The Abandoned Orchard
BY ELEANOR RISLEY
HUMBLY, but confidently, I assert that I am the woman who worked out the original curse on apples. Why Fate selected one so incompetent must remain a matter of pure conjecture. It is true that Eugene was forever painting Eves and Aphrodites, and that I did encourage him; though in my secret heart I felt that under such circumstances Adam might have been adamant, and Paris might have kept out of trouble. But I was only an accessory after the fact. It was not I who depreciated prize apples.
Previously inured to idleness and frivolity, suddenly I found myself a sorrow-dazed, impoverished, but importunate widow, who at once flung herself desperately into many fields of human endeavor. But always I knew that hidden in the wilds of a MidWestern state a thoroughly abandoned young orchard of more than one hundred acres beckoned me with unsprayed arms, as yet empty of apples.
Resolutely I turned my face away. I had never lived in the country, and I was not drawn to apples. They have ever been, to me, a kind of spherical sweet potato, vastly inferior to that vegetable.
Besides the orchard, I possessed one hundred and sixty acres of rocks and rills and scrub oaks that bounded the orchard on the south, the remainder of the circuit being manned at every point by inimical farmers. That the farmers were inimical I knew from the story my father-in-law, who willed me this orchard, delighted to tell — of how when he had gone from the city to plant these idle fields in apple trees there had occurred a strike for higher wages among the planters and ploughed, and how one of the farmers had mounted a barrel and, addressing the other farmers, had said, ‘No damned capitalist from the city can come down here and run this country.’
Unable to sell the abandoned orchard, I vibrated irregularly between teaching music and playing for the moving pictures, swinging from welfare work to searching out references for an alienist who was writing a book about epileptics. Small wages for this last, but pleasant work, and the invaluable discovery that without epileptics progress would have ceased long ago. How I hoped the epileptics knew it too! The alienist seemed to doubt it. Once I demonstrated at a pure-food show, and once for weeks I walked about smirking above the collars of evening coats in the French department of a great store.
Copyright 1930, by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Gradually I became aware that I was not a cog fashioned to fit into the industrial machine. I proved expansively amiable in the wrong place, and overscrupulous at the wrong time. (The alienist said I had ‘personality plus’; and I was no epileptic to win my way by sheer genius.) Though I gritted my teeth, worked faithfully, and never complained, jobs seemed to slip from under my tired feet; and often I felt sure that duller and less willing workers filled my place. Psychiatrists were beyond me.
If only one were wise enough to diagnose the state of a camel’s spine before the last straw brings the beast down! For example, who would have dreamed that my roommate’s ship of the commercial desert would collapse on Christmas Day, when we meant to be so happy?
For weeks we had skimped on our lunches, and walked the long way home from work, putting the money we saved into a little cloisonné jar on the dressing table. (How long ago it seemed since I had won it at bridge!) For we meant to see the greatest actor in the world on Christmas afternoon, and from respectable seats. What bliss! I remember how we made ourselves fine, careless of the falling snow — Bess in my furs, and I in her best black skirt, my own being frayed. How in airy pride we boarded a car from the Y. W. C. A. where we lived, and then found that the tickets had been mistakenly sold to us for the performance of the previous evening and the management would not accept them! How we trudged home through the snowy streets gay with holiday folk, and there in our lonely room at half-past three on Christmas Day Bess’s camel died quietly of spinal complaint.
She made no effort to revive the unfortunate beast, but sat on the bed in my wet furs and pensively swung her little muddy feet. Presently, over the hall telephone, I heard her call a name I knew. As she packed her few belongings she said cheerfully: ‘I’m leaving you my best stockings and my black skirt. I guess I ’ll never see you again. I kind of hate to leave you alone; but it’s a nice apartment out by the park, and something to send home to mother and the kids. This matinée business finished me.’ And when a car honked below: ‘There’s my car. Say, can’t you visit somewhere long enough to get married? You’ll never have a chance to meet a man you’d look at twice here. Good-bye. And don’t you worry about me. No more perfect days like this for little Bess.’ And I was left alone in the darkening room, with the Christmas snowdrift on the window ledge.
There may seem small connection between collapsed camels and abandoned young orchards. But straws show which way the wind blows; and the ultimate straw alighted on my own camel one rainy evening in the following August when I presented a letter of introduction to a well-known philanthropist. The letter was written by an old teacher of mine. How laudatory it was! And alas, how provenly undeserved! I had not presented it before because of a feeling of unworthiness. I never could live up to that letter. But I had accidentally bruised my right hand, and that meant no more playing for the pictures for a while. So I examined the soles of my shoes attentively, recklessly put on my best hat, borrowed an umbrella, and set out to walk to the stately home of the philanthropist. I had waited until dark, trusting to find the man at home. Ignorant of philanthropists, I guessed that their habits were not nocturnal.
The great man met me in the hall, and hurriedly scanned the letter from his lifelong friend.
‘What have you been doing?’ he snapped. ‘And where are you living?’
I meekly replied that I lived at a branch of the Y. W. C. A. on a certain street.
‘There is no legitimate branch in the city. The place has no right to the name. What have you been doing?’
Somehow this interview with my dear old teacher’s friend did not open well. With a quaking heart I answered, ‘Playing for the moving pictures.’
Alas, my prophetic soul! The philanthropist cried: ‘Moving pictures! We mean to censor them or suppress them altogether. If you have been hanging around picture shows, I can do nothing for you.’ And in the gentlest voice he called to a vision of young loveliness hesitant on the broad stairway, ‘Helen, dear, come on down to dinner now.’
Meet punishment for interviewing a man — even a philanthropist — before his dinner. And I a widow who should have known better!
I trudged home through the chill rain, careless of puddles and passing motors. And somewhere along the way my camel sank under the last straw without a struggle. I was dully aware of his demise.
Too sick at heart for dinner, I sat at the window of the third-story room, clasping two unopened letters in listless hands. I had left them unread as I started so hopefully to the house of the philanthropist. I had small interest in letters. With all my soul I longed to throw myself across the bed and howl. Instead, I listened dully to my three roommates anathematizing someone who defended a locked bathroom across the hall, and drearily watched them make up their tired faces. Below me, in the rain, bent pedestrians hurried past, street cars clanged, and motor cars glided by like sleek black beetles.
Suddenly I knew that of all this world could offer me I most desired solitude. Oh, to be alone, if even for one hour! And it came to me that solitude is a luxury ever denied the poor in a city. A city — built on drudgery. What interest had Bess in the letters she copied? What creative interest could I ever find in work here? Weary labor for a few hours’ leisure which I, at least, must ever be too exhausted and too misplaced to enjoy.
Thus, after not quite two years of original research, and no reliable data whatever, I judged the foundations of civilization and pronounced sentence. And even before I read my letters I had decided to go to the orchard and leave the city to its doom. Determinedly I arose and read the letters. One enclosed a check — the last payment on my piano, which I had long since despaired of receiving. The other was from the farmer near the orchard who acted as agent. He wrote that there was a small crop, but as the apples were unsprayed he could not sell to a buyer. What should he do?
The next morning I paid my bills and bowed coldly to the inevitable — oh, we knew each other well, the inevitable and I. Then after days of dreary travel I alighted at a little village near the orchard.
No doubt in these two years I should have prepared myself for expert work at the orchard or elsewhere. But I had been unable to pause. For the poor, to ‘cultivate the pause’ is often to end the symphony. Even considering my mental state at this time, it may seem preposterous that any penniless woman still at large should undertake the management and operation of a commercial orchard. But such an undertaking was far from my mind. My idea was to lie in the summer sun under an orchard tree until I was perchance bitten by a snake, or until I passed on of malnutrition from eating nothing but apples. But I should die alone — alone!
At the village I glanced in distaste at the white cottages perched along the desolate railway, and entered a little eating house to get a cup of coffee. There I heard men speak of a sale in progress. I followed them down a lane, and with my remaining money I bought a horse, a cart, and a harness, a dressing table, and three milk cans. I had abjured the vanities of this world for all time and did not desire the dressing table; I had always been afraid of cows and certainly never contemplated using the milk cans. But the auctioneer insisted that I nodded my head when he looked at me, — no doubt it was shaking with apprehension, — so I loaded the cart and drove away in the general direction of the orchard. The entire village must have gazed after me in petrified astonishment; but the knowledge of rural communities and their terrifying interest and amazed scorn for a stranger came later.
The horse was a lady. Her name was Bird. She was very little, and very brown, and very old. I fear we were an ill-matched pair, for I was neither very little, nor yet very brown, nor very old. We ambled along flat country lanes in the lazy summer afternoon. The fence posts wore jaunty bonnets of ivy already showing here and there a scarlet leaf in the glistening green. Beyond them were painted fields of golden Spanish needles, and at intervals dreary unpainted houses. But late purple asters stared from the roadside, and tall sunflowers nodded a kindly greeting.
I found that Bird went very fast as long as she could, and then determinedly walked. Her owner had told me she would not bear a whip. Why, I should as soon have thought of whipping a dear old lady! For years Bird was to be my best friend, and sometimes my only one. Sometimes I was hungry that she might dine; and she rewarded me with such friendship as one does not always expect from humankind.
When, almost at sunset, we came to a rocky, wider road. I saw a dense forest which looked to me like a bear preserve. We turned north, and there was the orchard. A truly terrifying sight to an orchardist, it might have delighted the eye of a painter. Long vistas of wide-branching, unpruned trees, drawing ever closer and closer until they met toward the setting sun. Tall waving broom sedge of faintest rosy yellow, from a distance as soft to the eye as the down on a bird’s breast. (I soon learned that the enchanting broom sedge was a farmer’s pest, and that the neighbors were wont to say by way of comparison, ‘As thick as the sage grass in the widder’s orchard.’) Above this billowing sea of sunlit gold the scarlet apples glinted in the sun’s low light.
A pathless, beautiful wilderness, my abandoned orchard scarred the landscape with a horticultural crime. But, I reflected, I was not to blame for this orchard. I did not create and forsake it. It was wished on me. The sins of the father-in-law in the form of more than five thousand apple trees were visited upon me.
But then and there I must have accepted the burden of sin, for suddenly I decided to strike one blow for my orchard before I sought euthanasia under a tree. After all, to die properly I must die on a hazy afternoon when for the last time the bee hums drowsily in my ears and the blue of the autumn sky glimmers slowly away.
Perhaps my kind of courage was but petrified fear, for when my spirit began to thaw a little with pity for my own orchard I looked about fearfully at the evening shadows and we drove on at a great pace.
At the next house I saw a woman in the yard gathering eggs and putting them in a huge basket. She came to the gate to greet me — a sweet-faced, soft-voiced German woman of middle age.
When I told her that I had come to take over the orchard, and asked her if she would keep me awhile, she seemed to hesitate, but agreed that I might stay the night. At supper the young son said, ‘Folks around here say that yore agent has made enough money already offen yore place to start a store. I ’low he won’t be any too glad you’ve come.’ Judging from my own experience, I think this must have been pure rural jealousy, for with my undivided attention it was long before I could have started a grocery store with the proceeds of the orchard.
At last I climbed into a towering feather bed and slept, until the chickens awoke me.
As I lay at sunrise reading my pocket edition of Epictetus to fortify my spirit against the terrors of the day, the German woman looked in and said, ‘ May I comb my hairs by your lookingglass?’
And as she brushed her ‘hairs’ — endearing expression! — into a shiny knob at the back of her neck she asked, ‘You like to read?’
‘Yes, very much. Do you?’
The tears came into her great gray eyes. ‘So much. But my husband and my children think I waste my time to read. They are not pleased. I must work always. We have no papers or books.’
Had I any books for the woman in my trunk at the station of the little city nine miles to the north? I had bought my ticket to Clintonville, — though that is not the name, — but had stopped at the hamlet nearer the orchard. There were but three books in the trunk. The New Testament. The woman had that, of course. An anthology of modern poetry. Not that. Amiel’s Journal. Impossible. Well, they would not permit the poor woman to read, anyway.
‘I wish I could stay with you awhile,’ I said.
She looked away. ‘ The agent — he might not like it. He has a vacant house by the orchard. He might let you live there. You ask him.’
At breakfast the woman’s crippled husband told me that he and his son were driving to Clintonville and would fetch my trunk. I followed him to the barn, shadowy and sweet with newmown hay, and there learned to harness Bird. The man sneezed; and when I gave the usual salutation in German he looked down and said slowly, ‘Ach, it is so long — so long time — since the politeness.’
When he looked up I fancied there were tears in his eyes. The daughter, who had remained sullen, watched me drive away with relief and amusement in her beady black eyes. The old culture of kindness and civility had died in an arid atmosphere of fear and poverty.
But her mother said: ‘When we moved here we lived twelve years before the neighbors came to see us. They said we were Dutch. We paid off the mortgage, though — with chickens; long time we lived on corn bread and sorghum. They come now. But maybe they do not like us well. Maybe it will be hard for you — the first years, maybe.’
Solitude! I had found the right place. And I came to know that the coldness of a city can never equal the cruelty of a rural community, where every man is desperately afraid of his neighbor’s opinion and shrinks in unfeigned horror from anything foreign to his customs and experience. Of course, not conscious cruelty, but, like all cruelty, a lack of imagination. But at the time such philosophy was beyond me, and I spent weary years in acquiring comfort therein.
The agent I found to be a keen-eyed, lank, likable farmer. He gazed at me quizzically when I told him I had come to take over the orchard, and suggested that instead I take the neighborhood school and ‘board round.’ When I gently refused, he agreed to let me move into his partly furnished house opposite the orchard, and declined any rent. Then he abandoned me to my fate, and I scarcely saw him for years.
Bird and I drove away, almost happily, to view our domain. The house was a faded white story-and-ahalf building, very old. There was a wide hall, with a room on either side, one having a fireplace, and two attic rooms above. There were several broken beds, a chair, a table, some pots and pans, and even a few dishes on a shelf. The floors were beautiful. They were, I afterward found, of pecan. And the passing feet of half a century had lent them a wonderful patina. I longed for a broom and a mop. But the house must wait. I thirsted to set my feet in the orchard. Tying Bird to a roadside tree, I crept through the barbed-wire fence and swam through broom sedge as high as my head. Deep in the grass lay what seemed to me thousands of bushels of apples. A virgin crop, they gleamed scarlet and gold in the morning sun.
The agent had said: ‘This hain’t no fruit country. Everybody’s home orchard has died on ’em. Yourn is the only big orchard in this county. But you can’t sell a apple. They ships apples in. You see, yore apples ain’t sprayed, and the buyers won’t look at ’em.’
Very awkwardly I backed Bird against the fence and loaded the cart with fallen apples. Then we set out for the nearest village, four and onehalf miles away. There I sold the apples for eighty cents the bushel, and bought a broom, a package of oatmeal, and some cans of milk. It was borne in upon me that I was to be not exactly popular in this community, and I doubted if a farmer would sell me milk.
At the house I found my huge familiar trunk, containing little but old party finery which I had not been able to wear. I had carried nothing with me but my violin and a hand bag. There was a good well at the door, so I swept and scrubbed, and attacked what seemed to me hundreds of spiders. They ran about in that sickening way, stopping suddenly so very still, as if with their little eyes they were contemptuously deciding where to bite. At last my pecan floors glistened, and I opened my trunk. Firmly throttling memories, I made curtains of fullskirted pink organdies and bedcovers of purple velvet gowns. The little cloisonné jar of tragic memory and my three books decorated the mantel.
The moon arose and took possession of my shining room. I ate my porridge by its light, for I had forgotten candles; then I lay upon my royal couch and invoked the spirit of solitude.
The spirit did not come. Instead, I procured a stick and pounded all night at intervals, to frighten away the rats. Such huge rats! They scampered about and ran away with my shoes, and I never found the left one again. There was perhaps half a bushel of party slippers in the trunk, and I wore them all the autumn. Later, when the frost came and the little barefooted boys picked up fallen apples in the orchard, I shared with them, and it was a piteous but amusing sight to see high-heeled pink satin slippers peeping coyly from beneath ragged little overalls.
Ah, it was a poor country, and we were poor people.
The next day I drove to the village, carrying enough apples to purchase either a cat or a pistol. I preferred the cat, for I was at that time too desperate to fear anything but rats. No one would sell me a cat, so I bought a secondhand pistol. And though I had to lean against a tree and pull the trigger with both hands, after faithful practice in the depth of the orchard I once shot a rat, and always frightened the other rats away for a while.
It rained — a cold autumn drizzle. The old house leaked, and I moved my bed. Bird shivered under a tree, for there was no barn. One night, in desperation, I lighted a candle in the hall and escorted her through to the dining room. After that when it rained or was cold she lived there and took her meals from the mantel. The meals, I fear, consisted largely of apples.
I knew of no way to determine when the apples should be ‘pulled.’ But I needed money, and surely they should be ripe. So I looked about for someone to help me gather them. There were neighbors who I knew needed work, but each and every one refused to work for me. Perhaps they doubted if I could pay them. The women would have none of me. That hurt; and by that hurt I knew that I was alive.
Looking back, I see what an appalling object I must have been to these practical farmers and their sedate wives. These women, after the added labor of preparation had rubbed all the gilt from the gingerbread, made, perhaps, a long-coveted journey to village or city once in six months, — for there were few motor cars then among these poor people, — while almost every day they watched me, in what to them was city finery, singing or whistling blithely along the lanes with Bird. Then, too, I lived alone, and the sound of my fiddle in tuneless wails could be heard by any passer-by at any hour of the night or day. The wonder is that I was not mobbed. Though it was like lead on my heart that even the children were forbidden to come to my house, how could they know that I was bewildered and hurt? For life at this time had me beaten, and I whistled through the wood to keep up my courage.
One morning as I sat communing with Epictetus, and had almost attained sufficient stoicism to watch, smilingly, my apples rotting on the trees, a man appeared and asked for work. The Ancient Mariner himself would have seemed short, and plump, and blond beside him. He wore huge spectacles over the palest eyes I had ever seen. Above them grew a black stubble where every hair seemed sentiently stubborn. Delighted at finding someone who really desired to work for me, I engaged him at once, and no questions asked. He immediately set out to find a boarding place. At sunset he returned in a state bordering on exhaustion. He reported that all refused to board him except a widow five miles to the west, who demanded two weeks’ board in advance. Quite simply he added, ‘You see, I have no money.’ In the same way I replied that neither had I, but I had hopes.
I had. For I had driven to Clintonville and had there arranged for a small mortgage on my land — expecting, of course, to drive home with the money in my pocket. But not so. There seemed absurd delays. Later I found that I might have borrowed enough money to operate the orchard in a kind of way. But to me a mortgage spelled ruin. Too often on the stage or the screen I had seen a mortgage eject worthy old people from an ancestral home, or drive the star to the brink of suicide by the insistence of the villain. So I only asked for enough to build me a little dwelling at the orchard. And a very pleasant carpenter near by, who was a bachelor and could in a measure defy public opinion, agreed to build it for me, and have it finished by the next February! I placed the money in the bank and dared not touch it, trusting that the apples would pay any workers I might employ.
Stevens (so he told me his name was) did not seem at all alarmed about wages, and, since he was obviously worn out, I told him to take a bed in the attic and gave him a blue opera coat for a blanket.
The next morning I suggested that he catch a ride in a passing wagon to Clintonville and in some way compel half-a-dozen apple pickers to return with him. Late in the afternoon he drove in with two boys and four men in a wagon drawn by mules. The men went into camp on the beautiful little river that ran through my wood. They said they had camped there before. The two boys I kept in the attic with Stevens, but they took their meals in camp.
Stevens was rather apologetic about the crew. He said he almost despaired of finding anyone, and that three of these men were ‘just off the rock pile.’ The man who owned the team was a relative of one of the others, and the two boys were his sons. Indeed, they were tattered and torn and leery-eyed; but, I reflected unwisely, what had beauty of bearing or of character to do with picking apples?
Overjoyed at finding a willing worker, I had neglected to ask Stevens his qualifications, and soon discovered that, while I was never able to plumb his know ledge of geology or astronomy, — he was a practising poet also, — his knowledge of apples seemed as limited as my own. But the men liked him, and when he could withdraw his mind from the beauties of nature and the wonders of science he worked well. It became my duty to grapple him to reality and to throw out the ‘sacred anchor’ in time of a poetic storm. Later on he told me that he had come to the orchard to eat apples, having read that xerophagy and apples would rid one of a taste for intoxicants. I replied that there were plenty of apples. He answered that after the first meal with me he felt secure about the xerophagy, but that his eyes were weak and continual gazing on the broom sedge might bring on xanthocyanopia.
Perhaps it was the xerophagy that kept him so absent-minded. One morning, for example, when in the cold gray dawn I had prepared breakfast on the fireplace, I gave him the tray to take to the little table with its long white silk cloth in the hall, while I searched about for the other spoon. Returning, I found him at the east door facing the sunrise; but where was the breakfast? I reminded him that the breakfast had disappeared and that the men were wailing in the orchard. At last I prepared a second breakfast, and as Stevens penitently seated himself, his eyes still fixed on the red dawn, he stretched one of his preternaturally long legs under the table and, peering down with his myopic eyes, said quietly, in his slow drawl: ‘Why, that appears to be the previous breakfast. Odd, is n’t it, that I should have placed it under the table?’
Apple orcharding is a happy industry — at least, in the way we managed it. The hazy Indian-summer air, the lithe figures of the men swinging through the trees, — we had no ladders and picked in any convenient receptacle, — the joy of following the pickers with vine-wreathed hair and dispensing water from the cart. ‘Sunburnt mirth . . . with beaded bubbles winking at the brim’ of the tin cup.
I fancy derisive neighbors shared our mirth. For this was our method. We picked until noon, piling the apples in a great heap, usually selecting the spot for the beauty of the view. In the afternoon we sat in a circle and with much discussion and exchange of advice we piled the good apples at one side and the faulty ones at the other. Stevens used always to say, ‘Now, boys, “for heaven’s sake let us sit upon the ground, and tell sad stories of the death of kings.”’ And he beguiled the serene hours with tales from Shakespeare or the Idylls of the King. One of the men from ‘the rock pile5 — I never knew his crime — had been an evangelist for some obscure religious sect. He had a plaintive ‘whispering barytone,’and when he led off in ‘Rock of Ages,’ and we all joined in, it was very lovely in the lonely orchard where the silken broom sedge whispered with us and the patient, reverent trees listened. There usually ensued a cessation of labor. Then, when the sky was gray and windswept, or the thunder muttered, we covered the apple piles deep with broom sedge and went to fish in Pleasant Run in my wood.
Gradually it dawned upon me that these uncouth, taciturn, lawbreaking men were my fellow creatures, each with his own ambitions, dreams, and heartaches. And I should like to trumpet it abroad that in all the years alone at my orchard — and I must have employed in those years hundreds of men like these — I never once overheard a profane or an indelicate word. True, in after years my checks were sometimes raised, and my apples were sometimes stolen. But the very men who stole from me would, if I were ill, tramp miles after a day’s work to procure me some dainty, or would hunt until dark for a young squirrel for my broth.
It may be that in the city I had set my standard too high and was like to perish of the cold. Here, close to the forgiving earth, the flowers bloomed among the rank weeds of human nature. To this hour my mind goes back to those first absurd halcyon days with delight . Afterward I became ‘ a damned capitalist’ in a small way, and then no more of serene companionship under the arching trees.
In all too short a time the trail of the serpent could be plainly discerned. The men needed their wages and the mortgage money had not come. Nor had I sold enough apples to pay them. With a silent prayer I sent the exevangelist and his son to a mining camp twenty miles away, their wagon loaded with my best apples, which they were to peddle. Two days, and they had not returned. I drove Bird to Clintonville, moved more by a desire for action than by a reasonable hope of finding the evangelist. At dusk, quite by accident, I met the man. He was a little drunk, but he had not spent the apple money, and we all drove happily home.
I paid the men, and spent the remaining money for barrels. All the apples I had ever seen were in barrels or boxes. I felt that my apples were not perhaps worthy of boxes; and I had not the faintest idea of how to dispose even of barrels. Still, I meant to do the proper thing as an orchardist. In Clintonville, at a commission house, I bought barrels and looked about for a barreler. None was to be found; so I informed Stevens that he was destined to become a barreler. Stevens demurred. He pleaded piteously, ‘Why, lady, I can’t barrel. It takes a thing like a machine.’ I drove again to the commission house and acquired a theoretical knowledge of barreling, and bought a wabbly old secondhand lever press; and after much secret practice by the light of the harvest moon in the depths of the orchard I introduced Stevens to the amused and hostile neighbors, who looked on from afar, as an expert barreler. Even then Stevens almost failed me. But I fixed a stern and hypnotic eye upon him, and when that barrel head went down into the chine it was a breathless but triumphant moment for us both. Poor Stevens, with his exasperating lopsided lever press, swore softly, and no doubt classically, under his breath, all the autumn.
There were too many apples for the local market, and not enough for a carload. That is, of the barreled ones. We sold the seconds rather well at the mines and to peddlers. Reluctantly I dismissed my friends the pickers, and hired from the city two wagons and teams. We hauled the barreled apples to Clintonville and stored them in a vacant building near the railway. We did not take the precaution of icing them. I had never seen ice about barrels in a grocery. One day Stevens reported that the apples were rotting. We drove every day to Clintonville and repacked. We dripped cider, we breathed cider, we reeked of cider. But we sold the discarded apples at a good price, and repacked the good ones. It grew cold. We drove with Bird the long nine miles home at night, often in the rain. Expecting to leave the orchard before cold weather, we had no fuel provided. Sometimes, arriving home at midnight, half frozen, we gathered weeds to start the fire in the fireplace. A blessed weed the natives called ‘Jerusalem weed’ would blaze instantly, and I have always had a warm spot in my heart for the Zionists since.
About this time it was that Stevens took to drink — and I envied him the privilege. He went to a small hotel near the stored apples and began writing poems. His landlady told me that he terrorized the house with a pistol because the noise disturbed his writing. One day, quite chastened, he reappeared. I told him to cheer up — the apples were repacked, and I meant to go forth and sell the barrels or perish. He could ship them at my order.
I took a pretty little basket of samples, and in an adjacent state where apples did not flourish I sold them all, one hundred and twenty-three barrels, at five and even seven dollars the barrel. I have never been able to get such a good price since. It was on this trip that I began to establish a reputation among the farmers for being able to ‘sell a book to a blind man.’ I dug into the mysteries of salesmanship unaided. The principles involved were startling. Once, in a city where apples much inferior to mine were selling at a good price, I could not sell a barrel. Discouraged, I spent some hours with Epictetus at a hotel, went forth and raised the price two dollars the barrel — and sold well.
At this time I could with difficulty distinguish one variety of apple from another. A canny grocer asked the difference between two of my samples. ‘Oh,’ I answered easily, ‘the same variety. One just remained longer on the tree and colored.’
‘You have a remarkable orchard,’ he observed dryly, ‘where a York Imperial can change to a Gano by remaining on the tree.’ But he bought in high good humor. My delighted giggle sold them, perhaps.
Stevens left in December. He said that under ordinary circumstances he believed the cure would have worked, but from now on the apples of Hesperides were Dead Sea apples to him. He was faithful to the end, however, and as we drove to the village on the last wagon of culls he inscribed a poem ‘To the Western Sky from the Orchard,’
I went for repairs to a friend in another state, to remain until February, when I meant to return to my own dwelling and prune five thousand trees — or thereabout.
The old house with the shining floors looked at me reproachfully as I closed the door forever; and I wept on Bird’s brown shoulder as I said good-bye at the livery barn in Clintonville where I left her. But I whispered to her that there were no more mantels for her, but a nice manger in a new little barn in only six weeks.
As I cast a last look at my patient trees I was still honest enough to grin. For, seeking solitude and fleeing from injustice, I had made a little money on the drudgery of others. As for solitude, I had, instead, touched the electric cord that binds so close those who work together in manual labor — a primitive tie as strong as that which binds those who break bread together in the desert.
Alas, too, I had tasted a tiny sip of the heady draught of power. And even had I foreseen the hardships and absurd adventures awaiting me, I think I should have returned to my abandoned orchard.
(To be continued)