S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

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tional life. As to worse things, it is as hard really to
barbarize the civilized as to civilize the barbarous."

" Gracious, what a formidable statement !" said
Bessy. " You should write books and put in these
wise things with portraits of the aborigines, Paul
and myself."

" It is rather late," he laughed. " The book is
written, and you are left out. I wrote a book once,
but it was only a memorandum of unusually inter-
esting travel."

Men who wrote books were rare in this country
at that date.

Mrs. Preston looked up. " Might I see it ?"

" Perhaps, some day. If "

" If I am good, I suppose."

" You are always good. You will be better if I
may smoke." He never failed to ask leave in her
house, or in Miriam's, which constantly surprised
the ex-actress, who said to her friend Mrs. Preston
that he was a man had no power to make himself
comfortable. She slightly despised the condescen-
sion of his asking, and felt it to be what she called
a come-down for a man. To ask leave to smoke
in that rough land was like asking leave to breathe.

" Oh, smoke, by all means," said Bessy. " I
might bargain that there should be no pipe until
we saw your book. Have you no sense of the
cruelty of overtaxing a woman's curiosity?"

He smiled, well pleased, as he packed his meer-
schaum, then went to the fire and chose a brand
and blew it bright and lit the pipe, a nice picture


with his head up and back, the tawny moustache,
clear skin, and wavy hair aglow as the ruddy pipe-
light flashed over them.

" The hook you shall have. It kept me away to
finish it. Ach, that and other things. When I
am gone, a copy will come for you. I thank you
for my good pipe. It is a benediction."

She knew easily what this man wanted and did
not want. She thought with a fierce pang how
often Paul, the husband, had puzzled her. He had
seemed to speak a moral language other than that
she knew. As for Riverius, she understood almost
always or happily guessed beyond. In little and
large things she mysteriously apprehended him.
Now she knew that he did not want to talk of his
book and that he was, as usual, shy of speech as to
all that personally concerned himself.

" I can wait," she said, quickly. " I know I
shall like it." When he was away, — yes, it would
be better then. She would read it twice. And of
late she had got a German dictionary and much
bettered what had always been a fair knowledge
of that tongue.

" I shall like you to like it," he returned, simply.
" And to go back to what we were discussing, I
suppose old countries must have conventional laws,
but sometimes I envy the personal freedom of your
half-tamed land. A man may do so much more as
he likes, and" — he hesitated — " as — as seems best
and most right. Sometimes one rebels. I felt that
once and quite enough, but since I have been away
E have felt it more. Do you think a man ought


to be ashamed of yielding to what he knows are
absurd social rules, the growth of centuries, things
that have obtained the despotism of instincts ?"

" I hardly understand you," said Bessy. " You
should put it more clearly." She was really at a loss.

" Ach ! I talk foolishness."

"No, only half sense. You are, I should think,
a man likely to do what you know to be right."

" But I do not know. That is the trouble."

" "Will not time help you ?" She was getting
more and more uneasy and more and more dubious.

" Time brings in too many counsellors, and there
is foolishness in that, as we know. Might I put a
case to you? You are of all women I ever knew
the most capable of being just. I "

"I would rather not," said Bessy, decisively.

" Perhaps you are right," he returned, moodily.
" And yet you will pardon me, I am sure. I am
buffeted about by a mob of motives, and it is hardly
fair to talk as I have done, giving half knowledge
and craving whole advice." She was silent, and
he went on abstractedly : " My young life on a
great estate was bad for me. I was too much with
inferiors. Eton was better; and my army life, I
suppose, helped again to make me despotic."

" !N"o, — positive, authoritative," she interposed.

" Well, that, if you please. As to my brief expe-
rience of diplomacy, I hated it, and when my uncle's
death made me independent I began to^wander,
and now here I am, a rolling Saxon stone." And
he laughed. " You have long had a friend's right
to know more of my life, but "


" Oh, I understand," she said, smiling.

" I believe you do, always, wonderfully."

" Thank you," she said, frankly. " You are
going away "

" Yes, but I hope to return in summer. You
will not quite forget me ?" And he rose.

" I shall not," she said, looking up. " But if I
were in any risk of forgetting the only friend chance
has sent me, Paul would hardly let me. You are
his one hero. Really, it is amusing to see how
much he thinks of you."

" Ah ! that is not bad flattery. How can one
have too much of such friendliness ? Tell him a
good-by for me."

" He will be up to see you off. And so you are
going? Well, good-by again."

He said he would get away early, — a man would
carry his traps, — and so left her.

Mrs. Preston sat awhile, her work in her lap,
thinking. Never before had Riverius talked as
much or as nearly of his own affairs. "What had
he meant ? A subtler or vainer woman might have
guessed his riddle and in the closeness of self sus-
pected the nature of it. She was incapable of these
sudden feminine suspicions as to another, but was
more competent to reason out some comprehension
of his dimly-seen difficulty. At last it came upon
her with the force of a blow. Was she directly
concerned in his indecision ? She flushed. Annoy-
ance, pride, distinct anger at the position, in turn
affected her. More and more disturbed, she went
to bed, and lay awake, thinking, and little knowing


that at the same time Riverius was walking to and
fro in his cabin, as much troubled as herself. He
packed his valise, put away many articles, locked
the trunks he was to leave behind him, and then
stood before the fire, reflecting. He wished that he
had ended his doubt when he was last in America.
Now it was harder; and yet his profound sense of
obligation to Mrs. Preston, which had once almost
annoyed him, he gladly felt was merged in a general
conviction of the need his life had for this woman.
It was a more healthy state of mind. Natures like
his resent obligation, and acknowledge no capacity
of requital. But love pays all debts, and he was
close to the belief that all else in life was nothing
without this woman, and was fast becoming rec-
onciled to having owed his life to her. He was
helped, too, by the assurance he felt that her gentle
soul seemed to have utterly forgotten the service.


Biverius left on a Saturday, and the day seemed
of the longest to Elizabeth Preston.

All strong emotions have their sequent moods of
tire, elation, or depression. To-day she was help-
less in the grasp of active discontent, — ill pleased
with herself, unreasonably displeased with Riverius.
The wind blew warm from the south. A deluge of
rain cleared the trees of the ice and snow, and the
heavy air seemed to foster her mood of melancholy.
As a rule, she was unirritable, and of an easy natu-
ral gentleness. Saint Temperament is a good saint ;
but now she was short, even with Paul, cross to
Becky, and more and more vexed with herself, as
she recalled the conclusions to which an intelligent
study of herself had brought her. But, reason
anew on it all as she might, her mental machinery
was too good to evolve for her any of the fallacies
with which lower natures oheat themselves. There
are certain truths which, like the eyes of a fair
portrait, follow us implacably.

The Sunday which came after that unhappy Sat-
urday Bessy long remembered. All day, into the
afternoon, it rained hard, and Paul and she stayed
w T ithin-doors. The lesson of the day, and the
psalm, were read in their usual routine, and then
Paul loitered over a book, or, only half attentive,
looked up or went to the door to see if there was


any prospect that the steady down-pour would ever
end. At times he put the neglected author aside
and chatted with his mother, who gave him, this
day, but a divided attention.

It was now suddenly borne in on the boy's mind
that she looked very young. Of late he had been
half aware of a fresh touch of youthful gayety in
her ways and manner. She had taken with the
daily bread of life a sudden draught of its elixir.
He said, with a little shyness (as if it were a deli-
cate matter), "How old are you, mother? I was
wondering, yesterday."

Bessy put down her book and smiled. " Why
do you ask ?"

" Oh, I don't rightly know. Mr. Riverius said —
he said I was awfully big to be your son."

" Mr. Riverius is very impertinent, Master Paul.
You are a pair of gossips. Am I — do I look so
very old ?"

Paul had the well-mannered child's dislike to
hearing a parent spoken of as old.

" Old ! old!" he returned, reproachfully. "He
said no such thing; and I didn't say it." Then he
let fall his book and went over and kissed her. " I
do think you are so pretty, mother. I asked Mr.
Riverius once if he didn't think you were pretty ;
and what do you think he said ?"

B3 7 this time Bessy began to be conscious of hav-
ing more blood in her face than was pleasant, and,
since, like murder, blushes will out, she feared
detection : they did not seem fully to explain
themselves. She was getting annoyed.


" I am sure," she said, quickly, " that Mr. Rive-
rius never meant you to repeat his talk."

" Oh, but it wasn't anything much. He just
said "

" No matter what he said." Nevertheless she
was as eager as a child to know.

" But he said I was foolish, — that when I grew
up and saw many women I would know better."

" Oh, indeed !" said Bessy. " Was that what
he said ? I cannot see why you made such a fuss
over it."

" Oh, but that wasn't all !" exclaimed Paul,
considering that now she had given him leave to
speak. " He said you were noble-looking, and that
you had a woman's head and a child's heart. I
think that was very nice of him."

" I think it was," said Bessy, humbly. " But
never tell him you told me. He would cease to
talk to you as a friend if he thought every light
word was reported to me. Eemember, Paul."

The manner of the rebuke was stern, the face
whence it came was joyous.

He stood beside her as he spoke, looking up.
"You aren't angry, mother?" he said. "I didn't
mean — I "

" Nonsense !" she cried, and caught him in her
arms and kissed him again and again. Usually to
him she was gently affectionate. The little out-
break of demonstrative tenderness had more sources
than the boy could have dreamed of.

" There, go," she cried, laughing, and pushing
him away.


" The rain is over. It is clearing. I think I
shall walk down to the mill. The hill-slopes will
not be as bad as the level. "

With a word or two more, he left her.

She rose and looked out.

The cabin felt close. One has in-door moods,
and out-door moods, in which it is punishment to
be between four walls. She longed to be out and

She caught up a chip hat and tied its flaps down
to guard her from the increasing sunshine. Then
she pinned up her skirts, being minded to walk
at ease, and went on to the porch.

The rain had fallen all day from a windless sky,
gradually becoming less and less, till it was now but
a white mist in the lower air, and of purer whiteness
because of the westering sun yet high above it. Two
or three inches of soft snow were on the ground,
and here and there deeper drifts, wet and treacher-
ous. The air was strangely warm. She looked
down at her stout shoes, buttoned her jacket of
squirrel-skins, the product of Kiverius's skill, and,
standing, wondered at the beauty of the scene be-
fore her.

A mood of elation had taken the place of the
depression of the day before. Looking to and fro,
she had a joyous sense of being in just relation
with the still day, the well-bathed woods, the misty
whiteness of the sunlit haze. She was too happy
for successful analysis, yet she tried, for a sweet
moment, to make out the sources of her pleasurable
mood. But the motions of the heart can no one


self-understand, or watch in the mirror of con-
sciousness, any more than one can see his material
eyes move in the glass which seems so truthfully
to reflect them.

She stood thinking a little while, and then got
away from the faint effort to see herself, and sur-
rendered to the bribes of a perfect day.

A positive sense of health and vigor of mind
and body possessed her. Crossing the clearing,
she entered the woods. Everywhere she saw the
blackened tree-trunks and noted how the mists
were swiftly disappearing in the absolute stillness
of the air, in which not a twig stirred overhead.
Between the net- work of branches the blue sky
was visible in its rain-washed purity of hue. No-
ticing, as singular, the quietness of the forest-spaces,
she came of a sudden into a rather open grove of
firs, spruce, and young pines, and gave a little
shiver of pure joy. On every pendent needle, and
at the tips and edges of every naked twig, the
quiet, slowly-ceasing rain had left beads and fringes
of clear water-drops. Through these the sun cast
its white light, so that it split into a million little
fan-like expansions of colors. Everywhere about
were inconceivable myriads of jewels hung from
twig and stem and pendent pine-needles. In all
her wood-life she had never before seen this rare
and lovely sight, for which that unfrequent thing,
a windless slowly-falling rain, is indispensable. Its
splendors matched her mood of joy. She wished
for Paul, and then for Riverius, and went on smiling
and happy.


Now iii a hollow the mist lay like little white
lakes, and now a hank of beaded brown moss
caught her eye, and now the stateliness of some
single pine surprised her with its look of authori-
tative vigor.

Walking swiftly and with keen enjoyment of
the use of wholesome limbs which knew not tire,
she descended the slope which led to the mill-site.

The building stood in a clearing where trees and
shrubs had been cleanly cut away for fear of the
ever-dreaded accident of fire. The framework
partly hid the opposite bank. Stepping aside, in-
tending to cross the brook, she paused abruptly.

On the farther shore stood Philetus, erect, bare-
headed, silent, looking up at the sky, his sightless
eyes unmindful of the sun.

For a moment she was about to speak, but some-
thing in his manner excited her curiosity, and she
waited, watchful.

The keen ears of the blind man detected the
noise of her step.

" Who is there?" he said.

She remained silent, until, thinking himself de-
ceived, he looked up again, his lips moving as if
in whispered speech. At intervals he passed a
hand quickly across his brow or turned his head as
if to listen. At last he spoke. Alone as he thought
himself, some stringent passionate need forced from
his lips the troubling results of thoughts too keenly
felt for silent guard.

Bessy instantly knew herself to be in the position
of a listener who has no right to hear; but also a


certain fear, or rather awe, controlled her, — some-
thing more than mere curiosity.

Many times before, she had noticed as singular
his increasing habit of moving his lips, as if speak-
ing things which had to find their way into some
form of speech.

At least it was thus, and justly, that she ex-
plained this inarticulate speech, which was generally
accompanied by an expression of sombre intensity
of self-occupation. The next instant he spoke, at
first in a broken whisper, but in a moment clearly
and in a full loud voice :

"Don't he say as vengeance is his? and isn't it
writ as he will repay them as does his justice on
the wicked ?"

" Oh !" exclaimed Bessy, shocked at his critical
analysis of that terrible text which makes vengeance
the unshared property of God.

Her faint cry caught the quick ear of Philetus.
" What's that ? Who's there ?" he said.

She made no answer. For a while he moved to
and fro among the trees, seeming at last to forget
his alarm. By and by he came out again to the
brook-side, and leaned moodily against a dead tree
shivered by lightning, now and then feeling its
broken bark, here and there, with the restless fin-
gers of his right hand. Soon the lips moved again,
then were at rest, then moved more freely, and, as
before, broke at length into passionate speech :

" ' He has said to me in the night season, Burn ;
he has said to me in the daylight, Slay ; the woman
that deceiveth shall surely die ; the man that be-


guileth shall perish; lire shall follow him, fire shall
devour his substance.' It's gettin' clearer. Thar's
this here tree as he smote with lightnin', or he
might of minded to rot it with worms, or vex it
with galls, or put it in my head to ruin it with an
axe. Ain't it him all the same as does it ?"

The idea appeared to please Philetus ; a sense of
satisfaction was visible on his face ; he seemed to
have found for himself a reasonable justification.
Leaving the blasted tree, he moved to the brook,
felt with his foot for the planks, and crossed them

He came straight towards Bessy, and seemed to
regard her so fixedly that she could hardly escape
from the feeling that he saw.

Not two yards away he paused, she silent, hardly
daring to breathe. For the first time, Philetus
appeared to her as a possible source of evil, and
with startling clearness she comprehended his con-
dition and read but too plainly the meaning of his

He was so near that he could almost have touched
her, when he spoke again. " Voices by night and
by day, — voices, — voices." And so, with his head
in the air, well set back after the way of the blind,
he moved through the woods and towards Bessy's
distant cabin, muttering as he went.

At times he paused, hearing in his ears cries
as of urgent imperative counsellors. There were
moments of doubt, but the incessant is a terrible
despot; and ever and ever, by day and by night,
strange whispers were as an eager, restless atmos-


phere round about him. He answered, as they
spoke, or made comments under his breath, as if
fearing to speak aloud.

Behind him at some little distance came the
woman, anxious, pitiful, no longer afraid ; for many
things cast out fear.

Philetus kept his path steadily athwart the for-
est, now touching a barked tree, now pausing, and
soon settling his doubts so as for a while to move
on as if certain of his way. Cultivated capacities
enabled the blind man to move at ease where mere
untrained eyes had been valueless.

"Woodmen find it hard or impossible to tell you
how, at night, they pass with directness through
the darkened forest; and it would have been hard
for Philetus to analyze the means by which he
guided his steps. It was certain, of late, that he
did it less well, finding it impossible at times to
give the needed attention to the limited aid his
senses afforded. Voices, none but he could hear,
troubled and distracted him. For days they were
gone or faintly heard, and again, as now, they
screamed in his ears wild and eager counsels.

He stopped, turned around, touched one or two
trees, and then, at last, stood still. As Mrs. Pres-
ton cautiously came near, she saw that he wore a
look of painful puzzle.

He said aloud, after his frequent fashion of self-
communing, " I'm a-losin' my cunnin' ; 'tain't natu-
ral I should git so bothered. Eothin' 'ain't hap-
pened ; here's me, and here's the wood, and I'm
lost. I'd hate Consider for to know that."


As he ceased to speak, Mrs. Preston called
aloud, —

" Is that you, Philetus ? How very lucky ! How
should I ever have found ray way in this ridiculous
tangle ?"

As she spoke, she came to his side.

"Mornin', Madam Preston," said Philetus.
" Rightly, it ain't mornin' ; but, bein' blinded, a
man don't keep just 'count of time. Lost your
way, did you say ?"

" Yes. It isn't easy, Philetus, and it is getting
well on in the day, too ; I never was forced to
camp out alone, and this time you will save me."

" How you city folks git dazed like, and wood-
wild, is past comprehendin'."

For a moment a mischievous desire to insist on
his leading the way crossed Bessy's mind; but
another glance at the perturbed face checked her
mirthful purpose.

" How absurd it is !" she exclaimed. " Why,
if I had only turned half around I should have
seen the two burnt pines at the turn of the lower
ox-road. Come, Philetus ; I shall not need your
help. How is Miriam ? There's the ox-road."

He followed her, answering as he went that all
was well at home. Of a truth, her coming had
been a vast relief. He could never have brought
himself to own that his boasted wood-craft had
failed him. As to this, and some other matters,
he was singularly vain. They turned into the ox-
road, and could now walk side by side.

" Where were you going, Philetus ?" she said.


" I was a-wanderin\ Of a Sabbath I like to go
to and fro in the woods, I've got to be that uneasy
at home."

" What makes you uneasy ?"

He turned his head as if to look at her.

" Did I say as I was uneasy ?"

" Yes ; that is what you said."

" Well, I am. I'm that pestered. Do you think
the devil can talk loud in a man's ears so's no man
else can hear? Oh, the tongues he must know!"

" Does he talk to you ?"

" I never said it."

" I think people get such fancies ; and perhaps
whiskey helps to make them. He seems far away
this quiet Sunday. The woods are still and cool
with the rain, and all the leaves are shining, and
the birds are calling, and the squirrels are busy,
and over us the white clouds are drifting, and now
above it is blue, and now a gray-white, through
the rifts in the woods. The peace of the woods,
Philetus, seems to me to pass all understanding."

As she spoke, a gentle look of calm came over
his face.

He had the rare love for nature which seems to
be born in some, and which no education can pro-
duce, and he was thankful because of the pains she
took to make him aware of the woodland beauty.

He was now quiet in mind. At all times Bessy
controlled him. There is something delicately fine
in the way certain natures act one on another for
good. The goodness of mere commonplace people
is often valueless; the setting is something.


He said, " Yes, ma'am. There's texts that has
no need to be bob-tailed with sermons; there's
texts that preaches themselves; and when a man
says to me, ' the peace of the woods,' which might
be the same as God's peace, or jus' a part of his
peace, — when he says ' that passeth all uncler-
standin',' it jus' gives a man the notion of what a
small little thing it is, that there understandin', and
how it gives out, like, when it gits sot to studyin'
God Almighty. I 'ain't really had no peace these
few days. There's a singin' and a sayin' and a coun-
sellin' in my head like to drive me mad. Come
an hour, it's clean gone, like as it never had been.
That's peace, — God's peace. Fact is, it does seem
's if all right honest-minded peace might be his,
anyways. It ain't a thing of understandin', and
you did kind of make it plain to my blindness.
Now, Myry 'ain't got that gift at all. Why, Mrs.
Preston, she don't hardly know a pine from a pop-
lar; and when I told her last week the turkey-foot
ferns was a heap more like peacocks than turkeys,
she never knowed what I meant; and the pride of
the things! it jus' sticks out!"

"Well, she can see a cobweb far enough, Phile-
tus. And who can beat Myry's rolls ? I couldn't
make one of them if I were to study a year."

" Might be," said Philetus, complacently. " I
kin cook a bit myself." He was reflecting, not un-
pleased, upon the range and variety of his own
gifts, and moved along smilingly.

" This is the ox-road," said Bessy. " Wasn't it
stupid of me to lose myself? Come home with me


and have supper ; or shall you go back home before

" I carries my night round with me always. It
don't make no difference to me what's the time of
day. Folks don't git used to thinkin' that."

" Of course; I knew. Will you come?"

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Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 10 of 17)