Minor punctuation errors have been changed without notice. Printer errors have been changed and are listed at the end. All other inconsistencies are as in the original.
THE LOVE STORY OF ABNER STONE
THE LOVE STORY
By EDWIN CARLILE LITSEY
NEW YORK A. S. BARNES AND COMPANY MCMII
Copyright, 1902 BY A. S. BARNES AND COMPANY Published June, 1902
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
REPRINTED JULY, 1902
UNIVERSITY PRESS . JOHN WILSON AND SON . CAMBRIDGE, U. S. A.
It seems a little strange that I, Abner Stone, now verging upon my seventieth year, should bring pen, ink, and paper before me, with the avowed purpose of setting down the love story of my life, which I had thought locked fast in my heart forever. A thing very sacred to me; of the world, it is true, yet still apart from it, the blessed memory of it all has abode in my breast with the unfading distinctness of an old picture done in oils, and has brightened the years I have thus far lived on the shadowed slope of life. And now has come the firm belief that the world may be made better by the telling of this story—as my life has been made better by having lived it—and so I shall essay the brief and simple task before my fingers have grown too stiff to hold the pen, trusting that some printer of books will be good enough to put my story into a little volume for all who would care to read. And I, as I pursue the work which I have appointed unto myself, shall again stroll through the meadows and forests of dear Kentucky, shall tread her dusty highways under the spell of a bygone June, and shall sit within the portals of an old home whose floors are now pressed by an alien foot. Now, ere I have scarce begun, the recollections come upon me like a flood, and this page becomes blurred to my failing sight. O Memory! Memory! and the visions of thine!
THE LOVE STORY of ABNER STONE
It is a long path which stretches from forty-five to seventy. A path easy enough to make, for each day's journey through life is a part of it, but very difficult to retrace. When we turn at that advanced mile-stone and look back, things seem misty. For there is many a twist and angle in the highway of a life, and often the things which we would forget stand out the clearest. But I would not drive from my brain this quiet afternoon the visions which enfold it,—the blessed recollections of over a score of years ago. For the sweet voice which speaks in my ear as I write I have never ceased to hear; the face which the mirror of my mind ever reflects before my eyes I have looked upon with never-tiring eagerness, and the tender hand which I can imagine betimes creeping into my own, is the chiefest blessing of a life nearly spent.
There is no haunting memory of past misdeeds to shadow the quiet rest of my last days. As I bid my mind go back over the path which my feet have trod, no ghost uprises to confront it; no voice cries out for retribution or justice; not even does a dumb animal whine at a blow inflicted, nor a worm which my foot has wantonly pressed, appear. I would show forth no self-praise in this, but rather a devout thankfulness unto the Creator who made me as I am, with a heart of mercy for all living things, and a reverent love for all His wonderful works. The beauty of tree, and flowering plant, and lowly creeper abides with me as an everlasting joy, and the song of the humblest singer the forest shelters finds a response in my heart. Without my window now, as I sit down to make a history of part of my life, a brown-coated English sparrow is chattering in a strange jargon to his mate on the limb of an Early Harvest apple tree, and I pause a moment to listen to his shrill little voice, and to watch the black patch under his throat puff up and down.
It is the fall of the year, and the afternoon is gray. At times an arrow of sunlight breaks through the shields of clouds, and kisses the brown earth with a quivering spot of light. Across the sloping, unkept lawn, about midway between the house and the whitewashed gate leading from the yard, a rabbit hops, aimlessly, his back humped up, and his white tail showing plainly amid his sombre surroundings. I can see the muscles about his nostrils twitching, as he stops now and again to nibble at a withered tuft of grass. A lonely jay flits from one tree to another; a cardinal speeds by my window, a line of color across a dark background; and one by one the dry leaves drop noiselessly down, making thicker the soft covering which Nature is spreading over the breast of Mother Earth.
It may be that I shall not see the resurrection of another spring. Each winter that has passed for the last few years has grown a little harder for me, and my breathing becomes difficult in the damp, cold weather. Perhaps my eyes shall not again behold the glorious flood of light and color which follows the footsteps of spring; perhaps when the earth is wrapped once more in its mantle of leaves they shall lie over my breast as well. For man's years upon this earth are measured in Holy Writ as threescore and ten, and come December fourth next, I shall have lived my allotted time. My ways have not all been ways of pleasantness, nor all my paths peace. But I am glad to have lived; to have known the hopes of youth and the trials of manhood. To have felt within my soul that emotion which rules the earth and the universes, and which is Heaven's undefiled gift to Man. From books I have gained knowledge; from the lessons of life I have learned wisdom; from love I have found the way which leads to life eternal.
Old age is treacherous, and it comes to me now that maybe I have delayed my work too long. For the mind of age does not move with the nimbleness of a young colt, but rather with the labored efforts of a beast of burden whose limbs are stiff from a life of toil. But this I know, that there is a period in my existence which the years cannot dim. I have lived it over again and again, winter and summer, summer and winter, here in my quiet country home among the hills. There has been nothing to my life but that; first, the living of it, and then the memory of it.
It is my love story.
In the spring of 1860, I was a lodger in a respectable boarding-house on Chestnut Street, in Louisville. My father—God rest his soul—had passed away ten years before, and I was able to live comfortably upon the income of my modest inheritance, as I was his sole child, and my dear mother was to me but an elusive memory of childhood. Sometimes, in still evenings just before I lit my student's lamp, and I sat alone musing, I would catch vague glimpses of a sweet, pure face with calm, gray eyes—but that was all. No figure, no voice, not even her hair, but sometimes my mind would picture an aureole around her head. I have often wondered why she was taken from me before I could have known her, but I have also striven not to be rebellious. But she must have been an unusual woman, for my father never recovered from her loss, and to the day of his death he wore a tress of her hair in a locket over his heart. I have it now, and I wear it always.
I was of a timid disposition, and retiring nature, and so my acquaintances were few, and of close friends I had not one. My mornings and evenings were spent with my books, and in the afternoons I took solitary walks, often wandering out into the country, if the weather was fine, for the blue sky had a charm for me, and I loved to look at the distant hills,—the hazy and purple undulations which marked the horizon. And Nature was never the same to me. Always changing, always some beauty before undiscovered bursting on my sight, and her limitless halls were full of paintings and of songs of which I would never tire. Then, as evening closed in, and I would reluctantly turn back to my crowded quarters, the sordid streets and the cramped appearance of everything would fret me, and almost make me envious of the sparrow perched on the telegraph wire over my head. For he, at least, was lifted above this thoughtless, hurrying throng among which I was compelled to pass, and the piteous, supplicating voice of the blind beggar at the corner did not remind him that even thus he might some day become. And thus, when my feet brought me to the line of traffic, as I returned home, I would unconsciously hasten my steps, for the moil and toil of a city's strife I could not bear.
In the spring of 1860, these long walks to the country became more frequent. I had been cooped up for four rigorous months, a predisposition to taking cold always before me as a warning that I must be careful in bad weather. And the confines of a fourteen by eighteen room naturally become irksome after weeks and weeks of intimate acquaintance. It is true there were two windows to my apartment. A glance from one only showed me the side of a house adjoining the one in which I stayed, but the other gave me a view of a thoroughfare, and by this window I sat through many a bleak winter day, watching the passers-by. One night there was a sleet, and when I looked out the next morning, everything was covered in a gray coat of ice. A young maple grew directly under my window, and its poor head was bent over as though in sorrow at the treatment it had to endure, and its branches hung listlessly in their icy case, with a frozen raindrop at the end of each twig. The sidewalks were treacherous, and I found some amusement in watching the pedestrians as they warily proceeded along the slippery pavement, most of them treading as though walking on egg-shells. There went an old gentleman who must have had business down town, for I had seen him pass every day. This morning he carried a stick in his hand, and I discovered that it was pointed with some sharp substance that would assist him, for every time he lifted it up, it left a little white spot in the coating of ice. There went a schoolboy, helter-skelter, swinging his books by a strap, running and sliding along the pavement in profound contempt for its dangers. A jaunty little Miss with fur wraps and veiled face, but through the thin obstruction I could plainly see two rosy cheeks, and a pair of dancing eyes. Her tiny feet, likewise, passed on without fear, and she disappeared. Heaven grant they may rest as firm on every path through life!
Next came an aged woman, who moved with faltering feet, and always kept one hand upon the iron fence enclosing the small yard, as a support. Each step was taken slowly, and with trepidation, and I wished for the moment that I was beside her, to lend her my arm. Some errand of mercy or dire necessity called her forth on such a perilous venture, and I felt that, whatever the motive be, it would shield her from mishap. And so they passed, youth and age, as the day wore on. In the afternoon the old gentleman re-passed, and I saw that his back was a little more stooped, and he leaned heavier on his stick. For each day adds weight to the shoulders of age.
And now a miserable cur came sniffing along the gutter on the opposite side of the street. His ribs showed plainly through his dirty yellow coat, the scrubby hair along his back stood on end, and his tail was held closely between his legs. And so he tipped along, half-starved, vainly seeking some morsel of food. He stopped and looked up, shivering visibly as the cold wind pierced him through and through, then trotted to the middle of the street, and began nosing something lying there. A handsome coupe darted around the corner, taking the centre of the road. The starving cur never moved, so intent was he on obtaining food, and thus it happened that a pitiful yelp of pain reached my ears, muffled by the closed window. The coupe whirled on its journey, and below, in the chill, desolate grayness of a winter afternoon, an ugly pup sat howling at the leaden skies, his right foreleg upheld, part of it dangling in a very unnatural manner. A pang of compassion for the dumb unfortunate stirred in my breast, but I sat still and watched. He tried to walk, but the effort was a failure, and again he sat down and howled, this time with his meagre face upturned to my window. The street was empty, as far as I could see, for twilight was almost come, and cheery firesides were more tempting than slippery pavements and stinging winds. The muffled tones of distress became weaker and more despairing, and I could endure them no longer. I quickly arose and cast off my dressing-gown and slippers. In less than a minute I had on shoes, coat, and great-coat, and was quietly stealing down the stairs. Tenderly I took the shivering, whining form up in my arms, casting my eyes around and breathing a sigh of relief that no one had seen, and thanking my stars, as I entered my room, that I had not encountered my landlady, who had a great aversion to cats and dogs.
It was little enough of surgery I knew, veterinary or otherwise, but a simpleton could have seen that a broken leg was at least one of the injuries my charge had suffered. I laid the dirty yellow object down on the heavy rug before the fire, and he stopped the whining, and his trembling, too, as soon as the soothing heat began to permeate his half-frozen body. I knew there was a pine board in my closet, and from this I made some splints and bound up the broken limb as gently as I could, but my fingers were not very deft nor my skill more than ordinary, and as a consequence a few fresh howls were the result. But at last it was done, and then I made an examination of the other limbs, finding them as nature intended they should be, with the exception of a few scars and their unnatural boniness. So I got one of my old coats and made a bed on the corner of the hearth, to which I proceeded to transfer my rescued cur. He was grateful, as dogs ever are for a kindness, and licked my hands as I put him down. And he found strength somehow to wag his tail in token of thankfulness, so I felt repaid for my act of mercy, and very well satisfied. A surreptitious visit to the dining-room resulted in a purloined chunk of cold roast beef, and two or three dry, hard biscuits, which I found in the corner of a cupboard. Thus laden with my plunder, I started back, and in the hall came face to face with my boarding-house mistress.
"Why, Mr. Stone, what in the world!" she began, before I could open my mouth or put my hands behind my back.
"I—that is—Mrs. Moss, I have a friend with me to-night who is very eccentric. He has been out in the cold quite a while, and he dislikes meeting strangers, so that I thought I would let him thaw out in my room while I came down and got us a little bite. You needn't expect us at supper, for I have enough here for both."
"If it pleases you, Mr. Stone, I have no objections. But I should be glad to send your meals to your room as long as your friend remains."
I had reached the foot of the stair, and was now going up it.
"He leaves to-morrow, Mrs. Moss,—I think. Thank you for your kindness," and I dodged into my room and shut the door.
My charge was waiting where I had left him, with bright eyes of anticipation. I took a newspaper and spread it on the floor close up to him, and depositing the result of my foraging expedition on this, I stood up and watched him attack the beef with a vigor I did not suppose he possessed.
"Enjoy it, you little wretch!" I muttered, as he bolted one mouthful after another. "I came nearer telling a lie for you, than I ever did in my life before."
Then I made myself comfortable again, drew up my easy-chair, and lit my lamp, and with pipe and book beguiled the hours till bed-time.
I named him Fido, after much deliberation and great hesitancy. My principal objection to this name was that nearly every diminutive dog bore it, but then it was old fashioned, and I had a weakness for old-fashioned things, if this taste could be spoken of in such a manner. I had really intended setting him adrift after his leg was strong, but during the days of his convalescence I became so strongly attached to him that I completely forgot my former idea. He was great company for me, and after I had given him several baths, and all he could eat every day, he wasn't such a bad-looking dog, after all. The hair on his back lay down now, and his pinched body rounded out till I began to fear obesity, while his tail took on a handsome curl. Altogether, I was rather proud of him. But the result of my crude attempt at surgery became manifest when I finally removed the splints. The limb had grown together, it is true, but it was dreadfully crooked, and a large knot appeared where the fracture had been. When he tried to walk, I discovered that this leg was a trifle shorter than its mate, and poor Fido limped a little, but I believe this only added to my affection.
Winter held on till March, and then reluctantly gave way before the approach of spring. The wind blew; the sun shone at intervals; the ice began to melt, and muddy rivulets formed in the streets. When the ground dried up a little, I began my afternoon walks, Fido limping cheerfully along beside me. One day my commiseration for his affliction almost vanished. We had strolled away out past the streets, and had been walking along a pike, when the refreshing green of a clover meadow on my left caused me to climb the fence and seek a closer acquaintance. Fido wriggled through a crack at the bottom, and as I sat on the top rail for a moment, the little rascal suddenly gave tongue and shot out across the meadow after a young rabbit, which was making good time through the low clover. That lame leg didn't impede my yellow pup's running qualities, and I had to call him severely by name before he gave up the chase. He came panting back to me with his dripping tongue hanging out, and with as innocent a look on his face as one could imagine. I felt that he needed a gentle chastising, but there was nothing lying around wherewith to administer it, and I did not search for the necessary switch. But I wasted no more sympathy on that crooked right leg.
I became interested in the view before me, and forgot that time was passing. The clover meadow stretched away to a low bluff, at the base of which I could see the shining surface of a small stream. Far to my right a field was being broken up for corn. The fresh scent of the newly turned earth came to my nostrils like perfume. On the farther side of the field a patient mule was plodding along, dragging his burden, a plough, behind him, and I heard the guiding cries of the driver as he spoke in no gentle voice to the animal which was wearing its life away for its master's gain. A meadow lark arose a little to one side. I noticed his yellow vest, sprinkled with dark spots, as he flew with drooping tail for a few rods, then sank down again in the clover. From somewhere in the distance a Bob White's clear notes welled up through the silence. A flutter of wings near by, and I turned my head to see a bluebird flit gently to the top of a stake in the fence-corner not far away. They were abroad, these harbingers of spring, and I knew that balmy breezes and bursting buds came quickly in their wake. How sweet it was to know that earth's winding-sheet had been rent from her breast once more; that the shackles had been torn from her streams and the fetters loosed from her trees; to feel that where there had been barren desolation and lifeless refuse of last year's math would soon appear green shoots of grass, and growing flowers; that the tender leaves of the trees would whisper each to each in a language which we cannot understand, but which we love to hear. Especially at eventide, when the heat of the day is softened by twilight shadows, and a gentle breeze comes wandering along, touching with fairy fingers the careworn face and tired hands.
The sun had sunk below the horizon. As I now directed my gaze to the western sky, one of those rarely beautiful phenomena which sometimes accompany sunset in early spring, was spread before me. Spanning the clear sky, stretching from western horizon to zenith, and from zenith to eastern horizon, was a narrow, filmy band of cloud. And by some subtle reflection of which we do not know, the whole had caught the golden sheen of the hidden sun, and glowed, pale gold and pink and saffron. The sky was clear but for this encircling cloud-band, and my fancy saw it as a ring girding the earth with celestial glory,—a fitting path for spirit feet when they tread the upward heights. I watched it pale, with upturned face, its changing tints in themselves a miracle, and thought of the wonders which lay beyond it, which we are taught to seek. Thought of what was on the other side of that steadily purpling curtain stretched above me which no human eye might pierce. Groves of peace and endless song and light which never paled; my mother's face—
A star blossomed out in the tranquil depths above me, white and pure as a thought of God; some dun-colored boats were drifting in an azure sea out in the west, and a whippoorwill's plaintive wail sounded through the dusk from adown the fence-row. Up from the still earth there floated to my nostrils the incense of a dew-drenched landscape,—fresh, odorous, wonderfully sweet,—and a fire-fly's zigzag lantern came travelling towards me across the darkening meadow. Everything had become very still. It was that magic hour when the voices of the things of the day are hushed, and the things of the night have not yet awakened. Only at intervals the whippoorwill's call arose, like a pulse of pain. The voice of the ploughman in the adjoining field came no more to my ears; a respite from labor had come to both man and beast. The birds were still. There was no flutter of wings, no piping cry. The earth rested for a spell, and a solemn quietude stole over the scented fields.
I knew that I ought to be going—that I ought to have gone long ago, but still I sat on the topmost rail of the fence, which stretched away like a many-horned worm on either side of me. Supper was already cold, but I had been a little late on several occasions before, and Mrs. Moss had very kindly laid something aside for me. I was one whom she called "a queer man who saw nothing outside of his books," and while this was not altogether true, inasmuch as I was even now missing both supper and books for another delight in which my soul revelled, still she bore with my eccentricities, and I was thankful to her. "You should fall in love, Mr. Stone," she said to me one day, half jestingly, "and that would get you out of some of your staid ways." I replied with a smile that, as she did not take young ladies to board, there was small chance of that, and had thought of her remark no more. But now, in the tender gloaming of an April day, I felt that I did love, and with as ardent a passion as any man ever owned. I loved the rich sunlight, which I had watched fade away, but which still lingered in my breast. I loved the greening of Nature, and the yellowing of her harvest. I loved the soul-expanding influence of sky and air, and the far-reaching, billowy fields. All things that grew, and all things that moved in this, God's kingdom, I loved. What else was there to love? A woman? Yes; but they lived for me only in the pages of history and romance, and it was not likely that I, a bookworm bachelor of forty-five, would ever meet the one to stir my heart. And I feared them, a little. Out here, under the sky, with no one to hear but Fido and the dumb silence, I can make this confession. I knew she lived, somewhere, the one to whom my heart would cry, because this is the plan of the Creator, but I was glad that our lines of life had not crossed.
So please Him, thus would I live content.
The last bright streamer had disappeared, but still there remained a faint, chaste glow above the dark line of hills. An unseen Hand had sown the sky thickly with stars, and more fell to their appointed places as the moments passed. A bull-frog boomed out his guttural note, and Fido began to whine and gnaw at the rail just below my feet. He was getting hungry, and I acquiesced to his wordless plea to go home. Night had now come, and the air was chilly, so I buttoned my coat close up to my chin, and moved briskly. We were some distance from home, but the lights of the city were reflected in the sky, and besides, it was not dark, because of the stars, and the road over which we went had but one end.
I ate in quiet satisfaction the lunch which Mrs. Moss had saved for me, but when I tried to interest myself in Emerson, a few minutes later, I found that one of my favorites bored me. This sudden lack of appreciation of the great essayist annoyed me, and I forced my eyes to traverse line after line, hoping that the pleasing charm which they had always held for me would return. But this policy proved futile, so at length I quietly closed the book and put it down on the table, disgusted with myself. Perhaps my mind required something in lighter vein, and there was my bookcase, with its glass doors open, as they usually were. But the delightful metre of the "Lady of the Lake" seemed halting and tame to me that night, and this volume I did not close as gently as I had the former one, but flung it carelessly on the table and walked nervously to the window and raised the sash. For a moment—only a moment—I stood there, trying to find a few stars through the curtain of factory smoke which hung overhead, and letting the cool air blow about me. Then I put the window down, and came back to my easy-chair, satisfied, for I had solved the riddle of my unrest.
That afternoon's walk had showed me of what I was depriving myself. It dawned upon me in that moment that the pastoral joys which I had known that day were dearer to my soul than printed pages and the mind-narrowing captivity of four walls. Out there were unbounded possibilities for the mind and soul, lessons to be learned, pages to be read, secrets to discover,—a message in each soft gurgle of the brook; a whisper from each stirring leaf; a hidden story in the dreamy face of each flower. All of these became voices in my ears; I could listen to their singing and sighing for hours. What an awakening it was! I had been dreaming for over half my life, and with a sigh I looked at the well-worn tomes in my bookcase, which must now take second place in my heart. They had served me well. True and tried friends, into whose faces I had looked in both joy and sorrow, and never failed of consolation or delight. I would never desert them—God forbid! They were grappled to my soul with hooks which would neither bend nor break, and which could not fall away. Still would I come to them and caress them with loving fingers as I held them in my lap; still would I ask their advice and store my mind of their knowledge, for they had lightened too many hours of my life to be forsaken now,—it would be like giving up a friend of twoscore years for one newly found. And I loved them none the less,—in the full flush of the secret which I had discovered I knew this, and I walked over to where the long rows stood like phalanxes, and ran my hands lovingly over the sheepskin and vellum backs. And, 'pon my soul, they seemed to respond to my fingers, as though I had touched hands with a friend! They may have been dumb, but they were not lifeless; for the spirits of their creators still lingered between the leaves, and made them live—for me. Good friends, rest easy on your shelves; one by one each of you shall come down, as you have always done, and commune with me. When Nature sleeps, then we shall revel.
I sat down again, and stretched my feet out towards the low fire. With pipe newly filled, I caressed it between my joined hands, and thought. After a half hour of smoking and ruminating, I came to a conclusion. I would move to the country for the summer! What a dolt I had been all these years! The matter of board need not be considered, for that was cheaper in the country than in town. When winter came again, I could return to my present quarters, if I chose. What I wanted was a quiet old farmhouse with as few people in it as possible, and located in the blue-grass region of the State. Then life would be one endless delight,—days afield, and peaceful, noiseless nights. To be awakened in the morning by the matin song of the thrush; to breathe the intoxicating odor of honeysuckle and jessamine; to step out into the dew-washed grass, instead of upon the hard pavement, and to receive the countless benedictions of the outstretched arms of the trees as I walked beneath them. Where had my mind been a-wandering all of these years that I had not thought of this before? But I was too sensible to mar my present joy with useless regrets. The future was bright with anticipation and rich with promise, and my heart grew light.
And Fido—poor Fido—would be glad of the change, too, for I am sure it must have taxed his love for me to stay in the goods-box which I had converted into a kennel and placed in the small backyard. Mrs. Moss,—honest soul,—when giving her reluctant consent to this, consoled herself by thinking that she was only yielding to another of my vagaries.
There was no one else to consider, and so I put the thing down in my mind as settled. I would leave this soul-dwarfing, cramped, smoke-hung atmosphere, and take up my abode where the air was pure, and where the sun could shine. Mrs. Moss would lose a good, quiet boarder, it is true; but my consideration for Mrs. Moss's feelings would not cause me to sacrifice myself. Some one else would come and take the room which had been mine for ten years, and I would soon be forgotten.
The revelation which I had experienced put me in such high spirits at the glorious prospects before me that I could not think of going to bed when eleven o'clock sounded from the mantel-tree. Instead, I believe I actually chuckled, as I slipped my hand into the pocket of my dressing-gown for my tobacco-pouch, and proceeded to fill my pipe again. Method had always been the rule of my life, but that night I put it by for a space. The question paramount was—where should I go? Certainly most any farm housewife would give me a room upstairs for a small money consideration a month, but I was a little particular, and wanted to live and move among folks, for which I was fitted by birth and education. I knew that blood as blue and as genteel flowed through country veins as through city arteries; but how was I to find these people out? I didn't know a dozen persons in Louisville outside of my boarding-house. The hands of the clock were getting dangerously near together at the top of the dial before a solution came.
Suddenly I bethought me of Reuben Walker, that staid, long-headed fellow who had graduated with me back in forty. The nearest approach I ever had to a friend. He had gone to practise law in Springfield, down there in Washington County, and had made something of a name for himself, too. I hadn't seen him since forty-five, hadn't written to him since fifty, but he was the only man living I knew who could help me. So I forthwith indited a note to Reuben Walker, Esq., Attorney-at-Law, reminding him of our former intimacy, regretting that we had allowed ourselves to drift apart, and asking if he knew of a quiet country home where I might spend the summer. I reasoned that it was a country lawyer's business to know everybody in his county, and I hoped that Reuben remembered me well enough to refer me only to the kind with whom I would care to affiliate. I did not write letters often, my correspondence averaging perhaps a half dozen epistles a year, and so I signed my name to this one before reading it over. Then I recollected one of the earliest injunctions of my father: "Be very careful what you sign your name to," so I deliberately reread the missive before me. It was all right; I had said all that was necessary, but just as I was bending the sheet to fold it I stopped, spread it out again, and, taking up my quill, wrote as a postscript:
"I much prefer a home where there are no young ladies."
In due time an answer came. It was with considerable anxiety that I broke the seal, but there was a smile upon my face when I finished reading the short, friendly letter which he had sent me. He knew a place that would suit me exactly. Mr. and Mrs. Grundy were an elderly couple who lived about eight miles north of Springfield. They belonged to the aristocracy of the county, and lived in a two-story brick house on a magnificent farm. They were warm friends of Reuben's, and he felt no hesitancy in declaring that they would board me throughout the summer and fall. So positive was he of this fact that he wrote me to come whenever I pleased, and he would have everything arranged by the time I got there. He added a postscript, in answer to mine, stating that his friends were childless, and he did not think I would be bothered by any young ladies.
My elation at the success of my plans thus far was so apparent that it was openly remarked upon at the tea-table that evening. And so I told them all then and there of the change I was about to make. Of course there was a chorus of regrets that I was to leave, which I could not believe genuine, since I was so unsociable. But meeting Mrs. Moss in the hall as I started to my room, I explained to her that my health demanded an immediate change of air, and that for no other reason would I have gone. This the good lady accepted smilingly, and wished me much happiness in my new home.
There were not many preparations for me to make. My books and my wardrobe packed, my landlady paid, a modest demand on my bankers, and I was ready. It was in the latter part of April, in the midst of a steady downpour of rain, that I took my seat in the four-horse coach, with Fido between my feet. I remember the feeling which came to me when the huge vehicle started. I felt that I was almost leaving the earth, despite the rumbling and the jolting, when I thought of my destination. The heavy clouds and the swishing rain held no gloom for me. For above the clouds was the broad, blue sky, with the sun somewhere in it, and somewhere beyond the curtain of the rain was light and warmth and blooming fields. My heart was beating riotously, for this trip was really an adventure to me, who had not been anywhere for nearly twenty years. The coach was empty but for us, Fido and me, and it will seem queer to some when I say that I was very thankful for this. But I did not care to talk to people who were nothing to me, and who I might never see again. I much preferred to be in solitude, and muse upon all that my new life would hold for me. The rain stopped all at once, so suddenly that I would have been surprised had it not been April, and through the soiled glass of the coach door, now thickly streaked where the raindrops had run down it, came a blunted arrow of sunshine.
My trip would have been a tiresome one under ordinary circumstances, but I did not feel the least fatigue during all the long journey. I shall never forget the morning we rolled into Springfield, and drew up before a small frame building opposite the court square. A plain board suspended above the doorway of this building bore the simple inscription, "Reuben Walker, Attorney-at-Law." Here was the place where my friend gave legal counsel in exchange for legal money. I caught sight of his broad, humorous face ere the coach had given its final jolt as it came to a standstill. Directly in front of the office before which we stopped were two large locust-trees, and under these trees that bright spring morning quite a little company had gathered. There was a sudden explosion of laughter as the stage-driver descended from his perch and opened the door for me to alight, and a quick glance showed me that some joker had reached the climax of his narrative just at that moment. Before I could rise from my seat, the coach door was darkened by a figure, a strong hand was thrust into mine, and I was fairly dragged into the arms of Reuben Walker, who gave me hearty greeting. To this I responded quite as heartily. Fido had whisked out of his narrow quarters, and had begun to stretch himself in many wild contortions. I proceeded to reckon with my stage-driver, then Reuben took me by the hand, and leading me up to the men whom he had just left, he made me acquainted with each and every one. Most of them I have forgotten, for they went out of my life as speedily as they entered it; but one I remember yet, for he was afterwards governor of our beloved commonwealth. This was Proctor Knott, and he it was who had exploded the joke just as I arrived. I quietly joined the company, and listened to some more of this gifted young lawyer's yarns. The ringing of the court-house bell soon after caused a dispersion of the crowd. Some of them went with the lawyers to the court-room, others strolled down town, and Reuben and I were left alone.
"Come in, come in, Abner," he said, bluffly, and he led the way into his office.
A square table covered with green baize stood in the centre of the room. A box filled with sawdust sat upon the floor to serve as a cuspidor; three or four splint-bottomed chairs completed the office furniture. One of these I occupied, placing my hat upon the table, and Reuben took another, stretching out his short, fat legs, and crossing his hands over his bulging front.
"I'm glad to see you, Abner, 'pon my honor," he began, smiling so that his rubicund visage glowed with good feeling. "How did you take a notion to come to the woods?"
"I was cramped," I answered truthfully. "The city's smoke was stifling me, and I wanted a breath of fresh air."
"You'll get enough of that down at Henry Grundy's. That's the only cool place in the county in midsummer. And if you'll take my advice and straddle one of his thoroughbreds once a day, you'll get some color in your face. I've fixed everything for you. You're to have a front room on the ground floor, and pay twelve dollars a month. That's cheaper than stealing it. But you don't want to make a hermit of yourself when you get down there. Come up and spend a week or two with me. Miss 'Pheme [his wife] will be mighty glad to see you. She makes me walk chalk, but she'll be easy on you. You're going to be with mighty fine folks,—the cream of the county. They were very particular at first, but I vouched for you, and that settled it. Henry said he'd be in this morning after you. He's a Presbyterian and a Democrat, and talks to you as though you were deaf, but he's harmless. Why don't you tell me 'bout yourself?"
I saw at once that my good friend still insisted on doing all the talking,—one of the traits of his young manhood,—and when I told him that he hadn't drawn breath for five minutes, he seemed surprised.
"There's not much to tell about myself, Reuben," I replied. "I've been living alone,—reading, smoking, and thinking a little. Then I fancied that I'd like the country, and here I am."
"Where'd you get that?" He jerked one squat thumb toward my crippled retainer.
"Picked him up out of the street several months ago, after he'd been run over by a carriage."
"Same soft heart as ever, Abner. Remember when one of the boys at school poked that nest of damned little English sparrows out of the gutter? There was about sixteen of 'em, and you gathered the ugly little devils up into your new hat and tried to raise 'em. Don't—you—re-member, Abner?"
His fat sides shook, as he ejaculated the last sentence with difficulty.
"Yes," I answered, smiling. "My efforts were useless, for the little fellows all died. I felt sorry for them."
"I wish they were all in—hello! yonder's Henry, by jolly!"
I looked out of the window, and saw an old-fashioned rockaway draw up beside the curbing. The horse which drew it was a high-headed bay; the harness and the vehicle were spotless. A negro lad of near twenty, black as the night before creation, sat on the front seat, and on the rear seat was a man worth looking at twice. As the negro hastily scrambled down and opened the door, this gentleman alighted. He was a trifle over six feet tall; his face was wrinkled and kindly; his brows were gray and shaggy, and his eyes were gray. A patriarchal white beard flowed down over his breast, and his suit was of black broadcloth. Such an evident air of gentility sat upon him, that I mentally congratulated myself that I was to be associated with him. An instant later I heard his stentorian voice in the hall.
"Walker! Walker! Is that fellow Stone here yet? I can't wait all morning for him, for there's plenty of ploughin', and plenty of lazy niggers back at the farm! Hello! Why, is this Stone?"
And the hand that closed over mine was strong with the strength of the soil.
"I must get some things for the boss, then we'll start home," announced Mr. Grundy, after we were seated side by side in the rockaway. I noticed with gratification that his voice had sunk a few notes. He had looked askance at my yellow pup when I lifted him to a place at our feet, but had only queried, "Is that part of your baggage?" and had not demurred. His next speech was rather mystifying, for I had understood from Reuben that this man was certainly lord of his manor, and presided in a lordly way.
"The boss?" I asked, with a puzzled look, whereat he burst into a laugh that hurt my ears.
"Bless me! I forgot that you were a bachelor," he replied, when his risibles had subsided sufficiently for him to talk. "If you ever marry, you'll find out who's boss. The niggers call me boss and Marse, but Sallie's boss of our plantation!"
We drove about town for perhaps half an hour, purchasing a supply of groceries, then our horse's head was turned towards the open country.
"Antony'll take us home in less than an hour," said Mr. Grundy, eyeing with pride the easy, far-reaching strides of the big bay. "That's the best horse in my stables, Stone; there can't anything in the county catch him. I've taken premiums with him at every fair in the circuit ever since he was a yearling. It's a day's work for a nigger to drive him to town and back, for he pulls on the lines every inch of the way, and it takes good muscles to hold him in."
My companion did most of the talking on the road home. I addressed a few polite questions, then fell to viewing the country through which we were being whirled. The world was waking after its annual nap. The odor and charm of spring pervaded the air. Tree-buds were bursting, and tender leaves were spreading their tiny hands to the gentle sky. Immense expanses of green wheat waved by the roadside, and each small blade bowed its head to me in welcome. A pair of bluebirds flitted from stake to stake of a rail fence at our right. Yonder two gentle undulations prepared for corn swelled and fell away. Wherever I looked was freshness and verdure, and the starting into life of green things beneath the magic wand of spring. She holds the key to earth's resurrection, and she alone can unlock the myriad gateways of the sod. And what a host comes forth when her luring breath falls upon the barren ground!—cereals, flowers, mosses, vines, and the thousand little things which have no name. Forth they come exulting,—the nightshade and the lily, the thistle and the rose. And on the broad bosom of their mother there is room for each, and from her breast each draws its life.
A gray turret surrounded by evergreens drew my eyes to the left. I pointed to it with the question, "Can you tell me what that is?"
"St. Rose,—a convent founded by the Dominicans in the early part of the century. We'll drive over some day and take a look at it. That's the church you see,—a fine piece of masonry."
Then I grew silent again, becoming absorbed in the changing landscape. The road now led along the margin of a creek, bounded on the farther side by densely wooded hills. We had been gradually descending for several miles, and had now reached a great basin, wherein lay the fertile lands of my host. A sudden turn to the right, and a beautiful valley stretched before us. Part of it had yielded to the plough, and the brown, friable soil bespoke richness and boundless possibilities for corn. Farther on were meadows, reaching like green carpets close up to the whitewashed fences. And in the distance—behold my future home! It sat upon the crest of a gentle eminence back of those verdant lowlands, and was almost hidden by elms and oaks. These trees filled the big yard, too, and some were burdened with tangled grape-vines. Leaving the highway, a curving road led us up to the yard gate. As we drove slowly up the avenue to the large two-story brick house, a sense of unexpected happiness and quiet stole over me. Here was the Mecca of my vague desires. Here, in the midst of pastoral beauty, a kind Providence had sent me, and here, with the blue-grass all around, and peace in my heart, I would be happy.
The powerful voice at my elbow made me jump. By the time we reached the ground, the double front doors were open, and standing there was one of the sweetest-looking old women I had ever seen. She was clad in dignified black, with a white kerchief at her throat, and her gray hair drawn smoothly back from a kind, broad brow. Hat in hand, I mounted the huge stone steps which led to the porch, while that big voice came from below.
"This is Stone, mother! Show him his room and make him comfortable! I'm off to see 'bout the young lambs that came last night!"
It was a hospitable, friendly greeting which I received from the mistress of the house. Her voice was low and pleasant to the ear, and there was culture in every tone. The room into which she ushered me was delightfully cool and shadowy. The ceiling was high, the windows broad and deep, with green slat-curtains. The rocking-chair and the sofa near one of the windows were covered with haircloth. The centre-table was a beautiful piece of mahogany; sitting in the middle of it was a vase of jonquils. In one corner was a bookcase, empty—ready for my treasures. Everything was as it should be. I at once expressed my thanks and my satisfaction, and the good lady retired, saying that I was doubtless weary, and needed to rest a little.
Left alone, I stood still a moment, and looked about me. The paper upon the walls represented red-top clover in bloom, and I was glad of this. Hanging about the room were some old-time portraits in gilt frames, and some pictures representing historical events. Some dried-up cat-tails lifted their brown heads from another vase on one end of the tall mantel. A screen covered with wall-paper stood before the fireplace. Hastily I lifted it aside, and there—yes, there was the blackened chimney, the andirons, and the stone-laid hearth. If I have a weak point, it is an old-fashioned fireplace.
Dinner came just as I finished my toilet, and I followed Mrs. Grundy out into the broad hall, onto a latticed porch, and into the dining-room. The good things that were piled upon that table would have fed a regiment, but all who sat down were my host and hostess, and myself. Mr. Grundy asked a blessing, and his voice was just as loud as though he were hallooing to one of his negroes across a field. Surely the Lord heard that petition. In two minutes my plate was heaped high, and I had to put back other dishes till a later moment. When he had fairly settled himself to the business of eating, my host began to talk.
"Walker tells me that you're not used to mixing with people much, Stone, but I'm afraid it'll be lonely for you 'way out here. We don't have much company, and of course the niggers don't count. You can ride about the farm with me if you want to, and mother can hold her own at talking. When S'lome gets back, things'll be different. She's a whole houseful herself."
I almost dropped the piece of ham I was conveying to my mouth. Had Reuben betrayed me! What did this talk of "mother" and "Salome" mean? When he first spoke the word "mother," I had paid no particular attention to it; but when coupled with that other name, it took a deeper meaning.
"I—I—I understood you had no children," I said, trying to conceal my dismay by bending over my plate.
"Quite true, quite true, Stone. We've never had a child born to us. I got in the habit of calling the boss mother, from S'lome."
"Who is Salome?" I asked, but my voice was so weak that it scarcely conveyed the question.
"Bless me! didn't Walker tell you? I'll wring the rascal's neck for forgettin' S'lome. Why, man, she's the pride of this farm, and the queen of every heart on it! S'lome? Who's S'lome? Ask any nigger or dog in the county, and they'll tell you. She's our 'dopted daughter, man, off to Bellwood for her second year, and'll be home the fifth of June, God bless her!"
Like most country folks, my new friends went to bed shortly after sundown. About nine o'clock, I took my pipe and my tobacco-pouch, and crept noiselessly out to the front porch. I had noticed a quaint settee there upon my arrival that morning, and I had no trouble in finding it now, for a ghostly moonlight had settled over everything. My mind was confronted by a question of decidedly more moment than any under which it had at any time before labored, and I had to think it out before I could sleep. If my cherished and faithful pipe, together with solitude and the wondrous silence of a night in spring, could not bring a solution to me, then the question was certainly beyond me.
"—And'll be home the fifth of June, God bless her!"
I think they were the last distinct words I heard at that meal. I remember mumbling something about the pleasure in store for me, and while my tongue pronounced this statement, my conscience denounced me as a liar. It would be no pleasure. An upstart of a boarding-school girl, with her airy ways, her college slang and her ear-piercing laughter, tearing around the house like a young cyclone, having girl friends and boy friends hanging around continually,—the thought was not encouraging, and I groaned in spirit, and puffed away, setting misty shallops afloat upon the sea of moonlight. And these little shallops must have borne away as cargo my fretting and my fears, for presently I fell into a philosophic mood, and the future looked brighter. One thing was sure—I could not run away. That would be cowardice, as well as an affront to hospitality. And did the worthy man snoring in a near-by room once know that I thought of leaving because his idol was coming, he would doubtless hasten my departure by turning loose upon me the pack of fox-hounds I had heard clamoring for their supper a few hours before.
And, too, there were five weeks yet before this wonderful being would arrive. During this time I would walk, and accustom myself to riding, and when this paragon did come, I would leave her in full and free possession of the house throughout the day. It was not near so bad as it had looked at first. By eleven o'clock I felt able to sleep, if not entirely reconciled to the new order of things. "Sufficient unto the day—" I thought, with a sigh, and knocking the ashes from my cold pipe into the palm of my hand, I threw them over the railing of the porch, and went to bed.
The days passed for me now like a procession of pleasant dreams. The more I became acquainted with my host and hostess, the more I identified myself with their way of living, and the more I realized that I had fallen among people of exceedingly gentle blood. They were aristocratic, and perhaps a little too high headed for their near neighbors, and had but few callers, and no visitors. The practically limitless farm was under the direct general supervision of old Henry Grundy, and he was consequently a very busy man, and seldom at home except at meal-times. I soon learned that the slaves all loved him, for he was slow to anger, and always just. Out of the thirty negroes on the place, I was given a youth of perhaps eighteen to be my body-servant. He was to black my boots, keep my clothes dusted, hold my stirrup, take care of my horse, and do anything else I wanted him to do. This negro I dubbed Inky, in deference to his pronounced color.
I was allowed to sleep late in the morning,—a privilege for which I was grateful. Often I would accompany the master on his tours of inspection, riding a dapple-gray gelding which was placed at my disposal, and which was exceedingly well behaved, as became an animal of his good breeding. Then solitary walks became part of my daily routine. Accompanied only by Fido, and carrying a walking-stick of stout hickory, I explored the hills and valleys which stretched for miles in every direction. Oftentimes I was gone all day, and the good people whom I had begun almost to love were very indulgent to me, never complaining when I was late to a meal, or when my roving spirit kept me out till after nightfall. I had a key to the front door, and was careful to enter noiselessly on these occasions. I had never been back to Springfield, and so had had no opportunity to upbraid Reuben for his treachery. But, indeed, upon rereading his letter, I saw that he had told me the truth, and at the same time had made me the victim of a joke. These people had no children, and my friend had simply forbore mentioning the adopted daughter.
Salome,—a beautiful name and an unusual one. I found myself thinking upon it one afternoon, as I lay stretched upon a bed of moss in one of the deepest recesses of the hills. I had never heard it before out of the Scriptures. She who wore it ought to be a beautiful girl. "Salome, Salome," I caught myself murmuring, gazing dreamily up through the lace-like young foliage above me to where two fluffy clouds were wandering arm in arm along the pathways of the air. What would she look like, this Salome? Would she be fair or dark, and would her ways be gentle or tomboyish? A sudden realization of the trend of my thoughts made my cheeks tingle ever so slightly, and I brought my eyes to bear upon Fido. This ever-restless canine had chased a timid little ground-squirrel into a hole when we first arrived at this spot, and had subsequently torn up enough leaves and dirt to fill a moderate-size grave in his efforts to dislodge his quarry. He did not know that I was watching him, and his antics were therefore perfectly natural. He had dug a slanting ditch perhaps a foot deep in the soft loam, and when my eyes fell upon him had stopped for a moment to get his wind. He stood planted firmly on his four short legs, his tail vibrating incessantly, like the pendulum of a clock. His muzzle was grimy with soil; his head cocked on one side, and his ears pricked, while his beady little eyes narrowly watched the hole before him. His lolling tongue was dripping, and he was panting like a lizard. And I thought to myself, if men would attack an obstacle like that dumb brute, there would be fewer failures in life. All at once, and without warning, the pup leaped to the attack once more, and the way he worked would have done credit to a galley slave. His shoulders undulated with the ferocity of his movements, and dirt flew in a shower from between his hind legs. Now and again he would pause, and thrust his nose as far up in the hole as he could get it. A moment thus, while the wagging tail still moved, then he would draw back, snort the dirt from his nostrils, and with an eager whine renew his efforts.
With the deepening shadows came the thought that I was several miles from home, so I arose reluctantly, picked up my stick, and, with Fido limping at my heels, walked slowly back through the enchanted aisles of Nature.
The Saturday night following, a week before her arrival, I heard the story of Salome.
I was on the old settee after supper, as usual. Here I always came to smoke my pipe after the evening meal. Somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Grundy came out and sat down beside me. Frequently he and his wife came out for a short time in the early evening, but this night it was nearly nine o'clock when I heard the old gentleman's heavy step in the hall. I made room for him when I saw that it was his intention to sit down, and offered him my tobacco, for I saw that he held a cob pipe in his hands,—another unusual thing. He took my tobacco in silence, and in silence filled his pipe and lit it. I felt that he had something to say to me, so I waited patiently, and we both puffed away.
"S'lome's comin' a week from to-night," he said, at last. His voice was softer than I had ever heard it, and a caressing note lurked in it. "Seems a long time to us since she went away last September. S'lome's comin' home," he repeated, as though the very sentence brought joy.
"It's right for me to tell you 'bout her, Stone, since you're to be one of us for quite a spell. It's a sort o' sad story, but me an' mother've tried to make her forget the beginning of her life. It may be that you don't like young girls much, seein' that you've never married, but there'll be a kind spot in your heart for S'lome when you hear 'bout her. You see, it began away back yonder when I was a young fellow at school. Bob Summerton was a classmate of mine, and my best friend. His one prevailin' weakness was a woman's pretty face. He was a poor fellow, and had no business marryin' when he did. His wife, highly connected, but without any near relations, was killed in a railway accident. Their little girl, who had been born six months before, escaped unhurt. Bob was a Kentuckian, from the soles of his feet up, and one day, when S'lome was only three years old, he was shot by a coward for defending a woman's good name. He telegraphed me to come, and I reached him in time for him to consign to my keepin' the child soon to be orphaned again. It nearly broke my heart, Stone,"—the strong man choked back something in his throat,—"but even at that tender age the young thing's grief was pitiful. I brought her here, and me and mother—well, we've done what we could to make her happy—God bless her!"
The last words were in a husky whisper, and I knew that tears which had started from the heart were glistening in the eyes of that grand old gentleman.
"She's not so big, and she's not so little," he went on, presently, for I knew of nothing to say at this juncture. "Just kind o' medium size, and as sweet as the Lord's blessed sunshine. She ain't ashamed to keep the house clean, and help mother, either. It's always May-time 'bout the old place when she's here, Stone. She's tender-hearted as a lamb, and'll nuss a chicken with the gapes for half a day. But the horse don't run on this farm that she's afraid to ride. And when me or mother are ailin', she'll sit by us night and day—says she's 'fraid to trust a nigger with medicine. And she's got our hearts so 't they'd almost stop beatin' if she told 'em to. She's ridden on a load o' hay many a time, and has gone to the wheat-field to help us with the thrashin'. And she's comin' home next Saturday, Stone."
He stopped again, and I knew that he was thinking. Presently he arose, and stretched his arms with a yawn.
"You'll like her, Stone, if you're a human. Good-night."
"Good-night," I answered, and his heavy boots thumped across the porch to the hall door.
That night, for the first time in my life, a girl's face crept into my dreams.
The next week passed more swiftly than any of its predecessors had done since I came to this idyllic spot. House-cleaning began on Monday, and under Mrs. Grundy's experienced eye the half-dozen negresses employed in the work moved with alacrity and precision. But what with beating carpets, scrubbing floors, and turning things topsy-turvy in general, the task was not accomplished with any considerable despatch. A man is a cumbrous article at house-cleaning time, as any housewife will aver, and Mr. Grundy, recognizing this fact, betook himself to the neighboring Little Beach River to fish, and let "the boss" tear up things to her heart's content. His request that I should accompany him was almost a warning, so I assented, for my room was not to be spared in the general overhauling. Inky and Jim—Mr. Grundy's factotum—went along to pitch our tent and attend to the cooking.
I was not a disciple of Walton, and as a consequence my success was anything but extraordinary; still I derived a hearty enjoyment from the outing.
Did you ever lazy along a river-bank in May, and just live, and fish, and smoke, and do nothing else? If you have not, you have missed a very great pleasure. If you fail to catch many fish, it doesn't matter much. There is a certain spell in the air which defies ennui, and a kind of tonic steals into your blood which makes it tingle through your veins, much as the rising sap in the young trees, I imagine. You rise in the morning and bathe your eyes open in a near-by spring, whose crystal cool water is like the touch of a healing hand. Then comes breakfast of bacon, coffee, and good, light bread. Then your pipe comes as naturally as a deep breath of the forest-scented air, and you take your rod and minnows and wander up the bank through the weeds and the dewy grass. Under the shadow of that old, half-sunken log is where the bass stay. The water is deep and clear, and your hook sinks with a low gurgle, like an infant's laughter. What matters it whether a bite comes at once, or not? You sit in a hollow formed by a curving tree-root, rest your back against the tree-trunk, and are very contented. The other side of the stream is lined with endless stretches of trees,—sycamore, elm, dogwood with their starry eyes peering in innate vanity over the bank into the mirror beneath them, and underbrush of all descriptions. Where the tide has once been, and receded, is a stretch of yellow clay, now glistening from the dews of night. After a while the sun strikes this, and the wet surface glows like gold. Then your wandering eye—for you have forgotten your cork—observes a bubble as it rises and bursts midway across the stream, and you idly watch the widening circle which radiates from it. Then in the centre of the circle the tiniest dark spot appears, which gradually assumes the shape of a black, shining head. It remains stationary for a while, then slowly moves to the opposite bank. A disc-like shell is lifted, two broad feet dig their claws into the mud, and Mr. Turtle drags himself up high and dry for a sunning.
The delightful silence is suddenly broken by the harshest of chattering, and a crested kingfisher descends like a shot from some dead limb high up in the very tree under which you are sitting, and, skimming low over the surface of the water, finally disappears without his prey. Then the pole is almost jerked from your careless hands, and, if you have luck, a fine bass is floundering at your feet in a few moments. Then another spell of sitting and dreaming, while you lay your pipe aside for a while, and look up to where a squadron of fleecy argosies are drifting calmly along to some unknown bourn, bearing, mayhap, behind their filmy bulwarks the simple prayers of trusting children.
Dinner-time comes too quickly, but it is over soon, and you seek a new haunt, and stretch your legs out, and thank the Lord that you are alive. Above you and around you is the fragrant new life of blooming things, and the odor of the woods is as rare and sweet as some strange perfume. As the sun goes down slowly, the shadows lengthen across the river. The little wood violets nod on their slender stems by your side, and dusk creeps upon you like a caress. The bird notes grow still, and a gentle rustling comes from the leaves, and falls upon you like a benediction from Nature. After supper you lie upon your bunk in the tent, and drowsily watch the stars wink at you through the open door. Then the bull-frogs' lullaby begins, and you drift into dreamland listening to that deep chorus from the river banks.
I passed four days like this,—elysian days to me. Friday we went back home, and the next day she came.
The household was astir very early that morning, as was natural and proper that it should be, considering the event which was to happen. Contrary to my custom, I was up before the sun, and I smiled, in an amused way, at the extra touches which I almost unconsciously put to my dress. I actually halted over my necktie, but decided at last upon a black string, as most becoming to my age and quiet habits. The gray streaks about my temples seemed to show more plainly than usual, as I carefully brushed my hair. I put on some clean cuffs, too, though the ones I had been wearing were not soiled.
At breakfast everybody was happy. Mrs. Grundy beamed from behind the tea-urn, and put three spoonfuls of sugar into my tea instead of two. Mr. Grundy succeeded in upsetting his cup of black coffee, and laughed at it as though it were a joke, and even the mulatto maid who moved deftly about the table wore a broad grin. One thing was on the mind of each: Salome was coming home.
The carriage was waiting at the front door when breakfast was over. Two darkies had been rubbing on it for an hour, and not a speck could be seen anywhere. There were two horses hitched to it this time, as fitted the occasion. A span of high-strung blacks, with white feet, and they gave the negro at their heads all he could do to keep them from going. They chafed their bits, and stamped, and fretted at the delay, their tiny feet eager to be speeding away. The master was going alone to meet his darling. Springfield had no railway, and Salome was to arrive at Lebanon, eighteen miles distant, by noon. Mr. Grundy came out arrayed in his best, as though he was going to meet the Queen of England. His strong old face was alight with a great happiness, as he bent and kissed his wife, then leaped down the steps like a school-boy. He shouted back his adieus to each of us; the negro on the front seat gathered up his lines, and braced his feet; the negro standing at the head of the team loosened his hold, and stepped swiftly to one side. There was a prancing of slender limbs, a tossing of two black heads, and they were gone. There were tears of joy in the eyes of the good woman at my side when I looked at her.
"She's coming, Mr. Stone, and we're all so happy!"
That was all she could say. Her voice broke, and with a smile on her sweet old face she turned away into the house to hide her emotion.
The day was a restless one for me. I took a book, and went down to a rustic seat under an elm tree. But the book lay open on my crossed knees without my eyes ever seeking its pages. I was thinking of Salome—of the wonderful charm which made every one love her. Elderly women, married women, I had known and liked, but school-girls were my especial abomination. Truth to tell, I had never known any, and I did not want to know any. Even this paragon I would have gladly escaped had there been a way. But flight was impossible, and since I must meet her, it was quite natural to wonder what she was like, and to brood upon the mystery of her ensnaring all about her. I was ashamed of my restlessness. The rustic chair grew uncomfortable, and I paced up and down. The damp grass deadened the shine of my boots, and I walked back to the house and summoned Inky to put them in shape again. Even this African's face was beaming like a freshly polished stove, and I became almost irritated.
"What are you grinning about?" I demanded, as he bent to his work with blacking and brush.
"Miss S'lome's comin' home, Marse," he panted, rolling his white eyes at me in ecstasy.
"Are you very glad?" I continued.
"Yas,'r, I is. Miss Salome's jes' so sweet that honey can't tech 'er. She picked a br'ar out 'n my foot once, Marse; out 'n my ugly, black foot. An' she hel' it in her lap, too, an' it nuvver hurt a speck."
I did not say anything more. I knew now why the birds were singing so sweetly that morning, and why the squirrels in the yard were frisking so gayly. Everything was glad because she was coming home.
The big bell on the tall pole behind the house rang at eleven that day instead of half past. And away out in the fields hearts were quickened in black bosoms. The slaves left the plough in the furrow, and the corn undropped, and hurried home. The summons at this unusual hour meant that something out of the ordinary had happened. It was the master's order, and as they all came trooping in with inquiring faces, and stood grouped near the back porch, Mrs. Grundy appeared, and told them briefly that their young mistress was coming that afternoon, and that there would be no more work that day. They cheered the news with many a lusty shout, and the pickaninnies rolled over each other, and the youths turned handsprings, while upon each face was a look of high good humor.
About four o'clock Mrs. Grundy and I repaired to the settee to watch the road, which could be seen for perhaps a mile, winding through the valley. Then around the corner of the house began to appear the vassals of this Kentucky lord. The stain of the soil had been washed from their hands and faces, and their cotton shirts were clean, though patched and worn. The negresses, also, appeared, with their kinky hair done up in multitudes of "horns," and tied with bits of the most extravagant-colored ribbon that their wearers possessed. Every one was attired in his best, as though on a holiday occasion, which, in truth, this was.
"Dar dey come!"
A six-year-old piece of midnight suddenly made this announcement in a shrill treble key, and all eyes were turned at once towards the highway. A carriage and a span of blacks were sweeping up the road. Mrs. Grundy gave some orders in a low, yet positive tone, and in a trice two rows of slaves were standing along each side of the avenue. They were going to give her a royal welcome. Mrs. Grundy stood upon the lowest step, and I modestly remained upon the porch, leaning against one of the massive pillars. I can scarcely describe my feelings at that time now, but I think my nerves were in a condition similar to that of the small boy when he makes his first speech at school. They had reached the meadow, and were coming up the slow incline. I could see nothing as yet but a straw hat, a white blur beneath it, and a brown travelling suit. Through the wide-open yard gate they rolled. Then those who had been called together to welcome her gave cheer after cheer, and waved their hands and hats above their heads.
"Hi, Miss S'lome!" from a sturdy field hand.
"Hi, baby!" from an old mammy.
"Howdy, Missus!" from a housemaid.
"Hi, Mi' 'Ome!" from a pickaninny in arms.
And so the welcome greetings fell upon her. And from out the pandemonium a high, sweet voice thrilled into my ears.
"Hello, Sambo! Here's Aunt Cynthy! Look how 'Lindy has grown!"
It was almost like the confused panorama of a dream. The horses stopped; a lithe figure leaped, unaided, to the ground; I heard that dear word "mother,"—and Salome was home.
I descended the steps, and stood at a respectful distance. I saw a gray head and a brown one side by side, and caught faintly the whispered love of youth and age. Arms were at length unclasped, and Mrs. Grundy presented me. A sudden up-flashing of dark eyes was the first impression I received from the face turned towards me. She made me a low courtesy, and held out her hand, and I took it and bowed over it with the best grace of which I was master.
"I am glad to see you, Miss Salome," I said, truthfully, for my feelings had undergone a wonderful revulsion, despite my indifference of that morning. Sometimes a moment is long enough to change one's whole being.
"I am so pleased to find you here." Her voice was low, well bred, and modulated. "Mother and father are very lonely after I go away. They love me far more than I deserve," and she smiled back at them as they stood hand in hand watching us. "Now, if you will excuse me, I will shake hands with all of these good friends."
She nodded pleasantly in response to my bow, and moved away with a certain gliding step. Straight to an old black mammy she went, and threw herself into the good creature's arms. Then right and left she turned, while they crowded around her, shaking hands with all. Some horny hands she took could have crushed hers like a flower; but everywhere were expressions of love and respect. And she was the gladdest thing there. The genuine affection she felt for all the negroes was shown in her cordial greetings.
The carriage was driven away, the blacks dispersed, and the rest of us retired to "mother's room," which was situated back of mine. The two old people hovered about their returned darling like parent birds over a strayed fledgeling which had come back to the nest. I took a seat apart, and, joining in the conversation but rarely, studied the girl who sat in a large rocking chair, and who talked as volubly and as entertainingly as any one could have wished. She was, as Mr. Grundy had said, of medium build. Her form was youthful, but possessed of that subtle roundness which betokens the approach of womanhood. Two dainty feet darted in and out beneath her skirt as she rocked to and fro. Her face was not beautiful, but the features were delicate and fine. Her lips were as red as rich blood could make them, the upper one pouting ever so slightly, and the soft brown hair was parted in the middle and drawn back from an exquisite forehead. The dark brown eyes were the girl's chief charm. They danced and sparkled in impish mischief, and had a way of shooting sudden glances which made themselves felt as keenly as arrows. And crowning it all was a sweet grace and womanliness which was good to see. From that hour my opinion of a school-girl changed.
After supper all of us gathered on the front porch. Mr. and Mrs. Grundy occupied the settee; Salome and I sat upon the porch at the top of the steps, she leaning against one pillar, and I against the other, across from her. Of course she did the talking, and while most of it was about the things which had happened at school, I found myself listening with increasing interest. I soon discovered that it was the music of her voice which held me,—soft, rich, speaking in perfect accents. Her narrative was frequently interrupted by bursts of bubbling laughter, as some amusing incident was remembered and related. Very suddenly she stopped.
"Listen!" she said, and turned her head sideways, holding up one finger.
Through the silence which followed came the twanging notes of a banjo.
"It's Uncle Zeb!" she announced, in a loud whisper. Then to me, impulsively, "Don't you like music, Mr. Stone?"
She leaned towards me, as though it was a vital question which she had propounded.
"Very dearly," I answered promptly. "This is the first that I have heard since coming here."
"It's a jig, and he's playing it for me—the old darling! I must go to him, or he would be hurt."
She arose swiftly, and gathered up her skirts.
"Will you come, Mr. Stone, since you love music? We won't stay long."
I mumbled something, and got up, a trifle confused. Such perfect candor and lack of artificiality was a revelation to me. She placed her disengaged hand upon my arm at the bottom of the steps.
"Uncle Zeb almost raised me," she explained, as we took our way around the house towards the darkey cabins. "He's taken me to the fields with him many a time, and I was brought up on that tune you hear him playing. He always plays it when I come home—look at them now!"
The cabins were all built in a locust grove to the rear of the house. To-night the negroes had lighted a bonfire, and were making merry in the old-time, ante-bellum way. Seated upon broken-down chairs, or strewn upon the grass in various attitudes, these dusky children of misfortune watched the performance of an exceedingly black old uncle, who, sitting upon a bench before his cabin, was picking the strings of a banjo almost as old as himself. His bald head, surrounded by a fringe of gray wool, shone brightly in the firelight, he was rocking his body rhythmically backwards and forwards, and keeping time with one foot upon the hard earth. As we came into the circle of firelight we were discovered, and there was a quick movement, and a deferential giving way. My companion took her hand from my arm, and the action seemed to draw me much nearer the earth than I had been for the past two or three minutes. The musician stopped playing when he became aware of our presence.
"Bress de Lawd, honey chile! Am dat you? 'Pears to me a' angel mus' 'a' drapped down frum de sky!"
"This is your little child, Uncle Zeb," she answered with feeling, "and I have come out here to listen to you play."
"De ol' man can't play 'less de feet's a-goin'," he replied, shaking his head solemnly. "You know you's al'ays danced fur ol' Zeb."
A darker color came to her cheeks, and she turned smilingly to me.
"Uncle Zeb taught me a jig when I was a wee thing in pinafores. He will never play for me unless I dance for him. You know he thinks I am still a child of eight or ten. If you think it's not—real nice, I won't ask you to stay."
The roguish upcasting of starry eyes, and the deprecating little manner, tied my tongue for the instant.
"I shall be glad to stay, if you will permit me."
This much I managed to utter, and as she bowed assent, I went and leaned against the cabin wall, by the side of Uncle Zeb. This was done partly to give her all the room she needed, and partly to secure a support for myself, for a strange weakness had begun to assail my limbs.
There was an eager, anticipative move on the part of the negroes. They nudged each other, and whispered, grinned broadly, and shifted their positions to where they could obtain an unobstructed view. Salome stood bareheaded, with arms akimbo, waiting for the music. The travelling suit had been discarded, and she was dressed in a simple blue dimity frock which showed the perfect curves of her figure to charming advantage. Uncle Zeb, with characteristic leisure, was in no hurry to begin. He twisted the screws and thrummed the strings in a very wise manner. At length the instrument was tuned to his satisfaction, and then his claw-like fingers began to move with astonishing rapidity. I looked at Salome. She was standing perfectly still. Then, as the music quickened, I saw her supple body begin to sway, like a lily's stem when a zephyr breathes upon it. Her hands dropped to her sides, and daintily lifting her gown above her feet, she began to dance. Gently at first, and with such ease that she barely moved. Then the step receded, advanced, and grew faster. Her tiny feet twinkled, and tapped the earth in perfect time and rhythm. Such living grace I had never looked upon! The bending form, the flushed face, and the dancing feet, the grouped negroes and the old musician,—the picture was burned into my memory like painting is burned upon china in a kiln. My breath came quicker, and my face grew hot. I scarcely knew when she stopped, but for the wild cheers of the spectators. Then, flushed and laughing, she came and cast herself upon the bench by Uncle Zeb.
"Yo' do it better eb'ry time, chile!" declared the old fellow, highly delighted that she had danced to his playing.
"And you gave it better than ever before! Did I shock you, Mr. Stone?" She turned to me with a look of deep contrition.
I sat down beside her, and spoke my mind.
"I never saw anything like it. But don't fear that you shocked me. I wish that I could see the same thing every evening."
"You're good not to mind it. Mother and father think it sweet, and I dance for them sometimes. Now, if you don't mind, we will go back. I'm a little tired to-night from my journey. Good-night, Uncle Zeb," she patted the old man's hand. "Good-night, Lindy, Jane, Dinah, Sambo, Tom—all of you!" She waved her hand, and, to a chorus of answering good-nights, we moved away.
The grandfather's clock which stood in the hall struck twelve. My eyes seemed loath to close in sleep. It is true I had not gone to bed till half-past eleven, but usually Sleep sat upon my pillow, and proceeded to blindfold me a few minutes after my going to bed. To-night, upon reaching my room, I had read and smoked, and smoked and read, until my nerves had been brought back to their normal state. It fretted me not a trifle to know that a girl from boarding-school had upset me. But the ingenuous frankness of this young being, the unaffectedness which waited upon her every movement, had wrought such demolition to my theories that I was slow in recovering my equipoise of thought. At length I strolled through a mazy vista to oblivion, surrounded by a dancing throng of seraphs.
My rest was untroubled, and when I threw open my window-shutter the next morning, and gazed out with sleep-blurred eyes, my first impression was that things had become topsy-turvy, and that a soft sky studded with stars lay before me. But as reason swiftly dominated my brain, I saw that instead of the phenomenon which had at first seemed apparent, there was only the bluegrass lawn thickly sown with dandelions, as though some prodigal Croesus had strown his wealth of gold broadcast. Perhaps the lowly, modest yellow flowers were but imitating the glittering orbs which had looked down upon them throughout the night—who knows? For is not reasoning man oftentimes just as vain, when he seeks to clothe himself with a majesty which is not for mortals?
For several days I adhered to the plans which I had laid out before the coming of Salome. I rode with the master about the farm, took my solitary walks with Fido, as usual, and spent most of each evening in my room, alone. If left to the dictates of my own will, there is no telling how long this would have continued. But one morning, at breakfast, my host surprised me with the words:
"Stone, you remember the old St. Rose church you spoke of? It's worth looking at, but the Lord knows when I'll have a chance to go with you. S'lome's a great favorite with the sisters over at St. Catherine's, which is about a half mile from St. Rose, and I heard her tell mother yesterday that she was going to ride over to pay her respects this morning. Me and my folks are Presbyterians, but nearly all of our neighbors are Catholics, and good people, and we like them. Now if you'd like to go 'long, I don't s'pect S'lome'd mind showin' you 'bout the place."
He looked at the daintily clad figure at my side with an interrogative smile.
"It would be a great favor to me," I put in hastily. "I had been thinking of late I would have to go alone, but if Miss Salome would not object, I should be pleased to go with her."
"Of course you may," she answered readily. "I love both places very much, and the sisters are so sweet. Sister Hyacintha is my favorite,—a dear old nun with the face of a saint. Do you like old-timey, quiet places, Mr. Stone? St. Rose church is perhaps the oldest building in the county. St. Catherine's is not half a mile from it, and the sisters conduct a boarding-school there. Had I been a Catholic, I doubtless would have received my education at that place."
I quickly assured her that I looked forward with much pleasure to our little trip, and asked her if we were to go horseback, or in the carriage.
"Oh, horseback!" she exclaimed, with the delight of a child. "I believe you are a good horseman," she added archly.
"Only fair," I responded, smiling. "Still I would much prefer to go that way. I enjoy the exercise so much."
And so it was arranged. I had no dress for this sort of thing, and I felt a trifle out of place when she joined me on the porch arrayed in a complete riding habit of black. From her gauntlets to her silver-handled whip, her attire was complete. I flushed.
"You know I am not accustomed to riding—will you pardon my appearance?"
"It makes no difference whatever!" She laughed merrily. "The feathers don't make the bird, and I am perfectly satisfied."
My mount was the same animal I had been used to, and the horse which had been led out for her was a wiry, dapple-gray mare of impatient blood. I knew the correct thing to do, and while I feared that I could not perform the service successfully, I determined to try. So as she walked towards the fretful mare which a negro was with difficulty restraining, I stepped forward, doffed my hat, and with "Permit me, Miss Salome," I bent, and hollowed my hand for the reception of her foot. With the naturalness and grace of a queen she placed the sole upon my palm, and I lifted her to the spring as though she had been a feather, and she sank into the saddle and grasped the reins, which she proceeded to draw taut with no uncertain hold. With my cheeks burning slightly—I was not used to waiting upon women—I sought my saddle, and we cantered away.
How well the poet knew when he sang—
"What is so rare as a day in June?"
The bright morning sun blessed us with a benison of light; the sweet, cool, scented air laid its thousand tiny hands lightly upon our faces, and the green stretches of country all around us spoke of an earthly paradise. For a while we said nothing, for that sorceress, June, had thrown her web about us, and we were moving as through the vistas of a dream. Once I glanced at my companion, and I saw such a peaceful, happy, yet thoroughly unconscious look upon her face that I stayed the casual remark upon my tongue which I felt that courtesy required. Then it dawned upon me with the suddenness of a revelation that her nature was attuned to mine, and all at once I knew that the sylvan sounds and scenes which were the delight of my soul were as manna to hers as well. And I had shunned her!
"I fear you will think me a poor escort," she said at length, smiling at me with a trace of sadness. "But I have been away so long, and all these meadows, and trees, and brooks are friends—you don't know how I love them. I have lived with them and in them since I could walk, and it is like seeing dear ones in the flesh to come back and be with them, and hold silent communion with them. Does this sound strange to you?"
"No." And yet I looked at her half perplexedly. My idols were being shattered one by one. "No, it is not strange to me that such feelings exist, for they are my own. That was why I sought this old-fashioned Kentucky home. I lived in Louisville until I came here, and my soul was being crushed out of me between four brick walls. I have been happy here; I did not know what happiness was until I came here—except that derived from books. But that sort of happiness you feel; this sort you live, and your being is broadened by it. But you—I confess it sounds strange to me to hear you say such things."
"Why should I not know them as well as you? My opportunities have been greater."
"I don't know; I have no reason to give. In my ignorance and selfishness I had thought that I was alone in this; that no one could listen to Nature's secrets but myself. I have been wrong, and I am glad that I have been undeceived."
The congeniality which became quickly established between us made our seven-mile ride very short. Our horses were in good mettle, and the road was fine. Before I knew where we were, we turned into a by-road bordered by locust trees, and cantered down to St. Catherine's Academy. The lawn before the three-story brick building was beautifully kept. I hitched our horses, and as we strolled up the pavement towards the entrance, I saw two or three figures moving about the premises, clad in the becoming black-and-white garb of the order. Presently one sister espied us, and immediately started our way. She was very old, and moved with slow, short steps. Salome ran to her with a little cry of joy, bent down and kissed the wrinkled face, and, as I came up, introduced me to Sister Hyacintha. I shall never forget the patient, joyful, almost heavenly look on the face of this good woman. She led us to the porch, and gave us chairs, and she and Salome talked, while I listened. As it was nearing the noon hour, we were prevailed upon to stay and take lunch. In the afternoon we were shown through the building, and took a walk over the grounds. Time slipped by stealthily, and the sun was hovering above the western horizon when Salome remembered that St. Rose was yet to be seen.
A short ride over a narrow dirt road winding through masses of verdure brought us to the confines of the old church, which, perched upon a hill, reared its turret aloft in the purple air. I fastened our horses to some of the numerous hitching-posts placed along the roadside for the use of worshippers, and we turned to the iron gate leading into the premises. As this clanged behind us we both felt keenly the jar it created, for everything was so still and peaceful that the slightest noise was irrelevant, and we felt bound to talk in whispers. We found ourselves upon a gravel walk bordered by cedars; to our left was the road, to our right the white stones of a vast burying ground rose up like spectral sentinels of the tomb.