The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
by Ada M. Trotter.
The children were at the upper end of the "lot," picking berries—Hester, Cis, Gus and the rest. There seemed no end to children at the Hill Farm, and "as if nine of your own wasn't enough," said the neighbours, "Roxany and Amos must up and 'dopt other folkses children, thus increasing their burdens by a pair of twinses, scarce out of hand."
It was all very shiftless at the Hill Farm, though there was a certain amount of compensation for the lack of system under the apparent misrule. At least there was no worry; Amos accepted the bare living the farm (an inheritance from Pilgrim fathers) yielded, without raising his hand to better his fate. Giant forces at play before man's necessities became a consideration, burdened the mountain slopes with huge boulders, around and about which scant pasturage for Roxany's cows struggled into existence, handicapped by the wide-spreading vigorous growth of bramble and briar. Perhaps the strong soul that chose the solitudes of the eternal hills for his home in the New England brought to the task of clearing the land from obstructives some practical knowledge of engineering, some ideas which might have eventually overcome the resistance of the stony monsters encumbering the ground. But his record was written merely in the substantial walls of the old homestead, and the plot of garden stretching beyond, while his descendents had passed—leaving but little impress of their individuality on the ungrateful "lot" of the Hill Farm.
Amos, who fathered the "Children of Israel," rivalled his progenitors in his lack of purpose, his inertia. Amos, ambling back and forth splitting wood; leaning on the gatepost (the gate was gone) with unseeing eyes fixed on the distant mountain ridges, Amos had no ideas to his name. Amos could chew a straw for half a day without having turned a thought over in his mind. Living up there on the hill-side, rarely coming within touch of his neighbours (four miles distant), for seven months in the year shut in by snow drifts, one thought could last Amos for days or weeks—even months in case of dearth of material.
When the neighbours asked, "How were all these children to be clothed and fed and put out into the world?" Amos had known how to answer. "He guessed they warn't any worse off than the 'Children of Israel'; he'd always got along without werriting, and he guessed they'd come through well as he'd done." Thus the flock at the Hill Farm obtained the name of the "Children of Israel."
Amos loved his belongings; his wife had never had a hard word from him since, against her parents' wishes, she put heart and hand into the stony ground at the Hill Farm. Her own folks had not been blessed with superabundance of ideas, but held a few practical maxims as premises for action. "Stony ground brought forth no crops," they stated; again, "ef a man never lifted hand to better things in his first twenty years, he warn't likely to do so in the next twenty; there warnt nothing to Amos, never had been and never would be," was the final judgment.
But Roxany married him nevertheless; she thought her energy, her force could move mountains, so she accepted the Hill Farm and its load of rocks, little dreaming that its heaviest burden, more unchangeable, less malleable that the largest boulder on the mountain "lot," was this quiet, contented, idea-less Amos.
The "Children of Israel" this warm August day were scattered over the "lot," picking berries. They could not see one another for the huge boulders which blocked their horizon, turn where they would; but shrill converse kept them all in touch. Hester, the eldest, not only had the largest pail to carry, but the twin boys rolled about on uncertain hands and feet, now quadrupled, now biped, in her near neighbourhood, dividing her attention between the luscious purple berries and frequent salvage of their objectless lives, as she darted upon the adventurous pair, hooking stones and grasses out of their mouths with deft forefinger. After one of these perils passed, Hester shook up each twin separately and bumped him down, just as Amos punished a meandering pup. Then, somewhat heated, she sat down on a small boulder and gazed at the familiar scene, with eyes as unseeing as those of her idea-less parent.
The woodlands where the May-flower flourished, where the earliest spring blossoms sheltered in snow-wreaths sprang up and blossomed ere the Frost King had left his winter strongholds, enclosed the hopeless stony lands of Hester's father. Just beyond the fence too, and within hearing of the children, rushed the famous torrent whose fall miles away in the valley brought tourists from neighbouring resorts during the season. Fields well tilled, and beautiful meadows, covered in summer with a snow of marguerite blossoms, marked the course of the generous mountain springs and far away on the horizon the hills rippled blue as waves, storm tossed amidst the flitting clouds, the scarped peaks of the White Mountains, mere islands in a sea of mist.
From this familiar boundary land of hill and forest Hester's wandering eyes came back to the "lot," where the briars laden with berries clung about the grim old boulders; hence she followed the winding path to the broken fence, once enclosing the homestead, garden, barn and house. But her mental vision direct on one point, saw not the ragged shingled roof, but darted to the farm kitchen where mother, centre of every impulse, mental or emotional, governing the leader of the "Children of Israel," carried the burden of the hour.
Hester herself, as she sat stooping awkwardly, poking the pebbles back and forth with her bare feet, presented an absolutely uninteresting feature in the landscape. She was plain, after the bucolic type, with a round vacant countenance, small lack-lustre eyes and wide mouth. She was small for her fourteen years, her scanty gown was much the worse for wear, and the sun bonnet slipping on the back of her bullet-shaped head was as faded as the stubborn dishevelled hair it so poorly defended from the stress of weather.
"Did you hear the horn, Hester?"
Cis, the second in command, emerged from the bramble centre, silently emptied her small pail into the larger one in her sister's charge, and sat down beside the twins.
Hester's round eyes absently absorbed the graceful figure, waving golden hair and sparkling eyes of her sister, unconscious of their beauty as she was of the touches of Nature's hand on forest and hill in autumn and spring.
"Can't be," she replied, anent the horn, glancing at the sun. "T'aint near to supper time, and mother wanted we should pick all this lot over. We aint mor'n begun."
"Got a good few," rejoined the sister, "and I heered the horn—twice—t'other side of the rocks."
"Wall, then, we better be goin'. Pity we can't finish. Say, Cis! You send Gus down to see ef we're wanted. Guess Hirams' to home and makin' game of us."
Cis ran away on her tiny bare feet to dispatch the ready Gus on his errand. Then the two girls picked on steadily at the berries, giving scant attention to the twins now choking on sweet clover. Now and again one of other of the "Children of Israel" emerged from the bushes to empty a little pail into the larger one carried by Hester. Red-haired, sandy, colourless, white eyelashed, were these later members of the old homestead, as though expressing in their personalities the aimlessness of their father's blank existence. Scantily clothed also were these, the numerical distraction of the neighbours.
Gus came back panting with his run.
"Waal!" he ejaculated. "Guess you've got to go. The berries 'ull keep till to-morrow. Aunt Almiry's come."
Aunt Almiry! Hitherto this relative had been but a name to the children, a mysterious background to Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities. The necessity of investing her with a personality gave the older girls a mental shock, which all but roused their latent powers of imagination. They rose hastily, hung the buckets on their arms, then each took a twin, shook as much dirt off him as could be disposed of in such summary fashion, and set off in the sun thus heavily handicapped. The lesser members of the tribe raced home, headed by Gus, and when the sisters arrived at the porch door, were already crowding about the stranger, who yet was no stranger to them, whose beneficent hand had frequently interposed to life an intolerable burden from their mother's work-a-day life, and had acquainted themselves with a world beyond the farm by gifts of beautiful pictures and books.
Hester and Cis stood on the outer edge of the circle, each grinning from ear to ear to denote hearty welcome of the guest. There up in the mountains where speech came slowly, the grin made up for paucity of words; and became in its way shield and buckler to inner thoughts. It provided for embarrassment, for doubt, for fear, for pleasure; the grin in fact was a mask invaluable to its possessor, so Hester and Cis, not knowing whet else to do, stood holding each a refractory twin—and grinned.
Aunt Almira, tall, erect, somewhat austere in mien, loved little children. Her arm had gathered the smaller ones closely about her, and she was smiling at their answers to her questions, bending towards the eager faces upraised. But with the free hand she shewed her sense of the lack of grooming in the ardent souls clustered about her knee; she pushed elf locks from one heated brow, fastened the collar at the neck of another, pulled the disarranged garments straight in a third.
Ere long the elder girls felt the searching power of the liquid grey eyes turned upon them—and trembled.
The visitor was sitting with her back to the light in the one cushioned chair the house afforded (sent by herself for her long-suffering friend). The two girls as they entered stopped short on the threshold and were full in the sunlight. To lovely little Cis this was the most becoming setting possible, lending gold to her straying locks, and bringing the refined delicate features into clear relief. But for her sister—
Hester's grin subsided; mouth and eyes widened in an expression of awe, in which was no small admixture of fear, for the eyes turned back to her dwelt upon her with serious scrutiny. She became self-conscious, knew all at once and for the first time in her life, that she was personally unacceptable. These eyes disapproved of her from her faded unkempt hair to the big brown freckles on her sunburnt hands; even dwelt accusingly on the rent, but just now enlarged by a vicious bramble, in her scanty gown; this and much more. Hester grew red as fire; why did not the earth open and swallow her up? Where was mother, how could she leave her child to such an unmasked battery as this?
A moment later the other children, even Cis, at a movement of the mesmeric hand, were set aside. Hester with the twin now gripped as a buffer, stood in clear view of the majestic relative. "I will take Hester," said the even, full tones of Aunt Almira. "Yes, I grant all you say of Cis; but the world will treat her indulgently, you and I know why, Roxany. Hester! you and I know why she will meet with the uphill rough paths. I will take Hester." There seemed no appeal from the decision, nor did it seem as though Hester's mother even desired to alter it by a single argument. The twin struggled down, and was borne away by Cis. Hester now stood alone in the effulgent light which showed her ungainliness, her unsatisfactory outlines, and bucolic countenance with aggravated force. "I must start before sundown," said Aunt Almira, "and while you are getting Hester ready, I'll take a turn round the yard with Amos. Don't send anything with her. I'll see to her wardrobe to-morrow in Boston as we go home." Hester followed her mother from the hall, where the stranger had been sitting, to the farm kitchen. The girl's round eyes, vacant no longer, but fearful, caught the mother's, which were beautiful like those of Cis, and now shone with tears.
"Sit down," she said, drawing Hester to the window seat. "I am going to talk to you. You are fourteen years old—amost as old as I was when I married your father. I meant then to do something in the world. I meant to"—she paused, she could not reveal her husband's shortcomings to the child. "Wall—I meant well. Almiry knows—we was brought up in the same farm kitchen. We both was full of ambition. And now look at her—and look at me. I haven't made out to begin. Amos don't worry—he's a good man—he loves us all—your father do. I haven't helped him to better himself—and now there's 'leven of you to feed, an' the farm don't yield much but rocks. Hiram Dodge's folks says 'they don't know but what they'd be willing to take you for help, dollar a month and your board.' Your father says you might go ef you was a mind to, but he guessed you'd be run to death" The poor mother paused and chilled a little; what it meant to her, this proposal to hire out her first-born's services to a rude household like Hiram's! And Amos would not have lifted hand to prevent the sacrifice! Perhaps, this was the cruellest stab to the mother's heart. Presently she continued with enforced calm, "Then I wrote to Almiry—and she come. I knew she'd take one of you, and I was feared she'd choose Cis. Cis is pretty looking and quick; I told her I guessed when she see her, she'd want to take Cis. But she said from the first, she guessed she better have you. Ef she takes you, Hester—it's going to be hard for me, and—it'ull be hard—for you. She'ull do her duty by you, and be good to you, don't I know that, or I'd never let you go, t'aint that I mean; but there's harder work than pickin' berries, kneadin' up the dough, and tendin' them twins, child, as you'll find, I'm feared. Come to mindin' your manners and learnin' an all them things—that's what I mean. But you never was a shirk. I'll say that for you, Hester, you never was a shirk, and you ain't goin' to fail us now. Your chance as Almiry has come up here to give you aint for yourself alone—there's Gus and Dave—and the rest. Do you think as all them boys can get a livin' out of the farm—and the girl's, too? Waal, you aint give it a thought, perhaps I shouldn't at your age, but you'll keep it in mind, now I tell you. Pretty soon, too, you'll see other children, and what is expected of them, an' then you'll know what it means to me to see you all up here—with your brains no better off than the chickadees about the farm."
Her voice choked, she waved her hand to the ten children whooping and romping in and out the alleyways between the boulders. Hester saw them all as it were in a new light. She was shaking, crushed beneath the weight of her mother's confidences. The colour left her cheeks, her heart seemed to be beating in her throat, suffocating he so that words would not come, even had she had them at command.
"Mother!" she cried helplessly, "Mother!"
"When you was a baby," continued her mother, taking up the thread of explanation, "I see how things was goin', and I made up my mind as you shouldn't be sacrificed to me. I'd bear my own burden fur as I could see my way; this - bad as it seems for you and for me, Hester, is the best yet for us all. It looks like treating you real cruel, Hester, but it would be crueler 'n you can understand not to let you go."—she stopped abruptly, drawing a long breath. "I'm goin' to miss you, daughter, day in and day out, you allays was to be depended on from the time you know'd anything. Waal, and I depend on you now, more'n ever; and you've got to help us in another way, a better way, child, than by running yourself to death in Hiram's folkses kitchen, bakin' and washin' for that crowd from week's end to week's end. Come three or four years, and you'll see how much Almiry's doin' in takin' you, and what I mean by askin' her to keep her promise to stand by me when I come to a tight place, as there warnt no way up here to get over. You'll see what there is beyond the hills yonder that shut down on us, like, and keep us down—"
She paused; she was young yet—young enough to struggle against fate had there been the remotest possibility of changing the overwhelming conditions, and bettering them; but no hill which blocked her horizon shut her down, kept her down as did the inertia of Amos, her husband Amos.
There was no opportunity for further speech; voices approached, and Aunt Almira came into the farm kitchen. Hester was too much bewildered to move; the sunlight pouring in at the window dazzled her sight, befogged her mental vision; dimly she saw her father—who, with his usual smile, stood half in and half out the porch door, chewing a straw—as she had seen the children a moment since, from an altogether new standpoint. This familiar figure lounging against the broken hasp of the door was thus pourtrayed an ineffaceable picture in her mind—an unconscious basis on which she founded her powers of endurance of the new life to which she was so suddenly transposed. Hester realized with cruel force that here was embodied the obstructive against which her young mother vainly struggled in her efforts to rise to higher level of thought and action.
"Almiry will take a cup of tea, I guess," he said, recalling his wife to her duties; "You'd better chirk the fire up a bit, Hester." But, as Hester obediently stooped to the work, her mother's hand held her back, with a glance flashed upon her husband whose flame was so compelling, that Amos himself, without more ado, built up the fire which was to boil the kettle for the visitor's refreshment. Hester, clinging to her mother's skirts, moved like one in a dream, drowning in a sea of misery, in which she felt that tender mother had herself submerged her, unprepared as yet to catch at the only life-buoy held out to her, the ultimate good of the "Children of Israel." Dumb because she lacked words to express the cruel suffering of this sudden uprooting, without natural grace of manner to make her farewell even fairly pathetic, Hester stood on the threshold with the children about her. Cis was already valiantly struggling with the extra twin, Hester's special charge, her pretty face flushed, her golden curls half hiding her dainty figure. Aunt Almira sighed a little as she glanced from this delicate piece of porcelain to the rough pottery she had chosen to mould. She, too, had accepted the most arduous portion when she cast the lot for Hester. What labour lay before her did she intend to graft ideas into this limited being! Was such a dullard worth the effort? "Hester's slow, but she has plenty of grit," the mother had remarked. "That's a hopeful word," was the cheery reply, but ere this quality became recognisable Almira could but sigh, as she took the bearings of the position voluntarily assumed, glancing away with something like impatience from this stolid countenance so expressionless even in misery. Only the mother read that heartbreak under that sober demeanour, so slightly indicated by the white spots in the cheeks and shadows under the eyes.
The farewells were quiet enough; the "Children of Israel" stood round, grinning because they did not quite know what was expected of them at this crisis. The twins struggled for liberty, both withheld from an excursion on all fours under the waggon, and near acquaintance with the horses' heels. They bellowed so loudly with disappointment that more attention had to be devoted to them and their idiosyncrasies than could be given to the departing child of the house, their benefactor, Hester's mother was calm; she came of Puritan forbears, who held all outer and visible tokens of emotion as weakness. If Hester possessed "grit," the quality could be readily traced as rightly hers by inheritance by anyone who saw her mother at this hour of stress.
Hester, too, had no tears. Her father shook her hand inconsequently as he lifted her into the waggon. "Waal," he said, "waal." Then with sudden inspiration, "So you be goin', Hester." Then he climbed heavily on the wheel, and kissed his child as she turned towards him.
Some tears could now be seen chasing the grins of the "Children of Israel" to extinction, but the circumstances attending this sudden bereavement were without precedent amongst them, and their emotions, rarely stirred, required as it were a leader to give them full play. And who should give the lead but Hester's twin. "Etta," he called, "Etta," and, howling, reached forth impotent arms. Then the mother's tears flowed as from a fountain, and the children burst into a chorus of hullabaloo.
But Hester never knew it. The hill dipped suddenly, and the old homestead, of which she had been a part of for the short span of her fourteen years, was out of sight, ere the twin led the emotions of the "Children of Israel."
(To be continued.)
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, November 2008