Aftermath (Allen)/Chapter II

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Aftermath by James Lane Allen
Chapter II

I have forgotten nature. I barely know that July, now nearly gone, has
passed, sifted with sweetness and ablaze with light. Time has swept
on, the world run round; but I have stood motionless, abiding the hour
of my marriage as a tree the season of its leaves. For all that it
looks so calm, within goes on a tremendous surging of sap against its
moments of efflorescence.

After which I pray that, not as a tree, but as a man, I may have a
little peace. When Georgiana confessed her love, I had supposed this
confession to mark the end of her elusiveness. When later on she
presented to me the symbol of a heart pierced with needles, I had taken
it for granted that thenceforth she would settle down into something
like a state of prenuptial domestication, growing less like a swift and
more like a hen. But there is nothing gallinaceous about my Georgiana.
I took possession of her vow and the emery-ball, not of her; the
privilege was merely given to plant my flag-staff on the uncertain edge
of an unknown land. In war it sometimes becomes necessary to devastate
a whole country in order to control a single point: I should be pleased
to learn what portion of the earth's surface I am required to subdue
ere I shall hold one little citadel.

As for me, Georgiana requires that I shall be a good deal like an old
rock jutting out of the quiet earth: never ruffled, never changing
either on the surface or at heart, bearing whatever falls upon me, be
it frost or sun, and warranted to waste away only by a sort of
impersonal disintegration at the rate of half an inch to the thousand
years. Meantime she exacts for herself the privilege of dwelling near
as the delighted cave of the winds. The part of wisdom in me then is
not to heed each sallying gust, but to capture the cave and drive the
winds away.

For I know in whom I have believed; I know that this myriad caprice is
but the deepening of excitement on the verge of captivity; I know that
on ahead lie the regions of perpetual calm—my Islands of the Blest.

Georgiana does not play upon the pianoforte; or, as Mrs. Walters would
declare, she does not perform upon the instrument. Sylvia does; she
performs, she executes. There are times when she will execute a piece
called "The Last Hope" until the neighbors are filled with despair and
ready to stretch their heads on the block to any more merciful
executioner. Nor does Georgiana sing to company in the parlor. That
is Sylvia's gift; and upon the whole it was this unmitigated practice
in the bosom—and in the ears—of her family that enabled Sylvia to
shine with such vocal effulgence in the procession on the last Fourth
of July and devote a pair of unflagging lungs to the service of her
country.

But Georgiana I have never known to sing except at her sewing and
alone, as the way of women often is. During a walk across the summer
fields my foot has sometimes paused at the brink of a silvery runlet,
and I have followed it backward in search of the spring. It may lead
to the edge of a dark wood; thence inward deeper and deeper;
disappearing at last in a nook of coolness and shadow, green leaves and
mystery. The overheard rill of Georgiana's voice issues from inner
depths of being that no human soul has ever visited, or perhaps will
ever visit. What would I not give to thread my way, bidden and alone,
to that far region of uncaptured loveliness?

Of late some of the overhead lullabies have touched me inexpressibly.
They beat upon my ear like the musical reveries of future mother
hood—they betoken in Georgiana's maidenhood the dreaming unrest of the
maternal.

One morning not long ago, with a sort of pitiful gayety, her song ran
in the wise of saying how we should gather our rose-buds while we may.
The warning could not have been addressed to me; I shall gather mine
while I may—the unrifled rose of Georgiana's life, body and spirit.

Naturally she and I have avoided the subject of the Cardinal. But to
the tragedy of his death was joined one circumstance of such coarse and
brutal unconcern that it had left me not only remorseful but resentful.
As we sat together the other evening, after one of those silences that
fall unregarded between us, I could no longer forbear to face an
understanding.

"Georgiana," I said, "do you know what became of the redbird?"

Unwittingly the color of reproach must have lain upon my words, for she
answered quickly with yet more in hers,

"I had it buried!"

It was my turn to be surprised.

"Are you sure?"

"I am sure. I told them where to bury it; I showed them the very
spot—under the cedar. They told me they had. Why?"

I thought it better that she should learn the truth.

"You know we can't trust our negroes. They disobeyed you. They lied
to you; they never buried it. They threw it on the ash-pile. The pigs
tore it to pieces; I saw them; they were rooting at it and tearing it
to pieces."

She had clasped her hands, and turned towards me in acute distress.
After a while, with her face aside, she said, slowly,

"And you have believed that I knew of this—that I permitted it?"

"I have believed nothing. I have waited to understand."

A few minutes later she said, as if to herself,

"Many a person would have been only too glad to believe it, and to
blame me." Then folding her hands over one of mine, she said, with
tears in her eyes:

"Promise me—promise me, Adam, until we are married, and—yes, after
we are married—as long as I live, that you will never believe anything
of me until you know that it is true!"

"I do promise, dear, dear, dearest one-!" I cried, trying to draw her
to me, but she would not permit it. "And you?"

"I shall never misunderstand," she replied, as with a flash of white
inward light. "I know that you can never do anything that will make me
think the less of you."


Since the sad, sad day on which I caused the death of the Cardinal, I
have paid little heed to the birds. The subject has been a sore one.
Besides, my whole life is gradually changing under the influence of
Georgiana, who draws me farther and farther away from nature, and
nearer and nearer to my own kind.

When, two years ago, she moved into this part of the State, I dwelt on
the outskirts of the town and of humanity. On the side of them lay the
sour land of my prose; the country, nature, rolled away on the other as
the sweet deep ocean of my poetry. I called my neighbors my
manifestations of prose; my doings with the townspeople, prose
passages. The manifestations and passages scarce made a scrimp volume.
There was Jacob, who lived on his symptoms and died without any; there
was and there is Mrs. Walters—may she last to the age of the eagle.
In town, a couple of prose items of cheap quality: an old preacher who
was willing to save my soul while my strawberries were ripe, and an old
doctor who cared to save my body so long as he could eat my pears—with
others interested severally in my asparagus, my rhubarb, my lilies, and
sweet-peas. Always not forgetting a few inestimably wholesome, cheery,
noble souls, who sought me out on the edge of human life rather than
succeeded in drawing me over the edge towards the centre.

But this Georgiana has been doing—long without my knowing it. I have
become less a woodsman, more a civilian. Unless she relents, it may
end in my ceasing to be a lover of birds, and running for the
Legislature. Seeing me so much on the streets, one of my
fellow-townsmen declared the other day that if I would consent to come
out of the canebrakes for good they would make me postmaster.

It has fallen awkwardly for me that this enforced transformation in my
tastes and habits should coincide with the season of my love-making;
and it is well that Georgiana does not demand in me the capering or
strutting manners of those young men of my day who likewise are
exerting themselves to marry. I am more like a badger than like one of
them; and indeed I find the image of my fate and my condition in a
badger-like creature close at hand.

For the carpenter who is at work upon bridal repairs in my house has
the fancy not uncommon among a class hereabouts to keep a tamed
raccoon. He brings it with him daily, and fastens it by its chain to a
tree in my front yard: a rough, burly, knowing fellow, loving wild
nature, but forced to acquire the tediousness of civilization; meantime
leading a desperately hampered life; wondering at his own teeth and
claws, and sorely put to it to invent a decent occupation. So am I;
and as the raccoon paces everywhere after the carpenter, so do I in
spirit pace everywhere after Georgiana; only his chain seems longer and
more easily to be broken. The restless beast enlivens his captivity by
the keenest scrutiny of every object within his range; I too have
busied myself with the few people that have come this way.

First, early in the month, Georgiana's brother—down from West Point,
very stately, and with his brow stern, as if for gory war. When I
called promptly to pay my respects, as his brother-in-law to be, he was
sitting on the front porch surrounded by a subdued family, Georgiana
alone remaining unawed. He looked me over indifferently, as though I
were a species of ancient earthworks not worth any more special
reconnoissance, and continued his most superior remarks to his mother
on the approaching visit of three generals.

Upon leaving I invited him to join me on the morrow in a squirrel hunt
with smooth-bores, whereupon he manifested surprise that I was
acquainted with the use of fire-arms. Whereupon I remarked that I
would sometimes hit big game if it were so close that I could not miss
it, and further urged him to have breakfast with me at a very early
hour in order that we might reach the woods while the squirrels were at
theirs.

Going home, I knocked at the cabin where Jack and Dilsy lay snoring
side by side with the velocity of rival saw-mills, and begged Dilsy to
give me a bite about daybreak—coffee and corn-batter cakes—saying
that I could get breakfast when I returned. I shared this scant bite
with my young soldier—to Dilsy's abject mortification, I not having
told her of his coming. Then we set off at a brisk pace towards a
great forest south of the town some five miles away, where the
squirrels had appeared and were doing great damage, being the last of a
countless plague of them that overran northern and central Kentucky a
year ago.

On the way I dragged him through several canebrakes, a thicket of
blackberry; kept him out all day; said not a word about dinner; avoided
every spot where he could have gotten a swallow of water; not once sat
down to rest; towards the middle of the afternoon told him I desired to
take enough squirrels home to make Jack a squirrel-skin overcoat, and
asked him to carry while I killed; loaded him with squirrels, neck,
shoulders, breast, back, and loins, till as he moved he tottered and
swayed like a squirrel pyramid; about sundown challenged him to what he
had not yet had, some crack shooting, which in that light requires
young eyesight, and barked the squirrel for him four times; later still
snuffed the candle for him, having brought one along for the purpose;
and then, with my step fresh, led him swiftly home.

He has the blood of Georgiana in him, and stood it like a man. But he
was nearly dead. He has saluted me since as though I were a murderous
garrison intrenched on the Heights of Abraham.

Then the three generals of the United States army descended in a
body—or in three bodies; and the truth is that their three bodies
scarce held them, they were in such a state of flesh when they reached
Kentucky, and of being perpetually overfed while they remained. The
object of their joint visit under a recent act of Congress was to
locate a military asylum for disabled soldiers; and had they stayed
much longer they must have had themselves admitted to their own
institution as foremost of the disabled. Having spent some time at the
Lower Blue Lick Springs, the proposed site—where this summer are over
five hundred guests of our finest Southern society—they afterwards
were drawn around with immense solidity towards Louisville, Frankfort,
Maysville, Paris, and Lexington, being everywhere received with such
honors and provisions that these great guns were in danger of becoming
spiked forever in both barrel and tube.

Upon reaching this town one of them detached himself from the heated
rolling mass and accepted the invitation of young Cobb—who had formed
the acquaintance at West Point—to make a visit in his home. He had
not been there many days before he manoeuvred to establish a private
military retreat for himself in the affections of Mrs. Cobb. So that
his presence became a profanation to Georgiana, whose reverence for her
heroic father burns like an altar of sacred fire, and whose nature
became rent in twain between her mother's suitor and her brother's
guest.

A most pestiferous variety of caterpillar has infested the tops of my
cherry-trees this summer, and during the general's encampment near Mrs.
Cobb I happened several times to be mounted on my step-ladder, busy
with my pruning-shears, when he was decoying her around her
garden—just over the fence—buckled in to suffocation, and with his
long epaulettes golden in the sun like tassels of the corn. I was
engaged in exterminating this insect on the last day of his sojourn.
They were passing almost beneath me on the other side; he had been
talking; I heard her brief reply, in a voice low and full of dignity,

"I have been married, sir!"

"Mother of Georgiana!" I cried, within myself. But had she ever
thought of taking a second husband she must have seen through "Old
Drumbeater," as Sylvia called him. There were times when their
breakfast would be late—for the sake of letting his chicken be broiled
in slow perfection or his rolls or waffles come to a faultless brown;
and I, being at work near the garden fence, would hear him tramping up
and down the walk on the other side and swearing at a family that had
such irregular meals. The camel, a lean beast, requires an
extraordinary supply of food, which it proceeds to store away in its
hump as nourishment to be drawn upon while it is crossing the desert.
There may be no long campaigning before the general; but if there were
and rations were short, why could he not live upon his own back? It is
of a thickness, a roundness, and an impenetrability that would have
justified Jackson in using him as a cotton-bale at the battle of New
Orleans.

Thus in my little corner of the world we have all been at the same
business of love, and I wonder whether the corner be not the world
itself: Mrs. Cobb and the general, Georgiana and I the sewing-girl and
the carpenter; for I had forgotten to note how quickly these two have
found out that they want each other. My arbor is at his service, if he
wishes it; and Jack shall keep silent about the mastodon.

It is true that from this sentimental enumeration I have omitted the
name of Mrs. Walters; but there is a secret here which not even
Georgiana herself will ever get from me. Mrs. Walters came to this
town twenty years ago from the region of Bowling Green. Some years
afterwards I made a trip into that part of the State to hear the
mocking-bird—for it fills those more southern groves, but never visits
ours; and while there I stepped by accident on this discovery: There
never was any Mr. Walters. It is her maiden name. But as I see the
freedom of her life and reflect upon the things that a widow can do and
an old maid cannot—with her own sex and with mine—I commend her
wisdom and leave her at peace. Indeed I have gone so far, when she has
asked for my sympathy, as to lament with her Mr. Walters's death.
After all, what great difference is there between her weeping for him
because he is no more, and her weeping for him because he never was?
After which she freshens herself up with another handkerchief, a little
Florida water, and a touch of May roses from the apothecary's.

And I have omitted the name of Sylvia; but then Sylvia's name, like
that of Lot's wife, can never be used as one of a class, and she
herself must always be spoken of alone. However, if Sylvia had been
Lot's wife she would not have turned to a pillar of salt, she would
most probably have become a geyser.

I don't know why, but she went on a visit to Henderson after that
evening in the arbor. I suspect the governing power of Georgiana's
wisdom to have been put forth here, for within a few days I received
from Sylvia a letter which she asked me not to show to Georgiana, and
in which she invited me to correspond with her secretly. The letter
was of a singularly adhesive quality as to the emotions. Throughout
she referred to herself as "the exile," although it was plain that she
wrote in the highest spirits; and in concluding she openly charged
Georgiana with having given her a black eye—a most unspeakable phrase,
surely picked up in the school-room. As a return for the black eye,
Sylvia said that she had composed a poem to herself, a copy of which
she enclosed.

I quote Sylvia's commemorative verses upon her wrongs and her
banishment. They show features of metrical excess, and can scarcely
claim to reflect the polish of her calmer art; but they are of value to
me as proving that whatever the rebuke Georgiana may have given, it had
rebounded from that elastic spirit.


  LINES TO MYSELF

  Oh! she was a lovely girl,
    So pretty and so fair,
  With gentle, love-lit eyes,
    And wavy, dark brown hair.

  I loved the gentle girl,
    But, oh! I heaved a sigh
  When first she told me she could see
    Out of only one eye.

  But soon I thought within myself
    I'd better save my tear and sigh
  To bestow upon an older person I know
    Who has more than one eye.

  She is brave and intelligent
    Too. She is witty and wise.
  She'll accomplish more now than another person I know
    Who has two eyes.

  Ah, you need not pity her!
    She needs not your tear and sigh.
  She'll make good use, I tell you,
    Of her one remaining eye.

  In the home where we are hastening,
    In our eternal Home on High,
  See that you be not rivalled
    By the girl with only one eye.[*]


[*]Miss Sylvia could not have been speaking seriously when she wrote
that she had "composed" this poem. It is known to be the work of
another hand, though Sylvia certainly tampered with the original and
produced a version of her own. J. L. A.


Having thus dealt a thrust at Georgiana, Sylvia seems to have turned in
the spirit of revenge upon her mother; and when she came home some days
ago she brought with her a distant cousin of her own age—a boy,
enormously fat—whom she soon began to decoy around the garden as her
mother had been decoyed by the general. Further to satirize the
similarity of lovers, she one day pinned upon his shoulders rosettes of
yellow ribbon.

Sylvia has now passed from Scott to Moore; and several times lately she
has made herself heard in the garden with recitations to the fat boy on
the subject of Peris weeping before the gates of Paradise, or warbling
elegies under the green sea in regard to Araby's daughter. There is a
real aptness in the latter reference; for this boy's true place in
nature is the deep seas of the polar regions, where animals are coated
with thick tissues of blubber. If Sylvia ever harpoons him, as she
seems seriously bent on doing, she will have to drive her weapon in
deep.

Yesterday she sprang across to me with her hair flying and an open
letter in her hand.

"Oh, read it!" she cried, her face kindling with glory.

It turned out to be a letter from the great Mr. Prentice, of the
Louisville Journal accepting a poem she had lately sent him, and
assigning her a fixed place among his vast and twinkling galaxy of
Kentucky poetesses. The title of the poem was, "My Lover Kneels to
None but God."

"I infer from this," I said, gravely, "that your lover is a Kentuckian."

"He is," cried Sylvia. "Oh, his peerless, haughty pride!"

"Well, I congratulate you, Sylvia," I continued, mildly, "upon having
such an editor and such a lover; but I really think that your lover
ought to kneel a little to Mr. Prentice on this one occasion."

"Never!" cried Sylvia. "I would spurn him as chaff!"

"Some day when you meet Mr. Prentice, Sylvia," I continued, further,
"you will want to be very nice to him, and you might give him something
new to parse."

Sylvia studied me dubiously; the subject is not one that reassures her.

"Because the other day I heard a very great friend of Mr. Prentice's
say of him that when he was fifteen he could parse every sentence in
Virgil and Homer. And if he could do that then, think what he must he
able to do now, and what a pleasure it must afford him!"

I would not imbitter Sylvia's joy by intimating that perhaps Mr.
Prentice's studious regard for much of the poetry that he published was
based upon the fact that he could not parse it.


There has been the most terrible trouble with the raccoon.

This morning the carpenter tied him in my yard as usual; but some time
during the forenoon, in a fit of rage at his confinement, he pulled the
collar over his head and was gone. Whither and how long no one knew;
but it seems that at last, by dint of fences and trees, he attained to
the unapproachable distinction of standing on the comb of Mrs.
Walters's house—poor Mrs. Walters, who has always held him in such
deadly fear! she would as soon have had him on the comb of her head.
Advancing along the roof, he mounted the chimney. Glancing down this,
he perhaps reached the conclusion that it was more like nature and a
hollow tree than anything that civilization had yet been able to
produce, and he proceeded to descend to the ground again by so dark and
friendly a passage. His progress was stopped by a bundle of straw at
the bottom, which he quickly tore away, and having emerged from a grove
of asparagus in the fireplace, he found himself not on the earth, but
in Mrs. Walters's bedroom. In what ways he now vented his ill-humor is
not clear; but at last he climbed to the bed, white as no fuller could
white it, and he dripping with soot. Here the ground beneath him was
of such a suspicious and unreasonable softness that he apparently
resolved to dig a hole and see what was the matter. In the course of
his excavation he reached Mrs. Walters's feather-bed, upon which he
must have fallen with fresh violence, tooth and nail, in the idea that
so many feathers could not possibly mean feathers only.

It was about this time that Mrs. Walters returned from town, having
left every window closed and every door locked, as is her custom. She
threw open her door and started in, but paused, being greeted by a
snow-storm of goose feathers that filled the air and now drifted
outward.

"Why, what on earth is the matter?" she exclaimed, peering in, blank
with bewilderment. Then her eyes caught sight of what had once been
her bed. Sitting up in it was the raccoon, his long black jaws bearded
with down, his head and ears stuck about with feathers, and his eyes
blazing green with defiance.

She slammed and locked the door.

"Run for the sheriff!" she cried, in terror, to the boy who had brought
her market basket; and she followed him as he fled.

"What is it, Mrs. Walters?" asked the sheriff, sternly, meeting her and
bringing the handcuffs.

"There's somebody in my bed!" she cried, wringing her hands. "I
believe it's the devil."

"It's my 'coon," said the carpenter, laughing; for by this time we were
all gathered together.

"What a dear 'coon!" said the sewing-girl.

"Oh, Mrs. Walters! You are like Little Red Riding-hood!" said Sylvia.

"I can't arrest a 'coon, madam!" exclaimed the sheriff, red in the neck
at being made ridiculous.

"Then arrest the carpenter!" cried poor, unhappy, excited Mrs. Walters,
bursting into tears and hiding her face on Georgiana's shoulder.

And among us all Georgiana was the only comforter. She laid aside her
own work for that day, spent the rest of it as Samaritan to her
desperately wounded neighbor, and at nightfall, over the bed, now
peaceful and snowy once more, she spread a marvellous priceless quilt
that she had long been making to exhibit at the approaching World's
Fair in New York.

"Georgiana," I said, as I walked home with her at bedtime, "it seems to
me that things happen in order to show you off."

"Only think!" Georgiana replied; "she will never get into bed again
without a shiver and a glance at the chimney. I begrudge her the quilt
for one reason: it has a piece of one of your old satin waistcoats in
it."

"Did she tell you that she had had those bedclothes ever since her
marriage?"

"Yes; but I have always felt that she couldn't have been married very
long."

"How long should you think?"

"Oh, well—about a minute."

"And yet she certainly has the clearest possible idea of Mr. Walters.
I imagine that very few women ever come to know their husbands as
perfectly as Mrs. Walters knew hers."

"Or perhaps wish to."