The Captured Dream

By Octave Thanet

Somers rode slowly over the low Iowa hills, fitting an air in his mind to Andrew Lang's dainty verses. Presently, being quite alone on the country road, he began to sing:

"In dreams doth he behold her,

Still fair and kind and young."

The gentle strain of melancholy and baffled desire faded into silence, but the young man's thoughts pursued it. A memory of his own that sometimes stung him, sometimes plaintively caressed him, stirred in his heart. "I am afraid you hit it, Andy," he muttered, "and I should have found it only a dream had I won."

At thirty Somers imagined himself mighty cynical. He consorted with daring critics, and believed the worst both of art and letters. He was making campaign cartoons for a daily journal instead of painting the picture of the future; the panic of '93 had stripped him of his little fortune, and his sweetheart had refused to marry him. Therefore he said incessantly in the language of Job, "I do well to be angry."

The rubber tires revolved more slowly as his eyes turned from the wayside to the smiling hills. The corn ears were sheathed in silvery yellow, but the afternoon sun jewelled the green pastures, fresh as in May, for rain had fallen in the morning, and maples, oaks and elms blended exquisite gradations of color and shade here and there among the open fields. Long rows of poplars recalled France to Somers and he sighed. "These houses are all comfortable and all ugly," thought the artist. "I never saw anything less picturesque. The life hasn't even the dismal interest of poverty and revolt, for they are all beastly prosperous; and one of the farmers has offered me a hundred dollars and my expenses to come here and make a pastel of his wife. And I have taken the offer because I want to pay my board bill and buy a second-hand bicycle. The chances are he is after something like a colored photograph, something slick and smooth, and every hair painted—Oh, Lord! But I have to have the money; and I won't sign the cursed thing. What does he want it for though? I wonder, did he ever know love's dream? Dream? It's all a dream—a mirage of the senses or the fancy. Confound it, why need I be harking back to it? I must be near his house. House near the corner, they said, where the roads cross. Ugh! How it jumps at the eyes."

The house before him was yellow with pea-green blinds; the great barns were Indian red; the yard a riot of color from blooming flowers.

Somers wheeled up to the gate and asked of the old man who was leaning upon the fence where Mr. Gates lived.

"Here," said the old man, not removing his elbows from the fence bar.

"And, may I ask, are you Mr. Gates?" said Somers.

"Yes, sir. But if you're the young man was round selling 'Mother, Home and Heaven,' and going to call again to see if we liked it, we don't want it. My wife can't read and we're taking a Chicago paper now, and ain't got any time."

Somers smiled. "I'm not selling anything but pictures," said he, "and I believe you want me to make one for you."

"Are you Mr. Somers, F. J. S.?" cried the farmer, his face lighting in a surprising manner. "Well, I'm glad to see you, sir. My wife said you'd come this afternoon and I wouldn't believe her. I'm always caught when I don't believe my wife. Come right in. Oh, did you bring your tools with you?"

He guided Somers into the house and into a room so dark that he stumbled.

"There's the sofy; set down," said Gates, who seemed full of hospitable cheer. "I'll get a blind open. Girl's gone to the fair and Mother's setting out on the back piazza, listening to the noises on the road. She's all ready. Make yourself to home. Pastel like them pictures on the wall's what I want. My daughter done them." His tone changed on the last sentence, but Somers did not notice it; he was drinking in the details of the room to describe them afterwards to his sympathizing friends in Chicago.

"What a chamber of horrors," he thought, "and one can see he is proud of it." The carpet was soft to the foot, covered with a jungle of flowers and green leaves—the pattern of carpet which fashion leaves behind for disappointed salesmen to mark lower and lower until it shall be pushed into the ranks of shopworn bargains. The cheap paper on the wall was delicately tinted, but this boon came plainly from the designers, and not the taste of the buyer, since there was a simply terrible chair that swung by machinery, and had four brilliant hues of plush to vex the eye, besides a paroxysm of embroidery and lace to which was still attached the red ticket of the county fair. More embroidery figured on the cabinet organ and two tables, and another red ticket peeped coyly from under the ornate frame of a pastel landscape displaying every natural beauty—forest, mountain, sunlit lake, and meadow—at their bluest and greenest. There were three other pictures in the room, two very large colored photographs of a lad of twelve and of a pretty girl who might be sixteen, in a white gown with a roll of parchment in her hand tied with a blue ribbon; and the photograph of a cross of flowers.

The girl's dark, wistful, timid eyes seemed to follow the young artist as he walked about the room. They appealed to him. "Poor little girl," he thought, "to have to live here." Then he heard a dragging footfall, and there entered the mistress of the house. She was a tall woman who stooped. Her hair was gray and scanty, and so ill-arranged on the top of her head that the mournful tonsure of age showed under the false gray braid. She was thin with the gaunt thinness of years and toil, not the poetic, appealing slenderness of youth. She had attired herself for the picture in a black silken gown, sparkling with jet that tinkled as she moved; the harsh, black, bristling line at the neck defined her withered throat brutally. Yet Somer's sneer was transient. He was struck by two things—the woman was blind, and she had once worn a face like that of the pretty girl. With a sensation of pity he recalled Andrew Lang's verses; inaudibly, while she greeted him he was repeating:

"Who watches day by day

The dust of time that stains her,

The griefs that leave her gray,

The flesh that still enchains her,

Whose grace has passed away."

Her eyes were closed but she came straight toward him, holding out her hand. It was her left hand that was extended; her right closed over the top of a cane, and this added to the impression of decrepitude conveyed by her whole presence. She spoke in a gentle, monotonous, pleasant voice. "I guess this is Mr. Somers, the artist. I feel—we feel very glad to have the honor of meeting you, sir."

No one had ever felt honored to meet Somers before. He thought how much refinement and sadness were in a blind woman's face. In his most deferential manner he proffered her a chair. "I presume I am to paint you, madam?" he said.

She blushed faintly. "Ain't it rediculous?" she apologized. "But Mr. Gates will have it. He has been at me to have somebody paint a picture of me ever since I had my photograph taken. It was a big picture and most folks said it was real good, though not flattering; but he wouldn't hang it. He took it off and I don't know what he did do to it. 'I want a real artist to paint you, Mother,' he said. I guess if Kitty had lived she'd have suited him, though she was all for landscape; never did much figures. You noticed her work in this room, ain't you—on the table and chair and organ—art needlework? Kitty could do anything. She took six prizes at the county fair; two of 'em come in after she was in her last sickness. She was so pleased that she had the picture—that's the picture right above the sofy; it's a pastel—and the tidy, I mean the art needle work—put on her bed, and she looked at them the longest while. Her paw would never let the tickets be took off." She reached forth her hand to the chair near her and felt the ticket, stroking it absently, her chin quivering a little, while her lips smiled. "Mr. Gates was thinking," she said, "that maybe you'd paint a head of me—pastel like that landscape—that's why he likes pastel so. And he was thinking if—if maybe—my eyes was jest like Kitty's when we were married—if you would put in eyes, he would be awful much obliged and be willing to pay extra if necessary. Would it be hard?"

Somers dissembled a great dismay. "Certainly not," said he, rather dryly; and he was ashamed of himself at the sensitive flutter in the old features.

"Of course I know," she said, in a different tone than she had used before, "I understand how comical it must seem to a young man to have to draw an old woman's picture; but it ain't comical to my husband. He wants it very much. He's the kindest man that ever lived, to me, caring for me all the time. He's got me that organ—me that can't play a note, and never could—just because I love to hear music, and sometimes if we have an instrument, the neighbors will come in, especially Hattie Knight, who used to know Kittie, and is a splendid performer; she comes and plays and sings. It is a comfort to me. And though I guess you young folks can't understand it, it will be a comfort to him to have a picture of me. I mistrusted you'd be thinking it comical, and I hurried to come in and speak to you, lest, not meaning anything, you might, just by chance, let fall something might hurt his feelings—like you thought it queer or some sech thing. And he thinks so much of you, and having you here, that I couldn't bear there'd be any mistake."

"Surely it is the most natural thing in the world that he should want a portrait of you," Somers hastily interrupted.

"Yes, it is," she answered in her mild, even tones, "but it mightn't seem so to young folks. Young folks think they know all there is about loving. And it is very sweet and nice to enjoy things together; and you don't hardly seem to be in the world at all when you're courting, your feet and your head and your heart feel so light. But they don't know what it is to need each other? It's when folks suffer together that they find out what loving is. I never knew what I felt towards my husband till I lost my first baby; and I'd wake up in the night and there'd be no cradle there—and he'd comfort me. Do you see that picture under the photograph of the cross?"

"He's a pretty boy," said Somers.

"Yes, sir. He was drownded in the river. A lot of boys in playing, and one got too far, and Eddy, he swum out to help him. And he clumb up on Eddy and the man on shore didn't get there in time. He was a real good boy and liked to play home with me 'most as well as with the boys. Father was proud as he could be of him, though he wouldn't let on. That cross was what his schoolmates sent; and teacher she cried when she told me how hard Eddy was trying to win the prize to please his pa. Father and I went through that together. And we had to change all the things we used to talk of together, because Eddy was always in them; and we had to try not to let each other see how our hearts were breaking, and not shadder Kitty's life by letting her see how we missed him. Only once father broke down; it was when he give Kitty Eddy's colt." She stopped, for she could not go on.

"Don't—don't distress yourself," Somers begged lamely. His cheeks were very hot.

"It don't distress me," she answered, "only for the minnit; I'm always thinking of Eddy and Kitty too. Sometimes I think it was harder for father when his girl went than anything else. And then my blindness and my rheumatism come; and it seemed he was trying to make up to me for the daughter and the son I'd lost, and be all to once to me. He has been, too. And do you think that two old people that have grown old together, like us, and have been through losses like that—do you think they ain't drawed closer and kinder and tenderer to each other, like the Lord to his church? Why, I'm plain, and old and blind and crooked—but he don't know it. Now, do you understand?"

"Yes," said Somers, "I understand."

"And you'll please excuse me for speaking so free; it was only so father's feelings shouldn't get hurt by noticing maybe a look like you wanted to laugh."

"God knows I don't want to laugh," Somers burst in. "But I'm glad you spoke. It—it will be a better picture. Now may I ask you something? I want you to let me dress you—I mean put something about your neck, soft and white; and then I want to make two sketches of you—one, as Mr. Gates wishes, the head alone; the other of you sitting in the rustic chair outside."

"But—" she looked troubled—"it will be so expensive; and I know it will be foolish. If you'd just the same——"

"But I shouldn't; I want to do it. And it will not cost you anything. A hundred dollars will repay me well enough. I wish—I truly wish I could afford to do it all for nothing."

She gasped. "A hundred dollars! Oh, it ain't right. That was why he wouldn't buy the new buggy. And jest for a picture of me." But suddenly she flushed like a girl and smiled.

At this instant the old man, immaculate in his heavy black suit and glossy white shirt, appeared in the doorway bearing a tray.

"Father," said the old wife, "do you mean to tell me you are going to pay a hundred dollars jest for a picture of me?"

"Well, Mother, you know there's no fool like an old fool," he replied, jocosely; but when the old wife turned her sightless face toward the old husband's voice and he looked at her, Somers bowed his head.

He spent the afternoon over his sketches. Riding away in the twilight, he knew he had done better work than he had ever done before in his life, slight as its form might be; nevertheless he was not thinking of himself at all. He was trying to shape his own vague perception that the show of dainty thinking and the pomp of refinement are in truth amiable and lovely things, yet are they no more than the husks of life; not only under them, but under ungracious and sordid conditions, may be the human semblance of that "beauty most ancient, beauty most new," that the old saint found too late. He felt the elusive presence of something in love higher than his youthful dream; stronger than passion, fairer than delight. To this commonplace man and woman had come the deepest gift of life.

"A dream?" he murmured. "Yes, perhaps he has captured it."