Nature's Serial Story by Edward Payson Roe
Chapter I. A Country Home
How much it means--what possibilities it suggests! The one I shall describe was built not far from half a century ago, and the lapsing years have only made it more homelike. It has long ceased to be a new object-- an innovation--and has become a part of the landscape, like the trees that have grown up around it. Originally painted brown, with the flight of time it has taken a grayish tinge, as if in sympathy with its venerable proprietor. It stands back from the roadway, and in summer has an air of modest seclusion. Elms, maples, and shrubbery give to the passer-by but chance glimpses of the wide veranda, which is indicated, rather than revealed, beyond the thickly clustering vines.
It is now late December, and in contrast with its leafy retirement the old homestead stands out with a sharp distinctness in the white landscape; and yet its sober hue harmonizes with the dark boles of the trees, and suggests that, like them, it is a natural growth of the soil, and quite as capable of clothing itself with foliage in the coming spring. This in a sense will be true when the greenery and blossoms of the wistaria, honeysuckle, and grape-vines appear, for their fibres and tendrils have clung to the old house so long that they may well be deemed an inseparable part of it. Even now it seems that the warmth, light, and comfort within are the sustaining influences which will carry them through, the coming days of frost and storm. A tall pine-tree towers above the northern gable of the dwelling, and it is ever sighing and moaning to itself, as if it possessed some unhappy family secret which it can neither reveal nor forget. On the hither side of its shade a carriage-drive curves toward an ancient horse-block, with many a lichen growing on the under side of the weather-beaten planks and supports. From this platform, where guests have been alighting for a generation or more, the drive passes to an old-fashioned carriage-house, in which are the great family sleigh and a light and gayly painted cutter, revealing that the home is not devoid of the young life to which winter's most exhilarating pastime is so dear. A quaint corn-crib is near, its mossy posts capped with inverted tin pans much corroded by rust. These prevent prowling rats and mice from climbing up among the golden treasures. Still further beyond are the gray old barn and stables, facing the south. Near their doors on the sunny side of the ample yard stand half a dozen ruminating cows, with possibly, between their wide-branching horns, a dim consciousness of the fields, now so white and cold, from which were cropped, in the long-past summer, far juicier morsels than now fall to their lot. Even into their sheltered nook the sun, far down in the south, throws but cold and watery gleams from a steel-colored sky, and as the northern blast eddies around the sheltering buildings the poor creatures shiver, and when their morning airing is over are glad to return to their warm, straw-littered stalls. Even the gallant and champion cock of the yard is chilled. With one foot drawn up into his fluffy feathers he stands motionless in the midst of his disconsolate harem with his eye fixed vacantly on the forbidding outlook. His dames appear neither to miss nor to invite his attentions, and their eyes, usually so bright and alert, often film in weary discontent. Nature, however, is oblivious to all the dumb protests of the barnyard, and the cold steadily strengthens.
Away on every side stretch the angular fields, outlined by fences that are often but white, continuous mounds, and also marked by trees and shrubs that, in their earlier life, ran the gantlet of the bush-hook. Here and there the stones of the higher and more abrupt walls crop out, while the board and rail fences appear strangely dwarfed by the snow that has fallen and drifted around them. The groves and wood-crowned hills still further away look as drearily uninviting as roofless dwellings with icy hearthstones and smokeless chimneys. Towering above all, on the right, is Storm King mountain, its granite rocks and precipices showing darkly here and there, as if its huge white mantle were old and ragged indeed. One might well shiver at the lonely, desolate wastes lying beyond it, grim hills and early-shadowed valleys, where the half-starved fox prowls, and watches for unwary rabbits venturing from their coverts to nibble the frozen twigs. The river, which above the Highlands broadens out into Newburgh Bay, has become a snowy plain, devoid, on this bitter day, of every sign of life. The Beacon hills, on the further side, frown forbiddingly through the intervening northern gale, sweeping southward into the mountain gorge.
On a day like this the most ardent lover of Nature could scarcely fail to shrink from her cold, pallid face and colder breath. Our return to the home, whose ruddy firelight is seen through the frosted window-panes, will be all the more welcome because we have been shivering so long without. The grace of hospitality has been a characteristic of the master of the house for over half a century, and therefore the reader need not fear to enter, especially at this Christmas-time, when the world, as if to make amends for the churlish welcome it gave to its Divine Guest, for whom no better place was found than a stable, now throws open the door and heart in kindly feeling and unselfish impulses.
We propose to make a long visit at this old-fashioned homestead. We shall become the close friends of its inmates, and share in their family life; they will introduce us to some of their neighbors, and take us on many breezy drives and pleasant excursions, with which it is their custom to relieve their busy life; we shall take part in their rural labors, and learn from them the secret of obtaining from nature that which nourishes both soul and body; they will admit us to their confidence, and give us glimpses of that mystery of mysteries, the human heart; and we shall learn how the ceaseless story of life, with its hopes and fears, its joys and sorrows, repeats itself in the quiet seclusion of a country home as truly as in the turmoil of the city. Nor would our visit be complete did we not witness among the ripened fruits of conjugal affection the bud and blossom of that immortal flower which first opened in Eden, and which ever springs unbidden from the heart when the conditions that give it life and sustenance are present.
The hallway of this central scene of our story is wide, and extends to a small piazza in the rear. The front half of this family thoroughfare, partitioned off by sliding-doors, can thus be made into a roomy apartment. Its breezy coolness causes it to be a favorite resort on sultry days, but now it is forsaken, except that a great heater, with its ample rotundity and glowing heart, suggests to the visitor that it stands there as a representative of the host until he shall appear. Some portraits, a fine old engraving, a map of the county, and some sprays of evergreen intermingled with red berries, take away all bareness from the walls, while in a corner near the door stands a rack, formed in part by the branching antlers of a stag, on which hang fur caps and collars, warm wraps and coats, all suggesting abundant means of robbing winter of its rigor. On hooks above the sliding-doors are suspended a modern rifle and a double-barrelled shot-gun, and above these is a firelock musket that did good service in the Revolution.
The doors opening into the rear hall were pushed back, revealing a broad stairway, leading with an abrupt turn and a landing to the upper chambers. A cheerful apartment on the left of this hall was the abode of an invalid, whose life for many years disease had vainly sought to darken. There were lines of suffering on her thin, white face, and her hair, once black, was silvered; but it would seem that, in the dark, lustrous eyes of the patient woman, courage and hope had been kindled, rather than quenched, by pain. She was now reclining on a sofa, which had been wheeled near to a wood-fire glowing on the hearth of a large Franklin stove; and her dreamy, absent expression often gave place to one of passing interest as her husband, sitting opposite, read from his paper an item of news--some echo from the busy, troubled world, that seemed so remote from their seclusion and peaceful age. The venerable man appeared, however, as if he might still do his share in keeping the world busy, and also in banishing its evils. Although time had whitened his locks, it had touched kindly his stalwart frame, while his square jaw and strong features indicated a character that had met life's vicissitudes as a man should meet them. His native strength and force, however, were like the beautiful region in which he dwelt--once wild and rugged indeed, but now softened and humanized by generations of culture. Even his spectacles could not obscure the friendly and benevolent expression of his large blue eyes. It was evident that he looked at the world, as mirrored before him in the daily journal, with neither cynicism nor mere curiosity, but with a heart in sympathy with all the influences that were making it better.
The sound of a bell caused the old man to rise and assist his wife to her feet; then, with an affectionate manner, tinged with a fine courtesy of the old school, he supported her to the dining-room, placed her in a cushioned chair on his right, at the head of the table, and drew a footstool to her feet. There was a gentleness and solicitude in his bearing which indicated that her weakness was more potent than strength would have been in maintaining her ascendency!
Meanwhile the rest of the family flocked in with an alacrity which proved either that the bitter cold had sharpened their appetites, or that the old-fashioned one-o'clock dinner was a cheerful break in the monotony of the day. There was a middle-aged man, who was evidently the strong stay and staff on which the old people leaned. His wife was the housekeeper of the family, and she was emphatically the "house-mother," as the Germans phrase it. Every line of her good, but rather care-worn, face bespoke an anxious solicitude about everybody and everything except herself. It was apparent that she had inherited not a little of the "Martha" spirit, and "was careful about many things;" but her slight tendency to worry saved others a world of worriment, for she was the household providence, and her numberless little anxieties led to so much prevention of evil that there was not much left to cure. Such was her untiring attention that her thoughtless, growing children seemed cared for by the silent forces of nature. Their clothes came to them like the leaves on the trees, and her deft fingers added little ornaments that cost the wearers no more thought than did the blossoms of spring to the unconscious plants of the garden. She was as essential to her husband as the oxygen in the air, and he knew it, although demonstrating his knowledge rather quietly, perhaps. But she understood him, and enjoyed a little secret exultation over the strong man's almost ludicrous helplessness and desolation when her occasional absences suspended for a brief time their conjugal partnership. She surrounded the old people with a perpetual Indian-summer haze of kindliness, which banished all hard, bleak outlines from their late autumnal life. In brief, she was what God and nature designed woman to be--the gracious, pervading spirit, that filled the roomy house with comfort and rest. Sitting near were her eldest son and pride, a lad about thirteen years of age, and a girl who, when a baby, had looked so like a boy that her father had called her "Johnnie," a sobriquet which still clung to her. Close to the mother's side was a little embodiment of vitality, mischief, and frolic, in the form of a four-year-old boy, the dear torment of the whole house.
There remain but two others to be mentioned, and the Clifford family will be complete, as constituted at present. The first was the youngest son of the aged man at the head of the table. He had inherited his father's features, but there was a dash of recklessness blended with the manifest frankness of his expression, and in his blue eyes there was little trace of shrewd calculation or forethought. Even during the quiet midday meal they flashed with an irrepressible mirthfulness, and not one at the table escaped his aggressive nonsense. His brother, two or three years his senior, was of a very different type, and seemed somewhat overshadowed by the other's brilliancy. He had his mother's dark eyes, but they were deep and grave, and he appeared reserved and silent, even in the home circle. His bronzed features were almost rugged in their strength, but a heavy mustache gave a touch of something like manly beauty to his rather sombre face. You felt instinctively that he was one who would take life seriously--perhaps a little too seriously--and that, whether it brought him joy or sorrow, he would admit the world but charily to his confidence.
Burtis, the youngest brother, had gone through college after a sort of neck-or-nothing fashion, and had been destined for one of the learned professions; but, while his natural ability had enabled him to run the gantlet of examinations, he had evinced such an unconquerable dislike for restraint and plodding study that he had been welcomed back to the paternal acres, which were broad enough for them all. Mr. Clifford, by various means, had acquired considerable property in his day, and was not at all disappointed that his sons should prefer the primal calling to any other, since it was within his power to establish them well when they were ready for a separate domestic life. It must be admitted, however, that thus far the rural tastes of Burtis were chiefly for free out-of-door life, with its accessories of rod, gun, and horses. But Leonard, the eldest, and Webb, the second in years, were true children of the soil, in the better sense of the term. Their country home had been so replete with interest from earliest memory that they had taken root there like the trees which their father had planted. Leonard was a practical farmer, content, in a measure, to follow the traditions of the elders. Webb, on the other hand, was disposed to look past the outward aspects of Nature to her hidden moods and motives, and to take all possible advantage of his discoveries. The farm was to him a laboratory, and, with something of the spirit of the old alchemists, he read, studied, and brooded over the problem of producing the largest results at the least cost. He was by no means deficient in imagination, or even in appreciation of the beautiful side of nature, when his thoughts were directed to this phase of the outer world; but his imagination had become materialistic, and led only to an eager quest after the obscure laws of cause and effect, which might enable him to accomplish what to his plodding neighbors would seem almost miraculous. He understood that the forces with which he was dealing were wellnigh infinite; and it was his delight to study them, to combine them, and make them his servants. It was his theory that the energy in nature was like a vast motive power, over which man could throw the belt of his skill and knowledge, and so produce results commensurate with the force of which he availed himself. There was, therefore, an unfailing zest in his work, and the majority of his labors had the character of experiments, which, nevertheless, were so guided by experience that they were rarely futile or unremunerative. On themes that accorded with his tastes and pursuits he would often talk earnestly and well, but his silence and preoccupation at other times proved that it is not best to be dominated by one idea, even though it be a large one.