-From A Mother in Mannville
The Orphanage is high in the Carolina mountains. Sometimes in winter the snowdrifts are so deep that the institution is cut off from the village below,from all the world. Fog hides the mountain peaks, the snow swirls down the valleys, and a wind blows so bitterly that the orphanage boys who take the milk twice daily to the baby cottage reach the door with fingers stiff in anagony of numbness.
I was there in the autumn. I wanted quiet, isolation, to do some troublesome writing. I wanted mountain air to blow out the malaria from too long a time in the subtropics. I was homesick, too, for the flaming of maples in October,and for corn shocks and pumpkins and black-walnut trees and the lift of hills. I found them all, living in a cabin that belonged to the orphanage, half a mile beyond the orphanage farm. When I took the cabin, I asked for a boyor man to come and chop wood for the fireplace. The first few days were warm, I found what wood I needed about the cabin, no one came, and Iforgot the order.
I looked up from my typewriter one late afternoon, a little startled. A boystood at the door, and my pointer dog, my companion, was at his side and had not barked to warn me. The boy was probably twelve years old, but undersized. He wore overalls and a torn shirt, and was barefooted.
He said, "I can chop some wood today."
I said, "But I have a boy coming from the orphanage."
"I'm the boy."
"You? But you're small."
"Size don't matter, chopping wood," he said. "Some of the big boys don't chop good. I've been chopping wood at the orphanage a long time."
I visualized mangled and inadequate branches for my fires. I was well into my work and not inclined to conversation. I was a little blunt."Very well. There's the ax. Go ahead and see what you can do."
I went back to work,closing the door. At first the sound of the boy dragging brush annoyed me. Then he began to chop. The blows were rhythmic and steady, and shortly I had forgotten him, the sound no more of an interruption than a consistent rain. I suppose an hour and a half passed, for when I stopped and stretched, and heard the boy's steps on the cabin stoop, the sun was dropping behind the farthest mountain, and the valleys were purplewith something deeper than the asters.
The boy said, "I have to go to supper now. I can come again tomorrow evening."
I said, "I'll pay you now for what you've done," thinking I should probably have to insist on an older boy. "Ten cents an hour'?"
"Anything is all right."
We went together back of the cabin. An astonishing amount of solid wood had been cut. There were cherry logs and heavy roots of rhododendron, and blocks from the waste pine and oak left from the building of the cabin.
"But you've done as much as a man," I said. "This is a splendid pile."
I looked at him, actually, for the first time. His hair was the color of the corn shocks, and his eyes, very direct, were like the mountain sky when rain is pending-gray, with a shadowing of that miraculous blue. As I spoke a light came over him, as though the setting sun had touched him with the same suffused glory with which it touched the mountains. I gave him a quarter.
"You may come tomorrow," I said, "and thank you very much."He looked at me, and at the coin, and seemed to want to speak, but could not, and turned away.
"I'll split kindling tomorrow," he said over his thin ragged shoulder. "You'llneed kindling and medium wood and logs and backlogs."
At daylight I was half wakened by the sound of chopping. Again it was so even in texture that I went back to sleep. When I left my bed in the cool morning, the boy had come and gone, and a stack of kindling was neat against the cabin wall. He came again after school in the afternoon and worked until time to return to the orphanage. His name was Jerry; he was twelve years old, and he had been at the orphanage since he was four. I could picture him at four, with the same grave gray-blue eyes and the same-independence? No, the word that comes to me is "integrity."
The word means something very special to me, and the quality for which I use it is a rare one. My father had it-there is another of whom I am almost sure-but almost no man of my acquaintance possesses it with the clarity,the purity, the simplicity of a mountain stream. But the boy Jerry had it. It is bedded-on courage, but it is more than brave. It is honest, but it is more than honesty. The ax handle broke one day. Jerry said the woodshop at the orphanage would repair it. I brought money to pay for the job and he refused it.
"I'll pay for it," he said. "I broke it. I brought the ax down careless."
"But no one hits accurately every time," I told him. "The fault was in the wood of the handle. I'll see the man from whom I bought it.
"It was only then that he would take the money. He was standing back of his own carelessness . He was a free-will agent and he chose to do careful work, and if he failed, he took the responsibility without subterfuge.