Ned Stirling His Story
WHEN I was a boy, my head was no good to me, and I never used it. I had no wit, except such as pertains to the legs and the stomach, and to the girth of the chest under the arms ; though I should not make too light of that, for those are very good places to have wit, when a boy is pitching hay or digging potatoes. I was like a clod in a ploughed furrow, taking the wind and the rain as they came down from heaven upon me. I was proud of my healthy strength, and all day long, while I did a man’s work on the farm. I thanked God for the yellow uncurtained sunlight, and for the honestness of the sweat which wet my laboring body. When the day was done, and the sky cherished only a soft memory of it, I would thank God again for the cool air to which I bared my head, and for the bigness of my appetite. And after feeding until feeding was no longer a delight, I would go to bed and sleep, with mouth agape and arms and legs widespread, until the new day stood under my window and laughed at me for a laggard.
Time went all alike with me, — the spring with its planting, the summer and fall (or autumn, as I maybe ought to call it in writing) with cultivating and harvesting, and winter with eating up the result; so that there seemed no good of the year, when it was done, except the pure joy of it. In winter-time, too, when there was not so much work to do, I went somewhat to school, and lost no little weight and color by the studying of books, though they could scarce soften the hard shell of my understanding, so that what I read in them did not much soak inward.
As I have writ down before (and I do not relish saying the same thing twice over, for the fear of wearying you and myself with much writing), the years were all alike, except the one when my father died.
I did not know him much, though he worked beside me in the fields and barns; for he talked rarely (I mean, not often), and one could only get at what he was by seeing the kindness in his eyes, and the slow way he had of getting angry when things went wrong. Since I have had sons I have often wondered if my father loved me, though I thought little of it when he was alive and might have told me if I had asked him. He died when I was at the elbow, as we say, of my nineteenth year, which is that I was eighteen and a half years old, or thereabout ; and then my mother managed the farm, doing the head-work, but using my muscle and wind.
I remember, as an old man will remember such things when he begins to grow forgetful of the things that happened yesterday or last week, that my mother said to me on the day my father was buried, stroking my hair back from my forehead (though she had to stretch up on her toes to do it, even when I bent down a little), “ You are a man now, Ned.” And I remember how the words sounded to me, through that being the first time I had thought of being a man. I was so vain of them that I carried them in my ears all day, and they kept time to the sound of the frozen clods shoveled down into the grave where my father was.
But in spite of what my mother said, and what I thought about it, I was not yet a man. My becoming a man happened afterward.
I went about my work soberer for a few days than before, by the outward sign of laughing, but not losing my relish for fried bacon and roasted potatoes for dinner. It was only a little while until I knew that I was still a boy. It is hard to break the habit of being a boy.
It may be you think we were poor, as most book folk are in tales like this ; but we were not. My father left more than a hundred and fifty acres of good land, all under plough except the apple orchard, and all without any debts, so that we had plenty. I tell you this, not to boast of our possessions, but for the fear that you might be sorrowing for my mother and thinking her ill provided for.
It went on so, with much hard work, and much affection between my mother and me, until I was turned twenty-two, when I had my full breadth of shoulder, with my cheeks bearing their first crop of yellow beard, very thin, like new ground when first sown to tame grass for meadow. I was of great size, and not to brag, but only to tell what might have a bearing on the matter, when I had on my best coat, with breeches and waistcoat to match, and boots too, the maids were wont to look twice at me, turning their heads around for the second glance, as the habit of women folk is, when they had passed by me. And I, as was the custom (which God forbid that any honest man should fail to keep), would kiss one now and then, when she pleased me, but meaning nothing by it, and not against her will.
Then one day it happened, about midsummer, that I had to walk to town, going in the cool of the morning, and going on foot, because our horses were all at work with the harvesting (so firmly do I remember all about the day). I meant to come back after sunset, when the air was cooler, but in the late afternoon the great heat hatched a brood of fluffy cloudlings, like young chicks, white at first, but growing big and dark ; and the wind began to handle them roughly, turning their feathers the wrong way, and tearing off from them ragged plumes of vapor. Then their storm - mother clucked to them hoarsely from behind the low hills to the west, and they ran to her ; so I, from much living out of doors and watching the signs of such things, knew that we should have a grievous time of it with the elements, and, mindful of my good clothes, started home before the time set.
Though it was two hours before the time for sunset, the darkness had grown heavy, and the swallows were troubled, tumbling about in the high air at first, and then skimming close to the ground, and chattering. The wind had left the earth and gone to where the strife was, as though eager to have a part in it, so that the trees stood straight and moveless, and the heat rested on me like a heavy weight, making my body wet and panting, and the motion of my legs, when I hurried on by the road, came hard and unwilling.
I never feared a storm, but take joy in all fierce conflict, whether it be of the elements or of strong men struggling; but there was that awfulness in the highbanked blackness, growing momently, which did away with lightness of heart, and made my eyes to shrink deeper under their brows.
The sun was not to be seen, but only guessed at, because of here and there a flush on the bulk of the cloud-masses, like the flush of fever on a sick man’s face, unhealthy and not good to look at. Then the lightning began to show, dimly at first, as forebodings of trouble come athwart the mind, but growing keener, until the jagged streaks flashed out each for itself, and made the cloud-bank seem a place of drunken riot, without fear of the law.
So closely was I watching all this, and thinking of my coat, that my eyes had no inclination earthward until I was near to home and knew that I should not get wet. Then all at once my legs stopped work, and my heart with them, and I knew that I was a man, and thanked God that I had my good clothes on, for my love was before me.
In the book called Revelation a man tells of what he saw in heaven. I know he must have left out much, although he was inspired in the writing. How then can I, who am not inspired, nor anything like it, but only a common fellow, hope to tell of what I saw, though the picture is strongly before me ?
The wind, which had risen, had loosed her hair, and it fell about her, all a dark glory, hiding half her face, so that only her frightened eyes and her pale cheek peeped outward. She held her hat by its strings in one hand, and her petticoat’s hem in the other, to free her little feet for running, and she was trying to beat against the harsh wind, while cowering before the terrible wild flashes of the lightning, as I have seen wild animals do, and pitied them.
When she saw me, she ran to me as a child might, from deep fear, and laid her hands on my arm, and her beautiful head down upon them, and I felt her all a-tremble. I stooped to speak to her, to encourage her, if such might be ; but the storm was already breaking over us, a great black terror, spitting purple and red, and roaring like a mad thing, so that no other voice could have been heard though an archangel had spoken.
I lifted her in my arms and ran, so light she was, and I was reconciled more than ever to be broad across the shoulders. She laid her head down on me, hiding her face, and the wind lifted the silken strands of her loosened hair and blew them on my lips and cheek, and my heart was brave to face anything it might please God to send upon us.
So it was that I came home, and laid my burden (though far too slight to be called so) down upon the settle in our best room, while I went to call my mother.
As long as old men could remember there was never such a storm before in our county, though its fury lasted but half an hour. All outdoors reeled and tottered, and the crash of it in our ears was terrible. I doubt if words have been made to tell of such things ; at least, I cannot find them in my head, nor have I seen them in the writings of scholars, which I have read in my later years, since I cannot do a man’s work any more on the farm. But the storm outdoors was not to be compared for the smallest time with what was going on inside me, about the poor girl who lay with her face hid on the cushions of the settle, though my mother tried to comfort her. I saw with my eyes, but not with my understanding, what was happening outside, with rugged old trees coming down groaning, and with cattle standing helpless, their heads lowered away from the fierceness of the storm, while the sky writhed in mighty convulsions. My heart knocked strongly against my ribs, though not from any fear of harm to myself, and my feet took me restlessly here and there over the house, until the rage of the hurricane was gone, and its breath too, and it slunk away, growling, leaving only the rain coming down in broad sheets, as if to cover up the ruin which had been wrought, and to lay it all down out of sight. When that time came, my little love lifted her dear face from the cushions and told us her name, and that she had come to a neighbor’s house to get color in her cheeks; though the color they bore, when she looked up at me from under her shy lids, with her dark hair in deep disorder, was the beautifulest ever seen, and she had no need of mending it. Her name was Ruth ; and since that day, when it has befallen that I put my eyes upon a lovely woman, combining purity and all sweetness, I have wondered if her name might be Ruth, too.
Now, though I have written over and spoiled many sheets of my paper (at a cost of three shillings to the bundle), and have laid my head back on the pillow of my chair in between the times of trying, I cannot think how to tell what came afterward, except to say that thus love laid hold of me, and I took to acting as a man will. And now I know that whatever may he the outcome of it, love is good for a man, because of the fermentation which is bred in him thereby. When love has mingled with his essence, he is never again the same (though I suppose a man is never twice the same in any case). I know not any fit expression for it, except a poor and mean one, which is that love is like the yeast which the housewife adds to dough, leavening a man, no matter how mere a lump he be, and making him fit for the bakinghe must needs get in life, if he live his allotted years. And it encourages him to look at himself, to see what there may be in him; thereby showing him most strange things which before he did not even guess at. Not wanting to be tedious in the saying of it, I have come in my life to times when I have stood in familiar places and longed for change and greater mystery ; yet when I would but look at the things covered by the span of my legs (growing things, with life in them, living according to God), I would find greater mystery than a man may solve in all his life long. So it seemed to me after that I had begun loving. My own nature, which every man thinks he knows somewhat of, showed fresh tokens, when I looked closer, and left me never tired of turning it over and wondering at it. I do not say that I thought of all these things then, or even had the wit to think of them, being slow, but that some of them (or at least the ways of saying them) have come to me since. Then I only knew that I loved, and that love was a new and strange delight.
I went about my work, not thinking what I did, but because working had become a habit with me. I would not see the things to which my hand was turned, but saw instead, floating in mist, like the little heads of cherubs painted upon the roof of our church, a saucy small head, the lips mocking at me and the cheeks mantling over with the fairness of youth, until a warm chilliness would sweep over me, and my legs, which were wont to be as sturdy as oak-trunks, would grow limp and uncertain. The fields of wheat grew ripe for cutting, and all day long we swung our reaping-hooks under the summer sun. Though I did my part, according to custom, yet I saw little of the beautiful golden grain, but saw instead a waving mass of black soft hair, and took to thinking black the fairest color of all. unless it might be pink or white such as touched her cheeks, or red such as lay upon her lips. I grew a very zany, as I know now, but had no time or inclination to think then.
But at night, when darkness put a stop to all work, the worst of it was upon me. Then would I walk out, when folk with pulses unstirred were honestly a-snore, and wander about, smelling the sweet night - smells and looking at the stars, though only thinking of these things dully, but thinking of my little love’s face, until it grew most strange how all fair things bore semblance to it, whether at morning when life awoke, or at noontide when life sought ease of the effort of living, or at night when life lay slumbering and whispering in its dreams. Then by and by, from knowing not what else to do, I would go to bed, to lie long awake (after a way new born in me), with my eyeballs staring up into the blackness. And my thoughts were so ill trained that I did but half know what ailed me. Yet would I live all the eighty years of my life over again, not thinking it hard or unwelcome, for the sake of one day of that joy.
Sometimes I saw her, for she got a marvelous fondness for my mother, and would come often to sit with her under the trees. But when I sat near her I was not happier than when I walked alone, thinking of her; for to be near her made of me such a mere lump of clay that it seemed the Almighty had only fashioned my body, and, forgot to breathe life into it. She would talk to me sometimes, but I could not say anything back to her, only hard yes and no. Then would she laugh at me, with shining eyes ; and I could not laugh too, but could only get red in the face and pull at the hair on my chin and cheeks. I felt that I was a fool, and feeling it only made me a bigger one. I was a very oaf, and manhood seemed but a small part of me.
All this went on so, without my taking thought of time going by, or without my taking thought of anything at all except naked loving, until one day, in the evening, I came back from seeing how the fields of Indian corn were making silken promises of a plenteous harvest of golden ears. I remember how that content hovered lightly in the air above me, and how it alighted upon me, as if to rest there, when I came in sight of my little love in her accustomed place by my mother’s side, and how it took sudden startled flight when I saw a horse tied at our gate, and a gay gentleman walking up the path to the place where the two women sat together, — so jealous is a man’s love. I can see now, between me and my sheet of paper, how graceful his step was, how thin and fine his face, and how his clothes looked, with his long boots, his pot-hat, and his silken waistcoat spotted over with scarlet. He lifted his hat to the women with a very fine manner, and I saw his head covered with close knots of shining yellow hair, soft and fine as the silk on my corn ; then my heart seemed to die down altogether within me.
“ I crave your pardon, madam,” I heard him say in a voice so soft it seemed hardly a man’s voice at all, “ and I also crave a draught of water at your hand ; for I have come a long way, and a hot and dusty one.”
My mother had risen to greet him, and she bade him welcome as though she meant it, and gave him her own chair to sit on, while she went about offering him hospitality.
He sat down with a fine air, for which I hated him, and spoke some soft words of commonplace to Ruth, who bent her head above her handiwork in her lap, so that there was no getting at her eyes, only the line of her little chin showing under her hair’s shelter; a thing I liked not, though knowing the ways of women so ill, for she would always look straightforwardly at me, and I burned at seeing her head droop before him.
My mother brought a pitcher of homebrewed ale, cool, brown, and foaming above the pitcher’s brim, and some of her sweet cake dotted over the top with spice seeds, which made the gentleman’s eyes to glisten.
“ I thank you, madam, with all my heart,” I heard him say ; “ and if such is your treatment of strangers, I must give thanks that my lot is to be cast among you for a time.” Whereat I could but set my lips between my teeth, and wish that it might be the will of Providence that his stay be much forshortened ; though I knew it was a feeling which did me no credit, for we have always been famed, in our part of the county, for our goodness to strangers.
He filled his glass with the ale and held it before him, standing up. “ I pledge your good health through a long and peaceful life, madam,” he said, “and the little damsel’s.” He tipped back his head in the drinking, in the doing of which his eyes fell upon me, where I hung back from them.
“ My soul! ” he cried aloud, when he could take his glass from his lips, the last drop being gone, “ what a great fine lad it is ! ” and his eyes ran over my bulk in so easy and familiar a way that I began to swell even bigger in my resentment of his assurance. “ Come closer, lad,” he called to me ; “ it were a pity to let your bashfulness spoil a friendship.” Which speech, so well timed to my knowledge of myself, would have brought me to him though he had been the Evil One himself.
“ My name is Arthur Dunwoody,” he said, and held out a small hand of fine softness (a thing I cannot bear in a man).
“ My name is Ned Stirling,” I told him in my biggest and coarsest voice, for the sake of contrast, and to make it as strong as I could, and I gave his hand such a grasp as I warrant it had never had, which made the small bones to wrinkle up, though his face bore naught but his easy smile.
“ A fine lad, truly,” he said again; “ and if this be a product of your county’s air and feeding, I must take fresh joy, for I am come among you to get back a little lost health.”
He sat so with us for a time, talking in light fashion of many things, but for the most part in praise of what he saw around him, and of us, and listening sometimes, with much show of respect, to what my mother said (as became her as a good countrywoman) of our county’s richness and abundance in all good things, for which men are wont to pray as blessings, and of the good hearts and neighborliness of all the people of our countryside. In all this converse I took no part, except with my eyes, to watch, and with my ears, to listen ; neither did little Ruth take part, only lifting a shy glance to mother’s face now and again. When he was gone, with invitation to come again, my mother said how fine a gentleman he was ; but Ruth said naught, nor did I, for listening for what Ruth might say.
And thereafter he did come again, and yet again ; so that often, when coming hot and smoking from my labor in the fields, I would find him sitting, as though he had the right, with the two women, who made him welcome, and listened in wonderment to his talk. Marvelous tales he told, as I know from listening somewhat, though much against my will (only that I was jealous of his being there), of travelings in other lands, and of adventure with wild things and with men. At this I felt as a man must feel when the chirurgeon says to him that there is not much hope ; for I was at the disadvantage of a man who has been trained to plain straightforwardness, without the power to ornament my speech with prettinesses. I hate a lie, but not so much as I hate a liar ; and his tales sounded like lies, from their semblance to some that I had heard and read, made to amuse children.
Sometimes I thought, for my love’s sake, to learn of him his ways, and sat by, looking on and listening, until often, from very dizziness of the head, I would fall asleep in my chair, to the forgetting of even the little good manners I knew. But as well might I have tried to learn the wind’s ways, or the lightning’s, or the ways of death ; so far was he from me in manners and breeding, as I only needed to look inward to prove. Out of doors, when I was in my fields, following after my plough, bedding my horses or feeding my pigs, where fine manners and graces fretted me none, I could have made him envy me my healthy cheeks, and the strong muscles in my back, and the bulk of my legs, and maybe my outdoor way of honesty. But when I dropped my plough-handles and my bran-bucket, and was by him, with whom manners and graces seemed to make the bigness of life, I was only a lout and a bumpkin, and no help for it. My sunburned skin was but a poor match for fine clothes ; my legs were too tight for my town-made breeches, when every sitting down and getting up was like to crack the stitches ; my thick hands and broad feet, though it pleased God to have them so, made but a poor showing in company, where hands and feet are to look at; and through the smell of the fashionable scents which I took to putting on my hair and handkerchief, sometimes, there would come up the honester smells of the barnyard and the sty, which are very good smells outdoors, where God kindly changes the air right often, but unwelcome to nostrils not bred to them.
Another gift he had, and used to his advantage. He could take a pen of goose-quill and a drop of ink and make a wondrous fine picture, —heads and faces, horses, birds, and all animals ; whereat the women stared with eyes wide open, and even I, in spite of my dislike of him for love’s sake, could do naught but gape at him. But once, when he had gone, I found a bit of paper lying on the grass, whereon was drawn a great pudding, round and fat, with dried currants for the eyes, a plum for the nose, and little wreaths of steam for the beard, the whole made to look so like my own face in its heavy roundness that I could only stare stupidly, no doubt to the increasing of the likeness ; and then my face, to carry out the whole semblance, flashed burning hot, until it seemed that steam must issue from it in very truth ; and I swore firmly under my breath, as I crumpled the bit of paper in my hands, that I would have my spite of him, and prayed for wit for the working of it.
I made out to ask sly questions about him in town, at the inn where he lived ; and some sorry tales I heard of him, though glad am I to own that mayhap his sins were multiplied in the telling, as is the manner of those who gossip. I heard how that he could drink through a whole night, of good stout liquor, until all who tried to sit with him were turned to mere nerveless heaps under the table, though he kept his cool smile, and was ready for breakfast in the morning ; also how that he loved all women, the good and the bad, and made no question as to what one he should kiss or pat upon the chin, when the chance ripened : and this I liked least of all I heard of him, through my having been trained to look upon all women, no matter what, as exempt from all evil, even of thought. After this I was minded to forbid him our house, but knew not how to go about it, from never having known the need of such in our county, our men being of a different quality, though maybe coarser bred.
But by and by I saw a change grow in him, — a way of talking less buoyantly, and of sitting with his chin in his fingers, looking downward ; and by the means of what had been going on in me I knew that love was working its way in him, too; and indeed, I saw not how it could be avoided, with him so much in Ruth’s company. And being honest with myself sometimes, when I thought about it alone, I tried to think that maybe it was better for her sake to let God shape it than to try the shaping myself. I thought (as maybe all men have thought who have loved sweet women) that I was not fit for her ; for I doubted much if the soft cheek of a girl, bred to gentle ways, could take kindly to the caressing of a coarse rough hand, or if her sold could long enjoy contact with a rude nature like mine. And yet, as a strong man, used to meeting strife halfway and having the matter out, I hated to yield myself up ; but day after day, as I went about my work, I laid my bare soul open to God, making no bones of it, and prayed about it in Christ’s name, who had lost love himself, and must know how I felt. But while I talked of it so intimately with God, and even sometimes with my horses and cattle, being lonesome, I said nothing to Ruth. For God takes much for granted out of the heart of a man which would have to be explained to a woman, with maybe no words for the explaining. So I only asked of God, who had made us what we were and had shaped things thus far, to make the best end of it he might.
One time they two went away together (as they had got the way of doing), upon a great, slow, and lazy day in September, and were gone until evening began to darken. When they came back, walking by the way of a lane which went by the side of our pasture lot, I too was in the lane, and (not to justify, but only to tell what happened) I kept very still where I stood and heard what they said ; and so much of it as struck into me I here put down.
“ Only I feel that I have lived most unworthily,” he said, “and in a way to unfit a man to ask for a pure woman’s love.”
Thereat she bent her head, with her eyes thoughtfully cast downward. “ Do you think yourself past the power of God to purify ? ” she asked him.
Then I saw his eyes turned toward her sweet face, and his lips took to trembling ; but by and by he said, “Dear girl, all my life has only been the means of proving to me how weak I am in all goodness. I thank God you may not understand that.”
“ There is no one of God’s creatures but is weak in goodness, when he goes his own way,” she said ; “ but I think (and I think myself right) that when a man walks in God’s ways and asks for a share of God’s strength, he may be what he will, and reach what heights of goodness he will.”
She looked fairly into his face while she said this, slowly, until his whole body went away under her pure glance, and the tears ran down his face, he making no trial to check them. Then all at once a fierce change came on him, and he raised his closed hand high over his head as though to strike, and he cried out in a voice with the sound of clashing swords in it, and his face flashing scarlet, “ By the living God, I will try ! ” Then, though in so short a time, all fierceness died out of him, as the fire died out of his cheeks, and he laid his hands upon her shoulders, bending down. “Little sweetheart,” he said, so softly and gently that it seemed not the same voice any more, “ pure little soul, will you not kiss me, to give me strength for the trying ? ”
And straightway, without delay, she held up her face to him, and he kissed her upon the mouth.
Then (and I tell this gladly, because of the quality of resolution which I love to find in a man) when they sat in the evening before our house, and my mother brought for his refreshment a tiny glass of her peach brandy, rich and sweet-scented, he took it in his hand and stood for a time looking into its shadowy clearness, and then raised it over his head and tipped the glass so that the brandy fell down drop by drop upon the grass at his feet; he keeping his eyes upon little Ruth’s face. Then when he had put the glass down he went away without any more ado.
That night, while I could not sleep for thinking of what had passed, both in point of fact and in my imagining, I set about plucking hope out of me, as something which did not belong to me any more, and which I therefore had no right to keep. But the giving up of it was a sad thing, as I found it.
I much doubt if all men will understand this as I have told it, forasmuch as with some men love seems but a lightly fashioned toy for life’s playtime ; but with me life and love have been part each of the other.
And on this happening, though I could not forego eating, after the fashion of lovers in books, yet I had hut a bad enjoyment of it, and without longing for the time for it (or at least not much). I worked, trying to forget about it, only failing to do it, any more than I could have lost my great right hand and forgotten it, or any more than the sun might die out of the sky, and the moon, and let us forget them.
Thereafter I heard no evil of him at the town, but only that he drank no more, and that he gave up his companions, as though he had done with them, and passed his days and nights in quietness, for the most part away with his horse in the woodlands or on the hills : all of which I know ought to have pleased me, and I think it did, for Ruth’s sake, but not much for his own. This I say with shame, after all these years ; but then I was as God made me, young, and with love dying hard in me.
But my understanding was at fault when I found that he came less often to our house, and then only to sit for the most part silent, as I had of late observed in him, with his face bent in thought, maybe worrying the heads of clover with his riding-whip, or maybe telling tales, not of adventure any more, but of wars and of love and death, so that even I was moved sometimes to pity of all poor humankind. His was a most strange face when he sat so, sheltering his eyes under their brows, and letting all his old gay life lie dead upon his features, as brown leaves lie after frost upon the yet green grass.
One day, but a little time after his walk with Ruth, as I have told about, I took my gun and went out upon the hills ; and knowing the ways of things in our outdoor neighborhood, I hid myself far up beside a pathway, but little used, where sometimes a red deer would pass. Here, having set me down, with my back against a tree and my gun across my knees, I took to thinking, not of red deer, as might be expected, but of Ruth, and of Arthur Dunwoody, and of myself, and of what death might be like, and of how soon I should be finding out (being in good health and of a longlived race) ; and so I fell asleep sitting there (a thing not very seemly in a man waiting for red deer to pass, but I had lost much sleep of late time).
By and by I awoke again, hearing a light step and the leaves rustling in the pathway. Quickly I raised the flint of my gun and leaned over, peering out, without making any noise, and without thinking of anything, not even of Ruth, but of the red deer. So my senses were all much surprised when I saw there a woman, young and very comely, who stepped slowly back and forth, as though that were her fit place.
She was of a different mould and make from little Ruth, and therefore not so beautiful as Ruth. She was tall and straight and dark, like the trees around her, but gracefuler than they, even when the wind moved them, and her face was full of softness and kindness, with little places for smiles to lie upon, or tears, if such might be.
So I sat quite still, not to startle her, for the fear that she might go away before I had my fill of looking, and trying to think what her name might be, through thinking that I knew all the women of our part of the county (at least, all the comely ones). By and by, while I looked, I knew that she was Alice Mooreland, the daughter of Judge Jeffrey Mooreland, a stern old man, who spent, his later years in cherishing the things he had got possession of. I had missed knowing her at first because she went but little abroad from home, and because I had not seen her since she was three years younger, or maybe four (so does time go), when her petticoats came only down to the upper lacings of her shoes.
So I sat and gazed, and seemed not to get enough of gazing at her, until I saw her start on a sudden, and stand listening, and then I heard the sound of horse’s hoofbeats far away down the hillside. And not to be too long in the telling of it, in a little time Arthur Dunwoody rode up the pathway, making all speed, so that his horse was in a foam, though the day was but a mild one. He gave no thought to the beast, but when he had come up to Alice, where she stood waiting, he threw himself down from his saddle and ran to her, taking her in his arms and holding her close, while she lifted her face to be kissed.
And here, as maybe can be guessed, I was filled with many thoughts in strong conflict, but none of them very clear, so as to be set down here in order ; only I wondered, and thought dimly of Ruth, and then flashed hot with anger and resentment of his deceit of her sweet trust and love. For I hate a liar more than any other of the devil’s imps. I can forgive to a man some evil intentions; but for a lie, planned with care and carried out with fortitude, I have no love. For the heart that bears one lie is like to bear others, and do it better for the skill of practice, and you have to watch for it, which is not good for confidence. I did not think of all these things then, but have set them down as they come to me now: then I could only bend over and look, wondering so much at seeing them thus that I heard nothing of what they said (at least not to remember it) for a long time. I had only wit enough to sit quietly, through having been caught so, against my will, and thinking to keep quiet as the best way out of it.
Soon I heard Alice say, “ It must be good-by, now, with longing for the sweet time when there need be no more of good-by said between us.”
Yet he held her close. “ Sweetheart, tell me that you love me,” he said.
Light and life and all love’s brightness shone in her face, as she lay there in his arms and looking up at him.
“ Why must you always be told so ? ” she said, smiling at him in a woman’s way, feigning unwillingness.
“ Because,” he said, and he would not let her look away from him, “ because of the wonder that you should love me, which goes beyond my power of believing unless you tell me.”
So she stood away from him a small arm’s length, looking into his eyes and putting away all shyness.
“ I love you,” she said, “ for all that you have been, and for all that you are and yet shall be to me in my life, more than life itself; therefore have I given my life to you, and love along with it. Now let me go.”
But he drew her close to him again for a brief time, saying no words, but using love’s expression, until I was near to forgetting all my other feelings in love of looking on. Then he loosed her from his arms, and stood with a still and firm countenance while she went away, turning once or twice to hold out her hand to him before she went beyond reach of sight. When she was gone he yet stood, forgetting his horse, which pushed its nose among the stones of the pathway, sniffing, until it came up and laid its head against his arm ; then he roused himself, like a man half slumbering, and got into his saddle, and went away.
Now, for the most part, I have found it to be so that slow and unwilling wits do contribute to peace more than do active ones, being not so like to be stirred or troubled with every light circumstance ; wherefore slow-witted men, having more time and inclination for it, are mostly fatter. Yet in spite of the peace of it, I have sometimes longed for more vigilant understanding (though finding no fault with God over the lack of it), and never did I long for it more than then. What should I do about it ? So I questioned myself, sitting there, while all the deer of the county might have passed by without my knowing it. But though I persisted in the asking, not any answer could I make myself, except that maybe God might find a way out of it, as simple folk get a way of believing. And there I had to let it rest, though thinking mightily (for me), and not desiring anything but Ruth’s perfect happiness, as I do verily believe. So I kept silence, and right glad I was afterward to have done so wisely (though taking no credit for the wisdom).
Again one day, not long after that of which I have last told, being restless in spirit, and my legs following the bent of my head, I went abroad upon the hills ; but where there were no trees, only low shrubs and such like, and where the quail were whistling (for quail was something to which my appetite did cling through all, when toasted). Toward midday, when I had climbed far up to the hills’ greatest height, and stepped along with much caution for fear of noise to alarm the quail, I came to where I saw Arthur Dunwoody sitting at the edge of a steep place, with a broad black rock before him, at which he worked busily with his hands ; and so firm a hold had curiosity and spying got upon me (though I hate it) that I went forward with much circumspection of step, and concealed as much as might be, with my bigness, behind sheltering points of rock and bush, until I could see closely what he did. He had taken a bit of white chalk from the hillside, and with it, upon the surface of the stone before him, he had drawn, with wondrous exactness of line and shadow, the faces of Ruth and of Alice Mooreland, side by side ; and as I regarded him, he regarded his work intently, with many smiles and softenings of expression, looking first at one and then at the other. Then did I see him lean forward of a sudden, and fondly and gently kiss the pictured face of little Ruth. And when I saw this, then were all my doubts and troubled fears aroused again within me, and I longed to get away.
While I was thinking of it so closely, and of how to set my feet in going that he might not hear me, at a moment he rose, with his eyes lingering upon his portraitures, so that he stepped, without heeding it, upon the very edge of the steepness, and the shelving rock betrayed a weakness, and he went down out of my sight ere he or I could cry out.
Now, forasmuch as this tale partakes very much (in some places) of confession, I would confess it all, to give it due and just proportion ; and the very saddest of all is here to be confessed, as being the hardest and meanest of the hard and mean things of my nature, namely, that when I saw him go down, with a face of agony and arms uplifted, there came into my soul a sense of gladness ; not for very long (maybe the half part of a lightning’s flash), yet did it print itself upon me, so that I shall always carry the shame of it. So little a time it endured that before he was well clown out of sight of my eyes, my feet were moving to aid him, and I swung myself down from point to point, clinging to every jutting place and scraping myself grievously, so that the places were many days in healing over. He had fallen for six yards’ length, and lay quite still, with white face, and his yellow hair spread over with blood, one arm being crushed beside him on the rocks.
I took him up in my arms very gently (or as gently as I might, with my clumsy greatness) and carried him home, three English miles, over the rough hills ; and each stumbling step of the hard way jarred loose within me a little thankfulness to God that he had made me strong. When I got my burden home I laid it down on my bed, with all the household in commotion, while I went for a chirurgeon. On the way I stopped to tell Ruth of what had befallen, and for the rest of the way I saw alternately (as a scholar would no doubt say it) his white face and hers, not less white, when I told her.
Not to dwell too long upon it, because I do not remember all the total of the circumstances (being dazed nearly as senseless as he was), he lay so without any sign of living, only that he breathed brokenly, and that his heart went on somewhat with beating, for the rest of the day and through the night until morning ; the chirurgeon not leaving him, though not hoping much for any good outcome, and Ruth and my mother and I doing what was needful.
When he had been so for four-andtwenty hours, Ruth came out to me, where I walked about without the house, a new showing of trouble in her dear eyes.
“ He knows us,” she told me softly, with her hand upon my arm, “ but the chirurgeon fears it is not for long.” Then she stood for a moment regarding me clearly. “ Will you go and fetch Parson Arrowsmith?" she asked, with much of my own directness of speech.
And I went away to fetch him, eight miles or more, sorrowing meanwhile that belike the end was near, and not glad, as I can say in very truth, though wondering what might happen when he was gone.
When I was come again with the parson (a little fat man, and short of breathing, who traveled hard, though he rode my best horse), Ruth met me.
“ He wants you to come, too,” she said: and I followed to where Arthur Dunwoody lay, his eyes open, though they were shadowed over with the pain of dying, and with the fear of how to go about it. What little of wit I had left in me went speedily out when I saw standing by the bedside, tall and stately and beautiful, Alice Mooreland, with her two hands locked in Arthur Dunwoody’s whole one. And there they remained while Parson Arrowsmith, being made acquainted with the matter, wedded them together solemnly.
When this was done, Arthur looked from one to another until his eyes lit upon Ruth’s face, and he said in a weak voice and far away, " Dear little counselor and sweetest of friends, kiss me.” And she stooped down and kissed his lips. Then we went away, leaving Alice his wife with him, that he might be about the business of dying. Only (to hasten on with matters, for I am getting impatient of the long delaying of the end) it took him two - and - twenty years thereafter to die ; and they were two-and-twenty years of gentle goodness and peace, though old Judge Mooreland made a great to-do and strife about it at first, but to no purpose, Parson Arrowsmith having done his work orderly and well.
And now, for one time in my life, resolution and firmness got hold of me and I of them, and together we set about mending matters. And I would give it as the sum of my experience thus, to wit: when there is anything to be said to a woman, say it, and have done with it with all speed.
This happened in a sweet, dusky evening, with the new moon and the biggest and boldest of the stars looking on, and a soft breath of air stirring in the trees, flushing with the first touch of frost, though there was no other sign of it. I met Ruth in our pasture lane, a sweet place, and fit for love’s avowal, and where I have been wont to walk all my life long for the strengthening of my heart. Here I made her stop by me, while the night grew momently more fair and beautiful.
“ I had thought, Ruth,” I said, calling her so for the first time before her face, “ that you were to be wife to him.”
Her glance went away to the distance, but soon came back to rest upon my face, though very briefly, and then to fall away to the ground, while I saw her soft breast stirred with deeper breathing and stronger beating of her gentle heart.
“ Look at me, Ruth,” I said. But she would not until I had laid my hands upon her head and with my gentlest strength made her to do it. Then in her eyes, though the darkness gathered thickly beneath the trees, I saw that which a man may look at once in a long life, the sweetest and fairest sight of earth, — the light of pure love and the promise of love’s fruition.
We know why God loves us, and no puzzle about it, as I have read in the sayings of wise men, to whom God was no mystery, but the ways of a woman’s love be past discovering, as this proved to me.
“ Ruth, sweetheart, do you love me ? ” I asked of her, hardly daring, yet with a great courage after all.
And all things stopped and waited while she answered me, her soft voice sifting upward through the dark meshes of her hair, “ Yes, I do love you, dear.”
God made that night for us two, and then left us alone in the hollow of it, and our love filled the whole of its great depth and vastness.
William R. Lighton.