Travels Without a Donkey

Sunshine next morning seemed unreal and a mistake. We eyed it mistrustfully, and stepped into it without confidence. But it warmed us. It made fairies dance on the lake. The lake was enticing, and so we swam again. It was iridescent, over ripples of sand. We forgot to put our clothes on, and then it occurred to us that now was a good time to repair them again.

Voices, talking and laughing, at the other end of the beach. A slender man and his small daughter, both in bathing suits, came out of the woods, carrying pails and shovels, and a fish-net. I slipped into shorts and shirt, and strolled down the beach.

The man was absorbing sun on top of a big boulder, while the little girl, net in hand, paddled around after small minnows that chased up and down across a golden pattern of ripple reflections. I climbed to the top of a neighboring boulder, and said good morning.

“Why, good morning!” he exclaimed. “Are you the guardian mermaid, or naiad or dryad, of this beach?”

“I don’t know. Do mermaids live in tents? I rather doubt it.”

“Oh, that’s your tent, is it?”

“Yes, and that — ” I waved my arm down the beach, “is my husband. He’s diligently sewing, but I can’t be bothered–when the sun is shining. We’ve come down from Katahdin.”

“On foot?”

“Partly–but partly in Bones. Bones is that overturned object you behold on the beach.”

“Some might call it a canoe,” he suggested.

“I’m not committing myself. She has a very flexible bottom,” I explained.

His smile was pleasing, but just a little crooked, a little wistful. “Your husband,” he remarked, “looks like Robinson Crusoe.”

I looked at Nick impersonally for the first time in many weeks. I saw a solid figure, well-muscled and well-browned, sitting cross-legged on the sand, bent over his sewing. And I noticed especially the majestic red and black beard behind which he had been gradually disappearing for some time.

“Doesn’t he, though?” I agreed. “But he’s really rather nice.”

“Because he does the family sewing?” my friend queried.

“That’s part of it,” I granted. “I loathe sewing.”

“You know, I’d like to hear about that trip of yours–all the way from Katahdin. You must be stout pioneers.”

“Come on down,” I urged, “and meet Sir Robin.”

We all sat in the sun and talked, while the brown-haired small daughter ran busily up and down. And it turned out that Mr. Jackson understood us. He was a New York insurance man on a vacation; he looked as though he had been chained to an office desk most of his life; and yet, mysteriously, he was one of us. He understood the joy of open places. He knew about packs and boots, tents and campfires, fir beds and stars, rough trails and dawn over mountain peaks.  He nodded his head with quiet appreciation. His pleasing brown eyes were lit with vicarious excitement and pleasure, which changed to a look of intense desire, and then a stare of longing. The story came to an end–or rather, it got to Tyler Cove, and stopped there to bask in the sun.

But not for long. “Listen here, Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe. You’re shifting camp tonight. Come on over and pitch in my back pasture. All the apples you want. I don’t want to lose you. You make me feel young and sentimental again. Besides, I want my wife to know you–and her cake and coffee are of the best.”

*    *

Mrs. Jackson came out on to the front porch to greet us. She was soft and round. She had a soft round rosy face, with too many chins, and gray hair of the wrong length that hung down straight. She looked older than Charlie by many years.

“Meet Mr. and Mrs. Crusoe,” said Charlie.

She giggled. “Charlie says you’re going to sleep in the pasture tonight,” she began. “But won’t you come and sleep in the house instead? We have plenty of room, and you’ll be so much more comfortable.”

I thanked her, but said we’d stick to the pasture–we really slept better out-doors. She looked at us in friendly vacancy, but Charlie’s warm brown eyes registered comprehension.

“They’re Romany Rye, Maggie,” he explained. “Don’t you see? They don’t give a hoot for your nice clean comfortable bed. All they want is their stars.” And he smiled again. “But they’ll have some cake and coffee,” he suggested. “Why don’t you run and get it ready? From what they’ve been telling me, it’s a dickens of a while since they’ve had anything resembling chocolate cake.”

We sat around a cosy table in the dining-room, and there was a most magnificent cake. Maggie asked questions. She wanted to know what we did when it rained, what we ate and how we cooked it, if the bugs didn’t bother us, and how we could stand all the funny noises in the woods at night. Charlie sat by in silence. When she had asked everything she could think of, she rested her elbows on the table, and began to talk about herself–to confide a long story.

“Charlie and I used to go on camping trips, too,” she said. “When we were first married. Didn’t we, Charlie? It’s so long ago that I hardly remember it now, but we’ve still got a lot of old junk in the attic somewhere–pots and pans, tents, sleeping-bags–you never saw such a lot of useless old junk. We didn’t go so strenuous as you people, because my health was never good. And then one time when we went, it just rained and rained, all the time. We stayed in the tent, waiting for it to clear up, and I got the fidgets, and the mosquitoes were something fierce. And I said then that that was the last time I’d go–I was done with it. And– ” she recounted with pride– “I never did go again, either. Did I, Charlie? And then the baby came. Charlie wanted to go but he couldn’t budge me.” She giggled playfully. “I just had to have my hot baths and my gas stove. He wanted to go with an old college classmate of his, but I don’t think a man should leave his family when he has such a short vacation anyway–do you? So we put all the old things away in the attic, and there I guess they’ll stay.” The fact satisfied her tremendously. She smiled with confidence.

So that was it!

I glanced toward Charlie’s slender face. “Oh, no they won’t!” he contradicted quietly. “They’ll go with me and Joy, when she’s old enough… a year or two more…. Won’t they, pal?” he asked the little girl beside him.

“And what do you expect me to do then?” Mrs. Jackson queried grimly. There was a swift play of eyes….

It was sunset. “We must get along,” said Nick, “and make camp. Fir boughs to get in… Thanks ever so…”

Charlie followed us out on to the cow trail to the back pasture. He was very quiet. We shook hands and said goodnight. Suddenly he waved his arm expansively toward house, woodshed, pond and dam and flower garden. In his sweeping gesture he included Maggie–he included the whole of his life, except perhaps his little daughter. “God, how I envy you!” he exclaimed. “I’d swap the whole of my outfit for yours–any day.”

*    *

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