Miss ISA RANN laid the little jeweler’s box on the table beside a battered Noah’s Ark, and smiled slowly.
‘Yes,’ Mollie Braden answered her, ‘the flood is n’t a circumstance compared to life in the Braden family. They’re out tearing up their father’s stone-pile now, making an Alps out of it.’ She nodded toward the bright-sweatered little figures who could just be seen through the open window tugging at some gray rocks.
Her visitor fingered the lean, humpless camel absently, and turned to go.
‘We’re much obliged, Mollie. I was telling mother you ’re a real benefactor to Green Valley. Only I think you ought to charge interest.’
‘Pish!’ the younger woman returned briskly, not without a trace of satisfaction in her tones. ‘I’m glad if it helped you out.’
‘They were a bargain,’ Miss Isa continued. stepping toward the door and getting her sentence and herself off together; ‘three quarters morocco and an awful lot of gilt; and they certainly do look nice there between that blue set of Foreign Short Stories and the brown Shakespeares. You must come over to see them —’
But at that point a little gust of wind hurried her off the porch sooner than she had meant, and only the thin sound of her voice fluttered behind.
Mollie Braden opened the box for the sheer joy of seeing the round gold-piece snuggled in its wisp of pink cotton. Then she tucked it carefully away in her sewing-table drawer beyond the box of hooks and eyes. She could never decide whether it was a greater pleasure to lend it, with that little feeling of increased importance and self-respect rising within her as the grateful borrower accepted it, or to see its counterpart returning, and taste the flavor of a gracious deed pleasantly performed.
It had come to her a year before, labeled, ‘For something you and the children need’; and had been spent a dozen times the first few days. What did n’t they need? More shoes and less disreputable hats, and a pair of warm blankets, and screens for the upstairs windows! So much for the physical needs, which Mollie Braden rather sniffed at. Unpleasant necessities they were, which could be managed some way. But her mind dwelt long on the possibility of a charmingly tender Madonna in a dull gilt frame, which should hang above the clock and prove a joy and an inspiration to them all. Children were touched by such things, she believed; and as she dragged them apart after some hand-to-hand encounter, with bloody noses and bumped heads, or marshaled them in at night to the evening rite of feet-washing, she felt that they had need of a softening influence. But before the week was out, Mrs. Bessey hurried in one evening to borrow ten dollars. Her husband had to catch the night train on a sudden errand, and the bank was closed, of course.
Dave Braden had looked embarrassed, remembering the quarter and ten-cent piece that jingled lonesomely in his trousers pocket.
‘I — I don’t have much money around,’he explained, reddening.
‘I’ve got it right here’, his wife interposed; and then with sudden inspiration she added, ‘I always keep a little on hand.'
It was the most heartening of moments, and kept her in a glow the whole evening. What did darned stockings and patched underwear matter when you had money that could be lent to anyone in need? The consciousness added so immensely to her self-respect that she hummed a merry little tune as she tucked the children in, and came downstairs with a comfortable feeling of superiority.
And presently all Green Valley had borrowed the gold-piece that Mollie Braden ‘ kept on hand.’ The only stipulation was that it must come back in kind; for no greasy paper money was suffered to lie on the pink cotton. Jabe Miller bought his seed-potatoes with it, being a ‘trifle short’; and Abbie Barnes took advantage of a bargain in sugar before her rent came in. Mrs. Hooker paid it down as a first installment on a seal muff which her husband would finish buying at Christmas time; and Emma Taylor bought a new willow chair, reckoning confidently on her birthday money from her mother, still two months due.
The gold-piece became a comfortable margin for Green Valley’s speculations, and really put life into business. Once it finished buying an engagement ring — alas, too late! for the lady had accepted a larger stone the evening before arrangements were completed. The unhappy purchaser, however, had the stone reset for himself, and wore it defiantly until he lost it down the bathroom plumbing where all the fishing in the world could never locate it.
That was the nearest to romance that the gold-piece had come; but one never knew what might turn up next in a town like Green Valley, where interesting and unusual things were always happening. Once Mollie almost made up her mind to offer it to her sister-inlaw, who had been engaged five years. She had thought that a new hat tilted over Fannie’s pretty nose might hurry things up a bit; but she had a horror of seeming to play Destiny, and the wedding came off of itself a little later.
After the coming of the gold-piece Mollie felt herself closer to all the life in Green Valley; it was a little shuttle that ran back and forth among them, and connected her with all the funny and intimate and tender happenings in town. Two months before, it had bought the finest batiste for the Crawford baby’s dresses. The poor little thing had worn only one of them, and that in her tiny coffin; but Mary Crawford, returning the blue box, first wept out her grief in Mrs. Braden’s sitting-room.
The return of the gold-piece to-day made imminent the solving of a knotty little problem, and Mollie sat down to it, tasting a luxurious sense of freedom from pressing necessities now that the dinner dishes were done and the berries cleaned for supper. Old Snyder had asked for the money next, but she had not promised, for there was an abstract question of justice to be decided first. Old Snyder lived on the outskirts of Green Valley and of civilization, in a gray, bulging, shed-like house which rumor declared housed both man and beast without discrimination, in the winter months. He was a disreputable object, spitting tobacco-juice from side to side as he stamped down the dusty road to town, his white beard waving in the wind. Mollie’s children were afraid of him, but she herself had known him since the time he had plucked her out of a gnarled old apple tree by the side of the road, where she was hanging inverted, suspended between earth and heaven by her tiny skirts, like a pink hollyhock. Since then there had always been greetings between them, and Mollie often felt a conscious altruism as she bowed to this battered old son of Adam from the heights of respectability and a clean gingham dress. Now he wanted ten dollars to buy a calf. The calf would grow and become a source of profit, and Mollie should be repaid with ‘entrist.’ He had looked down at her as she hesitated, with a certain respect which only the possession of money earned; and Mollie realized that to him she was a financier and not a woman. As he spat at a big dandelion and turned for her answer, she was inspired to say, ‘The gold-piece has n’t come back yet. When it does, I’ll think about it and let you know.’
So she was thinking about it. The possession of wealth, even ever so little wealth, entailed far-reaching responsibilities, she found. She wondered if so dirty and altogether unregenerate a specimen of humanity deserved financial recognition along with the town’s sober and conscientious citizens. Was it right to lend money to old Snyder, who never washed his face, just as you would to Abbie Barnes and Harvey Hooker? The same money too, so to speak! Would n’t such a course encourage shiftlessness and a general letting-down of the bars of decency and proper conduct? What encouragement was there to right living if the credit of the clean and the church-going was no better than that of a man who slept and ate with his cattle?
A year before, Mollie would have stopped at this point; but since she had been lending money, she had had curious and baffling glimpses into other lives which had made her uncertain where she had formerly been sure in judgment. A shifting of her scale of values often left her bewildered and wondering. Sometimes, too, she thought herself a heartless woman, remembering that Evelyn was going without the gay hair-ribbons the other girls were wearing, and that George was teasing daily for a new Indian suit. Even Dave, her own Dave, was hankering for a peculiarly wonderful new tool which could be many things at almost one and the same time by a simple turn of the wrist. As for Old Snyder — she would like to know — there might have been reasons.
When Mollie started herself on a train of might-have-beens she knew she was lost. So she got up hurriedly and looked at the clock. She would have time before supper to walk over to his place and see for herself. She would go. She dropped the box in her pocket, seized her sun-hat, and stole quietly around the house in the soft grass, to escape the eyes of the busy workers in the stone-pile, and the hue and cry that would follow her detection.
The path to Old Snyder’s lay through a maple grove, where the shadows lay heavy and thick, and for a mile or two beside a tiny thread-like river. She and Dave Braden had canoed here so often before she was Dave Braden’s wife that they knew every grotesque knotted old tree-root that crinkled to meet them in the still water by the bank. Once they had paddled to Colton, the county seat, and been so late that all Green Valley was burning anxious lights for them when they returned.
She laughed at the memory as she turned out of the grove and into the cleared space where Old Snyder’s shanty hid itself behind a second growth of young saplings — a thin gray house, bulging at the end where the storms struck it, with staring windows whose broken panes were stuffed with limp and colorless rags. Old Snyder was sitting beside the door, on a box that stood like an island in the midst of a sea of mud, throwing corn at some ragged roosters; he still sat stolidly looking at Mollie as she picked her way among the heaps of compost and pools of slimy water toward him. A stillness hung about the dilapidated house and its dilapidated owner, like the stillness of slow decay; and when Old Snyder became animate at last, Mollie heard him speak with surprise.
‘’T ain’t like walking on the boul-yvard, coming to see me,’ he said.
‘Not exactly,’ Mollie responded, with a lightness of manner she was far from feeling; for now that she had come she had a foolish sense of unpreparedness.
She walked past him, and peered through the open door at the sodden interior, where a hen or two clucked disconsolately among a heap of ragged quilts at the foot of a rusty cot.
‘Hev you brought the money?’ Old Snyder inquired, rising stiffly and following her.
‘It’s a dreadful place in there,’ she exclaimed, half to herself.
‘Some might think so,’ — the old man’s tone held a note of defiance, — ‘ but it’s home to me. ’ Then he raised his voice as one speaking to the deaf or the deficient. ‘Hev you brought the money ? ’
‘Yes, I have.’ Mollie faced him like an impeccable judge. ‘But I don’t think I’m going to lend it to you. I came to find out if there’s any reason why I should.’
She was a long time finding out, and the trail led back and back forty years to the time when ‘Ma’ died. ‘Ma’ seemed to be responsible for it all — the dirt, the heedlessness, the neglect. ‘We was a-getting along,’ Old Snyder wound up every chapter of his narrative with querulous accusation, ‘when Ma up and died.’
Mollie listened, wondering if she looked as much like Justice with the scales as she felt.
‘Ma thought we’d get together enough to paint the house in the spring, and then she up and died.’
His usually silent tongue, now loosened through his desire of the goldpiece, wagged on and on, now pleading, now promising. At last they came to an agreement.
‘ If I come back next week this time, and find this place cleaned up so it’s fit for a human being to step in, I’ll lend you the money.’
The old man hesitated, but some latent energy, far-buried, spurred him on. ‘I’ll see what I can do, but it’s kind a hard, all alone now, since Ma died.’
Mollie left him shaking his head dolefully, and turned into the cool grove, the pride of the reformer in her heart. It was fine to feel things moving before one, and moving in the right direction. How Green Valley would stare if Old Snyder did clean up! She must n’t count too much on it, but still stranger things had happened. Perhaps he only needed a spur. This was better than hair-ribbons that would soon be worn out, or tools that in the natural course of things must become broken and lost. When one became a wife and mother, one did n’t have to lose one’s sense of proportion, and be always grabbing at things for one’s own. Perhaps there were bigger things than husbands and children. But Mollie’s impersonality could not carry her quite that far, and a sudden longing to tell Dave all about it made her quicken her footsteps.
A little wind began to stir now, making shifting light patches on the path, and setting a cluster of blue phlox by the side of the stream in graceful, rhythmic movement. Mollie’s eyes followed them lovingly, and then came to a full stop; for among them lay a young man, asleep, like a prince in a fairy tale, and beside him was a small canoe, brown and lissome.
Mollie stopped, blushing like a little girl, and began to walk on tiptoe lest she break the magic spell. But the wind in the flowers was making more noise than she; and almost at the same moment the young man opened large dark eyes and sat up. His hair curled back like that of the Greek gods in plaster, and his nose was straight and thin like theirs.
‘I dreamed a nymph, and lo, the damsel came,’ he remarked without embarrassment. ‘Was it a far journey from the portals of sleep to this green glade? Surely not, for you have not even muddied your sandals.’
Mollie followed his glance to her comfortable oxfords, and her cheeks burned remembering her thirty-odd years and her married state, which for some time had protected her against frivolous masculinity; but she was too overcome to walk on. She shrank against a treetrunk, looking shy and unmatronly, and feeling very unlike the fierce spirit who had just sat in judgment on Old Snyder. And the young man remained looking at her so pleasantly and yet so fixedly, that presently she could not tell whether he had spoken at all, or whether these words which she had seemed to hear were only the gibberish of her imagination.
But the young man solved the question by speaking again, in a conversational tone. ‘This would be perfect if there were only food. Is n’t there — have n’t you a loaf of bread and a pot of honey somewhere about you?
‘ I’m sorry, I have n’t,’ Mollie Braden said politely, uncertain whether to answer in kind, and not seeming to find the right words, though she was sure they were somewhere around, if she had only time to think. ‘Is it a game? ’
‘A game for you, damsel, but sober earnest for a starving poet.’ And leaping to his feet, he bowed in low and exaggerated fashion.
‘A poet?’ Mollie; ejaculated, largeeyed; for in Green Valley poets were scarcer than wild creatures of the jungle, who did occasionally come to town in green and silver cages. Caged or uncaged, a poet had never penetrated into their midst, and Mollie had a great longing to capture this one and carry him back to the Green Valley Reading Circle.
Then, with sudden suspicions, she inquired, ‘And do they print your poetry ? ’
At that the young man laughed long and merrily. ‘With the instinct of your sex, damsel, you have indeed come to the point. They print it far too rarely, but they sometimes do.’ He pulled out of his pocket a sheaf of leaves torn from magazines, and selected one. ‘This has been printed. It is a rondeau. Listen!
To haunt some dusty mansion bare.
Think not my spirit will be found
Roaming some white-rowed burying-ground,
Startling the good folk unaware.
Wan willows fan the pensive air,
An unfixed spirit, sorrow-crowned,
In after years!
Call to the dance each joyous pair.
Where cheer and blooming health abound
And young feet twinkle to the sound,
Doubt not, my friend, that I’ll be there,
In after years,
‘Those are my sentiments exactly.’ The young man pirouetted on his heel. ‘I don’t know what views you hold regarding the immortality of our souls, but I hope you do not disapprove of mine.’
It was impossible not to catch the infection of his spirits, and Mollie gave way and laughed with him till the little grove seemed full of echoing merriment. This lightness so flecked with sober earnest, this earnestness so charged with gayety, was not the jesting of Green Valley, where jokes are jokes, and facts are facts, and there is no difficulty in distinguishing the two. The intellectual excitement of this form of wit went to Mollie’s head, and made her a little fizzy, as if she had been drinking too much ginger ale.
‘Now, damsel,’ the poet suggested, when they had calmed themselves, ‘suppose you tell me what you are.’
Mollie’s blue eyes twinkled at the young man. ‘ I, kind poet, am a moneylender’; and she curtsied as she had not done since she was a child in the primary grades.
The young man stared. ‘By all the good fates, if it is not better to be a hungry poet and lucky than a rich man at his feast. My troubles are over! ' He advanced toward her. ‘ In the name of Art I command you to lend me — oh, any small sum — ten dollars — or five hundred.’
Mollie jumped. ‘ What for ? ’ she said.
‘What for!’ The young man struck an attitude. ‘She asks what for! For art, for life, for melody, for sweetness, for this shimmering river-path at our feet, for the perfectness of these exquisite blue bits,’ — he pointed toward the phlox, — ‘ for grace, and beauty which will save us at last.’
As if moved by some irresistible force, Mollie’s hand went slowly toward her pocket and brought up the little blue box. The poet came closer, and as she lifted the cover and disclosed the small bright bit, the moment was tense with expectation.
The young man seized the gold-piece irreverently. ‘We’ll toss for it.’ He sank to his knees on the cool thick grass. ‘Come, sit down! Shall I take it? Heads I lose — tails — ’ It spun down to him like a gleam of sunshine, and he bent his dark head to it on the grass. ‘Yes, I take it.’
Mollie did not speak, but her breath came fast and she felt a little dizzy.
He regarded her calmly and inclusively. ‘What would you do with it if I did n’t take it?’ he questioned.
Mollie could hardly think. Green Valley seemed vague and far away, like the merest speck on the landscape. She was held by a strange spell which she could not break; and all the things which she had done with the gold-piece, and all the things she had planned to do, seemed hardly worth the naming. The young man’s words were floating all about her, thinly, like a song after it has died — ‘for melody, for sweetness — ’
‘Hair-ribbons,’ she breathed faintly.
The young man laughed. ‘The snare of the evil one to dazzle the eyes of men! No, it can’t be hair-ribbons.’
Then Mollie thought of Old Snyder, and the story tumbled out of itself.
When she had done, the young man reflected a while. ‘No, it can’t be Old Snyder,’ he said slowly. ‘ Don’t you see, he’d be miserable clean, and all to no purpose. How do you know it’s better to be clean than dirty any way? It’s a silly convention — being clean.’ He tossed up the gold-piece again, and watched it flashing down to him. ‘No, I guess it’s meant for me,’ he murmured dreamily.
Mollie did not reply. The incident seemed ended, and she rose to go.
‘Mind you, damsel, I probably won’t be returning this — very soon, anyway. I might, but it is n’t best to count on it. My journey is a long one, and it’s well to be going forward. But wait,’ — he pulled from his pocket a carefully scribbled page, — ‘ I did this today, before you came up.’ He folded it small and put it on the pink cotton in the small blue box. ‘You have it now, a bit of this lovely spot and a bit of me — everlastingly joined. Is n’t that worth a gold-piece? When we’re both old and wrinkled, and I’m famous, you can take this out and become a bit famous yourself, maybe. Anyway, it will make a pretty story for your grandchildren — your gold-piece and my poem!’
He shut the box and gave it to her, and she walked slowly away over the soft grass and through the shifting patches of light that seemed to follow and illumine her.
That night, when the children were abed, and Mollie sat on the porch in the cool, waiting for Dave, she realized that the gold-piece had again opened for her a window upon the world. She was almost glad it had gone — it had reversed so many judgments, made her so many kinds of a person, she who had been a proper Green Valley girl, and had been meant to be a proper Green Valley woman, with a husband and children to fill her thoughts. She took the folded slip out of the box and read it carefully by the porch light, and when Dave came, she read it to him as she often read scraps copied from the Colton paper.
‘It’s pretty,’ he rendered judgment. ‘Makes a person think of the green shadows on the river toward Colton way. Remember, Mollie, girl?’ He was silent a long time, while a soft thud overhead told of a child after another drink. ‘They have it on us, those poet folks. Better save that, Mollie.’