The sister, bringing a bowl of pink and cream tulips into the dining-room, set them down with great satisfaction on the table.
‘Perhaps these will help us to escape from the odor of the barn,’ she said, very impertinently blowing a kiss across the room to where there was no one.
‘Who’s that for?’ I asked.
‘Mr. Hamlin Garland,’ she replied.
And I laughed, because I knew that ever since we had read that delightfully honest book of his, A Son of the Middle Border, one of its unaccountable exaggerations had rankled in her mind — that statement that there is no escape, even on a modern, model farm, from the odor of manure. I had enjoyed her sputterings — ‘A book about a farm by a man without one instinct of a farmer.’ ‘A deaf man’s appreciation of a symphony ! ’ And one morning, as she stood smiling out through miles of green sunlight toward the high white clouds which stretched themselves out in prairie lines above gently rising woodcrowned hills, she cried suddenly, ‘And the man who said that deliberately lived years in Chicago, where the air you breathe rubs right up against the heads of people whose hair is not shining clean!’
At the time I agreed with her tone, but still —
Because this spring, since three of the four men of our household have gone to war, I have of necessity grown familiar with what so constantly offended Mr. Garland’s delicate nostrils. One morning, for the first time, I was making the hen-house perfectly clean. Arrayed in delectable garments, I was scraping the dropping-board with a large hoe. Of course I know that there are no low occupations, — only low workmen, — and I hope I can willingly clean a henhouse to make the world safe for democracy; but, after all, I was painfully conscious of my heroism. Fancy me carrying away manure!
Presently I heard this gay sentence from the sister who had taken the henhouse pump to pieces and was putting it together again, —
’T is raining daffodils.’
She must have seen from the tenseness of my nose that my mood was not entirely Wordsworthian; for, as she helped me to carry the filled basket to the little cart at the door, she said, ‘You thought this was manure, did n’t you?’
‘It does seem to have some of the characteristics,’ I retorted.
But she ignored me, continuing, ‘You were mistaken, as usual. This is the color of your roses — the duskiness of Prince Camille, and the dawn of Sunburst, and the snow of Druschki. This is the very heart of the Allies’ wheat. Don’t you understand it? Don’t you remember? This,’ she said chuckling, ‘is the victory that overcomes the henhouse— even our faith!'
I said nothing. A sister like mine
teaches one silence. That woman’s view of opalescent hills is shut off by an outrageous great red barn directly in front of her house. Yet one day, when I cried, ‘Oh, how beautiful this would be, if only that barn were not there!’ she answered me, in amazement, looking straight at the horror, ‘Barn? What barn? Do you suppose I’d have a barn in front of my house? With a view like that of the hills?’
And one day, as I cut the wheatless bread, protesting against the monotony of daily bakings, she said simply, ‘Don’t despise it. ’T is the children’s body, that bread — your own body. “This bread,” He said, “is my body”’
So quietly we pushed the cart through the gate into the garden. She stopped by the larkspurs.
‘These of yours need a little dessert,’ she said.
One could see that she knows exactly how to balance a garden’s rations, when one but glanced over the riotously blooming health of hers.
‘Let me haul the tea-wagon around to them all,’I exclaimed, delighted over my own cleverness.
So we gave all that needed it a little posy pudding. And as we worked together, I was converted to her life of faith.
Since then, every Monday morning I clean the hen-house. I clean it, not grudgingly, not snobbishly, but with a hilarious spirit. The Lord loveth a cheerful giver! I carry away in that basket, not manure, — indeed, why should I associate with manure? — I carry away the glittering height of the tallest sky-blue larkspur waving in the windy sunlight. I carry away the glow of great dark pansies, hearing city friends cry, ‘We never saw such pansies. Where do you get them?’ I hear my cryptic answer, ‘Hen-house.’ I handle the apricot and rosy pinks of the columbine that dances like butterflies, and the blushing yellow of the snapdragons whose flowers the children snap on our ears for ear-rings, dewy summer mornings. I feel the wavings of limpid oat-fields, playgrounds of the chasing shadows of sunlit clouds. I wear out my precious muscles giving bread and milk to Father Europe’s gaunt orphans. I break my back personally supplying rations to the whole army of Justice which fights for me. Manure? Who said manure?
Yet why not say it? I, for one, have found that the more I know of it, the more highly I esteem it. The dictionary, too, honors it greatly. Manure, it says, is only another form of manœuvre. When the land army manures its fields, it manœuvres its battle. Every day explains it, morning and evening praise it.
The other night my brother-in-law and I drove quietly to meet the sister through the tender spring darkness, which w7as thrilling with the wonder of the bursting pink hickory buds. When we had chugged up a deeply rutted road, suddenly at the top of a hill, from the valley spread out below there came to our nostrils the revelry of the feasting fields.
‘Do you mind that odor?’ he asked.
‘Mind it!’ I echoed. ‘I love it!’
‘So many don’t understand it,’ he answered, wistfully, I thought.
‘Stupid blind noses, they are,’I assured him. ‘Grudging the good old fields their bite. Let’s hope they ’ll be as enriching when their time comes to fertilize the earth.’
At that moment, the fields lifted a great song, and I joined them.
‘I am not going to be cremated,’ I cried to him.
He is perfectly accustomed to remarks of that sort.
‘I’m not even going to be buried at sea ’ — though that has always seemed the most desirable way of disappearing. ‘I want immortality for my body, in leaves — in fragrance — in color — I want to be food for something — little leaves on the very top of willows — or, best of all, a candle of a hickory bud. Don’t you think it’s possible — could n’t I be of some use if I’m buried, even if I can’t be a poppy petal in Flanders?’
I waited intently for his answer.
‘Don’t you think I would have some value?’ I insisted.
‘ Well, perhaps, if you’re very good — you might — ’
‘Just a darker green spot in a clover field?’
‘Well, maybe a four-leaf clover at least, if you keep on being very good.’