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THE BLUE CASTLE - 3

CHAPTER III

Breakfast was always the same. Oatmeal porridge, which Valancy loathed, toast and tea, and one teaspoonful of marmalade. Mrs. Frederick thought two teaspoonfuls extravagant—but that did not matter to Valancy, who hated marmalade, too. The chilly, gloomy little dining-room was chillier and gloomier than usual; the rain streamed down outside the window; departed Stirlings, in atrocious, gilt frames, wider than the pictures, glowered down from the walls. And yet Cousin Stickles wished Valancy many happy returns of the day!

"Sit up straight, Doss," was all her mother said.

Valancy sat up straight. She talked to her mother and Cousin Stickles of the things they always talked of. She never wondered what would happen if she tried to talk of something else. She knew. Therefore she never did it.

Mrs. Frederick was offended with Providence for sending a rainy day when she wanted to go to a picnic, so she ate her breakfast in a sulky silence for which Valancy was rather grateful. But Christine Stickles whined endlessly on as usual, complaining about everything—the weather, the leak in the pantry, the price of oatmeal and butter—Valancy felt at once she had buttered her toast too lavishly—the epidemic of mumps in Deerwood.

"Doss will be sure to ketch them," she foreboded.

"Doss must not go where she is likely to catch mumps," said Mrs. Frederick shortly.

Valancy had never had mumps—or whooping cough—or chicken-pox—or measles—or anything she should have had—nothing but horrible colds every winter. Doss' winter colds were a sort of tradition in the family. Nothing, it seemed, could prevent her from catching them. Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles did their heroic best. One winter they kept Valancy housed up from November to May, in the warm sitting-room. She was not even allowed to go to church. And Valancy took cold after cold and ended up with bronchitis in June.

"None of my family were ever like that," said Mrs. Frederick, implying that it must be a Stirling tendency.

"The Stirlings seldom take colds," said Cousin Stickles resentfully. She had been a Stirling.

"I think," said Mrs. Frederick, "that if a person makes up her mind not to have colds she will not have colds."

So that was the trouble. It was all Valancy's own fault.

But on this particular morning Valancy's unbearable grievance was that she was called Doss. She had endured it for twenty-nine years, and all at once she felt she could not endure it any longer. Her full name was Valancy Jane. Valancy Jane was rather terrible, but she liked Valancy, with its odd, out-land tang. It was always a wonder to Valancy that the Stirlings had allowed her to be so christened. She had been told that her maternal grandfather, old Amos Wansbarra, had chosen the name for her. Her father had tacked on the Jane by way of civilising it, and the whole connection got out of the difficulty by nicknaming her Doss. She never got Valancy from any one but outsiders.

"Mother," she said timidly, "would you mind calling me Valancy after this? Doss seems so—so—I don't like it."

Mrs. Frederick looked at her daughter in astonishment. She wore glasses with enormously strong lenses that gave her eyes a peculiarly disagreeable appearance.

"What is the matter with Doss?"

"It—seems so childish," faltered Valancy.

"Oh!" Mrs. Frederick had been a Wansbarra and the Wansbarra smile was not an asset. "I see. Well, it should suit you then. You are childish enough in all conscience, my dear child."

"I am twenty-nine," said the dear child desperately.

"I wouldn't proclaim it from the house-tops if I were you, dear," said Mrs. Frederick. "Twenty-nine! I had been married nine years when I was twenty-nine."

"I was married at seventeen," said Cousin Stickles proudly.

Valancy looked at them furtively. Mrs. Frederick, except for those terrible glasses and the hooked nose that made her look more like a parrot than a parrot itself could look, was not ill-looking. At twenty she might have been quite pretty. But Cousin Stickles! And yet Christine Stickles had once been desirable in some man's eyes. Valancy felt that Cousin Stickles, with her broad, flat, wrinkled face, a mole right on the end of her dumpy nose, bristling hairs on her chin, wrinkled yellow neck, pale, protruding eyes, and thin, puckered mouth, had yet this advantage over her—this right to look down on her. And even yet Cousin Stickles was necessary to Mrs. Frederick. Valancy wondered pitifully what it would be like to be wanted by some one—needed by some one. No one in the whole world needed her, or would miss anything from life if she dropped suddenly out of it. She was a disappointment to her mother. No one loved her. She had never so much as had a girl friend.

"I haven't even a gift for friendship," she had once admitted to herself pitifully.

"Doss, you haven't eaten your crusts," said Mrs. Frederick rebukingly.

It rained all the forenoon without cessation. Valancy pieced a quilt. Valancy hated piecing quilts. And there was no need of it. The house was full of quilts. There were three big chests, packed with quilts, in the attic. Mrs. Frederick had begun storing away quilts when Valancy was seventeen and she kept on storing them, though it did not seem likely that Valancy would ever need them. But Valancy must be at work and fancy work materials were too expensive. Idleness was a cardinal sin in the Stirling household. When Valancy had been a child she had been made to write down every night, in a small, hated, black notebook, all the minutes she had spent in idleness that day. On Sundays her mother made her tot them up and pray over them.

On this particular forenoon of this day of destiny Valancy spent only ten minutes in idleness. At least, Mrs. Frederick and Cousin Stickles would have called it idleness. She went to her room to get a better thimble and she opened Thistle Harvest guiltily at random.

"The woods are so human," wrote John Foster, "that to know them one must live with them. An occasional saunter through them, keeping to the well-trodden paths, will never admit us to their intimacy. If we wish to be friends we must seek them out and win them by frequent, reverent visits at all hours; by morning, by noon, and by night; and at all seasons, in spring, in summer, in autumn, in winter. Otherwise we can never really know them and any pretence we may make to the contrary will never impose on them. They have their own effective way of keeping aliens at a distance and shutting their hearts to mere casual sightseers. It is of no use to seek the woods from any motive except sheer love of them; they will find us out at once and hide all their sweet, old-world secrets from us. But if they know we come to them because we love them they will be very kind to us and give us such treasures of beauty and delight as are not bought or sold in any market-place. For the woods, when they give at all, give unstintedly and hold nothing back from their true worshippers. We must go to them lovingly, humbly, patiently, watchfully, and we shall learn what poignant loveliness lurks in the wild places and silent intervals, lying under starshine and sunset, what cadences of unearthly music are harped on aged pine boughs or crooned in copses of fir, what delicate savours exhale from mosses and ferns in sunny corners or on damp brooklands, what dreams and myths and legends of an older time haunt them. Then the immortal heart of the woods will beat against ours and its subtle life will steal into our veins and make us its own forever, so that no matter where we go or how widely we wander we shall yet be drawn back to the forest to find our most enduring kinship."

"Doss," called her mother from the hall below, "what are you doing all by yourself in that room?"

Valancy dropped Thistle Harvest like a hot coal and fled downstairs to her patches; but she felt the strange exhilaration of spirit that always came momentarily to her when she dipped into one of John Foster's books. Valancy did not know much about woods—except the haunted groves of oak and pine around her Blue Castle. But she had always secretly hankered after them and a Foster book about woods was the next best thing to the woods themselves.

At noon it stopped raining, but the sun did not come out until three. Then Valancy timidly said she thought she would go uptown.

"What do you want to go uptown for?" demanded her mother.

"I want to get a book from the library."

"You got a book from the library only last week."

"No, it was four weeks."

"Four weeks. Nonsense!"

"Really it was, Mother."

"You are mistaken. It cannot possibly have been more than two weeks. I dislike contradiction. And I do not see what you want to get a book for, anyhow. You waste too much time reading."

"Of what value is my time?" asked Valancy bitterly.

"Doss! Don't speak in that tone to me."

"We need some tea," said Cousin Stickles. "She might go and get that if she wants a walk—though this damp weather is bad for colds."

They argued the matter for ten minutes longer and finally Mrs. Frederick agreed rather grudgingly that Valancy might go.