Elizabeth Enright, The Four-Story Mistake, Ill. de l’auteur, New York, Dell Publishing, 1942, pp. 143-158.
The Caddis House
The remainder of the winter progressed fairly evenly. True, Rush and Randy found it necessary to take some of the starch out of Mona when she referred too loftily to her “program” or her “fan mail.” True, too, that Randy’s life-and-death struggle with arithmetic never got any easier, and that Rush and Floyd Laramy, though maintaining a sort of armed truce, were never to become bosom friends. True, Oliver had to go to bed without his supper on two unhappy occasions, and Isaac was severely spanked when he eloped with a whole leg of lamb, and all of them got into trouble from time to time: the fact remained that the Melendys always looked back on that winter as on the of pleasantest in their whole lives.
They were so busy. Twice a week Mona and Cuffy departed for New York and Mona’s broadcast. Rush gave his lessons every day, and on Sundays the whole family went dutifully to the Methodist church and listened to him play the organ. Randy did a lot of warped-looking knitting and Oliver was building himself a whole fleet of battleships to float in the brook when spring came.
For gradually the winter was beginning to slow down.
The ice thawed, and mud was everywhere. Cuffy had pinned large, stern signs to the back and front doors.
“WIPE YOUR FEET!!” they said. It was still raw and cold, but every now and then there would be a day, or an hour, or a moment, when the sun came out, and there was something different in the air: a sort of glimpsed fragrance, like when the kitchen door is opened for a second while the birthday cake is being backed. It was a smell of promise.
The little brook bellowed hoarsely; there was a swelling at the joints of the twigs, and the first skunk cabbages appeared, brown coals beside the brook. And at night tinkling, jingling, gurgling, with high silvery notes, came the voices of the peepers. The dark was spangled with their voices.
Randy and Oliver spent as much time as possible sloping about in the swamp and the brook, or anything else that was sufficiently wet. There were things to find in the water, now that spring was coming. There were frogs’ eggs in the swamp pools; great, transparent clumps of tapioca full of black polka dots, each of which would someday be a tadpole and eventually, if all went well, a frog. Randy and Oliver had three jarfuls under observation at home.
In the brook there were caddis houses. Rush had discovered these firs. They were tiny cases, not much more than an inch long, and about as big around as a soda straw. They were constructed of bits of twig and shell, tiny pebbles, and choke cherry pits, all held together with a miraculous, silky cement that was created by the retiring little architect who lived inside. All one ever saw of him was a flicker of spidery legs; a tiny, beady head withdrawing.
“Someday he’ll come out of there with wings,” said Rush, who had looked him up in the dictionary. Randy thought caddis houses were very interesting; she never tired of searching for them so minute and delicately made, so deceptively like twigs, rolling softly on the floor of the brook.
Out by the stable stood a stricken-looking cage of chicken wire and odd boards. Oliver had built it with time, noise, and effort. “I’m just waiting for the snakes to wake up,” he explained. “Then I’m going to catch a few and keep them in here and tame them.” Cuffy shuddered at the mere idea, and Mona said, “How revolting!” as usual.
The spring rains were torrential that year. Late in March it rained for three and a half days without stopping: not a pause, not a minute’s fitful sunlight; nothing but streaming windows and roaring gutters for three and half solid days. In the morning the Melendys rushed from the front door into the Motor, which smelt terrible in wet weather, and from the Motor they rushed into school. IN the afternoon it was the same thing all over again in reverse, from school to Motor; from Motor to house. It was very boring.
However, there were compensations. There was the Office, of course. And above all there was Clarinda’s room in which there were now four chairs, a table , and a rag run; and Clarinda was properly hung ( “or do you say hanged, I wonder?” said Rush) on the wall. For the room was no longer a secret. How surprised Father had been! Willy, too, and Cuffy. They had felt a little sheepish as well, having overlooked the discrepancy in the Office windows for so long. Everybody came to see it: Mrs Oliphant all the way from New York; Mr. and Mrs Wheelwright, the Coughings, the Purvises, old Mr. and Mrs Pepper, and all their friends at school. Mona had written a theme about it in English class, and the teacher had written “Ex.” (which meant excellent) on the upper right-hand corner, and a note which said, “ Very orig. subj. well handled.” Yes, Clarinda’s room was a great success.
The cupola, too, was a good place to be in when it rained. The rain pattered and resounded on the room; and looking through the four glass windows was like looking through four waterfalls. Randy sat there by the hour (it was too cold for anybody else), humped up in the middle of the cot with an ancient Navajo blanket over here shoulders.
At last, on Saturday afternoon, the rain ceased. Rush closed the lid of his piano and stretched up and up and up as if he would have liked to push his arms right through the roof. “Let’s go out, kids, shat do you say?”
Randy heard him from the cupola and came tumbling down the ladder-stairs. But Mona didn’t want to go out because it was still too wet. She was always like that lately. She seemed to want to do what she thought people ought to want to do. If it was wet, she stayed in; if it was time for bed, she went immediately to bed; if the other girls at school wore ankle socks and pleated skirts, she wore them too: never shorts nor overalls. When it was time to do homework, she did homework without dawdling or finding excuses. She never got into trouble of any kind. Of course, she was quite old by now, fourteen, and she was an acknowledged radio actress, and all that. Still, it was disappointing.
Rush and Randy weren’t like that at all. They were always getting into trouble. They hated going to bed on time, never desired to do their homework at the appointed hour, and both wore whatever was handiest, oldest, and most comfortable. And they both loved wet weather when it wasn’t so violent that it kept them indoors.
“Besides, it isn’t really wet,” Randy insisted. “It’s just dripping a little.”
“But it’s cold,” objected Mona.
“Well, it’s the end of March already,” said Rush. “It’s not the same kind of cold as winter. And we can wear our rubber boots.”
“Okay,” Mona said loftily. “Go on out in it if you want to, Rush. I don’t. Get bronchitis again, if you like, and go around coughing like an old sick mule.”
“Oh, nuts,” cried Rush. “ That was a long time ago. Christmastime. It sounded worse than it was.”
But Randy wasn’t going to argue. She didn’t enjoy argument the way Rush did. Already she was rummaging among the battered piles of foot gear on the closet floor; among the dozens of rubbers, overshoes, boots, ski boots, and ice skates that had accumulated there during the past months.
“here are your boots, Rush,” she said. “ But I can only find one of mine. Mona, can I wear one of yours instead?”
“As far as I’m concerned you can go out barefoot,” replied Mona haughtily, turning a page of War and Peace. She had taken to reading heavy grown-up books and talking about them afterward to grownups, who were often impressed.
“The young intellectual,” remarked Rush, putting on his old cracked poncho. Randy put on her sticky, yellow slicker, and they went downstairs. When they opened the front door the large, bounding March wind came to great them. Black, wet branches leaped against the sky, raw and leafless, and shaken drops fell on their heads.
“Listen to the brook!”
It sounded like a river, the brook did, roaring and tumbling between the rocks, swollen and made strong by the rain.
“Where’ll we go first, Rush?”
“Up on the hill to see if the tree house blew down.”
So they went up the hill through the woods. All about and overhead the wind surged and swam; the branched creaked and scraped and shook cold water down. Below, the soaked, dead leaves of last year clung to their rubber boots.
“Like wet cornflakes,” Randy said.
“Like wet corn plasters, you mean,” Rush said vulgarly, and they both laughed heartily. It seemed a good joke at the moment. Oh, it was wonderful to be outdoors again.
“Smell how different it is!” cried Randy. “Air never really gets into a house.”
It was true. The broad, wild wind had the most wonderful smell; an odor of earth and space and wetness, and the beginnings of spring.
Randy had a little trouble in walking. At every step the Mona rubber boot, which was several sizes too large, kept sinking away from her foot with a hollow, puffing sound. But it wasn’t enough to spoil her pleasure.
“Look, it’s okay!” said Rush when they came to the top of the hill; gazing up Randy saw that the tree house was still firmly anchored to the giant branches of the oak. Even though it dipped and swayed, not one board was loose.
“Pretty well constructed,” boasted Rush.
“Let’s go up!” said Randy. They got the ladder and went up, Rush first, and Randy behind, keeping the Mona boot on by sheer will power and nothing else.
“It’s a boat!” she cried when they had clambered over the railing into the tree house. “See how it rocks. You be captain, Rush, and I’ll be crew.”
“Reef the sail!” ordered Rush, catching on immediately. “A monsoon is coming up. I smell ugly weather in the China Sea.”
Randy could smell it too. Excitedly she reefed in imaginary sail while the tree house rolled and tossed: buffeted by wild semitropical tempest.
“A U-boat aft!” shouted Rush. “It’s a destroyer now, Randy. Man the guns!” And Randy manned imaginary guns at the top of her lungs.
It was very fine and exciting. When a gathering of crows seesawed windily overhead, cawing in rusty voices, she and Rush let them have imaginary antiaircraft fire. The blood of battle surged in their veins; and soon, though the rusty cawing of the crows continued to clamor faintly on the wind, they were proud victors. About them on the sea the remains of two U-boats and seventeen Japanese fighter planes lay demolished and abandoned.
After a while when they got tired of war, Randy said,”Now let’s go and see what the brook’s like.” As they climbed down the ladder Rush’s poncho flapped about his head, and Randy’s Mona boot at last fell off, but she found it again.
The brook was even better than they had hoped. At the place where the water habitually came down the rocks in a little waterfall there was now an enormous, brawling cascade, big enough to knock a man off his feet. The banks were submerged, and under the water the little, new, beginning plants and ferns waved frantically to and fro.
They stood and watched the falling water for a long time. There was something magnificent and satisfying in its force and power; when they looked away the land and trees seemed to be moving, too; to be gliding along with the brook. “Sort of like when you’re dizzy after rolling downhill,” shoulted Randy. She had to shout to be heard.
Then they went wading in the comparatively quiet shallows some distance below the fall. The water embraced their rubber bookts and inside the boots their toes felt cold but protected. Rush and Randy bent down looking for caddis houses. They invaded a wet, mysterious world. The water was dark and clear, like root beer, and on the bottom they saw shifting sand and pebbles, water-sodden twigs, and glittering flakes of mica. There were lots of caddis houses, and they gathered quite a collection, comparing them and examining the different mosaic patterns of the little tubes.
Suddenly Randy made the strangest sound: a sort of smothered yell.
“What’s the matter, Ran?” Rush looked up.
“Oh, oh, oh!” was Randy’s only reply. She was staring at something in her hand with a flabbergasted expression.
“Well, what is it?”
“I think,” said Randy slowly. “Rush, I think it’s a diamond.”
Rush relaxed. “Oh, Randy,” he groaned tolerantly. “Wake up. You’re always finding diamonds that turn out to be glass, and emeralds that turn out to be pieces of ginger-ale bottle, and gold that’s nothing but old beer cans. Don’t you ever get discouraged?”
“But look at it, Rush. Please just take a look.” She held out her hand. The little case that lay in it was like all the rest: a variation on the same patched-together dwelling place. But there was one difference: halfway down one side of it there was a small, round stone like a tiny glass doorknob. It was no larger than a chokecherry pit, but it was clear as a drop of dew on a fine morning, and its surface was shaped, carved, and faceted in a way that could only have been accomplished by some man’s skill.
“Holy Moses,” said Rush in a quiet, detached way.
“It is on, isn’t it?” said Randy, giving a sort of floundering leap and forgetting about the Mona boot, which instantly fell off and filled with water. She picked it up, tossed it on the bank hardly noticing, and stood like a heron with one wet foot drawn under her.
“Well, I’m not certain,” replied Rush, not noticing either. “Of course it’s probably only a rhinestone. But even that’s queer enough.”
“Oh, no, Rush. It’s a diamond all right,” said Randy with all the assurance of Mr. Tiffany himself. “But what in the world is it doing there, decorating a worm’s little house?”
“Darned if I know. Maybe it fell out of a ring or a pin. Maybe years ago, who knows?”
Yes probably it had fallen out of some lady’s ring, and dropped into the water with a tiny splash and disappeared. Randy could see the lady’s white hand, long and narrow and snow white, except for pink-polished nails. The hand hovered in and out among violet plants beside the brook. To and fro, and to and fro it went, with the sun striking great shuddering, shifting sparks of light from the diamond on the third finger. Suddenly there is a cry, the violets fall to the earth. “My ring, my ring!” cries the lady’s voice. “The stone is gone!”
“I wonder who it belonged to?”
“Chances are you’ll never find out. Probably it’s only a rhinestone, but you’d better keep it anyway. Here comes Mona, maybe she’ll know.”
In a half-reluctant, offhand way Mona was coming down to the brook; walking slowly with her galoshes flopping. The thought of outdoors and the wild wind had got between her and the pages of War and Peace in spite of her.
“Mona!” cried Randy exultantly. “Guess what! I’ve just found a diamond stuck to a caddis house!”
“And Willy’s struck oil on the front lawn, and Cuffy’s inherited a million dollars, and I’m the Countess Natasha Rostova in disguise,” replied Mona sarcastically, without altering her pace.
“Well, she’s found something,” said Rush in a solemn, impressive way. “Believe it or not. I think maybe it’s the McCoy this time. Come see.” And Mona forgot about her age, talent, and position in the world, and flapped inelegantly across the sodden leaves to the brook.
Randy kept the miraculous caddis case in a tumblerful of water that day and the next; but on Monday she transferred it to a bottle which she put in her schoolbag. During the school lunch hour she bicycled down to see Mr. Lapvogel, the Carthage jeweler.
“Well, I wouldn’t of believed it,” Mr. Lapvogel said a few minutes later, removing the thimble-sahped magnifier from his eys. “No, sir, I wouldn’t of believed it no matter who told me.”
“You mean it’s really a diamond?”
“The genuwine article. It’s a nice little stone: nice color, nice work. Course tisn’t big. Couldn’t get so much for it.”
“About how much would you say, Mr Lapvogel?”
“For this here? Oh, say around seventy-five, maybe eighty-five.”
“Sure, dollars. Course you don’t want to sell it, though, do you? That’s a curiosity, that is. A rare, rare curiosity.”
Randy looked down at her jewel with a pang. Probably the only diamond I’ll have ever, she thought. The many clocks and little watches in the store ticked and whispered hastily, like insects in old, dry wood. Randy gave a sigh and blew a scrape of paper off the counter.
“No, Mr Lapvogel. I’m not going to keep it, I’m going to sell it. Everybody in this family has been earning money except me and Oliver; and after all Oliver’s only a child of seven. Do you- I mean, would you feel like buying it yourself? You could put it in a ring or something and sell it, couldn’t you?”
“Why, sure, guess I could. I’d buy it all right, only don’t you think I’d ought get your papa’s permission first? You sure he wants you to sell it?”
Randy said, “Father and I talked it over. He thought you might want to be sure of that so he wrote you a letter. Here it is.”
Mr. Lapvogel read the letter and was convinced. “Tell you what, I said seventy-five, maybe eighty-five, didn’t I? So I’ll give you eighty, that okay?”
“Oh, yes,” said Randy faintly. “If you’re sure it’s not too much.”
“Is that any way to close a business deal?” inquired Mr. Lapvogel. “You’d ought to say to me ‘ Eighty? Well, I don’t know. Maybe I better go see what they say over to Braxton,’ and like as not I would have offered ninety.”
“Oh,” said Randy, feeling very young. But Mr. Lapvogel was smiling. He went over to the large, forthright safe at the back of the shop, and squatted down in front of it. Randy watched him twirling the nickel knobs, his brow seamed in concentration, and his lips moving as he recited the combination to himself.
A few minutes later he slammed the safe door shut.
“Seventy. Seventy-five, Eighty,” said Mr. Lapvogel, counting out the soft, old bills. “There ‘tis.” Randy had never seen so much money in her life. She folded it respectfully, and stuffed it, bulging, into her patent leather pocketbook.
“I’m going to put your diamond on display in my window,” said Mr Lapvogel. “Right slam in the middle of the window on a kind of black velvet stand, with a card attached telling the whole story.”
“I’ll come and look at it often, with a covetous eye,” said Randy. She oculd imagine her diamond, throned on velvet; the center, the climax, of Mr. Lapvogel’s distinguished, though flyspecked, collection: a costly display of enamel lockets and novelty pins shaped like everything from an elephant to Mickey Mouse; link bracelets, wrist watches, bead necklaces, engagement rings, and at the back an arrangement of electric clocks looking on gravely, like a jury.
“And I’m going to tell Cal Joiner about it firs. He’s editor down to the Post-Clarion. He’ll put a piece about it in the paper, with your name and all. Maybe your photo too.”
There was a certain satisfaction in that idea. Randy paused at the doorway. “I’m kind of scared to walk down the street,” she confided. “I never felt so valuable before.”
“What you going to do with all that cash?” inquired Mr. Lapvogel. “ Buy a little fur coat?”
“No, indeed.” Randy looked at him proudly. “I’m going to buy a War Bond. Mona’s bought two out of her own earnings, and Rush has one out of his, and there’s another that belongs to all of us together from our show. But I’m going to get this one by myself with my diamond money.”
“Well, you’re a patriotic girl and a good citizen,” said Mr. Lapvogel approvingly. “Maybe I’d ought to of given you ninety after all.”
Randy laughed at him and waved her pocketbook. “Is that any way to close a business deal?” she said.
The little Carthage bank lay on the foot of the hill beside the church. She had been there with Father several times and knew Mr. Craven quite well. He was a tall grey man with glasses who always peered through the bars of his cage and said, “My, my, almost as tall as Daddy, aren’t you? When are you going to open a checking account with us?” Then he would give a little dry laugh like the crackle of a new dollar bill.
“How do you do, Mr.Craven,” said Randy, with dignity. “I would like to buy a bond. A War Bond.”
“Don’t you mean a stamp, sister?” said Mr. Craven, glancing at her in a grown-up way.
She opened her purse and spilled the money out on the shelf in front of his cage. “ I want as big a bond as that can buy. And here’s a note from my father telling you it’s all right.”
Mr. Craven’s eyes widened. He looked as if he would like to know where she had got all those bills. Randy didn’t tell him, though she would have enjoyed watching his face if she had said, “ You see, Mr. Craven, I found this diamond in our brook the other day-“
The bond was a fine one; substantial and important looking; and there was even some money left over. Not much, but enough so that after school Randy was able to go and buy presents for her family. She rode home on her bicycle, after a glorious hour of shopping, with the wire carrier full of presents, and the bond pinned with a large safety pin to the inside of her blouse. It had a starchy tickle against her ribs, but she didn’t mind.
The sky was warm and blue; a robin flew across the road, and there were tassels on the alders. The forsythia bushes were almost in bloom: they rested light, golden, frothy, like sunlit clouds along the fences. Randy sang as she rode; she had not yet recovered from her good fortune. Why, it’s a miracle, she kept thinking, I had a real honest-to-goodness miracle happen to me. Whoever heard of a girl just putting her hand into a brook and picking up a diamond? But it happened; and to me! That’s the thing I can’t get over.
She coasted on the long downhill part of the drive, and coasting, stared at the scene before her: she saw it very sharp and clear. The funny, fancy old house, and the towering, somber spruce trees, and the scattered crows that seemed always to be hovering and calling high above.
Rush and Isaac were running out of the woods, with Isaac barking; Oliver was sitting astride one of the iron deer, wearing a cowboy hat and all his MacArthur buttons: Cuffy and Mona were bent over a flower bed examining the new rabbit-ears of green that sprouted from the damp earth. Father’s absorbed profile could be seen in the study window, and Willy, wearing faded blue overalls, was burning off the dead grass on the lawn. The air smelled deliciously of smoke.
Randy swooped expertly around the driveway circle, brought her bike to a slow and graceful stop and dismounted. As she gathered up her presents from the wire carrier, the bond crackled against her chest. Yes, finding the diamond had been a miracle. But Randy couldn’t help feeling that there were many miracles in her life. Wasn’t it a miracle to live in the country in spring? And to have a wonderful family that she was crazy about, and a house with a secret room and a cupola, and to be eleven and a half years old, and very good at riding a bicycle?
Anyway that’s how I feel today, thought Randy. Tomorrow maybe I’ll feel some other way; cranky, or dull, or just natural. But that’s how I feel today.