Ninth Chronicle: The Green Isle
 

Many a green isle needs must be
In the deep sea of misery,
Or the mariner, worn and wan,
Never thus could voyage on
Day and night and night and day,
Drifting on his weary way.

Shelley

Meantime in these frosty autumn days life was crowded with events in the lonely Simpson house at Acreville.

The tumble-down dwelling stood on the edge of Pliney's Pond; so called because old Colonel Richardson left his lands to be divided in five equal parts, each share to be chosen in turn by one of his five sons, Pliny, the eldest, having priority of choice.

Pliny Richardson, having little taste for farming, and being ardently fond of fishing, rowing, and swimming, acted up to his reputation of being "a little mite odd," and took his whole twenty acres in water--hence Pliny's Pond.

The eldest Simpson boy had been working on a farm in Cumberland County for two years. Samuel, generally dubbed "see-saw," had lately found a humble place in a shingle mill and was partially self-supporting. Clara Belle had been adopted by the Foggs; thus there were only three mouths to fill, the capacious ones of Elijah and Elisha, the twin boys, and of lisping, nine-year-old Susan, the capable houseworker and mother's assistant, for the baby had died during the summer; died of discouragement at having been born into a family unprovided with food or money or love or care, or even with desire for, or appreciation of, babies.

There was no doubt that the erratic father of the house had turned over a new leaf. Exactly when he began, or how, or why, or how long he would continue the praiseworthy process,--in a word whether there would be more leaves turned as the months went on,--Mrs. Simpson did not know, and it is doubtful if any authority lower than that of Mr. Simpson's Maker could have decided the matter. He had stolen articles for swapping purposes for a long time, but had often avoided detection, and always escaped punishment until the last few years. Three fines imposed for small offenses were followed by several arrests and two imprisonments for brief periods, and he found himself wholly out of sympathy with the wages of sin. Sin itself he did not especially mind, but the wages thereof were decidedly unpleasant and irksome to him. He also minded very much the isolated position in the community which had lately become his; for he was a social being and would almost rather not steal from a neighbor than have him find it out and cease intercourse! This feeling was working in him and rendering him unaccountably irritable and depressed when he took his daughter over to Riverboro at the time of the great flag-raising.

There are seasons of refreshment, as well as seasons of drought, in the spiritual, as in the natural world, and in some way or other dews and rains of grace fell upon Abner Simpson's heart during that brief journey. Perhaps the giving away of a child that he could not support had made the soil of his heart a little softer and readier for planting than usual; but when he stole the new flag off Mrs. Peter Meserve's doorsteps, under the impression that the cotton-covered bundle contained freshly washed clothes, he unconsciously set certain forces in operation.

It will be remembered that Rebecca saw an inch of red bunting peeping from the back of his wagon, and asked the pleasure of a drive with him. She was no daughter of the regiment, but she proposed to follow the flag. When she diplomatically requested the return of the sacred object which was to be the glory of the "raising" next day, and he thus discovered his mistake, he was furious with himself for having slipped into a disagreeable predicament; and later, when he unexpectedly faced a detachment of Riverboro society at the cross-roads, and met not only their wrath and scorn, but the reproachful, disappointed glance of Rebecca's eyes, he felt degraded as never before.

The night at the Centre tavern did not help matters, nor the jolly patriotic meeting of the three villages at the flag-raising next morning. He would have enjoyed being at the head and front of the festive preparations, but as he had cut himself off from all such friendly gatherings, he intended at any rate to sit in his wagon on the very outskirts of the assembled crowd and see some of the gayety; for, heaven knows, he had little enough, he who loved talk, and song, and story, and laughter, and excitement.

The flag was raised, the crowd cheered, the little girl to whom he had lied, the girl who was impersonating the State of Maine, was on the platform "speaking her piece," and he could just distinguish some of the words she was saying:

"For it's your star, my star, all the stars together,
That makes our country's flag so proud
To float in the bright fall weather."

Then suddenly there was a clarion voice cleaving the air, and he saw a tall man standing in the centre of the stage and heard him crying: "Three cheers for the girl that saved the flag from the hands of the enemy!"

He was sore and bitter enough already; lonely, isolated enough; with no lot nor share in the honest community life; no hand to shake, no neighbor's meal to share; and this unexpected public arraignment smote him between the eyes. With resentment newly kindled, pride wounded, vanity bleeding, he flung a curse at the joyous throng and drove toward home, the home where he would find his ragged children and meet the timid eyes of a woman who had been the loyal partner of his poverty and disgraces.

It is probable that even then his (extremely light) hand was already on the "new leaf." The angels, doubtless, were not especially proud of the matter and manner of his reformation, but I dare say they were glad to count him theirs on any terms, so difficult is the reformation of this blind and foolish world! They must have been; for they immediately flung into his very lap a profitable, and what is more to the point, an interesting and agreeable situation where money could be earned by doing the very things his nature craved. There were feats of daring to be performed in sight of admiring and applauding stable boys; the horses he loved were his companions; he was obliged to "swap," for Daly, his employer, counted on him to get rid of all undesirable stock; power and responsibility of a sort were given him freely, for Daly was no Puritan, and felt himself amply capable of managing any number of Simpsons; so here were numberless advantages within the man's grasp, and wages besides!

Abner positively felt no temptation to steal; his soul expanded with pride, and the admiration and astonishment with which he regarded his virtuous present was only equaled by the disgust with which he contemplated his past; not so much a vicious past, in his own generous estimation of it, as a "thunderin' foolish" one.

Mrs. Simpson took the same view of Abner's new leaf as the angels. She was thankful for even a brief season of honesty coupled with the Saturday night remittance; and if she still washed and cried and cried and washed, as Clara Belle had always seen her, it was either because of some hidden sorrow, or because her poor strength seemed all at once to have deserted her.

Just when employment and good fortune had come to the step-children, and her own were better fed and clothed than ever before, the pain that had always lurked, constant but dull, near her tired heart, grew fierce and triumphantly strong; clutching her in its talons, biting, gnawing, worrying, leaving her each week with slighter powers of resistance. Still hope was in the air and a greater content than had ever been hers was in her eyes; a content that came near to happiness when the doctor ordered her to keep her bed and sent for Clara Belle. She could not wash any longer, but there was the ever new miracle of the Saturday night remittance for household expenses.

"Is your pain bad today, mother," asked Clara Belle, who, only lately given away, was merely borrowed from Mrs. Fogg for what was thought to be a brief emergency.

"Well, there, I can't hardly tell, Clara Belle," Mrs. Simpson replied, with a faint smile. "I can't seem to remember the pain these days without it's extra bad. The neighbors are so kind; Mrs. Little has sent me canned mustard greens, and Mrs. Benson chocolate ice cream and mince pie; there's the doctor's drops to make me sleep, and these blankets and that great box of eatables from Mr. Ladd; and you here to keep me comp'ny! I declare I'm kind o' dazed with comforts. I never expected to see sherry wine in this house. I ain't never drawed the cork; it does me good enough jest to look at Mr. Ladd's bottle settin' on the mantel-piece with the fire shinin' on the brown glass."

Mr. Simpson had come to see his wife and had met the doctor just as he was leaving the house.

"She looks awful bad to me. Is she goin' to pull through all right, same as the last time?" he asked the doctor nervously.

"She's going to pull right through into the other world," the doctor answered bluntly; "and as there don't seem to be anybody else to take the bull by the horns, I'd advise you, having made the woman's life about as hard and miserable as you could, to try and help her to die easy!"

Abner, surprised and crushed by the weight of this verbal chastisement, sat down on the doorstep, his head in his hands, and thought a while solemnly. Thought was not an operation he was wont to indulge in, and when he opened the gate a few minutes later and walked slowly toward the barn for his horse, he looked pale and unnerved. It is uncommonly startling, first to see yourself in another man's scornful eyes, and then, clearly, in your own.

Two days later he came again, and this time it was decreed that he should find Parson Carll tying his piebald mare at the post.

Clara Belle's quick eye had observed the minister as he alighted from his buggy, and, warning her mother, she hastily smoothed the bedclothes, arranged the medicine bottles, and swept the hearth.

"Oh! Don't let him in!" wailed Mrs. Simpson, all of a flutter at the prospect of such a visitor. "Oh, dear! They must think over to the village that I'm dreadful sick, or the minister wouldn't never think of callin'! Don't let him in, Clara Belle! I'm afraid he will say hard words to me, or pray to me; and I ain't never been prayed to since I was a child! Is his wife with him?"

"No; he's alone; but father's just drove up and is hitching at the shed door."

"That's worse than all!" and Mrs. Simpson raised herself feebly on her pillows and clasped her hands in despair. "You mustn't let them two meet, Clara Belle, and you must send Mr. Carll away; your father wouldn't have a minister in the house, nor speak to one, for a thousand dollars!"

"Be quiet, mother! Lie down! It'll be all right! You'll only fret yourself into a spell! The minister's just a good man; he won't say anything to frighten you. Father's talking with him real pleasant, and pointing the way to the front door."

The parson knocked and was admitted by the excited Clara Belle, who ushered him tremblingly into the sickroom, and then betook herself to the kitchen with the children, as he gently requested her.

Abner Simpson, left alone in the shed, fumbled in his vest pocket and took out an envelope which held a sheet of paper and a tiny packet wrapped in tissue paper. The letter had been read once before and ran as follows:

Dear Mr. Simpson:

This is a secret letter. I heard that the Acreville people weren't nice to Mrs. Simpson because she didn't have any wedding ring like all the others.

I know you've always been poor, dear Mr. Simpson, and troubled with a large family like ours at the farm; but you really ought to have given Mrs. Simpson a ring when you were married to her, right at the very first; for then it would have been over and done with, as they are solid gold and last forever. And probably she wouldn't feel like asking you for one, because ladies are just like girls, only grown up, and I know I'd be ashamed to beg for jewelry when just board and clothes cost so much. So I send you a nice, new wedding ring to save your buying, thinking you might get Mrs. Simpson a bracelet or eardrops for Christmas. It did not cost me anything, as it was a secret present from a friend.

I hear Mrs. Simpson is sick, and it would be a great comfort to her while she is in bed and has so much time to look at it. When I had the measles Emma Jane Perkins lent me her mother's garnet ring, and it helped me very much to put my wasted hand outside the bedclothes and see the ring sparkling.

Please don't be angry with me, dear Mr. Simpson, because I like you so much and am so glad you are happy with the horses and colts; and I believe now perhaps you did think the flag was a bundle of washing when you took it that day; so no more from your Trusted friend, Rebecca Rowena Randall.

Simpson tore the letter slowly and quietly into fragments and scattered the bits on the woodpile, took off his hat, and smoothed his hair; pulled his mustaches thoughtfully, straightened his shoulders, and then, holding the tiny packet in the palm of his hand, he went round to the front door, and having entered the house stood outside the sickroom for an instant, turned the knob and walked softly in.

Then at last the angels might have enjoyed a moment of unmixed joy, for in that brief walk from shed to house Abner Simpson;'s conscience waked to life and attained sufficient strength to prick and sting, to provoke remorse, to incite penitence, to do all sorts of divine and beautiful things it was meant for, but had never been allowed to do.

Clara Belle went about the kitchen quietly, making preparations for the children's supper. She had left Riverboro in haste, as the change for the worse in Mrs. Simpson had been very sudden, but since she had come she had thought more than once of the wedding ring. She had wondered whether Mr. Ladd had bought it for Rebecca, and whether Rebecca would find means to send it to Acreville; but her cares had been so many and varied that the subject had now finally retired to the background of her mind.

The hands of the clock crept on and she kept hushing the strident tones of Elijah and Elisha, opening and shutting the oven door to look at the corn bread, advising Susan as to her dishes, and marveling that the minister stayed so long.

At last she heard a door open and close and saw the old parson come out, wiping his spectacles, and step into the buggy for his drive to the village.

Then there was another period of suspense, during which the house was as silent as the grave, and presently her father came into the kitchen, greeted the twins and Susan, and said to Clara Belle: "Don't go in there yet!" jerking his thumb towards Mrs. Simpson's room; "she's all beat out and she's just droppin' off to sleep. I'll send some groceries up from the store as I go along. Is the doctor makin' a second call tonight?"

"Yes; he'll be here pretty soon, now," Clara Belle answered, looking at the clock.

"All right. I'll be here again tomorrow, soon as it's light, and if she ain't picked up any I'll send word back to Daly, and stop here with you for a spell till she's better."

It was true; Mrs. Simpson was "all beat out." It had been a time of excitement and stress, and the poor, fluttered creature was dropping off into the strangest sleep--a sleep made up of waking dreams. The pain, that had encompassed her heart like a band of steel, lessened its cruel pressure, and finally left her so completely that she seemed to see it floating above her head; only that it looked no longer like a band of steel, but a golden circle.

The frail bark in which she had sailed her life voyage had been rocking on a rough and tossing ocean, and now it floated, floated slowly into smoother waters.

As long as she could remember, her boat had been flung about in storm and tempest, lashed by angry winds, borne against rocks, beaten, torn, buffeted. Now the waves had subsided; the sky was clear; the sea was warm and tranquil; the sunshine dried the tattered sails; the air was soft and balmy.

And now, for sleep plays strange tricks, the bark disappeared from the dream, and it was she, herself, who was floating, floating farther and farther away; whither she neither knew nor cared; it was enough to be at rest, lulled by the lapping of the cool waves.

Then there appeared a green isle rising from the sea; an isle so radiant and fairy-like that her famished eyes could hardly believe its reality; but it was real, for she sailed nearer and nearer to its shores, and at last her feet skimmed the shining sands and she floated through the air as disembodied spirits float, till she sank softly at the foot of a spreading tree.

Then she saw the green isle was a flowering isle. Every shrub and bush was blooming; the trees were hung with rosy garlands, and even the earth was carpeted with tiny flowers. The rare fragrances, the bird songs, soft and musical, the ravishment of color, all bore down upon her swimming senses at once, taking them captive so completely that she remembered no past, was conscious of no present, looked forward to no future. She seemed to leave the body and the sad, heavy things of the body. The humming in her ears ceased, the light faded, the birds songs grew fainter and more distant, the golden circle of pain receded farther and farther until it was lost to view; even the flowering island gently drifted away, and all was peace and silence.

It was time for the doctor now, and Clara Belle, too anxious to wait longer, softly turned the knob of her mother's door and entered the room. The glow of the open fire illumined the darkest side of the poor chamber. There were no trees near the house, and a full November moon streamed in at the unblinded, uncurtained windows, lighting up the bare interior--the unpainted floor, the gray plastered walls, and the white counterpane.

Her mother lay quite still, her head turned and drooping a little on the pillow. Her left hand was folded softly up against her breast, the fingers of the right partly covering it, as if protecting something precious.

Was it the moonlight that made the patient brow so white, and where were the lines of anxiety and pain? The face of the mother who had washed and cried and cried and washed was as radiant as if the closed eye were beholding heavenly visions.

"Something must have cured her!" thought Clara Belle, awed and almost frightened by the whiteness and the silence.

She tiptoed across the floor to look more closely at the still, smiling shape, and bending over it saw, under the shadow of the caressing right hand, a narrow gold band gleaming on the work-stained finger.

"Oh, the ring came, after all!" she said in a glad whisper, "and perhaps it was that that made her better!"

She put her hand on her mother's gently. A terrified shiver, a warning shudder, shook the girl from head to foot at the chilling touch. A dread presence she had never met before suddenly took shape. It filled the room; stifled the cry on her lips; froze her steps to the floor, stopped the beating of her heart.

Just then the door opened.

"Oh, doctor! Come quick!" she sobbed, stretching out her hand for help, and then covering her eyes. "Come close! Look at mother! Is she better--or is she dead?"

The doctor put one hand on the shoulder of the shrinking child, and touched the woman with the other.

"She is better!" he said gently, "and she is dead."