by Caroline Chesebro
The little hamlet called Juniper, lying at the foot of the Granite Hills, had contributed men out of all proportion to the State and country—twenty ministers to the pulpit, a judge to the Court of Appeals, a governor and a bishop to the Northwestern territory. Poor in corps, it had been rich in men. The traditions of the region—for Juniper was yet more a region than a place—were remarkable.
At length, however, came a time when rising generations exhibited all the signs of contented resting on the laurels won, when energy exhibited itself in amassing wealth and seeking for enjoyment. Farms and stocks looked up as men loaded down. There was very little study done by firelight after a long day of labor in the field. The people of Juniper had not yet ceased to worship at the shrines of their ancestors, but the pride kindled by tradition seemed to have lost the element of emulation. There was no more of it. Soul took its ease in Juniper; the sacred fire went out.
In these days of decline Matthew Reardon was born, of a line which had neither part nor lot in this heritage of Juniper glory. His father was not a landed proprietor of even the humblest pretension, but a blacksmith, who, after roving about with his family of five children from one place to another, finally settled at Juniper, and there remained, because there he was attacked by a disease which put an end to his wanderings. He did not die, but became palsied and purblind; and henceforth his boys and his old woman must get on as best they could.
They exhibited themselves in ways common to people among whom nature is strong. They quarreled over work, food, clothing, fire; and the weakest of the five—they were all boys—bade fair to be worst off. His mother, perceiving the fact, took the child under her special protection, and thus taught him a great lesson that whatever is desirable in this world may be obtained easily if one have but the wisdom to keep still and use opportunity.
If you ask whether a better character bade fair to be formed in Matthew by this training, and the tact which was thus developed in him, than was fashioned in Abel, the eldest, by his almost desperate use of the weapons with which he had supplied himself when he found that he must take the place of leader in his father’s house, I am afraid you must want some time for an answer.
But without doubt Matthew did make a more agreeable exhibition of himself. He seemed to be gentle, but perhaps was only calculating; he appeared to be generous, possibly was merely timid. Abner Reardon was the fourth son; Matthew was second; Michael, the sited, had gone to seek his fortune nobody knew where; Luke was dead since infancy; and Abel was the eldest.
Abner was the only one of the brothers who seemed to know anything about Matthew, and he as ten years Matthew’s junior, and but seven when that wonder of the household died. So it happened quite easily that his imagination, fastening upon the dead, made of him something between human and divine, which by no possibility could have found lodgment within Reardon flesh and blood—at least, not at that period of the Reardon history.
Destitute of family record or tradition, blessed merely with a Saxon common sense, which controlled well the Celtic imagination, it is difficult to understand—is it?—his belief that, had Matthew lived, the world must have had another notable man out of Juniper.
Abner’s destiny was not an unhappy one. He was born to star-worship—to a devotional impulse towards the station his brother had aims at. With the spirit of antagonism strongly developed in him, and the disposition to appropriate whatever he wanted, wherever he found it, and to question and decide rights on the unquestionable power of the strongest, taking up the tradition of his brother, he felt within him the proud purpose that would give back to his mother what she had really never lost—comfort a grief which, in the degree he conceived of, she had never borne. See how this fiction of an imaginary hero in the house worked on the life of this lad, and speak reverently of imagination, the grandest of gifts to mortals.
Abner believed that Matthew, who was gentle, had also been brave, and bravely set to work to acquire a like gentleness. He imagined that the born plodder was patient in the war; that he must be patient would he win what Mat would certainly have won, and steadily he sought to discipline his rough and fiery willfulness into order.
As he grew older he saw in his mother a suffering woman who had lost a son by whom, in the midst of savage natures, she had been tenderly loved and served, a son who had been to her as a daughter, and into his heart trickled drops from a divine fountain that made it a well of brightness.
You are in the secret of Abner Reardon’s growth. You know how he conquered his dislike for anything like study; how he struggled to win his own approbation; how he stood as a slayer of dragons in the den where he was born. By no miracle was it that a son like Abner loomed up among the Reardons. For the reason that he was nothing that could have been born of them, neither the blacksmith nor his wife understood the lad; and in time, as his eyes opened wider, and his brain more clearly perceived, must it not become as evident to himself as to others, and more intelligible to himself than to them, that between them lay a gulf as deep as time, a wall as high as heaven?
Years passed on, and Abel, of course, married; and as he had already a family to a great degree dependent on him in is father’s house, he brought his wife to it, and after that, though there were slight changes, and perhaps a little gain in cheerfulness, things did not, on the whole, go on much better with the Reardons than they had from the beginning.
A young bride, my young lady, who brings on fortune into the home of a poor man, and alas! not even health, must she not have inexhaustible good nature, faith unlimited, and unquenchable cheerfulness to secure for herself an immovable place in the household affections? Poor Ruth seemed to have all that could be required, for she soon became the center of the house, and the house was transformed into a home.
Yet it seemed strange to all the neighbors when Ruth Colt went over to the Reardons. What would have induced her to exchange her father’s for the blacksmith’s house? Perhaps Abel’s bluff kind of manfulness seemed to a delicate girl, who had gown up in a family of girls, full of protecting power. Whatever she expected, whatever she found, it began to appear that Ruth had married Abel and come into the house chiefly that she might instruct Abner how he might find his way out of it.
The twenty ministers, the bishop, and the judge had each and all passed to their high position through college doors, with midnight lamps and text books in their hands, and Abner had thought of no other way of egress, and had begun to look with doubting gaze towards the future. But Abel’s wife came, and made a life-long friend of him by her more than wondrous fairy tale about her uncle in New York, who had begun life as a saddler, and was ending it a millionaire. Perhaps the blacksmith’s trade might prove as good a beginning, but the saddler had not got on without learning of some sort. Yes, and had taught school before he set himself up in business! There it all was in a nutshell. The time Abner had given to study had not been lost—the more time he continued to give to it the better—but enterprise also must have its opportunity. Abner boldly took the money he had been saving for college expenses—money he had earned by performing sexton duty in a church five miles away—and, selling the apples which he had dried to a peddler for three cents a pound, he bought tobacco, pipes, cigars, yeast-cakes, matches, soap, and other like light wares, and these he exposed for sale on neat shelves which he put up back of a counter in the little shed adjoining Abel’s shop. Many a child has “played store” on the outlay of a larger capital than was expended by the experiment Abner so seriously made. Abel laughed at “the boy;” but there was his own Ruth’s story about her uncle, and the Colts had rich relations. Everybody knew it. Abel could not put the testimony of their experiences out of sight.
From time to time, as inquiries were made at the blacksmith’s shop for articles of domestic use, the stock on Abner’s shelves became larger and more varied, and among the goods were displayed, probably by way of ornament, specimens of quartz and of minerals, which Abner’s observing eyes had discovered on his Sunday walks to and from the church where he officiated in his humble capacity.
But Abner was growing older with the months which saw these changes. It took some time to bring about the necessity of enlarged stock, a longer time to collect the specimens and bring them together. Still he never forgot Matthew, and between the books he brought from Juniper Center Library and the shoeing of horses and the selling of wares he had sufficient occupation. When would the tide rise, though, so as to surge through the inlet, and set the smooth water his bark was moored in in motion?
Sometimes Ruth’s younger sister, Abby, came to visit them. She was a lively girl, who had taught school since she was twelve years old—a loving girl, who took no overburdening thought of the morrow, and was as satisfied with the pleasure of a day as if the promise of eternal duration were in it.
People at the Center began to say that it would be a pity if another of the Colt girls should be so easily satisfied as to “take” a Reardon, but for all that it was by no means a rare sight on a Sunday morning to see the two walking together on the high road toward the meeting house. And, indeed, it seemed quite unlikely that they would make any other disposition of themselves than just this which the gossips suggested with the doubting of skeptics.
One day there came a letter form the Far West to the Colt family, and after it had been duly read and discussed by the household, Abby put it into her pocket and walked over to Abel’s, carrying a thought with her which she hardly dared to measure in its length and breadth.
Abner ought to know about the prairies and the cattle, and how a man might make a fortune by hardly a turn of the hand if he would only go far enough away from all he knew and loved in search of it. That was the direction towards which the thought tended. Could she counsel such a step? What couldn’t Abby do for Abner? She could at least sacrifice herself. He ought to go from Juniper.
Before she had gone to the house looking for Ruth, or to the blacksmith’s shop seeking Abel—that tall, gaunt, black-browed, rather dejected-looking man, to whose face she could bring a kindly smile sooner than any other being except his wife—Abby went to speak with Abner, and good reason had she to be surprised at what she found in his shop, and near it, for neither at Juniper nor at Juniper Center had a like group ever before been seen.
A short, stout, elderly gentleman, whose head not only, but whose face, seemed to be covered with beautiful gray hair, a man who looked capable of coaxing the secrets out of any kind of nature, stood leaning against Abner’s counter, with every specimen that had ornamented the shelves under his loving eyes. He was talking with Abner. Two young ladies, attired in curious costume, stood near, listening to the conversation, and evidently surprised by the answers the young man was making. One of these girls was Miss Elizabeth Smiles, the professor’s daughter. She had all her father’s love of Nature, with an equal curiosity concerning the secrets to be disclosed by her, and even more than his disposition to rejoice over every beautiful thing. She was now perceiving in Abner a second Hugh Miller, whom her father would presently in a manner adopt, and by a rapid mental process peculiar to herself, by which she decided on the destiny of all whom she met, Miss Elizabeth set Abner forward on the path of discovery, and made him a ruler in the field of modern science. Whether Abner’s powerful eyes, his deliberateness of speech, or the rugged kind of splendor which was revealed in his face when he smiled, helped her in forming her conclusions, I do not know, but my guess in the matter is worth as much, perhaps, as another person’s, and I guess she was so assisted. Miss Elizabeth held the lamp of Aladdin in her hand.
Abel was busy shoeing a horse, and talking at the same time with the professor’s wife about a cut the animal had received from a sharp stone, just above the ankle, which had lamed him somewhat. A group of three girls stood near, watching the operation as gravely as though they were taking a lesson in a branch of horsemanship new to them. The horses on which the party had been mounted were fastened to the trees close by, and it was evident that the riders had depended on the animals they might chance to find on their journey to take them form place to place.
Nobody noticed Abby, though Abner, she knew, had seen her as she came around the corner; but he made no sign to show that he had. She did not, for that reason, retire to the house. Nobody noticed her, and there was too much to be seen—the individuals of the party, the beauty of some of the faces, the oddity of the attire, excited her curiosity; their voices enchanted her. When at last they had mounted their steeds and rode away, she still lingered within sight and sound of what was going on.
Abner came from behind the counter as the gentleman turned from it, and repeated his promise that he would be ready to go with him the next morning at any time he might call for him, and then stood looking after them as they slowly rode away toward the Juniper Inn, and would not have ventured to offer his assistance when the ladies were mounting the steeds had he not been asked to hold a rein or a stirrup, and to pick up a riding-whip.
When he returned to his shop he saw Abby sitting on the trunk of a tree a little way up the hillside. “There!” he said, “I knew you would be coming. What do you think?”
“I think volumes,” said she.
“But what have you there? A letter?”
“Something worth your reading.”
“Read it to me. Will you?” Claiming service, rebuking his claim in the same breath—that was Abner.
Abby read the letter. He leaned over the counter, his face supported between his two hands, his eyes glowing, and listened.
• • •
A bright fire blazed on the hearth of the Juniper Inn; for though the month was June, night brought not rarely a more than chilling breeze through the valley of the Granite Hills.
Surrounded by his wife and the five girls, all his summer pupils, as he called them, because he loved his vocation so well, sat Professor Smiles, happy in his element. Caution, who had mild suggestions to make to Enthusiasm now and then, when it appeared probable that the latter might entice the girls too fast and too far, was now counseling him. Fortunate were the girls to have for their guide a man on culture bent, and intent, too, on proving that the natural sciences offered the best aids to mental discipline anywhere to be found.
To this select audience around the fire he repeated the story which he had somewhere heard of the Juniper heroes, the twenty ministers, the bishop, and the judge.
Elizabeth would have said, but for her convection that the girls would laugh if she said it, “And there’s another hero preparing to graduate form the blacksmith shop.”
True to the purpose with which he had set out on his tour, the professor had been his own guide so far, but he had begun to see that he was not getting his share of the rest which the vacation should give him, nor securing exactly the results he had defined to himself before he set out. A male companion who should serve other purposes than those of a servant merely would greatly lighten his cares. He had been thinking of the available young men in the Polytechnic School and the School of Mines, but when he took into consideration the party to whom such student must be attendant, he found that there was no one at liberty whom he would call to his aid. Had he now and here, in this out-of-the-way place, found the very person whom he needed? It would tally with many of Professor Smiles’s experiences should he find that this was so. He was always expecting the best things, and generally finding them. After the young people and his wife had left him, while he sat dreaming before the ashen embers, the professor recalled and dwelt upon the intelligent face of the possible heir of all the Juniper greatness, until he became almost impatient of the hours which must pass before the morning walk among the hills which would show him whether he had fond here a guide.
• • •
“Something worth the reading,” said Abby, as she looked up from her letter.
Abner drew the sheet of paper towards him without speaking, and read it slowly for himself.
“That is the place for making money,” said he at length, folding the letter and giving it back to her.
Abby was eloquent in answer, more so by her voice and glance than by her words even.
“You understand it, don’t you? You buy the cattle, and brand them with your name, and the let them run. There is no feeding. They feed themselves. The prairies make a pretty wide field. All you have to do when you want to sell is to catch them, and they are all ready.”
“Yes,” said Abner, “if they don’t all get the cattle disease and die off, so when you want ’em they can’t be found.”
“I never thought of that,” said Abby. “There’s always something starting up you don’t expect.”
“Yes,” said Abner; but he looked quickly at Abby, as if he would encourage her by some cheerful words if she really needed to hear them. Then he thought how quickly she had come over to Juniper to let them know about her cousin’s good fortune—in prospect.
“I’d rather go to Kansas,” said he. “But if I went, I must go alone. I wouldn’t ask anybody to go with me.”
“I suppose not,” she answered. “Why should you—unless you could find somebody who had money.”
“You know what I mean, Abby,” he said, slowly and so gravely that she blushed: but she rallied.
“It wouldn’t be as handy boarding round in wigwams as it is in New Hampshire, I expect.”
Abner laughed now.
“If a girl should go out there with me she would have a rough time of it. She would have to board in her own cabin week in and week out, and no neighbors, like enough. That would be lonesome. But, West or East, it’s all the same, so one is satisfied.”
“Who is satisfied?” asked Abby. “That’s the reason West or East isn’t all the same to anybody. You are satisfied, thinking you will bring things around to your liking some time. But you’re not satisfied to have them stay as they are. If you are, I’m not.”
Abner’s eyes brightened. “You have hit the nail on the head,” said he. “If you would go with me, I would be a fool to leave you behind.”
There seemed to be nothing to say to that—at least, Abby said nothing directly in response; but she spoke directly to the point when she took from her pocked a little book, and said:
“Little Sammy Newton lent me the Tourist’s Guide—here it is. Kansas is a long way off. But you see they have marked out a railroad, and there—there are those great wide gardens, the prairies.” Ah, now it was the pioneer that spoke, that heroic heart whose destiny it is to make our future. She pointed with rather tremulous finger to the section marked Kansas.
Abner took the book from her—the little paper-covered book, with its great map which folded into compass of insignificant proportions—book which thousands of eyes, old and young, have scanned so closely, as believingly, as ever childhood scanned the wonder-books of fable—book that will be studied more and more intently by succeeding generations. Long he studied it in the twilight, while lines and names were becoming obscure. At last he folded it, and gave it back to Abby.
“It would be all work out there,” he said; “but the dances are first-rate. If I should make up my mind to go, Abby, would you go with me?”
She did not answer instantly, and he added,
“It wouldn’t be right to ask it?”
“Why wouldn’t it?” said she, quickly. “What difference would it make to me?”
“Could we make a home there?”
“Could we anywhere?”
“If we couldn’t, I don’t want any.”
“Same here,” she said, in a playful, cheerful tone; but there were tears in her eyes. “Let me know half an hour before you are ready to start. You shall have your fortune if I can help you to it.”
Abner understood her. And he knew that he had on won Abby quite as easily as he seemed to have done. But he was far enough from guessing all her thoughts. What man, what woman, in a like moment has guessed all the other’s thoughts?”
“We should risk all we have,” said he, “and you would be the loser, if either of us, Abby.”
“I have all to gain, and nothing to lose,” she said.
“Well, then, I think before long we will go and look up your cousin.”
Hand in hand they walked back to the house, and then Caleb’s letter was talked over by Abby and Ruth, and the sisters recalled the day when the orphan boy left their father’s house for the West with only his two hands for his stock in trade, and now he had his flocks and his herds, and seemed sure of Fortune’s favor. Abel listened to all, and said, finally:
“If you only go far enough, and make up your mind what you want before you start, and can put up with nothin’, you are all right. I don’t want one o’ them red devils caring round my top-knot in his pocket.”
While they talked and argued, Abner walked out of the house, and made no haste to return. A great fire was slowly making its way through his life’s secret chamber. The material was heavy—ignited with difficulty; but it had been kindled, and it would be long before the flame went out.
He went to his shop, restored the minerals to their places on the shelves again, and looked around him, not with the eyes of a pleased proprietor, but with the observation of a critic who has discovered a standard more exacting than he has known before.
His aspect as he stood there reflecting on the Kansas prospect, and on the party whom he was to escort in the morning to Hopper’s Glen, ten miles distant, might not have led a stranger to suspect what had passed between a spirited young woman and himself during that past hour. Yet he had not been able to dwell upon the fact that was now established with regard to their future as he sat in the house. He required all out-doors, the heavens above and the stars, the free air and the hills, for the tabernacle of that fact. The doubt he had long entertained whether this bright-minded Abby would ever consent to share his slow fortunes—for he had not seen without perceiving the skillful hand with which she brought order out of disorder wherever she went, and how rich she she was in suggestion when other people seemed to be at their wits’ end—had cost him much disquiet, and now it was removed! He could not but be amazed. No place short of Kansas seemed to offer him a field large enough and conditions generous enough for the enterprise he must engage in, with Abby for a partner.
So it was that he could not sit quietly in the house thinking of these things, and hear Abel talk about the lack of timber in Kansas and the prairie fires, the cattle disease, and the Indians. How should he suspect that Abel in this talk was merely trying to reason himself into content with his own small chance of fortune, and curbing his restive spirit to do the plodding work of duty, expounding, in his way, the doctrine of compensation, which he had once heard preached by New England’s high-priest?
• • •
It was full ten miles to Hopper’s Glen, and as the way was not of the smoothest, the professor had decided to go on foot, and, quite contrary to expectation, his wife and the five girls decided to accompany him, and made such a scornful outcry, when he had thrown ten miles of difficulty in their way, that he was quite ready to yield; and having ascertained that the tourists were prepared in advance for climbing rocky hillsides, and for crossing, if need be, unbridged streams and swamp lands, all set forth.
Going or returning, the young people never lost sight of the professor or their guide. They rested by the way-side under forest trees, examining the floral specimens gathered as they went; with their small hammers they tapped a cheerful tune on the venerable rocks, and they enriched themselves with the crystals which seemed to beseech of them release from the place of their captivity. They made themselves at home in Nature’s grounds, and manifestly were her dearly beloved children.
Abner thought of Matthew on that excursion, and blushed to think how high he had supposed his own aims to have been, how low they really were. The professor manifested no little desire to be taught concerning the region; and Abner could tell him the “lay of the land,” and the formation of the rocky region within a radius of fifty miles, as well as if he had studied a treatise on the subject. He had once accompanied an engineer, who went seeking the most direct line for a railway across the State, and in that tour Abner had learned to use his eyes. The rocks, trees, streams, had taken their place in his memory, and whatever information that was desired concerning them he could give. The professor was not so much surprised as pleased. He knew how in the barren land, side by side with the need which demanded labor of the hands, fair culture throve; and had Abner been ten times as well versed in book-knowledge as he was, it would not have astonished him.
But those girls, would they not have been astonished had Abby also been of the party? Let them try conjugating Latin verbs with her, or quoting from Virgil, or singing with the birds, or dishing up a good meal under unpropitious circumstances! I wish Abby had been of that company. Would she have had, as Abner had, an at first overwhelming sense of the distance that lay between her and her company? Perhaps, and probably on her own behalf; but she would have been astonished and indignant that Abner shared the humiliation.
Poor fellow! True to his inspiration, he said, “Mat would not have felt it, because it wouldn’t have existed.” But, as one moment swiftly followed another, the ideal Mat supplied Abner with reasons why he should stand erect in this company, and with modest self-respect he finally stood erect. Oh, Matthew Reardon, if you saw your work, were not you amazed thereat? Nevertheless, hail to every veiled prophet, thought of whom has nourished in human hearts the passion of worship!
The next day after this excursion to the Glen, which far exceeded in its wonderful beauty anything that had been imagined by the most fancy-free of the little party, Professor Smiles went down to Abner’s shop, and proposed that he should join him and the ladies as a guide on their projected trip across the State in the White Hills.
They expected, he said, to be absent from home a month or six weeks longer; and, besides expenses, fair wages would be allowed. The professor dwelt briefly on the advantages the young man might derive form the trip, and gave him a day to decide.
Here was a great opportunity. Should Abner reject it, think lightly of it, grind on with his feeble hand Fortune’s grist, while here was the great windmill, with all the winds of heaven waiting to fill the sails? It depended on how he looked at the chance. The professor had explained it well. The lad was no fool; he could not see far into the future, but he could see with tolerable eyes the present. One day with this party had given him a hundred new ideas. Perhaps Abby could look after the shop; she intend to spend her vacation, now at hand, with Ruth. Why did he say to himself instantly, rather than allow her to perform such service, he would give his wares over to moth, rust and mildew? Let it not be supposed that had Abner been required to give his answer to the professor within an hour he could not have given it. There was, in reality, no hesitation in his mind, merely the shadows of a few doubts which were hovering around, but would never come boldly into sight.
In the female mind of the family, however, another view was taken of this opportunity than Abner took. Abel’s wife, who had been thinking with increasing enthusiasm, not to say longing, of the cattle on those plains, where the way to fortune was made easy, asked—and no wonder—“Will tramping over the hills be the same, or better, than getting ready for Kansas? Time is worth something;” while the mother of sainted Matthew was troubled about the apple corp, which should have instant attention if Abner expected to send to market his hundred bushels of dried fruit, as he did last year. It is indeed a grave matter to let go the hold on certainty—such chasing of chimeras as the appalled human heart has seen since the beginning!
“Maybe not,” Abner said to Ruth. “I must take my chance, though; and, anyway, there’ll be room for me in Kansas after that. It seems to me as if a door had opened and I must go in.” To his mother he said, “The apple business is very well in its way, but I think I see a short-cut to college.” And he said the same thing to Abby, though in other words; and she answered, with the understanding and the heart:
“Go with ‘em, Abner. As you say, Kansas is as likely to stand fast as anything. You can take your chance there any time.”
Her encouraging word seemed to decide him. He acknowledged to himself that it did—so it was all one. Abby was associated with his decision—for better, for worse. Doubtless he would have gone without her encouragement, but it was in accordance with all that favored his going out that she should see, as he did, that there was a chance not to be made light of. No matter whether all or half he expected, or nothing, came of the “tramping,” Abby would never go back of her counsel and lament it. She did not belong to the stoics, who never repent, but had a steady brain of a Juniper girl, and counseled according to her light, and took the consequences bravely. I would like to discourse on Abby, but I resist the temptation.
The next day saw Abner Reardon going out of Juniper, not to return that season, nor for many other.
The professor liked the young man at the outset, and as they proceeded on their journey, day after day, he liked him more and more, and at length, when the right moment had come, he proposed that he should go back with him to town as his assistant, offering him as compensation a home in his own house and a collegiate course.
The proposal startled Abner. He wrote home to Abby. What did Abby answer? “You and I are not such idiots that we can not see that New England is your trump card, and not Kansas.” So Abner went back with the professor to Boston; and is there need that I should show that the gentleman had secured an invaluable assistant? Anybody can tell how it was that he proved himself invaluable who considers the discipline to which Abner had subjected himself since he began to think. He was master of himself in may directions: more methodical, more painstaking and exact, than any other student in college; and so thoroughly did he understand the truest way of getting on that he yielded only at rare intervals to the make-shifts of brilliant laziness. I am compelled in all seriousness to say of him, in commendation, what one can hardly suggest now in reference to thinker or worker without exciting critical suspicion or pathetic commiseration—that he was “conscientious” in his work.
There seemed to be reason sufficient why he should not return to Juniper invariably at holiday seasons. He had, in fact, few holidays that were his own for leisure. His vacations were spent chiefly in journeys with or for Professor Smiles. He made the tour of libraries and laboratories; his hands seemed to be always full of notes in shorthand; and time sped so fast he had had hardly opportunity for indulging in a regretful thought concerning Juniper. And when now and then at rare intervals he did go back to the silent hill country, do you think it was all the same as if during his absence he had worked in a less absorbed way? How is it with those who plunge into trade or politics to win the glory or the gold wherewith they will go back to adorn the home and secure the ideal? Do they find the old home where they left it? Is it forever to remain what it was when the heart loved it best? Is the ideal there? Abby was there, that good girl who loved him; and his poor old mother; sickly Ruth; the little house full of children; Abel, growing gray and wrinkled; the paralytic father; hills that looked not so high as once; a blacksmith’s shop, into which no thought, apparently, beyond that of rudest labor had ever entered. Envy not the youth those visits home. Twice he returned thither, and the professor, who watched him narrowly, inspecting him on his return the second time, and to himself, “This will never do. He must stay with me till he has his diploma, or he will lose all heart and courage.” The professor had himself known the early privation, the humble home, the dismay awaiting awakened intelligence that has not yet compassed the all of human experience. He understood what he perceived in Abner when he came back from these visits, and therefore determined that they should not be repeated. “Get thee out of thine own country,” “Forget thy people and thy father’s house,” he would have said in so many words had he not had the knowledge of a more excellent way.
Abner began to be talked about in college circles, and to appear now and then in social gatherings. Wise ones said that he was made of “the right stuff,” and to speak of him as a young man of great promise. Elderly ladies took notice of him; and there was one young lady—I need not say the professor’s daughter Elizabeth, who studied botany, chemistry, and mineralogy with him—a young lady in whom scientific predilections were as the vital spark—who sometimes congratulated herself on the summer trip which had discovered Abner. This young lady! Must it not have been a pleasant thing for a young working-man like Abner, whose hands and whose thoughts found so constantly noble occupation, to have for a companion one who understood his successes because she understood so well the obstacles he has overcome in winning them? Could a comparison between his old home and his present abode suggest itself, and not suggest also a train of thought which might lead—who would dare to predict, who could avoid predicting, whither?
And this companion was a handsome girl, quick-witted, gay-hearted, sweet-tempered, capable of hard study and deep thought, and the daughter of the man who had proved his best friend, his more than father. Poor Abby! But then, after all, even the great wall of China could not secure from the nineteenth century the foredoomed Celestials. And all the things must take their chances.
In writing to Abby one day Abner perceived a reluctance which was perhaps not quite new, but which was more intelligible than it had been before. It occasioned a peculiar movement of his pen, and its suspension in the air. It seemed unlikely that he would add another word. And yet he did add many. He deliberately entered on an elaborate description of the social aspect of his life in the city, and it was almost as if he thought that by doing this his dear girl might possibly be led to see with her own eyes more than he could say—how unlike Juniper life this life he was living was, and how improbable it was that Juniper, or anybody in Juniper would ever have in him the man anticipated. It became after that his desire to find out how many of all Juniper’s great men had gone back to Juniper for a wife. How strange it was that, after months and months of waiting, he had found courage to speak to Abby the very night when the professor came to Juniper!
Looking at the relations he sustained toward Abby with the unpoetic eyes of common since, it must at once be seen that for Abner to have cherished at this time any great enthusiasm in view of those relations would argue a very remarkable youth indeed. Do you, my reader, happen to know one such elect of invincibles? Of stanch fidelity he might be capable, but consider how society dazzles the gray-beards, and then think of this lad. The well-dressed woman of the world wills not to be rudely ignored by the rustic genius. Soft hair, sweet eyes, sweet voices, perfumes, garments, graces, know you not all your worth?
Correspondence between Juniper and Boston did not rival telegrams. Four-footed beasts could do all its work acceptably. No need of the birds of the air.
One day Abner received a letter from Abby, saying that Abel’s wife had died, and that she was staying with the family. There was great need of a strong-handed woman in the house, and poor Abel, she knew not what would become of him. And then the children, the poor little motherless children, that were to live and grow up in this hard world!
Abner read it, and he felt not a little grieved, thinking of poor Ruth. But the letter came at a time when he was more than usually occupied with laboratory and class work, and when his eyes happened to fall on it several hours after he had received it, he was chiefly shocked to find how little impression the death even of this woman, whom he had once thought of as a great family blessing, had made upon him.
When his hurry was over he deliberately sat down to think upon all these entanglements and snares which beset him, and one result of his tinkling was that he told Elizabeth about Abby and the Kansas cattle plan, which had been unexpectedly defeated by the coming of her father and the party by whom he was carried out of Juniper. Consider his condition. Could he have told her with any other hope than that by so doing he would be thrown upon his honor, and stand committed to noblest behavior before the professor’s daughter, that noblest women in the world? And yes he had been thinking, “Poor Abel! what will become of him, with all that load on him? Abby was always fond of his children. He will be obliged to marry again. What a mother she would prove to those motherless little ones! No other man than Abel—but…”
A curious train of thought for a young lover to take up and seriously entertain, and not for a day only. A month, six weeks passed, six months, and the thought was not yet worn threadbare and dismissed. One day Abner went to the professor and said: “Do not think me foolish. I know exactly how things stand. I shall have my diploma within a fortnight, if ever, and there’s not a little work to be done; but I must go home. I can’t study. I can’t fix my mind on anything. They need me there to settle things. We have met with a loss. They do not say it outright, but I know I can be of great service to all, and there is no use of my trying to accomplish anything here as I am now.”
The professor looked surprised, of course. It was not the report of himself he could have expected of Abner, his model of self-discipline, but he said: “If you must go, you must; but I should be sorry if anything hindered your going abroad with us after Commencement, my son.”
When Abner looked at Elizabeth, who was in the room preparing certain botanical specimens for her father’s class, she, absorbed in her work, felt that he was looking at her, and, half lifting her eyes, said:
“Who knows what the young lady will say? Perhaps she can go too.”
What did she mean by that? As kindly as she said? Was it probable that she would be so ill-bred and so cruel as to smite and humiliate him by the suggestion of an impossibility, which, had it been a possibility, would still perhaps have pleased him so little?
The professor looked from his daughter to Abner, as if about to exclaim, “How’s that?” but he did not say it.
Having found the way so clear to Juniper, Abner advanced. He took it without reluctance—but with gladness? Yes, but gladness may have little joy. When the sense of honor must be appealed to in behalf of love, how is it with love? Abner packed his worldly goods in a portmanteau, and went to Juniper to say to Abby what he could not write. He would know whether it must be said the instant he looked at her. If either of them had made a mistake choosing for life and life’s happiness, best for life, liberty, and sacred honor that they should know it before the further and more fatal mistake had been made. He believed that the first mistake was not to be denied. He must explain things to Abby, must talk with her face to face, and after that they would always be friends.
So he left the city, and went by the crowded routes of travel homeward till he came within fifty miles of Juniper, then by stage; and at last, on foot, he approached the blacksmith’s shop and the house of Reardon.
The door of the old brown house stood open as he approached. How every vine and shrub and tree in the neighborhood had grown during those two years which had not been broken by return! The lilac bushes were as a wall shielding the house from the road, and gave to the place an aspect of seclusion, though the blacksmith’s shop was so close at hand. The old trees looked older, the old house more humble. A little yellow-haired girl was swinging on the gate—Abel’s motherless girl, he knew—with a flower in her hand. Ruth stood there when he went away, with a smile on her face and tears in her kind eyes, and wished him well. Where was she now? Could she from any near or far distance look upon him as he came?
He spoke to the little girl. But she had forgotten him, and when he looked at her with such scrutiny in his eyes, she jumped down form the gate and ran into the house. He made no haste to follow her, but stood looking around him; and so, presently, a voice quite near said to him:
“You might come in, perhaps.”
Then he saw Abby standing in the gateway looking at him with a gaze every whit as terrifying as he had bestowed just now upon the child, but merely because they were Abby’s own eyes that looked, calm, steady, tender.
Here, then, was Abel’s wife and the mother of Ruth’s motherless children. He ventured a question, like one half wakened from sleep and from nightmare. Yet he had not come home to play with words.
“Are you ready for Kansas?” said he.
“Are you?” she asked in turn.
“We will talk about that,” he answered. “Where’s mother?”
Was it mere honor that had spoken? Must he now shame himself by his midnight reflections on duty, after he had heard from Abel and his mother how Abby had been as the mother of the household since poor Ruth’s death, even as Abner and Abner’s wife, the mother and the servant of all?
Possibly he had need to test himself still further in order to discover whether he was in honor bound. Possibly Abby, aware of what she did, supplied the test; but I think not. I think it was rather the result of sad and solemn thinking that made her say to him, next day, when she had made for herself an opportunity:
“Abner, the neighbors say I ought to marry Abel.”
“They know what your duty is, I dare say,” he answered, with a glow on his face kindled by what fire, let us hope, she would never suspect.
“But I am thinking the same thing.”
“Abel too, I dare say.”
“I don’t know. But—Poor Abel!”
“You expect me to give you away—is that it? Today, then, for I must go back tomorrow.”
“I expect your consent,” she said, gravely, so much absorbed by what she had to say and by what she was saying that she seemed to pay no heed to what was evidently enough passing within his mind, who had so unexpectedly found the door of deliverance opening. “Abel must marry. There are all those children—who can take care of them as well? And the old people? As to you…” She did not look at him.
“As to me,” he said, turning his back suddenly on the door of which I have spoken, and expressing himself with a directness which must have amazed him, “if I am not worth your taking, let it be as you have said.”
“I have set my common sense at work,” said she. “I have thought a great deal about it. Boston isn’t like Juniper. It is inhabited by another kind of people.”
“It is indeed,” said he.
“Your kind—not mine.”
“I deny that.”
“Well, you can find your kind there.”
“When I have found already what I want, and it is mine!”
“Don’t think of that, Abner,” she said, quickly. “That belonged to the old time. Since then everything is changed. I have often thought it never could have happened if I hadn’t come over that night with Cousin Caleb’s letter.” She was sufficiently in earnest.
“Then you have learned to love Abel—and it was a mistake about me,” said Abner, slowly.
“I have learned many things since you went away.”
How did it happen that a little later in the day Abner was calling on all that was within him to prove to Abby that a diploma wasn’t worth the having if it took him away from her again?
“So far as I can see,” she said, “you are in honor bound to the professor. No Kansas for us yet.” Where had she leaned those worlds which had haunted and tormented him so long? And did he tell her then, by way of warning, that Miss Elizabeth was there in the place to which she would return him? Not he. He had forgotten Miss Elizabeth. It was, in fact, Abby’s talk that sent Abner the next day back to town, and that constrained him to remain there until he should have rendered some invaluable service to Professor Smiles. But who does not behold on the far Kansas plains a thousand cattle bearing A.R.’s brand?
What did Abner see in the eyes of Miss Elizabeth when he went back? Bountiful loving-kindness. And—no more? No more that he could interpret.
“I should have expected the heavens to fall as soon as to hear that you did not know your own heart and mind, Abner. I never could have forgiven you if you had not seen how you were honor bound.”
“Ah!” said he; “but that was not it, Miss Elizabeth. Though, perhaps, I thought it was.”
“I know it,” said she.
• • •
Thank God for every creature who in the Father’s House makes himself a zealous custodian of the sacred ideals!