Wood-Magic by Henry Van Dyke
There are three vines that belong to the ancient forest. Elsewhere they will not grow, though the soil prepared for them be never so rich, the shade of the arbour built for them never so closely and cunningly woven. Their delicate, thread-like roots take no hold upon the earth tilled and troubled by the fingers of man. The fine sap that steals through their long, slender limbs pauses and fails when they are watered by human hands. Silently the secret of their life retreats and shrinks away and hides itself.
But in the woods, where falling leaves and crumbling tree-trunks and wilting ferns have been moulded by Nature into a deep, brown humus, clean and fragrant--in the woods, where the sunlight filters green and golden through interlacing branches, and where pure moisture of distilling rains and melting snows is held in treasury by never-failing banks of moss--under the verdurous flood of the forest, like sea-weeds under the ocean waves, these three little creeping vines put forth their hands with joy, and spread over rock and hillock and twisted tree-root and mouldering log, in cloaks and scarves and wreaths of tiny evergreen, glossy leaves.
One of them is adorned with white pearls sprinkled lightly over its robe of green. This is Snowberry, and if you eat of it, you will grow wise in the wisdom of flowers. You will know where to find the yellow violet, and the wake-robin, and the pink lady-slipper, and the scarlet sage, and the fringed gentian. You will understand how the buds trust themselves to the spring in their unfolding, and how the blossoms trust themselves to the winter in their withering, and how the busy bands of Nature are ever weaving the beautiful garment of life out of the strands of death, and nothing is lost that yields itself to her quiet handling.
Another of the vines of the forest is called Partridge-berry. Rubies are hidden among its foliage, and if you eat of this fruit, you will grow wise in the wisdom of birds. You will know where the oven-bird secretes her nest, and where the wood-cock dances in the air at night; the drumming-log of the ruffed grouse will be easy to find, and you will see the dark lodges of the evergreen thickets inhabited by hundreds of warblers. There will be no dead silence for you in the forest, any longer, but you will hear sweet and delicate voices on every side, voices that you know and love; you will catch the key-note of the silver flute of the woodthrush, and the silver harp of the veery, and the silver bells of the hermit; and something in your heart will answer to them all. In the frosty stillness of October nights you will see the airy tribes flitting across the moon, following the secret call that guides them southward. In the calm brightness of winter sunshine, filling sheltered copses with warmth and cheer, you will watch the lingering blue-birds and robins and song-sparrows playing at summer, while the chickadees and the juncos and the cross-bills make merry in the windswept fields. In the lucent mornings of April you will hear your old friends coming home to you, Phoebe, and Oriole, and Yellow-Throat, and Red-Wing, and Tanager, and Cat-Bird. When they call to you and greet you, you will understand that Nature knows a secret for which man has never found a word--the secret that tells itself in song.
The third of the forest-vines is Wood-Magic. It bears neither flower nor fruit. Its leaves are hardly to be distinguished from the leaves of the other vines. Perhaps they are a little rounder than the Snowberry's, a little more pointed than the Partridge-berry's; sometimes you might mistake them for the one, sometimes for the other. No marks of warning have been written upon them. If you find them it is your fortune; if you taste them it is your fate.
For as you browse your way through the forest, nipping here and there a rosy leaf of young winter-green, a fragrant emerald tip of balsam-fir, a twig of spicy birch, if by chance you pluck the leaves of Wood-Magic and eat them, you will not know what you have done, but the enchantment of the tree-land will enter your heart and the charm of the wildwood will flow through your veins.
You will never get away from it. The sighing of the wind through the pine-trees and the laughter of the stream in its rapids will sound through all your dreams. On beds of silken softness you will long for the sleep-song of whispering leaves above your head, and the smell of a couch of balsam-boughs. At tables spread with dainty fare you will be hungry for the joy of the hunt, and for the angler's sylvan feast. In proud cities you will weary for the sight of a mountain trail; in great cathedrals you will think of the long, arching aisles of the woodland; and in the noisy solitude of crowded streets you will hone after the friendly forest.
This is what will happen to you if you eat the leaves of that little vine, Wood-Magic. And this is what happened to Luke Dubois.
The Cabin by the Rivers
Two highways meet before the door, and a third reaches away to the southward, broad and smooth and white. But there are no travellers passing by. The snow that has fallen during the night is unbroken. The pale February sunrise makes blue shadows on it, sharp and jagged, an outline of the fir-trees on the mountain-crest quarter of, a mile away.
In summer the highways are dissolved into three wild rivers--the River of Rocks, which issues from the hills; the River of Meadows, which flows from the great lake; and the River of the Way Out, which runs down from their meeting-place to the settlements and the little world. But in winter, when the ice is firm under the snow, and the going is fine, there are no tracks upon the three broad roads except the paths of the caribou, and the footprints of the marten and the mink and the fox, and the narrow trails made by Luke Dubois on his way to and from his cabin by the rivers.
He leaned in the door-way, looking out. Behind him in the shadow, the fire was still snapping in the little stove where he had cooked his breakfast. There was a comforting smell of bacon and venison in the room; the tea-pot stood on the table half-empty. Here in the corner were his rifle and some of his traps. On the wall hung his snowshoes. Under the bunk was a pile of skins. Half-open on the bench lay the book that he had been reading the evening before, while the snow was falling. It was a book of veritable fairy-tales, which told how men had made their way in the world, and achieved great fortunes, and won success, by toiling hard at first, and then by trading and bargaining and getting ahead of other men.
"Well," said Luke, to himself, as he stood at the door, "I could do that too. Without doubt I also am one of the men who can do things. They did not work any harder than I do. But they got better pay. I am twenty-five. For ten years I have worked hard, and what have I got for it? This!"
He stepped out into the morning, alert and vigorous, deep-chested and straight-hipped. The strength of the hills had gone into him, and his eyes were bright with health. His kingdom was spread before him. There along the River of Meadows were the haunts of the moose and the caribou where he hunted in the fall; and yonder on the burnt hills around the great lake were the places where he watched for the bears; and up beside the River of Rocks ran his line of traps, swinging back by secret ways to many a nameless pond and hidden beaver-meadow; and all along the streams, when the ice went out in the spring, the great trout would be leaping in rapid and pool. Among the peaks and valleys of that forest-clad kingdom he could find his way as easily as a merchant walks from his house to his office. The secrets of bird and beast were known to him; every season of the year brought him its own tribute; the woods were his domain, vast, inexhaustible, free.
Here was his home, his cabin that he had built with his own hands. The roof was tight, the walls were well chinked with moss. It was snug and warm. But small--how pitifully small it looked to-day--and how lonely!
His hand-sledge stood beside the door, and against it leaned the axe. He caught it up and began to split wood for the stove. "No!" he cried, throwing down the axe, "I'm tired of this. It has lasted long enough. I'm going out to make my way in the world."
A couple of hours later, the sledge was packed with camp-gear and bundles of skins. The door of the cabin was shut; a ghostlike wreath of blue smoke curled from the chimney. Luke stood, in his snowshoes, on the white surface of the River of the Way Out. He turned to look back for a moment, and waved his hand.
"Good-bye, old cabin! Good-bye, the rivers! Good-bye, the woods!"
The House on the Main Street
All the good houses in Scroll-Saw City were different, in the number and shape of the curious pinnacles that rose from their roofs and in the trimmings of their verandas. Yet they were all alike, too, in their general expression of putting their best foot foremost and feeling quite sure that they made a brave show. They had lace curtains in their front parlour windows, and outside of the curtains were large red and yellow pots of artificial flowers and indestructible palms and vulcanised rubber-plants. It was a gay sight.
But by far the bravest of these houses was the residence of Mr. Matthew Wilson, the principal merchant of Scroll-Saw City. It stood on a corner of Main Street, glancing slyly out of the tail of one eye, side-ways down the street, toward the shop and the business, but keeping a bold, complacent front toward the street-cars and the smaller houses across the way. It might well be satisfied with itself, for it had three more pinnacles than any of its neighbours, and the work of the scroll-saw was looped and festooned all around the eaves and porticoes and bay-windows in amazing richness. Moreover, in the front yard were cast-iron images painted white: a stag reposing on a door-mat; Diana properly dressed and returning from the chase; a small iron boy holding over his head a parasol from the ferrule of which a fountain squirted. The paths were of asphalt, gray and gritty in winter, but now, in the summer heat, black and pulpy to the tread.
There were many feet passing over them this afternoon, for Mr. and Mrs. Matthew Wilson were giving a reception to celebrate the official entrance of their daughter Amanda into a social life which she had permeated unofficially for several years. The house was sizzling full of people. Those who were jammed in the parlour tried to get into the dining-room, and those who were packed in the dining-room struggled to escape, holding plates of stratified cake and liquefied ice-cream high above their neighbours' heads like signals of danger and distress. Everybody was talking at the same time, in a loud, shrill voice, and nobody listened to what anybody else was saying. But it did not matter, for they all said the same things.
"Elegant house for a party, so full of--" "How perfectly lovely Amanda Wilson looks in that--" "Awfully warm day! Were you at the Tompkins' last--" "Wilson's Emporium must be doing good business to keep up all this--" "Hear he's going to enlarge the store and take Luke Woods into the--"
"Shouldn't wonder if there might be a wedding here before next--"
The tide of chatter rose and swelled and ebbed and suddenly sank away. At six o'clock, the minister and two maiden ladies in black silk with lilac ribbons, laid down their last plates of ice-cream and said they thought they must be going. Amanda and her mother preened their dresses and patted their hair. Come into the study," said Mr. Wilson to Luke. "I want to have a talk with you."
The little bookless room, called the study, was the one that kept its eye on the shop and the business, away down the street. You could see the brick front, and the plate-glass windows, and part of the gilt sign.
"Pretty good store," said Mr. Wilson, jingling the keys in his pocket, "does the biggest trade in the county, biggest but one in the whole state, I guess. And I must say, Luke Woods, you've done your share, these last five years, in building it up. Never had a clerk work so hard and so steady. You've got good business sense, I guess."
"I'm glad you think so," said Luke. "I did as well as I could."
"Yes," said the elder man, "and now I'm about ready to take you in with me, give you a share in the business. I want some one to help me run it, make it larger. We can double it, easy, if we stick to it and spread out. No reason why you shouldn't make a fortune out of it, and have a house just like this on the other corner, when you're my age."
Luke's thoughts were wandering a little. They went out from the stuffy room, beyond the dusty street, and the jangling cars, and the gilt sign, and the shop full of dry-goods and notions, and the high desks in the office--out to the dim, cool forest, where Snowberry and Partridge-berry and Wood-Magic grow. He heard the free winds rushing over the tree-tops, and saw the trail winding away before him in the green shade.
"You are very kind," said he, "I hope you will not be disappointed in me. Sometimes I think, perhaps--"
"Not at all, not at all," said the other. "It's all right. You're well fitted for it. And then, there's another thing. I guess you like my daughter Amanda pretty well. Eh? I've watched you, young man. I've had my eye on you! Now, of course, I can't say much about it--never can be sure of these kind of things, you know--but if you and she--"
The voice went on rolling out words complacently. But something strange was working in Luke's blood, and other voices were sounding faintly in his ears. He heard the lisping of the leaves on the little poplar-trees, the whistle of the black duck's wings as he circled in the air, the distant drumming of the grouse on his log, the rumble of the water-fall in the River of Rocks. The spray cooled his face. He saw the fish rising along the pool, and a stag feeding among the lily-pads.
"I don't know how to thank you, Mr. Wilson," said he at last, when the elder man stopped talking. "You have certainly treated me most generously. The only question is, whether-- But to-morrow night, I think, with your consent, I will speak to your daughter. To-night I am going down to the store; there is a good deal of work to do on the books."
But when Luke came to the store, he did not go in. He walked along the street till he came to the river.
The water-side was strangely deserted. Everybody was at supper. A couple of schooners were moored at the wharf. The Portland steamer had gone out. The row-boats hung idle at their little dock. Down the river, drifting and dancing lightly over the opalescent ripples, following the gentle turns of the current which flowed past the end of the dock where Luke was standing, came a white canoe, empty and astray.
The White Canoe
"That looks just like my old canoe," said he. "Somebody must have left it adrift up the river. I wonder how it floated down here without being picked up." He put out his hand and caught it, as it touched the dock.
In the stern a good paddle of maple-wood was lying; in the middle there was a roll of blankets and a pack of camp-stuff; in the bow a rifle.
"All ready for a trip," he laughed. "Nobody going but me? Well, then, au large!" And stepping into the canoe he pushed out on the river.
The saffron and golden lights in the sky diffused themselves over the surface of the water, and spread from the bow of the canoe in deeper waves of purple and orange, as he paddled swiftly up stream. The pale yellow gas-lamps of the town faded behind him. The lumber-yards and factories and disconsolate little houses of the outskirts seemed to melt away. In a little while he was floating between dark walls of forest, through the heart of the wilderness.
The night deepened around him and the sky hung out its thousand lamps. Odours of the woods floated on the air: the spicy fragrance of the firs; the breath of hidden banks of twin-flower. Muskrats swam noiselessly in the shadows, diving with a great commotion as the canoe ran upon them suddenly. A horned owl hooted from the branch of a dead pine-tree; far back in the forest a fox barked twice. The moon crept up behind the wall of trees and touched the stream with silver.
Presently the forest receded: the banks of the river grew broad and open; the dew glistened on the tall grass; it was surely the River of Meadows. Far ahead of him in a bend of the stream, Luke's ear caught a new sound: SLOSH, SLOSH, SLOSH, as if some heavy animal were crossing the wet meadow. Then a great splash! Luke swung the canoe into the shadow of the bank and paddled fast. As he turned the point a black bear came out of the river, and stood on the shore, shaking the water around him in glittering spray. Ping! said the rifle, and the bear fell. "Good luck!" said Luke. "I haven't forgotten how, after all. I'll take him into the canoe, and dress him up at the camp."
Yes, there was the little cabin at the meeting of the rivers. The door was padlocked, but Luke knew how to pry off one of the staples. Squirrels had made a litter on the floor, but that was soon swept out, and a fire crackled in the stove. There was tea and ham and bread in the pack in the canoe. Supper never tasted better. "One more night in the old camp," said Luke as he rolled himself in the blanket and dropped asleep in a moment.
The sun shone in at the door and woke him. "I must have a trout for breakfast," he cried, "there's one waiting for me at the mouth of Alder Brook, I suppose." So he caught up his rod from behind the door, and got into the canoe and paddled up the River of Rocks. There was the broad, dark pool, like a little lake, with a rapid running in at the head, and close beside the rapid, the mouth of the brook. He sent his fly out by the edge of the alders. There was a huge swirl on the water, and the great-grandfather of all the trout in the river was hooked. Up and down the pool he played for half an hour, until at last the fight was over, and for want of a net Luke beached him on the gravel bank at the foot of the pool.
"Seven pounds if it's an ounce," said he. "This is my lucky day. Now all I need is some good meat to provision the camp."
He glanced down the river, and on the second point below the pool he saw a great black bullmoose with horns five feet wide.
Quietly, swiftly, the canoe went gliding down the stream; and ever as it crept along, the moose loped easily before it, from point to point, from bay to bay, past the little cabin, down the River of the Way Out, now rustling unseen through a bank of tall alders, now standing out for a moment bold and black on a beach of white sand--so all day long the moose loped down the stream and the white canoe followed. Just as the setting sun was poised above the trees, the great bull stopped and stood with head lifted. Luke pushed the canoe as near as he dared, and looked down for the rifle. He had left it at the cabin! The moose tossed his huge antlers, grunted, and stepped quietly over the bushes into the forest.
Luke paddled on down the stream. It occurred to him, suddenly, that it was near evening. He wondered a little how he should reach home in time for his engagement. But it did not seem strange, as he went swiftly on with the river, to see the first houses of the town, and the lumber-yards, and the schooners at the wharf.
He made the canoe fast at the dock, and went up the Main Street. There was the old shop, but the sign over it read, "Wilson and Woods Company, The Big Store." He went on to the house with the white iron images in the front yard. Diana was still returning from the chase. The fountain still squirted from the point of the little boy's parasol.
On the veranda sat a stout man in a rocking chair, reading the newspaper. At the side of the house two little girls with pig-tails were playing croquet. Some one in the parlour was executing "After the Ball is Over" on a mechanical piano.
Luke accosted a stranger who passed him. "Excuse me, but can you tell me whether this is Mr. Matthew Wilson's house?"
"It used to be," said the stranger, "but old man Wilson has been dead these ten years."
"And who lives here now?" asked Luke.
"Mr. Woods: he married Wilson's daughter," said the stranger, and went on his way.
"Well," said Luke to himself, "this is just a little queer. Woods was my name for a while, when I lived here, but now, I suppose, I'm Luke Dubois again. Dashed if I can understand it. Somebody must have been dreaming."
So he went back to the white canoe, and paddled away up the river, and nobody in Scroll-Saw City ever set eyes on him again.