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Ruth Sawyer

The Chapter before the Beginning

I WONDER if you know that stories have a way of beginning themselves? Sometimes they even do more than this. They tell themselves—beginning and ending just where they please—with no consideration at all for the author or the reader.

Perhaps you have discovered this for yourself; you may have in mind this minute some of the stories that you wished had begun long before they did—and others that ended before you thought they had any business doing so. These have a very unpleasant way of leaving your expectations and your interest all agog; and I have not a doubt that you have always blamed the author. This is not fair. In a matter of this kind an author is just as helpless as a reader, and there is no use in trying to coax or scold a story into telling itself her way. As sure as she tries the story gets sulky or hurt, picks up its beginning and ending, and trails away, never to come back; and that story is lost for all time. You may try it yourself if you do not believe me.

Now, if I could have had my way, I should have begun with David in the window nook at dusk-hour, looking out on the Hill Country all white with the gathering snow; and I should have said:

"It was the year after last—and the year before next—and just seven days before Christmas—"

I have begun this way a hundred times, and every time the same thing happens. The story behaves disgracefully. It will have none of my way. I have actually heard it screaming: "No! I won't begin there! I won't—I won't—I won't!" After which it always runs for the door. As a result I have become completely cowed and I have given in. I am making believe now (and so must you, for it never does to let a story get in a bad humor) that after all this is the best beginning.

It was late fall when David's world dropped away from him; at least to David that is what seemed to happen. When one loses the very things one always expects to have—big things like mother and father, home and the boys on the block—why, there is not so very much of the world left. To David, speeding toward the Hill Country on the big express with Johanna, it seemed as if there was not enough left to fill even one of the many empty days that lay before him.

It had all come about because of father being a scientist. Just what a scientist was David had never felt quite sure, but he knew it meant having a great deal of knowledge and very little time—time for boys. It also meant forgetting things that even David was supposed to remember; things like going to bed, and coming home at dinner-time, and putting on a coat when it was cold, and rubbers when it rained. Mother always laughed at these and said that father was more trouble to look after than David; and she wondered what she would do if the time ever came when she would have to decide between the two of them, and which needed her most.

And then, without any warning, that time had come. Very suddenly father came home one night and announced that there was a fresh development of an almost unknown bacillus among the soldiers in the Eastern war zone; it was the chance of a lifetime for a scientist, and he would go as soon as he could pack and make necessary arrangements. The next moment he had plunged into his pocket for his note-book, and only David had seen how white and still mother had grown. When she spoke at last there was a funny little catch in her voice that sounded as if it had tried to be a laugh, but somehow could not manage it.

"I hoped and prayed that this wouldn't happen quite so soon—this having to decide between my big boy and my little boy."

Father had laughed outright. "Nonsense, there is nothing to decide. Of course you stay with David. The war country is no place for either of you, and I shall manage perfectly by myself."

"The war country is no place for David; but there are plenty of women over there working side by side with their husbands. Oh, my dear, my dear!"

Mother's arms had gathered them both in and mother was holding them close. It was to father, however, that she was speaking. "I believe you are my little boy, after all. Manage! Over there! When you can't take care of yourself in your own civilized country! No, my dear, you need a mother more than David does. Besides, there's Johanna; we'll send for her. She will look after David almost as well as I can; but what would she do with you!" This time the laugh had right of way and rippled all over mother's face.

Father had stopped making notes and was looking at them both with that funny wrinkly smile about his mouth that David loved to see.

"Well, sir, what do you think about it?" he said, looking straight at David.

David had squared his shoulders and straightened his chin; but it took two hard swallows before he could answer. "I think, sir, that mother is right. You see I'm eight, going on nine; and when, a—man's that old he ought to be able to look after himself for a while. Don't you think so?"

"He certainly ought to; but it seems that there are some who never are quite able." And father's hand had suddenly reached up to mother's, which was about his shoulder.

That is all there had been to it. The next day Johanna had come—good, Irish Johanna, who had taken care of him as a baby and had stayed until he had outgrown his need of her and she had married Barney. The day after, he had said good-by to the boys on the block; and he had said it as one about to depart upon a rare adventure, taking his leave of less fortunate comrades. He did not intend that they should discover how much of his world had dropped away from him, or how he envied them the continued possession of theirs. Moreover, it increased his courage threefold to make believe that what had happened was not so bad, after all. In this manner he was able to assume an added stature, one fitting his newly acquired manhood, when the time came to swing the door of his home tight shut; and he was able to say a brave good-by to father and mother.

Now it was all over. He and Johanna were speeding toward the Hill Country, and he was glad, very glad, to be a little boy again and snuggle into the hollow of Johanna's arm as he had been used to doing in the old nursery days. After all, eight-going-on-nine is not so very old.

David wasted no time. Out of the scraps that were left him he tried at once to build up a new world. He looked out of the car window at the fields and houses flying past, and he thought of all the pleasant things Johanna had promised him. Johanna and Barney were the caretakers of a big summer hotel in the mountains. The summer season was over, the hotel closed, and he was going to live with Johanna and Barney in the lodge and have a whole mountain-top to play on. He was going to help Barney cut down next year's fire-wood and drive the sledge for him over the lumber roads. He was going to make a toboggan-slide down the cleared side of the mountain; he was going to skate on the pond above the beaver dam, and learn to skee, and a crowd of other jolly things. And in the spring there were to be the maple-trees to tap. Only, in the mean time, there were father and mother traveling farther and farther away; and there was Christmas coming nearer and nearer. And how could he ever stand one without the others?

He turned away from the car window and looked at Johanna; and then out popped the most surprising question from her.

"Hark, laddy! Have ye forgotten all about the fairies and the stories Johanna used to tell?"

David smiled without knowing it.

"Why, no. No, I haven't. A person never entirely forgets about fairies, even if he does grow up—does he? I guess I haven't been thinking about them lately, that's all."

"Sure, and ye haven't!" Johanna's voice had the same folksy ring to it that it had in the nursery days. "Faith, 'tis hard keeping them lively when ye are living in the city. Wasn't I almost giving over believing in them myself, after living there a few years? It wasn't till I moved to the hilltops and the green country that I got them back again."

"Have you seen any up there?"

David asked it as one might inquire about the personal habits of Santa Claus or the chances of finding the crock of gold at the rainbow's end, experiences one has never had oneself, but which one is perfectly willing to credit to another upon receipt of satisfactory evidence. Moreover, fairies were undeniably comfortable to think about just now. And what is more, whenever things happen that seem unreal and that make you feel strange and unreal yourself, that is the very time that fairies become the most real and easy to believe in. David discovered this now, and it made him snuggle closer to Johanna and repeat his question:

"Have you really seen any up there?" Johanna puckered her forehead and considered for a moment.

" 'Tis this way, laddy. I can't be saying honestly that I have laid my two eyes on one for certain; and then again I can't say honestly that I haven't. Many's the time in the woods or thereabouts that I've had the feeling I've just stumbled on one, just missed him by a wink, or beaten him there by a second. The moss by the brookside would have a trodden-down look and the bracken would be swaying with no help o' the wind—for all the world as if a wee man had just been brushing his way through."

"It might have been a squirrel," suggested David, the dust of the city still clouding his mind.

"Aye, but I'm thinking it wasn't. And if there's a fairy up yonder in the Hill Country I'm thinking ye'll find him. 'Twill give ye one thing more to do, eh, laddy?" Johanna tightened the arm about him and laughed softly.

"But how would fairies get over here? I shouldn't think they would ever want to leave Ireland; and I thought they never came out in winter."

"They might come because they had been locked out." Johanna's eyes suddenly began to dance mysteriously, and she put her lips close to David's ear that the noise and jar of the train might not drown one word of what she was going to say:

"Whist, laddy! Do ye mind what day it is? 'Tis the very last day of the fairy summer, the last day when they'll be making the rings and dancing the reels over in Ireland."

"Why, it's Hallowe'en," remembered David.

"Aye, that's what! And after this night the fairies bolt the doors of their raths fast with magic and never come out again till May Eve, barring once in a white winter or so when they come out on Christmas Eve. But it happens every so often that a fairy gets locked out on this night. He stays dancing too long, or playing too many tricks, and when he gets back to the rath 'tis past cock-crow and the door is barred against him. Then there's naught for him to do but to bide how and where he can till opening time comes on May Eve."

"And if—and if—"

"Sure, if one should get locked out this night, what's to prevent his coming over? What's more likely than that he'd be saying to himself, 'Faith, Ireland 'll be a mortal lonely place with the rest o' the lads gone. I'll try my luck in another country.' And with that he follows the rest of the Irish and emigrates over here. And if he ever lands, ye mark my word, laddy, he'll make straight for the Hill Country! That is, if he's not there already ahead of himself."

Johanna laughed and David laughed with her.

"Sure, there's a heap o' sense in some nonsense, mind that! And never be so foolish, just because ye grow up and get a little book knowledge, as to turn up your nose and mock at the things ye loved and believed in when ye were a little lad. Them that do, lose one of the biggest cures for heartache there is in the world, mind that!"

David turned back to the window. Already, beyond the foreground of passing woods and meadows, he could catch glimpses of the Hill Country, hazy and purple, lying afar off. Johanna was right. It was better to think of the locked-out fairy than of himself. He found himself wondering if fairies grew lonesome as humans did, and if it was as hard to be locked out of a rath as a home. He wondered if all the fairies were grown up or if there were boy and girl fairies, and father and mother fairies. He would ask Johanna some time, when he was sure he could ask it with a perfectly steady voice. But most of all, he wondered about opening time; and he wished with all his heart that he knew just when opening time would come for him. Until then, he must keep very busy with the fire-wood and the sled and the toboggan-slide and the skating and skeeing and Christmas.

What kind of a Christmas was it going to be?

The train climbed half-way to the top of the highest hill and there it left David and Johanna. Barney was waiting for them with the horses and the big wagon to carry them up the rest of the way; and to David it seemed a very lonesome way. The stars were out before they reached the lodge, but even in the starlight he could see that they were alone on the hilltop except for the great, shadowy, closed hotel and the encompassing fir-trees.

"Ye'll not be troubled with noise, and ye'll not be pestered with neighbors," laughed Barney, as he helped David to clamber down from the wagon. "Johanna says that in the winter there is nobody alive in these parts but the creatures and the 'heathens' and ourselves."