“The Toad” by Henry Milner Rideout

“His gift of words being still upon him he unrolled once more a prospect of enchanted lands and cities — Vita pieta sensualis, the pride of the eye and fullness of life, many-colored, thrilling, beyond this fog.”

A young couple walking in a field

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The Maine-native and Harvard-educated Henry Milner Rideout wrote fiction for The Saturday Evening Post in the early 20th century. His elegant, detailed prose depicts the wilderness of his home state or the foreign lands he traveled with a mastery that drew praise from Rideout’s literary peers. Most of his novels and short stories, however, have fallen through the cracks over the years. In “The Toad,” a cosmopolitan traveler becomes infatuated with a farmgirl while staying with her rural clan. His egotistical worldliness is enchanting, but it proves incongruous with their wild life.

Published on June 19, 1920

 

Alward found the way long, hot and tiresome. For a late summer afternoon it was indeed hot, even in these northern woods; but some men could have forgotten discomfort here, where dusk lay thick among the trees or, being pierced now and again by a shaft of sunlight, absorbed it in greater depths of golden brown and green. Ralph, limping on a blistered foot, did not even bother himself to look round. He had grown weary of his walking tour, as he grew weary of most things which, in the proof, failed to meet expectation thoroughly at once. Just now he was peevish.

“The silliest game I ever undertook!” he fumed. “And the dullest country to waste my time in! Damn that foot!”

To be just, it was the boot — a golfer’s bearded brogue adorned with curlicues and scrollwork — that called for reprobation, being too narrow. But Alward had no great passion for justice. The brogues were truly handsome; so were his jacket and breeches, a trim piece of tailoring; and so, for that matter, was he. Dark, sleek, high-colored, he possessed very good looks, which did not suffer from lack of care.

“That last bit,” he thought, “was enough to give one the blues for life.”

He had crossed a few miles of burnt ground, where skeleton trees, leaning or sprawling, entangled with their bleached spines a waste of granite and sickly pink fireweed. The view and the glaring heat had depressed but also angered him, like a fraud. It was not what he had come so far to see. Now, therefore, he went limping on in bad humor.

The road wound here among cedars, old but dwarfed, that rose unequal from hollows and mounds all tawny carpeted, and with twisting trunks made a low, contorted puzzle where hints of movement, nameless changes, appeared to dodge, turn, stay hidden and baffle the eye. Shadows in this grove had an impish life, its Robin Hood colors of green and russet a blending trickery, as of spies flitting half seen from depth to depth alongside. Or so a traveler, alone, might fancy. Even Ralph, though not fanciful, caught while he walked a vague uneasiness. Pausing, he glanced to right and left. The illusion halted with him. Nothing remained on either hand but old cedars, badly stunted.

“Odd, rather. It looked familiar at first,” he thought. “Like a place where something happened to me.”

A young man overlooks a field on a hilltopp
“Then he reached the hilltop, and at once forgot all troubles.” (Illustrated by W.H.D. Koerner)

He dismissed the notion, went forward, and soon became duller than before. His foot ached. He did not know where to find lodging that night. The road wandered on without variety under a low roof of dusk. To Ralph, who was no real walker by habit or disposition, variety outdoors meant a rush through long distances, with his mind brooding on machinery and the surface of the road, or now and then outstripping these details to catch the next view ahead. Plain walking had lost, for him, the name of action. He seldom regarded the wayside as he had done just now. To halt and turn for a scene left behind was one affectation of which he was never guilty. In short, young Mr. Alward held a simple philosophy of nature, called “Something doing every minute.” This present tour, novel as a whim for the first day, was turning, on the fourth, deadly stupid.

As he began to climb a long hill, where the cedars fell below and thick walls of Christmas fir trees closed in still darker, Ralph was laying the blame for his disappointment on the weather, the few natives he had met, the food, the unbroken silence — everything but his own company.

Then he reached the hilltop, and at once forgot all troubles.

To a sweep of glorious calm sunshine the woods ended abruptly, checked right and left by a rail fence against which the youngest fat firs pressed like children at a crowded barrier. Their ranks overlooked a barnyard with a vast barn, a neat old gray house under an elm, and beyond these a hollow field crinkled with shadows and sloping “down to a meadow brimful with sunset light. Along the bottom of this farm, this vale in the woods, brook alders traced a wavering dark line, intermitted where the brook itself sparkled among open grass, round some cape of lawn.

These things, no doubt, took Ralph aback by their splendor when, stepping out as from a dark room, he stood above them first; perhaps at another glance their abiding golden peace might have entered his head; but meantime, even while emerging, he had spied the figure of a girl not far away.

She stood under the elm before the house — a young creature dressed in dull blue, repeating some graceful movement and laughing. What the movement intended he could not see; it recalled the large free gesture of the Sower of France, but was girlish and merry.

“Clear out, you little gawks! Get away!” she cried in high good humor.

Ralph was a favorite with ladies, his genius throve among them; so that is why the landscape brightened for him, and why, forgetting his lameness, he went cheerfully downhill toward the farmhouse.

The girl was feeding Plymouth Rock chickens in the road, throwing their supper broadcast from a yellow earthenware bowl, and pausing to drive away half a dozen young turkeys that ravaged among them.

“They are the comicalest!” she began, and turned to share her delight. Then she started backward in dismay from an unknown. “Oh! Who’s this? I thought it was Goosewings.”

The laughter went out of her face. Clasping the yellow bowl in both arms, as though he had come to rob, she stood encircled by her flock.

Ralph bowed and laughed. Their encounter pleased him. The girl’s hair shone in great ruddy-bronze masses, a dark fire; her eyes, red brown and at the moment widely open, seemed also to contain this living color, reflected; but what caught his approval more than all was the outdoor brightness of her face — neither pale nor tanned — and the clean curve of her neck and throat. She wore an old dress rough as canvas, a faded kind of dungaree blue, which, like the bowl in her arms, became her as if chosen for adornment.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said; then answered her question. “My name’s Ralph Alward. I was only walking through here, from Leslabay’s Road, I believe they call it.”

Young woman looking over her shoulder while feeding hens.
“They are the comicalest” she began, and turned to share her delight. (Illustrated by W.H.D. Koerner)

As for her, she saw a handsome young man, erect and slender, who had a winning smile and wore raiment the like of which she had never known except in pictures. He might have dropped from the sky, rather than the woods above the barnyard.

“Whose farm is this, please?” he was asking. “I’m a stranger, you know.”

His voice had an agreeable sound. It was friendly. Yet his fashion of speaking — not downright like a man’s, but easy and roundabout — seemed so odd that she could not forbear smiling.

“Why, father’s,” she replied. “It’s Loveday’s Farm. Noah Loveday’s.”

He must be a great stranger, not to know.

Ralph took all the smile to himself and determined that Loveday’s Farm should provide his lodging for the night.

“How far is it,” said he, “to the next — er — village? Or settlement? I’ve walked all day, and I’m rather lame, you see.”

He made a few steps, limping hard, back and forth past the chickens and turkeys, which huddled there forgotten.

“My boots weren’t the right kind, I dare say,” he explained with a rueful smile.

“Well, no, I guess likely!” cried the girl, staring at those noble filigreed brogues. “You poor thing! Why, you can’t go on like that! You come sit you on the doorstep. Wait.”

She laid her yellow dish in the road, left it to be filled with squabbling fowls, and ran off past the elm into the open door of the house. Her running was light, her ankles flew. Ralph, admiring, followed slowly and practiced the limp to good effect.

He sat down as bidden on her doorstep, a flat granite rock. The elm overhung house and road like a fountain of leaves; under its fringe the meadow swam in a bright haze; but disregarding these objects he turned to look inside the house, where in darkness at the end of a passageway he could hear her busy with something.

“There now.” She came bringing a pair of brown moccasins. “You change into them. They’ll ease your feet for you. Scow bo’ts.”

She laughed, and so did he, for the moccasins were huge old panniers of moosehide.

“Father and him are coming home now, so I’ll go get supper.” She slipped out past him to the road. Once more Ralph admired that clean, light-foot running, and the sweep of her bare arms as she drove away chickens and turkeys in dodging confusion behind the house, out of sight. Presently returning, she waited on the grass plot while he tied his moccasin thongs.

“Feel better, I guess, maybe?”

Ralph smiled and nodded.

“Much, thank you.”

A heavy tread resounded within the house, as if giants were entering at the back door.

Alward rose. He was thinking that he had never before seen dark-red eyes or such a glowing crown of dark-red hair. What with them and his clumsy footgear he stumbled.

“Did you hurt you?” she cried, and caught him by the hand. So, as in old tales they say evil must come if at all, she helped him over the threshold.

II

Through a long low room the sun poured, slanting upward. A stove, a cupboard, and a sink with a green-painted pump, marked off the far end as kitchen; the near end kept higher estate as living room, with oval braided rugs, a fireplace containing dog irons, a mantel holding two gold-luster jugs full of mallows, on the wall a Zulu gun among some tails of ruffed grouse displayed fanwise, and near the front window a table surrounded by chairs.

Here the girl made Ralph sit down again, and sped to her oven. All the room shone clean and tidy in that sunset brightness, but on her way she stooped and brushed the hearth with a turkey’s wing.

“Well, Zenoby, here we come a-tagglin’, like the last run o’ pigweed.”

Two persons entered at the kitchen door. Their footsteps had thundered so in the back passage that Ralph was now astonished to see no giants, but a pair of thin, almost frail-looking men. Their boots had made all the noise — heavy hoots on tired feet. He who spoke first was gray haired, gray bearded, stooped like an invalid, and gazed about with rather vacant blue eyes. His follower, young and ungainly, seemed a narrow bundle of shanks, all height and no width. Each was struggling into a jacket.

“Evenin’, M-mother B-bunch,” stammered Longshanks, with an embarrassed grin.

“Why, Goosewings,” the girl, kneeling by the oven door, replied in a tone of banter, “I don’t s’pose you want anything to eat.”

“Haw, haw!” roared Goosewings in one great burst of laughter, strangely abrupt. His freckled face gleamed with enjoyment. “Us fleshy fellers comes a-runnin’ to supper f-f-full chisel!”

Then he caught sight of Ralph across the room, and at once became sad as a mourner.

“Father,” said the girl, glancing up, “here’s a man walked from the Crossing, and went lame. I routed him out your moggasins, and he — ”

Ralph rose and made himself and his desires known.

“Why, sartain.” The stooping man responded mildly, with a vague look at his guest. “‘Course ye can stop here, sir. All is, take the house as ye find it. We hain’t over ‘n’ above jauntified.”

The supper, when brought to table, confirmed this saying of Mr. Loveday’s. It was exceedingly plain food — hot biscuits, tea, a finnan haddie, blueberries, and hermits — which, though assembled all in one course, appeared to Ralph anything but bountiful. He began, however, to talk cheerfully about it, feigning great pleasure. His companions made no reply. The girl Zenobia turned down her sleeves, buttoned her wristbands, and took the chair opposite him.

“Fresh air and appetite,” he was rattling on, “and a good cook — ”

The sight of three bowed heads cut short his disquisition. He had forgotten such a custom held in places out of the way. With some confusion but more amusement he followed it, and sat looking down, waiting, and after a time wondering why the old man, or his daughter, or this young lout beside him did not begin and utter their formula. No one spoke. As moments passed a wild thought crept into his mind: How if they were expecting him to say it? In a kind of terror he glanced up. The three others, calm and thoughtful, were attending his convenience.

“If you’re ready, sir,” said old Noah mildly, “pass me your plate for a helpin’.”

It was Ralph’s first knowledge of silent grace. A bit of old-fashioned comedy worth remembering, he thought; given a few touches here and there it would make an anecdote for use.

During supper Loveday spoke once or twice.

“We ain’t heavy eaters, this household. Zenoby, guess you better go cook the young man a mess of aigs to make out with.”

Ralph declined this offer. The meal went on in silence. Goosewings the lanky ate with stern purpose and an economy of movement which kept his freckled face near his plate. From knife to shoulder blades the man seemed all edge and angle. At last, thought Ralph, he knew what it meant to be sharp-set. Meanwhile, across the table, he caught from time to time the dark red-brown eyes of Zenobia watching him secretly, with a kind but anxious light in them.

When blueberries and hermits had vanished an odd thing happened. Old Loveday and his daughter turned toward their servant Goosewings, as if they expected him to perform some ritual after meat. He sat far down in his chair, humped and brooding.

“Were they good?” inquired Zenobia shyly.

Goosewings woke, jerked his body upright, grinned slowly round the board, then drawing his face blanker than an idiot’s he looked cross-eyed, waggled his great outstanding ears, and made his crop of colorless hair dart forward and backward, the whole scalp playing loose.

“Good vittles!” he said. “Haw, haw!”

Shoving his chair free of the table he relapsed into melancholy, as though cowed by the presence of a stranger.

“We always do that,” explained the girl. “He’s kind of a wit.”

Goosewings looked at Ralph askance.

“I’m a wi-wit and a wa-wag and a wa-wanton with a wi-wig,” he declared, “when ye t-treat me right.”

The room had grown dark. Zenobia rose, went to her kitchen cupboard, and lighting a glass hand lamp set it on a shelf. That end of the house became bright, and by contrast the three men sat in deeper gloom, while she came and went, removing the supper dishes.

Ralph would have helped her.

“Keep ye settin’,” said Noah Loveday. “Better leave women’s work alon’.” He stroked his beard with aimless fingers and winked at the lamp. “I un’stand ye come paiggin’ it all the ways here f’m the Crossin’? Well, that’s a real long hard spell a-hoofin’.”

Ralph took these words, rightly, as an invitation to unfold himself. He was a good talker, and on that evening talked well.

The history of his last few days he reviewed quickly, for he had walked through the country seeing little and inquiring less; but no sooner could he hark back to the world of cities and get his mind going on its native pavement than he told wonders. Old Noah, listening, now and then murmured some polite ejaculation:

“Sho! Don’t say! … Guess ye run acrost lots of grand doin’s like them, sir, to occupy the mind up there … Well, now, hear that! Jest think, and you make no more bon’s of it than’s if ‘twas everyday!”

A young couple walking in a field
“You haven’t heard what I came after. Today’s the only chance I get all summer.” (Illustrated by W.H.D. Koerner)

Even the silent Goosewings was moved at last. He twined his long legs, cracked his knuckles and tried to break in as a rival.

“To Pembroke Fair,” said he, “I seen a cu-cunjrer oncet, chewed glass and et up p-poison, afore your face and eyes. ‘Twan’t rale poison, somebody lets on. ‘Hain’t it?’ says the cu-cunjrer, and chucked out a two-ouncet fial full ‘mongst the crowd. ‘Per-perfessor,’ s’e, ‘you settle it. Is she rale p-poison, or is she not?’ Appears they was a per-perfessor standin’ there to look on. He didn’ haf to take but one sniff the bottle. ‘Yis, deadly,’ s’e, right off like that. ‘She’d kill a w’ale, fust drop.’ The cu-cunjrer m-muckled on to her again and swigged her one g-gullup, and laughed, and went ‘bout his business, givin away shirt studs and leniment f-for prizes ‘s if his g-guts was so much s-s-so’ luther. I watched him clos’ too. He downed her.”

This bit of table talk Goosewings contributed earnestly, wagging his hatchet face up and down, as though to chop the Gordian knots of speech. “

Guess they was a ketch in it somewheres,” said Noah. “Sleyth of hand maybe. He made some pass and deceived ye.”

“Never d-done no such thing!” cried the other, with heat. “Right in the open air, and me standin’ under him so’s I could see int’ the roof of his mouth!”

During their argument, which moved slowly and lasted long, Zenobia bent over Ralph’s shoulder to get some dish from the table. He looked up, and caught in her eyes a secret light, a gleam of suppressed laughter. For a moment, at that close range, he seemed to share with her a droll understanding; then she was gone across the room to her work; but the brightness of her look and the touch of her arm that had brushed him he still felt with a quick intimacy. The spirit of youth and fun had breathed on him in passing.

It went to his head. Capping Goosewings’ yarn with a better, or at least a more polished, he talked on gayly. Old Noah sat in judgment, but from time to time gave a chuckle; the young rustic, though he hung his face down, could not keep from appearing sourly entertained; and Ralph himself knew that he was in great form as a prince of good company.

His recompense came at bedtime, after Loveday had said:

“You show him his room, Zenoby. I hope you pitch in a good sleep, sir, for you must be tuckered after all that welkin’. Good night, sir.”

Upstairs in a narrow passageway Zenobia left him before a closed door.

“You’ll find your things inside.” She gave him the little brass lamp with which she had lighted the way. “Afraid it ain’t any too comf’table.”

Ralph, watching her face over the lamp, thought her the prettiest thing he had ever seen. She was all life and color, smiling with a kind of frightened mischief, made bold by admiration.

“Well, there! This evening — I don’t know when we had so much fun!”

She spoke hurriedly and low, almost whispering. Then she turned and fled down the passage, down the stairs.

His room had two black bearskins on the floor, a patchwork quilt on the bed, and a painted chest of drawers, where he found his knapsack. The offending brogues peeped from below the bed. Ralph cared nothing for all this, but got rid of his lamp, to stand upright under the slanting roof, stare about him, and draw a long breath.

As if dazzled, he saw her pictured on the darkness. “Humph!” At last he woke and grinned. “Don’t believe my foot will get well for some days now!”

He looked at the borrowed moccasins and remained still, thinking.

III

He came down early for breakfast, prepared to make this day begin as well as the last had ended, or better. Plans of enjoyment filled his head. He entered the room with a smiling morning face.

It went for nothing, wasted; no one was there, and though by his place at table a meal lay waiting he saw that the rest of the household had eaten and gone.

“What ungodly hours!” thought Ralph. The sun had not cleared the firs on the hill; without a cloud the upper air shone wonderfully bright, while yet a brownish haze, earth’s long-drawn shadow, clung to the valley and the alder brook in low contours of twilight. A crow cawed, welcoming warmth among his treetops. In the open barn door, hitched right and left by rope to the jambs, a tall white horse drowsed as if expecting to be curried, and pawed with a shaggy forefoot.

“Ungodly victuals too.” Returning from the window Ralph sat down and eyed his breakfast with scorn — tea, bread and pickings of salt codfish. “I can’t eat them.”

The things were hot, he found; but in his disgust he did not draw the plain conclusion that somebody had watched or listened for him and set them forth accordingly in time. Pains taken by anyone else meant little to Ralph, nothing when the outcome proved, as now, so meager.

“How do people work and keep alive,” he wondered, “on such fearful chow?”

It was enough to spoil a man’s day. He sat glooming over it, but at last had to eat and drink.

“That or go hungry.”

While trying to feed he heard sounds of life overhead, footsteps, the creak of boards, voices that rumbled once or twice, and the steady whisking of a brush on cloth. The Lovedays, then, were still indoors. This fact surprised him. He had thought farmers — the old kind, lingering round the edge of woods — went out as soon as awake to plow or tend cattle or do something rural under the morning star. But now time passed, the sun had risen, daylight flooded the valley, and here these mysterious people lurked in their bed chambers.

An hour or more dragged by. Then came a sound of doors opening and feet, heavy and slow, on the stairway. Another surprise greeted him when his hosts appeared in the door.

“Good morning!”

“Mornin’, sir.”

They were all strangely transfigured: old Noah and his helper by black clothes of a formal cut, so ample and loose hung that both men seemed to have shrunk overnight; the girl Zenobia by a tight black dress and a grandmotherly hat. Ralph wondered what blight had fallen on them, what darkness. Perhaps they were going to a funeral.

Father and daughter came into the room. Goosewings with a friendly grin turned and disappeared down the passage.

“Well, sir” — Loveday looked nowhere and spoke as to himself — “can ye manage, and hold the fort alon’? We kind o’ guessed, maybe, you wouldn’t feel eagle to going with us so fur.”

“Going? Oh,” ventured Ralph, “I hope — I hope it’s not bad news that calls you away?”

They both regarded him oddly, as if puzzled. The girl’s face, so young and bright with the play of thought, made a very droll contrast to her middle-aged garments.

“Why,” she said, “today’s Sunday!”

Had her father not been there, it seemed, she would have laughed.

“I — I probably lost count,” replied Ralph.

Noah’s gaze traveled about the room.

“It hain’t never bad news,” he mumbled, “that draws folks, to meetin’, don’t seem’s ‘ough.”

Ralph thought to clear his character; besides, he felt this girl’s way of looking, the mirth hidden in her great red-brown eyes, as a kind of challenge; and seeing her now he remembered their good night in the corridor upstairs, and determined that wherever she were going she could not leave him behind.

“May I come too?” He suddenly remembered also that he was lame, and shuffled a few steps. “If you think it’s all right for me to appear in these things.”

He pointed at the moosehide moccasins.

“Wore ‘em there my own self,” declared Loveday, “many’s the time.” His daughter said nothing. With a quick but careful motion she took Ralph’s dishes from the table and, carrying them so as not to touch her black dress, crossed the room.

“Then I will, Mr. Loveday.” She was busy in the sunlight by the windows, her back turned; but somehow Ralph caught an impression that his words pleased her.

“Feet ain’t what has to pass muster,” said Noah. The stooping little graybeard who looked and talked at nobody, might be a philosopher or fool; Ralph could not tell which. “They ‘low the Lord taketh no pleasure in the laigs of a man, and likely it applies clean on down him. Tomah Nicholas the Injun made them snow pacs five years ago, and made ‘em good. But no ones goin’ to be conscious of ‘em, sir, least not after the parson gits warm and lets out.”

Things moved without haste on Loveday’s Farm, for another hour passed before Goosewings led round to the front door a horse and wagon. It was the tall white horse; his hairy fetlocks, like old paintbrushes, bore an incurable yellow stain, but his coat shone from the currycomb, and his harness — a good stout collar-and-hames affair — glistened with blacking. Goosewings put his lank legs over a wheel and dropped into the rear seat beside Ralph, while father and daughter mounted the front.

“Stir your stumps, Danamite,” said Noah in a tone of gentle advice; and the horse, taking his own gait, lumbered away with them.

A long, slow journey it was, but one in which Ralph soon found unexpected pleasure. They went down a steep grass-ribbed lane, swept underneath alders in a lowland where every leaf and fern and grass blade, wet with dew that had been all but frost, gleamed silver-white in patterns of elfin beauty. They bumped over corduroy road — sunken logs coated with moss. Fording a brown pool of the brook, they scared minnows helter-skelter, and made the black-petaled shadows of water beetles that wavered, each with central dots of prismatic light, vanish from the sandy bottom. Then uphill, solemnly deliberate, Noah’s horse drew them into fir woods, green shade that breathed balsam and the scent of hidden flowers. Once, in the road ahead, a covey of young grouse left their early sun bath and went from sight like so many brown yarn balls trundling under the leaves together. And once the girl Zenobia jumped up and squealed.

“He’s run over!” She turned to look behind, kneeling on the seat, hugging herself in apprehension, with hands clutched. Then she laughed. “No, he’s all right! A mole crossing the ro’d.”

Her distress, her joy at the mole’s escape, were slight passing things and left her facing Ralph for the moment as if ashamed. In these dark woods, as in the dark corridor last night, she seemed the brightest creature alive; her face, with its change and color, adorable; and her young body — even when she had sat down again, so prim in old-womanish clothes — a figure gayly dressed for masquerade.

Someone else, Ralph discovered, was sharing his admiration; for Goosewings beside him gave a shy grin and a wag of the head, declaring plainly that Zenobia was good to look upon.

“I al’ays do like g-g-goin’ to meetin’,” said Goosewings, continuing yet changing the subject. “Best part the week, hain’t it?” He wrung his lean freckled hands till the joints creaked, as if by so doing he wound up some mechanism of talk.

“You’ll see a raft o’ people there.” His eyes regarded the back of Zenobia’s neck, but his words were to Ralph. “Our p-parson draws ‘em, I tell you; p-pulls ‘em out their holes thick as rain does angly-worms, might say. He hain’t no ways a d-devil dodger, parson; he ketches holt and wrastles good. Yis, sir! Can take the t-toughest old stubb’n text in the Book, and d-drive it ‘fore him like chasin’ a squerril up a t-tree.”

Noah, nodding to himself, agreed.

“He does so. The man’s a driver!” Inspired by this word, Mr. Loveday threatened a slap of the reins, which fell dangling harmless on the rump bones of his horse. “He kin so clod the texts at ye, both hands to one time.”

Jogging along, while the sun grew higher and the pointed shadows left the road, they discoursed thus at random of many things. Ralph would have thought it all stupid but for the presence of this girl before him. She spoke little, seldom glanced behind; yet she was listening, for once or twice when he laughed at some feeble joke a spark from the corner of her eyes encouraged him.

At last, on a hill, firs gave way to open sky. Crossing the ridge and rattling down its farther slope, the travelers entered a green pastoral country of hollow fields, bounded by dark promontories powerfully blue in the distance. Close underneath shone a lake dotted with fat little islands, mounds of leaves floating on their reflection. The road bent round one end of this lake, in which as they passed Ralph saw with astonishment long seaweed drifting and a snowy gull that swam near a border of meadow grass.

“I thought I’d left the sea away behind.”

“She runs up in amongst us unbeknown everywhere,” said Noah. “She fooled ye. Salt water. That plank bridge we crossed was made out the wrack of the Salva Y Hermanos, West Injies. We git plenty o’ fog, too, f’m the bellerin’ old fog fact’ry out beyond. W’oa, Danger!”

They had suddenly arrived. Under rowan trees full of yellowish-red berries other wagons, empty, stood in line, their horses tied to a rail fence or anchored with hitching weights. Above, on a granite hillock scarred by glaciers long ago, where nothing grew but mullein and bull thistles, a white wooden building sat alone. It seemed forlorn, pinched and barren like the foundation rock. Some men in black who moved as though depressed were going upstairs through the open door.

The Lovedays and their guest followed.

Soon afterward, between Zenobia and her father, in a bleak room full of sad-looking people, Ralph heard the promised wonders. A worn little elderly man with a grim face rose on his platform before them and seized the pulpit firmly, right and left.

“‘Benny-Eyer, the son of Jeho-Ida,’” he chanted with a good round voice, “‘went down and sloo a lion in a pit in a snowy day.’” The preacher paused and eyed them all as if ready to quell objections. “First Chronicles, eleventh chapter, twenty-second verse. ‘Benny-Eyer, the son of Jeho-Ida, went down and sloo a lion in a pit in a snowy day!’”

What merit the exposition had which followed Ralph could not judge. Ferocity of lions, and all that David Livingstone had to say about them; rarity of snow in Palestine, where “folks would take a flurry harder than what we do”; disadvantages of fighting in a pit, “without elbowroom to swing your weapon full heft, let alon’ you had anything more in hand than a bowarrow, those days” — were put forward in a homely style that was all too entertaining. Noah had spoken truth, for moccasins meant nothing when the preacher warmed to his work.

“Mark this: The accum’lation of diff’culties don’t signify, not a York shillin’, as father used to say. Diff’culty, sorrer, trouble, the gurry of the soul — they compass us about, friends, from our cradle to our grave. One long battle in a snowfall so thick you can’t see front of your face. The enemy faints not nor faileth, but fur from losing heart, it keeps our interest up. Benny-Eyer, the son of Jeho-Ida, warn’t content with overcoming common lions in the way, path lions, ro’d lions, turnpike lions; he walked out of his course to find ‘em, scrabbled down into holes after ‘em, killed ‘em there at odds, and red his neighborhood of the pesky things. And he took first chance come for it, not fine weather, but a snowy day!”

Later, outdoors again, while Noah and his man lingered talking with friends on the granite mound, Zenobia turned to Ralph for confirmation of this doctrine. They stood under the rowan trees, unhitching the horse together; a task that required only one pair of hands, yet their fingers met on the rope.

“How’d you like the sermon?”

Between them drooped the long white nose of the horse. Ralph craned over it, and saw her smiling.

“Great sport,” he answered. His own good humor in coming to such a show pleased him greatly. He knew it had pleased her. “Funniest talk I ever heard.”

The half-ripe berries of the rowan made a tantalizing background for her face. “Was it?” she said. “I guess it was, you’re so bright about things. I’d never have thought of that part.” Her smile changed and faded.

IV

The week after that Sunday seemed to him a reckless golden age. The days flowed like a river, all sunshine and peace, but with a dark undercurrent quickening toward the plunge. What he had taken at first for another mood, another whim, became a mastering force that carried him along without resistance, or even the desire to resist. He went to sleep thinking “Tomorrow I shall see her again”; woke thinking “I shall see her today”: and when these thoughts came true could hardly bear to lose her a moment from sight. He lived like a man in a dream, bewitched.

This fact grew evident to others; for early one morning as he awaited her in the front passage Ralph heard voices without.

“Do? That’s it. He d-don’t do a hand’s turn,” complained one. “Hankers round her and looks mum — looks mum — looks meltin’.”

“Why, maybe so,” replied the other. “But the fella’s a well-intendin’ young runagate. Flighty, yis. And as you let on, kind of putty headed, times.”

They were passing out of earshot.

“Alon’ so long — n-neither right nor wu-wise.”

“Sho, boy! Don’t you fret. Zenoby’s able to fend for herself … Wholesome and sturdy all round as a yaller birch. She’s the clear thing — ”

The listener stepped quietly to the door and looked out. Twilight clung beneath the elm, but now grew pale. The birds had let their chorus dwindle to a few scattered songs, and begun their visits, dropping from tree to tree. Noah Loveday and his long-limbed companion, with scythes curved over their backs like Father Time and son, were moving toward a black gap in the eastern woods. Ralph knew they were bound for a distant flowage to cut meadow hay, some crop neglected overlong. Noah said so last night. They would not come home till after dark.

This might be a holiday. He turned and called: “Zenobia!”

She answered from the long room.

“Oh, it’s ready! Another of you roaring round after his breakfast!”

He entered to find, as before, the table set for him. Zenobia was busy near the kitchen windows. He made for her straightway.

“You go sit down and eat! Can’t I call a minute my own?” Her strange deep-colored eyes frowned at him, but her lips were laughing. “You’re worse’n the others. Get away!”

She slipped out at the back door, shut it and ran so quickly that he could not find a trace of her. Hunting was of no use, he learned. She might have a dozen old childhood hiding places on that farm. All morning she avoided him; at noon appeared and vanished, putting his talk aside with jokes; not till three long hours past noon did she come within range, and then only as he happened to catch her passing down toward the meadow.

“Let me go too,” said Ralph.

She made a mock of him.

“How’s your lame foot?”

He waived the question and fell into step beside her.

“Why do you always run away from me now?”

“I don’t,” replied Zenobia. “You seem able to come if you want to.”

“Then you mean I’m not welcome?” He pulled a long face, for melancholy, he knew, was becoming to him. “You don’t like me? Very few people do.”

“Oh,” she cried, “let’s talk about something else besides our own selves. I like you best then. I mean, like to hear you.”

He obeyed. They crossed a shallow of the alder brook, climbed together a long western slope of sunny turf and, leaving the meadow far below, entered a road that wound between old gray fences broken and moldering under raspberry vines, yarrow and spiraea. Ralph was busy telling her, as usual, the marvels of his world. She heard him gladly. They seemed to have drawn closer today than ever before. Now, he thought, was the time; or now, in this white-birch grove; yet for some reason he dared not venture on what he had planned and fully determined.

Thus they went on, three or four miles.

At last Zenobia paused. The road lost itself, narrowing to a lane the banks of which hung down, smothered with early goldenrod.

“Here’s the best place. You can help me pick and lug them.”

For half an hour they scrambled and waded among greenish-golden tufts. When they slid down again into the grass-grown way the sun poured level over them and their shining, armfuls. Her face and throat were gilded with light, as if she embosomed and radiated all the clear outdoor flame of those young flowers.

“Listen to me!”

She laughed, shook her head and grew serious.

“No. Wait. You haven’t heard what I came after. Today’s the only chance I got all summer. It’s a shame. I ought to have.”

She led him rapidly back along the way they had come. In the white-birch grove she turned, took a path upon the right which he had not seen, and passed through a gap among brambles into a clearing.

“I must try to get here oftener,” said Zenobia.

The place was an old burying ground. Surrounded by the white pillars and flickering leaves of birch a few headstones caught the sunset. She halted by a marble slab. Little gray-and-black lichens growing in the letters chiseled upon it rendered them dark and plain.

ZENOBIA BORNE

BELOVED WIFE OF NOAH LOVEDAY

1873-1901

Noah’s daughter began to lay her goldenrod before this carefully.

“Mother died the same year and month as the old Queen of England. I can just remember her. Father says she was awful young and pretty. He was an older man.”

Ralph thought it best to leave her for the moment. He threw down his goldenrod and walked off to look elsewhere. This kind of thing always bored him. On some of the older stones — weather-worn slate carved with queer cherubs’ heads — he found a few amusing epitaphs to while the time away:

AFTER AN INOFFENSIVE LIFE THOUGH TOWARDS YE CLOSE MUCH PERPLEXT

JOEL BORNE, ESQRE,

A GENTLEMAN OF PLEASING & AFFABLE MANNERS

DYED 1752 TRUSTING IN YE LORD WHO KNOWETH OUR FRAME & REMEMBERETH YT WE’RE DUST

A smaller and later memorial reasoned thus in verse:

WHY WAS THE SHEPHEARD SO UNKIND TO CALL OUR LITTLE BION?

OF COARSE HE DONE IT FOR THE BEST IN FOLDING HIM TO REST.

When the girl had disposed her offering and risen the sun was leaving the grass, prolonging the rounded shadows of sweet fern, and departing through the birches in a light that faded from tree to tree until the nearer trunks glimmered pale and ghostly, while those deeper within kept only a tinge of lilac. Zenobia, waiting in the gap, still carried a great cluster of goldenrod.

“I always bring some home for my live folks too,” she said as Ralph took them from her. “We must hurry. I didn’t sense how late ‘twas getting to be.”

He felt no need of haste.

“They won’t come back from their flowage for a long time yet.”

Something in his voice made her look at him quickly. There was a trace of alarm, he thought, in those large red-brown eyes.

“We must hurry,” she repeated, and set out walking at a pace that seemed almost like flight.

He had hard work to keep alongside her. They brushed rapidly down the road, where the overhanging leaves now caught and held masses of dusk. Downhill, in the lower turns and hollows, the air became that of nightfall, changeable, now cool, now warm and fragrant with the breath of the wayside.

Stars hung above the meadow, which lay shimmering as though turned to frosty vapor, a formless haunted ground at the bottom of the night. Loveday’s Brook tinkled in lowermost darkness.

They were leaving it behind, when a meteor fell across the sky, trailing soft sparks of golden fire, quenched in a long curve. As if this gave the signal Ralph tossed away his flowers and made a swoop.

“Zenobia, dear! I must tell you what a wonder you — ”

It was his best voice. For one instant he felt her trembling, thought her captured and frightened; but quicker than his thought she was free, standing there firmly, a shadow, inaccessible.

“You must come away with me!” he cried. “I can’t leave you behind. I can’t! This awful life of yours, here in a corner among louts and blockheads, when you were made to shine before the whole world, and be worshiped! You can’t let me go without you! You shan’t!”

He found himself pouring out wild words, broken but powerful. Probably at the time he was quite honest and meant them all. He did not know that anything could so move him; for now it was he who trembled and stood afraid.

“No one ever talked to me like that before.” Zenobia, wrapped round with the mystery of starlight, spoke quietly. “No; don’t touch me again. I got to think.”

She moved away, so that he lost the shadow of her head against a many-pointed blackness of firs. He ran after her.

“You go pick up your goldenrod,” she said. “I ought to feel happy. It’s a great — great honor, they say. I ought to.”

Suddenly he guessed that she was crying.

“You know I — I — Oh, we did get on so well! Don’t spoil the day anymore.”

V

After this he played his part skillfully, right through in a rush. He knew now that Zenoby was a different kind of girl from the others. That she was a motherless girl, by the way, signified nothing to him, if indeed the fact ever crossed his mind. He played very skillfully, and soon had his reward.

It was a strange morning when he became sure of triumph. A thick mist, luminous but impenetrable, hid the country. The sea had flooded these woods with clinging fog, in which the nearest bough, two paces ahead, seemed to drift like a billow of dark smoke, while distant sounds came clear yet magnified and altered so that no man could tell what they were.

Zenobia raised her head to listen, then walked on, studying the ground. Her face in this gray vapor showed pale.

“Come, don’t mope,” said Ralph lightly. “Think what a lark we’ll have!”

She shook her head.

“It’s the leaving father. We did wrong not to tell him. I mean I did wrong, promising you not to tell.”

From what could be seen of trees they were passing through the cedar grove, where Ralph, on his way to this business, had felt a presentiment. All was right now, he thought. A few hours on foot would bring them to the Crossing; there he had a wagon and pair of horses waiting; and thence to seaport or railway it was a short affair.

“Your father? Why, he’ll laugh when we come back and tell him we’re — we’re man and wife.”

He had no intention to make any part of this true. He uttered the lie handsomely, with a smile that always took effect.

“It’s wrong, though,” said Zenobia.

“Dear girl, you must — ” He swung toward her.

“No!”

She drew back so quickly that a wreath of fog whirled between them, marking the draft of her motion. Truly she was different from the others: here she came, persuaded, brave enough to follow him to the world’s end, yet since the other night she would not so much as join hands.

“Zenobia, forget what’s behind!” he cried. “Remember what’s ahead of us!”

His gift of words being still upon him he unrolled once more a prospect of enchanted lands and cities — Vita pieta sensualis, the pride of the eye and fullness of life, many-colored, thrilling, beyond this fog.

“Back here, honestly, what is there? Goosewings wagging his ears after supper! You don’t know how paltry it all is because you’ve never seen!” He wanted to express great pity for her. “My dear child, you’re not to drag out your days doing cook and housemaid work, then go to your grave like that poor old noddy up there in the birches — what was his name? ‘After an Inoffensive Life’! Let’s have no more of this.”

He heard voices as of men drawing near — some trick of the fog; they ceased.

“Let’s go on and be happy.”

She heard him out, almost to the end, with a sidelong, full-orbed, steady glance. It was exactly the look, he thought, of the lovely Miss Linley in her portrait, the beauty of Bath long ago. This child must have good blood in her somewhere. Meanwhile she had clenched her fist; a funny and charming little fist.

“You to’d!” said Zenobia.

With a force he never expected or forgot she hit him straight in the face.

“You mis’rable to’d!”

Words and blow caught him off his balance. He staggered, fell, and sat in the road, his head ringing.

“You just make fun of everything — my church, my father! You don’t care! Not a mite, good or bad.” Her, face, no longer pale, blazed hot with shame. “There, I’m sorry. But when you made fun of our dead folks, you opened my eyes.”

They remained open, wide. Their light was the last he saw of Zenobia Loveday as she backed away toward home and vanished in smoke. He sat where he had fallen.

This obscurity, smelling of arbor vita and the salt sea, contained illusion mixed with hard truth. The voices he thought imaginary proved real; men had been close at hand, perhaps hearing him; for suddenly there walked past without word or sign the bent figure of Noah, going patiently home. The fog lifted and rolled in the man’s wake, as though he took it with him. A moment afterward Goosewings the joker went gangling by, his long legs preceding him with a sag of the knees at every stride. He spied Ralph, took to the ditch, embarrassed, and made a circuit to avoid whatever might be unseemly.

Ralph watched him go.

The cedars grew visible roundabout. He knew them again. It was a place where something happened to him; the touch of Ithuriel’s spear, reversed, had turned an archangel to a toad. Falsehood saw its own likeness.

“Oh, damn it all anyway!” said Ralph.

Bravado would not serve. His head still rang. And from the dwarf cedars, hump-backed, mossy, full of shadows that wriggled and mist that stole through, a hundred secret watchers in the woods, very old, peeped out and were laughing at him.

 

First page of the short story, "The Toad"
Read “The Toad” by Henry Milner Rideout from the June 19, 1920, issue of the Post. Become a subscriber to gain access to all of the issues of The Saturday Evening Post dating back to 1821.

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