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Oct. 1, 19—.
When I got to the post-office to-day and found there was no letter from you, my heart sank right through the bottom of my number seven boots and buried itself in the mud under the doorsill. All day long I had had a feeling that there would be a letter, and that hope kept me up nobly through the trying ordeal of attempting to teach spelling and geography and arithmetic to a roomful of children of assorted ages who seem as determined not to learn as I am determined to teach them. It sustained and soothed me through the exciting process of “settling” Absalom Butts, the fourteen-year-old bully of the class, with whom I have a preliminary skirmish every day in the week before recitations can begin; and through the equally trying business of listening to his dull-witted sister, Clarissa, spell “example” forty ways but the right way, and then dissolve into inevitable tears. When school was out I was as limp as a rag, and so thankful it was Friday night that I could have kissed the calendar. I fairly “sic”ed Sandhelo along the road to the post-office, expecting to revel in the bale of news from my belovéds that was awaiting me, but when I got there and the post box was bare the last button burst off the mantle of my philosophy and left me naked to the cold winds of disappointment. A whole orphan asylum with the mumps on both sides would have been gay and chipper compared to me when I turned Sandhelo’s head homeward and started on the six-mile drive.
It had been raining for more than a week, a steady, warmish, sickening drizzle, that had taken all the curl out of my spirits and left them hanging in dejected, stringy wisps. I couldn’t help feeling how well the weather matched my state of mind as I drove homeward. The whole landscape was one gray blur, and the tall weeds that bordered the road on both sides wept unconsolably on each other’s shoulders, their tears mingling in a stream down their stems. I could almost hear them sob. The muddy yellow road wound endlessly past empty, barren fields, and seemed to hold out no promise of ever arriving anywhere in particular. All my life I have hated that aimlessly winding road, just as I have always hated those empty, barren fields. They have always seemed so shiftless, so utterly unambitious. I can’t help thinking that this corner of Arkansas was made out of the scraps that were left after everything else was finished. How father ever came to take up land here when he had the whole state to choose from is one of the seven things we will never know till the coming of the Cocqcigrues. It’s as flat as a pancake, and, for the most part, treeless. The few trees there are seem to be ashamed to be caught growing in such a place, and make themselves as small as possible. The land is stony and barren and sterile, neither very good for farming or grazing. The only certain thing about the rainfall is that it is certain to come at the wrong time, and upset all your plans. “Principal rivers, there are none; principal mountains—I’m the only one,” as Alice-in-Wonderland used to say. But father has always been the kind of man that gets the worst of every bargain.
Now, you unvaryingly cheerful Winnebagos, go ahead and sniff contemptuously when you breathe the damp vapors rising from this epistle, and hear the pitiful moans issuing therefrom. “For shame, Katherine!” I can hear you saying, in superior tones, “to get low in your mind so soon! Why, you haven’t come to the first turn in the Open Road, and you’ve gone lame already. Where is the Torch that you started out with so gaily flaring? Quenched completely by the first shower! Katherine Adams, you big baby, straighten up your face this minute and stop blubbering!”
But oh, you round pegs in your nice smooth, round holes, you have never been a stranger in a familiar land! You have never known what it was to be out of tune with everything around you. Oh, why wasn’t I built to admire vast stretches of nothing, content to dwell among untrodden ways and be a Maid whom there were none to praise and very few to love, and all that Wordsworth business? Why do crickets and grasshoppers and owls make me feel as though I’d lost my last friend, instead of impressing me with the sociability of Nature? Why don’t I rejoice that I’ve got the whole road to myself, instead of wishing that it were jammed with automobiles and trolley cars, and swarming with people? Why did Fate set me down on a backwoods farm when my only desire in life is to dwell in a house by the side of the road where the circus parade of life is continually passing? Why am I not like the other people in this section, with whom ignorance is bliss, grammar an unknown quantity, and culture a thing to be sneered at?
Although I can’t see them, I know that somewhere to the north, just beyond the horizon, the mountains lift their great frowning heads, and ever since I can remember I have looked upon them as a fence which shut me out from the big bustling world, and over which I would climb some day. Just as Napoleon said, “Beyond the Alps lies Italy,” so I thought, “Beyond the Ozarks lies my world.”
I don’t believe I had my nose out of a book for half an hour at a time in those early days. I went without new clothes to buy them, and got up early and worked late to get my chores done so that I might have more time to read. When I was twelve years old I had learned all that the teacher in a little school at the cross roads could teach me, and then I went to the high school in the little town of Spencer, six miles away, traveling the distance twice every day. When there was a horse available I rode, if not, I walked. But whether riding or walking, I always had a book in my hand, and read as I went along. It often happened that, being deep in the fortunes of my story book friends, I did not notice when old Major ambled off the road in quest of a nibble of clover, and would sometimes come to with a start to find myself lying in the ditch. The neighbors thought my actions scandalous and pitied my father and mother because they had such a good-for-nothing daughter.
All this time my father was getting poorer and poorer. He changed from farming to cotton raising and then made a failure of that, and finally, in despair, he turned to raising horses, not beautiful race horses like you read about in stories, but wiry little cow ponies that the cattlemen use. For some unaccountable reason he had good luck in this line for three years in succession, and a year or so after I had finished this little one-horse high school there was enough money for me to climb over my Ozark fence and go and play in the land of my dreams. One wonderful year, that surpassed in reality anything I had ever pictured in imagination, and then the sky fell, and here I am, inside the fence once more.
Not that I am sorry I came back, no sirree! Father was so pleased and touched to think I gave up my college course and came home that he chirked up right away and started in from the beginning once more to pay the mortgage off the land and the stock, and mother is feeling well enough to be up almost all day now; but to-day I just couldn’t help shedding a few perfectly good tears over what I might be doing instead of what I am.
A flock of wild geese, headed south, flew above my head in a dark triangle, and honked derisively at me as they passed. “Not even a goose would stop off in this dismal country!” I exclaimed aloud. Then, simply wild for sympathy from someone, I slid off Sandhelo’s back and stood there, ankle deep in the yellow mud, and put my arms around his neck.
“Oh, Sandhelo,” I croaked dismally, “you’re all I have left of my wonderful year up north. You love me, don’t you?”
But Sandhelo looked unfeelingly over my shoulder at the rain splashing down into the road and yawned elaborately right in my face. There are times when Sandhelo shows no more feeling than Eeny-Meeny. Seeing there was no sympathy to be had from him, I climbed on his back again and rode grimly home, trying to resign myself to a life of school teaching at the cross roads, ending in an early death from boredom.
Father was nowhere about when I rode into the stableyard, and the door into the stable was shut. I slid it back, with Sandhelo nosing at my arm all the while.
“Oh, you’re affectionate enough now that you want your dinner,” I couldn’t help saying a little spitefully. Then my heart melted toward him, and, with my arm around his neck, we walked in together. Inside of Sandhelo’s stall I ran into something and jumped as if I had been shot. In the dusk I could make out the figure of a man sitting on the floor and leaning against the wall.
“Is that you, Father?” I asked, while Sandhelo blinked in astonishment at this invasion of his premises. There was no answer from the man on the floor. Why I wasn’t more excited I don’t know, but I calmly took the lantern down from the hook and lit it and held it in front of me. The light showed the man in Sandhelo’s stall to be sound asleep, with his hand leaned back against the wooden partition. He had a black beard and his face was all streaked with mud and dirt, and there was mud even in his matted hair. He had no hat on. His clothes were all covered with mud and one sleeve of his coat was torn partly out.
Sandhelo put down his nose and sniffed inquiringly at the stranger’s feet. Without ceremony I thrust the lantern right into the man’s face.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” I said, loudly and firmly. The man stirred and opened his eyes, and then sat up suddenly, blinking at the light.
“Who are you?” I repeated sternly. The man stared at me stupidly for an instant; then he passed his hand over his forehead and stumbled to his feet.
“Who am I?” he repeated wildly; then his face screwed up into a frightful grimace and with a groan he crumpled up on the floor. Leaving Sandhelo still standing there gazing at him in mild astonishment, I ran out calling for father.
Father came presently and took a long look at the man in the stall, and then, without asking any questions, he got a wet cloth and laid it on his head. That washed some of the mud off and showed a big bruise on his forehead over his left eye. Father called the man that helps with the horses.
“Help me carry this man into the house,” he said shortly.
“But Father,” I said, “you surely aren’t going to carry that man into the house? All dirty like that!”
Father gave me one look and I said no more. Together father and Jim Wiggin lifted the stranger from the floor and started toward the house with him, while I capered around in my excitement and finally ran on ahead to tell mother. They carried him into the kitchen and laid him down on the old lounge and tried to bring him around with smelling salts and things. But he just kept on talking and muttering to himself, and never opened his eyes.
And that’s what he’s still doing, while I’m off in my room writing this. It was five o’clock when we brought him in, and now it’s after ten and he hasn’t come to his senses yet. There isn’t a thing in his pockets to show who he is or where he came from.
I feel so strange since I found that man there. I’m not a bit low in my mind any more, like I was this afternoon. I have a curious feeling as if I had passed a turn in the road and come upon something new and wonderful.
Forget the lengthy moan I indulged in at the beginning of this letter, will you, and think of me as gay and chipper as ever.
Yours in Wohelo,
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