The Wayfaring Woman

JUST when, for the first time, I was fearing lest some day the wizard-light might fade from my hill-tops, because I had climbed them so often; lest some day people’s eyelids might cease to be doors flashing upon mystery, because I had seen so many secrets; and lest, sadder still, I might wake up some morning and find that my comradesoul had forgotten to pipe me on to the new adventure of the new morning, — just when I was fearing these things, I bought a pair of rubber boots!

They are real boots, real as all masculine things are real. They have straps, a new thing to me in footgear. They are deep and cavernous, so that I sink to the knee, and in them I am armored like a man, but yet a woman. Whimsical symbol, perhaps, my newbought rubber boots, of adjustment to a man’s free-hearted adventuring. If I am to tramp alone, let me be valiantly shod like a man, though a woman at heart, for is not all the world mine for the walking it? Who knows what new fun may be abroad for me now, in my rubber boots? I was made for life’s out-of-doors. I am a woman who wishes to walk this earth in all weathers, and indeed I have walked it in many, plucking by my homely hillpaths thoughts that are wayside flowers along a subtler way.

I have gazed at my circling hills in many changing lights. I have seen them on a moon-flooded summer evening lie shoulder to shoulder asleepabout the broad valley pastures, while the tree-shadows wavered black against white farmhouses, asleep, too; and nothing made any noise except the brook beneath my wayside bridge, and that, a merry brown human brook by day, went singing in the moon an elfin chant it had forgotten that it knew. I have seen my hills deepest blue at the skyline, and below all ablaze, beneath the racing white clouds of October, when more than at any other time the winding roads bewitch my feet, and every blackberry thicket and slope and fence-row is flaunting its banners in my eyes; yet I cannot stop to gaze, for the air is of so keen a blueness; I must walk, run, fly, because of the urgency of October in my toes.

But in the spring one’s step slackens, and one stops to loiter and look at the green willows that twist with the wavering course of the swift muddy river; at the rosy mist on the maple-boughs, at sunny blue wings that flash against bare branches. In the spring the most insistent walker must pause by an arbutus bank. Last year’s leaves upon it are still rimmed with frost and snow, and one’s fingers grow red, poking beneath for treasure. But what largess of arbutus our humblest wayside banks hereabouts can yield, arbutus greatpetaled, deep-pink, setting free what prisoned fragrance!

I have tramped my climbing roads in winter-time, too, on those days of winter when the mercury sinks to the zero point, when the snow crunches loud beneath my heels, and the sun hangs high and cold, and the spangle glistens on crusted fields. But heretofore there have been days of winter when I have felt myself held within doors, days of slush and ooze, when the sky broods low, and the air is blind with great wet flakes; yet these were the very days when the gypsy wind came rattling the window-sash and piping of new wonders of grayness and of whiteness out there upon the hills.

I who have packed my wanderer’s wallet with the gentle secrets of summer nights, of springtime hillsides, and wintry sunshine, I who have always tramped to the call of a lonely road, should I turn craven stay-at-home when life’s wild weather draws my feet hillward through grim slush and sleet? Are there not new secrets waiting on the stormy hills? I am not afraid! I have put on rubber boots.

In all this countryside I am the only woman who walks. Highroads and bypaths and wood ways are mine alone, for here solitude is safe and cheery for the woman who goes uncompanioned. I pass by unmolested, but not unhailed. Happily, I have reached the age when men greet me with level comrade eyes, and pass me merrily the time of day; at least the genial old codgers of our region do. The men of my homehamlet of Littleville are a bit proud of my pedestrian prowess, and if they meet me wandering far will draw rein to twinkle down and rally me: ‘Guess you’re lost this time sure, ain’t you?’

The strangers I meet rarely pass me in churlish silence. I have had a man, never before seen, bend down from his high seat, his face all one pucker of concern, while he shouted to me in a high windy voice, ‘Hi, there, you’re losing a hat-pin!’ His overspread relief as I adjusted it was but one instance of the intimacy ruling within the sweeping circle of hills that rim Littleville like a cup. We are no strangers here, we comrades of the road.

Yet in my walking I must often pay the penalty of being unique, of being an anomaly in country conventions. They are kind, our rural men-folk, but I think the kindest, passing me, make a swift comparison between me and their kitchen-keeping women. In this inarticulate comparison there is a boyish flash of sympathy that I should find the out-of-doors the same jolly thing men do; but more, there is distrust of one who obviously enjoys the zest of her own feet as much as their wives enjoy jogging through life beside a comfortable husband behind a comfortable horse. Possibly the thoughts of rural men-folk are not so different from the thoughts of all other men-folk when they pass the woman who walks.

Whatever the mental comment attached to the gaze, the eyes that meet mine are quite as often astounded as amused. If this is evident even when I trudge in flooding sunshine, astonishment becomes irrepressible when I am seen abroad in snow and sleet. ‘By gosh! pretty hard walking you got, ain’t you?’

Foot-fast in slush, I pipe back, ‘But I like it. I have on rubber boots!’

Such the accost from vehicles not facing in my direction; but when a horse that goes my way is drawn up, and I decline the proffered seat; knee-deep in slush, refuse to get in! then the driver’s face expresses such commiseration as I never expected to feel applied to my inoffensive person. Plainly I see that it is not my drabbled shirts he is sorry for, it is my addled wits. Walking country roads in ill weather has taught me exactly how a lunatic must feel. It is said that the crazy have a certain look in the eye; of experience I can affirm that so also have those who gaze upon the crazy.

For the passing instant, as I meet that profound pity in mild, masculine orbs, I do doubt my own sanity, and wonder if perhaps this glorious freedom of the wild, wet weather is quite the sensible thing it seemed when I set out; for it is the look in other people’s eyes that gives us our own spiritual orientation. Lunacy is a purely relative term. There are places where women may walk and hardly be glanced at for so doing, just as, perhaps, within his own cage-walls, the Bedlamite may seem to himself a normal human being. Also, perhaps, the lunatics, like me, have their silent chuckle; knowing, like me, that they have their inward fun, although the numskull sane can’t see it. I hope so, for I would fain think some sunny thought of the poor brainsick folk.

It is not given to my friends of the highway, sensible men-creatures on wheels, any more than to their wives, snug at home in dry domestic shoes, to know the joy of my walk through the swift, wet snowflakes. On and up I go, never meaning to go home by the same way I have come. What lover of the road ever does that?

The clinging snow has enfolded all things. Every tree stands with white, shrouded branches. The berry thickets are softly furred with white. The dusky gray aisles of the roadside woods die to blackness in the near distance. The little brooks go tinkling beneath a thatch of snow bristling with high grass blades. There is almost no color. Even the bronze of oak leaves is veiled by white mist. The world is all white and gray, and in the distance faintly blue. The fast-failing snow blurs all familiar outlines strangely, so that I hardly believe those dreamy roofs down there belong to humdrum Littleville.

There is strange, muffled silence. I am half afraid of the woods; they have grown unearthly, so that I start at the eerie thud of the snow that drops from the branches. Gray-white, silent mystery, — and I should never have known or seen it, had I not laughed at life’s wild weather, and trudged forth to it in rubber boots, all alone.

Yet, whatever the shy comradeship of wayside groves, of busy secret streams and homely fields, always the human aspect of the road engages the woman who tramps with joy at the heart. In summer and winter, as I go, I pass the brown milk-wagons, plodding, monotonous, starting forth from all the circling farms and converging to the milk station. The drivers have always dull or far-away faces, for it is always the same road, the same rattling cans at their backs, the same shaggy, jogging flanks before them.

Almost always, somewhere on my journey, I meet the rural mail-man. The bobbing yellow dome of his narrow wagon is always easily descried in the distance. The mail-man knows my tramp-habits well, and the smile from his little blinking pane never fails me. Another familiar vehicle is the school carryall, which nowadays picks up all the human contents of one of our district schools and carries them down to Littleville for instruction. The school wagon is driven by a jovial grandsire, and it is always crowded to overflowing with small, merry people who hail me. I rarely meet any folk on foot, although occasionally a leggined huntsman slips noiselessly across the road from one grove to another, while a hound sniffs to right and left of his path.

The farm-homes for the walker by the way have each the spell of some new story. There beside that windrocked cupola is some curious mechanism. For what purpose? To lift water to a roof-tank? To catch the lightning? To send afloat an airship? Crude, clumsy aspirant, a farm-boy’s dream!

I pass by a porch that abuts close upon the road. A door flings open and a man and a woman come out, too temper-tossed to heed me. The woman’s face is set in impotent hate, the man’s mouth is wried with cursing; and the faces are not young, nor the graven bitterness a mere passing blight. Man and wife! Yet they loved once, I suppose, and went driving gayly back from the parson’s, his arm about her ri bboned waist, and posies flaunting in her hat and in her cheeks — once!

It is given to us who trudge by in the road beyond the doors to pity often, but to envy rarely. It is in the nature of things that we cannot envy, for those things we might covet are precisely those that came spilling out of door and window to bless us, so that presently we are bowing our heads and saying our bit of a grace for them, as being also ours. Gentle old world, so constituted that a home can lock its door, if it will, upon its sorrow, but can never hide its joy! I pass another ragged farmhouse, and here the children in their homemade little duds are trooping in from school. Again an open doorway, and in it a mother wiping red hands upon her apron. The closing door shuts off sharply the shrill voices that tell of the day’s events; but I haveseenand heard, and therefore I, too, possess.

At still another window-pane there is a bobbing baby-face. Such a crowing, chuckling joy as is a year-old baby! What home could ever hide him under a bushel? Strange mystery, that gives, withholds, inscrutably, the heart’s desire of all of us, and yet ordains for us who trudge a snow-cold path, that there shall be, even until we grow gray of soul and feeble-footed, forever along our way, until the end, always behind the panes we pass, the bobbing babyfaces! Other women’s babies? Does it make so much difference whose they are, so long as they are sweet?

Another happiness it is ordained no woman shall keep unto herself. The peace of a woman’s mouth when a good man loves her, that is another of the things nothing can conceal, for sorrow may be leaden and secret at the heart, but joy will always out and abroad. That is one of the things we know, we wayfaring women.

Walks end with the dipping of the day. The winter dusk steals very early over all the snowy whiteness. I have to peer to see Littleville’s clustered roofs down there in the river-valley. Before I turn to wade back down the drifted hill-road to the ruddy little home that lends me harborage for the night, I stand still to look about me, through the whirling flakes. See all around me hills I have not yet climbed! Think of the untried roads that lead to them! What secret wizardry of new woods, what elfin tinkle of new brooks, what new farm-doors, glimpsing upon human mystery! Hills and the road for me, on and on! Just around the turn what wonders wait, shall ever wait, for my rubber boots and me!