowers or not.”
I care,” the elder woman said softly, though scarcely in argument. She looked at the window. “ How bright the sun must be shining, and we in here! If only the other side of the room were all of glass it would be almost like being out of doors.”
She had been ailing all winter, and in imagination had replaced the heavy timbers with clear glass many times.
“ I never saw the side of a house made of glass,” Judith replied in some irritation.
Mary Hartsfield laughed. “ Judy, dear,” she palliated, “ if I were as heroic in the matter of friendship as I ought to be, I should not intrude my tiny woes upon you as I do. I should keep quite out of your sky until I had finished molting and was ready to sing again. But there is one note that does n’t fail even in February; ” — she had gone back of the girl’s chair, slipped her arms around Judith’s neck, and laid her cheek against the heavy crown of her black hair; — “ it does n’t fail at any time, Judy — I love you.”
Judith did not comprehend the metaphor, though feeling no loss therefrom, but she was mollified by the caress. It had been given simply, yet a flush of color crept into the too white face as it lay hidden from sight on her daughter’s hair. Her whole attitude as she stood there was one of gentle deprecation and longing.
Perhaps that her face might be out of view for a few minutes longer, she moved away and stood with her back to Judith before the high bookshelves, running her eyes slowly along the dim titles and faded bindings. Presently she took down with a little touch of affection a thin square book in mottled paper binding, a relic of her school-days. Turning the rough yellow pages past the school compositions in the first half, she came to the pencil-drawings and simple sketches in color which had been put there from time to time in more recent years. She looked through them with unhurried interest, a light of pleasure in her eyes, and at length returned to the little table and laid the book open upon it. “I have found a drawing of the flower I was thinking of,” she said, and began sketching from it a design for the satin cover.
She worked slowly, but with unerring accuracy. Judith watched curiously the telling aptitude of the tapering fingers — she had coveted such hands for herself often — and the growing satisfaction on the absorbed face.
“I declare, mother,” she cried, “if you could only get in this neighborhood just the kind of work you like to do, we might have all the money we need.”
“ If I could get the kind of work to do,” Mary Hartsfield repeated a little dully.
At rare intervals through her widowhood, she had visited among her parents’ kindred, solacing for a time in their world of larger interests an unsatisfied side of her nature. Sometimes she thought to make a place there for herself and her child; but always she had come back to the lonely hill country of her husband’s people, held back by instinct, or by providence, from sacrificing for such gains joys more vital to herself, and perhaps to her small share in the progress of the race.
Presently she pushed her work back a little, and, looking at it critically, lifted herself suddenly erect, her lips parted, her face kindling. The February sun, near its setting, sent through the little window a narrow shaft of light which melted into a band of quivering gold on the dark wall opposite. “ Look, Judith!” she called. “ It is beginning to come in again. I had forgotten it ever came in till March.”
Judith turned at her voice, and was aggrieved. “Why, I thought you saw something,” she said.
Mary Hartsfield did not hear. A tender smiting of conscience impelled her to confession. “ It has been this way with me all my life, Judith,” she cried. “ I can’t bear things just as they happen to be, or I feel that I shall sicken and die without some special thing which it is impossible for me to have. Then, suddenly, everything is different. I have what I wanted, and I am ashamed. Oh, if we would only be patient and peaceful long enough! What we desire really does come to us at last.”
“ I thought what you wanted was to have the sunshine in here all day, ” Judith argued with literalness. “ I don’t see that that is what you wished for.” She pointed to the band of orange light in some contempt.
Her mother was a little confused. “ Well, maybe not exactly,” she admitted, “ but it is beautiful, beautiful! And I was not expecting it. I thought the sun did not get so far round till some time in March. To-day is only the twenty-fifth of February.”
Judith dropped her sewing in her lap and folded her hands over it. The time had come to say something which she had known for several days had to be said.
“ To-day is the twenty-fifth, and Ella Mears’s party is on the twenty-ninth,” she began a little unsteadily.
Her mother looked at her. “ Yes, but you will finish your dress in time. Most of the waist will be hand-work, and I can do that.”
“ Oh, the dress is all right,” she swallowed. Her resolve to speak needed strengthening. “ You may not like it, mother, but Richard Alison is coming here Friday night.”
“ Coming here ? ”
“ Coming to take me to the party. Why should n’the ? I see him at other places; why must n’t he come here? ”
Mary Hartsfield did not speak. Perhaps she could not. She had begun to tremble. Once on forbidden ground, Judith grew bolder. “ There is n’t a finer young man in the country. He is more than welcome everywhere else. But just because his father and mine had a lawsuit twenty years ago — ”
Her mother lifted a trembling hand. “ There was no lawsuit,” she said in a voice unlike itself; “ they were members of the same church. Your father would not go to law with a member of Sharon church. He would rather suffer himself to be defrauded.”
“Well, a difficulty, then. It’s all the same. Because there was a difficulty between them when Richard and I were babies, here our two families have been kept apart all these years, and I dare not tell him he may come to this house. They are as good as we are, and Richard himself is better than the best. What can you have against him ? He is upright and kind, and successful in everything he undertakes. Besides, he loves me,” she burst out; " he has asked me to marry him.”
Her mother did not answer. She was shaking from head to foot. She essayed to lift her chest, as some one had told her to do when attacked by the strange trembling which for some months had overcome her at the happening of anything untoward or exciting. She was helped a little, but not enough for speech, and going out into the low shed-room, she began moving about mechanically preparing the evening meal. She had caught at the commonplace activity as a possible relief to the stress of her emotion, which seemed to stop her breath.
Judith went about her own share in the evening work, tidying the room, milking the cow, bringing in wood and water for the night. She attempted conversation during supper and afterwards, but with poor success, and went to bed halfgrieved and half-defiant.
There was machine work on the new dress which must be done at a neighbor’s, and she relieved the situation by spending the next day away from home. In the evening, when the two sat together before the hearth, the room lighted only by its yellow flames, her mother led up to the subject which had been constantly in the minds of both. Her face was gray, and heavy lines drew down from the corners of her mouth, but her eyes were serene and sweet.
Except upon the matter of Howard Alison, she had always poured out her heart to her child in both grief and gladness, being not too exacting as to Judith’s response. She did so now, checking so far as her will could avail the tremulousness of her body, which in part was due to physical ill.
“ Judith,” she said, “ you know I am not strong and capable as many women are. I may be strong in some ways, but not in the same ways, perhaps not in the best ways. All my life my heart has been obliged to have some place in which to hide itself, to make its home. Your father’s heart was that home for mine.” Her voice had dropped very low. She paused till the rise of tears should be subdued.
“ Through all the years since he went away, I think I have been homeless. I have had other things which have grown dear — this house in which he left me, this room which has seen so much of what I have thought and done; the little church over yonder in the lonely woods, which has kept my inner life bound to the life beyond. And my books,”—she spoke slowly, and in broken phrases rather than sentences, — “ which have been like dear companions growing older with me, perhaps because I have been able to see more in them. Then my drawing, and the little embroidery I get to do, and sometimes letters from far-off friends, and the neighbors and friends close around us. Oh! I have not been poor, as you sometimes imagine, I have been rich, rich!” Her lips trembled. “Rich, too, in this wonderful world around us, which enfolds us all the time, though we build walls between us and it, and forget it in our little foolish affairs, though it will not stay forgotten I think I have never forgotten it myself a whole day in my life, — this world of the precious woods and the changing, beautiful sky, which has nourished me like some tender, voiceless mother,”
Through the little window the stars could be seen beyond the leafless boughs of the oaks. She rose and, pressing her face close to the small glass panes, looked up at them in their wintry radiance, — other faithful friends of her solitude and widowhood.
“ No, I have not been poor,” she said again, coming back, sweet and tranquil, and sitting with hands clasped in her lap. “ I have had so much, —merely in the thoughts that come to me, such thoughts, I suppose, as come to other women too, —so much more than I have ever deserved. Only in one direction have I ever been oppressed, not free, my faculties beaten back as if against some dreadful wall. Except for that, I have had living joy in all these things I have mentioned, and in more than these.
“ And yet I have never given myself to rest in any or all of them. I have said all along, ‘Judith is growing older every day. Since my husband first laid her in my arms she has been to me beyond what any but the speech of angels could tell. She will be more and more to me all the time. I must let her see into my thoughts, as far as I can, for by and by she will be a woman and understand her mother as one woman understands another; and then I can make my home in my daughter’s heart.’ ”
The words were not spoken in appeal, but with the utmost singleness of truth; yet upon the girl’s face was the impress of a new emotion, the first consciousness of a profound responsibility, shadowed by reluctant fear. Mary Hartsfield did not see it. She had indeed been speaking rather to herself than to another, and instead of turning her eyes to Judith’s face had lifted them, without intention, but with sudden quivering recollection, upon an old print which hung against the wall above her bed. She remembered how she had tried to follow its details in the slow anguish of childbirth.
“ But I cannot hide myself there if you do this thing you have purposed.” The cry rose fiercely in her breast, but did not pass her lips. Motherhood, uncorrupted even in its outgoings of supreme desire, had touched, and left inviolate, a barrier newly fallen between her child and herself.
Silence held the lonely house, the sombre room, save as the wind stirred in the overspreading boughs of the oaks, or the flames broke softly on the hearth. The young girl sat erect and still, grasped by the first knowledge of the illimitable pathos of human relationships. Her unlined brow, her sweet young form, were fair to see in the old firelit room.
When Mary Hartsfield again spoke, it was in a voice steady and clear. She no longer trembled; she felt no fear. It was as if one had passed over fearful continents and uncharted seas and stood at last upon another shore, but in the strength and hope of courage re-born.
“ Daughter,” she said, “ this man’s father robbed your father and shortened the measure of his days, and in doing so he robbed me of what I loved best, and planted in me I know not what bitter seed, which had to grow and bear its fruit, and fulfill its end — its end. But it was the man’s father who did this, not the man himself. Do you wish still to marry him, Judith?”
The girl’s eyes met hers, unafraid and full of a new humility. “ Yes, for I love him, mother.”