Chapter I. A Remarkable Woman.
 

I remember as well as though it were yesterday the first time I met Auntie Sue.

It happened during my first roaming visit to the Ozarks, when I had wandered by chance, one day, into the Elbow Rock neighborhood. Twenty years it was, at least, before the time of this story. She was standing in the door of her little schoolhouse, the ruins of which you may still see, halfway up the long hill from the log house by the river, where the most of this story was lived.

It was that season of the year when the gold and brown of our Ozark Hills is overlaid with a filmy veil of delicate blue haze and the world is hushed with the solemn sweetness of the passing of the summer. And as the old gentlewoman stood there in the open door of that rustic temple of learning, with the deep-shadowed, wooded hillside in the background, and, in front, the rude clearing with its crooked rail fence along which the scarlet sumac flamed, I thought,--as I still think, after all these years,--that I had never before seen such a woman.

Fifty years had gone into the making of that sterling character which was builded upon a foundation of many generations of noble ancestors. Without home or children of her own, the life strength of her splendid womanhood had been given to the teaching of boys and girls. An old-maid schoolteacher? Yes,--if you will. But, as I saw her standing there that day,--tall and slender, dressed in a simple gown that was fitting to her work,--there was a queenly dignity, a stately sweetness, in her bearing that made me feel, somehow, as if I had come unexpectedly into the presence of royalty. Not the royalty of caste and court and station with their glittering pretenses of superiority and their superficial claims to distinction,--I do not mean that; I mean that true royalty which needs no caste or court or station but makes itself felt because it IS.

She did not notice me at first, for the noise of the children at play in the yard covered the sound of my approach, and she was looking far, far away, over the river which lay below at the foot of the hill; over the forest-clad mountains in the glory of their brown and gold; over the vast sweep of the tree-crowned Ozark ridges that receded wave after wave into the blue haze until, in the vastness of the distant sky, they were lost. And something made me know that, in the moment's respite from her task, the woman was looking even beyond the sky itself.

Her profile, clean-chiselled, but daintily formed, was beautiful in its gentle strength. Her hair was soft and silvery like the gray mist of the river in the morning. Then she turned to greet me, and I saw her eyes. Boy that I was then, and not given overmuch to serious thought, I knew that the high, unwavering purpose, the loving sympathy, and tender understanding that shone in the calm depth of those eyes could belong only to one who habitually looks unafraid beyond all earthly scenes. Only those who have learned thus to look beyond the material horizon of our little day have that beautiful inner light which shone in the eyes of Auntie Sue--the teacher of a backwoods school.

Auntie Sue had come to the Elbow Rock neighborhood the summer preceding that fall when I first met her. She had grown too old, she said, with her delightful little laugh, to be of much use in the larger schools of the more thickly populated sections of the country. But she was still far too young, she stoutly maintained, to be altogether useless.

Tom Warden, who lived just over the ridge from the schoolhouse, and who was blessed with the largest wife, the largest family, and the most pretentious farm in the county, had kinsfolk somewhere in Illinois. Through these relatives of the Ozark farmer Miss Susan Wakefield had learned of the needs of the Elbow Rock school, and so, finally, had come into the hills. It was the influential Tom who secured for her the modest position. It was the motherly Mrs. Tom who made her at home in the Warden household. It was the Warden boys and girls who first called her "Auntie Sue." But it was Auntie Sue herself who won so large a place in the hearts of the simple mountain folk of the district that she held her position year after year, until she finally gave up teaching altogether.

Not one of her Ozark friends ever came to know in detail the history of this remarkable woman's life. It was known in a general way that she was born in Connecticut; that she had a brother somewhere in some South-American country; that two other brothers had been killed in the Civil War; that she had taught in the lower and intermediate grades of public schools in various places all the years of her womanhood. Also, it was known that she had never married.

"And that," said Uncle Lige Potter, voicing the unanimous opinion, of the countryside, "is a doggone funny thing and plumb unnatural, considerin' the kind of woman she is."

To which Lem Jordan,--who was then living with his fourth wife, and might therefore be held to speak with a degree of authority,--added: "Hit sure is a dad burned shame, an' a plumb disgrace to the men of this here country, when you come to look at the sort of wimmen most of 'em are a marryin' most of the time."

Another matter of universal and never-failing interest to the mountain folk was the unprecedented number of letters that Auntie Sue received and wrote. That some of these letters written by their backwoods teacher were addressed to men and women of such prominence in the world that their names were known even to that remote Ozark district was a source of no little pride to Auntie Sue's immediate neighbors, and served to mark her in their eyes with no small distinction.

It was during the fourth year of her life amid the scenes of this story,--as I recall time,--that Auntie Sue invested the small savings of her working years in the little log house by the river and the eighty acres of land known as the "Old Bill Wilson place."

The house was a substantial building of three rooms, a lean-to kitchen, and a porch overlooking the river. The log barn, with "Prince," a gentle old horse, and "Bess," a mild-mannered, brindle cow, completed the modest establishment. About thirty acres of the land were cleared and under cultivation of a sort. The remaining acreage was in timber. The price, under the kindly and expert supervision of Tom Warden, was fifteen dollars an acre. But Auntie Sue always laughingly insisted that she really paid fifty cents an acre for the land and fourteen dollars and a half an acre for the sunsets.

The tillable land, except for the garden, she "let out on shares," always under the friendly guardianship of neighbor Tom; while Tom's boys cared for the little garden in season, and saw to it that the woodpile was always ample and ready for the stove. And, in addition to these fixed and regular homely services, there were many offerings of helpful hands whenever other needs arose; for, as time passed, there came to be in all the Elbow Rock district scarce a man, young or old, who did not now and then honor himself by doing some little job for Auntie Sue; while the women and girls, in the same neighborly spirit, brought from their own humble households many tokens of their loving thoughtfulness. And never did one visit that little log house by the river without the consciousness of something received from the silvery-haired old teacher--a something intangible, perhaps, which they could not have expressed in words, but which, nevertheless, enriched the lives of those simple mountain people with a very real joy and a very tangible happiness.

For six years, Auntie Sue continued teaching the Elbow Rock school;--climbing the hill in the morning from her log house by the river to the cabin schoolhouse in the clearing on the mountain-side above; returning in the late afternoon, when her day's work was over, down the winding road to her little home, there to watch, from the porch that overlooked the river, the sunset in the evening. And every year the daily climb grew a little harder; the days of work grew a little longer; she went down the hill in the afternoon a little slower. And every year the sunsets were to her eyes more beautiful; the evening skies to her understanding glowed with richer meaning; the twilight hours filled her heart with a deeper peace.

And so, at last, her teaching days were over; that is, she taught no more in the log schoolhouse in the clearing on the mountain-side. But in her little home beside the river she continued her work; not from text-books, indeed, but as all such souls must continue to teach, until the sun sets for the last time upon their mortal days.

Work-worn, toil-hardened mountaineer mothers, whose narrow world denied them so many of the finer thoughts and things, came to counsel with this childless woman, and to learn from her a little of the art of contentment and happiness. Strong men, of rude dress and speech, whose lives were as rough as the hills in which they were reared, and whose thoughts were often as crude as their half-savage and sometimes lawless customs, came to sit at the feet of this gentle one, who received them all with such kindly interest and instinctive understanding. And young men and girls came, drawn by the magic that was hers, to confide in this woman who listened with such rare tact and loving sympathy to their troubles and their dreams, and who, in the deepest things of their young lives, was mother to them all.

Nor were the mountain folk her only disciples. Always there were the letters she continued to write, addressed to almost every corner of the land. And every year there would come, for a week or a month, at different times during the summer, men and women from the great world of larger affairs who had need of the strength and courage and patience and hope they never failed to find in that little log house by the river. And so, in time, it came to be known that those letters written by Auntie Sue went to men and women who, in their childhood school days, had received from her their first lessons in writing; and that her visitors, many of them distinguished in the world of railroads and cities, were of that large circle of busy souls who had never ceased to be her pupils.

Thus it came that the garden was made a little larger, and two rooms were added to the house, with other modest improvements, to accommodate Auntie Sue's grown-up boys and girls when they came to visit her. But never was there a hired servant, so that her guests must do their own household tasks, because, Auntie Sue said, that was good for them and mostly what they needed.

It should also be said here that among her many pupils who lived beyond the sky-line of the far, blue hills, not one knew more of the real secret of Auntie Sue's life and character than did the Ozark mountaineers of the Elbow Rock district, among whom she had chosen to pass the evening of her day.

Then came one who learned the secret. He learned--but that is my story. I must not tell the secret here.