The Shepherd of the Hills by Harold Bell Wright
Chapter XLI. The Other Side of the Story.
With a prayer in his heart for the boy who lay dying in that strange underground chamber, the artist's father began.
"It is the story, Mr. Matthews, of a man and his only son, the last of their family. With them will perish--has perished one of the oldest and proudest names in our country.
"From his childhood this man was taught the honored traditions of his people, and, thus trained in pride of ancestry, grew up to believe that the supreme things of life are what his kind call education, refinement, and culture. In his shallow egotism, he came to measure all life by the standards of his people.
"It was in keeping with this that the man should enter the pulpit of the church of his ancestors, and it was due very largely, no doubt, to the same ancestral influence that he became what the world calls a successful minister of the gospel. But Christianity to him was but little more than culture, and his place in the church merely an opportunity to add to the honor of his name. Soon after leaving the seminary, he married. The crowning moment of his life was when his first born--a boy--was laid in his arms. The second child was a girl; there were no more.
"For ten years before her death the wife was an invalid. The little girl, too, was never strong, and six months after they buried the mother the daughter was laid beside her.
"You, sir, can understand how the father lavished every care upon his son. The first offspring of the parents' love, the sole survivor of his home, and the last to bear the name of a family centuries old, he was the only hope of the proud man's ambition.
"The boy was a beautiful child, a delicate, sensitive soul in a body of uncommon physical grace and strength, and the proud father loved to think of him as the flower of long ages of culture and refinement. The minister, himself, jealously educated his son, and the two grew to be friends, sir, constant companions. This, also, you will understand--you and your boy. But with all this the young man did not follow his father in choosing his profession. He--he became an artist."
Old Matt started from his seat. Aunt Mollie uttered an exclamation. But the shepherd, without pausing, continued: "When his schooling was completed the boy came into the Ozarks one summer to spend the season painting. The man had expected to go with his son. For months they had planned the trip together, but at last something prevented, and the father could not go--no, he could not go--" The speaker's voice broke; the big mountaineer was breathing hard; Aunt Mollie was crying.
Presently Mr. Howitt went on. "When the young artist returned to his father, among many sketches of the mountains, he brought one painting that received instant recognition. The people stood before it in crowds when it was exhibited in the art gallery; the papers were extravagant in their praise; the artist became famous; and wealthy patrons came to his studio to sit for their portraits. The picture was of a beautiful girl, standing by a spring, holding out a dripping cup of water."
At this a wild oath burst from the giant. Springing to his feet, he started toward the speaker. Aunt Mollie screamed, "Grant, oh Grant! Think what Dad has done for us." The mountaineer paused.
"Mr. Matthews," said the shepherd, in trembling tones, "for my sake, will you not hear me to the end? for my sake?"
The big man dropped back heavily into his chair. "Go on," he said. But his voice was as the growl of a beast.
"The boy loved your girl, Mr. Matthews. It was as though he had left his soul in the hills. Night and day he heard her calling. The more his work was praised, the more his friends talked of honors and planned his future, the keener was his suffering, and most of all there was the shadow that had come between him and his father, breaking the old comradeship, and causing them to shun each other; though the father never knew why. The poor boy grew morose and despondent, giving way at times to spells of the deepest depression. He tried to lose himself in his work. He fled abroad and lived alone. It seemed a blight had fallen on his soul. The world called him mad. Many times he planned to take his life, but always the hope of meeting her again stopped him.
"At last he returned to this country determined to see her at any cost, and, if possible, gain her forgiveness and his father's consent to their marriage. He came into the hills only to find that the mother of his child had died of a broken heart.
"Then came the end. The artist disappeared, leaving a long, pitiful letter, saying that before the word reached his father, he would be dead. The most careful investigation brought nothing but convincing evidence that the unhappy boy had taken his own life. The artist knew that it would be a thousand times easier for the proud man to think his son dead than for him to know the truth, and he was right. Mr. Matthews, he was right. I cannot tell you of the man's suffering, but he found a little comfort in the reflection that such extravagant praise of his son's work had added to the honor of the family, for the lad's death was held by all to be the result of a disordered mind. There was not a whisper of wrong doing. His life, they said, was without reproach, and even his sad mental condition was held to be evidence of his great genius.
"The minister was weak, sir. He knew something of the intellectual side of his religion and the history of his church, but he knew little, very little, of the God that could sustain him in such a trial. He was shamefully weak. He tried to run away from his trouble, and, because the papers had made so much of his work as a preacher, and because of his son's fame, he gave only the first part of his name, thinking thus to get away from it all for a season.
"But God was to teach the proud man of culture and religious forms a great lesson, and to that end directed his steps. He was led here, here, sir, to your home, and you--you told him the story of his son's crime."
The shepherd paused. A hoarse whisper came from the giant in the chair, "You--you, Dad, your--name is--"
The other threw out his hand, as if to guard himself, and shrank back; "Hush, oh hush! I have no name but the name by which you know me. The man who bore that name is dead. In all his pride of intellect and position he died. Your prayers for vengeance were answered, sir. You--you killed him; killed him as truly as if you had plunged a knife into his heart; and--you--did--well."
Aunt Mollie moaned.
"Is that all?" growled the mountaineer.
"All! God, no! I--I must go on. I must tell you how the man you killed staid in the hills and was born again. There was nothing else for him to do but stay in the hills. With the shame and horror of his boy's disgrace on his heart, he could not go back-- back to the city, his friends and his church--to the old life. He knew that he could not hope to deceive them. He was not skilled in hiding things. Every kind word in praise of himself, or in praise of his son, would have been keenest torture. He was a coward; he dared not go back. His secret would have driven him mad, and he would have ended it all as his son had done. His only hope for peace was to stay here; here on the very spot where the wrong was done, and to do what little he could to atone for the crime.
"At first it was terrible; the long, lonely nights with no human friend near; the weight of shame; the memories; and the lonely wind--always the wind--in the trees--her voice, Pete said, calling for him to come. God, sir, I wonder the man did not die under his punishment!
"But God is good, Mr. Matthews. God is good and merciful. Every day out on the range with the sheep, the man felt the spirit of the hills, and little by little their strength and their peace entered into his life. The minister learned here, sir, what he had not learned in all his theological studies. He learned to know God, the God of these mountains. The hills taught him, and they came at last to stand between him and the trouble from which he had fled. The nights were no longer weary and long. He was never alone. The voices in the wilderness became friendly voices, for he learned their speech, and the poor girl ceased to call in the wailing wind. Then Dr. Coughlan came, and--"
Again the shepherd stopped. He could not go on. The light was gone from the sky and he felt the blackness of the night. But against the stars he could still see the crown of the mountain where his son lay. When he had gathered strength, he continued, saying simply, "Dr. Coughlan came, and--last night we learned that my son was not dead but living."
Again that growl like the growl of a wild beast came from the mountaineer. Silently Mr. Howitt prayed. "Go on," came the command in hoarse tones.
In halting, broken words, the shepherd faltered through the rest of his story as he told how, while using the cabin under the cliff as a studio, the artist had discovered the passage to the old Dewey cave; how, since his supposed death, he had spent the summers at the scene of his former happiness; how he had met his son roaming the hills at night, and had been able to have the boy with him much of the time; how he had been wounded the night Jim Lane was killed; and finally how Pete had led them to his bedside.
"He is dying yonder. Dr. Coughlan is with him--and Pete--Pete is there, too. I--I came for you. He is calling for you. I came to tell you. All that a man may suffer here, he has suffered, sir. Your prayer has been doubly answered, Mr. Matthews. Both father and son are dead. The name--the old name is perished from the face of the earth. For Christ's dear sake, forgive my boy, and let him go. For my sake, sir, I--I can bear no more."
Who but He that looketh upon the heart of man could know the battle that was fought in the soul of that giant of the hills? He uttered no sound. He sat in his seat as if made of stone; save once, when he walked to the end of the porch to stand with clenched hands and passion shaken frame, facing the dark clump of pines on the hill.
Slowly the moon climbed over the ridge and lighted the scene. The mountaineer returned to his chair. All at once he raised his head, and, leaning forward, looked long and earnestly at the old shepherd, where he sat crouching like a convict awaiting sentence.
From down the mill road came voices and the sound of horses' feet. Old Matt started, turning his head a moment to listen. The horses stopped at the lower gate.
"The children," said Aunt Mollie softly. "The children. Grant, Oh, Grant! Sammy and our boy."
Then the shepherd felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, and a voice, that had in it something new and strange, said, "Dad,--my brother,--Daniel, I--I ain't got no education, an' I--don't know rightly how to say it--but, Daniel, what these hills have been to you, you--you have been to me. It's sure God's way, Daniel. Let's--let's go to the boy."