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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThat Fortune - Chapter 1
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That Fortune - Chapter 1 Post by :Demworld Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :3243

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That Fortune - Chapter 1

CHAPTER I

On a summer day, long gone among the summer days that come but to go, a lad of twelve years was idly and recklessly swinging in the top of a tall hickory, the advance picket of a mountain forest. The tree was on the edge of a steep declivity of rocky pasture-land that fell rapidly down to the stately chestnuts, to the orchard, to the cornfields in the narrow valley, and the maples on the bank of the amber river, whose loud, unceasing murmur came to the lad on his aerial perch like the voice of some tradition of nature that he could not understand.

He had climbed to the topmost branch of the lithe and tough tree in order to take the full swing of this free creature in its sport with the western wind. There was something exhilarating in this elemental battle of the forces that urge and the forces that resist, and the harder the wind blew, and the wider circles he took in the free air, the more stirred the boy was in the spring of his life. Nature was taking him by the hand, and it might be that in that moment ambition was born to achieve for himself, to conquer.

If you had asked him why he was there, he would very likely have said, "To see the world." It was a world worth seeing. The prospect might be limited to a dull eye, but not to this lad, who loved to climb this height, in order to be with himself and indulge the dreams of youth. Any pretense would suffice for taking this hour of freedom: to hunt for the spicy checker-berries and the pungent sassafras; to aggravate the woodchucks, who made their homes in mysterious passages in this gravelly hillside; to get a nosegay of columbine for the girl who spelled against him in school and was his gentle comrade morning and evening along the river road where grew the sweet-flag and the snap-dragon and the barberry bush; to make friends with the elegant gray squirrel and the lively red squirrel and the comical chipmunk, who were not much afraid of this unarmed naturalist. They may have recognized their kinship to him, for he could climb like any squirrel, and not one of them could have clung more securely to this bough where he was swinging, rejoicing in the strength of his lithe, compact little body. When he shouted in pure enjoyment of life, they chattered in reply, and eyed him with a primeval curiosity that had no fear in it. This lad in short trousers, torn shirt, and a frayed straw hat above his mobile and cheerful face, might be only another sort of animal, a lover like themselves of the beech-nut and the hickory-nut.

It was a gay world up here among the tossing branches. Across the river, on the first terrace of the hill, were weather-beaten farmhouses, amid apple orchards and cornfields. Above these rose the wooded dome of Mount Peak, a thousand feet above the river, and beyond that to the left the road wound up, through the scriptural land of Bozrah, to high and lonesome towns on a plateau stretching to unknown regions in the south. There was no bar to the imagination in that direction. What a gracious valley, what graceful slopes, what a mass of color bathing this lovely summer landscape! Down from the west, through hills that crowded on either side to divert it from its course, ran the sparkling Deerfield, from among the springs and trout streams of the Hoosac, merrily going on to the great Connecticut. Along the stream was the ancient highway, or lowway, where in days before the railway came the stage-coach and the big transport-wagons used to sway and rattle along on their adventurous voyage from the gate of the Sea at Boston to the gate of the West at Albany.

Below, where the river spread wide among the rocks in shallows, or eddies in deep, dark pools, was the ancient, long, covered, wooden bridge, striding diagonally from rock to rock on stone columns, a dusky tunnel through the air, a passage of gloom flecked with glints of sunlight, that struggled in crosscurrents through the interstices of the boards, and set dancing the motes and the dust in a golden haze, a stuffy passage with odors a century old--who does not know the pungent smell of an old bridge?--a structure that groaned in all its big timbers when a wagon invaded it. And then below the bridge the lad could see the historic meadow, which was a cornfield in the eighteenth century, where Captain Moses Rice and Phineas Arms came suddenly one summer day to the end of their planting and hoeing. The house at the foot of the hill where the boy was cultivating his imagination had been built by Captain Rice, and in the family burying-ground in the orchard above it lay the body of this mighty militia-man, and beside him that of Phineas Arms, and on the headstone of each the legend familiar at that period of our national life, "Killed by the Indians." Happy Phineas Arms, at the age of seventeen to exchange in a moment the tedium of the cornfield for immortality.

There was a tradition that years after, when the Indians had disappeared through a gradual process of intoxication and pauperism, a red man had been seen skulking along the brow of this very hill and peering down through the bushes where the boy was now perched on a tree, shaking his fist at the hated civilization, and vengefully, some said pathetically, looking down into this valley where his race had been so happy in the natural pursuits of fishing, hunting, and war. On the opposite side of the river was still to be traced an Indian trail, running to the western mountains, which the boy intended some time to follow; for this highway of warlike forays, of messengers of defiance, along which white maidens had been led captive to Canada, appealed greatly to his imagination.

The boy lived in these traditions quite as much as in those of the Revolutionary War into which they invariably glided in his perspective of history, the redskins and the redcoats being both enemies of his ancestors. There was the grave of the envied Phineas Arms--that ancient boy not much older than he--and there were hanging in the kitchen the musket and powder-horn that his great-grandfather had carried at Bunker Hill, and did he not know by heart the story of his great-grandmother, who used to tell his father that she heard when she was a slip of a girl in Plymouth the cannonading on that awful day when Gage met his victorious defeat?

In fact, according to his history-book there had been little but wars in this peaceful nation: the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the incessant frontier wars with the Indians, the Kansas War, the Mormon War, the War for the Union. The echoes of the latter had not yet died away. What a career he might have had if he had not been born so late in the world! Swinging in this tree-top, with a vivid consciousness of life, of his own capacity for action, it seemed a pity that he could not follow the drum and the flag into such contests as he read about so eagerly.

And yet this was only a corner of the boy's imagination. He had many worlds and he lived in each by turn. There was the world of the Old Testament, of David and Samson, and of those dim figures in the dawn of history, called the Patriarchs. There was the world of Julius Caesar and the Latin grammar, though this was scarcely as real to him as the Old Testament, which was brought to his notice every Sunday as a necessity of his life, while Caesar and AEneas and the fourth declension were made to be a task, for some mysterious reason, a part of his education. He had not been told that they were really a part of the other world which occupied his mind so much of the time, the world of the Arabian Nights and Robinson Crusoe, and Coleridge and Shelley and Longfellow, and Washington Irving and Scott and Thackeray, and Pope's Iliad and Plutarch's Lives. That this was a living world to the boy was scarcely his fault, for it must be confessed that those were very antiquated book-shelves in the old farmhouse to which he had access, and the news had not been apprehended in this remote valley that the classics of literature were all as good as dead and buried, and that the human mind had not really created anything worth modern notice before about the middle of the nineteenth century. It was not exactly an ignorant valley, for the daily newspapers were there, and the monthly magazine, and the fashion-plate of Paris, and the illuminating sunshine of new science, and enough of the uneasy throb of modern life. Yet somehow the books that were still books had not been sent to the garret, to make room for the illustrated papers and the profound physiological studies of sin and suffering that were produced by touching a scientific button. No, the boy was conscious in a way of the mighty pulsation of American life, and he had also a dim notion that his dreams in his various worlds would come to a brilliant fulfillment when he was big enough to go out and win a name and fame. But somehow the old books, and the family life, and the sedate ways of the community he knew, had given him a fundamental and not unarmed faith in the things that were and had been.

Every Sunday the preacher denounced the glitter and frivolity and corruption of what he called Society, until the boy longed to see this splendid panorama of cities and hasting populations, the seekers of pleasure and money and fame, this gay world which was as fascinating as it was wicked. The preacher said the world was wicked and vain. It did not seem so to the boy this summer day, not at least the world he knew. Of course the boy had no experience. He had never heard of Juvenal nor of Max Nordau. He had no philosophy of life. He did not even know that when he became very old the world would seem to him good or bad according to the degree in which he had become a good or a bad man.

In fact, he was not thinking much about being good or being bad, but of trying his powers in a world which seemed to offer to him infinite opportunities. His name--Philip Burnett--with which the world, at least the American world, is now tolerably familiar, and which he liked to write with ornamental flourishes on the fly-leaves of his schoolbooks, did not mean much to him, for he had never seen it in print, nor been confronted with it as something apart from himself. But the Philip that he was he felt sure would do something in the world. What that something should be varied from day to day according to the book, the poem, the history or biography that he was last reading. It would not be difficult to write a poem like "Thanatopsis" if he took time enough, building up a line a day. And yet it would be better to be a soldier, a man who could use the sword as well as the pen, a poet in uniform. This was a pleasing imagination. Surely his aunt and his cousins in the farmhouse would have more respect for him if he wore a uniform, and treat him with more consideration, and perhaps they would be very anxious about him when he was away in battles, and very proud of him when he came home between battles, and went quite modestly with the family into the village church, and felt rather than saw the slight flutter in the pews as he walked down the aisle, and knew that the young ladies, the girl comrades of the district school, were watching him from the organ gallery, curious to see Phil, who had gone into the army. Perhaps the preacher would have a sermon against war, and the preacher should see how soldierlike he would take this attack on him. Alas! is such vanity at the bottom of even a reasonable ambition? Perhaps his town would be proud of him if he were a lawyer, a Representative in Congress, come back to deliver the annual oration at the Agricultural Fair. He could see the audience of familiar faces, and hear the applause at his witty satires and his praise of the nobility of the farmer's life, and it would be sweet indeed to have the country people grasp him by the hand and call him Phil, just as they used to before he was famous. What he would say, he was not thinking of, but the position he would occupy before the audience. There were no misgivings in any of these dreams of youth.

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