The sunlight dripped over the house like golden paint over an art jar, and the freckling shadows here and there only intensified the rigor of the bath of light. The Butterworth and Larkin houses flanking were entrenched behind great stodgy trees; only the Happer house took the full sun, and all day long faced the dusty road-street with a tolerant kindly patience. This was the city of Tarleton in southernmost Georgia, September afternoon.
Up in her bedroom window Sally Carrol Happer rested her nineteen-year-old chin on a fifty-two-year-old sill and watched Clark Darrow’s ancient Ford turn the corner. The car was hot—being partly metallic it retained all the heat it absorbed or evolved—and Clark Darrow sitting bolt upright at the wheel wore a pained, strained expression as though he considered himself a spare part, and rather likely to break. He laboriously crossed two dust ruts, the wheels squeaking indignantly at the encounter, and then with a terrifying expression he gave the steering-gear a final wrench and deposited self and car approximately in front of the Happer steps. There was a heaving sound, a death-rattle, followed by a short silence; and then the air was rent by a startling whistle.
* * * *
Sally Carrol gazed down sleepily. She started to yawn, but finding this quite impossible unless she raised her chin from the window-sill, changed her mind and continued silently to regard the car, whose owner sat brilliantly if perfunctorily at attention as he waited for an answer to his signal. After a moment the whistle once more split the dusty air.
With difficulty Clark twisted his tall body round and bent a distorted glance on the window.
“Tain’t mawnin’, Sally Carrol.”
“Isn’t it, sure enough?”
“What you doin’?”
“Eatin’ ‘n apple.”
“Come on go swimmin’—want to?”
“How ‘bout hurryin’ up?”
Sally Carrol sighed voluminously and raised herself with profound inertia from the floor where she had been occupied in alternately destroyed parts of a green apple and painting paper dolls for her younger sister. She approached a mirror, regarded her expression with a pleased and pleasant languor, dabbed two spots of rouge on her lips and a grain of powder on her nose, and covered her bobbed corn-colored hair with a rose-littered sunbonnet. Then she kicked over the painting water, said, “Oh, damn!”—but let it lay—and left the room.
“How you, Clark?” she inquired a minute later as she slipped nimbly over the side of the car.
“Mighty fine, Sally Carrol.”
“Where we go swimmin’?”
“Out to Walley’s Pool. Told Marylyn we’d call by an’ get her an’ Joe Ewing.”
Clark was dark and lean, and when on foot was rather inclined to stoop. His eyes were ominous and his expression somewhat petulant except when startlingly illuminated by one of his frequent smiles. Clark had “a income”—just enough to keep himself in ease and his car in gasolene—and he had spent the two years since he graduated from Georgia Tech in dozing round the lazy streets of his home town, discussing how he could best invest his capital for an immediate fortune.
Hanging round he found not at all difficult; a crowd of little girls had grown up beautifully, the amazing Sally Carrol foremost among them; and they enjoyed being swum with and danced with and made love to in the flower-filled summery evenings—and they all liked Clark immensely. When feminine company palled there were half a dozen other youths who were always just about to do something, and meanwhile were quite willing to join him in a few holes of golf, or a game of billiards, or the consumption of a quart of “hard yella licker.” Every once in a while one of these contemporaries made a farewell round of calls before going up to New York or Philadelphia or Pittsburgh to go into business, but mostly they just stayed round in this languid paradise of dreamy skies and firefly evenings and noisy nigger street fairs—and especially of gracious, soft-voiced girls, who were brought up on memories instead of money.
The Ford having been excited into a sort of restless resentful life Clark and Sally Carrol rolled and rattled down Valley Avenue into Jefferson Street, where the dust road became a pavement; along opiate Millicent Place, where there were half a dozen prosperous, substantial mansions; and on into the down-town section. Driving was perilous here, for it was shopping time; the population idled casually across the streets and a drove of low-moaning oxen were being urged along in front of a placid street-car; even the shops seemed only yawning their doors and blinking their windows in the sunshine before retiring into a state of utter and finite coma.
“Sally Carrol,” said Clark suddenly, “it a fact that you’re engaged?”
She looked at him quickly.
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Sure enough, you engaged?”
“‘At’s a nice question!”
“Girl told me you were engaged to a Yankee you met up in Asheville last summer.”
Sally Carrol sighed.
“Never saw such an old town for rumors.”
“Don’t marry a Yankee, Sally Carrol. We need you round here.”
Sally Carrol was silent a moment.
“Clark,” she demanded suddenly, “who on earth shall I marry?”
“I offer my services.”
“Honey, you couldn’t support a wife,” she answered cheerfully. “Anyway, I know you too well to fall in love with you.”
“‘At doesn’t mean you ought to marry a Yankee,” he persisted.
“S’pose I love him?”
He shook his head.
“You couldn’t. He’d be a lot different from us, every way.”
He broke off as he halted the car in front of a rambling, dilapidated house. Marylyn Wade and Joe Ewing appeared in the doorway.
“‘Lo Sally Carrol.”
“Sally Carrol,” demanded Marylyn as they started of again, “you engaged?”
“Lawdy, where’d all this start? Can’t I look at a man ‘thout everybody in town engagin’ me to him?”
Clark stared straight in front of him at a bolt on the clattering wind-shield.
“Sally Carrol,” he said with a curious intensity, “don’t you ‘like us?”
“Us down here?”
“Why, Clark, you know I do. I adore all you boys.”
“Then why you gettin’ engaged to a Yankee?”
“Clark, I don’t know. I’m not sure what I’ll do, but—well, I want to go places and see people. I want my mind to grow. I want to live where things happen on a big scale.”
“What you mean?”
“Oh, Clark, I love you, and I love Joe here and Ben Arrot, and you-all, but you’ll—you’ll——”
“We’ll all be failures?”
“Yes. I don’t mean only money failures, but just sort of—of ineffectual and sad, and—oh, how can I tell you?”
“You mean because we stay here in Tarleton?”
“Yes, Clark; and because you like it and never want to change things or think or go ahead.”
He nodded and she reached over and pressed his hand.
“Clark,” she said softly, “I wouldn’t change you for the world. You’re sweet the way you are. The things that’ll make you fail I’ll love always—the living in the past, the lazy days and nights you have, and all your carelessness and generosity.”
“But you’re goin’ away?”
“Yes—because I couldn’t ever marry you. You’ve a place in my heart no one else ever could have, but tied down here I’d get restless. I’d feel I was—wastin’ myself. There’s two sides to me, you see. There’s the sleepy old side you love an’ there’s a sort of energy—the feeling that makes me do wild things. That’s the part of me that may be useful somewhere, that’ll last when I’m not beautiful any more.”
She broke of with characteristic suddenness and sighed, “Oh, sweet cooky!” as her mood changed.
Half closing her eyes and tipping back her head till it rested on the seat-back she let the savory breeze fan her eyes and ripple the fluffy curls of her bobbed hair. They were in the country now, hurrying between tangled growths of bright-green coppice and grass and tall trees that sent sprays of foliage to hang a cool welcome over the road. Here and there they passed a battered negro cabin, its oldest white-haired inhabitant smoking a corncob pipe beside the door, and half a dozen scantily clothed pickaninnies parading tattered dolls on the wild-grown grass in front. Farther out were lazy cotton-fields where even the workers seemed intangible shadows lent by the sun to the earth, not for toil, but to while away some age-old tradition in the golden September fields. And round the drowsy picturesqueness, over the trees and shacks and muddy rivers, flowed the heat, never hostile, only comforting, like a great warm nourishing bosom for the infant earth.
“Sally Carrol, we’re here!”
“Poor chile’s soun’ asleep.”
“Honey, you dead at last outa sheer laziness?”
“Water, Sally Carrol! Cool water waitin’ for you!”
Her eyes opened sleepily.
“Hi!” she murmured, smiling.
In November Harry Bellamy, tall, broad, and brisk, came down from his Northern city to spend four days. His intention was to settle a matter that had been hanging fire since he and Sally Carrol had met in Asheville, North Carolina, in midsummer. The settlement took only a quiet afternoon and an evening in front of a glowing open fire, for Harry Bellamy had everything she wanted; and, beside, she loved him—loved him with that side of her she kept especially for loving. Sally Carrol had several rather clearly defined sides.
On his last afternoon they walked, and she found their steps tending half-unconsciously toward one of her favorite haunts, the cemetery. When it came in sight, gray-white and golden-green under the cheerful late sun, she paused, irresolute, by the iron gate.
“Are you mournful by nature, Harry?” she asked with a faint smile.
“Mournful? Not I.”
“Then let’s go in here. It depresses some folks, but I like it.”
They passed through the gateway and followed a path that led through a wavy valley of graves—dusty-gray and mouldy for the fifties; quaintly carved with flowers and jars for the seventies; ornate and hideous for the nineties, with fat marble cherubs lying in sodden sleep on stone pillows, and great impossible growths of nameless granite flowers.
Occasionally they saw a kneeling figure with tributary flowers, but over most of the graves lay silence and withered leaves with only the fragrance that their own shadowy memories could waken in living minds.
They reached the top of a hill where they were fronted by a tall, round head-stone, freckled with dark spots of damp and half grown over with vines.
“Margery Lee,” she read; “1844-1873. Wasn’t she nice? She died when she was twenty-nine. Dear Margery Lee,” she added softly. “Can’t you see her, Harry?”
“Yes, Sally Carrol.”
He felt a little hand insert itself into his.
“She was dark, I think; and she always wore her hair with a ribbon in it, and gorgeous hoop-skirts of Alice blue and old rose.”
“Oh, she was sweet, Harry! And she was the sort of girl born to stand on a wide, pillared porch and welcome folks in. I think perhaps a lot of men went away to war meanin’ to come back to her; but maybe none of ‘em ever did.”
He stooped down close to the stone, hunting for any record of marriage.
“There’s nothing here to show.”
“Of course not. How could there be anything there better than just ‘Margery Lee,’ and that eloquent date?”
She drew close to him and an unexpected lump came into his throat as her yellow hair brushed his cheek.
“You see how she was, don’t you Harry?”
“I see,” he agreed gently. “I see through your precious eyes. You’re beautiful now, so I know she must have been.”
Silent and close they stood, and he could feel her shoulders trembling a little. An ambling breeze swept up the hill and stirred the brim of her floppidy hat.
“Let’s go down there!”
She was pointing to a flat stretch on the other side of the hill where along the green turf were a thousand grayish-white crosses stretching in endless, ordered rows like the stacked arms of a battalion.
“Those are the Confederate dead,” said Sally Carrol simply.
They walked along and read the inscriptions, always only a name and a date, sometimes quite indecipherable.
“The last row is the saddest—see, ‘way over there. Every cross has just a date on it and the word ‘Unknown.’“
She looked at him and her eyes brimmed with tears.
“I can’t tell you how real it is to me, darling—if you don’t know.”
“How you feel about it is beautiful to me.”
“No, no, it’s not me, it’s them—that old time that I’ve tried to have live in me. These were just men, unimportant evidently or they wouldn’t have been ‘unknown’; but they died for the most beautiful thing in the world—the dead South. You see,” she continued, her voice still husky, her eyes glistening with tears, “people have these dreams they fasten onto things, and I’ve always grown up with that dream. It was so easy because it was all dead and there weren’t any disillusions comin’ to me. I’ve tried in a way to live up to those past standards of noblesse oblige—there’s just the last remnants of it, you know, like the roses of an old garden dying all round us—streaks of strange courtliness and chivalry in some of these boys an’ stories I used to hear from a Confederate soldier who lived next door, and a few old darkies. Oh, Harry, there was something, there was something! I couldn’t ever make you understand but it was there.”
“I understand,” he assured her again quietly.
Sally Carol smiled and dried her eyes on the tip of a handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket.
“You don’t feel depressed, do you, lover? Even when I cry I’m happy here, and I get a sort of strength from it.”
Hand in hand they turned and walked slowly away. Finding soft grass she drew him down to a seat beside her with their backs against the remnants of a low broken wall.
“Wish those three old women would clear out,” he complained. “I want to kiss you, Sally Carrol.”
They waited impatiently for the three bent figures to move off, and then she kissed him until the sky seemed to fade out and all her smiles and tears to vanish in an ecstasy of eternal seconds.
Afterward they walked slowly back together, while on the corners twilight played at somnolent black-and-white checkers with the end of day.
“You’ll be up about mid-January,” he said, “and you’ve got to stay a month at least. It’ll be slick. There’s a winter carnival on, and if you’ve never really seen snow it’ll be like fairy-land to you. There’ll be skating and skiing and tobogganing and sleigh-riding, and all sorts of torchlight parades on snow-shoes. They haven’t had one for years, so they’re gong to make it a knock-out.”
“Will I be cold, Harry?” she asked suddenly.
“You certainly won’t. You may freeze your nose, but you won’t be shivery cold. It’s hard and dry, you know.”
“I guess I’m a summer child. I don’t like any cold I’ve ever seen.”
She broke off and they were both silent for a minute.
“Sally Carol,” he said very slowly, “what do you say to—March?”
“I say I love you.”