THE war halted the wrecking of National Avenue, but not for long. Until the soldiers came home and the country could begin to get back into its great stride again, groups of the old, thick-walled, big-roomed houses were permitted to survive; and although it was a survival doomed, and the dignity of the dignified old things had begun to appear somewhat ridiculous, since they were smeared with the smoke-fog and begirt with automobile warehouses and salesbuildings and noisy garages and repair shops, and every other kind of shop and office, yet here and there was the semblance—or, at least, the reminder—of a fine, ample, and mannerly old street that had once been the glory of its town.
But when the great heydays came, following the collapse of the war “expansion,” and the country took up its dropped trades again, and renewed with furious and reckless energy its suppressed building, and, instead of getting back into its old great stride, set forth in a new stride gigantic beyond all its striding aforetime, then indeed the old avenue perished utterly, and nothing was left even to hint what it had been, or to tell its noble story. Old Hickory Shelby’s house was the last to go;—the stone casing of his tall front doorway was the last of all the relics. Even when the rest of the house was flat, hauled away with the fountain swan and the cast-iron fence in dumping wagons and in the trucks of junk-dealers, the doorway was allowed to remain in place above the ruins of the veranda; and for several weeks stood forth against the setting sun like a fragment on the Roman Campagna. But in time it fell, too, as the Roman fragments will.
When it was gone the old hickory stick was gone, too. He had declined to the last to be an ornament of his daughter’s fireside; and she never knew that she owed her husband’s ownership of the “new house” to her father’s insistence on a “conservative policy” for the bank of which he was one of the directors. Old Hickory’s thoughts were his own, as his ways were his own; and what he knew about himself he kept to himself, as he once or twice with a dry crackling informed his daughter.
The new house was a white house, and it remained almost white; for the smoke reached it but thinly, and in northern Ornaby, where there were other large white houses among the groves Dan Oliphant had preserved, the people struggled successfully to keep the curse under. Shrubberies lived there, not suffocated; it was a place where faces stayed clean, children throve, and lilacs bloomed in transparent air.
Martha drove downtown, late one afternoon of a cool day at the end of a green May, to bring her husband home from a directors’ meeting at the bank; for Harlan, in her interest, had inherited his father-in-law’s position; and, as they rolled homeward, checked now and then in the jam of traffic that filled the whole length of National Avenue, she spoke of the prevalence of “Sheridans,” those excellently serviceable cars.
“Rather!” Harlan said. “All that old rascal had to do when he got control of the ‘Ornaby Four’ was to put back the old clutch and change the name. They’re all over the country. Dan would have made a great fortune if he’d lived and could have held on.”
“I don’t think he’d mind missing the fortune much,” she said. “I wish he could know how many people are riding in his cars, though. He’d like to know about that.”
They passed a “gas-station,” a flamboyantly painted bit of carnival, with an automobile warehouse and salesroom, and then an apartment house built round a begrimed courtyard, for its neighbours; and Harlan sighed. “It’s hard to imagine you and I once lived where these things are, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes, some of it’s pretty ugly.”
“It’s all ugly. It’s all hideous!” he said.
“No, not all.” And when they had left the avenue behind them, and reached the district of the bungalows and small wooden houses, she showed him gardens that he was forced to admit were “pretty.” But when they got beyond this, to where had been the broad stretches of woodland and meadow that Dan had planned for his “restricted residence district,” she insisted on her husband’s consent to the word “beautiful”; for the woodland was still there, so that one could hardly see the houses; and long hedges of bridal-wreath were flowering everywhere, as if snow had fallen upon the shrubberies.
“Hasn’t beauty come, Harlan?” she said.
“Oh, it’s well enough here,” he grumbled, as they swept into their own deep-shaded driveway.
Then they descended at white stone steps that led them up and out upon a terrace, and there they found the other member of their household sitting placidly—“to enjoy the bridal-wreath,” she said.
“Isn’t it rather chilly for you outdoors, mother?” Harlan asked; for she was now so fragile that she seemed almost transparent. “Don’t you want to go in?”
“No, not just yet,” she said. “I was just sitting here thinking how your father would have enjoyed all this. The town was pleasant when he and I were young, but of course it was never anything like this.”
“No,” Harlan said, with satire. “I should say it wasn’t!”
“It’s a great change,” the old lady continued. “I don’t suppose my mother could have believed how beautiful it would come to be.”
“No,” Harlan said, with a short laugh. “I don’t believe she could!”
She overlooked his sarcasm, or was unaware of it, for she went on: “I don’t suppose I could believe how wonderful everything will be when my grandson gets to be as old as you are, Harlan.” But this thought made her wander from the subject. “I wish Lena would let him come home some day; I do want to see him;—I don’t want to go till I’ve seen him again.” Her voice became querulous, and then, with a habit she had formed in her old age, she began to talk more to herself than to her son and daughter-in-law, but for the most part in indistinct whispers. Her subject was still Henry, who had done well in the war, had been twice “decorated,” and now lived in Paris with his mother. The old lady murmured of him and of Lena for a little time; then fell into a reverie.
Harlan joined his wife at the terrace wall. “Well, you’ve got a supporter in mother. She seems to think it’s beautiful.” He pointed upward to where an opening through the foliage of tall beech trees left a vista of the sky; and there, against the evening blue, the thinning end of a plume of smoke, miles long, was visible. “Do you, really? Even that?” he asked.
“Dan must have thought so,” she said. “I think he felt something in it that neither you nor I can understand.”
“I think maybe he did,” Harlan agreed. “Then why couldn’t he at least have lived to see the fruition of what he planted, since he loved it and it was beautiful to him? Why should he be ‘dead and forgotten?’ ”
“Listen!” Martha said. She was still looking up at the smoke against the sky, so far above the long masses of flowering bridal-wreath that bordered the terrace where she and her husband stood. “Listen! That murmur of the city down yonder—why, it’s almost his voice!”