S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

. (page 1 of 17)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 1 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook






y* |{t$|t* \\vi\m\


IBodka by













H 5tor£







Copyright, 1889, 1898, by
S. Weir Mitchell, M. D.

The de vinne press.


Very many years before the great war, the forest
counties of Northern Pennsylvania which border
on New York and are watered by the Alleghany,
Sinneraahoning, and Clarion were vast forest-lands,
little disturbed as yet by the axe or the plough.
Roads were few and bad. Railways were un-
known. Here and there a primitive mill, driven
by water-power, sawed out the planks needed for
a scant and widely-scattered population. In the
winter lumbering-parties were busy near the greater
streams, and in the spring a few rafts found their
way down to the Ohio or on the other side of the
" divide" to the Susquehanna.

Along the rivers, at rare intervals, a log cabin,
and, still farther apart, a group of houses known
as a town, made up, with the lumber-camps, all
that there was of human habitation. The lands
had been taken up years before the date of my
tale, by a few settlers, chiefly from New England
or Eastern Pennsylvania, in the hope that the
wealth of coal beneath the soil would one day en-
rich them, when the iron roads should give access
to the lake. Among these pioneers were some



vigorous, enterprising men, but for the most part
they were waifs and strays whom civilization had
disappointed. A few who came into the woods
together were Swedenborgians. These mysterious
woodlands suited them. Regarded by their neigh-
bors as strange beings, they lived on, patiently
waiting for the better earthly good which did not
come. The majority had no religion, or what they
had had faded away in the absence of churches, and
their schoolless children grew up strong as young
pines in that untainted air. In these deep woods,
untroubled by courts of justice, a more dangerous
and smaller class found a sanctuary into which no
avenging law pursued their steps. With lessened
temptations and sufficient work, fish in the streams,
and game in the woods, life was adventurous enough
to suit their tastes, and not too difficult. Hence,
serious crime was rare, and these rough exiles from
the cities were less troublesome than in more con-
ventional communities. For grave offences the
law of the woods was swift enough, and sometimes
even too thoughtlessly swift, in its vengeance. On
the whole, the tone of this widely-scattered and
sparse population was right-minded and just. A
certain manliness was the common gift. Caste was
unknown. Physical strength and skill with axe or
rifle were valued as they must needs be in such a
life. Newspapers were rarely seen, and politics
troubled no man.

Three years before the date of my story, Eliza-
beth Preston had found her way with her hus-
band into the wilderness. A great stress was upon


her. In body and mind she was for the time worn
out. When but seventeen she had married, and,
as was thought, married well. Her husband was
rich. They had all that men desire. A few years
in our growing land would bring their acres near
New York and about Albany to such values as
would make them feel at ease concerning the re-
mote future.

Paul Preston was a man who was joyous and
companionable because fate had never given him
cause to be otherwise, and had the restless vivacity
of slightly-constructed character. Men of this type
resemble in a measure certain immature feminine
natures, and have a like attractiveness. But the
easily pleased possess the seeds of clanger in their
facile temperaments. Pain in all its forms is as near
as pleasure, and far more potent to influence. The
terrible intimacy of marriage soon taught his young
wife some sharp lessons. She saw as others had
seen that he was always too near unhappiness, and
soon learned that he would go to any length to
escape annoyance or avoid discomfort. This tem-
perament simply dooms a man if by mischance
pain becomes for any length of time a fact with
which he has to deal. ~Ho man who has not fought
this demon knows how many other devils he brings
with him into the house of torment. From them
Paul Preston shrunk morally disabled. A brief but
painful malady taught him how easy it is to escape
from pain by the aid of sedatives. For such men
there is no to-morrow. Renewed attacks of dis-
ease served to fasten on him the habit which of all


evil habits is most easily made and most hard to
break, — the constant resort to opium. Once cre-
ated, it found in Paul Preston's nature that which
made it impossible to escape even when the awful
bribe of pain was gone.

Against this foe of heart and head, — for to both it
is fatal, — Elizabeth Preston fought the losing fight
which a resolute and high-minded young woman
wages in the interest of a weak masculine nature.
It were vain to dwell on a tale so common. His
property disappeared almost mysteriously. Trusts
in his keeping became embarrassed and were taken
from him. At last she knew with amazement what
it was to want. Next she learned how surely all
morals wilt in the presence of the habit he had
acquired. He became at last a passive, inert being,
and she the controlling force. Resolute to make
one last effort at reform, she induced him, with a
certain ease which amazed her, to spend a summer
on a great tract of land in Northern Pennsylvania,
which was almost the last unembarrassed possession
left to her. Once in the woods, the autumn found
them with so little means that to stay was easier
than to leave, and so the years had run along and
by degrees she had settled down to make the best
of a bad business. She thought, and rightly, that in
the wilderness he would be unable to secure easily
the needed drugs; but she failed to calculate on
the other foe which is apt to become the craving
of the disappointed opium-eater. Whiskey was
only too plenty about the logging-camps. To
this he took kindly and fatally, and, enfeebled


by sedatives and repeated disease, fell an easy

She found their first summer in the woods not
altogether unpleasant. There were at least no
social pretences to sustain, no heedless questions
to answer, and life was altogether gratefully uncon-
ventional. But, as time went on, new and unlooked-
for difficulties arose and troubled the overweighted
woman. In his native city, Paul Preston had had
more or less amusement and occupation ; but in
the woods he had none, and this was a matter the
thoughtful young wife had failed to anticipate.
He cared nothing for the manly sports the land
offered, and spent his time lounging about in the
lumber-camps with a low class of men, leaving to
his wife the burden of looking after their ruined
affairs and of making such provision for their com-
fort as was possible. By degrees she became ac-
customed to take the place of both, and to direct
the men employed to build their cabin and clear
their fields. As to her husband, she learned each
week a new lesson of despair, as things went from
bad to worse. At last, by degrees, he took to his
bed, a feeble, selfish invalid. Doctors there were
none, and, had there been any, they would have
been useless to Paul.

When laid up in bed and wanting his accustomed
stimulus, a very mild bribe procured it, and Mrs.
Preston found it vain to remonstrate with the silent
woman whom lack of enterprise alone induced to
remain with them. She had come for a week, and
had never had the energy to do more than merely


talk of leaving, when reproached by her mistress
for her willingness to supply the vicious wants of
the husband. At last he ceased abruptly to care
for his habitual stimulus, a fatal signal of decline.
Elizabeth Preston saw but too clearly how near was
the end.

',' .



The snows of a grim February evening were fall-
ing in the fine flakes which predict a long storm.
On the broad acres of a clearing above the Alle-
ghany River they lay thick already upon the deep
accumulations of a severe winter. Here and there
the furious wind had blown away the drifting
masses and set, black against the whiteness, sharp
outlines of burned or mouldered stumps. Beyond
the snake fence on either side, but thinner towards
the river, stood dense forests of pine, cherry,
beech, and birch, weighted with cumbering masses
of snow which fell at times as the wind roared
through the shaken trees.

A well-built and unusually ample log cabin stood
in the centre of the clearing. On one side the drifts
sloped up to the eaves and lay piled in loose, ever-
shifting heaps under the shed which crossed the
front of the house above the door-way. Save for a
little smoke blown straight away from two chim-
neys of stone, and a dim light from one window,
the scene was comfortless and devoid of signs of
life. Presently the door opened, and a tall woman
came out and, trampling down the snow, stood and
looked across the lonely clearing. She drew long

: J. J;' J <;; j / F4R\ IN THE FOREST.

breaths of the sharp, dry, exhilarating air. Then
she walked to the end of the porch where the drifts
were least heavy, and, leaning against a pillar, stood
motionless, as if too deep in thought to feel the in-
tense cold. In a few minutes a small rotund person
partly opened the door and put out her head.

" He's waked up now," she said. " Best come
in. It's powerful chilly."

" I will be there in a minute," returned the
woman. " This outside air is such a help, and I
am so tired, Becky."

"It won't rest you none to git yer ears frost-bit,
and I'm that wore out with keepin' awake, I've just
got to lie down if I'm to keep on spellin' you."

" I will come," said Mrs. Preston. " Is he any
easier ?"

" No, ma'am ; he's a-rollin' over and groanin'.
Now he's a-callin'. "

Mrs. Preston went in.

The storm outside had ^one from bad to worse.
The snow sifted through the chinks under door and
window, and without, the wind howled, scurrying
around the lonely cabin.

Sadly watching her husband's uneasy sleep, she
sat late into the night, at times thinking of the re-
morseless past, at times rising to warm herself at
the fire, where Becky was snoring, her chin on her
breast. Of a sudden Mrs. Preston turned. Was
it a sound of human life she heard? It seemed

The rare ox-roads were lost to view, and travel
was next to impossible except on snow-shoes, while


within the cabin death was drawing near with swift
and certain steps. Suddenly she roused herself.

"What's that, Becky? Becky!" The woman
looked up. " I heard some one knock. Listen, "
added the tired wife.

" Oh, it ain't nobody."

Both sat down again, but in a few minutes Bessy
Preston, as she had been called in her happier days,
arose and took a candle, saying, " Keep awake till
I come back. It must be some one. I heard it
ao-ain. There ! There ! Some one called."

" Well, you won't be easy till you see," said the
abrupt Becky.

Mrs. Preston left the room, hearing as she went
the loud breathing of the failing man. Crossing the
larger apartment, she glanced at her boy, asleep on
a mattress in the corner. The wind found entry
at a dozen half-closed chinks and under the door,
flaring her candle as she guarded it with her hand.
She set it down on the table, and opened the door
with difficulty. The wild wind rushing in sent the
snow over her in clouds, and put out the light, as a
heavy form seated propped against the door fell in-
ward across the threshold. Seeing dimly by the blown
light of the huge logs flaring on the hearth that it
was a man, she bent over and tried to drag him
into the room. Unable to succeed, she called Becky,
and together they drew him before the fire. As the
great logs cast their blaze on his face, the women
saw glazed eyes, a long yellow moustache, purple
lips, a face unlike any they knew, haggard with the
set look of swiftly-coming death.


" Quick, Becky ! Bring a bucket of snow." Bessy
loosened his necktie, and cast off a fur cloak from
his shoulders, then pulled off his gloves, and, with
help from Becky, his long gaiter moccasins, ob-
serving that around one of them were the deer
thongs of the snow-shoes which he had apparently
lost in the drifts. Then they rubbed his hands and
feet with snow, and at last got down his throat an
ample dose of whiskey. At intervals he drew a
long breath, and, half an hour later, suddenly
opened, shut, and reopened his eyes, and began to
breathe steadily. At last he spoke.


" What's that ?" said Becky.

" He is a German. There," leaning over him,
"you are safe."

"Ach ! Ich bin im Himmel."

" Can you speak English ?"

"Ach,whynot? Where am I? I cannot see yet."

" You are safe. I am Mrs. Preston. You are in
my house."

" Thank you. Ah, how comfortable it is !"

"It might be that Ryverus. I heerd tell of
him," said Becky.

" Hush ! I suppose so," said the mistress. They
continued to aid him, and at last he was able to
rise, take off his coat, and sit up in a chair. His
face was still haggard, his limbs tremulous.

" You are Mrs. Preston," he said, after a little.
" I am John Riverius. I started to go over from
one logging-camp to another, and lost first my way
and then my snow-shoes, and now but for you my


life had gone too. How can I thank you, madam ?"
Unmistakably he was a gentleman, and the words
of one of her own class, to which she had long
been unused, affected her strangely.

"Keep thanks for to-morrow, Mr. Riverius."
( " What a curious name I" she thought.) " Becky
will get you some supper. A shake-down in front
of the fire is the best I can offer. And now, good-
night. I must go to my husband. He is very ill.

He stood up with some little difficulty, took her
hand, and, bending over, touched it with his lips.
" My lands I" said Becky, with the undisguised
critical freedom of the woods. The German turned
on her a slight look which made her uncomfortable
for a moment, she hardly knew why. Then he
smiled, as if remembering his near peril and the
womanly help both had given. The look of haughty
impatience passed like a shadowing cloud.

"Ach, madam, if I am forbid to say my thanks,
I shall at least be grateful in my dreams."

" Certainly it is out of my power to prevent
that," Mrs. Preston answered, smiling. Then
she passed into the adjoining room, whence came
through the chinky partition the sound of long
hoarse respirations and at times the suppressed
tones of the watcher.

Bessy had been very weary an hour before, but
now the sudden fresh call upon her energies, the
enlivenment of pity, fearful expectation, sense of
power to rescue, had strangely tuned anew the re-
laxed energies to possibility of healthy responses.


Had the aided man been of the rou^h woodsmen


she knew so well, the task would have been as
gladly and as perfectly done, but there would have
been lacking the little flavor of interested curiosity
as to the person helped. His was a type quite
new to her, but there are mysterious shibboleths by
which well-bred women assign men to their true
social place. A man of Bessy Preston's class would
have tardily reached her conclusion — in a day or

She sat down by Paul Preston's bedside, saw
him sleep again, and, musing, went over anew the
scene in which she had taken part. Suppose she
had not heard. A half-hour more, and rescue
would have been impossible. She shuddered. It
had been a really great effort to get up and go to
the door. Months of sad exertion, days of tears,
entreaties, nights of watching, had brought her to
the danger-verge of serious physical exhaustion.
Years of vain unrewarded struggle had subdued
her. A half-hour's sudden success had sent through
her an arousing sense of competence and renewed
her faith in effort. For the time it left her very
happy. To give always made her joyful, and she
had, too, the royal and more rare capacity to receive
with dignity. She was herself aware that she w T as
by nature proud, — too reserved, she had always
said, — would have liked, she suspected, to be even
haughty had her gentler part permitted the luxury
of such indulgence. It may have been so, but an
immense appetite for loving had ever perplexed
her reserve. An eager helpfulness was part of her


nature. Where she loved, and when she gave or
aided, a certain pleasant simplicity made it appear
graciously natural to those on whom her bounty of
heart or her more material givings chanced to fall.
She had the child's unspeculative generosity. The
man outlives the boy. The girl is apt to survive as
an essential part of the best womanly life.

As Bessy Preston sat with a little innocent feeling
of romance in her mind as to the incident which
had just excited her, John Riverius was devouring
his bacon and hard-tack with the voracity of a
wolf. Meanwhile, Becky, having provided for his
wants, deliberately seated herself and watched him
with curiosity. She treated Mrs. Preston with a
fair share of consideration, but for no one else had
she the slightest regard, and she was simply a
sturdy, domestic animal, who recognized but one
mistress, and did her duty somewhat inefficiently.

" Is the Herr Preston very ill ?" said Riverius.

" Who ?" said Becky.

" Oh ! Mr. Preston."

" Him !" returned Becky, pointing to the sick
man's room. " Paul Preston. Yes, he's took bad
this time. He won't be no loss, neither." Becky
saw no cause for reticence.

Despite his knowledge of the utter frankness of
the woods, Riverius had a slight sense of amused
amazement. Then he reflected a moment, and
said, softly, —

"Is he going to die ?"

" He won't if he can help it; but he is. There
ain't much of him left to die with."


The oddity of the phrase struck the German.
" What does the doctor say ?"

" Doctor ! He ain't got none. He's just a-dyin\"

u Do you mean that you two women are alone
here with a dying man and with no other help ?"

" There's little Paul, and he ain't no good yet.
He's too small. Phil Richmond was here three
days back, and Myry she'd come too, if the snovv'd
git harder. I'm goin' myself then. It's too much
work, and they say help's wanted bad down river,
Pittsburg way."

"Ach," said the German, rising to warm his stiff
back at the fire. " I haven't thanked you yet,

" Oh, it weren't no trouble. I'd 'most as lief rub
your legs as split wood."

He laughed quietly. " Look here, Becky," and
he cast a bright gold eagle in her lap, " you must
not go away. Once a week I shall give you a thing
like that, for a month, we will say, and after that
we can talk again."

Becky looked at the coin, turned it over, tied it
up in the corner of an unwholesome-looking yellow
silk handkerchief, and put it in the sanctuary of her
bosom. " I'll bide a bit," she said, and made no
further comment on the matter. " Got all you was
wantin'? I'm to spell her till mornin'," she added,
pointing to the bedroom, and, so saying, disap-
peared by the door which opened into the sick
man's chamber.

A moment later she came back, and, putting only
her round head through the door, said succinctly, -


"She says you ken smoke here if you've a mind
to, or in the kitchen ; 'tain't no difference."

He rose at the words, as if to the personal presence
of the woman whose message he received.

" Mrs. Preston is very good, — very thoughtful.
How thinks she of others thus much in her own
trouble ! I will, with her good permission, smoke
in the kitchen."

" Don't you upset the clothes-horse. Ther's
things a-dryin'."

" I shall be careful."

The head disappeared, and the door was closed
with needless noise. Looking about him with a
queer sense of puzzle, he took in the interior, — the
birch-barked wall, warm in ruddy brown colors, the
two silver candlesticks on the mantel. He picked
up one, and, caught by a mark below the crest,
brought out a loupe from his pocket and examined
it with the interest -of a connoisseur. " The Dutch
Lion and the arms of Leyden. About 1700, one
would say." And he set it down with a certain ten-
derness. Then he noticed a print by Raphael Mor-
ghen, and, candle in hand, glanced at it a moment,
muttering, " Waste of a good engraver on a poor
picture at best." Next he looked over the small
row of books, and, choosing one, took it with him
into the kitchen, closing the door behind him. Un-
doubtedly there did appear to be clothes-horses and
innumerable garments on chair-backs and pegs, so
that a peculiar dampness pervaded the air, which
was at a tropic temperature owing to a big fire re-
cently renewed. Seeing no chair unoccupied by


some fashion of clothing, he sat down on the floor,
with his back against a pile of logs, and carefully
filled an ample meerschaum which he handled with
lover-like care. He was immensely, deliciously

" Himmel !" he said to himself, "just as one gets
used to doing without luxury and life gets simple
and wants grow less, one is set face to face with an
unanswerable problem. And what can one do?
Much obliged to you, madam, and go away. Becky
is such a simple creditor. She can be paid. Why
does a man hate an obligation? And I, of all men?
I, Johann Blverius, I go. I am lost to her life, and
there, eternally, is this debt carrying the interest
of every agreeable thing I shall ever do or see or
hear in the next fifty years, if I live as long as my
fathers." He disliked obligations, — why, he would
have found it hard to say. Long training in self-
reliance had bred a sturdy trust in his own compe-
tence to deal with whatever might turn up. He
would have hated to think that he undervalued
human help because its need implied in him some
lack of prudence, forethought, or force.

Yet this was vaguely in his mind just now. " I
might have known the risk," he thought. Then
he figured to himself death, and two weak women
struggling for victory, the field of contest his weak
inert body. There was for Riverius a sense of
humiliation in the matter. He faintly recalled his
desire to resist as he had realized the idea that
they were rubbing his feet and hands. At last he
emptied the ashes from his pipe and stood up, a


tall, soldierly-looking man of some thirty-two
years. " What can an honest man give for a life ?"
he reflected. " What would it fetch, and in what
coin he paid for? Good constitution, slightly dam-
aged by cold. Ach !" and he laughed outright, " I
would bid it in pretty high." Then he opened
the door, saw the shake-down on the floor, and,
without undressing, put his head on his folded fur
coat, now dry, and was soon happily out of reach of
the problem which his pipe had failed to help him


Biverius rose early next day, went out and drew
water from the well, and found in the drift at the
door his knapsack, and, so aided, made his brief
toilet. The storm was over, the sun out, the air
sharp and cold. Everywhere the drifts were deep,
and travel, even with snow-shoes, was difficult, and
without them out of the question.

Mrs. Preston met him as he came in. She looked
worn and pallid from her night-watch. " Good-
morning. I hope you feel no ill effects from your
freeze. One has to be careful in these woods."

" I am very well," he answered, " and so used to
the country that I ought to be ashamed of the
trouble I caused."

" It was no great trouble. I really was the better
for it. The necessity for sudden physical exertion
sometimes helps one. You must make yourself as
comfortable as you can until the crust gets hard or
we can find you snow-shoes."

" I am afraid that you are right. Ah ! is this
your boy?" he added, as a lad of nine entered from
the back door.

"Come here, Paul," she said. "This is Mr.
Riverius, a gentleman who will be with us a day or
two. You must take care of him. I cannot leave
your father long alone." Riverius liked it that she
gave no explanation of how he had come.


The boy came forward frankly and welcomed the

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 1 of 17)