A Little Dunker
A Little Dunker
BY JENNETTE LEE
THE Dunker sat on the dike tending her cow. The morning winds sang to her. The meadow spread wide before her. But the Dunker did not see the meadow nor the red cow feeding on it. Her dark eyes were fixed gravely on the clouds floating overhead—swelling clouds, piled with darkness and broken by little rims of light. They stretched, far as the eye could see, above the level meadow—cornstalks and dry short grass and green turnip-fields and brown earth radiant in their light. It was the light of early spring, or late fall, clear and liquid, and mysteriously deep. The Dunker's heart was filled with it as she sat very still looking at the clouds.
The Dunker was only nine years old—though from the cut of her blue dress she might have been sixty. It was full in the skirt and high in the neck and buttoned in front. It had been made by her mother after a pattern of her own. It was not a costume to gladden the heart of a child. But as it spread its blue folds on the bank, and the thin straight waist and dark head and folded hands rose above it, it might have belonged to some eternal saint seated in shining light.
The Dunker was far from a saint, and her name was not "the Dunker," but Mary. She had been rechristened by the motormen who ran the little branch trolley that skirted the meadow. When the trolley ran its first trip, it found the child already in possession of the meadow. She had pastured her cow there for six months, rain or shine.
The motorman of the first car leaned out to watch the blue figure sailing across the meadow in a gale of wind. "Whose is that?" he demanded of the conductor, who had joined him in his glass cage for the flying trip across the meadow. The windows were open and the breeze came in freshly. The conductor leaned out beside him to watch the blue figure.
"They live over in 'Little Venice.' I don't know their name—Dunkers, I guess."
So the child was named. The whole line came to know her and to watch out for the quaint figure plodding among the daisies or seated, as now, on the green bank watching her cow.
Before the coming of the trolley the sun had been her clock, and the shadows of the telegraph-poles, lying miles across the meadow, had marked the hours. But now the day was full of excitement—whir and yellow flash and swift buzz struck the quarter-hour. The Dunker learned to know their coming to the fraction of a minute.—Deep silence—long stretches of green—floating clouds—light and shadow on the grass—and then through it, swift as a shuttle, the flying whir of yellow car—and silence again, deep and clear. The wind hummed in the telegraph-wires, and the Dunker laid her ear to the gray pole, listening with wide, intent eyes. Her life was full of wondering and a little wistfulness. Of the world outside her meadow she knew little. She watched, wondering-eyed, as it whizzed by her in the open cars. If the car slowed a trifle for the ascent of the dike, and a woman leaned to another, pointing out the queer blue frock and clumsy shoes, the child did not guess that it meant her. She was shy as a meadow-mouse, but not self-conscious. She watched the cars, with their freight of gay ribbons and big hats, as some grass-born thing might watch—wistful and a little awed. Then she drove her cow along the way.
The car was coming now, headed for the dike. The Dunker waited its approach with quiet eyes. It mounted the dike beside her, with scarcely a diminution of the whirring wheels, stood abreast her for a second, and plunged down the other side. The Dunker turned her head to watch it as it rounded the curve in the road. Then she rose from the bank and descended to her cow.
The cow moved on with stately pace, switching her tail a little—as one who, deep in philosophic thought, yet holds the earth by slender thread. The tail flicked a late fly and fell to idle swaying as the red cow bent her head to crop. To the casual eye she was merely a common, or red, cow with wide-spreading horns and clear, brown eyes. But to the Dunker she was a personage. She had shared the vicissitudes of the family, but they had never caused her to turn a hair or look other than gravely bored. Each spring when the river, rising in its might, swept across the meadow and, creeping around an unprotected corner of the dike, flooded the streets of "Little Venice," the red cow was in danger of her life. Each spring she stood unmoved while the water crept up her slender legs, inch by inch. And each spring she had been rescued from a watery grave by some new and strange device. Sometimes her master led her through the flood, scarcely more than her chin and nose uplifted above its yellow surface. Once he had conceived the idea of borrowing from a thrifty neighbor a boat, driving it through the narrow doorway and embarking the red cow—a tilting load of brown-eyed passiveness. But midstream the boat upset, and the red cow was saved only by a miracle. The next spring, when the flood overtook them, a platform was built for her, and there—mounted on stilts, as it were—she was milked night and morning till the waters subsided. None of these unseemly incidents could have been guessed from the red cow's back as she switched her tail and chewed her cud and cropped the short grass.
No other cow would have been allowed on the meadow. Its great unfenced stretches were not for the feeding of kine, but for grass and corn and potatoes and wheat. No land yielded so richly as the meadow-land. Time had been when to own a strip of it and a pew in the First Church had been the patents of nobility in the little town behind the dike; but that was long ago when Indians were plentiful and factories few. Now the first families owned factories and mills and stores, and the meadowland was passing into the hands of foreigners. "Dagoes" and "Dutchers" and "Frenchies" owned each his little patch, and tilled it, on hands and knees, after a day's work in the factory, turning up the fresh brown earth with a sense of home and thankfulness. The Dunker's father had a little patch, far on the western edge, sown to turnips; and always as the Dunker passed that way she stopped to look at it. Sometimes she stooped and patted the green leaves. There was no one to see her but the sky and the red cow—both intent on affairs of their own.
It may have been the red cow's discretion that had won her the right to wander over the great meadow, or it may have been the Dunker's quiet eyes, or perhaps it was a kind of sixth sense in both, that told them when to crop and when to pass on. No one forbade them and no one warned them off. A mouthful of grass here and there, a handful of daisies for the child, would not be missed, even by a poor man; and many acres still remained in the hands of the rich, who held them for tradition's sake. The mill-owner, on the bluff to the right, owned the great strip that stretched below him. It had belonged to his father and to his grandfather, and to fathers and grandfathers before them. The deed ran back to the original grant, and the mill-owner had refrained from parting with it—though one machine in his factory yielded more in a day than the meadow all summer. But the mill-owner liked to walk there in the cool of the day. A road ran through it and another road branched from it to town, following the curve of the bluff and crossing the dike near the trolley track.
Three figures were coming along this road. They had come down from the big house on the hill. The Dunker stood still to watch them. They came so slowly, scarcely faster than the red cow grazed, that she had time to study each detail, though she knew them already by heart—the light floating dresses of the two little girls, the mother's face, with its quiet smile. The Dunker loved the mother's face. She often stood to watch it, looking out between the wide leaves of the uncut corn. To-day the corn was cut and stacked, hut the Dunker stood and watched them, unmindful of herself. The little girls flitted from side to side, playing at nothing—beautiful to the Dunker's wistful eyes. The one with the golden hair that floated wide was the most beautiful. In her dreams the Dunker had golden hair that floated, and deep blue eyes with shadows in them like a cloud.
The three had come abreast of her now, where she stood in the grass, her clumsy shoes planted well apart, her wide eyes intent. The mother scarcely glanced at her. Her eyes were on the children playing before her. Suddenly the children stopped. They had seen the Dunker. They stared at her. Then they laughed, and one of them—the one with the golden hair—whispered a word in the other's ear. They laughed again and walked backward, hand in hand, lightly, staring at her. She had started, and a look of wonder came into her face and, slowly, a little spot of red in either cheek, as if some one had struck her.
"Adelaide!" said the mother, reprovingly.
The children tittered and ran on.
The mother stopped for a moment to speak to the child, who waited, rooted among the short, crisp grass, the look of wonder still in her face.
"You must not mind them," said the mother. "They are only little girls—and very thoughtless."
"I do not mind, ma'am," said the child. Her breath caught a little. "They are so pretty. I like to look at them."
The mother's breath caught, too, for a minute. She bent and touched the child's face with her hand. "You are pretty, too," she said.
Then she passed on and the child stood watching her out of sight. They took the curve to the left and went up over the dike to the town.
The child turned away, singing in her heart. The light was aquiver, trembling on the grass. Little shadows ran and stopped. The great meadow lay still. Morning everywhere. The Dunker's heart sang with it. She folded her hands and waited. She often stood with her face lifted, waiting—she could not have told for what. It could not have been for the wind passing softly over the grass, nor the shadows creeping slowly to the east, nor the dry grasses that whispered in the wind, rubbing their little blades and sighing gently. It may have been for the marsh-hawk that sailed slowly into view, his great wings curved a little at the tip. She watched him out of sight. Then she laughed and started on. By and by she ran a little. She smiled as she ran, and shook her two little braids in the wind. The sunshine was in her blood. Her heart grew big and sang with it. ... Suddenly she stopped. Far across the level stretch a meadow-lark called low—like spring—and sweet. She lifted her head to listen. Then she followed the sound, the red cow going before her. She would never quite reach the lark, she knew, for always as she came he lifted wing, but she followed, trusting. She loved the high, sweet note coming across the grass; and when it sounded like this, an echo of spring in it, it floated to the clouds and rested there. All the songs of all the larks were there, and when the Dunker raised her face she heard them calling clear—on the south wind they came—calling "Ma-ree—Ma-ree!" out of the cloud and the wind. The great meadow held her round. It waited for her trampling foot—the heavy shoe and happy foot that wandered free all day.
The Dunker had dreams as she wandered in the meadow. Some of them were of what she should be when she grew up. She wanted to be as good as her mother. But in her dreams she never saw herself dressed like her mother, for her mother wore a sunbonnet made of calico, with a short, scant cape in the back. In her dreams the Dunker wore a large hat, like those that whirled by in the trolley—very large, with feathers and roses and lace. It was a superb structure, built up, tier on tier, out of nice fluffy dream-stuff. The Dunker had another dream—only this one was faint, like the call of the lark. ... Straight from the meadow rose a mountain, and beyond the mountain was a college, where girls were; Sometimes they crossed the mountain and strolled in the meadow, two and two. They stopped to speak to the Dunker. They took an interest in the cow and in the flowers the Dunker had picked. Sometimes they sat down with her and wove daisy-chains and hung them round their necks and hers. They wore no hats, and their eyes were clear and shining. When the Dunker looked into them she saw far things. Then they would go away again over their mountain. And when the Dunker looked toward it she dreamed the dream.
There was another dream. It grew out of a tin-peddler's cart. The peddler was a kind man with red hair, and his route lay, from town to town, across the meadow. Each month the orbit of the cart and that of the red cow crossed, and the peddler and the child talked together. She sat upon the high seat beside him and listened to tales of the great world. The cart travelled slowly, with the red cow in view, while the peddler expounded the world and the child's eyes grew wide and happy. It was a life of wonder—to travel from town to town—to see and to know and to do! Her eyes dreamed along the road.
Far down the level stretches a red blur was shaping itself. It was peddler's day! The child's eyes brightened. She waited till the cart reached her in its slow progress, looking at it eagerly.
It halted beside her.
The man looked down from his high seat. "You here?"
"Yes, sir." She waited with dancing eyes.
The man moved along on the seat to make room, and she clambered up beside him.
The old horse moved slowly on. The man looked down at her. "Nice day."
"Yes, sir." She lifted her face a little to the breeze that came across the meadow.
"Good day to run away," said the man.
She gave a little, shy smile, hardly more than the turn of her head. It was their one joke—that she was to ride away with him some day, over the dike and through the town and out into the great world.
"Got your things ready?" said the man.
She laughed out happily. "I can't leave my cow," she said.
"Um-m! She'd be lonesome, I s'pose. Well, I'm lonesome." He looked down at her solemnly from his blue eye.
The child's face dimpled to the joke. "You see folks—lots of 'em—every day."
"Yes, I see folks—" The man's eye strayed over the meadow. "You remember them Barrowses I was tellin' you about—the ones that had a bulldog chained up and a peacock in the yard?"
"Yes." She gave a sigh of content and moved a little nearer.
The man's eye smiled a little as it watched her face. "Well, they've done the cur'usest thing ..." Then his voice went on and on, weaving dream to dream, wonder to wonder. The cart jogged slowly and the red cow ambled behind.
When they came to the top of the dike the child climbed soberly down. "Good-by, sir," she said.
"Wait a minute," said the man. He climbed down beside her. He opened the great door of the cart. A gleam of tinware flashed in the sun. The child's shining eyes feasted on the rows of pans and pails and dippers and cups.
"Don't they look nice!" she said.
The man nodded. "Take what you like," he said, gruffly.
The shining eyes flashed a question. "Me!"
"Take it, or leave it," said the man.
The child drew a deep sigh. She reached out a hand to the shining things and drew it back. "They're all nice," she said.
The man laughed shortly. "I must be gettin' on."
Her eyes had returned to the cart. She laid her hand shyly on something that hung from the highest shelf. "I'll take this."
The man detached it and laid it in her hand. "Know what it is?"
She shook her head slowly. "I like it." Her fingers were handling it gently, turning the little wheel at the end, touching it here and there.
"That is a pie-crust crimper," he said, proudly. "You see how it works? You roll the edge along this way"—he made a pie in the air and ran the little wheel around it—"then you turn it, t'other end to, and cut the crust off like this—" peeling' into the air.
The peddler mounted his cart and drove away over the dike, out of sight, and the Dunker stood with the pie-crust crimper in her hand, looking wistfully at the spot where he had vanished against the sky. She knew that her mother would grieve a little when the "crimper" was laid before her. A milk-pail would have been more useful, or a broom, or even a dipper. But the Dunker's heart held its dream. Some day—who knew?—she, too, might travel far, and feel the wind on her face, and see the world beyond the dike!
She was turning away, but three figures were coming round the curve—the little girls again and the mother with the eyes that smiled. The Dunker waited on the top of the dike, watching them as they came. They were playing a new game—"walk the track"—and the little girls, balanced on each rail, tilted and laughed and reached out a hand to the mother, who walked between them, her hands outspread.
It was a pretty game. The Dunker had played it. But it was not so easy for her wide-soled, heavy shoes as for these tiny things, hardly more than feathers, that rested so lightly on the rails. They came like floating down, a kind of thistle lightness, till they almost ran. Then there was a stumble and a little cry. One of them had slipped and fallen forward. She was on her feet again in an instant, laughing. But one little foot was caught in the flange of track where it swerved at the foot of the dike. "We shall have to take off the shoe," said the mother. She pulled off her gloves rapidly. "Take these, dear." She held them out to the other child and bent above the foot, with swift fingers. ..." It is a fast knot. Never mind! It will only take a minute." She was on her knees before the child, and her voice came clear and untroubled to the Dunker on the bank.
The Dunker watched the pretty scene, her wide eyes filled with interest and wonder. Something within her clicked—and she wheeled about. ... Behind her, down the track, the yellow whir and flash! For a moment the sun and sky stood still. Then the Dunker spread her arms. The heavy shoes flew, striking the track, clatter, clatter. The breeze leaped to meet her face as she ran.
"It's the Dunker—gone crazy," said the motorman. But his hand was steady on the wheel, slowing it inch by inch. He leaned from the window. "What's up?"
The child, in front of the car, her face raised, panted a little. "You mustn't go over," she said, slowly. "You'll hurt 'em."
The motorman nodded. "All right. Stand away." The car moved on and the child trotted beside it, one hand on its yellow side—to hold it back. Slowly it mounted the dike and stood there, looking down.
The mother was kneeling, with fingers that trembled. The child's set face gleamed from the gold hair. With a little wrench the shoe parted from the foot, and the stockinged foot lay in her mother's hand. The air was so still that a field-sparrow near by broke into singing.
The car waited above.
In a moment it was over. The child was drawn close to her mother's side, the track was clear, and the car descended slowly, with curious glances.
From the dike the Dunker watched them, a sweet, happy smile on her face. Then she turned away and went down to the red cow. When the shoe had been replaced and the mother and children came to the top of the dike, the Dunker was far away, a misty bit of blue in the great meadow.
At luncheon, when the mill-owner heard the story, his face turned suddenly white and the hand that set down his glass trembled a little.
"We must do something for the child," he said. "Find out what she wants."
From either side of the table two trusting blue eyes were turned to him, and across the table his wife's glance met his, full of wistful light.
"I don't think there is very much we can give her," she said, slowly. "She has everything. You should see her eyes."
He looked at her inquiringly.
"They are full of big things."
"Full of dreams?"
He laughed easily. "But we will make the dreams come true."
"Yes, we will make the dreams come true—if we can." A little sigh went with the words, as if a breath stole up from the meadow and touched them.