S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Far in the forest, a story online

. (page 11 of 17)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 11 of 17)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

" No ; I'll go back. What was that thar noise I
heerd ?"

" Noise. I heard nothing."

" Thought I heerd it. Wasn't nuthin', I guess."

But his face grew suddenly anxious, and his
head turned aside as if to hear. He at once sus-
pected that what he heard had been one of the
many noises which bewildered his brain, and he
became instantly cautious, reticent, and suspicious.

" Sit down a little," said Mrs. Preston. " I am
in no haste. Here, on this log." And she plucked
at his sleeve.

Hesitating a moment, he sat down.

" Was you wantin' me to bide fur any thin' per-
tickeler ?"

" No, no ; nothing, except that I wanted to ask
you what is the matter with you of late. You
mutter to yourself; you speak aloud at times and
say such strange things ; you look so disturbed,
and honestly, Philetus, what's the matter ?"

" Oh, it ain't nuthin'."

He was at once on guard. Like all persons with
his peculiar form of mental trouble, he was very
frank until taught by experience that anybody dis-
believed him. Then he became cunning, watchful,
indisposed to talk of his torments or temptations.


" You are not speaking the truth, Philetus. "We
have been good friends, and now I want to help
you. By this time you must know how much I
want to help you."

"I 'ain't no need," he said, rising hastily. "I
guess it's wearin' on towards evenin'. I must go."

" But, Philetus "

" I 'ain't the time to bide. I left Myry alone.
Good-evenin', Mrs. Preston."

She made no further effort to stay him, and he
strode away through the woods, leaving her seated,
deep in thought, on the crumbling log.


A week passed by, and then another, and the too
eventless life of their cabin continued. The first
day of spring had lured Bessy to a seat under the
porch, and, quite alone, she sat now sewing, now
letting her work fall on her lap and staring into the
woodland spaces as if in their depths were answers
to her questioning fancies. At last she heard Paul's
voice, and saw him tumble himself over the snake
fence in his haste, and then beheld him, too breath-
less to speak, at her side.

" Mother ! mother !" he exclaimed.

"Take time," she said. "Be quiet. "Wait.
Now, then, what is it ?"

" The mill is burned down. I knew it would be."

" That is bad news," she said.

" Yes, and Mr. Riverius away, and no one at
work there."

" Why, Paul, it must have been set afire by some
one maliciously. Was it still burning ?"

" No. It might have been done some days. It's
off the ox-roads, and no one lives near it. Philetus
is the nearest."

" Philetus !" she said.

" Yes. What's the matter, mother ?"

" Nothing;. I must £0 in and write to Mr. Rive-
rius. My letter can go to Pierson's camp. That is
the quickest way."


Then she went in. She wrote at once to the
German, merely telling him of the loss. Her own
mind was pretty clear as to the author of the mis-
chief, but she was not altogether certain, and she
saw no good in detailing her suspicions. Nor were
these to remain quite undisturbed. The day after
her letter had gone, she heard the voice of Philetus
in the kitchen. Of late he rarely came to the cabin,
except to use her ox-cart to fetch in the wood he
was chopping. Now he was deep in talk with
Becky, who had asked him what he thought had
made the mill burn down. Mrs. Preston called

" Good-morning, Philetus," she said. " All well
at home ?"

" Yes. We ain't ill off, thanks to you, ma'am.
Might be harder times."

" I heard you speak of Mr. Riverius's mill."

" It was spoke of to me."

" Yes, I know. Who set that afire, Philetus ?"

" Lightnin', maybe."

" Nonsense ! — at this season."

" Pve seen lightnin' afore, in February."

" But we have had none."

" That's so." And he was silent.

" I think, myself, Philetus, that it was the work
of malice."

"No, no; not malice. God's judgment ain't

" What do you mean ?"

" Well, ther's people as thinks he deserved it,—
him that owned that mill."


" What ?"

" Else how could it have chanced ?"

" It did not chance. You all hate him. The
more kind he is to you, the more you hate him.
Some one of you did this to hurt a man you dare
not face. Some coward did it. Perhaps 'twas that
wolf Ance, who remembers his punishment."

" 'Twasn't Ance."

" Why do you say so ? How do you know ?"

" 'Tain't like Ance."

" Do you know who did it ?"

" If I do, I ain't minded to say. Him as done it
might have been a firebrand in the hands of the

" Stuff! No, you cannot go."

He was moving away. She laid a hand on his
arm. He paused.

" Was it you who burned the mill ?"

"No; I didn't do it."

" You would not lie to me, Philetus : that I am
sure of."

She was glad of his denial, yet puzzled and

As she spoke, he went away, without uttering
another word, and presently crossed the clearing,
and, entering the woods, sat down on a stump. By
and by he said, aloud, " When the hand of God
air on a man, and he air a-speakin' to him and
a-preachin', that thar man he does as he's bid.
'Tain't him, but the Lord. I said it wasn't me, and
it wasn't."

After this logical settlement with conscience he


lit his pipe and went back tranquilly to his work in
the pines.

The news of the burning of the mill and also of
Riverius's sudden departure had been much dis-
cussed in the camps, where his famous victory over
Ance had excited great amazement. A few be-
lieved he had left in fear of further trouble, but the
common sense of those who had seen his battle led
them to take another view.

It cannot be said that his absence was felt. His
wood-gangs worked as usual, his money was duly
received, and his men paid, but his reserve and ten-
dency to hold himself aloof had made him far more
disliked than much worse peculiarities would have
done. Philetus was glad of his absence. He more
than any one else was annoyed at the German's
personal disinclination to accept him on even terms,
and now, at least, he would be at ease as to Miriam
for a time, for as to this Philetus had a feeling
which certainly passed the line of healthy thought.
The blind are suspicious, and never since Phil had
overheard their laughing talk had he been quite free
from the feeling referred to. Miriam's moodiness
and tears, really due to the persecution of Ance and
his influence on her husband, the latter put to the
credit of the German, and the malevolent effects
of a fixed idea were becoming more and more
serious. The mystically minded are of all men
the most apt to be illogical, are above others prone
to be disturbed mentally by the permanent enter-
tainment of a false belief which seems at last to
become a part of the structure of the mind and


to affect all its decisions. Moreover, Philetus had
a vast conception of his own sagacity, and greatly
overestimated his capacity both to observe and to
reason. His chosen comrades either flattered him
or, as in the case of Ance, found in his beliefs a
cover for their own schemes. In the domain of
morbid psychology the terrible effects of these abso-
lute and false ideas are well understood, and they
are among the many causes which lead to inexpli-
cable crimes. As to money, Philetus was, on the
whole, easy, as Mrs. Preston was still able to give
him employment and now and then to help his
troubled wife.

Meanwhile, the spring went by, and they rarely
had news of Riverius. It was late in May, and,
moved by a visit from Miriam, who had come over
to beseech Mrs. Preston to speak to Philetus of
his increasing ill temper and bad habits, Bessy
went out into the woods a mile or so from home to
seek the woodman. The day was pleasant. In the
deeper hollows among the rocks a little snow still
lay. The arbutus was ripe again, and the dogwood
lit the woods anew. A pleasant calm was on all
her being, a mood which made her light of heart
with some assurance that for her life was not yet
over. She went along gayly humming a song, and
presently saw Philetus sitting on a log, his face in
his hands.

He turned, rose at her coming, and said, " I
heerd your step, ma'am. What might you want ?"

" Sit down," she said, seating herself. " I want
to talk to you." He obeyed her silently.


" I am troubled about you of late, Philetus," she
said, kindly.

" And you ain't any more than I am. Things
don't go 'long as the Lord meant 'em to go. Myry
does nothin', 'most, but cry and jus' go round
stupid like. Somethin's on her mind. And the
little one ain't half looked arter, and I'm jus' done
out with 'em."

" Perhaps you are the cause, Philetus. You go
about with bad men. You drink. Oh, don't stop
me. You do. You half do your work. What is
the matter?"

" Ef I drink, it's because I'm in trouble," he
said; " and a man can't work ef he's got things on
his mind."

" What is it that troubles you ?"

" I don't keer to talk it over. A man's bothers
is best kep' to himself."

" Have I not been your friend ? Why not speak
to me ? Is it Ance ?" she said, doubtfully.

"No; it ain't him."

"Well, who is it?"

" I ain't a-goin' to tell," he said, positively.
" You ain't the one I'd soonest tell, anyways.
Don't you go to ask me, nuther. I can't talk about
it. I darsn't think about it. It's that, — that," he
said, tapping his head, "and it's made me do things
I wasn't bid to do. It fetches me visions, in the
night and in the day, — things I see in'ardly. Some-
times I think I ain't 'countable."

" You must be ill," said Bessy. " Why do you
not stop drinking?"


" I can't do it. It ain't Ance. He's minded
now to quit drink himself, but I ain't. It makes
me comfortable, drink does. It puts away them

" Nonsense !" said Bessy, authoritatively. " The
drink is killing you, body and soul. You must
stop. Once for all, it must stop. I cannot have a
half-drunken man about, and I will not."

" I kin go," he said, quietly, lifting his axe and

She was puzzled. To cast him off meant new
trouble for wife and child.

" No," she said. " You must stay and try
harder. I want to help, not hurt you."

" I know," he returned. " It ain't no use."

" It must be. Go on with your work here. Try
to do it better, and pray God to help you. I know
you will succeed."

He paused in thought. " Ain't a man got a privi-
lege to right himself when there's somebody doin'
him a wrong ?"

" No ; God rights all wrongs, soon or late, — all
wrongs. But are you sure any one has wronged
you V

" I know it. God ain't more sure."

" Hush ! I won't have you talking in that way."

" Well, a man's got to bide by his own acts.
He's a fool to go on lashin' himself and jus'
thinkin' and thinkin' ef he's done right."

" What have you done ?"

" There ain't no law for to make a man tell ag'in*


" I am not the law. What is it ?" She began
to be both troubled and suspicious.

"No, I know that, too; but I've done a heap
of loose talkin' I wasn't minded to do, and I ain't
goin' to do no more. Ef you want me to go I'll
go, and ef you want me to stay I'll stay, and that's
all ther' is of it."

"Well, I will say no more. Eemember Myry
and the child, and try to think over what I have
said. When Mr. Biverius comes back I will ask
him to give you work again." She had exhausted
her resources.

" Eyverus !" he murmured, and then, in louder
tones, " I don't do no work for him. He hadn't
oughter give me work. He ain't comin' back soon,
air he ?" There was almost terror in his voice as
he spoke.

" Why not?" said Mrs. Preston, surprised.
" I hate him !" he exclaimed. " Don't you be
thin kin' I'm afeerd to tell him. I've been nigh it.
I've been nigh it. Twice I seed him come to my
house at night, and when I got up he was gone.
What fetched him there? The Lord knows. I
don't give no 'count of myself to nobody, but
when you git Ryverus to ask me to work for him
you'll be makin' a mistake."

" Are you crazy ? What on earth do you mean
by such nonsense ? Let me hear no more of it."

" I've said enough, and too much," he returned.
" Is it bide or leave, ma'am ?"

" As you please," she said, much annoyed.

" Then I'll stay till he comes." And he turned



away, while she walked past him into the wood,
deep in thought. Could he have burned the mill ?
— and why? Nothing that she knew or guessed
explained the matter fully, but she saw clearly
enough that Philetus was not quite well in mind.
Strange he had always been, but his present mood
was inexplicable, and quite unlike his former phases
of oddness, in which there had certainly been noth-
ing to cause anxiety. As concerned Riverius, it
troubled her greatly ; but what could she do ? At
least when he came she would tell him, — that was
a clear and simple duty, — but, after that, how help-
less she was! Had he deserved the evident dis-
like he had aroused among these wild lumbermen ?
She was not of the women whom love makes blind,
but the very reserve and masterful ways of John
Riverius were things she did not find unpleasant,
although she could have wished that for his own
sake he had been able or willing to suppress them
at need. As to any just cause for the hatred Phile-
letus had so frankly expressed, she was still at a

A few days later, Miriam came over to thank
her. The strong protest of a healthy, positive per-
son had had for a time the useful value in the way
of control which it temporarily exerts over per-
sons in the state of mind which beset Philetus.
The influence did not last very long; and when,
the week after, Paul told her he had come upon
Philetus in the woods near the burned mill, kneel-
ing as if in silent prayer, her suspicions as to his
share in the fire became stronger. She spoke of


tliem to no one, but, being a woman resolute as to
any duty, went almost daily into the forest where
Philetus was at work. One morning she carried
him some trifle for the fair Ophelia or bade him
come and eat his noon-meal at her cabin. An-
other time it was tobacco, of which he was fond.
This persistency was winged with many motives,
not all selfish. As long as she kept as it were
touch of him, she saw that he was less moody
and drank none. Resolute natures which know
also how to be sweet exercise vast influence over
men. The devil does not own all the sugar. With
pretty cunning, Bessy put aside Riverius as if for-
gotten, and, taking Paul for company, chatted with
Philetus of the woods and river and of natural
things as to which he was curiously interesting,
liking well to be questioned. Then, too, she en-
listed Consider Kinsman, who, glad to be thought
an ally, had mournfully, and with lack of compre-
hending it, watched his friend's degradation, much
as an intelligent Newfoundland dog might note
with vague sadness change in the master. The
kindly task she set herself did Bessy Preston good.
She took trouble about it and gave it thought, and
was sternly set upon winning her gentle game, as
was natural to her as to all things, small or large,
which had flavor of duty. The old fellow saw in
part her object, but, liking the method, stood still,
like a restless horse of a mind to have his way but
flattered by the pleasant touch.

" How do you do, Consider? What a delightful
morning!" She spoke to him slowly, and, as he


sharply watched the ripe curves of a mouth a little
too large for mere beauty, he as usual understood
her words.

He smiled. " I felt a woodpecker a-tappin' on a
tree down near the brook. That's a sure sign of
spring, ma'am."

" What do you call this ?" said Paul, putting a
plant in the palm of Philetus.

" It's a corpse-light," he returned, casting away
the gray, dank stem of ominous name. " It's bad
luck to have that there weed come early."

Paul laughed. " Bad luck ! What is luck, any-
how ?"

" Put aP before it, Paul," exclaimed his mother.
" Luck is the excuse of the weak, — bad luck, that
is." And she laughed at her little proverb.

" There ain't no luck, really," said Philetus.
" Things is sot for to happen, and some things is
sot for to git us ready. There's warnin's by beasts,
and warnin's by plants, like as whispers of God
afore he talks out things as is to be."

Consider regarded his friend with interest, wag-
ging an approving head, and but partially catching
the words, while Bessy, not thinking the talk
wholesome for Philetus, said, " Give me his pipe,

The boy took it from the old man's pocket,
whence, as usual, it protruded a well-blackened
bowl. Bessy filled it from a pouch in her lap and
handed both to the woodman. " I have brought
you some excellent tobacco," she said.

" And I just done mine. How you women know


things is past believin'." Then he struck a match
on his corduroys, and drew a long draught of the
pleasant weed.

" What's this ?" he said, suddenly. " That's
By verus's baccy. Knowed it, I did ! None for me !
none for me !" And he absently emptied the pipe
and extended his hand with the pouch to the giver.
Paul looked his surprise, but Bessy at once threw
out the tobacco and came to the blind man's side.
It was as he had said. Riverius had left on her
table by chance a package of the brand he com-
monly smoked.

" I thought it might be too weak for you," she
said. " I made the pouch. Here it is. I have
emptied it. I will get you some stronger tobacco."

" Made it for me ?" he returned.


"I didn't have no notion to offend,'' he said,
simply. " Smells is awful 'minders. They've power
as is wonderful for to fetch back things as ther's no
reason for considerin'."

" I have noticed that," she returned. " Remind
me to fill the bag. How is Miriam ?"

" Oh, she's bettered some."

Bessy smiled, well pleased. "And Ophelia?"

His face lit up. " Oh, she's all right. She's jus'
a-noddin' and a-wavin' about like one of them
Quaker-ladies in June time. You can't do nuthin'
w'en that child's round but jus' 'tend to her, she's
that exactin'."

" She is like a Quaker-lady," said Paul, who had
looked on with interest, a little puzzled.


The blind man had pocketed the pouch and
taken up his axe to go to work at the wood he was
hewing. He struck right and left on the losr at his
feet, and then paused. " Paul knowed she was
like a Quaker-lady, hut I knowed it more in'ardly.
'Tain't every one gits a man's meanin'."

" No," said Bessy. " And there may he many
meanings." She was humoring his mood.

" That's so. Ther's that about considerin' the
lilies of the field. Now, that were real ripe
preachin'. Ther's moral in 'em fur smell and fur
seein'. Ther' ain't none for hearin'. Might mean
we're to l'arn all 'bout 'em. All on 'em. All the
multitude of things that grows. Some air like
people. Ther's good and bad, and them as blos-
soms soon, and some as is patient and keeps you
a-thinkin' the frost 'ill catch 'era and they won't
come to nothin'. And then, fur to justify the Lord,
they busts open and spites the frosty days with

" Like golden-rod," said Paul.

" Ever anybody said your mother was like golden-
rod, Paul ?"

" Never," said Bessy, laughing. " It is a doubtful

" Ain't no compliment. It's true."

" Well, it's enough for to-day. Come in at noon
and get your dinner, and bring Consider."

" All right, ma'am. I guess I've lost you time
enough. I'd best fell a tree now. Turn about,
work and words." And he brought his axe down
on the trunk at his feet, dexterously lopping branch


after branch of the prostrate giant, while Paul and
his mother walked away.

Of late Philetus had been at his best. Mrs.
Preston was trying to keep before him the ripe
fruit of the famous knowleclge-tree and to hide the
immature product which is evil. But his darker
hours were ever near at hand.

June came, crowned with laurels, and with it a
letter, brief as usual, to say that John Piverius
would be with them in early July. He would bring
the book, and Paul must write what else they needed.


A few days later, Miriam came, at Mrs. Preston's
request, to make a brief stay with her, and a shake-
down was made for her and the small Ophelia in
the sitting-room. Paul liked it less than did the two
women. The charm of the child's ways he cared
for as little as boys do. So long as he built dams
or corn-cob houses for her, Ophelia was content,
but the least distraction of his attention excited
her, and then he was never let alone. She liked
her little court, and gently intrigued or manoeuvred
to retain his fealty, gauging her likes very largely
by the amount of attention she could obtain. Phi-
letus never wearied of her, and was her willing
slave. Her capacity for minute observation cer-
tainly came from him, ami he valued it the more
for that reason, while of the mother's peculiar
charms of rosy fulness the dainty little person did
not share as yet, nor had she happily any promise
of being subject to the outbursts of anger to which
the much-tried Miriam was at times given.

The third day of their stay Paul induced his
mother to go a half-mile down the river to the
mountain and see the laurel which now covered
it and had given it a name, and also there was
the great lumber-slide to see. The two women,
used to exercise afoot, climbed slowly up the trail,


sometimes relieving little Ophelia by a lift, some-
times awaiting her slower progress and listening
with smiles to her incessant prattle and constant
requests to the much-tasked Paul to know the
names of the flowers or to get her blackberries.

In one of the deep clefts between the hill-top
and the river a sturdy brook ran, whitening as it
fell, intent to find the river-level. On either side
vast granite rocks, tumbled from the cliff above,
lay in gigantic masses in and along the stream.
From the far top of the gorge, the laurel, creamy
white and pink, a mass of unimaginable tints, filled
every available space, and seen from beneath was
like a cascade of bloom, parting at the rocks, re-
uniting below, and glorious as colors that cloak the
dying day.

The little party stood below at the brook-side,
all more or less feeling the effect of the immense
mass of rich hues made up by the double bloom
of the lesser and larger laurel. The day was quiet,
and the noise of the riotous brook alone broke
the stillness as it leaped to view here and there
among the mass of flowers and came boldly out
at last, white with gathered foam, to pause as if
for reflection in a little pool before continuing its
journey. Miriam said it was just really too beauti-
ful, and was like a theatre, only it wasn't so gay.
As for Ophelia, she desired to be decorated with
laurel and other flowers, and was soon as well
garlanded as her namesake. She had a lively
pleasure in arraying her small person. The next
moment she discovered how the stamens of the


larger laurel can be made to spring and scatter the
pollen ; and this amused her until she found a bed
of violets, when she got rid of her floral attire and
sat down, smoothing her dress and inviting Paul to
"fight violets," which consists in hooking the
crook-like stems of two of these flowers and then
by a jerk beheading one of them, the sound sur-
vivor being victorious for the time. Meanwhile the
elder persons rested, chatted, or wandered about.
Miriam's reference to the theatre as her highest
standard of comparison amused Mrs. Preston.

" I should think that noisy stream was actor and
action enough for you."

" It doesn't have any trouble with learning its
part. That did use to bother me when I trod the
stage. I sometimes think I would like to go and
do it again. That child's got it in her, but, for all
she's called Ophelia, she couldn't ever do that part
the way I did. She doesn't get real angry or real
sorrowful. I do think sometimes she makes be-
lieve. Do you think she could, Mrs. Preston?"

" I do not know. Children are dreadfully com-
plicated. I think people who talk of the simplicity

of childhood well, I do not mean very little

children, but like your girl — must see very little.
When one comes to manage them they do not seem
very simple."

" In that book of poetry you lent me, Mrs. Pres-
ton, it says they're nigher heaven than we are, and
Christ he does say to let them come to him, just as
if they would come to him of their own accord if
we grown-up folks was to leave them alone."

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellFar in the forest, a story → online text (page 11 of 17)