The Spirit of Spring

By Laura L. Hinkley

Margaret Hazeltine sat on her porch with the spring wind blowing over her elusive wafts of fragrance—plum-blossom, apple-blossom, young grass, budding wood scents, pure, growing earth-smells.

"It is like breathing poetry," Margaret thought.

She was sewing, but now and then her hands fell in her lap while she lifted her head, catching in some wandering sweetness with a sharp breath, like a sigh.

It was four o'clock in the afternoon. Sunshine mellowed the new greenness of short, tender grass on the lawns. It shone upon all the bare, budded branches up and down the street, seeking, caressing, stimulating. It lay kindly, genially, on the mid-road dust.

Margaret's father was pottering about the garden. He was a very old man, with stooping shoulders, but tall and slender like his daughter. He came up to the porch and stood leaning on his hoe. The wind fluttered his shabby garden-coat and thin, white beard. He rested his wrinkled old hands on the top of his hoe handle, and cast up his faded, sunken eyes to the intense young blue of the sky with its fleecy clouds floating.

Mr. Hazeltine addressed his daughter in the strain of conversational piety habitual with him, and in a voice which age and earnestness made tremulous:

"Seems like every spring I get more certain of my eternal home up yonder!"

Margaret smiled acquiescently. Long since she had silently drifted outside the zone of her father's simple, rigid creed; but to-day its bald egoism did not repel her. It seemed at one with the sweet will to live all about them.

Mr. Hazeltine went back to the garden. A girl appeared on the porch of the house opposite. The Hazeltine house was small and old and not lately painted. The house opposite was large, fresh, trim, and commodious in every visible detail. White cement walks enclosed and divided its neatly kept lawns and parking. Its fruit-trees breathed out of the unfolding whiteness of their bosoms the sweetest of those perfumes that drifted across to Margaret. The girl on the porch pushed the wicker chairs about for a moment, then, disdaining them all, sat down on the cement steps and rested her chin in her palm.

After a quick look and smile Margaret sewed busily, affecting not to see the other. She felt a little sympathetic flutter of pleasure and suspense. "Jean is waiting for Frank," she said to herself.

A piano began to play in a house up the street. Through the open windows rang joyous, vibrant music. White moths fluttered across the street and the lawn and parking opposite, veering vaguely over scattered yellow dandelion heads. Around the house opposite on the cement walk strutted a very young kitten on soft paws, its short tail sticking straight up, its gray coat still rough from its mother's tongue.

"Me-ow!" said the kitten plaintively, appalled at its own daring.

Jean sprang up, laughing, snatched up the kitten and carried it back to her seat, cuddling it under her chin.

Down the street came a young girl wheeling a baby's cab. The girl was but just past childhood, and she had been a homely child. But of late she had bloomed as mysteriously and almost as quickly as the plum-trees. She wore a light summer dress with a leaf-brown design upon it, in which her girlish form still half-confessed the child. Her complexion was clear and bright, the cheeks flushed; and the strongly-marked features seemed ready to melt and fuse to a softer mould. Her brown eyes had grown wistful and winning.

As they advanced, Margaret ran down the rickety wooden walk.

"Oh, is that the new baby?" she cried delightedly. "May I look?"

The girl smiled assent.

Softly Margaret drew back the woolly carriage robe and gazed adoringly. The baby was about six weeks old. Its tiny face was translucent, pinky white, the closed eyelids with their fringe of fine lashes inconceivably delicate. Its wee hands cuddled about its head; the curled, pink fingers, each tipped with its infinitesimal, dainty nail, were perfection in miniature. The formless mouth, pinker than the rest of the face, moved in sleep, betraying the one dream the baby knew.

Margaret drew a long, still breath of rapture, hanging over the little pink pearl of humanity.

"Will he wake if I kiss him?" she pleaded.

The girl smiled doubtfully. "Maybe," she said.

She was equally indifferent to the baby and to Margaret. Her wistful eyes wandered eagerly down the street, watching each sidewalk, and the glow in her cheeks and eyes seemed to kindle and waver momently.

Margaret did not kiss the baby. She only bent her head close over his, close enough to feel his warm, quick breathing, to catch the rhythm of his palpitating little life.

When she came back to her porch, after the girl had gone on, Margaret saw that Jean's caller had come.

The young man sat beside Jean. His head was bare, his black hair brushed stiffly up from his forehead pompadour-fashion, his new spring suit palpably in its original creases. He and Jean talked eagerly, sometimes with shouts of young laughter, at which Margaret smiled sympathetically; sometimes with swift, earnest interchange; sometimes with lazy, contented intervals of silence. Occasionally he put out his hand to pat or tease the kitten which lay in Jean's lap. She defended it. Whenever their fingers chanced to touch they started consciously apart—covertly to tempt the chance again.

Two little girls came skipping down the street, their white dresses tossed about their knees. Their loose hair, of the dusky fairness of brunette children, tossed about their shoulders and an immense white ribbon bow quivered on the top of each little bare head. Their dress and their dancing run gave them the look and the wavering allure of butterflies.

They were on Jean's side of the street. They fluttered past the house unnoticed by the two on the porch, who were in the midst of an especially interesting quarrel about the kitten. The little girls passed over the crossing with traces of conscientious care for their white slippers, and came up on Margaret's side. Opposite her they paused in consultation.

"Won't you come in," she called to them, "and talk to me a minute?"

The two advanced hesitatingly and stood before her at a little distance on the young grass in attitudes clearly tentative. They were shy little misses, and had not lived long on that street.

"Someone told me," said Margaret, "that your names were Enid and Elaine. Which is which?"

The taller one pointed first to her embroidered bosom, then to her sister.

"I'm Enid; she's Elaine."

"I've read about you in a book of poetry," observed Margaret—"it must have been you! I suppose if you had a little sister her name would be Guinevere?"

The large dark eyes of the two exchanged glances of denial. The small Elaine shook her head decidedly.

"We got a little sister!" announced Enid, "but her name ain't that; it's Katherine."

They were both pretty with the adorable prettiness of small girls, half baby's beauty, and half woman's. But Enid's good looks would always depend more or less upon happy accident—her time of life, her flow of spirits, her fortune in costume. Her face was rather long, with chin and forehead a trifle too pronounced. But the little Elaine was nature's darling. Her softly rounded person and countenance were instinct with charm. Even her little brown hands had delicacy and character. Her white-stockinged legs, from the fine ankles to the rounded knees at her skirt's edge, were turned to a sculptor's desire. Beside them, Enid's merely serviceable legs looked like sticks. The white bows in their hair shared the ensemble effect of each: Enid's perched precisely in the middle, its loops and ends vibrantly and decisively erect; Elaine's drooped a little at one side, its crispness at once confessing and defying evanescence and fragility.

Margaret thrilled with the child's loveliness, but for some subtle reason she smiled chiefly on Enid.

That little lady concluded she must be a person worthy of confidence.

"My doll's name is Clara," she imparted. "An' hers is Isabel, only she calls it 'Ithabel'!"

The color deepened in Elaine's dainty cheek. She was stung to protest; which she did with all the grace in the world, hanging her head at one side and speaking low.

"I don't either!" she murmured. "I thay Ithabel!"

"Either way is very nice," Margaret hastened to say.

"We've been to Miss Eaton's Sunday school children's party," Enid informed her. "These are our best dresses, and our white kid slippers. Don't you think they're pretty? Mine tie with ribbons, but hers only button like a baby's."

Elaine looked down grievingly at the offensively infantile slippers, turning her exquisite little foot.

"I'm going to speak a piece for Easter," Enid pursued, "all alone by myself; and she's going to speak one in concert with a class."

"Oh, I hope you will come and speak them for me some time," Margaret invited; "and bring Clara and Isabel."

"Maybe we will," answered Enid. "We must go now. Come on, Elaine."

Margaret watched them until they stopped beside a flowerbed along the sidewalk where the first tulips of the season were unfolding. Elaine bent over to examine them. Margaret reproached herself that, though Elaine had spoken but once, it was her image that lingered uppermost. Why should she add even the weight of her preference to that child in whose favor the dice were already so heavily loaded? For in Margaret's eyes, beauty was always the chief gift of the gods.

As she resumed her sewing, a sudden, fantastic fear shot across her thoughts—the fear that Elaine would die. She recognized it, in a moment, for the heart's old, sad prevision of impermanence in beauty, its rooted unbelief in fortune's constancy.

A quick glance up the street showed Elaine still stooping over the tulip bed, her stiff little skirts sticking out straight behind her. The grotesqueness was somehow reassuring. Margaret smiled, half at the absurd little figure, half at her own absurdly tragic fancy.

On the other porch Frank was taking his leave—a process of some duration. First he stood on the lower steps talking at length with Jean who stood on the top step. Then he raised his cap and started away, only to remember something before he reached the corner and to run back across the lawn. There he stood talking while Jean sat on the porch railing, suggesting a faint Romeo and Juliet effect. The next time, Jean called him back. They met halfway down the cement walk and conversed earnestly and lengthily.

With an exquisite sympathy Margaret watched these maneuvers from under discreet eyelids. She was glad for them both, with a clear-souled, generous joy. And yet she felt a sensitive pleasure that walked on the edge of pain. In the young man especially she took a quick delight—in his supple length of limb, the spread of his shoulders, his close-cropped black hair, his new clothes, the way he thrust his hands deep in his trousers' pockets while he swung on the balls of his feet, the attentive bend of his head toward Jean; she reveled in all his elastic, masculine youth which she knew for the garb of a straight, strong, kindly, honorable soul. But out of the revel grew a trouble, as if some strange spirit prisoned in her own struggled to tear itself free, to fling itself, wailing, in the dust.

"Egotism!" said Margaret to herself, curling her lip, sewing very fast. The fluttering spirit lay tombed and still.

When Frank was finally gone, Jean sauntered across the street to Margaret's porch. She perched on the rail and pulled at the leafless vine-stems beside her, talking idly and desultorily of things she was not interested in.

She was an attractive girl, more wholesome than beautiful. Her bronze-brown hair coiled stylishly about her head, gleamed in the late sun. There were some tiny freckles across her nose. She wore a pale blue summer-dress with short sleeves out of which her young arms emerged, fresh and tender from their winter seclusion.

The two maidens circled warily about the topic they were both longing to talk of. Margaret noted in Jean a new aloofness. Every time she threw Frank's name temptingly into the open Jean purposely let it lie.

At last, with a little gasp of laughter, looking straight before her, Jean exclaimed: "I guess I'm sort of scared!"

"What I like about Frank," said Margaret, "is that he's so true and reliable. He's a fellow you can trust!"

"Yes," assented Jean. "Don't you think he looks—nice in that new suit?"

"Splendid! Frank's a handsome boy."

"Isn't he?" sighed Jean.

"He'll always be constant to anyone he cares for. And, I think—he does care for someone."

"What makes you think so?" demanded Jean, her blue eyes suddenly intent on Margaret.

"What makes you think so?" Margaret parried.

Jean sat up instantly very straight and stiff.

"Who said I thought anything?"

"Oh, no, no!" Margaret disclaimed hastily. "I didn't mean that. I meant anyone would think so!"

Jean lapsed into a placated limpness, resting her lithe young figure in its summer blue against the dingy house-wall.

"Isn't it funny," she mused, "how you can resolve you won't think, and keep yourself from thinking, and really not think, because you've made up your mind you wouldn't—and all the time you know!"

Margaret was searching in her mind for some tenderest phrase of warning when Jean anticipated her.

"Well, it's a good thing I don't care!—I thought at first I didn't like his hair that way, but I do now—better than the other way. He was telling about college."

"He finishes this year, doesn't he?"

"Yes. He's going in with his father next year—unless he makes up his mind to go to Yale. But he doesn't think he will. His father wants him here; and he's about decided that's best."

"Marg'ret," called a thin, querulous, broken voice from within the house; "ain't it time you was gettin' supper?"

Margaret opened the door to call back in a loud, clear voice: "Not yet, Mother."

Jean slipped off the railing. "I must go."

"It really isn't time yet. Mother gets nervous, sitting all day. And she doesn't care to read any more. Stay a little longer."

These snatches of Jean's confidence were delicious to her.

"Oh, I've got to go."

Jean suddenly put both arms around Margaret's waist and clasped her in a swift embrace.

"I wish," she said, "some awfully nice old widower or bachelor would come along and marry you!"

As Jean crossed the street with the lowering sun making a nimbus in her chestnut-golden hair, she began to sing. The words sprang joyous and clear as a bobolink's note—

"What's this dull town to me?

Robin's not here!"

But a sudden waft of consciousness smote them to a vague humming that passed swiftly into—

"My Mary's asleep by thy murmuring stream;

Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream."

In the scented dark of the spring evening, Margaret came to the porch again. A little curved moon sailed the sky—less a light-giver than a shining ornament on the breast of night. A while before children's laughter and skurrying footfalls had echoed down the sidewalks. Boys had played ball in the middle of the street, with running and violent contortions, and shouts and calls rejoicing in the release of their animal energies. But these sounds had ceded to silence as the soft darkness fell. Then young strollers, two and two, had passed; but these also were gone. A gentle wind rustled very softly in the dead vine-stalks. The world was alone with the fragrant wind and the dreaming dusk and the little silver scimitar of moon.

The house opposite was all dark, except for a line of lamplight beside the drawn blind of a side window. Earlier, Jean had turned on the porch lights and sat under them in the most graceful of the wicker chairs, reading, or affecting to read, and Frank, coming down the street, had seen her in all that glow. Then they had turned off the lights and gone away together, and the house had sunk into shadowy repose. Vague lines of wanness betrayed the place of the cement walks. The fruit-trees were dim, withdrawn, half-hinted shapes of whiteness, but their perfume, grown bolder in darkness, wandered the winds with poignant, sweet desire.

Margaret leaned against the weather-worn corner-post of the porch; her hand passed over its cracked, paint-blistered surface with, a soft, absent touch. She felt to her finger-tips the wooing lure of the night. In the spring of her pulses she was aware of Frank and Jean somewhere together in the dusky, fragrant, crescent-clasped folds of it. She seemed to draw in with her breath and gather subtly through the pores of her flesh all the shy, sweet, youthful yearning of the world—and, behind that, wordlessly she knew the driven sap, the life-call, the procreant urge. She sighed and stirred restlessly. The strand of pain that runs in the pleasure of such moods began to ache gently like an old wound touched with foreknowledge of evil weather. She shared the pang that lies at the heart of spring.

Words of poetry pressed into her mind, voices of the great interpreters. She was not a cultivated woman, hardly to be called educated; her horizon, even of books, was chance-formed and narrow; but what circumstance had given her she remembered well. The groping, vain longing that stirred in her fell on speech, and moved among the haunted echoes of the world.

"Bloomy the world, yet a blank all the same—

Framework that waits for a picture to frame."

And then, sudden as a cry:

"Never the time and the place,

And the loved one all together!"

She drew a long, shivering sigh, and deliberately thrust the lines out of her mind. Best not to remember them—on such a night! Their edges cut like young grass drawn through careless fingers.

The little new moon was rising higher in the deep, soft blue-darkness of the sky. Margaret looked up at its gleaming curve, and other words of poetry came to her, words she had read once in an old magazine—translated from the Persian:

"Quaffing Hadji-Kivam's wine-cup, there I saw by grace of him,

On the green sea of the night, the new moon's silver shallop swim!"

They swung on, like a familiar, wistful, passionate tune:

"Oh, my heart is like a tulip, closing up in time of cold!

When, at length, shy Bird of Fortune, shall my snare thy wings enfold?"

Footsteps sounded along the walk, the linked steps of two, lingering, yet with the springing fall of youth; then a murmur of voices, girl's and boy's interchanging, lingering, too, and low, weighted, like the footsteps, with the burden of their hour. Margaret drew back a little behind the sapless vine-stems. She knew that she could not be seen in the shadow of the porch, even by a passer far less absorbed than the two who drifted by. She had recognized Frank and Jean at once, and thrilled intimately at the quality of their voices. Both were changed from the careless tones of every day, Frank's husky and strained, Jean's vibrant and tremulous. What they said was quite inaudible—only that betraying timbre, conscious and unconscious, hung on the scented air. A single word in the girl's thrilled voice—a sharpened, quivering note of life at high tension—pierced the shadows of the porch:

"—— you ——"

"'You!'" Margaret leaned forward among her shadows, thrusting her clenched hands downward, then pressed them tight upon her heart. "You!" That little key unlocked the flood-gates. The barriers went down, and the tide of passionate loneliness swept her soul.

"You!" she whispered to the fragrant, shimmering, vitalizing night; and the word mocked her, and returned unto her void. She leaned her bosom against the angled surface of the porch-post; she pressed her face among the dry, unbudded vines. The cry went out from her into the empty spaces of the world—a voiceless, hopeless call: "You! you! you! Oh, you who never came to me!"

Her soul was ravaged by that mocking bitterness of loss which comes only to those who have not possessed. She, crying for a lover in the night, she who had never been sought! If ever her shy and homely girlhood might have attracted a youth, poor Margaret's love of poetry would have frightened him away. If the burdened poverty of her maturity might have admitted a suitor, her acquaintance numbered no man who would not have shunned an earnest-minded old maid. And she knew this utterly. A thousand old aches were in the sudden rush of anguish, and shame fought among them. She was shocked and startled at the drip of salt tears down her cheeks, at the heaving of her shaken breast.

She struggled to rebuild her old barriers against the woe—pride, and dignity, and the decent acceptance of one's lot. But those were for the eyes of men and women; and here were no eyes, only night, and the risen sap and the wild heart in her breast. Duty? She had never swerved in doing it, but she thrust the thought by with passionate rebellion at the waste of her in dull service to the outworn lives which neither asked nor could take from her anything but the daily drudgery. She groped for the old humble consolations, tender appreciations, generous friendships, the joy in others' joy. But there the wall had broken through. "I am nothing to them!" thought Margaret bitterly. "Jean will not care to talk to me after to-night. And I can't always kiss other people's babies! I want one of my own!"

The gauzy veil of dream that wrapped her often had fallen from before her eyes. Rent by the piercing beauty of the night, and soaked in her tears, that fragile fabric of vision served no more. Imagined blisses had betrayed her, naked and tender, to the unpitying lash of truth. The remote, the universal, mocked her sore longing for something near and real, of earth and flesh—oh, as welcome in sorrow as in joy!—to be imperiously her own! The river of life dashed by and would not fill her empty cup. The love she loved so had passed her by.

She faced the hollowest desolation known to humanity. She had committed no sin; she had been true and tender and faithful; she had not failed in the least and humblest dues of love: yet, now she stood wrapped in torment, and saw, across a great gulf fixed, the joys of love's elect. She stood utterly frustrate and alone—a shared frustration were happiness! Her mental life had been so intensely uncompanioned that she was tortured with doubts of her own reality. What warrant of Being had that soul which could not touch in all the blank, black spaces of the void another soul to give it assurance of itself? What if the aching throat and riven breast were but the phantom anguish of a dream Thing, unpurposed, unjustified, a Thing of ashes and emptiness!

There remained God—perhaps! Was God a dream too? Was there any You in all the empty worlds?

She stood quite still, questing the universe for God. She thought of her father's God—the savage Hebrew deity he thought he worshiped, the harsh Puritan formalist who ruled his creed, the hysterical, illogical sentimentalist who swayed his heart. She dropped them all out of her mind. God was not, for her, in the ancient earthquake or fire or whirlwind. But—perhaps—somewhere!

She sank to her knees in the darkness, and, laying her head upon her arms on the railing, sought in her soul for God.

"You are Love," she said. "They say it, but they do not believe it; but I believe it. You are Love that creates, and makes glad—and wounds. You are Love that rises in all creatures in spring, and would make all things beautiful and kind. You are Love that gives—and gives itself. You made me to love love and love's uses, and nothing else in the world! You made my life loveless. Why?"

She waited a moment, then, with a sobbing breath of remembrance, "Oh, one spring they nailed you on a cross because you loved too much!"

After that she was very still, her head bent upon her arms, her heart quiet, waiting for the still, small voice, the answer of God.

It came presently, and she knew it was the answer. She accepted it with comfort, and sad pride, and submission, and a slow, strange, white happiness of consecration. The answer came without any words. If there had been words, they might have been, perhaps, like these:

"Bear the pain patiently, my daughter, for life is wrought in pain, and there is no child born without sharp pangs. I have not shut thee out from my festival of spring. Thy part is thy pang. I have given thee a coronal of pain and made thee rich with loss and desire. I have made thee one of my vestals who guard perpetually the hearth-fire which shall not be lit for them. I have denied thee love that love shall be manifest in thee. Wherever love fails in my world, there shalt thou re-create it in beauty and kindness. The vision thou hast, and the passion, are of me, and I charge thee find some fair and sweet way that they perish not in thee. All ways are mine. Be thou in peace."

Margaret rose at length. The moon was gone from the sky, but out of its deep, tender darkness shone the far, dim light of stars. A cool wind touched her cheek, bearing a faint, ethereal odor of blossoms as from a great distance. And upon her face, if one might have seen for the darkness, shone a fine, ethereal beauty far-brought from that great distance which is nearer than hands and feet.

Against the shadowy front of the house opposite, two figures were vaguely discernible, the taller a little darker than the encompassing space, the other a little lighter. As Margaret looked, they melted together, and were no longer two but one.

She smiled in the darkness, very sweetly, and, holding her head high, turned and went quietly into the dark little house.