THE REDEMPTION OF DAVID CORSON
CHARLES FREDERIC GOSS
The Bowen-Merrill Company
To my friend William Harvey Anderson
I. This Other Eden II. And Satan Came Also III. The Egyptians IV. The Woman V. The Light That Lies VI. The Trail of the Serpent VII. The Chance Word VIII. A Broken Reed IX. Where Paths Converge X. A Poisoned Spring XI. The Flesh and the Devil XII. The Moth and the Flame XIII. Found Wanting XIV. Turned Tempter XV. The Snare of the Fowler XVI. The Derelicts XVII. The Shadow of Death XVIII. A Fugitive and a Vagabond XIX. Alienation XX. The Inevitable Hour XXI. A Signal in the Night XXII. Heart Hunger XXIII. Where I Might Find Him XXIV. Safe Haven XXV. The Little Lad XXVI. Out of the Shadow XXVII. If Thine Enemy Hunger XXVIII. A Man Crossed With Adversity XXIX. As a Tale That is Told XXX. Out of the Jaws of Death XXXI. The Great Refusal XXXII. The End of Exile XXXIII. A Self-imposed Expiation XXXIV. Fasting in the Wilderness XXXV. A Forest Idyl XXXVI. The Supreme Test XXXVII. Paradise Regained
THIS OTHER EDEN
"This other Eden, demi-paradise, this fortress built by nature." —Richard II.
Hidden away in this worn and care-encumbered world, scarred with its frequent traces of a primeval curse, are spots so quiet and beautiful as to make the fall of man seem incredible, and awaken in the breast of the weary traveler who comes suddenly upon them, a vague and dear delusion that he has stumbled into Paradise.
Such an Eden existed in the extreme western part of Ohio in the spring of eighteen hundred and forty-nine. It was a valley surrounded by wooded hills and threaded by a noisy brook which hastily made its way, as if upon some errand of immense importance, down to the big Miami not many miles distant. A road cut through a vast and solemn forest led into the valley, and entering as if by a corridor and through the open portal of a temple, the traveler saw a white farm-house nestling beneath a mighty hackberry tree whose wide-reaching arms sheltered it from summer sun and winter wind. A deep, wide lawn of bluegrass lay in front, and a garden of flowers, fragrant and brilliant, on its southern side. Stretching away into the background was the farm newly carved out of the wilderness, but already in a high state of cultivation. All those influences which stir the deepest emotion of the heart were silently operating here—quiet, order, beauty, power, life. It affected one to enter it unprepared in much the same way, only with a greater variety and richness of emotion, as to push through dense brush and suddenly behold a mountain lake upon whose bosom there is not so much as a ripple, and in whose silver mirror surrounding forests, flying water-fowl and the bright disk of the sun are perfectly reflected.
In this lovely valley, at the close of a long, odorous, sun-drenched day in early May, the sacred silence was broken by a raucous blast from that most unmusical of instruments, a tin dinner horn. It was blown by a bare-legged country boy who seemed to take delight in this profanation. By his side, in the vine-clad porch of the white farm-house stood a woman who shaded her eyes with her hand as she looked toward a vague object in a distant meadow. She was no longer young, but had exchanged the exquisite beauty of youth for the finer and more impressive beauty of maturity. As the light of the setting sun fell full upon her face it seemed almost transparent, and even the unobserving must have perceived that some deep experience of the sadness of life had added to her character an indescribable charm.
"Thee will have to go and call him, Stephen, for I think he has fallen into another trance," the woman said, in a low voice in which there was not a trace of impatience, although the evening meal was waiting and the pressing work of the household had been long delayed.
The child threw down his dinner horn, whistled to his dog and started. Springing up from where he had been watching every expression of his master's face, the shaggy collie bounded around him as he moved across the lawn, while the woman watched them with a proud and happy smile. They had scarcely entered the long lane leading to the pasture, when a woodchuck shambled out of the corner of the fence and ran lumbering into his burrow. Rushing excitedly after him the child clapped his hands and shouted: "Dig him out! Dig him out, Shep!" Tearing up the ground with his paws and thrusting his head down into the subterranean chamber, the obedient collie yelped and whined. Then backing out and plunging in once more, he yelped and whined again. The hole was too deep or the time too short and the boy became discouraged. Moving reluctantly away he chidingly summoned his companion to follow him. The dog, humiliated by his failure, obeyed, and sheepishly licked his mouth with his long, red tongue.
By this time the sun's disk had sunk behind the hills, its trailing glory lingering above their summits while slowly in the sky faded continents, mountains and spires. The day had died regretfully upon a couch o'erhung with gorgeous canopies, and the ensanguined bier still seemed to tremble with his last sigh. Birds in the tops of trees and crickets beneath the sod were giving expression to the emotions of the sad heart of the great earth in melancholy evening songs. The odors of peach and apple blossoms, wafted by gentle breezes from distant orchards, made the valley fragrant as an oriental garden. The soothing influence of the approaching night subdued the effervescent spirits of the lad, and he began to walk softly, as do nuns in the aisles of dim cathedrals or deer in the pathways of the moonlit forest. These few moments between twilight and dark are pregnant with a mysterious holiness and it is doubtful if the worst of men could find the courage to commit a crime while they endure.
Unutterable and incomprehensible emotions were awakened in the soul of the boy by the stillness and beauty of the evening world. His senses were not yet dulled nor his feelings jaded. Through every avenue of his intelligence the mystery of the universe stole into his sensitive spirit. If a breeze blew across the meadow he turned his cheek to its kiss; if the odor of spearmint from the brookside was wafted around him he breathed it into his nostrils with delight. He saw the shadow of a crow flying across the field and stopped to look up and listen for the swish of her wings and her loud, hoarse caw as she made her way to the nesting grounds; then he gazed beyond her, into the fathomless depths of the blue sky, and his soul was stirred with an indescribable awe. Everything filled him with surprise, with wonder and with ecstasy,—the glowing sky above the western hills, the new pale crescent of the silver moon, the heavy-laden honey bees eagerly hastening home, the long shadows lying across his path, the trees with branches swaying in the evening breeze, the cows with bursting udders lowing at the bars.
But it was not so much the objects themselves as the spirit pervading them, which stirred the depths of the child's mind. The little pantheist saw God everywhere. We bestow the gift of language upon a child, but the feelings which that language serves only to interpret and express exist and glow within him even if he be dumb. And this gift of language is often of questionable value, and had been so with him. Things he had heard said about God often made the boy hate Him. All that he felt, filled him with love. To him the valley was heaven, and through it invisibly but unmistakably God walked, morning, noon and evening.
To the child sauntering dreamily and wistfully along, the object dimly seen from the farm-house door began gradually to dissolve itself into a group of living beings. Two horses were attached to a plow; one standing in the lush grass of the meadow, and the other in a deep furrow traced across its surface. The first, an old gray mare, was breathing heavily, her sides expanding and contracting like a bellows. Her wide nostrils opened and closed with spasmodic motions. Her eyes were shut and she seemed to be asleep. The other, a young and slender filly doing this season the first real service of her life, pawed the ground restlessly, snorted, shook her mane, rattled the harness chains and looked angrily over her shoulder at the driver. The plowshare was buried deep in the rich, alluvial soil, and a ribbon of earth rolled from its blade like a petrified sea billow, crested with a cluster of daisies white as the foam of a wave.
Between the handles of the plow and leaning on the crossbar, his back to the horses, stood a young Quaker. His broad-brimmed hat, set carelessly on the back of his head, disclosed a wide, high forehead; his flannel shirt, open at the throat, exposed a strong, columnar neck, and a deep, broad chest; his sunburned and muscular arms were folded across his breast; figure and posture revealed the perfect concord of body and soul with the beauty of the world; his great blue eyes were fixed upon the notch in the hills where the sun had just disappeared; he gazed without seeing and felt without thinking.
The boy approached this statuesque figure with a stealthy tread, and plucking a long spear of grass tickled the bronzed neck. The hand of the plowman moved automatically upward as if to brush away a fly, and at this unconscious action the child, seized by a convulsion of laughter and fearing lest it explode, stuffed his fists into his mouth. In the opinion of this irreverent young skeptic his Uncle Dave was in a "tantrum" instead of a "trance," and he thought such a disease demanded heroic treatment.
For several years this Quaker youth had been the subject of remarkable emotional experiences, in explanation of which the rude wits of the village declared that he had been moon-struck; the young girls who adored his beauty thought he was in love, and the venerable fathers and mothers of this religious community believed that in him the scriptural prophecy, "Your young men shall see visions," had been literally fulfilled. David Corson himself accepted the last explanation with unquestioning faith. He no more doubted the existence of a spiritual than of a material universe. He did not even conceive of their having well-defined boundaries, but seemed to himself to pass from one to the other as easily as across the lines of adjoining farms. In this respect he resembled many a normal youth, except that this impression had lingered with him a little longer than was usual; for faith is always instinctive, while skepticism is the result of experience and reflection. Having as yet only wandered around the edges of the sacred groves of wisdom where these pitiless teachers break the sweet shackles of their pupils, he still thought the thoughts of childhood and instinctively obeyed the injunction of Emerson, to "reverence the dreams of our youth," and the admonition of Richter, that "when we cease to do so, then dies the man in us." Whatever might have been the real nature of these emotional experiences, no one doubted that they possessed a genuine reality of some kind or other, for it was a matter of history in this little community that David Corson had often exercised prophetic, mesmeric and therapeutic powers.
The life of this young man had been pure and uneventful. Existence in this frontier region, once full of the tragedy of Indian warfare, had been gradually softened by peace and religion. The passions slowly kindling in the struggle over slavery had not yet burst into flame, and this particular valley was even more quiet than others because it had been settled by a colony of Quakers. Into it the rude noises of the great outside world floated only in softened echoes, and what knowledge young Corson had acquired of that vague and shadowy realm had come mainly through traveling preachers, and this, because of their simplicity and unworldliness, was not unlike hearing the crash of arms through silken portieres or seeing the flash of lightning through the stained-glass windows of a cathedral. In such a sequestered region books and papers were scarce, and he had access only to a few volumes written by quietists and mystics, and to that great mine of sacred literature, the Holy Bible. The seeds of knowledge sown by these books in the rich soil of this young heart were fertilized by the society of noble men, virtuous women, and natural surroundings of exquisite beauty.
But however limited his knowledge of men and affairs, the young mystic had acquired an extraordinary familiarity with the operations of the divine life which animates the universe. He seemed to have found the pass-key to nature's mysteries, and to have acquired a language by which he could communicate with all her creatures. He knew where the rabbits burrowed, where the partridges nested, and where the wild bees stored their honey. He could foretell storms by a thousand signs, possessed the homing instinct of the pigeons, knew where the first violets were to be found, and where the last golden-rod would bloom. The squirrels crept down the trunks of trees to nibble the crumbs which he scattered for them. He could fold up his hands like a cup and at his whistle birds would drop into them as into a nest. His was a beautiful soul, and what Novalis said of Spinoza might have been said of him, "he was a God-intoxicated man." He was in that blissful period of existence when the interpretations of life imparted to him by his elders solved the few simple problems of thought and action pressed upon him by his environment. He had never seriously questioned any of the ideas received from his instructors. He was often conscious of the infinite mystery lying beyond his ken, but never of those frightful inconsistencies and contradictions in nature and life by which the soul is sooner or later paralyzed or at least bewildered.
And so his outlook upon the universe was serene and untroubled. As he stood there in the deepening twilight he differed from the child who had approached him in this, that while the boy reveled in the beauty around him because he did not try to comprehend it, the youth was intoxicated by the belief that he possessed the clue to all these mysteries, and had a working theory of all the phenomena in the natural and spiritual world in which he moved. To such mystical natures this confidence is unavoidable anywhere through the period of the pride of adolescence; but it was heightened in this case by the simplicity of life's problems in this narrow valley, and in the provincial little village which was the metropolis of this sparsely settled region. To him "the cackle of that bourg was the murmur of the world," and his theories of a life lacking the complexities of larger aggregations of men seemed adequate, because he had never seen them thoroughly tested, to meet every emergency arising for reflection or endeavor. In this mental attitude of serene and undisturbed confidence that he knew the real meaning of existence, and was in constant contact with the divine mind through knowledge or through vision, every avenue of his spirit was open to the influences of nature. Through all that gorgeous day of May he had been drawing these influences into his being as the vegetation drew in light and moisture, until his soul was drenched through and through, and at that perfect hour of dusk, when the flowers and grasses exhaled the gifts they had received from heaven and earth in a richer, finer perfume like an evening oblation, the young dreamer was also rendering back those gifts bestowed by heaven in an incense of purest thought and aspiration. It was one of those hours that come occasionally in that sublime period of unshattered ideals and unsullied faith, for which Pharaoh and Caesar would have exchanged their thrones, Croesus and Lucullus bartered their wealth, Solomon and Aristotle forgotten their learning.
Every imaginative youth who has been reared in pure surroundings experiences over again in these rare and radiant hours all the bliss that Adam knew in Eden. To his joyous, eager spirit, the world appears a new creation fresh from the hand of God. He hears its author walking in the garden at eventide, and murmuring: "Behold it is very good." A single element of disquietude, a solitary, vague unrest disturbs him. He awaits his Eve with longing, but has no dread of the serpent.
At sight of this young man the most superficial observer would have paused to take a second look; an artist would have instinctively seized his pencil or his brush; a scientist would have paused to inquire what mysterious influences could have produced so finely proportioned a nature; a philosopher to wonder what would become of him in some sudden and powerful temptation.
None of these reflections disturbed the mind of the barefooted boy. Having suppressed his laughter, he tickled the sunburnt neck again. Once more the hand rose automatically, and once more the boy was almost strangled with delight. The dreamer was hard to awaken, but his tormentor had not yet exhausted his resources. No genuine boy is ever without that fundamental necessity of childhood, a pin, and finding one somewhere about his clothing, he thrust it into the leg of the plowman. The sudden sting brought the soaring saint from heaven to earth. In an instant the mystic was a man, and a strong one, too. He seized the unsanctified young reprobate with one hand and hoisted him at arm's length above his head.
"Oh, Uncle Dave, I'll never do it again! Never! Never! Let me down."
Still holding him aloft as a hunter would hold a falcon, the reincarnated "spirit" laughed long, loud and merrily, the echoes of his laughter ringing up the valley like a peal from a chime of bells. The child's fear was needless, for the heart and hands that dealt with him were as gentle as a woman's. The youth, resembling some old Norse god as he stood there in the gathering gloom, lowered the child slowly, and printing a kiss on his cheek, said:
"Thee little pest, thee has no reverence! Thee should never disturb a child at his play, a bird on his nest nor a man at his prayers."
"But thee was not praying, Uncle Dave," the boy replied. "Thee was only in another of thy tantrums. The supper has grown cold, the horses are tired and Shep and I have walked a mile to call thee. Grandmother said thee had a trance. Tell me what thee has seen in thy visions, Uncle Dave?"
"God and His angels," said the young mystic softly, falling again into the mood from which he had been so rudely awakened.
"Angels!" scoffed the young materialist. "If thee was thinking of any angel at all, I will bet thee it was Dorothy Fraser."
"Tush, child, do not be silly," replied the convicted culprit. For it was easier than he would care to admit to mingle visions of beauty with those of holiness.
"I am not silly. Thee would not dare say thee was not thinking of her. She thinks of thee."
"How does thee know?"
"Because she gives me bread and jam if I so much as mention thy name."
This did not offend the young plowman, to judge by the expression of his face; but he said nothing, and, stooping down, loosened the chains of the whiffletree and turned the faces of the tired horses homeward. The cavalcade moved on in silence for a few moments, but nothing can repress the chatter of a boy, and presently he began again.
"Uncle Dave, was it really up this very valley that Mad Anthony Wayne marched with his brave soldiers?"
"This very valley."
"I wish I could have been with him."
"It is an evil wish. Thee is a child of peace. Thy father and thy father's fathers have denied the right of men to war. Thee ought to be like them, and love the things that make for peace."
"Well, if I can not wish for war, I will wish that a runaway slave would dash up this valley with a pack of bloodhounds at his heels. Oh, Uncle Dave, tell me that story about thy hiding a negro in the haystack, and choking the bloodhounds with thine own hands."
"I have told thee a hundred times."
"But I want to hear it again."
"Use thy memory and thy imagination."
"Oh, no, please tell me. I like to hear some one tell something."
"Thee does? Then listen to the whip-poor-will, the cricket or the brook."
"I hear them, but I do not know what they say. Tell me."
"Tell thee! No one can tell thee, child, if thee can not understand for thyself. The message differs for the hearers, and the difference is in the ear and not the sound."
They both paused for a moment, and listened to those soothing lullabies with which nature sings the world to sleep. So powerful was the tide that floated the mystic out on the ocean of dreams, he would have drifted away again if the child had not suddenly recalled him.
"I can not make out what they say," he cried, "and anyhow there is no time to try. Come, let us go. Everybody is waiting for us."
"Thee is right," answered his uncle. "Go and let down the bars and we will hurry home."
The child, bounding forward, did as he was told, and the tired procession entered the barnyard. The plowman fed his horses, and stopped to listen for a moment to their deep-drawn sighs of contentment, and to the musical grinding of the oats in their teeth. His imaginative mind read his own thoughts into everything, and he believed that he could distinguish in these inarticulate sounds the words, "Good-night. Good-night."
"Good-night," he said, and stroking their great flanks with his kind hand, left them to their well-earned repose. On his way to the house he stopped to bathe his face in the waters of a spring brook that ran across the yard, and then entered the kitchen where supper was spread.
"Thee is late," said the woman who had watched and waited, her fine face radiant with a smile of love and welcome.
"Forgive me, mother," he replied. "I have had another vision."
"I thought as much. Thee must remember what thee has seen, my son," she said, "for all that thee beholds with the outer eye shall pass away, while what thee sees with the inner eye abides forever. And had thee a message, too?"
"It was delivered to me that on the holy Sabbath day I should go to the camp in Baxter's clearing and preach to the lumbermen."
"Then thee must go, my son."
"I will," he answered, taking her hand affectionately, but with Quaker restraint, and leading her to the table.
The family, consisting of the mother, an adopted daughter Dorothea, the daughter's husband Jacob and son Stephen, sat down to a simple but bountiful supper, during which and late into the evening the young mystic pondered the vision which he believed himself to have seen, and the message which he believed himself to have heard. In his musings there was not a tremor or a doubt; he would have as soon questioned the reality of the old farm-house and the faces of the family gathered about the table. Of the susceptibility of the nerves to morbid activity, or the powers of the overdriven brain to objectify its concepts, he had never even dreamed. He was a credulous and unsophisticated youth, dwelling in a realm of imagination rather than in a world of reality and law. He had much to learn. His education was about to begin, and to begin as does all true and effective education, in a spiritual temptation. The Ghebers say that when their great prophet Ahriman was thrown into the fire by the order of Nimrod, the flames into which he fell turned into a bed of roses, upon which he peacefully reclined. This innocent Quaker youth had been reclining upon a bed of roses which now began to turn into a couch of flames.
AND SATAN CAME ALSO
"It is the little rift within the lute That by and by will make the music mute, And ever widening slowly silence all."
At the moment when Stephen was sounding the horn to summon the young mystic to his supper, a promiscuous crowd of loafers with chairs tilted against the wall of the village tavern received a shock.
They heard the tinkle of bells in the distance, and looking in the direction of this unusual sound, saw a team of splendid coal-black horses dash round a corner and whirl a strange vehicle to the door of the inn.
There were two extraordinary figures on the front seat of the wagon. The driver was a sturdy, thick-set man whose remarkable personal appearance was fixed instantly and ineradicably in the mind of the beholder by an enormous moustache whose shape, size and color suggested a crow with outstretched wings. As if to emphasize the ferocious aspect lent him by this hairy canopy which completely concealed his mouth, Nature had duplicated it in miniature by brows meeting above his nose and spreading themselves, plume-like, over a pair of eyes which gleamed so brightly that they could be felt, altho' they were so deep-set that they could scarcely be seen.
This fierce and buccaneerish person summoned the dozing hostler in a coarse, imperative voice, flung him the reins, sprang from his seat, and assisted his companion to alight. She gave him her hand with an air of utter indifference, bestowed upon him neither smile nor thanks, and dropped to the ground with a light flutter like a bird. Turning instantly toward the tavern, she ascended the steps of the porch under a fusillade of glances of astonishment and admiration. Young and beautiful, dressed in a picturesque and brilliant Spanish costume, she carried herself with the ease and dignity of a princess, and looked straight past, or rather through the staring crowd, fastened like inverted brackets to the tavern wall. Her great, dreamy eyes did not seem to note them.
When she and her companion had entered the hall and closed the door behind them, every tilted chair came down to the floor with a bang, and many voices exclaimed in concert, "Who the devil is she?" Curiosity was satisfied at eight o'clock in the evening, for at that hour Doctor Paracelsus Aesculapius, as he fantastically called himself, opened the doors of his traveling apothecary shop and exposed his "universal panacea" for sale, while at the same time, "Pepeeta, the Queen of Fortune Tellers," entered her booth and spread out upon a table the paraphernalia by which she undertook to discover the secrets of the future.
When the evening's work was ended, Pepeeta at once retired; but the doctor entered the bar-room, followed by a curious and admiring crowd. He was in a happy and expansive frame of mind, for he had done a "land office" business in this frontier village which he was now for the first time visiting.
"Have a drink, b-b-boys?" he asked, looking over the crowd with an air of superiority and waving his hand with an inclusive gesture. The motley throng of loafers sidled up to the bar with a deprecatory and automatic movement. They took their glasses, clinked them, nodded to their entertainer, muttered incoherent toasts and drank his health. The delighted landlord, feeling it incumbent upon him to break the silence, offered the friendly observation: "S-s-see you s-s-stutter. S-s-stutter a little m-m-my own self."
"Shake!" responded the doctor, who was in too complacent a mood to take offence, and the worthies grasped hands.
"Don't know any w-w-way to s-s-stop it, do you?" asked the landlord.
"No, I d-d-don't; t-t-tried everything. Even my 'universal p-p-panacea' won't do it, and what that can't do can't be d-d-done. Incurable d-d-disease. Get along all right when I go slow like this; but when I open the throttle, get all b-b-balled up. Bad thing for my business. Give any man a thousand d-d-dollars that'll cure me," the quack replied, slapping his trousers pocket as if there were millions in it.
"Co-co-couldn't go q-q-quite as high as that; but wouldn't mind a hu-hu-hundred," responded the landlord cordially.
"Ever hear the story about the landlord's troubles in the Mexican war?" asked one of the by-standers turning to the quack.
"Tell it," he responded laconically.
Several members of the group looked at each other and exchanged significant winks as the narrator began his tale.
"They made him sergeant of a company, but had to reduce him to the ranks, because when he was drilling the boys one day they all marched into the river and got drowned before he could say h-h-halt."
The doctor laughed and the others joined him out of courtesy, for the story was worn threadbare in the bar-room.
"Tell about his going on picket duty," suggested some one.
"Captain ordered him out on the line," said the first speaker, "and he refused. 'T-t-tain't no use,' says he.
"'Why not?' says the captain.
"'C-c-cause,' says he, 'if some d-d-dirty Mexican g-g-greaser should c-c-come along, he'd run me through the g-g-gizzard before I could ask him for the c-c-countersign.'"
More tipsy laughter followed.
"Tell you what it is, b-b-boys," said the quack, growing communicative under the influence of the liquor and the fellowship, "if it wasn't for this b-b-blankety-blanketed impediment in my s-s-speech, I wouldn't need to work more'n about another y-y-year!"
"How's that?" asked someone in the crowd.
"C-c-cause if I could talk as well as I c-c-can think, I could make a fortune 'side of which old John Jacob Astor's would look like a p-p-penny savings b-b-bank!"
"You bet your sweet life I c-c-could. And I'm just keeping my eyes open for some young f-f-fellow to help me. For 'f I can find a man that can do the t-talking (I mean real talk, you know; talk a crowd blind as b-b-bats), I've got something better'n a California g-g-gold mine."
"Better get Dave Corson," said the village wag from the rear of the crowd, and up went a wild shout of laughter.
"Who's D-D-Dave Corson?" asked the doctor.
"Quaker preacher. Young feller 'bout twenty years old."
"Can he t-t-talk?"
"Talk! He kin talk a mule into a trottin' hoss in less'n three minutes."
"He's my man!" exclaimed the doctor, at which the crowd laughed again.
"What the d-d-deuce are you laughing at?" he asked, turning upon them savagely, his loud voice and threatening manner frightening those who stood nearest, so that they instinctively stepped back a pace or two.
"No offence, Doc," said one of them; "but you couldn't get him."
"Couldn't get him! Why couldn't I g-g-get him?"
"Pious! What do I care?"
"Well, these here pious Quakers are stiff in their notions. But you kin jedge fer yourself 'bout his talkin', fer there's goin' ter be an appinted Quaker meetin' to-morrow night, and he'll speak. You kin go an' listen, if you want to."
"I'll be there, boys, and d-d-don't you forget it. I'll hook him! Never saw anything I couldn't buy if I had a little of the p-p-proper stuff about me. Drink to my l-l-luck, boys, and watch me!"
The landlord filled their glasses once more, and low gurglings, smothered swallows, and loud smacking of lips filled the interim of interrupted conversation.
"I say, Doc, that daughter of yours knows her biz when it comes to telling fortunes," ventured a young dandy, whose head had been turned by Pepeeta's beauty.
"D-d-daughter!" snapped the quack, turning sharply upon him; "she's not my daughter, she's my wife!"
"Wife! Gosh! You don't say?" exclaimed the crestfallen dandy.
"Yes, wife! And I'll j-j-just warn any of you young f-f-fellers that if I catch you trying to p-p-plow with my heifer, you'll be food for buzzards before sun-up!"
He swept his eyes savagely round the circle as he spoke, and the subject dropped.
The conversation turned into other channels, and flowed in a maudlin, sluggish manner far into the night. Every member of the bibulous party was as happy as he knew how to be. The landlord's till was full of money, the loafers were full of liquor, and the doctor's heart was full of vanity and trust in himself.
"Steal! to be sure they may; and egad, serve your best thoughts as gypsies do stolen children,—disfigure them to make them pass for their own."
In order to comprehend the relationship of this strangely mated pair, we must go back five or six years to a certain day when this same Doctor Aesculapius rode slowly down the main street of a small city in Western Pennsylvania, and then out along a rugged country highway. A couple of miles brought him to the camp of a band of gypsies.
A thin column of smoke ascending from a fire which seemed almost too lazy to burn, curled slowly into the air.
Around this campfire was a picturesque group of persons, all of whom, with a single exception, vanished like a covey of quail at the approach of the stranger. The man who stood his ground was a truly sinister being. He was tall, thin and angular; his clothing was scant and ragged, his face bronzed with exposure to the sun. A thin moustache of straggling hairs served rather to exaggerate than to conceal the vicious expression of a hare-lipped mouth. He stood with his elbow in the palm of one hand and his chin in the other, while around his legs a pack of wolf-like dogs crawled and growled as the traveler drew near. Throwing himself lightly to the ground the intruder kicked the curs who sprang at him, and as the terrified pack went howling into the door of the tent, said cheerily.
The gypsy acknowledged his salutation with a frown.
"I wish to sell this horse," the traveler added, without appearing to notice his cold reception.
The gypsy swept his eye over the animal and shook his head.
"If you will not buy, perhaps you will trade," the traveler said.
"Come," was the laconic response, and so saying, the gypsy turned towards the forest which lay just beyond the camp. The "doctor" obeyed, and the dogs sneaked after him, still growling, but keeping a respectful distance. A moment later he found himself in a sequestered spot where there was an improvised stable; and a dozen or more horses glancing up from their feed whinnied a welcome.
"Look zem over," said the gypsy, again putting his elbow in his left hand and his chin in his right—a posture into which he always fell when in repose.
The quack, moving among the animals with an easy, familiarity, glanced them over quickly but carefully, and shook his head.
"What!" exclaimed the gypsy with well feigned surprise; "ze senor doez not zee ze horse he wanz?"
"Horses!" exclaimed the quack; "these are not horses. These are boneyards. Every one of them is as much worse than mine as mine is than the black stallion you stole in Pittsburg on the twenty-first day of last October."
"Worze zan yourz! It eez impozzeeble!" answered the gypsy, as if he had not heard the accusation. "Ziz horze ov yourz eez what you call a crow-zcare! Zhe eez two hunner year ol'. Her teeth are fell oud. Zhe haz ze zpavins. Zhe haz ze ringa bonze. But, senor," growing suddenly respectful, and spreading out his hands in open and persuasive gestures, "ere eez a horze zat eez a horze. Ee knowz more zan a man! Ee gan work een ze arnez, ee gan work een ze zaddle; ee gan drot; ee can gallop; ee gan bead ze winz!"
The gypsy had played his part well and concealed with consummate art whatever surprise he might have felt at the charge of theft. His attitude was free, his look was bold and his manner full of confidence.
The demeanor of the quack suddenly altered. From that of an easy nonchalance, it turned to savage determination.
"Baltasar," he said, his face white and hard; "let us stop our acting. Where is that stallion?"
"Whad ztallion?" asked the imperturbable gypsy, with an expression of child-like innocence.
"I will not even take time to tell you, but if you do not take me to him this instant there will be a dead gypsy in these woods," said the quack fiercely.
"Ze zdranger jesz!" the gypsy answered blandly, showing his teeth and spreading out the palms of his hands.
The quack reached into his bosom, drew forth a pistol, pointed it at the right eye of the gypsy, and said: "Look into the mouth of that and tell me whether you see a bullet lying in its throat!"
"I zink zat ze senor an' heez piztol are boz lying in zeir zroats," he answered with easy irony.
"Good! But I am not here to match wits with you. I want that horse, and lie or no lie, I will have it. Take me to it, or I swear I will blow out your brains as sure as they are made of bacon and baby flesh!"
The gypsy vouchsafed no reply, but turned on his heel and led the way into the forest.
After a walk of a hundred yards or more they came to a booth of boughs, through the loose sides of which could be seen a black stallion.
"Lead him out," said the doctor imperatively; and the gypsy obeyed.
The magnificent animal came forth snorting, pawing the ground and tossing his head in the air.
The eye of the quack kindled, and after regarding the noble creature for a moment in silent admiration he turned to the gypsy and said, "Baltasar, do not misunderstand me, I am neither an officer of the law nor in any other way a minister of justice. I have as few scruples as you as to how I get a horse; but we differ from each other in this, that if you were in my place you would take the horse without giving an equivalent. Now I am a man of mercy, and if you will ask a fair price you shall have it. But mark me! Do not overreach yourself and kill the goose that is about to lay the golden egg."
"Wat muz be, muz be," the gypsy answered, shrugging his shoulders as if in the presence of an inexorable fate, and added: "Ze brice iz zwo hunner and viftee dollars, wiz ze mare drown een."
Putting his pistol back into his pocket with an air of triumph, the doctor said: "There seems to be persuasive power in cold lead. Stretch forth your palm and I will cross it for you."
The gypsy did so, and into that tiger-like paw he counted the golden coin; at the musical clink of each piece the eye of the gypsy brightened, and when he closed his hand upon them and thrust them into his pocket his hair-lip curled with a cynical smile.
The stranger took the bridle and saddle from his mare, placed them on the stallion and mounted.
As they moved forward through the silent forest the gypsy sang softly to himself:
"The Romany chal to his horse did cry As he placed the bit in his jaw, Kosko gry, Romany gry, Muk, man, kuster, tute knaw."
He was still humming this weird tune when they emerged into the open fields, and there the traveler experienced a surprise.
A little rivulet lay across their path, and up from the margin of it where she had been gathering water cresses there sprang a young girl, who cast a startled glance at him, then bounded swiftly toward the tent and vanished through the opening.
Now it happened that this keen admirer of horses was equally susceptible to the charms of female beauty, and the loveliness of this young girl made his blood tingle. In her hand she carried a bunch of cresses still dripping with the water of the brook. A black bodice was drawn close to a figure which was just unfolding into womanhood. The color of this garment formed a striking contrast to a scarlet skirt which fell only a little below her knees. On her feet were low-cut shoes, fastened with rude silver buckles. A red kerchief had become untied and let loose a wave of black hair, which fell over her half bare shoulders. Her face was oval, her complexion olive, her eyes large, eager and lustrous.
All this the man who admired women even more than he admired horses, saw in the single instant before the girl dashed toward the tent and disappeared. So swift an apparition would have bewildered rather than illumined the mind of an ordinary man. But the quack was not an ordinary man. He was endowed with a certain rude power of divination which enabled him to see in a single instant, by swift intuition, more than the average man discovers by an hour of reasoning. By this natural clairvoyance he saw at a glance that this face of exquisite delicacy could no more have been coined in a gypsy camp than a fine cameo could be cut in an Indian wigwam. He knew that all gypsies were thieves, and that these were Spanish gypsies. What was more natural than that he should conclude with inevitable logic that this child had been stolen from people of good if not of noble blood!
He who had coveted the horse with desire, hungered for the maiden with passion; and with him, to feel an appetite, was to rush toward its gratification, as fire rushes upon tow.
"Baltasar!" he said.
The gypsy turned.
"You are a girl-thief as well as a horse-thief."
If the gypsy had felt astonished before, he was now terrified in the presence of a man who seemed to read his inmost thoughts; and for the first time in his life acknowledged to himself that he had met his master in cunning.
Bewildered as he was by this new charge, he still remembered that if speech was silver, silence was golden, and answered not a word.
"Baltasar," continued the strange man on horseback, rightly judging from the gypsy's confusion that he had hit the mark and determining to take another chance shot; "you stole this girl from the family of a Spanish nobleman. I am the representative of this family and have followed your trail for years. You thought I had come to get the horse. You were mistaken; it was the girl!"
"Perdita!" exclaimed the gypsy, taken completely off his guard.
"Lost indeed," responded the quack, scarcely able to conceal his pride in his own astuteness. And then he added slowly: "She must be a burden to you, Baltasar. You evidently never have been able or never have dared to take her back and claim the ransom which you expected. I will pay you for her and take her from your hands. It is the child I want and not vengeance."
"Ze Caballero muz be a Duquende (spirit)," gasped the gypsy.
"At any rate I want the child. You were reasonable about the horse. Be reasonable about her, and all will be well."
"Ze Caballero muz be made of gol'."
The horseman drew a silver coin from his pocket and flipped it into the waters of the brook.
The gypsy's face gleamed with avarice and springing into the water he began to scrape among the stones where it had fallen.
The stranger watched him for awhile with an expression of mingled amusement and contempt, and finally said: "Baltasar, I am in haste. You can search for that trifle after I am gone. Let us finish our business. What will you take for the girl?"
Still standing in the water, which he seemed reluctant to leave, he shrugged his shoulders and replied: "We muz azk Chicarona. Zhe eez my vife."
"And master?" asked the quack, smiling sardonically.
The gypsy did not answer, but, stepping from the brook and looking backward, reluctantly led the way to the tent.
"Chicarona! Chicarona!" he cried as they approached it.
The flap of the tent was thrown suddenly backward, and three figures emerged—a tall and stately woman, a little elfish child; and an old hag, wrinkled, toothless and bent with the weight of unrecorded years. The woman was the mother of the little child and the daughter of the old hag.
"Chicarona," said the gypsy, "ze Gacho az byed ze ztallion for zwo hunner an' viftee dollars, an' now he wanz to buy Pepeeta."
"Wad vor?" she asked.
"Berhabs he zinkz zhe eez a prinzez, I dunno," he answered, digging the toe of his bare foot nervously into the sand.
"Zen dell 'im zat he zhold not look vor ztrawberries in ze zea, nor red herring in ze wood," she said with a look of scorn.
The eyes of the stranger and the gypsy met. They confronted each other like two savage beasts who have met on a narrow path and are about to fight for its possession. It was not an unequal match. The man's eyes regarded the woman with a proud and masterful determination. The woman's seemed to burn their way into the inmost secrets of the man's soul.
Chicarona was a remarkable character. In her majestic personality, the virtues and the vices of the Spanish Gypsy fortune-teller were incarnate. The vices were legion; the virtues were two—the love of kindred, and physical chastity—the chastity of the soul itself being unknown.
"We are wasting time gazing at each other like two sheep in a pasture. Will you sell the girl?" the horseman asked, impatiently.
"I will nod!" she answered, with proud defiance.
"Then I will take her by force!"
"Ah! What could nod ze monkey do, if he were alzo ze lion!"
"I am the lion, and therefore I must have this lamb!"
"Muz? Say muz to ze clouds; to ze winz; to ze lightningz; but not to Chicarona!"
"If you do not agree to accept a fair offer for this girl, you will be in jail for kidnapping her in less than one hour!"
At this threat, the brilliant black eyes emitted a shower of angry sparks, and she exclaimed in derision, "Ze Buzno will dake us do brizon, ha! ha! ha!"
"Ze Buzno will dake us do brizon, hee! hee! hee!" giggled the little impish child who tugged at her skirts.
The old woman pressed forward and mumbled, "'Ol' oud your 'an', my pretty fellow. Crozz ze ol' gypsy's palm, and zhe will dell your fortune."
With every new refusal, the resolute stranger became still more determined. "Pearls are not to be had without a plunge," he murmured to himself, and dismounted.
Throwing the bridle of his horse over the limb of a tree, he approached the woman with a threatening gesture.
As he did so, the three female figures began to revolve around him in a circle, pointing their fingers at him and hissing like vipers. As the old woman passed before his face she threw a handful of snuff in his eyes—an act which has been, from time immemorial, the female gypsy's last resort.
Had he been less agile than he was, it would have proved a finishing stroke, but there are some animals that can never be caught asleep, or even napping, and he was one. He winked and dodged, and, quicker than a flash, brought the old crone a sharp cut across her knuckles with his riding whip.
As he did so, Baltasar sprang at his throat, but he once more drew his pistol and leveled it at the gypsy's head. His patience had been exhausted.
"Fool!" he cried, "Bring this woman to reason. This is a wild country, and a family of gypsies would be missed as little as a litter of blind puppies! Bring her to reason, I say, or I will murder every one of you!"
Once more shrugging those expressive shoulders which seemed to have a language of their own, the gypsy said "Chicarona, you do not luf ze leedle pindarri. Zell 'er to ze Buzno. Ee eez made of gol'."
As Baltasar uttered these words, he approached his wife and whispered something in her ear at which she started. Turning with a sudden motion to the stranger, she fixed her piercing eyes upon him and exclaimed, "You zay you know ze parenz of zis chil'?"
"How, then, did I know that you had stolen her?"
"You guezz zat! Any vool gan guezz zat! I zdole 'er, but who I zdole 'er vrom, you do not know any more zan you know why ze frogs zdop zinging when ze light zhines."
"Ah! You did steal her, did you? Why do gypsies steal children when they have so many of their own, and it is so easy to raise more, Chicarona?"
"Azk ze tiger why it zpringz, or ze lightning why it zdrikes! I will alzo azk ze Caballero a queztion. What doez he wan' wiz zis leedle gurrl?"
"To be a father to her!" he answered, with a sly wink at Baltasar.
"Alzo' I am dressed in wool, I am no sheep! Tell me," she cried, stamping her foot.
"Why should I tell secrets to one who can read the future?" he asked banteringly.
Chicarona's mood was changing. It was evident from her looks, either that she was defeated in the contest by this wily and resistless combatant or that she had succumbed to the temptation of his money.
"How much will you gif vor zis chil'?" she asked.
"One hundred dollars," he replied.
"One hunner dollars! You paid more zan twize as much vor ze horze! Eez nod a woman worth more zan a horze?"
"She will be, when she is a woman. She is a child now."
"Let me zee ze color of your money!"
He drew a leather wallet from his pocket and held it tantalizingly before her eyes.
Its influence was decisive upon her avaricious soul, and she clutched at it wildly.
"Put it into my han'!" she cried.
"Put Pepeeta into mine," he said.
"Pepeeta! Pepeeta!" she called.
"Pepeeta! Pepeeta!" shrilled the old crone.
Out of the door of the tent she came, her eyes fixed upon the ground, and her fingers picking nervously at the tinsel strings which fastened her bodice.
"Gif me ze money and take her," said Chicarona.
He counted out the gold, and then approached the child. For the first time in his life he experienced an emotion of reverence. There was something about her beauty, her helplessness and his responsibility that made a new appeal to his heart.
Yielding to the gentle pressure of his hand, she permitted herself to be led away. Not a goodbye was said. Chicarona's feeling toward her had been fast developing from jealousy into hatred as the child's beauty began to increase and attract attention. The others loved her, but dared not show it. Not a sign of regret was exhibited, except by the old crone, who approached her, gave her a stealthy caress, and secretly placed a crumpled parchment in her hand.
The Doctor lifted the child upon the horse's back and climbed into the saddle. As they turned into the highway, he heard Chicarona say, "Bring me my pajunda, Baltasar, and I will sing a grachalpa."
The beautiful child trembled, for the words were those of hatred and triumph. She trembled, but she also wept. She was parting from those whose lives were base and cruel; but they were the only human beings that she knew. She was leaving a wagon and a tent, but it was the only home that she could remember. In a vague and childish way, she felt herself to be the sport of mysterious powers, a little shuttlecock between the battledores of Fortune. Whatever her destiny was to be, there was no use in struggling, and so she sobbed softly and yielded to the inevitable. Her little hands were folded across her heart in an instinctive attitude of submission. Folded hands are not always resigned hands; but Pepeeta's were. She submitted thus quietly not because she was weak, but because she was strong, not because she was contemptible, but because she was noble. In proportion to the majesty of things, is the completeness of their obedience to the powers that are above them. Gravitation is obeyed less quietly by a grain of dust than by the rivers and planets. Those half-suppressed sobs and hardly restrained sighs would have softened a harder heart than that of this young man of thirty years. He was rude and unscrupulous, but he was not unkind. His breast was the abiding place of all other passions and it was not strange that the gentlest of all should reside within it, nor that it should have been so quickly aroused at the sight of such loveliness and such helplessness.
To have a fellow-being completely in our power makes us either utterly cruel or utterly kind, and all that was gentle in that great rough nature went out in a rush of tenderness toward the little creature who thus suddenly became absolutely dependent upon his compassion. After they had ridden a little way, he began in his rough fashion to try to comfort her.
"Don't cry, Pepeeta! You ought to be thankful that you have got out of the clutches of those villains. You could not have been worse off, and you may be a great deal better! They were not always kind to you, were they? I shouldn't wonder if they beat you sometimes! But you will never be beaten any more. You shall have a nice little pony, and a cart, and flowers, and pretty clothes, and everything that little girls like. I don't know what they are, but whatever they are you shall have them. So don't cry any more! What a pretty name Pepeeta is! It sounds like music when I say it. I have got the toughest name in the world myself. It's a regular jaw-breaker—Doctor Paracelsus Aesculapius! What do you think of that, Pepeeta! But then you need not call me by the whole of it! You can just call me Doctor, for short. Now, look at me just once, and give me a pretty smile. Let me see those big black eyes! No? You don't want to? Well, that's all right. I won't bother you. But I want you to know that I love you, and that you are never going to have any more trouble as long as you live."
These were the kindest words the child had ever had spoken to her, or at least the kindest she could remember. They fell on her ears like music and awakened gratitude and love in her heart. She ceased to sigh, and before the ride to town was ended had begun to feel a vague sense of happiness.
* * * * *
The next few years were full of strange adventures for these singular companions. The quack had discovered certain clues to the past history of the child whom he had thus adopted, and was firmly persuaded that she belonged to a noble family. He had made all his plans to take her to Spain and establish her identity in the hope of securing a great reward. But just as he was about to execute this scheme, he was seized by a disease which prostrated him for many months, and threw him into a nervous condition in which he contracted the habit of stammering. On his recovery from his long sickness he found himself stripped of everything he had accumulated; but his shrewdness and indomitable will remained, and he soon began to rebuild his shattered fortune.
During all these ups and downs, Pepeeta was his inseparable and devoted companion. The admiration which her childish beauty excited in his heart had deepened into affection and finally into love. When she reached the age of sixteen or seventeen years, he proposed to her the idea of marriage. She knew nothing of her own heart, and little about life, but had been accustomed to yield implicit obedience to his will. She consented and the ceremony was performed by a Justice of the Peace in the city of Cincinnati, a year or so before their appearance in the Quaker village. An experience so abnormal would have perverted, if not destroyed her nature, had it not contained the germs of beauty and virtue implanted at her birth. They were still dormant, but not dead; they only awaited the sun and rain of love to quicken them into life.
The quack had coarsened with the passing years, but Pepeeta, withdrawing into the sanctuary of her soul, living a life of vague dreams and half-conscious aspirations after something, she knew not what, had grown even more gentle and submissive. As she did not yet comprehend life, she did not protest against its injustice or its incongruity. The vulgar people among whom she lived, the vulgar scenes she saw, passed across the mirror of her soul without leaving permanent impressions. She performed the coarse duties of her life in a perfunctory manner. It was her body and not her soul, her will and not her heart which were concerned with them. What that soul and that heart really were, remained to be seen.
"One woman is fair, yet I am well; another is wise, yet I am well; but till all graces be in one woman, one woman shall not come in my grace."—Much Ado About Nothing.
True to his determination, the doctor devoted the night following his advent into the little frontier village to the investigation of the Quaker preacher's fitness for his use. He took Pepeeta with him, the older habitues of the tavern standing on the porch and smiling ironically as they started.
The meeting house was one of those conventional weather-boarded buildings with which all travelers in the western states are familiar. The rays of the tallow candles by which it was lighted were streaming feebly out into the night. The doors were open, and through them were passing meek-faced, soft-voiced and plain-robed worshipers.
The silhouettes of the men's broad hats and the women's poke bonnets, seen dimly against the pale light of the windows as they passed, plainly revealed their sect. The similarity of their garments almost obliterated the personal identity of the wearers.
The two strangers, so different in manners and dress, joined the straggling procession which crept slowly along the road and chatted to each other in undertones.
"What queer people," said Pepeeta.
"Beat the Dutch, and you know who the D-d-dutch beat!"
"What sort of a building is that they are going into?"
"That's a church."
"What is a church for?"
"Ask the marines! Never b-b-been in one more'n once or twice. G-g-g-guess they use 'em to p-p-pray in. Never pray, so never go."
"Why have you never taken me?"
"Why should I?"
"We go everywhere else, to theaters, to circuses, to races."
"Some sense in going there. Have f-f-fun!"
"Don't they have any fun in churches?"
"Fun! They think a man who laughs will go straight to the b-b-bow-wows!"
"What are they for, then, these churches?"
"For religion, I tell you."
"What is religion?"
"Don't you know?"
"Your education has been n-n-neglected."
"Tell me what it is!"
"D-d-d-don't ask so many questions! It is something for d-d-dead folks."
"How dark the building looks."
"Like a b-b-barn."
"How solemn the people seem."
"Like h-h-hoot owls."
"It scares me."
"Feel a little b-b-bit shaky myself; but it's too late to b-b-back out now. I'm going if they roast and eat me. If this f-f-feller can talk as they say he can, I am going to get hold of him, d-d-d-dead or alive. I'll have him if it takes a habeas c-c-corpus."
At this point of the conversation they arrived at the meeting-house. Keeping close together, Pepeeta light and graceful, the doctor heavy and awkward, both of them thoroughly embarrassed, they ascended the steps as a bear and gazelle might have walked the gang-plank into the ark. They entered unobserved save by a few of the younger people who were staring vacantly about the room, and took their seats on the last bench. The Quaker maidens who caught sight of Pepeeta were visibly excited and began to preen themselves as turtle doves might have done if a bird of paradise had suddenly flashed among them. One of them happened to be seated next her. She was dressed in quiet drabs and grays. Her face and person were pervaded and adorned by simplicity, meekness, devotion; and the contrast between the two was so striking as to render them both self-conscious and uneasy in each other's presence.
The visitors did not know at all what to expect in this unfamiliar place, but could not have been astonished or awed by anything else half so much as by the inexplicable silence which prevailed. If the whole assemblage had been dancing or turning somersaults, they would not have been surprised, but the few moments in which they thus sat looking stupidly at the people and then at each other seemed to them like a small eternity. Pepeeta's sensitive nature could ill endure such a strain, and she became nervous.
"Take me away," she imploringly whispered to the doctor, who sat by her side, ignorant of the custom which separated the sexes.
He tried to encourage her in a few half-suppressed words, took her trembling hand in his great paw, pressed it reassuringly, winked humorously, and then looked about him with a sardonic grin.
To Pepeeta's relief, the silence was at last broken by an old man who rose from his seat, reverently folded his hands, lifted his face to heaven, closed his eyes and began to speak. She had never until this moment listened to a prayer, and this address to an invisible Being wrought in her already agitated mind a confused and exciting effect; but the prayer was long, and gave her time to recover her self-control. The silence which followed its close was less painful because less strange than the other, and she permitted herself to glance about the room and to wonder what would happen next. Her curiosity was soon satisfied. David Corson, the young mystic, rose to his feet. He was dressed with exquisite neatness in that simple garb which lends to a noble person a peculiar and serious dignity. Standing for a moment before he began his address, he looked over the audience with the self-possession of an accomplished orator. The attention of every person in the room was at once arrested. They all recalled their wandering or preoccupied thoughts, lifted their bowed heads and fixed their eyes upon the commanding figure before them.
This general movement caused Pepeeta to turn, and she observed a sudden transformation on the countenance of the dove-like Quaker maiden. A flush mantled her pale cheek and a radiance beamed in her mild blue eyes. It was a tell-tale look, and Pepeeta, who divined its meaning, smiled sympathetically.
But the first word which fell from the lips of the speaker withdrew her attention from every other object, for his voice possessed a quality with which she was entirely unfamiliar. It would have charmed and fascinated the hearer, even if it had uttered incoherent words. For Pepeeta, it had another and a more mysterious value. It was the voice of her destiny, and rang in her soul like a bell. The speech of the young Quaker was a simple and unadorned message of the love of God to men, and of their power to respond to the Divine call. The thoughts to which he gave expression were not original, but simply distillations from the words of Madam Guyon, Fenelon, Thomas a Kempis and St. John; and yet they were not mere repetitions, for they were permeated by the freshness and the beauty of his own pure feelings.
"We are all," said he, "the children of a loving Father whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, who yet dwells in every contrite human heart as the light of the great sun reproduces itself in every drop of dew. To have God dwell thus in the soul is to enjoy perfect peace. This life is a life of bitterness to those who struggle against God, a world of sorrow to those who doubt Him, and of darkness to those who refuse His sweet illumination. But the sorrow and the struggle end, and the darkness becomes the dawn to every one who loves and trusts the heavenly Father, for He bestows upon all a Divine gift. This gift is the 'inner light,' the light which shines within the soul itself and sheds its rays upon the dark pathway of existence. This God of love is not far from every one of us and we may all know Him. He is to be loved, not hated; trusted, not feared! Why should men tremble at the consciousness of His presence? Does the little sparrow in its nest feel any fear when it hears the flutter of its parent's wings? Does the child shudder at its mother's approaching footsteps?" As he uttered these words, he paused and awaited an answer.
Each sentence had fallen into the sensitive soul of the Fortune Teller like a pebble into a deep well. She was gazing at him in astonishment. Her lips were parted, her eyes were suffused and she was leaning forward breathlessly.
"If we would live bravely, hopefully, tranquilly," he continued, "we must be conscious of the presence of God. If we believe with all our hearts that He knows our inmost thoughts, we shall experience comfort beyond words. This life of peace, of aspiration, of communion, is possible to all. The evil in us may be overthrown. We may reproduce the life of Christ on earth. We may become as He was—one with God. As the little water drop poured into a large measure of wine seems to lose its own nature entirely and take on the nature and the color of both the water and the wine; or as air filled with sunlight is transformed into the same brightness so that it does not appear to be illuminated by another light so much as to be luminous of itself; so must all feeling toward the Holy One be self-dissolved and wholly transformed into the will of God. For how shall God be all in all, if anything of man remains in man?"
In words and images like these the young mystic poured forth his soul. There were no flights of oratory, and only occasional bursts of anything that could be called eloquence. But in an inexplicable manner it moved the heart to tenderness and thrilled the deepest feelings of the soul. Much of the effect on those who understood him was due to the truths he uttered; but even those who, like the two strangers, were unfamiliar with the ideas advanced, or indifferent to them, could not escape that nameless influence with which all true orators are endowed, and were thrilled by what he said. In our ignorance we have called this influence by the name of "magnetism." Whatever it may be, this young man possessed it in a very high degree, and when to it was added his personal beauty, his sincerity, and his earnestness, it became almost omnipotent over the emotions, if not over the reason. It enslaved Pepeeta completely.
It was impossible that in so small a room a speaker should be unconscious of the presence of strangers. David had noticed them at once, and his glance, after roaming about the room, invariably returned and fixed itself upon the face of the Fortune Teller. Their fascination was mutual. They were so drawn to each other by some inscrutable power, that it would not have been hard to believe that they had existed as companions in some previous state of being, and had now met and vaguely remembered each other.
When at length David stopped speaking, it seemed to Pepeeta as if a sudden end had come to everything; as if rivers had ceased to run and stars to rise and set. She drew a long, deep breath, sighed and sank back in her seat, exhausted by the nervous tension to which she had been subjected.
The effect upon the quack was hardly less remarkable. He, too, had listened with breathless attention. He tried to analyze and then to resist this mesmeric power, but gradually succumbed. He felt as if chained to his seat, and it was only by a great effort that he pulled himself together, took Pepeeta by the arm and drew her out into the open air.
For a few moments they walked in silence, and then the doctor exclaimed: "P-p-peeta, I have found him at last!"
"Found whom?" she asked sharply, irritated by the voice which offered such a rasping contrast to the one still echoing in her ears.
"Found whom? As if you didn't know! I mean the man of d-d-destiny! He is a snake charmer, Pepeeta! He just fairly b-b-bamboozled you! I was laughing in my sleeve and saying to myself, 'He's bamboozled Pepeeta; but he can't b-b-bamboozle me!' When he up and did it! Tee-totally did it! And if he can bamboozle me, he can bamboozle anybody."
"Did you understand what he said?" Pepeeta asked.
"Understand? Well, I should say not! The d-d-devil himself couldn't make head nor tail out of it. But between you and me and the town p-p-pump it's all the better, for if he can fool the people with that kind of g-g-gibberish, he can certainly f-f-fool them with the Balm of the B-B-Blessed Islands! First time I was ever b-b-bamboozled in my life. Feels queer. Our fortune's made, P-p-pepeeta!"
His triumph and excitement were so great that he did not notice the silence and abstraction of his wife. His ardent mind invariably excavated a channel into which it poured its thoughts, digging its bed so deep as to flow on unconscious of everything else. Exulting in the prospect of attaching to himself a companion so gifted, never doubting for a moment that he could do so, reveling in the dreams of wealth to be gathered from the increased sales of his patent medicine, he entered the hotel and made straight for the bar-room, where he told his story with the most unbounded delight.
Pepeeta retired at once to her room, but her mind was too much excited and her heart too much agitated for slumber. She moved restlessly about for a long time and then sat down at the open window and looked into the night. For the first time in her life, the mystery of existence really dawned upon her. She gazed with a new awe at the starry sky. She thought of that Being of whom David had spoken. Questions which had never before occurred to her knocked at the door of her mind and imperatively demanded an answer. "Who am I? Whence did I come? For what was I created? Whither am I going?" she asked herself again and again with profound astonishment at the newness of these questions and her inability to answer them.
For a long time she sat in the light of the moon, and reflected on these mysteries with all the power of her untutored mind. But that power was soon exhausted, and vague, chaotic, abstract conceptions gave place to a definite image which had been eternally impressed upon her inward eyes. It was the figure of the young Quaker, idealized by the imagination of an ardent and emotional woman whose heart had been thrilled for the first time.
She began timidly to ask herself what was the meaning of those feelings which this stranger had awakened in her bosom. She knew that they were different from those which her husband inspired; but how different, she did not know. They filled her with a sort of ecstasy, and she gave herself up to them. Exhausted at last by these vivid thoughts and emotions, she rested her head upon her arms across the window sill and fell asleep. It must have been that the young Quaker followed her into the land of dreams, for when her husband aroused her at midnight a faint flush could be seen by the light of the moon on those rounded cheeks.
There are all the elements of a tragedy in the heart of a woman who has never felt the emotions of religion or of love until she is married!
THE LIGHT THAT LIES
"Oh! why did God create at last This novelty on earth, this fair defect Of nature, and not till the world at once With men as angels, without feminine?"
On the following morning the preacher-plowman was afield at break of day. The horses, refreshed and rested by food and sleep, dragged the gleaming plowshare through the heavy sod as if it were light snow, and the farmer exulted behind them.
That universal life which coursed through all the various forms of being around him, bounded in tides through his own veins. The fresh morning air, the tender light of dawning day, the odors of plants and songs of birds, filled his sensitive soul with unutterable delight.
In the midst of all these beauties and wonders, he existed without self-consciousness and labored without effort. His heart was pure and his oneness with the natural world was complete. Whatever was beautiful and gentle in the manifold operations of the Divine Spirit in the world around him, he saw and felt. To all that was horrible and ferocious, he was blind as a child in Paradise. He did not notice the hawk sweeping upon the dove, the swallow darting upon the moth, nor the lizard lying in wait for the fly; or, if he did, he saw them only as he saw the shadows flitting across the sunny landscape. His soul was like a garden full of light, life, perfume, color and the music of singing birds and whispering leaves. Before his inward eye the familiar figures of his daily life passed and repassed, but among them was also a new one. It was the figure that had arrested his attention and inspired him the night before.
For hours he followed the plow without the consciousness of fatigue, but at length he paused to rest the horses, who were beginning to pant with their hard labor. He threw back his head, drew in deep inspirations of pure air, glanced about and felt the full tide of the simple joy of existence roll over him. Life had never seemed sweeter than in those few moments in which he quaffed the brimming cup of youth and health which nature held to his lips. Not a fear, not an apprehension of any danger crossed his soul. His glances roved here and there, pausing a moment in their flight like hummingbirds, to sip the sweetness from some unusually beautiful cloud or tree or flower, when he suddenly caught sight of a curious equipage flying swiftly down the road at the other side of the field. The spirited horses stopped. A man rose from the seat, put his hands to his mouth like a trumpet, uttered a loud "hallo," and beckoned.
David tied the reins to the plow handles and strode across the fresh furrows. Vaulting the fence and leaping the brook which formed the boundary line of the farm, he ascended the bank and approached the carriage. As he did so the occupants got out and came to meet him. To his astonishment he saw the strangers whom he had noticed the night before. The man advanced with a bold, free demeanor, the woman timidly and with downcast eyes.
"Good morning," said the doctor.
David returned his greeting with the customary dignity of the Quakers.
"My name is Dr. Aesculapius."
"Thee is welcome."
"I was over to the m-m-meeting house last night, and heard your s-s-speech. Didn't understand a w-w-word, but saw that you c-c-can talk like a United States Senator."
David bowed and blushed.
"I came over to make you a p-p-proposition. Want you to yoke up with me, and help me sell the 'B-B-Balm of the Blessed Islands.' You can do the t-t-talking and I'll run the b-b-business; see?"
He put his thumbs in the armholes of his vest, spread his feet apart, squared himself and smiled like a king who had offered his throne to a beggar.
David regarded him with a look of astonishment.
"What do you s-s-say?"
Gravely, placidly, the young Quaker answered: "I thank thee, friend, for what thee evidently means as a kindness, but I must decline thy offer."
"Decline my offer? Are you c-c-crazy? Why do you d-d-decline my offer?"
"Because I have no wish to leave my home and work."
Although his answer was addressed to the man, his eyes were directed to the woman. His reply, simple and natural enough, astounded the quack.
"What!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean that you p-p-prefer to stay in this p-p-pigstye of a town to becoming a citizen of the g-g-great world?"
"But listen; I will pay you more money in a single month than you can earn by d-d-driving your plow through that b-b-black mud for a whole year."
"I have no need and no desire for more money than I can earn by daily toil."
"No need and no desire for money! B-b-bah! You are not talking to sniveling old women and crack-b-b-brained old men; but to a f-f-feller who can see through a two-inch plank, and you can't p-p-pass off any of your religious d-d-drivel on him, either."
This coarse insult went straight to the soul of the youth. His blood tingled in his veins. There was a tightening around his heart of something which was out of place in the bosom of a Quaker. A hot reply sprang to his lips, but died away as he glanced at the woman, and saw her face mantled with an angry flush.
Calmed by her silent sympathy, he quietly replied: "Friend, I have no desire to annoy thee, but I have been taught that 'the love of money is the root of all evil,' and believing as I do I could not answer thee otherwise than I did."
It was evident from the look upon the countenance of the quack that he had met with a new and incomprehensible type of manhood. He gazed at the Quaker a moment in silence and then exclaimed, "Young man, you may mean what you say, b-b-but you have been most infernally abused by the p-p-people who have put such notions in your head, for there is only one substantial and abiding g-g-good on earth, and that is money. Money is power, money is happiness, money is God; get money! get it anywhere! get it anyhow, but g-g-get it."
Instead of mere resentment for a personal insult, David now felt a tide of righteous indignation rising in his soul at this scorn and denial of those eternal principles of truth and duty which he felt to be the very foundations of the moral universe.
"Sir," said he, with the voice and mien of an apostle, "I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness and the bonds of iniquity. Thy money perish with thee. The God of this world hath blinded thine eyes."
The quack, who now began to take a humorous view of the innocence of the youth, burst into a boisterous guffaw.
"Well, well," he said in mingled scorn and pity, "reckon you are more to be pitied than b-b-blamed. Fault of early education! Talk like a p-p-parrot! What can a young fellow like you know about life, shut up here in this seven-by-nine valley, like a man in a b-b-barrel looking out of the b-b-bung-hole?"
Offended and disgusted, the Quaker was about to turn upon his heel; but he saw in the face of the man's beautiful companion a look which said plainly as spoken words, "I, too, desire that you should go with us."
This look changed his purpose, and he paused.
"Listen to me now," continued the doctor, observing his irresolution. "You think you know what life is; but you d-d-don't! Do you know what g-g-great cities are? Do you know what it is to m-m-mix with crowds of men, to feel and perhaps to sway their p-p-passions? Do you know what it is to p-p-possess and to spend that money which you d-d-despise? Do you know what it is to wear fine clothes, to d-d-drink rare wines, to see great sights, to go where you want to and to do what you p-p-please?"
"I do not, nor do I wish to. And thee must abandon these follies and sins, if thee would enter the Kingdom of God," David replied, fixing his eyes sternly upon the face of the blasphemer.
"God! Ha, ha, ha! Who is He, anyhow? Same old story! Fools that can't enjoy life, d-d-don't want any one else to! Ever hear 'bout the fox that got his tail b-b-bit off? Wanted all the rest to have theirs! What the d-d-deuce are we here in this world for? T-t-tell me that, p-p-parson!"
"To do the will of our Father which is in heaven."
"To do the will of our Father in heaven! I know but one will, and it is the w-w-will of Doctor P-p-paracelsus Aesculapius. I'm my own lord and law, I am."
"Know thou that for all thy idle words, God will bring thee to judgment?" David answered solemnly.
"Rot!" muttered the doctor, disgusted beyond endurance, and concluding the interview with the cynical farewell,
"Good-bye, d-d-dead man! I have always hated c-c-corpses! I am going where men have red b-b-blood in their veins."
With these words he turned on his heel and started toward the carriage, leaving David and Pepeeta alone. Neither of them moved. The gypsy nervously plucked the petals from a daisy and the Quaker gazed at her face. During these few moments nature had not been idle. In air and earth and tree top, following blind instincts, her myriad children were seeking their mates. And here, in the odorous sunshine of the May morning, these two young, impressionable and ardent beings, yielding themselves unconsciously to the same mysterious attraction which was uniting other happy couples, were drawn together in a union which time could not dissolve and eternity, perhaps, cannot annul.
Having stalked indignantly onward for a few paces, the doctor discovered that his wife had not followed him, and turning he called savagely: "Pepeeta, come! It is folly to try and p-p-persuade him. Let us leave the saint to his prayers! But let him remember the old p-p-proverb, 'young saint, old sinner!' Come!"
He proceeded towards the carriage; but Pepeeta seemed rooted to the ground, and David was equally incapable of motion. While they stood thus, gazing into each other's eyes, they saw nothing and they saw all. That brief glance was freighted with destiny. A subtle communication had taken place between them, although they had not spoken; for the eye has a language of its own.
What was the meaning of that glance? What was the emotion that gave it birth in the soul? He knew! It told its own story. To their dying day, the actors in that silent drama remembered that glance with rapture and with pain.
Pepeeta spoke first, hurriedly and anxiously: "What did you say last night about the 'light of life?' Tell me! I must know."
"I said there is a light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world."
"And what did you mean? Be quick. There is only a moment."
"I meant that there is a light that shines from the soul itself and that in this light we may walk, and he who walks in it, walks safely. He need never fall!"
"Never? I do not understand; it is beautiful; but I do not understand!"
"Pepeeta!" called her husband, angrily.
She turned away, and David watched her gliding out of his sight, with an irrepressible pain and longing. "I suppose she is his daughter," he said to himself, and upon that natural but mistaken inference his whole destiny turned. Something seemed to draw him after her. He took a step or two, halted, sighed and returned to his labor.
But it was to a strangely altered world that he went. Its glory had vanished; it was desolate and empty, or so at least it seemed to him, for he confounded the outer and the inner worlds, as it was his nature and habit to do. It was in his soul that the change had taken place. The face of a bad man and of an incomprehensible woman followed him through the long furrows until the sun went down. He was vaguely conscious that he had for the first time actually encountered those strenuous elements which draw manhood from its moorings. He felt humiliated by the recognition that he was living a dream life there in his happy valley; and that there was a life outside which he could not master so easily. That confidence in his strength and incorruptibility which he had always felt began to waver a little. His innocence appeared to him like that of the great first father in the garden of Eden, before his temptation, and now that he too had listened to the voice of the serpent and had for the first time been stirred at the description of the sweetness of the great tree's fruit, there came to him a feeling of foreboding as to the future. He was astonished that such characters as those he had just seen did not excite in him loathing and repulsion. Why could he not put them instantly and forever out of his mind? How could they possess any attractiveness for him at all—such a blatant, vulgar man or such an ignorant, ah! but beautiful, woman; for she was beautiful! Yes—beautiful but bad! But no—such a beautiful woman could not be bad. See how interested she was about the "inner light." She must be very ignorant; but she was very attractive. What eyes! What lips!
Thoughts which he had always been able to expel from his mind before, like evil birds fluttered again and again into the windows of his soul. For this he upbraided himself; but only to discover that at the very moment when he regretted that he had been tempted at all, he also regretted that he had not been tempted further.
All day long his agitated spirit alternated between remorse that he had enjoyed so much, and regret that he had enjoyed so little. Never had he experienced such a tumult in his soul. He struggled hard, but he could not tell whether he had conquered or been defeated.
It was not until he had retired to his room at night and thrown himself upon his knees, that he began to regain peace. There, in the stillness of his chamber, he strove for the control of his thoughts and emotions, and fell asleep after long and prayerful struggles, with the sweet consciousness of a spiritual triumph!
THE TRAIL OF THE SERPENT
"Every man living shall assuredly meet with an hour of temptation, a critical hour which shall more especially try what metal his heart is made of"—South.
It was long after he had awakened in the morning before the memory of the adventure of yesterday recurred to David's mind. His sleep had been as deep as that of an infant, and his rest in the great ocean of oblivion had purified him, so that when he did at last recall the experience which had affected him so deeply, it was with indifference. The charm had vanished. Even the gypsy's beauty paled in the light of the Holy Sabbath morning. He could think of her with entire calmness, and so thoroughly had the evil vanished that he hoped it had disappeared forever. But he had yet to learn that before evil can be successfully forgotten it must be heroically overcome.
He did not yet realize this, however, and his bath, his morning prayer, a passage from the gospel, the hearty breakfast, the kind and trustful faces of his family, dispelled the last cloud from the sky of his soul. Having finished the round of morning duties, he made himself ready to visit the lumber camp, there to discharge the sacred duty revealed to him in the vision.