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An essay by Elia W. Peattie


Title:     Solitude
Author: Elia W. Peattie [More Titles by Peattie]

AMONG the pictures that I see when I look back into the past, is the one where I, a sullen, egotistic person nine years old, stood quite alone in the world. To be sure, there were father and mother in the house, and there were the other children, and not one among them knew I was alone. The world certainly would not have regarded me as friendless or orphaned. There was nothing in my mere appearance, as I started away to school in my clean ginghams, with my well-brushed hair, and embroidered school-bag, to lead any one to suppose that I was a castaway. Yet I was--I had discovered this fact, hidden though it might be from others.

I was no longer loved. Father and mother loved the other children; but not me. I might come home at night, fairly bursting with important news about what had happened in class or among my friends, and try to relate my little histories. But did mother listen? Not at all. She would nod like a mandarin while I talked, or go on turning the leaves of her book, or writing her letter. What I said was of no importance to her.

Father was even less interested. He frankly told me to keep still, and went on with the accounts in which he was so absurdly interested, or examined "papers"--stupid-looking things done on legal cap, which he brought home with him from the office. No one kissed me when I started away in the morning; no one kissed me when I came home at night. I went to bed unkissed. I felt myself to be a lonely and misunderstood child--perhaps even an adopted one.

Why, I knew a little girl who, when she went up to her room at night, found the bedclothes turned back, and the shade drawn, and a screen placed so as to keep off drafts. And her mother brushed her hair twenty minutes by the clock each night, to make it glossy; and then she sat by her bed and sang softly till the girl fell asleep.

I not only had to open my own bed, but the beds for the other children, and although I sometimes felt my mother's hand tucking in the bedclothes round me, she never stooped and kissed me on the brow and said, "Bless you, my child." No one, in all my experience, had said, "Bless you, my child." When the girl I have spoken of came into the room, her mother reached out her arms and said, before everybody, "Here comes my dear little girl." When I came into a room, I was usually told to do something for somebody. It was "Please see if the fire needs more wood," or "Let the cat in, please," or "I'd like you to weed the pansy bed before supper-time."

In these circumstances, life hardly seemed worth living. I decided that I had made a mistake in choosing my family. It did not appreciate me, and it failed to make my young life glad. I knew my young life ought to be glad. And it was not. It was drab, as drab as Toot's old rain-coat.

Toot was "our coloured boy." That is the way we described him. Father had brought him home from the war, and had sent him to school, and then apprenticed him to a miller. Toot did "chores" for his board and clothes, but was soon to be his own man, and to be paid money by the miller, and to marry Tulula Darthula Jones, a nice coloured girl who lived with the Cutlers.

The time had been when Toot had been my self-appointed slave. Almost my first recollections were of his carrying me out to see the train pass, and saying, "Toot, toot!" in imitation of the locomotive; so, although he had rather a splendid name, I called him "Toot," and the whole town followed my example. Yes, the time had been when Toot saw me safe to school, and slipped little red apples into my pocket, and took me out while he milked the cow, and told me stories and sang me plantation songs. Now, when he passed, he only nodded. When I spoke to him about his not giving me any more apples, he said:

"Ah reckon they're your pa's apples, missy. Why, fo' goodness' sake, don' yo' he'p yo'se'f?"

But I did not want to help myself. I wanted to be helped--not because I was lazy, but because I wanted to be adored. I was really a sort of fairy princess,--misplaced, of course, in a stupid republic,--and I wanted life conducted on a fairy-princess basis. It was a game I wished to play, but it was one I could not play alone, and not a soul could I find who seemed inclined to play it with me.

Well, things went from bad to worse. I decided that if mother no longer loved me, I would no longer tell her things. So I did not. I got a hundred in spelling for twelve days running, and did not tell her! I broke Edna Grantham's mother's water-pitcher, and kept the fact a secret. The secret was, indeed, as sharp-edged as the pieces of the broken pitcher had been; I cried under the bedclothes, thinking how sorry Mrs. Grantham had been, and that mother really ought to know. Only what was the use? I no longer looked to her to help me out of my troubles.

I had no need now to have father and mother tell me to hurry up and finish my chatter, for I kept all that happened to myself. I had a new "intimate friend," and did not so much as mention her. I wrote a poem and showed it to my teacher, but not to my uninterested parents. And when I climbed the stairs at night to my room, I swelled with loneliness and anguish and resentment, and the hot tears came to my eyes as I heard father and mother laughing and talking together and paying no attention to my misery. I could hear Toot, who used to be making all sorts of little presents for me, whistling as he brought in the wood and water, and then "cleaned up" to go to see his Tulula, with never a thought of me. And I said to myself that the best thing I could do was to grow up and get away from a place where I was no longer wanted.

No one noticed my sufferings further than sometimes to say impatiently, "What makes you act so strange, child?" And to that, of course, I answered nothing, for what I had to say would not, I felt, be understood.

One morning in June I left home with my resentment burning fiercely within me. I had not cared for the things we had for breakfast, for I was half-ill with fretting and with the closeness of the day, but my lack of appetite had been passed by with the remark that any one was likely not to have an appetite on such a close day. But I was so languid, and so averse to taking up the usual round of things, that I begged mother to let me stay at home. She shook her head decidedly.

"You've been out of school too many days already this term," she said. "Run along now, or you'll be late!"

"Please--" I began, for my head really was whirling, although, quite as much, perhaps, from my perversity as from any other cause. Mother turned on me one of her "last-word" glances.

"Go to school without another word," she said, quietly.

I knew that quiet tone, and I went. And now I was sure that all was over between my parents and myself. I began to wonder if I need really wait till I was grown up before leaving home. So miserably absorbed was I in thinking of this, and in pitying myself with a consuming pity, that everything at school seemed to pass like the shadow of a dream. I blundered in whatever I tried to do, was sharply scolded for not hearing the teacher until she had spoken my name three times, and was holding on to myself desperately in my effort to keep back a flood of tears, when I became aware that something was happening.

There suddenly was a perfect silence in the room--the sort of silence that makes the heart beat too fast. The mist swimming before me did not, I perceived, come from my own eyes, but from the changing colour of the air, the usual transparency of which was being tinged with yellow. The sultriness of the day was deepening, and seemed to carry a threat with it.

"Something is going to happen," thought I, and over the whole room spread the same conviction. Electric currents seemed to snap from one consciousness to another. We dropped our books, and turned our eyes toward the western windows, to look upon a changed world. It was as if we peered through yellow glass. In the sky soft-looking, tawny clouds came tumbling along like playful cats--or tigers. A moment later we saw that they were not playful, but angry; they stretched out claws, and snarled as they did so. One claw reached the tall chimneys of the schoolhouse, another tapped at the cupola, one was thrust through the wall near where I sat.

Then it grew black, and there was a bellowing all about us, so that the commands of the teacher and the screams of the children barely could be heard. I knew little or nothing. My shoulder was stinging, something had hit me on the side of the head, my eyes were full of dust and mortar, and my feet were carrying me with the others along the corridor, down the two flights of wide stairs. I do not think we pushed each other or were reckless. My recollection is only of many shadowy figures flying on with sure feet out of the building that seemed to be falling in upon us.

Presently we were out on the landing before the door, with one more flight of steps before us, that reached to the street. Something so strong that it might not be denied gathered me up in invisible arms, whirled me round once or twice and dropped me, not ungently, in the middle of the road. And then, as I struggled to my knees and, wiping the dust from my eyes, looked up, I saw dozens of others being lifted in the same way, and blown off into the yard or the street. The larger ones were trying to hold on to the smaller, and the teachers were endeavouring to keep the children from going out of the building, but their efforts were of no avail. The children came on, and were blown about like leaves.

Then I saw what looked like a high yellow wall advancing upon me--a roaring and fearsome mass of driven dust, sticks, debris. It came over me that my own home might be there, in strips and fragments, to beat me down and kill me; and with the thought came a swift little vision out of my geography of the Arabs in a sand-storm on the desert. I gathered up my fluttering dress skirt, held it tight about my head, and lay flat upon the ground.

It seemed as if a long time passed, a time in which I knew very little except that I was fighting for my breath as I never had fought for anything. There were more hurts and bruises now, but they did not matter. Just to draw my own breath in my own way seemed to be the only thing in the world that was of any account. And then there was a shaft of flame, an earsplitting roar, and the rain was upon us in sheets, in streams, in visible rivers.

I imagined that it would last a long time, and wondered in a daze how I could get home in a rain like that--for I should have to face it. I could see that in a few seconds the gutters had begun to race, the road where I lay was a stream, and then--then the rain ceased. Never was anything so astonishing. The sky came out blue, tattered rags of cloud raced across it, and I had time to conclude that, whipped and almost breathless though I was, I was still alive.

And then I saw a curious sight. Down the street in every direction came rushing hatless men and women. Here and there a wild-eyed horse was being lashed along. All the town was coming. They were in their work clothes, in their slippers, in their wrappers--they were in anything and everything. Some of them sobbed as they ran, some called aloud names that I knew. They were fathers and mothers looking for their children.

And who was that--that woman with a white face, with hair falling about her shoulders, where it had fallen as she ran--that woman whose breath came between her teeth strangely and who called my name over and over, bleatingly, as a mother sheep calls its lamb? At first I did not recognise her, and then, at last, I knew. And that creature with the rolling eyes and the curious ash-coloured face who, mumbling something over and over in his throat, came for me, and snatched me up and wiped my face free of mud, and felt of me here and there with trembling hands--who was he?

And breaking out of the crowd of men who had come running from the street of stores and offices, was another strange being, with a sort of battle light in his eyes, who, seeing me, gathered me to him and bore me away toward home. Looking back, I could see the woman I knew following, leaning on the arm of the boy with the rolling eyes, whose eyes had ceased to roll, and who was quite recognisable now as Toot.

A happiness that was almost as terrible as sorrow welled up in my heart. I did not weep, or laugh, or talk. All I had experienced had carried me beyond mere excitement into exultation. I exulted in life, in love. My conceit and sulkiness died in that storm, as did many another thing. I was alive. I was loved. I said it over and over to myself silently, in "my heart's deep core," while mother washed me with trembling hands in my own dear room, bound up my hurts, braided my hair, and put me, in a fresh night-dress, into my bed. I do not recall that we talked to each other, but in every caress of her hands as she worked I felt the unspoken assurances of a love such as I had not dreamed of.

Father had gone running back to the school to see if he could be of any assistance to his neighbours, and had taken Toot with him, but they were back presently to say that beyond a few sharp injuries and broken bones, no harm had been done to the children. It was considered miraculous that no one had been killed or seriously injured, and I noticed that father's voice trembled as he told of it, and that mother could not answer, and that Toot sobbed like a big silly boy.

Then as we talked together, behold, a second storm was upon us--a sharp black blast of wind and rain, not terrifying, like the other, but with an "I've-come-to-spend-the-day" sort of aspect.

But no one seemed to mind very much. I was carried down to the sitting-room. Toot busied himself coming and going on this errand and on that, fastening the doors, closing the windows, running out to see to the animals, and coming back again. Father and mother set the table. They kept close together; and now and then they looked over at me, without saying anything, but with shining eyes.

The storm died down to a quiet rain. From the roof of the porch the drops fell in silver strings, like beads. Then the sun came out and turned them into shining crystal. The birds began to sing again, and when we threw open the windows delicious odours of fresh earth and flowering shrub greeted us. Mother began to sing as she worked. And I sank softly to sleep, thrilled with the marvels of the world--not of the tempest, but of the peace.

The sweet familiarity of the faces and the walls and the furniture and the garden was like a blessing. There was not a chair there that I would have exchanged for any other chair--not a tree that I would have parted with--not a custom of that simple, busy place that I would have changed. I knew now all my stupidity--and my good fortune.

[The end]
Elia W. Peattie's essay: Solitude