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Authors: Christina Stead

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BOOK: Letty Fox
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Everyone came to feel she was a criminal or would end badly. The adults knew she wanted to love as they did and felt that love of the body was theirs; they watched over it. The little boys had already invited us behind the bushes, using fence language with great honesty; and like old women we knew secrets we did not tell Cecily.

Somehow the boys at Farmington got mixed up in it. Straying round the roads, Mrs. Goodsir said, Cecily might meet some of those awful boys. “What do the boys do?” asked Cecily. Mrs. Goodsir was old-fashioned, modest and monitory, especially as she herself had been seduced and abandoned by Dr. Goodsir. The countryside for us was awfully darkened by our ideas of what the Farmington boys did and by local tales, as of the man who went berserk when his farm was taken away from him, and who had to be hunted by the police, the army, the American Legion, a band of armed neighbors, and, at length, an army plane. The army plane discovered him running through the long grass at night, like a bleached wolf. In town we saw the house which he had lost, and where his mind went.

There was another story of a farm far over on the other hills where everything was dead; the farm was covered with skeletons of things dead of hunger and thirst. There was a lawyer down the road who had bought up all the farms and bits of land that came into the market cheap for taxes and such. He was land-hungry, and now land-poor; he scarcely had enough to eat, but he had all this land, much of it waste. Even on Lydnam Hill there was a soft worthless bit of land that would hardly grow wood, where the cows browsed. It turned out later that an old man had drowned himself there. He just got too old, he said; and he lay down and died in the wood.

Cecily had an appetite for these stories. She loved the night. She slept out on the grass. One summer night we saw her walking naked between the garage and the house. The sky was bright with stars. This seemed awful to us, and Cecily was clothed for us in mystery and danger from that night on. But we thought her foolish too; we knew she invited the haunting, tearing hand of the road. She knew the stories of the whole countryside, especially the foul and uncanny ones; and many afternoons when she was free she spent looking across to the Farmington Institution, trying to think what life must be inside there. Mrs. Goodsir told her it was unhealthy for a young girl her age, but Uncle Perce said, “In educating the young we must make use of any show of interest,” and gave her books to read about prisons and dungeons, tortures in the Middle Ages, the horrors of the Inquisition, and prison memoirs. He said it would teach her history in her own terms. She and Carl read these books down in the orchard and talked about them; at least they said they did, but up in the house, at dinnertime, everyone made sly remarks about calf love and big silly children.

Nevertheless, it was impossible not to be interested in the two lovers. Besides, with her tales and books, which we saw in her room in the attic, we had an inexhaustible spring of games. We played Torture Chamber, Torquemada, Anarchists, Butcher Shop, and Institution; and we also played Lovers, imitating Carl and Cecily, but going farther than they ever went, I suppose.

One afternoon this strange couple went to Uncle Percival and asked him to allow them to marry; Cecily was thirteen and Carl nearly fifteen. “If we are married we can live together; we can live in The Wreck or at home,” said Carl. “We can still go to school,” said Cecily. Hogg was embarrassed, grew red in the face with shame and gravity, and sent Carl to walk on the road while he hastened down, just as he was, in his sneakers and slacks, to see the parents. He was pleased with this important reason for visiting the stone house, for those were rich retired bourgeois who lived there, bridge players, highball drinkers, automobile fans who rushed up and down in their several cars dusting up the flowers and scaring off the birds. They sneered at Uncle Perce.

That evening, this solemn Romeo and Juliet went to the stone house parents too, and said they wished to marry—what could they do if marriage was refused to them; they were in love and could not wait all those years—five, six, until they would be too old; they could not wait. Such haste to love, even their decorum, caused a scandal. Each family blamed the other.

Jacky and I ran off to a far part of the orchard in the long grass to talk it over; we talked it over in whispers, hand in hand and almost without a joke. For several days we were in a soft pious mood. It got to be known. Everyone tried to see them and joked about them. Roars of laughter, loud quarrels came from the stone house. At other times, people going along the road talked softly, looking at our house. Most people believed that they had already mated in the grass; but the grave young couple believed in their elders and waited first to be legally wed. Shameful questions they had to answer. Nothing was decided.

5

T
he Wreck was a large rectangular box with an extension on one side. A solid pitched roof covered this extension, and on the landing in the stairs a full-sized door led to the attic, under this roof. This attic had an excellent floor, but it had to be entered on hands and knees. At one time, perhaps, there had been a flimsy second story which had been knocked about by storms or struck by lightning. Uncle Perce intended to rebuild this vanished second story at some time. Meanwhile he was busy all the year rebuilding the rest of the house. Since it was all of wood and he was energetic, he could alter a door, a window, or rip out a wall or a flooring, in a day. Sometimes, when he felt sick, he worked at home developing photographs, writing a treatise; and the children, at four or five, after school, might find that there was no door where a door had been in the morning. He built a room with a lean-to roof, near the kitchen. To this he added a shed. In the shed he built benches and in a third room, no more than a closet, he built wooden beds. The shed, intended for a new privy, was cut off from the new bedroom by a right-angled passage, with two doors leading outside.

Sometimes he changed his mind about these doors and closed them up. When Mrs. Dr. Goodsir had her baby, a girl, upstairs, in the women's part of the house (he called it the Gynoecium), Templeton, then eleven or so, was given the lean-to as his bedroom. There was only an open doorway to his bedroom, and these other two doors led outside. Templeton's friends could open these doors and walk in at any time. Uncle Perce thought this an excellent idea. Later he thought not, and closed up these doorways, putting a door in Templeton's bedroom instead. Sometimes he put in and took doors out of the breakfast room. He took up the floors and put down new floors. He built partitions and pierced walls. While this was being done (this kind of job took more than one day), the women had to look after the clothes, clean the house and cook, hobbling over rubble and rafters. Stonedust, sawdust, and the fine gray dust of cement settled over everything in the house, over the curtains and the books; flecks of paint appeared in unexpected places, and even all over the bodies of the family; all their old clothes were stiffened and stained with it. Very often the table conversation was the mixing of paints, putty and cement, and types of finish, or was about the composition of paints and veneers; and was sprinkled with expressions such as plumb rule, cold chisel, stipple, second coat, mortise and tenon, three-ply, which even Mrs. Dr. Goodsir understood. At another time it would be “What makes an automobile go?” “Why does water run downhill?” Mrs. Dr. Goodsir argued and became angry; when he got to the flight of the universe through space, she wept and mentioned God.

It was interesting enough in their house, but we longed for the fun of the city. Uncle Perce believed that the movies and the theater prevented youthful minds from approaching science. It got about that Uncle Perce was godless: that was the cause of the Cecily scandal.

The rich farmer, the one with the black bull, called The Wreck “the house with disappearing doors,” because of Uncle's restlessness about doors. Uncle never forgave it. The old farmer, with the old wife and the young black-haired niece, warned his niece away from The Wreck because Uncle Perce, in his opinion, was a Mormon and an anarchist. Uncle Perce attacked him venomously whenever he could.

Uncle Perce gave no presents at Christmas, because presentgiving to “public or community servants encouraged begging”; in return, these “public and community servants” were disagreeable to Uncle Perce and he was never done complaining. Uncle Perce opposed indemnities for accidents, workmen's compensation, sick benefit, or anything in which the government, the community, or the employer had anything to do. “It pampered,” he said. It was true, as people said, that these opinions suited Aunt Angela's wealthy family very well, but Uncle Perce's notion was that such props weakened the people. He was only in favor of self-help and compensations paid out by workers' mutual associations.

One day one of the old farmers thereabouts fell into a hole on the public road and broke his leg. He received indemnity for this and still hobbled about the farm with his old wife trying to keep a few rows of peas going and some corn. Uncle Perce took a petition round the community protesting against this pap-feeding of citizens. “If citizens were not paid for breaking their legs, they would not break their legs,” said he, “and if they did break their legs, they would know better next time.” All the old men came to hate Uncle Perce. The middle-aged prosperous ones did not know what to think. Some secretly agreed with him but were afraid to say so, on account of their women.

He was full of apparent irreconcilables. For instance, he thought all land should belong to the community, there should be no private landlords, and that rent, if any, should be paid “to the people”; yet he behaved with the acreage round The Wreck as he had with the hillside on which Lydnam Lodge stood, with a savage proprietorship, combining in himself squire, gamekeeper, and bulldog. Sometimes, in this spirit, he would open the place to the community. This was always for one of the children's parties, when he asked the young people of the neighborhood to come in. He did not like any boys above twelve, although females of any age were welcome.

He disliked all of Templeton's male friends. Templeton had girl friends, but being already a worldly gallant, he kept these out of his father's sight. Templeton, who from babyhood had shown the greatest pleasantest interest in all the habits and attributes of women and who until now had been a charming loving boy, began to grow thoughtful, to seclude himself, shun his father, and hold long secret conversations with boys. When a girl passed by, he could not control his passion but stared after her, his eyes darting from his head, following every motion, whipping up and down her limbs and body, his hands twisting upon themselves. Uncle Perce did all that men can do, but the poor young lover was goaded by a bite of fire. We called him “the sheikh.” He did his best to overcome his energy, he worked hard and began that fierce studying which brought him to the head of his class; but we heard him turning in his bed at night, walking about and even crying.

Templeton had a friend called Jack Lack, who had a bad school reputation and who seemed to me a bully, thief, and scoundrel; but this may have been simply Uncle Perce's opinion of him. Jack Lack called Uncle Perce names and used the place, the orchard, the garage, the fence, and even the rooms of the house for his amusement and exercise. There were so many rooms that the boy could be in the place for hours without Uncle Perce's knowing it; and the house was so built that he could play hide-and-seek for a long time, when Uncle Perce chased him. The man had a peculiar hatred for the boy and, when he saw him, ran, catching up in his hand anything he could reach, on his way through the house or grounds. Dodging Uncle Perce became one of Jack Lack's games; but at times, while he was calling out after my uncle, even while my uncle was chasing him, or even when he balanced on the fence or window sill, looking far and wide over the place for my uncle, a dark grimace of pain and even rage would screw up the boy's face. Sometimes he would jump down and run away in disgust. It was as if, when he stood there, he saw that he was being forced to revolt and that he hated the misery of this squabbling life. We hated the boy and thought it surprising that smooth Templeton went with him; but perhaps Jack was another boy when out of sight of The Wreck.

Uncle Perce was like all governors; it was he who incited to the rebellion that he tried to crush. Nevertheless, he thought he was a democrat; nay, more, he believed the moot, the town meeting, the village council, to be the best form of government.

Jack Lack called The Wreck “the house with no doors.” This was because he saw my uncle was proud of his workmanship on the frames, panelings, and proud of the way the doors swung and hung, without sagging and without creaking; but Jack invented it one Saturday with good cause. He had come in the morning to visit Templeton and raced through the lean-to, in one door and out the other. When he came in the evening, both these doors were gone and weather-boardings fixed over the former entrances. My uncle had not yet had time to cut the door to Templeton's bedroom which he was substituting (in fact, he was fagged out and it was not cut that day at all). Jack, in amazement, ran round hitting what was now a wall with his fists and calling, “Hey, Temp! Temp!” For a moment, he supposed that Mr. Hogg had walled his son in. Jack Lack did not understand Mr. Hogg at all and was secretly afraid. The family was strange. The young woman without a husband, who insisted on being called Mrs. Dr. Goodsir, the girl Cecily wanting to get married at twelve, Hogg's doors and petitions, even Hogg's relations, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Morgan, now living in Lydnam Lodge, a young man married to an old wife—there was nothing in it that was ordinary. He pounded on the hollow weather-boarding and yelled, “Oh, Temp! Temp!” He dropped school ink into Hogg's fish bowl. He knew what Hogg told of him. He became strange, sulky, and recalcitrant, more so every day; but he could not keep away from the place or from Uncle Hogg.

BOOK: Letty Fox
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