“Old Red” by Caroline Gordon
WHEN THE DOOR HAD closed behind his daughter, Mr. Maury went to the window and stood a few moments looking out. The roses that had grown in a riot all along that side of the fence had died or been cleared away, but the sun lay across the garden in the same level lances of light that the remembered. He turned back into the room. The shadows had gathered until it was nearly all in gloom. The top of his minnow bucket just emerging from his duffel bag glinted in the last rays of the sun. He stood looking down at his traps all gathered neatly in a heap at the foot of the bed. He would leave them like that. Even if they came in here sweeping and cleaning up — it was only in hotels that a man was master of his own room — even if they came in here cleaning up he would tell them to leave all his things exactly as they were. It was reassuring to see them all there together, ready to be taken up in the hand to be carried down and put into a car, to be driven off to some railroad station at a moment’s notice.
As he moved toward the door he spoke aloud, a habit that was growing on him:
“Anyhow I won’t stay but a week…. I ain’t going to stay but a week, no matter what they say….”
Downstairs in the dining room they were already gathered at the supper table: his white-haired, shrunken mother in-law; his tall sister-in-law who had the proud carriage of the head, the aquiline nose, but not the spirit of his dead wife; his lean, blond, new son-in-law; his black eyed daughter who, but that she was thin, looked so much like him, all of them gathered there waiting for him, Alexander Maury. It occurred to him that this was the first time he had sat down in the bosom of the family for some years. They were always writing saying that he must make a visit this summer or certainly next summer — “. . . all had a happy Christmas together, but missed you….” They had even made the pretext that he ought to come up to inspect his new son-in-law. As if he hadn’t always known exactly the kind of young man Sarah would marry! What was the boy’s name? Stephen, yes, Stephen. He must be sure and remember that.
He sat down and, shaking out his napkin, spread it over his capacious paunch and tucked it well up under his chin in the way his wife had never allowed him to do. He let his eyes rove over the table and released a long sigh.
“Hot batter bread,” he said, “and ham. Merry Point ham. I sure am glad to taste them one more time before I die.”
The old lady was sending the little Negro girl scurrying back to the kitchen for a hot plate of batter bread. He pushed aside the cold plate and waited. She had bundled when he spoke of the batter bread and a faint flush had dawned on her withered cheeks. Vain she had always been as a peacock, of her housekeeping, her children, anything that belonged to her. She went on now, even at her advanced age, making her batter bread, smoking her hams according to that old recipe she was so proud of, but who came here now to this old house to eat or to praise?
He helped himself to a generous slice of batter bread, buttered it, took the first mouthful and chewed it slowly. He shook his head.
“There ain’t anything like it,” he said. “There ain’t anything else like it in the world. ”
His dark eye roving over the table fell on his son-in-law. “You like batter bread?” he inquired.
Stephen nodded, smiling. Mr. Maury, still masticating slowly, regarded his face, measured the space between the eyes — his favorite test for man, horse, or dog. Yes, there was room enough for sense between the eyes. How young the boy looked! And infected already with the fatal germ, the cacoethes scribendi. Well, their children –if he and Sarah ever had any children — would probably escape. It was like certain diseases of the eye, skipped every other generation. His own father had had it badly all his life. He could see him now sitting at the head of the table spouting his own poelry — or Shakespeare’s — while the children watched the preserve dish to see if it was going around. He, Aleck Maury, had been lucky to be born in the generation he had. He had escaped that at least. A few translations from Heine in his courting days, a few fragments from the Greek; but no, he had kept clear of that on the whole….
His sister-in-law’s eyes were fixed on him. She was smiling faintly. “You don’t look much like dying, Aleck. Florida must agree with you.”
The old lady spoke from the head of the table. “I can’t see what you do with yourself all winter long. Doesn’t time hang heavy on your hands?”
Time, he thought, time! They were always mouthing the word, and what did they know about it? Nothing in God’s world! He saw time suddenly, a dull, leadencolored fabric depending from the old lady’s hands, from the hands of all of them, a blanket that they pulled about between them, now here, now there, trying to cover up their nakedness. Or they would cast it on the ground and creep in among the folds, finding one day a little more tightly rolled than another, but all of it everywhere the same dull gray substance. But time was a banner that whipped before him always in the wind! He stood on tiptoe to catch at the bright folds, to strain them to his bosom. They were bright and glittering. But they whipped by so fast and were whipping always ever faster. The tears came into his eyes. Where, for instance, had this year gone? He could swear he had not wasted a minute of it, for no man living, he thought, knew better how to make each day a pleasure to him. Not a minute wasted and yet here it was already May. If he lived to the biblical threescore-and-ten. which was all he ever allowed himself in his calculations, he had before him only nine more Mays. Only nine more Mays out of all eternity and they wanted him to waste one of them sitting on the front porch at Merry Point!
The butter plate which had seemed to swim before him in a glittering mist was coming solidly to rest upon the white tablecloth. He winked his eyes rapidly and, laying down his knife and fork, squared himself about in his chair to address his mother-in-law:
“Well, ma’am, you know I’m a man that always likes to be learning something. Now this year I learned how to smell out fish.” He glanced around the table, holding his head high and allowing his well-cut nostrils to flutter slightly with his indrawn breaths. “Yes, sir,” he said, “I’m probably the only white man in this country knows how to smell out feesh.”
There was a discreet smile on the faces of the others. Sarah was laughing outright. “Did you have to learn how or did it just come to you?”
“I learned it from an old nigger woman,” her father said. He shook his head reminiscently. “It’s wonderful how much you can learn from niggers. But you have to know how to handle them. I was half the winter wooing that old Fanny. . . ”
He waited until their laughter had died down. “We used to start off every morning from the same little cove and we’d drift in there together at night. I noticed how she always brought in a good string, so I says to her: ‘Fanny, you just femme go ‘long with you.’ But she wouldn’t have nothing to do with me. I saw she was going to be a hard nut to crack, but I kept right on. Finally I began giving her presents….”
Laura was regarding him fixedly, a queer glint in her eyes. Seeing outrageous pictures in her mind’s eye,doubtless. Poor Laura. Fifty years old if she was a day. More than half her lifetime gone and all of it spent drying up here in the old lady’s shadow. She was speaking with a gasping little titter:
“What sort of presents did you give her, Aleck?”
He made his tone hearty in answer. “I give her a fine string of fish one day and I give her fifty cents. And finally I made her a present of a Barlow knife. That was when she broke down. She took me with her that morning….”
“Could she really smell fish?” the old lady asked curiously.
“You ought to a seen her,” Mr. Maury said. “She’d sail over that lake like a hound on the scent. She’d row right along and then all of a sudden she’d stop rowing.” He bent over and peered into the depths of imaginary water. “‘Thar they are. White Folks, thar they are. Cain’t you smell ’em?'”
Stephen was leaning forward, eyeing his father-in-law intently. “Could you?” he asked.
“I got so I could smell feesh,” Mr. Maury told him. “I could smell out the feesh but I couldn’t tell which kind they were. Now Fanny could row over a bed and tell just by the smell whether it was bass or bream. But she’d been at it all her life.” He paused, sighing. “You can’t just pick these things up…. Who was it said, ‘Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains’?”
Sarah was rising briskly. Her eyes sought her husband’s across the table. She was laughing. “Sir Izaak Walton,” she said.”We’d better go in the other room. Mandy wants to clear the table.”
The two older ladies remained in the dining room. Mr. Maury walked across the hall to the sitting room, accompanied by Steve and Sarah. He lowered himself cautiously into the most solid-looking of the rocking chairs that were drawn up around the fire. Steve stood on the hearthrug, his back to the fire.
Mr. Maury glanced up at him curiously. “What you thinking about, feller?” he asked.
Steve looked down. He smiled but his gaze was still contemplative. ‘il was thinking about the sonnet,” he said, “in the form in which it first came to England.”
Mr. Maury shook his head. “Wyatt and Surrey,” he said. “Hey, nonny, nonny. . . . You’ll have hardening of the liver long before you’re my age.” He looked past Steve’s shoulder at the picture that hung over the mantelshelf: Cupid and Psyche holding between them a fluttering veil and running along a rocky path toward the beholder. It had been hanging there ever since he could remember; would hang there, he thought, till the house fell down or burned down, as it was more likely to do with the old lady wandering around at night carrying lighted lamps the way she did. “Old Merry Point,” he said. “It don’t change much, does it””
He settled himself more solidly in his chair. His mind veered from the old house to his own wanderings in brighter places. He regarded his daughter and son-in-law affably.
“Yes, sir,” he said, “this winter in Florida was valuable to me just for the acquaintances I made. Take my friend Jim Yost. Just to live in the same hotel with that man is an education.” He paused, smiling reminiscently into the fire. “I’ll never forget the first time I saw him. He came up to me there in the lobby of the hotel. ‘Professor Maury,’ he says, ‘you been hearin’ about me for twenty years and I been hearin’ about you for twenty years. And now we’ve done met.'”
Sarah had sat down in the little rocking chair by the fire. She leaned toward him now, laughing. “They ought to have put down a cloth of gold for the meeting,” she said.
Mr. Maury regarded her critically. It occurred to him that she was, after all, not so much like himself as the sister whom, as a child, he had particularly disliked. A smart girl, Sarah, but too quick always on the uptake. For his own part he preferred a softer-natured woman.
He shook his head. “Nature does that in Florida,” he said. “I knew right off the reel it was him. There were half a dozen men standing around. I made ’em witness. ‘Jim Yost.’ I says, ‘Jim Yost of Maysville or I’ll eat my hat.'”
“Why is he so famous’?” Sarah asked.
Mr. Maury took out his knife and cut off a plug of tobacco. When he had offered a plug to his son-in-law and it had been refused, he put the tobacco back into his pocket. “He’s a man of imagination,” he said slowly. “There ain’t many in this world.”
He took a small tin box out of his pocket and set it on the little table that held the lamp. Removing the top, he tilted the box so that they could see its contents: an artificial lure, a bug with a dark body and a red, bulbous head, a hook protruding from what might be considered its vitals.
“Look at her,” he said. “Ain’t she a killer?”
Sarah leaned forward to look and Steve, still standing on the hearthrug, bent above them. The three heads ringed the light. Mr. Maury disregarded Sarah and addressed himself to Steve. “She takes nine strips of pork rind,” he said, “nine strips cut just thick enough.” He marked off the width of the strips with his two fingers on the table, then,picking up the lure and cupping it in his palm, he moved it back and forth quickly so that the painted eyes caught the light.
“Look at her,” he said, “look at the wicked way she sets forward.”
Sarah was poking at the lure with the tip of her finger. “Wanton,” she said, “simply wanton. What does he call her?”
“This is his Devil Bug,” Mr. Maury said. “He’s the only man in this country makes it. I myself had the idea thirty years ago and let it slip by me the way I do with so many of my ideas.” He sighed, then, elevating his tremendous bulk slightly above the table level and continuing to hold Steve with his gaze, he produced from his coat pocket the oilskin book that held his flies. He spread it open on the table and began to turn the pages. His eyes sought his son-in-law’s as his hand paused before a gray, rather draggled-looking lure.
“Old Speck,” he said. “I’ve had that fly for twenty years. I reckon she’s taken five hundred pounds of fish in her day….”
The fire burned lower. A fiery coal rolled from the grate and fell onto the hearthrug. Sarah scooped it up with a shovel and threw it among the ashes. In the circle of the lamplight the two men still bent over the table looking at the flies. Steve was absorbed in them, but he spoke seldom. It was her father’s voice that, rising and falling, filled the room. He talked a great deal but he had a beautiful speaking voice. He was telling Steve now about Little West Fork, the first stream ever he put a fly in. “My first love,” he kept calling it. It sounded rather pretty, she thought. in his mellow voice. “My first love….
When Mr. Maury came downstairs the next morning the dining room was empty except for his daughter, Sarah. who sat dawdling over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. Mr. Maury sat down opposite her. To the little Negro girl who presented herself at his elbow he outlined his wants briefly: “A cup of coffee and some hot batter bread, just like we had last night.” He turned to his daughter. “Where’s Steve?”
‘ He’s working,” she said. “He was up at eight and he’s been working ever since. ”
Mr. Maury accepted the cup of coffee from the little girl, poured half of it into his saucer, set it aside to cool. ”Ain’t it wonderful,” he said, “the way a man can sit down and work day after day’? When I think of all the work I’ve done in my time . . . Can he work every morning’?”
“He sits down at his desk every morning,” she said, “but of course he gets more done some mornings than others.”
Mr. Maury picked up his saucer, found the coffee cool enough for his taste. He sipped it slowly, looking out of the window. His mind was already busy with his day’s program. No water — no running water –nearer than West Fork, three miles away. He couldn’t drive a car and Steve was going to be busy writing all morning. There was nothing for it but a pond. The Willow Sink. It was not much, but it was better than nothing. He pushed his chair back and rose.
“Well,” he said, “I’d better be starting.
When he came downstairs with his rod a few minutes later the hall was still full of the sound of measured typing. Sarah sat in the dining room in the same position in which he had left her, smoking. Mr. Maury paused in the doorway while he slung his canvas bag over hls shoulders. “How you ever going to get anything done if you don’t take advantage of the morning hours?” he asked. He glanced at the door opposite as if it had been the entrance to a sick chamber. “What’s he writing about?” he inquired in a whisper.
“It’s an essay on John Skelton.”
Mr. Maury looked out at the new green leaves framed in the doorway. “John Skelton,” he said, “God Almighty!”
He went through the hall and stepped down off the porch onto the ground that was still moist with spring rains. As he crossed the lower yard he looked up into the branches of the maples. Yes. the leaves were full-grown already even on the late trees. The year, how swiftly, how steadily it advanced! He had come to the far corner of the yard. Grown up it was in pokeberry shoots and honeysuckle, but there was a place to get through. The top strand of wire had been pulled down and fastened to the others with a ragged piece of rope. He rested his weight on his good leg and swung himself over onto the game one. It gave him a good, sharp twinge when he came down on it. It was getting worse all the time, that leg, but on the other hand he was learning better all the time how to handle it. His mind flew back to a dark, startled moment, that day when the cramp first came on him. He had been sitting still in the boat all day long and that evening when he stood up to get out his leg had failed him utterly. He had pitched forward among the reeds, had lain there a second, face downward before it came to him what had happened. With the realization came a sharp picture out of his faraway youth. Uncle James, lowering himself ponderously out of the saddle after a hard day’s hunting, had fallen forward in exactly the same way, into a knot of yowling little Negroes. He had got up and cursed them all out of the lot. It had scared the old boy to death, coming down like that. The black dog he had had on his shoulder all that fall. But he himself had never lost one day’s fishing on account of his leg. He had known known from the start how to handle it. It meant simply that he was slowed down that much. It hadn’t really made much difference in fishing. He didn’t do as much wading but he got around just about as well on the whole. Hunting, of course, had had to go. You couldn’t walk all day shooting birds, dragging a game leg. He had just given it up right off the reel, though it was a shame when a man was as good a shot as he was. That day he was out with Tom Kensington, last November, the only day he got out during the bird season. Nine shots he’d had and he’d bagged nine birds. Yes, it was a shame. But a man couldn’t do everything. He had to limit himself. . . .
He was up over the little rise now. The field slanted straight down before him to where the pond lay, silver in the morning sun. A Negro cabin was perched halfway up the opposite slope. A woman was hanging out washing on a line stretched between two trees. From the open door little Negroes spilled down the path toward the pond. Mr. Maury surveyed the scene, spoke aloud:
“Ain’t it funny now? Niggers always live in the good places.
He stopped under a wild cherry tree to light his pipe. It had been hot crossing the field, but the sunlight here was agreeably tempered by the branches. And that pond down there was fringed with willows. His eyes sought the bright disc of the water, then rose to where the smoke from the cabin chimney lay in a soft plume along the crest of the hill.
When he stooped to pick up his rod again it was with a feeling of sudden keen elation. An image had risen in his memory, an image that was familiar but came to him infrequently of late and that only in moments of elation: the wide field in front of his uncle’s house in Albemarle, on one side the dark line of undergrowth that marked the Rivanna River, on the other the blue of Peters’ Mountain. They would be waiting there in that broad plain when they had the first sight of the fox. On that little rise by the river, loping steadily, not yet alarmed. The sun would glint on his bright coat, on his quick turning head as he dove into the dark of the woods. There would be hullabaloo after that and shouting and nding. Sometimes there was the tailing of the fox — that time Old Whiskey was brought home on a mattress! All of that to come afterwards, but none of it ever like that first sight of the fox there on the broad plain between the river and the mountain.
There was one fox, they grew to know him in time, to call him affectionately by name. Old Red it was who showed himself always like that there on the crest of the hill. “There he goes, the damn, impudent scoundrel….” Uncle James would shout and slap his thigh and yell himself hoarse at Whiskey and Mag and the pups, but they would already have settled to their work. They knew his course, every turn of it, by heart. Through the woods and then down again to the river. Their hope was always to cut him off before he could circle back to the mountain. If he got in there among those old field pines it was all up. But he always made it. Lost ’em every time and dodged through to his hole in Pinnacle Rock. A smart fox, Old Red….
He descended the slope and paused in the shade of a clump of willows. The little Negroes who squatted, dabbling in the water, watched him out of round eyes as he unslung his canvas bag and laid it on a stump. He looked down at them gravely.
“D’you ever see a white man that could conjure?” he asked.
The oldest boy laid the brick he was fashioning out of mud down on a plank. He ran the tip of his tongue over his lower lip to moisten it before he spoke. “New, suh. ”
“I’m the man,” Mr. Maury told him. “You chillun better quit that playin’ and dig me some worms.”
He drew his rod out of the case, jointed it up, and laid it down on a stump. Taking out his book of flies, he turned the pages, considering. “Silver Spinner,” he said aloud. “They ought to take that . . . in May. Naw, I’ll just give Old Speck a chance. It’s a long time now since we had her out.”
The little Negroes had risen and were stepping quietly off along the path toward the cabin, the two little boys hand in hand, the little girl following, the baby astride her hip. They were pausing now before a dilapidated building that might long ago have been a hen house. Mr. Maury shouted at them: “Look under them old boards. That’s the place for worms.” The biggest boy was turning around. His treble “Yassuh” quavered over the water. Then their voices died away. There was no sound except the light turning of the willow boughs in the wind.
Mr. Maury walked along the bank, rod in hand, humming: “Bangum’s gone to the wild boar’s den…. Bangum’s gone to the wild boar’s den….” He stopped where a white, peeled log protruded six or seven feet into the water. The pond made a little turn here. He stepped out squarely upon the log, still humming. The line rose smoothly, soared against the blue, and curved sweetly back upon the still water His quick ear caught the little whish that the fly made when it clove the surface, his eye followed the tiny ripples made by its flight. He cast again, leaning a little backwards as he did sometimes when the mood was on him. Again and again his line soared out over the water. His eye rested now and then on his wrist. He noted with detachment the expert play of the muscles, admired each time the accuracy of his aim. It occurred to him that it was four days now since he had wet a line. Four days. One whole day packing up, parts of two days on the train, and yesterday wasted sitting there on that front porch with the family. But the abstinence had done him good. He had never cast better than he was casting this morning.
There was a rustling along the bank, a glimpse of blue through the trees. Mr. Maury leaned forward and peered around the clump of willows. A hundred yards away Steve. hatless, in an old blue shirt and khaki pants, stood jointing up a rod.
Mr. Maury backed off his log and advanced along the path. He called out cheerfully: “Well, feller, do any good?”
Steve looked up. His face had lightened for a moment but the abstracted expression stole over it again when he spoke. “Oh, I fiddled with it all morning,” he said, “but I didn’t do much good.”
Mr. Maury nooded sympathetically. “Minerva invita erat,” he said. “You can do nothing unless Minerva perches on the roof tree. Why, I been castin’ here all morning and not a strike. But there’s a boat tied up over on the other side. What say we get in it and just drift around?” He paused, looked at the rod Steve had finished jointing up. “I brought another rod along,” he said. “You want to use it?”
Steve shook his head. “I’m used to this one,” he said.
An expression of relief came over Mr. Maury’s face. “That’s right,” he said, “a man always does better with his own rod.”
The boat was only a quarter full of water. They heaved her over and dumped it out, then dragged her down to the bank. The little Negroes had come up, bringing a can of worms. Mr. Maury threw them each a nickel and set the can in the bottom of the boat. “I always like to have a few worms handy,” he told Steve, “ever since I was a boy.” He lowered himself ponderously into the bow and Steve pushed off and dropped down behind him.
The little Negroes still stood on the bank staring. When the boat was a little distance out on the water the boldest of them spoke:
“You reckon ‘at ole jawnboat going to hold you up, Cap’m?”
Mr. Maury turned his head to call over his shoulder. “Go ‘way, boy. Ain’t I done tole you I’s a conjure’?”
The boat dipped ominously. Steve changed his position a little and she settled to the water. Sitting well forward. Mr. Maury made graceful casts, now to this side, now to that. Steve in the stern, made occasional casts but he laid his rod down every now and then to paddle though there was really no use in it. The boat drifted well enough with the wind. At the end of half an hour seven sizable bass lay on the bottom of the boat. Mr Maury had caught five of them. He reflected that perhaps he really ought to change places with Steve. The man in the bow certainly had the best chance at the fish. ‘ But no.” he thought, ”it don’t make no difference. He don’t hardly know where he is now.”
He stole a glance over his shoulder at the young man’s serious, abstracted face. It was like that of a person submerged. Steve seemed to float up to the surface every now and then, his expression would lighten, he would make some observation that showed he knew where he was, then he would sink again. If you asked him a question he answered punctiliously, two minutes later. Poor boy, dead to the world and would probably be that way the rest of his life. A pang of pity shot through Mr. Maury and on the heels of it a gust of that black fear that occasionally shook him. It was he. not Steve, that was the queer one. The world was full of people like this bO’, all of them going around with their heads so full of this and that they hardly knew what they were doing. They were all like that. There was hardly anybody — here was nobody really in the whole world like him….
Steve, coming out of his abstraction, spoke politely. He had heard that Mr. Maury was a fine shot. Did he like to fish better than hunt?
Mr. Maury reflected. “Well,” he said, “they’s something about a covey of birds rising up in front you . . . they’s something . . . and a good dog. Now they ain’t anything in this world that I like better than a good bird dog.” he stopped and sighed. “A man has got to come to himself early in life it he’s going to amount to anything. Now I was smart, even as a boy. I could look around me and see all the men of my family, Uncle Jeems, Uncle Quent, my father, every one of ’em weighed two hundred by the time he was fifty. You get as heavy on your feet as all that and you can’t do any good shooting. But a man can fish as long as he lives…. Why, one place I stayed last summer there was an old man ninety years old had himself carried down to the river every morning. Yes, sir, a man can fish as long as he can get down to the water’s edge….”
There was a little plop to the right. He turned just in time to see the fish flash out of the water. He watched Steve take it off the hook and drop it on top of the pile in the bottom of the boat. Seven bass that made and one bream. The old lady would be pleased. “Aleck always catches me fish,” she’d say.
The boat glided over the still water. There was no wind at all now. The willows that fnnged the bank might have been cut out of paper. The plume of smoke hung perfectly horizontal over the roof of the Negro cabin. Mr. Maury watched it stream out in little eddies and disappear into the bright blue.
He spoke softly: “Ain’t it wonderful . . . ain’t it wonderful now that a man of my gifts can content himself a whole morning on this here little old pond’?”
Mr. Maury woke with a start. He realized that he had been sleeping on his left side again. A bad idea. It always gave him palpitations of the heart. It must be that that had waked him up. He had gone to sleep almost immediately after his head hit the pillow. He rolled over, cautiously, as he always did since that bed in Leesburg had given down with him and, lying flat on his back, stared at the opposite wall.
The moon rose late. It must be at its height now. That patch of light was so brilliant he could almost discern the pattern of the wallpaper. It hung there, wavering, bitten by the shadows into a semblance of a human figure, a man striding with bent head and swinging arms. All the shadows in the room seemed to be moving toward him. The protruding corner of the washstand was an arrow aimed at his heart, the clumsy old-fashioned dresser was a giant towering above him.
They had put him to sleep in this same room the night after his wife died. In the summer it had been, too, in June: and there must have been a full moon, for the same giant shadows had struggled there with the same towering monsters. It would be like that here on this wall every full moon, for the pieces of furniture would never change their position. had never been changed, probably, since the house was built.
He turned back on his side. The wall before him was dark but he knew every flower in the pattern of the wallpaper, interlacing pink roses with, thrusting up hetween every third cluster, the enormous, spreading fronds of ferns. The wallpaper in the room across the hall was like it too. The old lady slept there, and in the room next to his own, Laura, his sister-in-law, and in the east bedroom downstairs, the young couple. He and Mary had slept there when they were first married, when they were the young couple in the house.
He tried to remember Mary as she must have looked that day he first saw her, the day he arrived from Virginia to open his school in the old office that used to stand there in the corner of the yard. He could see Mr. Allard plainly, sitting there under the sugar tree with his chair tilted back. could discern the old lady — young she had been then! — hospitably poised in the doorway, hand extended, could hear her voice: “Well, here are two of your pupils to start with….” He remembered Laura, a shy child of nine hiding her face in her mother’s skirts, but Mary that day was only a shadow in the dark hall. He could not even remember how her voice had sounded. “Professor Maury,” she would have said, and her mother would have corrected her with “Cousin Aleck….”
That day she got off her horse at the stile blocks she had turned as she walked across the lawn to look back at him. Her white sunbonnet had fallen on her shoulders. Her eyes, meeting his, had been dark and startled. He had gone on and had hitched both the horses before he leaped over the stile to join her. But he had known in that moment that she was the woman he was going to have. He could not remember all the rest of it, only that moment stood out. He had won her, she had become his wife, but the woman he had won was not the woman he had sought. It was as if he had had her only in that moment there on the lawn. As if she had paused there only for that one moment and was ever after retreating before him down a devious, a dark way that he would never have chosen.
The death of the first baby had been the start of it, of course. It had been a relief when she took so definitely to religion. Before that there had heen those sudden, unaccountable forays out of some dark lurking place that she had. Guerilla warfare and trying to the nerves, but that had been only at first. For many years they had been two enemies contending in the open…. Toward the last she had taken mightily to prayer. He would wake often to find her kneeling by the side of the bed in the dark. It had gone on for years. She had never given up hope….
Ah, a stouthearted one, Mary! She had never given up hope of changing him. of making him over into the man she thought he ought to be. Time and again she almost had him. And there were long periods, of course, during which he had been worn down by the conflict, one spring when he himself said, when she had told all the neighbors, that he was too old now to go fishing anymore…. But he had made a comeback. She had had to resort to stratagem. His lips curved in a smile, remembering the trick.
It had come over him suddenly, a general lassitude, an odd faintness in the mornings, the time when his spirits ordinarily were at their highest. He had sat there by the window, almost wishing to have some ache or pain, something definite to account for his condition. But he did not feel sick in his body. It was rather a dulling of all his senses. There were no longer the reactions to the visible world that made his days a series of adventures. He had looked out of the window at the woods glistening with spring rain; he had not even taken down his gun to shoot a squirrel.
Remembering Uncle Quent’s last days he had been alarmed, had decided finally that he must tell her so that they might begin preparations for the future — he had shuddered at the thought of eventual confinement, perhaps in some institution. She had looked up from her sewing, unable to repress a smile.
“You think it’s your mind, Aleck…. It’s coffee. coffee substitute every morning. . .”
They had laughed together over her cleverness. He had not gone back to coffee but the lassitude had worn off. She had gone back to the attack with redoubled vigor. In the afternoons she would stand on the porch calling after him as he slipped down to the creek. “Now, don’t stay long enough to get that cramp. You remember how you suffered last time….” He would have forgotten all about the cramp until that moment but it would hang over him then through the whole afternoon’s sport and it would descend upon him inevitably when he left the river and started for the house.
Yes, he thought with pride. She was wearing him down — he did not believe there was a man living who could withstand her a lifetime — she was wearing him down and would have had him in another few months, another year certainly. But she had been stnuck down just as victory was in her grasp. The paralysis had come on her in the night. It was as if a curtain had descended, dividing their life sharply into two parts. In the bewildered year and a half that followed he had found himself forlornly trying to reconstruct the Mary he had known. The pressure she had so constantly exerted upon him hadbecome for him a part of her personality. This new, calm Mary was not the woman he had lived with all these years. She had lain there — heroically they all said — waiting for death. And lying there, waiting, all her faculties engaged now in defensive warfare, she had raised, as it were, her lifelong siege: she had lost interest in his comings and goings, had once even encouraged him to go for an afternoon’s sport! He felt a rush of warm pity. Poor Mary! She must have realized toward the last that she had wasted herself in conflict. She had spent her arms and her strength against an inglorious foe when all the time the real, the invincible adversary waited….
He tunned over on his back again. The moonlight was waning, the contending shadows paler now and retreating toward the door. From across the hall came the sound of long, sibilant breaths, ending each one on a little upward groan. The old lady…. She would maintain till her dying day that she did not snore. He fancied now that he could hear from the next room Laura’s light, regular breathing and downstairs were the young couple asleep in each other’s anms….
All of them quiet and relaxed now, but they had been lively enough at dinnertime. It had started with the talk about Aunt Sally Crenfew’s funeral tomorrow. Living now, as he had for some years, away from women of his family, he had forgotten the need to be cautious. He had spoken up before he thought:
“But that’s the day Steve and I were going to Barker’s Mill….”
Sarah had cried out at the idea. “Barker’s Mill!” she had said. “Right on the Crenfew land . . . well, if not on the very farm, in the very next field. It would be a scandal if he, Professor Maury, known by everybody to be in the neighborhood, could not spare one afternoon, one insignificant summer afternoon, from his fishing long enough to attend the funeral of his cousin, the cousin of all of them, the oldest lady in the whole family connection….”
Looking around the table he had caught the same look in every eye; he had felt a gust of that same fright that had shaken him there on the pond. That look! Sooner or later you met it in every human eye. The thing was to be up and ready, ready to run for your life at a moment’s notice. Yes, it had always been like that. It always would be. His fear of them was shot through suddenly with contempt. It was as if Mary were there laughing with him. She knew that there was not one of them who could have survived as he had survived, could have paid the price for freedom that he had paid….
Sarah had come to a stop. He had to say something. He shook his head.
“You think we just go fishing to have a good time. The boy and I hold high converse on that pond. I’m starved for intellectual companionship, I tell you…. In Florida I never see anybody but niggers….”
They had all laughed out at that. “As if you didn’t prefer the society of niggers!” Sarah said scornfully.
The old lady had been moved to anecdote:
“I remember when Aleck first came out here from Virginia, Cousin Sophy said: ‘Professor Maury is so well educated. Now Cousin Cave Maynor is dead who is there in the neighborhood for him to associate with?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I don’t know about that. He seems perfectly satisfied with Ben Hooser. They’re off to the creek together every evening soon as school is out.'”
Ben Hooser…. He could see now the wrinkled face. overlaid with that ashy pallor of the aged Negro, smiling eyes, the pendulous lower lip that, drooping away, showed always some of the rotten teeth. A fine nigger, Ben, and on to a lot of tricks, the only man really that he’d ever cared to take fishing with him.
But the first real friend of his bosom had been old Uncle Teague, the factotum at Hawkwood. Once a week or more likely every ten days he fed the hounds on the carcass of a calf that had had time to get pretty high. They would drive the spring wagon out into the lot: he, a boy of ten, beside Uncle Teague on the driver’s seat. The hounds would come in a great ruck and rear their slobbering jowls against the wagon wheels. Uncle Teague would wield his whip, chuckling while he threw the first hunk of meat to Old Mag, his favorite.
“Dey goin’ run on dis,” he’d say. “Dey goin’ run like a shadow. . ”
He shifted his position again. cautiously. People, he thought . . . people . . . so bone ignorant, all of them. Not one person in a thousand realized that a foxhound remains at heart a wild beast and must kill and gorge and then, when he is ravenous, kill and gorge again…. Or that the channel cat is a night feeder…. Or . . . His daughter had told him once that he ought to set all his knowledge down in a book. “Why?” he had asked. “So everybody else can know as much as I do?”
If he allowed his mind to get active, really active, he would never get any sleep. He was fighting an inclination now to get up and find a cigarette. He relaxed again upon his pillows, deliberately summoned pictures before his mind’s eye. Landscapes — and streams. He observed their outlines, watched one flow into another. The Black River into West Fork, that in turn into Spring Creek and Spring Creek into the Withlicoochee. Then they were all flowing together. merging into one broad plain. He watched it take form slowly: the wide field in front of Hawkwood, the Rivanna River on one side, on the other Peters’ Mountain. They would be waiting there till the fox showed himself on that little rise by the river. The young men would hold back till Uncle James had wheeled Old Filly, then they would all be off pell-mell across the plain. He himself would be mounted on Jonesboro. Almost blind, but she would take anything you put her at. That first thicket on the edge of the woods. Thev would break there. one half of them going around, the other half streaking it through the woods. He was always of those going around to try to cut the fox off on the other side. No, he was down off his horse. He was coursing with the fox through the trees. He could hear the sharp, pointed feet padding on the dead leaves, see the quick head tuned now and then over the shoulder. The trees kept flashing by, one black trunk after another. And now it was a ragged mountain field and the sage grass nunning before them in waves to where a narrow stream curved in between the ridges. The fox’s feet were light in the water. He moved forward steadily, head down. The hounds’ baying grew louder. Old Mag knew the trick. She had stopped to give tongue by that big rock and now they had all leaped the gulch and were scrambling up through the pines. But the fox’s feet were already hard on the mountain path. He ran slowly, past the big boulder, past the blasted pine to where the shadow of the Pinnacle Rock was black across the path. He ran on and the shadow swayed and rose to meet him. Its cool touch was on his hot tongue. his heaving flanks. He had slipped in under it. He was sinking down. panting. in black dark. on moist earth while the hounds’ baying filled the valley and reverberated from the mountainside.
Mr. Maury got up and lit a cigarette. He smoked it quietly, Lying back upon his pillows. When he had finished smoking he rolled over on his side and closed his eyes. It was still a good while till morning, but perhaps he could get some-sleep. His mind played quietly over the scene that would be enacted in the morning. He would be sitting on the porch after breakfast. smoking, when Sarah came out. She would ask him how he felt, how he had slept.
He would heave a groan, not looking at her for fear of catching that smile on her face — the girl had little sense of decency. He would heave a groan, not too loud or overdone. ‘ My kidney trouble,” he would say, shaking his head. “It’s come back on me, daughter, in the night.
She would express sympathy and go on to talk of something else. She never took any stock in his kidney trouble. He would ask her finally if she reckoned Steve had time to drive him to the train that morning. He’d been thinking about how much good the chalybeate water of Estill Springs had done him last year. He might heave another groan here to drown her protests. “No…. I better be getting on to the Springs…. I need the water….”
She would talk on a lot after that. He would not need to listen. He would be sitting there thinking about Elk River, where it runs through the village of Estill Springs. He could see that place by the bridge now: a wide, deep pool with plenty of lay-bys under the willows.
The train would get in around one o’clock. That nigger, Ed, would hustle his bags up to the boardinghouse for him. He would tell Mrs. Rogers he must have the same room. He would have his bags packed so he could get at everything quick. He would be into his black shirt and fishing pants before you could say Jack Robinson…. Thirty minutes after he got off the train he would have a fly in that water.