Java Head

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JAVA HEAD

By Joseph Hergesheimer

1918

It is only the path of pure simplicity which guards and preserves the
spirit. CHWANG-TZE

TO HAZLETON MIRKIL, JR.

from Dorothy and Joseph Hergesheimer

I

Very late indeed in May, but early in the morning, Laurel Ammidon lay in
bed considering two widely different aspects of chairs. The day before
she had been eleven, and the comparative maturity of that age had filled
her with a moving disdain for certain fanciful thoughts which had given
her extreme youth a decidedly novel if not an actually adventurous
setting. Until yesterday, almost, she had regarded the various chairs of
the house as beings endowed with life and character; she had held
conversations with some, and, with a careless exterior not warranted by
an inner dread, avoided others in gloomy dusks. All this, now, she
contemptuously discarded. Chairs were—chairs, things to sit on, wood and
stuffed cushions.

Yet she was slightly melancholy at losing such a satisfactory lot of
reliable familiars: unlike older people, victims of the most
disconcerting moods and mysterious changes, chairs could always be
counted on to remain secure in their individual peculiarities.

She could see by her fireplace the elaborately carved teakwood chair
that her grandfather had brought home from China, which had never varied
from the state of a brown and rather benevolent dragon; its claws were
always claws, the grinning fretted mouth was perpetually fixed for a
cloud of smoke and a mild rumble of complaint. The severe waxed hickory
beyond with the broad arm for writing, a source of special pride, had
been an accommodating and precise old gentleman. The spindling gold
chairs in the drawingroom were supercilious creatures at a king’s ball;
the graceful impressive formality of the Heppelwhites in the dining room
belonged to the loveliest of Boston ladies. Those with difficult
haircloth seats in the parlor were deacons; others in the breakfast room
talkative and unpretentious; while the deep easy-chair before the library
fire was a ship. There were mahogany stools, dwarfs of dark tricks; angry
high-backed things in the hall below; and a terrifying shape of gleaming
red that, without question, stirred hatefully and reached out curved and
dripping hands.

Anyhow, such they had all seemed. But lately she had felt a growing
secrecy about it, an increasing dread of being laughed at; and now,
definitely eleven, she recognized the necessity of dropping such pretense
even with herself. They were just chairs, she rerepeated; there was an
end of that.

The tall clock with the brass face outside her door, after a
premonitory whirring, loudly and firmly struck seven, and Laurel
wondered whether her sisters, in the room open from hers, were awake.
She listened attentively but there was no sound of movement. She made a
noise in her throat, that might at once have appeared accidental and
been successful in its purpose of arousing them; but there was no
response. She would have gone in and frankly waked Janet, who was not
yet thirteen and reasonable; but experience had shown her that Camilla,
reposing in the eminence and security of two years more, would permit no
such light freedom with her slumbers.

Sidsall, who had been given a big room for herself on the other side of
their parents, would greet anyone cheerfully no matter how tightly she
might have been asleep. And Sidsall, the oldest of them all, was nearly
sixteen and had stayed for part of their cousin Lucy Saltonstone’s dance,
where no less a person than Roger Brevard had asked her for a quadrille.

Laurel’s thoughts grew so active that she was unable to remain any
longer in bed; she freed herself from the enveloping linen and crossed
the room to a window through which the sun was pouring in a sharp bright
angle. She had never known the world to smell so delightful—it was one
of the notable Mays in which the lilacs blossomed—and she stood
responding with a sparkling life to the brilliant scented morning, the
honey-sweet perfume of the lilacs mingled with the faintly pungent odor
of box wet with dew.

She could see, looking back across a smooth green corner of the Wibirds’
lawn next door, the enclosure of their own back yard, divided from the
garden by a white lattice fence and row of prim grayish poplars. At the
farther wall her grandfather, in a wide palm leaf hat, was stirring about
his pear trees, tapping the ground and poking among the branches with his
ivory headed cane.

Laurel exuberantly performed her morning toilet, half careless, in her
soaring spirits, of the possible effect of numerous small ringings of
pitcher on basin, the clatter of drawers, upon Camilla. Yesterday she had
worn a dress of light wool delaine; but this morning, she decided
largely, summer had practically come; and, on her own authority, she got
an affair of thin pineapple cloth out of the yellow camphorwood chest.
She hurriedly finished weaving her heavy chestnut hair into two gleaming
plaits, fastened a muslin guimpe at the back, and slipped into her dress.
Here, however, she twisted her face into an expression of annoyance—her
years were affronted by the length of pantalets that hung below her
skirt. Such a show of their narrow ruffles might do for a very small
girl, but not for one of eleven; and she caught them up until only the
merest fulled edge was visible. Then she made a buoyant descent to the
lower hall, left the house by a side door to the bricked walk and an
arched gate into the yard, and joined her grandfather.

“Six bells in the morning watch,” he announced, consulting a thick gold
timepiece. “Head pump rigged and deck swabbed down?” Secure in her
knowledge of the correct answers for these sudden interrogations Laurel
impatiently replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Scuttle butt filled?”

“Yes, sir.” She frowned and dug a heel in the soft ground.

“Then splice the keel and heave the galley overboard.”

This last she recognized as a sally of humor, and contrived a fleeting
perfunctory smile. Her grandfather turned once more to the pears. “See
the buds on those Ashton Towns,” he commented. Laurel gazed critically:
the varnished red buds were bursting with white blossom, the new leaves
unrolling, tender green and sticky. “But the jargonelles—” he drew in
his lips doubtfully. She studied him with the profound interest his sheer
being always invoked: she was absorbed in his surprising large roundness
of body, like an enormous pudding; in the deliberate care with which he
moved and planted his feet; but most of all by the fact that when he was
angry his face got quite purple, the color of her mother’s paletot or a
Hamburg grape.

They crossed the yard to where the vines of the latter, and of white
Chasselas—Laurel was familiar with these names from frequent
horticultural questionings—had been laid down in cold frames for later
transplanting; and from them the old man, her palm tightly held in his,
trod ponderously to the currant bushes massed against the closed arcade
of the stables, the wood and coal and store houses, across the rear of
the place.

At last, with frequent disconcerting mutterings and explosive breaths,
he finished his inspection and turned toward the house. Laurel,
conscious of her own superiority of apparel, surveyed her companion in a
frowning attitude exactly caught from her mother. He had on that mussy
suit of yellow Chinese silk, and there was a spot on the waistcoat
straining at its pearl buttons. She wondered, maintaining the silent
mimicry of elder remonstrance, why he would wear those untidy old things
when his chests were heaped with snowy white linen and English
broadcloths. It was very improper in an Ammidon, particularly in one who
had been captain of so many big ships, and in court dress with a cocked
hat met the Emperor of Russia.

They did not retrace Laurel’s steps, but passed through a narrow wicket
to the garden that lay directly behind the house. The enclosure was full
of robin-song and pouring sunlight; the lilac trees on either side of the
summer-house against the gallery of the stable were blurred with their
new lavender flowering; the thorned glossy foliage of the hedge of June
roses on Briggs Street glittered with diamonds of water; and the rockery
in the far corner showed a quiver of arbutus among its strange and lacy
ferns and mosses.

Laurel sniffed the fragrant air, filled with a tumult of energy; every
instinct longed to skip; she thought of jouncing as high as the poplars,
right over the house and into Washington Square beyond. “Miss Fidget!”
her grandfather exclaimed, exasperated, releasing her hand. “You’re like
holding on to a stormy petrel.”

“I don’t think that’s very nice,” she replied.

“God bless me,” he said, turning upon her his steady blue gaze; “what
have we got here, all dressed up to go ashore?” She sharply elevated a
shoulder and retorted, “Well, I’m eleven.” His look, which had seemed
quite fierce, grew kindly again. “Eleven,” he echoed with a satisfactory
amazement; “that will need some cumshaws and kisses.” The first, she
knew, was a word of pleasant import, brought from the East, and meant
gifts; and, realizing that the second was unavoidably connected with it,
she philosophically held up her face. Lifting her over his expanse of
stomach he kissed her loudly. She didn’t object, really, or rather she
wouldn’t at all but for a strong odor of Manilla cheroots and the Medford
rum he took at stated periods.

After this they moved on, through the bay window of the drawing-room that
opened on the garden, where a woman was brushing with a nodding feather
duster, under the white arch that framed the main stairway, and turned
aside to where breakfast was being laid. Laurel saw that her father was
already seated at the table, intent upon the tall, thickly printed sheet
of the Salem Register. He paused to meet her dutiful lips; then with a
“Good morning, father,” returned to his reading. Camilla entered at
Laurel’s heels; and the latter, in a delight slightly tempered by doubt,
saw that she had been before her sister in a suitable dress for such a
warm day. Camilla still wore her dark merino; and she gazed with mingled
surprise and annoyance at Laurel’s airy garb.

“Did mother say you might put that on?” she demanded. “Because if she
didn’t I expect you will have to go right up from breakfast and change.
It isn’t a dress at all for so early in the morning. Why, I believe it’s
one of your very best.” The look of critical disapproval suddenly became
doubly accusing.

“Laurel Ammidon, wherever are your pantalets?”

“I’m too big to have pantalets hanging down over my shoetops,” she
replied defiantly, “and so I just hitched them up. You can still see the
frill.” Janet had come into the room, and stood behind her. “Don’t you
notice Camilla,” she advised; “she’s not really grown up.” They turned at
the appearance of their mother. “Dear me, Camilla,” the latter observed,
“you are getting too particular for any comfort. What has upset you now?”

“Look at Laurel,” Camilla replied; “that’s all you need to do. You’d

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