Mining for a Mastodon

I.

THE widow Purvines was, safely speaking, the oldest inhabitant of the Maryland settlement. Her husband, Daniel Purvines, would have been a still older inhabitant, but many years ago he slept with his fathers, and Charity, his wife, reigned in his stead. She was indeed a rural autocrat, but a very wise and benevolent one. The vigor and brilliancy of her intellect enabled her to bear with ease a great weight of responsibility. Her memory was remarkably retentive, and her indefatigable and far-reaching human interest, vulgarly termed curiosity, made her a cyclopædia of neighborhood knowledge, useful and otherwise.

When Mrs. Purvines was led to speak of that portion of nature’s domain over which her eyes and feet had wandered for nearly forty years, her language was appreciative, yet discriminating. At times she would diverge so far from her fixed premises, the indisputable superiority of Northern Indiana, as to admit the reasonableness of a doubt touching the beneficence of the existing distribution of wet land and dry. Once, in conversation with Mr. Buffey, a colporteur of her church, who availed himself of her hospitality several times a year, the good widow remarked,—

“ I think this section of springy kentry can be accounted for only in one way. When the good Parent had got through makin’ the United States and the rest of the world, he found he had on hand a large surplus of wild grass, — all the coarsest sorts, — marsh-mallers, flower-de-loose, yeller and red stemmed willers, cat-tails, and scrubby jack-oaks. Well, in the ’conomy of nater there’s no waste ; so this pecooliarly moist corner of Indiany was made just a purpose for that stuff to grow in. And, Lord, how it hes growed! ”

“ But many of the marshes have been reclaimed by drainage, and now make valuable meadow-lands,” suggested Mr. Buffey.

“ Yes,” said the widow, “ there’s been a power of ditchin’ done, in this and adjinin’ counties, and some of the marshes have turned out well enough ; but there’s now and then a track that’s good to raise nothin’ yerthly but what the Almighty planted on it. May be you’ve noticed a long, lonesome-looking marsh, half a mile south o’ here, on the Sudmore road ? ”

“ I have,” assented Mr. Buffey ; “ the highroad strikes a neck of it, a few rods beyond a quaint, wood-colored cottage, with fruit trees at the rear, and one spreading maple by the front gate. I stopped there with my books once, but sold nothing.”

“ Well, that house was built by the owner of the big marsh. There’s a matter of seventy acres in that marsh, and it’s sartain the most hopeless portion of the habited footstool. Why, the Desert of Sahary’s a ’bodiment of goodwill to men, compared to it; for she is n’t so deceivin’; she makes no false promises ! ”

“ You speak strongly, sister Purvines,” said the colporteur, a wan look of interest lighting up his pale face.

“ I feel strongly,” she said, “ when I think how that marsh has swallered up the lives and fortunes of a promisin’ family. But where’s the sense in reflectin’ on a piece of onsensate nater, when it’s man’s obstinacy that should be blamed ? You see, when Ozias Rowdybum came to Sudmore County, there were a few still airlier settlers here. Me and Dan’l were amongst ’em. We opened our house to the new-comers, as was the kestom of the kentry, till they could get their own place fixed to move into. They stopped with us a matter of three weeks, and it was long enough to show us the kind of man he was— that sot, nothin’ could move him ! He was full of plans about his farm, speshully the marsh. Dau’l told him one day that he had made a mistake, buyin’ so much wet land, and give it as his opinion that the marsh was one of the ornery kind that no ’mount of labor could reclaim. Rowdybum got mad, and his poor, pressed-down wife turned pale. After that we let him talk, thinkin’ that His prop’ty and his plans were none o’ our business. But as years passed on, I’d defy anybody, livin’’s close as we did, not to take a vital interest in that creeter’s goin’s-on. He had enough dry land to make a good livin’ on, but he was dead bent on clearin’ up the marsh and gettin’ it into tame grass. He cut willers in the winter and ditched and mowed wire-grass in the summer, neglectin’ his plough-land the whiles. Ill’s family sided with the neighbors, and told him it was no use. Then he got hard and kinder ugly with them. He’d sot his detarmined soul on makin’ somethin’ out o’ that marsh, and he’d do it or die ! His boys grew up into likely chaps ; just the sort to make good farmers, with encouragement, but they never got any.

“ When they ‘d been here about four year, a sad thing happened. Rolf, the oldest boy, got bit in the foot by a rattler, workin’ down in the marsh. No doctor could be got to him till the next day, and he died. We all thought his mother would die, too, but she did n’t. For a year or two after that Rowdy let the marsh alone, and tended to his dry land. People thought he was coinin’ to his senses. He fixed up the house right comfortable, and planted out that orchard. Then the evil spirit entered into him again, and gave him no rest for ten years. He got a ditch dug, clear through, a mighty deep and wide one, and it drened the marsh effectual. He sold off everything loose on the place, includin’ a pair of colts he had solemn give to Reuben, to pay the ditchers. Late in the fall he turned off the wild grass, and sowed down fifty acres strong to timothy and red-top. In the spring it kem up, thick as dog’s hair ; there was just rain enough to keep it goin’, and that year Rowdybum had a crop of tame hay. And it was extry good, and brought a good price. But the next summer, and every summer after that, the tame grass burnt out. You see, there was just no sile at all, — nothin’ but vegetable roots, ’thout scarcely a particle o’ grit, and no bottom till you got down to the blue clay.

“ But the old man worked on, alone finally, for Reuben left home in disgust, He was last heard of way out beyant the Rocky Mountains. He went prospectin’ into the Flat Foot kentry, and most likely the Flat Feet made an eend of him. There was nobody left but Rowdy and his wife and their girl Anice. She was about fifteen year old when Rube went away. The old man got deep in debt, gettin’ the ditches cleared out and buyin’ such quantities of grass seed, and piece after piece of his dry land was sold ; but still he hung on to that dismal swamp. One summer he sot fire to a big pile of willers he’d been cuttin’. The fire spread and burned and eat down into them spongy bogs, makin’ holes four and five feet deep. The season was dry, and that fire worked away there for weeks. In the fall, when the rains had filled the marsh with water, one of his cows waded out and fell into one o’ them holes. Rowdybum, in tryin’ to get her out, wrenched hisself, somehow, and dropped down beside her. An ice found him there, and ran for help. They got him into the house, but he only lived a few hours. They burried him beside Rolf, at the foot o’ the orchard.”

“And how have those two, the widow and her daughter, got along since ? ” inquired the colporteur.

“Any way they could. They ‘ve been pretty poor sometimes. Anice was a good common-school scholar, but she went to Dalton Seminary to take on some more learnin’ ; then she came home and ’plied for the deestrict school. She taught it two terms, and could ’a’ had it right along, but her mother broke down with a disease the doctors called locomotive attraction [mem., locomotor ataxy], and Anice had to give up her school and stay at home to take care of her. She does n’t seem to suffer, ony she can’t walk. That was about five year ago.”

“ But who has supported them ? ” inquired Mr. Buffey. “The income from the remnant of the farm would hardly do it, and pay taxes.”

“ It has done it, somehow. Anice has worked and managed. She has kept cows and fowls and bees. That girl has worked, I tell you; and such a lonesome life ! But that heater of a marsh ! Last summer it turned up somethin’ new. Anice was walkin’ over it, one day, lookin’ for cranberries, when, cornin’ to one o’ them fire-holes, she saw somethin’ curious at the bottom. She got down and poked about some, and concluded it was a tush o’ one o’ them queer bein’s that lived and went out ’fore Adam named the beasts in the garden. She got Lonzo Eckert to dig it up, and she’s got it in their wood-shed, — a great tusk like a elephant’s, only bigger and coal black. There’s been no superstition ’mong my people since my grandfather’s time ; if there was, I’d be moved to say that burried-up creeter had hed somethin’ to do with the ’fairs of that misfortnit family.”

II.

The next evening, Mr. Buffey, having spent the day showing his books to the different families in the neighborhood, found himself again at the widow Purvines’. After supper he drew up to the big kerosene lamp, put on his glasses, and wrote a letter.

DEAR SBLDON, — Your favor of recent date received. It has moved me profoundly. Thank you, my dear boy, and God bless you ! If dark days ever do come, I promise to remember what you have said. I am glad I owe you a letter, for I have something to communicate that you will think worth while. In my rounds to-day, I called upon a family who have in their possession a portion of the tusk (five feet in length, ivory and enamel perfect) of a mastodon giganteus. It was found in a marsh owned by this family, — Rhodobaum by name, — and I am strongly of the opinion that the entire skeleton is there and could be exhumed. If you should care to divert your attention from the cephalopods and batrachians of the carboniferous period long enough to look after this relic of post-tertiary life, I have no doubt you could easily become its possessor. A letter from you would reach me a week hence, at Fort Wayne.

Yours in affectionate obligation,

HIRAM BUFFEY.

This letter was received and read in a long, low apartment, counting-room, library, and museum combined, in a certain rambling old town in Southern Indiana. Its recipient, Hayne Seldon, was a thick-set man, in ago anywhere between thirty-five and forty. He had that peculiar sanguine physiognomy which always leaves one in doubt as to its owner’s age. At first glance he was rather impressive from his want of good looks. His hair was red and his eyes small. His nose and mouth were regular, and the latter feature could be very expressive. But the considerate stranger never gives painfully close scrutiny to the features of one who is the victim of a great misfortune. Seldon had only one hand.

He read Mr. Buffey’s letter, laid it upon his knee, smoothed it out with his hand,—which, by the way, might have served for an artist’s model, — then took it up and read it again, attentively.

This was in the early spring. A few weeks later Mr. Seldon found himself in the Maryland settlement, with the address of Mrs. Purvines in his pocket and a valuable fossil in his mind’s eye. At the widow’s house he met the colporteur by appointment. Our geologist was the most diffident of men, and he had requested his old friend to be on hand to introduce him to his landlady, and to the people who owned the mastodon.

“ Anice has been readin’ a lot about them queer pre-Adamiters,” said Mrs. Purvines, as she sat at her bounteous breakfast table with her two guests. “I’ve been tellin’ her to keep that newfangled knowledge close atween herself and her old Aunt Charity. You know there’s a heap in it that’s onsettlin’ to them that’s weak in the faith. But I know myself to be ’stablished, and Anice is that near an angel born that I sometimes think it don’t much matter whether she holds any views or not.”

“ I was surprised at her air of cultivation,” said Mr. Buffey, “ till I saw their books.”

“ Them Works was once owned by Mrs. Rowdybum’s father. She brought them from the East in the big chist, with her quilts and coverlids packed on top. There’s just fifty o’ them works. Rowdybum used to be spoke of fur and near as the man who had fifty books in his house. Folks seemed to think it was all along of his oddity; but land knows, he wa’n’t to blame for the books. They were none o’ his.”

When Seldon and Anice Rhodobaum met, later that day, they were strongly moved by a common emotion. The prevailing sentiment in the breast of each was compassion for the other. Anice felt her pity stirred by the empty sleeve, of which its owner was scarcely aware at the moment. Seldon’s honest heart commiserated the lonely young woman, with her sad brown eyes, insignificant figure, and forlorn surroundings. His quick observation took in the evident narrowness of means, the patient, helpless mother ; and he caught a mental glimpse of the background of melancholy years, against which these two pathetic figures were set. When he made his errand known, Anice’s dark face brightened, and she broke into a little laugh of genuine amusement, as she said, —

“ You passed right by the specimen, on your way to the door. I loaned it to a church-fair in Sudmore, last week. They curtained off a corner of the hall and made a peep-show, with the tusk and a stuffed crocodile. I hear it paid right well; but when they returned my property they did not take the trouble to put it where they found it, but just rolled it off the wagon, over the fence, and drove away.”

She told this with fine humor, as she led the way to where the fossil lay, — an object quite too heavy for her slender hands to lift. She was capable of appreciating the absurdity of the peepshow, as well as the coolness of the committee.

Seldon satisfied himself that it would be worth while to excavate for other remains. The ditches were choked, and the marsh was wet from the spring rains; but later Anice would write him, and he would arrange for the work.

About the middle of August, Seldon heard from Miss Rhodobaum. The marsh was quite dry, she wrote, and he might now come and direct the digging for the mastodon. A week later he was domiciled with the widow Purvines, and Lonzo Eckert, with his partner at odd jobs, Bijah Hoke, were at work under his supervision.

Near the spot where Anice had found the piece of tusk the mate to it was discovered, a magnificent specimen, fully nine feet in length and weighing over one hundred pounds. The next important find was the perfect lower jaw, with its mammoth grinders. Then several scattered teeth were unearthed, some of them with worn-off cusps, presenting a beautiful section of the crown. The bony interior was a deep chocolate in color. The enamel showed pearly white on its worn edges, where it was a quarter of an inch in thickness, and on its natural surface jet black from the action of mineral agents in the soil.

There came a week of rain, and the work was necessarily stopped, till the marsh had time to become dry again. Mr. Seldon manifested no impatience at this enforced delay. Unconsciously he was acquiring an interest more absorbing than geology. The widow Rhodobaum’s cottage knew him for a daily visitor. In the absence of any literature whatever at his boarding-place, the fiftybooks at the other house were a resource. He found that they were mainly sermons, with a sprinkling of such authors as Young, Goldsmith, Dryden, Cowper, Sterne, and De Quincey. The volumes just named Anice had read again and again. Of newer literature she knew almost nothing. Seldon felt a deep thrill as he thought of the delight it would afford some one — any one — to give her the happiness of an acquaintance with Scott, Dickens, and their confrères. But these clear-cut English classics, combined with an experience, sombre from infancy and peculiar in its discipline, had made Anice what she was, a sweet, grave, self-forgetting woman, one of a thousand. The springs of imagination and mirthfulness sparkled deep and clear within her, though for the most part repressed and silent. Seldon thought he understood her well, and perhaps he did. She was very simple and frank with him about her life and her thoughts; and he in turn told her all his history.

He was an only son, had received a medical education, and, while taking a post-graduate course in an Eastern city met with the misfortune that had changed the color of his life. He had poisoned his hand, making an autopsy ; the loss of his arm was the result, and he abandoned his profession. Practical surgery had mainly attracted him, and a surgeon must have two hands. For years he had lived an uneventful, lonely life, giving his time to a rather aimless pursuit of science. Then a valuable deposit of cannel-coal was discovered upon some land he had inherited. He developed a mine, and it had yielded him an interest in life and a fortune. Geology had always been a favorite study with him, and since his acquaintance with the coal-measures it had become almost an absorbent. The mastodon was not to form part of his own private collection, but was to be the property of the college museum at G—. Anice and her mother did not quite know whether the handsome sum of money he had placed to their credit in the Sudmore bank, as the price of the mastodon, came from the college or from him.

The work in the marsh was resumed, with this result: all the bones of the left fore leg and foot were found, some portions of the skull, and three ribs. While the digging was in progress, a continual procession of people crossed the marsh from the highroad, to gaze on the monster bones. Many and diverse were the opinions advanced by the rustic population, concerning the huge animal. One farmer thought there must be some undiscovered continent or island on the face of the globe, “ where them lumberin’ quaderpeds are livin’ and roamin’ still, same as they used ter.”

“ But how did this one get here ? ” asked another.

“ Time o’ the flood. Time o’ the flood, I tell ye. What do you think about it, Lonzo ? ”

The hind thus addressed was down in the pit. He stuck his spade into the marl, hitched up his overalls, rolled his tobacco, and replied, —

“Well, I’ve a the’ry, as well’s the rest of ye. I think this animul were a female, and there were a young one. And the young one were cuttin’ of its stummick teeth, and feelin’ feverish waded in here for a mouthful of suthin’ to cool its gums ; and the old one uaterally follered, and naterally got mired.”

There was a laugh and a question : —

“ But where’s the young one ? You have n’t found any bones of a young one.”

“ No, ner we hain’t found near all the bones of the old one, and I judge we aint a-goin’ to.”

And indeed they did not. They removed the ground for a considerable distance on every side, occupying several days in the work, and then gave up the search. Seldon had the fossil bones boxed and shipped away, but still he lingered on, himself.

One morning, very early, he walked out in the direction of the wood-colored cottage by the marsh. He had no thought of presenting himself there at that hour ; but he rambled on till he found himself beneath a roadside elm, within plain sight of the house. As he stood there, the door suddenly opened, and Anice appeared, with something of wildness and distress in her manner. She looked up and down the road, then returned within. A few minutes later Seldon stood upon the threshold, and Anice, coming out again, met him there.

“ What is it ? ” he asked, with infinite sympathy in his tones.

“ My mother— she is very ill! She had a fall. She has not known me all night. No one came, and I could not leave her. I am so glad you are here, — so glad ! Stay, now, till I go for Aunt Charity.”

“ I will go,” he said ; but she drew him within, whispering hurriedly, —

“ No, no. I know a nearer path, and I will run ; ” and she was gone ere she ceased speaking.

The invalid’s room was the largest in the house, and as cosy as love and tidy skill could make it. On the low bed lay the widow in a deep stupor. Seldon felt her pulse, and found it moderately strong and regular. Death, he believed, was not imminent; but what more of trial was before this prostrate one and her devoted daughter, who could tell ? His heart was wrung, for he loved Anice, and the thought of all she had endured, and must still endure, gave him the severest pang he had ever felt. He smoothed back the thin locks from the brow of the pale sleeper, then went out into the small, bare kitchen, and walked its narrow floor as the minutes passed.

“ Anice ! ” he murmured, unconsciously. “ Poor little girl ! Anice — Anice ! ”

“ Did you speak my name, sir ? ” She had returned. Mrs. Purvines was with her mother.

“ Perhaps I did,” he said, with a strauge smile. “ I was thinking of you, and yearning over you, and loving you with all my soul ! ”

She looked at him vaguely out of her deep eyes which had not known sleep for so many hours. Then throwing out her arms upon the kitchen table, she dropped her face upon them with the lonely cry,—

“ Oh, my mother ! — my mother! ”

His beautiful, sensitive hand rested lightly on her bowed head, and strayed along the loosened mass of her thick black hair, as he said, “ Be comforted, Anice ; she will not die now. I feel confident that she will be better soon.”

His solacing prophecy came true.

III.

“ It was all along o’ that swoopin’ cat o’ thern,” explained Aunt Charity to Mr. Seldon that evening, as he was finishing his peaches and cream. “ You see, Anice was dressin’ a chicken to fry for their supper, and havin’ to go into the buttery for something, left it on the work-table a minute. The big cat jumped up, and the old lady, forgettin’ her helplessness, sprung to save the fowl, and of course fell like a log. I reckon she must ‘a’ struck her head, and that caused her to go off in a wanderin’ sleep. The doctor says it were the shock like, and she ’ll be in her chair again, in a day or two. I never could abide a cat, and— Just look at that, now ! There comes that tarnal gobbler again down to the turkey-chicks’ coop ! ”

The good woman sprang from her chair, caught her sun-bonnet from its hook, and disappeared out of the back door. Seldon heard a vigorous “ shooing,” and a shower of sticks flying about. Presently she returned, somewhat red and breathless, and resumed her place at the table.

“ To think,” she said, “ of me abusin’ my neighbor’s cat, and keepin’ such an onnateral bird on the place as that gobbler ! He ’ll stand by the coop for an hour, cranin’ that head o’ hisn, till one of the little turkeys slips through the pickets ; then he ’ll take it by the scruff o’ the neck, and lift it up slow, and set it down hard, two or three times. There’s no tellin’ what idee of p’rental duty the critter’s got, but he does it sort o’ solemn, as though it were a matter o’ discipline. But it don’t agree with the young ones, and he’s got to stop it, or his time ’ll come ’fore Thanksgivin’.”

The next day her guest went away, to visit some ancient mounds, near the state line. He told her he might be gone a week; he was really absent two. During this interval, Mrs. Rhodobaum recovered her usual degree of strength. Anice went about like one in a dream. A deep, sweet wonder was in her thoughts. Her remembrance of that troubled morning was indistinct, but surely there was matchless tenderness in his manner; and — did he say he loved her, or did she dream it, during the long, still afternoon, while Aunt Charity sat with her mother, and she slumbered on her bed ?

She was in her garden, standing among flower-stalks taller than herself, when he came to see her again, and she learned the truth of her trembling surmises. They talked awhile of indifferent things,— the autumn splendors of the country garden, his little journey, and what he had seen and learned. Then he said abruptly, “ What will you do, when I am gone ? ”

She gave him a little frightened glance, then smiled again, as she said, “ Oh, for a time I shall be wishing for rain, to put out the fire in the marsh,” — some one had dropped a coal from a lighted pipe, and the peat was smouldering, — “ and for wind to blow the smoke away. And some fine morning my wish will come true. Then the snow will begin to fall, and the great white winter will settle down about us, and I shall pass the days wishing it were over, and that spring would come. And that wish also will come true, if I am good and patient.”

“ Good and patient! ” he repeated softly; a moment after he exclaimed, “ Oh, if I were only as other men, that I might take you for my own! But you, dear, have been such a burdenbearer all your days, it would be a cowardly act to ask you to share the life of one like myself, who has to be helped at almost every turn ! ”

I do not know what she said in answer. Perhaps it was by a broken word or two, a look, a caressing touch on the empty sleeve, that she made him understand how desolate she would have been if he had not given her his love, and the sweet privilege of blessing and serving him with hers.

A year passed, and when October came again an event occurred in the life of the widow Purvines : she received a letter. It was from Anice Seldon, and in it were these words : —

“ My blessed mother is stronger and brighter than she has been for years, though still unable to walk. Dear old Mr. Buffey has grown so nearly blind that he is no longer able to travel with his books, and has come to live with us. He was an early friend of my husband’s father, and has always felt a peculiar nearness to Hayne, because, like him, he was turned aside from his life-plans by a physical misfortune. He would have been a minister, if his sight had not failed in his youth. I am glad we can take care of the good old man ; of course we could not, if we were poor. Hayne says I am now literally hands, feet, and eyes to the maimed, halt, and blind. He bows down to me as if I were some sort of saint or martyr; while I know I am only a very human little woman, though a singularly fortunate and happy one.

“ Our mastodon is behind glass doors in the G— college museum. I ex-

pect to visit that cabinet once a year. It is a sort of shrine.”

Angelina Teal.