THE MARKIS AND THE MAJOR
Told by Barbara, the Commuter’s Wife
JANUARY—THE HARD MOON
When Christmas has passed it is useless to make believe that it is not winter, even if the snow has merely come in little flurries quickly disappearing in the leaves that now lie suppliant with brown palms curved upward.
Early December is often filled with days that, if one does not compare the hours of the sun’s rise and setting, might pass for those of an early spring. Sharp nights but soft noon air, meadow larks in voice down in the old fields, uneasy robins in the spruces, a song sparrow in the shelter of the honeysuckle wall, goldfinches feeding among the dry stalks of what two months gone was a scarlet flame of zinnias, or else in their rhythmic, restless flight binding the columns where the seeded clematis clings, in chains of whispered song.
All through the month the garden, thriftily trimmed, and covered according to its need, refused to sleep in peace and thrust forth its surprises. One day it was a pansy peeping from beneath a box bush, then a dozen sturdy Russian violets for the man’s buttonhole, that, fading in an hour, were outlived by their perfume, while on the very eve of Christmas itself, the frosted wall flowers yielded a last bouquet, just a bit pinched and drawn like reduced gentlefolks of brave heart, whose present garb is either cherished or overlooked from a half-reminiscent pleasure in their society.
Many say that the ending of the year with Christmas week is only an arbitrary time division, and so is meaningless. But this cannot be so. The natural year has ended and it begins anew, even though we do not at once see its processes, for intervals in nature there are none, and the first law of being is emergence from unseen sleep, wherein is stamped the pattern for the after-growth.
Thus with Christmas passed, we all must yield to Winter. Playtime with its dalliance outdoors is over for man, and the little beasts lie in their lairs, except when hunger prods.
The poor, God help them, drawing their heads down into their garments, prepare to endure. They have not two or three changes of raiment to match the graded weather from September to January—the relentless hard moon of the Indian calendar. Resistance is their final set of winter flannels, which must be worn sleeping or waking.
With January the rabbit season is over, and the sturdy dogs, the merry, tireless beagles, left to themselves, abandon the trail after a sniff or two, or else return from the run with stiff, wounded feet: for does not a spear lurk in every blade of frozen stubble? and, after nosing into the house, they lie in relaxed comfort by the kitchen stove. That is, unless the thaw from their hair-set foot-pads annoys the cook (and few recognize dog needs and rights as did Martha Corkle), in which case they slink out again sheepish under reproof, and, loping uphill to the cottage, charge at Martha’s kitchen door until she opens it, protesting as usual at their lack of manners and the mess “the beasties” make. This, however, is wholly from principle, because protest against dirt in any form becomes a thrifty British housewife, even though transplanted to America.
In truth all the while her heart is swelling with pleasure at their recognition, voiced as it presently is in a baying chorus, heads well thrown back, throats swelling, tails held aloft and firm, for sweet as the voice of love is hound music to the people of the English hunting country, however far from it their lives have led them. Then presently, after a meal of stew seasoned to each dog’s liking (for Lark is fond of salt and likes to chew his biscuits dry and lap the gravy after, while Cadence and old Waddles, being scant of teeth, prefer to guzzle the softened food and like a pinch of sugar), they fall prone before the fire, their bellies replete, and round, pressing the floor as close as their heavy heads. Whereupon Martha heaves a sigh of deep content and seats herself in the window corner of the front room, behind her geranium pots, with her white needlework of scallop, sprig, and eyelet hole, a substantial old-time craft lately returned to favour.
This occupation also is a sign that it is winter without doubt, for not until the Christmas puddings have been made and eaten and the results have worn away, does Martha Saunders (born Corkle) sit in the bay window of her front room shedding abroad the light of her rosy face and her bright geraniums by day, while the gloom of night is pierced by her clear lamp with its gay shade, whereon an endless steeple-chase is portrayed against a screen of ruby isinglass. Here in Oaklands whoever sets a drinking trough before his door in summer-time to succour man and thirsty beasts receives so much a year from the town fathers. Why should not those who, in the dark season, set a row of jovial red geraniums behind the window-pane by day or a well-trimmed light by night, be equally rewarded? Is not the thirst for light, colour, and other home symbols as keen a desire of the winter wayfarer as his thirst for water in the torrid season?
The first New Year callers were out before sunrise this morning while the hoar-frost lay thick on the porch of father’s office, for here, Whirlpool customs to the contrary, the country doctor and his tribe expect a gentle drift of friendly visitors, as much as do the people at the parsonage, and often with them there come homespun good-will gifts.
These early guests were nameless, and left their gift upon the door-mat, where father found it. A pair of redheads, duck and drake by chance, such as the gunners at this season harvest from the still-water inside the lighthouse at the bayhead.
Any one interested in following backward the tracks these callers left would have found that they began at the edge of the bare, drifted sand beach and followed the wavering fence of the shore road until the outline of that also disappearing, the footprints crossed the upland fields to the lower end of the village street, where many of the houses, old, sedate, and self-sufficient in their ancestry, were prouder in their garb of mossy shingles than the Bluff cottages in all their bravery of new paint, and porches supported by stone pillars.
Entering by the yard of one of the humbler of these houses, through the back garden, the footsteps meandered toward the side porch that served both as well-house and wood-shed; there the owners of the feet left a similar burden of ducks on the well-worn oak door-sill instead of on the door-mat, for that was thriftily housed within. To leave it out all night would be to incur the criticism of the Misses Falcon, dealers in village patronage and censors in chief, next door, a most disastrous thing for the single dweller in the house, whose livelihood depended upon the public, as announced by a quaint glass sign, lettered in black, that filled the right-hand lower corner of the foreroom window. C. Hallet. Tailoring, Nursing, and Accommodating, done with Neatness and Despatch. The last of the three accomplishments meaning that in the between seasons of her more serious work, Charity Hallet would accommodate her neighbours in any way, from putting up jellies and jams for the slothful to turning carpets, or setting a house solemnly to rights for a funeral.
After leaving the yard, also by the back gate, that no telltale prints might mar the plumpness of the front walk, or jar the white rime that made mammoth cakes of the box bushes on either side the door, the footprints took a short cut to the hill road and paused at our steps, evidently with some scuffing and stamping, and none of the precautions used in approaching the other door.
Here the two sets of footprints, those of dog and man, alone told of who had come and gone, and yet we knew as plainly as if the social cardboard had been left. The overlapping, shifty human footprints, suggesting a limp or halting gait, were those of a rubber-booted man. The round pad-marks of a four-foot, with a dragging trail, spoke of a dog either old or weak in his hind quarters.
As I, answering father’s call, scanned the tracks, our eyes met and we said, as with one voice, “The Markis and the Major,” whereby hangs a pleasant winter’s tale. A comedy that was turned from tragedy merely by the blowing of the bitter northeast wind among the sedge grass. A simple enough story, like many another gleaned from between the leaves that lie along the village fences or the lanes and byways of the lonelier hill country.
Down in a little hut, by the bay-side, lived the village ne’er-do-weel; this was a year ago. He was not an old man in action, but at times he looked more than his fifty odd years, for life had dealt grudgingly with his primitive tastes, and besides being well weathered by an outdoor life, both eyes and gait had the droop of the man of middle age who, lacking good food, has made up for it by bad drink. Yet, in spite of a general air of shiftlessness, there was that about him still that told that he had once not only been nearly handsome, but had been possessed of a certain wild gypsy fascination coupled with a knack with the violin that had turned the heads, as well as the feet, of at least two of the village lassies of his day who, though rigidly brought up, had eyes and ears for something beyond the eternal sowings, hoeings, reapings, and sleepings of farm life. Even in his boyhood he was looked upon as a detrimental, until, partly on the principle of “Give a dog a bad name and he will earn it,” he absolutely earned one by default, so to speak, for the things that he left undone, rather than deeds committed.
He was side-branched from thrifty country stock; his father, a proxy farmer and the captain of a coastwise lumber schooner, had on a northbound trip married a comely Canadian-French woman, half-breed it was whispered, who was possessed of the desire for liberty and the outdoor life, far beyond her desire to observe the village p’s and q’s. This new strain in the cool New England blood caused neighbourly bickerings, bred mischief, and had finally made the only child of the marriage a strolling vagabond, who instinctively shunned the inside of a schoolhouse, as a rat does a trap. So that after his mother died when he was sixteen, all his after days he had lived in the open by rod and gun, fish-net and clam fork, berry picking, or playing his fiddle at village picnics and other festivals.
It was at one of these festivities that he first met Charity Hallet, called in those days Cheery from her disposition that fairly bubbled over with happiness. A fiery sort of wooing followed; that is, fiery and unusual for a staid New England town, where sitting evening after evening by the best room lamp or “buggy dashing” through the wild lanes of a moonlight night or of a Sunday afternoon were considered the only legitimate means of expression. Alack! this man possessed neither horse nor buggy, or the means of hiring one, and the door of the Hallets’ best room was closed to him, as well as every other door of the house. What would you have? Swift dances snatched when some one else relieved the fiddler; meetings by stealth in the woods, intricate journeys through the winding marsh watercourses where, hidden by tall reeds, a duck boat slipped in and out, holding a half-anxious, half-happy girl, while a tall, bronzed youth either poled the craft along or sometimes pushed it as he strode beside it waist deep in water, his eyes fixed upon the merry ones beside him.
Of course discovery came at last, and Charity’s father sent her to spend a winter with an aunt in another State and “finish” school there.
Meanwhile for half a dozen years the youth followed the sea and on his return found Charity an orphan in possession of the house and a snug income, and though she was still unmarried, a vein of prudence or a change of heart, just as one happens to view it, had at least diluted her romance.