Authors: Isabel Paterson
THE MAGPIE'S NEST
IN a hollow sheltered under the brow of one of the million hills which undulate away from the dark flanks of the Northern Rockies, couched in the yellow grass like a hare in its form, a girl child lay with her chin propped on her hands, and stared at the rippled surface of the slough below her. She had been reading, but her books were closed. Now she was thinking.
Her thoughts oppressed her, for she was a silent child. She had no one to talk to about some things. People laughed at her, or looked impatient, or puzzled. This was because she knew a great many words whose finer meanings she had not yet mastered, and she would bring them out tentatively, solemnly, in disjointed sentences that were either senseless for lack of a spoken context or priggish and irritating. These efforts meeting with no response, she would then retire into silence again. The flower of childhood, the fruit of maturity, are equally pleasant, but green apples set the teeth on edge. Hope Fielding was at an age where she set people's teeth on edge. She was over twelve, but looked no more than ten.
She had two books with her. One was a waste of words written by some earnest zealot who in his elucidation of religion had stripped it to the repulsive skeleton of dogma. Her hard, exacting young mind, seeking in it for something tangible, had quite naturally captured all its absurdities, but she was not old enough to have more than a very rudimentary sense of humour, so instead of being amused she was bored and repelled.
She turned away from it, and slipped insensibly into a daydream, that dangerous poppyfield of the imaginative and lonely soul. There is no visible horizon on the prairies. Earth and sky melt together with a suggestion of infinity. This is soothing to the adult mind, which seeks in religion for the patience of eternity to soothe the tedium of time. But children look for an answer to very personal questions, and the infinite only throws them back on themselves. If they are not then satisfied with things as they are, their only recourse is to remake them with a daydream. Childhood is often a time of great perplexity and trouble, because it can look neither forward nor back, and if the uni verse is not immediately right, it is not right at all.
This day Hope made her dream out of another book. It was the story of Mary Stuart. Out of it, like a magic casket, she brought strange treasure of rich tapestries and bright brocaded velvets, lovely and too-much-loved ladies and brave gentlemen with jewel-hilted swords—all the worn trappings of romance, which to her were still fresh and untarnished. She thrust aside the barrier of facts and years and distance, and arrayed herself magnificently, in crimson vair and rubies and high-heeled little shoes of gold, to tread a measure at Holyrood. It was because she really could think like that, in just such stilted phrases, that her remarks were at times cither Delphic or absurd. There is nothing hackneyed to twelve years old.
It was such a beautiful word—Holyrood. She did not know exactly what vair might be, but that also was a beautiful word. She crooned them over to herself, feeling as if she were slipping bright beads one by one over a strand of silk. Meanwhile, she pulled down her brown cotton frock to cover her brown knees. They were otherwise bare, and scratched by the wild rose thorns. Her fine, fawn-coloured hair was unbound, and when it blew into her eyes she shook her head impatiently. Her eyes were cloudy blue, with quick dilating pupils; she had a straight, unwinking gaze, which, with the two fine lines already apparent between her crescent eyebrows, gave her a proud and untamable look quite at variance with the rest of her features, which still had the unformed softness of babyhood. She was thin and tanned, instead of plump and rosy she was altogether ungracious and shy, not only a green apple but a wilding.
The sun told her she had been out for hours. And she had gone far, and was weary. Her dreams scattered, settling to earth like a flock of tired birds. She rose and went slowly over the long tawny grass. It was the colour of her hair, and the sky on this uncertain day was the colour of her eyes. The grass rippled in the steady, dry soft wind, in low running waves like the surface of the water, an illimitable sea of grass, unbroken by fences or dwellings. The wind was not cold, but it went on and on monotonously. The spring and autumn winds always made her feel listless and out of tune with life. June was the month she loved, when the moist earth seemed to send up its juices to refresh her blood.
Then the sky stooped very near, a wonderful deep azure, with clouds of the texture of white wool drifting just above the hilltops. And then the herbage, the very earth itself, diffused a thin, fine perfume, an exquisite, clean, living scent. The wind had long since beaten out that perfume and borne it away.
Hope was apparently all alone in the centre of a vast unpeopled reach of yellow grass and pale blue sky. Very far off and dim were the mountains. She meant some day to go and see what was beyond them.
Yet, when she topped the rise which gave her a sight of home, and beheld saddled horses which betokened strange guests, standing patiently at the corral, she hesitated a long ten minutes and then made a wide detour, coming into the house by the kitchen door.
The kitchen was bare, clean scrubbed, full of a cheerful warmth and intimacy which radiated from the bubbling teakettle on the stove as a centre. Hope came in quietly, as she always did, and stopped stock-still, seeing herself not only forestalled but excessively superfluous. Her oldest sister, Nellie, was washing the dishes, which Hope should have done hours before. A young man was drying them. Nellie was a young lady, which meant that to Hope she was infinitely more removed than a stranger. The young man fleeted Hope. He came to the house very often, but she responded only with a shy jerk of her head, and went on into the living-room, which she had not meant to do.
Only her mother's eyes greeted her there. Three strangers were talking to her father. She sidled into a corner, flanked by a tall cupboard press, and sat on a small box which held all her own most personal belongings.
In another corner her three younger sisters sat cutting pictures out of an old magazine. They whispered together, and sometimes looked up shyly at the guests. Her brother, the only boy in the family identified himself with the men by sitting close to her father and listening intently and unabashed, after the manner of boys. He was fifteen, and did a man's work. Hope was the odd one, uncompanioned.
"Yes," her father spoke to a grave, bearded man, "I know the outcrop you mean. I get our own coal there. I think you'll be disappointed. The vein's no more than two feet thick, and shaley. What use would it be, anyway, so far from a railroad?"
"We should go deeper," said the bearded man, speaking with authority. "There was a test boring made here years ago—I made it myself, in fact. But, as you say, it was no use without a railway. Now it's no secret that the steel will be here within three years—the Whitewater branch. All you old-timers will only have to sit tight, and the railway will make you rich." He was an official high up in the councils of the railroad; in a manner he was offering a return for hospitality.
"Rich?" said Jared Fielding, dubiously. "You mean it will bring in a lot of fool farmers, and our range will be gone, and we'll have to go on again."
Fielding was a pathmaker, not a moneymaker, a man — whose life had been spent as a feather poised on the edge of a flood, ever ready to advance yet further ahead of the incoming tide of civilisation. In his youth he had loved solitudes, and desired breathing space. Now he felt the reluctance of middle age to innovation and change. The bearded man smiled sympathetically. He understood the spirit of such men. With a stake and chain he had surveyed these very acres years before; the test boring he had mentioned was a veritable landmark in his own life.
Conroy Edgerton, the second guest, looked mildly impatient. His smooth-shaven countenance was shrewd, yet immature, a good type of the successful American business man. There was intelligence rather than intellect in his eyes; he had the well-padded frame of a man who understands the economics,
not the aesthetics, of living well; a type evolved of the quick prosperity of the Middle West. He had come on his own business, land speculation.
The third stranger was the youngest, hardly more than a boy. He showed to Hope a clean profile, faintly Romanesque but stopping short of the too aquiline nose. Hope liked him best because his skin was a clear brown, darker than his yellow hair, not pink like Edgerton's, nor weatherbeaten like the railway man's. He had bright blue eyes, and a figure so well-knit and compact that it saved him from looking insignificant. Hope stealthily reached for a pencil and tried to sketch him on the fly-leaf of her book, while the conversation rumbled on pleasantly. He very obligingly sat silent. He was thinking of his cousin, whose marriage he must hurry on to Philadelphia to attend within the month; he had come from the other side of the world for that purpose. Having no sisters, he thought of his cousin Grace rather in the light of one—a pale, slim, clever girl. Her letter had been insistent. But there was time to stop for a week's hunting. The railway man was a very distant connection of his family.
For all the young man's stillness, Hope failed to fix him on paper. She spoiled many blank scraps with childish sketches, which showed manual facility, a very small talent possibly, but nothing more. Her pencil ran most easily to the making of fat brownies, squirrels, and funny baby faces with ducktail curls on top of their heads, such as her plump, blonde little sister had worn no long time before. It would not serve for the severe lines of Norris Carter's chin and brow So she listened again perfunctorily, while Edgerton made a forecast of the financial future of the country.
It did not interest her. She knew her father would never be rich; and she could not imagine that vast, lonely country as ever suffering any change.
The young man saw her suddenly, peeing bright-eyed from her dim corner, and he smiled at her. She flushed, with a quick movement drawing down her short skirt, as if she would cover her bare feet. How could any young man dream that if her fancy had been armed with magic for fulfilment she would have stood before him in a courtly gown with a three-yard
in and given him her hand to kiss! That tanned, grubby little fist—she flushed deeper, looking down at it despairingly. But when Edgerton also saw her, she reverted suddenly to her true age. He was the kind of man one expected to produce bonbons from mysterious pockets.
Following their eyes, her father's glance rested on her at last.
"Did you come home for a visit, Hope?" he rallied her. "Mother said you went out right after breakfast."
"I w-went up to the beaverpond," she explained, shrinking under the three pairs of eyes focussed on her. "They—they've built a new dam. And I saw a bear-t
ack. He'd been fishing. So I went around—I went a long way."
"Beaver—and bears?" Carter roused to attention.
"Three or four beaver," Fielding explained. "It's several miles from here, up the creek, where there's brush. Last of the Mohicans, I guess."
"Aren't you afraid," asked the railway man, raising his grizzled eyebrows, "to let that baby run about so far from home? I didn't think there were any bear left, either."
"Oh, maybe once or twice a year one wanders down from the foothills," said Fielding indifferently. "Littie fellows; they run if they smell a man. We'd have to tie these young scamps by the leg if we warned to keep them at home. Maybe it wasn't a bear-track, anyway; probably she made it herself last week." His auditors laughed. Hope felt the miserable sensation attendant on speech out of season, commoner to adolescents than to her own age. She shut her lips tightly, and waited for a chance of escape.
But after the noon dinner, when the guests arose to depart, Edgerton found her in the kitchen, and put a heavy silver dollar in her hand, closing her palm on it tightly.
"Buy yourself some gumdrops," he said confidentially.
"T-thank you," she said, stuttering with shyness. "But I can't; there is no store here."
"That's too bad," he said seriously. "Would you get anything sent you by mail?"
And when she told him that she would, that mail came once a week, he warned her to be on the watch.
"But I like ch-chocolates best," she put in eagerly. And she held out the dollar to him.
He laughed, deep down in his chest.
"No, no; that's yours now; keep it."