WHEN I was out walking this afternoon, I saw standing at the edge of the wood an old lady — such an erect, bright little old lady. Her arms were full of buttercups. She had evidently lost her path and found herself facing the road, with a step down too high for her to take. She swept the situation to me with smiling, appealing eyes. I ran at once to give her my hand, and as I looked at her I thought, with a queer tightening of the heart, ‘ My own bestbeloved among women will look exactly like that thirty years hence.’ So the clasp of my hand was very warm, and I imagined that she felt the friendly atmosphere, for she quite contentedly put herself en rapport.
With a gay little laugh she said, ‘Thank you, my dear. I am ninetyfour and have taken a long walk for one of my age. Will you direct me to the nearest road to the Hotel Avon, where I am visiting?’
‘ May I go with you ? ’ I asked.
My request was accorded, and we began to talk the way of all talk this summer of 1917.
‘Are you interested in the war?’ I asked.
‘Why? But of course,’ she answered. ‘By the way, I am German.’
‘German!’ I exclaimed amazedly, and gave a quick glance at the proud personality by my side.
She was bonnetless. One sweep of Aubrey Beardsley’s pencil, and you would have the line from the top of her head to the tip of her gown. Her forehead was finely modeled; her eyes large, dark, grave, but very vibrant; the nose delicate, the mouth a little tense and sad. One was in the presence of very vital forces. A quick, rushing spirit was there, held in check, one felt, by a fine intellect and a high conscience, and — time was not.
‘ But impossible,’ I said. ‘French you might be, or Russian, or American; but German, certainly not.’
‘And why not, pray?’ she questioned.
‘Well, you see, your ancestry must have been a very vivid one; not cautious, you know; not prudent, you must admit, not prudent, exploring in the woods at ninety-four.’
‘ It is a great delight,’ she answered, ‘and, for one of my age, a high adventure, to wander off into the woods and along the rocky coast. It is curious how that summer caravansary, the noisy inn, with its restless inaction, makes me feel my years to the full; but in this vast, beautiful out-of-door world I am so very young. One feels Eternity’s breath. “As a drop of water into the sea and a gravel stone in comparison of the sand, so are a thousand years to the days of Eternity.”’
She paused and drew the figure 80 in the sand at her feet. Then, with a quick glance at the dial of the watch on her wrist, she tossed aside reminiscences and brought herself, with a rapid summing-up, back to date. Her voice was singularly beautiful and individual and unplaceable. I do not know why, but it made me think of Russian music and pine forests.
She said: ‘I was brought to America just eighty years ago by an Irish father and a French mother; and I was born in the city of Nürnberg. But I really am that creature which the newspapers are calling unthinkable, unknowable, unbelievable — those absurd words of which there is an epidemic at present. I am a perfectly unimpassioned, unexcitable neutral.’
She brought her cane fiercely to the ground and gave me a challenging look.
‘I am quite sure you are all that.’ And we both laughed. ‘As for me,’ I continued, ‘I am chancing it with the Allies; for me they have the right working hypothesis. In fact, I am savagely pro-Ally.’
But how very tame and old I seemed in my vaunted partisanship, compared to my old lady in her fierce neutrality.
‘Does not Kerensky fire your imagination?’ I went on to say. ‘He may be the man of the hour. The Russians are a people with a vision. It is unbelievable.’
She smiled dryly.
‘Yes,’ I insisted, ‘it is most unbelievable to see Russia led by a Jew.’
Again the dry smile. ‘And how has he led them?’ she questioned. ‘How long has he been upon the horizon? Do you know history?’
‘ I do,’ I answered, rather too promptly; for she gave a little sarcastic ‘Humph!’ which for such a gem of an old lady was not over-kind.
‘My dear,’ she continued, ‘I have lived ninety-four years. I use the word “lived" advisedly—I have lived every moment of them.’ I was sure that she had. ‘I know that the Russians are beasts, beasts of prey, beasts of burden, but beasts always; very filthy beasts most of them. Vision — to be sure they have vision, but they go mad with it. A most unsound, abnormal race, individuality gone mad.’ But suddenly into the old lady’s eyes came a far-away look, and she said softly, ‘The Russians arc a wonderful people, a wonderful people. If they hate with passion, they love with passion; and oh, such an instinct for God! But the man of the hour is the man who has always been the man of the hour—the Ancient of Days. A Jew upon the horizon, lifted up for the healing of the nations. Ah!’
— she came back sharply to earth, — ‘ forgive me, my dear; I too am working for the Allies.’
‘But,’ I exclaimed laughingly, ‘that is shameful. You said you were a German. Have you been leading me on?’
’Not at all. Out of a varied birthcertificate, I elect to be German. Perhaps,’ she gave me a little whimsical smile, ’because I so disapprove of them. Perhaps because for the moment, and I’m afraid with good reason, every one in the world is so down on them. Nevertheless it is a sound, sensible, far-seeing race. You know, a bit of German in your make-up may be a good foundation to steady your vision and learn endurance of dull things. But here we are at my hotel.’
‘Are you alone,’ I asked.
‘Indeed, I am not. I am horribly looked after. There will be on the steps, you will see, a frantic old lady with a shawl, watching the four points of the compass. I have a friend whose sole vocation is to look after me. Ever since, at sixty, I received my arret de mort, she has gone hovering through my life with a shawl.’
My saintly old lady looked for a moment actually ill-tempered!
As we came in sight of the steps of the hotel, there she was, the other old lady, quite fat and humanly old. She was holding a shawl and looking distractedly in every direction. She tottered down to meet us. But my friend, drawing herself up with a flash of the eyes (would that an artist could have seen her!), exclaimed impatiently, ‘No, no, Jane, take that shawl at once into the house!’ And she waved her hand imperiously.
The fat little old lady looked utterly miserable, opened her mouth to protest, but decided to do as she was bid.
My friend sighed. ‘Alas, alas! you find in me a very wicked old woman. And now, my dear child, I am leaving to-morrow, but we meet again. No, I do not intend to convey that it will be in the next world. I mean most probably in this.’
I thought that very gallant for ninety-four.
Me were standing at the foot of the hotel-steps, and below was the ocean, radiant in the sunset. We stood together silently for a moment, each absorbed in her own thought. And as we watched the world transfigured into glory by the compelling passion of the dying sun, there grew into the eyes of this amazing old lady an infinite tenderness, a vast compassion, and she said in her sweet, resonant voice, — ‘ I do truly believe as the sun so ravishes the world with his glory, so the Lord will draw His people,—and they are all His people, — He will gather them together into one camp, Shepherd and Captain, my Lord and my God.’
The world in its culminating beauty paled, became merely a background for this vital creature in whom at the last all the hopes, ideals, purposes of God strove mightily into birth. She turned, hardly seeing me, and automatically held out her hand. I stooped and kissed it, and she passed quickly up the steps into the inn.