The Alpine Path-2

Two incidents of the following summer stand out in my memory, probably because they were so keenly and so understandably bitter. One day I heard Grandmother reading from a newspaper an item to the effect that the end of the world was to come the following Sunday. At that time I had a most absolute and piteous belief in everything that was "printed." Whatever was in a newspaper must be true. I have lost this touching faith, I regret to say, and life is the poorer by the absence of many thrills of delight and horror.

From the time I heard that awesome prediction until Sunday was over I lived in an agony of terror and dread. The grown‑up folk laughed at me, and refused to take my questions seriously. Now, I was almost as much afraid of being laughed at as of the Judgment Day. But all through the Saturday before that fateful Sunday I vexed Aunt Emily to distraction by repeatedly asking her if we should go to Sunday‑school the next afternoon. Her assurance that of course we should go was a considerable comfort to me. If she really expected that there would be Sunday‑school she could not believe that the next day would see the end of the world.

But then ‑ it had been printed. That night was a time of intense wretchedness for me. Sleep was entirely out of the question. Might I not hear "the last trump" at any moment? I can laugh at it now ‑ any one would laugh. But it was real torture to a credulous child, just as real as any mental agony in after life.

Sunday was even more interminable than Sundays usually were, then. But it came to an end at last, and as its "dark, descending sun" dimpled the purple sky‑line of the Gulf, I drew a long breath of relief. The beautiful green world of blossom and sunshine had not been burned up; it was going to last for a while longer. But I never forgot the suffering of that Sunday.

Many years later I used the incident as the foundation of the chapter "The Judgment Sunday" in The Story Girl. But the children of King Orchard had the sustaining companionship of each other. I had trodden the wine‑press alone.

The other incident was much more trifling. The "Martin Forbes" of The Story Girl had his prototype in an old man who visited at my grandfather's for a week. Forbes was not his name, of course. He was, I believe, an amiable, respectable, and respected, old gentleman. But he won my undying hatred by calling me "Johnny" every time he spoke to me.

How I raged at him! It seemed to me a most deadly and unforgivable insult. My anger amused him hugely and incited him to persist in using the objectionable name. I could have torn that man in pieces had I had the power! When he went away I refused to shake hands with him, whereupon he laughed uproariously and said, "Oh, well, I won't call you 'Johnny' any more. After this I'll call you 'Sammy,'" which was, of course, adding fuel to the fire.

For years I couldn't hear that man's name without a sense of hot anger. Fully five years afterward, when I was ten, I remember writing this in my diary: "Mr. James Forbes is dead. He is the brother of a horrid man in Summerside who called me 'Johnny'."

I never saw poor old Mr. Forbes again, so I never had to endure the indignity of being called "Sammy." He is now dead himself, and I daresay the fact that he called me "Johnny" was not brought up in judgment against him. Yet he may have committed what might be considered far greater sins that yet would not inflict on any one a tithe of the humiliation which his teasing inflicted on a child's sensitive mind.

That experience taught me one lesson, at least. I never tease a child. If I had any tendency to do so, I should certainly be prevented by the still keen recollection of what I suffered at Mr. Forbes' hands. To him, it was merely the "fun" of teasing a "touchy" child. To me, it was the poison of asps.

 

 

The next summer, when I was six, I began to go to school. The Cavendish school‑house was a white‑washed, low‑eaved building on the side of the road just outside our gate. To the west and south was a spruce grove, covering a sloping hill. That old spruce grove, with its sprinkling of maple, was a fairy realm of beauty and romance to my childish imagination. I shall always be thankful that my school was near a grove ‑ a place with winding paths and treasure‑trove of ferns and mosses and wood‑flowers. It was a stronger and better educative influence in my life than the lessons learned at the desk in the school‑house.

And there was a brook in it, too ‑ a delightful brook, with a big, deep, clear spring ‑ where we went for buckets of water, and no end of pools and nooks where the pupils put their bottles of milk to keep sweet and cold until dinner hour. Each pupil had his or her own particular place, and woe betide a lad or lass who usurped another's prescriptive spot. I, alas, had no rights in the brook. Not for me was the pleasure of "scooting" down the winding path before school‑time to put my bottle against a mossy log, where the sunlit water might dance and ripple against its creamy whiteness.

I had to go home to my dinner every day, and I was scandalously ungrateful for the privilege. Of course, I realize now that I was very fortunate in being able to go home every day for a good, warm dinner. But I could not see it in that light then. It was not half so interesting as taking lunch to school and eating it in sociable rings on the playground, or in groups under the trees. Great was my delight on those few stormy winter days when I had to take my dinner, too. I was "one of the crowd" then, not set apart in any lonely distinction of superior advantages.

Another thing that worried me with a sense of unlikeness was the fact that I was never allowed to go to school barefooted. All the other children went so, and I felt that this was a humiliating difference. At home I could run barefoot, but in school I must wear "buttoned boots." Not long ago, a girl who went to school with me confessed that she had always envied me those "lovely buttoned boots." Human nature always desirous of what it has not got! There was I, aching to go barefoot like my mates; there were they, resentfully thinking it was bliss to wear buttoned boots!

I do not think that the majority of grown‑ups have any real conception of the tortures sensitive children suffer over any marked difference between themselves and the other denizens of their small world. I remember one winter I was sent to school wearing a new style of apron. I think still that it was rather ugly. Then I thought it was hideous. It was a long, sack‑like garment, with sleeves. Those sleeves were the crowning indignity. Nobody in school had ever worn aprons with sleeves before. When I went to school one of the girls sneeringly remarked that they were baby aprons. This capped all! I could not bear to wear them, but wear them I had to. The humiliation never grew less. To the end of their existence, and they did wear horribly well, those "baby" aprons marked for me the extreme limit of human endurance.

I have no especial remembrance of my first day in school. Aunt Emily took me down to the school‑house and gave me into the charge of some of the "big girls," with whom I sat that day. But my second day ‑ ah! I shall not forget it while life lasts. I was late and had to go in alone. Very shyly I slipped in and sat down beside a "big girl." At once a wave of laughter rippled over the room. I had come in with my hat on.

As I write, the fearful shame and humiliation I endured at that moment rushes over me again. I felt that I was a target for the ridicule of the universe. Never, I felt certain, could I live down such a dreadful mistake. I crept out to take off my hat, a crushed morsel of humanity.

 

 

My novelty with the "big girls" ‑ they were ten years old and seemed all but grown‑up to me ‑ soon grew stale, and I gravitated down to the girls of my own age. We "did" sums, and learned the multiplication table, and wrote "copies," and read lessons, and repeated spellings. I could read and write when I went to school. There must have been a time when I learned, as a first step into an enchanted world, that A was A; but for all the recollection I have of the process I might as well have been born with a capacity for reading, as we are for breathing and eating.

I was in the second book of the old Royal Reader series. I had gone through the primer at home with all its cat and rat formulae, and then had gone into the Second Reader, thus skipping the First Reader. When I went to school and found that there was a First Reader I felt greatly aggrieved to think that I had never gone through it. I seemed to have missed something, to suffer, in my own estimation, at least, a certain loss of standing because I had never had it. To this day there is a queer, absurd regret in my soul over missing that First Reader.

Life, from my seventh year, becomes more distinct in remembrance. In the winter following my seventh birthday, Aunt Emily married and went away. I remember her wedding as a most exciting event, as well as the weeks of mysterious preparation before; all the baking and frosting and decorating of cakes which went on! Aunt Emily was only a young girl then, but in my eyes she was as ancient as all the other grown‑ups. I had no conception of age at that time. Either you were grown‑up or you were not, that was all there was about it.

The wedding was one of the good, old‑fashioned kind that is not known nowadays. All the big "connection" on both sides were present, the ceremony at seven o'clock, supper immediately afterward, then dancing and games, with another big supper at one o'clock.

For once I was permitted to stay up, probably because there was no place where I could be put to bed, every room being used for some gala purpose, and between excitement and unwatched indulgence in good things I was done up for a week. But it was worth it! Also, I regret to say, I pounded my new uncle with my fists and told him I hated him because he was taking Aunt Emily away.

 

 

The next summer two little boys came to board at my grandfather's and attend school, Wellington and David Nelson, better known as "Well" and "Dave." Well was just my age, Dave a year younger. They were my playmates for three happy years; we did have fun in abundance, simple, wholesome, delightful fun, with our playhouses and our games in the beautiful summer twilights, when we ranged happily through fields and orchards, or in the long winter evenings by the fire.

The first summer they came we built a playhouse in the spruce grove to the west of our front orchard. It was in a little circle of young spruces. We built our house by driving stakes into the ground between the trees, and lacing fir boughs in and out. I was especially expert at this, and always won the boys' admiration by my knack of filling up obstreperous holes in our verdant castle. We also manufactured a door for it, a very rickety affair, consisting of three rough boards nailed uncertainly across two others, and hung to a long‑suffering birch tree by ragged leather hinges cut from old boots. But that door was as beautiful and precious in our eyes as the Gate Beautiful of the Temple was to the Jews of old. You see, we had made it ourselves!

Then we had a little garden, our pride and delight, albeit it rewarded all our labour very meagrely. We planted live‑forevers around all our beds, and they grew as only live‑forevers can grow. They were almost the only things that did grow. Our carrots and parsnips, our lettuces and beets, our phlox and sweet‑peas ‑ either failed to come up at all, or dragged a pallid, spindling existence to an ignoble end, in spite of all our patient digging, manuring, weeding, and watering, or, perhaps, because of it, for I fear we were more zealous than wise. But we worked persistently, and took our consolation out of a few hardy sunflowers which, sown in an uncared‑for spot, throve better than all our petted darlings, and lighted up a corner of the spruce grove with their cheery golden lamps. I remember we were in great tribulation because our beans persisted in coming up with their skins over their heads. We promptly picked them off, generally with disastrous consequences to the beans.

 

 

Readers of Anne of Green Gables will remember the Haunted Wood. It was a gruesome fact to us three young imps. Well and Dave had a firm and rooted belief in ghosts. I used to argue with them over it with the depressing result that I became infected myself. Not that I really believed in ghosts, pure and simple; but I was inclined to agree with Hamlet that there might be more things in heaven and earth than were commonly dreamed of ‑ in the philosophy of Cavendish authorities, anyhow.

The Haunted Wood was a harmless, pretty spruce grove in the field below the orchard. We considered that all our haunts were too commonplace, so we invented this for our own amusement. None of us really believed at first, that the grove was haunted, or that the mysterious "white things" which we pretended to see flitting through it at dismal hours were aught but the creations of our own fancy. But our minds were weak and our imaginations strong; we soon came to believe implicitly in our myths, and not one of us would have gone near that grove after sunset on pain of death. Death! What was death compared to the unearthly possibility of falling into the clutches of a "white thing"?

In the evenings, when, as usual, we were perched on the back porch steps in the mellow summer dusk, Well would tell me blood‑curdling tales galore, until my hair fairly stood on end, and I would not have been surprised had a whole army of "white things" swooped suddenly on us from round the corner. One tale was that his grandmother having gone out one evening to milk the cows, saw his grandfather, as she supposed, come out of the house, drive the cows into the yard and then go down the lane.

The "creep" of this story consisted in the fact that she went straightway into the house and found him lying on the sofa where she had left him, he having never been out of the house at all. Next day something happened to the poor old gentleman. I forget what, but doubtless it was some suitable punishment for sending his wraith out to drive cows!

Another story was that a certain dissipated youth of the community, going home one Saturday night, or rather Sunday morning, from some unhallowed orgy, was pursued by a lamb of fire, with its head cut off and hanging by a strip of skin or flame. For weeks afterward I could not go anywhere after dark without walking with my head over my shoulder, watching apprehensively for that fiery apparition.

One evening Dave came down to me in the apple orchard at dusk, with his eyes nearly starting out of his head, and whispered that he had heard a bell ringing in the then deserted house. To be sure, the marvellous edge was soon taken off this by the discovery that the noise was simply a newly‑cleaned clock striking the hours, which it had never done before. This furnished the foundation of the "Ghostly Bell" chapter in The Story Girl.

But, one night we had a real ghost scare ‑ the "real" qualifying "scare," not "ghost." We were playing at twilight in the hayfield south of the house, chasing each other around the fragrant coils of new‑cut hay. Suddenly I happened to glance up in the direction of the orchard dyke. A chill began galloping up and down my spine, for there, under the juniper tree, was really a "white thing," shapelessly white in the gathering gloom. We all stopped and stared as though turned to stone.

"It's Mag Laird," whispered Dave in terrified tones.

Mag Laird, I may remark, was a harmless creature who wandered begging over the country side, and was the bugbear of children in general and Dave in particular. As poor Mag's usual apparel was dirty, cast‑off clothes of other persons, it did not seem to me likely that this white visitant were she. Well and I would have been glad to think it was, for Mag was at least flesh and blood while this‑!

"Nonsense!" I said, trying desperately to be practical. "It must be the white calf."

Well agreed with me with suspicious alacrity, but the shapeless, grovelling thing did not look in the least like a calf.

"It's coming here!" he suddenly exclaimed in terror.

I gave one agonized glance. Yes! It was creeping down over the dyke, as no calf ever did or could creep. With a simultaneous shriek we started for the house, Dave gasping at every step, "It's Mag Laird," while all that Well and I could realize was that it was a "white thing" after us at last!

We reached the house and tore into Grandmother's bedroom, where we had left her sewing. She was not there. We swung round and stampeded for a neighbour's, where we arrived trembling in every limb. We gasped out our awful tale and were laughed at, of course. But no persuasion could induce us to go back, so the French‑Canadian servants, Peter and Charlotte, set off to explore, one carrying a pail of oats, the other armed with a pitchfork.

They came back and announced that there was nothing to be seen. This did not surprise us. Of course, a "white thing" would vanish, when it had fulfilled its mission of scaring three wicked children out of their senses. But go home we would not until Grandfather appeared and marched us back in disgrace. For what do you think it was?

A white tablecloth had been bleaching on the grass under the juniper tree, and, just at dusk, Grandmother, knitting in hand, went out to get it. She flung the cloth over her shoulder and then her ball fell and rolled over the dyke. She knelt down and was reaching over to pick it up when she was arrested by our sudden stampede and shrieks of terror. Before she could move or call out we had disappeared.

So collapsed our last "ghost," and spectral terrors languished after that, for we were laughed at for many a long day.

 


                                       

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