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   Chapter 24 No.24

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 9417

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Just before they left Paris a letter had come for Lewis-a big, official envelop, unstamped. He tore it open, full of curiosity and wonder. Out fell a fat inclosure. Lewis picked it up and stared. It is always a shock to see your own handwriting months after you have sent it off on a long journey. Here was his own handwriting on a very soiled envelop, plastered over with postmarks. How quaint was the superscription, how eloquent the distant dates of the postmarks! "For Natalie. At the Ranch of Dom Francisco, on the Road to Oeiras, in the Province of Ceara, Brazil."

The envelop had been cut open. Lewis took out the many sheets and searched them for a sign. None was there. He looked again at the envelop. Across it was stamped a notice of non-delivery on account of deficient address. Then his eyes fell on faint writing in pencil under a postmark. He recognized the halting handwriting of Dom Francisco's eldest girl. "She is gone," she had written. Nothing more.

"Gone?" questioned Lewis. "Gone where? Where could Natalie go?" He read parts of his letter over, and blushed at his enthusiasms of almost a year ago. Almost a year! Leighton called him. He tore up the letter and threw it away. It was time to start. Then had come the good-by to Cellette, and after that the wonders of the road had held his mind in a constantly renewing grip. They still held it.

Leighton was beyond being a guide. He was a companion. When he could, he avoided big cities and monuments. He loved to stop for the night at wayside inns where the accommodations were meager, but ample opportunity was given for a friendly chat with the hostess cook. And if the inn was one of those homely evening meeting-places for old folks, he would say:

"Lew, no country wears its heart on its sleeve, but 'way inside. Let us live here a little while and feel the pulse of France."

When they crossed the border, he sat down under the first shade tree and made Lewis sit facing him.

"This," he said gravely, "is an eventful moment. You have just entered a strange country where cooks have been known to fry a steak and live. There are people that eat the steaks and live. It is a wonderful country. Their cooks are also generally ignorant of the axiomatic mission of a dripping-pan, as soggy fowls will prove to you. But what we lose in pleasing alimentation, we make up in scenery and food for thought. Collectively, this is the greatest people on earth; individually, the smallest. Their national life is the most communal, the best regulated, the nearest socialistic of any in the world, and-they live it by the inch."

One afternoon, after a long climb through an odorous forest of red-stemmed pines, with green-black tops stretching for miles and miles in an unbroken canopy, they came out upon a broad view that entranced with its sense of illusion. Cities, like bunched cattle, dotted the vast plain. Space and the wide, unhindered sweep of the eye reduced their greatness to the dimensions of toy-land.

Leighton and Lewis stood long in silence, then they started down the road that clung to the steep incline. On the left it was overhung by the forest; on the right, earth fell suddenly away in a wooded precipice. As the highway clung to the mountain-side, so did quaint villages cling to the highway. They came to an old Gasthaus, the hinder end of which was buttressed over the brink of the valley.

Here they stopped. Their big, square room, the only guest-chamber of the little inn, hung in air high above the jumbled roofs of Dürkheim. To the right, the valley split to form a niche for a beetling, ruined castle. Far out on the plain the lights of Darmstadt and Mannheim began to blink. Beyond and above them Heidelberg signaled faintly from the opposing hills.

The room shared its aery with a broad, square veranda, trellised and vine-covered. Here were tables and chairs, and here Leighton and Lewis dined. Before they had finished their meal, two groups had formed about separate tables. One was of old men, white-haired, white-bearded, each with his pipe and a long mug of beer. The other was of women. They, too, were old, white-haired. Their faces were not hard, like the men's, but filled with a withered motherliness. The men eyed the two foreigners distrustfully as though they hung like a cloud over the accustomed peace of that informal village gathering.

"All old, eh?" said Leighton to Lewis with a nod. "And sour. Want to see them wake up?"

"Yes," said Lewis.

The woman who served them was young by comparison with the rest. Leighton had discovered that she was an Alsatian, and had profited thereby in the ordering of his dinner. She was the daughter-in-law of the old c

ouple that owned the inn. He turned to her and said in French, so that Lewis could understand:

"Smile but once, dear lady. You serve us as though we were Britishers."

The woman turned quickly.

"And are you not Britishers?"

"No," said Leighton; "Americans."

"So!" cried the woman, her face brightening. She turned to the two listening groups. "They are not English, after all," she called gaily. "They are Americans-Americans of New York!"

There was an instant change of the social atmosphere, a buzz of eager talk. The old men and the old women drew near. Then came shy, but eager, questions. Hans, Fritz, Anna were in New York. Could Leighton give any news of them? Each had his little pathetically confident cry for news of son or daughter, and Leighton's personal acquaintance, as an American, was taken to range from Toronto to Buenos Aires.

Leighton treated them like children; laughed at them, and then described gravely in simple words the distances of the New World, the size and the turmoil of its cities.

"Your children are young and strong," he added, noting their wistful eyes; "they can stand it. But you-you old folks-are much better off here."

"And yet," said an old woman, with longing in her pale eyes, "I have stood many things."

Leighton turned to Lewis.

"All old, eh?" he repeated. "Young ones all gone. Do you remember what I said about this being the best-regulated state on earth?"

Lewis nodded.

"Well," continued Leighton, "a perfectly regulated state is a fine thing, a great thing for humanity. It has only one fault: nobody wants to live in it."

Two days later they reached Heidelberg and, on the day following, climbed the mountain to the K?nigstuhl. They stood on the top of the tower and gazed on such a sight as Lewis had never seen. Here were no endless sands and thorn-trees, no lonely reaches, no tropic glare. All was river and wooded glade, harvest and harvesters, spires above knotted groups of houses, castle, and hovel. Here and there and everywhere, still spirals of smoke hung above the abodes of men. It was like a vision of peace and plenty from the Bible.

Lewis was surprised to find that his father was not looking at the scene. Leighton was bending over such a dial as no other spot on earth could boast. Its radiating spokes of varying lengths pointed to a hundred places, almost within the range of sight-names famous in song and story, in peace and in war. Leighton read them out, name after name. He glanced at Lewis's puzzled face.

"They mean nothing to you?" he asked.

Lewis shook his head.

"So you're not quite educated, after all," said Leighton.

They descended almost at a run to the gardens behind the Schloss. As they reached them a long string of carriages drove up from the town. They were full of tourists, many of whom wore the enameled flag of the United States in their buttonholes. Some of the women carried little red, white, and blue silk flags.

Lewis saw his father wince.

"Dad," he asked, "are they Americans?"

"Yes, boy," said Leighton. "Do you remember what I told you about the evanescent spirit in art?"

Lewis nodded.

"Well," said Leighton, "a beloved flag has an evanescent spirit, too. One shouldn't finger carelessly the image one would adore. That's why I winced just now. Collectively, we Americans have never lowered the Stars and Stripes, but individually we do it pretty often." Then he threw up his head and smiled. "After all, there's a bright side even to blatant patriotism. A nation can put up with every form of devotion so long as it gets it from all."

"But, Dad," said Lewis, "I thought all American women were beautiful."

"So they are," said Leighton, with a laugh. "When you stop believing that, you stop being an American. All American women are beautiful-some outside, and the rest inside."

"Why don't you take me to the States?" asked Lewis.

Leighton turned around.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty," said Lewis.

"I'll take you," said Leighton, "when you are old enough to see the States. It takes a certain amount of philosophy nowadays to understand your country-and mine. Of all the nations in the world, we Americans see ourselves least as others see us. We have a national vanity that keeps us from studying a looking-glass. That's a paradox," said Leighton, smiling at Lewis's puzzled look. "A paradox," he continued, "is a verity the unpleasant truth of which is veiled."

"Anyway, I should like to go to the States," said Lewis.

"Just now," said Leighton, "our country is traveling the universal road of commercialism, but it's traveling fast. When it gets to the end of the road, it will be an interesting country."

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