Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Valerine Blas and PG Distributed Proofreaders
THE BENT TWIG, THE SQUIRREL CAGE, ETC.
WITH OCCASIONAL VERMONT VERSES by SARAH N. CLEGHORN
HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN (Poem)
AT THE FOOT OF HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN
PETUNIAS–THAT’S FOR REMEMBRANCE
THE HEYDAY OF THE BLOOD
AS A BIRD OUT OF THE SNARE
PORTRAIT OF A PHILOSOPHER
FLINT AND FIRE
A SAINT’S HOURS (Poem)
IN MEMORY OF L.H.W.
IN NEW NEW ENGLAND
NOCTES AMBROSIANAE (Poem)
HILLSBORO’S GOOD LUCK
SALEM HILLS TO ELLIS ISLAND (Poem)
BY ABANA AND PHARPAR (Poem)
A VILLAGE MUNCHAUSEN
WHO ELSE HEARD IT? (Poem)
A DROP IN THE BUCKET
THE GOLDEN TONGUE OF IRELAND (Poem) PIPER TIM
Wide and shallow in the cowslip marshes Floods the freshet of the April snow. Late drifts linger in the hemlock gorges, Through the brakes and mosses trickling slow Where the Mayflower,
Where the painted trillium, leaf and blow.
Foliaged deep, the cool midsummer maples Shade the porches of the long white street; Trailing wide, Olympian elms lean over
Tiny churches where the highroads meet. Fields of fireflies
Wheel all night like stars among the wheat.
Blaze the mountains in the windless autumn Frost-clear, blue-nooned, apple-ripening days; Faintly fragrant in the farther valleys Smoke of many bonfires swells the haze; Fair-bound cattle
Plod with lowing up the meadowy ways.
Roaring snows down-sweeping from the uplands Bury the still valleys, drift them deep. Low along the mountain, lake-blue shadows, Sea-blue shadows in the hollows sleep. High above them
Blinding crystal is the sunlit steep.
By orange grove and palm-tree, we walked the southern shore, Each day more still and golden than was the day before. That calm and languid sunshine! How faint it made us grow To look on Hemlock Mountain when the storm hangs low!
To see its rocky pastures, its sparse but hardy corn, The mist roll off its forehead before a harvest morn; To hear the pine-trees crashing across its gulfs of snow Upon a roaring midnight when the whirlwinds blow.
Tell not of lost Atlantis, or fabled Avalon; The olive, or the vineyard, no winter breathes upon; Away from Hemlock Mountain we could not well forego, For all the summer islands where the gulf tides flow.
AT THE FOOT OF HEMLOCK MOUNTAIN
“In connection with this phase of the problem of transportation it must be remembered that the rush of population to the great cities was no temporary movement. It is caused by a final revolt against that malignant relic of the dark ages, the country village and by a healthy craving for the deep, full life of the metropolis, for contact with the vitalizing stream of humanity.”–Pritchell’s “Handbook of Economics,” page 247.
Sometimes people from Hillsboro leave our forgotten valley, high among the Green Mountains, and “go down to the city,” as the phrase runs, They always come back exclaiming that they should think New Yorkers would just die of lonesomeness, and crying out in an ecstasy of relief that it does seem so good to get back where there are some folks. After the desolate isolation of city streets, empty of humanity, filled only with hurrying ghosts, the vestibule of our church after morning service fills one with an exalted realization of the great numbers of the human race. It is like coming into a warmed and lighted room, full of friendly faces, after wandering long by night in a forest peopled only with flitting shadows. In the phantasmagoric pantomime of the city, we forget that there are so many real people in all the world, so diverse, so unfathomably human as those who meet us in the little post-office on the night of our return to Hillsboro.
Like any other of those gifts of life which gratify insatiable cravings of humanity, living in a country village conveys a satisfaction which is incommunicable. A great many authors have written about it, just as a great many authors have written about the satisfaction of being in love, but in the one, as in the other case, the essence of the thing escapes. People rejoice in sweethearts because all humanity craves love, and they thrive in country villages because they crave human life. Now the living spirit of neither of these things can be caught in a net of words. All the foolish, fond doings of lovers may be set down on paper by whatever eavesdropper cares to take the trouble, but no one can realize from that record anything of the glory in the hearts of the unconscious two. All the queer grammar and insignificant surface eccentricities of village character may be ruthlessly reproduced in every variety of dialect, but no one can guess from that record the abounding flood of richly human life which pours along the village street.
This tormenting inequality between the thing felt and the impression conveyed had vexed us unceasingly until one day Simple Martin, the town fool, who always says our wise things, said one of his wisest. He was lounging by the watering-trough one sunny day in June, when a carriage-load of “summer folk” from Windfield over the mountain stopped to water their horses. They asked him, as they always, always ask all of us, “For mercy’s sake, what do you people _do_ all the time, away off here, so far from everything.”
Simple Martin was not irritated, or perplexed, or rendered helplessly inarticulate by this question, as the rest of us had always been. He looked around him at the lovely, sloping lines of Hemlock Mountain, at the Necronett River singing in the sunlight, at the familiar, friendly faces of the people in the street, and he answered in astonishment at the ignorance of his questioners, “_Do_? Why, we jes’ _live_!”
We felt that he had explained us once and for all. We had known that, of course, but we hadn’t before, in our own phrase, “sensed it.” We just live. And sometimes it seems to us that we are the only people in America engaged in that most wonderful occupation. We know, of course, that we must be wrong in thinking this, and that there must be countless other Hillsboros scattered everywhere, rejoicing as we do in an existence which does not necessarily make us care-free or happy, which does not in the least absolve us from the necessity of working hard (for Hillsboro is unbelievably poor in money), but which does keep us alive in every fiber of our sympathy and thrilling with the consciousness of the life of others.
A common and picturesque expression for a common experience runs, “It’s so noisy I can’t hear myself think.” After a visit to New York we feel that its inhabitants are so deafened by the constant blare of confusion that they can’t feel themselves live. The steady sufferers from this complaint do not realize their condition. They find it on the whole less trouble _not_ to feel themselves live, and they are most uneasy when chance forces them to spend a few days (on shipboard, for instance) where they are not protected by ceaseless and aimless activity from the consciousness that they are themselves. They cannot even conceive the bitter-sweet, vital taste of that consciousness as we villagers have it, and they cannot understand how arid their existence seems to us without this unhurried, penetrating realization of their own existence and of the meaning of their acts. We do not blame city dwellers for not having it; we ourselves lose it when we venture into their maelstrom. Like them, we become dwarfed by overwhelming numbers, and shriveled by the incapacity to “sense” the humanity of the countless human simulacra about us. But we do not stay where we cannot feel ourselves live. We hurry back to the shadow of Hemlock Mountain, feeling that to love life one does not need to be what Is usually called happy, one needs only to live.
It cannot be, of course, that we are the only community to discover this patent fact; but we know no more of the others than they of us. All that we hear from that part of America which is not Hillsboro is the wild yell of excitement going up from the great cities, where people seem to be doing everything that was ever done or thought of except just living. City dwellers make money, make reputations (good and bad), make museums and subways, make charitable institutions, make with a hysteric rapidity, like excited spiders, more and yet more complications in the mazy labyrinths of their lives, but they never make each others’ acquaintances … and that is all that is worth doing in the world.
We who live in Hillsboro know that they are to be pitied, not blamed, for this fatal omission. We realize that only in Hillsboro and places like it can one have “deep, full life and contact with the vitalizing stream of humanity.” We know that in the very nature of humanity the city is a small and narrow world, the village a great and wide one, and that the utmost efforts of city dwellers will not avail to break the bars of the prison where they are shut in, each with his own kind. They may look out from the windows upon a great and varied throng, as the beggar munching a crust may look in at a banqueting hall, but the people they are forced to live with are exactly like themselves; and that way lies not only monomania but an ennui that makes the blessing of life savorless.
If this does not seem the plainest possible statement of fact take a concrete instance. Can a banker in the city by any possibility come to know what kind of an individual is the remote impersonal creature who waits on him in a department store? Most bankers recognize with a misguided joy this natural wall between themselves and people who are not bankers, and add to it as many stones of their own quarrying as possible; but they are not shut off from all the quickening diversity of life any more effectually than the college-settlement, boys’ Sunday-school, brand of banker. The latter may try as hard as he pleases, he simply cannot achieve real acquaintanceship with a “storekeeper,” as we call them, any more than the clerk can achieve real acquaintanceship with him.
Lack of any elements of common life form as impassable a barrier as lack of a common language, whereas with us in Hillsboro all the life we have is common. Everyone is needed to live it.
There can be no city dweller of experience who does not know the result of this herding together of the same kind of people, this intellectual and moral inbreeding. To the accountant who knows only accounts, the world comes to seem like one great ledger, and account-keeping the only vital pursuit in life. To the banker who knows only bankers, the world seems one great bank filled with money, accompanied by people. The prison doors of uniformity are closed inexorably upon them.
And then what happens? Why, when anything goes wrong with their trumpery account books, or their trashy money, these poor folk are like blind men who have lost their staves. With all the world before them they dare not continue to go forward. We in Hillsboro are sorry for the account-keepers who disappear forever, fleeing from all who know them because their accounts have come out crooked, we pity the banker who blows out his brains when something has upset his bank; but we can’t help feeling with this compassion an admixture of the exasperated impatience we have for those Prussian school boys who jump out of third-story windows because they did not reach a certain grade in their Latin examinations. Life is not accounts, or banks, or even Latin examinations, and it is a sign of inexperience to think it so. The trouble with the despairing banker is that he has never had a chance to become aware of the comforting vastness of the force which animates him in common with all the rest of humanity, to which force a bank failure is no apocalyptic end of Creation, but a mere incident or trial of strength like a fall in a slippery road. Absorbed in his solitary progress, the banker has forgotten that his business in life is not so much to keep from falling as to get up again and go forward.
If the man to whom the world was a bank had not been so inexorably shut away from the bracing, tonic shock of knowing men utterly diverse, to whom the world was just as certainly only a grocery store, or a cobbler’s bench, he might have come to believe in a world that is none of these things and is big enough to take them all in; and he might have been alive this minute, a credit to himself, useful to the world, and doubtless very much more agreeable to his family than in the days of his blind arrogance.
The pathetic feature of this universal inexperience among city dwellers of real life and real people is that it is really entirely enforced and involuntary. At heart they crave knowledge of real life and sympathy with their fellow-men as starving men do food. In Hillsboro we explain to ourselves the enormous amount of novel-reading and play-going in the great cities as due to a perverted form of this natural hunger for human life. If people are so situated they can’t get it fresh, they will take it canned, which is undoubtedly good for those in the canning business; but we feel that we who have better food ought not to be expected to treat their boughten canned goods very seriously. We can’t help smiling at the life-and-death discussions of literary people about their preferences in style and plot and treatment … their favorite brand on the can, so to speak.
To tell the truth, all novels seem to us badly written, they are so faint and faded in comparison to the brilliant colors of the life which palpitates up and down our village street, called by strangers, “so quaint and sleepy-looking.” What does the author of a novel do for you, after all, even the best author? He presents to you people not nearly so interesting as your next-door neighbors, makes them do things not nearly so exciting as what happened to your grandfather, and doles out to you in meager paragraphs snatches of that comprehending and consolatory philosophy of life, which long ago you should have learned to manufacture for yourself out of every incident in your daily routine. Of course, if you don’t know your next-door neighbors, and have never had time to listen to what happened to your grandfather and are too busy catching trains to philosophize on those subjects if you did know them, no more remains to be said. By all means patronize the next shop you see which displays in its show windows canned romances, adventures, tragedies, farces, and the like line of goods. Live vicariously, if you can’t at first hand; but don’t be annoyed at our pity for your method of passing blindfold through life.
And don’t expect to find such a shop in our village. To open one there would be like trying to crowd out the great trees on Hemlock Mountain by planting a Noah’s Ark garden among them. Romances, adventures, tragedies, and farces … why, we are the characters of those plots. Every child who runs past the house starts a new story, every old man whom we leave sleeping in the burying-ground by the Necronsett River is the ending of another … or perhaps the beginning of a sequel. Do you say that in the city a hundred more children run past the windows of your apartment than along our solitary street, and that funeral processions cross your every walk abroad? True, but they are stories written in a tongue incomprehensible to you. You look at the covers you may even flutter the leaves and look at the pictures but you cannot tell what they are all about. You are like people bored and yawning at a performance of a tragedy by Sophocles, because the actors speak in Greek. So dreadful and moving a thing as a man’s sudden death may happen before your eyes, but you do not know enough of what it means to be moved by it. For you it is not really a man who dies. It is the abstract idea of a man, leaving behind him abstract possibilities of a wife and children. You knew nothing of him, you know nothing of them, you shudder, look the other way, and hurry along, your heart a little more blunted to the sorrows of others, a little more remote from your fellows even than before.
All Hillsboro is more stirred than that, both to sympathy and active help, by the news that Mrs. Brownell has broken her leg. It means something unescapably definite to us, about which we not only can, but must take action. It means that her sickly oldest daughter will not get the care she needs if somebody doesn’t go to help out; it means that if we do not do something that bright boy of hers will have to leave school, just when he is in the way of winning a scholarship in college; it means, in short, a crisis in several human lives, which by the mere fact of being known calls forth sympathy as irresistibly as sunshine in May opens the leaf buds.
Just as it is only one lover in a million who can continue to love his mistress during a lifetime of absolute separation from her, so it is one man in a million who can continue his sympathy and interest in his fellow-men without continual close contact with them. The divine feeling of responsibility for the well-being of others is diluted and washed away in great cities by the overwhelming impersonal flood of vast numbers; in villages it is strengthened by the sight, apparent to the dullest eyes, of immediate personal and visible application. In other words, we are not only the characters of our unwritten stories, but also part authors. Something of the final outcome depends upon us, something of the creative instinct of the artist is stirred to life within every one of us … however unconscious of it in our countrified simplicity we may be. The sympathy we feel for a distressed neighbor has none of the impotent sterility of a reader’s sympathy for a distressed character in a book. There is always a chance to try to help, and if that fail, to try again and yet again. Death writes the only _Finis_ to our stories, and since a chance to start over again has been so unfailingly granted us here, we cannot but feel that Death may mean only turning over another page.
I suppose we do not appreciate the seriousness of fiction-writing, nor its importance to those who cannot get any nearer to real life. And yet it is not that we are unprogressive. Our young people, returning from college, or from visits to the city, freshen and bring up to date our ideas on literature as rigorously as they do our sleeves and hats; but after a short stay in Hillsboro even these conscientious young missionaries of culture turn away from the feeble plots of Ibsen and the tame inventions of Bernard Shaw to the really exciting, perplexing, and stimulating events in the life of the village grocer.
In “Ghosts,” Ibsen preaches a terrible sermon on the responsibility of one generation for the next, but not all his relentless logic can move you to the sharp throb of horrified sympathy you feel as you see Nelse Pettingrew’s poor mother run down the street, her shawl flung hastily over her head, framing a face of despairing resolve, such as can never look at you out of the pages of a book. Somebody has told her that Nelse has been drinking again and “is beginning to get ugly.” For Hillsboro is no model village, but the world entire, with hateful forces of evil lying in wait for weakness. Who will not lay down “Ghosts” to watch, with a painfully beating heart, the progress of this living “Mrs. Alving” past the house, pleading, persuading, coaxing the burly weakling, who will be saved from a week’s debauch if she can only get him safely home now, and keep him quiet till “the fit goes by.”
At the sight everybody in Hillsboro realizes that Nelse “got it from his father,” with a penetrating sense of the tragedy of heredity, quite as stimulating to self-control in the future as Ibsen is able to make us feel in “Ghosts.” But we know something better than Ibsen, for Mrs. Pettingrew is no “Mrs. Alving.” She is a plain, hard-featured woman who takes in sewing for a living, and she is quite unlettered, but she is a general in the army of spiritual forces. She does not despair, she does not give up like the half-hearted mother in “Ghosts,” she does not waste her strength in concealments; she stands up to her enemy and fights. She fought the wild beast in Nelse’s father, hand to hand, all his life, and he died a better man than when she married him. Undaunted, she fought it in Nelse as a boy, and now as a man; and in the flowering of his physical forces when the wind of his youth blows most wildly through the hateful thicket of inherited weaknesses she generally wins the battle.
And this she has done with none of the hard, consistent strength and intelligence of your make-believe heroine in a book, so disheartening an example to our faltering impulses for good. She has been infinitely human and pathetically fallible; she has cried out and hesitated and complained and done the wrong thing and wept and failed and still fought on, till to think of her is, for the weakest of us, like a bugle call to high endeavor. Nelse is now a better man than his father, and we shut up “Ghosts” with impatience that Ibsen should have selected that story to tell out of all the tales there must have been in the village where _he_ lived.
Now imagine if you can … for I cannot even faintly indicate to you … our excitement when Nelse begins to look about him for a wife. In the first place, we are saved by our enforced closeness to real people from wasting our energies in the profitless outcry of economists that people like Nelse should be prohibited from having children. It occurs to us that perhaps the handsome fellow’s immense good-humor and generosity are as good inheritance as the selfishness and cold avarice of priggish young Horace Gallatin, who never drinks a drop. Perhaps at some future date all people who are not perfectly worthy to have children will be kept from it by law. In Hillsboro, we think, that after such a decree the human race would last just one generation; but that is not the point now. The question is, will Nelse find a wife who will carry on his mother’s work, or will he not?
If you think you are excited over a serial story because you can’t guess if “Lady Eleanor” really stole the diamonds or not, it is only because you have no idea of what excitement is. You are in a condition of stagnant lethargy compared to that of Hillsboro over the question whether Nelse will marry Ellen Brownell, “our Ellen,” or Flossie Merton, the ex-factory girl, who came up from Albany to wait at the tavern, and who is said to have a taste for drink herself.
Old Mrs. Perkins, whom everybody had thought sunk in embittered discontent about the poverty and isolation of her last days, roused herself not long ago and gave Ellen her cherished tortoise-shell back-comb, and her pretty white silk shawl to wear to village parties; and racked with rheumatism, as the old woman is, she says she sits up at night to watch the young people go back from choir rehearsal so that she can see which girl Nelse is “beauing home.” Could the most artfully contrived piece of fiction more blessedly sweep the self-centered complainings of old age into generous and vitalizing interest in the lives of others?
As for the “pity and terror,” the purifying effects of which are so vaunted in Greek tragedies, could Aeschylus himself have plunged us into a more awful desolation of pity than the day we saw old Squire Marvin being taken along the street on his way to the insane asylum? All the self-made miseries of his long life were in our minds, the wife he had loved and killed with the harsh violence of a nature he had never learned to control, the children he had adored unreasonably and spoiled and turned against, and they on him with a violence like his own, the people he had tried to benefit with so much egotistic pride mixed in his kindness that his favors made him hated, his vanity, his generosity, his despairing outcries against the hostility he had so well earned … at the sight of the end of all this there was no heart in Hillsboro that was not wrung with a pity and terror more penetrating and purifying even than Shakespeare has made the centuries feel for Lear.
Ah, at the foot of Hemlock Mountain we do not need books to help us feel the meaning of life!
Nor do we need them to help us feel the meaning of death. You, in the cities, living with a feverish haste in the present only, and clutching at it as a starving man does at his last crust, you cannot understand the comforting sense we have of belonging almost as much to the past and future as to the present. Our own youth is not dead to us as yours is, from the lack of anything to recall it to you, and people we love do not slip quickly into that bitter oblivion to which the dead are consigned by those too hurried to remember. They are not remembered perfunctorily for their “good qualities” which are carved on their tombstones, but all the quaint and dear absurdities which make up personality are embalmed in the leisurely, peaceable talk of the village, still enriched by all that they brought to it. We are not afraid of the event which men call death, because we know that, in so far as we have deserved it, the same homely immortality awaits us.
Every spring, at the sight of the first cowslip, our old people laugh and say to each other, “Will you _ever_ forget how Aunt Dorcas used to take us children out cowslipping, and how she never thought it ‘proper’ to lift her skirt to cross the log by the mill, and always fell in the brook?” The log has moldered away a generation ago, the mill is only a heap of blackened timbers, but as they speak, they are not only children again, but Aunt Dorcas lives again for them and for us who never saw her … dear, silly, kind old Aunt Dorcas, past-mistress in the lovely art of spoiling children. Just so the children we have spoiled, the people we have lived with, will continue to keep us living with them. We shall have time to grow quite used to whatever awaits us after the tangled rosebushes of Hillsboro burying-ground bloom over our heads, before we shall have gradually faded painlessly away from the life of men and women. We sometimes feel that, almost alone in the harassed and weary modern world, we love that life, and yet we are the least afraid to leave it.
It is usually dark when the shabby little narrow-gauge train brings us home to Hillsboro from wanderings in the great world, and the big pond by the station is full of stars. Up on the hill the lights of the village twinkle against the blurred mass of Hemlock Mountain, and above them the stars again. It is very quiet, the station is black and deserted, the road winding up to the village glimmers uncertainly in the starlight, and dark forms hover vaguely about. Strangers say that it is a very depressing station at which to arrive, but we know better. There is no feeling in the world like that with which one starts up the white road, stars below him in the quiet pool, stars above him in the quiet sky, friendly lights showing the end of his journey is at hand, and the soft twilight full of voices all familiar, all welcoming.
Poor old Uncle Abner Rhodes, returning from an attempt to do business in the city, where he had lost his money, his health, and his hopes, said he didn’t see how going up to Heaven could be so very different from walking up the hill from the station with Hemlock Mountain in front of you. He said it didn’t seem to him as though even in heaven you could feel more than then that you had got back where there are some folks, that you had got back home.
Sometimes when the stars hang very bright over Hemlock Mountain and the Necronsett River sings loud in the dusk, we remember the old man’s speech, and, though we smile at his simplicity, we think, too, that the best which awaits us can only be very much better but not so very different from what we have known here.
PETUNIAS–THAT’S FOR REMEMBRANCE
It was a place to which, as a dreamy, fanciful child escaping from nursemaid and governess, Virginia had liked to climb on hot summer afternoons. She had spent many hours, lying on the grass in the shade of the dismantled house, looking through the gaunt, uncovered rafters of the barn at the white clouds, like stepping-stones in the broad blue river of sky flowing between the mountain walls.
Older people of the summer colony called it forlorn and desolate–the deserted farm, lying high on the slope of Hemlock Mountain–but to the child there was a charm about the unbroken silence which brooded over the little clearing. The sun shone down warmly on the house’s battered shell and through the stark skeleton of the barn. The white birches, strange sylvan denizens of door and barnyard, stood shaking their delicate leaves as if announcing sweetly that the kind forest would cover all the wounds of human neglect, and soon everything would be as though man had not lived. And everywhere grew the thick, strong, glistening grass, covering even the threshold with a cushion on which the child’s foot fell as noiselessly as a shadow. It used to seem to her that nothing could ever have happened in this breathless spot.
Now she was a grown woman, she told herself, twenty-three years old and had had, she often thought, as full a life as any one of her age could have. Her college course had been varied with vacations in Europe; she had had one season in society; she was just back from a trip around the world. Her busy, absorbing life had given her no time to revisit the narrow green Valley where she had spent so many of her childhood’s holidays But now a whim for self-analysis, a desire to learn if the old glamour about the lovely enchanted region still existed for her weary, sophisticated maturity, had made her break exacting social engagements and sent her back alone, from the city, to see how the old valley looked in the spring.
Her disappointment was acute. The first impression and the one which remained with her, coloring painfully all the vistas of dim woodland aisles and sunlit brooks, was of the meagerness and meanness of the desolate lives lived in this paradise. This was a fact she had not noticed as a child, accepting the country people as she did all other incomprehensible elders. They had not seemed to her to differ noticeably from her delicate, esthetic mother, lying in lavender silk negligees on wicker couches, reading the latest book of Mallarme, or from her competent, rustling aunt, guiding the course of the summer colony’s social life with firm hands. There was as yet no summer colony, this week in May. Even the big hotel was not open. Virginia was lodged in the house of one of the farmers. There was no element to distract her mind from the narrow, unlovely lives of the owners of that valley of beauty.
They were grinding away at their stupefying monotonous tasks as though the miracle of spring were not taking place before their eyes. They were absorbed in their barnyards and kitchen sinks and bad cooking and worse dressmaking. The very children, grimy little utilitarians like their parents, only went abroad in the flood of golden sunshine, in order to rifle the hill pastures of their wild strawberries. Virginia was no longer a child to ignore all this. It was an embittering, imprisoning thought from which she could not escape even in the most radiant vision of May woods. She was a woman now, with a trained mind which took in the saddening significance of these lives, not so much melancholy or tragic as utterly neutral, featureless, dun-colored. They weighed on her heart as she walked and drove about the lovely country they spoiled for her.
What a heavenly country it was! She compared it to similar valleys in Switzerland, in Norway, in Japan, and her own shone out pre-eminent with a thousand beauties of bold skyline, of harmoniously “composed” distances, of exquisitely fairy-like detail of foreground. But oh! the wooden packing-boxes of houses and the dreary lives they sheltered!
The Pritchard family, her temporary hosts, summed up for her the human life of the valley. There were two children, inarticulate, vacant-faced country children of eight and ten, out from morning till night in the sunny, upland pastures, but who could think of nothing but how many quarts of berries they had picked and what price could be exacted for them. There was Gran’ther Pritchard, a doddering, toothless man of seventy-odd, and his wife, a tall, lean, lame old woman with a crutch who sat all through the mealtimes speechlessly staring at the stranger, with faded gray eyes. There was Mr. Pritchard and his son Joel, gaunt Yankees, toiling with fierce concentration to “get the crops in” after a late spring. Finally there was Mrs. Pritchard, worn and pale, passing those rose-colored spring days grubbing in her vegetable garden. And all of them silent, silent as the cattle they resembled. There had been during the first few days of her week’s stay some vague attempts at conversation, but Virginia was soon aware that they had not the slightest rudiments of a common speech.
A blight was on even those faint manifestations of the esthetic spirit which they had not killed out of their bare natures. The pictures in the house were bad beyond belief, and the only flowers were some petunias, growing in a pot, carefully tended by Grandma Pritchard. They bore a mass of blossoms of a terrible magenta, like a blow in the face to anyone sensitive to color. It usually stood on the dining-table, which was covered with a red cloth. “Crimson! Magenta! It is no wonder they are lost souls!” cried the girl to herself.
On the last day of her week, even as she was trying to force down some food at the table thus decorated, she bethought herself of her old haunt of desolate peace on the mountainside. She pushed away from the table with an eager, murmured excuse, and fairly ran out into the gold and green of the forest, a paradise lying hard by the pitiable little purgatory of the farmhouse. As she fled along through the clean-growing maple-groves, through stretches of sunlit pastures, azure with bluets, through dark pines, red-carpeted by last year’s needles, through the flickering, shadowy-patterned birches, she cried out to all this beauty to set her right with the world of her fellows, to ease her heart of its burden of disdainful pity.
But there was no answer.
She reached the deserted clearing breathless, and paused to savor its slow, penetrating peace. The white birches now almost shut the house from view; the barn had wholly disappeared. From the finely proportioned old doorway of the house protruded a long, grayed, weather-beaten tuft of hay. The last utilitarian dishonor had befallen it. It had not even its old dignity of vacant desolation. She went closer and peered inside. Yes, hay, the scant cutting from the adjacent old meadows, had been piled high in the room which had been the gathering-place of the forgotten family life. She stepped in and sank down on it, struck by the far-reaching view from the window. As she lay looking out, the silence was as insistent as a heavy odor in the air.
The big white clouds lay like stepping-stones in the sky’s blue river, just as when she was a child. Their silver-gleaming brightness blinded her … “_Ueber allen Gipfeln ist Ruh … warte nur … balde … ruhest … du …” she began to murmur, and stopped, awed by the immensity of the hush about her. She closed her eyes, pillowed her head on her upthrown arms, and sank into a wide, bright reverie, which grew dimmer and vaguer as the slow changeless hours filed by.
She did not know if it were from a doze, or but from this dreamy haze that she was wakened by the sound of voices outside the house, under the window by which she lay. There were the tones of a stranger and those of old Mrs. Pritchard, but now flowing on briskly with a volubility unrecognizable. Virginia sat up, hesitating Were they only passing by, or stopping? Should She show herself or let them go on? In an instant the question was settled for her. It was too late. She would only shame them if they knew her there. She had caught her own name. They were talking of her.
“Well, you needn’t,” said the voice of Mrs. Pritchard “You can just save your breath to cool your porridge You can’t get nothin’ out’n her.”
“But she’s traveled ’round so much, seems’s though …” began the other woman’s voice.
“_Don’t_ it?” struck in old Mrs. Pritchard assentingly, “But ’tain’t so!”
The other was at a loss. “Do you mean she’s stuck-up and won’t answer you?” Mrs. Pritchard burst into a laugh, the great, resonant good-nature of which amazed Virginia. She had not dreamed that one of these sour, silent people could laugh like that. “No, _land_ no, Abby! She’s as soft-spoken as anybody could be, poor thing! She ain’t got nothin’ to say. That’s all. Why, I can git more out’n any pack-peddler that’s only been from here to Rutland and back than out’n her … and she’s traveled all summer long for five years, she was tellin’ us, and last year went around the world.”
“Good land! Think of it!” cried the other, awestruck. “China! An’ Afriky! An’ London!”
“That’s the way we felt! That’s the reason we let her come. There ain’t no profit in one boarder, and we never take boarders, anyhow. But I thought ‘twould be a chance for the young ones to learn something about how foreign folks lived.” She broke again into her epic laugh. “Why, Abby, ‘twould ha’ made you die to see us the first few days she was there, tryin’ to get somethin’ out’n her. Italy, now … had she been there? ‘Oh, yes, she _adored_ Italy!'” Virginia flushed at the echo of her own exaggerated accent. “Well, we’d like to know somethin’ about Italy. What did they raise there? Honest, Abby, you’d ha’ thought we’d hit her side th’ head. She thought and she _thought_, and all she could say was ‘olives,’ Nothing else? ‘Well, she’d never noticed anything else … oh, yes, lemons.’ Well, that seemed kind o’ queer vittles, but you can’t never tell how foreigners git along, so we thought maybe they just lived off’n olives and lemons; and Joel he asked her how they raised ’em, and if they manured heavy or trusted to phosphate, and how long the trees took before they began to bear, and if they pruned much, and if they had the same trouble we do, come harvest time, to hire hands enough to git in th’ crop.”
She paused. The other woman asked, “Well, what did she say?”
The echoes rang again to the old woman’s great laugh. “We might as well ha’ asked her ’bout the back side of th’ moon! So we gave up on olives and lemons! Then Eben he asked her ’bout taxes there. Were they on land mostly and were they high and who ‘sessed ’em and how ’bout school tax. Did the state pay part o’ that? You see town meetin’ being so all tore up every year ’bout taxes, Eben he thought ‘twould be a chance to hear how other folks did, and maybe learn somethin’. Good land, Abby, I’ve set there and ‘most died, trying to keep from yellin’ right out with laugh to see our folks tryin’ to learn somethin’ ’bout foreign parts from that woman that’s traveled in ’em steady for five years. I bet she was blind-folded and gagged and had cotton in her ears the hull time she was there!”
“Didn’t she tell you anythin’ ’bout taxes?”
“Taxes? You’d ha’ thought ’twas bumble-bees’ hind legs we was askin’ ’bout! She ackshilly seemed s’prised to be asked. Land! What had she ever thought ’bout such triflin’ things as taxes. She didn’t know how they was taxed in Italy, or _if_ they was … nor anywhere else. That what it come down to, every time. She didn’t know! She didn’t know what kind of schools they had, nor what the roads was made of, nor who made ’em. She couldn’t tell you what hired men got, nor _any_ wages, nor what girls that didn’t get married did for a living, nor what rent they paid, nor how they ‘mused themselves, nor how much land was worth, nor if they had factories, nor if there was any lumberin’ done, nor how they managed to keep milk in such awful hot weather without ice. Honest, Abby, she couldn’t even say if the houses had cellars or not. Why, it come out she never was _in_ a real house that anybody lived in … only hotels. She hadn’t got to know a single real person that b’longed there. Of course she never found out anything ’bout how they lived. Her mother was there, she said, and her aunt, and that Bilson family that comes to th’ village summers, an’ the Goodriches an’ the Phippses an’ the … oh, sakes alive, you know that same old crowd that rides ‘roun’ here summers and thinks to be sociable by sayin’ how nice an’ yellow your oats is blossomin’! You could go ten times ‘roun’ the world with them and know less ’bout what folks is like than when you started. When I heard ’bout them being there, I called Eben and Joel and Em’ly off and I says, ‘Now, don’t pester that poor do-less critter with questions any more. How much do the summer folks down to th’ village know ’bout the way we live?’ Well, they burst out laughin’, of course. Well, then,’ I says, ”tis plain to be seen that all they do in winter is to go off to some foreign part and do the same as here,’ so I says to them, same’s I said to you, Abby, a while back, that they’d better save their breath to cool their porridge. But it’s awful solemn eatin’ now, without a word spoke.”
The other woman laughed. “Why, you don’t have to talk ’bout foreign parts or else keep still, do ye?”
“Oh, it’s just so ’bout everythin’. We heard she’d been in Washington last winter, so Eben he brisked up and tried her on politics. Well, she’d never heard of direct primaries, they’re raisin’ such a holler ’bout in York State; she didn’t know what th’ ‘nsurgent senators are up to near as much as we did, and to judge by the way she looked, she’d only just barely heard of th’ tariff.” The word was pronounced with true New England reverence. “Then we tried bringin’ up children, and lumberin’ an’ roads, an’ cookin’, an’ crops, an’ stock, an’ wages, an’ schools, an’ gardenin’, but we couldn’t touch bottom nowhere. Never a word to be had out’n her. So we give up and now we just sit like stotin’ bottles, an’ eat–an’ do our visitin’ with each other odd minutes afterward.”
“Why, she don’t look to be half-witted,” said the other.
“She ain’t!” cried Mrs. Pritchard with emphasis. “She’s got as good a headpiece, natchilly, as anybody. I remember her when she was a young one. It’s the fool way they’re brung up! Everythin’ that’s any fun or intrust, they hire somebody else to do it for ’em. Here she is a great strappin’ woman of twenty-two or three, with nothing in the world to do but to traipse off ‘cross the fields from mornin’ to night–an’ nobody to need her there nor here, nor anywhere. No wonder she looks peaked. Sometimes when I see her set and stare off, so sort o’ dull and hopeless, I’m so sorry for her I could cry! Good land! I’d as lief hire somebody to chew my vittles for me and give me the dry cud to live off of, as do the way those kind of folks do.”
The distant call of a steam-whistle, silvered by the great distance into a flute-like note, interrupted her. “That’s the milk-train, whistling for the Millbrook cross in’,” she said. “We must be thinkin’ of goin’ home before long. Where be those young ones?” She raised her voice in a call as unexpectedly strong and vibrant as her laugh. “_Susie! Eddie_! Did they answer? I’m gittin’ that hard o’ hearin’ ’tis hard for me to make out.”
“Yes, they hollered back,” said the other. “An’ I see ’em comin’ through the pasture yonder. I guess they got their pails full by the way they carry ’em.”
“That’s good,” said Mrs. Pritchard with satisfaction. “They can get twenty-five cents a quart hulled, off’n summer folks. They’re savin’ up to help Joel go to Middletown College in the fall.”
“They think a lot o’ Joel, don’t they?” commented the other.
“Oh, the Pritchards has always been a family that knew how to set store by their own folks,” said the old woman proudly, “and Joel he’ll pay ’em back as soon as he gets ahead a little.”
The children had evidently now come up, for Virginia heard congratulations over the berries and exclamations over their sun-flushed cheeks. “Why, Susie, you look like a pickled beet in your face. Set down, child, an’ cool off. Grandma called you an’ Eddie down to tell you an old-timey story.”
There was an outbreak of delighted cries from the children and Mrs. Pritchard said deprecatingly, “You know, Abby, there never was children yet that wasn’t crazy ’bout old-timey stories. I remember how I used to hang onto Aunt Debby’s skirts and beg her to tell me some more.
“The story I’m goin’ to tell you is about this Great-aunt Debby,” she announced formally to her auditors, “when she was ’bout fourteen years old and lived up here in this very house, pretty soon after th’ Rev’lution. There was only just a field or two cleared off ’round it then, and all over th’ mounting the woods were as black as any cellar with pines and spruce. Great-aunt Debby was the oldest one of five children and my grandfather–your great-great-grandfather–was the youngest. In them days there wa’n’t but a few families in the valley and they lived far apart, so when Great-aunt Debby’s father got awful sick a few days after he’d been away to get some grist ground, Aunt Debby’s mother had to send her ’bout six miles through th’ woods to the nearest house–it stood where the old Perkins barn is now. The man come back with Debby, but as soon as he saw great-grandfather he give one yell–‘smallpox!’–and lit out for home. Folks was tur’ble afraid of it then an’ he had seven children of his own an’ nobody for ’em to look to if he died, so you couldn’t blame him none. They was all like that then, every fam’ly just barely holdin’ on, an’ scratchin’ for dear life.
“Well, he spread the news, and the next day, while Debby was helpin’ her mother nurse her father the best she could, somebody called her over toward th’ woods. They made her stand still ’bout three rods from ’em and shouted to her that the best they could do was to see that the fam’ly had vittles enough. The neighbors would cook up a lot and leave it every day in the fence corner and Debbie could come and git it.
“That was the way they fixed it. Aunt Debby said they was awful faithful and good ’bout it and never failed, rain or shine, to leave a lot of the best stuff they could git in them days. But before long she left some of it there, to show they didn’t need so much, because they wasn’t so many to eat.
“First, Aunt Debby’s father died. Her mother an she dug the grave in th’ corner of th’ clearin’, down there where I’m pointin’. Aunt Debby said she couldn’t never forget how her mother looked as she said a prayer before they shoveled the dirt back in. Then the two of ’em took care of the cow and tried to get in a few garden seeds while they nursed one of the children–the boy that was next to Debby. That turned out to be smallpox, of course, and he died and they buried him alongside his father. Then the two youngest girls, twins they was, took sick, and before they died Aunt Debby’s mother fell over in a faint while she was tryin’ to spade up the garden. Aunt Debby got her into the house and put her to bed. She never said another thing, but just died without so much as knowin’ Debby. She and the twins went the same day, and Debby buried ’em in one grave.
“It took her all day to dig it, she said. They was afraid of wolves in them days and had to have their graves deep. The baby, the one that was to be my grandfather, played ’round while she was diggin’, and she had to stop to milk the cow and git his meals for him. She got the bodies over to the grave, one at a time, draggin’ ’em on the wood-sled. When she was ready to shovel the dirt back in, ’twas gettin’ to be twilight, and she said the thrushes were beginnin’ to sing–she made the baby kneel down and she got on her knees beside him and took hold of his hand to say a prayer. She was just about wore out, as you can think, and scared to death, and she’d never known any prayer, anyhow. All she could think to say was ‘Lord–Lord–Lord!’ And she made the baby say it, over and over. I guess ’twas a good enough prayer too. When I married and come up here to live, seems as though I never heard the thrushes begin to sing in the evening without I looked down there and could almost see them two on their knees.
“Well, there she was, fourteen years old, with a two-year-old baby to look out for, and all the rest of the family gone as though she’d dreamed ’em. She was sure she and little Eddie–you’re named for him, Eddie, and don’t you never forget it–would die, of course, like the others, but she wa’n’t any hand to give up till she had to, and she wanted to die last, so to look out for the baby. So when she took sick she fought the smallpox just like a wolf, she used to tell us. She had to live, to take care of Eddie. She gritted her teeth and _wouldn’t_ die, though, as she always said, ‘twould ha’ been enough sight more comfortable than to live through what she did.
“Some folks nowadays say it couldn’t ha’ been smallpox she had, or she couldn’t ha’ managed. I don’t know ’bout that. I guess ’twas plenty bad enough, anyhow. She was out of her head a good share of th’ time, but she never forgot to milk the cow and give Eddie his meals. She used to fight up on her knees (there was a week when she couldn’t stand without fallin’ over in faint) and then crawl out to the cow-shed and sit down flat on the ground and reach up to milk. One day the fever was so bad she was clear crazy and she thought angels in silver shoes come right out there, in the manure an’ all, and milked for her and held the cup to Eddie’s mouth.
“An’ one night she thought somebody, with a big black cape on, come and stood over her with a knife. She riz up in bed and told him to ‘_git out_! She’d _have_ to stay to take care of the baby!’ And she hit at the knife so fierce she knocked it right out’n his hand. Then she fainted away agin. She didn’t come to till mornin’, and when she woke up she knew she was goin’ to live. She always said her hand was all bloody that morning from a big cut in it, and she used to show us the scar–a big one ’twas, too. But I guess most likely that come from something else. Folks was awful superstitious in them days, and Aunt Debby was always kind o’ queer.
“Well, an’ so she did live and got well, though she never grew a mite from that time. A little wizened-up thing she was, always; but I tell you folks ’round here thought a nawful lot of Aunt Debby! And Eddie, if you’ll believe it, never took the sickness at all. They say, sometimes, babies don’t.
“They got a fam’ly to come and work the farm for ’em, and Debby she took care of her little brother, same as she always had. And he grew up and got married and come to live in this house and Aunt Debby lived with him. They did set great store by each other! Grandmother used to laugh and say grandfather and Aunt Debby didn’t need no words to talk together. I was eight, goin’ on nine–why, Susie, just your age–when Aunt Debby died. I remember as well the last thing she said. Somebody asked her if she was afraid. She looked down over the covers–I can see her now, like a old baby she looked, so little and so light on the big feather-bed, and she said, ‘Is a grain o’ wheat scared when you drop it in the ground?’ I always thought that wa’n’t such a bad thing for a child to hear said.
“She’d wanted to be buried there beside the others and grandfather did it so. While he was alive he took care of the graves and kept ’em in good order; and after I married and come here to live I did. But I’m gettin’ on now, and I want you young folks should know ’bout it and do it after I’m gone.
“Now, here, Susie, take this pot of petunias and set it out on the head of the grave that’s got a stone over it. And if you’re ever inclined to think you have a hard time, just you remember Aunt Debby and shut your teeth and _hang on_! If you tip the pot bottom-side up, and knock on it with a stone, it’ll all slip out easy. Now go along with you. We’ve got to be starting for home soon.”
There was a brief pause and then the cheerful voice went on: “If there’s any flower I do despise, it’s petunias! But ’twas Aunt Debby’s ‘special favorite, so I always start a pot real early and have it in blossom when her birthday comes ’round.”
By the sound she was struggling heavily to her feet. “Yes, do, for goodness’ sakes, haul me up, will ye? I’m as stiff as an old horse. I don’t know what makes me so rheumaticky. My folks ain’t, as a general thing.”
There was so long a silence that the girl inside the house wondered if they were gone, when Mrs. Pritchard’s voice began again: “I do like to come up here! It ‘minds me of him an’ me livin’ here when we was young. We had a good time of it!”
“I never could see,” commented the other, “how you managed when he went away t’ th’ war.”
“Oh, I did the way you do when you _have_ to! I’d felt he ought to go, you know, as much as he did, so I was willin’ to put in my best licks. An’ I was young too–twenty-three–and only two of the children born then–and I was as strong as a ox. I never minded the work any. ‘Twas the days after battles, when we couldn’t get no news, that was the bad part. Why, I could go to the very spot, over there where the butternut tree stands–’twas our garden then–where I heard he was killed at Gettysburg.”
“What did you do?” asked the other.
“I went on hoein’ my beans. There was the two children to be looked out for, you know. But I ain’t mindin’ tellin’ you that I can’t look at a bean-row since without gettin’ sick to my stomach and feelin’ the goose-pimples start all over me.”
“How did you hear ‘twan’t so?”
“Why, I was gettin’ in the hay–up there where the oaks stand was our hay-field. I remember how sick the smell of the hay made me, and when the sweat run down into my eyes I was glad to feel ’em smart and sting–well, Abby, you just wait till you hear your Nathan’l is shot through the head and you’ll know how it was–well, all of a sudden–somebody took the fork out’n my hand an’–an’ said–‘here, you drive an’ I’ll pitch ‘–and there–’twas–’twas—-“
“Why, Grandma Pritchard! You’re—-“
“No, I ain’t, either; I ain’t such a fool, I hope! Why, see me cry like a old numskull! Ain’t it ridic’lous how you can talk ’bout deaths and buryin’s all right, and can’t tell of how somebody come back from the grave without–where in th’ nation is my handkerchief! Why, Abby, things ain’t never looked the same to me from that minute on. I tell you–I tell you–_I was real glad to see him_!
“Good land, what time o’ day do you suppose it can be? Susie! Eddie! Come, git your berries and start home!”
The two voices began to sound more faintly as the old woman’s crutch rang on the stones. “Well, Abby, when I come up here and remember how I farmed it alone for four years, I say to myself that ‘twan’t only th’ men that set the slaves free. Them that stayed to home was allowed to have their share in the good—-” The syllables blurred into an indistinguishable hum and there fell again upon the house its old mantle of silence.
As if aroused by this from an hypnotic spell, the girl on the hay sat up suddenly, pressing her hands over her eyes; but she did not shut out a thousand thronging visions. There was not a sound but the loud throbbing of the pulses at her temples; but never again could there be silence for her in that spot. The air was thick with murmurs which beat against her ears. She was trembling as she slipped down from the hay and, walking unsteadily to the door, stood looking half-wildly out into the haunted twilight.
The faint sound of the brook rose liquid in the quiet evening air.
There, where the butternut tree stood, had been the garden!
The white birches answered with a rustling stir in all their lightly poised leaves.
Up there, where the oaks were, had been the hay-field!
The twilight darkened. Through the forest, black on the crest of the overhanging mountain, shone suddenly the evening star.
There, before the door, had stood the waiting wood-sled!
The girl caught through the gathering dusk a gleam of magenta from the corner of the clearing.
Two hermit thrushes, distant in the forest, began to send up their poignant antiphonal evening chant.
THE HEYDAY OF THE BLOOD
The older professor looked up at the assistant, fumbling fretfully with a pile of papers. “Farrar, what’s the _matter_ with you lately?” he said sharply.
The younger man started, “Why…why…” the brusqueness of the other’s manner shocked him suddenly into confession. “I’ve lost my nerve, Professor Mallory, that’s what the matter with me. I’m frightened to death,” he said melodramatically.
“What _of_?” asked Mallory, with a little challenge in his tone.
The flood-gates were open. The younger man burst out in exclamations, waving his thin, nervous, knotted fingers, his face twitching as he spoke. “Of myself…no, not myself, but my body! I’m not well…I’m getting worse all the time. The doctors don’t make out what is the matter…I don’t sleep … I worry…I forget things, I take no interest in life…the doctors intimate a nervous breakdown ahead of me…and yet I rest … I rest…more than I can afford to! I never go out. Every evening I’m in bed by nine o’clock. I take no part in college life beyond my work, for fear of the nervous strain. I’ve refused to take charge of that summer-school in New York, you know, that would be such an opportunity for me … if I could only sleep! But though I never do anything exciting in the evening … heavens! what nights I have. Black hours of seeing myself in a sanitarium, dependent on my brother! I never … why, I’m in hell … that’s what the matter with me, a perfect hell of ignoble terror!”
He sat silent, his drawn face turned to the window. The older man looked at him speculatively. When he spoke it was with a cheerful, casual quality in his voice which made the other look up at him surprised.
“You don’t suppose those great friends of yours, the nerve specialists, would object to my telling you a story, do you? It’s very quiet and unexciting. You’re not too busy?”
“Busy! I’ve forgotten the meaning of the word! I don’t dare to be!”
“Very well, then; I mean to carry you back to the stony little farm in the Green Mountains, where I had the extreme good luck to be born and raised. You’ve heard me speak of Hillsboro; and the story is all about my great-grandfather, who came to live with us when I was a little boy.”
“Your great-grandfather?” said the other incredulously. “People don’t remember their great-grandfathers!”
“Oh, yes, they do, in Vermont. There was my father on one farm, and my grandfather on another, without a thought that he was no longer young, and there was ‘gran’ther’ as we called him, eighty-eight years old and just persuaded to settle back, let his descendants take care of him, and consent to be an old man. He had been in the War of 1812–think of that, you mushroom!–and had lost an arm and a good deal of his health there. He had lately begun to get a pension of twelve dollars a month, so that for an old man he was quite independent financially, as poor Vermont farmers look at things; and he was a most extraordinary character, so that his arrival in our family was quite an event.
“He took precedence at once of the oldest man in the township, who was only eighty-four and not very bright. I can remember bragging at school about Gran’ther Pendleton, who’d be eighty-nine come next Woodchuck day, and could see to read without glasses. He had been ailing all his life, ever since the fever he took in the war. He used to remark triumphantly that he had now outlived six doctors who had each given him but a year to live; ‘and the seventh is going downhill fast, so I hear!’ This last was his never-failing answer to the attempts of my conscientious mother and anxious, dutiful father to check the old man’s reckless indifference to any of the rules of hygiene.
“They were good disciplinarians with their children, and this naughty old man, who would give his weak stomach frightful attacks of indigestion by stealing out to the pantry and devouring a whole mince pie because he had been refused two pieces at the table–this rebellious, unreasonable, whimsical old madcap was an electric element in our quiet, orderly life. He insisted on going to every picnic and church sociable, where he ate recklessly of all the indigestible dainties he could lay his hands on, stood in drafts, tired himself to the verge of fainting away by playing games with the children, and returned home, exhausted, animated, and quite ready to pay the price of a day in bed, groaning and screaming out with pain as heartily and unaffectedly as he had laughed with the pretty girls the evening before.
“The climax came, however, in the middle of August, when he announced his desire to go to the county fair, held some fourteen miles down the valley from our farm. Father never dared let gran’ther go anywhere without himself accompanying the old man, but he was perfectly sincere in saying that it was not because he could not spare a day from the haying that he refused pointblank to consider it. The doctor who had been taking care of gran’ther since he came to live with us said that it would be crazy to think of such a thing. He added that the wonder was that gran’ther lived at all, for his heart was all wrong, his asthma was enough to kill a young man, and he had no digestion; in short, if father wished to kill his old grandfather, there was no surer way than to drive fourteen miles in the heat of August to the noisy excitement of a county fair.
“So father for once said ‘No,’ in the tone that we children had come to recognize as final. Gran’ther grimly tied a knot in his empty sleeve–a curious, enigmatic mode of his to express strong emotion–put his one hand on his cane, and his chin on his hand, and withdrew himself into that incalculable distance from the life about him where very old people spend so many hours.
“He did not emerge from this until one morning toward the middle of fair-week, when all the rest of the family were away–father and the bigger boys on the far-off upland meadows haying, and mother and the girls off blackberrying. I was too little to be of any help, so I had been left to wait on gran’ther, and to set out our lunch of bread and milk and huckleberries. We had not been alone half an hour when gran’ther sent me to extract, from under the mattress of his bed, the wallet in which he kept his pension money. There was six dollars and forty-three cents–he counted it over carefully, sticking out his tongue like a schoolboy doing a sum, and when he had finished he began to laugh and snap his fingers and sing out in his high, cracked old voice:
“‘We’re goin’ to go a skylarkin’! Little Jo Mallory is going to the county fair with his Granther Pendleton, an’ he’s goin’ to have more fun than ever was in the world, and he–‘
“‘But, gran’ther, father said we mustn’t!’ I protested, horrified.
“‘But I say we _shall_! I was your gre’t-gran’ther long before he was your feyther, and anyway I’m here and he’s not–so, _march_! Out to the barn!’
“He took me by the collar, and, executing a shuffling fandango of triumph, he pushed me ahead of him to the stable, where old white Peggy, the only horse left at home, looked at us amazed.
“‘But it’ll be twenty-eight miles, and Peg’s never driven over eight!’ I cried, my old-established world of rules and orders reeling before my eyes.
“‘Eight–and–twenty-eight! But I–am–_eighty-eight_!’
“Gran’ther improvised a sort of whooping chant of scorn as he pulled the harness from the peg. ‘It’ll do her good to drink some pink lemonade–old Peggy! An’ if she gits tired comin’ home, I’ll git out and carry her part way myself!’
“His adventurous spirit was irresistible. I made no further objection, and we hitched up together, I standing on a chair to fix the check-rein, and gran’ther doing wonders with his one hand. Then, just as we were–gran’ther in a hickory shirt, and with an old hat flapping over his wizened face, I bare-legged, in ragged old clothes–so we drove out of the grassy yard, down the steep, stony hill that led to the main valley road, and along the hot, white turnpike, deep with the dust which had been stirred up by the teams on their way to the fair. Gran’ther sniffed the air jubilantly, and exchanged hilarious greetings with the people who constantly overtook old Peg’s jogging trot. Between times he regaled me with spicy stories of the hundreds of thousands–they seemed no less numerous to me then–of county fairs he had attended in his youth. He was horrified to find that I had never been even to one.
“‘Why, Joey, how old be ye? ‘Most eight, ain’t it? When I was your age I had run away and been to two fairs an’ a hangin’.’ “‘But didn’t they lick you when you got home?’ I asked shudderingly.
“‘You _bet_ they did!’ cried gran’ther with gusto.
“I felt the world changing into an infinitely larger place with every word he said.
“‘Now, this is somethin’ _like_!’ he exclaimed, as we drew near to Granville and fell into a procession of wagons all filled with country people in their best clothes, who looked with friendly curiosity at the little, shriveled cripple, his face shining with perspiring animation, and at the little boy beside him, his bare feet dangling high above the floor of the battered buckboard, overcome with the responsibility of driving a horse for the first time in his life, and filled with such a flood of new emotions and ideas that he must have been quite pale.”
Professor Mallory leaned back and laughed aloud at the vision he had been evoking–laughed with so joyous a relish in his reminiscences that the drawn, impatient face of his listener relaxed a little. He drew a long breath, he even smiled a little absently.
“Oh, that was a day!” went on the professor, still laughing and wiping his eyes. “Never will I have such another! At the entrance to the grounds gran’ther stopped me while he solemnly untied the knot in his empty sleeve. I don’t know what kind of hairbrained vow he had tied up in it, but with the little ceremony disappeared every trace of restraint, and we plunged head over ears into the saturnalia of delights that was an old-time county fair.
“People had little cash in those days, and gran’ther’s six dollars and forty-three cents lasted like the widow’s cruse of oil. We went to see the fat lady, who, if she was really as big as she looked to me then, must have weighed at least a ton. My admiration for gran’ther’s daredevil qualities rose to infinity when he entered into free-and-easy talk with her, about how much she ate, and could she raise her arms enough to do up her own hair, and how many yards of velvet it took to make her gorgeous, gold-trimmed robe. She laughed a great deal at us, but she was evidently touched by his human interest, for she confided to him that it was not velvet at all, but furniture covering; and when we went away she pressed on us a bag of peanuts. She said she had more peanuts than she could eat–a state of unbridled opulence which fitted in for me with all the other superlatives of that day.
“We saw the dog-faced boy, whom we did not like at all; gran’ther expressing, with a candidly outspoken cynicism, his belief that ‘them whiskers was glued to him.’ We wandered about the stock exhibit, gazing at the monstrous oxen, and hanging over the railings where the prize pigs lived to scratch their backs. In order to miss nothing, we even conscientiously passed through the Woman’s Building, where we were very much bored by the serried ranks of preserve jars.
“‘Sufferin’ Hezekiah!’ cried gran’ther irritably ‘Who cares how gooseberry jel _looks_. If they’d give a felly a taste, now–‘
“This reminded him that we were hungry, and we went to a restaurant under a tent, where, after taking stock of the wealth that yet remained of gran’ther’s hoard, he ordered the most expensive things on the bill of fare.”
Professor Mallory suddenly laughed out again. “Perhaps in heaven, but certainly not until then, shall I ever taste anything so ambrosial as that fried chicken and coffee ice-cream! I have not lived in vain that I have such a memory back of me!”
This time the younger man laughed with the narrator, settling back in his chair as the professor went on:
“After lunch we rode on the merry-go-round, both of us, gran’ther clinging desperately with his one hand to his red camel’s wooden hump, and crying out shrilly to me to be sure and not lose his cane. The merry-go-round had just come in at that time, and gran’ther had never experienced it before. After the first giddy flight we retired to a lemonade-stand to exchange impressions, and finding that we both alike had fallen completely under the spell of the new sensation, gran’ther said that we ‘sh’d keep on a-ridin’ till we’d had enough! King Solomon couldn’t tell when we’d ever git a chance again!’ So we returned to the charge, and rode and rode and rode, through blinding clouds of happy excitement, so it seems to me now, such as I was never to know again. The sweat was pouring off from us, and we had tried all the different animals on the machine before we could tear ourselves away to follow the crowd to the race-track.
“We took reserved seats, which cost a quarter apiece, instead of the unshaded ten-cent benches, and gran’ther began at once to pour out to me a flood of horse-talk and knowing race-track aphorisms, which finally made a young fellow sitting next to us laugh superciliously. Gran’ther turned on him heatedly.
“‘I bet-che fifty cents I pick the winner in the next race!’ he said sportily, “‘Done!’ said the other, still laughing.
“Gran’ther picked a big black mare, who came in almost last, but he did not flinch. As he paid over the half-dollar he said: ‘Everybody’s likely to make mistakes about _some_ things; King Solomon was a fool in the head about women-folks! I bet-che a dollar I pick the winner in _this_ race!’ and ‘Done!’ said the disagreeable young man, still laughing. I gasped, for I knew we had only eighty-seven cents left, but gran’ther shot me a command to silence out of the corner of his eyes, and announced that he bet on the sorrel gelding.
“If I live to be a hundred and break the bank at Monte Carlo three times a week,” said Mallory, shaking his head reminiscently, “I could not know a tenth part of the frantic excitement of that race or of the mad triumph when our horse won. Gran’ther cast his hat upon the ground, screaming like a steam-calliope with exultation as the sorrel swept past the judges’ stand ahead of all the others, and I jumped up and down in an agony of delight which was almost more than my little body could hold.
“After that we went away, feeling that the world could hold nothing more glorious. It was five o’clock and we decided to start back. We paid for Peggy’s dinner out of the dollar we had won on the race–I say ‘we,’ for by that time we were welded into one organism–and we still had a dollar and a quarter left. ‘While ye’re about it, always go the whole hog!’ said gran’ther and we spent twenty minutes in laying out that money in trinkets for all the folks at home. Then, dusty, penniless, laden with bundles, we bestowed our exhausted bodies and our uplifted hearts in the old buckboard, and turned Peg’s head toward the mountains. We did not talk much during that drive, and though I thought at the time only of the carnival of joy we had left, I can now recall every detail of the trip–how the sun sank behind Indian Mountain, a peak I had known before only through distant views; then, as we journeyed on, how the stars came out above Hemlock Mountain–our own home mountain behind our house, and later, how the fireflies filled the darkening meadows along the river below us, so that we seemed to be floating between the steady stars of heaven and their dancing, twinkling reflection in the valley.
“Gran’ther’s dauntless spirit still surrounded me. I put out of mind doubts of our reception at home, and lost myself in delightful ruminatings on the splendors of the day. At first, every once in a while, gran’ther made a brief remark, such as, ”Twas the hind-quarters of the sorrel I bet on. He was the only one in the hull kit and bilin’ of ’em that his quarters didn’t fall away’; or, ‘You needn’t tell _me_ that them Siamese twins ain’t unpinned every night as separate as you and me!’ But later on, as the damp evening air began to bring on his asthma, he subsided into silence, only broken by great gasping coughs.
“These were heard by the anxious, heart-sick watchers at home, and, as old Peg stumbled wearily up the hill, father came running down to meet us. ‘Where you be’n?’ he demanded, his face pale and stern in the light of his lantern. ‘We be’n to the county fair!’ croaked gran’ther with a last flare of triumph, and fell over sideways against me. Old Peg stopped short, hanging her head as if she, too, were at the limit of her strength. I was frightfully tired myself, and frozen with terror of what father would say. Gran’ther’s collapse was the last straw. I began to cry loudly, but father ignored my distress with an indifference which cut me to the heart. He lifted gran’ther out of the buckboard, carrying the unconscious little old body into the house without a glance backward at me. But when I crawled down to the ground, sobbing and digging my fists into my eyes, I felt mother’s arms close around me.
“‘Oh, poor, naughty little Joey!’ she said. ‘Mother’s bad, dear little boy!'”
Professor Mallory stopped short.
“Perhaps that’s something else I’ll know again in heaven,” he said soberly, and waited a moment before he went on: “Well, that was the end of our day. I was so worn out that I fell asleep over my supper, in spite of the excitement in the house about sending for a doctor for gran’ther, who was, so one of my awe-struck sisters told me, having some kind of ‘fits,’ Mother must have put me to bed, for the next thing I remember, she was shaking me by the shoulder and saying, ‘Wake up, Joey Your great-grandfather wants to speak to you. He’s been suffering terribly all night, and the doctor think’s he’s dying.’
“I followed her into gran’ther’s room, where the family was assembled about the bed. Gran’ther lay drawn up in a ball, groaning so dreadfully that I felt a chill like cold water at the roots of my hair; but a moment or two after I came in, all at once he gave a great sigh and relaxed, stretching out his legs and laying his arms down on the coverlid. He looked at me and attempted a smile.
“Well, it was wuth it, warn’t it, Joey?” he said gallantly, and closed his eyes peacefully to sleep.
“Did he die?” asked the younger professor, leaning forward eagerly.
“Die? Gran’ther Pendleton? Not much! He came tottering down to breakfast the next morning, as white as an old ghost, with no voice left, his legs trembling under him, but he kept the whole family an hour and a half at the table, telling them in a loud whisper all about the fair, until father said really he would have to take us to the one next year. Afterward he sat out on the porch watching old Peg graze around the yard. I thought he was in one of his absent-minded fits, but when I came out, he called me to him, and, setting his lips to my ear, he whispered:
“‘An’ the seventh is a-goin’ down-hill fast, so I hear!’ He chuckled to himself over this for some time, wagging his head feebly, and then he said: ‘I tell ye, Joey, I’ve lived a long time, and I’ve larned a lot about the way folks is made. The trouble with most of ’em is, they’re fraid-cats! As Jeroboam Warner used to say–he was in the same rigiment with me in 1812–the only way to manage this business of livin’ is to give a whoop and let her rip! If ye just about half-live, ye just the same as half-die; and if ye spend yer time half-dyin’, some day ye turn in and die all over, without rightly meanin’ to at all–just a kind o’ bad habit ye’ve got yerself inter.’ Gran’ther fell into a meditative silence for a moment. ‘Jeroboam, he said that the evenin’ before the battle of Lundy’s Lane, and he got killed the next day. Some live, and some die; but folks that live all over die happy, anyhow! Now I tell you what’s my motto, an’ what I’ve lived to be eighty-eight on–‘”
Professor Mallory stood up and, towering over the younger man, struck one hand into the other as he cried: “This was the motto he told me: ‘Live while you live, and then die and be done with it!'”
AS A BIRD OUT OF THE SNARE
After the bargain was completed and the timber merchant had gone away, Jehiel Hawthorn walked stiffly to the pine-tree and put his horny old fist against it, looking up to its spreading top with an expression of hostile exultation in his face. The neighbor who had been called to witness the transfer of Jehiel’s woodland looked at him curiously.
“That was quite a sight of money to come in without your expectin’, wa’n’t it?” he said, fumbling awkwardly for an opening to the question he burned to ask.
Jehiel did not answer. The two old men stood silent, looking down the valley, lying like a crevasse in a glacier between the towering white mountains. The sinuous course of the frozen river was almost black under the slaty sky of March.
“Seems kind o’ providential, havin’ so much money come to you just now, when your sister-in-law’s jest died, and left you the first time in your life without anybody you got to stay and see to, don’t it?” commented the neighbor persistently.
Jehiel made a vague sign with his head.
“I s’pose likely you’ll be startin’ aout to travel and see foreign parts, same’s you’ve always planned, won’t you–or maybe you cal’late you be too old now?”
Jehiel gave no indication that he had heard. His faded old blue eyes were fixed steadily on the single crack in the rampart of mountains, through which the afternoon train was just now leaving the valley. Its whistle echoed back hollowly, as it fled away from the prison walls into the great world.
The neighbor stiffened in offended pride. “I bid you good-night, Mr. Hawthorn,” he said severely, and stumped down the steep, narrow road leading to the highway in the valley.
After he had disappeared Jehiel turned to the tree and leaned his forehead against it. He was so still he seemed a part of the great pine. He stood so till the piercing chill of evening chilled him through, and when he looked again about him it was after he had lived his life all through in a brief and bitter review.
It began with the tree and it ended with the tree, and in spite of the fever of unrest in his heart it was as stationary as any rooted creature of the woods. When he was eleven and his father went away to the Civil War, he had watched him out of sight with no sorrow, only a burning envy of the wanderings that lay before the soldier. A little later, when it was decided that he should go to stay with his married sister, since she was left alone by her husband’s departure to the war, he turned his back on his home with none of a child’s usual reluctance, but with an eager delight in the day-long drive to the other end of the valley. That was the longest journey he had ever taken, the man of almost three-score thought, with an aching resentment against Fate.
Still, those years with his sister, filled with labor beyond his age as they were, had been the happiest of his life. In an almost complete isolation the two had toiled together five years, the most impressionable of his life; and all his affection centered on the silent, loving, always comprehending sister. His own father and mother grew to seem far away and alien, and his sister came to be like a part of himself. To her alone of all living souls had he spoken freely of his passion for adventuring far from home, which devoured, his boy-soul. He was six-teen when her husband finally came back from the war, and he had no secrets from the young matron of twenty-six, who listened with such wide tender eyes of sympathy to his half-frantic outpourings of longing to escape from the dark, narrow valley where his fathers had lived their dark, narrow lives.
The day before he went back to his own home, now so strange to him, he was out with her, searching for some lost turkey-chicks, and found one with its foot caught in a tangle of rusty wire. The little creature had beaten itself almost to death in its struggle to get away. Kneeling in the grass, and feeling the wild palpitations of its heart under his rescuing hand, he had called to his sister, “Oh, look! Poor thing! It’s ‘most dead, and yet it ain’t really hurt a mite, only desperate, over bein’ held fast.” His voice broke in a sudden wave of sympathy: “Oh, ain’t it _terrible_ to feel so!”
For a moment the young mother put her little son aside and looked at her brother with brooding eyes. A little later she said with apparent irrelevance, “Jehiel, as soon as you’re a man grown, I’ll help you to get off. You shall be a sailor, if you like, and go around the world, and bring back coral to baby and me.”
A chilling premonition fell on the lad. “I don’t believe it!” he said, with tears in his eyes. “I just believe I’ve got to stay here in this hole all my life.”
His sister looked off at the tops of the trees. Finally, “Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler,” she quoted dreamily.
When she came to see him and their parents a few months later, she brought him a little square of crimson silk, on which she had worked in tiny stitches, “Surely He shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler.” She explained to her father and mother that it was a “text-ornament” for Jehiel to hang up over his desk; but she drew the boy aside and showed him that the silk was only lightly caught down to the foundation.
“Underneath is another text,” she said, “and when your day of freedom comes I want you should promise me to cut the stitches, turn back the silk, and take the second text for your motto, so you’ll remember to be properly grateful. This is the second text.” She put her hands on his shoulders and said in a loud, exultant voice, “My soul is escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowler. The snare is broken and I am escaped.”
For answer the boy pulled her eagerly to the window and pointed to a young pine-tree that stood near the house.
“Sister, that tree’s just as old as I be. I’ve prayed to God, and I’ve promised myself that before it’s as tall, as the ridge-pole of the house, I’ll be on my way.”
As this scene came before his eyes, the white-haired man, leaning against the great pine, looked up at the lofty crown of green wreathing the giant’s head and shook his fist at it. He hated every inch of its height, for every inch meant an enforced renunciation that had brought him bitterness and a sense of failure.
His sister had died the year after she had given him the double text, and his father the year after that. He was left thus, the sole support of his ailing mother, who transferred to the silent, sullen boy the irresistible rule of complaining weakness with which she had governed his father. It was thought she could not live long, and the boy stood in terror of a sudden death brought on by displeasure at some act of his. In the end, however, she died quietly in her bed, an old woman of seventy-three, nursed by her daughter-in-law, the widow of Jehiel’s only brother. Her place in the house was taken by Jehiel’s sister-in-law, a sickly, helpless woman, alone in the would except for Jehiel, and all the neighbors congratulated him on having a housekeeper ready to his hand. He said nothing.
By that time, indeed, he had sunk into a harsh silence on all topics. He went through the exhausting routine of farming with an iron-like endurance, watched with set lips the morning and afternoon trains leave the valley, and noted the growth of the pine-tree with a burning heart. His only recreation was collecting time-tables, prospectuses of steamship companies, and what few books of travel he could afford. The only society he did not shun was that of itinerant peddlers or tramps, and occasionally a returned missionary on a lecture tour.
And always the pine-tree had grown, insolent in the pride of a creature set in the right surroundings. The imprisoned man had felt himself dwarfed by its height. But now, he looked up at it again, and laughed aloud. It had come late, but it had come. He was fifty-seven years old, almost three-score, but all his life was still to be lived. He said to himself that some folks lived their lives while they did their work, but he had done all his tasks first, and now he could live. The unexpected arrival of the timber merchant and the sale of that piece of land he’d never thought would bring him a cent–was not that an evident sign that Providence was with him. He was too old and broken now to work his way about as he had planned at first, but here had come this six hundred dollars like rain from the sky. He would start as soon as he could sell his stock.
The thought reminded him of his evening chores, and he set off for the barn with a fierce jubilation that it was almost the last time he would need to milk. How far he wondered, could he go on that money? He hurried through his work and into the house to his old desk. The faded text-ornament stood on the top shelf, but he did not see it, as he hastily tumbled out all the time tables and sailing-lists. The habit of looking at them with the yearning bitterness of unreconciled deprivation was still so strong on him that even as he handled them eagerly, he hated them for the associations of years of misery they brought back to him.
Where should he go? He was dazed by the unlimited possibilities before him. To Boston first, as the nearest seaport. He had taken the trip in his mind so many times that he knew the exact minute when the train would cross the State line and he would be really escaped from the net which had bound him all his life. From Boston to Jamaica as the nearest place that was quite quite different from Vermont. He had no desire to see Europe or England. Life there was too much like what he had known. He wanted to be in a country where nothing should remind him of his past. From Jamaica where? His stiff old fingers painfully traced out a steamship line to the Isthmus and thence to Colombia. He knew nothing about that country. All the better. It would be the more foreign. Only this he knew, that nobody in that tropical country “farmed it,” and that was where he wanted to go. From Colombia around the Cape to Argentina. He was aghast at the cost, but instantly decided that he would go steerage. There would be more real foreigners to be seen that way, and his money would go twice as far.
To Buenos Ayres, then. He did not even attempt to pronounce this name, though its strange, inexplicable look on the page was a joy to him. From there by muleback and afoot over the Andes to Chile. He knew something about that trip. A woman who had taught in the Methodist missionary school in Santiago de Chile had taken that journey, and he had heard her give a lecture on it. He was the sexton of the church and heard all the lectures free. At Santiago de Chile (he pronounced it with a strange distortion of the school-teacher’s bad accent) he would stay for a while and just live and decide what to do next. His head swam with dreams and visions, and his heart thumped heavily against his old ribs. The clock striking ten brought him back to reality. He stood up with a gesture of exultation almost fierce. “That’s just the time when the train crosses the State line!” he said.
He slept hardly at all that night, waking with great starts, and imagining himself in strange foreign places, and then recognizing with a scornful familiarity the worn old pieces of furniture in his room. He noticed at these times that it was very cold, and lifelong habit made him reflect that he would better go early to the church because it would be hard to get up steam enough to warm the building before time for service. After he had finished his morning chores and was about to start he noticed that the thermometer stood at four above zero.
That was certainly winter temperature; the snow lay like a heavy shroud on all the dead valley, but the strange blind instinct of a man who has lived close to the earth stirred within him. He looked at the sky and the mountains and held up his bare palm. “I shouldn’t be surprised if the spring break-up was near,” he said. “I guess this is about the last winter day we’ll get.”
The church was icy cold, and he toiled in the cellar, stuffing wood into the flaming maw of the steam-heater, till it was time to ring the bell. As he gave the last stroke, Deacon Bradley approached him. “Jehiel, I’ve got a little job of repairing I want you should do at my store,” he said in the loud, slow speech of a man important in the community. “Come to the store to-morrow morning and see about it.” He passed on into his pew, which was at the back of the church near a steam radiator, so that he was warm, no matter what the weather was.
Jehiel Hawthorn went out and stood on the front steps in the winter sunshine and his heart swelled exultingly as he looked across at the deacon’s store. “I wish I’d had time to tell him I’d do no repairs for him to-morrow, nor any time—that I’m going to travel and see the world.”
The last comers disappeared in the church and the sound of singing came faintly to Jehiel’s ears. Although he was the sexton he rarely was in church for the service, using his duties as an excuse for absence. He felt that it was not for him to take part in prayer and thanksgiving. As a boy he had prayed for the one thing he wanted, and what had it come to?
A penetrating cold wind swept around the corner and he turned to go inside to see about the steam-pipes. In the outer hall he noticed that the service had progressed to the responsive readings. As he opened the door of the church the minister read rapidly, “Praised be the Lord who hath not given us over for a prey unto their teeth.”
The congregation responded in a timid inarticulate gabble, above which rose Deacon Bradley’s loud voice,–“Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler. The snare is broken and we are escaped.” He read the responses in a slow, booming roar, at least half a sentence behind the rest, but the minister always waited for him. As he finished, he saw the sexton standing in the open door. “A little more steam, Jehiel,” he added commandingly, running the words on to the end of the text.
Jehiel turned away silently, but as he stumbled through the dark, unfinished part of the cellar he thought to himself, “Well, that’s the last time he’ll give me an order for _one_ while!”
Then the words of the text he had heard came back to his mind with a half-superstitious shock at the coincidence. He had forgotten all about that hidden part of the text-ornament. Why, now that had come true! He ought to have cut the stitches and torn off the old text last night. He would, as soon as he went home. He wished his sister were alive to know, and suddenly, there in the dark, he wondered if perhaps she did know.
As he passed the door to the rooms of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Society he noticed that it was ajar, and saw through the crack that there was a sleeping figure on the floor near the stove–a boy about sixteen. When Jehiel stepped softly in and looked at him, the likeness to his own sister struck him even before he recognized the lad as his great-nephew, the son of the child he had helped his sister to care for all those years ago.
“Why, what’s Nathaniel doin’ here?” he asked himself, in surprise. He had not known that the boy was even in town, for he had been on the point of leaving to enlist in the navy. Family matters could not have detained him, for he was quite alone in the world since both his father and his mother were dead and his stepmother had married again. Under his great-uncle’s gaze the lad opened his eyes with a start and sat up confused.
“What’s the matter with you, Nat?” asked the older man not ungently. He was thinking that probably he had looked like that at sixteen. The boy stared at him a moment, and then, leaning his head on a chair, he began to cry. Sitting thus, crouched together, he looked like a child.
“Why, Natty, what’s the trouble?” asked his uncle alarmed.
“I came off here because I couldn’t hold in at home any longer,” answered the other between sobs. “You see I can’t go away. Her husband treats her so bad she can’t stay with him. I don’t blame her, she says she just _can’t!_ So she’s come back and she ain’t well, and she’s goin’ to have a baby, and I’ve got to stay and support her. Mr. Bradley’s offered me a place in his store and I’ve got to give up goin’ to the navy.” He suddenly realized the unmanliness of his attitude, rose to his feet, closing his lips tightly, and faced the older man with a resolute expression of despair in his young eyes.
“Uncle Jehiel, it does seem to me I _can’t_ have it so! All my life I’ve looked forward to bein’ a sailor and goin’ around the world, and all. I just hate the valley and the mountains! But I guess I got to stay. She’s only my stepmother, I know, but she was always awful good to me, and she hasn’t got anybody else to look after her.”
His voice broke, and he put his arm up in a crook over his face. “But it’s awful hard! I feel like a bird that’s got caught in a snare.”
His uncle had grown very pale during this speech, and at the last words he recoiled with an exclamation of horror. There was a silence in which he looked at his nephew with the wide eyes of a man who sees a specter. Then he turned away into the furnace-room, and picking up his lunch-box brought it back. “Here, you,” he said roughly, “part of what’s troublin’ you is that you ain’t had any breakfast. You eat this and you’ll feel better. I’ll be back in a minute.”
He went away blindly into the darkest part of the cellar. It was very black there, but his eyes stared wide before him. It was very cold, but drops of sweat stood on his forehead as if he were in the hay-field. He was alone, but his lips moved from time to time, and once he called out in some loud, stifled exclamation which resounded hollowly in the vault-like place. He was there a long time.
When he went back into the furnace cellar, he found Nathaniel sitting before the fire. The food and warmth had brought a little color into his pale face, but it was still set in a mask of tragic desolation.
As his uncle came in, he exclaimed, “Why, Uncle Jehiel, you look awful bad. Are you sick?”
“Yes, I be,” said the other harshly, “but ’tain’t nothin’. It’ll pass after a while. Nathaniel, I’ve thought of a way you can manage. You know your uncle’s wife died this last week and that leaves me without any house keeper. What if your stepmother sh’d come and take care of me and I’ll take care of her. I’ve just sold a piece of timber land I never thought to get a cent out of and that’ll ease things up so we can hire help if she ain’t strong enough to do the work.”
Nathaniel’s face flushed in a relief which died quickly down to a somber hopelessness. He faced his uncle doggedly. “Not _much_, Uncle Jehiel!” he said heavily, “I ain’t a-goin’ to hear to such a thing. I know all about your wantin’ to get away from the valley–you take that money and go yourself and I’ll—“
Hopelessness and resolution were alike struck out of his face by the fury of benevolence with which the old man cut him short. “Don’t you dare to speak a word against it, boy!” cried Jehiel in a labored anguish. “Good Lord! I’m only doin’ it for you because I _have_ to! I’ve been through what you’re layin’ out for yourself an’ stood it, somehow, an’ now I’m ‘most done with it all. But ‘twould be like beginnin’ it all again to see you startin’ in.”
The boy tried to speak, but he raised his voice. “No, I couldn’t stand it all over again. ‘Twould cut in to the places where I’ve got calloused.” Seeing through the other’s stupor the beginnings of an irresolute opposition, he flung himself upon him in a strange and incredible appeal, crying out, “Oh, you must! You _got_ to go!” commanding and imploring in the same incoherent sentence, struggling for speech, and then hanging on Nathaniel’s answer in a sudden wild silence. It was as though his next breath depended on the boy’s decision.
It was very still in the twilight where they stood. The faint murmur of a prayer came down from above, and while it lasted both were as though held motionless by its mesmeric monotony. Then, at the boom of the organ, the lad’s last shred of self-control vanished. He burst again into muffled weary sobs, the light from the furnace glistening redly on his streaming cheeks. “It ain’t right, Uncle Jehiel. I feel as though I was murderin’ somethin’! But I can’t help it. I’ll go, I’ll do as you say, but—-“
His uncle’s agitation went out like a wind-blown flame. He, too, drooped in an utter fatigue. “Never mind, Natty,” he said tremulously, “it’ll all come out right somehow. Just you do as Uncle Jehiel says.”
A trampling upstairs told him that the service was over. “You run home now and tell her I’ll be over this afternoon to fix things up.”
He hurried up the stairs to open the front doors, but Deacon Bradley was before him. “You’re late, Jehiel,” he said severely, “and the church was cold.”
“I know, Deacon,” said the sexton humbly, “but it won’t happen again. And I’ll be around the first thing in the morning to do that job for you.” His voice sounded dull and lifeless.
“What’s the matter?” asked the deacon. “Be you sick?”
“Yes, I be, but ’tain’t nothin’. ‘Twill pass after a while.”
That evening, as he walked home after service, he told himself that he had never known so long a day. It seemed longer than all the rest of his life. Indeed he felt that some strange and racking change had come upon him since the morning, as though he were not the same person, as though he had been away on a long journey, and saw all things with changed eyes. “I feel as though I’d died,” he thought with surprise, “and was dead and buried.”
This brought back to his mind the only bitter word he had spoken throughout the endless day. Nathaniel had said, as an excuse for his haste (Jehiel insisted on his leaving that night), “You see, mother, it’s really a service to Uncle Jehiel, since he’s got nobody to keep house for him.” He had added, in the transparent self-justification of selfish youth, “And I’ll pay it back to him every cent.” At this Jehiel had said shortly, “By the time you can pay it back what I’ll need most will be a tombstone. Git a big one so’s to keep me down there quiet.”
But now, walking home under the frosty stars, he felt very quiet already, as though he needed no weight to lie heavy on his restless heart. It did not seem restless now, but very still, as though it too were dead. He noticed that the air was milder, and as he crossed the bridge below his house he stopped and listened. Yes, the fine ear of his experience caught a faint grinding sound. By tomorrow the river would begin to break up. It was the end of winter. He surprised himself by his pleasure in thinking of the spring.
Before he went into the house after his evening chores were done, he stopped for a moment and looked back at the cleft in the mountain wall through which the railroad left the valley. He had been looking longingly toward that door of escape all his life, and now he said goodby to it. “Ah, well, ‘twan’t to be,” he said, with an accent of weary finality; but then, suddenly out of the chill which oppressed his heart there sprang a last searing blast of astonished anguish. It was as if he realized for the first time all that had befallen him since the morning. He was racked by a horrified desolation that made his sturdy old body stagger as if under an unexpected blow. As he reeled he flung his arm about the pine-tree and so stood for a time, shaking in a paroxysm which left him breathless when it passed. For it passed as suddenly as it came. He lifted his head and looked again at the great cleft in the mountains, with new eyes. Somehow, insensibly, his heart had been emptied of its fiery draught by more than mere exhaustion. The old bitter pain was gone, but there was no mere void in its place. He felt the sweet, weak light-headedness of a man in his first lucid period after a fever, tears stinging his eyelids in confused thanksgiving for an unrecognized respite from pain.
He looked up at the lofty crown of the pine-tree, through which shone one or two of the brightest stars, and felt a new comradeship with it. It was a great tree, he thought, and they had grown up together. He laid his hardened palm on it, and fancied that he caught a throb of the silent vitality under the bark. How many kinds of life there were! Under its white shroud, how all the valley lived. The tree stretching up its head to the stars, the river preparing to throw off the icy armor which compressed its heart–they were all awakening in their own way. The river had been restless, like himself, the tree had been tranquil, but they passed together through the resurrection into quiet life.
When he went into the house, he found that he was almost fainting with fatigue. He sat down by the desk, and his head fell forward on the pile of pamphlets he had left there. For the first time in his life he thought of them without a sore heart. “I suppose Natty’ll go to every one of them places,” he murmured as he dropped to sleep.
He dreamed strange, troubled dreams that melted away before he could seize on them, and finally he thought his sister stood before him and called. The impression was so vivid that he started up, staring at the empty room. For an instant he still thought he heard a voice, and then he knew it was the old clock striking the hour. It was ten o’clock.
“Natty’s just a-crossin’ the State line,” he said aloud The text-ornament caught his eye. Still half asleep, with his sister’s long-forgotten voice ringing in his ears, he remembered vaguely that he had meant to bring the second text to light. For a moment he hesitated, and then, “Well, it’s come true for Natty, anyhow,” he thought.
And clumsily using his heavy jackknife, he began to cut the tiny stitches which had so long hidden from his eyes the joyous exultation of the escaped prisoner.
Of all the Elwell family Aunt Mehetabel was certainly the most unimportant member. It was in the New England days, when an unmarried woman was an old maid at twenty, at forty was everyone’s servant, and at sixty had gone through so much discipline that she could need no more in the next world. Aunt Mehetabel was sixty-eight.
She had never for a moment known the pleasure of being important to anyone. Not that she was useless in her Brother’s family; she was expected, as a matter of course, to take upon herself the most tedious and uninteresting part of the household labors. On Mondays she accepted as her share the washing of the men’s shirts, heavy with sweat and stiff with dirt from the fields and from their own hard-working bodies. Tuesdays she never dreamed of being allowed to iron anything pretty or even interesting, like the baby’s white dresses or the fancy aprons of her young lady nieces. She stood all day pressing out a tiresome monotonous succession of dish-cloths and towels and sheets.
In preserving-time she was allowed to have none of the pleasant responsibility of deciding when the fruit had cooked long enough, nor did she share in the little excitement of pouring the sweet-smelling stuff into the stone jars. She sat in a corner with the children and stoned cherries incessantly, or hulled strawberries until her fingers were dyed red to the bone.
The Elwells were not consciously unkind to their aunt, they were even in a vague way fond of her; but she was so utterly insignificant a figure in their lives that they bestowed no thought whatever on her. Aunt Mehetabel did not resent this treatment; she took it quite as unconsciously as they gave it. It was to be expected when one was an old-maid dependent in a busy family. She gathered what crumbs of comfort she could from their occasional careless kindnesses and tried to hide the hurt which even yet pierced her at her brother’s rough joking. In the winter when they all sat before the big hearth, roasted apples, drank mulled cider, and teased the girls about their beaux and the boys about their sweethearts, she shrank into a dusky corner with her knitting, happy if the evening passed without her brother saying, with a crude sarcasm, “Ask your Aunt Mehetabel about the beaux that used to come a-sparkin’ her!” or, “Mehetabel, how was’t when you was in love with Abel Cummings.” As a matter of fact, she had been the same at twenty as at sixty, a quiet, mouse-like little creature, too timid and shy for anyone to notice, or to raise her eyes for a moment and wish for a life of her own.
Her sister-in-law, a big hearty housewife, who ruled indoors with as autocratic a sway as did her husband on the farm, was rather kind in an absent, offhand way to the shrunken little old woman, and it was through her that Mehetabel was able to enjoy the one pleasure of her life. Even as a girl she had been clever with her needle in the way of patching bedquilts. More than that she could never learn to do. The garments which she made for herself were the most lamentable affairs, and she was humbly grateful for any help in the bewildering business of putting them together. But in patchwork she enjoyed a tepid importance. She could really do that as well as anyone else. During years of devotion to this one art she had accumulated a considerable store of quilting patterns. Sometimes the neighbors would send over and ask “Miss Mehetabel” for such and such a design. It was with an agreeable flutter at being able to help someone that she went to the dresser, in her bare little room under the eaves, and extracted from her crowded portfolio the pattern desired.
She never knew how her great idea came to her. Sometimes she thought she must have dreamed it, sometimes she even wondered reverently, in the phraseology of the weekly prayer-meeting, if it had not been “sent” to her. She never admitted to herself that she could have thought of it without other help; it was too great, too ambitious, too lofty a project for her humble mind to have conceived. Even when she finished drawing the design with her own fingers, she gazed at it incredulously, not daring to believe that it could indeed be her handiwork. At first it seemed to her only like a lovely but quite unreal dream. She did not think of putting it into execution–so elaborate, so complicated, so beautifully difficult a pattern could be only for the angels in heaven to quilt. But so curiously does familiarity accustom us even to very wonderful things, that as she lived with this astonishing creation of her mind, the longing grew stronger and stronger to give it material life with her nimble old fingers.
She gasped at her daring when this idea first swept over her and put it away as one does a sinfully selfish notion, but she kept coming back to it again and again. Finally she said compromisingly to herself that she would make one “square,” just one part of her design, to see how it would look. Accustomed to the most complete dependence on her brother and his wife, she dared not do even this without asking Sophia’s permission. With a heart full of hope and fear thumping furiously against her old ribs, she approached the mistress of the house on churning-day, knowing with the innocent guile of a child that the country woman was apt to be in a good temper while working over the fragrant butter in the cool cellar.
Sophia listened absently to her sister-in-law’s halting, hesitating petition. “Why, yes, Mehetabel,” she said, leaning far down into the huge churn for the last golden morsels–“why, yes, start another quilt if you want to. I’ve got a lot of pieces from the spring sewing that will work in real good.” Mehetabel tried honestly to make her see that this would be no common quilt, but her limited vocabulary and her emotion stood between her and expression. At last Sophia said, with a kindly impatience: “Oh, there! Don’t bother me. I never could keep track of your quiltin’ patterns, anyhow. I don’t care what pattern you go by.”
With this overwhelmingly, although unconsciously, generous permission Mehetabel rushed back up the steep attic stairs to her room, and in a joyful agitation began preparations for the work of her life. It was even better than she hoped. By some heaven-sent inspiration she had invented a pattern beyond which no patchwork quilt could go.
She had but little time from her incessant round of household drudgery for this new and absorbing occupation, and she did not dare sit up late at night lest she burn too much candle. It was weeks before the little square began to take on a finished look, to show the pattern. Then Mehetabel was in a fever of impatience to bring it to completion. She was too conscientious to shirk even the smallest part of her share of the work of the house, but she rushed through it with a speed which left her panting as she climbed to the little room. This seemed like a radiant spot to her as she bent over the innumerable scraps of cloth which already in her imagination ranged themselves in the infinitely diverse pattern of her masterpiece. Finally she could wait no longer, and one evening ventured to bring her work down beside the fire where the family sat, hoping that some good fortune would give her a place near the tallow candles on the mantelpiece. She was on the last corner of the square, and her needle flew in and out with inconceivable rapidity. No one noticed her, a fact which filled her with relief, and by bedtime she had but a few more stitches to add.
As she stood up with the others, the square fluttered out of her trembling old hands and fell on the table. Sophia glanced at it carelessly. “Is that the new quilt you’re beginning on?” she asked with a yawn. “It looks like a real pretty pattern. Let’s see it.” Up to that moment Mehetabel had labored in the purest spirit of disinterested devotion to an ideal, but as Sophia held her work toward the candle to examine it, and exclaimed in amazement and admiration, she felt an astonished joy to know that her creation would stand the test of publicity.
“Land sakes!” ejaculated her sister-in-law, looking at the many-colored square. “Why, Mehetabel Elwell, where’d you git that pattern?”
“I made it up,” said Mehetabel quietly, but with unutterable pride.
“No!” exclaimed Sophia incredulously. “_Did_ you! Why, I never see such a pattern in my life. Girls, come here and see what your Aunt Mehetabel is doing.”
The three tall daughters turned back reluctantly from the stairs. “I don’t seem to take much interest in patchwork,” said one listlessly.
“No, nor I neither!” answered Sophia; “but a stone image would take an interest in this pattern. Honest, Mehetabel, did you think of it yourself? And how under the sun and stars did you ever git your courage up to start in a-making it? Land! Look at all those tiny squinchy little seams! Why the wrong side ain’t a thing _but_ seams!”
The girls echoed their mother’s exclamations, and Mr. Elwell himself came over to see what they were discussing. “Well, I declare!” he said, looking at his sister with eyes more approving than she could ever remember. “That beats old Mis’ Wightman’s quilt that got the blue ribbon so many times at the county fair.”
Mehetabel’s heart swelled within her, and tears of joy moistened her old eyes as she lay that night in her narrow, hard bed, too proud and excited to sleep. The next day her sister-in-law amazed her by taking the huge pan of potatoes out of her lap and setting one of the younger children to peeling them. “Don’t you want to go on with that quiltin’ pattern?” she said; “I’d kind o’ like to see how you’re goin’ to make the grape-vine design come out on the corner.”