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ERNEST HAYCOX

TAVERN AT POWELL'S FERRY

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First published in Collier's, 15 Jan 1944


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Colliers, 15 January 1944, with "Tavern at Powell's Ferry"



THE coach rolled southward from the river into the flat valley's haze with late September's dry dust smoking up from its wheels; and as it departed Joab Powell had once more the vaguely discomforting sense of being left behind, of missing passage to the unknown place which was his rightful destination.

It was not a new feeling, but it made him impatient to be troubled so late in life by the urges which belonged to a young man. He turned the ferry across a river so low and quiet upon its bed that the old gray horse, plodding the treadmill, made no work of it. The mountains bordering the valley sank away in first twilight, the surface of the river began to exhale a thin crystal fog, and the smell of the earth was sharp and heavy with the year's decay. One day a hard rain would slant out of the southwest, announcing winter.

He tied the ferry and let the horse into its pasture, moving along a path bordered by wild rose brambles whose seed pods hung fat and red. He studied the framework of the new gristmill as he passed toward the house, calculating the work done upon it this day; and he observed that young John Sharpp, employed as carpenter, now stood on the porch of the house talking to Elizabeth. Elizabeth laughed in her bright, half mocking manner and her hand touched John Sharpp and for a moment the man caught her arm and the two were playfully struggling. Then John Sharpp heard his step on the path and stepped away from Elizabeth with an embarrassed smile.

"She'll tease the wits out of you, John," said Joab Powell and passed into the house. But he was thinking to himself: "It is past time for her to be married."

He walked through the house to the kitchen, past his other daughter Anna who worked quiet and swift with the supper; he washed himself at the back porch well, put on his slippers, and moved back to the big room's table, upon which the oil lamps now were pleasantly shining. He sat down and waited for his daughters and for John Sharpp; when they were seated he bowed his face with its rusty-iron beard, said grace, and began his meal. Far away he thought he heard travelers on the road.

Sharpp said: "I have got the big timbers all hewed for the raceway."

"I'll help you set them in Monday," said Powell. The young man had a good, square face which looked honestly upon the world; he was steady, he was made for the long slow pull, he would season with the years as a good hardwood stick seasons, and he would never lie awake in bed asking questions which had no answers.

What did Elizabeth want with him—this daughter whose discontent came out of her like a heat to disturb everything about her? She was too pretty, she hated too quickly, she wanted things not to be had in this out-of-way spot whose high point was the daily passing of a stage. She was, Powell thought with a father's moment of stark realism, ripe and over-ready. He looked down the table and saw Anna looking on at Elizabeth and John Sharpp with her deep gravity.

A wagon came along with its racket and someone said, "This is Powell's," and voices began to rise in the yard. Anna left the table at once, moving toward the kitchen. Rising to meet his guests, Joab Powell noticed sudden interest brighten Elizabeth's face as she touched her hair and ran a finger along her eyebrows in expectation of new eyes to look upon her.

The travelers entered with the subdued bustle of weary people, a man and woman past middle age, a boy and girl in brash adolescence, a young woman with an attractive, pouting face, and a pair of men. One was thin and very darkly colored and possessing a pair of brows black as ink; the other, a blond gentleman with an extraordinarily regular profile, had a face which, seen face-on, showed some evidence of dissipation.

The elderly man said: "Thank God tomorrow is a day of rest. These Oregon roads are without question some kind of an approach to Inferno. We require accommodations until Monday morning. Can you put us up and, as a practical matter, what are your rates?"

Joab Powell said: "Two dollars the night and fifty cents the meal."

"Acceptable," said the older one. "You are looking upon Edward Ord Mainring's Theatrical Troupe, now on tour, presently bound to play the Jacksonville mines. Mrs. Mainring, if you please. Our young star, Miss Strange. My daughter Jo and my son Tarleton. My leading man, James Hawtree"—this was the one with the striking profile—"and Mr. Victor Porrocks, whose darker cast lends flavor to our villains."

The young man thus identified displayed a gentle smile while Mr. Hawtree cast a frankly speculative glance upon Elizabeth, who returned the glance with equal speculation, Miss Strange observed this exchange of interest and paid Elizabeth the courtesy of a moment's cold interest. Young Tarleton Mainring peevishly said, "I'm awful hungry."

"Elizabeth," said Joab Powell, "show these people their rooms."

Elizabeth moved to the stairs and ascended with a composed and excellent carriage; the members of the troupe, each with luggage, trudged after her and made some racket in the upper hall as they found their quarters. Joab Powell stepped from the house to direct the party's wagoner to the barn, and Anna quietly returned from the kitchen to set new places at the table. She looked at John Sharpp who sat alone before his unfinished meal; she caught his glance and smiled at him.

"Acting people?" he said. "Here?"

"This is a tavern, John." She circled the table, and when she got behind him she paused a moment, looking down on his head with a grave stillness on her face; then she moved back to the kitchen.

The party came down the stairs to their supper, cheerfully and with considerable noise. Joab Powell returned from the night; he took his place again at the head of the table and sat over his coffee. They were a hungry lot, he observed; they were an odd assortment out of the kind of world he had almost forgotten. Mainring and Mainring's wife were pleasantly comfortable people; their children were brash, as their life had no doubt taught them to be. The fellow who was the villain seemed, in these surroundings, to be a mild and inconspicuous fellow; but Mr. Hawtree was of another breed. He saw Hawtree's eyes now and then lift and strike Elizabeth who, returned from upstairs, now stood in the background of the room with that quietness upon her which Joab Powell knew so well; there would be excitement playing beneath it and her discontent would be driving her toward a greater fury at her life. She stared at Hawtree steadily and Hawtree's expression revealed his rising instincts. John Sharpp saw none of this; he finished his meal in silence and rose and left the room. But Miss Strange—there was a girl with her own kind of knowledge, Joab Powell thought—saw it all and gave Hawtree her cutting glance.

Powell said: "If you're going to the mines, you'll only get that wagon as far as Canyonville. The road's nothing but a trail beyond. You'll need horses there."

Mainring leaned back from his plate, flushed and comforted; he was expansive, he was philosophical. "We shall not think of that until we reach Canyonville. In this profession, Mr. Powell, you do not worry about tomorrow too much. There are always contingencies, disasters and emergencies to be surmounted. Fire, flood, famine and mob. In forty years of trouping Mrs. Mainring and I have seen the ugly faces of them all. Here we are, lacking a player for the part of the plantation belle. Where shall we get her? I do not know. But it is three days to Jacksonville. We shall have her when we get there."

"Uncertainty would not please me," said Joab Powell.

"Uncertainty," said Mainring, "is youth. Have you forgotten how, as a boy, you counted on tomorrow's excitement and venture?"

Well, thought Joab Powell, the man did for a fact appear young. He had no particular lines on his face, his eyes were bright and he was at the present moment wholly happy, or seemed so. Elizabeth, he noticed, now moved slowly across the floor and stepped from the house. Suddenly Hawtree emptied his coffee cup and rose and walked after her.

Mainring said: "Bed will be a comfort after these roads," and left the table. One by one the party moved up the stairs while Joab stood by the fireplace and watched Anna quietly come and go with her chores. Outside he heard Elizabeth's voice, sometimes slow, sometimes light, sometimes intemperately strong. Hawtree's tone was a sympathetic murmur. Joab pried a better flame from the fireplace logs, looked for his glasses and sat down in a rocking chair; he took up his pipe, filled and lighted it, and reached for his paper, which was from Portland. The crickets were full- voiced in the broad night and the air coming through the front door had its chill. For a moment his mind went idly around the circle of things to be done before winter came.

Hawtree moved into the house with an aggressive stride, his face square and flushed, and went stamping up the stairs. Hidden behind his paper, Joab Powell heard Elizabeth later enter the room. He had no wish to look at her at the moment. He said: "Help your sister," and listened to her steps go laggard toward the kitchen.

Half reading, he heard the house settle down. The murmuring above stairs slowly died away, and bodies turned upon their beds, and now and then a door closed. John Sharpp climbed the stairs, a young man solemnly displeased with the sudden turn of affairs, and Elizabeth came from the kitchen and for a moment paused. When Joab Powell lowered his paper he saw the bright burning of her eyes, the thoughts half-shaped upon her face. She was a stranger to him tonight, as she had been on so many other occasions; she was his flesh and his blood, but her spirit—whose was that? He wanted to speak to her and he saw that she wanted to speak to him, yet neither of them had a way of bridging the difference between.

He said: "Sharpp's a good young man. Don't use him hard, unless you mean to have him."

She laughed at him with her eyes, a hot, sharp and unamused laugh; then she climbed the stairs. In a little while Anna, having done the last of her chores, quietly followed. Joab said: "Good night, Anna." Her voice came back in its neverchanging way; it carried the melody that was in her and never left her.

"Good night."

He let the paper lie and be refilled his pipe, deeply breathing the smoke and finding relish in it. He was a stout, aging man, made benevolent in appearance by his beard and the tall dome of his forehead; it was a benevolence sharpened by a realism which forever colored his judgments. He thought: "John should be Anna's man. It would work better that way." He thought about Elizabeth and found no answer for her. He thought of the show troupe which was so gay and glamorous to Elizabeth's eyes but which was simply a group of tired people forever on the move to earn a threadbare livelihood, all their cheap trinkets contained in a few battered trunks. He knocked out his pipe and went slowly to his room. There was still a light in Elizabeth's room as he passed by.


THE fall fog lay silver-thick over the river by morning and dew glistened on the earth until noon. Church was ten miles distant and therefore not always to be attended, but Joab Powell made grace at breakfast longer than usual, and had a special prayer at the midday meal. Thereafter, in a warm, halfclouded afternoon he did his chores and tended ferry. The north-bound stage crossed at two o'clock; the south-bound at four. During the day he saw Hawtree and Elizabeth walking together along the dusty road, and he saw John Sharpp sulking alone in his good clothes by the river. Mainring's youngsters, discovering the gristmill, climbed to the rafter peaks until they were tired; and borrowed a skiff and vanished beyond the willows. Near five o'clock Mainring walked to the ferry where Joab Powell idly worked, and sat himself on the treadmill. He was, Powell saw, not wholly at ease; and it occurred to Powell to wonder if the man were about to suggest a compromise on the lodging bill.

"I believe last night," said Mainring, "I mentioned we had lost one of our cast. She was a refined young lady with some talent who suddenly discovered domestic virtue in Portland and left us."

"Heard you mention it," said Powell.

"So did your daughter Elizabeth," said Mainring.

"My daughter Elizabeth," said Powell, "does considerable idle dreaming."

"It is a habit," said Mainring, "we all have. It is the way we all live. Make-believe."

"I don't," said Joab Powell.

"My friend," said Mainring, "have you never wished your ferry would carry you farther than that other bank of the river?"

"I know what's beyond the other bank," said Powell.

"Your daughter, being young, does not."

Powell said: "She's been talking to you. Asked you if maybe she had ability to act. She's been acting ever since you set foot in the tavern."

"So she has," said Mainring. "Very indifferent acting, too."

Powell drove two nails deep with his hammer and straightened. He watched Mainring's children drift down the river in the rowboat, and he watched the afternoon's haze close upon the Cascades. He turned to Mainring. "I suppose she wants to go with you."

"Your daughter," said Mainring, careful and quiet, "is not happy here. I saw it at once."

"It is nothing a marriage won't cure."

Mainring said, "Have you got some tobacco?" He filled his pipe from Powell's pouch. He lighted the pipe and set it to burning with long, steady draws. "We put up for noon yesterday at a place. Man and wife. The wife was odd."

"Purdy's wife," said Powell, "is crazy."

"Her face bothered me a great deal after we left," said Mainring. "It was a haunted face. She watched us go. You could see she wanted to be with us. She wanted to be with anybody who was going away from that place. One day she'll sink an ax into Purdy's head when he isn't looking and she'll start walking. Where to? Any place away from where she is. Marriage didn't cure what was in her mind. Some people have to run. Nothing else will do."

Powell said: "Cheap and shoddy."

"You're no doubt thinking of Hawtree," said Mainring. "Have you got no Hawtrees in your neighborhood? Your daughter is in her own hands. Here or elsewhere she will make her own lot. But if you do not permit her to follow her desires, she will make a bad job of it. You will have another Purdy's wife. I have seen a great deal of this world. I have seen a lot of Purdy's wives."

"I have seen women who started out on a wild goose chase and ended common," said Powell. "There's more of them than Purdy's wives."

"Your daughter," said Mainring quite frankly, "could fill a place in my company. Nothing more. It will take me a great deal of time to teach her to open and shut a door on the stage. I can do that for her. If she has no ability, she will fail and she will come back. If she has ability she will go on and up. Either way, she will have had her run."

"No," said Powell, "she won't come back."

"Then," said Mainring, "she is the kind you could never hold in any event. If you try to hold her you will regret it and she will see to it that you regret it."

"Not to be thought of," said Powell.

Mainring rose and tapped out his pipe. "A man," he said thoughtfully, "has a duty to his children. Sometimes the duty is to let go, not to hold. The world is vile and she will be exposed to it. The world is great, and she is looking for greatness. How are you to know what will become of her? You will not know. But when any human soul cries out for release, vile or great, you cannot stop that soul from venturing. To your daughter, desperate for something she cannot find here, even the vile is better than nothing at all."

He moved up the trail to the house; and suddenly he turned about and said a last thing with some sharpness. "Look into your own heart, my friend," and went on.

The sun was somewhere low behind September's haze. There was a wind, slight and cool, out of the southeast; in another day or so, Joab Powell thought, the wind would swing and the hard, intemperate rain would come to freshen the earth. A wagon moved out of the north and onto the ferry and as he was about to cast off he saw Elizabeth move swiftly down from the house. She came aboard and rode in silence across the water; and she waited afterward until the wagon had gone on. Then she faced her father and he saw the gathering storm on her face, the intensity almost like pain, the wanting so crowded within her that it made shadows in her eyes. It came out of her—all this—in one awkward, swift phrase: "I've got to go with them."

The old gray horse plodded the treadmill and the ferry made its semicircular path on the water. Joab stood grave at the bow, meeting her eyes.

"Daughter," he said, "you have made a picture for yourself. You're seeing yourself as a great actress, people throwing flowers up to the stage, people pointing you out in restaurants where you eat. You're seeing strange towns through the world, and kings and queens sitting in opera boxes while you play. That's what you're seeing. When you were ten you saw the same things, standing in the hay loft, swinging your arms and talking to yourself."

"Why not?" she said. "Why not?"

"You think this shabby little troupe will do it for you? Playing in cheap mining camps, riding wet through the rain, living in rooming houses? Wearing your clothes after they've turned color, being with men like Hawtree?"

She said in the most calculating of ways: "I know about Hawtree. I can take care of myself. I am harder than he is. How do you suppose people start? They've got to start small. I don't mind. But I've got to go with them. I can't stay here any more. You're old. You're happy. You don't see what I see. Why don't you let me go? Do you know what I'll do if you keep me here? I'll marry Sharpp. I'll make him miserable—I'll make Anna miserable because she wants him. Then I'll run away. Or I'll take the first well-dressed man who comes through here and I'll go with him. I have got to go!"

He had no answer for her; he was ashamed of what she had said and did not meet her eyes. He stooped, a little awkwardly, and tied the ferry to the shore; he let the gray horse into its pasture, watching Elizabeth go up the pathway, half running. He reached for his pipe and he filled it, and held it unlighted in his mouth. Darkness had begun to sweep down, drowning the hills and covering the valley's far run, swinging on forward with its shadows until the world was reduced to this small settlement beside the river. "Why," he thought, "it's late." Then he realized the darkness was the darkness of rain clouds moving slowly up. He walked toward the house and as he walked he began to think of his wife, long dead. He said to himself: "Annie, what's in that girl? What am I to do?"

He said grace over a full supper table and he ate in mild, steady detachment while talk boiled and bubbled around him. Elizabeth moved like an alien shadow about the room, darkly withdrawn from him; somehow in the space of an hour or so she had cut herself from this family and was no longer a part of it. He felt the hatred in her—the wild and passionate despair. It touched him like a disturbed air. John Sharpp, unfavorably silent, sat through the meal as a man perplexed by things he felt but could not understand, and soon withdrew from the house; and presently one by one the troupe climbed the stairs to bed. Joab Powell went out to do the night's chores and came back later through the kitchen to find John Sharpp in the kitchen with Anna, drying dishes. Elizabeth had gone up to her room. Her cruel mood had reached out to Sharpp, simple a man as he was, and had made him feel no longer near her; and now Sharpp returned to someone he could understand.

Joab Powell freshened the fire on the hearth and removed his shoes and sat once more in the rocker, comforted by all the sounds of this house. He lay back, feeling oldness come to him and the loneliness that always arrived with it. Elizabeth was on his mind and the puzzle of her temper grew greater to him. Where had she gotten that rebellion, that wild will, that hatred of old and familiar things?

John Sharpp presently trod upstairs in silence and later, with night's work done, Anna came into the room. She paused before Joab Powell, smiling down at him, and he saw a momentary happiness on her face. It was the little things she loved, the old ways, the comfortable and familiar habits of life. Yet, watching her, he saw the smile fade and her inner contentment go away. Her face mirrored the nearest expression of anger he had ever noticed there.

"Let her go, father. Let her leave!"

"Why daughter," he said, and was truly shocked. "Do you understand what might happen to her?"

"Do you know," she answered, as harsh and as sure as Elizabeth could be, "what is happening now while she stays? Don't hold her. She's entitled to be happy if she can. I'm entitled to be happy as well, am I not?"

She said no more. She bent forward and quietly kissed him and took the stairs; but Joab Powell thought with astonishment: "They are strangers side by side. They are not sisters."

The question came again to him, insistently demanding answer; from what source had come Elizabeth's discontent with the world as it was? He sat quite still in the room's silence, turning his thoughts upon himself. He was a solid man, wasn't he? He had found this place upon the earth, he had built his house and accumulated his goods and he was satisfied. Long ago as a boy he had possessed a boy's longings and a boy's impatience but never had he eaten out his heart over things that couldn't be. Yet now he remembered how he watched the stage each day disappear to the southward, and he recalled the strange and unknown currents which stirred in him as he saw it go.

The thought made him move slightly on the rocker; and then he got to thinking of his wife and he saw so clearly the outline of her placid face before him. She had been a fine woman, she had been beside him, without complaint, all the way along the years. Suddenly he sat forward in his chair, bringing to his mind something he had never cared to think much about. There had been a young man, long ago, in the Illinois town from which he and his wife had both come. Annie had liked that careless, devil-taken scoundrel whose name was Burge Simms—and Burge Simms had gone away to be a river pilot on the Mississippi. Maybe Burge had been the man Annie had wanted. He never had known about that, but often he had wondered about her thoughts when she sat so still by the evening fire, when she stood at the doorway and looked out upon the land. She had died smiling at him but, and he sat forward again with a stinging feeling on his face, she had also died with her innermost feelings still a mystery to him. He had wanted a quiet and solid woman; she had given him that, keeping the rest to herself.

Now a feeling came hard upon him, new to his practical mind, unsettling to his need of steadiness. Here his daughter Anna had stood a moment ago, revealing a passionate feeling he had not known she possessed; and upstairs all these various people slept, the saturnine Porrocks who played the part of a villain and yet was a gentleman, and Hawtree who was a hero on the stage and a shoddy character otherwise, and John Sharpp, so plain and steady a man. All these people lay on their beds now, all known to him in a way by their speech and the things which were upon their faces; but carrying dreams he couldn't know.

He laid a hand heavy upon the arm of the rocking chair and he said, aloud, but quiet:

"Why, nobody actually knows anybody else."

Rising, he followed the ritual of his life. He tested the door lock and screened the fire; he laid his pipe in its bowl and took up the lamp and slowly ascended the stairs. When he came to the door of Elizabeth's room he knocked, and heard her slow, sullen voice bid him in. She stood dressed in the middle of the room, and he saw that she had been walking restlessly around with her thoughts. Her eyes, turned to him, were alien.

"Elizabeth," he said, "you have got your own life to live. Go ahead and live it as you please." He drew back and quickly closed the door; but even so, he saw the light break across her face. She was like a prisoner getting news of release, he thought sadly.


IT had rained during the night and had ceased. Now the quenched earth sent its raw fine smell into the morning, and a thick mist silvered the air so thickly that the cottonwoods of the far shore were vaguest shadows. The troupe's wagon stood by with the baggage loaded and the driver in his seat; the troupe came out, freshly rested, and eager to be going. Mainring paid his cheerful compliments to Joab Powell and the gentle villain shook Powell's hand. "I would not mind," he said, "trading places with you. It is a pleasant piece of earth here."

The wagon rolled aboard the ferry, the members of the troupe walking casually after. Joab Powell brought the old gray horse—its ancient muzzle a-sparkle with night's dew—out of the pasture to the treadmill and waited for the last passenger, Elizabeth.

She was at the house doorway, facing Anna; and he stood still, watching those two say their farewells, realizing that both girls were glad to have it this way. They kissed briefly and Elizabeth said one gay word in response to Anna's grave nod; then Elizabeth came down the pathway to where John Sharpp waited and she paused to look up at his grieving face. She laughed at him and said some soft thing, and kissed him lightly on the cheek and thereafter, like a delighted child, she ran down the path to the ferry. Joab cast off the line; the old horse, patiently plodding, started the ferry over the river.

The troupe was forward, near the team, deliberately giving Joab his privacy as Elizabeth stood by him. A fish jumped and made a widening circle on the water and the river made its washing sound on the mild rapids lower down. Joab stared away from his daughter.

"When I was young I wanted many things. I found out I couldn't have a lot of those things. It wasn't in me to have them. It may not be in you to have all that you want."

"Why," said Elizabeth, "I shall get what I want."

"You will try," said Joab Powell soberly, "and maybe that's the fun of it. But if you do not find what you want, come back. I'll be here." Then he added a grave afterthought. "Don't stay away too long. I'm not young."

"I'll come back to see you, of course," said Elizabeth in her light voice.

The ferry touched the south shore's mud bank and the team moved the wagon to land. Now the troupe members climbed aboard and the voices of all of them were gay with morning and with the excitement of being in motion. Joab turned to Elizabeth and saw the same excitement on her face, the fine flame in her eyes. She was trying to remember, he saw, that he was her father and that she was going away from him and should be sad. But even as she tried to remember that, she was still happy and could not show sorrow. She put her arms around him and kissed him fully, the first such kiss he could remember from her since she had been a child; and she stepped back, laughing, with her eyes moist. She turned and walked to the wagon and took her place on one of the seats. Mainring cried heartily out, "Tallyho," and the teamster's sharp shout put the horses forward.

Joab Powell watched wagon and people slowly grow obscure in the close-hanging mists. He saw them wave at him, he heard them pleasantly calling; they were like children off to a party, straining for new things and greater surprises beyond. Elizabeth raised her hand to blow him a kiss and Joab, memorizing her face with greatest care, lifted his own hand in return salute. Then the mists covered them and for a little while he heard their voices come back through the mists. Afterwards they were lost to him, sight and sound of them alike dying. He thought to himself: "I have got to remember what she looked like," and started the ferry away.

Half over the river he was alone in the mist, both shores dim. He loaded his pipe with a mechanical interest as he thought of her. He had asked her to come back and she had promised she would; but even then he knew she never would return. He had made the same promise to his own parents when he as a young man had left the Vermont farm, bound west to Illinois. Many times during the later years he had thought of his people, resolving to return to them for a visit; but he never had. Life was pretty much a parting of the young from the old; the young venturing away with their ambitions and the old settled fast to their comforts.

He tied the ferry and put the horse into its meadow and he stood facing the south shore, listening with the hope that he might hear one last sound return from the wagon. Anna and John came down the pathway; they stopped before him and he observed that they were sorry for him. They were good and simple people and they would do well together; they would fill this tavern with children and they would be content. It gave him comfort to think of it.

Anna said: "Don't worry, father. It is the first time she has really been happy."

Still thinking of Elizabeth, he was suddenly proud of her. She was breaking away to follow her wants, just as he had done. She was a piece of him venturing afar, doing those things he had wished to do and had never succeeded in doing. Each day now, as he watched the southbound stage roll away, he would scarcely need to feel that somehow he had missed his destination. Elizabeth took his place, and sought the destination.

Joab said: "We'll' lay the timbers today, John," and started up the pathway toward the gristmill. He thought to himself: I shall have to remember how she looked, for I shall never see her again.


THE END


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