The House of Bondage


THE local weather-prophets–the cape-coated Mennonites and the bearded Amishmen, who came into the town to market–had said, with choral unanimity, that the spring would be brief and sudden, and the summer parching and intense.

Already, though April had but dawned, the pink arbutus had bloomed and withered, and the pale first violets were peeping, purple and fragrant, among the lush grass of the front yards on Second Street. The annual oriole was a full fortnight ahead of his time in opening his summer-house in the hickory-tree on the Southwarks' lawn; and up in the droning study-room of the high-school, where all the windows were wide to the lazy sunlight, Miss England had begun, this week, to direct the thoughts of her dwindling senior-class toward the subjects of their graduation essays.

Swaying with the easy, languid grace of an unstudied young animal, Mary Denbigh, the morning-session ended, turned from the graveled walk before the school-grounds into the little town's chief thoroughfare.

Nobody had ever called her pretty, but her light serge skirt had that day been lengthened to her ankles, and Mary was wholly conscious of the new tokens of her growth. Lithe, strong-limbed and firm-bodied, of peasant stock and peasant vigor, youth and health and the open country air were not factors sufficiently unfamiliar to combine in a charm that would attract admiration in her own community. Only a jaded city-gaze–and a well-trained city-gaze at that–would have seen in the blue eyes, the red mouth, the straight nose, pink cheeks, and abundant russet hair, any promise worthy of fulfillment,–could have detected the flower in the bud; and that such a gaze should, on this day of all days, have been leveled in the girl's direction was, perhaps, only one of those grim jests of a Fate that loves to play upon the harmony between man and nature, and that here observed the coming of a human spring that must be brief and sudden, a human summer parching and intense.

The usual group of idle residents and idling commercial drummers were sitting at the plate-glass window of the hotel as she went by, but the girl did not see them. Passing among objects of long familiarity, she saw, in fact, nothing until, in a sidestreet, she heard a rapid step behind her, was covered by an approaching shadow and, half-turning, found someone, a stranger, at her side.

"How d'y'do, liddle girl?"

Mary looked up; but she was quite too startled to observe anything save that the speaker–she could not have told whether he were man or boy–was at once dark and rosy, smiling and serious, hat in hand, and, beyond all speculation, no citizen of her own borough.

"I don't know you," she said.

She flushed quickly, and strode forward. It was, she knew, no uncommon thing for the girls of her acquaintance to be " picked up," as they called the process, by some fellow-townsman that had never been formally presented to them; but the process was, as she also knew, one that lost its propriety when extended to aliens.

The present alien was, nevertheless, not easily to be dismissed. He fell into her gait, and walked facilely beside her.

" I beg your pardon," he said in the humblest and most unobjectionable tones. "I don't mean to be rude to you, honest, I don't. I'm a traveling-man, you see–"

Mary was striding rapidly ahead, her full mouth now drawn firm, her blue eyes fixed on the vanishing-point.

"I don't care what you are," she answered.

"All righd," he pleaded. "All I vant now is a chanc't to exblain. I've chust started out traveling for my fader, who's a big distiller in N'York. I've got to stay in this hole for a while, un' I'm not used fo the beesness, un' I'm lonesome, un' I only vondared if you vouldn't go vith me to a moving-picture show, or something, this evening."

The best way to deal with such a situation is a way that is easiest for the inexperienced and the unpolished. Mary was both. For the first time since he had begun to walk beside her, she now, coming to a defiant stop, faced her annoyer.

"I don't know you," she repeated. " I've told you that onc't, and you'd better not make me tell you any more still. I live the second door round the coming corner, and my pop is a puddler an' weighs two hundred and ten pounds!"

Again she wheeled and again resumed her homeward march; and this time she walked alone. If she heard, dimly, behind her a confused murmur of response, she did not hesitate to learn whether the words were expressions of further apology or newborn dismay, and when she ran, flushed and panting, up the three wooden steps to the two-story brick house that was her home, though she could not then deny herself one backward glance, that glance revealed to her only an empty corner. The pursuit had ended.

She flung open the light door that was never locked by day, walked down the short, darkened hall, past the curtain of the equally darkened parlor, through the dining-room with its pine table covered by a red cotton cloth, and so into the small, crowded kitchen, where her mother fretted and clattered above the highly polished range.

Mrs. Denbigh was a little Pennsylvania-German woman, whom a stern religion and a long life of hard work had not intellectually enlarged. In spite of the fact that she had borne eight children, of whom Mary was the seventh, her sympathies had failed to broaden, and her equally religious and equally hard-working Welsh husband used often to remark to her, during his one-monthly evening of intoxication, that he was glad indeed she was to have no more progeny, since, somehow or other, she "seemed to git wuss tempered with every innocent youngling as koom to 'un." Whether this criticism was or was not precise, it is at least true that much drudgery had not improved the weary woman's temper; that the long years before her husband rose to his present wages–years during which his wife had not only kept a house and reared a family, but had also added to the communal income by night-work as a dress-maker–had left her gray and stooped and hatchet-faced; and that, though of a race in which the maternal instinct runs almost to a passion, her patience with her remaining pair of home-biding children was frequently fragile and short.

Just now she looked up, a spoon in one hand and a pan in the other, her forehead damp, as always, with sweat, and her harassed eyes momentarily bright with anger.

"Where on earth have you been, anyways?" she shrilly inquired of Mary.

The girl's face instantly hardened from the excitement of her recent adventure to the sullenness behind which she always took refuge in these more usual domestic crises. What she might have confessed had she come home to a less overworked mother, it is, obviously, vain to conjecture; what she actually did was to lock within her breast the story that had been trembling on her red lips, and what she replied to Mrs. Denbigh's question was an ungracious:

"Been at school. Where d'you think? "

The mother straightened up as far as her longstooped shoulders would permit.

"Think? " she echoed. " I guess I can guess still where you was. 'Less you was kep' in, you had ought t' been home five minutes ago, an' nobody's kep' in only five minutes. You've been flirtin' with some idiot of a boy on the street-corner yet–that's about what you've been doin'! "

It was a random shot, and one fired from no previous knowledge, but the girl at once realized that, had any neighbor chanced to see what had actually occurred, this parental construction would appear to have some foundation in fact. The thought was enough to seal the locked gate in her breast.

" That ain't so ! " she said, with childish fury. " I come straight home, like I always do. If you want me to help more with the work than I do help, why don't you let me quit school? I don't want to go any more, anyhow."

There are some families in which the passing of the lie is no such uncommon or serious offense, and the Denbigh menange was one of them. It was, therefore, upon the latter portion of Mary's speech that her mother, at this time, seized.

" You'll go to school as long as your pop and me say you must! " she retorted.

"You let our Etta quit when she was in the grammar school," expostulated Mary, with an appeal to the precedent of the successfully married sister, who was now a next-door neighbor. "You let her quit then, and now I'm in the high."

Had Mrs. Denbigh's rejoinder been in accordance with the facts, she would have said that all she wanted to do was to give her daughter as much of an education as was compatible with the proper conduct of the Denbigh domestic economy. But tired women are no more apt to indulge in analytical exposition than are tired men, and so it chanced that her next speech, accompanied by a gesture that raised the cooking-spoon aloft, was a torrent of words unexpectedly interrupted.

"In the high?" she repeated. "Well, I know where you'll be in one minute, still, if you don't right away–"

She brought the spoon forward with a mighty swoop, but its parabola, in crossing the stove, sent it into violent contact with the pot that held the stew destined for the noon dinner. The pot was balanced on the edge of an aperture in the stove whence the lid had been removed. The vessel fell, and its contents belched upon the burning coals.

Mrs. Denbigh gave one look at the steaming ruin, and then seized the already retreating Mary. The girl's struggles, her cries, the dignity of the newly lengthened skirt, avail nothing. A dozen times the mother's arm descended in stinging castigation, and then she hurried her daughter into the hall.

"You git right back to school!" she ordered. "I don't care if you're a half-hour' early–you're mostly late enough. You've spoiled your own dinner and mine and little Sallie's, so you don't git nothin' to eat still till evening. You'll go to school, and you'll keep on goin' till your pop an' me tells you to quit! "

Mary looked at the woman without a word, and then, still without a word, passed through the front door and banged it behind her.

But she did not walk in the direction of the school; she was not going to school. The rebel-spirit of youth choked her, and turned her feet, almost without will of her own, toward the river.

She crossed the railroad tracks, came to the disused towpath and followed it for a mile beyond the town. Far westward she went, "walking," as she would have said, " her madness down," and, hungry though she now was, she did not rest until at last, as late as three o'clock in the afternoon, she sat on a rock at the point where the Susquehanna curves between the sheer precipice of Chicques on the Lancaster County side and the hooded nose of the high hill they call the Point, upon the other.

The hood of rebellion had ceased, but a steady and enduring stream of resolution remained.

Across the sweep of eddies she saw the nearer hills already shedding the browns and blacks of winter's bared limbs and pine branches for the tenderer green of a gentler season. The cultivated portions of the summits were already rich with coming life. Behind her rolled the Donegal Valley, where the crops were even then germinating. Birds were mating in the sap-wet trees beside the water, and from the flowering seeds there came the subtle, poignant scent of a warm April.

Something–something new and nameless and wonderful–rose in her throat and left her heart hammering an answer to the new world around her. She was glad–glad in spite of all her anger and her hunger; glad that she had not told her mother of the boy–for he must have been a boy–whom she had, after all, so needlessly reprimanded; but glad, above everything else, for some reason, for some intoxication that she might neither then nor ever after completely understand.

Her cheeks glowed a deeper pink; her blue eyes glistened; she opened her red mouth to the seductive run and, with a sweep of her firm hands, flung loose her russet hair to the breeze. Looking out at the distant fields, she sprang to her feet again and walked, swaying with the easy, languid grace of an unstudied young animal.

The fields reminded her of the rural prophets. It was evident, she thought, that they were right: this year's was to be a spring brief and sudden, a summer parching and intense.