IF I knew the story behind the old man’s story, that would be more worth telling. However, his tale is strange enough.
The place is the only spot on Huckleberry Hill where you can pick berries without charge. It lies in the valley west of the Hill, which is five miles long and owned almost entirely by hard-headed and hard-pressed farmers who rightly think permission to pick worth a modest fee. Moreover, the old man, who is caretaker there, keeps a weak but well-meaning eye on your car and lunch basket — an advantage at the height of the season, when pickers come from far and near.
To reach that part of Huckleberry Hill, which is one of the many lap-children of the Helderberg Mountains, take the state road almost to the crest, turn sharp left through a barnyard, and drive across a table-land dotted with hayfields and pine groves, both thin. The Hill lies to the left, across one of the myriad internal valleys of the oldest range geologically, in the United States. For sixty miles from our house, in this direction, there are no railroads and few improved roads; the whole district preserves a rustic remoteness that belies its position on the map.
After a mile or more of the plateau, the rough dirt road dips and winds west across the valley. The bed of Gold Creek — name reminiscent of a dream that did not pan out — is of flat limestone, deeply cross-cracked. In summer Gold Creek is hardly more than a channel with occasional pools; but it leaps into life after each rain, and in spring and autumn runs torrents. Near the narrow, shaky bridge, the stream is dammed, perhaps for trout, perhaps to furnish water for the house that rises, half hidden by lofty lilac bushes, on the knoll just beyond.
Decay greets you at the weedchoked entrance. There is a broad but sagging porch; the front windows are out, and through them you glimpse strips of paper hanging from damp walls. A blind man could sense the place from the odors of rotting boards and lush, untended vegetation. But signs of life appear when you round the corner — a chair beside the rear door, and a path running from it to leaning, unpainted barns. If the old man is not sitting by the door, he will presently emerge, stare for a moment quizzically, and then totter forward, smiling. He is glad to see you, glad to see everyone who comes. He has lived there seventeen years, alone for fourteen of them.
After lunch I sat on his doorstep while he repeated, in a high, tremulous voice, his oft-told tale.
‘It’s this way, neighbor,’ he began. ‘I could charge ’em for picking, but not so many would come. Anyhow, the money would n’t make any difference to the folks that own this place. They’re rich. And I might get robbed. No; I never keep no money around. Don’t need it. They send my wages to a bank in town, and the same bank pays the taxes and my store bills.’
‘A wise plan,’ I agreed. ‘And who are they?’
‘That’s what pickers are always asking me, and I always answer, “The folks that own the place.” Maybe you could find out if you had to know — from the bank or the land records down at the county seat. But the name does n’t matter. Sometimes I forget it for months myself, in winter. I’ve forgot a good many things; I’m past eighty, and winters I mostly sleep. But I ain’t seen hide nor hair of either of ’em for seventeen year come October.
‘They boarded at Simpsons’ that summer. You can get a nice squint at Dunbar Hollow from Simpsons’. I say Simpsons’, but the Simpsons have all been out of there ten years or more. There was just the two of ’em — my folks, that is — and they used to wander around here together, like they been married only a spell. Come the first of August, they bought this place and started fixing it up as if money was water. She was a pleasant, soft-speaking little thing, youngish and feared of animals, like she’d never been out of the city before. Yes, sir, they came from New York City. He was big and medium old — first man I ever see in short pants. Now half the fellers that come here to pick wears ’em.’
The old man cackled thinly, stroking his white beard with uncertain fingers.
‘They put on a new porch, built the dam that holds back that pond, and tore things up considerable inside the house. My old woman was sick, and I needed money, so I was always the first man here in the morning and the last away at night. The boss and I got on together; I was a worker and he was a driver. Man alive, but he kept after us! Bound and set, he was, to be settled snug by winter. Then all-sudden he says to me, one frosty October morning, “Cap, move your wife down here and take charge. Shape things up for winter and stand by the place. We’ll be back in April.” I drove ’em out that afternoon, the three of us in my old buggy. She sat on his lap and cried some, but he did n’t pet her like he used to. Just sat there stony-faced. Up yonder where the road turns, she looked over her shoulder and said, hushed-like, “Good-bye, happy valley, good-bye!”
‘There was an automobile waiting for them at the pike, the first I ever see. That’s the last I set eyes on them. Here I been ever since, barring trips down to the store. Buried my old woman from here. I ain’t no hand to be away, because there’s no telling when they might come back.’
‘They write, of course.’
He shook his head. ‘ He did, some, at first. Stric’ly business. Told me to keep things in shape and patch up as best I could and wait for orders. But late years I ain’t had no orders; and while I’ve done some patching along,
I don’t deny the place has got ahead of me. Our store don’t carry no paint nor glass, and these seven year my eyes ain’t been good enough to let me pound a nail real straight.’
‘And she? Does n’t she ever write?’
‘No, sir; not once. And that’s queer, because she’d set out some plants all roundabout the yard, and my old woman used to write her once in a while that the flowers were doing well. Writing ain’t in my line; but my old woman could read and write and cipher. The young Missis, though, never wrote back. Maybe she’s dead; maybe he’s dead. My wages was n’t much at the start, and I’ve never been raised. But I’ve never been docked, neither. So now — hee, hee, hee!—you’re talking to what is the best-paid eighty-threeyear-old in the township. All I have to do is to set here and wait. But I do what I can. I keep a light burning in that window every night, so’s it can be seen from the turn of the road up yonder. I’ve kind of given up hope; but maybe they’ll be back sometime — or some of their young ’uns.’
‘Perhaps,’ I said, ‘they are so rich that this place does n’t mean anything to them. Perhaps it is just one small item on a big budget, and so slides through without question year after year. You and this place may even be endowed as part of a trust fund held for minor heirs who will be along some day to find out what it is all about.’
‘I’m afeared I don’t understand all that, neighbor; but let’s hope it’s all for the best. Figger it out any way you like. I know it’s queer, but queer or not, that’s the truth. They ain’t been back for seventeen year. They better hurry; I can’t promise to look after their things many more years.’
‘What then?’ I asked.
‘Well, the neighbors’ll miss the light in the back window. Then they’ll come over and do for me. But what’s to become of the place then, I don’t know. That worries me some. Suppose the bank notifies ’em that I’m gone and the place vacant, won’t someone have to come then? Mebbe it’s because they know everything’s safe with me here that they stay away so long.’
‘You’ve been faithful; but I doubt if that is the reason for their absence. Something happened to change their plans before they left, and then something happened after they left to change them again. Now my idea is that they were n’t married. Probably they intended to be but they were n’t. Then there was a baby, and the mother died. And this place either belongs to that child, or else it is being held by the father until the child grows up to take it over. You see — ’
The old man rose stiffly.
‘Stranger,’ he said, ‘we’ve talked long enough. You’re welcome to their berries, but no one can talk agin her on this ground. She was as good and kind a little thing as ever you see, and I won’t have no gossip set going agin her.’
With feeble, fumbling steps he went indoors, leaving me standing, ashamed, in the path his feet had trod for seventeen years.