His Majesty the Tree
“His Majesty the Tree! ” Colonel David Waterman, standing on the front gallery of the Hall, took off his hat with a flourish toward the live-oak.
“His Majesty the Tree!” echoed Young David at the colonel’s elbow, with a sweep of his battered straw hat, and a bow which was an exact imitation of his father’s.
James, older by two years than his brother David, kept his eyes glued to the geography open upon his knee.
The Hall stood at the extreme east end of the straggling little Southern town; it had a dignified air, the oldfashioned white mansion, with its ample front and back galleries, its wide middle hall whose doors were set ever hospitably open, its sloping roof and arcaded wings, and its enormous outside chimneys, climbing like red-brick towers up either end. The large yard, whose uncut grass was deep and soft underfoot, was shaded by magnolia and crèpe-myrtle trees; there were two summerhouses guarding the front gate. They were well-nigh shapeless under their burden of honeysuckle and star-jessamine vines. A tangled rose-garden straggled away toward the orchard and the kitchen garden from one end of the house; beyond the other were “walks” of pittosporum and camelia japonica. An ancient brick wall higher than the reach of a man’s hand, topped by wistaria whose branches were thicker than a man’s arm, inclosed the whole place.
Just without the wall, townward, stood the Tree: its spreading limbs, in fact,projected far enough over the wall— resting lovingly thereon—to cast into the yard a big spot of cool green shade. The Tree was a live-oak, not very tall as trees go, but of a noble symmetrical circumference. A battalion of infantry in the beginning of the late (civil) war had been banqueted beneath it, the tables — served from the Hall — radiating away from the mighty trunk like the spokes of a wheel. Its huge round shone green, summer and winter; gray Spanish moss flung over it like a vapory mist.
Colonel Waterman’s affection for the live-oak was as that of one comrade for another. He had played under it, a boy, when the Hall was a-building; under it, the soft moonlight sifting down through the leaves upon her golden head, he had slipped upon his young love’s finger the pledge of betrothal; he had been the host — himself a private in Confederate uniform — at that feast beneath its vast overarching dome, whence he had marched away with his comrades to the front. He was but yesterday come back, gaunt, maimed, out-worn, from Appomattox, to find his two boys motherless; and it was to the hushed and friendly shelter of the Tree that he had carried, that first midnight, the anguish of his widowed soul.
His eyes hardened, now, taking in the decay and dilapidation under them; but they melted into tenderness as they wandered once more toward the live-oak.
“His Majesty the Tree!” he repeated.
“His Majesty the Tree ! ” echoed the ten-year-old David at his elbow.
Old David, as his neighbors began to call him, set the Hall in order, gathered up his scattered law-practice, and overlooked his two boys. He was proud of James, who was studious and obedient — and a trifle smug; but he delighted in Young David. For one thing, the boy’s fondness for the Tree, so like his own, pleased him; he had a gateway made in the wall, so that Young David might go to and from his favorite haunt at will. People in the town shook their heads over this and other like indulgences. Young David, they said—with truth!— was an idle boy and a mischievous; his books, flung down under the tree after school, were apt to lie there until somebody — anybody! — picked them up the next morning, soggy with dew; he was kept in oftener than any boy in school; he might indeed be seen almost any late afternoon headed gayly homeward, a blasting Report in his trousers pocket, his lips set to a mouth-harmonica, or a jew’s-harp, his fellow-criminals, Johnnie Reed, Hal Griffin, and Bob Stafford, at his heels, — a joyous, handsome, goldenhaired vagabond.
“He will come to some bad ending,” prophesied the shakers of heads. “ James, now, is different. James is a good boy. James is a model.” James was; but somehow, so perverse is human nature, everybody, even the shakers of heads, loved Young David, and tolerated James.
The yellow-haired idler was, as the saying goes, a natural musician; from the tinkling keys of his dead mother’s piano, from black Jesse’s banjo, from a twanging jew’s-harp, from a reed-pipe fashioned by his own long slim fingers out of a dogwood switch, Young David could draw sounds which made his own heart swell, and filled his hearers with wonder. And presently Young David began to find that, better than ringleading Bob and Johnnie and Hal into mischief, better than racing fleet-footed through the wooded slopes back of the Hall, better almost than hearing the colonel tell about the great war, he liked to sit on the bench under the Tree with Cissy Marshall,—father over yonder on the front gallery, listening, pipe in mouth, — and touch the strings of his violin with a tender bow, translating his dreams into music.
Cissy Marshall, christened Narcissa, was a dove-eyed, soft, adorable little creature, who had tagged after Young David ever since she was four years old, the boy eight. Her dove eyes worshiped him openly, her bit of a hand stole into his as naturally as a bird seeks its nest.
As the years passed, James the smug, college-graduate, student at law, sedate, correct, satisfactory, developed still farther into a model; Young David, lighthearted, feather-headed, remained a lovable ne’er-do-well.
“His Majesty the Tree,” murmured Old David one June afternoon, his dimmed eyes traveling dreamily across the old-fashioned yard, with its honeysuckled arbors, its heart-shaped flowerbeds, its sturdy embracing wall, — just now purple with wistaria-bloom,—to the glistening gray-veiled live-oak.
“His Majesty the Tree ! ” said Young David, his arm lying affectionately about the old man’s shoulders.
A slight sneer curled the lip of James, sitting by, his eyes glued to the law-book open on his knee.
The next morning they found Old David dead in his armchair; the light of a great peace illumined his face.
Young David, pale and distraught, with eyes swollen by weeping, hardly listened to the reading of that part of his father’s will which, in clear and concise terms, bequeathed to the testator’s two sons, James Albert and David Hartwell, share and share alike, his entire estate, grown into something like a handsome fortune. But at a certain clause the golden head went up, a pleased light dawned in the blue eyes. This clause related to the live-oak, whose position and surroundings were minutely described. His Majesty the Tree, so named in the will, was given to himself, — the tree, — in perpetuity; all grounds, walls, shrubs, landmarks, etc., covered by his shade at any or all moments of the day, or touched by his limbs or branches, were his to have and to hold so long as he should live. And that he might dwell in peace in his own place, and no man’s hand be laid in violence upon him, a certain lot of ground (described) was deeded to the town for the payment of his taxes, if such there should be. In the case of his death, or downfall, the said lot should revert to the testator’s second son, David Hartwell.
The town laughed not a little over this singular bequest, but in the breathless changes which soon fell upon it — for it awoke from its century-old slumber to the whirl of a boom — the town council budded a school-house on the lot, and forgot the clause.
“It is a foolish bit of sentimentality,” said James, when the brothers came to talk over the will, “but of course it stands.”
“You bet it stands!” cried Young David, “and so does His Majesty the Tree. May he stand forever ! ”
There was no wrangling over the division of the property. James in his pompous way claimed the Hall by virtue of being the older son. Young David agreed to this heartily; also to the taking over by James of certain lands, “of absolutely no value,” for a small amount of cash.
“You are a trump, James!” shouted Young David when matters were finally settled. James winced under the blow which fell on his shoulder from David’s admiring hand.
“You will wait for me, Cissy!” David said one sunny afternoon a week or so later. The two were sitting, as usual, hand in hand, on the bench under the live-oak,
“Oh, always!” sobbed Cissy, her dove eyes welling over with tears; “but oh, why must you go?”
Why ? He could not explain to anybody, least of all to nestling, soft little Cissy, how a voice, composed as it were of many tones, — known and unknown, gay, tender, tragic, angry, appealing, solemn, mysterious,— called him overseas, where the great masters of music have lived and wrought.
He went away blithely, with the greater part of his inheritance converted by James’s help into ready money. Blithely he went—he was just turned of twenty-one—and blithely he spent, did Young David. Every capital of Europe saw him scattering abroad the coin of the realm as a sower scatters seed. Not, be it said, along those ignoble byways in which spendthrifts commonly walk; he kept his life clean and honorable, less for Cissy’s sake than for his own. If he held his purse upside down, it was that less fortunate brothers in music might study at ease; it was to convey, or send, such from Paris to Berlin, from Dresden to Bayreuth, from Milan to Naples, that they might come in touch with the great artists — pianists, violinists, singers of the day. He became, himself, a student; but one who winged an ardent, erratic, exasperating flight, far beyond the ken of any master.
Meanwhile, he poured out his soul to Cissy, in confident, exuberant letters, scarcely noting that her replies, after the first year, grew constrained, and came farther and farther apart. At the end of the third year Young David wrote two letters home: one to Cissy announcing his immediate return; the other to James cheerfully setting forth the fact that he, David, had come to the end of his funds, and asking the loan of enough money to enable him to settle certain debts, and to pay his passage across — and to the Hall, where he made no doubt a welcome, and his old quarters, awaited him. There was ample room in the west wing, he reflected, for himself—and Cissy. He would teach, of course, and — his thoughts trailed off; he seemed to see himself sitting, always, under the live-oak’s green span, forever making music for dove-eyed Cissy.
A letter in James’s admirable handwriting came so quickly in return that he thought, whimsically, it must have been shot through space. “Good old James, ” he murmured, opening the fat envelope. “Smug, but true as steel, old James! ”
A sealed letter tumbled out of the envelope, — David’s own late letter, addressed to Miss Narcissa Marshall. James himself wrote (upon a single sheet of legal cap) that the herewithin letter, returned, had not been delivered, the lady to whom it was addressed having been for several weeks already Mrs. James Waterman. The sum of six hundred dollars, he further stated, — David’s share of the last piece of ground owned by the brothers in common, — had been placed to his, David’s, credit with Blanc et Cie, Paris, France. He regretted, coldly, that David had squandered his inheritance, but desired to say that he, James, absolutely declined to receive then, or afterward, into his own decent and orderly home, a roué and beggar such as David had become. Any further application for assistance, he added, would remain unnoticed; and he begged to subscribe himself
JAMES ALBERT WATERMAN.
Young David laughed, loud and long, over this letter from James the Smug, the humor of it going far toward easing the pain of Cissy’s treachery. Poor Cissy, her dove eyes indeed seemed to reproach him for what she had done !
The six hundred dollars served for the last payment on a Stradivarius which he had run to earth in the Rue de la Paix; and therefore young David settled down in great contentment to teaching for a daily living. He could easily have been the rage, this handsome young maestro, with his prestige, his magic personality, his rare gift of imparting to others what he knew, his spiritual insight into the souls of his followers. But his wants, he argued, were few, his need for freedom great. A handful of pupils guaranteed him both.
Young David turned out of the dusty road and walked a little way into the pine woods; the brown-needled turf was soft and springy under his feet; the warm air which he drew into his lungs in long inhalations was charged with a resinous perfume; his nostrils quivered with sensuous delight. The faint far-away sound of chopping, and above it the echo of a negro voice floating and falling in the hazy stillness, brought a reminiscent smile to his lips.
He sat down on a fallen pine and took the joints of the flute from his knapsack. As he fitted them together his eyes danced; they were very blue, Young David’s eyes, and very bright and young; though in truth they had no right to be either, for Young David himself had long ceased to be young. Thirty years since he turned his back on the Hall! thirty years passed in voluntary exile. But his tall spare figure in the threadbare suit he wore was erect and graceful; his movements had the old-time elasticity; the long hair floating over his shoulders was curiously golden still. There were lines about his eyes, and in the corners of his sensitive mouth; but his face kept at fifty, and past, the rare, almost boyish charm which no one had ever withstood — except James, He closed his eyes, wondering idly how Cissy had fared in her life-journey with James; and set the flute to his mouth.
It was all that was left to him of his famous collection, that flute. The Stradivarius ? given away with enthusiasm, oh, years ago, to a brother in music. The pedigreed ’cello ? loaned to a brother in music who had forgotten to return it. The priceless harp which had belonged to the Queen of Harpists ? raffled for the benefit of a needy brother in music; and so on. The grand and the baby piano were sold but the other day, when a sudden inexplicable longing had seized him, yonder in Paris, to behold once more His Majesty the Tree.
He was making his way toward that glorious green round now—afoot, having quitted the railway-train when he found his purse well-nigh empty. Through the mountain-ways of Virginia and Carolina, where the young spring lay like a delicate green veil over tree and shrub; by the sandy hills of Georgia, weaving as he walked the June lilacs into a flute-song; down through Alabama greenwoods, and across Mississippi where Spanish daggers lifted waxen-white cups to the midsummer sky; and at last, into his own state of canefield and rose-hedge, he had trudged as blithely toward the Tree as ever he had speeded away from it by rail and boat thirty years before.
The melody which exhaled from the flute was scarcely audible even to the player’s ears; he was merely trying it, the air which had come to him as he tramped homeward, and with which he intended to salute His Majesty when, standing at the head of the slope yonder, his eyes should fall once more on the Tree.
“A foolish bit of sentimentality, James would call that,” he murmured, rising and walking on. “Cissy, too! for no doubt Cissy by this time is as smug as James himself!”
His heart beat more quickly as he drew near the top of the slope; he halted, catching his breath, a spasm of physical pain passing like a shadow across his face. “It comes oftener, that warning,” he commented quietly to himself.
A few steps beyond, he stood still, his eyes downcast, his arms hanging inert; a wave of poignantly sweet emotion shook him from head to foot. “I — had not — dreamed —I could — care — like this! Home! Home!” he stammered aloud. Then he lifted his eyes, sweeping them across the shallow dip of the valley; and shrank back as if from a blow.
Well, and after all, had he not known it would be changed, the boom town ? He pulled himself together and slowly measured its growth, — its climb into the low hills to the north; its eastward and southward spread; and sought among its clustering spires and massed roofs the old landmarks, —the school-house, the court-house square, the town hall; the shady by-way that led out to the ball-ground, the pecan grove by the spring, the — his tall frame stiffened into rigidity, the flute dropped from his nerveless fingers.
Certainly, there was the old place, lying like an island amid an encroaching sea of houses. But — the Hall ? He made out at length that the ancient mansion was still there, but its stately whiteness had given place to a vivid green with capricious facings and stripings of red; the sloping roof was here hollowed, there rounded; drawn up to a peak on one side, shoved out into portentous eaves on another. The wide, columned galleries were gone; in their stead were jutting balconies, bay windows, fantastic little porches. The deepbreasted yard was become a lawn, clean shaven, with asphalted footways ; the flower-beds and the japonica and pittosporum “walks” had disappeared; so had the summer houses with their burden of vines. Where the rose-garden had been, — beloved of young David’s mother, — a tennis-court, flaunted its netting. And the wall, the dear encircling wall! not a vestige of it remained; the lawn stepped down to the very highway, — fenceless, hedgeless, shamelessly inviting the first comer, as it were, into the family life.
Young David’s momentary paralysis had passed; a torrent of passionate invective was pouring from his lips; he shook his clenched fist at the modernized house; he rolled angry bloodshot eyes over the prim lawn; he cursed his brother with a fluency and in a variety of foreignborn oaths which would have frozen the blood of that correct individual, had he heard them.
“May his soul serve the Devil for a pocket-handkerchief! May Satan turn a rusty knife forever in his bowels! May he lie in melted glass throughout eternity! May —” suddenly he drew a long breath, and a low chuckle eased his fury. He had for the moment forgotten the Tree. But there He stood, glossy-green under the July sun, unshorn of any limb, untouched by the profane hand that had “improved” the Hall. And—again the easing chuckle — a bit of the old wall, fifty feet or more, had perforce been left standing, since one of His Majesty’s mighty limbs rested upon it! It laid an odd, incongruous look, that length of yellowed brick lying alongside the immaculate lawn. “What an eyesore it must be to James the Smug! But at all events he has respected my father’s wishes,” said Young David at length, softening a little.
He picked up his flute and turned away, spent to exhaustion.
A quarter of an hour later, he came by a well-remembered woodpath to the family burying-ground. He was not surprised to find that the whitewashed picket fence had been replaced by an iron grille, painted green; but it stirred him anew to see that the weeping-willow which had shaded his mother’s mildewed tomb had been cut down. He wrenched open the locked gate with an angry hand, and went in. Seated upon the flat tomb of his grandfather, — another David Waterman, — he looked about, trying vaguely to fit the old tombs and headstones into their new setting. Gradually he became aware of an inscription which seemed to draw his gaze insistently toward a new, unremembered shaft, over against his father’s.
the deep-cut inscription ran,
BELOVED WIFE OF JAMES ALBERT WATERMAN DIED JUNE 17TH, 1886 AGED 27 YEARS
Cissy! Dead these twenty years!
When the dry sobs ceased to shake him, Young David lifted the flute to his lips. But he lowered it again; he would have liked to play for Cissy once more, yet —
A full moon rode, large and yellow, in the cloudless sky, when, skirting the pecan-grove in the rear of the home place, he came to the Tree on the closeclipped side-lawn. The Hall was brilliantly lighted, its many windows flung open to the night; but the shadows were dense under the live-oak, save where the moonlight sifted through the leaves, to fall in ghostly-white splotches on the ground. Young David passed in with head uncovered and laid his hand reverently upon the gnarled trunk. But the salutation he would have uttered was arrested by the sound of a voice. It was a girl’s voice, soft, and sweet, and young.
“Yes,” it said, and there were tears in it, “my father has given orders that it shall be cut down — to-morrow morning.”
“What!” burst in another voice, a man’s, young also, and very firm and resonant. “The Tree? Our tree, Cissy ? Mr. Waterman is going to have the tree cut down! What for ? ”
Cissy! Young David’s heart stood still.
“Because it interferes with the view. Besides, he wants to build an Italian pergola out here, and a tea-house. Isabel and Katharine are delighted. But I — oh, I — ”
There was a break in the musical voice. Young David divined, with a lump in his throat, the reassuring pressure of an encircling arm about the girl’s waist. For the speakers were sitting upon the bench on the other side of the tree-trunk.
“They like the improvements in the house, too, my sisters. I suppose I am different, somehow. I liked it best as it was. I know my mother would have liked it best as it was. And she never could have borne to see the Tree cut down. I never knew my mother, you know, Jack,” the girl went on wistfully; “she died when I was born. But old Unc’ Jesse and Ann’ Hannah have told me how she loved the Tree; she used to come out every day, as long as she lived, and sit under it just as I do. Aun’ Hannah says,” the voice dropped almost to a whisper, “that when she was a girl my mother used to sit here with my Uncle David — the one who is so wicked that my father never speaks of him. Perhaps he is dead now, my Uncle David. O Jack, I cannot bear to have the Tree cut down!”
“Don’t cry. Cissy,” soothed Jack; “we will have a tree of our own when we are married.”
“Yes,” sobbed Cissy, “but it can never be the Tree.”
Young David stole forth softly. He made a wade circuit around the moonlit tree, unjointing the flute as he went, and slipping the pieces one by one into his knapsack. He strode up the asphalted walk, under the full moon, to the front door of the house. There were some people sitting on one of the flighty porches; he judged the young women to be his hitherto unknown nieces, Isabel and Katharine. They watched him idly as he pulled the bell,
“Looks like a gentlemanly tramp,” commented one of the young men.
The door was opened (the Hall frontdoor shut, and in midsummer!) by a weazened old negro in white gloves and a tail-coat.
“Is Mr. Waterman at home?” asked the visitor.
“Mr. Waterman,” began the negro pompously, “is havin’ a genteman’s dinin’, sah. He — Gawd a’mighty, Marse Dave, is dat you!”
“Of course it is, you old rascal,” said Young David, grasping his hand affectionately; “who else?”
“Gawd be praise’, Marse Dave. You is come back home at las’. An’ you looks des lak you uster. Lawd, Hannah will shout hallelujah!” The tears were streaming down his black face.
“My brother is in the dining-room, eh, Unc’ Jesse?” Young David was handing hat and knapsack to the old man.
“Ya-as, sah, Marse Dave. Mr. Jeems is in de dinin’-room — ”
“Mr. James?” frowned David.
“Yas, sah, Mr. Jeems. I done quit callin’ him Marse, Yas, sah, Marse Dave, he’s got a dinin’, ” — anxiously,— “he don’t lak to be ‘sturb’.”
“Never mind, Unc’ Jesse.” Uncle Jesse had dropped to his knees and was brushing off the traveler’s worn shoes with his handkerchief. “ I don’t mind disturbing him. The old dining-room ?”
“No, sah, Marse Dave. It’s in de wing. Todes yander.”
“Very well. Stay where you are. I will be back presently.”
He went down the unforgotten hallway, and turned into the west wing, where his own bachelor quarters used to be. His lip curled scornfully as he cast a glance here and there upon the new furniture, the new hangings, the new papering on the walls, the new chandeliers. But his face was quite tranquil when, lifting a heavy portière, he presented himself to his brother and his brother’s guests seated around a richlyappointed dinner-table.
“How do you do, James,” he said pleasantly, advancing a step or two. Mr. Waterman, who had started up at the appearance of a dust-covered intruder, dropped back into his chair, purple with indignation. He had grown stout and bald with the drifting years, had James; and prosperity and selfsufficiency were written loud all over his correctly clad person.
“I have merely called in passing—” Young David was beginning, but several chairs had been suddenly pushed back.
“By the gods! it’s our Pied Piper!” cried Judge Robert Stafford, hurrying around to clap the intruder on the shoulder.
“Young David! Welcome home!” shouted Mayor John Reed and banker Henry Griffin in a breath.
The others, strangers to an earlier past, looked on curiously while the threadbare newcomer returned the joyous greetings of his old-time chums, asking and answering questions, filling the stiff room with that beguiling atmosphere which no one had ever resisted — except James.
“Why, boys, it is like our old game of buttons,” laughed Young David at length. “Mayor, judge, banker— ”
“Chief!” interrupted Judge Stafford, touching Young David’s breast with an earnest forefinger. “Do you think that we have not heard of the great things you have been doing all these years, maestro? You were always at the very top, Young Davie. You always will be the chief.”
“You’ll stop at my house, you know, old man,” cried Mayor John Reed.
“And you boys will all dine with me to-morrow,” said Mr. Griffin.
James came forward. “Will you not join us at table, David?” He could hardly be blamed if his tone was slightly acid, seeing that his dinner-party was in danger of failure.
“Thanks, no,” said David politely. “I’m sorry, boys, but I leave within the hour. I am hurrying to meet an important engagement on the Other Side. By the way, James, I am glad to see that His Majesty the Tree holds his own. May he live forever! Curious clause that was in my father’s will, Bobby.” He turned to the judge, but his eyes addressed the mayor while he ran lightly over the story of the will.
“By Jove!” ejaculated one of the strangers. “How interesting! Belongs to himself, hey ?”
“Forever,” returned Young David emphatically. “Nobody can cut him down but God Almighty; eh, James!”
“Now that you recall it, I remember it all perfectly,” said the mayor.
“Of course you do, Johnnie. And you and Bob can help James to remember that clause, and keep that piece of town property from reverting to the testator’s second son.” Young David laughed gayly.
When he came out Uncle Jesse was waiting for him.
“You ain’ gwine aivay, Marse Dave!” groaned the old man. Young David was passing the strap of his knapsack over his shoulder. “An’ you des come back! Lawd,chile,I don’t want no money! You keep dat dollar, Marse Dave. You needs it. Not but what you don’t look as gran’ as any genterman, but — O Marse Dave, you ain’ gwine! ”
Young David had to master himself before he spoke. “ Easy, Unc’ Jesse,” he said. “Don’t you remember what you used to tell me when I was a boy ? Where the head must lie the feet must carry you. I’ve got to go. My brother James has some daughters, has n’t he ?”
“Yas, sah, Marse Dave. He got Miss Belle an’ Miss Kate, an’ Miss Cissy. Miss Cissy, she’s de younges’. She name’ for her ma, an’ she’s sutenly de spit ’n’ image of yo’ Miss Cissy, Marse Dave. She’s settin’ out yander onder de Tree now, des lak —”
“Uncle Jesse, when, — when Miss Narcissa comes in — ”
“She’ll be comin’ in turrectly, Marse Dave.”
“As soon as she comes in, you tell her that her Uncle David says not to worry about that Tree. Her father will not have that Tree cut down, to-morrow, or ever.”
Young David made even a wider circuit about the live-oak in returning than before; he walked rapidly, adjusting the flute as he went. At the edge of the pecan-grove he turned and took off his hat with a flourish to the Tree. The moonlight touched his hair into a crown of gold. A moment later, a flute song, clear, penetrating, heartbreaking, floated out into the night.
“What is that?” cried Cissy, hand in hand with her lover under the live-oak. “Listen! Why, I never heard anything like it!”
Nobody ever did! It was Young David’s farewell to the Tree — and to life.