A Sketching Trip


The most distinguished short-story writer the South has produced in recent years, EUDORA WELTY of Jackson, Mississippi, has brought originality and intimate observation to a form of writing which is too often stereotyped. We welcomed her to the Atlantic in the spring of 1941, and her first three stories — “A Worn Path,” “ Why I Live at the P.O.,” and “Powerhouse” — showed at once the range and the sensitivity of her work. Since then she has published three books, has twice received the O. Henry award, and has established herself as an American author of national rank.

Violence! Violence!"

Delia Farrar, driving along slowly in deep country with afternoon lunch, water-color pad, and fruit jar of water packed in beside her, suddenly felt a smile on her lips. A memory, uncalled-up, was perfect — she could not doubt it, and yet she had scarcely listened to it at the time. Just at the gates of this old spot, Fergusson’s Wells, Mississippi, from both sides of the lane at once, little black ragamuffins had once run out holding fists of wild violets at the carriage windows, and what they were crying was “Violence! Violence!” Those calls were urgent as bird cries, and passing by she was almost listening for them now, as if those little boys, like some midsummer creatures, always came assaulting here, though twenty years might have gone by since the last vacationer had ridden away.

She had come here once as a child, with her mother, and that was twenty years ago. If she had ever since thought of Fergusson’s Wells it was as a closed place; and it was not only with the idleness of complete faith in her own past and childhood, but with a further idleness — an undisturbed belief that the greatest happiness had quite naturally occurred here, some magnificent festivity, a spectacle of beauty.

Only a wall of trees could be seen from the road. She stopped her car. Why not this place? She would look it over; she might work out a quick sketch or two. She got out with all her paraphernalia, which was in a flat straw basket. Beyond the gate, to her right, was a held with elm trees — the pasture — and so deeply recognized to her in its pattern of intense afternoon, the horizon-curve against blue air, the grass in tree shade and cloud shade, the bright dark of the night sky, almost, with a Milky Way of clover through it, that she wondered with a moment’s absurd anticipation what had kept her from returning long before this. Her home was only twenty miles away. That one summer’s buggy ride had made it remote. Under her feet were wild strawberries and mint dense as a small forest. She opened the iron gate — touched it and it swung back — and walked into the almost hidden cinder drive.

The sky was violet and silky, like one of those big plums. It was a day you could touch. It was texture she had always wanted — she was excited, a little, going under the fragrant trees — and hoped so much to learn; and surely, texture she had felt as a child at Fergusson’s Wells — then she had first put out her hand and touched what was around her — an outer world. At the time she knew it — that was the remarkable thing. She knew this was discovery; she had reached with her full reach, put out adoring hands and touched the world. In her painting, she had never shown this joy —were you ever able? — a joy that had no premonition or thinking back, that had neither pity nor calculation or other thought of herself — only a touching of the outward pulse, the awareness of a tender surface underneath which flowed and trembled and pressed life itself. It was as if this pulse became the green of leaves, the roundness of fruit, the rise and fall of a hill, when she began to paint, and could have become — anything.

She walked on through the old park, crowded now with young wild cherries, overgrown with honeysuckle and woodbine, and vines of passionflower stretched like nets and wires across the cinders, setting those curious fringed and crushable flowers, with their little towers, under foot. There stood a well — Number 3 — its little round upper structure lacy as a doily and eaten like lace now; and another, head-high in ribbon grass. There had been twelve, all numbered on little green iron flags atop — you drank only from the one that suited your complaint. Her mother had been pregnant in the hot summer. What of the Wells waters now, the “benefits no one should do without”? She came to the turn, and there was the house.

It was a dilapidation, that old affair. It was faded like an old photograph, and elaborate as a ship. After the columns, then cupolas, lattices, lightning rods, and weathervanes formed over it like barnacles — they in turn edged and twined all around with ribbon grass and moonvine; clear around, the chinaberry trees dropped their little flowers, and in front of it the doubletree spread, a weeping willow struck by lightning and held together by a wheel of slatted seat. All details were clear but the whole faded, with the fading of all things with summer lives and of something being, in that very moment, forgotten. Now the enormous veranda seemed tilted, about to sink, like a waterlogged boat in a dead-quiet bayou. Delia approached, and put out her hand, and the warm white column shed flakes like snow.

She hesitated there on the steps and a soft breeze came up behind her and then circled round her skirt. The other summer ran out to meet her like an old bird dog that remembers you before you remember him. And she could see the Wells as it was then, when she and her mother had come for the month of June, for the benefits no one should be without — her mother to go circumspectly to her room and let Delia run wild. The long slick gallery tilted slightly from the door toward the steps then, as a welcome, reflecting vaguely like a dim pool, among ferns, the great slow-turning blades of the fan in the ceiling. The rockers rocked gayly and competitively as chopping sailboats, where fat summer dresses spread. The flaky steps bordered with warm pots came shallowly down, and fern fronds reached for legs walking up.


THE owner had been Mrs. Fergusson — or no, Mr. Fergusson (people corrected you) would be the owner. But his wife, spreading her hands, palm up, welcomed everybody.

“Who’s that?” Delia pulled her mother’s skirt sharply at the sight.

“Why, that’s Mrs. Fergusson,” said her mother, as if she had asked a rude and reproachable thing,

Mrs. Fergusson’s reddish-gold hair was shaped on her head like the paper in a Christmas bell. Her brows were thin and perfect, and over them were tiny holes in the skin as though she had been pricked with the thorns of roses. And Mrs. Fergusson’s hand would go to her breast of dotted swiss bertha until she seemed to have been pricked, pricked, pricked, forever through her life. What tender eyelids she had! They were like the wings of sweet-sucking insects that flickered; the pulse would move in them when she thought. In the swing, moving only gently, with crossed ankles, she sat giving off in sighs the odor of almonds — of Bird Eggs, those almonds covered with milky colors that could be bought at the Century Theatre in Jackson. When she walked, there was a kind of jangling and sliding of scents, like the moving of bead strands over the breast and bracelets down the arm, and floating like the plumes of bird-tails from her hair, and she smelled like all the sweet of the world.

This was what made Delia follow her at first, follow her straight into the house, ahead of her mother, and afterwards all around, drawn slightly inclined forward all the time to smell the air behind her. And it was not from love. It was very strange — Mrs. Fergusson was rather the first person she had not loved. She followed her out of a lack of love, and the more remorselessly — more as she would follow a man selling cotton-candy at the Fair with a paper cone of an evil-looking strawberry-colored froth in each extended hand, just because he was selling it. We don’t always follow what we love, Delia thought, as she stood now hesitating on the steps; we follow something followable.

Often Mrs. Fergusson, with a little start, turned and smiled. Up close, her checks were like figured satin, creased by weeping on a pillow. “What is it, precious darling?” she would say.

And the sky was the color of a ribbon. All was warm to the touch, all was the temperature of the flesh of a lady’s upper arm. The six or eight children would be calling and crying down the wells, “Hello!” with the water barking back at them down below. Number 9 was the deepest. The warm and smelly water itself was drawn up very seldom, it seemed to her. For who could like it? Nobody, Reuben said, and he shook his head over it, for he had to pull it up in stocking-shaped buckets and tote it. At six in the morning he would bang on your door and hand it to you in a tall clay mug, and you poured it in your chamber pot if you did not like it. The pigeons, as if they moved by clockwork, keys in their tails, crossed the grass on their purple feet. All sizes of babies, mixed like a handful of wildflowers, swayed pressed together in a nurse-shaded sandbox. The long chain swings, which young girls sat in on Sunday, moved slowly as pendulums in tall clocks under the big trees. The owls hooted in the woods, and the doves on lop of the springhouse roof sobbed all day. An iron bell was rung in the yard for dinner.

Delia mounted the broken steps and walked across the porch. Of the interior, why did she remember such a busy whispering? It was her own; she had found a great deal to whisper to her mother about at the table where it was impolite. Relish dishes and cruets and cake stands were all glass as heavy as iron in the dining room, and the white butter, in tiny butter dishes for each person, had no salt. And salt got hard in small boat-shaped urns with tiny, beaded salt-spoons at each plate that pricked the mouth like diamond rings. There were plates with green ponds and castles in them, and as you ate your watermelon away and left the rim, you could spit all your seeds in the pond. There were napkin rings with faces and masks and flowers raised on them that would burn into the brain.

And after such food! Fingers dripping from the fingerbowls, you were dragged, like a sack, up to your bedroom. Washstands, massive forward-leaning wardrobes, waited round the bed to be hung with a kind of thin, rainbow waterfall of near-sleep. There wallpaper was hot to the touch, tiles on the tinned-over fireplace and hearth were beaded with sweat like the forehead of the room. She climbed up into the bed, under thick drapes of mosquito netting which she thought were beautiful as the skirts of a bride. She could not go to sleep; sometimes she held out one arm and dropped marbles from a great height into a tin cup. Yet sleep through the soft afternoon hung overhead and stirred only a little, like a banana leaf, ribbed and veined with green light. Voices floating on the surfeited air were Negro voices. “You know what Cat does? Cat catches him a mice and he climb on de fence. Cat drop his mice in de garbage can. Cat’s smart. I’s told several people about Cat.” That was Reuben’s voice.

Delia tried the front door, and it opened. She stood in the hall, in that dark dell. Something was gone — something besides some great, zigzag, marble-topped piece of furniture. The odor of food was gone. And suddenly she thought, “The pavilion too!” and ran back to the door and looked out into the thicketty park — it was gone.

That dance pavilion had crowned the whole place. It actually had a second floor, with a little paintless frame stair running up. It had been open all the way round, edged with narrow benches, like a steamboat there in the park with a piano in it — it had been graywhite and lacy. There was not an inch of the pavilion that did not have some name carved in it. You could read it all day long, even the stair rail was full, and the four sides of the little splintery posts all the way up — just like a nutmeg grater under your hand, and the benches were corrugated under your legs with names and arrowed hearts. Now it had gone.


DELIA turned and walked gently down the hall and past the staircase, fluted like a pipe organ. She thought she heard something then — a movement — but wasn’t it thunder? She remembered, about three o’clock every cloudless afternoon a storm would come abruptly somewhere near-by, the sky would go black in the west, and at the Wells somebody would run from room to room, not glancing at a person, and put down the long rattling windows, and when the round was done, run back and put them up again. For very likely only little cyclones of dust would whirl over the lawns and follow, sometimes, the very walks that went so narrowly from well to well; thunder would sound in the woods and a rain would fall that could just be seen against the trees. Reuben would wear a strawberry box over his head.

Then, that threat being over, the guests came out, like four-o’clock flowers, and just after the four-o’clocks opened. Through the freshened air, Delia followed Mrs. Fergusson, who turned and said, “Precious darling, what is it?” And even to her, made a tender, charming gesture with her hand.

Delia put up her own hand and exchanged a little squeeze most promptly and eagerly, with, like a dark germ of wariness, a brief disappointment falling each time into her heart — disappointment that was a kind of excitement. For Mrs. Fergusson, though enchantingly dressed in pale georgette and her cheeks pinked beyond the imagination, never once transformed herself, even in her voice, by saying one thing to this person, another thing to another. Everybody, even Mirrabel, a common brown rabbit around whose neck Mrs. Fergusson had tied a blue candy ribbon, was “Precious.” She was a creature of a baffling and terrifying sameness. To Delia she was never, for one moment, an allurement — it was a kind of outrage with a promise to it. As from a germ, a seed inside, she knew that spreading, helpless gesture of Mrs. Fergusson’s palms made her feel not her own fresh chivalry, but old chivalry, used, stale, ancient — other people’s, and especially Mr. Torrance’s, the man who would be standing behind Delia. She would let her hand be relinquished, and go off in skips.

Under the warm dangle of the weeping willows, the ladies strolled, their parasols, from moment to moment, more luminous than the blue sky, and their shining little dogs at their heels. On the wide banisters along the length of the veranda, goldfish bowls sparkled like suns, and the fish darted and pushed their faces at the promenaders. On the green grass at twilight, the croquet balls moved slow as leviathans through a deep sea.

One of the three dining-room doors at the hall’s end stood open, and Delia looked into the dim room. In some draft, light through the floor-length slatted shades lifted and merged its bars in the air, which was like under-water. The room was empty at one end, and all the tables had been pushed together at the other, as though a great hand had come in and cleft the room. There was a creak, then, and the door blew shut behind her. She turned quickly. Nothing was there, but with that sound how clearly it had come back to her!

Mr. Torrance had entered at dinner. He went by, very close to them, going to his table.

When Mr. Torrance spoke (“H’rrum, nice day”), Mrs. Fergusson gave him as radiant a smile as if he had invited her to some charming spot. Like the opening of a summer parasol, the smile spread and displayed the pinkness and the floweriness of her face. Nothing could ever go beyond this smile; it was the limit of Mrs. Fergusson’s face, its whole intent. Its signal replied to the signal of that creak of the door when Mr. Torrance entered the dining room. That creak of the center door, which was actually like a baby’s fretful cry, seemed the special announcement of Mr. Torrance’s wonderful, heavy entrance. He came shaking the floor, and was immediately and ruddily reflected in the hundred flushed faces of the cut-glass vinegar cruets and compotes of strawberry preserves which watched him with the compound eye of an insect.

Mr. Torrance was silky-looking with a mouth of silk. He seemed full of the well waters, brimming. He drank out of Number 1. He was weighty as a seal. When he sat alone at his table the room seemed pinned, anchored down; it was his chair that fastened it for keeps to the round world. Food steamed toward him on its little winds. He groaned in joy all to himself, as he drew the napkin over his rolly lap, like a mother covering her good child and wishing it sweet dreams. He was as perfect as wax fruit in his pinkshaded hands and face, and a pin tried in his cheek, she had imagined, would be likely to make only a powdery hole — from which the wind of his laughter, though, would suddenly strike you, and his near, choppy teeth would shoot crumbs of his laughter like dragon fire at little girls.

Eating, he entered his world and dream. He ate off in a remoteness, and not until he was finished and had drawn a sigh would he return from that long perspective back to your presence, seeming to shudder his plump coat a little like a robin finishing up. Then he simply flew to your side, fronting and touching you with his breast if you were a lady near-by, if you were Mrs. Fergusson, and not if you were a sad lady in black just beside her.

Delia walked around the echoing room in the patchy light. There was the piano. It was strange to draw a finger through the warm dust on a soundless piano key; it was like finding dust on a person’s eyelashes, a person sleeping in the sun. The top of the old maple upright was propped open by a tennis ball, molded green. There was a wasp nest inside, against the strings, and the dining room itself was filled with the awkward swinging motions of wasps, and a dead one drifted in a breath of air down the keyboard to — C, Ranny Randall’s key. That was what he played Nola in.

She remembered Saturday night at Fergusson’s Wells, the three-piece orchestra in the double-decker pavilion, and Ranny Randall, sitting straight as a ruler in a blazer, playing Nola. The back of his head stuck out so far it was like a question mark, very shiny in Stacomb. The smell of cut grass in the night seemed to rise up sharply, and then the ladies’ floral odors, and they in turn pursued by hoops and wreaths of men’s tobacco smoke. Among the little girls was no scent at all, only the rapid sound of fans being opened and shut on their hot little chains that cut the neck. They wound arms and strolled three together over the park. As they went they discovered under each of the round well roofs, by each of the wells, a man and lady kissing as if appointed there. Kissing was all over the park — everywhere, at twelve wells, like the state of grace, falling over all at the same moment, like a flock of birds lighting in a tree and all starting to sing.

Outdoors was filled with the leafy glide of moonlight. Her party dress was white, and she would grass-stain it. In the pavilion the dancers danced on two floors in the light of paper lanterns — one would catch fire. Ranny Randall’s hands were flying from his striped cuffs like fluttering flags, and his teeth were bared. He could play Margie, anything that was asked of him, and he always played in C. The children climbed and hung like monkeys on the pavilion.

Mrs. Fergusson was a dancer. Paper lanterns — she loved them, loved Ranny Randall, loved music, she said. Her face was mother-of-pearl colored, and nearly unreal — for surely every kind of wash and scent and color had covered it again and again, Saturday night. Mrs. Fergusson, even dancing, had farsighted eyes, very soft and wide, the color of forgetme-nots. “Precious darling,” she said, bending and kissing Delia where she stood wrapped on a post, watching the dance. Delia kissed her respectfully.

Back at the house, the porch was full of rockers, all occupied, as all the boxes in the stable stayed full of hens — seemingly busy with bright eyes though they were very still. Mr. Torrance might dance in the pavilion and shake it, but when he went by the porch, clearing his throat, the world changed. The way a night breeze in moonlight suddenly shatters the intricate pattern of quiet within the leafy porch and someone will rise and another will say, “Well — good night!” and no more stories will be told that night before any child stretched listening on the steps — that was how Mr. Torrance revolted their world.


AND Mr. Fergusson?

Mr. Fergusson always came last — now even to the memory. He was a poky man. And soon, always, he was out of sight again. There was just the X of his suspenders disappearing through a door; you only saw his back. He would put his head in again, and say, “Excuse me.” He would take himself off in an old black planter’s hat and sit in a shed, making something. He had one good eye and one that had had sand rubbed in it, a lesson to children in summer. Off at a little distance, with perhaps one little boy following him, he could be seen carrying things from one point to another across the park, across the back yard — ladders, lengths of chain, buckets and demijohns, a purpling flour-sack of figs. Perhaps he did the work. For the Negroes were Mrs. Fergusson’s, and wore white coats. He was the one that early in the still morning went snapping off the Cape jessamines (that was what woke her up, and made her mother flutter her eyelids) and put them in dishes on the tables and tubs in the doors, where they glowed in the dark rooms and halls as if they marked a trail.

And hadn’t there been a happening of some kind, one night? Delia ate a plum. She had not meant to eat her lunch in here, but she had brought out some plums and pinched the cheesecake, and at last she spread everything on a paper on a dusty table. She thought she heard a noise in a room close by, like the flat of a hand on the wall. Tramps did not bang away — it might be the jump of a rat. She might have left then and missed everything, but she finished her lunch, and as she was walking out past the parlor the sun came through a tear in a blind and lighted a little square picture on the wall, and halted her.

Oh, heaven! What was it? A painting by a lady. It hung tilting at her, over the parlor mantel. She walked toward the red and blue thing, varnished mirror-bright, at first seeing only its seashells of landscape-clouds on the top shelf of sky. Surely this had not hung here in the old days. But it had. The wallpaper faded from it. And it represented — she shivered all at once — the near-by haunted house that looked down from the hill, in its pristine, untouched state — a virgin of a house with every brick clean as a breastpin. The green had not lasted, leaving the cedars on either side a faded kingfisher blue.

Delia studied the bad little oil with the interest which the complete lack of imagination always serenely asks for, like a beggar-child. The painting offered, whether or no, a version of a beautiful 1810 or so house, its Georgian design tempered by the Spanish — with wings connected by loggias, which were drawn tight as wires here. And the fanlights — why, they were true fans! She could hardly believe the dainty little ribbed affairs, how the hand had trembled to set them just so over the doors, above and below. The proportions were fantastic, somehow cupped in and stricken, and instead of spaciousness — Delia squinted — the house gave off an influence like a bird cage. Little people studded the galleries, the garden, and the orchard, holding hands two and three together — a house party, an entertainment for some General.

She felt strangely vindictive toward this painting. But it was indeed the haunted house she knew and remembered now. It was right for its picture to hang in the Wells, over a mantel, like a parent portrait. The Wells, filled as it had been with light, airy light, was always the shadow of that older place on the hill. Her eyes narrowed and she searched the corner of the bad picture. It was signed “Mews,” in a calling card script.

She turned her back on the painting and stood lost, thinking of the haunted house as it was the day she saw it — sun-drenched, light-drenched, a bird flying about the grayed wooden cornice which was carved with the Greek key. Looking at her memory like a picture of her own, she saw a halfway ruin of a very plain, beautiful, surely rather small Georgian house, the red of a rose. There remained of it then the central structure and one wing. The roof over the loggias, fallen to the ground, lay leaning against the house, softened, like a coverlet, wrinkling over the hidden steps, and sea-blue. Nothing gave a sign of the galleries except a naked brightness in the brick. One wing was gone except for a shell of front wall and the chimney at the end, and the other wing was intact, square, its chimney tall in the air.

Who had taken them there — all the children picnicking?

Old-maid half-sister of Mr. Fergusson — Miss Mews, replied her memory succinct ly.

The painter! Painter and storyteller. She had been a storyteller that day, and all the time it was she, Miss Mews, who had stood there, the lady in black, dark as a bare bough beside the fruity Mrs. Fergusson every evening. Delia was remembering the picnic now, whoever the storyteller had been that easy day when they all ran holding hands, popping the whip, seeming barely to listen. She had hold of the hand of a boy in an Indian suit, and the stickiness of little black cherries cemented them all together, the playing children who were going to disobey that storyteller and perhaps trip her up at the right moment.


OH, that day! It was like this — yet inexpressibly a different day; so that you would always know — even then — that no two days can ever be like each other as two fruits from the same tree are twins, since night comes between. They went in leaf hats — nasturtium, sycamore, and fig, pinned with rose thorns, the boys’ hats down over their eyebrows. Under their concerted rush, the claybanks rose, and shimmered wistariacolored, warm, hard, and burning with sand to the skin; and one of them took off his sandals and left them on a purple cliff, to be found in case they never returned. Up there was a field where the sun was hot as a spasm and made anyone sneeze just to go in it; the space in front of the eyes was always filled with a gyration of gnats and cottonwood fuzz.

In the bright distance was a solitary cabin, its roof a Joseph’s coat of wood and tin bits, its chimney rose-red. A pale and undulating fence, silvery in the hollows, closed it in, and when they came to it they played on the pales with a stick and it sounded like the most distant music; nobody came out. Walking ahead of them the cows went with their tails streaming silver in the light like the wake of a boat. Giant thistles shone, taller than children. Like even brighter islands in this brightness were the wide, circular mounds of Cherokee roses, and they touched at them, boat-like, one by one. Beyond the field they went single-file through a shaggy ravine and up a cedar-grown hill, pulling their way by roots, on all fours, and from the place where they all fell over and laughed, the Confederate Cemetery could be seen gleaming miles away like a honeycomb in the distant light.

Then Miss Mews silenced them. They were fingering the rusty rosettes of a barbed-wire fence, holding the wires for each other and for Miss Mews, who was of course scratched. Then they were in a body on the other side looking up. Delia stood feeling alone, looking and divining something, she could not tell what, in that warm ruin on the blue air, that firm print of a house on the earth against a blue sky which broke through and descended upon it. She stood in deep bliss with her hand moving upon the trunk of a cedar tree, with its purple-green above her dense like the breast of a bird.

But it had a story. Miss Mews would tell it. “This haunted house is Mrs. Fergusson’s ancestors’ home!” And all the time Miss Mews was telling them, telling them, the children were running off and darting away. Was this running the excitement of beauty, after all — and more than the breaking of authority? And what would her story, telling what people did, have come to without the weight of that rose-red brick in the hand, its reach of color into the eyes — the sudden sight, licking like fire at the feet, of the snake moving in the empty well — the mockingbirds drunk on cherries careening over the rooftop — the taste of the plaster, that white, thin-as-silk plaster that was vaguely sweet on the tongue? (Had they even eaten of the place?) What if the chimney’s wasp had not stung anybody? He stung Billy in the Indian suit who screamed like an idiot and ran around Miss Mews with her black skirt clutched in his hands and wound her like a Maypole in the middle of all she said — so that she told more. And little Carbuncle Fergusson— the Fergussons had had a son! His real carbuncle had come and gone the summer before; only the name was left. He had no sense, except that he could always play Casino with his little dirty cards with the red parrots on them, out in the big road, each play burying itself in a puff of dust. He stood in front of Miss Mews and listened too, like a bird, perhaps for whispers and sounds underfoot.

Walking around the haunted house, you saw the structure all laid bare — it was no mystery as in other houses. She could see, with the walls half away, exactly how all the rooms were, exactly how the house had been made — what rooms opened off other rooms, which connected and which had never connected, where the fireplaces were, what the windows all looked out on. The anatomy of the story Miss Mews thought so much of was well explained.

Here the lady lived, there her husband. The rooms connected, the fires burned back to back. This was the window through which he climbed, the lover to meet the wife. It was there the husband had come in by the door, just in time. (“Here’s the window he jumped out of and hung by his hands!” Billy jumped and hung by his hands on that warm and flaking ledge.) Hush, said Miss Mews, it ended with a duel! Of course, through the room there, so bare now, across the sunsoaked hall, through there, down there, the husband did chase his wife. The room where she ran and he killed her, where he put his hands around her neck (here LeRoy took hold of Minnie Belle), was the top room, on the left. The wife had run up instead of down, further into the house instead of out. She could not escape.

That was where she said . . . what? Oh, Delia could not think now what the lady had said; and how had anyone ever known, except Miss Mews, what she said? The stairs were swaying like a spider web under the children’s feet. But down that stair and out and here to the well (where the snake ran out! “Run, Miss Mews! It’s poison!”) he had stamped carrying her and thrown her down the well. Miss Mews paused. (Down which of his twelve wells would Mr. Fergusson throw his wife if he could? Twelve choices for a thing not done yet.) Down, down, dead, with her hair floating up in a long yellow twist and covering the top of the water, said Miss Mews — “She had always been proud of her hair.” And the lightning came and printed her picture on the windowpane, saying Look for me! The story ended with a duel over her, both men wounded to death, and all dead.

Miss Mews had marched them to the window and they had seen the lightning-picture, but restlessly, since they believed it enough already.

Even the small, gap-toothed Fergusson could run over the house and go where all that had happened in the time it could take to tell it, and look out the window like an imp in a bottle, and show a laughing face through the lightning’s ragged little profile with the long bent neck like a flower stalk. For that was all the story.

“Is that all?” Delia herself asked.

Miss Mews nodded, and at that nod the children sprang up wild and scattered as if for good on running feet. They ran and ran. They covered all that haunted ground with fast and dust-flying feet, circling, catching each other and letting go; they chased, called, collided, flung up and down the dark ravine and trod on the crowded spears of iris. They broke every little bloodred rose and sucked them in their mouths or hung them in their hair. They swung on the sucker-thick orchard trees which had borne the summers that no one had counted, unless it were only Miss Mews, and last they found the cherries, the little wild ones, and ate all they could hold, until Carbuncle cried. Miss Mews, all silent, waited, for all must calm down in the end. She was the iron fountain black in the sun, and all this was still her sad story. Far off, down and beyond the hill, someone was singing, though — the kind of song that comes from a young girl who has to go by herself through a field and becomes in love with flowers and clouds, and forgets herself entirely. Delia heard it and fell over in the grass and lay still, tipsy, her lap full.

They went home another way. Little cabins, the colors of twilight clouds, lay along the different fields. They came to an empty school in the country. A remote and yet clandestine look it had. The leaves rustled, rustled, like flight after flight of birds going through. On every window there was still pasted a paper jonquil with side leaf. “This is my school,” Miss Mews said. They all looked at her carefully, then standing together and turning their eyes to her. She was suddenly shy. She was all in black, and she had moles. Her face was nippled with moles. Their parents had all gladly entrusted them to her for the day. How was it grown people always had respect for such outrageous persons?

She marched them home. And in the hall at Fergusson’s Wells — deserted, of course, for they were all dining — she had said in a loud, teacher’s voice, “I gave them a lesson in history! Which all would do well to heed.”

And Delia smiled. For suddenly, just here, in the parlor, where they had all been ushered to put their wildflowers by the pressing-book, loomed Mr. Torrance, with his lips pursed for a kiss. His mouth was like an agate, that pride of boys in spring. He was leaning over just ready to give it to Mrs. Fergusson — strike Mrs. Fergusson’s little glassy mouth with it, with that hard, thumping release an agate would get under the thumb of a frowning boy. What would have happened? Would Mrs. Fergusson, struck with the agate kiss, have flung back and scattered everything in Fergusson’s Wells apart with a rainbow light? Not yet. Mr. Torrance, with almost a push of his eyebrows at her face, let her go. Almost like a beetle he wielded her on ahead of him out of the parlor, with his eyebrows forking and driving her before him, reserving her for future lairs. While she, a morsel, all inviting and caught, seemed to be making little dazzling motions, the rings on both her hands twinkling phosphorescently in the hall gloom. She was laughing.


So it was that night that Mr. Torrance did magician tricks. It was in the dining room. The ladies got it up after supper.

First Mr. Torrance had done some tricks with cards — the thickened old cards with the parrots on them that lay on the porch all day. As a magician, he bestowed his smile for the first time over the entire dining room. Then —

“I should like to borrow a hat,” said Mr. Torrance. His eyelids drooped and closed for a moment. It was as if he put on a mask and watched them through little holes. The dining room became magical. The ladies, who had got this up to let Mr. Torrance see what he could do, waited. For only Mr. Fergusson wore a hat in his own house.

“Mr. Fergusson?” said Mr. Torrance, opening his eyes. He held out one pear-shaped hand, and lifted the other with the wand in it.

“Your hat, perhaps, Mr. Fergusson?” he said.

Hat? Hat? . . . the room echoed. As if the echo turned it into a dark ravine where people moved and climbed by lantern light, and held a conclave, the deep and twinkling dining room waited in that moment for Mr. Fergusson to walk through the eying watchers and give up his hat to Mr. Torrance.

Mr. Fergusson rose — he was at the back, of course, Miss Mews beside him — and he looked no better than he ever had. He walked through the room, the wand with which Mr. Torrance beckoned seeming to draw him by the coatless shoulders and pull him, and his horny hand was clamped over his hat as if a wind were blowing. Never had Mr. Fergusson, or his hat either, looked so disheveled, so “common,” ladies said — would he ever get there? It was as if the wind he was mistaken about had truly blown and buffeted and got him confused.

On the little stage, where Mr. Torrance held his wand ready, Mr. Fergusson came and stepped up. What would he do? Whatever else he might have done, with time, he took off his hat and gave it to Mr. Torrance. Then he turned and looked back.

They all looked right at his head. The emerged and naked head of Mr. Fergusson shone under the grand center dining-room light. Exposed, bald as they had knowm all the time it would be, his head glowed like a small, single light itself, a chilly light; and Mr. Fergusson turned from side to side a moment, silently — like the Biloxi Lighthouse light when the sun goes down, sweeping over the people enjoying themselves. He reached a point of gaze and stood still — his good eye glistened. He was looking over their heads, stony and single-eyed, like a lighthouse, at his wife. He was standing up there because of her, because of them too — a sea of pleasure, swelling and wild. Who would dare look at Mrs. Fergusson, who was caught now in his glare and beam? What if her arms went up over her head! Suppose her hair rushed up over her ears as she sank! Still no one would look. Delia strove against the strictness in her neck — she looked. Back and forth, so quickly it hid her face as well as a curtain, Mrs. Fergusson was waving her special little fan, made of feathers.

“Thank you.” Mr. Torrance balled his lips. He showed the hat, and knowingly waved his wand back and forth over the dreadful thing that had covered Mr. Fergusson’s head. While they looked, while Mr. Fergusson, his attention rapped at, looked, there was a flicker of live motion, and Mr. Torrance pulled a rabbit out of the hat by the ears. It was Mirrabel.

There was just a moment of silence— then a sigh. Was it terror — satiety — disappointment? Mirrabel was very well known. Then — led by the ladies — applause. Pursed lips smiled at pursed lips.

With a lissome bow Mr. Torrance offered Mr. Fergusson’s hat back to him, rabbit inside.

“He wouldn’t take it back!” someone—quite an indignant old lady — was saying.

Mr. Fergusson’s horny hand drew back. Then bald as a tombstone he was rocking down the aisle cleared for him between the knees drawn up, and it was known all over the room that he would never touch that hat again. Mr. Fergusson left the dining room, leaving the door open, left Mr. Torrance with his hat, with Mirrabel in it, darting her well-known round sideways glances out at everything. Mr. Torrance then had to set the loaded hat down on a little wobbly table of some kind.

Immediately flicking his cuffs for a new trick, “You see, I have nothing up my sleeves,” he said.

“So of course he has,” Delia thought without rancor, but feeling at one with the audience and with the world at that moment.

Then there was a noise from behind. It was the teasing noise of the door. Mr. Fergusson was back, standing there where Mr. Torrance used to stand and eye the room. His hat was once more awesomely missed from his head, as if its absence would expose him afresh every time, like the lifted veil of a nun. He brought his little rabbit gun up to his shoulder and to his chin like a completion to his face, and pointed it straight into the room.

In the corner of the eye a flowery plate seemed to tip, bow, and fall off the rail first, and then even before it touched the floor came the crashing of everything. The room shook like a forest of china.

Delia stood up and pressed forward from her helpless mother, burrowing as she went against the hot silky backs of ladies. In a moment some hand was going to stop her, but while she could she wanted to see. It had not turned out the way she had thought, at all.

Beneath arches and barriers of ladies’ arms she could see. Mr. Torrance stood reared in a pose of sorrow on his stage, with his jaw hung widely down; he was looking like Samson’s lion. He reared there for a moment erect with his paws in the pulled-back sleeves held apart in the air. Then he tenderly clasped himself and descended; ladies’ hips and skirts bulged and hid his fall.

Crying softly, struggling in some feminine grasp, Delia heard it on all sides — the breaking, the shattering and echoing — it was the imminent closing of the Wells, the end of vacation, of her own adventure, she heard — all and each gave out its fragile, summerlike, falling, crystal sound. Then a lady named Miss Delta Random fainted, and then, one after the other, as if they were weak, three ladies more lay pale across the chests of the shouting, pinioned men. And poor Miss Mews, Miss Adella Mews, went down on her knees as she did to go under the barbed-wire fence, and crawled under the table.

Delia could see Mrs. Fergusson plainly, for she was not crowded by the other ladies but rather framed by them, as always. She rose up from her chair, her feather fan slid down under her pointed satin shoe, and she went toward the front.

“Let me through,” Mrs. Fergusson begged the barricade of men.

But they would not.

Delia was picked up and carried out crying, as Mrs. Fergusson would expect of her, but kicking her legs. Mr. Fergusson was still standing at the door, looking in, rubbing a little spot over his eye.

The incident had never been mentioned again. They left in the morning; the only one who stayed was an old lady — she might never be going home. She made her own beads, out of some sweet paste, in milky blue or pink colors, each bead a little lopsided, and there was always a dinner plate of them, not quite hard, in a window. She would string them with small jet and silver beads in between.

The Fergusson’s Wells carriage had borne them all smoothly away and the little colored boys with their wilted fistfuls of flowers had run out and pleaded, “ Violence! Violence!” beside the rolling wheels. Delia had flung herself half out of the carriage and stretched her arms back toward Fergusson’s Wells and cried, “Mirrabel!” It was mostly in delight.


THERE was a sound directly behind her— the complaint of the door.

Delia turned and saw Mr. Fergusson walk in — faded, grayed in his face and hands and in his clothes as if by moonlight, but no ghost. That was a human and remembered walk, the hitched, dawdling walk of the unwelcome. He went past her.

She begged his pardon, began to explain herself, but he did not appear to listen to her. When he saw her, he showed her a scrap of paper he held in his hand. On it something had been written with a wetted pencil. “Three turns to the left, 3 to the right, and you ther.”

“Give me a hint, Reuben,” said Mr. Fergusson with a sigh. “I want you to tell me if I’m warm.”

There stood Reuben in the shadow, no faintest gleam of light about him, shrunken, smaller and older, watchful in a different way now. Change was on him, but no impairment, as if a cat grew old and turned blackbird.

“You’s warm, but you’s lost,” said Reuben.

“My son and old Reuben got ‘em up a game, got ‘em up a little game with me,” said Mr. Fergusson, smoothing out the note on his palm. “My son in Memphis and old Reuben here. They have an understanding! (Listen at Reuben.) To keep me from finding it too early in the day, old Reuben, he hides it from me, and then he leaves me a little note here, a little note there. Telling me what turns to take, and up or down. I think he learned to write just for the purpose! — make me run myself ragged. My son sends it, by the case, and Reuben hides it. There’ll be another note to go today, before I get hold of it. End of day’ll most likely find me in the attic, up in the dark, reaching for it. But I’ll find it.” He fingered some little button he wore in his coat, which of course he had found too.

“Mrs. Fergusson—” she said, and stopped, astonished at herself at the mention of the name.

“She — Mrs. Fergusson, she went off with him, you know,” he said presently. His voice was flat in idleness after telling how he hunted.

“With —who?”

“Torrance. Mrs. Fergusson went off with Torrance the end of that summer. They live about forty miles from here.”

“I thought — he was dead — that you —”

“Why, everybody knew it,” he said wonderingly. “We had to close the Wells.” He proved it for her with a gesture around the room.

“I thought you shot him and killed him,” she said, and suddenly she was ready to accuse him. “I thought he was dead.”

“No, Torrances are hard to kill,” he said matter-of-factly. His eyes shone a little. Was it the weak teasing tears of laughter that shone in them? But he did not laugh. “I thought she’d sweep me off my feet,” he said. “I still thought she’d do it, one day. Up till the very minute I fired that load of rabbit shot I thought she might.” He looked closely at Delia — that spark in his eye was pride.

How could you ever tell the ones who wanted to be swept off their feet in the world — those who were just going to taste the lotus, but hadn’t yet? She remembered how he had gone forward to give up his hat that night seeming to putter, almost, along the way — Mr. Fergusson had been such a putterer.

He said solemnly, politely now, “My son’s ‘way up in the world in Memphis. He’s successful and all. He seldom gets down but he sends me cases of Bourbon regular, right on the dot. I don’t eat much,” he said fastidiously. He called out, “Reuben, Reuben, come out on the porch with the fan. You’ll have to fan me and this young lady a while, till she has to go. You know it’s as hot a day as God ever sent us.” He guided Delia to the front porch, to one of the long benches which whispered with little leaves and the petals of blown roses. They sat down. She knew all at once how grandly he lived, in what anticipation.

“For just a little,” she said.

Reuben moved near and, lifting both arms gently and wide, fanned them with two palmettos, attending them in the darkening of the day like a mother bird.

But she only stayed long enough to be polite. When she said “Good-bye,” Mr. Fergusson’s hand reached for hers in the twilight of the porch.

“Good-bye, Reuben.”

“You’s grown,” said Reuben.

Outdoors, the light was still good. The western sky was clear and the sun would be going down whole, just in the direction of the haunted house, where she now was going.

Why, it was only a few steps away. She followed a dirt path up a gentle hill, and could see a solitary chimney. In its distance it stood rose-red among cedars, infinitely still in the woods, almost a tree itself. Somehow she knew that that chimney was all she would find.

She went through the ravine, where it was almost dark, and up the old drive, full of rain-valleys and partly gone, and came to the place, to the chimney.

It was so perfect that for a moment she was imagining the house not as a ruin they had ravaged — children, and poor frightened teacher, and now of course the Negroes stealing the bricks and firewood — but as the original. (And Miss Mews had done only this.) How could I? she thought, opening her eyes, standing subdued and humble before the one red column.

She sat down at a little distance and made a sketch. As she worked, noises set up all around, chirpings, singings, clickings, dronings, the swell of the locusts, and a female cardinal sat on the chimney top sending out noises like the clicking of castanets; after a little, she sang.

Delia made three sketches, and none pleased her. The sun went lower. Small clouds were floating seedlike now in the transparent west, as if a pomegranate had burst open.

She stood up and gazed awhile at the color of the bricks intensified with the deepening light. The badness of her work went out of her. The chimney itself, in its beauty, in its presence, as long as it stood there, was enough. Enough, she thought, for all the error applied to that place, all misconceptions, for all that went astray in sight of it, better than a dream. Not the house as it had once stood, but something before that, some exuberance of its inception, seemed hovering about it. She had felt it as a child; all the children had felt it. Smoothed, worn by them all, it rose taller than any happenings or any times that forever beset the beauty itself of life. It was no part of shelter now, it was the survivor of shelter, an entity, glowing, erect, and a fiery color, the ancient color of a phoenix.

Gathering her paraphernalia, she went down the ravine track, the path, then the carriage drive. She could see her car in the road beyond the gate. All of a sudden there was a breath of stir in the bushes where blackberries grew up tall over everything.

Her heart leaped when she saw him — a little boy, brown-haired. Dappled like grass in the last sun, he lay in the curve of t he embankment with his scratched, ruddy legs straddled upwards and his toes curled in the clover, silent while his eyes followed her. She opened the gate and came out, carrying her three wet paintings; he was eating berries from his cupped hands, his lips stained purple and gently parted.