The Pathway Round
IT ran parallel with the old rail fence between the low cultivated uplands, — ran straight west, then turned deliberately northwest until it reached the mountain woods. Here it loitered, idly as a girl, through a pine thicket, — a wide path, defined by clean white sand, gleaming sweet under green arbors. Then it came out of the legended shadows, and, bewildered with memory, wandered away into a white fairyland of blossoming dogwood, which gradually vanished as tall chestnut trees, snared together with grapevine, began to arch above it. A queen or a squirrel could have feasted there in the autumn. On either hand the banks rose, brown and mossy. It was a sunken wood road now, but at the gap in the crumbling gray rails it turned to the east and the sun, and became wide and level and green for a half mile through the mountain pastures. Short soft turf and sunshine were here, lovely young growths of locust and walnut and redwood, wastes of blackberry vines, little creek meadows of strawberries, low slopes of blue violets. The brown kine nibbled content; but the violets were always unnumbered, and the berries always overflowed the hands that gathered them.
At the end of the wonderful half mile, the pathway crossed a mountain creek, — a creek of white foam swirling down a deep black bed to the leveler land, where it became stiller, clearer, with a green world brokenly reflected as she crossed the log and set foot to follow the pathway running narrow and steep up a little hill to the right. This was where she always stopped and looked back at Thunder Hill. That lifted line against the heaven had set the limits to her life. The world lay beyond, the clamor of cities, the breaking of seas, and — beyond the seas, across the times — the gleam of white marble and the dream of antiquity. The farther blue ridges melted into dim distances. They seemed low mists that she might walk through. But Thunder Hill was as near as it was inevitable.
On clear days she could see every leaf, every stone, every ridge and valley from end to end. When she looked back from the path in the spring, the delicate green foliage seemed like gigantic garlands flung by a Titan upon the vast black background of the cedars. They were incomparably, fantastically, fleetingly beautiful, gala wreaths about the stone brows of an Egyptian king, roses rioting over convent walls. The mountain, her feet could not cross it; but sometimes her thought could leave it behind, and sometimes her soul could lose it from sight, as if her soul were a lark that soared. And sometimes, ah ! sometimes she turned, glad to escape through the portals of the pines where the path dipped into a clear spaced dell, a stately chamber, ringed by trees of columnar strength and arrowy straightness, with dense boughs lifted like a roof.
The floor of pine needles was burnt brown. The vague sunshine arabesqued over it was golden brown. A few tangled, spicy, white - flowered vines cast shadows like delicate black lace. The place was as full of dreams as a young poet’s heart. It was as haunted as the heart of that poet grown old. It was very, very still and withdrawn. As one lingers in memory she lingered in it before idling her way out, over the irregular hilltop, to the edges of the ploughed lands. The path reëntered the fence row at this place, and kept closely to it along the bottom of a wornout hill field, where the dewberry vines climbed up the clay gullies, and the broom sage was a harvest of gold. Out of this it broadened into a road, curving around a peach orchard set against the blue sky. And, at the foot of the slope, beyond a group of weeping willows, were the gray chimneys of her home. Home, — a place to sleep in. If she had been a man it would not have been even that. Her real home was the pathway round, and the heart of it that chamber hidden among the pines.
There were few days when she did not take that walk, and make that pause, — few days of the changing, changeless year. It was miraculous in the springtime. It was heartbreaking in the fullness of summer. She vibrated to the approaching finality of the fall. But in the winter she was content. All things seemed ended, and to cross the mountain line of as little use as not to cross it. It was only worth while to let her soul loose to fly up, up, until it could behold the littleness of earth, the impotence of its endeavor, and the endlessness of its graveyards. How could she do that in April ? It was in April that they had walked the pathway together, — in April that he had stopped her as they lost themselves in the fairyland of blossoming dogwood, to say —
Only a woman could have borne to stand alone in the after Aprils, remembering the thing he had said. They had run the scale of the year with double touches. She used to sit at the door of her pines in the half-southern winter days, with certain words in her heart, — words telling of the May and the June spent together, of the August, of the eyes that implored, the eyes that were abashed, the slender, strong hands subdued to her own. Then came September — October ; the doubt — the dread. Then winter — and certainty — and the end.
When it seemed the end of all things, it was possible to bear it — to be contented ; it was possible to watch it dwindling with the earth, to send her soul aloft in its skylark mood. Sometimes she lay happily back beneath the roof of pine boughs. (Her roses had died with him. Her face looked white, with the brown head thrown back on the lifted arms, and the chill winter sunlight gilding the waves of her hair.) At these moments she was glad. When she went back to the house it seemed easy to bear the life within. Sometimes it was not easy, and it was well she was a woman, because if she had been a man that man would have crawled on his knees across the mountain line, if only to starve halfway down its western slope. And yet it was but a common life. Scarcely one woman out of a thousand that does not live it. Most of them never know that they live it. Many of them like it. A few are different. Give a rare violin into the hands of the average fiddler and see if it does not get out of tune, and break its heart of music with its strings. That is the way the average life plays on the nerves of the exceptional woman.
She had a constant courage. She had long since given up the obvious selfishness called her pleasure for the subtler selfishness called her duty. It was as well that love had come to her when she was so young. If he had come later she would probably have kissed him goodby, under the dogwoods. Now when she came up the pathway, she had not that regret. What had happened was not her fault. Sometimes she would stop, and put her lips to the dogwood stems, kissing the place where his shoulder had leaned or his hand had grasped. If the day had been hard it was divine comfort, yet scarcely diviner than her beautiful walk could give. She lived her imaginative life during that walk each day. There were times when love itself seemed left behind in the dogwood alley, as if one had dropped a flower there.
She knew the path in all its seasons, in all its aspects. In its May dawn, dew and freshness, in its rainy February twilights, in its black storm of an August noon ; knew it when the snow whirled and settled softly in the mountain meadows, and under the pines ; knew it in the remoteness and silence of October mists ; knew it when the autumn fires had swept Thunder Hill, and the wood road lay barred by burning trees, and outlined by smouldering fences; knew it, ah, how well ! in its December desolation and contentment, when she looked up into the vast black mountain woodlands where the green garlands had withered grayer than the rocks beneath them, — the birth, the blooming, the decadence, the dying done with, and the peace of that which cannot be helped in the heart.
Sometimes she sauntered slowly, sometimes she walked until her breath came fast, and the ghost of her roses stole into her face. She knew it. She knew nothing else so well. Yet, superficially speaking, she did not know it at all. If you had asked her if there were dogwoods in the path, she would have hesitated before replying. She lived the pathway round as one lives life ; for the most part unconsciously, yet, when called upon to define, able to do so with intuitional accuracy.
When she lay burned up with that fatal fever her mind wandered the old round ; her feet fell blessedly in the cool spaces ; her palms caressed fresh flowers ; she laid her hot cheek against the dogwood stems ; she babbled of these sacred, hidden things to the people who nursed her. The eighth day, having been left asleep in the April dusk, she awoke to find herself alone. It seemed natural to her to slip her bare feet into the brown half shoes, to wrap herself up in the great brown cape ; yet she knew that it was wrong when she crept so silently down and out along green garden alleys to the beginning of her beautiful path.
The risen strength of the fever filled her veins with a deadly, splendid life. Once in a dream she had walked so — a gliding, effortless, conscious delight of movement. The dogwood flowers dimly wavered like butterfly ghosts in the dusk. She stopped to draw a wide branch down to her face. It glimmered more whitely than the flowers — you could not tell them from her hands. It was dark, lighted by a crescent moon, when she came into the sunken road beneath the chestnuts. The meadows were mystical in the moonlight when she passed the gap in the crumbling fence. Her cloak fell open at the throat and the night breezes streamed softly against her breast. Her eyes shone gloriously. When next she became aware of her surroundings, she was standing at the portal of her pines. The crescent of the moon hung balanced above the mountain. Its dull golden gleam played faintly over the immense wreaths of April foliage. The mountain barred the sky with its black line. For the first time in her life she felt strong enough to cross that lifted wall — to enter the cities — to vanquish the seas — to fulfill the dream. Perfume, the elixir of eternity, floated up to her from the violet meadows. The wings of Hermes seemed fastened to her little brown shoes. She took one step forward. Then the fever strength ebbed more suddenly than it had flowed. She fell to the ground. The night wind fanned her faintly. The pine balms floated down slowly. The false dawn was in the sky before she became conscious.
The memory of her night walk struggled to her through mists of ineffable weakness. She looked out to the mountain line once more ; but the wings of Hermes had flown away from the little brown shoes. She let her look fall lower to where the wood road ran — lower yet until it wandered over the mountain pastures, then back to where the dogwoods floated white in the glimmering dawn. The remembered touches of that flowering bough she had bent down fell upon her face as if her dead caressed. She was shivering as she dragged herself on her knees between the great pine stems, and into the hollowed chamber. The boughs met like black wings above her head. She lay as she had first fallen. She could not move a finger more.
Many beautiful things had come to her on the pathway round. The April daybreaks — the nightfalls of November — the wild sweet rush of the mountain creek — flower breath — bird song. Her thought had crept from its chrysalis here and wandered to the ends of the world on its wonderful wings. Love had kissed her beauty to its supreme flower in the dogwood alley, and at the doorway of her pines she had entertained divinest sorrow. But within the solemn chamber, where she had been comforted so often, she saw between her face and the black wings afloat on the winds of the morning the most beautiful thing that had ever come to her on the pathway round. Men have named it Death, but no man knows its name. She lay as little restless as if it had been Content.
Fanny Kemble Johnson.