SATURDAY evening I said, ‘Let’s get out the map and find a county with no railway. “The world is too much with us.” ’
‘Yes,’ said Peter, spreading our tattered map on the floor, ‘“getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”’
We found the county, and decided to follow the first beckoning road that led south. Then I rose happily, and deliberately swallowed three tablets of permanganate of potash, mistaking John’s mange wash for charcoal tablets. By the time an emetic was prepared, my throat was too constricted for relief, and the caretaker rushed us in his Ford to the village physician.
The doctor sat on his porch, smoking his evening pipe. The caretaker called, ‘Hi, Doc! Hyar’s a orchard womern jist svallcred pizen.’ Peter cried, ‘Permanganate of potash!’ The doctor, without removing his pipe, waved a patronizing hand and drawled, ‘Drive on to the drug store; he’ll know the antidote.’
The druggist reached for a dusty tome and began to read. After a reasonable time Peter reminded him that there was a woman present who was poisoned, and that it seemed a poor time for reading. He continued his search, but Peter called the doctor over the telephone. The doctor said that he didn’t remember the antidote, but if we could get old Doctor Morerod at Burnt Mountain over the phone he would be sure to know.
After some delay Peter repeated Doctor Morerod’s reply verbatim. He said: ‘Tell those blamed fools to give her a pint of olive oil and a pint of vinegar.’ The druggist proudly produced the oil. ‘The vinegar?' cried Peter. ‘Wal, I don’t know 'bout thet,’ said the caretaker. ‘The stores is all shet, but maybe we kin drive round ter Faulkner’s and git him ter open up.' It was all so absurd that, as my throat refused to laugh, my face wore such a sardonic grin I feared the druggist would administer the antidote for strychnine, from symptoms!
Oil the way home the caretaker said suspiciously, ‘’Pears like you-all is pow’ful ca’m! Most folks likes ter live,’ and I knew he thought I had attempted suicide.
‘Who is this Doctor Morerod ? ’ asked Peter.
‘Why, he’s a feller thet come ter Burnt Mounting a long time ago. He’s got more books 'n inybody in the world, and I helped haul a pic-anner plum up the mounting fur him.’
Occasionally we came upon these ‘furriners’ hidden away in the mountains. Fugitives from reality, or from memory; or fugitives from the law, ‘ furriners’ forever, but safe with people who look upon ‘a reasonable killin’’ as a venial sin.
One day we met a mountaineer who was walking to the penitentiary to visit his brother. He said with rather an air of importance, ‘Bud war a good boy — jist too high-sperited. Pappy tutored him a lot, but hit did n’t do no good. He war thet high-sperited, the second man he shot they cotched him. ’
Monday morning I declared that I was able to take the road again. We were restive in the cabin, for it rained Sunday and the scent of peach culls was overpowering. After an hour on the highway there was a sweet, shaded way leading south. White sand as clean and unmarked as a wave-washed beach, where the late muscadines fell from their separate stems like big purple beads from a broken strand. After the querulous voices of tired men, after the insolent warnings of motors with their poisonous breath, the blessed silence, broken only by the mourning of the wood dove, whose hollow grieving holds no note of earthly bitterness or rebellion. After the acid scent of decaying fruit, the clean smell of the pines and the pungent perfume of pennyroyal hot in the sun. We walked slowly, stopping to catch our breath at the scarlet flash of a cardinal’s wing, or to lean against a gray rock where a passion vine climbed, lifting a white cross above its purple silken-fringed altar cloth. Often for days we wandered on in enchanted silence, exchanging only necessary words for provisions at crossroad stores, our only adventure the quick trenching, perhaps, of our little tent before a storm, when we would all huddle together, John’s tail sometimes waving in the water of the trench, and sleep soundly with never a thought of a cold. These were halcyon days; though, when adventure beckoned, we followed with zest.
This was to be a day of simple happenings, which to us were thrilling adventures; for there, laving his feet in a crystal stream running busily across the road, sat a young man in riding breeches and coat, with a pair of high boots beside him into which he was sprinkling foot-case. Leaning against a sweet-gum tree was a lank mountaineer, with a book, evidently a Bible, in his hand. The two were in animated conversation. We asked for a spring for a drink, and the mountaineer said, ‘Hit’s good water jist above whar he’s washin' his feet. ’ We drank slowly and stopped to listen. The hiker went on in a loud contentious voice, ‘But no man is such a fool as to deny the evolution of animal life, even if he is idiot enough to claim special creation for man!'
'I reckon,’drawled the mountain man, 'thet I'm jist thet sort of a igit. I want ter make my position clar. I believe thet whin God wanted ter make a man He made a man; and whin He wanted ter make a bug, He made a bug. ’
‘Ha, ha, ha! And when He wanted a chigger He made this God-awful bug that’s boring into my leg! What infernal rot! All because an obscene old history of one of the tribal gods of the Jews is read by the ignorant. Science, of course, is a closed book to the fools!’
The mountaineer paled beneath his tan, but he said quietly, ‘Yes, suh, I’m ignorant, and you’re eddicatcd, and you've read a lot of highfalutin books. But whin did one o’ thim science books ever comfort a broken heart, or change a bad man suddent inter a good man? This old Bible does jist thet! Bless the Lord!’
'Bless the Lord!’ cried Peter.
‘Amen, brother!’ shouted the mountaineer.
‘Amen!’ I added solemnly.
‘Nonsense!’ cried the hiker. ‘That old Bible makes a man a coward and a hypocrite! And a broken heart had better quit. Don’t let the fools breed. Let the weaklings die off and make way for a race above good and evil!’
At this, to him, utterly devilish proposal, the mountaineer’s jaw dropped, and his fingers clenched white on his Book.
Peter, fearing a Holy War would break out in the mountains, said quickly to the hiker, who was lacing his boots, ‘Stranger, thim hain’t the sort o' shoes to wear. Yore feet needs air. We jist wear moccasins, — carry a extry pair, — and we hen walkin’ all summer and hain’t had no foot trouble. Thar hain’t. no snakes in ther road. We jist saw one all summer.’ I gazed on Peter with pride, and we all went on together.
Suddenly from nowhere came the sound of a fiddle. ‘Is n’t that “Billy in the Low Ground”?’ I asked.
‘That’s Billy,’ Peter answered. And presently we came upon a house where there was a group of men on the porch. It was a ‘big dinner. ’ celebrating Grandpap’s ninetieth birthday, and Grandpap himself was playing, his gnarled old fingers finding their way straight to the heart of ‘Billy in the Low Ground.’
After a while I produced my Villaume violin, which they handled curiously, with its unheard-of chin rest. One after another of the men played, but I knew better than to compete, for, try as I would, I could not master the art. A mountain player holds his fiddle firmly against, his side, and plays with only a few inches of his bow. He tunes anew for any change of key, and it is a ‘sorry player’ who observes a rest or a pause. The fiddler blends his whole being in the monotonous swing, as sweet and sure and incessant as the rhythm of falling water. Deep in the gayest tunes he plays there is, to me, an undertone of sadness, — the spirit of the mountains, — as irrevocable and as inevitable as death. Fancy, perhaps. But America would lose much should the art die out.
An anæmic lad of about fourteen tuned an especially vicious fiddle. But he muted it with his knife blade and played well up on the finger board with his clawlike hands. ‘The Land of the Cloudless Sky’ rang out true and sweet, and wonderfully appealing. I gave him a mute. He had never seen one, and I shall never forget his delight. The boy had the God’s gift, and I left him next morning playing the Rubinstein ‘Melody in F, ’ with his first long bow. But I had to assure his mammy. Miss Laura, that it was a church tune. For, Miss Laura said, ‘Ralph’s goin’ ter be a preacher. He don’t play only church tunes.’
I ate with the women at the ‘second table.’ The mountain men eat first, the women waiting. They approach the table as a filling station for renewal of energy. To speak, except for food, is a gaucheric, and as embarrassing as a loud voice when music unexpectedly ceases. Peter said he did not dare offer Grandpap many happy returns, though there was the wherewithal for a toast.
While Miss Laura, who seemed terribly efficient, was ‘dishing up,’ I asked my neighbor at dinner which man was the father of Miss Laura’s talented boy. She answered me, with a portion of cheese pie poised on her knife: ‘Ralph hain’t got no pappy. He’s a woods colt. His pappy wuz a preacher, though. He come hyar frum Nashville with lung trouble. He died. Miss Laura she’s mighty feared fur Ralph. He wears a flannel waist, and she keeps the winders shot summer and winter whar he sleeps. She’s goin' ter make a preacher of him. ’
‘How fine!’ I said inanely. I was thinking of the attitude of these simple people toward illegitimacy. For in the mountains a woman’s sacred duty is to bear a child — preferably in wedlock, but a child is a child.
The next morning we set out for Wildcat Dam, ‘the lonesomest place in the mountings, whar thar is two houses and the best fishin’ in the world. ’ We met no one, although there were moonshine caches along the way. We had learned to read the signs, like gypsy patrins, of fresh boughs where we could follow a dim path and, putting a quarter on a stump and turning our backs, find a good drink of corn liquor.
It was late afternoon when we came to a grassy cove hemmed in close by mountains. A mined water mill added a sadness to the scene. Across a wide rushing river stood the old dam, and from its crenate wall dozens of vipers obtruded their flattened heads and forked tongues, their lidless eyes looking down on the foaming water below. Peter stopped to shoot at them, and I walked on by the river road to find a house. For the place oppressed me, and I craved a camp this night near friendly human beings. The river sang a haunting song. Old memories waked and cried, and conquered griefs woke to fight again. But when I came upon a white house with a long gallery where, on a rustic chair, lay an open book, I called myself names, and reflected that I was tired. For walking down a mountain is harder muscle-work than climbing.
Through an open screened door I saw a neat room where a scholarlylooking man, with jetty hair pushed back from a noble forehead, sat delicately leafing a book. A stack of books and magazines was piled at his side. I knocked and knocked again, but the man never looked up or ceased his careful leafing of his book, Coneluding that the man was deaf, I called, for, through another room, I saw two women sitting on a porch before a little garden gay with hollyhocks and zinnias. A young woman, with the same intellectual beauty of the reading man, came and, in a beautifully modulated, full-throated voice, bade me enter. The reading man never looked up from his book. A woman of the type once called motherly sat stringing beans, and a curly-haired boy of six, perhaps, played with a kitten. I sat and helped string the beans and talked of ourselves. The place was neat, like a New England home. For the Southern home aims at beauty rather than order and convenience. After a while I said, ‘Though we are camping, I wonder if you would take us to board a few days, while I fish.’ And, fearing a recrudescence of sadness, I added, ‘I believe I could be happy here. ’
The woman called softly, ‘Father! Father!’ and from another room appeared the most gigantic man I had ever seen. His fiery eyes were set in a finely modeled head utterly destitute of a single hair. ‘Father,’ said the woman, ‘here is a lady who wants to stop with us a few days. She says she thinks she might be happy here.’
The old man offered me his mighty hand. He said, ‘If you think you can be happy here, stay a day or a year.’ I thanked him; and the young woman — sullenly, I thought — showed me a room with dainty curtains and hooked rugs and oh, bliss! an outside bathroom with a row of white towels! I hastened away with the joyful news.
But at the door the woman stopped me. I must tell you,’ she said, ‘there is a reason why you may not like to stop with us. My son, here, is what they call an idiot. He is quite harmless, but people are afraid of him.’
‘You mean,’ I cried, ‘the scholarly gentleman reading ? ’
‘He has leafed books like that for forty years. He never tears or soils a book, and he'll cry if we take them away. He is as helpless as a baby, and I’ve never left him day or night for forty-three years.’
I leaned against the screen and looked at the man in his long clean Russian blouse, leafing his book with dainty care. And I, in my insolent egoism, had asked these people to take me in that I might be happy! Suddenly the man looked up and wailed in a long descending cadence the word ‘F-l-y/’ ‘It’s the only word he can say,’ said his mother, ‘and he’ll say it till I catch the fly.’ And incessantly he sang the word until the fly was caught!
We stepped outside and a man rattled up in a wagon. He called, ‘I’ll be pow’ful obleeged ef you-all'll jist ask Charlie to step outside and see ef hit’s goin’ ter rain. I've got ter cut hay, and don’t wanter hev hit down in the rain.’ The woman led her son gently to the porch. He stood a moment like a sage in profound meditation. Then his body began to sway, and his arms waved like a tree in the distress of storm, and his voice rose like the sough of the wind until it was unbearable.
‘Much obleeged!’ said the man. ‘I won’t cut hay till after the storm.’
‘He always knows when it will rain, and people come for miles around to consult him,’ the mother said proudly. Astonished, I asked her what sign he made if it was to be clear. ‘He dances as light, and makes the prettiest sound — like bees murmuring. ’
Peter came up the road, and I beckoned him. It was curious to watch John’s attitude toward the imbecile. He stared and cringed, and fixed his eyes on the man as though he saw forms invisible to us. During our three days’ stay John haunted him, staring transfixed before the idiot, who never lifted his eyes. A youth of an inferior type came in and was introduced as the husband of Emma, the daughter. And I observed that the child feared and disliked him.
After supper, — and what white linen and what a dainty tea cozy! — while Peter admired the grandfather’s clock, I looked curiously at the books, remarking on the many books of travel.
‘Yes,’ said our host, 'I am an Englishman. I was a sailor, and was wrecked on the coast of Africa. That’s where I got this bald head. Three of us got to shore, but the other two died on the way. They picked me up crazy with fever. When I woke in a native hut there was n’t a hair on my head.’
‘But how,’ I asked, ‘did you find this remote place?’
‘I shipped for America and found my wife here. I bought the finest wig in Boston to win her,’ he laughed. ‘I wear it now on our anniversary days.’
‘ I am English too, ’ said his wife, ‘ but I came to America as a child. Father was always hankering for the sea, so we came here to be out of the sight and sound of the water.’
And in my Pollyanna way I said, ‘But you have found peace and quiet here. ’
The old man smiled at me sadly. ‘A man’s fate is written on his forehead. He can’t sidestep his destiny. You are looking at those Correspondence Courses. I had to educate my children here, so I just learned along with them. Emma can read French as well as she can English.’
‘You have other children?’ I asked.
‘ Yes, two sons, ’ he said shortly.
That night there was a violent storm and a tree crashed down near our window. I thought of Charlie, and I marveled. I marvel still.
I sat on the porch, tired from fishing — but what a string of bass I caught! The woman brought her sewing and sat with me. ‘The little white building opposite, perched on the mountain side — a church?’ I asked.
‘Yes, but I can’t bear the sight of it. That’s why my flower garden’s on the other side.’
‘Forgive me — I did n’t know.’
Then the woman began to speak, slowly and with difficulty, the words released with effort — slow drops from an old wound that bleeds afresh.
‘The boy’s father preached at that church. He’s not Ed’s child. His father came from the city to help in the spring and fall revivals. Emma sang in his choir — she is a beautiful singer. All my children have good voices. When the spring revival was over he went away. After a while I knew the truth. He promised to marry her when he came back in the fall. But he never wrote, and he did n't give her his address. When he came back he never came near her. (He used to come home with her from the Class—they call their choir that.) She tried to see him, but he would n’t see her. I did n’t dare tell Father. He has an insane temper when he’s roused. Oh, I was afraid! He idolized Emma. You see, they kind of grew up together with their learning books, and reading. She was n’t like she is now. Always singing and roaming the mountains with Robert and Edward. Robert was twenty-three and Edward was twenty-one. Emma was just eighteen. They were so proud of her.’ The woman rocked to and fro and wrung her hands. ‘ If only I had n't told them! But I did! I did! They went to the man and tried to make him marry Emma. But he threatened to have them arrested. He said he scarcely knew her. Everyone would have been against us. You see, we are “furriners” and Father did n’t like their dissenters’ church. My boys took the money from under the fireplace, —the money they’d saved,— and saddled their horses and took their guns.
I tried to hold them. It was dark. Emma had walked on to church. But they kissed me good-bye — it was the last time I ever saw them!’
I reached over and took the woman’s hand.
‘Father went to sleep. I sat out here in the dark, watching the lights of the church, waiting — waiting. Charlie was restless and would n’t sleep. He kept walking up and down in the dark, calling to the storm. Sometimes I thought I’d call Father, but I didn’t dare. The old clock ticked so slow — so slow! It struck eleven as they sang their last song. It was “Just As I Am ” — they sing it often and I turn sick when the breeze brings it! Then there were two shots — quick — one after the other. They had sung in the Class, my two boys; then they got their guns and as he came out the door they both shot. They loved each other — they did n’t want either to bear the blame alone. ’
‘Oh, tell me they escaped!’ I cried. I thought I could not bear it if they had not got away!
‘Robert did. It’s been six years. We’ve never heard from him. But Edward is in the penitentiary. Father goes to see him. He won’t live long. I can't leave Charlie to go. Ed worked for us and he offered to marry Emma. I begged her not to. But they Father and Emma — wanted the child born in wedlock. But Ed hates the boy, and Emma hates him. I’m afraid! There’s more trouble to come! Sometimes I wish she’d leave the boy with me and run away. But what will become of Charlie when Father and I go? He could never bear harsh or coarse treatment. Charlie is an idiot, I know — but he’s refined!’
As we walked on the next day, Peter said: ‘And all that tragedy because they brought their old-fashioned standards here! Why, Emma could have been the Miss Laura of the settlement!'
‘But,’ I cried from a heavy heart, ‘there remains always Charlie! Fortythree years! Never a day away!’
We took the highway to the county seat, for we had a traveler’s check to cash. Six miles from the town we came upon a church set on a hill overlooking a wide valley. Peter wanted to walk on. He said he was about fed up with preachers. But I said that we must n’t generalize; that predatory preachers did not alight in flocks; that I was wickedly ‘sunk,’ and needed the innocent exaltation of their simple piety. So we camped by the little churchyard with its small white stones and red roses, and made ourselves fine for evening service. The congregation was already assembling, and we were told it was a big meeting, and the finest preacher from the city was helping. A slender youth, his white sleeves billowing in the evening breeze, stood on the steps of the church overlooking the shadowed valley and sounded the call to prayer on a shining bugle. He played the reveille, then taps, and it was all very beautiful, and peace descended on my troubled spirit.
Two men approached us, one carrying a Bible. We knew by his locked face, his controlled gestures, and his public voice that one was the city preacher. Without a word of greeting, he said: ‘What are you people traveling on? What are you selling?’ We answered, ‘Nothing.’ ‘Well, you move on!’ he cried. 'We can’t have you here distracting the minds of these young folks. There are souls to be saved here this night! Move on! ’
We insinuated that we had no intention of putting on a rival show, that we had walked far, and that we only desired to hear him preach. But he cried, angrily, ‘Move on! We don’t, want you here. Godless tin-can tourists are enough in this country, without tramps! Move on! ’
Peter said, ‘As to what we are traveling on, I can’t see that it is your business, but we are traveling on what, evidently, you are preaching for — money. ’
The man’s face was convulsed with rage. ‘Here!’ he called to a group of young people listening eagerly. ‘Follow these tramps out of our neighborhood. ’
Peter had gone for John and the cart; and I said, unwisely, ‘We are glad to go on, for the spirit of your Master is not here, as I 'll tell everyone we meet. ’
‘Don’t you dare tell I drove you away from this church!’ he cried. ‘We can’t have loafers about attracting attention. If you had been selling something useful you might have stayed. Move on! ’
We stumbled on in the dark, followed by a jeering crowd. But the country preacher called, in a voice of authority, 'Don’t you pester them people! And whin the horn plays you turn right back — iver’ one of you!’ And the sad young man at Locksley Hall never heard his comrades ‘sound upon the bugle horn’ with greater relief than we felt when ‘Come to Jesus! Come to Jesus!’ called suddenly through the night.
I walked on so rapidly that Peter objected. ‘I am fleeing from the Christians!’ I cried. ‘I know how the Moors felt when the Christians had them at water’s edge!’
It was now pitch-dark, and we were tired and tempted to make camp. But we reminded ourselves that later the road would be filled with zealots, their inferiority complexes ironed out and their egotism inflated, and we might not be safe. At last we came to the little city, where only a friendly night watchman was awake. He directed us to the schoolhouse yard to camp, and we crept next a bed of blooming cannas by an open window and slept the sleep of exhaustion.
I awoke with the sun in my eyes, to find Peter with a pitcher of hot tea. He was laughing uproariously. ‘Where do you think we are?’ he cried. ‘This is the city preacher’s church, and this is his study window! And Lord, how they hate him here!’ While Peter packed hurriedly, — the parsonage was next door, — with childish glee I wrote a bread-and-butter letter, tied it to a pebble by a fishing line, and swung it until it alighted in the middle of the fat Bible on the city preacher’s desk. I wrote: —
REVEREND SIR: - This is to thank you for the hospitality of your canna bed, where we slept and breakfasted. Your neighbors ask that you preach next Sabbath from the text about entertaining angels unawares. (I have n't the verse and chapter, but no doubt you can find it.) We are buying the truth and selling it not. Yours in brotherly love,
‘Now,’ I said proudly, ‘let’s inquire for the blackest moonshine belt, where we’ll be safer.’