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An essay by Elia W. Peattie


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

IT was time to say good-bye.

I had been down to my little brother's grave and watered the sorrel that grew on it--I thought it was sorrow, and so tended it; and I had walked around the house and said good-bye to every window, and to the robin's nest, and to my playhouse in the shed. I had put a clean ribbon on the cat's neck, and kissed my doll, and given presents to my little sisters. Now, shivering beneath my new grey jacket in the chill of the May morning air, I stood ready to part with my mother. She was a little flurried with having just ironed my pinafores and collars, and with having put the last hook on my new Stuart plaid frock, and she looked me over with rather an anxious eye. As for me, I thought my clothes charming, and I loved the scarlet quill in my grey hat, and the set of my new shoes. I hoped, above all, that no one would notice that I was trembling and lay it down to fear.

Of course, I had been away before. It was not the first time I had left everything to take care of itself. But this time I was going alone, and that gave rather a different aspect to things. To go into the country for a few days, or even to Detroit, in the company of a watchful parent, might be called a "visit"; but to go alone, partly by train and partly by stage, and to arrive by one's self, amounted to "travel." I had an aunt who had travelled, and I felt this morning that love of travel ran in the family. Probably even Aunt Cordelia had been a trifle nervous, at first, when she started out for Hawaii, say, or for Egypt.

Mother and I were both fearful that the driver of the station 'bus hadn't really understood that he was to call. First she would ask father, and then I would ask him, if he was quite sure the man understood, and father said that if the man could understand English at all--and he supposed he could--he had understood that. Father was right about it, too, for just when we--that is, mother and I--were almost giving up, the 'bus horses swung in the big gate and came pounding up the drive between the Lombardy poplars, which were out in their yellow-green spring dress. They were a bay team with a yellow harness which clinked splendidly with bone rings, and the 'bus was as yellow as a pumpkin, and shaped not unlike one, so that I gave it my instant approval. It was precisely the sort of vehicle in which I would have chosen to go away. So absorbed was I in it that, though I must have kissed mother, I have really no recollection of it; and it was only when we were swinging out of the gate, and I looked back and saw her standing in the door watching us, that a terrible pang came over me, so that for one crazy moment I thought I was going to jump out and run back to her.

But I held on to father's hand and turned my face away from home with all the courage I could summon, and we went on through the town and out across a lonely stretch of country to the railroad. For we were an obstinate little town, and would not build up to the railroad because the railroad had refused to run up to us. It was a new station with a fine echo in it, and the man who called out the trains had a beautiful voice for echoes. It was created to inspire them and to encourage them, and I stood fascinated by the thunderous noises he was making till father seized me by the hand and thrust me into the care of the train conductor. They said something to each other in the sharp, explosive way men have, and the conductor took me to a seat and told me I was his girl for the time being, and to stay right there till he came for me at my station.

What amazed me was that the car should be full of people. I could not imagine where they all could be going. It was all very well for me, who belonged to a family of travellers--as witness Aunt Cordelia--to be going on a journey, but for these others, these many, many others, to be wandering around, heaven knows where, struck me as being not right. It seemed to take somewhat from the glory of my adventure.

However, I noticed that most of them looked poor. Their clothes were old and ugly; their faces not those of pleasure-seekers. It was very difficult to imagine that they could afford a journey, which was, as I believed, a great luxury. At first, the people looked to be all of a sort, but after a little I began to see the differences, and to notice that this one looked happy, and that one sad, and another as if he had much to do and liked it, and several others as if they had very little idea where they were going or why.

But I liked better to look from the windows and to see the world. The houses seemed quite familiar and as if I had seen them often before. I hardly could believe that I hadn't walked up those paths, opened those doors and seated myself at the tables. I felt that if I went in those houses I would know where everything was--just where the dishes were kept, and the Bible, and the jam. It struck me that houses were very much alike in the world, and that led to the thought that people, too, were probably alike. So I forgot what the conductor had said to me about keeping still, and I crossed over the aisle and sat down beside a little girl who was regrettably young, but who looked pleasant. Her mother and grandmother were sitting opposite, and they smiled at me in a watery sort of way as if they thought a smile was expected of them. I meant to talk to the little girl, but I saw she was almost on the verge of tears, and it didn't take me long to discover what was the matter. Her little pink hat was held on by an elastic band, which, being put behind her ears and under her chin, was cutting her cruelly. I knew by experience that if the band were placed in front of her ears the tension would be lessened; so, with the most benevolent intentions in the world, I inserted my fingers between the rubber and her chubby cheeks, drew it out with nervous but friendly fingers, somehow let go of it, and snap across her two red cheeks and her pretty pug nose went the lacerating elastic, leaving a welt behind it!

"What do you mean, you bad girl?" cried the mother, taking me by the shoulders with a sort of grip I had never felt before. "I never saw such a child--never!"

An old woman with a face like a hen leaned over the back of the seat.

"What's she done? What's she done?" she demanded. The mother told her, as the grandmother comforted the hurt baby.

"Go back to your seat and stay there!" commanded the mother. "See you don't come near here again!"

My lips trembled with the anguish I could hardly restrain. Never had a noble soul been more misunderstood. Stupid beings! How dare they! Yet, not to be liked by them--not to be understood! That was unendurable. Would they listen to the gentle word that turneth away wrath? I was inclined to think not. I was fairly panting under my load of dismay and despondency, when a large man with an extraordinarily clean appearance sat down opposite me. He was a study in grey--grey suit, tie, socks, gloves, hat, top-coat--yes, and eyes! He leaned forward ingratiatingly.

"What do you think Aunt Ellen sent me last week?" he inquired.

We seemed to be old acquaintances, and in my second of perplexity I decided that it was mere forgetfulness that made me unable to recall just whom he was talking about. So I only said politely: "I don't know, I'm sure, sir."

"Why, yes, you do!" he laughed. "Couldn't you guess? What should Aunt Ellen send but some of that white maple sugar of hers; better than ever, too. I've a pound of it along with me, and I'd be glad to pry off a few pieces if you'd like to eat it. You always were so fond of Aunt Ellen's maple sugar, you know."

The tone carried conviction. Of course I must have been fond of it; indeed, upon reflection, I felt that I had been. By the time the man was back with a parallelogram of the maple sugar in his hand, I was convinced that he had spoken the truth.

"Aunt Ellen certainly is a dear," he went on. "I run down to see her every time I get a chance. Same old rain-barrel! Same old beehives! Same old well-sweep! Wouldn't trade them for any others in the world. I like everything about the place--like the 'Old Man' that grows by the gate; and the tomato trellis--nobody else treats tomatoes like flowers; and the herb garden, and the cupboard with the little wood-carvings in it that Uncle Ben made. You remember Uncle Ben? Been a sailor--broke both legs--had 'em cut off--and sat around and carved while Aunt Ellen taught school. Happy they were--no one happier. Brought me up, you know. Didn't have a father or mother--just gathered me in. Good sort, those. Uncle Ben's gone, but Aunt Ellen's a mother to me yet. Thinks of me, travelling, travelling, never putting my head down in the same bed two nights running; and here and there and everywhere she overtakes me with little scraps out of home. That's Aunt Ellen for you!"

As the delicious sugar melted on my tongue, the sorrows melted in my soul, and I was just about to make some inquiries about Aunt Ellen, whose personal qualities seemed to be growing clearer and clearer in my mind, when my conductor came striding down the aisle.

"Where's my little girl?" he demanded heartily. "Ah, there she is, just where I left her, in good company and eating maple sugar, as I live."

"Well, she hain't bin there all the time now, I ken tell ye that!" cried the old woman with a face like a hen.

"Indeed, she ain't!" the other women joined in. "She's a mischief-makin' child, that's what she is!" said the mother. The little girl was looking over her grandmother's shoulder, and she ran out a very red, serpent-like tongue at me.

"She's a good girl, and almost as fond of Aunt Ellen as I am," said the large man, finding my pocket, and putting a huge piece of maple sugar in it.

The conductor, meantime, was gathering my things, and with a "Come along, now! This is where you change," he led me from the car. I glanced back once, and the hen-faced woman shook her withered brown fist at me, and the large man waved and smiled. The conductor and I ran as hard as we could, he carrying my light luggage, to a stage that seemed to be waiting for us. He shouted some directions to the driver, deposited me within, and ran back to his train. And I, alone again, looked about me.

We were in the heart of a little town, and a number of men were standing around while the horses took their fill at the watering-trough. This accomplished, the driver checked up the horses, mounted to his high seat, was joined by a heavy young man; two gentlemen entered the inside of the coach, and we were off.

One of these gentlemen was very old. His silver hair hung on his shoulders; he had a beautiful flowing heard which gleamed in the light, the kindest of faces, lit with laughing blue eyes, and he leaned forward on his heavy stick and seemed to mind the plunging of our vehicle. The other man was middle-aged, dark, silent-looking, and, I decided, rather like a king. We all rode in silence for a while, but by and by the old man said kindly:

"Where are you going, my child?"

I told him.

"And whose daughter are you?" he inquired. I told him that with pride. "I know people all through the state," he said, "but I don't seem to remember that name."

"Don't you remember my father, sir?" I cried, anxiously, edging up closer to him. "Not that great and good man! Why, Abraham Lincoln and my father are the greatest men that ever lived!"

His head nodded strangely, as he lifted it and looked at me with his laughing eye.

"It's a pity I don't know him, that being the case," he said gently. "But, anyway, you're a lucky little girl."

"Yes," I sighed, "I am, indeed."

But my attention was taken by our approach to what I recognised as an "estate." A great gate with high posts, flat on top, met my gaze, and through this gateway I could see a drive and many beautiful trees. A little boy was sitting on top of one of the posts, watching us, and I thought I never had seen a place better adapted to viewing the passing procession. I longed to be on the other gatepost, exchanging confidences across the harmless gulf with this nice-looking boy, when, most unexpectedly, the horses began to plunge. The next second the air was filled with buzzing black objects.

"Bees!" said the king. It was the first word he had spoken, and a true word it was. Swarming bees had settled in the road, and we had driven unaware into the midst of them. The horses were distracted, and made blindly for the gate, though they seemed much more likely to run into the posts than to get through the gate, I thought. The boy seemed to think this, too, for he shot backward, turned a somersault in the air, and disappeared from view.

"God bless me!" said the king.

The heavy young man on the front seat jumped from his place and began beating away the bees and holding the horses by the bridles, and in a few minutes we were on our way. The horses had been badly stung, and the heavy young man looked rather bumpy. As for us, the king had shut the stage door at the first approach of trouble, and we were unharmed.

After this, we all felt quite well acquainted, and the old gentleman told me some wonderful stories about going about among the Indians and about the men in the lumber camps and the settlers on the lake islands. Afterward I learned that he was a bishop, and a brave and holy man whom it was a great honour to meet, but, at the time, I only thought of how kind he was to pare apples for me and to tell me tales. The king seldom spoke more than one word at a time, but he was kind, too, in his way. Once he said, "Sleepy?" to me. And, again, "Hungry?" He didn't look out at the landscape at all, and neither did the bishop. But I ran from one side to the other, and the last of the journey I was taken up between the driver and the heavy man on the high seat.

Presently we were in a little town with cottages almost hidden among the trees. A blue stream ran through green fields, and the water dashed over a dam. I could hear the song of the mill and the ripping of the boards.

"We're here!" said the driver.

The heavy man lifted me down, and my young uncle came running out with his arms open to receive me. "What a traveller!" he said, kissing me.

"It's been a tremendously long and interesting journey," I said.

"Yes," he answered. "Ten miles by rail and ten by stage. I suppose you've had a great many adventures!"

"Oh, yes!" I cried, and ached to tell them, but feared this was not the place. I saw my uncle respectfully helping the bishop to alight, and heard him inquiring for his health, and the bishop answering in his kind, deep voice, and saying I was indeed a good traveller and saw all there was to see--and a little more. The king shook hands with me, and this time said two words: "Good luck." Uncle had no idea who he was--no one had seen him before. Uncle didn't quite like his looks. But I did. He was uncommon; he was different. I thought of all those people in the train who had been so alike. And then I remembered what unexpected differences they had shown, and turned to smile at my uncle.

"I should say I have had adventures!" I cried.

"We'll get home to your aunt," he said, "and then we'll hear all about them."

We crossed a bridge above the roaring mill-race, went up a lane, and entered Arcadia. That was the way it seemed to me. It was really a cottage above a stream, where youth and love dwelt, and honour and hospitality, and the little house was to be exchanged for a greater one where--though youth departed--love and honour and hospitality were still to dwell.

"Travel's a great thing," said my uncle, as he helped me off with my jacket.

"Yes," I answered, solemnly, "it is a great privilege to see the world."

I still am of that opinion. I have seen some odd bits of it, and I cannot understand why it is that other journeys have not quite come up to that first one, when I heard of Aunt Ellen, and saw the boy turn the surprised somersault, and was welcomed by two lovers in a little Arcadia.

[The end]
Elia W. Peattie's Essay: Travel