It Is the Spirit That Quickeneth
THE two old men, gripping hands at the gate, measured each other with the same challenging appraisement which their looks had held when they had first clashed there sixty-odd years ago.
‘ Bet I can lick you,’ John Caldwell quoted from the past.
And David Hawley, squaring off somewhat shakily, replied with his oldtime fire, —
‘Try it and see.’
The two daughters, who had already managed to exchange and incoherently answer a dozen questions, interrupted the threatened hostilities.
‘If they have n’t begun already!’ Cynthia announced merrily. ‘I’m prepared to see this visit a succession of bloody battles. Whenever old Aunt Lize — do you remember her, Mr. Hawley? — used to tell us tales of your and father’s boyhood, she never failed to end up with, “Always together every minute they was, them two boys, and always fightin’ every minute they was together!”’
‘I had a singularly sweet nature myself,’explained John Caldwell with his genial twinkle. ‘But if he was n’t my guest, the things I could tell you about Dave’s disposition —’
‘You shan’t abuse father,’ Ellie Warner interrupted in her father’s defense. A small, fair woman, with a plaintive voice and an appealing manner, she made a charming picture as she stood on tiptoe trying with affectionate solicitude to shield her tall parent with her parasol. ‘He’s always behaved beautifully in Chicago. He never fights with any of the old gentlemen in the neighborhood.’
‘ Do you prefer refreshments before or after the combat?’ Cynthia inquired hospitably. ‘There’s some iced tea waiting for us up on the porch.’
Ellie applauded rapturously. ‘All that hot, dusty ride I was dreaming of iced tea and your famous marshmallow cake in that delectable corner of the porch. Father dear, I know Cynthia will excuse you if you go up to rest right away. You ought n’t to eat anything when you’re as tired as this. He’s just worn out after the journey,’ she explained, ‘and I never let him miss his nap anyway. Mr. Caldwell looks as if he needed rest badly, too.'
‘Rest!’ John Caldwell exploded. ‘I’d have you know, Ellie, I’m a little past six months old. Cynthia does n’t have to put me to bed every afternoon. Why, I could n’t lie down in the daytime if you chained me to a bed!’
‘Is n’t it hard to make them realize they’re not so young as they used to be?’ Ellie sighed.
‘I always knew that woman was feeble-minded,’ declared John Caldwell resentfully when the disappointed but unprotesting David was led upstairs. ‘She’s just like her mother. But good Lord, what’s the matter with Dave? He can’t inherit her brain. Why you’d think he was a hundred and ten and just out of the asylum, the way she treats him!’
He was still fuming when Cynthia piloted him to his favorite Morris chair in the corner of the garden.
‘I know you don’t want to have to listen to Ellie’s and my gossip,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to wait here for Mr. Hawley? Shall I bring the papers or that new book we started yesterday ? ’
Always every afternoon they ensconced themselves there for at least an hour’s reading. ‘ It’s the one time of the day when I can get father to myself,’Cynthia would excuse herself to visitors. Each day she would begin to read in her pleasant, quiet voice. It could never have been a wildly exciting tale, for exactly five minutes later John Caldwell’s white head would droop suspiciously. Ten minutes later Cynthia would reach softly for her sewing. Sometimes it was an hour, sometimes longer, before she would see his preliminary start and quiver of the eyelids. Then she would take up the book again, and Caldwell, opening his eyes and stretching violently, would ask, —
‘Would you go over that last paragraph again, girl? I don’t believe I got the gist of it. I must have dozed off for a moment.'
But to-day there was no refreshing sleep waiting for him in the Morris chair. His old friend’s long-looked-for visit had keyed him up to unaccustomed excitement, and besides, he was angry. Cynthia, peeping in unseen upon him half an hour later, saw the white head still defiantly erect — noted too how the paper shook in the trembling old hands. Her own heart was hot with anger at Ellie’s tactlessness.
‘He’s determined he won’t sleep now after what she said,’ she told herself.
Ellie had found her very unresponsive to her lament over the difficulties of managing elderly parents. ‘Why, father’s as much care as a baby,’ she complained. ‘And I used to have the most dreadful time making him take proper care of himself — though he’s ever so much better about that now. It’s so hard for them to realize that they’re really old men and can’t do the things they used to.’
‘That’s just what I don’t want father to realize,’ Cynthia had protested. She had a sudden pitiful vision of the defiant old figure fighting sleep. ‘I could n’t bear to have him feel useless, or on the shelf, or too old to do the things he loves. His spirit is so splendidly alive — and, after all, that’s the thing that counts.’
But Ellie had only stared at her uncomprehendingly.
‘You can’t dodge figures, my dear,’ she stated flatly. ‘My father’s seventynine and yours is eighty. Put it as you want, they’re old men. And I don’t know how you feel about it, but I certainly regard it as the most sacred duty I have to take care of father and to guard him from his own imprudences and follies. The doctor says he owes everything to my devotion.'
It was still obviously the old Ellie, Cynthia decided, managing with conscious rectitude a two-by-four world. Nodoubts, no problems, no visions! She was prattling happily now of her new car, of the den she had had refurnished for father, of her husband’s passionate devotion — a rôle, it must be confessed, in which it was somewhat difficult for the imagination to cast the always stolid and inarticulate William Warner. Kind and dutiful and affectionate — Ellie had been that ever since Cynthia could remember. Why then had she gone through childhood combatting a chronic desire to slap her? She felt surge within her now the old halfamused exasperated impulse. How did Ellie manage subtly to put one always in the wrong, even about fathers? And after all, what earthly difference did it make?
It made, it seemed, a good deal of difference.
It was at dinner that Cynthia first realized this. She had looked forward with such happy expectation to this first reunion of the old friends — had meant to make quite a little fête of it. The table on the veranda, bright with old Caldwell silver and china, seemed a tiny island of civilization against the splendid primeval line of trees climbing massively to the tawny Maryland sky. Even Ellie admitted as they sat down, ‘It’s certainly an improvement on Chicago — at this season, at any rate.’
‘At any season,’ amended David Hawley. His faded eyes were dimmed with tears. ‘It’s home, and there’s no place like it.’
‘It must be awful in Chicago,’ John Caldwell assured him with sympathy, if scarcely with tact. ‘ I don’t know how I’d stand being cooped up in a town. I sometimes think I’m selfish to keep this girl of mine in the country, but she pretends she likes it as much as I do.’
‘Pretends!’ cried Cynthia. ‘It’sjust as Mr. Hawley says — it’s home. And I’ve a home dinner for you, too, Mr. Hawley,’ she added blithely; ‘fried chicken and waffles and plum jam and strawberry shortcake. Father made out a list for me of everything you two used to like best — ’
Ellie interrupted with a little shriek of protest.
‘But, Cynthia dear,’she implored, ‘it was lovely of you to think of it, but father can’t eat any of those things. You’ve no idea how careful I have to be of his diet. You don’t mean to say you let your father eat rich food like that! ’
‘Let him!’ flashed Cynthia. She stopped suddenly before the look in David’s eyes, the dull red of his seamed cheek. ‘It’s father who dictates the diet in this family,’ she ended lightly. He s always lecturing me about eating so much candy. Speaking of food, my favorite story in childhood, Mr. Hawley, was the one about your and father’s eating contest —’
But with all her brave efforts, the festal spirit had fled: Ellie’s daughterly zeal had flung the present too rudely into their faces, had pushed so pitilessly far away that merry boyhood. And yet, what boys they still were, Cynthia told herself, with laughter even in her heartache. David, attacking with extravagant relish the highly hygienic food Cynthia had hastily ordered for him, was for all the world like the youngster in her Sunday-school class who, when she put him in the corner, loudly proclaimed that that was just where he wanted to be. Her own parent, with an ominous glint in his eye strongly reminiscent of the same youth, was ostentatiously eating waffle after waffle. On top of that, Cynthia without a quiver helped him to a second piece of shortcake. She felt that she could have died sooner than remonstrate. And in all her turmoil of anxiety, there was a certain melancholy satisfaction to be derived from Ellie’s horrified gaze.
After dinner, when John Caldwell did the honors of the stables, things went better. In his enthusiasm, he threw off the strange new burden that Ellie was determinedly affixing to his shoulders. David lost his subdued look, to dispute hotly about points of horseflesh; and in the midst of it, Ellie, —
‘Father dear, you know how bad this night air is for you. It’s time for you to go to bed anyway. You’ve had such a hard day.’
‘It used to be the dream of Dave’s and my life to be together just once without hearing that admonition,’ John Caldwell remarked dryly. ‘Apparently it’s never to be realized. Seems to have become a life-habit with you, Dave. I outgrew it some sixty years ago.’
No, the evening had not been a success; Cynthia took a heavy heart to bed with her. She had looked forward so joyously to her father’s pleasure in his old chum’s visit — had planned its every detail with such loving care. To have it so cruelly spoiled — yes, worse than spoiled! For David’s visit held more than disappointment: there was actual menace in this fateful web of old age in which Ellie had affectionately enmeshed her own father, and which she was spinning now around John Caldwell, who till to-day had carried so gallantly his eighty years. Cynthia, remembering the two defeated old faces at the table, in the stables, caught her breath in a sob.
It was two in the morning when she heard her father moving softly in his room across the hall. She found him huddled in his armchair, gray-faced, gasping, and looking oh, so desperately old.
‘I believe it’s a touch of dyspepsia,’ he admitted guiltily to Cynthia.
Close comrades as they were, they had never slipped into the free-andeasy relationship of the newest generation. For all his tender indulgence, he was the father, the master of his home; for all her dominion of the household, she was the child, respectfully deferential in her sovereignty. Now, for the first time, looking up at her with pitiful, shamed eyes, he laid aside the rôle of a lifetime; Ellie’s poison had already begun to work; it was old age before the tribunal of youth, pleading dumbly the mercy he was too proud to ask. It seemed to Cynthia that her heart must break with the pity of it.
She said nothing as she fetched him hot water and made him comfortable in every way she could. When his fluttering breath grew normal and the agony had left him, she remarked casually, —
‘I’m going to tell Jinny in mercy to us she must n’t give us waffles at night. They’re so delicious one can’t help eating too many. I know I generally pay for them myself in just this way.'
He had never been a demonstrative man. Cynthia knew she was the light of his eyes, but he rarely told her so in word or touch. Now, however, he held her hand close against his furrowed cheek and kissed it in a passion of gratitude.
‘You’re a good daughter, Cynthia,’ he said.
Ellie, however, did not share that view. She spoke to Cynthia very seriously on the subject.
‘It’s natural your father should n’t realize his age,’ she told her. ‘The extraordinary thing is that you don’t seem to, either, Cynthia. The things you let him do—’
Cynthia flashed out, as before, at the two words.
‘Let him! My father has been a man of force, of decision, of unusually good judgment all his life. Why should I deny him the right to exercise those qualities ? It is his life — I have no right to govern it.’
‘But he is old now,’ — Ellie harked back to the old unanswerableargument. ‘And they don’t exercise those qualities at that age.’
‘They should — they would if we’d let them alone,’ cried Cynthia stormily. ‘No wonder, rubbing it in every minute that they’re too old for this and too old for that—’
She stopped before a sudden belated remembrance of her position as hostess.
Ellie continued placidly. There was impregnable righteousness in every line of her body.
‘It’s just a question of not seeing a duty,’ she remarked kindly. ‘I know how devoted you are to your father. But, my dear, I just can’t see you ignore his health as you do and be silent.’
Cynthia was silent — too proud and too loyal to reveal her days of loving feints and tender hidden precautions. When she spoke at last, it was with a passionate earnestness she had never given Ellie; her real audience was her own perturbed and shaken soul.
‘It’s the body against the spirit,’ she said. ‘If all we can do for them is just to keep their poor old rusting machinery oiled and working, — at whatever cost to pride and manhood and usefulness, — if that’s the price they have to pay for just keeping alive, — is it worth the cost? What do a few years more or less matter so long as one’s living to the very end?’
Ellie voiced her usual state of mind when she was with Cynthia. ‘I have n’t the least idea what you mean,’ she remarked resignedly, ‘and I must say, Cynthia, you sound very heartless. I’m sure there’s no sacrifice I would n’t. make to keep father with me as long as possible.’ She ended the argument with her customary ultimatum. ‘I’m sure I’m right about this, Cynthia,’ she said, very gently and sweetly.
And in the sick watches of the night Cynthia was not sure that she was not. Through the black hours the torturing doubt bit at her heart. She knew her influence with her father — she could urge and persuade him to her wish. And against that, this fear of sullying his manhood with the constant reminder of weakness and irresponsibility; of shaking his wholesome faith in himself; of chaining him — be it ever so tenderly — with those inexorable fetters of age! How could she bring herself to that! Was Ellie’s, after all, the better way?
Till dawn she tossed and pondered, and after a few hours of uneasy sleep, woke to the same question. She sat down at the breakfast-table with it yet unanswered. And then, while she still wavered uncertain, torn with anguished questionings, between Ellie’s altar of devotion and her own, the supreme moment of decision had come. Tim Dodson was driving his new colt through the gate.
John Caldwell abandoned his breakfast like an excited boy.
‘It’s that new colt of Tim’s I was telling you about,’he cried to David. ‘I’m thinking of buying him. I want to try him out myself first, though. I’ll go take him down the road for you. Come to the gate and watch.’
With all the inventiveness of love and fear, Cynthia was not quick enough. Before the words were out of his mouth, Ellie had shrilled her fatal protest.
‘You surely are n’t thinking of driving him yourself,’ she implored. ‘Cynthia, you won’t allow it. Your father’s too old — he is n’t strong enough. That other man can barely hold the horse. It’s suicidal.’
Then the decision lay squarely before her. Only one second now for a last desperate weighing of values! She turned to her father. He was pushing back his chair, throwing down his napkin, with a brave enough show of confidence, waving aside debonairly Ellie’s entreaties. But Cynthia, with an inexpressible pang, missed the look of fearless assurance with which he had unfailingly met life. For all his impatience, his wondering contempt for David, it had not been for nothing that he had had those days with him. For the first time, he was doubting himself. ‘Will you too fail me?' the sorrowful old eyes, bitter with new knowledge, questioned Cynthia. Her heart went out in a storm of loyalty to that manhood they had both held so dear.
‘You don’t understand, Ellie,’ she found herself saying, clearly, steadily. ‘Father knows more about horses than any ten men together in the county. He’s lived with them all his life. I’d trust myself sooner to father and a horse than even to Tim Dodson. Won’t you take me with you, father, please?’
But here her father proved adamant. Later, perhaps — he must see first if the colt was safe. In all her agony she was conscious of a quickening thrill of pride. He was still the man, protecting his women.
He was laughing now at Ellie’s protests.
‘This is Maryland, not Chicago,’ he told her. ‘ In this country, when a man’s too old to drive, he’s too old to live.’
Then he went, his hand for a moment upon Cynthia’s shoulder as he passed her. Some strength quite outside herself stilled her despairing cry to take Tim with him; made her talk coherently as she watched the gallant old figure march to the gate — take the reins — climb in — drive down the road —
From the first moment, it seemed to her afterward, she had had no doubt as to the outcome. There was no surprise and no shock when she saw the still figure carried up the path — only unutterable despair.
All day the doctors fought the uneven battle between the broken body and the virile spirit. A dozen times John Caldwell halted with desperate resolution in the valley of the shadow, struggling in vain for breath and strength to speak.
‘Marvelous vitality,’ the doctors said; but Cynthia knew he was refusing to die because of the unknown message he wished to give.
Downstairs, on her flying errands, she could hear Ellie explaining to the neighbors. ‘On my knees, almost, I implored Cynthia not to let him go. But Cynthia had the most extraordinary attitude toward her father — devoted to him of course, but she never seemed to care what he did.’
That, too, she would have to bear all her life — all the desolate years stretching before her. But that was nothing if only she could make him understand.
All afternoon she kept silence. Only when the sweet Maryland dusk closed in and the doctors shook their heads and sorrowfully turned away, did she fall to her knees beside the bed.
‘Father,’ she besought him in her agony, ‘you know why I did it! You know it was because I loved you that I let you go. You don’t think it was because I did n’t realize — did n’t care — Father — you do understand ? Tell me you understand.’
Then at last he spoke — dragging, by sheer force of will, difficult, tortured words from the portal of that eternal silence he was entering.
‘Remember this always — of all the things you have done for me — all your sweet life—there was never anything — half so dear — as letting me die - a man—’
Then Cynthia was weeping her heart out against his. But there was no bitterness in her tears.