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The Gay Cockade/The Canopy Bed

 

THE CANOPY BED

"My great-grandfather slept in it," Van Alen told the caretaker, as she ushered him into the big stuffy bedroom.

The old woman set her candlestick down on the quaint dresser. "He must have been a little man," she said; "none of my sons could sleep in it. Their feet would hang over."

Van Alen eyed the big bed curiously. All his life he had heard of it, and now he had traveled far to see it. It was a lumbering structure of great width and of strangely disproportionate length. And the coverlet and the canopy were of rose-colored chintz.

"I think I shall fit it," he said slowly.

Mrs. Brand's critical glance weighed his smallness, his immaculateness, his difference from her own great sons.

"Yes," she said, with the open rudeness of the country-bred; "yes, you ain't very big."

Van Alen winced. Even from the lips of this uncouth woman the truth struck hard. But he carried the topic forward with the light ease of a man of the world.

"My grandfather had the bed sawed to his own length," he explained; "did you ever hear the story?"

"No," she said; "I ain't been here long. They kept the house shut up till this year."

"Well, I'll tell you when I come down," and Van Alen opened his bag with a finality that sent the old woman to the door.

"Supper's ready," she told him, "whenever you are."

At the supper table the four big sons towered above Van Alen. They ate with appetites like giants, and they had big ways and hearty laughs that seemed to dwarf their guest into insignificance.

But the insignificance was that of body only, for Van Alen, fresh from the outside world and a good talker at all times, dominated the table conversationally.

To what he had to say the men listened eagerly, and the girl who waited on the table listened.

She was a vivid personality, with burnished hair, flaming cheeks, eyes like the sea. Her hands, as she passed the biscuits, were white, and the fingers went down delicately to little points. Van Alen, noting these things keenly, knew that she was out of her place, and wondered how she came there.

At the end of the meal he told the story of the Canopy Bed.

"My great-grandfather was a little man, and very sensitive about his height. In the days of his early manhood he spent much time in devising ways to deceive people into thinking him taller. He surrounded himself with big things, had a big bed made, wore high-heeled boots, and the crown of his hat was so tall that he was almost overbalanced.

"But for all that, he was a little man among the sturdy men of his generation, and if it had not been for the Revolution I think he would have died railing at fate. But the war brought him opportunity. My little great-grandfather fought in it, and won great honors, and straight back home he came and had the bed sawed off! He wanted future generations to see what a little man could do, and his will provided that this house should not be sold, and that, when his sons and grandsons had proved themselves worthy of it by some achievement, they should come here and sleep. I think he swaggered a little when he wrote that will, and he has put his descendants in an embarrassing position. We can never sleep in the canopy bed without taking more upon ourselves than modesty permits!"

He laughed, and instinctively his eyes sought those of the girl who waited on the table. Somehow he felt that she was the only one who could understand.

She came back at him with a question: "What have you done?"

"I have written a book," he told her.

She shook her head, and there were little sparks of light in her eyes. "I don't believe that was what your grandfather meant," she said, slowly.

They stared at her—three of the brothers with their knives and forks uplifted, the fourth, a blond Titanic youngster, with his elbows on the table, his face turned up to her, as to the sun.

"I don't believe he meant something done with your brains, but something fine, heroic——" There was a hint of scorn in her voice.

Van Alen flushed. He was fresh from the adulation of his bookish world.

"I should not have come," he explained, uncomfortably, "if my mother had not desired that I preserve the tradition of the family."

"It is a great thing to write a book"—she was leaning forward, aflame with interest—"but I don't believe he meant just that——"

He laughed. "Then I am not to sleep in the canopy bed?"

The girl laughed too. "Not unless you want to be haunted by his ghost."

With a backward flashing glance, she went into the kitchen, and Van Alen, lighting a cigarette, started to explore the old house.

Except for the wing, occupied by the caretaker, nothing had been disturbed since the family, seeking new fortunes in the city, had left the old homestead to decay among the desolate fields that yielded now a meagre living for Mrs. Brand and her four strapping sons.

In the old parlor, where the ancient furniture showed ghostlike shapes in the dimness, and the dead air was like a tomb, Van Alen found a picture of his great-grandfather.

The little man had been painted without flattery. There he sat—Lilliputian on the great charger! At that moment Van Alen hated him—that Hop-o'-my-Thumb of another age, founder of a pigmy race, who, by his braggart will, had that night brought upon this one of his descendants the scorn of a woman.

And even as he thought of her, she came in, with the yellow flare of a candle lighting her vivid face.

"I thought you might need a light," she said; "it grows dark so soon."

As he took the candle from her, he said abruptly: "I shall not sleep in the canopy bed; there is a couch in the room."

"Oh," her tone was startled, "you shouldn't have taken all that I said in earnest."

"But you meant it?"

"In a way, yes. I have been in here so often and have looked at your grandfather's picture. He was a great little man—you can tell from his eyes—they seem to speak at times."

"To you?"

"Yes. Of how he hated to be little, and how he triumphed when fame came at last."

"I hate to be little——"

It was the first time that he had ever owned it. Even as a tiny boy he had brazened it out, boasting of his mental achievements and slurring the weakness of his stunted body.

"I know," she had shut the kitchen door behind her, and they were standing in the hallway alone, "I know. Every man must want to be big."

She was only the girl who had waited on the table, but as she stood there, looking at him with luminous eyes, he burned with dull resentment, envying the blond boy who had sprawled at the head of the supper table. After all, it was to such a man as Otto Brand that this woman would some day turn.

He spoke almost roughly: "Size isn't everything." She flushed. "How rude you must think me," she said; "but I have been so interested in dissecting your grandfather that I forgot—you——"

Van Alen was moved by an impulse that he could not control, a primitive impulse that was not in line with his usual repression.

"I am tempted to make you remember me," he said slowly, and after that there was a startled silence. And then she went away.

As he passed the sitting-room on his way up-stairs, he looked in, and spoke to Otto Brand.

More than any of the other brothers, Otto typified strength and beauty, but in his eyes was never a dream, his brain had mastered nothing. He was playing idly with the yellow cat, but he stopped at Van Alen's question.

"Her great-grandfather and yours were neighbors," the boy said, with his cheeks flushing; "they own the next farm."

"The Wetherells?" Van Alen inquired.

The boy nodded. "They ain't got a cent. They're land poor. That's why she's here. But she don't need to work."

"Why not?"

"There's plenty that wants to marry her round about," was the boy's self-conscious summing up.

With a sense of revolt, Van Alen left him, and, undressing in the room with the canopy bed, he called up vaguely the vision of a little girl who had visited them in the city. She had had green eyes and freckles and red hair. Beyond that she had made no impression on his callowness. And her name was Mazie Wetherell.

He threw himself on the couch, and the night winds, coming in through the open window, stirred the curtains of the canopy bed with the light touch of a ghostly hand.

Then dreams came, and through them ran the thread of his hope of seeing Mazie Wetherell in the morning.

But even with such preparation, her beauty seemed to come upon him unawares when he saw her at breakfast. And again at noon, and again at night. But it was the third day before he saw her alone.

All that day he had explored the length and breadth of the family estate, finding it barren, finding that the population of the little village at its edge had decreased to a mere handful of laggards, finding that there was no lawyer within miles and but one doctor; gaining a final impression that back here in the hills men would come no more where once men had thronged.

It was almost evening when he followed a furrowed brown road that led westward. Above the bleak line of the horizon the sun hung, a red gold disk. There were other reds, too, along the way—the sumac flaming scarlet against the gray fence-rails; the sweetbrier, crimson-spotted with berries; the creeper, clinging with ruddy fingers to dead tree-trunks; the maple leaves rosy with first frosts.

And into this vividness came the girl who had waited on the table, and her flaming cheeks and copper hair seemed to challenge the glow of the autumn landscape.

She would have passed him with a nod, but he stopped her.

"You must not run away, Mazie Wetherell," he said; "you used to treat me better than that when you were a little girl."

She laughed. "Do you remember my freckles and red hair?"

"I remember your lovely manners."

"I had to have nice manners. It is only pretty children who can afford to be bad."

"And pretty women?" he asked, with his eyes on the color that came and went.

She flung out her hands in a gesture of protest "I have seen so few."

His lips were opened to tell her of her own beauty, but something restrained him, some perception of maidenly dignity that enfolded her and made her more than the girl who had waited on the table.

"You were a polite little boy," she recalled, filling the breach made by his silence. "I remember that you carried me across the street, to save my slippers from the wet. I thought you were wonderful. I have never forgotten."

Neither had Van Alen forgotten. It had been a great feat for his little strength. There had been other boys there, bigger boys, but he had offered, and had been saved humiliation by her girlish slimness and feather weight.

"I was a strong little fellow then," was his comment: "I am a strong little fellow now."

She turned on him reproachful eyes. "Why do you always harp on it?" she demanded.

"On what?"

"Your size. You twist everything, turn everything, so that we come back to it."

He tried to answer lightly, but his voice shook. "Perhaps it is because in your presence I desire more than ever the full stature of a man."

He was in deadly earnest. Hitherto he had been willing to match his brain, his worldly knowledge, his ancestry, against the charms of the women he had met; but here with this girl, standing like a young goddess under the wide, sunset sky, he felt that only for strength and beauty should she choose her mate.

He wondered what he must seem in her eyes; with his shoulder on a level with hers, with his stocky build that saved him from effeminacy, his carefulness of attire—which is at once the burden and the salvation of the small man.

As for his face, he knew that its homeliness was redeemed by a certain strength of chin, by keen gray eyes, and by a shock of dark hair that showed a little white at the temples. There were worse-looking men, he knew, but that, at the present moment, gave little comfort.

She chose to receive his remark in silence, and, as they came to a path that branched from the road, she said:

"I am going to help take care of a child who is sick. You see I am mistress of all trades—nurse, waitress, charwoman, when there is nothing else." He glanced at her hands. "I cannot believe that you scrub," he said.

"I sit up at night to care for my hands"—there was a note of bitterness in her tone—"and I wear gloves when I work. There are some things that one desires to hold on to, and my mother and my grandmother were ladies of leisure."

"Would you like that—to be a lady of leisure?"

She turned and smiled at him. "How can I tell?" she asked; "I have never tried it."

She started to leave him as she said it, but he held her with a question: "Shall you sit up all night?"

She nodded. "His mother has had no sleep for two nights."

"Is he very ill?"

The girl shrugged her shoulders. "Who knows? There is no doctor near, and his mother is poor. We are fighting it out together."

There was something heroic in her cool acceptance of her hard life. He was silent for a moment, and then he said: "Would you have time to read my book to-night?"

"Oh, if I might," she said eagerly, "but you haven't it with you."

"I will bring it," he told her, "after supper."

"But," she protested.

"There are no 'buts,'" he said, smiling; "if you will read it, I will get it to you."

The sky had darkened, and, as he went toward home, he faced clouds in the southeast.

"It is going to rain," Otto Brand prophesied as they sat down to supper.

The other three men hoped that it would not. Already the ground was soaked, making the cutting of corn impossible, and another rain with a frost on top of it would spoil all chance of filling the silo.

Van Alen could not enter into their technical objections. He hoped it would not rain, because he wanted to take a book to Mazie Wetherell, and he had not brought a rain-coat.

But it did rain, and he went without a rain-coat!

The house, as he neared it, showed no light, and under the thick canopy of the trees there was no sound but the drip, drip of the rain. By feeling and instinct he found the front door, and knocked.

There was a movement inside, and then Mazie Wetherell asked softly: "Who's there?"

"I have brought the book."

The bolt was withdrawn, and in the hall, scarcely lighted by the shaded lamp in the room beyond, stood the girl, in a loose gray gown, with braided shining hair—a shadowy being, half-merged into the shadows.

"I thought you would not come," in a hushed tone, "in such a storm."

"I said I should come. The book may help you through the long night."

She caught her breath quickly. "The child is awfully ill."

"Are you afraid? Let me stay."

"Oh, no, no. His mother is sleeping, and I shall have your book."

She did not ask him in, and so he went away at once, beating his way back in the wind and rain, fording a little stream where the low foot-bridge was covered, reaching home soaking wet, but afire with dreams.

Otto Brand was waiting for him, a little curious as to what had taken him out so late, but, getting no satisfaction, he followed Van Alen up-stairs, and built a fire for him in the big bedroom. And presently, in the light of the leaping flames, the roses on the canopy of the bed glowed pink.

"Ain't you goin' to sleep in the bed?" Otto asked, as he watched Van Alen arrange the covers on the couch.

"No," said Van Alen shortly, "the honor is too great. It might keep me awake."

"My feet would hang over," Otto said. "Funny thing, wasn't it, for a man to make a will like that?"

"I suppose every man has a right to do as he pleases," Van Alen responded coldly. He was not inclined to discuss the eccentricities of his little old ancestor with this young giant.

"Of course," Otto agreed, and his next remark was called forth by Van Alen's pale blue pajamas.

"Well, those are new on me."

Van Alen explained that in the city they were worn, and that silk was cool, but while he talked he was possessed by a kind of fury. For the first time the delicate garments, the luxurious toilet articles packed in his bag, seemed foppish, unnecessary, things for a woman. With all of them, he could not compete with this fair young god, who used a rough towel and a tin basin on the kitchen bench.

"Maybe I'd better go," the boy offered. "You'll want to go to bed."

But Van Alen held him. "I always smoke first," he said, and, wrapped in his dressing-gown, he flung himself into a chair on the opposite side of the fireplace.

And after a time he brought the conversation around to Mazie Wetherell.

He found the boy rather sure of his success with her.

"All women are alike," he said; "you've just got to keep after them long enough."

To Van Alen the idea of this hulking youngster as a suitor for such a woman seemed preposterous. He was not fit to touch the hem of her garment. He was unmannerly, uneducated; he was not of her class—and even as he analyzed, the boy stood up, perfect in his strong young manhood.

"I've never had much trouble making women like me," he said; "and I ain't goin' to give up, just because she thinks she's better than the rest round about here."

He went away, and Van Alen stared long into the fire, until the flames left a heart of opal among the ashes.

He had not been unsuccessful with women himself. Many of them had liked him, and might have loved him if he had cared to make them. But until he met Mazie Wetherell he had not cared.

Desperately he wished for some trial of courage where he might be matched against Otto Brand. He grew melodramatic in his imaginings, and saw himself at a fire, fighting the flames to reach Mazie, while Otto Brand shrank back. He stood in the path of runaway horses, and Otto showed the white feather. He nursed her through the plague, and Otto fled fearfully from the disease.

And then having reached the end of impossibilities, he stood up and shook himself.

"I'm a fool," he said to the flames, shortly, and went to bed, to lie awake, wondering whether Mazie Wetherell had reached that chapter of his book where he had written of love, deeply, reverently, with a foreknowledge of what it might mean to him some day. It was that chapter which had assured the success of his novel. Would it move her, as it had moved him when he reread it? That was what love ought to be—a thing fine, tender, touching the stars! That was what love might be to him, to Mazie Wetherell, what it could never be to Otto Brand.

At breakfast the next morning he found Mrs. Brand worrying about her waitress.

"I guess she couldn't get back, and I've got a big day's work."

"I'll go and look her up," Van Alen offered; but he found that he was not to go alone, for Otto was waiting for him at the gate.

"I ain't got nothin' else to do," the boy said; "everything is held up by the rain."

It was when they came to the little stream that Van Alen had forded the night before that they saw Mazie Wetherell.

"I can't get across," she called from the other side.

The bridge, which had been covered when Van Alen passed, was now washed away, and the foaming brown waters overflowed the banks.

"I'll carry you over," Otto called, and straightway he waded through the stream, and the water came above his high boots to his hips.

He lifted her in his strong arms and brought her back, with her bright hair fluttering against his lips, and Van Alen, raging impotently, stood and watched him.

It seemed to him that Otto's air was almost insultingly triumphant as he set the girl on her feet and smiled down at her. And as she smiled back, Van Alen turned on his heel and left them.

Presently he heard her running after him lightly over the sodden ground.

And when she reached his side she said: "Your book was wonderful."

"But he carried you over the stream."

Her eyes flashed a question, then blazed. "There, you've come back to it," she said. "What makes you?"

"Because I wanted to carry you myself."

"Silly," she said; "any man could carry me across the stream—but only you could write that chapter in the middle of the book."

"You liked it?" he cried, radiantly.

"Like it?" she asked. "I read it once, and then I read it again—on my knees."

Her voice seemed to drop away breathless. Behind them Otto Brand tramped, whistling; but he might have been a tree, or the sky, or the distant hills, for all the thought they took of him.

"I wanted to beg your pardon," the girl went on, "for what I said the other day—it is a great thing to write a book like that—greater than fighting a battle or saving a life, for it saves people's ideals; perhaps in that way it saves their souls."

"Then I may sleep in the canopy bed?" His voice was calm, but inwardly he was much shaken by her emotion.

Her eyes, as she turned to him, had in them the dawn of that for which he had hoped.

"Why not?" she said, quickly. "You are greater than your grandfather—you are——" She stopped and laughed a little, and, in this moment of her surrender, her beauty shone like a star.

"Oh, little great man," she said, tremulously, "your head touches the skies!"