The Triumph of Youth
THE afternoon blazed and glittered along the motionless tree-tops and down into the yellow dust of the road. Under the shadows of the trees, among the powdered grass and bushes, sat a woman and a man. The man was young and handsome in a way, with a lean eager face and burning eyes, a forehead in the old poetic mould crowned by loose dark waves of hair; his chin was long, his lips parted devouringly and his glances seemed to eat his companion’s face. It was not a pretty face, not even ordinarily good looking,—sallow, not young, only youngish; but there was a peculiar mobility about it, that made one notice it. She waved her hand slowly from East to West, indicating the horizon, and said dreamingly: “How wide it is, how far it is! One can get one’s breath. In the city I always feel that the walls are squeezing my chest.” After a little silence she asked without looking at him: “What are you thinking of, Bernard?”
“You,” he murmured.
She glanced at him under her lids musingly, stretched out her hand and touched his eyelids with her finger-tips, and turned aside with a curious fleeting smile. He caught at her hand, but failing to touch it as she drew it away, bit his lip and forcedly looked off at the sky and the landscape: “Yes,” he said in a strained voice, “it is beautiful, after the city. I wish we could stay in it.”
The woman sighed: “That’s what I have been wishing for the last fifteen years.”
He bent towards her eagerly: “Do you think—” he stopped and stammered, “You know we have been planning, a few of us, to club together and get a little farm somewhere near—would you—do you think—would you be one of us?”
She laughed, a little low, sad laugh: “I wouldn’t be any good, you know. I couldn’t do the work that ought to be done. I would come fast enough and I would try. But I’m a little too old, Bernard. The rest are young enough to make mistakes and live to make them good; but when I would have my lesson learned, my strength would be gone. It’s half gone now.”
“No, it isn’t,” burst out the youth. “You’re worth half a dozen of those young ones. Old, old—one would think you were seventy. And you’re not old; you will never be old,”
She looked up where a crow was wheeling in the air. “If,” she said slowly, following its motions with her eyes, “you once plant your feet on my face, and you will, you impish bird—my Bernard will sing a different song.”
“No, Bernard won’t,” retorted the youth. “Bernard knows his own mind, even if he is ‘only a boy.’ I don’t love you for your face, you—”
She interrupted him with a shrug and a bitter sneer. “Evidently! Who would?”
A look of mingled pain and annoyance overspread his features. “How you twist my words. You are beautiful to me; and you know what I meant.”
“Well,” she said, throwing herself backward against a tree-trunk and stretching out her feet on the grass, ripples of amusement wavering through the cloudy expression, “tell me what do you love in me.” He was silent, biting his lower lip. “I’ll tell you then,” she said. “It’s my energy, the life in me. That is youth, and my youth has overlived its time. I’ve had a long lease, but it’s going to expire soon. So long as you don’t see it, so long as my life seems fuller than yours—well—; but when the failure of life becomes visible, while your own is still in its growth, you will turn away. When my feet won’t spring any more, yours will still be dancing. And you will want dancing feet with you.”
“I will not,” he answered shortly. “I’ve seen plenty of other women; I saw all the crowd coming up this morning and there wasn’t a woman there to compare with you. I don’t say I’ll never love others, but now I don’t; if I see another woman like you—But I never could love one of those young girls.”
“Sh—sh,” she said glancing down the road where a whirl of dust was making towards them, in the center of which moved a band of bright young figures, “there they come now. Don’t they look beautiful?” There were four young girls in front, their faces radiant with sun and air, and daisy wreaths in their gleaming hair; they had their arms around each other’s waists and sang as they walked, with neither more accord nor discord than the birds about them. The voices were delicious in their youth and joy; one heard that they were singing not to produce a musical effect, but from the mere wish to sing. Behind them came a troop of young fellows, coats off, heads bare, racing all over the roadside, jostling each other and purposely provoking scrambles. The tallest one had a nimbus of bright curls crowning a glowing face, dimpled and sparkling as a child’s. The girls glanced shyly at him under their lashes as he danced about now in front and now behind them, occasionally tossing them a flower, but mostly hustling his comrades about. Behind these came older people with three or four very little children riding on their backs.
As the group came abreast of our couple they stopped to exchange a few words, then went on. When they had passed out of hearing the woman sat with a sphinx-like stare in her eyes, looking steadily at the spot where the bright head had nodded to her as it passed.
“Like a wildflower on a stalk,” she murmured softly, narrowing her eyes as if to fix the vision, “like a tall tiger-lily.”
Her companion’s face darkened perceptibly. “What do you mean? What do you see?” he asked.
“The vision of Youth and Beauty,” she answered in the tone of a sleep-walker, “and the glory and triumph of it,—the immortality of it—its splendid indifference to its ruined temples, and all its humble worshipers. Do you know,” turning suddenly to him with a sharp change in face and voice, “what I would be wicked enough to do, if I could?”
He smiled tolerantly: “You, wicked? Dear one, you couldn’t be wicked.”
“Oh, but I could! If there were any way to fix Davy’s head forever, just as he passed us now,—forever, so that all the world might keep it and see it for all time, I would cut it off with this hand! Yes, I would.” Her eyes glittered mercilessly.
He shook his head smiling: “You wouldn’t kill a bug, let alone Davy.”
“I tell you I would. Do you remember when Nathaniel died? I felt bad enough, but do you know the week before when he was so very sick, I went out one day to a beautiful glen we used to visit together. They had been improving it! they had improved it so much that the water is all dying out of the creek; the little boats that used to float like pond lilies lie all helpless in the mud, and hardly a ribbon of water goes over the fall, and the old giant trees are withering. Oh, it hurt me so to think the glory of a thousand years was vanishing before my eyes and I couldn’t hold it. And suddenly the question came into my head: ‘If you had the power would you save Nathaniel’s life or bring back the water to the glen?’ And I didn’t hesitate a minute. I said, ‘Let Nathaniel die and all my best loved ones and I myself, but bring back the glory of the glen!”
“When I think,” she went on turning away and becoming dreamy again, “of all the beauty that is gone that I can never see, that is lost forever—the beauty that had to alter and die,—it stifles me with the pain of it. Why must it all die?”
He looked at her wonderingly. “It seems to me,” he said slowly, “that beauty worship is almost a disease with you. I wouldn’t like to care so much for mere outsides.”
“We never long for the thing we are rich in,” she answered in a dry, changed voice. Nevertheless his face lighted, it was pleasant to be rich in the thing she worshiped. He had gradually drawn near her feet and now suddenly bent forward and kissed them passionately. “Don’t,” she cried sharply, “it’s too much like self-abasement And besides—”
His face was white and quivering, his voice choked. “Well—what besides—”
“The time will come when you will wish you had reserved that kiss for some other foot. Some one to whom it will all be new, who will shudder with the joy of it, who will meet you half way, who will believe all that you say, and say like things in fullness of heart. And I perhaps will see you, and know that in your heart you are sorry you gave something to me that you would have ungiven if you could.”
He buried his face in his hands. “You do not love me at all,” he said. “You do not believe me.”
A curious softness came into the answer: “Oh, yes, dear, I believe you. Years ago I believed myself when I said the same sort of thing. But I told you I am getting old. I can not unmake what the years have made, nor bring back what they have stolen. I love you for your face“, the words had a sting in them, “and for your soul too. And I am glad to be loved by you. But, do you know what I am thinking?”
He did not answer.
“I am thinking that as I sit here, beloved by you and others who are young and beautiful—it is no lie—in a—well, in a triumph I have not sought, but which I am human enough to be glad of, envied no doubt by those young girls,—I am thinking how the remorseless feet of Youth will tramp on me soon, and carry you away. And”—very slowly—”in my day of pain, you will not be near, nor the others. I shall be alone; age and pain are unlovely.”
“You won’t let me come near you,” he said wildly. “I would do anything for you. I always want to do things for you to spare you, and you never let me. When you are in pain you will push me away.”
A fairly exultant glitter flashed in her face. “Yes,” she said, “I know my secret. That is how I have stayed young so long. See,” she said, stretching out her arms, “other women at my age are past the love of men. Their affections have gone to children. And I have broken the law of nature and prolonged the love of youth because— I have been strong and stood alone. But there is an end. Things change, seasons change, you, I, all change; what’s the use of saying ‘Never—forever, forever—never,’ like the old clock on the stairs? It’s a big lie.”
“I won’t talk any more,” he said, “but when the time comes you will see.”
She nodded: “Yes, I will see.”
“Do you think all people alike?”
“As like as ants. People are vessels which life fills and breaks, as it does trees and bees and other sorts of vessels. They play when they are little, and then they love and then they have children and then they die. Ants do the same.”
“To be sure. But I don’t deceive myself as to the scope of it.”
The crowd were returning now, and by tacit consent they arose and joined the group. Down the road they jumped a fence into a field and had to cross a little stream. “Where is our bridge?” called the boys. “We made a bridge. Some one has stolen our bridge.”
“Oh, come on,” cried Davy, “let’s jump it.” Three ran and sprang; they landed laughing and taunting the rest. Bernard sought out his beloved. “Shall I help you over?” he asked.
“No,” she said shortly, “help the girls,” and brushing past him she jumped, falling a little short and muddying a foot, but scrambling up unaided. The rest debated seeking an advantageous point. At last they found a big stone in the middle, and pulling off his shoes, Bernard waded in the creek, helping the girls across. The smallest one, large-eyed and timid, clung to his arm and let him almost carry her over.
“He does it real natural,” observed Davy, who was whisking about in the daisy field like some flashing butterfly.
They gathered daisies and laughed and sang and chattered till the sun went low. Then they gathered under a big tree and spread their lunch on the ground. And after they had eaten, the conversation lay between the sallow-faced woman and one of the older men, a clever conversation filled with quaint observations and curious sidelights. The boys sat all about the woman questioning her eagerly, but behind in the shadow of the drooping branches sat the girls, silent, unobtrusive, holding each other’s hands. Now and then the talker cast a furtive glance from Bernard’s rather withdrawn face to the faces in the shadow, and the enigmatic smile hovered and flitted over her lips.
Three years later on the anniversary of that summer day the woman sat at an upstairs window in the house on the little farm that was a reality now, the little cooperative farm where ten free men and women labored and loved. She had come with the others and done her best, but the cost of it, hard labor and merciless pain, was stamped on the face that looked from the window. She was watching Bernard’s figure as it came swinging through the orchard. Presently he came in and up the stairs. His feet went past her door, then turned back irresolutely, and a low knock followed. Her eyebrows bent together almost sternly as she answered, “Come in.”
He entered with a smile: “Can I do anything for you this morning?”
“No,” she said quietly, “you know I like my own cranky ways. I—I’d rather do things myself.” He nodded: “I know. I always get the same answer. Shall you go to the picnic? You surely will keep our foundation-day picnic?”
“Perhaps—later. And perhaps not.” There was a curious tone of repression in the words.
“Well,” he answered good-naturedly, “if you won’t let me do anything for you, I’ll have to find some one who will. Is Bella ready to go?”
“This half hour. Bella. Here is Bernard.” And Bella came in. Bella, the timid girl with the brilliant complexion and gazelle soft eyes, Bella radiant in her youth and feminine daintiness, more lovely than she had been three years before.
She gave Bernard a lunch basket to carry and a shawl and a workbag and a sun umbrella, and when they went out she clung to his arm besides. She stopped near one of their own rose bushes and told him to choose a bud for her, and she put it coquettishly in her dark hair. The woman watched them till they disappeared down the lane; he had never once looked back. Then her mouth settled in a quiet sneer and she murmured: “How long is ‘forever’? Three years.” After a while she rose and crossed to an old mirror that hung on the opposite wall. Staring at the reflection it gave back, she whispered drearily: “You are ugly, you are eaten with pain! Do you still expect the due of youth and beauty? Did you not know it all long ago?” Then something flashed in the image, something as if the features had caught fire and burned. “I will not,” she said hoarsely, her fingers clenching. “I will not surrender. Was it he I loved? It was his youth, his beauty, his life. And younger youth shall love me still, stronger life. I will not, I will not die alive.” She turned away and ran down into the yard and out into the fields. She would not go on the common highway where all went, she would find a hard way through woods and over hills, and she would come there before them and sit and wait for them where the ways met. Bareheaded, ill-dressed and careless she ran along, finding a fierce pleasure in trampling and breaking the brush that impeded her. There was the road at last, and right ahead of her an old, old man hobbling along with bent back and eyes upon the ground. Just before him was a bad hole in the road; he stopped, irresolute, and looked around like a crippled insect stretching its antennae to find a way for its mangled feet. She called cheerily, “Let me help you.” He looked up with dim blue eyes helplessly seeking. She led him slowly around the dangerous place, and then they sat down together on the little covered wooden bridge beyond.
“Ah!” murmured the old man, shaking his head, “it is good to be young.” And there was the ghost of admiration in his watery eyes, as he looked at her tall straight figure.
“Yes,” she answered sadly, looking away down the road where she saw Bella’s white dress fluttering, “it is good to be young.”
The lovers passed without noticing them, absorbed in each other. Presently the old man hobbled away. “It will come to that too,” she muttered looking after him. “The husks of life!”
Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Triumph of Youth,” Mother Earth 1 no. 6 (August 1906): 55-62.