Read CHAPTER XXIX - AN OX CART of Nobody , free online book, by Susan Warner, on ReadCentral.com.

It happened not far from this same time in the end of August, when Mr. Dillwyn and Tom Caruthers came together on the Piazzetta of St. Mark, that another meeting took place in the far-away regions of Shampuashuh.  A train going to Boston was stopped by a broken bridge ahead, and its passengers discharged in one of the small towns along the coast, to wait until the means of getting over the little river could be arranged.  People on a railway journey commonly do not like to wait; it was different no doubt in the days of stage-coaches, when patience had some exercise frequently; now, we are spoiled, and you may notice that ten minutes’ delay is often more than can be endured with complacency.  Our fathers and mothers had hours to wait, and took it as a matter of course.

Among the impatient passengers thrown out at Independence were two specially impatient.

“What on earth shall we do with ourselves?” said the lady.

“Pity the break-down had not occurred a little further on,” said the gentleman.  “You might have visited your friend ­or Tom’s friend ­Miss Lothrop.  We are just a few miles from Shampuashuh.”

“Shampuashuh! ­Miss Lothrop! ­Was that where she lived?  How far, George?”

“A few miles ­half a dozen, perhaps.”

“O George, let us get horses and drive there!”

“But then you may not catch the train this evening again.”

“I don’t care.  I cannot wait here.  It would be a great deal better to have the drive and see the other place.  Yes, we will go and visit her.  Get horses, George, please!  Quick. This is terrible.”

“Will you ask for their hospitality?”

“Yes, of course.  They would be delighted.  That is just what the better sort of country people like, to have somebody come and see them.  Make haste, George.”

With a queer little smile on his face, Mr. Lenox however did as he was desired.  A waggon was procured without very much delay, in which they could be driven to Shampuashuh.

It was a very warm day, and the travellers had just the height of it.  Hot sunbeams poured down upon them; the level, shadeless country through which lay their way, showed as little as it could of the attractive features which really belonged to it.  The lady declared herself exceeded by the heat and dust; the gentleman opined they might as well have stayed in Independence, where they were.  Between two and three o’clock they entered the long green street of Shampuashuh.  The sunbeams seemed tempered there, but it was only a mental effect produced by the quiet beauty and airy space of the village avenue, and the shade of great elms which fell so frequently upon the wayside grass.

“What a sweet place!” cried the lady.

“Comfortable-looking houses,” suggested the gentleman.

“It seems cooler here,” the lady went on.

“It is getting to a cooler time of day.”

“Why, no, George!  Three o’clock is just the crown of the heat.  Don’t it look as if nobody ever did anything here?  There’s no stir at all.”

“My eyes see different tokens; they are more versed in business than yours are ­naturally.”

“What do your eyes see?” ­a little impatiently.

“You may notice that nothing is out of order.  There is no bit of fence out of repair; and never a gate hanging upon its hinges.  There is no carelessness.  Do you observe the neatness of this broad street?”

“What should make it unneat? with so few travellers?”

“Ground is the last thing to keep itself in order.  I notice, too, the neat stacks of wood in the wood-sheds.  And in the fields we have passed, the work is all done, up to the minute; nothing hanging by the eyelids.  The houses are full of windows, and all of them shining bright.”

“You might be a newspaper reporter, George!  Is this the house we are coming to?  It is quite a large house; quite respectable.”

“Did you think that little girl had come out of any but a respectable house?”

“Pshaw, George! you know what I mean.  They are very poor and very plain people.  I suppose we might go straight in?”

They dismissed their vehicle, so burning their ships, and knocked at the front door.  A moment after it was opened by Charity.  Her tall figure was arrayed in a homely print gown, of no particular fashion; a little shawl was over her shoulders, notwithstanding the heat, and on her head a sun-bonnet.

“Does Miss Lothrop live here?”

“Three of us,” said Charity, confronting the pair with a doubtful face.

“Is Miss Lois at home?”

“She’s as near as possible not,” said the door-keeper; “but I guess she is.  You may come in, and I’ll see.”

She opened a door in the hall which led to a room on the north side of it, corresponding to Mrs. Barclay’s on the south; and there she left them.  It was large and pleasant and cool, if it was also very plain; and Mrs. Lenox sank into a rocking-chair, repeating to herself that it was ‘very respectable.’  On a table at one side lay a few books, which drew Mr. Lenox’s curiosity.

“Ruskin’s ’Modern Painters’!” he exclaimed, looking at his wife.

“Selections, I suppose.”

“No, this is Vo.  And the next is Thiers’ ’Consulate and Empire’!”

“Translation.”

“No.  Original.  And ‘the Old Red Sandstone.’”

“What’s that?”

“Hugh Miller.”

“Who’s Hugh Miller?”

“He is, or was, a gentleman whom you would not admit to your society.  He began life as a Scotch mason.”

Meanwhile, Charity, going back to the living-room of the family, found there Lois busied in arraying old Mrs. Armadale for some sort of excursion; putting a light shawl about her, and drawing a white sun-bonnet over her cap.  Lois herself was in an old nankeen dress with a cape, and had her hat on.

“There’s some folks that want you, Lois,” her sister announced.

“Want me!” said Lois.  “Who is it? why didn’t you tell them we were just going out?”

“I don’t usually say things without I know that it’s so,” responded Charity.  “Maybe we’re going to be hindered.”

“We must not be hindered,” returned Lois.  “Grandmother is ready, and Mrs. Barclay is ready, and the cart is here.  We must go, whoever comes.  You get mother into the cart, and the baskets and everything, and I’ll be as quick as I can.”

So Lois went into the parlour.  A great surprise came over her when she saw who was there, and with the surprise a slight feeling of amusement; along with some other feeling, she could not have told what, which put her gently upon her mettle.  She received her visitors frankly and pleasantly, and also with a calm ease which at the moment was superior to their own.  So she heard their explanation of what had befallen them, and of their resolution to visit her; and a slight account of their drive from Independence; all which Mrs. Lenox gave with more prolixity than she had intended or previously thought necessary.

“And now,” said Lois, “I will invite you to another drive.  We are just going down to the Sound, to smell the salt air and get cooled off.  We shall have supper down there before we come home.  I do not think I could give you anything pleasanter, if I had the choice; but it happens that all is arranged for this.  Do come with us; it will be a variety for you, at least.”

The lady and gentleman looked at each other.

“It’s so hot!” objected the former.

“It will be cooler every minute now,” said Lois.

“We ought to take the train ­when it comes along ­”

“You cannot tell when that will be,” said Mr. Lenox.  “You would find it very tedious waiting at the station.  We might take the night train.  That will pass about ten o’clock, or should.”

“But we should be in your way, I am afraid,” Mrs. Lenox went on, turning to Lois.  “You are not prepared for two more in your party.”

“Always!” said Lois, smiling.  “We should never think ourselves prepared at all, in Shampuashuh, if we were not ready for two more than the party.  And the cart will hold us all.”

“The cart!” cried the other.

“Yes.  O yes!  I did not tell you that,” said Lois, smiling more broadly.  “We are going in an ox cart.  That will be a novel experience for you too.”

If Mrs. Lenox had not half accepted the invitation already, I am not sure but this intimation would have been too much for her courage.  However, she was an outwardly well-bred woman; that is, like so many others, well-bred when there was nothing to gain by being otherwise; and so she excused her hesitation and doubt by the plea of being “so dusty.”  There was help for that; Lois took her upstairs to a neat chamber, and furnished her with water and towels.

It was new experience to the city lady.  She took note, half disdainfully, of the plainness of the room; the painted floor, yellow and shining, which boasted only one or two little strips of carpet; the common earthenware toilet-set; the rush-bottomed chairs.  On the other hand, there was an old mahogany dressing bureau; a neat bed; and water and towels (the latter coarse) were exceedingly fresh and sweet.  She made up her mind to go through with the adventure, and rejoined her husband with a composed mind.

Lois took them first to the sitting-room, where they were introduced to Mrs. Barclay, and then they all went out at the back door of the house, and across a little grassy space, to a gate leading into a lane.  Here stood the cart, in which the rest of the family was already bestowed; Mrs. Armadale being in an arm-chair with short legs, while Madge and Charity sat in the straw with which the whole bottom of the cart was spread.  A tall, oldish man, with an ox whip, stood leaning against the fence and surveying things.

“Are we to go in there?” said Mrs. Lenox, with perceptible doubt.

“It’s the only carriage we have to offer you,” said Lois merrily.  “For your sake, I wish we had a better; for my own, I like nothing so well as an ox cart.  Mrs. Barclay, will you get in? and stimulate this lady’s courage?”

A kitchen chair had been brought out to facilitate the operation; and Mrs. Barclay stepped lightly in, curled herself down in the soft bed of straw, and declared that it was very comfortable.  With an expression of face which made Lois and Madge laugh for weeks after when they recalled it, Mrs. Lenox stepped gingerly in, following, and took her place.

“Grandmother,” said Lois, “this is Mrs. Lenox, whom you have heard me speak about.  And these are my sisters, Madge and Charity, Mrs. Lenox.  And grandmother, this is Mr. Lenox.  Now, you see the cart has room enough,” she added, as herself and the gentleman also took their seats.

“Is that the hull of ye?” inquired now the man with the ox whip, coming forward.  “And be all your stores got in for the v’yage?  I don’t want to be comin’ back from somewheres about half-way.”

“All right, Mr. Sears,” said Lois.  “You may drive on.  Mother, are you comfortable?”

And then there was a “whoa"-ing and a “gee"-ing and a mysterious flourishing of the long leathern whip, with which the driver seemed to be playing; for if its tip touched the shoulders of the oxen it did no more, though it waved over them vigorously.  But the oxen understood, and pulled the cart forward; lifting and setting down their heavy feet with great deliberation seemingly, but with equal certain’ty, and swaying their great heads gently from side to side as they went.  Lois was so much amused at her guests’ situation, that she had some difficulty to keep her features in their due calmness and sobriety.  Mrs. Lenox eyed the oxen, then the contents of the cart, then the fields.

“Slow travelling!” said Lois, with a smile.

“Can they go no faster?”

“They could go a little faster if they were urged; but that would spoil the comfort of the whole thing.  The entire genius of a ride in an ox cart is, that everybody should take his ease.”

“Oxen included?” said Mr. Lenox.

“Why not?”

“Why not, indeed!” said the gentleman, smiling.  “Only, ordinary people cannot get rid easily of the notion that the object of going is to get somewhere.”

“That’s not the object in this case,” Lois answered merrily.  “The one sole object is fun.”

Mrs. Lenox said nothing more, but her face spoke as plainly as possible, And you call this fun!

“I am enjoying myself very much,” said Mrs. Barclay.  “I think it is delightful.”

Something in her manner of speech made Mr. Lenox look at her.  She was sitting next him on the cart bottom.

“Perhaps this is a new experience also to you?” he said.

“Delightfully new.  Never rode in an ox cart before in my life; hardly ever saw one, in fact.  We are quite out of the race and struggle and uneasiness of the world, don’t you see?  There comes down a feeling of repose upon one, softly, as Longfellow says ­

   ’As a feather is wafted downward
   From an eagle in his flight.’

Only I should say in this case it was from the wing of an angel.”

“Mrs. Barclay, you are too poetical for an ox cart,” said Lois, laughing.  “If we began to be poetical, I am afraid the repose would be troubled.”

“’Twont du Poetry no harm to go in an ox cart,” remarked here the ox driver.

“I agree with you, sir,” said Mrs. Barclay.  “Poetry would not be Poetry if she could not ride anywhere.  But why should she trouble repose.  Lois?”

“Yes,” added Mr. Lenox; “I was about to ask that question.  I thought poetry was always soothing.  Or that the ladies at least think so.”

“I like it well enough,” said Lois, “but I think it is apt to be melancholy.  Except in hymns.”

Except hymns!” said Mrs. Lenox.  “I thought hymns were always sad.  They deal so much with death and the grave.”

“And the resurrection!” said Lois.

“They always make me gloomy,” the lady went on.  “The resurrection! do you call that a lively subject?”

“Depends on how you look at it, I suppose,” said her husband.  “But, Miss Lothrop, I cannot recover from my surprise at your assertion respecting non-religious poetry.”

Lois left that statement alone.  She did not care whether he recovered or not.  Mr. Lenox, however, was curious.

“I wish you would show me on what your opinion is founded,” he went on pleasantly.

“Yes, Lois, justify yourself,” said Mrs. Barclay.

“I could not do that without making quotations, Mrs. Barclay, and I am afraid I cannot remember enough.  Besides, it would hardly be interesting.”

“To me it would,” said Mrs. Barclay.  “Where could one have a better time?  The oxen go so comfortably, and leisure is so graciously abundant.”

“Pray go on, Miss Lothrop!” Mr. Lenox urged.

“And then I hope you’ll go on and prove hymns lively,” added his wife.

The conversation which followed was long enough to have a chapter to itself; and so may be comfortably skipped by any who are so inclined.