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“ 'Murdering's' a powerful grand word to use about a tree,” scoffed Osceola. To her and such as her the magnificences of Nature were less impressive than the utilities. What was a forest for if not to be bled of turpentine and left to die under accumulation of resinous scabs? “Moreover, Cal Tandy's no more of a murderer than a nigger!”
“Whatever he is he seems to be a ticklish quantity to discuss,” observed the city girl.
“He's a mighty good-looking man,” described Osceola, reddening consciously. “Thin, maybe, but tall. His eyes are black and his hair is black-so black it looks sort of wet; and he speaks so's you have to listen. Oh, it's easy enough to tell what makes an ugly man ugly, but there's no describing what makes a young fellow handsome, and Cal's powerfully handsome. And”— slowly—“he swore to me that you were his sort, that you beat every other girl all hollow, and that you had the whitest skin and the most hair he's seen."
Laurie instinctively wrapped her dignity around her. She maintained a complete silence until Calhoun Tandy's exuberance of speech seemed to pass down the wind and die out of hearing.
“Osceola Carter, you must come to see me,” she then said gently. “And I want to come to see you.”
“Want to find out how 'crackers' live?" asked Osceola, bitterly pleasant.
“Crackers?” asked Laurie, hunting through her memory for an escaping definition.
“Floridy folks,” said Osceola curtly. “Rich people never think they've ‘done' Floridy till they study the 'cracker'!"
"Rest assured you'll be safe from me!" said Laurie, offended at last.
“But I want you to come!" cried the Florida girl, catching her breath quickly. “Be patient with me. I'm angry, yes, but not with you."
For a few minutes there was silence in the hot forest-not that forest seems the right name for a sunny tract where a leaf is hardly to be seen, and from whence the tree trunks rise as bare as telegraph poles, with no interlacing of branches to obscure even an inch of the blazing sky.
The underbrush owned the beauty. A languidly waving scrub that looked as if it were made of frayed palm-leaf fans was the most abundant. The showiest wild flower was in yellow clumps of coarse bloom. Everywhere underfoot was a tiny white star of miraculous beauty, secured from being picked by reason of setting too close to a thistly leaf.
“I want you to come,” repeated Osceola, after struggling with herself. “I'm as lonely as you are. I'm lonelier, for there isn't anybody in my house that talks to me of the things I want to listen to. I want to think nice thoughts and hear right grammar. I hate being patronized because I'm a cracker. I hate my home. I almost hate my folks. They laugh at me because I stuck to schooling until I got an education."
“What sort did you get?" asked Laurie cautiously. “The right sort oughtn’t to make people hate their homes."
“Blame the home, not the schooling," cried Osceola. “My mother chews tobacco, my father loafs, my brother swears, my sister runs barefoot. The whole place is dirt and confusion, and I can't do a single thing."
“Can't you?” asked Laurie, interested. “Why can't you?”
“Ever tried to make over home folks?” asked Osceola, gently ironical.
“Then I generally found out that all necessary improvement had been completed."
“Would you just as soon take a walk?” asked the little cracker girl, smiling enigmatically.
“Your direction or the other?”
“My direction,” said Osceola, shyly offering her hand, which was quickly clasped. "I want a friend,” she went on, softened by the contact. “I'm unhappy from sun-up to sun-down. Come home with me, and —then you'll know. You'll see my mother and the rest of them. Come often enough and you'll see Cal Tandy-maybe.”
"I've no desire to meet him,” cut in Laurie promptly.
“It's Cal's desire that counts," said the other, stubbornly and more or less warningly. “I reckon you'll meet him where you least expect."
As if in connection with this last thought she glanced back over her shoulder at the stalwart pines of the forest they were gradually leaving.
The owner of those woods was scarcely listening, too much enjoying the change of environment furnished by the impromptu trip to “Carter's.” Having a guide who knew the way she could revel in the newness of the wood-road without being afraid of getting lost in its everlasting sameness. Not only was the air full of balsam, but every step of the foot released additional supply, for the ground was littered thick with pine
cones. Trust a wood-trail sufficiently, and it will take you somewhere, but you are long before you really believe it.
Laurie was something of a botanist, but she knew no name for half the blossoms now in her path. The plan of them was profuse: a single bloom to a stalk was entirely out of fashion. Was your need yellow daisies? One snap of a twig and you held a bouquet that would fill a wash-tub. Then there was a bushy herb resembling a miniature Christmas tree, every inch of which was starred with tiny asters. Generally each aster throned a sleepily fluttering butterfly.
Osceola threaded her way through the display with the indifference of the well initiated.
At last the woods thinned to a clearing-not a clear clearing, but a stump-infested one and the Carter house loomed into view, hideous as only a country structure can be when not a tree has been left standing to lend it grace.
Except for the front door, which some daring humorist, endowed with half a can of paint in lieu of brains, had tinted an incongruous and streaky skyblue, the whole house was unpainted, its rough boards showing all their stains and knots unabashed. The dwelling boasted a story and a half, which meant that downstairs was a big room to cook in, and upstairs was a stuffy sloping attic to sleep in. All the windows—if such they could be called without affronting a dictionary—were of a simplicity worse than primitive, being just trapdoors sawed out of the solid walls, hinged at the top, and propped open with sticks. These embryonic dormers suggested that the Carters were fly-proof and mosquito-proof. They also suggested that the Carters became lungless in stormy
weather, for with those trapdoors closed down how did air get in?
The best part of the establishment was its rambling veranda of generous proportions—a sorry best, however, for it was cluttered like a junk shop. It harbored chairs and shoes, a washboard and tubs, a mangled sofa with its spiral insides painfully and menacingly on view, a baby whom nobody but the dog ever noticed—the dog, a black-and-white spotted article looking like a homemade toy, whose first intention was not to deceive anybody into thinking that it was a dog; a thin, pale boy with swollen eyes and a paunchy abdomen; a dirty, teasing, laughing little girl in a torn dress, its holes proving conclusively that the garment was all she wore; it harbored lastly Mrs. Carter, a draggled woman who was still young, but whose front teeth were missing. One would think that the fate which takes away a woman's front teeth would take away also her desire to smile, but the entire contrary is so—Mrs. Carter was cheer personified.
Once more to mention the veranda's cargo, it held Mrs. Carter's plants, hundreds of slips growing healthily out of battered tin cans of every size and shape known to commerce. Not only were tin cans utilized, but kitchen utensils. Every time a stewpan sprung an incurable leak, Mrs. Carter sensibly turned it into a jardinière. A jardinière with a long handle has at least one point of convenience. And the way her queerly bunked flowers flourished went to prove that plants like variety as well as the rest of us. A dawn-pink cactus bloomed all over a lard-pail in a rosy profusion to put a florist to shame, and the cactus was only one of many; everything rioted into bud and color. Judging from the labels at the base, the way to spell red geraniums