The Opening of a Remarkable Book . . .
THIS is the biography of a prairie grove, the story of the Illinois prairie, from the time when the glaciers remade that portion of the earth into an inland ocean of grass. The drama of the beasts and the Indians who first hunted and were hunted there is made to live again in our imagination. And from the records of explorers and missionaries we recapture the bright, perilous days when the traders and coureurs de bois came to astonish and rob the Indians, the priests to convert, the settlers to dispossess them.
Robert Du Gay, with his gold and scarlet cloak, his restless ambition, and the shrewd courage of a La Salle, comes up the Kilimick with his coureurs to make alliance with Nikanapi, chief of an Illinois tribe. With him are two priests. In the first canoe is Father Pierre Prud’homme, who sternly disapproves of the ‘children of Hell,’their dog feasts, nudity, and polygamy. When Father Prud’homme’s conflict with a medicine man culminates in the death of an Indian child, Du Gay, more realistic in his attitude toward the Indians, determines to get rid of him. Prostrate in the second canoe and now carefully carried to the shore is Father Gabriel Forreste, who is dying of dysentery, but who has kept his promise to come back to the Indians he loves and respects. They admire his stoicism; they recognize his brotherly love; they sense that he speaks with the Great Spirit. His gentleness and the courage of Du Gay forestall a dangerous conspiracy between the Illinois and the Englishbribed Miamis. The Indian face could be read by shrewd experience. An hour after Du Gay has observed the sullen hostility of his hosts, his strategy is ready. As from a dream he foretells the coming of his lieutenant and thirty Frenchmen with muskets and powder. It is a long shot, but two days later they do arrive, and the Indians are very much impressed — respecting dreams, they decide they have ‘ listened to the whistling of bad birds.’ In the renewed peace, the affable Indian girls and the bearded coureurs measure the racial ways of love. But Du Gay, who has no time for dalliance, builds upon that European discipline which has brought his lieutenant, Rafael Pons, across the wilderness according to promise and on time — that honesty and clear thinking, that trained reliance and faithful comradeship, of white men.
Planning the first fort, they have to bear themselves like kings in their own right, for their only true measure of space is time, and their king is six months away. So they claim and plan on their own responsibility — but what they claim as their own is really the gift of the Indians, who have it in turn from the mercies and abundance of Nature. Out of this abundance come the waking dreams of hunger and hunt aroused in wolf, cougar, and lynx; the Indian dreams of spirits, of the hunt and of the dance, mingling with the explorative and exploitive dreams of the Frenchmen — and all are doomed to fail, to fall, to buckle, like the prairie grass, under the home-making dream of the English ‘come-outers,’the pioneers and settlers. But neither the Franciscans, one about to die and the other to be sent alone into the wilderness, the guileful Indians, the hungry, fecund beasts, the coureurs enjoying the vices of illusionary freedom, nor Du Gay, thinking of the prairies and forests only as a source and a storehouse of raw materials, foresees the spoliation that is to come, clearing the way for the settlers and their dream of building homes. . . .
Now with each twelve months of the Atlantic
THREE GREAT BOOKS OF THE YEAR
A PRAIRIE GROVE
BY DONALD CULROSS PEATTIE
THE troubles between Father Prud’homme and Du Gay must have been gathering to the point of explosion all through July. It must have been, as much as anything, a matter of discordant personalities. Father Prud’homme protested so many times in his record that he was ready at every moment to lay down his life for the glory of God, and that his only desire was to labor for the soul’s salvation of the red man, that Du Gay finally took him at his word. If Prud’homme really wanted to store up treasure in heaven, he should go to the Sioux, the wildest hordes of the plains. They were the only other tribe of whom the Iroquois thought with respect. They had the horse now, the wild runaway from the Spaniards in the southwest; they had the short-grass plains to themselves, and they lived in a world of kill and hide and gorgeous featherwork, without those cowed humilities that infect the hearts of folk who know the mystery of forest. From afar they saw everything that could approach them, and had time to raise their hate. Stony sod indeed for the Christian seed!
Prud’homme was not a hypocrite; he was startled, but he bowed his head to the challenge and went. Two Frenchmen accompanied him, and as they bent their backs to the paddle he stiffened his own, and turned his face toward his duty, not expecting bodily mercy or that his God would upon the Judgment Day show mercy to those who might hear the Word and refuse it.
The hammers were still ringing upon the fort when, on the eighteenth of August, Du Gay too started south down the Seignelay, with twenty-five men. He had to act now to invalidate the claims of Spain upon the lower Mississippi. The Seignelay falls into the Father of Waters, and while Prud’homme went toward the source of the great river, he, Du Gay, must follow it to its mouth. Only so, when France could put her finger on the top of the map and the bottom and say her sons had planted her standard there and there, could she face down the King of Spain, narrowing his lids and stroking his preposterous jaw in the morose Escorial.
If I were writing biography, I should tell the story of Du Gay and of Prud’homme. Their adventures were great enough for any book. But the island grove is my story; when he leaves my stage, I may not follow the actor. Du Gay, for his part, made a handsome exit. Pons, who was to remain with fifteen men, staged it with all the military form that he could muster. The Indians in full costume massed outside the fort in an effect of loyalty; the guns roared, the flag dipped. The startled waterfowl rose in farewell, crying away over the wild rice, and the wind fluttered the gold and scarlet cloak like a last laugh of courage. In the country of the Arkansas the great chevalier was to be murdered by his own men, and, they in their turn meeting with just vengeance, that cloak thirty years later would be flung at the feet of the first French admiral to sail up the Mississippi from the sea.
And Prud’homme? He earned his heavenly prestige. Seven years after he left my island, there appeared at the gates of the mission of St. Ignace a twisted cripple in torn skins. His face was heavy with beard; he had the inhuman skin of an old Indian, and he spoke as though he hardly dared to utter the French language. But from under his buffalo tatters with the lice in them he drew out the chalice that the Sioux had been afraid to touch. The light from it flashed in his own eyes, and the Jesuits saw that though he had lost his reason he had not lost his faith.
Within the fort in the island grove, Fort Colbert, Rafael Pons remained at his post that August. He had fifteen men at his command, and not one of them was a soldier. They had not even the bearing of soldiers, and there was no certainty that he could enforce the simplest sort of discipline. At night he was the only one who slept inside the palisade. By day half of them were out hunting to supply their own needs. God knew there was plenty of the wildfowl. You could get fifty ducks in an hour, but his men melted away for sport to escape the tedium of sentry go and barracks life. Pons had no guarantee from surprise attack. He could count upon his Indian allies just as long as intangible prestige personally surrounded him. He had the soldier’s sensitiveness to the details of his tenue. To stumble on a log, to miss fire, to be seen in undress or sleeping — these were actual strategic false steps. Never look vulnerable, never appear undecided or reveal any plan or motive or surprise.
Time was against him, and he knew it. He might have to hold this position for two years. Peace might be as dangerous as war; it bred familiarity, relaxed the guard; it made the martial gestures empty. And already the great ennui of the wilderness had become a force. There seemed to be no wind any more to lift the flag; it shrank to its standard, and because there was no motion left, in it the French soldier had to set himself to a cadcnced step, marching round and round the palisade.
The summer drought now showed its yellow face. The land that in spring stood four-fifths under water seemed half desertic now. First there was the smell of mud and stranded decay; then the mud opened in seismic cracks, and out of the coarse and to him nameless plants was baked the terebinthine smell of goldenrod and prairie dock. There was just a hint of tar about it, enough to make memory — more sensitive to odor than even to half a strain of melody — raise up Marseilles and the wharves. Marseilles was hot too, and this man’s native Provence in summer shimmered, and shrilled with the cicada-haunted golden dust. But there you had old wells under their roofs like little shrines, with maidenhair growing in the shadowed crannies down the shaft. You saw the flash of the scythes going through the grain, and men called from one hillside to another. A woman bending down to scoop a sheaf in a brown arm showed the half of each globed fruit under her vest. Through the olive trees shone the geometrical level of the Mediterranean.
Here in the depths of another continent there was no sea; here an unstable and excessive climate knew no medium between flood and drought. The rivers, the only highways of this land, were withered now till the children waded across them, and you could not have advanced or retreated by canoe if the fate of New France had depended on it.
Nothing seemed more alien to Pons than the absence of woman. In the squaws he recognized female humans, but there was nothing about one of them that went to make up that being, that experience, that home that is la femme. His heart was warmer than his absent commander’s; he needed something to love, and there was nothing that needed him here. Only the flag needed him, and, watching it by the hour and through the weeks, he gave it the worship of his eyes.
At night he had the light of a fire, but there was no book to read by it, and it was not his way to keep a journal. What would he have written in it? Only the desertions, one at a time, two at a time, and another day without rain.
Father Forreste was a dying man, but he would not be brought inside the fort. Indian women had made him an arbor under wild grape. The last of the wine was gone, and he lay looking at the spindling pendants of the hard green American fruit, wondering if they would ripen before he died. He was lucid but remote; he was so filled with the coming wonder of the love of God that he required nothing of the love of man. When his fellow white man touched his hand it was already cold, and there was nothing in the eyes that turned to the soldier’s but a vast gentle darkness.
Pons did not fail to appreciate his countryman; he recognized discipline, devotion, and stoicism when he met them. But he had been too long a soldier to think of any speech he could bring to this fallen warrior of God. His recollection of priests was clearest from his childhood, when he went to confess that he had been guilty of the sin of gluttony, had disobeyed his mother and stolen from a baker’s shop. Would he trouble now this passing soul with the confession that he had killed men, lied for his king, lain with a woman on his last night in Europe? There seemed to be no reality in sin this far from the cool church doorway, and this far in life from his mother’s tender scolding. There was nothing but tenue, and there were no eyes but your own to hold you to it.
At the last, Father Gabriel became delirious. He talked, and the Illinois said to one another, ‘He is having a vision.’ A wise old man, a spirit on earth, was possessed of revelation. So they came and sat around his arbor to listen. They were rows deep, and nothing that Pons could do could drive them away or prevent them from crowding about the sick man. They had come to express their sympathy, they were doing him honor, and they might hear from him some message of the great Master of Life with whom he spoke. The medicine men were respectfully present; they entirely admitted him to a category above themselves, and the secrets of his bread and wine, his cup and his incantations, had challenged and fascinated them. The whole village seemed suddenly to have nothing to do except gratify curiosity about the way in which this white spirit would depart this life.
Within the darkened room of Forreste’s consciousness the presence of these his children was only a vague disturbance among the shadows. He was troubled, too, by the intolerable heat of the day that clamped upon his forehead like aching bands. He smelled the tobacco smoke which he had always loathed, but he thought that he was a child sent to the tavern on an errand by his father, and, as one odor supplies the memory of another that may be linked to it, he imagined the reek of the stale cheap wine and the drunken singing of a solitary old sot at whose expense all the others used to have jokes and laughs.
His parents had been peasants driven by economic forces to the cities. Here they took the lowest station above beggary, and subsisted just level with the dregs. As a child he came from the innocence of country to the noisy, knowing, and self-preservative life of the guttersnipe. He discovered then that, though the beasts have no vices, even children may be beastly. He learned that there is no limit to how much a gang of boys can enjoy torturing something defenseless. He heard nasty words in the mouths of little girls, and discovered that whatever they had that you could call modesty about them might be nothing but precocious provocation. Above his head wrangled and suffered the grownup humans. He knew the bitterness of seeing his parents submissive before evictions; he saw through their pretenses when they were trying to impress some prospective landlord with their solvency. It seemed to him that the thin walls of the tenements of Rheims, Amiens, and Rouen must all be made of the same sandy plaster, for it was forever dribbling away. It grounded him thoroughly in the first lesson about material security — namely, that there is none. The thinness of those dingy walls taught him the soul’s equality, for on the other side of them you could hear the strangling of the diphtheritic baby, the rising, raging voice of a woman getting ready to whip a child, the unconscious groans of a man too tired to sleep at peace. Above the roof tops, fantastic as some fructification pushed out by lichen, rose the Gothic spires of the cathedral.
The child Jacques — he had taken the name of Gabriel upon entering the order — was not shrinking; he was not an artist with a special gift to be sheltered. He had peasant strength and even gusto for life; he was not broken, not even deeply shocked by his experiences. He was bigger than the street boys of his age, and bigger than the city men when, a man, he went to work among them as a day laborer. But his convictions grew as sturdily as the great body that God had given him. And the priests presently began to notice him. There are not many men of twenty-two who come morning and evening, day after day, to pray in the darkness of the aisles, and what they could not read in the stainedglass mystery was revealed in the blaze of sunlight on the porch steps of the cathedral. Already written in his face the priests saw what they had been promised in the seminary would come to them upon their ordination. So they made overtures to him; only then did they discover that he could not yet read or write.
But genuine humility and submission are cardinal virtues which the Church knows how to appreciate, though it could scarcely be expected to elect one of its great executives for such qualities. The call to the American mission field found the now educated and consecrated Father Gabriel a willing respondent, and among these bronze children of the wilderness he was not so far from the known and the forgivable as one who had been better born in this world and might die more ill prepared for the next. It was not strange to him that the Indians lied and stole by nature, nor that a hair’s breadth divided their friendship from their pitiless treachery. Not even wholly unfamiliar to him was the unspeakable torture he had once helplessly witnessed, followed by a village saturnalia which sent him sorrowfully away alone into the dark forest to pray.
Now he was entering for all time the dark and the unexplored. But he was not afraid. He thought how first God made the world and all that in it is; He made the sweet land of France, He made the cool shadows of its trees and the flocks of sheep, the many, many sheep running and bleating after the shepherd. He made the dark might of the ocean marching and marching by its whitetopped combing waves. And He made the new-found world holding the gift of the five Great Lakes with their pure deep saltless water. He gave to this land its river sycamores so generous of girth that in the hollow ones you could have stabled two horses; He planted out the pasturage of the prairies. In both countries He was found; He was always in the sky, which is indivisible and arches impartially over the nations. God waits for His children to come to Him, and it is no farther to Him from the western wilderness than from one’s own threshold in Normandy.
Father Gabriel did not know it, but he was speaking his thoughts. He struggled up and opened his eyes, and the arm of Rafael Pons went beneath his shoulder blades. The blue of the drought sky filled his eyes, and he thought that he was kneeling at the hem of the Holy Virgin’s robe. ‘I see the sheep,’ he said, ‘the many, many sheep coming to the Shepherd.’ Then he died, with his head rolling forward on the captain’s sturdy shoulder.
A cry of sympathy and respect ran through the Indian crowd. ‘What does he say?’ they asked. ‘What is the vision of the spirit?’ And they crowded insistently, suffocatingly, around the kneeling Pons, who laid the old man down. He turned, and the soldier in him brought him to his feet. He was swept by a moment’s sympathy with these savages who in the presence of death had the universal human hungering to know what lies beyond, and he spoke to them in their own language and answered their own need: —
‘He said that he saw the great Master of Life, who was sending buffalo, many, many buffalo.’
The deep-throated word of approval came out of all the strong bare chests. ‘Hau!’ they said, like talking crows. ‘Hau! It is a good vision. He has indeed spoken with the Master of Life.’
Pons had dreaded that the savages would take the Franciscan’s funeral out of his hands. He did not want even their grief, knowing the highly histrionic nature of it; he had seen a man walk into the midst of his own obsequies, when he had been long missing, and, being full of Dutch whiskey, sit down with his relatives and weep for himself for two days. But to his surprise the Indians were too genuine in their sorrow to wail. They came to him and asked him if it were not time now to ring the little bell. They were never so delighted as when the priest had rung the little altar bell at Mass; the meaning of this ceremony was utterly opaque to them, but there were some who had come to Mass chiefly to listen for the unpredictable moment when the sound of the small brass bell struck across the piping of the frogs or the gobbling of the wild turkeys. They supposed that by its means he aroused the attention of a drowsy manitou.
Already the young men had made a coffin of two boats; women had dug a trench so deep that the coyotes would never find the bones. They understood that it was not the custom for the white men to paint their faces, alive or dead; the last gift to him of their vermilion and walnut stain they had denied themselves.
So now they made ready to double the thin old body into the position it had held in the womb. Tactfully Pons showed them how the white men lay out their dead. ‘You see, it is like a great tree that falls down unbroken. When the Master of Life upon the last day of the world shall call His good children to come and feast with Him forever in the skies, they will rise from this position right up on their feet.’
They let the coffin down into the trench with ropes of wild hemp as Pons showed them how to do. Then the five remaining Frenchmen knelt and muttered the prayers they could remember. Pons crossed himself and bowed his head; the black generous earth flung back by women’s hands rattled on the top of the coffin; Nikanapi rang and rang the little bell. On the burning prairie the field sparrows heard it, and after a pause of listening they answered it with their sudden overflowing rapture.
It is an old miracle how spring will come back in spite of snow and sorrow and war. But in other lands than ours one cannot say much for autumn, except that there must be an end to all things. In temperate North America, in the hardwood forest belt, it is autumn that triumphs over drought and summer weariness; it sweeps in with the sense of freshening, of a new coming to life and an actual reawakening of the instincts.
There was in the wilderness days a whole great biological pulsation that was autumnal. The prairies then filled with grass herbage like a rising lake. Ankle-deep and starred with little wildflowers in the spring, it rose above a man’s head in the fall. It was gorgeous with the purple spikes of blazing star and the gold of the sunflowers. The big grasses flowered in autumn, and when the green began to go the bronzes came, the tawnies like the wildcat’s fur, the low-toned, burned-out vermilions like old war paint. And then at last, when the squaws had pulled the corn ears and the children, with the little melon bellies, had dutifully rolled the pumpkins to warm another side in softening sunlight, the prairie suddenly died. Color drained out of it like light from the top of the evening sky. And then the tumult in the island groves began.
Part of it was crows, a clan of birds that is shocked by everything, and part of it was the flight of the does, who do not come to heat so soon as the bucks. They crashed through the forest with eyes starting and exultant, knowing the rapture of flight from a pursuit that meant no harm to them. They say that a buck would follow one doe who would elude him by running among her sisters, crossing her scent with theirs; then he would drive the pack of them, rearing and bounding, divide it and quarter it and scatter it, trying to find his first desire and losing himself in a maze of scents, all of them female and all of them now dissipated upon the sudden fresh wash of the north wind through the softly applauding forest. Then his neck would swell with passion; he would throw up his head with his nostrils flaring and his antlers tossing the sumach leaves, the sur-royal tines clattering the dead black twigs of the hickory boughs.
After weeks of such pursuit, his body wasted with running and fighting his rivals, this torment-ridden fury discovered all at once that the does were wraiths no longer. They were suddenly still in their tracks, fine legs trembling, dark dilating eyes turned back toward him; in the calm steeping sunlight the perfume of these gentling friends washed back to him, bathed him and promised kindness; the scarlet and the orange and the gold of the leaves rained through the antlers and drifted about the motionless black hooves.
For the autumn colors were part of the tumult. There is no other land in the world with autumns like ours. We pile the treasure of the year into a great burial fire. Tongues of flame go up to the sky, the garnet of black and red oaks, the leaping maples and the flickering aspens, and out of the midst of it all one exulting spire of light where a cottonwood shakes primal yellow at the primal blue of the American sky. From the boughs pours down the glory of the vines — woodbine and corded grape and poison ivy. The thickets fill with the cymbal colors of the sumach — orange and scarlet and stain of wine; the leaning dwarf forest of the hawthorns begins to drop its shower of little pomes — ruby color overcast with purple bloom. They tumble in a circle, a wild harvest no less bounteous because only mice and children gather of it. Under the trees curls the violet breath of the asters. And still sometimes, where the cattle have not trampled, I find a lonely gentian hoarding blue. It keeps its corollas closed against the bee, dropping pollen from the linked brotherhood of the anthers upon the stigma, like some divinely descended royalty that must propagate within its own sacred circle.
The jays, blue crows that they are, have much to say in autumn, and they talk as though they remembered the clamor of the old abundance. For those were the days when upon the dwindled river marshes, already crowded with wildfowl, the hordes from the north descended. The redwings devoured the wild rice; they rose in irritable black tempests when the Indians came among them, bending the freighted heads of the rice over their canoes, beating the grains into skins spread waiting on the boat bottoms. The yellowlegs and the plovers came back then, teetering, piping, foraging at a run upon the mud. The wild geese went over, high, too high for the upward rain of arrows. The great cranes felt the disconsolation of shortening days, and began to stream away — mere etched lines of gray on the soft gray plumage of a sky promising moisture and the break of drought.
They say the cougar mated in the fall, but he is more vanished now than the credible memory of the elk. King of the antlered kind, the elk in the great rutting season was a creature of terror. Nocturnal then, his fights were like the matching of Sioux strength with Iroquois. Rousing himself out of the mud wallow where he had retreated from the stings of the horseflies, the old master of the herd stumbled up, blew out his matted nostrils, and began to remember the number of his does. He rounded them together, perhaps a score of them, with a warning scream of his perpetually impending displeasure.
When they strayed, he struck at them unmercifully, for he smelled other bucks upon the air. He knew that some of the young does of the year had already eluded him and got to the gatherings of the males. Already there were minor passages at antlers, for the possession of these escapes.
So he must turn, and in the moonlight show in a hideous grin his hatred of those younger males that gathered in a waiting, wavering row, their hindquarters deep in the pool of forest darkness and the safety of retreat.
Then a challenger would step forward and bring his muzzle down to the luscious river of doc scent on the grass. The prongs of his antlers pointed then directly at his foe. They were twice as terrible as the buck deer’s, branched like the snagged tree that tears the bottom out of a. shooting canoe, and between the mighty arches of the shafts sprouted the two brow tines and the two bez tines. These were the weapons of the close attack, and the moonlight sharpened them dangerously.
The scream of the challenger was answered by the down thundering of the old Turk’s charge. They met with a crash and a shock that sent the other rivals scattering, plunging, snorting away in the greater desire of escape. There was a sound of the snapping of the slenderer tines, and the harsh wrangling of the locked branches. They swayed and pushed and panted, and the docs looked back from their cropping with the soft eyes of the enslaved. The old lord found some second strength: he began to thrust his enemy — his own son — back with a measured merciless science. The young buck reared back for the breakaway and found that his tines were snagged in his conqueror’s. The fighters sensed their mutual danger; they rolled their heads in one frantic futile purpose.
The fight staggered and crashed into the darkness, and the young bucks came back, and, snorting and screaming, they cut the harem this way and that, driving off the does by fours and fives and sixes, stopping to battle with each other and losing their favorites to a third. So, under the eyes of a moon sagging in harvest orange toward the west, the wild irregular mating went on and was repeated on the next night, and the next, until the old lord and his challenger staggered dead in the forest and the young bucks, spent with their revels, sick of them, ravenous for grass, left the does some peace at last, left them to follow, chained now by the unrebellion of their new state.
In the autumn, after the death of Father Forreste, the Indians waited in confidence for the coming of the many buffalo. They had not been sighted all through their mating season of August and early September, and late September came, and still there were no buffalo. The river was swarming with waterfowl; the deer and the elk were hunted, and young boys brought in bobcats and lynxes, opossums and raccoons. The turkeys fattened till the old gobblers were as heavy as a child of five. The little teal were so full-fed that when they fell upon hard ground they burst. Throughout the Illinois village there was one great skinning and roasting, and a running of grease and fat. There were hides to scrape and bags of fur to be sewn and dyed yellow with the bark from the oak and black with the walnut stain and scarlet with the redroot. There was a cutting of robes out of elkskin and deerskin and a shaping of moccasins, and among the rushes the women prodded for the ripened tubers of the arrowhead and the lotus, robbing the muskrats of next winter’s food.
Now there was corn again, and bear’s grease for the hair, and wildcat oil to rub on the tired leg muscles. The girls were sent to cut rushes for mats and baskets, pouches and thatching, and they felt free there and called to each other through the lisping forest of the marsh stands; they chattered and idled, because the sky was so blue and tranquil you could not believe in the winter coming. A young bittern in his first striped autumn plumage was caught asleep standing there so slim with his beak pointing upward that he looked like a reed; one girl wandering away from the rest came on him, seized him by the neck, and carried him back, laughing, with his wings beating around her shoulders. That year a male fawn had shot right into her arms; now the girls asked her when she was going to catch a man. She tossed the bittern free with a laugh. ‘When the buffalo come back,’ she said, and they understood her. For the buffalo and the coureurs were bearded.
The Illinois were relieved now of their guests. A message had come from Michilimackinac that all Canada was harried by the Iroquois, and the captain Pons had tried to rouse his Indian allies to the defense of New France. But Nikanapi had replied that the Illinois went to war in February; now the buffalo, many, many buffalo, had been promised to them by the white spirit. When Pons turned back, the remaining five coureurs at the last moment sobered and came to him, and with the first fall of the autumn torrents the six aliens had vanished down the Kilimick.
The fort was empty now, and the flag was gone, but the Indians liked to wander in it, full of amazement and some little scorn for so much hollow effort. It made them all laugh when one of them would sit down on a rude chair like a white man or pretend to write a message or salute. There were gifts of the white man’s clothing left in the village, and Nikanapi was proud to put on a cavalier’s hat with a curled and drooping plume. Several of the women had received garments too, but the men took them away and wore them without any loss of dignity among their kind. By next spring these chemises and petticoats would be too dirty to wear outside the body, and they would be carried under the ceremonial robes until, their donors forgotten, they were flung, rotted, away.
The white oaks were naked and the red oaks, clinging to their leaves, were faded to the color of dried tobacco when the village roused up to the cry of ‘ Pisikiou! ’ They pounded to the edge of the grove and saw on the western horizon the toppling column of dust that was the buffalo, and nearer at hand, staring at the eastern wall of the woods, the vanguard of the cows, alert to all that the wind brought them of danger out of the woods.
No one will ever know within two or three million the numbers of the bison horde. When the creature was going, stumbling toward extinction, there were censuses.
You come on phrases, from Texas, from Wyoming, serious estimates: ‘About a million’; ‘Only half a million now’; ‘Twenty-five thousand.’ The greatest North American animal of historic times, it stamped from the eastern forests to the Rockies, it wandered north in summer up to Athabaska, and struggled through the drifts with the norther at its hindquarters into Texas. When the bison went on the march to the salt licks of Kentucky, to the watering holes of the great plains, it traveled sometimes in single file. So the buffalo trails were made. These were the first roads that ever crossed the continent. The Indians walked in these trails too, as a goshawk will stalk down a rabbit’s runway through the brush. The white men followed in the buffalo way, and they called it ‘the buffalo trace,’ ‘the Kentucky road,’ ‘the Governor’s trace.’ Cutting through the tedium of rectilinear Chicago to-day runs the slanting Vincennes road; here the buffalo came from Indiana to the prairies. They were monarchs once, thundering along the routes where now the trucks and buses rattle on the metaled highways.
All but two of the continents have had their buffalo or their wild oxen, and there are most of them in Asia. In the rice fields of India plod the water buffalo, subdued to the will of the children that tend them. The cliff paintings of the European New Stone Age show impounded herds of long-horned cattle, and there is a memory in Russia and the marshlands of Lithuania of the aurochs that stood as tall as the American bison. But it had not the mighty chest of our plains monarch. For the bison, like the lion, was a king in front; he had the eye of wrath, the snort of scorn, the collar of kingship; only in the hinder quarters did he betray how he too was mortal flesh.
At the height of the hump a bull stood six feet, a cow a foot less. A full-grown master of the herd would measure nine feet from the muzzle to the rump. When he stamped, he could throw the weight of a thousand pounds upon whatever lay beneath his feet. The horns of the bison curved upward, fit for battle. Among the American fossil species there are some whose horns stand out at right angles, and others with drooping horns. Only the one combative, prolific, indomitable sort survived the glaciers.
The last of the buffalo were wary, but the great original horde relied upon the might and the temper and the collective will of the mob, which, be it buffalo or ants or angry men, leaves the individual slight choice and a drunken insensibility to details and warnings. Perhaps there were many herds, or perhaps, biologically speaking, it was one great population. Where it went, grinding the grass with the many million molars and covering the land with the returned fertility of its great flaps, the horseflies swarmed and gorged themselves; the cowbirds walked among the great beasts, sat on them and ate their ticks and lived themselves in polygamous, helpful, jackal plenty. The wolves hung on the flanks of the herd, gray flickering cowardice emboldened by hunger. A strong cow defending her calf would stamp them out like tongues of prairie flame; a bull would toss them gored from his horns into their own ranks to be devoured. One of the old cattle could stand them off for a day; in the end they got him, and the hungry waves closed over him.
Wherever the herd turned they had the Indians upon their trail. The Crees and the Arickarees, the Mandans and Kansas, the Ioways and Osages, lived by the buffalo. They lusted for him as the wolves did, but with that strange human element in lust called love. They worshiped what they killed; they feasted on his flesh and they wore his horns because it gave them stature. Of his bones they made their ladles and bodkins; they used his sinews for thread and his dung for fire. Their wigwams were of buffalo hide; so were their boats and robes and moccasins and belts. Even the Illinois learned from the Sioux to make a shield of buffalo leather, and the Illinois women spun the buffalo wool, sometimes as fine as silk, for gowns sewn with roebuck sinews, for garters, belts, and dyed scarves.
The buffalo meant abundance, warmth, excitement, and when they came it was as if earth had suddenly flung open the woolly sack of plenty and given wealth and purpose. They put the manhood into man, they gave him his way of life; they were what he could win by bravery. His art and his songs, his prayers and his dances, exulted in the perilous opportunity that thundered on him in a golden pillar of dust.
Trampling eastward from the western droughts, from the harrying of the mounted Sioux, came the buffalo to the prairie seas about my island grove. They had the wind against them, and they could not smell the Illinois encampment, but they saw the woods and they flanked away to southward. In the shadows of the trees Nikanapi held the young men back. He did not want the wary cows started with a premature attack. And a buffalo surround was a half-religious matter, not to be entered on without some thoughts and reverence for this fellow creature who was friend and enemy. It gave the chief the opportunity he never neglected for oratory and the bestowing of advice. So he told them all what they all knew already, but, being ceremonious animals, they liked to hear it again.
The attack was planned like a battle, and the first war party was sent behind the groves and in the concealing marshes far ahead to start the prairie fire. On the flank of the herd the village waited, hidden, watching the great straggling defile till the centre with the calves went by, and in the rear, ready with fire, the most skillful of the hunters crept, covered with wolfskins, among the stupid, superannuated bulls. These let the stratagem steal by them, and when at last in the south the violet column of the first smoke waved a signal above the traveling dust, the great attack began. Near at hand, the ignited shriveled grass flung up orange hands of astonished flame. And the herd caught the cruel laughter of it and the smell of man in the same instant. The straggling wolves became yelling humans, sprung up full height.
There was a buckling forward of the whole horde, driven on by flames from the rear, a wave of frantic flesh that was impacted by the return of the column’s head. Between the two charges ran the naked human bodies. Through the dust and the uproar the arrows sped without a sound and stuck their taunts in flank and shoulder and chest. The bulls put down their heads and gored the earth up; they pawed defiance and glared about for the right thing to hate where everything was mounting, reddening waves of hate. But the arrows found them without an answer left to give; the knees buckled and the great forward weight unsteadily sank.
When the flames closed in, the goring began; the calves were trampled and the cows were killed by their lords. Then the herd milled in its death dance, till it had to turn and face the storm of arrows on the flank. So it rolled, a wave over its own dead, and, charging blind with the blood in its eyes, broke through the Indian line and did not even see the yellow flight of its tormentors. Men fled like mice before the stampede, terror in the marrow of their brittle bones, and the tide of cresting hump and heaving rump hollows seethed westward, into cleaner air where the man stink and the smoke acid faded as they ran and their snorting breath perfumed free air again.
South and north dashed the exultant flames. They too were loose now and would not stop till they had burned the prairie black and scorched the boughs of generous oak upon the farther shore of it. By their flickering light, in the gathering dusk, the men came back and began to claim their kill by the individual symbols on the arrows. There were seven hundred dead buffalo on the charred plain, and three dead men.
So they had their kill, the Illinois, and they paid their price. They took what they needed, like every tribe with hunting grounds in the range of the bison. They did not fracture the strength of the great bodily pyramid of Nature. Year after year and through the centuries the buffalo, like all the beasts of value to man, paid some toll to the cunning and the necessity of a fellow creature less strong than they. But there was no diminution in the great numbers. Save for our white men’s coming, the bison would still blacken the plains, the passenger pigeons still cover the sun with the close net of their wings.
The Indian had no real greed because, except in a small way, he knew of no markets and had nothing so movable and disturbing and universal as money. Had his numbers been like ours, he would have had to lead a different life. But no estimate of his population has ever set his numbers north of Mexico at so high a figure as ten million mouths. For the higher the block in the pyramid, the smaller it must be. If you cut away the stones at the bottom, if you pile the weight upon the top, can a pyramid stand?
For ten days there was nothing but coming and going from the village to the place of the kill. It was a ragged procession of women and dogs, slaves, catamites, and old men, going out to the slaughter where it lay mountainous on the prairie. They went out emptyhanded and came back laden, like a defile of ants that has found a dead thing in the woods and brings it back by infinitesimal piecemeal to the nest.
Out on the prairie the great hides came off under the knife, the mighty tongues were cut from the throats,— enormous delicacy, — and the steaks of the cows, always fattest at this season, were carved from the bones and tugged back to the hundred fires. Around the feasting circle passed the tenderloin and fat, offered first to the old, to the visiting Osage and Mascouten, and eaten in turn by the chiefs and the great warriors. The smell curled through the camp, into the bark and reed houses loose-woven for summer, suddenly chill and windy now; and the women were hungry and waited. They stole cuts and shreds of meat for the children, and kicked the leaping dogs. Out on the plain the slave captives were finishing the monstrous butchery, till the entrails and the bones were all that was left. Under night’s cover the coyotes came for them.
When the steaks were jerked on the slow fires for the winter’s use, and the last wild swan was pickled in brine, and the corn was dried and some of it warily buried, the tribe, like the bison, like the fowls of the air, were done with this hunting ground. They stood up and felt the cold wind at the roots of their hair, and how the sunlight on their limbs had little warmth in it. They gathered their weapons up, and mounted their medicine and their clan bundles on their hard male backs. The women took down the houses, collected and folded them; they piled the buffalo jerks and hides on the women slaves. The babies were strapped to their hoards and shouldered; the children came running; even the poplars flung down the last of their leaves, and the fires were trodden out.
They moved from the grove by families, by groups with their dependents, the half-wild dogs running in and out between the steadily moving logs. Miles ahead already ran the stripped young scouts, but the least came last. The final figure in the deserted camp was a silent slave with three great cow jerks, two kettles, and a papoose, whose weight combined depended from the straps of buffalo skin passed round her forehead. As she straightened up from the last act of loading there was only the forest to see the sum of her burdens, great among them the curve of her pregnancy like the oblate ripeness of the pawpaw. But the tall trees were indifferent, and the squirrels bounded happily behind her back as she followed the last of the dogs into the charred prairie.
Now the rains came, and the dust was laid and the smells were washed out of the earth. Now was the season of great emptiness. A marvelous silence occupied the grove. The arriving winter birds settled their little clans without a word; they flickered through the trees like the leaves that blew off. The elk and the deer were at peace now, browsing on the last of the greenery. There was sleep in store for the one old he-bear that the red men had not caught; there was sleep for the woodchuck, obese as an old chief. The gophers and the chipmunks drowsed in their burrows.
Then the snow came, the white crystals spinning purely through the steely deciduous woods and falling on the bear’s blowing fur, to be speared or melted there. But storms overtook each other, and the snow flew as if the divinity of the West were sending spirit-arrow showers. So the drifts went over the head of the bear humped deep in the leaf bed with his back against the biggest fallen oak; they rose to the necks of the tallest weeds before they ceased. Then the crust was printed with the tracks of the foraging longspurs and snowflakes, and the field mice tunneled an intricate city of runways underneath the miles of prairie snow. Deep beneath the ground the muskrats worked their way toward the buried rootstocks of the water lily. More snow came, dry cold snow, and blew whispering across the glistening crust.
So wilderness erased what had been writ in water. The coming of the Frenchmen was a false dawn, and for nearly two centuries after, history in my island grove was dark. Then, with a stumbling plod of hooves, came the day of our own people.
The progress of the oxcarts was only a mile and a half an hour, but nothing held them back.
A strange thing comes your way, wide wilderness, something you never conceived or invented, a geometrical shape, an abstraction become reality—the wheel. No Indians knew it; they only drifted slowly, like blown leaves, upon their migrations. Lumbering, bogging, lunging up, crushing, protesting, the wheels came on. For the wheel is the shape that cannot stand still.
Sounds went before the wagons, the jingle and drumming of the pots and kettles that dangled underneath the floors. There was the thick, inevitable plucking noise of the ox hooves trudging mud; sometimes the tired children cried, and sometimes a boy or a young wife would strum a banjo, playing ‘William Riley’ and ‘Sister Phœbe,’and a man would sing, if he was n’t too tired, or a girl would sing. And always one deep strong voice or another called, ’So-o — oh!’and‘Gee there! ’ and ‘You, sir!’ Command, backed with the laugh of the whip splashing the pool of air; under it all the voice of ash and hickory, the squeal of the axle, the yielding of the wagon frame.
Just ahead, always just ahead, the wild pricked up its ears, flew up with a glint of rump feathers. Ohio’s woods, Kentucky’s woods, woods of Michigan and Indiana, fell awarely silent, and then forgot. The ruts were not deep yet. When the traveling circle of noise moved on, the birds closed up its wake with song again. The squirrels still raged, and the foxes walked along awhile where the many new smells were braided, flairing sheep and chickens, dogs and leather and gun oil, and white men.
By night there was a new sight, the enormous fire. The Indians had made little fires, a few sticks, a linger of flame, a secret curl of smoke; they were always afraid that they would be seen. The white man wanted light; he wanted to see; it was as if he challenged the top of the highest, maple to look down and watch him, and the wolves and bobcats to come to the edge of darkness and stare. They saw the big wagons with their weary shafts bowed down at their owners’ feet; they saw the children running, making wavering shadows run up the trees; they saw the stubborn ox backs, the men and women who went about and stooped and rose and would not let themselves be tired. The fiddle said: —
That night we sat under the Juniper tree,
The Juniper tree, heigho.
Pioneers had to sleep at last, sunk in it, drunk with it, deep in it as animals. They did not set a guard; there was no one who could have stayed awake. They trusted in an Old Testament God, a long-bore gun, and the big, wary dogs that took everything in this wilderness to be enemy. The Indian dog was a kicked, starved, needle-fanged native jackal, more friends with the wild than with man, but having none of the wild pride. Cap and Prince and Juno and Queenie followed not from hunger so much as from faith. They had watched the old dooryard, they ran all the day now beside the wheels, and they came to the fingers that snapped for them, and nuzzled adoringly.
The night did not like them. It went away again. The big cat crouched in a low crotch and licked annoyance off its chops. The deer bounded off and ran a long way into the forest, but the memory of a smell grooves deep; it is there after it is gone. The fire slowly died; darkness regained the clearing; the summer stars wheeled down through the trees, and in the chill of the aftermidnight hours the autumn constellations rose up, prophetic ancients.
A woman’s eyes would range the camp then, looking for the broad back of her husband, for the count of her children and if they were covered; in the darkness she stared at risk and struggle and stared them down. Or sometimes she missed her husband, and started up in the wagon at a crashing in the night; then he would come, his silhouette almost unrecognizable with logs and brushwood, and hearten the fire for them all. A boy, disturbed and numb, would edge away from the in-creeping dew and steal to the warmth of his small brother. One girl, wakeful in a family of men, would hug her own arms and hide from the firelight in her hair. Any who saw another rouse spoke low and reassuringly. These are our nights, then and still. On the immigrant ship, in the farmhouse centred in the drought waste, in the hot apartment with doors open in the thin walls, night is all body and heart.
Day came, and the astounded woods heard the cocks crow. Cramped in their coops, ludicrous and courageous, they thrust out their necks and cried their trumpet cry. Fresh smells were flung upon the brightening air, foreign odors of bacon and coffee and wheat bread. The English speech rose clear and hard through the treetops. The woods had heard the Shawnees talk, the Miamis, and the Potawatomis, the crows, the jays, the bellowing elk. For a little time from the days of Du Gay to the loss of New France to England, there had been some fine French speech and much bastard French of the engagé and the half-breed. But that language was still now, and our own was heard. Can you say that it is not beautiful? Softness is not the only beauty; grace is not better than strength. So the voices called: —
‘Hiram, your cattle got loose with mine, I guess.’
‘Susanna, this child’s lost a shoe.’
‘Looks as if the sun would burn today.’
‘Find anything on your trout lines?’
‘No, too many kingfishers, Nevi. I guess they got quite a catch.’
These are friends, this is laughter, you wilderness. This is not clan, not gens, not tribe. These are Americans. They come with a joke for the worst, and take the best in silence. They pass small change of kindness freely; they call stranger brother.
‘Sister, how’s that boy of yours? Belly still aching?’
‘Shoake, how’s your wife? That rough piece back a ways yesterday must a been hard on her.’
‘It was some hard, but it’s getting along so that one thing or another’s going to bring the baby soon. Not too soon it’ll be, now.’
‘S’pose she wants a boy?’
‘S’pose so. I could do with a girl this time.’
‘Well, remember, as long as you keep close to us, my wife’s here.’
‘Mammy!’ A child came running, calling. ‘Mammy, look! Can I eat them? Little apples!’
Into the cupped grubby hand the woods had given the soft, lemon-shaped May apples. But the child’s father was calling to her mother, the baby fretted, crying at the breast as it lost the nipple, so the child, unnoticed, with a delicious sense of adventure, put her milk teeth into the mysterious fruit. And it was soft as custard, citric-tanged, a new taste, new food, another thing found. She ran away shouting and laughing, she did not know why.
In the thickets her brothers were running the sheep back to the blaze and the trace; they called her to go and hunt for Belle the cow, and she went off dutifully. Suddenly under her feet a grouse covey exploded. Her heart pounded, and then she was sure again and went on. ‘ Belle! ’ she called. ‘She, boss, boss, boss!’
This state began to fill up from the bottom, like a vase. At first the rivers were the highways. The Ohio and the Mississippi bore the flatboats, the keel boats, the arks, and the log rafts to the southern shores. Then the Wabash, the Vermilion, the Kaskaskia, and the Illinois let the water immigrants move inland. They came from Kentucky, Tennessee, and southern Indiana, but few of them had been born there. The black Illinois bottom lands were their third, their fourth temptation to remove. Those pioneers were born in Virginia or the Carolines or Georgia; on the way, in the stages marked by decades, their children came forth from the race womb and were carried onward, in arms, in the wagons, the boats.
They found an enfeebled colony of French settled in the fertile hot malarial bottoms, a people whose best citizens had moved across the Mississippi into Spanish territory. Frenchmen, Indians, and Negroes dwelt together in the same ruinous houses on the tracts of treacherous richness into which the rivers ate with each spring flood. The dream, Du Gay, is over, and the race you planned is mongrel, without spine. It is picturesque, — a sure symbol of decay, — affable without power, a branch cut off. So it could only wither, and alien wheels rolled over it.
Across the sea the plump German hand of George III tried to stop the westward flood of the colonists. When the English won the Illinois country from the French, the Crown did not intend to give it to the nibble. The plan had been that it should be bestowed in time on nobles, favorites, moneylenders who could not be repaid. The King told his governors to tell those Long Rifles to come back over the mountains where they could be taxed and churched and, like feudal peasants, raise the crops an overlord most needed. This Illinois was then the western boundary of Virginia, on the maps. But there were men who without compass could line a grove across a hundred miles of unmapped prairie, who yet were unable to read a proclamation. Hopeless to send after them; those who were sent themselves remained.
When war came, George Rogers Clark, with the Rangers at his back, struck so swiftly that he found the royal governor Rocheblave in bed; he shook the sleeper’s shoulder to inform him that all Illinois was George Ill’s no longer.
So he won it for these loosely united states. But even the wise, east of the Alleghenies, could be foolish. Prophesied Monroe to Jefferson: —
‘A great part of the territory is miserably poor, especially that near Lakes Michigan and Erie, and that upon the Mississippi and the Illinois consists of extensive plains which have not had from appearances, and will not have, a single bush on them for ages. The districts therefore within which these fall will never contain a sufficient number of inhabitants to entitle them to membership in the confederacy.’
In 1818 Illinois became a state. There was some padding of the census, but within ten years none would have been necessary. The vessel, slender at the bottom, was filling up. Hunters they were, a people who lived by and for the bear as the Illinois had followed the buffalo, small corn farmers coming after the hunters, Southern gentry coming after these, with slaves and horses and money, turning the one-plough man out of his squatter’s holdings — so they propelled each other forward in waves.
These were a forest people; they had a tradition that you had to clear the trees away before you could farm. Thus they deployed into a prairie state, avoiding the prairies, cutting down the woods. They were afraid of the prairies; these looked empty and lonesome. Instead of water, they held only marshes; there were rattlers and ague there and nothing over your head, nothing at your back. Men in the forested bottoms had been known to shelter a whole family, the first winter, in the hollow of a giant sycamore — such trees were in America in those days. But it was not in the experience of the Southerner to make a sod hut; his children could find the cattle in the woods, but it seemed that on the prairies, where there was no timber for the snake rail fence, the beasts might wander over the world’s rim.
Slowly the farms and houses crept northward, up the bottoms, meeting the Kickapoo and Mascoutens, the Sacs and Foxes. But the Black Hawk War, descending on the centre of the state like the whirling tip of a tornado, caught the northern settlements up in fire and death. Even when the old chief looked back defeated from the Iowa shore and said, “It is a beautiful land; I give it to you; enjoy it,’the scare had not died on the frontier. The Southern man, the brown rifle tall as a tall boy, the black slave and his muscle, the Lincoln type, the traditional pioneer, were not destined to reach my island grove. So it missed many familiar and storied things.
We love those things with a wry smile for them — the literal Gospel, the grown women going about their dut ies on bare feet over the earthen floor, the house and all the many implements hewn out of the continent’s toughest timbers with a ringing simple art. The loom was not here, nor the traditional pattern. Neither was the old ballad from the Southern highlands, nor the crackling joke, the fried cooking, the yellow complexion, the lordly male idleness, the feckless spawning, the ragged dooryard deep in weathered chips, the possum feasts, the whiskey jug.
To the north a different culture was coming, that of my own people. But it was dammed back longer; it was held away by the lack of roads and great rivers, and by the Indian reservations. When it came, in the eighteen-twenties, with a rattling of slow wheels at first, and then by the Great Lakes and the new canals, it was no random movement propelled by the palm of inscrutable forces. Men from New England and New York and Pennsylvania came for business, for opportunity, for deep soil and breadt h of view. They talked about manifest destiny as they came; they saw empire shining; they balanced the proslavery elements of the southern counties with their consciences and their votes. It was commercial vision and it was industrial civilization that armed them; their backs were strong and straight not so much through bodily endurance as by belief that God reveals His will to everyone directly and so no one who has enough examined himself need falter.
If you like them, these people, more than the Southern pioneers, or if you like them less, you cannot say that one way, one dream, one countenance, was more American than the other. Only my people’s way, my ancestors’, that of the settlers in my grove, is the unsung. They have somehow not found their way into romance and sentiment, for they are not a vanished people, or a defeated people, or anachronistic. They could drive a nail with one true blow; they built a strong house. They planted, they did not cut down; they made the straight roads. In the Civil War, under incompetent generals, without a military tradition, with nothing hotter than principle to uphold them, they kept their ranks in defeat and took victory as the end of terrible business.
There are many people it is easier to admire; chivalry, the samurai tradition, grace in the art of living, the glamour of lost causes — these are properties, stock scenery, of the dramatists and the romantics. But these others, these plain pacific Midwesterners, were the sort who got a school up as soon as the home chimneys were smoking. They filled the sink holes in, and they planted lilacs in a straight row from the door to the gate. When they left New England they took its new tolerances with them.
There were wholesome indications that New England’s granite faith in its soul’s rightness was cracking and weathering. New Englanders were beginning to travel, to learn modern languages, to shift from farming, fishing, and shipping toward industry, and so doubts and doctrines blew over them. As the maritime empire receded from the east,New Englanders turned west, filled with a zeal that was sublimated religiosity. Men who had seen Canton, Penang, Sunda, Bombay, Nagasaki, and Russia sent their sons west into the ocean of land. Asa Goodner was rolling west with his family and his little apple seedlings, looking for a home site, where the raising of a log house would not be done to enhance the dignity of labor, where loneliness would be only half a privilege, and the celibate life no use to man or woman.
Asa Goodner’s father, Amoy, seems to have been the first corae-outer in the family. He was born in China because his mother insisted on making the voyage out on the Hope of Salvation, Salem Goodlier, Master. That was his first offense, and his second was that he took no interest in returning to the land of his birth, either for gain, curiosity, or for the mere satisfaction of his uncles and brothers. The Goodner family had always followed the sea — that is to say, they had always followed it in the brief history of America. In tracing them back to the south of England, I find that a great many of them were shepherds, sextons, potters, curates, and tenant farmers. But an American family will admit to hangings in its history before it will confess peasant origins, so Goodners, of course, have always followed the sea.
On the rocky cape between Marblehead and Salem, Amoy had the insolence to build a house that turned its back to the virile ocean, and there to breed sheep. Yes, sheep, of all maggoty cattle! New England is used to religious independence of mind, but Amoy’s come-outing was not at the dictation of his conscience. It was not even a new commercial venture, but an abstract curiosity about ovine genetics. Not, of course, that he or anyone else employed such language. They said, ‘Goshen, Amoy, there’s no future in that!’
When Amoy had had enough of this, he drove his flocks over the Berkshires to Herkimer County in New York, and gave his family the final shock by marrying the daughter of a music master of Troy. Her name was Catherine O’Brien, and she sang too much about the house to be quite seemly. You have to know about this Irish girl before you understand the next generation. She put the warmth in their hearts; she accounts for the dark strain in about half the children, and she was prophetic because she represents that racial admixture in which America came to take pride. She added the touch of the histrionic to the taciturn Goodner strain; she gave it the only musical car that it had ever had since the first Goodner was able to flat a tone and a half while singing a hymn next to the bellow of an organ. To a line threatened with extinction through miscarriages, one-child sterility, and a morbid chastity, she brought wholehearted fecundity. She had twins three times, and twice as many girls as boys. In short, she did everything possible to break up the Goodner traditions, multiply its descendants while erasing its name, and strengthen the stock while altering it.
Amoy adored her; he did not miss a detail of what she was doing to the sainted Goodner family. He saw in place of the steel-blue Goodner eyes and the thin commanding lips the laughter in his children’s faces and the look of passion that flowered early on their mouths. He went on quietly improving t he stock of his sheep, importing the first merinos ever seen in New York; he took sheep, wife, daughters, and sons to Cattaraugus County and went to raising grapes as well. Catherine is buried there. Without coercion, he managed to marry his girls off to the men that looked right to his eye. He was not mistaken in his genetic instincts; they live there still, the many descendants of those daughters. Two sons, I find, were killed at Lundy’s Lane; two I cannot trace; Asa, the youngest, came west in Andrew Jackson’s administration, with his wife, whom he always addressed by her full maiden name of Mary Tramble, his nine children, and Amoy, his father, still coming-out.
For his part, Asa had had enough of sheep. He was interested in apples; he wanted to plant. Good stock was, to his reason also, a first principle. He had the Goodner missionary zeal, but it took its own form. He wanted to plant the prairie to fine trees; to stand under such was to stand in grace. He had studied medicine in Buffalo, but he did not want to use the lancet; he wanted to graft the delicate upon the strong. That was why, perhaps, he had chosen Mary Tramble. She seemed to him, after her twelfth child, — three died in infancy, — still a flower upon a fragile stem. He adored children; bethought of the instruction of them as a kind of planting, and delighted in it. He believed that girls should learn the sciences; he thought you should be seasoned with forty-five winters before the Bible was good for you, and no one before in the family had ever thought it worth-while to learn a foreign language. So, in his way, came-out tall Asa, so tall his shoulders were never quite straight, bent a little in his smiling attention to the slighter about him.
They came in two wagons; one was a big Conestoga built on the schooner lines with a boat-shaped bottom, hind wheels double the size of the forward, topped with a weathered housing of tow linen and drawn by four big horses pulling in a gigantic harness, its iron trace chains jangling. The other was a low boxed wagon drawn by a lightly harnessed pair of mules; Amasa, the oldest boy, drove it.
If Amasa was then as serious as he turns up later in the family annals, he never wasted a smile for anything which was not obviously funny, upon this travel; he drove on steadily and kept the smaller of his brothers and sisters behind him in order. He was supposed to look after the twins, Nancy and John Paul, fertile in monkey-fingered diversions; Sybil, a throwback to Catherine O’Brien, so dark as to be almost a case of melanism, dramatic and disobedient; and Timothy, who was fifteen, quiet, observant, with gentle hands that learned about everything they touched.
In the big Conestoga, with the trunks, chests of drawers, and the bedstead in which Catherine had borne her children and died, rode Mary Tramble, her eldest daughter Patience, Rhoda, who was nineteen, and Amoy, meditative on a trunk, nursing a cane. Rhoda liked to sit beside her father, looking forward; she could watch the road come on forever with a zest that life’s repetitions could not abate. Patience sat in the back and looked after the scenes and the days and the desires that went glimmering into the vanishing point. They say, in the family, that she cried all the way; the others pretended not to see it. They never knew for whom she cried; the girl had a tight mouth; privacy with her was religious. Their fears for her hovered between the possibility of a decline and old-maidenhood. Ahead, on the white stallion Washington, rode Franklin, who had all the good looks for the boys of the family, and behind him, postilion, young Delia the romantic, who loved her brother with a purely temporary intensity, pending, though she did not know it, the first possible transfer.
When they drew up for the night, in Ohio, when they stopped at a well in Indiana to ask for water, when Asa gave apple stock to set tlers for whose orchards he had a contemptuous pity, when Delia, without speaking, could draw men and boys to her, or Timothy for the first time in his life showed fight, at cruelty to an animal, broke a boy’s tooth, and begged pardon for that — strangers, looking the Goodners over, recognized a elan, and a clan way. The family trailed the memory of themselves, and, long after, people talked about those Goodners, them Goodners, those strangers, the man with the apples, the girl with the eyes and her quiet sisters. They had a way with them that sure was goodnatured; they had mighty fine horses; t hose apples were better’n even he said. A pity they did n’t stay — folks you’d like to know.
The strongest bond of this clan was its loose articulation. All its members had a tolerance for its various differences. It did not cohere under the compulsion of aristocratic traditions, peasant penury, religion, thrashings, or sentimentality. To plant, to grow, to come-out, to fling the seed wide and take responsibility for what you planted — they lived this way so openly that they never called it a creed or held it up as sacred.
I can tell this much about them because I know them. Their way of life persists, and by this present I can tell them. I do not think of them as unique; I meet Goodners in many houses, and on the street I look in their children’s happy eyes. Somet imes I think of them when a railway conductor accepts my invitation to talk, or when an old lady, enjoying her son’s wealth, remembers the early hard times for me. Say, if you like, that the paternalistic peasant family is more cohesive, or there is glamour in a line whose admiral ancestors, painted by Romney and Holbein, look down from the walls; the Goodners are our way. Theirs are the five sixths of the American marriages that do not break up in divorce; they are the people who combine fidelity with freedom. Not unique, not picturesque, — unless by grace of time past, — and not wholly enlightened, but aware of that. There is no formula for Goodners, and you cannot make a class or theory out of them; their individualism is a total barrier toward regimenting them.
I wonder if they did not grow that six-foot individualism of theirs in the old abundance; and their tolerance in the breadth of the prairie view. It was not tolerance that accepted for itself, or does to-day accept, every point of view. It is part of the knot twist in their mental timber that they are refractory to a great deal of bosh and even more to decadence. They turn the edge of many blades. They are steadfast, but they grow, yet not so that you can predict them. Because they are free, you never know what they will accept next.
These are the people who fought, a war for the privilege of being united to brothers who did not wish to stay with them; they believed in a war that would end wars and make their way safe; some think they are mighty fools. Many of these thinkers now wish the Goodners to believe in class intolerance or race intolerance; perhaps they can be fooled again. But when they are, you will never get the requisite hate out of them, and you will not be able to prevent them from admitting it when they have been wrong and laughing deeper than their critics. That makes them an infrangible people, still living by the manitou they found in the sky when the wagon wheels rolled them west.
And all the time, while the state filled up from the bottom, when the soldiers and women were killed at Fort Dearborn in IS 12, the island grove was there, tall and lordly. But in the changing weather of history it had drifted far away again; it was remote, sighted sometimes by a voycgeur, a commissioner of Indian business, or a party of Miamis or Mascoutens. The Illinois had gone, for in a luckless hour one of their band had murdered Tecumseh, and the Shawnees in their rage had sworn to wipe them from the earth. They kept their vow, and the affable, treacherous, libidinous people whom Prud’homme had tried so hard to love had been blown like smoke and ashes, driven like their buffalo, west over the prairie till the last beaten remnants were homeless beggars among the settlers of the Spanish bottoms and the tribes that once they had enslaved.
After them you have the Mascoutens. They were prairie Potawatomis; they had horses, and gorgeous beadwork on their leggings, robes, and moccasin flaps. The Jesuit fathers who knew them said that their women were noted for chastity and the men, not so well-shaped as the soft Miamis, were taller and more rugged. They had more ceremony and less bestiality than their predecessors; they were braver, and they had no luck in European politics.
They sided with the French against the English, and with the English against the Americans, and under the spell of Tecumseh’s enlightenment they had done away with their old gods only to find that the new were not invincible. They sold land recklessly at first; presently they saw that the more of the white man’s money they took, the more they were become paupers and dependents. Once they had learned to need their luxuries, there was no resource or wealth in all their country that could pay for them. They had broken faith with Nature; they had stepped out of the pattern of the aboriginal fauna and had got into the deadly treadmill of the peoples whom white men call natives. This is to say that they exploited their inheritance, and the white men bought it under the name of raw materials. They gave back manufactured articles to the Mascoutens, and in this sort of deal one side must take a loss.
Hundreds of miles beyond the frontier, the Indians felt the deep disturbance. It is almost forgotten now, but there were many settlers who paid the Indians to hunt for them, to bring them daily meat. The first settlements subsisted, in part, by tapping the resource of regions far beyond the horizon. Trade, like a new river, cut across Indian life; it disturbed the whole lay of their land; it flowed away and never came back. Pride and independence and stamina and some deep prehistoric rhythm were washed away by it. So that there was nothing that an Indian would not beg for; the Indian girl became the prostitute of the frontier; then smallpox came. One legend has it that an Indian stole the blanket from under a man left dying with it; that is probably only a frontier joke, of the ‘serve ’em right’ variety.
There is no record of the whole Indian tragedy, only scattered references, sad words of chiefs; We burned our tents and houses; we were afraid to touch the dead, and dragged them away with a hooked stick under the chin; why wilt you not give us whiskey now? You gave it when you wanted our land; now if we had it we could forget what once we owned. We do not know what to think of you; your children never get enough land. We have listened to you until our land is nearly gone. Our footsteps have passed off it.
I am not certain that the Mascoutens ever had a village here in my grove. They used it still for a portage, but they went where the white men went, like dogs at the back doors.
And a great commercial destiny had missed the grove. When the Chicago portage was discovered to be superior, trade went that way. If it had not, I should have the Union Stockyards here; this spot would hold in its hand the fifty reins of the greatest railway plexus in the world; the lumber trade and the grain trade of the continent would lie heavy here; there would be the ringing of the steel mills and the hell glow of them on the night sky. I should have three million neighbors, most of them Italians, Swedes, Poles, Jews, Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, and Negroes. I am not feeling superior in my loneliness; I like Italians, Czechs, Germans, and so on; I like to wade through the shoals of their children in Maxwell Street; I like to look upon their window gardens from the Elevated. I have never yet read the story of Chicago as I would like to read it, the rise of the brownstone front, the waves beating around Hull House, the detonation of the Haymarket riots, the manifest, dream of beauty in the first World’s Fair, the big men who shouldered the city up. But that is not this story.
For greatness missed you, my oaks and my prairie; so you are still here, and the sweet slough chains are not drained; they touch fingers in April and May. So the depths are here, the green perspectives, the blue shadows, the hard tang of the goldenrod and the complaint of the wheeling hawks. I hear the lisp and the hum of the summer afternoon; I see the light lie on every leaf. You are forgotten again, and there are only the memories of good endeavor here.
I cannot find a certain mention of this grove between 1678 and the Goodners’ coming. In all that time it had no English name; it drops off the maps, it disappears from travelers’ tales. Sometimes I think I find it, but never so that I can identify it as an historian would demand. A doctor says: —
’I was taken by the Indians a long way, up a river which I now believe may have been the Kilimick, and arrived after dark at an encampment in a thick growth of trees. The patient, a very old Indian woman, had died before I arrived. I was treated with every courtesy and feast ed upon pigeon and bear, which tastes like sweet pork, and some sort of root which they dig out of the marshes. In the morning I was paid in beaver skins, and departed as I came. I remember that it seemed to me I had never beheld such splendid oaks; many of them had boughs which swept the ground. There were thick cables of grapevine festooning the woods, and the women were gathering an incredible harvest of hickory nuts.’
The two Hawley girls were captured in what was then part of the immense county of Crawford, in the War of 1812. They wore made to walk or run a hundred and twenty miles in four days, and arrived, according to the memoir of Elizabeth, at a grove near a river toward noon of t he fifth day. They were greeted by a band of women who at once began to beat them with sticks, out of revenge for their dead sons and husbands. After a week of bullying, they were finally adopted as slaves. They discovered that as soon as they were willing to live and behave like Indian girls they were better treated. Nevertheless, one of them died of starvation, and the other was saved from the same fate by going to the blanket of a chief.
The whole band removed westward after a few months, and when ten years later Elizabeth was restored to her race at St. Louis, she had forgotten what the Indians called the grove and the river. She remembers the multitude of the ducks, and the elk fawn that she found in the woods, which played dead, lying limp and still in her arms but with its bright eyes still open and sparkling; she remembers how she and her sister tried to live by eating blackberries and bitter acorns, and how she had to cut the marsh reeds for the mat she took to her master.
This is all, and it is nothing. I have looked conscientiously, but I am not fully sorry that I cannot fix my island grove in that span of time that was so long and so indifferently meagre of human event in the wilderness. I like the thought of it, lost for long intervals, left on one side, adrift, becalmed, self-contained. The trees I walk under, the tallest ones, were young then; they did most of their growing through those years. They would not be here had they been found too soon.
Asa Goodner says the grove was empty when he came, He liked it so. At the land office he bought a section, half prairie and half grove, from the government. It would do for a beginning. He know how clean the slate was, and he liked it so. He got his apples in before the fall rains came, while the family was still sleeping in the wagons, He started out with many kinds, Greenings and Bellflowers, Rambos and Russets and Red Vandeveres. The rains came, the roots struck; they were sucking life before the frost. And he thought of the orchards that his grandchildren would know, and how their teeth would bite through the deep red coals of the Vandeveres, and how hardy the Russets were, and of the beautiful shape of the Bellflowers. But he loved the Rambos best, for their perfume and their sweetness and their clean white flesh.
The Goodners found the grove in August, the last of August, the season that I call green autumn. That means the goldenrod is tall, the asters are in flower, and the woodbine is turning color. But the oaks are green, and green are the mossy-fringed burr cups; the haws upon the thorn tree are not yet red. The world at that moment has all the depth and bounty of summer. But a high cool wash goes through the treetops and they clamor gently at coming event.
The black ground mists of heat are lifted and blown to Jericho, and across the prairie the depths and the groves and the winding river woods rush nearer at a stride. Yesterday you could not see the shape of Alison’s barns; now you can distinguish each pigeon’s wing in the swirling flash around the silo. Now is the moment when you can find the first secretive bluebottle gentian; the jays and the crows talk as though it were already October. It is that part of autumn that is thoughtful without decay, lusty without being carnal. There is nothing to regret as yet, and all you intend to do st ill seems possible.
In the old days this was the season when the travelers fell in love with Illinois. The swamp chains were dry then, the prairie was not blackened with October fires, and you would not believe then, with the weather exultant and optimum, in the cruelty of winter. The game was jumping; jacksnipe came back from the north; the sandpipers clinked and ran around the last moist border of the sloughs; mud was infrequent now and good. Mud of the marvelous old black woman, earth, irrepressibly fertile, clothed in the lisping sedges where the big game birds walked, scuttled chickenwise, rose up unwillingly and, unwary, took the time to wheel and gave the marksman his moment. There seemed still to be endless plenty, though the buffalo were gone; the elk were gone, and so were the cougar, fisher, gray fox, marten, beaver, and otter.
No one knows just when or why they went; there was more concerted attack upon deer and wolves, yet these stayed longer. The others shrank away; they lost together curiosity and courage; the gun and the dog, the fence and the plough, were too much for them, and they met something even steelier. Call it intolerance or mastery, we all have it, and so utterly possess it that we scarcely feel aware of it. White man — and it is just as true of white woman — momently demands that all things should kneel and bare their necks; then we decide what we shall spare. The creatures that are not either useful or humble draw back on to their haunches and snarl and stare; they have the military privilege of dying like braves, but they may not live.
The fragments of memoirs, the letters, the county histories, the old women with folded hands remembering what their grandmothers said, do not tell me everything I know. From them I get only phrases: They turned the teams loose, and the horses were so wild for the pea vines that you could hardly find them or drive them in at night. John Paul and Nancy began to fill Nancy’s skirt with hickory nuts until they saw that there were so many that you would not have to gather them up until you needed them. Asa called, ‘Mary Tramble, come and see this oak opening; do you think you’d like the house here?’ So that’s how it came to be built here, you see.
That is the way the family story goes. Rut I know the rest; I know the grove and the weather, I know Sybil from her pictures and Timothy from his fame and Asa from his apple trees, bent over now with great bearings and storms and this wry miracle of living.
Sybil walked about alone, having decided that this would be a good place and moment; in which to try out luxurious unhappiness. She was eleven, and in the dusk she carried about with her she lived a separate life. She did not regard her present situation as romantic; her family had simply chosen to move far out into loneliness. They had swept her to an island as well removed from the ship lanes of glory as one could imagine, and rescue seemed almost impossible. Yet she sent up, hopelessly but faithful to herself, the thin signal of her moods.
Asa and Amasa and Franklin could all master a log; Asa says he was considered the best axe man and general ranger in Cattaraugus County, and the dovetailed logs are still here to speak for him. Nothing he did ever warped. Amasa was interested in the engineering problem of the upper walls and the roof; he loved the theory of a thing, but in the practical Yankee way. He was not curious about the impossible; he simply liked to do the work first in his head; he liked laws, premises that you could hang your weight on.
Franklin worked because it got you where you wanted; secretly he did not hope or believe that he was going to remain here. He wanted money, and he saw that money could be made to work for you and could make others work for you. Imagine waiting for apple trees to grow up, waiting on weather for your harvest ! He was patient now, with the iron discipline of those who know what and how much they want and how far away from it they are. The house he saw in his mind, the mirrors, the carpets, the table, the bedroom, the woman — they were already realities to him, and already torments. For it makes the unimaginative suffer to imagine.
The twins came and begged for tasks to do; they put chips in a basket, and Patience began to weave her one spell. She could cook a hickory limb, so the family always says, so you could enjoy eating it, and she set the cookstove up under the trees. In spite of meagre materials, she found something to keep her hand in all day, and this kept the twins trotting and stooping for wood, until they learned to hide from her.
Rhoda and Delia were as busy as their brothers; they were dutiful and gay. Rut each was busied in her head with her own desires. Delia had a face like the morning; you would not have supposed that spite, envy, or untruth could find an instant’s lodging behind such a countenance. Her body was a song; she could not move except seductively. She was not, however, so eager to love as to be loved, or rather — though she did not know it — to be desired. Rhoda was the quiet one. She was not girlish; at nineteen she was a young woman, with purpose and control in her movements; she was more awake to love than her sisters and thought less about it. She had such health that only to live was rapture, and she wanted to give herself away, health and rapture and purpose all together. How she might do this she understood very well. No one had awakened her; she just woke quietly to find the light come.
Woman came to northern Illinois from the northeastern states just as she had been back home. She was not the barefooted serf of the squirrel hunters; dressed in preposterous modesty, dragging her heavy skirts over unshorn turf, yet she kept her eyes not on the ground but looking Ievelly in the face of the future. What she intended would make more changes than the French priests’ faith. Even then, of course, there were kinds of women without number. Some the wilderness killed, as Delia was to die at twenty across the Missouri. To some, whom Eastern life would have stifled, it gave air to breathe. It gave a field to girls like Patience, endowed with the missionary spirit. To the artist it offered only thistles. But Rhoda was of that breed of girls that hardship strengthens but does not coarsen, t hat childbirth does not kill, that heartbreak does not conquer. Some such must have been your mothers, and some, your daughters, will carry your immortality in their hands.
It is easy now to look back and choose, out of the great Goodner sisterhood, Rhoda to stand for the tree that would thrust root and bear fruit. But in a place that lacks them, all women make you think of the same things. And Mary Tramble’s daughters, moving roofless still under the trees, their skirts whipped by an aborigine wind, were indistinguishably promising, awaiting what the frontier and its man would make of them.
On the day when the bottom logs were just going into place, Chance Randelman rode into the opening on his roan and offered his help to Asa.
Mary Tramble did not approve of him and seems to have said so. He instantly magnetized all the girls except Nancy. But he paid his court to their mother. I see in her picture the straightness of her back, the touch of fashion in her very small waist, a little of the belle still in her grandmother face. She has grassflower-blue eyes, and they make her look more helpless than she was; her very small wrists were quite strong, and the whole family was a little vain of the tininess of her foot. This sort of woman, however busy her life, makes a life study of man, and she knows a dangerous one when he comes her way.
He swung from his horse like a condescension, but he knew the arts of the frontier. He took command without waiting to be invited. He had practised rule of thumb for Amasa’s painstaking theory, and he put the heart into the log-raising that Franklin could not feel. At the noon halt he rode away with a bow and a flourish, and came back in an hour with Jean Kiercereau, a half-breed who cut lifting poles out of ash saplings at two axe blows apiece; then he trimmed the branches off at the top I ill he had a crotch. With three of these poles you could work a log up to the top of the walls.
When it came to the roof, old Amoy knew what he was doing better than anyone else. Then the children were set to making clay cats out of slough earth and wisps of wild hay; the twins splashed the mud and laughed; Timothy dreamed as he did it; Sybil pretended she was a slave and forced to it. So they made the chinking for the stick chimney and filled the spaces between the logs; then a decent whitewash coat lightened the interior. Amoy laid the first hearth fire that smoked up the damp chimney. The family clustered around to watch it struggle and catch and glow.
Against the door frame Chance Randelman leaned, scornful of the way the fire was built, the vanity of the cookstove, the bright walls, and so much domestic ceremony. Secretly he was resenting the intrusion; he had killed a fawn on this spot, and the doe. He shot the fawn first, knowing that the doe would come back to it, and of course she did, and he shot her. He could imitate the bleating of a fawn, the jittering of a squirrel, or the blowing of a turkey cock. He had that rare, inhuman ability to call wild ducks to him. He knew just how to take hold of animal instincts; then he pulled his quarry to him, and killed it clean. He loved what he killed, and was never satisfic’d.
That first night Patience outdid herself. Kiercereau contributed the corn; Chance brought the saddle of venison and insisted on roasting it himself, out of doors, larding it with bacon fat. They ate under the blessing of down-sweeping boughs where the cool dusk gathered; they were tired, but they had a sense of ceremony. Everyone understood the significance of a roof in place and a smoke wisp rising through the treetops.
Kiercereau was as sensitive to this as the others; he was bewildered, illiterate, a little dark musky man whose clearest thoughts were only groping, but animalneat in his motions. He looked these strangers over, and he wondered why Randelman put himself to any trouble for them; it could only be because there were women here. The hunter was now paying attention to Sybil, but this was a hunter’s blind. Yet how the little decoy liked it!
Thin curtains of darkness dropped soundlessly between the farther trees, moving as conclusive music. The embers sputtered with the last fat drippings.
Kiercereau thought frankly about the three older girls, but looked respectfully. For himself, he would have chosen the cook; no man leaves a woman who is a good cook. He thought the middle girl would be a strong worker; the youngest, the one with the eyes, was the kind of woman who would want things, an expensive wife. Not that anyone had ever hoard of Randelman’s going wifehunting; he had women where he wanted them. And what a fool a woman was to look at a man’s face!
There was no event that night. Significant moment, it was not part of a story. To make a story the teller must select out what will forward a plot, and cast aside the quiet matrix that holds incident together. I like what the storyteller throws away. I like to think about the scraping good-bye of the half-breed, the shock of the ground under the roan’s departing hooves, the family that came in out of moonshine and dewfall to find the embers on their hearth. I like old Amoy’s stick put to stand by the door while he slept, and the clean smell of the wood in the new roof, the harping singsong of green autumn insects; and the bulk, the shape, the fact, significant and blunt, of the house in the midnight clearing.
The rains came. In a tropical land you can tell almost to a day when they will begin; in Illinois we do not even know whether we shall get any, and when they start we do not know when they will stop. In autumn they bring the feel of winter; they drive in long veils through the trees and they walk on the face of the grasslands. That year they filled the prairie hollows; they brought the swamps back, and they watered Asa’s apple roots newly struck in the ground.
On the roof they beat in gusts. They clattered fit to empty the sky, but it was never emptied. They would linger the roof for hours, like the tattoo of an idle girl’s nails upon a table; then the downpour would commence again, until you could hear the whistle of the drops through the air. Old Amoy’s roof was tight; his seed beneath it quietly exulted in it. There was a faint violet curtain of smoke that clung just under the boards, beginning to stain them; the smell of it was in the women’s hair; the men and the boys had bits of log bark like snuff about their coats. The fire was fed daylong and never went out at night. There was wood enough to feed it, all the deep woods behind the house full of the dead trees that had never been cleared away, full of the flung-down branches and twigs; the men had their axes and their arms; they were part of the vital current, so racial and immemorial, that flows from the sun to the earth, the earth to the trees, the trees to flame again.
So they lived with the four elements. The ancients thought that fire and air were male, earth and water were woman stuff. The Goodners were moderns; they were not mystical; they had the Yankee knack for hitching things together. They believed not in what the elements might do to them, but in what presently they could do with the elements. They blessed fertile rain and spear-armed fire without having to kneel or propitiate; their rites were practical and unconscious.
The rain fell and fell, and the family hugged its unity and went forward with its living. Timothy taught Sybil, and Patience taught the twins, and Asa taught Delia and Timothy. Amasa knocked up shelves; he ran a shelf all the way around the big room and made them grow up like bracket fungi on each side of the doors. In the doorway, with the smoke curling faintly out behind him and the rainy air drinking into the room around his shoulders, he looked out across the veiled landscape and saw the unused, refractory land. He thought of wheat, the intense golden freight of its heads, the tawny sheet of its stubble and the wealthy run and lisp of the grain pouring in to the bins.
Delia sewed; she began to take a sudden pleasure in dressing the child Sybil, who had a smouldering hunger for clothes. Rhoda kept the house clean; the broom handle had a soft shine upon it that her bands gave it, but she did not notice it; in her mind, awake and frank, she thought about Chance Randclman. At the little desk that had come all the way from Salem, Asa plotted grafts and plantings. Moving about the house, Alary Tramble created that subtle order and grace that make a lady’s home, however crude. At night she would sit writing by candlelight to all her kin in Buffalo; she wrote across the lines too, which is what makes it so difficult for me to read her record of those days and nights.
Then suddenly, in October, the sky cleared. Amoy did n’t know how he knew it, but he promised that the deluge was over, and he was right. The woods were drenching still for two days; then under wind and sun they were dry and summery again. But it was Indian summer, and in the woods was heard the rejoicing chorus of the cricket frogs, hopping pilgrims on their way back to the renewed marshes. The ground was populous with them for some days; then the squirrels began to leave. They streaked through the trees as if something were after them; they were so numerous that they lost their charm and became as deserting rats. They went south as if they fell cold weather coming, hut it was not true migration, for those that went never came back, it was dispersal from ovcrpopulous centres. The squirrels seldom now behave this way, but the old hunters remember it, Audubon wrote of it, and in the annals of this grove the great squirrel drive of that autumn brought back Chance Randelman. He took Timothy out to teach him how to shoot; he gave Sybil all the pelts her arms could hold.
Then the squirrels were gone, and Chance was off to Elk drove for turkey. The last flowers flecked the woods, goldenrod went to tawny down, the aster bracts were empty and silver, and mysteriously bloomed gall-of-the-earth, nodding, long and withdrawn of flower, above its lion’s-foot leaves. Dawn and evening were wintry; the noons were soft, gold in the core, blue on the far edges; sounds came from a long distance clearly in a deepening silence. Earth sighed its warmth away, a little more each day, but there was still heat in the midday sun. Air smelled of far-off fires and leaf mould breaking under the footfall. It had such ache and beckon in it, this Indian summer, that it drew them all outdoors.
Timothy set muskrat traps by the river; Franklin got on his horse and rode to Chicago for candles and salt and powder and flitches. Rhoda felt her first impulse to avoid her brothers and sisters; she had to walk; she felt a longing for neighbors; she swept the horizon for smoke, listened in the woods for hoofbeats.
Each day no one came, and each day it seemed that this was very certainly the last when the bluejay would ripple his come-hither call and the ants would have the strength to toil on the high cones tall as her knees. She was looking west over the prairie when Randelman rode up behind her back. He swung off when he was abreast of her, dropping close to her side, bringing the smell of leather and gun oil and game. There were seven bobwhite slung to the saddle; the wind still made their feathers alive, but their eyes were dead, and the odor and feel of kill stole out from them.
She was qinet and did not look at him much, so that he could not understand her. A girl walking alone in the wind on the edge of woods perplexed him; he had thought at first that she was waiting and looking for him. But she was too natural for a girl in love; he seemed to have interrupted some dream of hers with his presence.
And it began to interest him to imagine what it would take to wake her. He had not thought her the most attractive of the sisters, but he looked now at her arms, three-quarters bare, and it came to him that he was tired of taking and wanted to be given love. The pattern of the promise, the bride, the suckled baby, the mutual labor, sprang up out of this hour like a swift flower with exciting fragrance. For the first time he did not know what he could do with a woman, or how he could come at her heart. The thought that he might, kiss her made his heart turn once with hurt in it, like that of a boy who has never tried what he is plotting for the next instant.
The roan mare watched what her master did with a mellow eye; she knew women from men very well; she could sense fright in a human being electrically, but after a moment she saw the woman grow quiet. The mare cropped the sweet deep grass with a seeking muzzle; at the bottom of the warmth, weatherwise, she sensed the coming frost.
It came, under crystal stars in a black sky, Fomalhaut peering one-eyed and autumnal over the southern rim of the world. In the house the fires spit at the coals; the winds sang at the chinks; Rhoda was silent with her first secret from those who loved her. In the mirror Delia did and undid, never satisfied, the tingling wide web of her hair.
(To be concluded)