It Is Well to Be Off With the Old House Before You Are on With the New
IF the little old house had been more gracious when we came back to it from our months of wandering, this never would have happened. Perhaps it could not forgive us for going away. It would have nothing to do with us, was sulky, remote, inaccessible, a little house of frowning blinds and closed doors. When spring came, and the apple trees about it put forth no green leaves, we realized, startled, that they had died. Had they perhaps missed us even more than we missed them? The neighbors hinted San José scales; we repudiated the suggestion with scorn. In all our coming and going, unpacking, settling, visiting old corners, the house feigned a lofty indifference, and would have sat down cat-wise if it could, with its back turned toward us, its tail curled rigidly round. We hoped that this was only a mood, but it proved lasting. When we spoke it would not listen; when we listened it would not speak, as of old; it would yield up no shade of its experience for us when we were puzzled, no ray of comfort when we were sad. Its inexorable coldness lasted so long that at last it drove us out, wondering that this ever could have seemed home, to seek a spot where we could build a house of our very own.
When, after long search, we had found it, and had shamefacedly concealed the secret for days in our hearts, hoping that the little house would not understand, it suddenly began again to exercise its old charm. It became irresistible, smiling on us under April showers, inviting to soft, homelike corners, summoning blue-bird and robin to sing to us. The rain on the roof brought a sense of loss; we should never again be so near the roof! Rooms that had seemed too small and cramped suddenly became spacious and beautiful, yet we resolutely followed our stern purpose.
Perhaps if our plot of land had been less difficult to win, we should not have pursued it with such zest. This was a minx of a bit of real estate, full of shifts and wiles, of swift advance and swifter withdrawals. It lay at the end of the village, where all beyond was meadow; we had wished it so. Groups of white birches gave it a delicate beauty, and made it seem the very edge of created things, —
The birk grew fair eneugh.
Perhaps it was the breezes in those shivering birch-leaves that brought to us a sense of quest. Ultimate possession seemed as impossible as ultimate possession of the ideal, or of the human heart. Such an appealing, evasive bit of land never before existed, and Alexander in the history, Tamerlane in the play, got the earth more easily than we got this fifteen-thousand-square-foot plot of ground. For all its demure look of
Where the brook and river meet,
it had wiles within wiles, toils within toils, for the confusion of humankind.
In the first place, its owner was in heaven; how could we read our title clear on earth without his signature? In the second place, the heirs were in the Philippines. Sometimes the little house seemed to chuckle softly to itself in the twilight as we recounted our difficulties, involving minor children, three unsettled estates, and lapsed guardianship coming from another death. The executor wished to sell; we wished to buy, but the tangle of the law was about us in tight meshes, and we were in a state of paralysis where, if it was sad to reflect what man has made of man, it was sadder to reflect what man has made of real estate. The little house developed into a gleeful and impish thing, entering gayly into the plot against us. Did we not miss the lawyer’s call because the bell refused to ring? Did it not swallow up somewhere in its plentiful cracks and crevices the letter with the foreign postmark that might have ended our difficulties sooner? It wore in those days of uncertainty a look of amused skepticism, as of lifted eyebrows, about those upper windows with their rounded frames.
Between coaxing wiles, bewitching as a kitten’s, and threats about our state of mind if we should go away, it nearly won us back, recalling all those moments of insight, vision, dream, inevitably connected with itself, until it seemed as if the rare flashes of light on things could come only under this roof. The frost-bitten window-panes, the deep snow outside, the icicles at the corner of the dormer window,
those later days of open windows, with murmuring life in the air, the rosetouched apple-blossoms drifting across the threshold, — where should we find them again? It had a thousand ways of intimating that, though we might build a house larger, more airy, with wide porches, we should never build one that would be, like this, the very heart of home. Have you not found, the little house kept asking, in all your traveling by land and by sea, that that which you seek cannot be overtaken by swift footsteps? For true content, the lagging feet, the nimble soul. Here had come the sense that comes, perhaps, in but one spot in the wide universe, too delicate, too evanescent to be repeated, the subtle, indefinable sense of longabiding.
To each of us, once in a lifetime, is granted a nook or a cranny where he may stand with back against the wall, facing the eternities and the immensities. It is a refuge from wide, empty, endless space, and from the threatened golden streets of heaven. It is consolation for the eternal shifting and changing of this inexplicable, swift, windy world, bringing — is it but a dream? — a sense of something fixed, enduring, permanent.
The little house said as much in its more eloquent moments, but it was our turn to be cold and haughty, and to turn an alien face. When our uncertainties as to title were over, and our plans went on apace, it sat and listened while we talked of what our new home should have, garden, pergola, enchanting gables, but it said never a word. Yet there grew up in us from its dumb reproach a sense of the limitations of the new one. It would be ignorant of the basic facts of life, with no experiences, no traditions. Birth and death were secrets to it; it would be blind in the face of the morning sun, and of the evening star, with so much to learn, so much to learn! We, in the old one, had been comforted by its age, consoled by its brave way of holding out; had found it faithful as companionship grew rare, and death and distance robbed us of our own. This would have none of the gentleness of judgment that comes from having loved and suffered. We must start a tradition, and live up to it, must keep it unspotted, must share forever here the fierce, crude, white idealism of youth. Constantly with us, as we carried on the sad packing of our earthly all, was the sense that we had had, before finding this little hired house, of wandering through endless space in enduring homelessness.
There had been something fine and free in our relationship; did we like to stay just because we could go if we chose? Perhaps the heavy deed which legalized our possession of that other spot would destroy all delight, in its substitution of external hold for that which endures only while affection lasts. ‘Until death us do part,’has a solemn sound, and, as we signed the last check completing our ownership, we knew that this was our ultimate venture.
The time came when we drove away with the last of our possessions, leaving the little house alone, gray in the gray twilight, as if it had often before been abandoned, through death or perfidy, faithful still to its old trust of harboring human life. I thought of Theseus, and of Ariadne left lonely on the shore of Naxos; of Jason and Medea, —and here I hastily peered into the hamper containing the two cats, sole children of our home, — vengeance must not light on them!— of Æneas, who also went on his way to found a new house; and of Dido, —oh, I hoped this would not burn!
As we drove under the shadowy elms of the village street toward our new, untried threshold, I realized that I had nothing left to learn about the deserters of all time.