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Authors: John P. Marquand

Warning Hill

BOOK: Warning Hill
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Warning Hill

A Novel

John P. Marquand

To

C. S. M.

I

It was a morning in early June a good many years ago when Tommy lay in the long grass by the shore of the Michael place, looking at the sky. There were vines twisting in uneven spirals up the dilapidated pillars of a near-by summer house. Michael's Harbor was sparkling in the sun, and the houses of the town across the mouth of Welcome River looked as white as new. The elms above them were like the trees on deep blue china plates. In the distance to the left, nearer to the ocean, the cliffs and lawns and houses on Warning Hill were very plain to see, larger houses even in those days than the houses of the town; even in those days like the palaces in books.

Surely there was no great reason why Tommy should have remembered this one from all those other mornings when the sky was clear and the sunlight seemed dancing on the wind; of all those other ribbons of mornings which have a way of sinking far into the haze of a beginning. He was only seven years old at the time, yet he remembered, perhaps because there is an intuition which warns even a little boy when all his world is near to change. Tommy was making up poetry as children sometimes will, extemporaneously, unconsciously, to please himself and no one else in the world. His yellow head moved back and forth as he intoned it. His eyes were gray and wide.

Then I will get a boat with a big sail, a big sail

And I will sail it and sail it fast

And the wind will blow it until it goes rush and splash

Where the waves are on the rocks—

It was here that a shadow fell across Tommy's face and made him silent. Now of course Tommy was horribly embarrassed, for no one had ever found him so before, playing make-believe and speaking into the empty air. His father was standing above him; an immense and towering figure he seemed in those days, and powerful in his godlike strength. His father was dressed in his black-and-white checked suit. His mouth was hidden in the bush of his mustache. He was carrying his walking stick, which was immensely large and heavy, which he poked into the grass as Tommy sat up, waiting for him to speak. Always there was something sad in that memory, such as bides in all illusions, especially in those of the days which one loves best. Why is it that the father myth is always first to go? Of course, Alfred Michael had none of those qualities so hopefully bestowed upon him by a lonely little boy. Alfred Michael was at best a slender man whose shoulders were stooped and whose eyes were wistful.

Yes, Tommy was horribly embarrassed. He wriggled like a puppy in the grass, but for a while his father said nothing. For a while his father did not even watch him, but at length he spoke, and not as a grown-up might speak at all.

“Go on, Tom,” he said. “Don't let me stop you.”

Tommy could only wriggle in the grass, and Alfred Michael was silent again, but at length he sighed.

“Poor boy,” he said, “you'll bear the burden, too.”

“I'm not poor,” said Tommy, “and I'm not carrying anything.”

“No?” said Alfred Michael, “Well … you'll see what I mean some day. The world isn't made for people out of the ordinary running. It's a devilish hard world.”

Tommy looked proudly up. His father's checked suit was worn perhaps, but extraordinarily fine. His brown cravat was worn perhaps, but beautifully tied. No wonder the men were glad to have him speak to them at the post office. Not one, not a soul of them, had a tie or a suit like that, or carried a stick to walk.

“In fact,” Alfred Michael leaned upon his stick, “every experiment I make only tends to confirm my opinion of the world's extreme hardness.”

There was no one else in town who could talk like that. Tommy had heard Elmer, the hired man, say as much.

“Daddy?” said Tommy.

“Yes, my boy,” said Alfred Michael.

“You're out of the ordinary, aren't you?”

“Yes, my boy,” said Alfred Michael; “there you have the trouble.”

“And, Daddy,” said Tommy, “you're smarter than anybody else in town, if you want to be, aren't you?”

“Don't use the word ‘smart,'” said Alfred Michael.

“Well … cleverer then, aren't you?”

“Yes.” His father sighed again. “That's the trouble. Now don't ask me why. Little boys mustn't always be inquisitive.”

“Well, then,” said Tommy, “I want to be out of the ordinary, too.”

For a moment it seemed to Tommy that his father's face had the strangest expression, just as though he had been hurt, though of course nothing had hurt him.

“I shouldn't wonder,” he said, “if you get over that in time. Well, well.…”

A step of that decrepit summer house was near. Alfred Michael seated himself upon it. Tommy could see more easily his father's gold mounted stickpin, and his heavy gold watch chain.

“Tommy?” said Alfred Michael. And again Tommy was aware of the strangest illusion. He could almost think, absurd though it seemed, that his father was lonely.

“Tommy, do you play here always?”

“When mother doesn't want me,” said Tommy. “And Aunt Sarah doesn't make me pick up sticks.”

“I used to play here, too,” his father said. “Time flies, but principles are fixed. Tommy, when you play here alone”—his father had the funniest look—“do you ever make believe there is some one playing with you?”

It was an embarrassing question. Tommy's intuition, if nothing else, told him it was not a thing one talked about, for of course there was some one. When the wind came off the harbor fresh and salt, the long grasses of the uncut lawn would billow gently, exactly as though some one was running on them with a step too light to crush a single blade down to the earth, and there would be a rustling in the unkempt clumps of shrubbery, laid out once in some forgotten plan, precisely as though another little boy were playing in their depths. He was a part of the light and wind, that other little boy, and impalpable as both.

But he was real enough for Tommy, for you can make such things real if you try. Tommy even had a name for him and a good name too, though he did not know it till later. Spurius was what Tommy called that other boy, because Spurius was his right-hand man, as he had been to Horatius in the “Lays of Ancient Rome.”

“Tom,” said Alfred Michael, “you do make believe there is some one. I'll be willing to bet you do.”

His father was looking at him, waiting for an answer. Yet he could say nothing. Try as he might, there was nothing, of course, to say.

“Well … I used to play with some one, too.” Now it was most extraordinary. When his father spoke, he did not seem like a grown-up in the least. “Lord knows I wish I still could. I'd almost like to try. I wonder if he's anywhere around. Suppose you call him? Shall I?”

Alfred Michael was smiling beneath his bushy brown mustache, for Tommy could see his lips curl up and tremble at the corners.

“Maro!” called Alfred Michael, “Hi, Maro … are you there?”

Often and often Tommy remembered that fleeting bit of time, in strange undreamed-of hours … the sun that seemed to be dancing on the wind across the unkempt grass, and dancing through the vines of that sagging summer house and making patterns like letters on the floor, and his father sitting on the step, with his walking stick across his knees, listening as though it was not a game at all.

“There,” his father said, “he's hiding. He's always hiding now. Maro, confound you, don't you hear me?”

“His name isn't Maro,” and Tommy; “it's Spurius.”

“Is it now?” said Alfred Michael. “Well, that's a better name … spurious as the wild ass's skin, but he used to be called Maro in my day. I studied Virgil young.” With a sigh Alfred Michael pulled himself up from the summer house steps and stared across the river mouth to the houses of Michael's Harbor.

“Oh, well,” he said, “there must be shadows of lots of boys playing on this shore. Play with 'em while you can, Tom—but would you rather play right now or walk with me to town?”

Surely he must have known the question was absurd. There was no one like Tommy's father, as strong, or as perfect in his wisdom. Tommy was up in a moment, trotting by Alfred Michael's side. Through the long weeds of an ancient gravel walk they went, through the ruins of what once had been a rose garden, where a few flowers, choked and pallid, were still combatting its perennial neglect, past what had once been the carriage house, with its yawning door and broken windows, to the Michael house itself. Immense and square and gray it always seemed to Tommy, perhaps because he still was small. Yet even later, when he could remember better, and life seemed like yesterday and not another life, the weathered cupola and the Doric columns by the porch would give that same impression of gloomy strength.

Alfred Michael closed the front door behind them. It made a rumbling noise along the hall, which echoed back from silences, shadowy even in the early morning.

“Estelle!” called Alfred Michael. That was Tommy's mother's name. “Tom, where is your mother?”

“She's dusting the books,” said Tommy.

“Oh!” said Alfred Michael; “in with the books, eh?” He walked down the hall with Tommy close behind him, raised his hand to the glass knob to the room where the books were kept, and seemed to hesitate before he turned it, as though he had forgotten something and wanted to go back.

“Estelle?” he said. “Oh, there you are.”

The book room was upside down. On the worn pine floor were books in crooked heaps, which swept upward and covered the two armchairs by the fireplace in crumbling leather waves. His father's table in the center of the room, generally covered with stray sheets of paper, had been invaded and almost obliterated by these books.

BOOK: Warning Hill
10.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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