You might say it was a chance meeting, but I shall not forget it ever. She was lovely. To begin, Goodwife and I had an unexpected errand to the city and set out reluctantly to attend to it.
You don't pry us loose from our `taterpatch too often, and if you do we usually head up-state and avoid all communities big enough to have a video rental.
This time we decided to spend the night with Howard Johnson in his comfortable ordinary to avoid a long drive home after dark.
We packed our gear in the usual manner and struck out down the trail. That is, I had my ``Kennebecker,'' which is a woodsman's pack basket for the trail. Goodwife had her L. L. Bean totebag - neither of which will soon be recognized as the travel luggage of decent people trying to make an impression on the congenial managers of a respectable hostelry such as Howard keeps. They are handy and convenient, and from occasion to occasion we seldom unpack them of our essentials. In a real flurry of departure, we can just grab them and run.
We had done just that, and now we descended from our conveyance in Howard's parking lot and approached the front door that leads to the lobby, where folks like us engage in transactions that have made Howard a wealthy man. I was ahead, about to lift my free hand and pull open the door, and Goodwife was two-three steps behind.
When I did open the door - there she was! As magnificent a specimen of young womanhood as my eyes have gazed upon in many a long moon, all shined up in her best Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes.
Her dirndl-like skirt in the MacDonald tartan was perky and properly aslant, and the flounces on her white shirt were precisely arranged.
The ribbon on her braid was exactly the right color for her slightly reddish-yellow hair. She was, I judged, all of 4 years old, and looked enough like the woman behind her so I picked mother from daughter at once.
``Ah! Good afternoon, my pretty miss!'' I offered. ``Wee Gates? Don't you look nice today!'' I turned and offered my manly bow to her mother.
And there we were, within the swing of the lobby door, and I was suddenly aware that something was very wrong. What? I was not being rebuked - it wasn't that kind of feeling.
It was, instead, a moment of embarrassment for the mother. Had she not just given the proper lecture for this day and age to her pride and joy before stepping out onto the streets of the big city, where all manner of perversions abound, as the newspapers constantly tell us? Don't speak to strangers, and certainly never to strange old men!
The tyke was bewildered, and the mother was certainly between a rock and a hard place.
Goodwife helped; she said, ``Isn't she the sweetest thing!'' I agreed completely, but wasn't helping the contretemps by dangling my kennebecker to shift my tweed jacket, which was slung over my free arm. The cribbage board, which goes where I go, slid from the basket and bounced across the lobby, and this did the trick and eased the moment.
``I used to have a little girl just about like you,'' I said, ``and we used to play together and do the most wonderful things!''
Little Miss Lovely was now at ease, and her mother was smiling. ``Do you suppose you can guess what happened to her?''
Little Miss Lovely found her voice, almost, and said something that sounded to me a good bit like a gurgle.
``You should not gurgle at a kindly old gentleman,'' I told her. ``You should say, `Gurgle, Sir!'''And I said, ``My little girl grew up and got married, and we don't play together now, and she's a busy-body woman!'' This isn't really so, but it's near enough.
So there I was, my foot holding the foolish door open, the child eyeing me with Susan Anthony dollars, and the ladies wondering how to extricate things and move along.
I was thinking about sandwiches by the waterfalls on the Wingate trout brook, and how my daughter and I'd find strawberries in the long meadow.
I thought about how one summer she made salads from garden weeds, and about the day her lamb fell in the lane spring but got out again, and how on egg day she'd come running from the house all shined up like this miss to ride with me to the village.
I remember how I'd wait on the wire chair while she tediously finished her banana split.
I got to wondering if this pretty miss, too, had gone sliding in the moonlight on the snow crust of the two-mile field?
I kept thinking about the tyke in the hotel doorway. I told Goodwife, ``I keep thinking about that youngster.''
Goodwife said, ``Our tired old world doesn't get better with age. Let's hope that all the old men the child bumps into turn out as nice as you are.''
I let it go at that.