Darrel of the Blessed Isles by Irving Bacheller
XX. At the Theatre of the Woods
Next day Trove went home. He took with him many a souvenir of his first term, including a scarf that Polly had knit for him, and the curious things he took from the Frenchman Leblanc, and which he retained partly because they were curious and partly because Mrs. Leblanc had been anxious to get rid of them. He soon rejoined his class at Hillsborough, having kept abreast of it in history and mathematics by work after school and over the week's end. He was content to fall behind in the classics, for they were easy, and in them his arrears gave him no terror. Walking for exercise, he laid the plan of his tale and had written some bits of verse. Of an evening he went often to the Sign of the Dial, and there read his lines and got friendly but severe criticism. He came into the shop one evening, his "Horace" under his arm.
"'Maecenas, atavis, edite regibus'" Trove chanted, pausing to recall the lines.
The tinker turned quickly. "'O et presidium et duice decus meum,'" he quoted, never stopping until he had finished She ode.
"Is there anything you do not know?" Trove inquired.
"Much," said the tinker, "including the depth o' me own folly. A man that displays knowledge hath need o' more."
Indeed, Trove rarely came for a talk with Darrel when he failed to discover something new in him--a further reach of thought and sympathy or some unsuspected treasure of knowledge. The tinker loved a laugh and would often search his memory for some phrase of bard or philosopher apt enough to provoke it. Of his great store of knowledge he made no vainer use.
Trove had been overworking; and about the middle of June they went for a week in the woods together. They walked to Allen's the first day, and, after a brief visit there, went off in the deep woods, camping on a pond in thick-timbered hills. Coming to the lilied shore, they sat down a while to rest. A hawk was sailing high above the still water. Crows began to call in the tree-tops. An eagle sat on a dead pine at the water's edge and seemed to be peering down at his own shadow. Two deer stood in a marsh on the farther shore, looking over at them. Near by were the bones of some animal, and the fresh footprints of a painter. Sounds echoed far in the hush of the unbroken wilderness.
"See, boy," said Darrel, with a little gesture of his right hand, "the theatre o' the woods! See the sloping hills, tree above tree, like winding galleries. Here is a coliseum old, past reckoning. Why, boy, long before men saw the Seven Hills it was old. Yet see how new it is--how fresh its colour, how strong its timbers! See the many seats, each with a good view, an' the multitude o' the people, yet most o' them are hidden. Ten thousand eyes are looking down upon us. Tragedies and comedies o' the forest are enacted here. Many a thrilling scene has held the stage--the spent deer swimming for his life, the painter stalking his prey or leaping on it."
"Tis a cruel part," said Trove. "He is the murderer of the play. I cannot understand why there are so many villains in its cast, Both the cat and the serpent baffle me."
"Marry, boy, the world is a great school--an' this little drama o' the good God is part of it," said Darrel. "An' the play hath a great moral--thou shalt learn to use thy brain or die. Now, there be many perils in this land o' the woods--so many that all its people must learn to think or perish by them. A pretty bit o' wisdom it is, sor. It keeps the great van moving--ever moving, in the long way to perfection. Now, among animals, a growing brain works the legs of its owner, sending them far on diverse errands until they are strong. Mind thee, boy, perfection o' brain and body is the aim o' Nature. The cat's paw an' the serpent's coil are but the penalties o' weakness an' folly. The world is for the strong. Therefore, God keep thee so, or there be serpents will enter thy blood an' devour thee--millions o' them."
"And what is the meaning of this law?"
"That the weak shall not live to perpetuate their kind," said Darrel. "Every year there is a tournament o' the sparrows. Which deserves the fair--that is the question to be settled. Full tilt they come together, striking with lance and wing. Knight strives with knight, lady with lady, and the weak die. Lest thou forget, I'll tell thee a tale, boy, wherein is the great plan. The queen bee--strongest of all her people--is about to marry. A clear morning she comes out o' the palace gate--her attendants following. The multitude of her suitors throng the vestibule; the air, now still an' sweet, rings with the sound o' fairy timbrels. Of a sudden she rises into the blue sky, an' her suitors follow. Her swift wings cleave the air straight as a plummet falls. Only the strong may keep in sight o' her; bear that in mind, boy. Her suitors begin to fall wearied. Higher an' still higher the good queen wings her way. By an' by, of all that began the journey, there is but one left with her, an' he the strongest of her people. An' they are wed, boy, up in the sun-lit deep o' heaven. So the seed o' life is chosen, me fine lad."
[1 In behalf of Darrel, the author makes acknowledgment of his indebtedness to M. Maurice Maeterlinck for an account of the queen's flight in his interesting "Life of the Bee."]
They sat a little time in silence, looking at the shores of the pond.
"Have ye never felt the love passion?" said Darrel.
"Well, there's a girl of the name of Polly," Trove answered.
"Ah, Polly! she o' the red lip an' the dark eye," said Darrel, smiling. "She's one of a thousand." He clapped his hand upon his knee, merrily, and sang a sentimental couplet from an old Irish ballad.
"Have ye won her affection, boy?" he added, his hand on the boy's arm.
"I think I have."
"God love thee! I'm glad to hear it," said the old man. "She is a living wonder, boy, a living wonder, an' had I thy youth I'd give thee worry."
"Since her mother cannot afford to do it, I wish to send her away to school," said Trove.
"Tut, tut, boy; thou hast barely enough for thy own schooling."
"I've eighty-two dollars in my pocket," said Trove, proudly. "I do not need it. The job in the mill--that will feed me and pay my room rent, and my clothes will do me for another year."
"On me word, boy; I like it in thee," said Darrel; "but surely she would not take thy money."
"I could not offer it to her, but you might go there, and perhaps she would take it from you."
"Capital!" the tinker exclaimed. "I'll see if I can serve thee. Marry, good youth, I'll even give away thy money an' take credit for thy benevolence. Teacher, philanthropist, lover--I believe thou'rt ready to write."
"The plan of my first novel is complete," said Trove. "That poor thief,--he shall be my chief character,--the man of whom you told me."
"Poor man! God make thee kind to him," said the tinker. "An' thou'rt willing, I'll hear o' him to-night. When the firelight flickers,--that is the time, boy, for tales."
They built a rude lean-to, covered with bark, and bedded with fragrant boughs. Both lay in the firelight, Darrel smoking his pipe, as the night fell.
"Now for thy tale," said the tinker.
The tale was Trove's own solution of his life mystery, shrewdly come to, after a long and careful survey of the known facts. And now, shortly, time was to put the seal of truth upon it, and daze him with astonishment, and fill him with regret of his cunning. It should be known that he had never told Darrel or any one of his coming in the little red sleigh.
He lay thinking for a time after the tinker spoke. Then he began:--
"Well, the time is 1833, the place a New England city on the sea. Chapter I: A young woman is walking along a street, with a child sleeping in her arms. She is dark-skinned,--a Syrian. It is growing dusk; the street is deserted, save by her and two sailors, who are approaching her. They, too, are Syrians. One seems to strike her,--it is mere pretence, however,--and she falls. The other seizes the child, who, having been drugged, is still asleep. A wagon is waiting near. They drive away hurriedly, their captive under a blanket. The kidnappers make for the woods in New Hampshire. Officers of the law drive them far. They abandon their horse, tramping westward over trails in the wilderness, bearing the boy in a sack of sail-cloth, open at the top. They had guns and killed their food as they travelled. Snow came deep; by and by game was scarce and they had grown weary of bearing the boy on their backs. One waited in the woods with the little lad while the other went away to some town or city for provisions. He came back, hauling them in a little sleigh. It was much like those made for the delight of the small boy in every land of snow. It had a box painted red and two bobs and a little dashboard. They used it for the transportation of boy and impedimenta. In the deep wilderness beyond the Adirondacks they found a cave in one of the rock ledges. They were twenty miles from any post-office but shortly discovered one. Letters in cipher were soon passing between them and their confederates. They learned there was no prospect of getting the ransom. He they had thought rich was not able to raise the money they required or any large sum. Two years went by, and they abandoned hope. What should they do with the boy? One advised murder, but the other defended him. It was unnecessary, he maintained, to kill a mere baby, who knew not a word of English, and would forget all in a month. And murder would only increase their peril. Now eight miles from their cave was the cabin of a settler. They passed within a mile of it on their way out and in. They had often met the dog of the settler roving after small game--a shepherd, trustful, affectionate, and ever ready to make friends. One day they captured the dog and took him to their cave. They could not safely be seen with the boy, so they planned to let the dog go home with him in the little red sleigh. Now the settler's cabin was like that of my father, on the shore of a pond. It was round, as a cup's rim, and a mile or so in diameter. Opposite the cabin a trail came to the water's edge, skirting the pond, save in cold weather, when it crossed the ice. They waited for a night when their tracks would soon disappear. Then, having made a cover of the sail-cloth sack in which they had brought the boy, and stretched it on withes, and made it fast to the sleigh box, they put the sleeping boy in the sleigh, with hot stones wrapped in paper, and a robe of fur, to keep him warm, hitched the dog to it, and came over hill and trail, to the little pond, a while after midnight. Here they buckled a ring of bells on the dog's neck and released him. He made for his home on the clear ice; the bells and his bark sounding as he ran. They at the cabin heard him coming and opened their door to dog and traveller. So came my hero in a little red sleigh, and was adopted by the settler and his wife, and reared by them with generous affection. Well, he goes to school and learns rapidly, and comes to manhood. It's a pretty story--that of his life in the big woods. But now for the love tale. He meets a young lady--sweet, tender, graceful, charming."
"A moment," said Darrel, raising his hand. "Prithee, boy, ring down the curtain for a brief parley. Thou say'st they were Syrians--they that stole the lad. Now, tell me, hast thou reason for that?"
"Ample," said Trove. "When they took him out of the sleigh the first words he spoke were "Anah jouhan." He used them many times, and while he forgot they remembered them. Now "Anah jouhan" is a phrase of the Syrian tongue, meaning 'I am hungry.'"
"Very well!" said the old man, with emphasis, "and sailors--that is a just inference. It was a big port, and far people came on the four winds. Very well! Now, for the young lady. An' away with thy book unless I love her."
"She is from life--a simple-hearted girl, frank and beautiful and--" Trove hesitated, looking into the dying fire.
"Noble, boy, make sure o' that, an' nobler, too, than girls are apt to be. If Emulation would measure height with her, see that it stand upon tiptoes."
"So I have planned. The young man loves her. She is in every thought and purpose. She has become as the rock on which his hope is founded. Now he loves honour, too, and all things of good report. He has been reared a Puritan. By chance, one day, it comes to him that his father was a thief."
The boy paused. For a moment they heard only the voices of the night.
"He dreaded to tell her," Trove continued; "yet he could not ask her to be his wife without telling. Then the question, Had he a right to tell?--for his father had not suffered the penalty of the law and, mind you, men thought him honest."
"'Tis just," said Darrel; "but tell me, how came he to know his father was a thief?"
"That I am thinking of, and before I answer, is there more you can tell me of him or his people?"
Darrel rose; and lighting a torch of pine, stuck it in the ground. Then he opened his leathern pocket-book and took out a number of cuttings, much worn, and apparently from old newspapers. He put on his glasses and began to examine the cuttings.
"The other day," said he, "I found an account of his mother's death. I had forgotten, but her death was an odd tragedy."
And the tinker began reading, slowly, as follows:--
"'She an' her mother--a lady deaf an' feeble--were alone, saving the servants in a remote corner o' the house. A sound woke her in the still night. She lay a while listening. Was it her husband returning without his key? She rose, feeling her way in the dark and trembling with the fear of a nervous woman. Descending stairs, she came into a room o' many windows. The shades were up, an' there was dim moon-light in the room. A door, with panels o' thick glass, led to the garden walk. Beyond it were the dark forms of men. One was peering in, his face at a panel, another kneeling at the lock. Suddenly the door opened; the lady fell fainting with a loud cry. Next day the kidnapped boy was born.'"
Darrel stopped reading, put the clipping into his pocket-book, and smothered the torch.
"It seems the woman died the same day," said he.
"And was my mother," the words came in a broken voice.
Half a moment of silence followed them. Then Darrel rose slowly, and a tremulous, deep sigh came from the lips of Trove.
"Thy mother, boy!" Darrel whispered.
The fire had burnt low, and the great shadow of the night lay dark upon them. Trove got to his feet and came to the side of Darrel.
"Tell me, for God's sake, man, tell me where is my father," said he.
"Hush, boy! Listen. Hear the wind in the trees?" said Darrel.
There was a breath of silence broken by the hoot of an owl and the stir of high branches. "Ye might as well ask o' the wind or the wild owl," Darrel said. "I cannot tell thee. Be calm, boy, and say how thou hast come to know."
Again they sat down together, and presently Trove told him of those silent men who had ever haunted the dark and ghostly house of his inheritance.
"'Tis thy mother's terror,--an' thy father's house,--I make no doubt," said Darrel, presently, in a deep voice. "But, boy, I cannot tell any man where is thy father; not even thee, nor his name, nor the least thing, tending to point him out, until--until I am released o' me vow. Be content; if I can find the man, ere long, thou shalt have word o' him."
Trove leaned against the breast of Darrel, shaking with emotion. His tale had come to an odd and fateful climax.
The old man stroked his head tenderly.
"Ah, boy," said he, "I know thy heart. I shall make haste--I promise thee, I shall make haste. But, if the good God should bring thy father to thee, an' thy head to shame an' sorrow for his sin, forgive him, in the name o' Christ, forgive him. Ay, boy, thou must forgive all that trespass against thee."
"If I ever see him, he shall know I am not ungrateful," said the young man.
A while past twelve o'clock, those two, lying there in the firelight, thinking, rose like those startled in sleep. A mighty voice came booming over the still water and echoed far and wide. Slowly its words fell and rang in the great, silent temple of the woods:--
"'Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
"'And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
"'And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
"'Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself; is not puffed up,
"'Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
"'Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
"'Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.'"
As the last words died away in the far woodland, Trove and Darrel turned, wiping their eyes in silence. That flood of inspiration had filled them. Big thoughts had come drifting down with its current. They listened a while, but heard only the faint crackle of the fire.
"Strange!" said Trove, presently.
"Passing strange, and like a beautiful song," said Darrel.
"It may be some insane fanatic."
"Maybe, but he hath the voice of an angel," said the old man.
They passed a sleepless night and were up early, packing to leave the woods. Darrel was to go in quest of the boy's father. Within a week he felt sure he should be able to find him.
They skirted the pond, crossing a long ridge on its farther shore. At a spring of cool water in a deep ravine they halted to drink and rest. Suddenly they heard a sound of men approaching; and when the latter had come near, a voice, deep, vibrant, and musical as a harp-string, in these lines of Hamlet:--
"'Why right; you are i' the right; And so without more circumstance at all, I hold it fit that we shake hands and part; You as your business and desire shall point you; For every man has business and desire Such as it is; and for mine own part Look you, I'll go pray.'"
Then said Darrel, loudly:--
"'These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.'"
Two men, a guide in advance, came along the trail--one, a most impressive figure, tall, erect, and strong; its every move expressing grace and power.
Again the deep music of his voice, saying:--
"'I'm sorry they offend you heartily; yes, faith, heartily.'"
And Darrel rejoined, his own rich tone touching the note of melancholy in the other:--
"'There's no offence, my lord.'"
"'What Horatio is this?" the stranger inquired, offering his hand. "A player?"
"Ay, as are all men an' women," said Darrel, quickly. "But I, sor, have only a poor part. Had I thy lines an' makeup, I'd win applause."
The newcomers sat down, the man who had spoken removing his hat. Curly locks of dark hair, with now a sprinkle of silver in them, fell upon his brows. He had large brown eyes, a mouth firm and well modelled, a nose slightly aquiline, and wore a small, dark imperial--a mere tuft under his lip.
"Well, Colonel, you have paid me a graceful compliment," said he.
"Nay, man, do not mistake me rank," said Darrel.
"Indeed--what is it?"
"Friend," he answered, quickly. "In good company there's no higher rank. But if ye think me unworthy, I'll be content with 'Mister.'"
"My friend, forgive me," said the stranger, approaching Darrel. "Murder and envy and revenge and all evil are in my part, but no impertinence."
"I know thy rank, sor. Thou art a gentleman," said Darrel. "I've seen thee 'every inch a king.'"
Darrel spoke to the second period in that passage of Lear, the majesty and despair of the old king in voice and gesture. The words were afire with feeling as they came off his tongue, and all looked at him with surprise.
"Ah, you have seen me play it," said the stranger. "There's no other Lear that declares himself with that gesture."
"It is Edwin Forrest," said Darrel, as the stranger offered his hand.
"The same, and at your service," the great actor replied. "And may I ask who are you?"
"Roderick Darrel, son of a wheelwright on the river Bann, once a fellow of infinite jest, believe me, but now, alas! like the skull o' Yorick in the churchyard."
"The churchyard'" said Forrest, thoughtfully. "That to me is the saddest of all scenes. When it's over and I leave the stage, it is to carry with me an awe-inspiring thought of the end which is coming to all."
He crumbled a lump of clay in his palm.
"Dust!" he whispered, scattering it in the air.
"Think ye the dust is dead? Nay, man; a mighty power is in it," said Darrel. "Let us imagine thee dead an' turned to clay. Leave the clay to its own law, sor, an' it begins to cleanse an' purge itself. Its aim is purity, an' it never wearies. Could I live long enough, an' it were under me eye, I'd see the clay bleaching white with a wonderful purity. Then, slowly, it would begin to come clear, an' by an' by it would be clearer an' lovelier than a drop o' dew at sunrise. Lo and behold! the clay has become a sapphire. So, sor, in the waters o' time God washes the great world. In every grain o' dust the law is written, an' I may read the destiny o' the nobler part in the fate o' the meaner.
"'Imperious Forrest, dead an' turned to clay, Might stop a hole to keep despair away.'"
"Delightful and happy man! I must know you better," said the great tragedian. "May I ask, sir, what is your calling?"
"I, sor, am a tinker o' clocks."
"A tinker of clocks!" said the other, looking at him thoughtfully. "I should think it poorly suited to your talents."
"Not so. I've only a talent for happiness an' good company."
"And you find good company here?"
"Yes; bards, prophets, an' honest men. They're everywhere."
"Tell me," said Forrest, "were you not some time a player?"
"Player of many parts, but all in God's drama--fool, servant of a rich man, cobbler, clock tinker, all in the coat of a poor man. Me health failed me, sor, an' I took to wandering in the open air. Ten years ago in the city of New York me wife died, since when I have been tinkering here in the edges o' the woodland, where I have found health an' friendship an' good cheer. Faith, sor, that is all one needs, save the company o' the poets.
"'I pray an' sing an' tell old tales an' laugh At gilded butterflies, an' hear poor rogues Talk o' court news.'"
Trove had missed not a word nor even a turn of the eye in all that scene. After years of acquaintance with the tinker he had not yet ventured a question as to his life history. The difference of age and a certain masterly reserve in the old gentleman had seemed to discourage it. A prying tongue in a mere youth would have met unpleasant obstacles with Darrel. Never until that day had he spoken freely of his past in the presence of the young man.
"I must see you again," said the tragedian, rising. "Of those parts I try to play, which do you most like?"
"St. Paul," said Darrel, quickly. "Last night, sor, in this great theatre, we heard the voice o' the prophet. Ah, sor, it was like a trumpet on the walls of eternity. I commend to thee the part o' St. Paul. Next to that--of all thy parts, Lear."
"Lear?" said Forrest, rising. "I am to play it this autumn. Come, then, to New York. Give me your address, and I'll send for you."
"Sor," said Darrel, thoughtfully, "I can give thee much o' me love but little o' me time. Nay, there'd be trouble among the clocks. I'd be ashamed to look them in the face. Nay,--I thank thee,--but I must mind the clocks."
The great player smiled with amusement.
"Then," said he, "I shall have to come and see you play your part. Till then, sir, God give you happiness."
"Once upon a time," said Darrel, as he held the hand of the player, "a weary traveller came to the gate o' Heaven, seeking entrance.
"'What hast thou in thy heart?' said the good St. Peter.
"'The record o' great suffering an' many prayers,' said the poor man. 'I pray thee now, give me the happiness o' Heaven.'
"'Good man, we have none to spare,' said the keeper. 'Heaven hath no happiness but that men bring. It is a gift to God and comes not from Him. Would ye take o' that we have an' bring nothing? Nay, go back to thy toil an' fill thy heart with happiness, an' bring it to me overflowing. Then shalt thou know the joy o' paradise. Remember, God giveth counsel, but not happiness.'"
"If I only had your wisdom," said Forrest, as they parted.
"Ye'd have need o' more," the tinker answered.
Trove and Darrel walked to the clearing above Faraway. At a corner on the high hills, where northward they could see smoke and spire of distant villages, each took his way,--one leading to Hillsborough, the other to Allen's.
"Good-by; an' when I return I hope to bear the rest o' thy tale," said Darrel, as they parted.
"Only God is wise enough to finish it," said the young man.
"'Well, God help us; 'tis a world to see,'" Darrel quoted, waving his hand. "If thy heart oppress thee, steer for the Blessed Isles."