The Serpent in the Orchard
HANS, who had accompanied the car of apples, met me at the railway station. His rough brown cap with ‘storm doors ’ fastened above, to be lowered in cold weather, was drawn down over his peering blue eyes. From this I argued that Hans was in a low state of mind. Not that his cap was ever jauntily over one ear, as a lighter nature in a holiday mood might have worn it. But I had learned that when the cap was close behind his ears it signaled that the market for apples was unsteady, and that there was little inclination to deal. Pushed back on his round yellow head the brown cap announced that the market was firm. When, as to-day, the visor was just above his eyes, it portended creeping paralysis of the will for Hans, and consequent initiative and referendum for me. A somewhat vivid imagination supplied initiative, but referring any unexpected plan to Hans called for courage and patience.
Now, in spite of storm signals, Hans fulfilled his customary obligations to me and to the weather. ‘Howdy. It is yet clear but cloudy, and the rain might hold off till night yet.’
We paid the agent a quite ruinous freight bill, and Hans guided me across the labyrinth of tracks to the box car that housed our hopes. The car was well placed, and in spite of signs and portents my spirits soared. For in the frequent switchings we had undergone with the previous car I had learned the value of an accessible location.
‘Fine!’ I exclaimed.
But Hans choked out: ‘There is three cars of apples on track here. This town ain’t more’n ’bout fifteen thousand. They are all on demurrage. Be’n here more’n a week, and can’t sell.’
So that was it. And here was a maximum carload of our best hand-picked apples, and an appalling freight bill just paid!
‘What kind of apples are they?’ I quavered.
‘I don’t know. I did n’t want to see ’em. We better move on right away now.’
‘But, Hans, the freight bill! Let’s visit the cars and look at their old apples.’
We found that two of the unfortunate cars held Ben Davises, not at all a popular variety — and they were seconds at that. The other car was of apples unknown to me, but by their dull color I was certain they were ‘drops.’
‘Who’s afraid? Do push back your cap, Hans. We’ll sell. A dollar and a half the bushel. Don’t lower the price one cent. Have the agent unseal the car. Cheer up — you ’ll sell. I’m going to breakfast now.’
‘Hold on yet!’ cried Hans desperately. ‘You stay a minute and start selling. I’ll never make it. Whenever you light out to do anything impossible, it’s always me has to do it. That price is twicet as much as the other cars are asking.’
‘And our apples are twice as good. You sell! I’m going to breakfast. I’ll come back at once.’
‘Breakfast? It’s mighty nigh dinner time, ain’t it?’ And Hans blinked mild disapproval. This matter of breakfast always irritated him. Breakfast, after hours of work in the faint dawn, should be a substantial meal, supplemented by all that was left from yesterday’s dinner. A cup of coffee on rising, with fruit later, — raw fruit! — or, worst of all, a radish, was little short of immorality to Hans.
But breakfast this morning was but an excuse for flight. For always the very hardest thing for me to face was the railways, with their freight cars. An irrational horror had ever possessed me as I watched those reluctant segments of a fiery-eyed serpent that writhed and hissed across the land. As if awaiting a blow, I was always expecting a carload of crowded, frightened cattle. Never again would they drink the sweet water in quiet pastures, or lie beneath the willows and watch the wabbly calves with proud, contented eyes. And homesick chickens, wont to croon about the yard or tap timid feet across t he shadowy old barn, now huddled together on their way to a worse fate. And above the shining rails, clinging for life, I knew were often men, desperate, friendless, homeless.
How I had hated these sullen clattering Robots that distributed the necessities and the luxuries of civilization! Now, in all this sordid wretchedness, I had taken my place. I ‘must sell my soul to save my life.’ Now each day before my work I must wrestle with this morbid weakness; though always I comforted myself by reminding my soul of the probable limited consciousness of apples!
After a silent prayer, and a good cup of coffee at a little café, I set out blithely to present my banker’s certificate, for raising such fine unconscious apples, to the mayor of the city.
He was fat, and fishy-eyed, and he asked me many questions which scarcely seemed pertinent. At last he sighed, and swelled, and smiled, and said: ‘Well, I can’t give you a written permit to sell, but I ’ll ask the police to let you alone. The city council has a new law that lets them charge any license they like. But you go on and sell. I guess we’ll leave you alone. Where is your car? I ’ll drive down after a while and see your apples.’
Suddenly the mayor’s face grew cherubic in my eyes. I thanked him warmly and hurried back to the car, where I found Hans with his cap at half mast sacking York Imperials for admiring customers not familiar with our showy apples, which I regret to say I have heard experienced horticulturists call ‘whopper-jawed bluffers.’ For Yorks, though large and highly colored, are always larger on one side, because of an inherent defect in pollinization; and to me they are about as palatable as a raw potato. Though really, with us, fall apples, they keep well, and are supposed to mellow with time. Truth to tell, I have never lived long enough to see one mellow. Still, they are liked as table apples, and except for the Rome Beauty we have no better baking apple.
Hans had held the price; we were selling well, and I looked about for a helper. A tall limber man in a discouraged suit of thin gray clothes — it looked as if it had tried its best to fit him, and had given up in despair — approached me and said: ‘I ain’t engaged in doing much just now, and I thought I might advertise for you. House to house, you know. I know every woman in this town. Fixed up puffs for ’em.’
Puffs? Puffs? I wondered. Cream puffs, now, or newspaper? So I hazarded: ‘Oh, a baker. Cream puffs?’
‘No’m; hair puffs—like they used to wear. I ’ve made puffs and switches for everybody in town at one time or another.’
In spite of Hans’s warning frown I engaged him, for I felt that his former occupation would inspire confidence.
‘ I ’ll hire you a truck cheap to deliver my orders,’ he said, and shambled away determinedly, sending in enough orders for a truckload in an incredibly short time.
Late in the afternoon a man from Minnesota with a carload of potatoes appeared on the track next us. I heard him ask Hans what license we paid, and before I could make Hans understand the wisdom of silence he boasted: —
‘We don’t have to pay no license. We raise these apples ourselves.’
‘Well, then,’ said the potato man, ‘I guess I raise these here spuds, too.’ And he unsealed his car and began to sell. It troubled me; but here came the mayor in a most elegant car, and Hans sacked him five bushels while I smiled my thanks. Hans, who has an exaggerated respect for anyone representing the law, gave him the finest apples, and presently whispered: ‘See that there man with the fine gloves on? His hands is both false. He’s the police judge.’
Gaunt and pale, with great pained eyes and two perfectly gloved hands that seemed to mock his restless arms, the police judge seemed an alien in this crowd of buyers, testing the apples and watching the measures — for in this state we could sell by measure and not by weight.
That night at a pleasant hotel, Hans, who preferred to lodge near the car, sat in my little sitting room and announced that he had ‘a awful gloom, and trouble was a-comin’.’
Hans’s prophetic powers were, I knew, unerring; but, while preparing my mind for the worst, I tried to cheer him by offering to listen to the last number of Hicks’ Word and Works. Hans refused to read. He said that I did n’t have the right consciousness that the world was a ship sailing through space. Then I asked him to watch the sailing moon from the balcony. This was ever my best card in moments of st ress. Presently, from the balcony, he said: ‘I’m a-goin’. The moon looks just like a big yalla York Imperial to-night. I wisht I had a little more physic. I just got enough to trouble me.’
It descended early — the trouble.
The following morning at the car, when every prospect pleased, Hans suddenly sat heavily in an apple bin and hissed, ‘You’re goin’ to be arrested! You’re goin’ to be arrested!’
And there stood the chief of police with a shining star and a haughty mien.
‘Is this your car?’ he asked.
‘Have you paid your license to the city?’
‘No. I raise these apples myself.’
‘That don’t cut any ice in this city. The council sets the license, and this time it is fifty dollars a day.’
‘Have you seen the mayor?’
‘It’s not his business. I’m chief of police. I don’t need to see the mayor.’
‘Well, I do. He has bought apples at my car. He promised to protect me. I have not the slightest intention of paying the city fifty dollars a day.’
‘All right. Then I’ll have to arrest you.’
‘You have a warrant?’
‘ I don’t need a warrant. I’ve caught you in the act.’
Little did I understand city government. It seemed to me that, could I but see the smile on the cherubic face of the mayor, my troubles would vanish. So I said: ‘Will you go with me to the mayor’s office?’
The chief smiled ambiguously, but he said, ‘Yes, I’ll go.’ He politely concealed his radiant star, and we set out at once, followed by amused bystanders.
‘Here’s a lady that says you gave her permission to sell a carload of apples without a license,’ said the chief to the mayor.
‘Me?’ cried the mayor, glancing uneasily at the group of men behind us. ‘Me? That’s the council’s business.’
‘But,’ I cried, ‘you promised to keep the police from interfering with my car! You told me to go on and sell. And you bought apples yourself at the car.’
Someone chuckled behind me, and the poor bedeviled mayor, who no doubt had yielded to an unwarranted impulse of kindness and was now reminded that a mayor should never yield to anything outside his own particular sphere, turned his fishy eyes upon me and said, ‘It must have been someone else you saw, lady. I don’t remember that I ever met you before.’
Again the mayor sighed and swelled, but this time he did not smile. Instead he turned his back, walked to the window, and lighted a cigar.
With a high head and a desperate attempt at dignity I walked past the grinning crowd, accompanied by the chief of police. Outside he said, ‘I hate to see a nice lady like you bothered like this. You see, we wanted to let you off, but that potato man from Minnesota — we could n’t get him without getting you. He swears he raised the spuds himself. I’ll bet he never saw a potato growing in his life. But we got him all right. He gave bond, and his trial is set so far off he’ll never get back to it. So his bond is forfeit. Now I ’ll tell you what you do. Just give me twenty dollars and we’ll call it square, and you can go on and sell out.’
‘Not twenty cents!’ I snapped.
‘Aw, now — ten, then?’
‘Not a postage stamp.’
‘Well, then,’ sighed the chief, ‘I’ll just have to take you to the calaboose.’
‘Without a warrant?’
‘I tell you,’ said the patient chief, ‘I caught you in the act. But here’s what I’ll do. I’ll give you till three o’clock; then if you don’t pay up or shut up I’ll just have to run you in.’
I found poor Hans with a ‘heart spell,’ ran for hot coffee and tablets, and watched until the blue left his lips. Then I sat on an apple bin and tried to think.
In the evening paper I had read a reference to a lawyer known throughout the state for brilliant defense of the poor and friendless, who found themselves unjustly accused or suddenly found out. He lived in this city, and I wish that I might give his name here, for not only did he prove a friend in need, but to this day he looms in my mind as a great and good man. He has gone now, to a world where the poor and the friendless need no defense, but his name is still hallowed in more hearts than mine.
Admonishing Hans to make hay while the sun shone, and warning him that fifty dollars a day loomed, perhaps, before us, I set out to find this lawyer. He was not in his office, and would not return for hours. I hurried back to the car, sold apples, and after two hours talked with the lawyer, using the telephone to tell my troubles, much to his disgust and against his will. He advised me to let myself be arrested and taken at once to the police court. On the way I must telephone him, and he would meet me there.
At any rate the populace was on my side. For at three o’clock, when the chief of police appeared, he pushed his way through a jeering crowd assembled before the car door. The chief invited me to pay a fine for two days. I refused. He said rather pathetically, ‘Lady, you are making a monkey out of me. Why n’t you be reasonable? Come on, then, to the calaboose! You’ll like it there. It’s in the very prettiest part of town. It’s a historic place, where the old fort used to be. I can see it’s just the kind of place you’ll like.’
I did not answer, and carefully tied a sack of apples that Hans had just sold.
Hans, white with apprehension, whispered, ‘Better go with him right now. He’ll put handcuffs on you, then we will be plumb disgraced!’
A hollow-eyed, bearded man, who looked as if he might be a preacher of the gospel, cried: —
‘Make him take you! Make him take you, lady! We’ll swear he took you by force. It’ll give you a stronger case against the city for illegal arrest.’
As I watched the deepening disgust on the countenance of the harassed chief, the advice appealed as an amusing idea. So the exasperated officer of the law dried his beaded forehead with his handkerchief, and, amid the hisses of the crowd, gently and decorously lifted me from the car.
I called to Hans to ask the preacher to help sell — I expected the chief to order the car closed, but he did not — and waved a cheerful good-bye, answered by cheers from the populace.
It was a short if unpleasant walk to the calaboose, and the chief granted me permission to telephone my lawyer. I thanked him by unfeigned admiration of the historic part of town. There was a mellow beauty about the place where once the gallantry of the state assembled, and where, no doubt, the gaunt old trees look down on many a rebel heart, with less secure defense than the old fort.
The police station seemed to be so full of people that I asked the chief softly in surprise if they were all criminals. He replied sourly that he guessed they were — they looked it. Beside me on the bench sat a somewhat disheveled sister in crime. In a social effort I asked her in a low tone if the pale man with the gloved hands was the police judge.
‘You bet he is!’ cried my sister in a loud and contemptuous voice. ‘You bet he’s the judge. You just wait till he swats you with one o’ them plaster o ’ Paris hands o’ hisn!’
A flush suddenly diffused the pallid, suffering face of the judge. I turned away my eyes, and when I looked again his great eyes met mine with a smile.
Suddenly there was a commotion in the room, a hush, and men stood aside as a burly figure with a massive head of iron-gray hair entered, searched the room with his eyes, approached me without hesitation, and invited me to step outside.
We stood under a tree behind the calaboose while he asked me questions and read my certificate, always peering into my very soul with shrewd but kindly eyes. Presently we returned to the courtroom and he demanded immediate trial for me.
At first blush this may seem a trivial occasion, and an opportunity, perhaps, to play politics. But, first and last blush, it was no trivial occasion to me; and as the man’s deep voice filled the room the people ceased to smile, and I grew suddenly ashamed of my own petty troubles. For the counsel for defense used this opportunity to plead for the poor and the unfortunate, and to denounce greed and corruption in high places. As I listened, my own struggle with poverty seemed such a very little thing, in all this welter of woe and injustice. I wanted to go out and sell that I had and give to the poor. Besides, no lady such as my counsel described — a poor and worthy widow who had brought her little all to a sister state and who was trying feebly but courageously to defend it — could fail to live up to such a reputation for gallantry. I all but resolved to go forth and present the car of apples for distribution among the poor of the city.
No one appeared against me. (Afterward I heard that the city attorney drove out of town to avoid appearing.) The police judge, pale and stern, said that this arrest was persecution instead of prosecution, and I was free. My lawyer refused a fee. He said it was pleasure enough to fight injustice. But in the gentlest voice he went on, ‘My child, you have chosen a hard road. Is it necessary?’
‘I chose it,’ I answered, ‘and my orchard is all I have. But “ necessary ” ? “Necessary” is such a hard word to define.’
He laughed with unexpected hilarity and, disavowing all thanks, strode away.
Outside, the world looked somehow different. My horizon had widened. It was not the effect of my disillusionment as to mayors, or of my harrowing experience of arrest and trial. I knew that it was the spell cast by an unusual, a great personality. But who can define the mystery of human personality? It always cheers my bewildered mind and doubting heart that, like Heraclitus’ ‘pleasant voices’ and ‘nightingales awake,’ science ‘he taketh all away, but that he cannot take.’
Lost in thought, it was some minutes before I noticed that the chief of police walked beside me.
‘Say,’ he said, ‘I’m a widower — everybody knows me. How’d you like to go on to a movie?’
I fear the kindly chief instantly regretted his invitation; for at that moment my frayed nerves gave way. I laughed for a whole half block, and wept shamelessly the remaining half. Having expected to enter a new world of higher ideals, instead I called a messenger, sent the good news to Hans, surreptitiously powdered my nose, and went with the chief to two moving pictures. At each of them I arranged for a slide every ten minutes, reading:
STRAIGHT FROM THE PRODUCER TO THE CONSUMER Track 3 Union Station
At dusk I joined Hans at the car, paid the worthy preacher, to whom Hans had become much attached, asked the ‘ puff man ’ to help to-morrow, and we closed the car. Hans was all for ‘running a revenge’ on the city for illegal arrest, and the preacher strongly advised it. Instead, the preacher, Hans, and I celebrated at a supper in a near-by cafe, afterward looking at the moon through a telescope a man had set up on a street corner.
To-morrow would be our last day without demurrage, and half at least of the apples were not sold. Demurrage was, I think, only a dollar a day, but it was a matter of pride and of expediency to get away. One cannot take up a residence in a box car, though Hans ungenerously advised the custodians of the three other apple cars to put in lights and heat for the winter.
The following morning it was pouring rain, and I taxied to the car in rather low spirits. But Hans announced at once that ‘the stars was n’t agin us no more.’ They had ‘ blowed the whistle at the Works,’ and a man had made a speech about us, and the Works had sent in orders ‘most enough to sell us out.’
At noon, in the spiteful rain, an Apollo in overalls brought us a most delicious luncheon in two shining pails with curious compartments. Hans found a box, Apollo a clean newspaper for a cloth, and we sat on inverted peck measures. I found a box of marshmallows in my pocket for our hot coffee, and we talked of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, and I promised to learn to be class-conscious, and we were so merry that the haughty railway clerks that passed under their dripping umbrellas looked in at us with contempt and, I am persuaded, a spice of envy.
The whistle blew at the Works, Apollo bought some apples, and we thanked him and told him we should never forget him. And we never have.
At dark we were sold out to the last apple, and I had what seemed to me a great deal of money in my hand bag. It was still drizzling rain, and as I could not find a taxi I started to walk on toward the hotel, hoping to find one in a safer neighborhood. A man stepped from the shadow of a vacant building, drew something from his pocket, and in my terror I thought he pointed it straight at my heart. To be robbed! After all our work and ‘plumb disgrace’ of arrest! I tried to scream, but my throat would not work.
‘Lady,’ said a timid voice in a sweet familiar Southern drawl, ‘lady, here’s the papers all about the lodges I belong to — so’s you’ll know who I am. I been watching you for three days, and I heard that lawyer say you was a pore and worthy widda woman. I don’t live here. I live in Kentucky, and I got a mighty fine farm there. I’m going back to-morrow and I’ve found the woman I want to marry. You just look over these papers, and I’ll come round to the hotel directly.’
Relieved at my escape from a robber, I stood in the rain, reckless of my Sunday hat, and explained that my heart was buried, that I had a most outrageous temper, and that I was in an extremely precarious state of health. I thanked him warmly for the honor and walked on with the wilted hat a little higher. For, after all, a proposal is a proposal.
The next morning Hans and I boarded the train for home with joyous hearts and a most eloquent check. Patient Bird whinnied to us from the livery barn at Clintonville; and how happily we loaded the shackly old cart with wildly extravagant supplies of food! Hans celebrated by buying a pair of shoes guaranteed to last him six months — they looked as if they were resolved to live that many years — and I by purchasing magazines for myself and little gifts for the caretaker’s children.
Bird ambled happily the nine miles home, and as we reached the orchard the sun set and left a long line of palest gold at the edge of a pearl-gray sky. My five thousand trees, like an assembly of gray Quakers, waited, each with its curious air of patient expectancy, for the call of the Spirit. Answering, each soul would sleep in the warm earth through all the winter’s cold. Alone with a tree, I always feel that, could I but listen aright, it would willingly explain the never-failing springs of happiness beside the bitter waters of evil. We have learned that ‘the flower in the crannied wall,’ even though we were on conversational terms, can scarcely in a ‘random’ universe tell us the secret. But a tree knows not alone the rapture of sun and summer rain, the birth of leaves and the glory of their death; but, too, it knows the torture of thirst and the distress of storm, and many a cry of pain it hears from little feathered folk or scurrying furry forms. Wise with the wisdom of years, it drinks of deep delight and defies with pride the challenge of evil. ‘Under my sheltering arms the birds nest, and flowers bloom, and weary men rest, and children play. Beneath it all are everlasting arms that shelter you and me.’
I spoke something of this to Hans, who was usually patient when fantastic thoughts bubbled up. But, jealous for the supremacy of man, Hans scouted the idea of any consciousness other than our own. ‘ Man,’ he said, ‘was elected to conquer, and to run a revenge on all nature. The Bible says that man must even subdoo the animals — let alone try to talk to trees.’
Vexed, I seized the lines, pretending that he might ‘subdoo’ Bird; but I forgave him instantly when he cried, ‘See our smoke for our kitchen yet! It’s the prettiest blue smoke in the world.’ And there it rose, exquisitely blue, slowly and serenely to the cold sky above our home.
The caretaker gave me the receipts, accepted his wages and the gifts for his children, and set out at once, promising to return early Monday for the loading of our next car, glad indeed that it was Saturday night.
It had turned suddenly colder, and I gave Bird an extra feed and talked to her as she ate. Hans, who pretended to despise the fireplace for its devouring greed, cried, ‘Wait till I bring in a acre of wood and start you a fire!’
And what a supper we had! Hans, as ever, tipping and tilting on his chair, and always falling backward in some breathless moment of excitement or hilarity (a habit that proved embarrassing in accounting to hotel managers for mysterious smashes in my sitting room).
‘Remember,’ cried Hans, ‘when Judson butchered a beef and they made fun of us because we could n’t buy nothing but a ten-cent soup bone? And that time Miz West give me a cracked egg on her way to the store?’
‘And,’ I answered, ‘how we boiled it very hard, divided it exactly, and ate it together on the south step?’
‘And sassafras tea! That was the worst. Have another cup of cocoa? Whoop! ’ And over he went, long practice enabling him to retain a hold on an unbroken cup. Ah, those are good days and nights to look back upon!
After supper Hans read aloud a chapter in his Bible about how the Lord had spread a table for him before his enemies. Then he greased his new life-insured shoes, yawned, and climbed the stairs to his attic of legless furniture.
Deep waves of silence beat upon the little house between forest and orchard. I take from the dusty mantel Amiel’s Journal marked by little aged hands forgotten now by all the world save me alone. And I follow awhile an exquisite mind through paths of beauty and of doubt to sad plains of resignation. Suddenly I am inexpressibly weary, and my heavy eyes look into the glowing cavern of the fire: and the violet flames that float above the red coals are violet shadows on a summer sea; and the bright flames from the oak’s heart are fields of yellow poppies that stretch away from ocean’s shore; and the whisper of the fire is the chuckle of the water beneath our boat that rocks at anchor beside the little lost island where our camp fire burns.
- Earlier chapters in this series appeared in May and June.—EDITOR↩