Vacation by Alice Brown
Tale of New England Life
“It don't seem as if we'd really got round to it, does it, father?”
asked Mrs. Pike.
The west was paling, and the August insects stirred the air with
their crooning chirp. Eli and his wife sat together on the
washing-bench outside the back door, waiting for the milk to cool
before it should be strained. She was a large, comfortable woman, with
an unlined face, and smooth, fine auburn hair; he was spare and
somewhat bent, with curly iron-gray locks, growing thin, and
crow's-feet about his deep-set gray eyes. He had been smoking the pipe
of twilight contentment, but now he took it out and laid it on the
bench beside him, uncrossing his legs and straightening himself, with
the air of a man to whom it falls, after long pondering, to take some
“No; it don't seem as if 'twas goin' to happen,” he owned. “It
looked pretty dark to me, all last week. It's a good deal of an
undertakin', come to think it all over. I dunno's I care about goin'.”
“Why, father! After you've thought about it so many years, an'
Sereno's got the tents strapped up, an' all! You must be crazy!”
“Well,” said the farmer, gently, as he rose and went to carry the
milk-pails into the pantry, calling coaxingly, as he did so, “Kitty!
kitty! You had your milk? Don't you joggle, now!” For one eager tabby
rose on her hind legs, in purring haste, and hit her nose against the
Mrs. Pike came ponderously to her feet, and followed, with the
heavy, swaying motion of one grown fleshy and rheumatic. She was not in
the least concerned about Eli's change of mood. He was a gentle soul,
and she had always been able to guide him in paths of her own choosing.
Moreover, the present undertaking was one involving his own good
fortune, and she meant to tolerate no foolish scruples which might
interfere with its result. For Eli, though he had lived all his life
within easy driving distance of the ocean, had never seen it, and ever
since his boyhood he had cherished one darling plan,—some day he would
go to the shore, and camp out there for a week. This, in his starved
imagination, was like a dream of the Acropolis to an artist stricken
blind, or as mountain outlines to the dweller in a lonely plain. But
the years had flitted past, and the dream never seemed nearer
completion. There were always planting, haying, and harvesting to be
considered; and though he was fairly prosperous, excursions were
foreign to his simple habit of life. But at last, his wife had stepped
into the van, and organized an expedition, with all the valor of a
“Now, don't you say one word, father,” she had said. “We're goin'
down to the beach, Sereno, an' Hattie, an' you an' me, an' we're goin'
to camp out. It'll do us all good.”
For days before the date of the excursion, Eli had been solemn and
tremulous, as with joy; but now, on the eve of the great event, he
shrank back from it, with an undefined notion that it was like death,
and that he was not prepared. Next morning, however, when they all rose
and took their early breakfast, preparatory to starting at five, he
showed no sign of indecision, and even went about his outdoor tasks
with an alacrity calculated, as his wife approvingly remarked, to
“for'ard the v'y'ge.” He had at last begun to see his way clear, and he
looked well satisfied when his daughter Hattie and Sereno, her husband,
drove into the yard, in a wagon cheerfully suggestive of a wandering
life. The tents and a small hair-trunk were stored in the back, and the
horse's pail swung below.
“Well, father,” called Hattie, her rosy face like a flower under the
large shade-hat she had trimmed for the occasion, “guess we're goin' to
have a good day!”
He nodded from the window, where he was patiently holding his head
high and undergoing strangulation, while his wife, breathing huskily
with haste and importance, put on his stock.
“You come in, Hattie, an' help pack the doughnuts into that
lard-pail on the table,” she called. “I guess you'll have to take two
pails. They ain't very big.”
At length, the two teams were ready, and Eli mounted to his place,
where he looked very slender beside his towering mate. The hired man
stood leaning on the pump, chewing a bit of straw, and the cats rubbed
against his legs, with tails like banners; they were all impressed by a
sense of the unusual.
“Well, good-by, Luke,” Mrs. Pike called, over her shoulder; and Eli
gave the man a solemn nod, gathered up the reins, and drove out of the
yard. Just outside the gate, he pulled up.
“Whoa!” he called, and Luke lounged forward. “Don't you forgit them
cats! Git up, Doll!” And this time, they were gone.
For the first ten miles of the way, familiar in being the road to
market, Eli was placidly cheerful. The sense that he was going to do
some strange deed, to step into an unknown country, dropped away from
him, and he chatted, in his intermittent, serious fashion, of the crops
and the lay of the land.
“Pretty bad job up along here, ain't it, father?” called Sereno, as
they passed a sterile pasture where two plodding men and a yoke of oxen
were redeeming the soil from its rocky fetters.
“There's a good deal o' pastur', in some places, that ain't fit for
nothin' but to hold the world together,” returned Eli; and then he was
silent, his eyes fixed on Doll's eloquent ears, his mouth working a
little. For this progress through a less desirable stratum of life
caused him to cast a backward glance over his own smooth, middle-aged
“We've prospered, 'ain't we, Maria?” he said, at last; and his wife,
unconsciously following his thoughts, in the manner of those who have
lived long together, stroked her black silk visite, and
answered, with a well-satisfied nod:
“I guess we 'ain't got no cause to complain.”
The roadside was parched under an August sun; tansy was
dust-covered, and ferns had grown ragged and gray. The jogging horses
left behind their lazy feet a suffocating cloud.
“My land!” cried Mrs. Pike, “if that ain't goldenrod! I do b'lieve
it comes earlier every year, or else the seasons are changin'. See them
elderberries! Ain't they purple! You jest remember that bush, an' when
we go back, we'll fill some pails. I dunno when I've made elderberry
Like her husband, she was vaguely excited; she began to feel as if
life would be all holidays. At noon, they stopped under the shadow of
an elm-tree which, from its foothold in a field, completely arched the
road; and there they ate a lunch of pie and doughnuts, while the
horses, freed from their headstalls, placidly munched a generous feed
of oats, near by. Hattie and her mother accepted this picnicking with
an air of apologetic amusement; and when one or two passers-by looked
at them, they smiled a little at vacancy, with the air of wishing it
understood that they were by no means accustomed to such
“I guess they think we're gypsies,” said Hattie, as one carriage
“Well, they needn't trouble themselves,” returned her mother, rising
with difficulty to brush the crumbs from her capacious lap. “I guess
I've got as good an extension-table to home as any on 'em.”
But Eli ate sparingly, and with a preoccupied and solemn look.
“Land, father!” exclaimed his wife, “you 'ain't eat no more'n a
“I guess I'll go over to that well,” said he, “an' git a drink o'
water. I drink more'n I eat, if I ain't workin'.” But when he came
back, carefully bearing a tin pail brimming with cool, clear water, his
face expressed strong disapprobation, and he smacked his lips
“Terrible flat water!” he announced. “Tastes as if it come out o'
the cistern.” But the others could find no fault with it, and Sereno
drained the pail.
“Pretty good, I call it,” he said; and Mrs. Pike rejoined,—
“You always was pretty particular about water, father.”
But Eli still shook his head, and ejaculated, “Brackish, brackish!”
as he began to put the bit in Doll's patient mouth. He was thinking,
with a passion of loyalty, of the clear, ice-cold water at home, which
had never been shut out, by a pump, from the purifying airs of heaven,
but lay where the splashing bucket and chain broke, every day, the
image of moss and fern. His throat grew parched and dry with longing.
When they were within three miles of the sea, it seemed to them that
they could taste the saltness of the incoming breeze; the road was
ankle-deep in dust; the garden flowers were glaring in their
brightness. It was a new world. And when at last they emerged from the
marsh-bordered road upon a ridge of sand, and turned a sudden corner,
Mrs. Pike faced her husband in triumph.
“There, father!” she cried. “There 'tis!”
But Eli's eyes were fixed on the dashboard in front of him. He
“Why, father,” said she, impatiently, “ain't you goin' to look? It's
“Yes, yes,” said Eli, quietly; “byme-by. I'm goin' to put the horses
“Well, I never!” said Mrs. Pike; and as they drew up on the sandy
tract where Sereno had previously arranged a place for their tents, she
added, almost fretfully, turning to Hattie, “I dunno what's come over
your father. There's the water, an' he won't even cast his eyes at it.”
But Hattie understood her father, by some intuition of love, though
not of likeness.
“Don't you bother him, ma,” she said. “He'll make up his mind to it
pretty soon. Here, le's lift out these little things, while they're
unharnessin', and then they can get at the tents.”
Mrs. Pike's mind was diverted by the exigencies of labor, and she
said no more; but after the horses had been put up at a neighboring
house, and Sereno, red-faced with exertion, had superintended the
tent-raising, Hattie slipped her arm through her father's, and led him
“Come, pa,” she said, in a whisper; “le's you and me climb over on
Eli went; and when they had picked their way over sand and pools to
a headland where the water thundered below, and salt spray dashed up in
mist to their feet, he turned and looked at the sea. He faced it as a
soul might face Almighty Greatness, only to be stricken blind
thereafter; for his eyes filled painfully with slow, hot tears. Hattie
did not look at him, but after a while she shouted in his ear, above
the outcry of the surf,—
“Here, pa, take my handkerchief. I don't know how 'tis about you,
but this spray gets in my eyes.”
Eli took it obediently, but he did not speak; he only looked at the
sea. The two sat there, chilled and quite content, until six o'clock,
when Mrs. Pike came calling to them from the beach, with dramatic
shouts, emphasized by the waving of her ample apron,—
“Supper's ready! Sereno's built a bum-fire, an' I've made some tea!”
Then they slowly made their way back to the tents, and sat down to
the evening meal. Sereno seemed content, and Mrs. Pike was bustling and
triumphant; the familiar act of preparing food had given her the
feeling of home.
“Well, father, what think?” she asked, smiling exuberantly, as she
passed him his mug of tea. “Does it come up to what you expected?”
Eli turned upon her his mild, dazed eyes.
“I guess it does,” he said, gently.
That night, they sat upon the shore while the moon rose and laid in
the water her majestic pathway of light. Eli was the last to leave the
rocks, and he lay down on his hard couch in the tent, without speaking.
“I wouldn't say much to father,” whispered Hattie to her mother, as
they parted for the night. “He feels it more 'n we do.”
“Well, I s'pose he is some tired,” said Mrs. Pike, acquiescing,
after a brief look of surprise. “It's a good deal of a jaunt, but I
dunno but I feel paid a'ready. Should you take out your hair-pins,
She slept soundly and vocally, but her husband did not close his
eyes. He looked, though he could see nothing, through the opening in
the tent, in the direction where lay the sea, solemnly clamorous,
eternally responsive to some infinite whisper from without his world.
The tension of the hour was almost more than he could bear; he longed
for morning, in sharp suspense, with a faint hope that the light might
bring relief. Just as the stars faded, and one luminous line pencilled
the east, he rose, smoothed his hair, and stepped softly out upon the
beach. There he saw two shadowy figures, Sereno and Hattie. She hurried
forward to meet him.
“You goin' to see the sunrise, too, father?” she asked. “I made
Sereno come. He's awful mad at bein' waked up.”
Eli grasped her arm.
“Hattie,” he said, in a whisper, “don't you tell. I jest come out to
see how 'twas here, before I go. I'm goin' home,—I'm goin' now.”
“Why, father!” said Hattie; but she peered more closely into his
face, and her tone changed. “All right,” she added, cheerfully.
“Sereno'll go and harness up.”
“No; I'm goin' to walk.”
“I don't mean to breakup your stayin' here, nor your mother's. You
tell her how 'twas. I'm goin' to walk.”
Hattie turned and whispered to her husband for a moment. Then she
took her father's hand.
“I'll slip into the tent and put you up somethin' for your breakfast
and luncheon,” she said. “Sereno's gone to harness; for, pa, you must
take one horse, and you can send Luke back with it Friday, so's we can
get the things home. What do we want of two horses down here, at two
and ninepence a day? I guess I know!”
So Eli yielded; but before his wife appeared, he had turned his back
on the sea, where the rose of dawn was fast unfolding. As he jogged
homeward, the dusty roadsides bloomed with flowers of paradise, and the
insects' dry chirp thrilled like the song of angels. He drove into the
yard just at the turning of the day, when the fragrant smoke of many a
crackling fire curls cheerily upward, in promise of the evening meal.
“What's busted?” asked Luke, swinging himself down from his load of
fodder-corn, and beginning to unharness Doll.
“Oh, nothin',” said Eli, leaping, from the wagon as if twenty years
had been taken from his bones. “I guess I'm too old for such jaunts. I
hope you didn't forgit them cats.”