In the Time of the Sweetbrier
IN THE TIME OF THE SWEETBRIER.
By Harriet Prescott Spofford.
IF Sally had not known Tom all her life, so that he was as much a feature of the universe as the air or the sunshine, it might have been different. But suddenly the other one came home from sea, having run away a boy and returned a dark and towering man, and Tom's day was over.
Humphrey simply took things for granted. Here was the loveliest girl on the Shore. The loveliest girl on the Shore was his by right. He did not hesitate to possess himself. And she fluttered like a bird to his hand. Her tender brown eyes glowed, her soft cheek flushed, her mouth dimpled at the sight of him, the thought of him. She had entered an enchanted country in which there dwelt no one but Humphrey and herself—and perhaps the great-grandmother: a little woman so old that she had no grasp upon the passing moment, and neither care nor sorrow touched her as she sat wrapped in a cloud of memories.
And Tom stood off, astounded, half-angry—how could he be wholly angry with one as much a child as a woman and sweet as a flower? And how could Tom be angry with Humphrey, who once had been his other self; who seemed to him, come home from foreign lands, like one who had the freedom of great seas and cities? And an old, admiring loyalty was still faithful to him.
Humphrey took Tom into his confidence; he was going to settle down now to a trade; he was going to marry Sally. And Tom, too much aghast at the suddenness of the proposition for speech, found afterwards that silence was golden. But the heart went out of his stroke and the cunning out of his hand.
The late summer sunlight that came through the door opening above the river, and lay level in the shop, always hailed with impatience before, now was only a mockery. The other men, one evening, had been gone some time; but he had lingered alone among the piles of lumber, in the fragrance of the freshly cut wood. It was a pretty boat he had drafted—the season being dull—for himself and Sally. He had made it of the best pine; there was to be a back and a cushion to the seat in the stern, and it should carry a light sail on occasion,—he had chosen the stick for the mast, and hewn out its eight sides, and smoothed and polished and oiled it till he could do no more. And all the time he worked he was dreaming of happy hours with Sally, now rowing into the sunset where high banks, and mid-tide rocks, and mirroring water and flowing flame melting into blue mists, made it like sailing the seas of fairyland—not that Tom knew much about fairyland, but that in every one's consciousness there is something answering to that charmed meridian; now off on the other side, into the Island River, with sails in silver creeks, across reaches of emerald marsh, with yellow sandhills and skimming flocks of peeps and plovers. And not that he had any right to think of Sally as his companion, but that it was his hope and pleasure—and now—ah, was it, really with Sally that he had rowed out into the afterglow as if they would penetrate a bubble, or had sat on the doorstone of the little house in the field where she lived with her great-grandmother? Humphrey would be sitting there now. And Tom stayed on alone in the shop, seeing twilight steal up the river with the tide, till it was as dark about him as his own thoughts.
He had gone outside on the platform over the water at the back of the shop, when he heard a movement within, and saw the gleam of a lantern.
Presently there was a tumbling among the boards, and a muttering voice; then the lifting and falling of lumber and the steady sound of a saw.
"What you doing there?" called Tom.
"Don't you know what I'm doing?" answered Humphrey, sullenly. "I'm making her a wooden cloak, by king!" And Tom remembered, with a sudden pang, the tradition that the father of Humphrey's mother had lost his wits, and that his madness began with making a coffin for his wife.
"No, no!" Tom cried out. "My God!"
He darted into the inner shop, and Hurhphrey, taken unawares in the gloom, sprang at him and grappled, and in a moment, Tom held fast in the mad young giant's grip, they were rolling and tumbling out upon the platform, and had plunged together into the tide beneath.
Perhaps the shock of the cold water quenched some of the fire in that hot brain. They swam out, and climbed the shore. "Good Lord, Tom Brier," said Humphrey, "keep your mouth shet! The' ain't nothin'—ben kinder het up worryin' by spells. I do' know's I think a feller thet has them spells hed oughter marry Sally. Now, do you think he hed?"
"No," said Tom, "no."
Humphrey stopped, all dripping as he was. "That's because you want her yourself!" he cried fiercely.
"I'll make a bargain with you," said Tom. "Ef you'll stan' off, I will."
"An' let another man hev my Sally fer his wife?" He gave a roar like a young bull, and started away on a run through the dark night, Tom following. And Tom and Jo Burns took care of Humphrey then through a smart season of what was called brain fever As soon as Humphrey was able, he went to sea again with Captain Mather in the "Man of Mull," and he went without bidding Sally good-by. And Sally didn't pretend to hold up her head; and even the little old grandmother felt dimly through her haze that the sun was not shining. "Seem's ef I was goin' ter a berryin'," she moaned now and then.
"Wal, so ye be," said Mrs. Mather, the captain's young black-eyed bride, "unless Sally here—I sh'd think you'd hev more pride, Sally!"
"I ain't any pride," said Sally, slowly, the tears welling up and standing in her eyes till they looked like some great unknown brown jewels.
"Now, Sally, child, don't! I guess you're jest's well off."
"Would you 'a' ben as well off ef Cap'n Mather'd lef you 'thout a word?"
"I sh'd think there was some difference," said Mrs. Mather, with a pretty dignity, "w'en I'm Cap'n Mather's wife."
"I'm the same thin' es Humphrey's," said Sally, the tear sparkling in a thousand points as it fell and broke upon her needle.
"Be you! Sally, the's a good many o' yer fren's precious glad you ain't!"
"I do' know w'y!— Yes, gran'ma'am, I'll put the plums in yer porritch. It's real dull fer ye, dear soul. She likes ter hev me sing, but somehow I can't seem ter bring a soun' out'n my throat."
"Sally, you jest listen ter reason. Humphrey Lavendar comes of a strange sort. An' thet's drorin' it mild. It's more'n likely he's gone off teched now. I feel all nervoused up w'enever I think he's on the brig 'ith the cap'n. Ef Tom Brier hedn't shet up shop an' gone erlong tew, I couldn' stan' it no way. Tom's got a notion o' lookin' out fer Humphrey, an'll keep him out o' harm's way. But you know mos' folks agrees," continued Mrs. Mather, rubbing her knitting-needle through her hair, her own color mounting as she saw the mounting color on the downcast face before her, "in condemnin' crazy folks fer marryin' an' bringin' grief to them thet's unborn—"
"I'm real ashamed o' you, Ann Mather!" suddenly cried the little old grandmother, with a spark of to-day's life, "You ain't a mite modest, a-talkin' so. An' t' our Sally, tew!"
"My land, Mis' Good'n, how ye started me!"
"Sally's my gran'darter—or I'm hern—I do' know jest how't come—W'y, tain't but t'other day I turned up my hair. Lisha said, thet day, I rekerlec' jest es ef 'twas yestiddy, 'An' the hair of thine head like purple.' It wuz—all pupply black;" and the old voice went babbling on like a bee in a flower.
"Oh, Ann, Ann, I wisht you wouldn'! I know ye mean well. But I wisht you wouldn'!" cried Sally, hiding her face in both hands. "You do' know! Oh, I feel's ef Humphrey an' me's ben one soul in all the lives thet's ever ben, an' was ter be one soul in all the lives thet is ter come, an' jes' becos his head goes wrong now an' then in this 'ere one, I guess it ain't goin' ter break all thet up—ef it doos go wrong—I can't say. An' I couldn', oh, I couldn', talk ter you so, ef I didn' feel sure he'd come back, an' you an' me allus sech frien's—"
"Don't you think you'd better be runnin' home?" asked the grandmother in a coaxing tone, suddenly observing Sally's sobs. "I guess yer ma'am'll be a-lookin' fer ye. It's mos' supper-time, tew, an' I shouldn't wonner ef yer stent's all knit up. I guess you'd better be a-runnin' home."
"Wal, yis, Mis' Good'n, I guess I be," said Mrs. Mather, laughing, and rolling up her work. "I wisht I was goin' ter see the 'Man of Mull' rounding the corner of Great Rock," she said then.
"I wisht you was," said Sally.
But it was many a month before the "Man of Mull" rounded the corner of Great Rock; and when she stood off in the harbor, like a glimmering twilight ghost, Sally was the one who knew it first, running home over the back pasture, and waiting breathless at the foot of the field that night for Humphrey.
But Humphrey did not come. And when a week passed he had not come. She had upbuoyed herself by unexpressed hope that he had gone away to test their affection. And now she did not know what to think.
"Ef she'd on'y the leastest mite o' sperrit, she'd be mad an' git over it," said Mrs. Mather to the captain. "My! I sh'd like ter see myself ef you'd acted the way Humphrey hes—"
"I shouldn't, then," said the captain.
Three weeks of the dull spring weather had passed, and now the sun shone, and the soft winds curled, a shimmer of golden green bathed all the air, and the rose and snow of clouds of apple-bloom seemed to give wings to the world. Only Sally crept about as if her feet were leaden, and her heart was leaden, too. There were no wings for her, not even when the pungency of the lilacs had vanished and the sweetbriers were shedding their delicate spice upon the air of all the soft June days.
"Be I never goin' ter meetin' any more?" moaned the little old grandmother, as she heard the evening bell ring out across the shore. It made no difference to the happenings of her thought that she had not been there in twenty years; the fact that the bell was ringing and Sally was not going, worked that way in her dim mind. "Where's my bunnit, Sally? There'll be a dretfle goin' in the mulberries ef I stay away frum meetin'."
"I guess we won't hurry," one sitting on the doorstone heard Sally's soft voice say.
"Be you expectin' anybody, Sally?" asked the grandmother in a puzzled tone.
"Be I? Oh, no, indeed, gran'ma'am, not any more. Oh, no." And the voice was so low and tired that the chair-bound old woman paused a moment, considering it, before she said, "All het up, you be. Go an' set down in the door an' git cooled off afore we start. An' fetch me in a bit o' the sweetbrier. I allers like ter wear a sprig o' sweetbrier w'en I go ter meetin'." And she began to sing in a thin little pipe her treble part in the fugue that many and many a season ago she had sung in the singing-seats:
"Come, my beloved, haste away,
Cut short the hours of thy delay."
Sally went out and sat down upon the doorstone, and leaned her head against the post, where a thorn of the vine caught her hair. Then, as she lifted her hand wearily to free the fluttering tress, for Sally's hair was always blowing about her eyes, she became conscious that some one else was sitting on the stone. And before she could exclaim, or before her eyes had become accustomed to the clear dark, she knew that it was Humphrey. "I couldn't help it, Sally," he murmured. "I couldn't help it no way. I tried to keep away. I had to come."
And, all at once, with an unaccountable caprice of love and reproach and sorrow, Sally felt the floods of indignation sweeping over her in a hot wave, and she could not have spoken or have turned her head to save her life.
That he could have subjected her to all these months of suffering and shame! "Sally," said he, "ain't ye goin' ter speak ter me?" That he should have tried to keep away! That he should come now, as if she were a poor, spiritless thing who only had to be called!
"Sally," he said again, with a faltering voice, "I 'most broke your heart, I know. You ain't a-goin' ter break mine?"
She would have liked to utter some short, sharp sentence, if her voice could obey her. She would have gone in and left him, if her knees had not trembled so. She was only half conscious of herself, but wholly conscious of wrong and outrage. It was the flame in which the last flicker of self was burning out. And then the wind stirred the sweetbrier climbing up the doorway, and the dewy deliciousness of its odor crept about them, and she remembered a starlit, soft-blowing night a year ago when he had said— She would be crying in another moment. She must tell him a man was not to play fast and loose with her. She must tell him she never wanted to see his face again. Then the little old voice within quavered in its high-pitched key, "Is that Lisha on the step?" Lisha was the husband dead and gone this three-score years. "Tell 'im I'm comin' in a minute," she said. "I wisht I wasn't so shame-faced. We was called in meetin' last Sabba' day. I seen Loisy Burns crane her neck roun', an' I was pink es my ribbins, an' I growed pinker an' pinker tell I couldn' stan' it a minute more, an' ups an' runs out o' meetin'. An' Lisha, he growed red, an' he growed redder, they ses; an' he wanted ter foller, an' he didn' darst; an' at lenth he'd 'a' bolted sure, but Jane wouldn' let him by. An' ma'am ses the elders 'll be up ter deal 'ith me."
There was a moment's silence; and Sally could hear her own heart beat before the voice went singing on again, the little old woman in there thinking her own thoughts aloud. "I do' know how I'm ever goin' ter stan' it ter walk out bride," she said. "Sally's trimmed my bunnit with pink. sweetbrier, sister Sally. I hed a notion fer sweetbrier. I was all twisted roun' in a bush of it w'en it fust come ter Lisha thet mebbe I was pretty. I like ter hev Lisha think I'm pretty. An' I be pretty," chirped the little old woman, whose withered face was a woven work of lines, and whose purblind eyes were sunken in their pits. "An' the' ain't many young men like Lisha, fer all o' Jeff. They useter say the' was Injun in thet blood, he was thet tall an' stret, an' his eyes like black coals 'ith the fire in them. Wal, ef the' is, Injun blood's good blood, certain; the blood o' kings an' chiefs, upright and downright; an' w'en he's said a thin' onst, he's said it fer good an' all. I guess I hed reason ter know." The voice ceased then a space. But Sally did not stir.
Perhaps a light slumber overcame the tired old speaker; for when in a few moments she spoke again, the scene had changed in her fancy. "The's nothin' like the smell o' the sweetbrier in the mornin'—you gittin' me a sprig, Sally? It's got the hull o' the summer in it. The wind's allers blowin' fresh an' soft, an' the sun's shinin', an' the's cobwebs on the grass, an' dew outer them a-twinklin' like the jewels in the high-priest's breas'plate, w'en ye smell the sweetbrier. I s'pose it's erlong o' my gittin' tangled in thet vine in the swamp where I'd run down fer some sassafras sticks, an' he come by drivin' the w'ite heifer thet stole her calf. An' I see him a-comin', an' tried ter git quit o' the vine an' on'y got tangled more, tel I was twisted ev'ey which way 'ith the blows, an' there come a gret bumbly-bee a-buzzin' an' a-boomin' inter the flowers an' a-bangin' agin my face. An' I was all in a shiver,—I never could abide the bumbly-bees—an' I screamed. 'He teks it fer one o' the flowers,' ses Lisha, ses he, leavin' the cow. An' he flirted off the bee with the branch he kerried, an' he bent his face es ef he was goin' ter kiss me, an' I was mad enough, I tell ye. An' then he straightened up es ef he'd never thought of it, an' I was madder still. 'Wen I do kiss ye, Sally Brent,' ses he, 'you'll hev ter ask me ter,' ses he. An' then I jest wrenched my ginggum gown out'n thet vine tell 'twas mos'ly slits an' catry-corners, an' scampered. But he come up the yard thet night, slow an' l'iterin' like, an' stood leanin' agin the porch, an' he was a-talkin' 'ith Jeff w'ether 'twas wuth w'iie ter hev planited es many o' them new-fangle pertaterses es they hed, an' I sot on the stun a-sayin' nothin'. An' jest's he was goin', he pulled down a stem o' the sweetbrier thet was growin' over the porch, an' he stooped an' said, low like, 'The' ain't but one thin' sweeter'n sweetbrier is, I calh'late; ' an' then he pulled hisself up, an' kinder laffed, an' was off. An' it warn't no fault o' mine ef my heart was off arter him. An' w'en I went ter prayer-meetin' nex' time, it was Lisha thet was comin' home my way; an' w'en singin'-schule was over, it was Lisha thet kep on beside me; an' it was Lisha thet stepped furrud w'en I come out o' meetin' Sabba days; an' it was Lisha thet, w'en we all went berryin', kerried my pail; an' it was Lisha thet never so much as took a holt of my han'; an' it was Lisha thet kep all the other boys as far away es ef they lived in the nex' township; an' it was Lisha thet come up the yard ev'ey durin' evenin' ter talk crops some consid'able 'ith Jeif, or else ter argy about free-will an' predestination. 'The's more thin's 'n one thet's predesternated,' he ses ter me, as he was goin' onst, an' p'raps his han' thet he leaned agin' the porch 'ith trem'led a mite, I do' know. But down fell all the last o' the sweetbrier round me,—the porch was so old 'twas jes' punk. An' it tuk him no eend o' time ter git the vine back,—fer Jeff hed gone off mad w'en Lisha said he din' b'lieve in no eternal damnation,—an' then to git the thorns out'n my han's. An' our faces was ferfle clost together, an' I could see the moonlight a-sparklin' in them gret black eyes o' his'n es ef I was lookin' down a well. An' I felt's ef he was sayin', 'Now's yer chance,' an' I thought ter myself I'd die fust! An' Jeff come ter the door an' called me in—we'd got sech a habit o' mindin' Jeff, 'ith him a-managin' the farm, though the farm warn't no more his'n than 'twas Dolly's an' Betsey's an' Sally's an' mine, thet I jes' crep' in. An' Jeff come out, an' begun the argyin' over agin, hammer an' tongs, fer they'd ben gittin' real stormy 'ith their talk, es ef all creation hinged on't; an' nex' day Jeff went at it agin full chisel 'ith us gals, an' called Lisha, Abaddon an' Apollyon an' all the rest on 'em, an' I was tew shamed ter open my mouth. 'Twas the very nex' night, jest, arter Lisha come sarnterin' up the yard, and Jeff hed tackled him 'thout regards ter time o' day nor manners, thet Deacon James come sarnterin' up tew, an' presen'ly who should come arter him but the elder. An' then I see w'at Jeff was up ter. He didn' like Lisha no way, an' he warn't goin' ter hev him merryin' me, an' he was goin' ter show him up fer an unbeliever an' hev him hauled over the coals. 'Hear him!' he cries to the elder. 'Hear this feller a-denyin' the fundermentle princerples o' religion. He don' believe thet the's some folks foredoomed frum all eternity—'
" 'No, I don't,' ses Lisha. 'An' I don't believe in the damnation o' babies.'
" 'Nor of anybody else!' cries out Jeff.
" 'Nor of anybody else,' says Lisha.
" 'He don't believe in an angry an' offended God—'
" 'No, I don't,' ses Lisha. 'I don't believe in a cruel being thet makes folks jes fer the pleasure of damnin' 'em, an' I wouldn't worship him ef I did!'
" 'An' the nex' thin' he'll be sayin' he don't b'lieve the worl' was made in six days—'
" 'No, I don't,' ses Lisha.
" 'He's chock full o' Antinomian heresy, he's a condemned Arian, he's a freethinker!' roars Jeff. An' then es I see Lisha a-stan'in' there in the moonshine, one agin all the rest on 'em, my heart begun to swell. 'An' I demand you shall call the deacons an' members together, an' hev him read out o' meetin',' shouted Jeff. 'I won't fellership 'ith no sech—'
" 'Then you won't fellership 'ith me!' I cries, an' I sprung up an' run an' caught Lisha's han' an' pulled his arm roun' me. 'Fer I b'lieve jest es Lisha doos,' I ses. The' was dead silence. I see Dolly an' Betsey an' sister Sally, who'd a ben settin' in the door behind me, all give a start, an' then stop, an' then of a sudden, an' in a minnit, jes 's ef 'twas now or never, they all come runnin' ter where I was. 'We b'lieve jest 's Lisha doos,' they ses, ses they, es solemn like es ef they was on public trial. An' nobody spoke. An' it seemed ter me 'twas time for sun-up afore the elder cleared his throat. 'Brother,' ses the elder to Jeff, 'the fundermentle princerple o' religion isn't hate. It's love. The Lord didn't put us here ter say w'at he's done an' w'at he's goin' ter do, nor w'at he is an' w'at he isn't. I guess I wouldn' read Lisha out o' meetin' because he thinks better o' God than ter believe evil of Him. Ef he loves the Lord with all his heart, an' with all his soul, an' with all his strenth, an' with all his mind, an' his neighbor es himself—'
" 'I da!' ses Lisha.
" 'Then he's obeyin' the fundermentle princerple o' religion es our Lord an' Master give it us himself. I guess you'd better let argyments go, Jeff, an' shake han's 'ith Lisha. The's more religion in brotherly love,' ses the elder, ses he, his old face w'ite an' shinin' in the moon, 'than there is in doctrines an' damnations. How's yer cider, Jeff? I do' know es I know of a pootier thin' in all natur' than the way the cider down in the close bar'l in the dark suller feels the blossomin' o' the apple-trees up in the light an' the air, an' gits all worked up, at the same time, a-rememberin' or a-sympathizin' 'ith the stir o' the new life. It's full o' speritooal significance,' ses the elder, es they all went in. But Lisha kep' his arm clost roun' me—he never lemme go—an' we sot down together on the doorstun there. 'I guess I ain't ben livin' up ter my princerples,' ses he, low like ter me, 'boun' ter hev my own way, an' a-actin' like a child, an' showin' temper towards you, w'en all the time I loved ye so. Ain't ye goin' ter kiss me now?' ses he. Oh, me, me, me! It's I do' know how many years ago! Oh, my! ef I could feel them lips on mine agin! Ef I on'y could! I be a little wizened-up old woman,—I sense it, oh I du—but the old love allus stirs in me in sweetbrier time, jes's the life doos in the cider come apple-blow. Sometimes my heart jest aches fer the kiss I wouldn' give you onst. Ef ye could on'y kiss me now, Lisha,"—and she was crying to herself before she fell asleep again.
For a moment after the little piping voice was hushed Sally sat stone still. Then she put out her arm gropingly in the dusk between the playing of the low summer lightnings. "I do' know w'y you went away, nor w'y you stayed away," she whispered; "but you're here now! And, oh, Humphrey, no matter what happens"—and Humphrey felt a face as soft as the brushing of rose-petals, and two warm, trembling lips on his, and the present was all heaven, and the future was hidden in the dark.