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