The Painted Clock
One of Canada's most promising young authors writes a love story old as yesterday and new as tomorrow
JONEA sat on a bench inside the kitchen door listening to a jay’s dry squawking, stirring the air against her face with a turkey-feather fan. Her thin, sun-browned feet barely touched the rough board floor. The green gingham dress fell in neat starched folds to her ankles. She kicked one foot out resentfully. Three starched petticoats on a day like this!
Two years ago she had been running about with skirts just covering her knees and with her hair flying. Being 17 was hardly reason enough for pinning her hair in a heavy hot mass on her head and swaddling her body in one divided and two ruffled petticoats.
“That cake done yet, Jonea?”
Perspiration stood out on her mother’s plump, rosy face. Jonea looked at the floor, her lips moving soundlessly as she counted.
“One more and then it will be done.”
Her mother heaved a gusty sigh, mopped her face with her apron.
“Wisht we had a clock. Married near to 20 years an’ that poor man hasn’t got me one yet.” Callie’s laughter sounded from the bedroom where she was sorting pieces for another quilt. It was a hearty, confident sound. Jonea knew it well. Callie would flash three or four dimples and her big dark eyes would almost shut when she laughed. Her red lips would part to show strong white teeth. Everything about Callie was strong, her back, her arms, her will. Her tongue, Father had said that morning. He’d go gladly to church come harvest, he had said, to give her to Henry Goheen since Henry was big and smart enough to keep her in her place.
“We’ll have a clock,” Callie boasted as she sauntered down the three steps to the kitchen. Her voice was like her body, firm, rounded and pleasant. “Henry sent word to Michael Frost to bring clocks when he makes his round this summer. He ought to be here soon, too. Henry said I’m to choose the one I want.”
Jonea kept the fan moving slowly, trying not to tum her head to see if Callie’s gaze was as triumphant as her tone. She could feel it on her back, on her cheek, but she would not turn. Her breath squeezed down into her lungs.
She liked her sister Callie. She didn’t begrudge her happiness. It was no matter that Callie had
everything, seemed able to get everything she wanted. But often, when she saw something she was certain Jonea wanted, she must have that too.
Like the bone china dish with the scalloped gold edge which Aunt Rose had left behind when she ran off to marry the travelling play actor. Callie hadn’t thought of it until Jonea asked for it. Then she had the dish because she was the elder, after all, wasn’t she? When it had a crack in the bottom she had given it to Jonea. Being 14 then, Jonea had felt too grown-up to resent the matter openly.
The sunlight slipped over another crack in the floor, and Jonea went to the oven to look at her cake. It was rounded up with a pale gold crust and gave an aroma of hot raisins and spices so rich her mother sniffed appreciatively.
“That does smell good. Tell one of the boys to call Pa for his dinner. Where are they? I haven’t seen one of them since I sent Victor and Gerald to feed the geese. Where’s Tommy and Duncan?’
Jonea set her cake tenderly on the table. “Swimming.”
“All four? Drat! Go call Pa. And cover your head.”
Jonea took off her apron and covered her head with it. Stepping off the narrow porch was like stepping into the oven. A ground hog whisked behind the apple butter pot under the red currant bushes. Robins were feasting in the oxheart cherry tree. She stopped to fill her pocket with cherries before going through the blessed shade of the maples to the road. The dust was shifting velvet under her feet, hot as she could bear it. The improvised sunbonnet clung damply to her neck.
Her face puckered lightly over the fear that Callie knew—Callie knew about the painted clock. She must know or how else would she come to say “I’m to choose the one I want” with her voice lilting as it always did when she wasn’t caring how much she could hurt you. Callie wasn’t really mean. She just didn’t think, when she was confident and happy, how much she could hurt you. It seemed, Jonea thought half-miserably, that happiness never increased understanding, but subtracted from it.
Callie had been feeling so self-assured since Henry asked her to marry him at Christmas time. That was the time, Jonea remembered painfully, when the Cantwell boys had begun to call on her. They weren’t rich or handsome, like Henry. She had liked all three impersonally, equally. But no sooner were they out the door than Callie aped them grotesquely and plagued Jonea to know which she would marry, calling her Lady Cantwell. Her mother had whacked her hands with the soup ladle. By February the Cantwells called no more, Jonea’s reserve being too much for them, and Callie predicted darkly that Jonea was bound for spinster-
hood. Jonea had felt nothing but relief at the lack of callers.
“It’s no loss,” her father had whispered to her. “If you’d a mind, Jonea, to marry one of ’em, Callie’s tongue-wouldn’t stop you.”
Jonea stood under an elm and watched her father following the horse rake, pulling up the peas. He was switching a branch of willow to keep off the flies.
Summer was spending itself lavishly. Corn and barley were still and shining in the heat. Bindweed trailed with wild cucumber over the rail fence into the deep grass. Pokeweed and turtlehead were choking up the ditches.
Jonea looked up so the sunlight trickling through the leaves spattered all over her face. How on earth could Callie know about the painted clock? It wasn’t likely she had seen bits of carved or painted wood. Frosty had never mentioned the clock when they danced with him at bees and parties. She had been much too shy to ask him about it.; Someone might overhear her.
Perhaps having such an old secret made her think Callie knew. It was often that way with secrets. Keep them too long and you come to think others know about them, or are aware that you have an old secret. Secrecy being an urgent thing, it stays on the tip of your mind.
It had begun three years ago on the causeway down through the marshland. She had been sent to Aberlee’s farm with a gift of spiced venison and was on her way home when Frosty came up the road behind her, his gaudy wagon full of pots and pans rattling merrily over the logs. He had doffed his big straw hat and asked her if he could take her along a piece.
Everyone knew young Michael Frost. In summer he peddled his wares through several counties. In winter he boarded with the blacksmith in Kilgobbin and worked for the cooper. Jonea knew that he danced well, read every book he could buy or borrow, and that he was saving money to open a General Store. She remembered her father describing him as the most spectacular ordinary person he had ever met. That may have been his polite way of saying Frosty was dull.
He didn’t appear dull to her, and she had always enjoyed his company. His big tanned face had a lively, sensitive expression. The smile lingered on his full lips as if it liked being there. One lank wisp of fair hair fell over his forehead. His eyes were green-blue. A sprinkling of freckles across his high cheekbones, coupled with the smile and the quiet eyes, made his face as friendly as little Tommy’s.
Protruding from Frosty’s pocket was a small curved stick. Jonea had put one finger on it tentatively. When he smiled at her she drew it out of his pocket, held it between her hands. It was carved as if a tiny grapevine twined around it.
“Who did this? Frosty, it’s beautiful!”
“Who made it?”
“Tell me.” She had Continued on page 26
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The Painted Clock
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leaned against his rough homespun sleeve coaxingly.
“Women never keep secrets.” “Collywhish!”
Gingerly she had set the stick on the seat between them and looked far to the right, angry. Something hard dropped into her lap. It was a thin square of light yellow wood, smooth and hard as a jewel. Painted on it were three thistles, bent one way as if the wind blew, faded one side as if from the sun.
“Frosty! Tell me about it!”
He relented slowly. “Gome winter, or rainy days, I paint wood. Can’t sit idle by the hour. Only by the half hour. Last fall a Yankee sold me a broken clock which I fixed. Now I’m making a case for it.”
“But in winter you work for Hailey the cooper.”
“When do you find time to paint and
Frosty’s laughter was wise and gentle. “Nobody finds time. Everybody in the world is busy as a hen with one chick. When you know what you want to do you make time to do it. Most folks don’t know what they want to do, but they skhter around from this to that, busy as a fire over nothing.”
Jonea relaxed her grip on the wagon seat as the wheels sank into the deep white dust of the road. “Why is that a secret?”
Frosty frowned at a place between the mare’s ears where a blue fly had settled to bite. “If people knew, they’d want things. A cradle, or a cupboard, and I’d want to make it for them. MacDonelly’s the cabinetmaker and I’m the peddler, and that’s that. If I start making furniture and painting things I’ll never have the store.”
“Oh.” Jonea picked up the stick and caressed it with her stubby fingers. “When I marry I’ll have a clock. One with weights and chains and chimes to sound all the hours, and a good whirring ding for the half hours. I won’t be telling time by the slant of light through the door when I marry.”
Frosty brushed a long hand across his mouth to remove the smile. “Peter’s sake, girl, you’re a long way from marrying time!”
That had made her angry all over again so she sat staring intently at fields she knew as well as she knew the palm of her hand while Frosty whistled, apparently unaware that he had hurt her dignity.
The next summer, and the next, she had managed to slip away to meet Frosty on the road and look at more pieces of the clockcase. Frosty told her when and where he had painted them and even promised to show her someday how he mixed his paints.
Now Callie wanted a clock. Surely this year the painted deck would be assembled. Callie would look in the wagon and see it, and because it was so l>eautiful she would want it. Especially if she guessed that Jonea had set her heart on it, had saved two pound 10 shillings to buy it.
Jonea waved her apron to her father and started back up the road. If he saw her with that worried look he would be full of pity and curiosity. She felt too guilty to endure his pity. It wasn’t right to feel like this toward her own sister. Maybe it was human, but just the same it wasn’t right.
The four boys came running up the crooked path from the river. Halfnaked, they were, and savage with life. Their nimble fingers plucked at her dress; their shrill voices stabbed her ears.
“I got a turtle, Jonea, an’ I’m gonna train ’im—”
“My sunburn’s peelin’ yards an’ yards!”
“—Train ’im fer a circus with my—”
Victor skipped backward in front of her, swinging his pail full of polliwcgs. “Frosty’s at Webber’s for the night. He swum acrost the riv—”
Tommy bleated suddenly, “Puppy caught a minnie but it wiggled an’ scart him so he—”
“All naked, like us, he swum acrost—”
“Crow an’ rooster an’ this here hoppy toad—”
Words pushed against her throat to hush them. Like putting up your hand to stop the wind, hushing them when they were so full of the discovery of the world.
Not until after supper did she have a moment to herself. Then she fell asleep in the seat between the plum trees and the cherry, to dream that the painted clock stood on the doorstep and Callie was counting silver into Frosty’s hands. He was laughing at her, teasing and hurting.
“Can’t wait forever to sell it, Jonea. Besides, Callie wants it.”
Jonea woke to hear her mother calling her to bed. Her eyes were wet and smarting. She went in quietly, hoping no one would notice her face. It felt fallen apart with the hurt cf the dream.
Callie was sitt ing up in bed brushing her black hair. She talked of what Henry did, what Henry said, and when she paused Jonea said, “Oh?” and “Yes?” to start her off again.
“Which do you like best,” Callie demanded abruptly, “wall clocks or the big grandfather kind? I can’t decide and the boys said Frosty will be here in the morning. He’s the only one can bring a clock over the roads without smashing it. Which do you like?”
Jonea bent over the shallow wooden bowl on the wide window ledge and washed her face energetically. “Both nice,” she mumbled.
“Yes, but which do you like best?”
With the brisk rubbing and the inner turmoil Jonea’s face was crimson as a cranberry. “The wall clocks with cupids and roses on the dial are considered quite elegant,” she said stiffly. “Especially if the weights are like pine cones.”
Callie tossed her hair back from her face and sat still, thinking. She looks, Jonea thought with a sudden gust of tenderness, like a china doll, pretty as a fistful of roses. No one would think Callie had such a plain little sister, with hair that fell down as fast as it was pinned up and a mouth pink as Tommy’s instead of red and teasing like Callie’s. Who on earth would call her pretty? No one. Just no one. Except Frosty.
Hastily Jonea brushed her hair down to hide her face. Last summer, when Frosty had seen her in her best green dress with her hair pinned up securely, he had shown unmistakable approval. “You’re growing right pretty, Joneagirl,” he had said and how glad she had been that Callie hadn’t heard him!
“You really do like the wall clocks best?” Callie’s voice seemed full of polite enquiry. But Jonea felt like one of the boys’ butterflies pinned on the big cardboard sheet where you could see every shade of its wings, every particle of its soft little body. Callie could pin her with words and then regard her leisurely, impersonally, as if she were a leaf or a stone.
“I’m tired, Callie. Why don’t you go to sleep?”
The sudden mutiny took Callie by surprise. She lay looking first at the ceiling, then at Jonea, as if she might find some connection between the objects of her gaze. Jonea blew out the fat beef tallow candle and lay on the
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edge of the bed, listening to the house settle for the night. Snores from her father in the next room and a last convulsive giggle from the boys overhead. A sighing sound of wind across the clearing and the rhythmic beat-beat of crickets in the night. Callie’s regular breathing. She was asleep. A thin ray of milky moonlight seeped across the bed and spilled into a long pool on the braided rug. She watched it spread over the fleor.
It was silly to want one thing with all the desire that others spent on half a dozen things. Maybe the case wasn’t finished at all. Maybe she was lying here, rigid and fretful, for nothing. It was silly. She didn’t even know how the case would look. She only knew that it would be beautiful, colored softly and gaily as a garden in June weather. She wished she could see it. If Callie bought it in the morning she would see it every time she went to visit Mrs. Henry Goheen. Frosty’s clock would be there, inciting her to covetousness.
Suddenly it became impossible to lie still any longer without knowing. She stood in the pool of light and gathered her clothes into one arm, tugged the candle from its holder, and crept softly down to the kitchen. The tinderbox was on the mantel. The wooden latch emitted a soft squeak of protest as she opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. There she dressed, rolled her nightgown into a ball, and dropped it in the apple butter pot on her way to the road.
The dust was cool now. Night was travelling easily with the moon full. Fear touched her tentatively as she hurried through light and darkness. A rabbit went softly as his shadow across the road. Everything seemed more alive now than it did by daylight. The trees and their shadows, the boulders in the fence corners, the shreds of cloud, all were separate entities; each had a pent-up life of its own.
Half a mile to the bridge. She stopped there to look down at the smooth black and silver water. Stars were caught down there. If she knelt, she could scoop one out, wc t and cool, the points needle-sharp in her hot clisp.
Her bare feet made no sound as she went up the lane to W ebber’s yard gate. She climbed over it, then stood waiting for the dog to bark. He came padding lazily down to her, his red tongue lolling.
“Douglas! Good old Doug! Quiet, now!”
She grasped a handful of his fur and went with him past the sleeping house and outbuildings to where Frosty’s wagon stood with the shafts down. His giddy old mare was nickering to herself in the near pasture. Jonea collected straws from around the barn door and scrambled up onto the wagon seat. It took her a long time to light the candle. The dog sat between the shafts watching her. When the candle sputtered up Douglas laid his head on the shaft nearest him and closed his eyes.
Jonea untied the tape holding the canvas curtain acrcss the wagen and crawled into it. Pots and pans caught ihe candlelight and blossomed warmly all around the interior. She wedged the candle between two boxes and crouched there, looking at the tidy rows of crates and chests. Upon one chest were three somethings wrapped in thick wads of wool. Wall clocks. Upon the chest of cutlery were two long somethings which might be tall clocks. There was another on the chest of sewing supplies. Jonea looked longingly. Maybe that was the painted clock. She shivered. It was wrong to touch what did not belong to you—
“Yes, ma’am? What will you have?”
Jonea clapped both hands over her shoulder. Frosty was sitting on the wagon seat, grinning at her. Bloed thundered in her ears. Her heart whacked her side like a fist on a locked door.
“Not used to customers so late—or so early—but perhaps I can oblige you?” He was elaborately polite, teasing, curious.
“Come, now. A mile here and another back fer nothing?”
Jonea wrestled with fear, dignity and anger. She moved to climb over the seat but his knee blocked her way. “Please, move over.”
“Not till I know what you come for. Far be it from me to disappoint a customer!”
“Michael Frost! Stop yammering like a Yankee peddler and move!”
“Hush! Do you want Alec Webber out here?”
She sat back on her heels and looked up at him mournfully. “Please, let me go, Frosty. I didn’t touch any.hing. 1 just came to see—to see if the painted clock—was finished.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so!” he swung his legs into the wagon. “Hold that light so I can see what 1 m doing.” He began tugging at the long object on top of the sewing chest. Jonea held the candle high with both hands, shivering still, although she was no longer frightened. You couldn’t be afraid of Frosty. “How did you know I was here?”
“I was sleeping by the fence. Cooler outdoors.”
He pushed the thick wadding back and Callie leaned over his arm. Her breath caught. It was just as she had thought it would be, tall, with rounded top, the sides plain but polished smooth and golden. The panel of the long door which closed on the weights and chains was made of the little squares of wood, painted with flowers, tiny, exquisitely exact in every detail. The face was ivory with Roman numerals, like fine black spider legs, around it. Frosty touched it with two careful fingers, his face taut with pride.
“I’m going to turn down a new dial for it, soon as I get the right wood. Like it?”
Jonea lowered the candle. “Frosty.” Her mouth felt dry. “I’ve got two pounds 10—”
Frosty began to wrap the clock. “She’s worth five times that, Jonea,” he said quickly.
Jonea pressed her lips tightly together so they wouldn’t tremble. Without waiting for her candle she dropped over the edge of the wagon seat and walked swiftly down to the gate. Frosty caught up with her there.
“Shall I walk a way with you?” He opened the gate for her. “Jonea?”
“No, don’t! No, thank you.” She backed away from him, as if she were afraid, then, remembering that he was Frosty and would never tell anyone she had come, “I’m sorry I bothered you.” He closed the gate and fastened it when she fled up the road. Five times two pound 10 ! Five times two pound— She almost sobbed with the smarting of shame and disappointment. Frosty would think her a fool—with two pound 10!
Callie was sleeping with her arm up over her head. Jonea lay stiffly beside her. Now the matter was settled, now she was sure Callie would buy the clock in the morning, perhaps she could go to sleep. But she didn’t. The little painted squares danced before her closed eyes and Frosty’s deep voice sounded calm and positive in her ears. Five times two pound 10—
She was still thinking of it when Callie got up. She pleaded a headache to lie still for another hour. When she
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dressed reluctantly her head ached in sad earnest. Her mother made her drink sassafras tea and sit on the porch out of the sunlight, shelling corn for the chickens. The boys could do her chores. Jonea smiled gratefully at her mother. She was sometimes a puzzle to Jonea, being too absent-minded to be practical, too hasty to be just, and yet, withal, as generous as the day was long.
“What Jonea needs,” said Callie sternly, “is a fine beau to perk her up. She’s nearly 18.”
“Leave her alone,” said her mother, bouncing from the cupboard to the table.
“All pale and peaked like that.”
“You hush, miss!”
“Looks like she cried all night.”
Callie bit the thread and stopped to admire her work. Her mother whisked to the table, to the oven and back. Jonea relaxed and began to shell the corn.
The bottom of the pan was not covered before Frosty’s wagon appeared. She could hear faintly the tinkling of the pans. When her mother and Callie came out to watch the wagon swaying up the grassy lane, Jonea stood up. Her mother turned on her, flustered and impatient.
“Don’t you move until you’ve done! I’ll not have you running to your death in this heat!”
“I want a drink,” said Jonea and slipped away from the porch to the well by the side of the house. Slowly she drew up a pail of cold water. Behind her she could hear Callie’s clear, excited voice and her mother’s brisk ejaculations. Frosty was unwrapping clocks and Callie was passing judgment. Jonea took a long drink from the cracked cup before turning to look.
The painted clock stood, wrapped, between two handsome grandfather clocks. Callie was holding a fat wall clock with a rose-wreathed dial under her arm, her face puckered dubiously.
“Now unwrap the other one, Frosty.”
Jonea hung the cup on the nail in the well post and ran.
Sitting on a stone by the orchard fence she mourned the painted clock. The spring calf was bawling lustily in the next field and a red squirrel was chattering in the oak by the fence. Jonea pleated her skirt over her knee, smoothed it out, and pleated it again. When on earth would she ever have five times two pound ten? Goheens were the only family she knew with enough money to buy a clock at that price. She would have to get used to the idea that Callie owned the painted clock. Jonea put her head down on her
knee and closed her eyes against bitterness.
A long time passed before she remembered the corn on the porch. In guilty haste she went over the fence and scurried up the road. At the bend by the dairy house she stopped.
Frosty’s wagon was under the trees, the mare cropping grass by the road. Frosty was up on the seat, his sketchbook open on his knees, his pencil darting at the page.
“Hello,” he said, glancing at her and back to the laurel he was drawing.
Jonea looked too, summoning courage. “Did my sister buy a clock?” “Yes.” Frosty sounded far away. Unsmiling, he looked strangely grim and a muscle twitched along his jaw.
“The—painted clock?” Jonea swallowed hard.
His sandy brows lifted and his eyes showed surprisingly blue. “No.”
“You mean-—you mean she didn’t want it?”
Frosty closed his sketchbook. “Yes, she wanted it. But I had changed my mind about selling it.”
“Oh.” Jonea felt suspended in midair.
“I’m going to keep it,” he added. “Oh, I see.”
Frosty looked down at her. “When you put so much work, so much of yourself, into something, you just can’t sell it, can you?”
“No.” Jonea put her hand on the shaft, feeling giddy and light. “No, you can’t sell it, Frosty.”
“Some things are kept for love of them, or given for love of someone.” Jonea had nothing to say. She felt vaguely sorry for CaMie. Callie had probably never felt as she felt now, as if the whole sunny world was a gold coin in her pocket. Frosty was looking at her intently, as he looked at the flowers he was going to paint.
“Callie’s a fine young woman, Jonea, but she’s not a bit like the one I love.” Jonea started to say “Oh” then stopped. She had said it twice. A trickle of happiness ran through her. Frosty must know about it for his face was bright and joyful.
She stepped away from the wagon. “Good-by.”
He leaned toward her, his eyes still holding her. “I’ll be back after harvest, with the painted clock.”
He was giving her a promise, a promise of giving the best he had to give, for always. Jonea laughed up at him.
“Oh, Michael—with, or without!” She walked lightly up the road, feeling his eyes upon her, glad that her skirt was as long as any grown woman’s and her hair piled up in a crown. if