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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThat Fortune - Chapter 2
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That Fortune - Chapter 2 Post by :Finner Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :844

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That Fortune - Chapter 2

CHAPTER II

The musings of this dreamer in a tree-top were interrupted by the peremptory notes of a tin horn from the farmhouse below. The boy recognized this not only as a signal of declining day and the withdrawal of the sun behind the mountains, but as a personal and urgent notification to him that a certain amount of disenchanting drudgery called chores lay between him and supper and the lamp-illumined pages of The Last of the Mohicans. It was difficult, even in his own estimation, to continue to be a hero at the summons of a tin horn--a silver clarion and castle walls would have been so different--and Phil slid swiftly down from his perch, envying the squirrels who were under no such bondage of duty.

Recalled to the world that now is, the lad hastily gathered a bouquet of columbine and a bunch of the tender leaves and the red berries of the wintergreen, called to "Turk," who had been all these hours watching a woodchuck hole, and ran down the hill by leaps and circuits as fast as his little legs could carry him, and, with every appearance of a lad who puts duty before pleasure, arrived breathless at the kitchen door, where Alice stood waiting for him. Alice, the somewhat feeble performer on the horn, who had been watching for the boy with her hand shading her eyes, called out upon his approach:

"Why, Phil, what in the world--"

"Oh, Alice!" cried the boy, eagerly, having in a moment changed in his mind the destination of the flowers; "I've found a place where the checker-berries are thick as spatter." And Phil put the flowers and the berries in his cousin's hand. Alice looked very much pleased with this simple tribute, but, as she admired it, unfortunately asked--women always ask such questions:

"And you picked them for me?"

This was a cruel dilemma. Phil was more devoted to his sweet cousin than to any one else in the world, and he didn't want to hurt her feelings, and he hated to tell a lie. So he only looked a lie, out of his affectionate, truthful eyes, and said:

"I love to bring you flowers. Has uncle come home yet?"

"Yes, long ago. He called and looked all around for you to unharness the horse, and he wanted you to go an errand over the river to Gibson's. I guess he was put out."

"Did he say anything?"

"He asked if you had weeded the beets. And he said that you were the master boy to dream and moon around he ever saw." And she added, with a confidential and mischievous smile: "I think you'd better brought a switch along; it would save time."

Phil had a great respect for his uncle Maitland, but he feared him almost more than he feared the remote God of Abraham and Isaac. Mr. Maitland was not only the most prosperous man in all that region, but the man of the finest appearance, and a bearing that was equity itself. He was the first selectman of the town, and a deacon in the church, and however much he prized mercy in the next world he did not intend to have that quality interfere with justice in this world. Phil knew indeed that he was a man of God, that fact was impressed upon him at least twice a day, but he sometimes used to think it must be a severe God to have that sort of man. And he didn't like the curt way he pronounced the holy name--he might as well have called Job "job."

Alice was as unlike her father, except in certain race qualities of integrity and common-sense, as if she were of different blood. She was the youngest of five maiden sisters, and had arrived at the mature age of eighteen. Slender in figure, with a grace that was half shyness, soft brown hair, gray eyes that changed color and could as easily be sad as merry, a face marked with a moving dimple that every one said was lovely, retiring in manner and yet not lacking spirit nor a sly wit of her own. Now and then, yes, very often, out of some paradise, no doubt, strays into New England conditions of reticence and self-denial such a sweet spirit, to diffuse a breath of heaven in its atmosphere, and to wither like a rose ungathered. These are the New England nuns, not taking any vows, not self-consciously virtuous, apparently untouched by the vanities of the world. Marriage? It is not in any girl's nature not to think of that, not to be in a flutter of pleasure or apprehension at the attentions of the other sex. Who has been able truly to read the thoughts of a shrinking maiden in the passing days of her youth and beauty? In this harmonious and unselfish household, each with decided individual character, no one ever intruded upon the inner life of the other. No confidences were given in the deep matters of the heart, no sign except a blush over a sly allusion to some one who had been "attentive." If you had stolen a look into the workbasket or the secret bureau-drawer, you might have found a treasured note, a bit of ribbon, a rosebud, some token of tenderness or of friendship that was growing old with the priestess who cherished it. Did they not love flowers, and pets, and had they not a passion for children? Were there not moonlight evenings when they sat silent and musing on the stone steps, watching the shadows and the dancing gleams on the swift river, when the air was fragrant with the pink and the lilac? Not melancholy this, nor poignantly sad, but having in it nevertheless something of the pathos of life unfulfilled. And was there not sometimes, not yet habitually, coming upon these faces, faces plain and faces attractive, the shade of renunciation?

Phil loved Alice devotedly. She was his confidante, his defender, but he feared more the disapproval of her sweet eyes when he had done wrong than the threatened punishment of his uncle.

"I only meant to be gone just a little while," Phil went on to say.

"And you were away the whole afternoon. It is a pity the days are so short. And you don't know what you lost."

"No great, I guess."

"Celia and her mother were here. They stayed all the afternoon."

"Celia Howard? Did she wonder where I was?"

"I don't know. She didn't say anything about it. What a dear little thing she is!"

"And she can say pretty cutting things."

"Oh, can she? Perhaps you'd better run down to the village before dark and take her these flowers."

"I'm not going. I'd rather you should have the flowers." And Phil spoke the truth this time.

Celia, who was altogether too young to occupy seriously the mind of a lad of twelve, had nevertheless gained an ascendancy over him because of her willful, perverse, and sometimes scornful ways, and because she was different from the other girls of the school. She had read many more books than Phil, for she had access to a library, and she could tell him much of a world that he only heard of through books and newspapers, which latter he had no habit of reading. He liked, therefore, to be with Celia, not withstanding her little airs of superiority, and if she patronized him, as she certainly did, probably the simple-minded young gentleman, who was unconsciously bred in the belief that he and his own kin had no superiors anywhere, never noticed it. To be sure they quarreled a good deal, but truth to say Phil was never more fascinated with the little witch, whom he felt himself strong enough to protect, than when she showed a pretty temper. He rather liked to be ordered about by the little tyrant. And sometimes he wished that Murad Ault, the big boy of the school, would be rude to the small damsel, so that he could show her how a knight would act under such circumstances. Murad Ault stood to Phil for the satanic element in his peaceful world. He was not only big and strong of limb and broad of chest, but he was very swarthy, and had closely curled black hair. He feared nothing, not even the teacher, and was always doing some dare-devil thing to frighten the children. And because he was dark, morose, and made no friends, and wished none, but went solitary his own dark way, Phil fancied that he must have Spanish blood in his veins, and would no doubt grow up to be a pirate. No other boy in the winter could skate like Murad Ault, with such strength and grace and recklessness--thin ice and thick ice were all one to him, but he skated along, dashing in and out, and sweeping away up and down the river in a whirl of vigor and daring, like a black marauder. Yet he was best and most awesome in the swimming pond in summer--though it was believed that he dared go in in the bitter winter, either by breaking the ice or through an air-hole, and there was a story that he had ventured under the ice as fearless as a cold fish. No one could dive from such a height as he, or stay so long under water; he liked to stay under long enough to scare the spectators, and then appear at a distance, thrashing about in the water as if he were rescuing himself from drowning, sputtering out at the same time the most diabolical noises--curses, no doubt, for he had been heard to swear. But as he skated alone he swam alone, appearing and disappearing at the swimming-place silently, with never a salutation to any one. And he was as skillful a fisher as he was a swimmer. No one knew much about him. He lived with his mother in a little cabin up among the hills, that had about it scant patches of potatoes and corn and beans, a garden fenced in by stumproots, as ill-cared for as the shanty. Where they came from no one knew. How they lived was a matter of conjecture, though the mother gathered herbs and berries and bartered them at the village store, and Murad occasionally took a hand in some neighbor's hay-field, or got a job of chopping wood in the winter. The mother was old and small and withered, and they said evil-eyed. Probably she was no more evil-eyed than any old woman who had such a hard struggle for existence as she had. An old widow with an only son who looked like a Spaniard and acted like an imp! Here was another sort of exotic in the New England life.

Celia had been brought to Rivervale by her mother about a year before this time, and the two occupied a neat little cottage in the village, distinguished only by its neatness and a plot of syringas, and pinks, and marigolds, and roses, and bachelor's-buttons, and boxes of the tough little exotics, called "hen-and-chickens," in the door-yard, and a vigorous fragrant honeysuckle over the front porch. She only dimly remembered her father, who had been a merchant in a small way in the city, and dying left to his widow and only child a very moderate fortune. The girl showed early an active and ingenious mind, and an equal love for books and for having her own way; but she was delicate, and Mrs. Howard wisely judged that a few years in a country village would improve her health and broaden her view of life beyond that of cockney provincialism. For, though Mrs. Howard had more refinement than strength of mind, and passed generally for a sweet and inoffensive little woman, she did not lack a certain true perception of values, due doubtless to the fact that she had been a New England girl, and, before her marriage and emigration to the great city, had passed her life among unexciting realities, and among people who had leisure to think out things in a slow way. But the girl's energy and self-confidence had no doubt been acquired from her father, who was cut off in mid-career of his struggle for place in the metropolis, or from some remote ancestor. Before she was eleven years old her mother had listened with some wonder and more apprehension to the eager forecast of what this child intended to do when she became a woman, and already shrank from a vision of Celia on a public platform, or the leader of some metempsychosis club. Through her affections only was the child manageable, but in opposition to her spirit her mother was practically powerless. Indeed, this little sprout of the New Age always spoke of her to Philip and to the Maitlands as "little mother."

The epithet seemed peculiarly tender to Philip, who had lost his father before he was six years old, and he was more attracted to the timid and gentle little widow than to his equable but more robust Aunt Eusebia, Mrs. Maitland, his father's elder sister, whom Philip fancied not a bit like his father except in sincerity, a quality common to the Maitlands and Burnetts. Yet there was a family likeness between his aunt and a portrait of his father, painted by a Boston artist of some celebrity, which his mother, who survived her husband only three years, had saved for her boy. His father was a farmer, but a man of considerable cultivation, though not college-bred--his last request on his death-bed was that Phil should be sent to college--a man who made experiments in improving agriculture and the breed of cattle and horses, read papers now and then on topics of social and political reform, and was the only farmer in all the hill towns who had what might be called a library.

It was all scattered at the time of the winding up of the farm estate, and the only jetsam that Philip inherited out of it was an annotated copy of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, Young's Travels in France, a copy of The Newcomes, and the first American edition of Childe Harold. Probably these odd volumes had not been considered worth any considerable bid at the auction. From his mother, who was fond of books, and had on more than one occasion, of the failure of teachers, taught in the village school in her native town before her marriage, Philip inherited his love of poetry, and he well remembered how she used to try to inspire him with patriotism by reading the orations of Daniel Webster (she was very fond of orations), and telling him war stories about Grant and Sherman and Sheridan and Farragut and Lincoln. He distinctly remembered also standing at her knees and trying, at intervals, to commit to memory the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. He had learned it all since, because he thought it would please his mother, and because there was something in it that appealed to his coming sense of the mystery of life. When he repeated it to Celia, who had never heard of it, and remarked that it was all made up, and that she never tried to learn a long thing like that that wasn't so, Philip could see that her respect for him increased a little. He did not know that the child got it out of the library the next day and never rested till she knew it by heart. Philip could repeat also the books of the Bible in order, just as glibly as the multiplication-table, and the little minx, who could not brook that a country boy should be superior to her in anything, had surprised her mother by rattling them all off to her one Sunday evening, just as if she had been born in New England instead of in New York. As to the other fine things his mother read him, out of Ruskin and the like; Philip chiefly remembered what a pretty glow there was in his mother's face when she read them, and that recollection was a valuable part of the boy's education.

Another valuable part of his education was the gracious influence in his aunt's household, the spirit of candor, of affection, and the sane common-sense with which life was regarded, the simplicity of its faith and the patience with which trials were borne. The lessons he learned in it had more practical influence in his life than all the books he read. Nor were his opportunities for the study of character so meagre as the limit of one family would imply. As often happens in New England households, individualities were very marked, and from his stern uncle and his placid aunt down to the sweet and nimble-witted Alice, the family had developed traits and even eccentricities enough to make it a sort of microcosm of life. There, for instance, was Patience, the maiden aunt, his father's sister, the news-monger of the fireside, whose powers of ratiocination first gave Philip the Greek idea and method of reasoning to a point and arriving at truth by the process of exclusion. It did not excite his wonder at the time, but afterwards it appeared to him as one of the New England eccentricities of which the novelists make so much. Patience was a home-keeping body and rarely left the premises except to go to church on Sunday, although her cheerfulness and social helpfulness were tinged by nothing morbid. The story was--Philip learned it long afterwards--that in her very young and frisky days Patience had one evening remained out at some merry-making very late, and in fact had been escorted home in the moonlight by a young gentleman when the tall, awful-faced clock, whose face her mother was watching, was on the dreadful stroke of eleven. For this delinquency her mother had reproved her, the girl thought unreasonably, and she had quickly replied, "Mother, I will never go out again." And she never did. It was in fact a renunciation of the world, made apparently without rage, and adhered to with cheerful obstinacy.

But although for many years Patience rarely left her home, until the habit of seclusion had become as fixed as that of a nun who had taken the vows, no one knew so well as she the news and gossip of the neighborhood, and her power of learning or divining it seemed to increase with her years. She had a habit of sitting, when her household duties permitted, at a front window, which commanded a long view of the river road, and gathering the news by a process peculiar to herself. From this peep-hole she studied the character and destination of all the passers-by that came within range of her vision, and made her comments and deductions, partly to herself, but for the benefit of those who might be listening.

"Why, there goes Thomas Henry," she would say (she always called people by their first and middle names). "Now, wherever can he be going this morning in the very midst of getting in his hay? He can't be going to the Browns' for vegetables, for they set great store by their own raising this year; and they don't get their provisions up this way either, because Mary Ellen quarreled with Simmons's people last year. No!" she would exclaim, rising to a climax of certainty on this point, "I'll be bound he is not going after anything in the eating line!"

Meantime Thomas Henry's wagon would be disappearing slowly up the sandy road, giving Patience a chance to get all she could out of it, by eliminating all the errands Thomas Henry could not possibly be going to do in order to arrive at the one he must certainly be bound on.

"They do say he's courting Eliza Merritt," she continued, "but Eliza never was a girl to make any man leave his haying. No, he's never going to see Eliza, and if it isn't provisions or love it's nothing short of sickness. Now, whoever is sick down there? It can't be Mary Ellen, because she takes after her father's family and they are all hearty. It must be Mary Ellen's little girls, and the measles are going the rounds. It must be they've all got the measles."

If the listeners suggested that possibly one of the little girls might have escaped, the suggestion was decisively put aside.

"No; if one of them had been well, Mary Ellen would have sent her for the doctor."

Presently Thomas Henry's cart was heard rumbling back, and sure enough he was returning with the doctor, and Patience hailed him from the gate and demanded news of Mary Ellen.

"Why, all her little girls have the measles," replied Thomas Henry, "and I had to leave my haying to fetch the doctor."

"I want to know," said Patience.

Being the eldest born, Patience had appropriated to herself two rooms in the rambling old farmhouse before her brother's marriage, from which later comers had never dislodged her, and with that innate respect for the rights and peculiarities of others which was common in the household, she was left to express her secluded life in her own way. As the habit of retirement grew upon her she created a world of her own, almost as curious and more individually striking than the museum of Cluny. There was not a square foot in her tiny apartment that did not exhibit her handiwork. She was very fond of reading, and had a passion for the little prints and engravings of "foreign views," which she wove into her realm of natural history. There was no flower or leaf or fruit that she had seen that she could not imitate exactly in wax or paper. All over the walls hung the little prints and engravings, framed in wreaths of moss and artificial flowers, or in elaborate square frames made of pasteboard. The pasteboard was cut out to fit the picture, and the margins, daubed with paste, were then strewn with seeds of corn and acorns and hazelnuts, and then the whole was gilded so that the effect was almost as rich as it was novel. All about the rooms, in nooks and on tables, stood baskets and dishes of fruit-apples and plums and peaches and grapes-set in proper foliage of most natural appearance, like enough to deceive a bird or the Sunday-school scholars, when on rare occasions they were admitted into this holy of holies. Out of boxes, apparently filled with earth in the corners of the rooms, grew what seemed to be vines trained to run all about the cornices and to festoon the pictures, but which were really strings, colored in imitation of the real vine, and spreading out into paper foliage. To complete the naturalistic character of these everlasting vines, which no scale-bugs could assail, there were bunches of wonderful grapes depending here and there to excite the cupidity of both bird and child. There was no cruelty in the nature of Patience, and she made prisoners of neither birds nor squirrels, but cunning cages here and there held most lifelike counterfeits of their willing captives. There was nothing in the room that was alive, except the dainty owner, but it seemed to be a museum of natural history. The rugs on the floor were of her own devising and sewing together, and rivaled in color and ingenuity those of Bokhara.

But Patience was a student of the heavens as well as of the earth, and it was upon the ceiling that her imagination expanded. There one could see in their order the constellations of the heavens, represented by paper-gilt stars, of all magnitudes, most wonderful to behold. This part of her decorations was the most difficult of all. The constellations were not made from any geography of the heavens, but from actual nightly observation of the positions of the heavenly bodies. Patience confessed that the getting exactly right of the Great Dipper had caused her most trouble. On the night that was constructed she sat up till three o'clock in the morning, going out and studying it and coming in and putting up one star at a time. How could she reach the high ceiling? Oh, she took a bean-pole, stuck the gilt star on the end of it, having paste on the reverse side, and fixed it in its place. That was easy, only it was difficult to remember when she came into the house the correct positions of the stars in the heavens. What the astronomer and the botanist and the naturalist would have said of this little kingdom is unknown, but Patience herself lived among the glories of the heavens and the beauties of the earth which she had created. Probably she may have had a humorous conception of this, for she was not lacking in a sense of humor. The stone step that led to her private door she had skillfully painted with faint brown spots, so that when visitors made their exit from this part of the house they would say, "Why, it rains!" but Patience would laugh and say, "I guess it is over by now."

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CHAPTER III"I'm not going to follow you about any more through the brush and brambles, Phil Burnett," and Celia, emerging from the thicket into a clearing, flung herself down on a knoll under a beech-tree. Celia was cross. They were out for a Saturday holiday on the hillside Phil said there were oceans of raspberries and blueberries, beginning to get ripe, and where you could hear the partridges drumming in the woods, and see the squirrels. "Why, I'm not a bit tired," said Phil; "a boy wouldn't be." And he threw himself down on the green moss, with his heels
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CHAPTER IOn 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
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