The Shenando' Valley

I

WHY do many people yearn for the South Sea Islands, and why do some actually go there to reside, when the Valley of the Shenandoah is so much more accessible? That is a question I often ask myself in April, when sitting under a half-blown apple tree and gazing across the rolling countryside to the comfortable outline of the Blue Ridge five or six miles away.

At the outset, I may as well confess that Mr. O’Brien’s best sellers left me cold. Neither his beautiful brown ladies, nor his cannibalistic old gentlemen, could persuade me that the delights of a primitive existence in the midst of a partly colored race and insects of large dimensions were sufficient compensation for voyaging innumerable miles in avowedly uncomfortable ships. I have escaped the lure of the South Seas — and I attribute my good fortune to the fact that I know and love that part of Virginia called the Shenandoah Valley.

When I returned to it last April, I was more than ever convinced that it is an enchanted land. As the evening train,—any time after noon is ‘evenin’ ’ in that country, — as the evening train whistled its way up the valley, the Blue Ridge was never bluer, the rolling fields of winter wheat never a more vivid green. Here and there upon the landscape the whitewashed walls of comfortable farmhouses shone through the tall groves of oak, which screen them from the summer heat as well as from the inquisitive eye; and their red roofs glowed in the fading sunshine.

Was it my imagination that gave the people on the station platforms such gentle and honest expressions? Or were they really more amiable to look upon than the average rustic in New England? Interesting faces they were. Distinctly American, blue-eyed, good-featured, but not at all Yankee. I love the Yankee cast of countenance, especially in old age; but Calvinism or climate, or both, have differentiated it from other American types. It may be stronger, but it is not so happy or so engaging; certainly not so winning as that of the Shenandoan, whose expression suggests restraint without severity, open shyness, but not selfconscious reserve. For this difference perhaps physiography is more responsible than either religious convictions or hard winters. New Hampshire’s rocky pastures and the stony fields of Massachusetts may be character-builders, but they do not produce so happy a race as do the more fertile parts of our continent. Whatever the cause may be, the Virginian face is sunnier than the New England face; and upon every return to the Old Dominion, I am more impressed by the contrast.

Not many miles from the junction of the Shenandoah and the Potomac sleeps the village of Mayville. Of course, no Mayvillian would agree that his town sleeps. It is true that the men in the fields work from sun to sun, and that the storekeepers’ work is never done. It is true also that the roosters, especially during full moon, crow all night. Yet from the perverse Northern point of view Mayville sleeps, or, at any rate, possesses the beauty of the sleeping countenance. Even its most commercial citizen would hardly deny that modification of the actual fact.

Undeniable, too, is the foreign aspect of the town. The cluster of buildings is dominated by a picturesque church, which might just as well look down upon some village in southern Germany. It is of brick painted buff, and the main edifice is surmounted at one corner by an octagonal belfry. This belfry, turbaned with red, rises just high enough above the surrounding tree-tops to be always in sight. Not reprovingly, but rather affectionately, it watches over Mayville. To this place of worship every Sunday come the Morgans, the Lewises, and the rest of the first families, who have been on the land almost since the days when Washington surveyed the country thereabouts. Some of them, indeed, are direct descendants of Washington’s adopted family.

Then, too, the shade trees up and down the turnpike and the village street have a foreign look. What has been done to them, and why? The first is the easier question. At regular intervals, apparently, these ancient maples have been cut back almost to their trunks, much as willows are frequently shorn. Why, I do not know. To ask a resident of Mayville such a question would imply criticism; so it is safer to remain unenlightened. Do the multitude of young shoots cast a denser shade upon the street and sidewalk, or do the topless trees shut out less air from the houses? I give it up. But I do know that my pristine resentment at what seemed to be unnecessary treebutchery gradually gave way to an appreciation of the resultant picturesqueness. Perhaps it is that one forgets the peculiar appearance of a tree if there is a cardinal in the upper branches, whistling, ‘What cheer? What cheer? What, what, what, what, what?’

One of the public buildings is undeniably American. Not American like a standard post-office or an officebuilding, but rather as a New England meeting-house (with due acknowledgment to Sir Christopher Wren) is American, or as Mt. Vernon is American. This is the courthouse, which sits diagonally across from the church. It is not a remarkable piece of architecture by any means, but its two-storied portico of white Doric columns gives a classic air to the red-brick walls, and draws one’s gaze away from a somewhat unfortunate cupola.

Not the least attractive feature of the Shenandoah Valley is its abundance of horses. For the most part, they are farm horses and second-rate carriageor saddle-horses, to be sure; but the sight of them and the clatter of their hoofs in the village street afford a blessed contrast to the vibrant motors, squealing brakes, and nerve-torturing horns of urban civilization. There is little interest, and less romance, in the purring response to a self-starter, but one involuntarily turns to the window when he hears the sound of horses’ hoofs. In Mayville he is often rewarded by the sight of four stalwart workhorses — usually gray — hauling a heavy truck. There is nothing extraordinary about four horses, perhaps; but in this valley it is customary for the driver to ride the near pole-horse. What an air this gives to the whole equipage! The rider may be, and probably is, clad in blue overalls and a denim shirt, open at the neck, but the effect is very pleasing. No Rolls-Royce or gliding Renault has ever held my attention as have occasional four-horse teams on the pikes and country roads of the Shenandoah Valley.

Of course most of the farmers own Fords, wherewith they shorten their fiveor ten-mile trips into town; and I grudge them not the convenience which these afford them. But I hope — rather than trust — that it will be many years before tractors will have banished from the face of the land the three-horse and four-horse teams which now plough and harrow the red-brown soil of the Shenandoah Valley. Three horses abreast, and a sturdy young man holding the plough are a reassuring sight to city eyes. And as for four horses dragging a harrow, with their master riding the near wheel-horse — that is a subject for a Rembrandt. The Polish rider is splendid, but give me the Virginian rider, with his four-horse team and the dust drifting away from the lumbering harrow!

II

The people of Clarke County claim to be the best people in the United States. There is nothing original about a claim of this kind: one hears it anywhere, from Eastport to San Diego; but the sons and daughters of Clarke are, I think, unique in their effort to validate it. Nowhere, surely, do Southern manners, Southern friendliness, and Southern hospitality flourish more delightfully. Here there is no stony ignoring of the presence of an unintroduced human being. On the road a slow nod, in the village a friendly ‘ Good-morning, ma’am,’ or ‘Good-evening, sir,’ makes one’s heart warm to these people. And how ready they are to converse with a stranger! I can’t say that they are very well informed regarding the history or geography of their county; but they always have time to talk to you on some subject. And their hospitality passeth all understanding.

There seem to be many more men than women, and a large proportion of young people. The New Englander is accustomed to seeing only middle-aged and old men in the country districts of his region. Maine is a happy exception to this rule, but even Maine is not peopled and cultivated by such a young and deep-chested race as is the Shenandoah Valley. These Virginians are almost never red-cheeked, but there is a healthy look to their sunburned faces. Climate may account for the absence of high color; but why are these men invariably blueor blue-gray-eyed? Is it that they are of pure English or Scotch stock? Their names suggest or confirm this conjecture.

I like these men and women of Clarke County. I like them exceedingly. I especially like to hear them talk; but I do wish I understood their language better. Unless a Shenandoan says just what I expect, — and that seldom occurs, — it is a pretty difficult proposition. Some may call it a drawl, but to my ear it is far from a drawl. It is rather an inarticulate volume of sound which, at first, suggests no word or phrase that one has ever heard. In the course of time, one learns that ‘Bayville’ is Berryville, that ‘Low’ is Laura, and that ‘Bad’ is Betty. And of course a ‘moanin’ dove’ is a mourning dove. (After I had heard one, I thought these Virginians came nearer the truth than they perhaps intended.) But, oh, there is so much that is completely unintelligible — and usually uttered, unfortunately, with a rising inflection. After one awkward conversation, which centred, not about the chef, as I had supposed, but about the sheriff, I abandoned both hope and further attempts at sociability.

Has anyone ever explained satisfactorily the language of the South? If not, I am willing to submit my theory of its origin. The general supposition has been, I suppose, that climate gradually converted the more or less pure Shakespearean English of the early Virginians into the present interesting vernacular. Why the pronunciation of the colored people should be like unto it is obvious: they learned their English from the whites. But let us look at it from another angle. When the African immigrants, to use a delicate phrase, learned the English language, they must have spoken it with an accent. When the colored mammies talked to the white children intrusted to their care, they unconsciously, but inevitably, transmitted their pronunciation and inflection to the rising generation of their masters and mistresses. So, in a half-century or so, Shakespearean English became African-English, the present-day English of the Southern states. Some may contend that, if this theory is correct, the English of the North ought to have become Gaelic-English during the last seventy-five years. But probably the Irish nurse of our childhood was never so universal in New England as was the antebellum mammy south of the Mason and Dixon line, nor did she enjoy such exclusive possession of her protégés.

Speaking of colored folk, we must not overlook them, for they are the most picturesque element in Mayville. After the war, a number of erstwhile slaves acquired small lots of land on either side of a lane that turns off the pike a scant mile south of the village. Here they built cabins, and named their community Josephine City — or Josephine, for short. Apparently Josephine prospered, for to-day many of the original cabins have been replaced by shacks, some of them neatly painted. However, enough of the original atmosphere is preserved to give the settlement individuality and interest.

There is all the difference in the world, by the way, between a cabin and a shack. A cabin is a crude but very substantial one-and-one-half-storied affair constructed of timbers, more or less squared with an axe. The chinks are filled with plaster, and the outer walls, thus completed, are given a coat of whitewash. A roof of shingles, or shakes, crowns the habitation, and presumably keeps out more or less rain. A shack, on the other hand, is a cheaply built wooden house, usually unpainted. As a place of abode, it probably possesses infinite advantages over its lowly neighbor, the cabin, but its artistic merit is yet to be discovered. What attractions has even a newly painted shack — yea, even one with forsythia bushes blooming in the front yard — to compare with a non-perpendicular cabin, built of non-parallel and nonhorizontal timbers, with a half-dozen pickaninnies in the open doorway, and indications of at least another halfdozen concealed in its shadowy interior? Sometimes there is room in the yard for a puddle of noisy ducks. There is always room for a pig-pen, situated with a thought for convenience rather than for sanitation. Occasionally its proximity is overpowering to the passer-by; but apparently the populace of Josephine have long since adapted themselves to such minor objections.

The backyard is largely a repository for scrap-iron. What the ultimate purpose of the collectors may be is not clear. Perhaps they themselves do not know. There are collectors of this type in every field of art. All the observant layman knows is that the heaps of rusty iron increase from year to year and give great joy to the Carolina wrens, which dart in and out among the hoops and springs and broken ploughshares.

Not the least interesting of the fauna of Josephine City are its dogs. These are of an uncertain breed. The general idea seems to have been a hound of some sort; the color, either from heredity or from environment, approximates black. Their ears are floppy and, under more favorable conditions, might be silky. These dogs devote most of their time to sleep; but when awakened by a passing white man, they rush forth with wild eyes. Their preference for light meat seems to be as pronounced as is the reverse in the dogs of Mayville proper. Yet I have never known them to draw blood, so perhaps I have misjudged them.

The best time to stroll through Josephine is late afternoon. Then you will meet the old-school darkies, who bow and scrape one foot with appealing deference. Groups of pickaninnies, of various shades and hues, return your familiar ‘Hello’ with a proper ‘Goodevenin’.’ Rastus leans on the fence and talks with Alexander, who is spading up his garden; and, at the first suggestion of the humorous, slaps his knee and doubles up with loud but melodious mirth. How happy they all seem!

I like to watch these colored people at work with their horses or mules. The Shenandoans, both black and white, have a very friendly way with their animals. Instead of a harsh ‘Whoa!’ or ‘Back up!’ one hears now and then a long, low moan, which the horse or mule understands and responds to with docile alacrity. I remember that, in my childhood, after hearing a northern farmer guide his oxen with the customary shouts, I asked if oxen were always deaf. In Virginia, at the same age, I should not have been concerned for the hearing of any beast of burden, but I might well have expressed sympathy for the moaning driver. One day in Josephine the somewhat white horse of a very black man, when released from her harness, began to caper and snort with delight. I anticipated a volley of oaths and a strap well laid on. But no! The very black man regarded the prancing steed with mingled scorn and amusement, and remarked indulgently, as he might to a ridiculous child, ‘Well, now, look at yer, look at yer!’

III

It was in Josephine City that I first met Lucullus — Lucullus the Imaginative, aged ten, but a genius in his own field. Nature has produced blacker Africans than Lucullus, I have no doubt, but no man or boy has ever been clothed in shabbier raiment. The most striking feature of his costume was a plaid cap, many sizes too large. In spite of the constant attention required to keep its visor within ninety degrees of the correct angle, this cap was evidently a source of great pride to its possessor. A much-worn jacket, which was too small, was more or less offset by an unrelated pair of knickerbockers, the dimensions of which suggested that, at an earlier period, they might have belonged to the original owner of the cap. But even his knickers Lucullus wore in an individual manner. On one leg they were buckled below the knee, even as yours and mine; but on the other, the buckle was either missing or neglected, with the result that the unrestrained garment fell almost to the boy’s ankle. Yet none of these things troubled Lucullus. Perhaps that was part of his genius. Great artists are so often either carefully dreadful, or dreadfully careless in their dress.

However that may have been, I soon forgot Lucullus’s eccentricity as to dress when I caught sight of his glistening teeth and rolling eyes. He was half kneeling and half sitting at the foot of a tree, digging in the loose earth with his hands. And all the while he talked to himself. It did not take long for us to become acquainted, and I soon learned that he was endeavoring to unearth a dollar, which he had buried a few minutes before. This dollar — which was not coin, but a bill, by the way—was a present from his ‘a’nt,’ who lived in Philadelphia. It had come in a letter to his mother that morning. Apparently Lucullus had spent the hours since in alternately burying and exhuming it.

My mind tried to connect this process with a well-known parable in the New Testament. To recall the lesson was easy, but to identify Lucullus with ‘him who hath not’ was not so simple; for apparently he got at least a dollar’s worth of ecstasy every time he rediscovered his buried treasure — and so far, at any rate, it had not been taken away from him. One thing was clear to my mind, however: never again should I wonder how paper money becomes so vilely dirty — as it sometimes does — before it returns to Washington to die.

When this particular government note was disappearing once more, Lucullus changed the subject abruptly by announcing in a confidential tone: ‘Dis yere tree is ha’nted.’ His eye rolled ominously. I expressed doubt, but left the way open for proof of his statement. To Lucullus, however, proof seemed unnecessary. He merely repeated, ‘Yassir, dis tree is ha’nted, and a ha’nted bird lives in it.’

I looked up into the branches and, between ourselves, almost expected to see some mythological bird of grotesque shape and gorgeous coloring.

‘’Tain’t no use lookin’ fo’ him now,’ declared Lucullus. ‘He’s gone away — he’s gone away in a ball of fire.’ And to him this was a mere statement of fact, much less interesting than his recurrent search for the present from his a’nt.

Remembering Miss Pratt’s experiences with her young friend Ezekiel, I looked forward to an interesting dissertation upon the habits of the haunted bird. But I was disappointed. All I could persuade Lucullus to divulge was that the bird assumed different shapes at will, and without warning. Sometimes he chose to be a ‘hoppin’ frog,’ sometimes a bat of extraordinary size. ‘But most of the time he’s jes’ a bird and he lives in that hole up there,’ asserted my imaginative friend, with sudden intensity. And sure enough, there was a hole in a dead limb, about twenty-five feet above the ground.

How and when the flaming departure occurred, I could not ascertain. Lucullus became suddenly reticent, and seemed wholly absorbed in rapturous contemplation of his private fortune. And yet he gave me the impression that he knew all about that phenomenon, but, being overcome by emotion, could not relate the details. At all events, he lapsed into moody silence, and I turned away to continue my daily stroll through the city of Josephine. I had gone about a hundred feet, when I heard a voice, African, young, and excited, calling to me. It was Lucullus. He was still kneeling at the foot of the haunted tree, but his mind was on neither vanished bird nor buried treasure. The whites of his eyes were almost terrifying. Solicitude rather than fear proved to be responsible for his outcry.

‘Take care that dog don’t bite you.’

‘That dog’s all right,’ I called back reassuringly. Certainly no dog ever looked less dangerous than this black one, who dozed in the sun.

But Lucullus refused to be reassured. ‘He bit boy’s seat-a-pants out the other day,’ he rejoined.

At this point the dog in question opened one eye, a large yellow eye, and, without raising his head, uttered a growl that sounded distinctly businesslike. Now I have never been afraid of dogs, and I was reasonably certain that Lucullus was one of the world’s most gifted fabricators. And yet, whether he spoke of tree or bird or dog, his remarks carried an absurd amount of conviction. I looked at the dog and visualized a ‘seat-a-pants’ in those ancient but still powerful jaws. Then I looked at my watch and decided that, if our evening meal should be on time, — a condition contrary to all precedent, — I should be late if I did not at once turn toward home.

If Lucullus deceived me, within a week I had the satisfaction of retaliation — not upon him, to be sure, but upon some of his many cousins. On a byway a mile or more to the eastward of Mayville stands an ancient gristmill, by all odds the most individual building in the countryside. In autumn and early winter it is probably a busy place; but I know it only in the springtime, when the stream that gives it life is turned aside, and only a few sparkling drops splash over the idle wheel. Then the old mill is somnolence itself; its brick walls take on a soft rose-color in the warm sunshine, and glow against the background of vernal green. Whenever my steps led me to this spot, I was invariably rewarded by a sense of harmony, poetry, and repose.

But there came a day when it produced quite the opposite reaction. The midstream flows across the road a few yards this side of the mill, and the shallow ford is a favorite resort for a few well-behaved frogs. As the road is little traveled at this season, they are seldom disturbed in their meditations and occasional utterances. But to-day they were very much disturbed, though apparently too proud to admit it. Two or three black imps of approximately the size and shade of Lucullus were amusing themselves by throwing stones at the largest and most dignified member of the community, whose head — or about two thirds of it — offered an alluring and unresisting target. How best to prevent the impending assassination was a problem. I suppose I should have appealed to their sense of sportsmanship, or read them a lecture on kindness to animals, or even resorted to force if necessary. But, for better or for worse, I chose a less commendable course.

‘Look here, you children, you don’t want to throw stones at that frog!’

They ceased firing, open-mouthed, but with their weapons still in their hands. They did not ask, ‘Why not?’ but they looked it, so I continued.

‘Don’t you know that that is an unlucky frog?’

They did not turn pale, — at least not perceptibly, — but I think that they felt the corresponding emotion. Their mouths opened even wider. The stones dropped from their limp hands. They stared for a moment at the blinking apex of the frog, and then pattered nervously down the road toward home. Then, and only then, did my conscience protest. ‘But after all,’ I comforted myself, ‘it was an unlucky frog — or soon would have been if I had not intervened.’

IV

As a country to walk in or over, the Shenandoah Valley has a serious drawback in its wire fences. In my innocence, I had supposed there was nothing in steel fencing more prohibitive than the old-fashioned barbed wire of our Northern fields and pastures. But I was mistaken. Although the passage of three or four parallel lines of barbed wire requires a certain amount of suppleness and caution, the effort expended is as naught compared with that involved in the ascent and descent of a five-foot barrier of wire sheep-fencing. But somehow, with the meadow-larks whistling in the fields and the apple orchards bursting into bloom, and the Blue Ridge ever in sight and ever changing its lovely aspect, one easily accepts these too frequent barricades as necessary flies in an ointment of pure joy. Besides, after a little exploration, one discovers that this network of steel wire is here and there penetrated by lanes. And when one has become conversant with these, he can walk abroad with little discomfort.

How pleasant is Saturday night — in the village of Mayville! The sidewalks that have been almost deserted throughout the day are now crowded with sunburned farmers and their wives who have come in from the outlying farms. The women are pale and pathetic, and often are burdened with sleeping infants even paler and more pathetic than themselves. The street is bordered by a multitude of horses and buggies and Fords. The unattractive stores swarm with traders, while the moving-picture house and the poolrooms receive their share of patronage. The moustachioed constable, ununiformed but wearing a badge suggestive of comic opera, mingles with the crowd on the sidewalk, or, ‘grand, gloomy, and peculiar,’ stands at the corner, and from under his slouch hat scrutinizes any unfamiliar face or figure. He would like to have every stranger feel that he is under surveillance, as he doubtless is; but the constable’s attention really centres upon the opposite corner, where a group of darkies are lounging against the wall and telegraph pole.

At ten, or ten-thirty, the last basket of eggs has been bartered, the movies are ‘out,’ and scraping carriage-wheels announce the first departures for home. Then follow the cranking of Fords, the impatient sputter of motors, shouted good-byes, and jerky progresses down the village street. Finally, the pedestrians start for home, in friendly groups of three or four. It is now that the black loafers who have been the chief concern of the constable throughout the evening more than vindicate their presence. As they scuff along toward Josephine City, one of their number begins to sing the refrain of an old plantation song. His companions immediately, and apparently inevitably, supply the other parts. And how they can sing!

Never have I been so completely persuaded that this is a good world, and that man was intended to be happy, as on one evening in late April in Mayville. I sat at my window, and looked out through the lacy foliage of the maples to a full moon that had risen over the Blue Ridge. The gentlest suggestion of a night breeze wafted through the room the perfume of nearby apple-blossoms and distant lilacs. Above the treetops of the village street rose the softened outline of the churchspire and its less graceful neighbor, the cupola of the courthouse. The hour was late, — for Mayville, — and the more animated sounds of Saturday evening had given way to the closing of doors and windows and to the clumping of heavy feet turned toward home. Then, blended with the sweet fragrance of the night, came the strains of ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’: first a single voice, then three or four in perfect harmony, as the song progressed into ‘Coming fo’ to ca’y me home!' The music was neither soft nor loud, but it was fresh and resonant, and its shading was as natural and exquisite as the crescendo and diminuendo of rustling leaves in a summer breeze.

Such moments are rare — and more and more rare as we grow older. Probably it was on that occasion that I first said to myself, ‘Why do people go to the South Seas, when the Valley of the Shenandoah is so near, so idyllic, so reassuring, so satisfying?’