A moving story of the old, old conflict between Youth and Age—To Luke Mathews the land came first but his grandsons yearned for other worlds
LUKE MATHEWS, coming home from town in the old car, drove to the top of the hill that overlooked his 300-acre farm, drew to the side of the road and cut off the motor. As he did so, the sound of his three grandsons munching hard candy in the back seat came to him with sudden distinctness. He had forgotten for lite moment that they were with him.
“Why did grandpaw stop here?” ten-year-old Benny, the youngest, whispered shrilly.
“To rest the horses,” Ward, the eldest, answered, giggling.
Luke Mathews counted back. This was the year 192-1; Ward was fourteen. Yes, he would remember coming home from town behind Rill and Prince. Luke had been stopping at the top of this hill when he was alone, for thirty-three years. He had, he thought likely, stopped here at first to rest the horses after the long uphill pull. But there had been, even from the first, another reason. He had stopped here to look on his own land.
Most of the men who owned land around him owned it because they had heired it, had taken it on a mortgage; Ix-cause it was good pasture land, wheat land, fruit land; or because it had been for sale cheap. It was not so with Luke. I íe owned these acres for much the same reason that he had married his wife, because he had found them lovely and desirable, a thing to live with.
His eyes dwelt now upon the loose folds of its hills, the deep green of its meadows; the thickets of shrubs and ferns that marked the springs, the stream of clear sweet water, the acres of virgin fir, the scattered oaks, the orchard, its trees heavy with rijx-ning fruit, the home shut in by prim white pickets with its garden of old-fashioned (lowers, the tight and roomy barn.
This was not some other man's idea of a farm home; it was his own and Annie’s. 1 le had cleared the land, broken the sod, laid out the fields, planted the orchard, built the house and barn. I low right they had been about the house, tall and white against the backdrop of the hill. Nature had unrolled that long gradual sloixbehind it on pur|x>se for an orchard. 1 le was glad he had seen that. Krom where he sat, he could count every tree. He had lost a few trees before he learned about orchards; but he had filled every space with a new tree to keep the pattern perfect.
"Something wrong with the car. grandpaw?” Ward asked.
“No, son; we’ll wait here for the mail-carrier; lie’s due
THAT seemed to satisfy them. Was he getting a little absent-minded, forgetting that they were there in the back seat and stopping, as if luwere alone, to moon over the farm? Cliff Strayer had spoken the truth that morning with his blunt. "Well. Luke, we ain't get tin’ no younger.'' The thought threw its shadow across Ins weathered face.
A car passed them, and a flock of startled crows rose from the stubble and fled, cawing, to the tops of the neighboring firs. 1 le was glad he hadn't sold the timber on that west forty when the lumber company had wanted to buy it. It would have meant a new car and money in tinbank. He and Annie had walked together to look at the trees the day the offer came, and he had said to her, "This is first growth, Annie; it's what they call virgin forest. 1 could make a lovely natural park out of this forty, and clear out the little crowded ones to sell in town for Christmas trees."
He hadn’t been trying to convince himself, just Annie, in case she needed it. He knew you couldn't balance a car that would be junk in ten years, or even monev in the bank, against trees that had taken 500 years to grow.
He had never fx-en sorry, not even that time he had blood poisoning in his foot and Annie had begged him to mortgage the farm so he could go for treatment to a famous hospital. He had wanted to save his leg, of course; but he just couldn’t bring himself to mortgage the farm, not even when Doe Benson had tried to scare him into it.
Well, old Doc had pulled him through with enough of his foot left to w alk on, though he limped some. But he hadn't mortgaged the farm.
“Here he comes, grandpaw,” Benny cried.
Abe Wills leaned out of his car to hand Luke his mail, a letter for Annie and a catalogue. Then Abe made a playful pass at the youngsters in the back seat. “Three finefarmers you got coming on there, Mr. Mathews; though I bet it'll take the three of them to keep that farm up like their grandpaw’s done single-handed, eh. boys?”
Luke turned sharply to look at his grandsons. They had stopped munching candy and were staring at the mailcarrier with wide, thoughtful eyes.
The man perceived that he had startled them with a new thought. “What did you suppose?” he asked. “That you would just stay Ixiys and grandpaw live forever?”
Watching the shocked faces of his grandsons, Luke felt the thing emerge from the vagueness of the future, the shadows of rejected thoughts into the awful solidity of the sjxiken word. The time was coming when he could no longer manage his farm, when it would not be his but his heirs’.
He had hoped to leave it to Rob, his only son. Now that son lay under a white cross in Krance, and three motherless grandsons remained in his place. They were good boys; almost, Luke thought of them as sons. He could make good farmers of them in the next ten years. But how could he will one farm to three boys?
In his imagination, Luke saw with anguish his land cut into three portions; the broad fields, the green meadows, disfigured with stumps; houses, barns and sheds sprung up like mushrooms; the fir park a field of stumps.
His square jaws tightened. "They shan't do it!” he decided. “I won’t let them. I'll leave the farm to one boy, the one that loves it best.”
Annie thought it was a good plan. “But what will you do for the other two?” she asked him.
“i'll leave money to the other two. What I clear from the land from now on, 1 won’t put back into the farm like I've been doing, leastways not all of it. I’ll put it in the bank.”
“But you won’t clear enough to pay tinother two their share; not and keep up tinland.”
“No, I won’t,” Luke admitted. “But tinone that gets the farm will have to agree to give the other two a mortgage on it for tinbalance of their shares. I 'll sixthat it's a longterm mortgage; and. if I've picked the right boy, he’ll manage to pay it off.”
“Yes. he will.” Annie assented. “And he’ll think even more of the farm after he’s had to earn it.”
“What if they all want it?” Annie asked after a while.
“They likely won’t,” Luke answered. “But if they do. I’ll just sift ’em down to the one that cares the most. If they really love it, they won’t want to see it cut to pieces.”
“Kind of like those two mothers in the Bible and King Solomon waiting with his sword,” Annie mused.
THE next spring, young Benny began to develop an interest in projects around the farm. It seemed to Ix-gin with a swarm of bees that he discovered hanging on an apple bough in the orchard. “Grandpaw,” he asked, “if I hive those bees, can I have ’em for mine?” Luke smiled at Annie. "You sure can. Benny.” he promised.
I nder Luke’s teaching. Benny did well with the bees. He bought chickens with the money he made, and sold eggs and young roosters in town. When he w-as thirteen, he owned a hundred hens, a bnxxl sow and a litter of pigs.
“At this rate, he'll own the farm by the time he's twenty-one." Luke said. "That boy's a rustler.”
“I wonder,” Annie said thoughtfully, “if that’s all he is.” “Any boy likes to have a little money of his own,” Luke defended him.
“But he doesn’t spend it, and that’s not natural.”
There were times in the next two years when Luke wondered about Benny. Then, at the beginning of hay harvest, the boy came to him. “Could you spare me this haying, grandpaw?” he asked. “Ike Levy’s shorthanded and he’s offered me top wages.”
Luke Mathews studied his grandson. “Want I should pay you wages?” he asked.
Benny’s face flushed. “No, grandpaw, I don’t want that.”
“You don’t want that, but you don’t want to work for nothing either. Is that it?”
Benny looked at the toe of his heavy cowhide work shoe and said nothing.
Luke’s answer was slow in coming. "I’ll make out to spare you,” he said finally. “I’ve got Ward and Neil.” After that he counted Benny out.
Luke didn’t tell Annie, but she knew. “It’s a pity,” she said, “that Benny had to be the one to look like Rob—but Ward and Neil are good boys.”
They were good boys, and Luke came to depend on them more and more. Neil was willing enough, though he was apt to be absent-minded. He was forever making charcoal sketches over all the outbuildings, or dabbing with his oil paints around the house. “Of course, it s a habit that doesn’t hurt anybody,” Luke told Annie.
“That’s so.” she agreed, “and sometimes his pictures are kind of pretty.”
But Ward, Luke had to admit, was almost as good a farmer as he was himself and a better hand with the stock. If a colt got into the barbed wire or a cow was ailing, the boy knew exactly what to do for it. The neighbors discovered that, and frequently sent for him instead of the veterinary.
“I don’t know where you get it, Ward,” Luke told his grandson when he was working over an injured colt. “Maybe from your maw’s side. I’m clumsy with anything that’s ailing, and the sight of blood makes me feel squeamish.”
Ward laughed. “When I was a kid, I used to smear raspberry juice over Neil and Benny for blood, just so I could doctor ’em up.”
“It’s a gift that’s a real asset to a farmer.”
Ward was stooping over the colt when his grandfather spoke, but he looked up sharply, and for a second Luke thought he saw surprise in the boy’s face. Then the colt nickered, and the look, if it had been there at all, was gone. The impression of it, never vivid, faded entirely from Luke’s mind.
Ward was steady and dependable. He kept the cowbarn almost as clean as a parlor, and the bacteria content of the milk that came out of it sank to the lowest in the county. He was forever cleaning out the springs, and the year there was a typhoid scare he took a bottle of water from every spring on the place into the city and had the water analyzed.
“The neighbors like him,” Luke said to Annie one day.
Annie nodded. He could speak right out in the middle of a thought and she would know its beginning and its end.
“A few years more and he’ll be able to step right into your shoes,” she said.
“I guess it’s Ward.” he agreed. After that he began to train Ward consciously for the ownership of the farm. He was pleased when the boy asked permission to go down to the agricultural college for a short course.
When he came home. Ward fitted up a farm laboratory in the old granary, where he treated their seed grain and compounded sprays for the fruit, while his grandfather’s wise old eyes watched and learned new compounds and better methods.
“He’s the right one, Annie,” Luke told her. “He’s putting his heart into it. Give him time and he’ll raise the quality and increase the production of everything on the place.” He began to brag about the boy, to feel in him an intense paternal pride.
BENNY came home on Sundays and holidays. He was quiet, and he looked tired. He usually fell asleep after dinner on the sofa in the living room, and Annie would cover him with the cross-stitched velvet comforter. Sometimes, when he was fast asleep, with the tight lines around his mouth relaxed, he looked like a little boy again, the boy they had lost in France.
He didn’t say much about what he was doing; but his grandfather knew. People were forever telling him what Benny was up to. Luke thought he was prepared to hear anything; but he found that he wasn’t the day they told him that Benny had bought the old Heater place.
“That rookery?” he thought.
“That barren, rocky hill?”
Its purchase seemed an insult to the rich and lovely acres Benny might have heired.
“He won’t be able to raise anything on that rock pile,”
Ward said in bewilderment.
“He’s of age now,” Luke said tersely.
Benny didn’t try to raise anything on his land except a house a queer eyrie, half windows, that perched on the crest of the lull just above the tips of three giant firs rooted in the hill’s lean flanks. He named the place The Crow’s Nest and sold it to an artist, who moved into it with a truckload of canvases, jxiints and brushes.
“Benny's nobody’s fool,” people said. “He’ll lx* a rich man some day.”
“I guess it’s what he’s after,” his grandfather answered. He ought to be thankful that Benny hadn’t wanted the farm—or maybe he did want it. Maybe a third of it. the third he didn’t know he wasn’t going to get, was already laid out in his mind to something terrible like a filling station and tourist cabins, with a pen of ill-smelling wild animals and a yard of bedraggled peacocks to attract attention. The thought frightened Luke. “I’ll see a lawyer tomorrow and get this thing settled,” he resolved. “Benny’s share will be cash money; Ward and I will earn it off the farm. Neil can hold the mortgage; Benny might foreclose it on his own brother.” The thought was bitter.
He found Ward in the cow barn. The lx>y had a broom in his hand, but he was not using it. He was standing perfectly still, gripping the handle and staring out of the window at something that wasn’t there; and the look on his face stopped Luke.
He started to back quietly out of the barn, but Ward turned and saw him. “Grandpaw,” he said, “I can’t do it. 1 thought I could make myself, but I can’t.”
“What is it, boy?” Luke asked gently.
“The farm; I can’t run it.”
“Run it?” Luke laughed with relief. “Why you’re a better farmer right now than I am.”
“It's not that, grandpaw. I mean —well, I know how you feel about the farm, and that’s why I’ve tried to make myself do it; but it’s no use, -I can’t—” he faltered, and stopped. “You — you mean you don’t want to?”
“Yes, grandpaw, that’s what I mean. I want to be a doctor.”
Luke held the muscles of his face rigid, and his voice— yes, he could keep it steady. “A doctor—of course. It’s what you were born for. I wonder I didn’t see it myself.”
1UKE was sixty-eight now, but he was still strong. He J redoubled his efforts to make the farm pay generously without depleting it. Ward’s medical course was an exjxnisive one; and there was Benny’s share that Luke was determined to have ready in cash.
“Remember, son,” he told Neil, "if you’re a farmer, don’t get the itch for dollars; your wealth is in your land. A farm can bleed to death just like a man.”
When he talked to him, Neil didn’t say much, just looked thoughtful and listened. Luke wondered what he was thinking. That wonder grew till it all but obsessed him. Could he make a farmer out of this dreamer, one who would love and cherish the land? “I’ve got to,” he told himself. “He’s the last one.”
Benny had left the farm district now and set up a realestate office in town. His advertisements were in all the local pajxrs. “He’s makin’ money,” Luke’s friends told him. “That boy sure knows land values.” He didn’t get home so often now; and when he did come, he was restless and hurried. Right in the middle of a conversation, he would take out a pencil and an old envelope and Ixgin to figure. “Makes me feel like he’s appraising us and setting it down by arithmetic,” Luke told Annie.
“We've got Neil,” Annie reminded him.
“Yes,” Luke admitted, “even if I can’t make him out. He’s a gixxl, strong boy, and he seems willing; but right in the middle of anything, he’s apt to drift off into a dream. Where does he go? What does he see when lie squints his eyes up like that and looks off into space, or at something that don’t amount to a thing?”
“Why don’t you ask him?” Annie suggested.
A few days later, when Neil, who was discing the orchard, stopped the tractor right in the middle of a row, pulled down an apple bough and squinted at it, Luke, on the row beside him with the harrow, stopjx-d the horses and called, “What you see, Neil? Bugs?”
Neil let go the branch and grinned. “Nary a bug, grandpaw,” he shouted back.
But the next time Luke asked, he got an answer that surprised him. He came toward the barn one evening and discovered Neil leaning on a fork in the haymow and looking down toward the meadow with that faraway look. “What you seeing, son?” Luke called up gently.
“I'm seeing sheep in the meadow,” Neil answered. “Sheep?” Luke cried incredulously.
“There in the long grass by the creek.”
“Sheep in our cow pasture! Why. they’d ruin—” He stopped. An idea had just occurred to him. “They might look nice,” he conceded. “If you want to see them there, why don't you make a picture of the meadow and paint them in? That wouldn’t bother the cowrs.”
One evening a few' weeks later, Luke was stretching himself out in his easy chair to read the paper when he caught sight of a new picture standing on the mantel between his grandmother’s pewter candlesticks; a picture of the meadow' with sheep painted in.
“Annie,” Luke called after a little, “leave your dishes and come in here a minute.”
She came with the dish tow'el in her hands.
“Know that place?” he asked, nodding toward the picture.
“It’s our meadow. Why, it’s—it’s l:>eautiful !”
“It’s the prettiest meadow in the county. I ahvayssaid so.”
“It makes me think of the Twenty-third Psalm,” Annie said softly.
Luke was proud of the picture. He bought a frame for it in towm and hung it on the living-room wall. Visitors to the house often spoke of it. The minister’s wife mentioned it when she came with her husband to dinner one Sunday. “What an appealing picture!” she exclaimed.
“Our grandson painted it,” Annie told her.
“Where is he studying?” she asked. “Now'here. He’s here on the farm with us. Neil,” she called, “bring down that picture of the pasture oak.”
Neil came in a little self-consciously, carrying the picture.
“Put it there on the easel,” his grandmother told him. “The light’s best there.” “It’s that oak in our hill pasture,” Luke told the minister proudly. “I expect it’s almost a thousand years old.”
On the canvas, a single giant oak, rooted in a shadow'y hilltop, rose upward until it laid the pattern of its topmost branch against a winter moon.
“It’s lovely,” the minister’s wife said softly.
“You’ve taken us by surprise,” the minister said. “Of course, you are planning to go away to study?”
“No, sir, I’m a farmer,” Neil said firmly. “But you have a real gift; such a gift carries an obligation to improve, to study.”
“I study right here.”
Luke’s hands relaxed their grip on the arms of his rocker, and a deep relief eased his heart. Neil had declared his intentions; he meant to stay with the farm.
AFTER that, whenever there wras company, Luke would get out Neil’s sketchbooks and pictures. “That’s our meadow,” he would say, “with sheep thrown in for good measure. And this is that old oak in the hill pasture. Here’s our timber with snow on it. And this is Annie churning on the back porch under the honeysuckle. And here I am picking wild blackberries by our pasture fence.”
“It seems queer now.” he told Annie, "that we never thought Neil would be the one to want the farm, w-hen he’s been drawing it and painting it right under our noses since he was five years old. He hasn’t got a single picture that hasn’t been painted from something right here on our farm.”
Luke was happier than he had been since Benny left the farm. Yet there was something, a feeling or a premonition that kept teasing at him. And one day, when he was in the bam doctoring a sick cow, it stood out before him as plain as print—the parallel betw'een Ward and Neil. Ward had meant to stick with the farm too, though he wanted to be a doctor. Maybe Neil didn’t want to be a farmer either. Maybe he wanted to be an artist!
Luke’s knees started to buckle'and he
stumbled to one of the milking stools they used when they stripped the cows and sat down. It grew dusk in the barn as he sat there, a strange and bitter dusk that seemed to flow outward from his own spirit.
He tried to eat at the supper table, but he was glad to escape from it and sit down in the living room with his paper. But he couldn’t read it. He heard Neil go up to his room and come down again.
“Do you know where this is, grandpaw?” the boy asked as he came into the living room with a new picture in his hands.
Luke took a long look at it. “I know it all right.” he wanted to say. “It’s that slovenly Spreckett place.” But he held his tongue. “Move it back a little,” he said to give himself time. Something in his chest tightened and hurt him, for this picture had made everything clear. It wasn’t the farm Neil loved; it was beauty ! Any beauty, anywhere. That old, tumbleddown Spreckett house, that untidy, grassgrown yard, that drunken rail fence, that shaggy clump of bushes—the boy had caught them just before dusk, wrapped in a haze of lilac light. Luke cleared his throat. He crushed down his jealousy of this alien thing and gave the boy his due. “I didn’t know that anyone could make that old place beautiful,” he said.
Luke’s feet moved in the old paths from house to barn, from barn to pasture. His hands performed the old familiar tasks; but his heart wrestled with the temptation to accept Neil’s sacrifice, to let him stay with the farm.
One day, when Neil had gone to town. Luke selected one of his sketchbooks and three or four of his paintings, wrapped them in newspaper, and, putting them under his arm, went down the road toward The Crow’s Nest.
He knocked on the front door and a voice called grudgingly, “Come in.”
Luke opened the door and saw a man in early middle age sitting at an easel.
The man looked at the package wrapp'd in newspaper. “I don’t want to buy anything,” he said.
“I haven’t anything to sell,” Luke told him. “I want you to look at these pictures and tell me what you think of them.” He began to unwrap the newspaj)er.
“Some you painted yourself?” the artist asked without interest.
“They’re my grandson’s work,” Luke said, laying them across the other’s knees.
The man turned the pages of the sketchbook; he took up the pictures and looked at them one by one. “How old is he?” he asked.
“Who taught him what he knows?”
“Bring him over.”
TUKE took Neil to The Crow’s Nest the next Sunday, introduced the two and left them alone together.
“He wants me to come over once or twice a week.” Neil said w'hen he came home. "He’s going to teach me.” His eyes shone.
Three times during the month that followed. Neil forgot to help w'ith the milking: twice he forgot to throw down hay for the horses. Luke heard them stamping in their stalls after he had gone to bed; and when he dressed and went out to see what was wrong, he found their mangers empty. He said nothing about it to Neil; he merely watched and gathered up the loose ends himself; for the boy was like a lamp that has just been lighted.
“Annie, don’t you think we ought to have that fellow over for Sunday dinner?” Luke asked several months later.
“I’ve been thinking that too. We’ll have chicken and dumplings and wild blackberry pie. or maybe fried chicken with biscuits and honey. I wonder if he likes fresh buttermilk. And there’s baked ham with spiced crabapples.” She gave herself to pleasant speculation as to what one table could be made to hold.
The artist came with grim-jawed patience that relaxed when he smelled the dinner. After they had eaten, Neil went out to water the stock; and Luke, Annie and their guest were left alone by the living-room fire. The moments passed and still neither of them spoke about their grandson’s painting. Finally, their seeming lack of interest stung the artist into an admission. "The boy’s doing well,” he said.
“You’re making him very happy,” Annie said.
The word puzzled him. “I'm trying to make an artist of him,” he said. “But I can’t do it alone; he should go to a good art school.”
They received that in silence.
He tried again. “I’m telling you the hoy’s worth it,” he said vehemently.
Luke was quiet that spring and he slept poorly. One night he said to Annie, who had been awakened by his restless turning: “We might send him, when Ward’s through, if Ward will help a little. I’ll have to hire a man to take Neil's place.”
“I guess we could,” Annie admitted. “But you know what it means, don’t you? Neil won’t come back.” The words rang like a knell in the quiet room.
“I know,” Luke said. “But the hoy’s got a right to his own dream.”
The next day’s mail brought a letter from Ward, one that contained a pertinent paragraph: “And so, grandpaw, when I graduate, I guess I’ll take up settlement work for a few years. There won’t he much money in it. just a bare living; hut it’ll he good practice, and they need doctors down here.”
"Well, I guess that doesn’t leave any way for Neil,” Annie said.
“It leaves one way,” Luke told her.
“You don’t mean mortgage the farm?”
"I mean sell it !”
Luke didn’t bring the matter up again; he waited for Annie.
“Where would we go, Luke, if we sold the farm?” she asked him one evening when Neil was out.
“We’d buy a little house and five' or ten acres somewhere. Then we’d divide the rest of the money among the three boys. That would give Neil his chance. What about it. old lady?” The hand that he laid on her shoulder trembled.
Annie put her own hand firmly over it. "It’ll be fun, fixing up a new place,” she said. “We won’t tell it. though. If Neil heard, he’d think he couldn’t let us do it.”
TÎERT MILLER told it. though not to Neil. He walked into the barber shop in town and said as he hung up his hat;'
“Give me the works today, Charlie; I wanna look nice. I’m buyin’ the purtiest farm in the county this afternoon.” “What? Not Luke Mathews’ place?” “You’ve guessed it.”
The man under hot towels in the other barber chair, threw them off suddenly and got up. “See you later, Charlie,” he said as he reached for his hat.
“H’m-m. Didn’t know that was Benny Mathews lyin’ there,” Bert said thoughtfully.
Fifteen minutes later, after a wild ride from town, Benny burst into his grandfather’s living room. “You haven’t signed anything yet, have you, grandpaw?” he cried.
Luke’s face hardened. “I’m signing this afternoon.”
“What’s he giving you?”
“I’ve got a buyer who’ll give you fifteen thousand, nine dollars and eleven cents.” “And that way you’d get a commission on the sale,” Luke said bitterly.
“No, grandpaw, not this time. You haven’t given your word to Bert Miller?” “Not yet. Why are you so anxious for this other man to have it?”
“Because he’ll think more of the farm.” “Who is this buyer? Is he a good farmer and a good man?”
Benny ducked his head in the old familiar gesture. “Well, you’d be right here to oversee the farm, and maybe you and grandmaw could manage to keep him straight.”
“Who is he, son?” the old man whispered.
“He’s me, grandpaw.”
Suspicion flared again in Luke’s eyes. “You aiming to parcel it up and sell it again?” he demanded.
Benny threw up his head. “I’m aiming to live on it, die on it, and be buried on it !” he said with pride. “I’ve been scratching fourteen years for the money to buy it.” Light shone suddenly in Luke’s face. “You mean—that with you—it was the farm all the time?”
“That’s what I mean, grandpaw. Remember what the mail-carrier said to us boys that day, fourteen years ago, when we were coming home from town? We talked about it afterward among ourselves; and Ward said he didn’t want the farm because he was going to be a doctor, and Neil said he’d rather paint pictures. I said, “ ‘It’s the farm I want; and I’ll buy out your shares, and me and grandpaw will run it.’ And they laughed. So I didn’t tell anybody that again. I thought I’d just wait and do it. But it’s been a long time.” His glance swept the familiar room, found the windows and slipped away through them to the meadow and the rolling fields beyond. He sighed with the deep content of one home after long exile.