‘Mr. Flint turned him down.’
‘Justifiably so, I say. A pointless scheme it is, I say.’
‘Well. It’s good to see the boy with a worthy goal in mind, for a change.’
‘Boy! Twenty-eight years old! And no career. No vocation. Terms himself a surveyor, and works not one day out of thirty. Or a schoolmaster, and has no pupils.’ Her husband’s eyes began to bulge and his color grew high. ‘I’ve given him time enough and over, Lord knows, to get himself established. Help and advice. A year of college. Which he had not the self-discipline for. I have honest work awaiting him at the factory, but will he have it? No-o-o. And not as if I’d expect him to dirty his hands; a clerk’s job it is, but honest.’
She took an ear of corn, broke off the stem and yanked the green husk down, like stripping off a stocking. She pulled the pale silk from the other end and meticulously picked out a few remaining strands of it ‘It’s not as if he’s wasting himself in drink or chasing after women.’
‘Yes, and that’s another thing. It’s not normal. A man his age ought to be establishing himself, thinking about acquiring a wife, thinking about a family. Does he even look at a female?’ He glowered in silence for a moment. ‘But then, who’d have him, penniless as he is?’
‘Hush, here he comes.’
Out the window she watched his lanky, stooped figure shambling up the road, dressed in flannel shirt and canvas britches, a handkerchief knotted around his neck. He stopped unaccountably and stared into the bushes, stepped closer, slowly extended his cupped hands and with a graceful gesture trapped something between them, careful not to crush it. He put his eye to the gap between his thumbs and inspected his prey intently for a longer time than she thought necessary, then opened his hands and watched it fly. She could not see what it was. She finished husking the corn and slid the ears into a kettle on the black-iron stove.
She had to admit her second-born was not a man to turn a girl’s head. Face-on, comely enough; his intelligent eyes took your thoughts off the rest. But his profile, with its great beak of a French nose, was almost laughable. He had begun to affect a fringe of beard which counterbalanced the nose somewhat. She sighed. A good man, but impractical. Perhaps weak.
‘Good day, Mother. Father.’ He took off his straw farmer’s hat and ran his fingers through unkempt hair.
‘Wash up, Henry,’ she said. She set a fresh ham on the table, added slaw from the cold box, hot bread, buttermilk, the corn, steaming, from the kettle, the last of the string beans. It was too late in the season; they were getting tough.
His father loosened the waistcoat buttons over his belly before he leaned forward to carve the ham. ‘Mr. Flint turned you down, eh?’
‘It’s all right. I have another prospect, as good or better, I think. I’ve spoken with Mr. Emerson and he is in sympathy with my ideas. He has offered to let me use a spot on his property. The kettle hole on the south road. It’s not as large a pond as Flint’s, but it will serve.’
His father irritably forked ham onto plates, passed them. ‘A great deal of trouble, it seems to me, just to camp out.’
‘It won’t be camping out, Father. I plan to build a proper house, small, but proper, with a hearth and glazed windows. A small attic. I’ll dig a cellar.
‘At great expense, I calculate.’
‘Fifty dollars, all told, I think.’
‘And to what purpose? What will you accomplish? What purpose on earth is served by idling out your days languishing in the woods when you have a proper home under this roof?’
‘I just want to live simply.’
‘Simply! Simple it is, the whole idea! Idly, it is.’
The son threw his napkin on the table and shoved his chair back. ‘I want no part of your mercantile grubbing! A man ought not live in order to work. A man ought to work enough to fill his needs, and stop at that.’
They glared at each other.
‘Attend to me, for once, son. My mercantile grubbing makes it possible for you to eat at this table. Every day, it seems to me. I suppose my mercantile grubbing will buy the lumber for this small but simple house, will it not?’
‘I have money. From my surveying work.’
‘Which you pursue hardly at all. You scarcely know what it is to put in a day’s work.’
‘I truly believe we have the week planned wrong, Father. It should dictate one day of work and six of idleness. Or thoughtfulness. But you forget; I have had daily employment. In the school.’
‘Another hare-brained scheme! Why did it fail, I ask you? You accomplished nothing a schoolmaster should, no rod, no discipline, no religious instruction, no respect for elders. No wonder all the children were withdrawn from it. Why can’t you ever be in step with everyone else?’
He was briefly silent, looking out the window. ‘I hear a different drummer, Father. I march toward a different battle.’
Her thoughts crowding pell-mell on one another, his mother saw how it would be. He would build his cabin and occupy it, perhaps planting beans and potatoes. He would spend hours tramping aimlessly through the woods and dreaming in the sun, sitting at night to write tidily and thoughtfully in his journal. Perhaps he would borrow a skiff from one of his friends and float on Mr. Emerson’s pond, perhaps with a line in the water, perhaps peering into the depths to see the bass that hung there, perhaps lying back against the thwart to watch clouds or leaves overhead. He would walk down the Boston and Maine tracks once a day to have dinner at this table.
He would at first collect bright stones or mussel shells, arranging them on his window sill; then, when he saw they would have to be dusted, he would throw them out. He would last a year, perhaps two, before abruptly quitting his experiment. Perhaps he would return home and would indeed write a book. Perhaps Mr. Emerson would find a publisher or publish it himself, and his friends would each buy a copy. Likely he would be left with a library of 800 books, 750 of which he had written himself.
Her husband wiped his mouth, and threw the napkin belligerently on the table. ‘High-falutin’ words, Henry. High-falutin’ words will never make you a living.’
The son stood abruptly.
‘Husband, let it go,’ she said. ‘There’s food on the table. Sit down, son.’
‘I’m not hungry.’ He took up his hat and opened the door.
‘You’ll come for dinner tomorrow?’
‘Thank you, Mother. Yes.’ He closed the door gently behind him.
His father leaned on the table and watched him go. ‘A ne’er-do-well,’ he said. ‘I’ve spawned a ne’er-do-well. Never will amount to anything.’