Read CHAPTER II - THE MAIDEN LANCE of The Tinder-Box, free online book, by Maria Thompson Daviess, on ReadCentral.com.

A woman may shut her eyes, and put a man determinedly out of her heart, and in two minutes she will wake up in an agony of fear that he isn’t there.  Now, as I have decided that Glendale is to be the scene of this bloodless revolution of mine it would be awful to carry out such an undertaking anywhere but under the protection of ancestral traditions I have operated Richard Hall out of my inmost being with the utmost cruelty, on an average of every two hours, for this week Jane and I have been in New York; and I have still got him with me.

I, at last, became determined, and chose the roof-garden at the Astor to tell him good-by, and perform the final operation.  First I tried to establish a plane of common citizenship with him, by telling him how much his two years’ friendship across the waters had meant to me, while we studied the same profession under the same masters, drew at the same drawing-boards and watched dear old Paris flame into her jeweled night-fire from Montmarte, together.  I was frankly affectionate, and it made him suspicious of me.

Then I tried to tell him just a little, only a hint, of my new attitude towards his sex, and before he had had time even to grasp the idea he exploded.

“Don’t talk to me as if you were an alienist trying to examine an abstruse case, Evelina,” he growled, with extreme temper.  “Go on down and rusticate with your relatives for the summer, and fly the bats in your belfry at the old moss-backs, while I am getting this Cincinnati and Gulf Stations commission under way.  Then, when I can, I will come for you.  Let’s don’t discuss the matter, and it’s time I took you back to your hotel.”

Not a very encouraging tilt for my maiden lance.

I’ve had a thought.  If I should turn and woo Dickie, like he does me, I suppose we would be going-so fast in opposite directions that we would be in danger of passing each other without recognizing signals.  I wonder if that might get to be the case of humanity at large if women do undertake the tactics I am to experiment with, and a dearth of any kind of loving and claiming at all be the result.  I will elucidate that idea and shoot it into Jane.  But I have no hope; she’ll have the answer ticketed away in the right pigeon-hole, statistics and all, ready to fire back at me.

I have a feeling that Jane won’t expect such a diary as this locked cell of a book is becoming, but I can select what looks like data for the young from these soul squirmings, and only let her have those for The Five.  I don’t know which are which now, and I’ll have to put down the whole drama.

And my home-coming last night was a drama that had in it so much comedy, dashed with tragedy, that I’m a little breathless over it yet.  Jane, and my mind is breathing unevenly still.

Considering the situation, and my intentions, I was a bit frightened as the huge engine rattled and roared its way along the steel rails that were leading me back, down into the Harpeth Valley.  But, when we crossed the Kentucky line, I forgot the horrors of my mission, and I thrilled gloriously at getting hack to my hills.  Old Harpeth had just come into sight, as we rounded into the valley and Providence Knob rested back against it, in a pink glow that I knew came from the honeysuckle in bloom all over it like a mantle.  I traveled fast into the twilight, and I saw all the stars smile out over the ridge, in answer to the hearth stars in the valley, before I got across Silver Creek.  I hadn’t let any one know that I was coming, so I couldn’t expect any one to meet me at the station at Glendale.  There was nobody there I belonged to just an empty house.  I suppose a man coming home like that would have whistled and held up his head, but I couldn’t.  I’m a woman.

Suddenly, that long glowworm of a train stopped just long enough at Glendale to eject me and my five trunks, with such hurried emphasis that I felt I was being planted in the valley forever, and I would have to root myself here or die.  I still feel that way.

And as I stood just where my feet were planted, in the dust of the road, instead of on the little ten-foot platform, that didn’t quite reach to my sleeper steps, I felt as small as I really am in comparison to the universe.  I looked after the train and groveled.

Then, just as I was about to start running down the track, away from nowhere and to nowhere, I was brought to my senses by a loud boohoo, and then a snubby choke, which seemed to come out of my bag and steamer-blanket that stood in a pile before me.

“Train’s gone, train’s gone and left us!  I knew it would, when Sallie stopped to put the starch on her face all over again.  And Cousin James, he’s as slow as molasses, and I couldn’t dress two twins in not time to button one baby.  Oh, damn, oh, damn!” And the sobs rose to a perfect storm of a wail.

Just at that moment, down the short platform an electric light, that was so feeble that it seemed to show a pine-knot influence in its heredity, was turned on by the station-agent, who was so slow that I perceived the influence of a descent from old Mr. Territt, who drove the stage that came down from the city before the war, and my fellow-sufferer stood revealed.

She was a slim, red-haired bunch of galatea, stylish of cut as to upturned nose and straight little skirt but wholly and defiantly unshod save for a dusty white rag around one pink toe.  A cunning little straw bonnet, with an ecru lace jabot dangled in her hand, and her big brown eyes reminded me of Jane’s at her most inquisitive moments.

“If you was on a train, what did you git offen it here for?” she demanded of me, with both scorn and curiosity in her positive young voice.

“I don’t know why,” I answered weakly, not at all in the tone of a young-gallant-home-from-the-war mood I had intended to assume towards the first inhabitant of my native town to whom I addressed a remark.

“We was all a-goin’ down to Hillsboro, to visit Aunt Bettie Pollard for a whole week, to Cousin Tom’s wedding, but my family is too slow for nothing but a funeral.  And Cousin James, he’s worse.  He corned for us ten minutes behind the town clock, and Mammy Dilsie had phthisic, so I had to fix the two twins, and we’re done left.  I wisht I didn’t have no family!” And with her bare feet the young rebel raised a cloud of dust that rose and settled on my skirt.

“There they come now,” she continued, with the pained contempt still rising in her voice.

And around the corner of the station hurried the family party, with all the haste they would have been expected to use if they had not, just two minutes earlier, beheld their train go relentlessly on down the valley to Hillsboro and the wedding celebration.  I hadn’t placed the kiddie, but I might have known, from her own description of her family, to whom she belonged.

First came Sallie Carruthers, sailing along in the serene way that I remembered to have always thought like a swan in no hurry, and in her hands was a wet box from which rose sterns protruded.

Next in the procession came Aunt Dilsie, huge and black and wheezing, fanning herself with a genteel turkey-tail fan, and carrying a large covered basket.

But the tail-piece of the procession paralyzed all the home-coming emotions that I had expected to be feeling, save that of pure hilarity.  James Hardin was carrying two bubbly, squirmy, tousle-headed babies, on one arm, and a huge suitcase in the other hand, and his gray felt hat set on the back of his shock of black hair at an angle of deep desperation, though patience shone from every line of his strong, gaunt body, and I could see in the half light that there were no lines of irritation about his mouth, which Richard had said looked to him like that of the prophet Hosea, when I had shown him the picture that Father had had snapped of himself and the Crag, with their great string of quail, on one of their hunting-trips, just before Father died.

“Eve!” he exclaimed, when he suddenly caught sight of me, standing in the middle of the dusty road, with my impedimenta around me, and as he spoke he dropped both babies on the platform in a bunch, and the small trunk on the other side.  Then he just stood and looked, and I had to straighten the roar that was arising in me at the sight of him into a conventional smile of greeting, suitable to bestow on an enemy.

But before the smile was well launched, Sallie bustled in and got the full effect of it.

“Why, Evelina Shelby, you darling thing, when did you come?” she fairly bubbled, as she clasped me in the most hospitable of arms, and bestowed a slightly powdery kiss on both my cheeks.  I weakly and femininely enjoyed the hug, not that a man might not have Sallie is a dear, and I always did like her gush, shamefacedly.

“She got often that train that left us, and she ain’t got a bit of sense, or she wouldn’t,” answered the Blue Bunch for me, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice.

“What for did you all unpack outen the surrey, if you sawed the train go by?” she further demanded, with accusing practicality.  “Don’t you know when youse left?”

“Oh, Henrietta,” exclaimed Sallie, looking at the young-philosopher with terrified helplessness.  “Please don’t mind her, Evelina.  I don’t understand her being my child, and nobody does, unless it was Henry’s grandmother on his mother’s side.  You had heard of my loss?”

If I hadn’t heard of the death of Henry Carruthers, Sallie’s elaborate black draperies, relieved by the filmy exquisiteness of white crepe ruches at the neck and wrists, would have proclaimed the fact.

Suddenly, something made me look at Cousin James, as he stood calmly in the midst of Sallie’s family and baggage, both animate and inanimate, and the laugh that had threatened for minutes fairly flared out into his placid, young prophet face.

“Oh, I am so sorry, Sallie, and so glad to see all of you that I’m laughing at the same time,” I exclaimed to save myself from the awfulness of greeting a young widow’s announcement of her sorrow in such an unfeeling manner.  To cover my embarrassment and still further struggles with the laugh that never seemed to be able to have itself out, I bent and hugged up one of the toddlers, who were balancing against the Crag’s legs, with truly feminine fervor.

“I’m glad to see you, Evelina,” said Cousin James gently, and I could see that the billows of my mirth had got entirely past him.

I was glad he had escaped, and I found myself able to look with composure at his queer, long-tailed gray coat, which made me know that little old Mr. Pinkus, who had been Father’s orderly all through the war, was still alive and tailoring in his tiny shop down by the post-office, though now that Father is dead he probably only does it for Cousin James.  The two of them had been his only customers for years.  And as I looked, I saw that the locks that curled in an ante-bellum fashion around the Crag’s ears, were slightly sprinkled with gray, and remembered how he had loved and stood by Father, even in the manner of wearing Pinkus clothes; my heart grew very large all of a sudden, and I held out my hand to him.

“I’m glad to be at home,” I said, gazing straight into his eyes, with a look of affection that you would have been proud of, Jane, using unconsciously, until after I had done it, the warmth I had tried unsuccessfully on Richard Hall at the Astor, not forty-eight hours ago, but two thousand miles away.  And it got a response that puzzles me to think of yet.  It was just a look, but there was a thought of Father in it, also a suggestion of the glance he bestowed on Sallie’s twins.  I remembered that the Crag seldom speaks, and that’s what makes you spend your time breathlessly listening to him.

“Well, come on, everybody, let’s go home and undress, and forget about the wedding,” came in Henrietta’s positive and executive tones.  “Let’s go and take the strange lady with us.  We can have company if we can’t be it.  She can sleep other side of me, next the wall.”

I have never met anybody else at all like Henrietta Carruthers, and I never shall unless Jane Mathers marries and I sincerely hope that some day she and Jane will meet.

And the next ten minutes was one of the most strenuous periods of time I ever put in, in all my life.  I longed, really longed, to go home with Sallie and Henrietta, and sleep next the wall at Widegables with the rest of the Crag’s collection.  But I knew Glendale well enough to see plainly that if I thus once give myself up to the conventions that by Saturday night they would have me nicely settled with his relicts, or in my home with probably two elderly widows and a maiden cousin or so to look after me.  And then, by the end of the next week, they would have the most suitable person in town fairly hunted by both spoken and mental influence, to the moonlight end of my front porch, with matrimonial intentions in his pocket.  I knew I had to take a positive stand, and take it immediately.  I must be masculinely firm.  No feminine wiles would serve in such a crisis as this.

So, I let Cousin James pack me into his low, prehistoric old surrey, in the front seat, at his side, while Sallie took Aunt Dilsie and one twin with her on the back seat.  Henrietta scrouged down at my feet, and I fearingly, but accommodatingly, accepted the other twin.  It was a perfect kitten of a baby, and purred itself to sleep against my shoulder as soon as anchored.

The half-mile from the station, along the dusty, quiet village streets, was accomplished in about the time it would take a modern vehicle to traverse Manhattan lengthwise, and at last we stopped at the gate of Widegables.  The rambling, winged, wide-gabled, tall-columned old pile of time-grayed brick and stone, sat back in the moonlight, in its tangle of a garden, under its tall roof maples, with a dignity that went straight to my heart.  There is nothing better in France or England, and I feel sure that there are not two hundred houses in America as good.  I’ll paint it, just like I saw it to-night, for next Spring’s Salon.  A bright light shone from the windows of the dining-room in the left wing, where the collection of clinging vines were taking supper, unconscious of the return of the left-behinds that threatened.

And as I glanced at my own tall-pillared, dark old house, that stands just opposite Widegables, and is of the same period and style, I knew that if I did not escape into its emptiness before I got into Cousin Martha’s comfortable arms, surrounded by the rest of the Crag’s family, I would never have the courage to enter into the estate of freedom I had planned.

“Sallie,” I said firmly, as I handed the limp Kitten down to Aunt Dilsie, as Henrietta took the other one “Puppy” I suppose I will have to call the young animal, from her mother and started on up the walk in the lead of the return expedition, “I am going over to stay in my own home to-night.  I know it seems strange, but I must.  Please don’t worry about me.”

“Why, dear, you can’t stay by yourself, with no man on the place,” exclaimed Sallie, in a tone of absolute panic.  “I’ll go tell Cousin Martha you are here, while Cousin James unpacks your satchel and things.”  And she hurried in her descent from the ark, and also hurried in her quest for the reinforcement of Cousin Martha’s authority.

“I’m going to escape before any of them come back,” I said determinedly to the Crag, who stood there still, just looking at me.  “I’m not up to arguing the question to-night, for the trip has been a long one, and this is the first time I have been home since Just let me have to-night to myself, please.”  I found myself pleading to him, as he held up his arms to lift me clear of the wheels.

His eyes were hurt and suffering for a second, then a strange light of comprehension came from them into mine, like a benediction, as he gently set me on my feet.

“Must you, Eve?”

“Yes,” I answered, with a gulp that went all the way down to my feminine toes, as I glanced across the road at the grim, dark old pile that towered against the starlit sky.  “I want to stay in my own house to-night and and I’m not afraid.”

“You won’t need to be frightened.  I understand, I think and here’s your key, I always carry it in my pocket.  Your Father’s candle is on the mantel.  You shall have to-night to yourself.  Good-night, and bless your home-coming, dear!”

“Good-night,” I answered as I turned away from his kind eyes quickly, to keep from clinging-to him with might and main, and crossed the road to my own gate.  With my head up, and trying for the whistle, at least in my heart, I went quickly along the front walk with its rows of blush peonies, nodding along either edge.  The two old purple lilacs beside the front steps have grown so large they seemed to be barring my way into my home with longing, sweet embraces, and a fragrant little climbing rose, that has rioted across the front door, ever since I could remember, bent down and left a kiss on my cheeks.

The warm, mellow old moon flooded a glow in front of me, through the big front door, as I opened it, and then hastened to pour into the wide windows as I threw back the shutters.

Logs lay ready for lighting in the wide fireplace at the end of the long room, and Father’s tobacco jar gleamed a reflected moonlight from its pewter sides from the tall mantel-shelf.  The old hooks melted into the dusk of their cases along the wall, and the portrait of Grandfather Shelby lost its fierce gaze and became benign from its place between the windows.

I was being welcomed to the home of my fathers, with a soft dusk that was as still and sweet as the grave.  Sweet for those that want it; but I didn’t.  Suddenly, I thrilled as alive as any terror-stricken woman that ever found herself alone anywhere on any other edge of the world, and then as suddenly found myself in a complete condition of fright prostration, crouched on my own threshold.  I was frightened at the dark, and could not even cry.  Then almost immediately, while I crouched quivering in every nerve I seemed to hear a man’s voice say comfortingly: 

“You don’t need to be frightened.”

Courageously I lifted my eyes and looked down between the old lilac bushes, and saw just what I expected I would, a tall, gray figure, pacing slowly up and down the road.  Then it was that fear came into me, stiffened my muscles and strengthened my soul fear of myself and my own conclusions about destiny and all things pertaining thereto.

I never want to go through such another hour as I spent putting things in order in Father’s room, which opens off the living-room, so I could go to bed by candle-light in the bed in which he and I were both born.  I wanted to sleep there, and didn’t even open any other part of the grim old house.

And when I put out the candle and lay in the high, old four-post bed, I again felt as small as I really am, and I was in danger of a bad collapse from self-depreciation when my humor came to the rescue.  I might just as well have gone on and slept between Henrietta and the wall, as was becoming my feminine situation, for here my determination to assert my masculine privileges was keeping a real man doing sentry duty up and down a moonlight road all night and I wanted it.

“After this, James Hardin, you can consider yourself safe from any of my attentions or intentions,” I laughed to myself, as I turned my face into the pillow, that was faintly scented from the lavender in which Mother had always kept her linen.  “I’ve been in Glendale two hours, and one man is on the home base with his fingers crossed.  James, you are free!  Oh, Jane!”