The Birthplace

Miss LAYLOR descended slowly from the train, and looked around her at the commonplace little station. The platform was strewn thick with cinders; the yellow-painted railway offices were dingy and weather-stained; a group of loafers were shouting coarse jests at one another, and laughing boisterously. They glanced curiously at her as she passed them, and one said something to the rest in a low tone; a loud burst of vacant laughter rose at this sally, and trailed after her as she went on down the platform. Miss Laylor looked distinctly annoyed. All the morning, as the train had brought her nearer and nearer to the little town that she had so often pictured in her mind with affectionate imagery, she had kept telling herself that Ballard would be exactly like other villages of its size. There would be nothing startling about it. It would gather no peculiar grace from the fact that a certain sprawling freckled-faced boy had grown to adolescence there, and that the man who had been that boy still looked back to it from his busy Eastern office, and called the village home. Although she had schooled herself to be satisfied with the ordinary, unpromising country hamlet, a vague sense of disappointment clouded her brain for a moment, as she paused irresolute on the high steps that led to the sidewalk.

Of course, she had not expected that the inhabitants would be standing around in picturesque garb and respectful postures, saying to one another in subdued voices, ‘Harden Carroll was born here’; but, after all, she was conscious that there had been in her soul a lurking hope of things being ‘different.’ As she had lain awake the night before, throbbing with the lurch and jolt of the sleeping-car, she had tried to make some mental organization of what Carroll had told her of the place. It was all so disjointed, thrown out under such varied suggestions and in such dissimilar moods, that she could piece together nothing less confused than the glimpse of the landscape which she had seen from the car-window during the day. Her midnight recollections had refused to be reduced to anything like order and definiteness. To-day she saw that, however clear her reminiscences might have been, they could have availed but little to keep her from disappointment. Carroll had told her of the maple wood, just outside the town, where he had hunted partridges in a forest of pure gold; he had described the tangle of lilacs and syringas and weigelia that bordered the pond behind his father’s house; he had talked to her of these things, and a thousand others; but it had never occurred to him to speak of the dusty streets, the dingy station, and the vulgar crowd of idlers at its door. They were not what had counted for him, — why should she give them a thought? They were not what she had come five hundred miles to see. Ballard should be to her to-day only what Ballard had been to Harden Carroll a score of years ago, when he had walked its streets, a youth, and seen no blemish in it. Her brow cleared as she stepped down to the dirty board-walk.

The railroad buildings, and two duncolored warehouses, with their signs blurred and hanging loose, formed a grimy nucleus for a few scattered dwellings whose white paint the soot from passing trains had turned gray. Close up to these crept cultivated fields — long stretches of short, silvery-tipped wheat-blades, glittering in the June sun, and bare-looking brown squares where potatoes were beginning to sprout. Could it be that there was no more of the village? Miss Laylor had supposed that it would be small, but she was not prepared for such an atom as this. She looked about her again, more uncertain than before.

A man approached her, and said, with a kind of respectful familiarity, ‘There’s a ’bus, lady, that’ll take you over town. Guess you won’t want to walk it to-day.’

It came to her then in a flash that Carroll had told her once that the town itself was a mile from the station.

‘It must be over that hill, there,’ she said to herself. ‘Thank you,’ she added aloud; ‘I think I’ll try walking. It is n’t very far.’

The man turned abruptly, not to say contemptuously, and left her. Miss Laylor put up her parasol, grasped her small hand-bag more firmly, and followed the sidewalk till it ended suddenly, on a line with the last of the gray houses. She found herself on a straight, worn foot-path that led away over the hill. The omnibus passed her at a swinging pace, stirring up a cloud of dust, through which the driver gave her one more scornful glance as he rattled by. She remembered now, surprised at her former stupidity, that Carroll had told her of this very path, and his walking over after school to see the trains come in. He had even related for her diversion the details of two or three incidents that had occurred along the way. Turning one of them over in her mind as she went, Miss Laylor soon discovered the corroboration that she sought. Here was the precise oyster-shaped rock on which he had lain that day when the borrowed revolver went off in his coat pocket, and ploughed a burning furrow down his leg. He had fainted from pain and terror, and his mother had found him here, surrounded by his scared companions, as she was returning from a day’s visit in the next town.

Miss Laylor sat down on the rock. The fair, damp head was in her lap, and she had her arms around the angular, boyish shoulders. A throb of motheranguish started in her breast. Then she laughed and rose from the rock, shaking herself, a little impatiently. ’It won’t do at all,’ she said half aloud, ‘to begin like this. I did n’t think I was going to be really silly!’

Over the hill in front of her rose a group of Lombardy poplars. The village was at hand. She passed several neat cottages with vines climbing sparsely over the picket fences, and white and purple iris about the front doors. The sidewalk began again. Elm trees mixed with poplars formed intermittent rows on both sides of the highway. She came at last into a quiet street, cool and pleasant after the intolerable heat of the long, treeless path. This certainly was like the Arcadian village of her dream. From one to another of the shaded streets she passed, noting a white-pillared porch here, a pansy-bordered gravel walk there, and wondering vaguely, as she recalled the meagre hints she had of its appearance, if she should know ‘the house’ when she saw it. Every old man that she met, she studied intently for resemblances, saying to herself, ‘That may be his father.’ Every gray-haired woman, seated calmly with book or knitting in the flickering noon light, was possibly Doctor Carroll’s widowed cousin, who had come to take the dead wife’s place in the household.

Once or twice Miss Laylor’s unguided footsteps took her through the straggling main street of the town. Over the barrels of vegetables, and crates of strawberries surrounding some shadowy doorway, or above windows heaped with the country storekeeper’s jumbled array of goods, she beheld names familiar to her in anecdote and chronicle and tale of boyish prank. It was as if she had stepped into the setting of one of her favorite books. The hunchbacked figure at the window of the harness-shop gave her a start of remembrance. The sharp-nosed little man shaking a grotesque, yellow-wigged head as he bartered for a basket of green peas, brought a swift smile to her lips; she knew his story, too.

Little by little her knowledge of Ballard and its people came back, as the suggestions all around her recalled half-forgotten bits of Carroll’s conversation. During the three years that she had known him, he had spoken often of his birthplace, but especially in this last twelvemonth, so hard for them both, had he delighted in recounting to her the annals of the sober Illinois town. It rested him, he said, when his mind was a pot pourri of proof-sheets, editorials, and bankrobberies, to weave yarns about that dozy little hole in the ground that could n’t even be found on the map. The ache in her own heart was easier, too, when his homely tales transported her with him to a different scene and time. While he was a boy in Ballard he had belonged, if not to her, at least to no one else. So he was an eager talker, and she a willing listener; and although the demands of the newspaper office had left them but scanty opportunity for conversation of any kind, she had gleaned a surprising number of fragments relating to the village that he loved. Now Miss Laylor found herself straining every power of association in her effort to fit to her present environment the things Carroll had told her. She was fascinated with the attempt, as by an exciting new game. Though a wheezing whistle had long since announced the hour of noon, she felt no desire for food. Her head ached sharply, and her face was hot. In spite of her hope that for this one day the heartache would be gone, it was returning insistently. Still she followed with absorbed interest, and increasing bitterness, the footsteps of a boy, who, twenty years before, had walked the same ways in the heedless ecstasy of youth.

The streets had a trick of ending unexpectedly, and merging into shrubedged footpaths that led across undulating green and brown billows of tilth; or they took the form of ashen roads that curved their dusty length away into the country. Just where a particularly deep-shaded street was undergoing this process of transformation, Miss Laylor ran upon the old Ballard Academy. Here Carroll had spent the greater part of his early school-life, preparing himself laboriously, and with no great relish, for college; his academy experiences had been among the most amusing of his recollections. She imagined him, short-trousered, longlegged, book-strap in hand, taking the high steps two at a time as he elbowed his way through a crowd of boys let loose from school; or sliding down the smooth gray balusters, when the teachers’ backs were turned. The school year was over now, and the plain brickbuilding, with its green blinds and small white-paneled cupola, had a reserved and distant air. The glassy stare of the vacant windows offered no invitation to enter. Miss Laylor walked twice around the building, and withdrew, baffled by its lack of cordiality.

As she turned away she caught a gleam of water through the trees. The pond! Now she should find the house. Though she had been looking for it all the time, she had seen nothing that corresponded to her idea of what it was like. She knew it at once by the tall French windows opening upon the narrow veranda, and by the long back yard sloping to the water. This ample garden-space, however, was inclosed by a high brick wall crumbling at the top, and hung with hop and clematis vines that climbed up from the inside, and dangled inquisitive creepers over the edge. The round ‘port-holes’ in the walls were so curtained by vines and lush, thorny bushes that not even Miss Laylor’s wistful eyes could see through them, except to catch tantalizing glimpses of still more bushes beyond.

The house and the garden were on a corner, and opposite them lay vacant lots with a slender second growth of trees half-covering them. There was no fear of any questioning gaze from that source. She followed the wall to a narrow iron gate not far from the edge of the pond; boldly peeping in, she found that a row of barberry bushes along the edge of a winding path shut off all but a tiny corner of the garden from her view, —a corner which, indeed, was only another patch of shrubbery. She could see the petals of the late syringas scattered on the ground. The lilacs were no longer in flower, but the weigelia held a few pink blossoms beginning to turn brown at the edges and loosen on the stem.

The young woman’s eyes filled as she looked between the slender iron bars of the gate into that inaccessible garden. This spot was one of the two that, from the first planning of her pilgrimage, she had set her heart on seeing. Harden had spoken of it so often and with such affection that she felt it essential to know the place as he remembered it. There was nothing to be done, however, and she made her way back calmly enough to the front of the house; she was used to making the best of discouraging situations. Harden’s window she knew, because it overlooked the garden and had a little balcony around it, built over the bow windows below. The curtains were drawn in the front rooms. No sign of life appeared. A small girl in a pink gingham apron was coming up the street, carrying a blue-striped pitcher, full of sour milk, which dripped down the sides of the vessel at every step. She eyed Miss Laylor’s neat gray traveling-suit and modish hat with friendly interest.

‘ Does Doctor Silas Carroll live here? ’ asked Miss Laylor, moved by a sudden determination to be sure.

The child stared frankly before she replied, ‘Old Doctor Carroll? Yes, him and Mis’ Wilton. Do you know ’em? Was you comin’ to see ’em?’

‘No,’ said Miss Laylor hastily, ‘I just wanted to know’; and thanking the little girl, she hurried on. It seemed all at once that even the child must know she had no right to enter the Carroll gate, and that she had no claim on the Carroll hospitality. Her interest in the son of the household would scarcely bear explanation. Weak and tired, she walked on rapidly in the waning afternoon, following a street that led toward the edge of the town. Her attention was attracted by a field bordered with box elders, between which showed the dark tops of small fir trees with a glint of white shining here and there against them. Miss Laylor’s tense pace slackened. She had stumbled upon the graveyard, the place that, more perhaps even than the garden, she had longed to see.

The light wooden bars were open. A horse and a low uncovered buggy stood at the rough cedar post without the gate. A black figure moved among the headstones. Entering the cemetery, Miss Laylor approached the woman, who was arranging some homegrown flowers in a tin basin on a bare, sandy mound. She felt a sick desire for company — for any kind of human conversation. The woman, sallow and middle-aged, looked up with startled, red eyes as the stranger came toward her through the grass. Miss Laylor felt awkward and de trop.

‘Good-afternoon,’ she stammered. ‘Don’t let me disturb you.’ Then the self-control bred of her three years in the newspaper office with Harden Carroll on one hand, and suspicious, small-souled John Herfurth on the other, asserted itself again. ‘I really beg your pardon,’ she said. ‘I was spending a few hours in town, and as I knew no one, I thought I’d walk around a little. This old cemetery looked interesting, and I stepped in for a moment. It has been a delightful day, has n’t it?’

The older woman, after her first start of surprise, seemed rather grateful for the intrusion than otherwise. She replied politely to Miss Laylor’s greeting, and smiled in an amiable way at the excuse.

‘You won’t disturb me a bit,’ she said; ‘I was feeling pretty lonesome, anyway, and just wishin’ I had some one with me. Do sit down here in the shade. You look kind o’ tired and white. A little rest ’ll be good for you.’

Miss Laylor sat down, and took off her hat. It did seem good to rest, after her long tour of exploration.

‘Won’t you sit down, too?’ she said to the woman standing beside her. ‘It’s hot work there in the sun.’

‘ I might, for a few minutes,’ was the reply; ‘ but I must be goin’ before long.’

Nevertheless, it was nearly half an hour that the two women sat there talking, — the one with the ready understanding that had helped to make her modest literary career a success, the other with the half-diffident loquacity of the country woman, narrowly bred. The gulf that lay between them was not a wide one, however different their circumstances had been.

Miss Laylor found that her companion, though living on a farm three miles from Ballard, knew intimately the greater number of its inhabitants. She could not forbear a question.

‘I ran across a man from here a few years ago,’she said carelessly, as she tore a crisp, wide grass-leaf into shreds; ‘ I wonder if you know him — Carroll his name was.’

‘It must have been Harden Carroll,’ the woman exclaimed delightedly. ‘ Yes indeed, I know him. I’ve always known Doctor Carroll and his family. Harden’s mother is dead — she’s lyin’ here in this very graveyard, in fact; but she was always fond of my folks when she was alive, and we used to visit back ’n’ forth. She was quiet ’n’ plain, ’n’ never put on airs, but she was a lady all through, just the same. She certainly was a fine woman. Harden takes after her a lot. Good lookin’, was n’t he, with a straightish nose, and lots of fair-colored hair? I thought so. Yes, it must have been Harden. He ain’t been home this summer yet. He usually comes in August and brings his wife with him, — he’s been married seven or eight years. His wife’s a high-headed piece, an’ don’t take very well with the folks round here. I don’t see, myself, how Harden happened to get her. She ain’t like him a bit.’

Miss Laylor could endure no more.

‘ I think that must have been the man,’ she said. ‘I never knew his wife very well. I wonder how late it is? ’

The other woman rose hurriedly, ‘It is late,’ she sighed. ‘I’ve talked too long. But it’s done me good. I always feel so used up when I come away from here that I don’t get over it all the rest of the day.’ She had told Miss Laylor of her husband’s sudden death in March. Her tears came again as she turned toward his grave. ‘It seems as if I can’t stand it,’ she said.

‘You must n’t feel that way,’ consoled Miss Laylor. ‘You know death is not the worst.’

The triteness of her remark smote her, but the older woman accepted it without scorn.

‘No,’ she said slowly, ‘it ain’t the worst, to be sure, but it’s bad enough.’ Then, after a pause, ‘I guess, on the whole, though, it’s better to lose him this way than not to have been married to him at all.’

Miss Laylor leaned over the grave, and finished arranging the flowers. ‘I’m sure it is,’ she said simply.

‘ I must go home and get supper for my son,’ the other explained, gathering up her things. ‘ He’s a comfort to me, and I must n’t neglect him.’

Miss Laylor, smiling into the eyes of her companion, took both her hands. ‘Good-by,’ she said. ‘Surely you must n’t neglect your son. I think you are a very fortunate woman.’

She watched the stooping black form as it made its way out, beyond the box elders. Then she looked about her, wearily. The next grave might be the one she sought. It was somewhere in this green and white God’s-acre. Yet she stood still.

She knew that his mother had died the year before Carroll went away to college. Yet he seemed never for a moment to have forgotten her. ’I think of her in some connection, every hour in the day,’ he had said once, almost shyly. No one else, perhaps, knew as well as Miss Laylor how much his mother’s memory was to him. She herself had come to have something of his feeling. A thousand times in the last miserable year she had, in her passionate yearning for sympathy, imagined herself sobbing out on his mother’s grave the story of her love and Carroll’s to the deaf ears of the only person who could ever have understood. Mary Carroll’s grave had become, to her harassed fancy, the one place in the world where she could unburden herself of her grief. But now that it was within touch of her hand, she could not bring herself to look for it. The poignancy of her desire was gone. Some undefined reluctance held her back. This hesitation was as whimsical as the impulse that had brought her to Ballard in the first place. She would have had difficulty in putting it into speech; but it crystallized at last into a clear idea, — she would go away without finding Mary Carroll’s grave and she would never come back till she could come joyfully with Mary Carroll’s son. That meant, in all probability, never. Yet who was she, that she should break in upon a dead woman’s peace with a wild tale of sorrow, and love misplaced? Carroll himself, if he knew, would frown at her folly.

She left the graveyard and made her way with lagging footsteps back to the town. Choosing the neater of the two small hotels, she turned her mind at last to the exhaustion of her body. There was still a half-hour left before the early country supper-time. With a dull sense of the futility of her day, she lay down on the clean, hard bed of her narrow inn-bedroom. She had seen neither of the spots that she wanted above all to see, — Carroll’s garden, and his mother’s grave. She had not even kept her resolution of the morning, to read the story of the little town, always in the language of Carroll’s youth. She had, she realized now, translated it with a bitter accent of her own that had made it, after all, quite different from what it had been to him. In the early morning of the next day, she would leave Ballard, and set out for the Southern city where she was to begin the new life that she had planned for herself in a field of wider opportunities. Would not the sharpness of her remembrance be augmented, rather than decreased, by this one day in Harden Carroll’s birthplace?

With a brain overwearied by emotion and long, useless questioning, she fell asleep, and forgot for half an hour the fullness of her grief.

After an almost untasted supper, she put on her hat once more and strolled idly about the neighboring streets. Insensibly, her footsteps drew her to the house beside the pond; almost before she knew what she had really intended, she had paused before the iron gate of the garden.

She leaned for a moment on the gate, like a child, longing yet fearing to go in, and as she stood there she saw the old man coming down the path, his bare white head appearing and disappearing among the untrimmed shrubs. Miss Laylor did not move. As he came nearer, he stopped and looked at her earnestly.

‘I should have known the face anywhere,’ she was thinking. ‘The same nose and chin — but Harden’s eyes must be like his mother’s.’

‘Good-evening,’ said the old man kindly.

‘ May I come in and see your garden ? ’ she cried impulsively. ‘It looked so attractive that I had to stop.’

‘Certainly,’ he said, with a pleased gesture. ‘ It is n’t much of a garden, but you’re welcome to see it all.’

He opened the gate for her, and she went in. The long, gentle slope from the house to the pond had scarcely been touched by the twilight, yet it held a certain dimness of its own, emanating from its trailing vines and overhanging boughs. The grass, heavy and matted after the June rains, was unmown. Unexpected paths cut narrowly through the verdure of the garden, and disappeared as unexpectedly behind the shrubs. Over against the wall a late tulip or two flamed out starlike from the dark. Here and there stood a thick clump of rose-bushes covered with small, old-fashioned, golden-hearted white blossoms, while at Miss Laylor’s elbow a taller and more spreading bush held crowded sprays of round, sulphur-colored roses, abundant and good-smelling. She fingered their smooth petals as she looked about. Her heart swelled with a slow gush of thankfulness. She could not have borne it if the garden had been one whit less satisfying, if it had differed one iota from what it had been when Harden was a boy.

The old man was watching her almost anxiously.

‘It is a perfect Garden of Delight,’ she sighed happily.

The old man laughed. ‘That’s just what my son Harden calls it,’ he said. ‘It’s queer that you should have hit on his very words.’

He led the way to a worn old bench under the branches of a pair of shaggy apple trees. His absolute courtesy required no explanations. ‘Sit down,’ he said simply, ‘and look at the pond a few minutes. I always like it at this time, especially when there’s a good sunset.’

The water gave back the fading colors of the sky, but the shadows around the edge were quiet and black. On the other bank trembled a group of birches, their white trunks gleaming like the slim, naked bodies of wood nymphs poised for a simultaneous leap into the water. A robin chirruped noisily from somewhere above.

The two people on the bench talked intermittently of the sunset and the delightful June weather, lapsing often into a silence as natural and unconstrained as their conversation.

‘You have been in Ballard before?’

the old man queried at last, with no touch of curiosity, but with the quick interest of the aged in the young.

‘No, I just came here for the day,

— on an errand, — or rather on a pilgrimage.’ Miss Laylor smiled, the tense look of despair already half-softened in her face.

‘And has it been successfully accomplished?

‘A part of it — perhaps all.’

‘Good!’ The doctor’s exclamation was such as he might have given at seeing a patient advancing toward recovery.

A silence fell upon them. The young woman breathed a little sigh and leaned back in her seat, with a feeling of approaching comfort, from what source she hardly knew. Her tired thoughts wandered for a moment. She was recalled to herself by the voice of the old man, speaking of the garden.

‘I’m glad you like it,’ he said; ‘it does n’t appeal to some people at all. My son’s wife wants it changed. She thinks it ought to be thoroughly cleared up, and then laid out properly with straight paths, and stone urns, and a fountain. She talks about it every time she comes here. She says it’s “creepy ” ’

— the old man smiled —‘and that she can’t bear to stay in it. And she never does, either,’ he added. ‘I don’t think she ever came down to the edge of the pond.’

Miss Laylor was conscious of a flitting gladness that Harden’s wife had never sat on the old bench under the apple trees, never walked among the roses, and watched the shadows deepen in the pond. But the flash of joy vanished at the sound of Harden’s name.

‘My son is a very busy man — he’s the editor of a paper out East — and it always rests him, he says, to spend his vacations at home in Ballard — to loaf around in the garden, and sit here on this bench and dream.’

‘Ah, yes, the garden is so good a place to rest.’

The old man eyed his companion thoughtfully, detecting the hidden weariness in her tone.

‘ Young people like you ought not to be tired,’ he said. ‘Life is so full of incident to you, so full of interest and exhilaration.’

‘Oh, but it’s so hard!’ The woman choked a little as she spoke.

‘I know. Young people find it so. It is, too, in a way; but it’s so much easier, better, than you think. And there is so much that one can learn.’

‘Yes — to endure the bitterness of loss.’ She spoke sharply, with the sudden poignancy of a creature awakened to an habitual pain.

He answered gently, ‘Not that. To find no bitterness, and feel no loss.’

She did not answer, but her tears fell.

He went on: ‘One does not learn it all at once; but it comes little by little, if one will let it, when one realizes the fullness of life all around one, and feels the power under it all. And then, there are those we love —’

‘Those we love — ah, they’re what make life hard!'

‘Not if we love rightly. To have had them is enough.’

‘But when we can’t have them any more? ’

‘But you always can; once having them is everything. Nothing can make them less than yours after that.’

‘That’s true,’ Miss Laylor said humbly; ‘yes, of course. I knew it before, but you make me feel it now.’

‘To live, and see,’ the old doctor went on slowly, ‘and feel, and love, and have, — to work with one’s hands and brain, and to aspire and develop with one’s soul, — these are the great things, things worth living for, even though we can’t always do and be what we should like.’

‘Oh, if I could stay here in this garden, I could be sure of what you say. I could be rested, and have some happiness and peace.’

‘But you can take the garden with you. If you shut your eyes now, you have it just as much as if you saw it. Why not so, when you are miles away? And why not happiness and peace?’ His voice was insistent and persuasive.

Miss Laylor heard him with an eager gaze. Then she closed her eyes and leaned back once more against the bench. A light wind rustled the branches above her head; the smell of the flowers came to her through the damp evening air. Across her face moved a slow succession of emotions, until the last trace of hopeless wretchedness was gone. Watching her, the old man was quiet for a long time. Then he spoke: —

‘We two are strangers — I shall never see you again; but I am old, and I have learned. Life is good, and it is peace to know its goodness — to love those that are dear to us, to feel that what has once been ours is ours forever. Believe me, for it is true.’

‘ I will believe it,’ she murmured with a new note in her voice. ‘I will believe it because you tell me; and perhaps some time you may know how much your words have meant.’

She put out her hand as if to touch his, then withdrew it hastily. The old man was looking out across the shadows of the pond, and did not notice the gesture. Silence fell again upon the two. A robin flew across the pond with an important flutter of wings. The last streak of crimson above the birches had disappeared. Miss Laylor knew that she must go. But still for a little season they sat there, the old man and the young woman, who loved Harden Carroll as the blood of their own hearts.

And so the evening fell, and peace came with it and brooded over the Garden of Delight.