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A Prologue to Love

by Taylor Caldwell

 

Part 1

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth . . . Ecclesiastes

 

Chapter One

The child sat on a large black boulder and looked at the sea, and she was all alone under a sky the color of smoke and beside waters as angry as an intemperate man and grayer than death.

Gulls cried piercingly as they swirled in the harsh wind and dived to the leaden crests of the waves and threw themselves upward again as if despairing. Though it was only four o’clock in the afternoon of a late September day, the bitter air threatened winter, and there was no sun, only a pale silver blur in the gaseous heavens. There was no sound but the furious thunder of the ocean hurling itself on the dark and gleaming sand, the gulls, and the wind which assaulted the tall and dying clumps of sea grass on the dunes behind the child. Water and sky appeared to mingle together without a horizon; the gusts of wind lifted the child’s braids and blew wisps over her poor coat. But the child did not move; she huddled on her stone. It was as if she were waiting mournfully yet eagerly, as a woman waits for the return of her lover who has been long gone from her sight. She was unaware of her cold hands, which were reddened and without gloves, and of her cold feet in shabby buttoned boots, and her icy knees covered meagerly with darned black stockings. Occasionally she absently pulled the shawl about her neck and huddled deeper in her coat, which was too small for her. Nothing lived in that wild scene but the child and the gulls, and only the gulls moved. A long time had passed. The lonely girl, ten years old, waited with a vast patience beyond the patience of children, and her eyes never left the sea and her ears heard nothing but the savage voice of the tumultuous waters.

 

A considerable distance behind the child stood a very old and wind-scarred wooden house, tall and battered, its fretted woodwork sagging, its narrow windows unlighted except for a feeble lamp in the main room downstairs, its broken steps rough with blown sand, its chimneys without smoke but for one at the east end. The shingles on the roof curled. There were no gardens, no trees about the house, and only the sea grass in sandy clumps. The house stood alone, without neighbors, on a slight rise surrounded by outbuildings as dilapidated as itself, and with a tiny shanty behind it. An atmosphere of desolation and extreme poverty hung over the house like a mist, and an air of abandonment. Each surge of the wind beating on the gray and pock-marked walls threatened to blow the wretched building down, to scatter it on the sandy earth, there to be buried by the veils of sand streaming in the gale.

Two women, one very old, one middle-aged, sat by the only fire in the house, in the parlor. But the fire was of driftwood, thriftily gathered each day, and it smoked and burned fitfully. One single lamp, burning kerosene of a particularly bad odor, lighted the long and narrow room, which was furnished with miserable sticks of furniture as poor as the house itself, and as old. The floor was covered with a straw rug which had long lost its color; the few tables and chairs were splintered and unpolished, for they had been made of rough wood never stained or varnished. The wind entered here through cracks never mended, and the flame in the plain oil lamp flickered. The wood smoldered in the fireplace, which was built of stones gathered from the shore.

The women shivered. The old woman’s cheap black dress was covered with a number of afghans, and her thin shoulders by shawls which sent out an odor of peppermint and age and mold. She sat very close to the fire, holding out her hands to the vague heat and muttering under her breath discontentedly. Her face, in the uncertain light, had a kindly yet predatory expression, wise and disillusioned, with a touch of hard humor in the lines of her wrinkled and sunken mouth. The eyes, black and small, had an unusually sharp and youthful glance, which never overlooked anything. Her untidy white hair was heaped over her forehead; her big-knuckled hands were blue from chill. While she warmed them she rocked in the only rocker in the room, and the creaking sound was like a complaint. She chewed red-striped peppermint candies which she kept in a bag on her knees.

The younger woman was dressed more neatly; her gray woolen dress with its tight bodice and full draped skirt was old and carefully mended, but it fitted her fine and buxom figure as if made of the best satin. Her curled hair was ruddy, her manner vivacious as she set a table for a meager supper — the dining room, dark and somber, was too cold to be used today. Her face, round and pink, was both intelligent and good-tempered, and her blue eyes, alert and friendly, occasionally glanced at the old woman. Then her pink mouth would quirk, and one of her reddish eyebrows would raise. She often seemed about to speak; then, as if vexed, she would rattle a cracked plate made of the cheapest ironware, white and without a pattern. A kettle sluggishly began to hiss on the fire.

“I don’t care!” said the younger woman with a defiant lift of her plump shoulders. “I’m going to make myself some tea to warm up a little! You can have one cup with me, Kate, and don’t grumble about the waste again. I’m tired of all this.”

“Well, if you’re that tired, why don’t you leave, Beth?” asked the older woman, splintering a peppermint deftly with her false teeth.

Beth went to the sand-dusty window and looked at the child at a distance, sitting there motionless on the boulder. The woman grumbled, shaking her head as if exasperated by her own weakness. She said angrily, “Because of Carrie, and you know it.”

“That little monster is nothing to you,” said old Kate, and rocked as if laughing internally. “If I was in your place I wouldn’t stay because of her. No sir. Not that I don’t like the kid; maybe I don’t. But I promised her mother I’d stay, and it’s all arranged; was arranged a long time ago.” She sighed. “You’d never believe it, looking at Carrie, but her mother was a beauty, pretty as a painting, with yellow hair and big gray eyes and a lovely figure.” Kate’s voice held a hint of her early girlhood in the Midlands of England. “Best of all, she had a beautiful soul.” She cackled. “And better than all else, she had a lot of money. He got it, of course. There were some said he married her for her money. Maybe. But I think he cared for her too. Now, now, don’t go romantic on me again, Beth!”

Beth came back to the fire, her blue eyes bright with curiosity. “He’s still got the money, hasn’t he? He isn’t the kind to spend anything, God knows. Some say he’s rich — ”

Kate cackled again and rubbed her hands. “Never listen to strangers and the foolish gab they talk. As for me, I keep my own counsel.” She looked at Beth shrewdly. “Living here like this every summer, and then in that house in Lyndon, would you say he was rich? It’s bad enough here in Lyme; it’s worse in Lyndon in the winter. Colder than death, with hardly any fires, and the snow about like mountains. Would you say a rich gent would live like that, eh, Beth?”

“Not in my book, he wouldn’t,” said Beth vigorously. She paused, her big plump finger on her plump lips. “Yet he’s always in Europe, sailing or steaming away months in the year. Must have business in those foreign places. Poor men don’t have business anywhere.”

“Hum,” said Kate. “Well, I’ll have a cup of tea with you; always did like a nice cup of tea, though most times we have to buy it out of our own pockets when the can runs low — which it always does. You buy the tea this time, Beth?”

Beth sat down and looked with a frown at the kettle, which was refusing to come to a boil on the low and smoldering logs. “No. I charged it. Down at the village yesterday. Thirty cents a pound; not very good, but better than usual.”

“Mr. Ames did buy us some China tea last time he was in the old country,” said Kate. “Now, I’m not defending him, but you have to give a man justice sometimes.”

Beth snorted. She glanced at the window; she could just see the blurred and silent figure of little Caroline Ames; now, in this twilight, it seemed to be one with the gray sky and the sea, as if carved from the substance of the boulder itself. “I often wonder,” said Beth. “He hates that poor little girl; you can see that with half an eye. But she loves him to death, the poor mite. Worships him. She’s looking for the ship that’s supposed to bring him tonight or tomorrow. It’s a funny thing about love: you don’t need to have it returned to love somebody. Loving’s enough.”

Kate said, “There you are again! Romantic. You and your Charles Dickens and his books you’re always reading. Don’t be romantic, girl; no romance in real life.”

“I don’t know about that!” said Beth with spirit. “I was married; I loved Harry with all my heart.”

“And he ran off with a trollop, taking your savings, too, five years ago,” said Kate cynically. “That’s what you told me. Romance!”

“I loved him. That was enough, even if he didn’t love me.” She sighed, thinking of the house, the very little house, which had been hers in Lyndon, near Boston. She had had to sell it, for she had no money to maintain it. Well, there was no use thinking of the past; she, Beth, was forty-five years old, and women that age were still too young to sink themselves in useless memories. She turned her thoughts determinedly to the mystery which was John Ames and his little daughter Caroline. She had been with the family for five years and knew almost as little now as she had known on the evening of her arrival. She received eight dollars a month as an assistant to old Kate, who no longer could do much as a housekeeper. Beth had a very healthy and human curiosity. As she filled the tin teapot with hot water and took the can of tea from the mantelpiece, she became determined to learn something more from the taciturn Kate. Her blue eyes sharpened, but she was careful to use guile, for Kate was very cunning and any information was taken from her unawares and only when she was in a good temper. Beth made very strong, rich tea, not sparing the leaves this time. She poured it into two big thick cups. She reached to the mantelpiece and brought down a box of plain cookies. “There, we’ll have a feast,” she said.

Kate held the hot cup greedily in her worn hands and accepted three cookies. She placed them beside the bag of peppermints on her knee. She regarded Beth with kindness and gratitude. “You’re a good soul, Beth,” she said. “And being a good soul is very good, though stupid.”

The wind shrieked against the house; the small fire trembled and fell low. The flame in the lamp bent, almost expired. The women drew closer to the hearth.

“Carrie will take cold out there,” said Beth. “I think I’ll call her in soon. It’s silly for her to sit there, watching. All the ships dock down near Marblehead or in the port of Boston, not here.”

“But she can see them come in,” said Kate, smacking her lips over the tea. “Leave her be. She don’t have much amusement besides watching for her daddy’s ship.”

Beth sipped her tea delicately, watching the old woman under her red eyelashes. She said casually, “You took care of Carrie until I came four years ago. That’s six years you had of her, isn’t it? You said you stayed because of her mother.”

“True,” said Kate, sucking loudly at her cup. “I promised her mother. Ann Esmond, that was.”

“When the poor young thing was dying, after the baby’s birth?” suggested Beth.

Kate grinned. “Wrong again, you and your romance! You’re thinking of Dombey and Son. Nothing like that. Caroline was three years old, and healthy as a colt. My Ann caught cold.” She stopped grinning, and a dark and vengeful look crept over her face, and she stared at the fire. “I brought Ann up; I was her nanny, fresh from England; she was my own child, in my heart. Ann and her twin sister Cynthia. Pretty as pictures. Both of ‘em. Never married, never had a child of my own. They was my children. There’s a portrait of them in Cynthia’s house now. You should see it sometime. Well. Ann caught lung fever in that damned cold house in Lyndon, and he was too near to call a doctor in time, and so she died. I said to myself, said I: ‘If that girl dies, I’ll leave this house tomorrow, and be damned to him and his brat!’ Then Ann asked me, right on her deathbed. Loved that kid, she did. Never had any real feeling for her, myself.”

“Ah,” murmured Beth pitifully.

“ ‘Tisn’t that I despise her, as her dad does,” said Kate. “But she’s so ugly, and not like my Ann at all. Not even like him. Wonder, sometimes, who she does look like; somebody barmy, no doubt. Maybe that’s why he avoids her. Maybe she reminds him of somebody.”

“Perhaps,” insinuated Beth eagerly, “he doesn’t like Caroline because she’s a disappointment. He wanted a son?”

Kate grinned all over her wrinkled face. “Wrong again. You better stop reading Dickens. They wanted a daughter, especially him. ‘Give me a daughter, Ann,’ I used to hear him say. ‘Not a son. I don’t want a son’.”

“Why?”

Kate pulled her afghans tighter on her withered knees. “I don’t know. So, he got a daughter, and he hates her. No telling what people are like.”

“Perhaps he doesn’t like Caroline because she isn’t pretty like her mother.”

“Never heard him say anything about her looks. I’ve just got a feeling she reminds him of somebody he hates.”

“It’s a mystery,” said Beth, delighting in it.

“Nothing’s a mystery,” said Kate crossly. “Everything’s got an explanation, if you can find it. How you go on about mysteries! But lonely people love ‘em.” Her voice was thin and had a tone of crackling to it, tinged with malice.

A heavy gust of wind, massive as an avalanche of stone, fell against the house, and the gloomy light darkened at the windows. The walls trembled, and the ancient floor vibrated. Beth shuddered. “I’ve had five summers of this,” she said. “People who come to Lyme leave September first. But not us, dear me, no! We stay until the first snow flies. The house in Lyndon’s worse than this for cold, but at least I can go in on the train to Boston in twenty minutes and look at the shops and see somebody besides us. By the way” — and Beth poured another cup of tea for Kate — “why don’t we ever see the neighbors? Nearest one’s a mile away, but that isn’t too far. People by the name of Sheldon, I heard in the village, and they live here. They’ve got a boy, Tom, about twelve; could be a playmate for Carrie.”

“He don’t like neighbors; never did,” said Kate cryptically. “He hasn’t any friends; never had. How my Ann could put up with him I’ll never know. But he doted on her. And kept her locked up like a prisoner. Not that she ever minded; he was enough for her, poor child. Sometimes he’d take her to London and Paris and Berlin; it was a gala occasion for her, as if she’d never seen them places before with her father.”

“Well, he’s a dandy,” said Beth. “And dresses like a prince. Sometimes I could speak my mind to him and tell him about Carrie’s old worn clothing! Like a beggar.” She brightened. “I suppose he never got over his wife’s death. Mourned for her.”

“Not he,” said Kate. “There’s some made for mourning and some not. He’s not.” She rubbed her papery palms together and meditated. “It’s all business with him. Importing or something.” She looked slyly at Beth, as if amused at the younger woman’s unsatiated curiosity.

“Where did he meet your Ann?” asked Beth. “If you don’t mind me,” she added, bridling.

“Oh, I don’t mind telling,” said Kate indulgently. “In her father’s house; she had just come out; it was one of the grand parties. No mystery about it. Mr. Esmond had some business with him; don’t know what. But Ann looked at him, and he looked at her, as if he was a nob, and he wasn’t.”

“A nob?”

“Oh, that’s English for aristocrat; gentry. And he isn’t gentry. But never heard, even from Ann, where he came from, except that once she said Boston. He was an orphan, she said, since he was a little chap. That was all. No family.”

“And her father let her marry him!”

“Ann had a mind of her own, for all she looked so soft. And Mr. Esmond didn’t seem displeased. I heard him say once that he had a future. Anyway, Ann inherited two hundred thousand dollars when Mr. Esmond died, and Cynthia got the same. Two hundred thousand dollars. That’s a fortune. She turned it over to him.”

“So he’s rich, in spite of him living like a beggar and making us live like beggars too,” said Beth resentfully.

“Um. I didn’t say he was rich, now. Investments went down during the war; haven’t come back yet. Maybe he lost it all.” The old woman smiled under her long nose. “Well, you get eight dollars a month. That’s not a fine sum. You could get more elsewhere. With a warm room and a fire of your own, and better money, and a cheerful house around you.”

“I know,” muttered Beth. “But it’s Carrie. Somehow, I can’t go away and leave her.”

“Never be sorry for anyone to your disadvantage,” said Kate. “That’s a fool’s way, and a weakling’s.”

“It could also be Christian,” replied Beth angrily. “And having some pity!”

Kate lifted her old head abruptly and stared without blinking at Beth. Her mouth grimaced after a few moments. “You mean that,” she said flatly, and shook her head. “God help you, girl, you mean that. You’re a mystery if there ever was one.”

“Not me,” said Beth. But she was a little pleased. “I never told you, but I have a little pension. Fifteen dollars a month. A government pension. After Harry — went away — and I never knew it! — he enlisted in the army. He was killed in Virginia, just before the war ended. I didn’t even know he was in the army. But he must’ve loved me after all, for the government notified me of his being killed, and about the pension.”

“More likely he used you for an excuse not to marry his strumpet,” said Kate. “Now, don’t come over all wounded, Beth. So you have fifteen dollars a month. You can afford to stay here and look after Carrie after all.”

She lifted her bony finger and shook it at Beth. “Now, let me tell you something. When he comes home, you ask him for more money. Two dollars a month more. Tell him you’ll leave unless he gives it to you. He’ll not get another woman to dance attendance on his brat for eight dollars a month! And he’ll not dare put her on me again.”

The wind became more violent; the old windows rattled fiercely. The light was crepuscular, and the fire sank even lower. Puffs of icy air blew through the room.

“Oh, you’re very independent,” said Beth, tossing her head.

“That I am,” replied Kate with a satisfied snicker. “And I did it for myself. I’d not have left Ann when she was alive, but after she died I went right up to him and said, ‘I’m off, sir. I’ve got a little money saved, and there’s my old sister in England, with a sweets shop, and Ann left me two thousand dollars’.”

She paused, smiling with pleasure at the memory.

“Well,” resumed Kate. “He was in a quandary. He was paying me twelve dollars a month. No other servants. Where would he get a woman, even an old one, to work for him, in two houses, with a brat, and putting up with everything as I do, for that bit of money? Not that he didn’t try! He did. So one night he comes to me and says he’ll pay me fourteen dollars a month and looked at me like he was the brother of Queen Victoria, herself. All pleased with himself for being so generous. And I said no. Not Kate Snope. I was off to England. He couldn’t buy me with any wages.”

She popped another peppermint into her mouth and sucked it voluptuously. “I let him think that over for a bit. And then he comes to me with his stony face. He’d pay me fourteen dollars a month, yes. And he’d make a bargain with me. For every year I’d stay with him, taking care of his houses and his brat, supervising things, he’d put five hundred dollars to my name in the bank! Now, what do you think of that?”

“Five hundred dollars a year!” exclaimed Beth, awed. “Why, you must have thousands from him by now!”

“Yes,” said Kate happily. “I made him pay me back from Carrie’s birth. That’s five thousand dollars. No go, otherwise. ‘And moreover’, I says to him, ‘I want help’. And so you came.”

“So he must be rich, after all,” said Beth. “Five thousand dollars, and five hundred extra every year!” She was incredulous. Then her eyes narrowed. “But didn’t you tell me that your Ann had asked you to stay with her child and that you’d promised never to leave Carrie? Didn’t Mr. Ames remind you of that?”

“He didn’t know,” said Kate. “And I’m trusting you to say nothing to him. But if you can’t hold your tongue and you tell him, that promise or not, I’ll leave. I’m that hard.”

“I’m not a tattler,” said Beth proudly. “But goodness! You must hate him.”

“Always did,” said Kate, placidly chewing a small cake.

Though it was growing much colder and the light was very dull now, Beth Knowles forgot the child watching the sea outside. She was absorbed in the strange story she had been hearing. She said, “How old was Miss Esmond when she married him?”

Kate’s face changed, became tight, almost evil. “She was only twenty. And he was thirty-four, almost old enough to be her father. He’s forty-five now; he never changes. Those that are wicked never change; the devil’s with them, taking care of his own.”

A thin long plume of smoke, far out on the ocean, divided the sky and sea like the stroke of a pencil. Caroline sat higher on her boulder. “Oh,” she murmured aloud, “let that be Papa’s ship! Please, good Jesus.” She clasped her small broad hands tightly on her knees and watched the smoke. For a few moments it dwindled, then became larger. But she could not as yet see the ship.

No one but Beth had ever taught her any religion or had taken her to any church. She did not remember her young mother well, nor if that mother had taught her any prayers. The name of God was not spoken in the houses of John Ames, except in a whisper at night, beside Caroline’s bed. As Beth’s theology was simple and her knowledge little, Caroline knew only that the Christ had died on a cross in some far country which she mingled in her mind with the fairy tales she read hungrily. He, too, was somewhat mythological in the child’s thoughts. When she thought of Him, which was seldom except at bedtime and on such occasions as this, she visualized Him as a knight in armor, with a pennanted spear and an iron shield.

“Good Jesus,” repeated Caroline again, straining her eyes across the plain of furious water. Then she hugged herself with joy. The dim shadow of a ship could now be seen. Was her father on that ship? He had been gone a long time, ever since she had been brought here in June after school was closed. (Only Kate had heard from him, a single curt letter. “A shame!” Beth had cried to the old woman indignantly. “Never a word about his child, either, you said!” “Don’t be sentimental,” Kate had chuckled.)

The silent shadow of the ship streamed toward Boston Harbor. Now it disappeared around the side of the great rocks on the beach. If it could be docked that night, John Ames would arrive home in the morning. Still, Caroline sat on her boulder, watching the gulls now. The blur of silver which was the sun moved far down to the west. Suddenly one long colorless ray pierced the gaseous clouds and shot down like a long sword onto the sea. Where it pierced it turned the water to an arctic turquoise, like a brilliant pool in the midst of a gray and turbulent plain. The gulls screamed louder. The wind tore at the girl’s shawl, whipped her face savagely, almost blew her from her seat.

“Hello!” said a strange voice at her shoulder. She started violently, then caught at the sides of the boulder to prevent herself from falling. She turned her head, for she abjectly feared strangers. A boy of about twelve was standing beside her, laughing, a big boy with a face bright red from cold and wind, a handsome boy whose bare head was covered with a thick cap of strong black hair.

Caroline did not reply. She stared at him anxiously. He kicked a wet stone. He was poorly dressed, even more poorly than herself; his wrists extended far below his short sleeves, and the trousers he wore were stretched hard to meet his knees, so that he had a long, lithe look, somewhat wild and unkempt. The wind blew his hair from his ears, and they had a faunlike shape, pointed and pale, contrasting with the color on his wide cheekbones and on his full, smiling lips. He had eyes as blue as a winter sky, and his nose was short and virile, his chin deeply dimpled.

“I’m Tom Sheldon,” he said. His voice was strong, almost manly, and full of warmth and gaiety. “You’re not scared of me, are you? Why, I’m your neighbor. We live only about a mile from you. You’re Caroline Ames, aren’t you, old Ames’ girl? Heard about you in the village.”

Caroline did not answer. Old Kate was always warning her not to speak to strangers. “One never knows,” she would say wisely with a menacing gleam in her eyes. Caroline had come to believe, in spite of Beth’s fitful efforts, that those one did not know were in some way ominous. The little girl began to shift uneasily on the boulder. She glanced at the house; if the boy ‘did’ something, this terrible easy boy, she would scream and Beth would come running.

“You scared?” said Tom, and laughed in her face. He studied her, his head held sideways. “Say, you’re not as homely as everybody says. Say, you’re almost nice-looking.” He peered at her, thrusting out his head. “Why don’t you ever come to the village? The old man keep you locked up?” Caroline, to her immense surprise, heard her voice answering with weak indignation. “He’s not an old man! Don’t you dare talk like that! I don’t know you. I’m going home.” She dropped to the shingle, then paused, for Tom was laughing at her. For some reason her anger vanished. He had said she wasn’t homely!

She did not know how to talk with strangers, and her lips fumbled. She said proudly, “My papa is coming home. I just saw his ship.”

“You mean that old ship that just went by?” asked Tom, waving his hand toward the sea. “Why, that was nothing but an old freighter. I can tell. Your pa on a freighter?”

Caroline was silent a moment. She reflected. “I don’t know,” she said finally. “It’s suppertime. I’ve got to go in.”

Tom put his cold hands in his pockets and eyed her with humor. “They say your pa is as rich as Croesus,” he remarked.

“Who’s Croesus?” asked Caroline, preparing to run off.

Tom shrugged. “Hell, I don’t know,” he replied. “But that’s what they say.”

“You swore,” said Caroline reprovingly. She pulled the shawl closer about her broad shoulders. Then she did something she had never done before. She giggled. Tom regarded her with approval. “Hell,” he repeated, hoping to evoke another giggle. “You sure aren’t so damn homely.”

He gazed at the stocky little girl, with her big shoulders and her very short neck, her heavy arms and heavier legs, her bulky body in its wretched dark red coat. She had a clumsy, slow manner. Her square face had a stolid look and was without color in spite of the bitter gale, and her mouth was large and without mobility, her nose almost square, with coarse nostrils and spattered with large brown freckles. Her solid chin would have suited a youth rather than a girl child, and so short was her neck that it forced a fold of pallid flesh under the chin. Her very fine dark hair, wisping out from its thin long braids, did not lighten her unprepossessing appearance. The wind dashed her braids in the air like whips.

Caroline was tall for her age, but she was half a head shorter than Tom. The children stared at each other, face to face. Caroline with reluctance and fear, but also with a desire to learn again that she was not truly ugly. She gave her benefactor a shy smile, and when she did so her eyes lit up and sparkled. They were remarkably beautiful eyes, a golden hazel, large and well set under her broad, bare forehead and sharp black eyebrows, and they possessed lashes incredibly thick, and they were extremely soft and intelligent, limpid in the last light from the sky.

“There!” said Tom. “Why, you’re real pretty when you smile. You’ve got real pretty eyes, and nice white teeth, too, though they’re kind of big.” He was pleased with himself; he had discovered something unknown to anyone else. He was naturally friendly. In spite of the poverty of his family, he felt no inferiority. He was without fear, for he was strong. He was also gentle in his heart and curious about all things. Caroline’s hands stopped clutching at her shawl. She basked in the memory of what this boy had told her. She lifted her head as if she were a beauty, and for the first time in her short life there was a curious lilting and warmth in her chest.

“My mama was very pretty,” she said. “Aunt Cynthia’s got her picture. It was painted by a great artist. In New York.”

“You must look like her,” said Tom with large kindness. Caroline shook her head and pulled down her whipping braids. “No, I don’t look like Mama at all. She’s dead.”

“You must look like your old man, then,” said Tom.

“Oh no,” said Caroline, as if this were an insult. “My papa’s very handsome. He’s tall and has blue eyes and curly brown hair and dresses very stylish. He buys all his clothes in New York. And he isn’t old. You mustn’t say that.”

“Never saw him,” said Tom, eyeing her shrewdly.

“He’s been away all summer, in Europe,” said Caroline. “He’s on business.”

“He sure is rich, they say.”

Caroline reflected on that. But it was a matter of indifference to her. She was not quite sure what it meant to be rich, or poor. “I don’t know,” she said.

“You don’t know! Why, that’s funny,” said Tom. “Now, I know we’re poor. Sure know we’re poor! My dad does odd jobs around for the folks in the summer colony.” He examined the Ames house and the grounds with a critical eye. “Your pa could use my dad, but then the folks in the village say your pa is as tight as his skin. Tighter. Never spends a cent. He don’t even have a carriage.”

“We don’t need one,” said Caroline. “Not here, anyway. But we’ve got a carriage in Lyndon. Old Jim drives it. Papa always says we’ve got to be careful.”

“Bet you never have any fun,” said Tom suddenly. “You kind of look that way.”

Caroline became confused at all these remarks. What did ‘fun’ mean? “Bet you never play with any other girls,” Tom continued.

“Well, no,” said Caroline uncertainly. “Papa doesn’t like strangers in the house. He doesn’t want me to get diseases, either. I have to come right home from Public School Number 10. That’s eight streets from where we live in Lyndon.”

“And you don’t play with the girls at school?” said Tom.

“They don’t like me,” said Caroline, as if this were perfectly normal.

“Why not? You look like a nice girl.”

“I don’t know why. They don’t even speak to me. Only the teachers talk to me. I like Miss Crowley the best. She bought me a blue ribbon for Christmas last year. It was awful pretty.” Caroline looked at Tom. He was no longer smiling. “Hell,” he muttered, and kicked a stone viciously.

Then he turned to Caroline again. “Your pa’s rich, and you go to a public school,” he said, as if accusing her. “The summer people who come here send their girls to private schools, and I’ll bet they don’t have half the money your pa has!”

Caroline was confused again.

“And they’ve got servants, too,” went on Tom wrathfully.

“So do we,” said Caroline eagerly, wishing to please him. “We’ve got old Kate, who was my mother’s nurse, and she’s our housekeeper, and we’ve got Beth, who’s awful nice, and she helps Kate and takes care of me.”

“Your clothes are terrible,” said Tom. “Like they come off a Salvation Army line, like mine. Why don’t your pa buy you some pretty dresses like other girls have, and a fur muff? Bet you look worse than even the girls in your public school.”

“I guess we aren’t rich after all,” said Caroline with distress. Being rich suddenly seemed very desirable to her. “We have to be very, very careful, Papa always tells me.”

“Ho!” snorted Tom.

“I’ve got ten dollars in my tin bank in the house,” offered Caroline. She drew a deep breath and added over the bellowing of the wind: “I haven’t told her yet, but I’m going to give three of them tomorrow to Beth. It’s her birthday.”

“That’s nice,” said Tom, gentle again.

“She gave me a birthday present last April,” said Caroline. “A little doll; she made the clothes herself. It was the first doll I ever had.”

“Don’t you get Christmas presents?” asked Tom disbelievingly.

Caroline shook her large head. “No. Papa doesn’t believe in them. He says it’s a waste of money and foolish. But he gave me three dollars on my birthday.”

“Doesn’t he ever bring you anything when he comes home?”

“No,” said Caroline, surprised. “Why should he?”

“I’ll be damned,” said Tom.

Caroline twisted her hands together. She had heard anger in Tom’s voice. “My papa loves me very much,” she said. “And I love him more than anything. I don’t need presents.”

Beth came out on the rickety porch, her head wrapped in a shawl. “Carrie!” she shouted, taking a careful step or two toward the treacherous broken steps. “Carrie, you come in now and have your supper! And who’re you talking to?” She peered at the children in the sullen half-light.

Tom waved to her. “It’s just me, Mrs. Knowles!” he shouted back. “Tom Sheldon. Just talking to Carrie here. Mind?”

“Well, no,” she screamed, and smiled. “Come on, Carrie.” She returned to the house and shut the battered door. She went to the fire, still smiling. “Well, something’s happened I’m glad of. Carrie’s talking to the Sheldon boy. Real natural, like a child should.”

“She can’t talk to him,” said Kate. “He’ll never stand for it. You know what he thinks of the village people. I’ll give that girl a talking to.” She twitched her shawl. “Why doesn’t the brat come in?”

“I’ll be right here tomorrow,” Tom was promising Caroline. “Same time. I have to help my dad during the day.”

“Come back tomorrow,” said Caroline. “Be sure and come back!”

Kate never permitted anything to interfere with what she fondly called her ‘digestion’; she decided not to upbraid Caroline until after supper. But her expression was grim. As the two women and the child sat at the table in the bleak lamplight and firelight, she gave Caroline intimidating glances, of which Caroline was utterly unaware. Caroline was thinking of Tom as she ate. Her beautiful hazel eyes glowed in her plain, nearly ugly face. The thick lashes that sheltered them were like a hedge about golden pools. There was even some color on her square cheeks. She had a dreaming expression, soft and reminiscent. Beth watched her, her sentimental heart yearning and tender. Why, the poor little thing was almost pretty! And all that came from just once being natural and talking to another child!

The dinner was plentiful but poor in quality, for Kate ‘watched’ the bills scrupulously. Beth did the cooking, but there was little she could accomplish in the way of a fine meal under the circumstances of a restricted budget. And what, she would ask herself despairingly, could one do when the purse permitted only tough, boiled meat and boiled turnips and mashed potatoes without butter, and coarse bread and weak tea? She was certain that he fed himself well in all those foreign places and in Boston and New York and Washington, for he had a sleek look, and his skin was well tended and polished. But his child could eat like a beggar for all he cared.

Caroline ate absently and with her usual silence. She had never known excellent food in all her life. She was permitted but one cup of milk a day, and never any sweets or cakes except what Beth could bake her, the ingredients of which Beth bought herself from her meager wage. Caroline had never been truly hungry and had never relished any meal. Her palate was so blunted that on the twice-yearly occasions of her visits to her Aunt Cynthia on Beacon Street she could not enjoy the splendid and delicately flavored food. It seemed very odd to her that anyone could eat pheasant with chestnut dressing, wine-flavored sauces, roast meat and peculiar vegetables, such as artichokes under glass, and glacés, and rich fruit cakes, and coffee floating in cream touched with brandy.

In the way of old people, Kate became drowsy after supper and forgot that she must admonish Caroline. So at eight o’clock Beth took Caroline’s hand and led her from the room, carrying a half-burned candle in an old brass holder. The narrow hall outside the parlor was as black and cold as death, whistling with the wind that penetrated the thousand cracks in the ancient house. The faint candlelight shifted in these drafts, showing the unpolished floor, on which there was no carpeting, and the shut door of the dining room that reflected back no gleam of burnished wood. The woman and the child hurried up the echoing stairs, which trembled under their tread. They reached a long thin hall with closed doors; a mouse squeaked away from them, and Beth jumped. The little beams of the candle flickered in the musty gloom; the house smelled of mold and mice and bad drains and memories of boiled cabbage. The damp walls were peeling, the timeless wallpaper of roses and leaves dripping slightly with sea dampness. Beth opened a door, and the air that gushed out at her was bitterly arctic.

The room they entered was small, with a high cracked ceiling. The walls had been only plastered more than forty years ago; they were discolored with damp to a soiled gray. Here, also, there were no carpets; the small window was uncurtained, with only shutters to keep out the night and the early sun. A narrow bed with no counterpane stood in the center of the room, its thin cheap blankets smooth, its pillowcases very white from Beth’s scrubbing. A chest of drawers, with the varnish warped upon it, lurked against a wall, and there was one single rush chair near the bed. This was Caroline’s room, no better and no worse than the other bedrooms, and without heat of any kind.

Beth put the candlestick on the chair, for the room had no table. “Lord,” she said, “we’ll have to get to bed in a hurry, won’t we, dear? Now, let me help you get undressed.” Caroline was ten years old, but Beth loved these ministrations, which filled her lonely heart with affection. She stripped off Caroline’s wool plaid dress — an ugly plaid of serviceable serge bought two years ago — and then the girl’s knitted petticoats and woolen drawers and darned cotton stockings. The child stood before her, hugging her thick body for warmth, while Beth shook out the flannel nightgown which she had folded in the morning under the pillows. The flannel had once been white; it was now yellow from countless washings. “There,” said Beth, dropping the too short garment over Caroline’s shoulders and smoothing it down with the gentlest hands. “Now we’ll be comfortable. Get into bed, sweetheart, and I’ll hear your prayers.”

But Caroline, who seldom spoke, now wished to talk. “I like Tom,” she said shyly. “He’s awfully funny, but I like him. He swears. I like to hear him swear.”

“Boys shouldn’t swear,” said Beth, without reproof, however. “Tom’s a good boy. He was just bragging to you, the way boys brag to girls. I’m glad you like him.” Beth tucked the blankets closely about Caroline’s chin. Then she sat in the candlelight and smiled at the child, putting the candle on the floor, repressing her shivers.

“I do like him,” said Caroline, and her child’s voice, naturally husky and slow, trembled a little. “Not the way I like Papa.” Beth smoothed the long thin braids of dark hair. “Beth, do you think Papa will be home tomorrow?”

“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Beth, and her voice hardened.

“Tom thinks he should bring me presents. Isn’t that funny?”

“Very funny,” said Beth. “Now, let’s pray and go to sleep.”

But Caroline was not prepared to pray yet. She studied Beth solemnly. Then she smiled, and those wonderful eyes of hers, so pure, so large, so absolutely beautiful, made the woman catch her breath. “You know what he said, Beth? He said I was pretty. Honest he did.”

“You are, you are!” said Beth fervently, as if defying someone. “You have eyes like an angel, and a lovely smile. Oh, my dear, do smile often! Do you know you seldom smile?”

“You mean I’m really pretty?” asked Caroline, her voice trembling again. “Cross your heart?”

Beth immediately crossed her heart, and her comely face shone as if fresh from tears. Caroline at once giggled. The child nestled on her starched cold pillows. She folded her hands and recited:

“Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,
Watch the night this sleeping child.”

It was too cold for the nightly Bible reading. Beth was already numb; Then Caroline put out her broad hand and caught Beth’s dress and she colored shyly.

“Beth,” she whispered, “you thought I didn’t know it was your birthday tomorrow. But I did!” She unclutched her other hand and revealed three of my bank.”

Beth took the old and rumpled bills and looked at them by the light of the candle. She could not speak.

Caroline sat up in alarm. “Beth!” she cried. “What’s the matter, Beth? Why are you crying? Beth, Beth, why are you crying?”

 

A Prologue to Love by Taylor Caldwell
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