HARRY LEON WILSON
Author of The Spenders The Lions of the Lord, etc.
Illustrated by Rose Cecil O'Neill
New York Doubleday, Page & Company
WILLIAM CURTIS GIBSON
"Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor, and another unto dishonor?"—Holy Writ.
"John and Peter and Robert and Paul— God, in His wisdom, created them all. John was a statesman and Peter a slave, Robert a preacher and Paul was a knave. Evil or good, as the case might be, White or colored, or bond or free, John and Peter and Robert and Paul— God, in His wisdom, created them all."
The Chemistry of Character.
BOOK ONE—The Age Of Fable
I. How the Christmas Saint was Proved
II. An Old Man Faces Two Ways
III. The Cult of the Candy Cane
IV. The Big House of Portents
V. The Life of Crime Is Appraised and Chosen
VI. The Garden of Truth and the Perfect Father
VII. The Superlative Cousin Bill J.
VIII. Searching the Scriptures
IX. On Surviving the Idols We Build
X. The Passing of the Gratcher; and Another
XI. The Strong Person's Narrative
XII. A New Theory of a Certain Wicked Man
BOOK TWO—The Age of Reason
I. The Regrettable Dementia of a Convalescent
II. Further Distressing Fantasies of a Clouded Mind
III. Reason Is Again Enthroned
IV. A Few Letters
V. "Is the Hand of the Lord Waxed Short?"
VI. In the Folly of His Youth
BOOK THREE—The Age of Faith
I. The Perverse Behaviour of an Old Man and a Young Man
II. How a Brother Was Different
III. How Edom Was Favoured of God and Mammon
IV. The Winning of Browett
V. A Belated Martyrdom
VI. The Walls of St. Antipas Fall at the Third Blast
VII. There Entereth the Serpent of Inappreciation
VIII. The Apple of Doubt is Nibbled
IX. Sinful Perverseness of the Natural Woman
X. The Reason of a Woman Who Had No Reason
XI. The Remorse of Wondering Nancy
XII. The Flexible Mind of a Pleased Husband
XIII. The Wheels within Wheels of the Great Machine
XIV. The Ineffective Message
XV. The Woman at the End of the Path
XVI. In Which the Mirror Is Held Up to Human Nature
XVII. For the Sake of Nancy
XVIII. The Fell Finger of Calumny Seems to be Agreeably Diverted
XIX. A Mere Bit of Gossip
BOOK ONE—The Village of Edom
BOOK TWO—The Same
BOOK THREE—New York
ALLAN DELCHER, a retired Presbyterian clergyman.
BERNAL LINFORD } ALLAN LINFORD } his grandsons.
CLAYTON LINFORD, Their father, of the artistic temperament, and versatile.
CLYTEMNESTRA, Housekeeper for Delcher.
COUSIN BILL J., a man with a splendid past.
NANCY CREALOCK, A wondering child and woman.
AUNT BELL, Nancy's worldly guide, who, having lived in Boston, has "broadened into the higher unbelief."
MISS ALVIRA ABNEY, Edom's leading milliner, captivated by Cousin Bill J.
MILO BARRUS, The village atheist.
THE STRONG PERSON, of the "Gus Levy All-star Shamrock Vaudeville."
CALEB WEBSTER, a travelled Edomite.
CYRUS BROWETT, a New York capitalist and patron of the Church.
MRS. DONALD WYETH, an appreciative parishioner of Allan Linford.
THE REV MR. WHITTAKER, a Unitarian.
FATHER RILEY, of the Church of Rome.
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
"'My dear, Bernal is saying good-bye!'" (Frontispiece)
"She could be made to believe that only he could protect her from the Gratcher"
"They looked forward with equal eagerness to the day when he should become a great and good man"
"He gazed long and exultingly into the eyes yielded so abjectly to his"
* * * * *
The Age of Fable
BOOK ONE—THE AGE OF FABLE
HOW THE CHRISTMAS SAINT WAS PROVED
The whispering died away as they heard heavy steps and saw a line of light under the shut door. Then a last muffled caution from the larger boy on the cot.
"Now, remember! There ain't any, but don't you let on there ain't—else he won't bring you a single thing!"
Before the despairing soul on the trundle-bed could pierce the vulnerable heel of this, the door opened slowly to the broad shape of Clytemnestra. One hand shaded her eyes from the candle she carried, and she peered into the corner where the two beds were, a flurry of eagerness in her face, checked by stoic self-mastery.
At once from the older boy came the sounds of one who breathes labouredly in deep sleep after a hard day. But the littler boy sat rebelliously up, digging combative fists into eyes that the light tickled. Clytemnestra warmly rebuked him, first simulating the frown of the irritated.
"Now, Bernal! Wide awake! My days alive! You act like a wild Indian's little boy. This'll never do. Now you go right to sleep this minute, while I watch you. Look how fine and good Allan is." She spoke low, not to awaken the one virtuous sleeper, who seemed thereupon to breathe with a more swelling and obtrusive rectitude.
"Clytie—now—ain't there any Santa Claus?"
"Now what a sinful question that is!"
"But is there?"
"Don't he bring you things?"
"Oh, there ain't any!" There was a sullen desperation in this, as of one done with quibbles. But the woman still paltered wretchedly.
"Well, if you don't lie down and go to sleep quicker'n a wink I bet you anything he won't bring you a single play-pretty."
There came an unmistakable blare of triumph into the busy snore on the cot.
But the heart of the skeptic was sunk. This evasion was more disillusioning than downright confession. A moment the little boy regarded her, wholly in sorrow, with big eyes that blinked alarmingly. Then came his last shot; the final bullet which the besieged warrior will sometimes reserve for his own destruction. There could no longer be any pretense between them. Bravely he faced her.
"Now—you just needn't try to keep it from me any longer! I know there ain't any—" One tensely tragic second he paused to gather himself—"It's all over town!" There being nothing further to live for, he delivered himself to grief—to be tortured and destroyed.
Clytie set the candle on the bureau and came to hover him. Within the pressing arms and upon the proffered bosom he wept out one of those griefs that may not be told—that only the heart can understand. Yet, when the first passion of it was spent she began to reassure him, begging him not to be misled by idle gossip; to take not even her own testimony, but to wait and see what he would see. At last he listened and was a little soothed. It appeared that Santa Claus was one you might believe in or might not. Even Clytie seemed to be puzzled about him. He could see that she overflowed with belief in him, yet he could not make her confess it in plain straight words. The meat of it was that good children found things on Christmas morning which must have been left by some one—if not by Santa Claus, then by whom? Did the little boy believe, for example, that Milo Barrus did it? He was the village atheist, and so bad a man that he loved to spell God with a little g.
He mused upon this while his tears dried, finding it plausible. Of course it couldn't be Milo Barrus, so it must be Santa Claus. Was Clytie certain some presents would be there in the morning? If he went directly to sleep, she was.
Hereupon the larger boy on the cot, who had for some moments listened in forgetful silence, became again virtuously asleep in a public manner.
But the littler boy must yet have talk. Could the bells of Santa Claus be heard when he came?
Clytie had known some children, of exceptional merit, it was true, who claimed to have heard his bells on certain nights when they had gone early to sleep.
Why would he never leave anything for a child that got up out of bed and caught him at it? Suppose one had to get up for a drink.
Because it broke the charm.
But if a very, very good child just happened to wake up while he was in the room, and didn't pay the least attention to him, or even look sidewise or anything—
Even this were hazardous, it seemed; though if the child were indeed very good all might not yet be lost.
"Well, won't you leave the light for me? The dark gets in my eyes."
But this was another adverse condition, making everything impossible. So she chided and reassured him, tucked the covers once more about his neck, and left him, with a final comment on the advantage of sleeping at once.
When the room was dark and Clytie's footsteps had sounded down the hall, he called softly to his brother; but that wise child was now truly asleep. So the littler boy lay musing, having resolved to stay awake and solve the mystery once for all.
From wondering what he might receive he came to wondering if he were good. His last meditation was upon the Sunday-school book his dear mother had helped him read before they took her away with a new little baby that had never amounted to much; before he and Allan came to Grandfather Delcher's to live—where there was a great deal to eat. The name of the book was "Ben Holt." He remembered this especially because a text often quoted in the story said "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches." He had often wondered why Ben Holt should be considered an especially good name; and why Ben Holt came to choose it instead of the goldpiece he found and returned to the schoolmaster, before he fell sick and was sent away to the country where the merry haymakers were. Of course, there were worse names than Ben Holt. It was surely better than Eygji Watts, whose sanguine parents were said to have named him with the first five letters they drew from a hat containing the alphabet; Ben Holt was assuredly better than Eygji, even had this not been rendered into "Hedge-hog" by careless companions. His last confusion of ideas was a wondering if Bernal Linford was as good a name as Ben Holt, and why he could not remember having chosen it in preference to a goldpiece. Back of this, in his fading consciousness was the high-coloured image of a candy cane, too splendid for earth.
Then, far in the night, as it might have seemed to the little boy, came the step of slippered feet. This time Clytie, satisfying herself that both boys slept, set down her candle and went softly out, leaving the door open. There came back with her one bearing gifts—a tall, dark old man, with a face of many deep lines and severe set, who yet somehow shed kindness, as if he held a spirit of light prisoned within his darkness, so that, while only now and then could a visible ray of it escape through the sombre eye or through a sudden winning quality in the harsh voice, it nevertheless radiated from him sensibly at all times, to belie his sternness and puzzle those who feared him.
Uneasy enough he looked now as Clytie unloaded him of the bundles and bulky toys. In a silence broken only by their breathing they quickly bestowed the gifts—some in the hanging stockings at the fire-place, others beside each bed, in chairs or on the mantel.
Then they were in the hall again, the door closed so that they could speak. The old man took up his own candle from a stand against the wall.
"The little one is like her," he said.
"He's awful cunning and bright, but Allan is the handsomest. Never in my born days did I see so beautiful a boy."
"But he's like the father, line for line." There was a sudden savage roughness in the voice, a sterner set to the shaven upper lip and straight mouth, though he still spoke low. "Like the huckstering, godless fiddle-player that took her away from me. What a mercy of God's he'll never see her again—she with the saved and he—what a reckoning for him when he goes!"
"But he was not bad to let you take them."
"He boasted to me that he'd not have done it, except that she begged him with her last breath to promise it. He said the words with great maudlin tears raining down his face, when my own eyes were dry!"
"How good if you can leave them both in the church, preaching the word where you preached it so many years!"
"I misdoubt the father's blood in them—at least, in the older. But it's late. Good night, Clytie—a good Christmas to you."
"More to you, Mr. Delcher! Good night!"
AN OLD MAN FACES TWO WAYS
His candle up, he went softly along the white hallway over the heavy red carpet, to where a door at the end, half-open, let him into his study. Here a wood fire at the stage of glowing coals made a searching warmth. Blowing out his candle, he seated himself at the table where a shaded lamp cast its glare upon a litter of books and papers. A big, white-breasted gray cat yawned and stretched itself from the hearthrug and leaped lightly upon him with great rumbling purrs, nosing its head under one of his hands suggestively, and, when he stroked it, looking up at him with lazily falling eye-lids.
He crossed his knees to make a better lap for the cat, and fell to musing backward into his own boyhood, when the Christmas Saint was a real presence. Then he came forward to his youth, when he had obeyed the call of the Lord against his father's express command that he follow the family way and become a prosperous manufacturer. Truly there had been revolt in him. Perhaps he had never enough considered this in excuse for his own daughter's revolt.
Again he dwelt in the days when he had preached with a hot passion such truth as was his. For a long time, while the old clock ticked on the mantel before him and the big cat purred or slept under his absent pettings, his mind moved through an incident of that early ministry. Clear in his memory were certain passages of fire from the sermon. In the little log church at Edom he had felt the spirit burn in him and he had movingly voiced its warnings of that dread place where the flames forever blaze, yet never consume; where cries ever go up for one drop of water to cool the parched tongues of those who sought not God while they lived. He had told of one who died—one that the world called good, a moral man—but not a Christian; one who had perversely neglected the way of life. How, on his death-bed, this one had called in agony for a last glass of water, seeming to know all at once that he would now be where no drop of water could cool him through all eternity.
So effective had been his putting of this that a terrified throng came forward at his call for converts.
The next morning he had ridden away from Edom toward Felton Falls to preach there. A mile out of town he had been accosted by a big, bearded man who had yet a singularly childish look—who urged that he come to his cabin to minister to a sick friend. He knew the fellow for one that the village of Edom called "daft" or "queer," yet held to be harmless—to be rather amusing, indeed, since he could be provoked to deliver curious harangues upon the subject of revealed religion. He remembered now that the man's face had stared at him from far back in the church the night before—a face full of the liveliest terror, though he had not been among those that fled to the mercy-seat. Acceding to the man's request, he followed him up a wooded path to his cabin. Dismounting and tying his horse, he entered and, turning to ask where the sick man was, found himself throttled in the grasp of a giant.
He was thrust into an inner room, windowless and with no door other than the one now barred by his chuckling captor. And here the Reverend Allan Delcher had lain three days and two nights captive of a madman, with no food and without one drop of water.
From the other side of the log partition his captor had declared himself to be the keeper of hell. Even now he could hear the words maundered through the chinks: "Never got another drop of water for a million years and still more, and him a burning up and a roasting up, and his tongue a lolling out, all of a sizzle. Now wasn't that fine—because folks said he'd likely gone crazy about religion!"
Other times his captor would declare himself to be John the Baptist making straight the paths in the wilderness. Again he would quote passages of scripture, some of them hideous mockeries to the tortured prisoner, some strangely soothing and suggestive.
But a search had been made for the missing man and, quite by accident, they had found him, at a time when it seemed to him his mind must go with his captor's. His recovery from the physical blight of this captivity had been prompt; but there were those who sat under him who insisted that ever after he had been palpably less insistent upon the feature of divine retribution for what might be called the merely technical sins of heterodoxy. Not that unsound doctrine was ever so much as hinted of him; only, as once averred a plain parishioner, "He seemed to bear down on hell jest a lee-tle less continuously."
As for his young wife, she had ever after professed an unconquerable aversion for those sermons in which God's punishment of sinners was set forth; and this had strangely been true of their daughter, born but a little time after the father's release from the maniac's cabin. She had grown to womanhood submitting meekly to an iron rule; but none the less betraying an acute repugnance for certain doctrines preached by her father. It seemed to the old man a long way to look back; and then a long way to come forward again, past the death of his girl-wife while their child was still tender, down to the amazing iniquity of that child's revolt, in her thirty-first year. Dumbly, dutifully, had she submitted to all his restrictions and severities, stonily watching her girlhood go, through a fading, lining and hardening of her prettiness. Then all at once, with no word of pleading or warning, she had done the monstrous thing. He awoke one day to know that his beloved child had gone away to marry the handsome, swaggering, fiddle-playing good-for-nothing who had that winter given singing lessons in the village.
Only once after that had he looked upon her face—the face of a withered sprite, subdued by time. The hurt of that look was still fresh in him, making his mind turn heavily, perhaps a little remorsefully, to the two little boys asleep in the west bedroom. Had the seed of revolt been in her, from his own revolt against his father? Would it presently bear some ugly fruit in her sons?
From a drawer in the table he took a little sheaf of folded sheets, and read again the last letter that had come from her; read it not without grim mutterings and oblique little jerks of the narrow old head, yet with quick tender glows melting the sternness.
"You must not think I have ever regretted my choice, though every day of my life I have sorrowed at your decision not to see me so long as I stayed by my husband. How many times I have prayed God to remind you that I took him for better or worse, till death should us part."
This made him mutter.
"Clayton has never in his life failed of kindness and gentleness to me"—so ran the letter—"and he has always provided for us as well as a man of his uncommon talents could."
Here the old man sniffed in fine contempt.
"All last winter he had quite a class to teach singing in the evening and three day-scholars for the violin, one of whom paid him in hams. Another offered to pay either in money or a beautiful portrait of me in pastel. We needed money, but Clayton chose the portrait as a surprise to me. At times he seems unpractical, but now he has started out in business again—"
There were bitter shakings of the head here. Business! Standing in a buggy at street-corners, jauntily urging a crowd to buy the magic grease-eradicator, toothache remedy, meretricious jewelry, what not! first playing a fiddle and rollicking out some ribald song to fetch them. Business indeed! A pretty business!
"The boys are delighted with the Bibles you sent and learn a verse each day. I have told them they may some day preach as you did if they will be as good men as you are and study the Bible. They try to preach like our preacher in the cunningest way. I wish you could see them. You would love them in spite of your feeling against their father. I did what you suggested to stimulate their minds about the Scriptures, but perhaps the lesson they chose to write about was not very edifying. It does not seem a pretty lesson to me, and I did not pick it out. They heard about it at Sabbath-school and had their papers all written as a surprise for me. Of course, Bernal's is very childish, but I think Allan's paper, for a child of his age, shows a grasp of religious matters that is truly remarkable. I shall keep them studying the Bible daily. I should tell you that I am now looking forward with great joy to—"
With a long sigh he laid down the finely written sheet and took from the sheaf the two papers she had spoken of. Then while the gale roared without and shook his window, and while the bust of John Calvin looked down at him from the book-case at his back, he followed his two grandsons on their first incursion into the domain of speculative theology.
He took first the paper of the older boy, painfully elaborated with heavy, intricate capitals and headed "Elisha and the Wicked Children—by Mr. Allan Delcher Linford, Esquire, aged nine years and six months."
* * * * *
"This lesson," it began, "is to teach us to love God and the prophets or else we will likely get into trouble. It says Elisha went up from Bethel and some children came out of the city and said go up thou Baldhead. They said it Twice one after the other and so Elisha got mad right away and turned around and cursed them good in the name of the Lord and so 2 She Bears come along and et up 42 of them for Elisha was a holy prophet of God and had not ought to of been yelled at. So of course the mothers would Take on very much When they found their 42 Children et up but I think that we had ought to learn from this that these 42 Little ones was not the Elected. It says in our catchism God having out of his mere good pleasure elected some to everlasting life. Now God being a Presbiterian would know these 42 little ones had not been elected so they might as well be et up by bears as anything else to show forth his honour and glory Forever Amen. It should teach a Boy to be mighty carful about kidding old men unless he is a Presbiterian. I spelled every word in this right.
"Mr. Allan Delcher Linford."
The second paper, which the old man now held long before him, was partly printed and partly written with a lead-pencil, whose mark was now faint and now heavy, as having gone at intervals to the writer's lips. As the old man read, his face lost not a little of its grimness.
"It teaches the lord thy God is baldheaded. I ask my deer father what it teeches he said it teeches who ever wrot that storry was baldheaded. He says a man with thik long hair like my deer father would of said o let the kids have their fun with old Elisha so I ask my deer mother who wrot this lesson she said God wrot the holy word so that is how we know God is baldheaded. It was a lot of children for only two 2 bears. I liked to of ben there if the bears wold of known that I was a good child. mabe I cold of ben on a high fense or up a tree. I climd the sor aple tree in our back yard esy.
"By Bernal Linford, aged neerly 8 yrs."
Carefully he put back both papers with the mother's letter, his dark face showing all its intricate net-work of lines in a tension that was both pained and humorous.
Two fresh souls were given to his care to be made, please God, the means of grace by which thousands of other souls might be washed clean of the stain of original sin. Yet, if revolt was there—revolt like his daughter's and like his own? Would he forgive as his own father had forgiven, who had called him back after many years to live out a tranquil old age on the fortune that father's father had founded? He mused long on this. The age was lax—true, but God's law was never lax. If one would revolt from the right, one must suffer. For the old man was one of the few last of a race of giants who were to believe always in the Printed Word.
THE CULT OF THE CANDY CANE
When the littler boy looked fairly into the frosty gray of that Christmas morning, the trailed banner of his faith was snatched once more aloft; and in the breast of his complacent brother there swelled the conviction that one does ill to flaunt one's skepticism, when the rewards of belief are substantial and imminent. For before them was an array of gifts such as neither had ever looked upon before, save as forbidden treasure of the few persons whose immense wealth enables them to keep toy-shops.
The tale of the princely Saint was now authenticated delightfully. That which had made him seem unreal in moments of spiritual laxity—the impenetrable secrecy of his private life—was now seen to enhance manyfold his wondrous givings. Here was a charm which could never have sat the display before them had it been dryly bought in their presence from one of the millionaire toy-shop keepers. For a wondering moment they looked from their beds, sputtering, gibbering, gasping, with cautious calls one to the other. Then having proved speech to be no disenchantment they shouted and laughed crazily. There followed a scramble from the beds and a swift return from the cold, each bearing such of the priceless bits as had lain nearest. And while these were fondled or shot or blown upon or tasted or wound up, each according to its wonderful nature, they looked farther afield seeing other and ever new packages bulk mysteriously into the growing light; bundles quickening before their eyes with every delight to be imagined of a Saint with epicurean tastes and prodigal habits—bundles that looked as if a mere twitch at the cord would expose their hidden charms.
The littler boy now wore a unique fur cap that let down to cover the neck and face, with openings wonderfully contrived for the eyes, nose and mouth—an easy triumph, surely, over the deadliest cold known to man. In one hand he flourished a brass-handled knife with both of its blades open; with the other he clasped a striped trumpet, into the china mouthpiece of which he had blown the shreds of a caramel, not meaning to; and here he was made to forget these trifles by discovering at the farther side of the room a veritable rocking-horse, a creature that looked not only magnificently willing, but superbly untamable, with a white mane and tail of celestial flow, with alert, pointed ears of maroon leather nailed nicely to the right spot. At this marvel he stared in that silence which is the highest power of joy: a presentiment had been his that such a horse, curveting on blue rockers, would be found on this very morning. Two days before had he in an absent moment beheld a vision of this horse poised near the door of the attic; but when he ran to make report of it below, thinking to astound people by his power of insight, Clytemnestra, bidding him wait in the kitchen where she was baking, had hurried to the spot and found only some rolls of blue cambric. She had rather shamed him for giving her such a start. A few rolls of shiny blue cambric against a white wall did not, she assured him, make a rocking-horse; and, what was more, they never would. Now the vision came back with a significance that set him all a-thrill. Next time Clytie would pay attention to him. He laughed to think of her confusion now.
But here again, at the very zenith of a shout, was he frozen to silence by a vision—this time one too obviously of no ponderable fabric. There in the corner, almost at his hand, seemed to be a thing that he had dreamed of possessing only after he entered Heaven—a candy cane: one of fearful length, thick of girth, vast of crook, and wide in the spiral stripe that seemed to run a living flame before his ravished eyes, beginning at the bottom and winding around and around the whole dizzy height. Fearfully in nerve-braced silence he leaned far out of his bed to bring against this amazing apparition one cool, impartial forefinger of skeptic research. It did not vanish; it resisted his touch. Then his heart fainted with rapture, for he knew the unimagined had become history.
Standing before the windows of the great, he had gazed long at these creations. They were suspended on a wire across the window in various lengths, from little ones to sizes too awesome to compute. On one occasion so long had he stood motionless, so deep the trance of his contemplation, that the winter cold had cruelly bitten his ears and toes. He had not supposed that these things were for mere vulgar ownership. He had known of boys who had guns and building-blocks and rocking-horses as well as candy in the lesser degrees; but never had he known, never had he been able to hear of one who had owned a thing like this. Indeed, among the boys he knew, it was believed that they were not even to be seen save on their wire at Christmas time in the windows of the rich. One boy had hinted that the "set" would not be broken even if a person should appear with money enough to buy a single one. And here before him was the finest of them all, receding neither from his gaze or his touch, one as long as the longest of which Heaven had hitherto vouchsafed him a chilling vision through glass; here was the same fascinating union of transcendent merit with a playful suggestion of downright utility. And he had blurted out to Clytie that the news of there being no Santa Claus was all over town! He was ashamed, and the moment became for him one of chastening in which he humbled his unbelieving spirit before this symbol of a more than earthly goodness—a symbol in whose presence, while as yet no accident had rendered it less than perfect, he would never cease to feel the spiritual uplift of one who has weighed the fruits of faith and found them not wanting.
He issued from some bottomless stupor of ecstacy to hear the door open to Allan's shouts; then to see the opening nicely filled again by the figure of Clytemnestra, who looked over at them with eager, shining eyes. He was at first powerless to do more than say "Oh, Clytie!" with little impotent pointings toward the candy cane. But the action now in order served to restore him to a state of working sanity. There was washing and dressing after Clytie had the fire crackling; the forgetting of some treasures to remember others; and the conveyance of them all down stairs to the big sitting-room where the sun came in over the geraniums in the bay-window, and where the Franklin heater made the air tropic. The rocking-horse was led and pushed by both boys; but to Clytie's responsible hand alone was intrusted the more than earthly candy cane.
Downstairs there was the grandfather to greet—erect, fresh-shaven, flashing kind eyes from under stern brows. He seemed to be awkwardly pleased with their pleasure, yet scarce able to be one with them; as if that inner white spirit of his fluttered more than its wont to be free, yet found only tiny exits for its furtive flashes of light.
Breakfast was a chattering and explosive meal, a severe trial, indeed, to the patience of the littler boy, who decided that he wished never to eat breakfast again. During the ten days that he had been a member of the household a certain formality observed at the beginning of each meal had held him in abject fascination, so that he looked forward to it with pleased terror. This was that, when they were all seated, there ensued a pause of precisely two seconds—no more and no less—a pause that became awful by reason of the fact that every one grew instantly solemn and expectant—even apprehensive. His tingling nerves had defined his spine for him before this pause ended, and then, when the roots of his hair began to crinkle, his grandfather would suddenly bow low over his plate and rumble in his head. It was very curious and weirdly pleasurable, and it lasted one minute. When it ceased the tension relaxed instantly, and every one was friendly and cordial and safe again.
This morning the little boy was actually impatient during the rumble, so eager was he to talk. And not until he had been assured by both his grandfather and Clytie that Santa Claus meant everything he left to be truly kept; that he came back for nothing—not even for a cane—of any kind—that he might have left at a certain house by mistake—not until then would he heave the sigh of immediate security and consent to eat his egg and muffins, of which latter Clytie had to bring hot ones from the kitchen because both boys had let the first plate go cold. For Clytie, like Grandfather Delcher, was also one of the last of a race of American giants—in her case a race preceding servants, that called itself "hired girls"—who not only ate with the family, but joyed and sorrowed with it and for long terms of years was a part of it in devotion, responsibility and self-respect. She had, it is true, dreaded the coming of these children, but from the moment that the two cold, subdued little figures had looked in doubting amazement at the four kinds of preserves and three kinds of cake set out for their first collation in the new home, she had rejoiced unceasingly in a vicarious motherhood.
Within an hour after breakfast the morning's find had been examined, appraised, and accorded perpetual rank by merit. Grandfather Delcher made but one timid effort to influence decisions.
"Now, Bernal, which do you like best of all your presents?" he asked. With a heart too full for words the littler boy had pointed promptly but shyly at his candy cane. Not once, indeed, had he been able to say the words "candy cane." It was a creation which mere words were inadequate to name. It was a presence to be pointed at. He pointed again firmly when the old man asked, "Are you quite certain, now, you like it best of all?"—suggestively—"better than this fine book with this beautiful picture of Joseph being sold away by his wicked brothers?"
The questioner had turned then to the older boy, who tactfully divined that a different answer would have pleased the old man better.
"And what do you like best, Allan?"
"Oh, I like this fine and splendid book best of all!"—and he read from the title-page, in the clear, confident tones of the pupil who knows that the teacher's favour rests upon him—"'From Eden to Calvary; or through the Bible in a year with our boys and girls; a book of pleasure and profit for young persons on Sabbath Afternoon. By Grandpa Silas Atterbury, the well-known author and writer for young people."
His glance toward his brother at the close was meant to betray the consciousness of his own superiority to one who dallied sensuously with created objects.
But the unspiritual one was riding the new horse at a furious gallop, and the glance of reproof was unnoted save by the old man—who wondered if it might be by any absurd twist that the boy most like the godless father were more godly than the one so like his mother that every note of his little voice and every full glance of his big blue eyes made the old heart flutter.
In the afternoon came callers from the next house; Dr. Crealock, rubicund and portly, leaning on his cane, to pass the word of seasonable cheer with his old friend and pastor; and with him his tiny niece to greet the grandchildren of his friend. The Doctor went with his host to the study on the second floor, where, as a Christmas custom, they would drink some Madeira, ancient of days, from a cask prescribed and furnished long since by the doctor.
The little boy was for the moment left alone with the tiny niece; to stare curiously, now that she was close, at one of whom he had caught glimpses in a window of the big house next door. She was clad in a black velvet cloak and hood, with pink satin next her face inside the hood, and she carried a large closely-wrapped doll which she affected to think might have taken cold. With great self-possession she doffed her cloak and overshoes; then slowly and tenderly unwound the wrappings of the doll, talking meanwhile in low mothering tones, and going with it to the fire when she had it uncloaked. Of the boy who stared at her she seemed unconscious, and he could do no more than stand timidly at a little distance. An eye-flash from the maid may have perceived his abjectness, for she said haughtily at length, "I'm astonished no one in this house knows where Clytie is!"
He drew nearer by as far as he could slowly spread his feet twice.
"I know—now—she went to get two glasses from the dresser to take to my grandfather and that gentleman." He felt voluble from the mere ease of the answer. But she affected to have heard nothing, and he was obliged to speak again.
"Now—why, I know a doll that shuts up her eyes every time she lies down."
The doll at hand was promptly extended on the little lap and with a click went into sudden sleep while the mother rocked it. He could have ventured nothing more after this pricking of his inflated little speech. A moment he stood, suffering moderately, and then would have edged cautiously away with the air of wishing to go, only at this point, without seeming to see him, she chirped to him quite winningly in a soft, warm little voice, and there was free talk at once. He manfully let her tell of all her silly little presents before talking of his own. He even listened about the doll, whose name Santa Claus had thoughtfully painted on the box in which she came; it was a French name, "Fragile."
Then, being come to names, they told their own. Hers, she said, was Lillian May.
"But your uncle, now—that gentleman—he called you Nancy when you came in." He waited for her solving of this.
"Oh, Uncle Doctor doesn't know it yet, what my real name is. They call me Nancy, but that's a very disagreeable name, so I took Lillian May for my real name. But I tell very few persons," she added, importantly. Here he was at home; he knew about choosing a good name.
"Did you give up the gold-piece you found?" he asked. But this puzzled her.
"'A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,'" he reminded her. "Didn't you find a gold-piece like Ben Holt did?"
But it seemed she had never found anything. Indeed, once she had lost a dime, even on the way to spending it for five candy bananas and five jaw-breakers. Plainly she had chosen her good name without knowing of the case of Ben Holt. Then he promised to show her something the most wonderful in all the world, which she would never believe without seeing it, and led her to where the candy cane towered to their shoulders in its corner. He saw at once that it meant less to her than it did to him.
"Oh, it's a candy cane!" she said, calling it a candy cane commonly, with not even a hush of tone, as one would say "a brick house" or "a gold watch," or anything. She, promptly detecting his disappointment at her coldness, tried to simulate the fervour of an initiate, but this may never be done so as to deceive any one who has truly sensed the occult and incommunicable virtue of the candy cane. For one thing, she kept repeating the words "candy cane" baldly, whenever she could find a place for them in her soulless praise; whereas an initiate would not once have uttered the term, but would have looked in silence. Another initiate, equally silent by his side, would have known him to be of the brotherhood. Perhaps at the end there would have been respectful wonder expressed as to how long it would stay unbroken and so untasted. Still he was not unkind to her, except in ways requisite to a mere decent showing forth of his now ascertained superiority. He helped her to a canter on the new horse; and even pretended a polite and superficial interest in the doll, Fragile, which she took up often. Being a girl, she had to be humoured in that manner. But any boy could see that the thing went to sleep by turning its eyes inside out, and its garters were painted on its fat legs. These things he was, of course, too much the gentleman to point out.
When the Doctor and his host came down stairs late in the afternoon, the little boy and girl were fairly friendly. Only there was talk of kissing at the door, started by the little girl's uncle, and this the little boy of course could not consider, even though he suddenly wished it of all things—for he had never kissed any one but his father and mother. He had told Clytie it made him sick to be kissed. Now, when the little girl called to him as if it were the simplest thing in the world, he could not go. And then she stabbed him by falsely kissing the complacent Allan standing by, who thereupon smirked in sickening deprecation and promptly rubbed his cheek.
Not until the pair were out in the street did his man-strength come back to him, and then he could only burn with indignation at her and at Allan. He wondered that no one was shocked at him for feeling as he did. But, as they seemed not to notice him, he rode his horse again. No mad gallop now, but a slow, moody jog—a pace ripe for any pessimism.
"Clytie!" he called imperiously, after a little. "Do you think there's a real bone in this horse—like a regular horse?"
Clytie responded from the dining-room with a placid "I guess so."
"If I sawed into its neck, would the saw go right into a real bone?"
"My suz! what talk! Well?"
"I know there ain't any bone in there, like a regular horse. It's just a wooden bone."
Nor was this his last negative thought of the day. It came to him then and there with cruel, biting plainness, that no one else in the house felt as he did toward his chief treasure. Allan didn't. He had spent hardly a moment with it. Clytie didn't; he had seen her pick it up when she dusted the sitting-room; there was sacrilege in her very grasp of it; and his grandfather seemed hardly to know of its existence. The little girl who had chosen the good name of Lillian May might have been excused; but not these others. If his grandfather was without understanding in such a matter, in what, then, could he be trusted?
He descended to a still lower plane before he fell asleep that night. Even if he had one of them, he would probably never have a whole row, graduated from a pigmy to a mammoth, to hang on a wire across the front window, after the manner of the rich, and dazzle the outer world into envy. The mood was but slightly chastened when he remembered, as he now did, that on last Christmas he had received only one pretentious candy rooster, falsely hollow, and a very uninteresting linen handkerchief embroidered with some initials not his own. He fell asleep on a brutal reflection that the cane could be broken accidentally and eaten.
THE BIG HOUSE OF PORTENTS
In this big white house the little boys had been born again to a life that was all strange. Novel was the outer house with its high portico and fluted pillars, its vast areas of white wall set with shutters of relentless green; its stout, red chimneys; its surprises of gabled window; its big front door with the polished brass knocker and the fan-light above. Quite as novel was the inner house, and quite as novel was this new life to its very center.
For one thing, while the joy of living had hitherto been all but flawless for the little boys, the disadvantages of being dead were now brought daily to their notice. In morning and evening prayer, in formal homily, informal caution, spontaneous warning, in the sermon at church, and the lesson of the Sabbath-school, was their excessive liability to divine wrath impressed upon them "when the memory is wax to receive and marble to retain."
Within the home Clytie proved to be an able coadjutor of the old man, who was, indeed, constrained and awkward in the presence of the younger child, and perhaps a thought too severe with the elder. But Clytie, who had said "I'll make my own of them," was tireless and not without ingenuity in opening the way of life to their little feet.
Allan, the elder, gifted with a distinct talent for memorising, she taught many instructive bits chosen from the scrap-book in which her literary treasures were preserved. His rendition of a passage from one of Mr. Spurgeon's sermons became so impressive under her drilling that the aroma of his lost youth stole back to the nostrils of the old man while he listened.
"There is a place," the boy would declaim loweringly, and with fitting gesture, with hypnotic eye fastened on the cowering Bernal, "where the only music is the symphony of damned souls. Where howling, groaning, moaning, and gnashing of teeth make up the horrible concert. There is a place where demons fly swift as air, with whips of knotted burning wire, torturing poor souls; where tongues on fire with agony burn the roofs of mouths that shriek in vain for drops of water—that water all denied. When thou diest, O Sinner—"
But at this point the smaller boy usually became restless and would have to go to the kitchen for a drink of water. Always he became thirsty here. And he would linger over his drink till Clytie called him back to admire his brother in the closing periods.
—"but at the resurrection thy soul will be united to thy body and then thou wilt have twin hells; body and soul will be tormented together, each brimful of agony, the soul sweating in its utmost pores drops of blood, thy body from head to foot suffused with pain, thy bones cracking in the fire, thy pulse rattling at an enormous rate in agony, every nerve a string on which the devil shall play his diabolical tune of hell's unutterable torment."
Here the little boy always listened at his wrist to know if his pulse rattled yet, and felt glad indeed that he was a Presbyterian, instead of being in that dreadful place with Jews and Papists and Milo Barrus, who spelled God with a little g.
As to his own performance, Clytie found that he memorised prose with great difficulty. A week did she labour to teach him one brief passage from a lecture of Francis Murphy, depicting the fate of the drunkard. She bribed him to fresh effort with every carnal lure the pantry afforded, but invariably he failed at a point where the soul of the toper was going "down—down—DOWN—into the bottomless depths of HELL!" Here he became pitiful in his ineffectiveness, and Clytie had at last to admit that he would never be the elocutionist Allan was. "But, my Land!" she would say, at each of his failures, "if you only could do it the way Mr. Murphy did—and then he'd talk so plain and natural, too,—just like he was associating with a body in their own parlour—and so pathetic it made a body simply bawl. My suz! how I did love to set and hear that man tell what a sot he'd been!"
However, Clytie happily discovered that the littler boy's memory was more tenacious of rhyme, so she successfully taught him certain metrical conceits that had been her own to learn in girlhood, beginning with pithy couplets such as:
"Xerxes the Great did die And so must you and I."
"As runs the glass Man's life must pass."
"Thy life to mend God's book attend."
From these it was a step entirely practicable to longer warnings, one of her favourites being:
UNCERTAINTY OF LIFE
"I in the burying-place may see Graves shorter there than I. From Death's arrest no age is free, Young children, too, may die.
"My God, may such an awful sight Awakening be to me; Oh, that by early grace, I might For death prepared be!"
She was not a little proud of Bernal the day he recited this to Grandfather Delcher without a break, though he began the second stanza somewhat timidly, because it sounded so much like swearing.
Nor did she neglect to teach both boys the lessons of Holy Writ.
Of a Sabbath afternoon she would read how God ordered the congregation to stone the son of Shelomith for blasphemy; or, perhaps, how David fetched the Ark of the Covenant from Kirjath-jearim on a new cart; and of how the Lord "made a breach" upon Uzza for wickedly putting his hand upon the Ark to save it when the oxen stumbled. The little boys were much impressed by this when they discovered, after questioning, exactly what it meant to Uzza to have "a breach" made upon him. The unwisdom of touching an Ark of the Covenant, under any circumstances, could not have been more clearly brought home to them. They liked also to hear of the instruments played upon before the Lord by those that went ahead of the Ark; harps, psalteries, and timbrels; cornets, cymbals, and instruments made of fir-wood.
Then there was David, who danced at the head of the procession "girded with a linen ephod," which, somehow, sounded insufficient; and indeed, it appeared that Clytie was inclined to side wholly with Michal, David's wife, who looked through a window and despised him when she saw him "leaping and dancing before the Lord," uncovered save for the presumably inadequate ephod of linen. She, Clytie, thought it not well that a man of David's years and honour should "make himself ridiculous that way."
So it was early in this new life that the little boys came to walk as it behooves those to walk who shall taste death. And to the littler boy, prone to establish relations and likenesses among his mental images, the big house itself would at times be more than itself to him. There was the Front Room. Only the use of capital letters can indicate the manner in which he was accustomed to regard it. Each Friday, when it was opened for a solemn dusting, he timidly pierced its stately gloom from the threshold of its door. It seemed to be an abode of dead joys—a place where they had gone to reign forever in fixed and solemn festival. And while he could not see God there, actually, neither in the horse-hair sofa nor the bleak melodeon surmounted by tall vases of dyed grass, nor in the center-table with its cemeterial top, nor under the empty horsehair and green-rep chairs, set at expectant angles, nor in the cold, tall stove, ornately set with jewels of polished nickel, and surely not in the somewhat frivolous air-castle of cardboard and scarlet zephyr that fluttered from the ceiling—yet in and over and through the dark of it was a forbidding spirit that breathed out the cold mustiness of the tomb—an all-pervading thing of gloom and majesty which was nothing in itself, yet a quality and part of everything, even of himself when he looked in. And this quality or spirit he conceived to be God—the more as it came to him in a flash of divination that the superb and immaculate coal-stove must be like the Ark of the Covenant.
Thus the Front Room became what "Heaven" meant to him when he heard the word—a place difficult of access, to be prized not so much for what it actually afforded as for what it enabled one to avoid; a place whose very joys, indeed, would fill with dismay any but the absolutely pure in heart; a place of restricted area, moreover, while all outside was a speciously pleasant hell, teeming with every potent solicitation of evil, of games and sweets and joyous idleness.
The word "God," then, became at this time a word of evil import to the littler boy, as sinister as the rustle of black silk on a Sabbath morning, when he must walk sedately to church with his hand in Clytie's, with scarce an envious glance at the proud, happy loafers, who, clean-shaven and in their own Sabbath finery, sat on the big boxes in front of the shut stores and whittled and laughed and gossiped rarely, like very princes.
To Clytie he once said, of something for which he was about to ask her permission, "Oh, it must be awful, awful wicked—because I want to do it very, very much!—not like, going to church."
Yet the ascetic life was not devoid of compensation—particularly when Milo Barrus, the village atheist, was pointed out to him among the care-free Sabbath loafers.
Clytie predicted most direly interesting things of him if he did not come to the Feet before he died. "But I believe he will come to the Feet," she added, "even if it's on his very death-bed, with the cold sweat standing on his brow. It would make a lovely tract—him coming to the Feet at the very last moment and his face lighting up and everything."
The little boy, however, rather hoped Milo Barrus wouldn't come to the Feet. It was more worth while going to Heaven if he didn't, and if you could look down and see him after it was too late for him to come. During church that morning he chiefly wondered about the Feet. Once, long ago, it seemed, he had been with his dear father in a very big city, and out of the maze of all its tangled marvels of sound and sight he had brought and made his own forever one image: the image of a mighty foot carved in marble, set on a pedestal at the bottom of a dark stairway. It had been severed at the ankle, and around the top was modestly chiselled a border of lace. It was a foot larger than his whole body, and he had passed eager, questioning hands over its whole surface, pressing it from heel to each perfect toe. Of course, this must be one of the Feet to which Milo Barrus might come; he wondered if the other would be up that dark stairway, and if Milo Barrus would go up to look for it—and what did you have to do when you got to the Feet? The possibility of not getting to them, or of finding only one of them, began to fill his inner life quite as the sombre shadows filled and made a presence of themselves in the Front Room—particularly of a Sabbath, when one must be uncommonly good because God seemed to take more notice than on week-days.
During the week, indeed, Clytie often relaxed her austerity. She would even read to him verses of her own composition, of which he never tired and of which he learned to repeat not a few. One of her pastoral poems told of a visit she had once made to the home of a relative in a neighbouring State. It began thus:
"New Hampshire is a pretty place, I did go there to see The maple-sugar being boiled By one that's dear to me."
Bernal came to know it all as far as the stanza—
"I loved to hear the banjo hum, It sounds so very calmly; If a happy home you wish to find, Visit the Thompson family."
After this the verses became less direct, and, to his mind, rather wordy and purposeless, though he never failed of joy in the mere verbal music of them when Clytie read, with sometimes a kind of warm tremble in her voice—
"At lovers' promises fates grow merrilee; Some are made on land, Some on the deep sea. Love does sometimes leave Streams of tears."
He thought she looked very beautiful when she read this, in a voice that sounded like crying, with her big, square face, her fat cheeks that looked like russet apples, her very tiny black moustache, her smooth, oily black hair with a semicircle of tight little curls over her brow, and her beautiful, big, rounded, shining forehead.
Yet he preferred her poems of action, like that of Salmon Faubel, whose bride became so homesick in Edom that she was in a way to perish, so that Salmon took her to her home and found work there for himself. He even sang one catchy couplet of this to music of his own:
"For her dear sake whom he did pity, He took her back to Jersey City."
But the Sabbath came inexorably to bring his sinful nature before him, just as the door of the Front Room was opened each week to remind him of the awful joys of Heaven. And then his mind was like the desert of shifting sands. There were so many things to be done and not done if one were to avert the wrath of this God that made the Front Room a cavern of terror, that rumbled threateningly in the prayer of his grandfather and shook the young minister to a white passion each Sabbath.
There was being good—which was not to commit murder or be an atheist like Milo Barrus and spell God with a little g; and there was Coming to the Feet—not so simple as it sounded, he could very well tell them; and there was the matter of Blood. There were hymns, for example, that left him confused. The "fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel's veins" sounded interesting. Vividly he saw the "sinners plunged beneath that flood" losing all their guilty stains. It was entirely reasonable, and with an assumption of carelessness he glanced cautiously over his own body each morning to see if his guilty stains showed yet. But who was Immanuel? And where was this excellent fountain?
Then there was being "washed in the blood of the lamb," which was considerably simpler—except for the matter of its making one "whiter than snow." He was doubtful of this result, unless it was only poetry-writing which doesn't mean everything it says. He meant to try this sometime, when he could get a lamb, both as a means of grace and as a desirable experiment.
But plunging into the fountain filled with blood sounded far more important and effectual—if it were only practicable. As the sinners came out of this flood he thought they must look as Clytie did in her scarlet flannel petticoat the night he was taken with croup and she came running with the Magnetic Ointment—even redder!
The big white house of Grandfather Delcher and Clytie, in short, was a house in which to be terrified and happy; anxious and well-fed. And if its inner recesses took on too much gloomy portent one could always fly to the big yard where grew monarch elms and maples and a row of formal spruces; where the lawn on one side was bordered with beds of petunias and fuschias, tiger-lilies and dahlias; where were a great clump of white lilacs and many bushes of yellow roses; a lawn that stretched unbrokenly to the windows of the next big house where lived the gentle stranger with the soft, warm little voice who had chosen the good name of Lillian May.
Life was severely earnest but by no means impracticable.
THE LIFE OF CRIME IS APPRAISED AND CHOSEN
It came to seem expedient to Bernal, however, in the first spring of his new life, to make a final choice between early death and a life, of sin. Matters came to press upon him, and since virtue was useful only to get one into Heaven, it was not worth the effort unless one meant to die at once. This was an alternative not without its lures, despite the warnings preached all about him. It would surely be interesting to die, if one had come properly to the Feet. Even coming to but one of the Feet, as he had, might make it still more interesting. Perhaps he would not, for this reason, be always shut up in Heaven. In his secret heart was a lively desire to see just what they did to Milo Barrus, if he should continue to spell God with a little g on his very death-bed—that is, if he could see it without disadvantage to himself: But then, you could save that up, because you must die sometime, like Xerxes the Great; and meantime, there was the life of evil now opening wide to the vision with all enticing refreshments.
First, it meant no school. He had ceased to picture relief in this matter by the school-house burning some morning, preferably a Monday morning, one second after school had taken in. For a month he had daily dramatised to himself the building's swift destruction amid the kind and merry flames. But Allan, to whom he had one day hinted the possibility of this gracious occurrence, had reminded him brutally that they would probably have school in the Methodist church until a new school-house could be built. For Allan loved his school and his teacher.
But a life of evil promised other joys besides this negative one of no school. In his latest Sunday-school book, Ralph Overton, the good boy, not only attended school slavishly, so that at thirteen he "could write a good business hand"; but he practised those little tricks of picking up every pin, always untying the string instead of cutting it, keeping his shoes neatly polished and his hands clean, which were, in a simpler day, held to lay the foundations of commercial success in our republic. Besides this, Ralph had to be bright and cheery to every one, to work for his widowed mother after school; and every Saturday afternoon he went, sickeningly of his own accord, to split wood for an aged and poor lady. This lady seemed to Bernal to do nothing much but burn a tremendous lot of stove-wood, but presently she turned out to be the long-lost cousin of Mr. Granville Parkinson, the Great Banker from the City, who thereupon took cheery Ralph there and gave him a position in the bank where he could be honest and industrious and respectful to his superiors. Such was the barren tale of Virtue's gain. But contrasted with Ralph Overton in this book was one Budd Jackson, who led a life of voluptuous sloth, except at times when the evil one moved him to activity. At these bad moments he might go bobbing for catfish on a Sabbath, or purloin fruit from the orchard of Farmer Haskins (who would gladly have given some to him if he had but asked for it civilly, so the book said); or he might bully smaller boys whom he met on their way to school, taking their sailor hats away from them, or jeering coarsely at their neatly brushed garments. When Budd broke a window in the Methodist parsonage with his slung-shot and tried to lie it on to Ralph Overton, he seemed to have given way utterly to his vicious nature. He was known soon thereafter to have drunk liquor and played a game called pin-pool with a "flashy stranger" at the tavern; hence no one was surprised when he presently ran off with a circus, became an infidel, and perished miserably in the toils of vice.
This touch about the circus, well-intended, to be sure, was yet fatal to all good the tale might have done the little boy. Clytie, who read most of the story to him, declared Budd Jackson to be "a regular mean one." But in his heart Bernal, thinking all at once of the circus, sickened unutterably of Virtue. To drive eight spirited white horses, seated high on one of those gay closed wagons—those that went through the street with that delicious hollow rumble—hearing perchance the velvet tread, or the clawing and snarling of some pent ferocity—a leopard, a lion, what not; to hear each day that muffled, flattened beating of a bass drum and cymbals far within the big tent, quick and still more quickly, denoting to the experienced ear that pink and spangled Beauty danced on the big white horse at a deathless gallop; to know that one might freely enter that tented elysium—if it were possible he would run off with a circus though it meant that he had the morals of a serpent!
Now, eastward from the big house lay the village and its churches: thither was tame virtue. But westward lay a broad field stretching off to an orchard, and beyond swelled a gentle hill, mellow in the distance. Still more remotely far, at the hill's rim, was a blur of woods beyond which the sun went down each night. This, in the little boy's mind, was the highway to the glad free Life of Evil. Many days he looked to that western wood when the sky was a gush of colour behind its furred edge, perceiving all manner of allurements to beckon him, hearing them plead, feeling them tug. Daily his spirit quickened within him to their solicitations, leaping out and beyond him in some magic way to bring back veritable meanings and values of the future.
Then a day came when the desire to be off was no longer resistible. There was a month of school yet; an especially bitter thought, for had he not lately been out of school a week with mumps; and during that very week had not the teacher's father died, so that he was cheated out of the resulting three-days' vacation, other children being free while he lay on a bed of pain—if you tasted pickles or any sour thing? Not only was it useless to try to learn to write "a good business hand," like Ralph Overton—he took the phrase to mean one of those pictured hands that were always pointing to things in the newspaper advertisements—but there was the circus and other evil things—and he was getting on in years.
It was a Saturday afternoon. To-morrow would be too late. He knew he would not be allowed to start on the Sabbath, even in a career that was to be all wickedness. In the grape-arbour he massed certain articles necessary for the expedition: a very small strip of carpet on which he meant to sleep; a copy of "Golden Days," with an article giving elaborate instructions for camping in the wilderness. He was compelled to disregard all of them, but there was comfort and sustenance in the article itself. Then there was the gun that came at Christmas. It shot a cork as far as the string would let it go, with a fairly satisfying report (he would have that string off, once he was in the woods!). Also there were three glass alleys, two agate taws and thirty-eight commies. And to hold his outfit there was a rather sizable box which he with his own hands had papered inside and out from a remnant of gorgeously flowered wall-paper.
When all was ready he went in to break the news to Clytie. She, busy with her baking, heard him declare:
"Now—I'm going to leave this place!" with the look of one who will not be coaxed nor in any manner dissuaded. He thought she took it rather coolly, though Allan ran, as promptly as he could have wished, to tell his grandfather.
"I'm going to be a regular mean one—worse'n Budd Jackson!" he continued to Clytie. He was glad to see that this brought her to her senses.
"Will you stay if I give you—an orange?"
"No, sir;—you'll never set eyes on me again!"
"Oh, now!—two oranges?"
"I can't—I got to go!" in a voice tense with effort.
"All right! Then I'll give them to Allan."
She continued to take brown loaves from the oven and to put other loaves in to bake, while he stood awkwardly by, loath to part from her. Allan came back breathless.
"Grandpa says you can go as far as you like and you needn't come back till you get ready!"
He shifted from one foot to the other and absently ate a warm cookie from the jarful at his hand. He thought this seemed not quite the correct attitude to take toward him, yet he did not waver. They would be sorry enough in a few days, when it was too late.
"I guess I better take a few of these along with me," he said, stowing cookies in the pockets of his jacket. He would have liked one of the big preserved peaches all punctuated with cloves, but he saw no way to carry it, and felt really unable to eat it on the spot.
"Well, good-bye!" he called to Clytie, turning back to her from the door.
"Good-bye! Won't you shake hands with me?"
Very solemnly he shook her big, floury hand.
"Now—could I take Penny along?" (Penny was an inconsequential dog that had been given to Clytie by one whom she called Cousin Bill J.)
"Yes, you'll need a dog to keep the animals off. Now be sure you write to us—at least twice a year—don't forget!" And, brutally before his very eyes, she handed the sniffing and virtuous Allan two of the largest, most goldenly beautiful oranges ever beheld by man.
Bitterly the self-exiled turned from this harrowing scene and strode toward his box.
Here ensued a fresh complication. Nancy, who had chosen the good name of Lillian May, wanted to go with him. She, too, it appeared, was fresh from a Sunday-school book—one in which a girl of her own age was so proud of her long raven curls that she was brought to an illness and all her hair came out. There was a distressing picture of this little girl after a just Providence had done its work as a depilatory. And after she recovered from the fever, it seemed, she had cared to do nothing but read the Scriptures to bed-ridden old ladies—even after a good deal of her hair came in again—though it didn't curl this time. The only pleasure she ever experienced thereafter was that, by virtue of her now singularly angelic character, she was enabled to convert an elderly female Papist—an achievement the joys of which were problematic, both to Nancy and the little boy. Certainly, whatever converting a Papist might be, it was nothing comparable to driving a red-and-green-and-gold wagon in which was caged the Scourge of the Jungle.
But Nancy could not go with him. He told her so plainly. It was no place for a girl beyond that hill where they commonly drove caged beasts, and no one ever so much as thought of Coming to the Feet or washing in the blood of the Lamb, or writing a good business hand with the first finger of it pointing out, or anything.
The little girl pleaded, promising to take her new pink silk parasol, her buff buttoned shoes, a Christmas card with real snow on it, shining like diamonds, and Fragile, her best doll. The thing was impossible. Then she wept.
He whistled to Penny, who came barking joyously—a pretender of a dog, if there ever was one—and they moved off. Weeping after them went Nancy—as far as the first fence, between two boards of which she put her head and sobbed with a heavenly bitterness; for to the little boy, pushing sternly on, her tears afforded that certain thrill of gratified brutality under conscious rectitude, the capacity for which is among those matters by which Heaven has set the male of our species apart from the female. The sensation would have been flawless but for Allan's lack of dignity: from the top board of the fence he held aloft in either hand a golden orange, and he chanted in endless inanity:
Chink, Chink Chiraddam! Don't you wisht you had 'em? Chink, Chink Chiraddam! Don't you wisht you had 'em?
Still he was actually and triumphantly off.
And here should be recalled the saying of a certain wise, simple man: "If our failures are made tragic by courage they are not different from successes." For it came about that the subsequent dignity of this revolt was to be wholly in its courage.
The way led over a stretch of grassy prairie to a fence. This surmounted, there came a ploughed field, of considerable extent to one carrying an inconvenient box. At the farther end of this was another fence, and beyond this an ancient orchard with a grassy floor, where lingered a few old apple-trees, under which the recumbent cows, chewing and placid, dozed like stout old ladies over their knitting.
Nearest the fence was an aged, gnarled and riven tree, foolishly decked in blossoms, like some faded, wrinkled dame, fatuously reluctant to leave off girlish finery. Under its frivolous branches on the grassy sward would be the place for his first night's halt—for the magic wood just this side of the sun was now seen to be farther off than he had once supposed. So he spread his carpet, arranged the contents of his box neatly, and ate half his food-supply, for one's strength must be kept up in these affairs. As he ate he looked back toward the big house—now left forever—and toward the village beyond. The spires of the three churches were all pointing sternly upward, as if they would mutely direct him aright, but in their shelter one must submit to the prosaic trammels of decency. It was not to be thought of.
He longed for morning to come, so that he might be up and on. He lay down on his mat to be ready for sleep, and watched a big bird far above, cutting lazy graceful figures in the air, like a fancy skater. Then, on a bough above him, a little dusty-looking bird tried to sing, but it sounded only like a very small door creaking on tiny rusted hinges. A fat, gluttonous robin that had been hopping about to peer at him, chirped far more cheerfully as it flew away.
Just at this point he suffered a real adventure. Eight cows sauntered up interestedly and chewed their cuds at him in unison, standing contemplative, calculating, determined. It is a fact in natural history not widely enough recognised that the domestic cow is the most ferocious appearing of all known beasts—a thing to be proved by any who will survey one amid strange surroundings, with a mind cleanly disabused of preconceptions. A visitor from another planet, for example, knowing nothing of our fauna, and confronted in the forest simultaneously by a common red milch cow and the notoriously savage black leopard of the Himalyas, would instinctively shun the cow as a dangerous beast and confidingly seek to fondle the pretty leopard, thus terminating his natural history researches before they were fairly begun.
It can be understood, then, that a moment ensued when the little boy wavered under the steady questioning scrutiny of eight large and powerful cows, all chewing at him in unison. Yet, even so, and knowing, moreover, that strange cows are ever untrustworthy, only for a moment did he waver. Then his new straw hat was off to be shaken at them and he heaved a fierce "H-a-y—y-u-p!"
At this they started, rather indignantly, seeming to meditate his swift destruction; but another shout turned and routed them, and he even chased them a little way, helped now by the inconsiderable dog who came up from pretending to hunt gophers.
After this there seemed nothing to do but eat the other half of the provisions and retire again for the night. Long after the sun went down behind the magic wood he lay uneasily on his lumpy bed, trying again and again to shut his eyes and open them to find it morning—which was the way it always happened in the west bedroom of the big house he had left forever.
But it was different here. And presently, when it seemed nearly dark except for the stars, a disgraceful thing happened. He had pictured the dog as faithful always to him, refusing in the end even to be taken from over his dead body. But the treacherous Penny grew first restive, then plainly desirous of returning to his home. At last, after many efforts to corrupt the adventurer, he started off briskly alone—cornerwise, as little dogs seem always to run—fleeing shamelessly toward that east where shone the tame lights of Virtue.
Left alone, the little boy began strangely to remember certain phrases from a tract that Clytie had tried to teach him—"the moment that will close thy life on earth and begin thy song in heaven or thy wail in hell"—"impossible to go from the haunts of sin and vice to the presence of the Lamb"—"the torments of an eternal hell are awaiting thee"—
"To-night may be thy latest breath, Thy little moment here be done. Eternal woe, the second death, Awaits the Christ-rejecting one."
This was more than he had ever before been able to recall of such matters. He wished that he might have forgotten them wholly. Yet so was he turned again to better things. Gradually he began to have an inkling of a possibility that made his blood icy—a possibility that not even the spectacle of Milo Barrus having interesting things done to him could mitigate—namely, a vision of himself in the same plight with that person.
Now it was that he began to hear Them all about him. They walked stealthily near, passed him with sinister rustlings, and whispered over him. If They had only talked out—but they whispered—even laughing, crying and singing in whispers. This horror, of course, was not long to be endured. Yet, even so, with increasing myriads of Them all about, rustling and whispering their awful laughs and cries—it was no ignominious rout. With considerable deliberation he folded the carpet, placed it in the box with his other treasure, and started at a pace which may, perhaps, have quickened a little, yet was never undignified—never more than a moderately fast trudge.
He wondered sadly if Clytie would get up to unlock the door for him so late at night. As for Penny, things could never be the same between them again.
He was astounded to see lights burning and the house open—how weird for them to have supper at such an hour! He concealed his box in the grape-arbour and slunk through the kitchen into the dining-room. Probably they had gotten up in the middle of the night, out of tardy alarm for him. It served them right. Yet they seemed hardly to notice him when he slid awkwardly into his chair. He looked calculatingly over the table and asked, in tones that somehow seemed to tell of injury, of personal affront:
"What you having supper for at this time of night?"
His grandfather regarded him now not unkindly, while Clytie seemed confused.
"It's more'n long past midnight!" he insisted.
"Huh! it ain't only a quarter past seven," put in his superior brother. He seemed about to say more, but a glance from the grandfather silenced him.
So that was as late as he had stayed—a quarter after seven? He was ready now to rage at any taunt, and began to eat in haughty silence. He was still eating when his grandfather and Allan left the table, and then he began to feel a little grateful that they had not noticed or asked annoying questions, or tried to be funny or anything. Over a final dish of plum preserves and an imposing segment of marble cake he relented so far as to tell Clytie something of his adventures—especially since she had said that the big hall-clock was very likely slow—that it must surely be a lot later than a quarter past seven. The circumstances had combined to produce a narrative not entirely perspicuous—the two clear points being that They do everything in a whisper, and that Clytie ought to get rid of Penny at once, since he could not be depended upon at great moments.
As to ever sleeping under a tree, Clytie discouraged him. She knew of some Boys that once sat under a tree which was struck by lightning, all being Killed save one, who had the rare good luck to be the son of a Presbyterian clergyman. The little boy resolved next time to go beyond the trees to sleep; perhaps if he went far enough he would come to the other one of the Feet, and so have a safeguard against lightning, foreign cows, and Those that walk with rustlings and whisper in the lonely places at night.
The little boy fell asleep, half-persuaded again to virtue, because of its superior comforts. The air about his head seemed full of ghostly "good business hands," each with its accusing forefinger pointed at him for that he had not learned to write one as Ralph Overton did.
Down the hall in his study the old man was musing backward to the delicate, quiet girl with the old-fashioned aureole of curls, who would now and then toss them with a little gesture eloquent of possibilities for unrestraint when she felt the close-drawn rein of his authority. Again he felt her rebellious little tugs, and the wrench of her final defiance when she did the awful thing. He had been told by a plain speaker that her revolt was the fault of his severity. And here was the flesh of her flesh—was it in the same spirit of revolt against authority, a thousandfold magnified? Might he not by according the boy a wise liberty save him in after years from some mad folly akin to his mother's?
THE GARDEN OF TRUTH AND THE PERFECT FATHER
It was a different summer from those that had gone before it.
A little passionate Protestant had sallied out to make bed with the gods; and the souls of such the just gods do truly take into certain shining realms whither poor involatile bodies of flesh may not follow. The requirement is that one feel his own potential godship enough to rebel. For, having rebelled, he will assuredly venture beyond mortal domains into that garden where stands the tree of Truth—this garden being that one to the west just beyond the second fence (or whichever fence); that point where the mortal of invertebrate soul is beset with the feeling that he has already dared too far—that he had better make for home mighty quick if he doesn't want Something to get him. The essence of this decision is quite the same whether the mortal be eight years old or eighty. Now the Tree of Truth stands just over this line at which all but the gods' own turn to scamper back before supper. It is the first tree to the left—an apple-tree, twisted, blackened, scathed, eaten with age, yet full of blossoms as fresh and fertile as those first born of any young tree whatsoever. Those able rightly to read this tree of Truth become at once as the gods, keeping the faith of children while absorbing the wisdom of the ages—lacking either of which, be it known, one may not become an imperishable ornament of Time.
But to him who is bravely faithful to the passing of that last fence, who reclines under that tree even for so long as one aspiration, comes a substantial gain: ever after, when he goes into any solitude, he becomes more than himself. Then he reads the first lesson of the tree of Truth, which is that the spirit of Life ages yet is ageless; and suffers yet is joyous. This is no inconsiderable reward for passing that frontier, even if one must live longer to comprehend reasons. It is worth while even if the mortal become a mere dilettante in paradoxes and never learn even feebly to spell the third lesson, which is the ultimate wisdom of the gods.
These matters being precisely so, the little boy knew quite as well as the gods could know it, that a credit had been set down to his soul for what he had ventured—even though what he had not done was, so far, more stupendous than what he had, in the world of things and mere people. He now became enamoured of life rather than death; and he studied the Shorter Catechism with such effect that he could say it clear over to "Every sin deserveth God's wrath and curse both in this life and that which is to come." Each night he tried earnestly to learn two new answers; and glad was he when his grandfather would sit by him, for the old man had now become his image of God, and it seemed fitting to recite to him. Often as they sat together the little boy would absently slip his hand into the big, warm, bony hand of the old man, turning and twisting it there until he felt an answering pressure. This embarrassed the old man. Though he would really have liked to take the little boy up to his breast and hold him there, he knew not how; and he would even be careful not to restrain the little hand in his own—to hold it, yet to leave it free to withdraw at its first uneasy wriggle.
Of this shackled spirit of kindness, always striving within the old man, the little boy had come to be entirely conscious. So real was it to him, so dependable, that he never suspected that a certain little blow with the open hand one day was meant to punish him for conduct he had persisted in after three emphatic admonitions.
"Oh! that hurts!" he had cried, looking up at the confused old man with unimpaired faith in his having meant not more than a piece of friendly roughness. This look of flawless confidence in the uprightness of his purpose, the fine determination to save him chagrin by smiling even though the hurt place tingled, left in the old man's mind a biting conviction that he had been actually on the point of behaving as one gentleman may not behave to another. Quick was he to make the encounter accord with the child's happy view, even picking him up and forcing from himself the gaiety to rally him upon his babyish tenderness to rough play. Not less did he hold it true that "The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame—" and with the older boy he was not unconscientious in this matter. For Allan took punishment as any boy would, and, indeed, was so careful that he seldom deserved it. But the old man never ceased to be grateful that the littler boy had laughed under that one blow, unable to suspect that it could have been meant in earnest.
From the first day that the little boy felt the tender cool grass under his bare toes that summer, life became like perfectly played music. This was after the long vacation began, when there was no longer any need to remember to let his voice fall after a period, or to dread his lessons so that he must learn them more quickly than any other pupil in school. There would be no more of that wretched fooling until fall, a point of time inconceivably far away. Before it arrived any one of a number of strange things might happen to avert the calamity of education. For instance, he might be born again, a thing of which he had lately heard talk; a contingency by no means flawless in prospect, since it probably meant having the mumps again, and things like that. But if it came on the very last day of vacation, or on the first morning of school, just as he was called on to recite, snatching him from the very jaws of the Moloch, and if it fixed him so he need not be afraid in the night of going where Milo Barrus was going, then it might not be so bad.
Nancy, who had now discarded the good name of Lillian May for simple Alice, disapproved heartily of being born again; unless, indeed, one could be born a boy the second time. She was only too eager for the day when she need not submit to having her hair brushed and combed so long every morning of her life. Not for the world would she go through it again and have to begin French all over, even at "J'ai, tu as, il a." Yet, if it were certain she could be a boy—
He was too considerate to tell her that this was as good as impossible—that she quite lacked the qualities necessary for that. Instead, he reassured her with the chivalrous fiction that he, at least, would like her as well as if she were a boy. And, indeed, as a girl, she was not wholly unsatisfactory. True, she played "school" (of all things!) in preference to "wild animals," practised scales on the piano an hour every day, wore a sun-hat frequently—spite of which she was freckled—wore shoes and stockings on the hottest days, when one's feet are so hungry for the cool, springy turf, and performed other acts repugnant to a soul that has brought itself erect. But she was fresh and dainty to look at, like an opened morning glory, with pretty frocks that the French lady whose name was Madmasel made her wear every day, and her eyes were much like certain flowers in the bed under the bay-window, with very long, black lashes that got all stuck together when she cried; and she made superb capital letters, far better than the little boy's, though she was a year younger.
Also, which was perhaps her chief charm, she could be made to believe that only he could protect her from the Gratcher, a monstrous thing, half beast, half human, which was often seen back of the house; sometimes flitting through the grape-arbour, sometimes coming out of the dark cellar, sometimes peering around corners. It was a thing that went on enormous crutches, yet could always catch you if it saw you by daylight out of its right eye, its left being serviceable only at night, when, if you were wise, you kept in the house. Once the Gratcher saw you with its right eye the crutches swung toward you and you were caught: it picked you up and began to look you all over, with the eyes in the ends of its fingers. This tickled you so that you went crazy in a minute.
Nancy feared the Gratcher, and she became supremely lovely to the little boy when she permitted him to guard her from it, instead of running home across the lawn when it was surely coming;—a loveliness he felt more poignantly at certain reflective times when he was not also afraid. For, the Gratcher being his own invention, these moments of superiority to its terrors would inevitably seize him.
Better than protecting Nancy did he love to report the Gratcher's immediate presence to Allan, daring him to stay on that spot until it put its dreadful head around the corner and shook one of its crutches at them. In low throbbing tones he would report its fearful approach, stride by stride, on the crutches. This he could do by means of the Gratcher-eye, with which he claimed to be endowed. One having a Gratcher-eye can see around any corner when a Gratcher happens to be coming—yet only then, not at any other time, as Allan had proved by experiment on the first disclosure of this phenomenon. He of the Gratcher-eye could positively not see around a corner, if, for example, Allan himself was there; the Gratcher-eye could not tell if his hat was on his head or off. But this by no means proved that the Gratcher-eye did not exercise its magic function when a Gratcher actually approached, and Allan knew it. He would stand staunchly, with a fine incredulity, while the little boy called off the strides, perhaps, until he announced "Now he's just passed the well-curb—now he's—" but here, scoffing over an anxious shoulder, Allan would go in where Clytie was baking, feigning a sudden great hunger.
Nancy would stay, because she believed the little boy's protestations that he could save her, and the little boy himself often believed them.
"I love Allan best, because he is so comfortable, but I think you are the most admirable," she would say to him at such times; and he thought well of her if she had seemed very, very frightened.
So life had become a hardy sport with him. No longer was he moved to wish for early dissolution when Clytie's song floated to him:
"'I should like to die,' said Willie, If my papa could die, too; But he says he isn't ready, 'Cause he has so much to do!"
This Willie had once seemed sweet and noble to him, but the words now made him avid of new life by reminding him that his own dear father would soon come to be with him one week, as he had promised when last they parted, and as a letter written with magnificent flourishes now announced.
Late in August this perfect father came—a fine laughing, rollicking, big gentleman, with a great, loud voice, and beautiful long curls that touched his velvet coat-collar. His sweeping golden moustache, wide-brimmed white hat, the choice rings on his fingers, his magnificently ponderous gold watch-chain and a watch of the finest silver, all proclaimed him a being of such flawless elegance both in person and attire that the little boy never grew tired of showing him to the village people and to Clytie. He did not stay at the big house, for some reason, but at the Eagle Hotel, whence he came to see his boys each day, or met them hurrying to see him. And for a further reason which the little boys did not understand, their grandfather continued to be too busy to see this perfect father once during the week he stayed in the village.
Deeming it a pity that two such choice spirits should not be brought together, the little boy urged his father to bring his fiddle to the big house and play and sing some of his fine songs, so that his grandfather could have a chance to hear some good music. He knew well enough that if the old man once heard this music he would have to give in and enjoy it, even if he was too busy to come down. And if only his father would tune up the fiddle and sing that very, very good song about,
"The more she said 'Whoa!' They cried, 'Let her go!' And the swing went a little bit higher,"
if only his grandfather could hear this, one of the funniest and noisiest songs in the world, perhaps he would come right down stairs. But his father laughed away the suggestion, saying that the old gentleman had no ear for music; which, of course, was a joke, for he had two, like any person.
Clytemnestra, too, was at first strangely cool to the incomparable father, though at last she proved not wholly insensible to his charm, providing for his refection her very choicest cake and the last tumbler of crab-apple jelly. She began to suspect that a man of manners so engaging must have good in him, and she gave him at parting the tracts of "The Dying Drummer Boy" and "Sinner, what if You Die To-day?" for which he professed warm gratitude.
The little boy afterward saw his perfect father hand these very tracts to Milo Barrus, when they met him on the street, saying, "Here, Barrus, get your soul saved while you wait!" Then they laughed together.
The little boy wondered if this meant that Milo Barrus had come to the Feet, or been born again, or something. Or if it meant that his father also spelled God with a little g. He did not think of it, however, until it was too late to ask.
The flawless father went away at the end of the week, "over the County Fair circuit, selling Chief White Cloud's Great Indian Remedy," the little boy heard him tell Clytie. Also he heard his grandfather say to Clytie, "Thank God, not for another year!"
The little boy liked Nancy better than ever after that, because she had liked his father so much, saying he was exactly like a prince, giving pennies and nickels to everybody and being so handsome and big and grand. She wished her own Uncle Doctor could be as beautiful and great; and the little boy was generous enough to wish that his own plain grandfather might be almost as fine.
THE SUPERLATIVE COUSIN BILL J.
A splendid new interest had now come into the household in the person of one whom Clytemnestra had so often named as Cousin Bill J. Grandfather Delcher having been ordered south for the winter by Dr. Crealock, Cousin Bill J., upon Clytie's recommendation, was imported from up Fredonia way to look after the cow and be a man about the place. Clytie assured Grandfather Delcher that Cousin Bill J. had "never uttered an oath, though he's been around horses all his life!" This made him at once an object of interest to the little boy, though doubtless he failed to appraise the restraint at anything like its true value. It had sufficed Grandfather Delcher, however, and Cousin Bill J., securing leave of absence from the livery-stable in Fredonia, arrived the day the old man left, making a double excitement for the household.
He proved to be a fascinating person; handsome, affable, a ready talker upon all matters of interest—though sarcastic, withal—and fond of boys. True, he had not long hair like the little boy's father. Indeed, he had not much hair at all, except a sort of curtain of black curls extending from ear to ear at the back of his bare, pink head. But the little boy had to admit that Cousin Bill J.'s moustache was even grander than his father's. It fell in two graceful festoons far below his chin, with a little eyelet curled into each tip, and, like the ringlets, it showed the blue-black lustre of the crow's wing. In the full sunlight, at times, it became almost a royal purple.
Later observation taught the little boy that this splendid hue was applied at intervals by Cousin Bill J. himself. He did it daintily with a small brush, every time the moustache began to show a bit rusty at the roots; Bernal never failed to be present at this ceremony; nor to resolve that his own moustache, when it came, should be as scrupulously cared for—not left, like Dr. Crealock's, for example, to become speckled and gray.