The Hill of the Muses
The girl paused among the birches and drew a long breath of relief. It was good to be outdoors after the countless annoyances of the day; to feel the earth springing beneath her step, the keen, crisp air bringing the colour to her cheeks, and the silence of the woods ministering to her soul.
From the top of the hill she surveyed her little world. Where the small white houses clustered in the valley, far below her, she had spent her five-and-twenty years, shut in by the hills, and, more surely, by the iron bars of circumstance. To her the heights had always meant escape, for in the upper air and in solitude she found detachment—a sort of heavenly perspective upon the affairs of the common day.
Down in the bare, brown valley the river lay asleep. Grey patches of melting snow still filled the crevices along its banks, and fragments of broken crystal moved slowly toward the ultimate sea. The late afternoon sun[Pg 2] touched the sharp edges, here and there to a faint iridescence. “The river-god dreams of rainbows,” thought Rosemary, with a smile.
Only one house was near the river; the others were set farther back. The one upon the shore was the oldest and largest house in the valley, severely simple in line and with a certain air of stateliness. The broad, Colonial porch looked out upon the river and the hills beyond it, while all around, upon the southern slope between the opposite hills and the valley, were the great vineyards of the Marshs’, that had descended from father to son during the century that had elapsed since the house was built.
The gnarled and twisted vines scarcely showed now, upon the grey-brown background of the soil, but in a few places, where the snow had not yet melted, the tangled black threads were visible. Like the frame surrounding a tapestry, great pines bordered the vineyard save on the side nearest the valley, for the first of the Marshs, who had planted the vineyard and built the house, had taken care to protect his vines from the north-east storms.
The clanging notes of a bell, mellowed by distance, came faintly from the valley below. Rosemary took out the thin, old watch that had been her mother’s and her mother’s mother’s before her, and set the hands at four upon the[Pg 3] pale gold dial. Then she drew up the worn gold chain that hung around her neck, under her gown, and, with the key that dangled from it, wound the watch. In an hour or so, probably, it would stop, but it was pleasant to hear the cheerful little tick while she waited.
The doors of the white schoolhouse in the valley burst open and the tide of exuberant youth rushed forth. Like so many ants, the children swarmed and scattered, their shrill voices sounding afar. Rosemary went to a hollow tree, took out a small wooden box, opened it, and unwound carefully a wide ribbon of flaming scarlet, a yard or more in length. Digging her heels into the soft earth, she went down to the lowest of the group of birches, on the side of the hill that overlooked the valley, and tied the ribbon to a drooping bough. Then she went back to the top of the hill, where a huge log, rolled against two trees, made a comfortable seat for two people.
Five minutes of the allotted twenty had passed since Rosemary had set her watch. At twenty minutes past four, or, at the most, twenty-five, he would come. For three years and more he had never failed to answer the signal, nor, indeed, to look for it when he brushed the chalk from his clothes and locked the door of the schoolhouse behind him.
A kindly wind, in passing, took the ribbon and made merry with it. In and out among[Pg 4] the bare boughs of the birches it fluttered like a living thing, and Rosemary laughed aloud, as she had not done for many days. The hill, the scarlet signal, and the man who was coming symbolised, to her, the mysterious world of Romance.
Sometimes the birches were shy dryads, fleeing before the wrath of some unknown god. At other times, they were the Muses, for, as it happened, there were nine in the group and no others upon the hill. The vineyard across the valley was a tapestry, where, from earliest Spring until the grapes were gathered colour and light were caught and imprisoned within the web. At the bend in the river, where the rushes grew thickly, the river-god kept his harp, which answered with shy, musical murmurings to every vagrant wind.
Again, the hill was a tower, and she a captive princess, who had refused to marry except for love, and Love tarried strangely upon the way. Or, sometimes, she was the Elaine of an unknown Launcelot, safely guarding his shield. She placed in the woods all the dear people of the books, held forever between the covers and bound to the printed page, wondering if they, too, did not long for freedom.
The path up the hill wound in and out among the trees, and so it happened that Rosemary heard muffled footsteps before she saw him coming. A wayfaring squirrel, the first of his[Pg 5] family to venture out, scampered madly up a tree and looked down upon the girl with questioning, fearful eyes. She rose from the log and looked up, with her hands outstretched in unconscious pleading.
“Oh,” she murmured, “don’t be afraid of me!”
“I’m not,” answered a man’s voice. “I assure you I’m not.”
“I wasn’t speaking to you,” she laughed, as she went to meet him.
“No?” he queried, flushed and breathless from the climb. “I wonder if there is anyone else for whom you wave red ribbons from your fortress!”
“Take it down, will you please?”
“Wait until I get three full breaths—then I will.”
She went back to the log while he awkwardly untied the ribbon, rolled it up, in clumsy masculine fashion, and restored it to the wooden box in the hollow tree. “Aren’t you cold?” he asked, as he sat down beside her.
“No—I’m too vividly alive to be cold, ever.”
“But what’s the use of being alive unless you can live?” he inquired, discontentedly.
She sighed and turned her face away. The colour vanished from her cheeks, the youth from her figure. Pensively, she gazed across the valley to the vineyard, where the black,[Pg 6] knotted vines were blurred against the soil in the fast-gathering twilight. His eyes followed hers.
“I hate them,” he said, passionately. “I wish I’d never seen a grape!”
“Were the children bad to-day?” she asked, irrelevantly.
“Of course. Aren’t they always bad? What’s the use of caging up fifty little imps and making ’em learn the multiplication table when they don’t even aspire to the alphabet? Why should I have to teach ’em to read and write when they’re determined not to learn? Why do I have to grow grapes when it would be the greatest joy of my life to know that I’d never have to see, touch, taste, or even smell another grape in this world or the next?”
She turned toward him. A late Winter sunset shimmered in the west like some pale, transparent cloth of gold hung from the walls of heaven, but the kindly light lent no beauty to her face. Rosemary’s eyes were grey and lustreless, her hair ashen, and almost without colour. Her features were irregular and her skin dull and lifeless. She had not even the indefinable freshness that is the divine right of youth. Her mouth drooped wistfully at the corners, and even the half-discouraged dimple in her chin looked like a dent or a scar.
The bare hands that lay listlessly in her lap were rough and red from much uncongenial[Pg 7] toil. He looked at her for a moment, still absorbed in himself, then, as he noted the pathos in every line of her face and figure, the expression of his face subtly changed. His hand closed quickly over hers.
“Forgive me, Rosemary—I’m a brute. I have no right to inflict my moods upon you.”
“Why not? Don’t I bring mine to you?”
“Let’s get them out where we can look them over,” she suggested, practically. “What do you hate most?”
“Grapes,” he replied, readily, “and then children who aren’t interested in the alphabet. All day I’ve been saying: ‘See the cat. Can the cat run? Yes, the cat can run.’ Of course they could repeat it after me, but they couldn’t connect it in any way with the printed page. I sympathised strongly with an unwashed child of philosophical German lineage who inquired, earnestly: ‘Teacher, what’s the good of dat?'”
“What else do you hate?”
“Being tied up. Set down in one little corner of the world and being obliged to stay in it. I know to a certainty just what’s going to happen to-morrow and next day and the day after that. Point out any day on the calendar, months ahead, and I can tell you just what I’ll be doing. Nothing is uncertain but the weather.”[Pg 8]
“Some people pray for anchorage,” she said.
“I never have,” he flashed back. “I want the open sea—tide and tempest and grey surges, with the wind in my face and the thrill of danger in my heart! I want my blood to race through my body; I want to be hungry, cold, despairing, afraid—everything! God, how I want to live!”
He paced back and forth restlessly, his hands in his pockets. Rosemary watched him, half afraid, though his mood was far from strange to her. He was taller than the average man, clean-shaven, and superbly built, with every muscle ready and even eager for use. His thirty years sat lightly upon him, though his dark hair was already slightly grey at the temples, for his great brown eyes were boyish and always would be. In the half-light, his clean-cut profile was outlined against the sky, and his mouth trembled perceptibly. He had neither the thin, colourless lips that would have made men distrust him, nor the thick lips that would have warned women to go slowly with him and to watch every step.
With obvious effort, he shook himself partially free of his mood. “What do you hate?” he asked, gently.
“Might as well go on,” he urged, with a smile.
“I can’t. It isn’t nice of me.”
“But it’s true. I don’t know why you shouldn’t hate your Grandmother and your Aunt Matilda. I do. It’s better to be truthful than nice.”
“Sincerity always has a charm of its own. Even when two men are fighting, you are compelled to admire their earnestness and singleness of purpose.”
“I wish you lived where you could admire Grandmother and Aunt Matilda. They’re always fighting.”
“No doubt. Isn’t it a little early for sassafras tea?”
“I thought so, but Grandmother said Spring was coming early this year. She feels it in her bones and she intends to be ready for it.”
“She should know the signs of the seasons, if anyone does. How old is she now?”
“Something past eighty.”
“Suffering Moses! Eighty Springs and Summers and Autumns! Let me see—I was only twenty when I began with the grapes. If I live to be eighty, that means I’ve got to go to town sixty times to buy baskets, sell the crop, and hire help—go through the whole process from Spring to frost sixty times, and I’ve only done it ten times. Fifty more![Pg 10] And when the imps who unwillingly learned their multiplication table from me are grandparents on their own account, I’ll still be saying: ‘See the cat! Can the cat run? Yes, the cat can run.'”
“Why don’t you sell the vineyard?” she asked, though her heart sank at the mere suggestion.
“Sell it? Why didn’t the Ancient Mariner sell his albatross and take a nice little trip around the world on the proceeds? Mother would die of a broken heart if I mentioned it to her. The Marsh family have been the slaves of that vineyard since the first mistaken ancestor went into the grape business. We’ve fertilised it, pruned it, protected it, tied it up, sat up nights with it, fanned the insects away from it, hired people to pick the fruit and pack it, fed the people, entertained them, sent presents to their wives and children—we’ve done everything! And what have we had for it? Only a very moderate living, all the grapes we could eat, and a few bottles of musty old wine.
“Mother, of course, has very little to do with it, and, to her, it has come to represent some sort of entailed possession that becomes more sacred every year. It’s a family heirloom, like a title, or some very old and valuable piece of jewelry. Other people have family plate and family traditions, but we’ve got[Pg 11] a vineyard, or, to speak more truthfully, it has us.”
“Look at the Muses,” said Rosemary, after a silence. “Do you think they’ve gone to sleep?”
The nine slender birches, that had apparently paused in their flight down the hillside, were, indeed, very still. Not a twig stirred, and the white trunks were ghostly in the twilight. Seemingly they leaned toward each other for protection and support; for comfort in the loneliness of the night.
“Happy Muses,” he responded. “No vineyard to look after and no school to teach.”
“And no Grandmother,” continued Rosemary, “and no Aunt. Nor any dishes or brooms or scrubbing-brushes, or stoves that are possessed by evil spirits.”
Star-like, a single light appeared in the front window of the big white house on the shore of the river. It was answered almost immediately by another, far across the stream.
“I like to watch the lights,” the girl went on. “The first one is always in your house.”
“Yes, I know. Mother dislikes twilight.”
“Ours is the last—on account of the price of oil.”
“Oh, Mr. Marsh! Thank you so much!”
“You’re very welcome, Miss Starr.”
“Please don’t. I like to have you call me Rosemary.”
“Then you must call me Alden. I’ve been telling you that for almost two years.”
“I know, but I can’t make myself say it, somehow. You’re so much older and wiser than I.”
“Don’t be vain of your youth. I’m only five years ahead of you, and, as for wisdom, anybody could teach a country school in Winter and grow grapes the rest of the time.”
“I’m not so sure of that. Come, it’s getting late.”
They went down the hill together, hand in hand like two children. The young man’s mood had changed for the better and he was whistling cheerfully. They stopped at the corner where she must turn to go home.
“Good-night,” she said.
“Good-night, Rosemary. I wish I could come to see you sometimes.”
“So do I, but it’s better that you shouldn’t.”
“I don’t see why you can’t come over in the evenings occasionally. I always read to Mother and you might as well listen, too. I’d gladly take you home.”
“It would be lovely,” she sighed, “but I can’t.”
“The heights are always cold, aren’t they?”
“Yes, and they’re supposed to be lonely, too. Good-night again. Let me know how you like the book.”
Woman-like, she watched him as he went down the street. She liked the way his head was set upon his broad shoulders; she admired his long, swinging stride. When his figure was lost in the gathering darkness she turned, regretfully, and went home.
Categories: English Literature