On the East end of Long Island, from Riverhead to Greenport, a distance of about thirty miles, two country roads run parallel.
The North road is very near the Sound and away from the villages; lonely farm-houses are scattered at long intervals; in some places their number increases enough to form a little desolate settlement, but there is never a shop, nor sign of village life. That, one must seek on the South road, with its small hamlets, to which the “North roaders,” as they are somewhat condescendingly called, drive across to church, or to make purchases.
It was on the North road that I spent a golden August in the home of Mrs. Libby. Her small gray house was lovingly empaled about the front and sides by snow-ball bushes and magenta French-lilacs, that grew tenderly close to the weather-worn shingles, and back of one sunburnt field, as far as the eye could see, stretched the expanse of dark, shining scrub-oaks, beyond which, one knew, was the hot, blue glitter of the Sound.
Mrs. Libby was a large iron-gray widow of sixty, insatiably greedy of such fleshly comforts as had ever come within her knowledge—soft cushions, heavily sweetened dishes, finer clothing than her neighbors. She had cold eyes, and nature had formed her mouth and jaw like the little silver-striped adder that I found one day, mangled by some passing cart, in the yellow dust of the road. Her lips were stretched for ever in that same flat, immutable smile. When she moved her head, you caught the gleam of a string of gold beads, half-hidden in a crease of her stout throat. She had still a coarsely handsome figure, she was called a fine looking woman; and every afternoon she sat and sewed by the window of her parlor, dressed in a tight, black gown, with immaculate cuffs about her thick wrists. The neighbors—thin, overworked women, with numerous children—were too tired and busy to be envious. They thought her very genteel. Her husband, before his last illness, had kept a large grocery store in a village on the South side of the Island. It gave her a presumptive right to the difference in her ways, to the stuff gown of an afternoon, to the use of butter instead of lard in her cookery, to the extra thickness and brightness of her parlor carpet.
For days I steeped my soul in the peace and quiet. In the long mornings I went down the grassy path to the beach, and lay on the yellow sands, as lost to the world as if I were in some vast solitude. I had had a wound in my life, and with the natural instinct of all hurt creatures, I wanted to hide and get close to the earth until it healed. I knew that it must heal at last, but there are certain natures in which mental torture must have a physical outcome, and we are happier afterward if we have called in no Greek chorus of friends to the tragedy, to witness and sing how the body comported itself under the soul’s