Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Apple Tree by Katherine Mansfield

(In which my own failure gave rise to the idea of my version of online public service.)

We were given a short story to teach and much to my frustration, I was given one that is nowhere to be found on the World Wide Web. At least not by my average computer skills.

So I had to get up early and visit the university on a weekday to get the copy which turned out to be another failure since my professor didn’t have the copy then. Hey, failure should be the title of this post!

Anyway, so in the attempt to save others from the same cruel, frustrating fate, below is the story that some say does not exist. Well, at least now I know it actually does.
The Apple Tree
Katherine Mansfield

There were two orchards belonging to the old house. One, that we called the “wild” orchard, lay beyond the vegetable garden; it was planted with bitter cherries and damsons and transparent yellow plums. For some reason, it lay under a cloud; we never play there, or did not even trouble to pick up the fallen fruit; and there, every Monday morning, to the round open space in the middle, the servant girl and the washerwoman, carried the wet linen – grandmother’s nightdresses, father’ striped shirts, the hired man’s cotton trousers and the servant girl’s “dreadfully vulgar” salmon-pink flannelette drawers jigged and slapped in horrid familiarity.

But the other orchard, far away and hidden from the house, lay at the foot of a little hill and stretched right over to the edge of the paddocks – to the clumps of wattles bobbing yellow in the bright sun and the blue gums with their streaming sickle-shaped leaves. There, under the fruit trees, the grass grew so thick and coarse that it tangled and knotted in your shoes as you walked, and even on the hottest day it was damp to touch when you stooped and parted it this way and that looking for windfalls – the apples quinces, so good to eat with a pinch of salt, but so delicious to smell that you could not bite for sniffing…

One year, the orchard has it’s Forbidden Tree. It was an apple tree discovered by Father and a friend during an after-dinner prowl one Sunday afternoon.

“Great Scott!” said the friend, lighting upon it with every appearance of admiring astonishment. Isn’t that a -?” And a rich splendid name settled like an unknown bird upon the little tree.

“Yes, I believe it is,” said Father lightly. He knew nothing whatever about the names of fruit trees.

“Great Scott!” said the friend again: “They’re wonderful apples. Nothing like ’em – and you’re going to have a tip-top crop. Marvelous apples! You can’t beat ‘em!’

“No, they’re fine – very fine,” said Father carelessly, but looking upon the tree with new and lively interest.

“They’re rare – they’re very rare. Hardly ever seen ‘em in England nowadays,” said the visitor and set a deal on Father’s delight. For Father was a self-made man, and the price he had to pay for everything was so huge and so painful that nothing rang so sweet to him as to hear his purchased praised. He was young and sensitive still. He still wondered whether in the deepest sense he got his money’s worth. He still had hours when he walked up and down in the moonlight half deciding to “chuck his confounded rushing to the office every day – and clear out – clear our once and for all.” And now to discover that he’d a valuable thrown in with the orchard – an apple tree that this Johnny form England positively envied!

“Don’t touch that tree! Do you hear me, children!” said he, bland and firm; and when the guest had gone, with quite another voice and manner.

“If I catch either of you touching those apple you shall not only go to bed – you shall each have a good sound whipping!” Which merely added to its magnificence.

Every Sunday morning after lunch Father, with Bogey and me tailing after, walked through the flower garden, down the violet path, past the lace-bark tree, past the rose and syringe bushes, and down the hill to the orchard. The apple tree – like the Virgin Mary – seemed to have been miraculously warned of its high honour, standing apart from its fellows, bending a little under its rich clusters, fluttering its polished leaves, important and exquisite before Father’s awful eye. His heart swelled to the sight – we knew his heart swelled. He put his hands behind his back and screwed up his eyes in the way he had. There it stood – the accidental thing – the thing that no one had been aware of when the hard bargain was driven. It hadn’t been counted in, hadn’t in a way been paid for. If the house had been burned to the ground at that time it would have meant less to him than the destruction of his tree. And now we played up to him, Bogey and I, Bogey with his scratched knee pressed together, his hands behind his back, too, and a round cap on his head with the H. M. S. Thunderbolt printed across it.

The apples turned from pale green to yellow, then they have deep pink stripes painted on them, and the pink melted all over the yellow, reddened and spread into a fine clear crimson.
At last the day came when Father took out of his waist-coat pocket a little pearl pen-knife. He reached up. Very slowly and very careful he picked two apples growing on a bough.

“By Jove They’re warm,” cried Father in amazement. “They’re wonderful apples! Tip-top! Marvelous!” he echoed. He rolled them over in his hands.

“Look at that! Not a spot – not a blemish!” And he walked through the orchard with Bogey and me stumbling after, to a tree stump under the wattles. We sat, one on either side of Father. He laid one apple down, opened the pearl pen-knife and neatly and beautifully cut the other to half.

”By Jove! Look at that!” he exclaimed.

“Father!” we cried, dutiful but really enthusiastic, too. For the lovely red colour had bitten right through the white flesh of the apple; it was pink to the shiny white pips lying so justly in their scaly pods. It looked as though the apple had been dipped in wine.

“Never seen that before,’’ said Father. “You won’t find an apple like that in a hurry!” He put it to his nose and pronounced an unfamiliar word. “Bouquet! What a bouquet!” And then he handed to Bogey one half, to me the other.

“Don’t bolt it!” said he. It was an agony to give even so much away. I knew it, while I took mine humbly and humbly Bogey took his.

Then he divided the second with the same neat beautiful little cut of the pearl knife.

I kept my eyes on Bogey. Together we took a bite. Our mouth was full of a floury stuff, a hard, faintly bitter skin – a horrible taste of something dry.

“Well?” asked Father, very jovial. He had cut his two halves into quarters and was taking out the little pods. “Well?”

Bogey and I stared at each other, chewing desperately. In that moment of chewing and swallowing a long silent conversation passed between us – and a strange meaning smile. We edged near Father, just touching him.

“Perfect!” we lied. “Perfect – Father. Simply lovely!”

But it was no use. Father spat his out and never went near the apple tree again.

Photo taken from: CindyH Photography