Story type: Literature
CHAPTER I. DR. SINGLETARY is dead!
Well, what of it? All who live die sooner or later; and pray who was Dr. Singletary, that his case should claim particular attention?
Why, in the first place, Dr. Singletary, as a man born to our common inheritance of joy and sorrow, earthly instincts and heavenward aspirations,–our brother in sin and suffering, wisdom and folly, love, and pride, and vanity,–has a claim upon the universal sympathy. Besides, whatever the living man may have been, death has now invested him with its great solemnity. He is with the immortals. For him the dark curtain has been lifted. The weaknesses, the follies, and the repulsive mental and personal idiosyncrasies which may have kept him without the sphere of our respect and sympathy have now fallen off, and he stands radiant with the transfiguration of eternity, God’s child, our recognized and acknowledged brother.
Dr. Singletary is dead. He was an old man, and seldom, of latter years, ventured beyond the precincts of his neighborhood. He was a single man, and his departure has broken no circle of family affection. He was little known to the public, and is now little missed. The village newspaper simply appended to its announcement of his decease the customary post mortem compliment, “Greatly respected by all who knew him;” and in the annual catalogue of his alma mater an asterisk has been added to his name, over which perchance some gray-haired survivor of his class may breathe a sigh, as he calls up, the image of the fresh-faced, bright-eyed boy, who, aspiring, hopeful, vigorous, started with him on the journey of life,–a sigh rather for himself than for its unconscious awakener.
But, a few years have passed since he left us; yet already wellnigh all the outward manifestations, landmarks, and memorials of the living man have passed away or been removed. His house, with its broad, mossy roof sloping down on one side almost to the rose-bushes and lilacs, and with its comfortable little porch in front, where he used to sit of a pleasant summer afternoon, has passed into new hands, and has been sadly disfigured by a glaring coat of white paint; and in the place of the good Doctor’s name, hardly legible on the corner-board, may now be seen, in staring letters of black and gold, “VALENTINE ORSON STUBBS, M. D., Indian doctor and dealer in roots and herbs.” The good Doctor’s old horse, as well known as its owner to every man, woman, and child in the village, has fallen into the new comer’s hands, who (being prepared to make the most of him, from the fact that he commenced the practice of the healing art in the stable, rising from thence to the parlor) has rubbed him into comparative sleekness, cleaned his mane and tail of the accumulated burrs of many autumns, and made quite a gay nag of him. The wagon, too, in which at least two generations of boys and girls have ridden in noisy hilarity whenever they encountered it on their way to school, has been so smartly painted and varnished, that if its former owner could look down from the hill-slope where he lies, he would scarcely know his once familiar vehicle as it whirls glittering along the main road to the village. For the rest, all things go on as usual; the miller grinds, the blacksmith strikes and blows, the cobbler and tailor stitch and mend, old men sit in the autumn sun, old gossips stir tea and scandal, revival meetings alternate with apple-bees and bushings,–toil, pleasure, family jars, petty neighborhood quarrels, courtship, and marriage,–all which make up the daily life of a country village continue as before. The little chasm which his death has made in the hearts of the people where he lived and labored seems nearly closed up. There is only one more grave in the burying-ground,–that is all.
Let nobody infer from what I have said that the good man died unlamented; for, indeed, it was a sad day with his neighbors when the news, long expected, ran at last from house to house and from workshop to workshop, “Dr. Singletary is dead!”
He had not any enemy left among them; in one way or another he had been the friend and benefactor of all. Some owed to his skill their recovery from sickness; others remembered how he had watched with anxious solicitude by the bedside of their dying relatives, soothing them, when all human aid was vain, with the sweet consolations of that Christian hope which alone pierces the great shadow of the grave and shows the safe stepping-stones above the dark waters. The old missed a cheerful companion and friend, who had taught them much without wounding their pride by an offensive display of his superiority, and who, while making a jest of his own trials and infirmities, could still listen with real sympathy to the querulous and importunate complaints of others. For one day, at least, even the sunny faces of childhood were marked with unwonted thoughtfulness; the shadow of the common bereavement fell over the play-ground and nursery. The little girl remembered, with tears, how her broken-limbed doll had taxed the surgical ingenuity of her genial old friend; and the boy showed sorrowfully to his playmates the top which the good Doctor had given him. If there were few, among the many who stood beside his grave, capable of rightly measuring and appreciating the high intellectual and spiritual nature which formed the background of his simple social life, all could feel that no common loss had been sustained, and that the kindly and generous spirit which had passed away from them had not lived to himself alone.
As you follow the windings of one of the loveliest rivers of New England, a few miles above the sea-mart, at its mouth, you can see on a hill, whose grassy slope is checkered with the graceful foliage of the locust, and whose top stands relieved against a still higher elevation, dark with oaks and walnuts, the white stones of the burying-place. It is a quiet spot, but without gloom, as befits “God’s Acre.” Below is the village, with its sloops and fishing-boats at the wharves, and its crescent of white houses mirrored in the water. Eastward is the misty line of the great sea. Blue peaks of distant mountains roughen the horizon of the north. Westward, the broad, clear river winds away into a maze of jutting bluffs and picturesque wooded headlands. The tall, white stone on the westerly slope of the hill bears the name of “Nicholas Singletary, M. D.,” and marks the spot which he selected many years before his death. When I visited it last spring, the air about it was fragrant with the bloom of sweet-brier and blackberry and the balsamic aroma of the sweet-fern; birds were singing in the birch-trees by the wall; and two little, brown-locked, merry-faced girls were making wreaths of the dandelions and grasses which grew upon the old man’s grave. The sun was setting behind the western river-bluffs, flooding the valley with soft light, glorifying every object and fusing all into harmony and beauty. I saw and felt nothing to depress or sadden me. I could have joined in the laugh of the children. The light whistle of a young teamster, driving merrily homeward, did not jar upon my ear; for from the transfigured landscape, and from the singing birds, and from sportive childhood, and from blossoming sweetbrier, and from the grassy mound before me, I heard the whisper of one word only, and that word was PEACE.
CHAPTER II. SOME ACCOUNT OF PEEWAWKIN ON THE TOCKETUCK.
WELL and truly said the wise man of old, “Much study is a weariness to the flesh.” Hard and close application through the winter had left me ill prepared to resist the baleful influences of a New England spring. I shrank alike from the storms of March, the capricious changes of April, and the sudden alternations of May, from the blandest of southwest breezes to the terrible and icy eastern blasts which sweep our seaboard like the fabled sanser, or wind of death. The buoyancy and vigor, the freshness and beauty of life seemed leaving me. The flesh and the spirit were no longer harmonious. I was tormented by a nightmare feeling of the necessity of exertion, coupled with a sense of utter inability. A thousand plans for my own benefit, or the welfare of those dear to me, or of my fellow-men at large, passed before me; but I had no strength to lay hold of the good angels and detain them until they left their blessing. The trumpet sounded in my ears for the tournament of life; but I could not bear the weight of my armor. In the midst of duties and responsibilities which I clearly comprehended, I found myself yielding to the absorbing egotism of sickness. I could work only when the sharp rowels of necessity were in my sides.
It needed not the ominous warnings of my acquaintance to convince me that some decisive change was necessary. But what was to be done? A voyage to Europe was suggested by my friends; but unhappily I reckoned among them no one who was ready, like the honest laird of Dumbiedikes, to inquire, purse in hand, “Will siller do it?” In casting about for some other expedient, I remembered the pleasant old-fashioned village of Peewawkin, on the Tocketuck River. A few weeks of leisure, country air, and exercise, I thought might be of essential service to me. So I turned my key upon my cares and studies, and my back to the city, and one fine evening of early June the mail coach rumbled over Tocketuck Bridge, and left me at the house of Dr. Singletary, where I had been fortunate enough to secure bed and board.
The little village of Peewawkin at this period was a well-preserved specimen of the old, quiet, cozy hamlets of New England. No huge factory threw its evil shadow over it; no smoking demon of an engine dragged its long train through the streets; no steamboat puffed at its wharves, or ploughed up the river, like the enchanted ship of the Ancient Mariner,–
“Against the wind, against the tide,
Steadied with upright keel.”
The march of mind had not overtaken it. It had neither printing-press nor lyceum. As the fathers had done before them, so did its inhabitants at the time of my visit. There was little or no competition in their business; there were no rich men, and none that seemed over-anxious to become so. Two or three small vessels were annually launched from the carpenters’ yards on the river. It had a blacksmith’s shop, with its clang of iron and roar of bellows; a pottery, garnished with its coarse earthen-ware; a store, where molasses, sugar, and spices were sold on one side, and calicoes, tape, and ribbons on the other. Three or four small schooners annually left the wharves for the St. George’s and Labrador fisheries. Just back of the village, a bright, noisy stream, gushing out, like a merry laugh, from the walnut and oak woods which stretched back far to the north through a narrow break in the hills, turned the great wheel of a grist-mill, and went frolicking away, like a wicked Undine, under the very windows of the brown, lilac-shaded house of Deacon Warner, the miller, as if to tempt the good man’s handsome daughters to take lessons in dancing. At one end of the little crescent-shaped village, at the corner of the main road and the green lane to Deacon Warner’s mill, stood the school-house,–a small, ill- used, Spanish-brown building, its patched windows bearing unmistakable evidence of the mischievous character of its inmates. At the other end, farther up the river, on a rocky knoll open to all the winds, stood the meeting-house,–old, two story, and full of windows,–its gilded weathercock glistening in the sun. The bell in its belfry had been brought from France by Skipper Evans in the latter part of the last century. Solemnly baptized and consecrated to some holy saint, it had called to prayer the veiled sisters of a convent, and tolled heavily in the masses for the dead. At first some of the church felt misgivings as to the propriety of hanging a Popish bell in a Puritan steeple-house; but their objections were overruled by the minister, who wisely maintained that if Moses could use the borrowed jewels and ornaments of the Egyptians to adorn and beautify the ark of the Lord, it could not be amiss to make a Catholic bell do service in an Orthodox belfry. The space between the school and the meeting-house was occupied by some fifteen or twenty dwellings, many-colored and diverse in age and appearance. Each one had its green yard in front, its rose-bushes and lilacs. Great elms, planted a century ago, stretched and interlocked their heavy arms across the street. The mill-stream, which found its way into the Tocketuek, near the centre of the village, was spanned by a rickety wooden bridge, rendered picturesque by a venerable and gnarled white-oak which hung over it, with its great roots half bared by the water and twisted among the mossy stones of the crumbling abutment.
The house of Dr. Singletary was situated somewhat apart from the main street, just on the slope of Blueberry Will,–a great, green swell of land, stretching far down from the north, and terminating in a steep bluff at the river side. It overlooked the village and the river a long way up and down. It was a brown-looking, antiquated mansion, built by the Doctor’s grandfather in the earlier days of the settlement. The rooms were large and low, with great beams, scaly with whitewash, running across them, scarcely above the reach of a tall man’s head. Great-throated fireplaces, filled with pine-boughs and flower-pots, gave promise of winter fires, roaring and crackling in boisterous hilarity, as if laughing to scorn the folly and discomfort of our modern stoves. In the porch at the frontdoor were two seats, where the Doctor was accustomed to sit in fine weather with his pipe and his book, or with such friends as might call to spend a half hour with him. The lawn in front had scarcely any other ornament than its green grass, cropped short by the Doctor’s horse. A stone wall separated it from the lane, half overrun with wild hop, or clematis, and two noble rock-maples arched over with their dense foliage the little red gate. Dark belts of woodland, smooth hill pasture, green, broad meadows, and fields of corn and rye, the homesteads of the villagers, were seen on one hand; while on the other was the bright, clear river, with here and there a white sail, relieved against bold, wooded banks, jutting rocks, or tiny islands, dark with dwarf evergreens. It was a quiet, rural picture, a happy and peaceful contrast to all I had looked upon for weary, miserable months. It soothed the nervous excitement of pain and suffering. I forgot myself in the pleasing interest which it awakened. Nature’s healing ministrations came to me through all my senses. I felt the medicinal virtues of her sights, and sounds, and aromal breezes. From the green turf of her hills and the mossy carpets of her woodlands my languid steps derived new vigor and elasticity. I felt, day by day, the transfusion of her strong life.
The Doctor’s domestic establishment consisted of Widow Matson, his housekeeper, and an idle slip of a boy, who, when he was not paddling across the river, or hunting in the swamps, or playing ball on the “Meetin’-‘us-Hill,” used to run of errands, milk the cow, and saddle the horse. Widow Matson was a notable shrill-tongued woman, from whom two long suffering husbands had obtained what might, under the circumstances, be well called a comfortable release. She was neat and tidy almost to a fault, thrifty and industrious, and, barring her scolding propensity, was a pattern housekeeper. For the Doctor she entertained so high a regard that nothing could exceed her indignation when any one save herself presumed to find fault with him. Her bark was worse than her bite; she had a warm, woman’s heart, capable of soft relentings; and this the roguish errand-boy so well understood that he bore the daily infliction of her tongue with a good-natured unconcern which would have been greatly to his credit had it not resulted from his confident expectation that an extra slice of cake or segment of pie would erelong tickle his palate in atonement for the tingling of his ears.
It must be confessed that the Doctor had certain little peculiarities and ways of his own which might have ruffled the down of a smoother temper than that of the Widow Matson. He was careless and absent- minded. In spite of her labors and complaints, he scattered his superfluous clothing, books, and papers over his rooms in “much-admired disorder.” He gave the freedom of his house to the boys and girls of his neighborhood, who, presuming upon his good nature, laughed at her remonstrances and threats as they chased each other up and down the nicely-polished stairway. Worse than all, he was proof against the vituperations and reproaches with which she indirectly assailed him from the recesses of her kitchen. He smoked his pipe and dozed over his newspaper as complacently as ever, while his sins of omission and commission were arrayed against him.
Peewawkin had always the reputation of a healthy town: and if it had been otherwise, Dr. Singletary was the last man in the world to transmute the aches and ails of its inhabitants into gold for his own pocket. So, at the age of sixty, he was little better off, in point of worldly substance, than when he came into possession of the small homestead of his father. He cultivated with his own hands his corn- field and potato-patch, and trimmed his apple and pear trees, as well satisfied with his patrimony as Horace was with his rustic Sabine villa. In addition to the care of his homestead and his professional duties, he had long been one of the overseers of the poor and a member of the school committee in his town; and he was a sort of standing reference in all disputes about wages, boundaries, and cattle trespasses in his neighborhood. He had, nevertheless, a good deal of leisure for reading, errands of charity, and social visits. He loved to talk with his friends, Elder Staples, the minister, Deacon Warner, and Skipper Evans. He was an expert angler, and knew all the haunts of pickerel and trout for many miles around. His favorite place of resort was the hill back of his house, which afforded a view of the long valley of the Tocketuck and the great sea. Here he would sit, enjoying the calm beauty of the landscape, pointing out to me localities interesting from their historical or traditional associations, or connected in some way with humorous or pathetic passages of his own life experience. Some of these autobiographical fragments affected me deeply. In narrating them he invested familiar and commonplace facts with something of the fascination of romance. “Human life,” he would say, “is the same everywhere. If we could but get at the truth, we should find that all the tragedy and comedy of Shakespeare have been reproduced in this little village. God has made all of one blood; what is true of one man is in some sort true of another; manifestations may differ, but the essential elements and spring of action are the same. On the surface, everything about us just now looks prosaic and mechanical; you see only a sort of bark-mill grinding over of the same dull, monotonous grist of daily trifles. But underneath all this there is an earnest life, rich and beautiful with love and hope, or dark with hatred, and sorrow, and remorse. That fisherman by the riverside, or that woman at the stream below, with her wash-tub,–who knows what lights and shadows checker their memories, or what present thoughts of theirs, born of heaven or hell, the future shall ripen into deeds of good or evil? Ah, what have I not seen and heard? My profession has been to me, in some sort, like the vial genie of the Salamanca student; it has unroofed these houses, and opened deep, dark chambers to the hearts of their tenants, which no eye save that of God had ever looked upon. Where I least expected them, I have encountered shapes of evil; while, on the other hand, I have found beautiful, heroic love and self-denial in those who had seemed to me frivolous and selfish.”
So would Dr. Singletary discourse as we strolled over Blueberry Hill, or drove along the narrow willow-shaded road which follows the windings of the river. He had read and thought much in his retired, solitary life, and was evidently well satisfied to find in me a gratified listener. He talked well and fluently, with little regard to logical sequence, and with something of the dogmatism natural to one whose opinions had seldom been subjected to scrutiny. He seemed equally at home in the most abstruse questions of theology and metaphysics, and in the more practical matters of mackerel-fishing, corn-growing, and cattle-raising. It was manifest that to his book lore he had added that patient and close observation of the processes of Nature which often places the unlettered ploughman and mechanic on a higher level of available intelligence than that occupied by professors and school men. To him nothing which had its root in the eternal verities of Nature was “common or unclean.” The blacksmith, subjecting to his will the swart genii of the mines of coal and iron; the potter, with his “power over the clay;” the skipper, who had tossed in his frail fishing-smack among the icebergs of Labrador; the farmer, who had won from Nature the occult secrets of her woods and fields; and even the vagabond hunter and angler, familiar with the habits of animals and the migration of birds and fishes,–had been his instructors; and he was not ashamed to acknowledge that they had taught him more than college or library.
CHAPTER III. THE DOCTOR’S MATCH-MAKING
“GOOD-MORNING, Mrs. Barnet,” cried the Doctor, as we drew near a neat farm-house during one of our morning drives.
A tall, healthful young woman, in the bloom of matronly beauty, was feeding chickens at the door. She uttered an exclamation of delight and hurried towards us. Perceiving a stranger in the wagon she paused, with a look of embarrassment.
“My friend, who is spending a few weeks with me,” explained the Doctor.
She greeted me civilly and pressed the Doctor’s hand warmly.
“Oh, it is so long since you have called on us that we have been talking of going up to the village to see you, as soon as Robert can get away from his cornfield. You don’t know how little Lucy has grown. You must stop and see her.”
“She’s coming to see me herself,” replied the Doctor, beckoning to a sweet blue-eyed child in the door-way.
The delighted mother caught up her darling and held her before the Doctor.
“Does n’t she look like Robert?” she inquired. “His very eyes and forehead! Bless me! here he is now.”
A stout, hale young farmer, in a coarse checked frock and broad straw hat, came up from the adjoining field.
“Well, Robert,” said the Doctor, “how do matters now stand with you? Well, I hope.”
“All right, Doctor. We’ve paid off the last cent of the mortgage, and the farm is all free and clear. Julia and I have worked hard; but we’re none the worse for it.”
“You look well and happy, I am sure,” said the Doctor. “I don’t think you are sorry you took the advice of the old Doctor, after all.”
The young wife’s head drooped until her lips touched those of her child.
“Sorry!” exclaimed her husband. “Not we! If there’s anybody happier than we are within ten miles of us. I don’t know them. Doctor, I’ll tell you what I said to Julia the night I brought home that mortgage. ‘Well,’ said I, ‘that debt’s paid; but there’s one debt we can never pay as long as we live.’ ‘I know it,’ says she; ‘but Dr. Singletary wants no better reward for his kindness than to see us live happily together, and do for others what he has done for us.’”
“Pshaw!” said the Doctor, catching up his reins and whip. “You owe me nothing. But I must not forget my errand. Poor old Widow Osborne needs a watcher to-night; and she insists upon having Julia Barnet, and nobody else. What shall I tell her?”
“I’ll go, certainly. I can leave Lucy now as well as not.”
As we drove off I saw the Doctor draw his hand hastily across his eyes, and he said nothing for some minutes.
“Public opinion,” said he at length, as if pursuing his meditations aloud,–“public opinion is, in nine cases out of ten, public folly and impertinence. We are slaves to one another. We dare not take counsel of our consciences and affections, but must needs suffer popular prejudice and custom to decide for us, and at their bidding are sacrificed love and friendship and all the best hopes of our lives. We do not ask, What is right and best for us? but, What will folks say of it? We have no individuality, no self-poised strength, no sense of freedom. We are conscious always of the gaze of the many-eyed tyrant. We propitiate him with precious offerings; we burn incense perpetually to Moloch, and pass through his fire the sacred first-born of our hearts. How few dare to seek their own happiness by the lights which God has given them, or have strength to defy the false pride and the prejudice of the world and stand fast in the liberty of Christians! Can anything be more pitiable than the sight of so many, who should be the choosers and creators under God of their own spheres of utility and happiness, self-degraded into mere slaves of propriety and custom, their true natures undeveloped, their hearts cramped and shut up, each afraid of his neighbor and his neighbor of him, living a life of unreality, deceiving and being deceived, and forever walking in a vain show? Here, now, we have just left a married couple who are happy because they have taken counsel of their honest affections rather than of the opinions of the multitude, and have dared to be true to themselves in defiance of impertinent gossip.”
“You speak of the young farmer Barnet and his wife, I suppose?” said I.
“Yes. I will give their case as an illustration. Julia Atkins was the daughter of Ensign Atkins, who lived on the mill-road, just above Deacon Warner’s. When she was ten years old her mother died; and in a few months afterwards her father married Polly Wiggin, the tailoress, a shrewd, selfish, managing woman. Julia, poor girl! had a sorry time of it; for the Ensign, although a kind and affectionate man naturally, was too weak and yielding to interpose between her and his strong-minded, sharp-tongued wife. She had one friend, however, who was always ready to sympathize with her. Robert Barnet was the son of her next-door neighbor, about two years older than herself; they had grown up together as school companions and playmates; and often in my drives I used to meet them coming home hand in hand from school, or from the woods with berries and nuts, talking and laughing as if there were no scolding step-mothers in the world.
“It so fell out that when Julia was in her sixteenth year there came a famous writing-master to Peewawkin. He was a showy, dashing fellow, with a fashionable dress, a wicked eye, and a tongue like the old serpent’s when he tempted our great-grandmother. Julia was one of his scholars, and perhaps the prettiest of them all. The rascal singled her out from the first; and, the better to accomplish his purpose, he left the tavern and took lodgings at the Ensign’s. He soon saw how matters stood in the family, and governed himself accordingly, taking special pains to conciliate the ruling authority. The Ensign’s wife hated young Barnet, and wished to get rid of her step-daughter. The writing-master, therefore, had a fair field. He flattered the poor young girl by his attentions and praised her beauty. Her moral training had not fitted her to withstand this seductive influence; no mother’s love, with its quick, instinctive sense of danger threatening its object, interposed between her and the tempter. Her old friend and playmate–he who could alone have saved her–had been rudely repulsed from the house by her step-mother; and, indignant and disgusted, he had retired from all competition with his formidable rival. Thus abandoned to her own undisciplined imagination, with the inexperience of a child and the passions of a woman, she was deceived by false promises, bewildered, fascinated, and beguiled into sin.
“It is the same old story of woman’s confidence and man’s duplicity. The rascally writing-master, under pretence of visiting a neighboring town, left his lodgings and never returned. The last I heard of him, he was the tenant of a western penitentiary. Poor Julia, driven in disgrace from her father’s house, found a refuge in the humble dwelling of an old woman of no very creditable character. There I was called to visit her; and, although not unused to scenes of suffering and sorrow, I had never before witnessed such an utter abandonment to grief, shame, and remorse. Alas! what sorrow was like unto her sorrow? The birth hour of her infant was also that of its death.
“The agony of her spirit seemed greater than she could bear. Her eyes were opened, and she looked upon herself with loathing and horror. She would admit of no hope, no consolation; she would listen to no palliation or excuse of her guilt. I could only direct her to that Source of pardon and peace to which the broken and contrite heart never appeals in vain.
“In the mean time Robert Barnet shipped on board a Labrador vessel. The night before he left he called on me, and put in my hand a sum of money, small indeed, but all he could then command.
“‘You will see her often,’ he said. ‘Do not let her suffer; for she is more to be pitied than blamed.’
“I answered him that I would do all in my power for her; and added, that I thought far better of her, contrite and penitent as she was, than of some who were busy in holding her up to shame and censure.
“‘God bless you for these words!’ he said, grasping my hand. ‘I shall think of them often. They will be a comfort to me.’
“As for Julia, God was more merciful to her than man. She rose from her sick-bed thoughtful and humbled, but with hopes that transcended the world of her suffering and shame. She no longer murmured against her sorrowful allotment, but accepted it with quiet and almost cheerful resignation as the fitting penalty of God’s broken laws and the needed discipline of her spirit. She could say with the Psalmist, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true, justified in themselves. Thou art just, O Lord, and thy judgment is right.’ Through my exertions she obtained employment in a respectable family, to whom she endeared herself by her faithfulness, cheerful obedience, and unaffected piety.
“Her trials had made her heart tender with sympathy for all in affliction. She seemed inevitably drawn towards the sick and suffering. In their presence the burden of her own sorrow seemed to fall off. She was the most cheerful and sunny-faced nurse I ever knew; and I always felt sure that my own efforts would be well seconded when I found her by the bedside of a patient. Beautiful it was to see this poor young girl, whom the world still looked upon with scorn and unkindness, cheering the desponding, and imparting, as it were, her own strong, healthful life to the weak and faint; supporting upon her bosom, through weary nights, the heads of those who, in health, would have deemed her touch pollution; or to hear her singing for the ear of the dying some sweet hymn of pious hope or resignation, or calling to mind the consolations of the gospel and the great love of Christ.”
“I trust,” said I, “that the feelings of the community were softened towards her.”
“You know what human nature is,” returned the Doctor, “and with what hearty satisfaction we abhor and censure sin and folly in others. It is a luxury which we cannot easily forego, although our own experience tells us that the consequences of vice and error are evil and bitter enough without the aggravation of ridicule and reproach from without. So you need not be surprised to learn that, in poor Julia’s case, the charity of sinners like herself did not keep pace with the mercy and forgiveness of Him who is infinite in purity. Nevertheless, I will do our people the justice to say that her blameless and self-sacrificing life was not without its proper effect upon them.”
“What became of Robert Barnet?” I inquired.
“He came back after an absence of several months, and called on me before he had even seen his father and mother. He did not mention Julia; but I saw that his errand with me concerned her. I spoke of her excellent deportment and her useful life, dwelt upon the extenuating circumstances of her error and of her sincere and hearty repentance.
“‘Doctor,’ said he, at length, with a hesitating and embarrassed manner, ‘what should you think if I should tell you that, after all that has passed, I have half made up my mind to ask her to become my wife?’
“‘I should think better of it if you had wholly made up your mind,’ said I; ‘and if you were my own son, I wouldn’t ask for you a better wife than Julia Atkins. Don’t hesitate, Robert, on account of what some ill- natured people may say. Consult your own heart first of all.’
“‘I don’t care for the talk of all the busybodies in town,’ said he; ‘but I wish father and mother could feel as you do about her.’
“‘Leave that to me,’ said I. ‘They are kindhearted and reasonable, and I dare say will be disposed to make the best of the matter when they find you are decided in your purpose.’
“I did not see him again; but a few days after I learned from his parents that he had gone on another voyage. It was now autumn, and the most sickly season I had ever known in Peewawkin. Ensign Atkins and his wife both fell sick; and Julia embraced with alacrity this providential opportunity to return to her father’s house and fulfil the duties of a daughter. Under her careful nursing the Ensign soon got upon his feet; but his wife, whose constitution was weaker, sunk under the fever. She died better than she had lived,–penitent and loving, asking forgiveness of Julia for her neglect and unkindness, and invoking blessings on her head. Julia had now, for the first time since the death of her mother, a comfortable home and a father’s love and protection. Her sweetness of temper, patient endurance, and forgetfulness of herself in her labors for others, gradually overcame the scruples and hard feelings of her neighbors. They began to question whether, after all, it was meritorious in them to treat one like her as a sinner beyond forgiveness. Elder Staples and Deacon Warner were her fast friends. The Deacon’s daughters–the tall, blue-eyed, brown-locked girls you noticed in meeting the other day–set the example among the young people of treating her as their equal and companion. The dear good girls! They reminded me of the maidens of Naxos cheering and comforting the unhappy Ariadne.
“One mid-winter evening I took Julia with me to a poor sick patient of mine, who was suffering for lack of attendance. The house where she lived was in a lonely and desolate place, some two or three miles below us, on a sandy level, just elevated above the great salt marshes, stretching far away to the sea. The night set in dark and stormy; a fierce northeasterly wind swept over the level waste, driving thick snow-clouds before it, shaking the doors and windows of the old house, and roaring in its vast chimney. The woman was dying when we arrived, and her drunken husband was sitting in stupid unconcern in the corner of the fireplace. A little after midnight she breathed her last.
“In the mean time the storm had grown more violent; there was a blinding snow-fall in the air; and we could feel the jar of the great waves as they broke upon the beach.
“‘It is a terrible night for sailors on the coast,’ I said, breaking our long silence with the dead. ‘God grant them sea-room!’
“Julia shuddered as I spoke, and by the dim-flashing firelight I saw she was weeping. Her thoughts, I knew, were with her old friend and playmate on the wild waters.
“‘Julia,’ said I, ‘do you know that Robert Barnet loves you with all the strength of an honest and true heart?’
“She trembled, and her voice faltered as she confessed that when Robert was at home he had asked her to become his wife.
“‘And, like a fool, you refused him, I suppose?–the brave, generous fellow!’
“‘O Doctor!’ she exclaimed. ‘How can you talk so? It is just because Robert is so good, and noble, and generous, that I dared not take him at his word. You yourself, Doctor, would have despised me if I had taken advantage of his pity or his kind remembrance of the old days when we were children together. I have already brought too much disgrace upon those dear to me.’
“I was endeavoring to convince her, in reply, that she was doing injustice to herself and wronging her best friend, whose happiness depended in a great measure upon her, when, borne on the strong blast, we both heard a faint cry as of a human being in distress. I threw up the window which opened seaward, and we leaned out into the wild night, listening breathlessly for a repetition of the sound.
“Once more, and once only, we heard it,–a low, smothered, despairing cry.
“‘Some one is lost, and perishing in the snow,’ said Julia. ‘The sound conies in the direction of the beach plum-bushes on the side of the marsh. Let us go at once.’
“She snatched up her hood and shawl, and was already at the door. I found and lighted a lantern and soon overtook her. The snow was already deep and badly drifted, and it was with extreme difficulty that we could force our way against the storm. We stopped often to take breath and listen; but the roaring of the wind and waves was alone audible. At last we reached a slightly elevated spot, overgrown with dwarf plum- trees, whose branches were dimly visible above the snow.
“‘Here, bring the lantern here!’ cried Julia, who had strayed a few yards from me. I hastened to her, and found her lifting up the body of a man who was apparently insensible. The rays of the lantern fell full upon his face, and we both, at the same instant, recognized Robert Barnet. Julia did not shriek nor faint; but, kneeling in the snow, and still supporting the body, she turned towards me a look of earnest and fearful inquiry.
“‘Courage!’ said I. ‘He still lives. He is only overcome with fatigue and cold.’
“With much difficulty-partly carrying and partly dragging him through the snow–we succeeded in getting him to the house, where, in a short time, he so far recovered as to be able to speak. Julia, who had been my prompt and efficient assistant in his restoration, retired into the shadow of the room as soon as he began to rouse himself and look about him. He asked where he was and who was with me, saying that his head was so confused that he thought he saw Julia Atkins by the bedside. ‘You were not mistaken,’ said I; ‘Julia is here, and you owe your life to her.’ He started up and gazed round the room. I beckoned Julia to the bedside; and I shall never forget the grateful earnestness with which he grasped her hand and called upon God to bless her. Some folks think me a tough-hearted old fellow, and so I am; but that scene was more than I could bear without shedding tears.
“Robert told us that his vessel had been thrown upon the beach a mile or two below, and that he feared all the crew had perished save himself. Assured of his safety, I went out once more, in the faint hope of hearing the voice of some survivor of the disaster; but I listened only to the heavy thunder of the surf rolling along the horizon of the east. The storm had in a great measure ceased; the gray light of dawn was just visible; and I was gratified to see two of the nearest neighbors approaching the house. On being informed of the wreck they immediately started for the beach, where several dead bodies, half buried in snow, confirmed the fears of the solitary survivor.
“The result of all this you can easily conjecture. Robert Barnet abandoned the sea, and, with the aid of some of his friends, purchased the farm where he now lives, and the anniversary of his shipwreck found him the husband of Julia. I can assure you I have had every reason to congratulate myself on my share in the match-making. Nobody ventured to find fault with it except two or three sour old busybodies, who, as Elder Staples well says, ‘would have cursed her whom Christ had forgiven, and spurned the weeping Magdalen from the feet of her Lord.’”
CHAPTER IV. BY THE SPRING
IT was one of the very brightest and breeziest of summer mornings that the Doctor and myself walked homeward from the town poor-house, where he had always one or more patients, and where his coming was always welcomed by the poor, diseased, and age-stricken inmates. Dark, miserable faces of lonely and unreverenced age, written over with the grim records of sorrow and sin, seemed to brighten at his approach as with an inward light, as if the good man’s presence had power to call the better natures of the poor unfortunates into temporary ascendency. Weary, fretful women–happy mothers in happy homes, perchance, half a century before–felt their hearts warm and expand under the influence of his kind salutations and the ever-patient good-nature with which he listened to their reiterated complaints of real or imaginary suffering. However it might be with others, he never forgot the man or the woman in the pauper. There was nothing like condescension or consciousness in his charitable ministrations; for he was one of the few men I have ever known in whom the milk of human kindness was never soured by contempt for humanity in whatever form it presented itself. Thus it was that his faithful performance of the duties of his profession, however repulsive and disagreeable, had the effect of Murillo’s picture of St. Elizabeth of Hungary binding up the ulcered limbs of the beggars. The moral beauty transcended the loathsomeness of physical evil and deformity.
Our nearest route home lay across the pastures and over Blueberry Hill, just at the foot of which we encountered Elder Staples and Skipper Evans, who had been driving their cows to pasture, and were now leisurely strolling back to the village. We toiled together up the hill in the hot sunshine, and, just on its eastern declivity, were glad to find a white-oak tree, leaning heavily over a little ravine, from the bottom of which a clear spring of water bubbled up and fed a small rivulet, whose track of darker green might be traced far down the hill to the meadow at its foot.
A broad shelf of rock by the side of the spring, cushioned with mosses, afforded us a comfortable resting-place. Elder Staples, in his faded black coat and white neck-cloth, leaned his quiet, contemplative head on his silver-mounted cane: right opposite him sat the Doctor, with his sturdy, rotund figure, and broad, seamed face, surmounted by a coarse stubble of iron-gray hair, the sharp and almost severe expression of his keen gray eyes, flashing under their dark penthouse, happily relieved by the softer lines of his mouth, indicative of his really genial and generous nature. A small, sinewy figure, half doubled up, with his chin resting on his rough palms, Skipper Evans sat on a lower projection of the rock just beneath him, in an attentive attitude, as at the feet of Gatnaliel. Dark and dry as one of his own dunfish on a Labrador flake, or a seal-skin in an Esquimaux hut, he seemed entirely exempt from one of the great trinity of temptations; and, granting him a safe deliverance from the world and the devil, he had very little to fear from the flesh.
We were now in the Doctor’s favorite place of resort, green, cool, quiet, and sightly withal. The keen light revealed every object in the long valley below us; the fresh west wind fluttered the oakleaves above; and the low voice of the water, coaxing or scolding its way over bare roots or mossy stones, was just audible.
“Doctor,” said I, “this spring, with the oak hanging over it, is, I suppose, your Fountain of Bandusia. You remember what Horace says of his spring, which yielded such cool refreshment when the dog-star had set the day on fire. What a fine picture he gives us of this charming feature of his little farm!”
The Doctor’s eye kindled. “I’m glad to see you like Horace; not merely as a clever satirist and writer of amatory odes, but as a true lover of Nature. How pleasant are his simple and beautiful descriptions of his yellow, flowing Tiber, the herds and herdsmen, the harvesters, the grape vintage, the varied aspects of his Sabine retreat in the fierce summer heats, or when the snowy forehead of Soracte purpled in winter sunsets! Scattered through his odes and the occasional poems which he addresses to his city friends, you find these graceful and inimitable touches of rural beauty, each a picture in itself.”
“It is long since I have looked at my old school-day companions, the classics,” said Elder Staples; “but I remember Horace only as a light, witty, careless epicurean, famous for his lyrics in praise of Falernian wine and questionable women.”
“Somewhat too much of that, doubtless,” said the Doctor; “but to me Horace is serious and profoundly suggestive, nevertheless. Had I laid him aside on quitting college, as you did, I should perhaps have only remembered such of his epicurean lyrics as recommended themselves to the warns fancy of boyhood. Ah, Elder Staples, there was a time when the Lyces and Glyceras of the poet were no fiction to us. They played blindman’s buff with us in the farmer’s kitchen, sang with us in the meeting-house, and romped and laughed with us at huskings and quilting- parties. Grandmothers and sober spinsters as they now are, the change in us is perhaps greater than in them.”
“Too true,” replied the Elder, the smile which had just played over his pale face fading into something sadder than its habitual melancholy. “The living companions of our youth, whom we daily meet, are more strange to us than the dead in yonder graveyard. They alone remain unchanged!”
“Speaking of Horace,” continued the Doctor, in a voice slightly husky with feeling, “he gives us glowing descriptions of his winter circles of friends, where mirth and wine, music and beauty, charm away the hours, and of summer-day recreations beneath the vine-wedded elms of the Tiber or on the breezy slopes of Soracte; yet I seldom read them without a feeling of sadness. A low wail of inappeasable sorrow, an undertone of dirges, mingles with his gay melodies. His immediate horizon is bright with sunshine; but beyond is a land of darkness, the light whereof is darkness. It is walled about by the everlasting night. The skeleton sits at his table; a shadow of the inevitable terror rests upon all his pleasant pictures. He was without God in the world; he had no clear abiding hope of a life beyond that which was hastening to a close. Eat and drink, he tells us; enjoy present health and competence; alleviate present evils, or forget them, in social intercourse, in wine, music, and sensual indulgence; for to-morrow we must die. Death was in his view no mere change of condition and relation; it was the black end of all. It is evident that he placed no reliance on the mythology of his time, and that he regarded the fables of the Elysian Fields and their dim and wandering ghosts simply in the light of convenient poetic fictions for illustration and imagery. Nothing can, in my view, be sadder than his attempts at consolation for the loss of friends. Witness his Ode to Virgil on the death of Quintilius. He tells his illustrious friend simply that his calamity is without hope, irretrievable and eternal; that it is idle to implore the gods to restore the dead; and that, although his lyre may be more sweet than that of Orpheus, he cannot reanimate the shadow of his friend nor persuade ‘the ghost-compelling god’ to unbar the gates of death. He urges patience as the sole resource. He alludes not unfrequently to his own death in the same despairing tone. In the Ode to Torquatus,–one of the most beautiful and touching of all he has written,–he sets before his friend, in melancholy contrast, the return of the seasons, and of the moon renewed in brightness, with the end of man, who sinks into the endless dark, leaving nothing save ashes and shadows. He then, in the true spirit of his philosophy, urges Torquatus to give his present hour and wealth to pleasures and delights, as he had no assurance of to-morrow.”
“In something of the same strain,” said I, “Moschus moralizes on the death of Bion:–
Our trees and plants revive; the rose
In annual youth of beauty glows;
But when the pride of Nature dies,
Man, who alone is great and wise,
No more he rises into light,
The wakeless sleeper of eternal night.’”
“It reminds me,” said Elder Staples, “of the sad burden of Ecclesiastes, the mournfulest book of Scripture; because, while the preacher dwells with earnestness upon the vanity and uncertainty of the things of time and sense, he has no apparent hope of immortality to relieve the dark picture. Like Horace, he sees nothing better than to eat his bread with joy and drink his wine with a merry heart. It seems to me the wise man might have gone farther in his enumeration of the folly and emptiness of life, and pronounced his own prescription for the evil vanity also. What is it but plucking flowers on the banks of the stream which hurries us over the cataract, or feasting on the thin crust of a volcano upon delicate meats prepared over the fires which are soon to ingulf us? Oh, what a glorious contrast to this is the gospel of Him who brought to light life and immortality! The transition from the Koheleth to the Epistles of Paul is like passing from a cavern, where the artificial light falls indeed upon gems and crystals, but is everywhere circumscribed and overshadowed by unknown and unexplored darkness, into the warm light and free atmosphere of day.”
“Yet,” I asked, “are there not times when we all wish for some clearer evidence of immortal life than has been afforded us; when we even turn away unsatisfied from the pages of the holy book, with all the mysterious problems of life pressing about us and clamoring for solution, till, perplexed and darkened, we look up to the still heavens, as if we sought thence an answer, visible or audible, to their questionings? We want something beyond the bare announcement of the momentous fact of a future life; we long for a miracle to confirm our weak faith and silence forever the doubts which torment us.”
“And what would a miracle avail us at such times of darkness and strong temptation?” said the Elder. “Have we not been told that they whom Moses and the prophets have failed to convince would not believe although one rose from the dead? That God has revealed no more to us is to my mind sufficient evidence that He has revealed enough.”
“May it not be,” queried the Doctor, “that Infinite Wisdom sees that a clearer and fuller revelation of the future life would render us less willing or able to perform our appropriate duties in the present condition? Enchanted by a clear view of the heavenly hills, and of our loved ones beckoning us from the pearl gates of the city of God, could we patiently work out our life-task here, or make the necessary exertions to provide for the wants of these bodies whose encumbrance alone can prevent us from rising to a higher plane of existence?”
“I reckon,” said the Skipper, who had been an attentive, although at times evidently a puzzled, listener, “that it would be with us pretty much as it was with a crew of French sailors that I once shipped at the Isle of France for the port of Marseilles. I never had better hands until we hove in sight of their native country, which they had n’t seen for years. The first look of the land set ’em all crazy; they danced, laughed, shouted, put on their best clothes; and I had to get new hands to help me bring the vessel to her moorings.”
“Your story is quite to the point, Skipper,” said the Doctor. “If things had been ordered differently, we should all, I fear, be disposed to quit work and fall into absurdities, like your French sailors, and so fail of bringing the world fairly into port.”
“God’s ways are best,” said the Elder; “and I don’t see as we can do better than to submit with reverence to the very small part of them which He has made known to us, and to trust Him like loving and dutiful children for the rest.”
CHAPTER V. THE HILLSIDE
THE pause which naturally followed the observation of the Elder was broken abruptly by the Skipper.
“Hillo!” he cried, pointing with the glazed hat with which he had been fanning himself. “Here away in the northeast. Going down the coast for better fishing, I guess.”
“An eagle, as I live!” exclaimed the Doctor, following with his cane the direction of the Skipper’s hat. “Just see how royally he wheels upward and onward, his sail-broad wings stretched motionless, save an occasional flap to keep up his impetus! Look! the circle in which he moves grows narrower; he is a gray cloud in the sky, a point, a mere speck or dust-mote. And now he is clean swallowed up in the distance. The wise man of old did well to confess his ignorance of ‘the way of an eagle in the air.’”
“The eagle,” said Elder Staples, “seems to have been a favorite illustration of the sacred penman. ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount upward as on the wings of an eagle.’”
“What think you of this passage?” said the Doctor. “‘As when a bird hath flown through the air, there is no token of her way to be found; but the light air, beaten with the stroke of her wings and parted by the violent noise and motion thereof, is passed through, and therein afterward no sign of her path can be found.’
“I don’t remember the passage,” said the Elder.
“I dare say not,” quoth the Doctor. “You clergymen take it for granted that no good thing can come home from the Nazareth of the Apocrypha. But where will you find anything more beautiful and cheering than these verses in connection with that which I just cited?–‘The hope of the ungodly is like dust that is blown away by the wind; like the thin foam which is driven by the storm; like the smoke which is scattered here and there by the whirlwind; it passeth away like the remembrance of a guest that tarrieth but a day. But the righteous live forevermore; their reward also is with the Lord, and the care of them with the Most High. Therefore shall they receive a glorious kingdom and a beautiful crown from the Lord’s hand; for with his right hand shall He cover them, and with his arm shall He protect them.’”
“That, if I mistake not, is from the Wisdom of Solomon,” said the Elder. “It is a striking passage; and there are many such in the uncanonical books.”
“Canonical or not,” answered the Doctor, “it is God’s truth, and stands in no need of the endorsement of a set of well-meaning but purblind bigots and pedants, who presumed to set metes and bounds to Divine inspiration, and decide by vote what is God’s truth and what is the Devil’s falsehood. But, speaking of eagles, I never see one of these spiteful old sea-robbers without fancying that he may be the soul of a mad Viking of the middle centuries. Depend upon it, that Italian philosopher was not far out of the way in his ingenious speculations upon the affinities and sympathies existing between certain men and certain animals, and in fancying that he saw feline or canine traits and similitudes in the countenances of his acquaintance.”
“Swedenborg tells us,” said I, “that lost human souls in the spiritual world, as seen by the angels, frequently wear the outward shapes of the lower animals,–for instance, the gross and sensual look like swine, and the cruel and obscene like foul birds of prey, such as hawks and vultures,–and that they are entirely unconscious of the metamorphosis, imagining themselves marvellous proper men,’ and are quite well satisfied with their company and condition.”
“Swedenborg,” said the Elder, “was an insane man, or worse.”
“Perhaps so,” said the Doctor; “but there is a great deal of ‘method in his madness,’ and plain common sense too. There is one grand and beautiful idea underlying all his revelations or speculations about the future life. It is this: that each spirit chooses its own society, and naturally finds its fitting place and sphere of action,–following in the new life, as in the present, the leading of its prevailing loves and desires,–and that hence none are arbitrarily compelled to be good or evil, happy or miserable. A great law of attraction and gravitation governs the spiritual as well as the material universe; but, in obeying it, the spirit retains in the new life whatever freedom of will it possessed in its first stage of being. But I see the Elder shakes his head, as much as to say, I am ‘wise above what is written,’ or, at any rate, meddling with matters beyond my comprehension. Our young friend here,” he continued, turning to me, “has the appearance of a listener; but I suspect he is busy with his own reveries, or enjoying the fresh sights and sounds of this fine morning. I doubt whether our discourse has edified him.”
“Pardon me,” said I; “I was, indeed, listening to another and older oracle.”
“Well, tell us what you hear,” said the Doctor.
“A faint, low murmur, rising and falling on the wind. Now it comes rolling in upon me, wave after wave of sweet, solemn music. There was a grand organ swell; and now it dies away as into the infinite distance; but I still hear it,–whether with ear or spirit I know not,–the very ghost of sound.”
“Ah, yes,” said the Doctor; “I understand it is the voice of the pines yonder,–a sort of morning song of praise to the Giver of life and Maker of beauty. My ear is dull now, and I cannot hear it; but I know it is sounding on as it did when I first climbed up here in the bright June mornings of boyhood, and it will sound on just the same when the deafness of the grave shall settle upon my failing senses. Did it never occur to you that this deafness and blindness to accustomed beauty and harmony is one of the saddest thoughts connected with the great change which awaits us? Have you not felt at times that our ordinary conceptions of heaven itself, derived from the vague hints and Oriental imagery of the Scriptures, are sadly inadequate to our human wants and hopes? How gladly would we forego the golden streets and gates of pearl, the thrones, temples, and harps, for the sunset lights of our native valleys; the woodpaths, whose moss carpets are woven with violets and wild flowers; the songs of birds, the low of cattle, the hum of bees in the apple-blossom,–the sweet, familiar voices of human life and nature! In the place of strange splendors and unknown music, should we not welcome rather whatever reminded us of the common sights and sounds of our old home?”
“You touch a sad chord, Doctor,” said I. “Would that we could feel assured of the eternity of all we love!”
“And have I not an assurance of it at this very moment?” returned the Doctor. “My outward ear fails me; yet I seem to hear as formerly the sound of the wind in the pines. I close my eyes; and the picture of my home is still before me. I see the green hill slope and meadows; the white shaft of the village steeple springing up from the midst of maples and elms; the river all afire with sunshine; the broad, dark belt of woodland; and, away beyond, all the blue level of the ocean. And now, by a single effort of will, I can call before me a winter picture of the same scene. It is morning as now; but how different! All night has the white meteor fallen, in broad flake or minutest crystal, the sport and plaything of winds that have wrought it into a thousand shapes of wild beauty. Hill and valley, tree and fence, woodshed and well-sweep, barn and pigsty, fishing-smacks frozen tip at the wharf, ribbed monsters of dismantled hulks scattered along the river-side,–all lie transfigured in the white glory and sunshine. The eye, wherever it turns, aches with the cold brilliance, unrelieved save where. The blue smoke of morning fires curls lazily up from the Parian roofs, or where the main channel of the river, as yet unfrozen, shows its long winding line of dark water glistening like a snake in the sun. Thus you perceive that the spirit sees and hears without the aid of bodily organs; and why may it not be so hereafter? Grant but memory to us, and we can lose nothing by death. The scenes now passing before us will live in eternal reproduction, created anew at will. We assuredly shall not love heaven the less that it is separated by no impassable gulf from this fair and goodly earth, and that the pleasant pictures of time linger like sunset clouds along the horizon of eternity. When I was younger, I used to be greatly troubled by the insecure tenure by which my senses held the beauty and harmony of the outward world. When I looked at the moonlight on the water, or the cloud-shadows on the hills, or the sunset sky, with the tall, black tree-boles and waving foliage relieved against it, or when I heard a mellow gush of music from the brown-breasted fife-bird in the summer woods, or the merry quaver of the bobolink in the corn land, the thought of an eternal loss of these familiar sights and sounds would sometimes thrill through me with a sharp and bitter pain. I have reason to thank God that this fear no longer troubles me. Nothing that is really valuable and necessary for us can ever be lost. The present will live hereafter; memory will bridge over the gulf between the two worlds; for only on the condition of their intimate union can we preserve our identity and personal consciousness. Blot out the memory of this world, and what would heaven or hell be to us? Nothing whatever. Death would be simple annihilation of our actual selves, and the substitution therefor of a new creation, in which we should have no more interest than in an inhabitant of Jupiter or the fixed stars.”
The Elder, who had listened silently thus far, not without an occasional and apparently involuntary manifestation of dissent, here interposed.
“Pardon me, my dear friend,” said he; “but I must needs say that I look upon speculations of this kind, however ingenious or plausible, as unprofitable, and well-nigh presumptuous. For myself, I only know that I am a weak, sinful man, accountable to and cared for by a just and merciful God. What He has in reserve for me hereafter I know not, nor have I any warrant to pry into His secrets. I do not know what it is to pass from one life to another; but I humbly hope that, when I am sinking in the dark waters, I may hear His voice of compassion and encouragement, ‘It is I; be not afraid.’”
“Amen,” said the Skipper, solemnly.
“I dare say the Parson is right, in the main,” said the Doctor. “Poor creatures at the best, it is safer for us to trust, like children, in the goodness of our Heavenly Father than to speculate too curiously in respect to the things of a future life; and, notwithstanding all I have said, I quite agree with good old Bishop Hall: ‘It is enough for me to rest in the hope that I shall one day see them; in the mean time, let me be learnedly ignorant and incuriously devout, silently blessing the power and wisdom of my infinite Creator, who knows how to honor himself by all those unrevealed and glorious subordinations.’”
CHAPTER VI. THE SKIPPER’S STORY
“WELL, what’s the news below?” asked the Doctor of his housekeeper, as she came home from a gossiping visit to the landing one afternoon. “What new piece of scandal is afloat now?”
“Nothing, except what concerns yourself,” answered Widow Matson, tartly. “Mrs. Nugeon says that you’ve been to see her neighbor Wait’s girl–she that ‘s sick with the measles–half a dozen times, and never so much as left a spoonful of medicine; and she should like to know what a doctor’s good for without physic. Besides, she says Lieutenant Brown would have got well if you’d minded her, and let him have plenty of thoroughwort tea, and put a split fowl at the pit of his stomach.”
“A split stick on her own tongue would be better,” said the Doctor, with a wicked grimace.
“The Jezebel! Let her look out for herself the next time she gets the rheumatism; I’ll blister her from head to heel. But what else is going?”
“The schooner Polly Pike is at the landing.”
“What, from Labrador? The one Tom Osborne went in?”
“I suppose so; I met Tom down street.”
“Good!” said the Doctor, with emphasis. “Poor Widow Osborne’s prayers are answered, and she will see her son before she dies.”
“And precious little good will it do her,” said the housekeeper. “There’s not a more drunken, swearing rakeshame in town than Tom Osborne.”
“It’s too true,” responded the Doctor. “But he’s her only son; and you know, Mrs. Matson, the heart of a mother.”
The widow’s hard face softened; a tender shadow passed over it; the memory of some old bereavement melted her; and as she passed into the house I saw her put her checked apron to her eyes.
By this time Skipper Evans, who had been slowly working his way up street for some minutes, had reached the gate.
“Look here!” said he. “Here’s a letter that I’ve got by the Polly Pike from one of your old patients that you gave over for a dead man long ago.”
“From the other world, of course,” said the Doctor.
“No, not exactly, though it’s from Labrador, which is about the last place the Lord made, I reckon.”
“What, from Dick Wilson?”
“Sartin,” said the Skipper.
“And how is he?”
“Alive and hearty. I tell you what, Doctor, physicking and blistering are all well enough, may be; but if you want to set a fellow up when he’s kinder run down, there’s nothing like a fishing trip to Labrador, ‘specially if he’s been bothering himself with studying, and writing, and such like. There’s nothing like fish chowders, hard bunks, and sea fog to take that nonsense out of him. Now, this chap,” (the Skipper here gave me a thrust in the ribs by way of designation,) “if I could have him down with me beyond sunset for two or three months, would come back as hearty as a Bay o’ Fundy porpoise.”
Assuring him that I would like to try the experiment, with him as skipper, I begged to know the history of the case he had spoken of.
The old fisherman smiled complacently, hitched up his pantaloons, took a seat beside us, and, after extracting a jack-knife from one pocket, and a hand of tobacco from the other, and deliberately supplying himself with a fresh quid, he mentioned, apologetically, that he supposed the Doctor had heard it all before.
“Yes, twenty times,” said the Doctor; “but never mind; it’s a good story yet. Go ahead, Skipper.”
“Well, you see,” said the Skipper, “this young Wilson comes down here from Hanover College, in the spring, as lean as a shad in dog-days. He had studied himself half blind, and all his blood had got into brains. So the Doctor tried to help him with his poticary stuff, and the women with their herbs; but all did no good. At last somebody advised him to try a fishing cruise down East; and so he persuaded me to take him aboard my schooner. I knew he’d be right in the way, and poor company at the best, for all his Greek and Latin; for, as a general thing, I’ve noticed that your college chaps swop away their common sense for their larning, and make a mighty poor bargain of it. Well, he brought his books with him, and stuck to them so close that I was afraid we should have to slide him off the plank before we got half way to Labrador. So I just told him plainly that it would n’t do, and that if he ‘d a mind to kill himself ashore I ‘d no objection, but he should n’t do it aboard my schooner. ‘I’m e’en just a mind,’ says I, ‘to pitch your books overboard. A fishing vessel’s no place for ’em; they’ll spoil all our luck. Don’t go to making a Jonah of yourself down here in your bunk, but get upon deck, and let your books alone, and go to watching the sea, and the clouds, and the islands, and the fog-banks, and the fishes, and the birds; for Natur,’ says I, don’t lie nor give hearsays, but is always as true as the Gospels.’
“But ‘t was no use talking. There he’d lay in his bunk with his books about him, and I had e’en a’most to drag him on deck to snuff the sea- air. Howsomever, one day,–it was the hottest of the whole season,– after we left the Magdalenes, and were running down the Gut of Canso, we hove in sight of the Gannet Rocks. Thinks I to myself, I’ll show him something now that he can’t find in his books. So I goes right down after him; and when we got on deck he looked towards the northeast, and if ever I saw a chap wonder-struck, he was. Right ahead of us was a bold, rocky island, with what looked like a great snow bank on its southern slope; while the air was full overhead, and all about, of what seemed a heavy fall of snow. The day was blazing hot, and there was n’t a cloud to be seen.
“‘What in the world, Skipper, does this mean?’ says he. ‘We’re sailing right into a snow-storm in dog-days and in a clear sky.’
“By this time we had got near enough to hear a great rushing noise in the air, every moment growing louder and louder.
“‘It’s only a storm of gannets,’ says I.
“‘Sure enough!’ says he; ‘but I wouldn’t have believed it possible.’
“When we got fairly off against the island I fired a gun at it: and such a fluttering and screaming you can’t imagine. The great snow-banks shook, trembled, loosened, and became all alive, whirling away into the air like drifts in a nor’wester. Millions of birds went up, wheeling and zigzagging about, their white bodies and blacktipped wings crossing and recrossing and mixing together into a thick grayish-white haze above us.
“‘You’re right, Skipper,’ says Wilson to me;
Nature is better than books.’
“And from that time he was on deck as much as his health would allow of, and took a deal of notice of everything new and uncommon. But, for all that, the poor fellow was so sick, and pale, and peaking, that we all thought we should have to heave him overboard some day or bury him in Labrador moss.”
“But he did n’t die after all, did he?” said I.
“Die? No!” cried the Skipper; “not he!”
“And so your fishing voyage really cured him?”
“I can’t say as it did, exactly,” returned the Skipper, shifting his quid from one cheek to the other, with a sly wink at the Doctor. “The fact is, after the doctors and the old herb-women had given him up at home, he got cured by a little black-eyed French girl on the Labrador coast.”
“A very agreeable prescription, no doubt,” quoth the Doctor, turning to me. “How do you think it would suit your case?”
“It does n’t become the patient to choose his own nostrums,” said I, laughing. “But I wonder, Doctor, that you have n’t long ago tested the value of this by an experiment upon yourself.”
“Physicians are proverbially shy of their own medicines,” said he.
“Well, you see,” continued the Skipper, “we had a rough run down the Labrador shore; rainstorms and fogs so thick you could cut ’em up into junks with your jack-knife. At last we reached a small fishing station away down where the sun does n’t sleep in summer, but just takes a bit of a nap at midnight. Here Wilson went ashore, more dead than alive, and found comfortable lodgings with a little, dingy French oil merchant, who had a snug, warm house, and a garden patch, where he raised a few potatoes and turnips in the short summers, and a tolerable field of grass, which kept his two cows alive through the winter. The country all about was dismal enough; as far as you could see there was nothing but moss, and rocks, and bare hills, and ponds of shallow water, with now and then a patch of stunted firs. But it doubtless looked pleasant to our poor sick passenger, who for some days had been longing for land. The Frenchman gave him a neat little room looking out on the harbor, all alive with fishermen and Indians hunting seals; and to my notion no place is very dull where you can see the salt-water and the ships at anchor on it, or scudding over it with sails set in a stiff breeze, and where you can watch its changes of lights and colors in fair and foul weather, morning and night. The family was made up of the Frenchman, his wife, and his daughter,–a little witch of a girl, with bright black eyes lighting up her brown, good-natured face like lamps in a binnacle. They all took a mighty liking to young Wilson, and were ready to do anything for him. He was soon able to walk about; and we used to see him with the Frenchman’s daughter strolling along the shore and among the mosses, talking with her in her own language. Many and many a time, as we sat in our boats under the rocks, we could hear her merry laugh ringing down to us.
“We stayed at the station about three weeks; and when we got ready to sail I called at the Frenchman’s to let Wilson know when to come aboard. He really seemed sorry to leave; for the two old people urged him to remain with them, and poor little Lucille would n’t hear a word of his going. She said he would be sick and die on board the vessel, but that if he stayed with them he would soon be well and strong; that they should have plenty of milk and eggs for him in the winter; and he should ride in the dog-sledge with her, and she would take care of him as if he was her brother. She hid his cap and great-coat; and what with crying, and scolding, and coaxing, she fairly carried her point.
“‘You see I ‘m a prisoner,’ says he; ‘they won’t let me go.’
“‘Well,’ says I, ‘you don’t seem to be troubled about it. I tell you what, young man,’ says I, ‘it’s mighty pretty now to stroll round here, and pick mosses, and hunt birds’ eggs with that gal; but wait till November comes, and everything freezes up stiff and dead except white bears And Ingens, and there’s no daylight left to speak of, and you ‘ll be sick enough of your choice. You won’t live the winter out; and it ‘s an awful place to die in, where the ground freezes so hard that they can’t bury you.’
“‘Lucille says,’ says he, ‘that God is as near us in the winter as in the summer. The fact is, Skipper, I’ve no nearer relative left in the States than a married brother, who thinks more of his family and business than of me; and if it is God’s will that I shall die, I may as well wait His call here as anywhere. I have found kind friends here; they will do all they can for me; and for the rest I trust Providence.’
“Lucille begged that I would let him stay; for she said God would hear her prayers, and he would get well. I told her I would n’t urge him any more; for if I was as young as he was, and had such a pretty nurse to take care of me, I should be willing to winter at the North Pole. Wilson gave me a letter for his brother; and we shook hands, and I left him. When we were getting under way he and Lucille stood on the landing-place, and I hailed him for the last time, and made signs of sending the boat for him. The little French girl understood me; she shook her head, and pointed to her father’s house; and then they both turned back, now and then stopping to wave their handkerchiefs to us. I felt sorry to leave him there; but for the life of me I could n’t blame him.”
“I’m sure I don’t,” said the Doctor.
“Well, next year I was at Nitisquam Harbor; and, although I was doing pretty well in the way of fishing, I could n’t feel easy without running away north to ‘Brador to see what had become of my sick passenger. It was rather early in the season, and there was ice still in the harbor; but we managed to work in at last; when who should I see on shore but young Wilson, so stout and hearty that I should scarcely have known, him. He took me up to his lodgings and told me that he had never spent a happier winter; that he was well and strong, and could fish and hunt like a native; that he was now a partner with the Frenchman in trade, and only waited the coming of the priest from the Magdalenes, on his yearly visit to the settlements, to marry his daughter. Lucille was as pretty, merry, and happy as ever; and the old Frenchman and his wife seemed to love Wilson as if he was their son. I’ve never seen him since; but he now writes me that he is married, and has prospered in health and property, and thinks Labrador would be the finest country in the world if it only had heavy timber-trees.”
“One cannot but admire,” said the Doctor, “that wise and beneficent ordination of Providence whereby the spirit of man asserts its power over circumstances, moulding the rough forms of matter to its fine ideal, bringing harmony out of discord,–coloring, warming, and lighting up everything within the circle of its horizon. A loving heart carries with it, under every parallel of latitude, the warmth and light of the tropics. It plants its Eden in the wilderness and solitary place, and sows with flowers the gray desolation of rocks and mosses. Wherever love goes, there springs the true heart’s-ease, rooting itself even in the polar ices. To the young invalid of the Skipper’s story, the dreary waste of what Moore calls, as you remember,
‘the dismal shore
Of cold and pitiless Labrador,’
looked beautiful and inviting; for he saw it softened and irradiated in an atmosphere of love. Its bare hills, bleak rocks, and misty sky were but the setting and background of the sweetest picture in the gallery of life. Apart from this, however, in Labrador, as in every conceivable locality, the evils of soil and climate have their compensations and alleviations. The long nights of winter are brilliant with moonlight, and the changing colors of the northern lights are reflected on the snow. The summer of Labrador has a beauty of its own, far unlike that of more genial climates, but which its inhabitants would not forego for the warm life and lavish luxuriance of tropical landscapes. The dwarf fir-trees throw from the ends of their branches yellow tufts of stamina, like small lamps decorating green pyramids for the festival of spring; and if green grass is in a great measure wanting, its place is supplied by delicate mosses of the most brilliant colors. The truth is, every season and climate has its peculiar beauties and comforts; the footprints of the good and merciful God are found everywhere; and we should be willing thankfully to own that ‘He has made all things beautiful in their time’ if we were not a race of envious, selfish, ungrateful grumblers.”
“Doctor! Doctor!” cried a ragged, dirty-faced boy, running breathless into the yard.
“What’s the matter, my lad?” said the Doctor.
“Mother wants you to come right over to our house. Father’s tumbled off the hay-cart; and when they got him up he didn’t know nothing; but they gin him some rum, and that kinder brought him to.”
“No doubt, no doubt,” said the Doctor, rising to go. “Similia similibus curantur. Nothing like hair of the dog that bites you.”
“The Doctor talks well,” said the Skipper, who had listened rather dubiously to his friend’s commentaries on his story; “but he carries too much sail for me sometimes, and I can’t exactly keep alongside of him. I told Elder. Staples once that I did n’t see but that the Doctor could beat him at preaching. ‘Very likely,’ says the Elder, says he; ‘for you know, Skipper, I must stick to my text; but the Doctor’s Bible is all creation.’”
“Yes,” said the Elder, who had joined us a few moments before, “the Doctor takes a wide range, or, as the farmers say, carries a wide swath, and has some notions of things which in my view have as little foundation in true philosophy as they have warrant in Scripture; but, if he sometimes speculates falsely, he lives truly, which is by far the most important matter. The mere dead letter of a creed, however carefully preserved and reverently cherished, may be of no more spiritual or moral efficacy than an African fetish or an Indian medicine-bag. What we want is, orthodoxy in practice,–the dry bones clothed with warm, generous, holy life. It is one thing to hold fast the robust faith of our fathers,–the creed of the freedom-loving Puritan and Huguenot,–and quite another to set up the five points of Calvinism, like so many thunder-rods, over a bad life, in the insane hope of averting the Divine displeasure from sin.”0 views