THEY had pitched camp in the shelter of a great buff-colored dune, with two up-turned canoes, and a small tent with a flap staked over it.
Lake Michigan, all green and mistblown, banded the whole north horizon, to break along the curving beach in little hoary crowns of foam and bubbles. Southwest, southeast, and south, the broad, full contours of the dunes purled far away, beneath the gray and purple sky of the late autumn. They were grown with red-oak and yellow poplar-brush toward the west. Toward the southeast and south their long pure curves, lowswooping like a swallow’s flight, ran nude and pale, in shadows exquisitely changing in the rising afternoon.
Beside a smoky fire, between the tent and the lake, a sunburned young woman with roughly-blown hair, in corduroy skirt and a boy’s overcoat, dark and shabby, now hid her eyes from the smoke, in the crook of her arm, and now rubbed vaseline on a stiff shoe in her lap.
These occupations so closely engaged her attention that she did not at first observe, across the beach, the approach of a little sandy woman between fifty and sixty, in a short walking-skirt and a felt walking-hat tied down with a veil. Her shoes looked damp. She glanced rather shyly, but with a sort of liking and friendliness, at the tent and the fire.
“ Come and dry your shoes,” said the girl hospitably, lifting her eyes. She was a rather pretty blonde girl, with a goodhumored, quiet expression.
“ You folks camping out here? ” said the visitor, still looking with an air of satisfaction and pleasure at the camp. “ You ’re from Chicago, relatives to Mrs. Horick in South Laketown, ain’t you ? So I heard. I’ve sewed some for her. Oh, I just wisht I was you. Few cares enough for camping to do it this time of year. Your folks come here to fish ? ”
“ No,” said the girl quietly. “ One of my cousins was taken sick this fall, and told to live outdoors. So he decided to come out here and camp with his wife and little boy and me. For a while.”
“ You have a nice place for it.”
“ My cousins have gone to the station on some errands,” said the girl reflectively, polishing her shoe. She could not very well say to her relative’s dressmaker, that the camp had feared the visit of Mrs. Horick on that very afternoon. Mrs. Horick was a pretty, competent, hardedged young woman, who enjoyed such things in life as tight face-veils, high traps, and docked horses. The adult campers had drawn lots to select her victim for the afternoon. The lot had fallen to Jim Paine. But Jim took so unbridled a pleasure in displeasing Mrs. Horick that it was decided such a fate would be too cruel to her. The lots were drawn again. This time the lot fell to Alice Paine. But Mrs. Horick depressed Alice, sometimes for several hours after her departure. The lots were drawn again. This time the lot fell to Elsie Norris. With whoops, it was determined Elsie must remain. She would not care a fig what Mrs. Horick said or thought, would be entirely amiable with her, and, besides, had no shoes to walk to the station in. One pair was wet. The other was too stiff to put on. After dressing Elsie in the most handsome garments the camp afforded, the others had left her, early in the afternoon, with Shep, Rabbie’s collie, wandering around within call, and occasionally barking at imaginary wolves in the brush.
“ Perhaps you met my cousins on your way,” said Elsie.
“ No. I did n’t come from that direction. I came from Gary. It ain’t much of a place to live. But I got a real good airy room, with a back-porch of my own, in a carpenter’s family there. Miss Brackett’s my name. I’m about the only dressmaker in the place, so’s I get plenty of custom, more ’n all that I can do; and well-paid, too, you can say in a way,” she added with a sigh; “ and in a way, not; because I hate sewing. But then I walk a good deal around here. There’s some fine walks through the oaks and in the dunes; just as fine as any one could wish,” she said with a look of content. “ It makes me just about homesick to see your camp. I was camping myself six years ago.”
“ Were you ? Here ? ”
“ No,” said Miss Brackett, with a little hesitation. In response to Elsie’s invitation, she had seated herself on a log, near the fire. There was evidently something very stirring in their little camp to her. For a moment she even looked as if she were going to cry. “ It was on the plains,” she said finally, with a certain pride. “ A long wagon-trip, a whole year long.”
“ How fine! ”
“ Yes,” said Miss Brackett, looking at the dunes and the surging lake. “ It was, as you might say, a great experience. You hardly would believe me, but before that time, why, I hardly knew there was such a place as outdoors; not till I was forty-six years old; and that’s a fact.”
Elsie glanced up at her inquiringly. She had heard of persons who acquired Spanish at ninety, or who experienced a passionate personal infatuation for the first time at sixty, but never of an adult creature devoted to an indoor existence, who suddenly felt in middle age a real response to the great inarticulate voices of the earth.
“ Up to then, I lived on the West Side, in Chicago, with my married sister. My father left the place to her and to me. Most of the rest of the property went to. my young half-brother Kip. But when Nettie’s children were nearly grown, it seemed as though there was n’t any room left in the house for me; and yet they needed me, you see, to sew for them, right straight along. I used to sew, sew, sew till midnight and past, often, tucking on the girls’ summer dresses, especially that last spring when I was at home; and I began to cough then and get so dreadful tired. That winter Nettie thought each of the girls ought to have their own room. It was no more than right, either. Nettie and me, we each had our own room when we was young girls. So I used to sleep, just on two chairs with quilts in the back parlor, and could n’t seem to rest very good, and, besides, had to get up and get dressed and the room fixed, real early, so Will could come there and read his morning paper. Well, I used to keep all my things in shoe-boxes, up in the attic, so they’d be out of the way. They used to laugh, and laugh, about those boxes; and one night we was all sitting on the steps, and they was laughing, and my youngest niece, Baby, she got real mad. She’s so warm-hearted and she never wanted to take my room, and only did because it provoked Nettie so, for her not to. Babe turned real white, and she said all of a sudden, ‘The reason why Aunt Min has n’t anything but shoe-boxes to keep her things in is just because we’ve turned her out of everything,’ she said. ‘ You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.’ And she jumped up and ran into the house.
“ That night my brother Kip happened to be there. He’d been West ever since he was fifteen. He’s a lot younger than Nettie and me — only twenty-five, then. We thought Kip was an awful wild, queer sort of fellow, then; we did n’t know him at all. I felt just like the rest. He’d run through all that was left him long ago; and he’d married an actress and was separated from her. He was a sort of a Socialist too, and even had tramped some. But he seemed to be real kind in some ways. When Babe said that, he looked at me quite hard. When he went home he says to me, ‘You look sick, Min,’ he says, and he took hold of my hand. ‘You’ve got fever. Why don’t you see a doctor ? ’
Well, I don’t know what got into me. After they was all gone that night, I just broke down, and cried and cried. I did feel dreadful sick and feverish, and I had n’t no money of my own to see a doctor, and felt just all gone really. I managed to get up and fix the room before any of them come down. But then I had to lie on the sofa, and could n’t get to breakfast. And after breakfast — would you believe it ? — a doctor come. Kip sent him, himself. But he frightened Nettie to death. I felt dreadfully sorry for her.”
“ He told your sister how ill you were,” said Elsie gravely.
“ Oh, yes. But it was n’t so much that, as she was so afraid some of the children might catch my trouble. She was all right though as soon as they got me to the hospital, though she was provoked too, because it took so much of her time to come there to see me. She come twice before I went away. The doctor said that going away was my only chance. For all that I was up and around, he thought I could n’t live a year.”
Neither of them spoke for a moment, looking away at the dunes.
“ Then — what do you think — Kip had an intimate friend, quite a rich young man, Will Bronson, who was sick the same way I was. That’s how Kip come to notice my sickness so. The doctors wanted him kept out of doors, and he and Kip was going on this wagon-trip. But his mother was nearly crazy worrying over it, and worrying the young man and crying all day and night. She thought Kip never could take care of him. Well, those boys wanted me to go off with them on the wagon-trip. They said I could cook for them, and it would relieve the mother. And it did. They took me to see her. And she thought if a person like me could go on a wagon-trip it could n’t be so awful after all. Well, the short and the long of it was, we went to Fort Leavenworth, and the boys got a wagon and provisions and blankets and thick shoes and things for me, and they got two good mules from the government post, and we started off.”
Miss Brackett sat erect. A look of elation burned in her violet eyes.
Elsie drew a deep breath and laughed.
“ Yes. I did n’t like the idea at first: all the rough clothes, and our being alone on the plains, and after a while going to be right in the desert, — it seemed to me terrible. But it was the only thing there was for me to do. I just kep’ my mouth shut tight through all that time. And then, I don’t know, more and more, oh, I just come to love it! ”
After a moment Elsie said, “ And did you really have any hardships?”
“ What do you call hardship? The rainy season was bad. But I’ve been lots wetter longer at a time, through whole winters, when I’d lend my rubbers to the children. Sometimes it was terrible cold. But then we always had a good fire. I’ve been lots colder in the back parlor and on crowded street-car platforms, and lots and lots more uncomfortable. Once we got off the trail. Once we had a bad time about finding water. One night after the mules was hobbled they jumped along so far, even hobbled, that we could n’t get them for hours. Kip and Will Bronson was gone six hours in different directions; and I was afraid they was lost. But I’ve had more hardship. you might say, and not that I want to complain either, in one week on the West Side at home, than in a whole year of what they called roughing it. And for hard feelings, and real mean bad ways of acting, I’ve seen more of them over getting out one shirt-waist in a dressmaker’s shop, than in that whole time on the wagon-trip. Even though once we had a man in our camp that we heard afterwards was a criminal and fugitive from justice,” she added with a laugh.
“ What sort of a man was he ? ”
“ A very considerate, pleasant sort of man. He was a short, thick-set fellow from Missouri, with a hard sort of chin. He come riding up near the Baton Pass, and asked to stay the night and get supper and breakfast with us. Well, it so happened I had caught cold and was n’t feeling extra. The boys was worried and sort of mad, — that was the worst trouble we had, — because I would mend and cook just the same. The boys cooked terrible, and it seemed as though I could n’t have no peace of mind, unless I did it. It made me feel so as though I was no use to them and not paying my share by what I did, you know. Well, this man from Missouri was a fine cook. He stayed with us three days, and by the time he went I was all right again. He was real helpful. They never got him. When we come to Trinidad, we was good and surprised to find he was a cattle thief that shot a sheriff that tried to arrest him.”
The lake was paler now. White clouds plumed on the horizon, and an evening glow, green and faintly flushing, was reflected delicately from the west. The dunes were browner and darker. The visitor sat thinking, evidently of her long, free wandering days. Elsie, putting on her shoes, sat thinking of her wayfaring companion’s mean and hateful life in the very midst of what is called civilization and respectability, of her struggle for existence, a struggle in which she had been all but killed by the greedinesses around her, a struggle just as sharp as any of the nail-and-claw-depredations commonly attributed exclusively to wildernesses. They watched the sky change in an unspoken friendliness.
“ And now, you are much better?” said Elsie quietly.
“ Yes. Now I’m well, thank God! And the Bronson boy as sound as a bell. That was the most lucky illness you can imagine for me. I could n’t go back after that to the way I lived before. I always would live different — more outdoors, and just looking after myself better. Since that time, I’ve been lots more use to myself and everybody else. After we got to California, I sewed here and there for the people where we boarded first, and they liked my sewing so much, and I made so much money, that when Kip got a job to Gary, engineering for the electric plant, and I come too, to keep house for him, I put up a sign and gradually I ’d worked up a good trade, before he was married. Why I ’m going to be able to send Babe to Vassar, and plenty for me to take a trip west, too, next summer. Kip married such a nice girl.” She rose. “ I’ve talked you to death. But when you spoke about your cousin it brought everything right out of my lips some way. I hope he’s not so very sick.”
“ No. He will be well again. He has a splendid constitution.”
Miss Brackett shook hands with her. “ I wish you would come in for a minute and see me, if you ever have time some day when you’re in Gary.”
“ I will.”
As her visitor disappeared over the rounded ridge of the dune, Elsie heard the home-coming voices of the campers. They had brought peanut-taffy to her, and they praised her none the less highly for her intended sacrifice to the Moloch of Mrs. Horick and the dullness of the world that she had not needed to make this sacrifice.
For some reason, she could not have explained to them about her chance guest. But she was still thinking of her, as she walked from the shore a little later to gather firewood for supper. The sun dropped long-ribbed level beams over the russet oak-brush and buff shadows of the dunes. Crimson rifts broke in the amber ether of the west. Rich, rich, soft, and deep, the fragrance of some far autumnal bonfire breathed in the cool air. “ Where are the songs of spring? oh, where are they ? Mourn not for them, thou hast thy music, too,” rang silently in the girl’s fancy as she stood looking around her. And she wondered that she never till that day had realized how deeply wild creation is the birthright of every creature, not only for the power of tooth and fang, the strength of the marauder, but for the vitality of speed and sensitiveness, ground-squirrel, deer and cricket; and how Nature’s most profound magnificence might sing, perhaps, not in her thrilling melody to April pulses, but in her proud cadence to November hearts.