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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDestiny - Part 3. The Mountain Top - The Story That Was - Chapter 35
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Destiny - Part 3. The Mountain Top - The Story That Was - Chapter 35 Post by :tabernacle Category :Long Stories Author :Charles Neville Buck Date :May 2012 Read :1333

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Destiny - Part 3. The Mountain Top - The Story That Was - Chapter 35


It was a June day with the sparkle and lilt of summer's brightest and tunefulest mood in the sky and a softness and warmth in the air. The most distant peaks of the mountains slept in a quiet and purple glory and their nearer slopes still held a forest-freshness undulled by heat and sunburn.

Deep in the woods of the White Mountains the wild flowers were springing joyously and the birds were pouring out the fulness of life and joy and love from trilling throats.

The waters of Lake Forsaken were like a mirror holding in their still bosom all the vivid color which summer paints into its first and sweetest days while an after-note of spring's youth still lingers. The blue of the sky was broken only by white cloud-sails that rode high and buoyant in the upper air currents, like galleons of dreams, and all these things were given back in reflection from depths where the bass leaped and the sun shimmered. On the lake's farther margin a red-brown shape came down with careful feet gingerly lifted and set down, to raise its antlered head. But the gentle eyes were not charged with fear, for this was a season of security and truce with mankind.

If the world held trouble anywhere, no shadow of its passing riffled or marred the landscape here. And yet in this smile and song of nature, there must be a certain disregard for human affairs, because the movement which held the deer's gaze, as he stood there at the water's edge, looking across the width of Lake Forsaken, was the movement of human beings trailing along the road in a funeral cortege.

The road along which it traveled was no longer a deeply scarred trail, rutted through its clay surface by the hauling of lumber. It was metaled and smooth. There were many changes in the character of things hereabouts--all changes which attested that the curse of decay and hopeless sterility had been lifted. Off through a rift in the hills loomed the white concrete abutment of an aqueduct--and through the valley wound a railroad. A man might have walked many miles and come upon few deserted habitations, preyed upon by the twin vandals Time and Decay and staring blankly out through unglazed windows. What had once been a land of abandoned farms, a battle-ground where poverty had fought and defeated humanity, was now a land redeemed. Honest thrift and substantial comfort had crowned it with reclamation.

The church to which the hearse was making its way had also changed in aspect. The tumbledown building had become a more worthy house of worship, unelaborate, but renewed. Its belfry stood upright and on the Sabbath spoke out in the music of its chimes. Graves where once the headstones had teetered in neglect lay now in rows of ordered care, and those who slept in them no longer slept among the briars of over-grown thickets.

About the building, waiting for the coming of a new tenant in the acre of the dead, were gathered a score or more of neighbors, because the body which was to be laid to rest today had been, in life, the member of a family which they delighted to honor and respect.

Along the stone wall which skirted the road, and under the wild apple trees, were hitched the wagons and buggies that had brought them from many miles around, across the hills. Some of them came from houses far back where roads narrowed and grew precipitous.

Yet even among those who stood waiting in the churchyard near the reminder of an open grave, the lyric tunefulness of this June morning refused to surrender unconditionally to sadness. Off between the fence and the rising slope of the nearest hill a ripple ran across a yellow field of buckwheat and from a fence-post a golden-breasted lark sang merrily.

Those who had arrived earliest gossiped of such commonplace matters as make the round of life where small things take the place of large excitement, and their faces were not gloomy faces. Young men and girls among them were strolling apart, and the smiles in their eyes told that to them death was an incident, but June and love a nearer fact--a thing closer to their youth.

Then around the turn came the procession which they awaited--a hearse, followed by several buck-boards and buggies.

At the open gate it halted and the pall-bearers lifted down the casket from its place, and bore it to the spot which had been prepared for its reception. There were no formal designs from the shop of any florist, but from every neighborhood garden had come contributions out of that wealth which this golden month was squandering in blossom. Roses and peonies and a brave display of those varied flowers that go in rows about old-fashioned gardens had been gathered and brought by sympathetic hands.

But it was chiefly upon the woman who came here to bury the last of her dead that the bared heads turned eyes of reverent interest. At her side walked a young farmer, whose tanned face and curling hair and straight-gazing gray eyes proclaimed a robust and simple manhood.

The girl herself was well worth looking at, even had she not claimed interest by reason of her bereavement. She walked straight and lithe and upright with the free grace of some wild thing, as though she shared with the deer which had looked across the lake the untrammeled strength of the hills. She was slender, but the fine lines of her figure were rounded to the fullness of perfect health, and the color of her cheeks, though now paler than their wont, was like that of delicate rose-leaves, and her lips were the curved petals of a deeper blossom. Her hair, under a black mourning hat, tangled in the meshes of its heavy coils the glint of sunlight on amber and brightened now and then into a hint of burnished copper, but the features which must have challenged the gaze of any observer not dead to a sense of color and beauty were the marvelous and mismated eyes. One was a rich brown like illuminated agate with a fleck or two of jet across the iris, while its twin was of a colorful violet and deeply vivid. Now, of course, the heavy lashes were wet with tears, but the gorgeous beauty of the eyes was not dimmed.

She stood there by the open grave and the masses of simple flowers, with summer and June and green hills and blue skies at her back; and, of all their loveliness, she might have been a living impersonation.

The preacher whose duty it was to give a rendering of the burial rites had grown old in this pastorate, and to him all these people were his children. He had been with many of them at baptism, he had married them and buried their dead; they were his flock, and they listened to his words as to one ripe in wisdom and sainted in his life.

He looked about the little burial ground and his eyes took on an earnest light and his voice a deep thrill as he spoke.

"If," said he, "there is anywhere a spot which is hallowed ground it is this spot where we are now laying to her eternal rest what yesterday was mortal of Elizabeth Burton. She is, save her daughter, the last of the name to be taken; and in that greater life to which she goes, she will be reunited with those who loved her and who went before.

"She will share with them--" the preacher paused for a moment then went on--"the glory of reward which, I think, God loves best to bestow upon those who, with steadfast unselfishness, have lived simple lives and left their fellows better for having lived. I do not know how God measures the deeds of men, or with what degrees of reward he fixes their place in Paradise; but I feel that I stand on holy ground as my eyes wander here and fall upon these graves where the Burtons sleep. I know that once this was a land of want and misery; a country of abandoned farms. Today I look about me, and, under skies that seem to sing, I see a land redeemed. It was not redeemed by great wealth from without, but by resolution and dauntless effort from within. I have spoken of the headstones that mark these graves, but the Burtons have a nobler monument. The roads and schools and the aqueduct--all the things that transformed the land are memorials to the man who lies just there beyond this grave where today we place his mother. On that slab we find only the dates of birth and death and the name of Hamilton Burton; but when I look at it, I seem to read a nobler epitaph in letters of bronze which no weather can dim or tarnish. I seem to read--'Here lies one who put aside a blazing dream to cast his lot into a life of humbler duty.' If he who makes two blades of grass grow where one had grown before has done a noble thing, then surely he who has turned a land of want into a land of independence and made crops grow where none grew before has won his place near the throne."

Again the aged pastor paused and his eyes grew misty. With bared heads bent and a stillness broken only by the rustle of the breeze through the trees and the song of a bird, his listeners stood attentive, and he resumed.

"I need not tell you, for you know, what the energy and loyal steadfastness of Hamilton Burton have done for these hills. What they were when he came to manhood and what they are now is the answer to that--an answer which needs no further eulogium. But there is a thing, which you may not know, for I think--once his hard decision was made--he never spoke of that again. Yet now I wish to speak of it. It is a thing which should put the name of Hamilton Burton among those of the great--the humble great. In his boyhood heart blazed a mighty vision. In his brain burned a hunger for conquest. The man who dwelt so simply here among us, working a regeneration, and who died among us, still young, was gifted with a power which he might have put to more selfish uses. Standing in the wintry loneliness of a mountain snowstorm, his eyes could see visions of mighty things and his soul could dream unmeasured dreams. His heart beat responsively to an inward voice which assured him that he might equal and surpass the greatness of Destiny's greatest sons. He fretted for a larger world, knowing that in it he could conquer. In Hamilton Burton dwelt the soul of a Napoleon or a Caesar ... he might have built an empire."

The voice had grown fervent as it rose with its words, then the speaker let it fall again to quieter tones.

"And these roads and schools and this aqueduct and these redeemed acres are the monument to the sacrifice which turned its back on such a dream as that. Hamilton Burton wrestled with his soul's hunger and conquered it. He elected to remain here, fighting at the head of his own community for his own land, and finding contentment in the realization that he had done his duty. At one time--for his forcefulness was great--he had persuaded his family to countenance his great adventure--and then he dreamed. It seemed to him that he had looked ahead, and the whole great panorama of the life which lay before him, should he take that turning of the road, passed in review. Hamilton Burton did not take it. _He remained here. His work was the work of the sons of Martha.

"'As in the thronged and the lightened ways, so in
the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days, that their brethren's
days may be long in the land.'

"If Hamilton Burton put aside such ambitions as most of us never know in our dreams, and chose the humbler combat of a simple life, close to God's immortal granite, you have all been sharers in the benefit of his decision.

"And as it was with him, so in a lesser way it was with those others who sleep here close beside him.

"'Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
Some village Hampden, that with dauntless breast,
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.'"

In the pause which followed a low breath of reverent surprise ran through the crowd that stood about the speaker. They had lived day by day with Hamilton Burton until his death, and none of them had, in the shoulder-touch of life, ever suspected those deeper things of which now for the first time they heard. They were hearing it all from lips which were to them as the lips of a prophet. But the preacher was not through.

"And there was Paul. You all knew him and loved him. A nature was given him at birth almost too delicate for a world of hard affairs, but fragrant with a tenderness of love for his fellow-men. He was attuned to harmony and his heart was that of a troubadour.

"Here in this little place of our worship, his fingers on the keys have often led us nearer to God's presence than could the poor and broken messages I tried to preach to you. For the other world was always close to Paul Burton and there was a magic in his minstrelsy, which was a gift from God. I sometimes wonder if in a less simple world he could have been so happy or if his life would have been so unmarred, away from the songs of birds and the lilt of mountain breezes. But among us he, too, lived and died--because Hamilton Burton turned his back on the lure of the mirage his dreaming eyes had seen. Even now when Paul has gone, those chimes, which you put there above our church in memory of him, seem to sing of the things for which he stood. When their notes peal out on the Sabbath and go softly across the valley, I like to imagine that, through the nobler music which immortal ears may hear, he still catches their echo.

"There, close together, stand two more headstones, and beneath them sleep the father and the aunt of these men. Thomas Burton, too, lived out a life of stalwart worth. To all men, his fearless character and unshakable integrity were precepts. He went his way and looked into every eye that met his own. In the activities that have wrought these changes, he was always the first and last to work with tireless zeal. When the railroad came it was through his untiring effort. He held the determination with fighting Burton courage that adversity should not drive him from the land his forefathers had conquered.

"In wondering what things would have befallen all these people had a lad's ambition led them into a different life, I find myself treading paths of doubt. Perhaps noble achievements might have resulted--but I know that in remaining here they have made our land to blossom and to me it seems enough. I can, for some reason, no more think of Thomas Burton transplanted without hurt than I can think of some great patriarch of the forest, which has buffeted storms and hail for decades, being uprooted and planted anew in a trim garden and a different clime. Then he died, too--

"'And as he trod that day to God, so walked he from his birth,
In simpleness and gentleness and honor and clean mirth.'"

The speaker talked deliberately. At times his voice mounted into a sort of oratorical fire. At times it fell until his listeners bent forward that they might miss none of his words. Now and again he would stop altogether and his eyes would turn to the blue skies, and when they did a devout and intense light glowed in their pupils. His hearers were simple and easily touched and an occasional sob came from the women.

"I said that Hamilton Burton died young," he resumed. "He died almost a boy with a boy's youthful heart beating in his bosom. If he could so bring out of desolation a land like this, while yet he was hardly a man in years, who can say that his dream of power was all a dream? If he who never left these hills and never saw the world beyond save as he saw it in the exaltation of his flaming imagination, could do such things, what man can say that with maturity and opportunity he might not have become a Caesar? But the feet of these people never trod beyond the nearer ways of a simple life. Hamilton Burton burned to go out and try the eagle's wings of his life. He had won the acquiescence of his family. He did not go. None of them went. They lived here and died here and they fought discontent, and to my mind they were conquerors of the earth."

Once more there was a pause and after it came other words.

"I suppose that they all dreamed. After the stress of that hurricane of powerful personality, with which the boy had won them to his heart's desire, these people could never have again lived their simple lives without dreams coming--and doubts. To say, 'God knows best,' meant to repress the disturbing thoughts that must have often arisen.

"In these hills boys become men, and one boy became something more. This was a family of beautiful and devoted love. The brothers were what God meant brothers to be, friends whose hearts were linked. For every member of this little group of one blood, all the others felt a mighty bond of affection. And here they stayed." The four words might have been the text, and through the talk it ran with the insistence of a refrain, until it sank into the brain of every man and every woman who listened.

"Here they stayed, and if each one of them thought often of what may have been given up by that decision, no one of them said so.

"Perhaps Paul, with the golden pattern of his dreams, may often have mused upon what the outer world could have given him. Perhaps he thought of himself as swaying audiences with his fingers on the keys and dreamed of lips that parted and eyes that grew misty--because they listened to the voices he could send pealing to their hearts. But he stayed here and the audiences that sat spellbound were those little neighborhood audiences, who stood a long way off from a full understanding of his soul's ethereal web and woof.

"Perhaps Thomas Burton, whose hands were calloused with toil, sometimes permitted himself to think, at the end of his day's labors, of the ease and comfort which might have come to him, had his son's great ambition actually drawn him into mighty battles and victories instead of only beckoning him.

"Perhaps the woman, who must have felt that her children were not ordinary children, may have shed a tear at times, because she was denied the triumph of beholding their triumph. _But they stayed_--and if their peaceful lives were troubled with misgivings, at least they knew that this was certain and that doubtful--and that, while they might miss much of achievement, they also missed much of peril, for none can say what a journey means along an untried road. Who knows what an epic their lives might have spelled--or what tragedy? But they stayed.

"And now we are gathered to do homage by the grave of the woman whose quiet life ran its course with theirs--the woman who bore these children and taught them, at her knee, those lessons which made them benefactors--and although we stand in the presence of death, it seems to me that we stand, too, in the presence and the glory of that life which is above death--and we stand on hallowed ground."

He ended, and about him was the solemnity of simple hearts, stirred and responsive, and over him was the serenity of June, and the warmth of the earth pregnant with fruitfulness.

When it was over, the crowd scattered to their vehicles and the wheels clattered over the metaled roads, but in the burial ground, when all the rest were gone, two figures tarried.

For a moment the minister also stayed after the crowd had left. He went over to the girl and spoke softly, with a hand laid tenderly on her shoulder.

"My daughter," he said simply, "you, too, have conquered. Every woman has something of restless yearning in her eyes at some time. To a woman with great charm and beauty the world sings a siren song. I saw this thing in your eyes--and soul. I saw it come and go--and I knew that you had won your fight, and won through to life's sweetest benison. You have love. These lives are ended, but yours is beginning." Then he, too, turned away, and only the girl and young man were left.

Mary's beautiful eyes were bright with tears, and, as she stood there slim and straight, her companion came close and his arm slipped about her. For a moment she seemed unconscious of his presence, then she turned and her eyes looked steadfastly into his, and as they looked they smiled through their mistiness.

"Mary"--the man's voice was earnest and very tender--"Mary, I know that now you're thinking about other things and they're very sacred things. Besides, my heart is overflowing and words don't give it enough power of expression. Since I fell in love with you life has been all poetry to me--but not a poetry of words.... You are thinking of them--" He paused and his sober eyes took in the headstones, lingering for a moment on this newest grave upon which the flowers were banked. They were fine eyes, for in them dwelt an intrinsic honesty and courage, and, though it was a moment of deep gravity, the little wrinkles that ran out from them were assurances that they were often laughing eyes. This man seemed to fit into the picture of the hills with the appropriateness of the native-born. In his free-flung shoulders and broad chest was the health of the open, but on one finger he wore a heavily carved ring from which glowed the cool light of a large emerald, and in his scarf was a black pearl, which hardly seemed characteristic of native wear. Then he went on:

"But, after all, Mary, they lived good lives and died good deaths, and--" he hesitated, then said slowly--"and, after all, it's June, and you and I are young. Can't it always be June for us, dear?"

A bird from a great oak lifted its voice. It was a happy bird and would tolerate no sadness. It caroled to its mate and to the sky and through her tears Mary Burton smiled and the gorgeous vividness of her face was illuminated.

"While we've got each other," she said, "I guess it can be June."

Suddenly she put out her slender, but strong, young hands and caught his two arms, and stood there looking at him.

"Once, dear," she said, "when I was a very little girl, I used to dream of going out and seeing all the wonderful things beyond those hills. I used to dream of having rich men and titled men come to me and make love. I used to cry because I thought I was ugly--and then I met you by the roadside--and you were my fairy prince--but I didn't guess you were going to be my own--for always."

Jefferson Edwardes smiled and into his eyes came a fervent glow.

"I can see you now," he said, "as you stood that first day I ever saw you, when I told you that your beauty would be the beauty of gorgeousness--when I warned you that the only thing you need ever fear was--the loss of your simplicity. The woods were flaming at your back, but your loveliness outblazed their color, and then you were a thin little girl--a trifle chippendale in plan."

In spite of her sadness a smile came to her lips.

"And you were fighting your fight for life--with only an even chance. Suppose--" she shuddered--"suppose you had lost it!"

"I had too much to live for," he assured her. "I couldn't lose it. You and your hills gave me life and a dream, and you and your hills laid their claim upon me. How could I lose?"

"I've lain awake at night," said Mary Burton, as her long lashes drooped with the confession of her heart. "I've lain awake at night wondering if--now that you don't have to stay--if your own world won't call you back--away from me. I've thought of all it holds for you--and how little these mountains hold. I've wondered if your heart didn't ache for foreign lands and wonderful cities--and all those things. If it does, dear--" she paused and said very seriously--"you mustn't let me keep you here. I belong here, but you--" The words fell into a faint note and died away unfinished.

"How little these hills hold for me," he exclaimed in a dismayed voice, "when they hold you!" Then he laughed and told her as his eyes dwelt steadfastly and with worship on her face, "I belong here no less than you. This has been the land of my salvation and of my love. For me it is enough. I have traded the unrest of cities for the tranquillity of the hills and the clamor of unhappy streets for the echoes of the woods, and the woods sing of you as the streets could never sing. I have traded at a splendid profit, dear."

"And you won't tire of it--and of me?"

"I wish life could be long enough to give me a fair test of that," he smiled, and then he added in a serious voice, "It is in the cities that men and women grow tired. It is under artifice that the soul wearies. That life I knew, and left with the bitterness of exile--but that was long ago. When I go into it now, it shall be only for the joy of coming back here again--of coming home."

The girl looked up into his face, and the breeze fluttered a tendril of curl against her temple.

"You were the first person who ever called me pretty." Through the sadness of her face came a glimmer of shy merriment. "You said I was--as beautiful as starlight on water."

"Mary, Mary!" The lover caught her slender figure in his strong arms and held her so close that her breath came fragrantly against his tanned cheek. "You _are as beautiful as starlight on water, and to me you're more beautiful. You're the sun and moon and stars and music--you're everything that's fine and splendid!"

"For your sake," she said shyly, "I wish I were much more beautiful."

Even the near shadow of death cannot banish the god of love. Mary Burton felt the arms of the man she loved about her, and her eyes as she looked into his face unmasked their secrets until he could read her soul and its message. For the moment they had forgotten all else. Then, quite abruptly, her expression changed and became rapt, almost frightened.

Slowly she straightened up and her pupils dilated as though they were seeing something invisible to other eyes. Her lips parted and she drew away from his grasp and stood gazing ahead. Then she brushed one arm across her forehead. With instant alarm Edwardes caught her shoulders. "What is it?" he demanded. "Is anything wrong?"

She shook her head and spoke wonderingly with a far-away, detached sort of utterance. "I don't know what it was--I guess I was a little faint." But she still stood with an awed and bewildered fixity upon her face and after a little while, he asked slowly:

"Did you ever seem to see and hear something as though it had come out of a different life; as though you were living it over again?"

He smiled and shook his head. "I've often heard of such things," he reassured. She had been nursing her mother through a long illness; perhaps, he thought, the strain had left her nervous.

"It was as real as if it had truly happened," she assured him as she put up both hands and pressed her fingers against her temples. "You were standing there--right where you are standing now, and you smiled--like you smiled at me that day in the road.... There were little wrinkles around your eyes."

"That is all real enough," he laughed. "I was and am doing all those things."

"Yes, I know, but--" Once more she shook her head and her voice carried the detached tone of a trance-like vagueness--"but somehow it was all different. You were you--and I was I--and yet we were in another life ... we didn't seem to belong here ... and there seemed to be some terrible danger hanging over us."

"Did we seem to talk?" he asked her.

"Yes." The girl's words came very low but with a tense emphasis. "You said, _'Maybe there's some land beyond the stars where every mistake we make here can be remedied ... where we can take up our marred lives and live them afresh as we have dreamed them. Perhaps in that other world we can go back to the turning of the road where we lost our ways and choose the other path.' You said that and then after a moment you smiled again."

"It's strange," said the young man. He unconsciously took off his hat, baring the curly hair over the tanned face. He was very wholesome and honest and strong, and the girl's eyes lighted into a smile of pride and love.

"Yes," she said. "It was you and me--in some other life. I don't know what it means--but somehow it seems to--to guarantee everything."

They turned and walked together to the last buggy hitched against the stone wall under the wild apple trees.

After a while she demanded--"After you got well--why did you stay here?" and as promptly as an echo came his answer--

"Because _you stayed."

* * * * *

The moon was up early that night and it flooded the mountains with a glory of silver mists. The shoulders of the peaks stood out in blue barriers, strong, abiding, beautiful. In the valleys it was all a nocturne of dove grays and dreamlike softness. The stars, too, shone down in a million splinters of happy light, but the radiance of the moon paled them.

The vines which covered the walls of the Burton house hung out their lacy tendrils and through the windows came the soft glow of lamplight.

There was nothing dreary or poverty-stricken about the old farm-house now. From its front, where every shutter, by day, shone in the healthy trim of fresh paint, to the gate upon the road went rows of flowers, nodding their bright heads above the waving grass. The barns at the back stood substantial and in repair, and now out beyond the road, Lake Forsaken mirrored the stars and broke in light when a fish leaped under the moon.

Mary Burton and her lover walked down to the gate, and he said simply:

"Now, dear, there is nothing more to hold you here. If you still long to see beyond the sky-line, I can take you wherever you want to go."

But she wheeled and laid a hand in protest on his arm.

"No!" she exclaimed tensely. "No, this is where I belong." After a moment she went on. "Life holds enough for me here. This is home to me. I don't want anything else."

"I am glad. It's what I hoped to hear you say," he responded. "I don't think somehow I could be as happy anywhere else, but the world's a big place and you--you have the right to the best it holds--anywhere."

"Once, dear, you know," she told him gravely, "we threshed that out and we had almost made up our minds to leave here. We were almost whipped--and Ham had his dreams. He wanted to go out and try life in a bigger world--and you recognized his power. I wanted it all, too--but we stayed. I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't, but I do know--" she looked up into his face and smiled; into her eyes came a regal serenity--"I do know that I don't have to go out and hunt for life--life has come to me, and I'm happy."

The man caught her to him and she clasped her hands behind his head. Before them was June and starlight and youth and life--and love. He bent his head and pressed his lips to hers and felt her heart beat against his own.

In the mirror of Lake Forsaken, back of her, gleamed the splintered light of a thousand stars, and in his heart gleamed a million.

"As beautiful as starlight on water," he whispered.

Charles Neville Buck's Novel: Destiny

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