Shady Cove


SHADY COVE! Where the sky bends low, and mountain mists like phantom birds with white ruffled plumage ever wing their way in and out among recurrent rainbows that span the little valley. Where at evening the violet of distant mountains fades into a lilac sky, and the comforting hills suddenly draw near to watch the Cove in its sleep. Where at night the home lights on encircling heights wink out one by one before the steady shine of stars, and the tinkle of bells comes faint on the drugged sweetness of the night breeze.

Our tent is pitched almost in the centre of the great green bowl set so deep in sombre hills that it is like the bottom of a well where one may see the stars by day. And the day moon dreams through the sky as faint as far-off music.

But Shady Cove is no unearthly benediction from the hands of the gods. It is a huge emerald cup, sweetened and drained by a river that rushes from a cave at the north of the valley, plays about under the willows with many a capricious curve and listless pause, until, remembering the message it bears, it hurries through another cavern directly south of the cave where it enters, quite as if to pretend that it had not loitered a moment in Shady Cove.

Once, they tell us, the outlet cave was choked with débris, and when a waterspout came the valley was flooded and the people went about in boats. But that was long ago. Long ago! Can it be that Time, as elsewhere, is the god here in Shady Cove! Shady Cove, as placid in the summer sun as a lost island in a tideless sea. How far away the foolishness of a League of Nations, Reparations, and Prohibition. And even burning questions of importance, as the new scale in music or Marcel Proust’s place in literature!

For the one store asleep under the hackberry trees, the blacksmith shop with the mighty grapevine above the door, — a motor car has never dared the rocky hills to shriek its way through the valley, — the log church that long ago the Virginia creepers claimed, shouting each summer the praises of God and Shady Cove with all their gold-rimmed trumpets swaying in the wind, the churchyard with its flat stones above the unforgotten dead, the crouching gray farmhouses — all rest here as indigenous as the Big Oak which long ago Miss Mattie Porter climbed at sunset to see ‘ Beyant,’ and became a legendary character who had sought death by suicide. For Beyant to the west and Outside to the east are ’furrin’ places, certainly not worth the climbing of a tree to glimpse.

Long ago, no doubt, women with calm faces and steady hands tended old-fashioned flowers in their dooryards, and swept with ‘bresh’ brooms the very road before their picket fences; and swept, too, their wide, long dresses to the meetin’house without so much as a profane shake of the dust from a ruffle. Then, as now, men tilled the soil silently, patiently, but never, I fancy, with the grim earnestness of other mountain men overwhelmed in the struggle with the stubborn earth. Then, as now, perhaps, during the frequent showers from the ever-present diaphanous clouds came the call of voices singing the same unforgotten songs they sing to-day. For in a shower, when work ceases in the fields, the people of Shady Cove seem to float together as on a sudden breeze; and you will listen to know from which cabin comes the sound of music.

In the dogtrot you will find a tall, cross-eyed man with very large ears leading the singing and beating time with the accuracy of a clock, while anyone may be picking a banjo or bowing a fiddle. And what joy to drift in unnoticed, quite as though we belonged, and join in the refrains: —

Sister, look how you step on ther cross.
Sound the jubilee!
’Cause yer foot might slip an’ yer soul be lost.
Sound the jubilee!

Or to ’roodle-doodle-doodle’ with them in their version of the old hunting songs which perhaps their ancestors brought over from England: —

Give er whoop an’ er high-low. On er meny
An’ er run, run, run, an’ er tippy, tippy tun.
Away ther royal dawgs!
R-r-r-roodle-doodle-doodle an’ a bugle, oh!
An’ a whack-fal-daddle an’ a oh, heigho!
Through ther woods we run, brave boys,
An’ through ther woods we run.


Far’ ye well, my Dinah.
Ohoo-oo! Ohoo-oo! Ohoo-oo!
Gwine erway ter leave ye.
Ohoo-oo! Ohoo-oo! Ohoo-oo!

And how Peter, but moderately endowed with the gift of song, would throw back his head and mourn mightily for Dinah, ‘Ohoo-oo! Ohoo-oo! Ohoo-oo!’ and John, touched by some far-off race memory, would howl in key, to everyone’s satisfaction. And how we shouted, ‘She’s Comin’ Round the Mounting.’ And how our voices sank to the sadness of hope deferred on ‘when she comes.’ And in my ignorance I had thought it a modern radio song. But no radio artist can ever sing it as these people do whose lonely ancestors called it across the sea.

Though there is no blessing of song in the fields as in the Old South, yet Shady Cove sings with becoming nonchalance — like robins after rain. For while it may be fitting that some especially endowed songster should sing at an appointed time, while other less gifted birds perch uncomfortably about in their best preened feathers and strain their critical faculties for a false note, it is scarcely the way to saturate the being with our latest evolved gift — the sense of music.

But heaven forbid that I should sully the still air of Shady Cove with a fanatical idea. Shady Cove, that takes even its religion in such a matter-of-course way that there has never been the need of a ‘ree-vival.’ And where every third Sabbath the minister comes from Beyant, and, like Tennyson’s Northern Farmer, they ‘thowt a said whot a owt to ’a said,’ and no questions asked.


Shady Cove has its rigid conventions. A woman, for example, must not appear on the road or at the store without a sunbonnet well tied; nor must a man engage in conversation with her except she is safe indoors. It was conceded that the greenwood tree before our tent was our castle, and thus it was understood that I could converse with anyone without a sunbonnet and under the canopy of Heaven.

Our first evening in Shady Cove, as we sat by the dying camp fire in the starlight, there came the slow tread of horses’ feet, and in the spectral light two troubadours approached, each playing a banjo and singing softly, but very distinctly: —

‘ I’ll pray fur ye at nightfall
Whin all ther worl’ is still.
Whin dark is on ther mounting,
An’ stairs shines on ther hill.’

When we invited them to light and hitch they sang serenely on — ’Far’well ter Lookout Mounting,’ ‘Barbara Allen,’ ‘Ella Ray,’ and ‘The Basket Maker’s Child.’ Their young voices were sweet, and it was all very lovely in the starlight. And when we stirred the embers of the fire and toasted our last box of marshmallows, and all drank hot cocoa, they were sufficiently cheered to sing, with a rollicking martelé staccato from the banjos: —

‘Up on ther mounting ter plant my sorghum cane,
Ter make a barr’l o’ ’lasses, ter sweeten Lizy Jane.
I hain’t goin’ ter marry a widder. I’ll tell ye ther reason why:
They hes too miny chillern thet makes ther biscuit fly.’

It was late when they mounted their horses and stalked off in the shadows singing softly the old, old lullaby: —

‘Roland rocked me in his arms.
So long — so long ago.’

We sat by the camp fire an hornrelishing in our simple way the peculiar flavor of Shady Cove. And often, in the week that followed, we tried to understand this valley where the people have known each other so long — through successive generations — that Chesterfield’s advice to his son, ‘A glance of the eye is sufficient, my boy,’ is superfluous for communication with each other. And still, — proud, reserved, English, where each man’s cabin is his castle, — never, we thought, could Shady Cove set a common table by the roadside after Sabbath service, with the burgomaster to preside. This we had found in a foreign village not yet Americanized. And we said to ourselves that perhaps such close bonds of neighborly love could never obtain in an empire, or in so large and so heterogeneous a nation as our own. And I ventured to wonder if the silken banner of national love with its centuries-old devices might wave more loyally, and certainly more beautifully, under our stars and stripes than when it is dyed to a common color in the melting pot of our language and customs.

No, there was no communistic spirit in Shady Cove; and we rejoiced. For we had been permitted to see so many plums of the family tree specked, as we all are, and, alas, usually ripened but on one side, but good plums as plums go — pressed into a mass that becomes sour and gaseous.

But Shady Cove has its heartaches: the mystery of early death; the sick, who loom important under the direct chastening hand of God; the problem of unrequited love. For nothing has been ‘debunked’ in Shady Cove — not even love. Then, too, there is the occasional restlessness of youth and its exodus into Beyant or Outside. Old and lonely eyes that watch the road and miss the voice that will never sing again in Shady Cove. And sometimes there is a ‘no ’count ’ man who lazes round and drinks too much liquor from the still on the mountain side.


Though Shady Cove does not neighbor with Outside or Beyant, the grapevine telegraph brought the word that Peter ‘war a Doc.’ Though he persistently disclaimed the honor, the Cove considered it as but becoming modesty.

One day, the friendly storekeeper, after he had distributed the mail — as usual from his hat — and had given us our brown sugar, said, ‘Ole man Battenfield’s purty puny. He air sick abed.’

We murmured our sympathy.

‘I ’low, Doc, ye would n’t jist step over ’n’ see him?' And before Peter could reply he went on: —

’Ye know, ther ole man ter my shore knowlidge hes ben a prayin’ man fur better’n fifty yars. Now hit’s gitten round thet he air cussin’ his womern. Some claims they’s hyard him. Now I ’lows thet he jist fevers up whin he cusses — effen he do cuss. They talks round Iak they means ter church ther ole man; an’ a passel o’ womern is settin’ round thar ter-day ripresintin’ ther church an’ listenin’ ter hyar effen he busts loose ’ith a cuss word. Course I hain’t a-sayin’ hit hain’t right an’ proper ter church er man fur cussin’ his womern — lessen he air outen his haid. Ole man Battenfield air my womern’s step-pappy an’ she air pow’ful het up an’ grievin’. I reckon, Doc, ye would n’t jist step round ter-day ’bout ther time he’s looked fur ter cuss, —’bout four o’clock hit takes him theterway, — an’ kinder tell ’em ther ole man is delirium?’

Now the storekeeper had assisted us when John was stolen, and we had ridden into paradise on a board on his wagon; so about ‘cussin’ time’ we set out for ’ole man’ Battenfield’s.

The ‘passel o’ womern’ constituting the church investigating committee were seated in the dogtrot industriously piecing quilts and murmuring in sepulchral tones tales of the dead and dying, while listening eagerly for any sound that might come through the open door of the room where the sick man lay, waited upon by his wife.

Peter went at once to the patient, who was expecting him. I could see from my chair opposite the door a fierce, high-nosed old man with long gray hair and burning eyes that seemed to search the dogtrot vengefully. Peter, with a marvelous bedside manner, took the patient’s pulse, looked at his tongue, and asked the nurse questions about the bowls of herb tea on the table. Presently he returned to the dogtrot, followed by the meek wife.

Peter walked to the farther end of the open hall and began impressively: ‘Of course, as this is not my case, ethically I do not feel at liberty to change the treatment. However, I should advise that you take a basin of water, and melt in it a square of common laundry soap — say two inches square. After it is thoroughly dissolved, bathe the patient for ten minutes — no more; seeing, of course, that he does not catch cold. In exactly half an hour take a basin of water, — warm, but not hot, — and dissolve in it the medicine I shall send. Bathe him thoroughly in this — er — lotion I shall send. And afterward rub well with a wet towel.’

A great physician never prescribed a bath for Queen Caroline with more tact.

‘Mary Belle! Mary Belle!’ called the patient with surprising strength. ‘Why n’t ye change these hyar pillars! They air hotter’n hell!’

Silence in the dogtrot. Every ear strained.

The clock over the mantel in the sick room strikes four. This is ‘cussin’ time.’ Now or never.

Then — horror! Our worst hopes realized. As Mary Belle bent over and changed the pillows the old man cried: —

‘Blank ye, Mary Belle! Ye air pullin’ iver’ blankety ha’r outen my blanked haid!’

Awful silence in the dogtrot. Why did not Peter speak! I glanced at him significantly. His face was very red and he seemed to be seized with a fit of coughing. But he conquered it, and rising to his full height began slowly: —

‘In certain fevers like this there occurs a phenomenon that is — er — peculiar. The phenomenon is this. The patient is obsessed by a fear that when delirious — that is, “outen his haid” — he may — er — cuss. He fears the fever — say at about four o’clock — and he fears profanity. It comes right along with the fear of the fever. I hope I make myself clear. As the fever rises the fear is augmented and the patient — er — cusses. This is a very rare though not fatal disease, and is always accompanied by this phenomenon. This good old man knows that he is using profane language, but in the nature of the disease he is unable to keep from it. Such is the phenomenon. I should advise a very sympathetic attitude on the part of his nurse and of his friends. I shall send some medicine with written directions at once.’

The patient glared triumphantly through the door; and the church committee sat meekly with open mouths. But Mrs. Battenfield’s gaunt figure seemed to grow taller, and she returned to her husband with a high head. Her man was not only cleared of guilt before God and the neighbors, but he had the Phenotomy — the only case that had ever been known in Shady Cove. Indeed I afterward heard the storekeeper asked ‘how ole man Battenfield’s Phenotomy was gitten on,’ and the storekeeper replied, rather regretfully I thought, ‘He air ’bout well of it, an’ not a soul ketched hit!’

Outside, I said: ‘Doc, I really must congratulate you on the new method of mixing psychology with medicine. It was weird, but convincing. But the diagnosis? Is the poor old man very sick? And what on earth is that medicine you prescribed?’

‘I believe the old man is too irritable to be very sick. My opinion is that he is taking a fall from grace. And I guess he has earned it. He is taking a needed rest from piety. By George, it is a strong brand of religion in Shady Cove that can inhibit a man for over fifty years! I hope the old eagle will come through it purged and refreshed.’

‘I don’t know about being refreshed; but Mary Belle gave him dandelion tea — a quart. But your medicine?’

’Well, I saw a lot of Epsom salts at the store. We can mix it with some of our cocoa and sweeten it with your saccharine. They ’ll never discover what it is.’

So we went to the store and assured the storekeeper that his ‘womern’s step-pappy’ was still in the fold — and accepted a fee of two glasses of muscadine wine cool from the well. We bought the Epsom salts, which really looked quite professional when doctored and wrapped carefully into powders for Peter to take to the patient. And when he returned he reported with pride that the patient — and especially Mary Belle — was wonderfully improved.


But now we must say good-bye to Shady Cove. We broke the news to Sisyphus in the usual manner by tinkering with his wheel, while John watched in gleeful expectancy. We must climb the mountain to Beyant — where we had learned that coal mines disfigure the earth. From the first pale windflower, through all the violets, and the foxgloves, and the wild petunias, and the galax leaves, down to the fire pinks that flame by the river, we had watched the pageant of the mountain summer. Since the redbud blushed in the valley and the fringe tree waved its silver hair on the hill, we had rejoiced with it all. Now, too soon, the sourwood would die in red splendor, the hickories stand in transparent gold, the sweet gum glow with a suffused rosy light, each separate star etched against the autumn sky; its kinsman, the black gum, wrapped in deep maroon, looking warm enough for winter days when only waxen mistletoe and scarlet holly hold carnival among the proud pines.

On the morning of our last day we climbed to the rim of the southmost hills and, leaning against an oak, took our last long look into the green chalice of the valley we had learned to love. We were silent and listened idly to the tinkle of the cowbells on the hills. Presently Peter became aware that a bell near us sounded insistent, erratic. Fearing some bovine trouble, he went over the brow of the hill to investigate, and in a moment called to me.

In a little clearing before a oneroomed cabin a child of four, perhaps, played about with a cowbell tied by a string to her shoulders. Near her was a boy of eleven, his thin little arms industriously wielding a hoe in a bean patch. We walked down and said, ‘Howdy.’ ‘Howdy,’ answered the boy in a shy, almost a sullen way, and kept on with the hoe. But the little girl, an elf with black tangled lashes shading eyes of Irish blue, waved her flaxen curls and jangled her bell in delight.

‘May we get a drink of water?’ I asked the boy.

‘Yes’m,’ he answered, with what I could see was perfunctory civility. ‘You-all enter an’ take cheers. I jist brung fraish water frum ther spring.’

We followed him into the cabin, and he stopped to remove the bell from the little girl.

‘Are you playing you are a moo cow?’ I asked, inanely, for I know that a mountain child does not play an imaginative game — in fact, seldom plays at all.

‘Violy May,’ said the boy, ‘runs round an’ gits lost, an’ I hain’t time ter hunt her. I hangs ther bell on her so’s I’ll know whar she air.’

‘Are you all alone?’ asked Peter. ‘Where are your father and mother?’

‘Mammy air daid. Pappy works in ther coal mines Beyant. He kims back nights.’

‘Lookit!’ cried Violy May, running to the window. ‘My Pappy rides down thar — plumb down ther mounting on ther mule! But my Pappy don’t kim home no more.’ And she began to cry.

‘Course he kims home!’ cried the boy, frowning. ‘Hit er gwine ter rain. Ye kim out ’ith me an’ holp bring in ther firewood.’ Violy A May hung her head and followed him where we could see him chopping wood with an axe almost as heavy as he, and quite as high. Peter went out and took the axe. And presently I saw them in earnest conversation as man to man.

I looked about the clean-swept room. A bed, a table, a few pots and pans by the fireplace, clothes hanging on the wall, and, on a shelf in a row, six bottles of what I knew to be moonshine. The boy came in with an armful of wood, followed by Violy May with a single stick which she was compelled to drop as she panted over the doorsill. But she lifted it bravely again and said with a smile that would have melted a heart of stone: ‘Hain’t ye glad ye got so good un? I don’t talk too much!’ The boy gave her an adorable grin and carefully brushed the front of her clean, faded apron.

‘Ye stay in now, Violy May. Hit’ll rain, an’ come on cold. Don’t ye play ’ith ther matches. Ther womern’ll light ther fire.’ And he hurried out to hoe the beans before the shower. After a while Peter came in and paced the floor angrily. But the little figure worked on in the rain. Presently Peter burst out: ’Now what shall we do! That boy — his name is Emmet O’Day, Jeremiah Emmet — is eleven years old next week; and his father has not come home from the mines for three weeks. See those bottles of moonshine?’ he cried fiercely. I meekly replied that I had counted them.

‘Well, Emmet goes down to the still twice a week and gets them — he always has — so they will not guess that his father does not come home. And he showed me a big watermelon that he is saving “’cause Pappy sho’ likes my watermilons.” And he’s afraid, I can see, that if his father does not come home someone will take him down to the Cove away from that bean patch!’

‘But does n’t he like Shady Cove?’ I asked stupidly.

‘You don’t understand!’ cried Peter, stopping in his walk. ‘It’s the place here! He’ll not leave it! It is the Shady Cove blood in the boy. Why, he’s got half a tree cut down for winter wood. And he has a cabbage patch; and he’s going to chop kraut! Kraut!’ and Peter roared the word as if all tragic fate lay hidden therein. Then, with an apologetic smile, ‘I suppose you ’ll have to tell him he must go down to Shady Cove.’

‘Why me?’ I asked. ‘It is enough that I’ll have to leave Shady Cove with a lump in my throat about these waifs. Why me?’

Peter laughed. ‘Of course you’ve found the rub! You see, I promised, man to man, that I would n’t tell,’ he said weakly. ‘But I said afterward that I could n’t promise for you.’

‘Well, then, the boy knows I’ll tell. So why speak to him?’

‘On the contrary. He said, “Thet air all right. A womern jist follers her man."'

‘Indeed! Anyway, I’ll interview Shady Cove first. Someone may know about the father.'

As we left, Emmet said shyly: ‘Would you-all lak a peach frum the tree by ther spring? I air aimin’ ter can some. But I got ter git some sugar. I ’low Pappy ’ll bring hit.’

‘We are coming back to-morrow, Emmet,’ I said, ‘and I will bring some sugar.’

Peter gave me a look of grateful surprise.

‘Why, of course,’ I cried, ‘we cannot go to Beyant and leave things in this state.’

‘Certainly not,’ sighed Peter.

When we had told the story to the storekeeper, Peter asked: ‘ Do you suppose the father is killed in the coal mines? Or has he just deserted these children?’

‘Wal, I ’low Denis O’Day air too onnery ter git kilt. Lak ’nuff he air gone off on a spree an’ fergot he air got iny chillern. He air er furriner thet kim frum Outside. But his womern war a Witherspoon, born an’ raised in ther Cove. She air daid; an’ her sister married a Outside man an’ moved away.’

‘What shall we do now?’ snapped Peter.

‘Why, I’ll jist lock up an’ go up thar an’ git ’em. All the folks ’ithout chillern hyar’ll want ’em. They air Witherspoons.’ And he went to lock the door of the little cage that is the post office. ‘Hold on!’ he cried. ‘Thar air er letter thet’s ben hyar better’n two weeks. Hit air backed ter Jeremiah Emmet O’Day.’

‘Oh, let me have it!’ I said. ’I’ll read it. The child probably cannot read.’

‘ All right,’ grinned the postmaster of Shady Cove, and I read aloud: —

’Yore Pappy hes married a widder womern at er coal mine thet keeps a boardin house. He hes giv in thet ye an Violy kin live ith me now. Ther widder hes a passel o childern an don want ye. As soon as iver yer uncle kin git started we air comin fur ye in ther car. We haint got no childern but ye an Violy’ll be compny fur us.

‘Hurrah!’ cried Peter. ‘Lawsy!’ cried the storekeeper. ‘Thet’s Sarey Witherspoon. An’ a pow’ful good womern. They ort ter be hyar by now.’ And he pushed back his hat and slumped contentedly on a nail keg. ‘Wal, thet air settled.’

‘Settled for everyone but me,’ said Peter gloomily. ’I’ll have to break the news to that boy; and it will kill him.’

‘Whut fur kill him? Hit air his own aunt, hain’t it?’

‘Yes, but the boy is a Witherspoon. Why, he loves that bean patch like a mother. And he’s cutting winter wood; and he’s going to can peaches for his father; and he’s going to chop kraut. Kraut!’

‘Uh-huh. Wal, mebby we best keep him hyar in ther Cove.’

‘No, we’ll have to face it.”


But I do not like to recall the boy’s still white face when I read a translation — a very free translation — of the letter to him. He did not cry. But presently he went outside and I saw his thin little arms about the tree he had been chopping and his face against the bark. After a while he came back and in a voice of strained cheerfulness said, ‘ I ’low I hed er purty good chancet o’ beans — an’ I war goin’ ter chop kraut.’

‘But, Emmet,’ I choked out, ‘your uncle and aunt will be so proud that you know so well how to help them!'

The boy made no answer; and Peter laid a hand on the little thin shoulder: ‘Buck up, old man! Tough luck. But it comes to every man. You’ll be coming back here grown-up soon.’ And the boy’s eyes lightened for an instant.

We left them at the cabin. The boy’s last night was his own. And next morning a comfortable-looking woman and a man — God be praised! — with a humorous twinkle in his eye came in on the stage, having left the car Outside. We showed them at once to the cabin, the pitifully few clothes were collected, and we started down the mountain, Peter leading the old white cow, which the storekeeper was to buy. Violy rode happily on her uncle’s shoulder, but the boy walked with his eyes on the ground. Suddenly he ran back and returned with a gray cat. ‘He’d starve up thar,’ he said.

‘Want ter take him erlong in ther car?’ asked his aunt, kindly.

‘No’m; I ’low he’s used ter hyar.’

At the store where the stage waited on its way Outside, the storekeeper came with a knife for Emmet and a box of peppermint sticks for Violy May. And all Shady Cove gathered about with so many gifts of pies and cookies and fried chicken that there seemed scarcely room for the driver and the four Witherspoons.

As the horses started with a mighty pull up the road to Outside, Peter sighed, ‘Well, that’s over!’

‘Yes, over for us,’ I answered. For I had watched a little twitching face turn south toward the mountain where a hoe lay idle in the bean patch, and the biggest watermelon saved so long would waste its sweetness in the summer sun.

‘He’s only eleven,’ said Peter comfortingly. ‘Children forget.’

But do they? I know a woman who to this day dares not recall the mystery of a darkened room and a child’s aching, inarticulate resentment at the kindly intrusion of friends.

The last sing with Shady Cove under the rainbows. The last camp fire under the stars. And at sunrise we are climbing the rocky road to Beyant — Sisyphus wheeling at every opportunity to run back to Shady Cove of indolent, happy memory; John pulling cheerfully; and we pushing in double harness, stopping often for one more glance at the green valley we shall never see again.