Aftermath (Allen)/Chapter IV

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Aftermath by James Lane Allen
Chapter IV

Last summer I felled a dead oak in the woods and had the heart of him
stored away for my winter fuel: a series of burnt-offerings to the
worshipful spirit of my hearth-stone. There should have been several
of these offerings already, for October is almost ended now, and it is
the month during which the first cool nights come on in Kentucky and
the first fires are lighted.

A few twilights ago I stood at my yard gate watching the red domes of
the forest fade into shadow and listening to the cawing of crows under
the low gray of the sky as they hurried home. A chill crept over the
earth. It was a fitting hour; I turned in-doors and summoned Georgiana.

"We will light our first fire together," I said, straining her to my
heart.

Kneeling gayly down, we piled the wood in the deep, wide chimney. Each
of us then brought a live coal, and together we started the blaze. I
had drawn Georgiana's chair to one side of the fireplace, mine
opposite; and with the candles still unlit we now sat silently watching
the flame spread. What need was there of speech? We understood.

By-and-by some broken wreaths of smoke floated, outward into the room.
My sense caught the fragrance. I sniffed it with a rush of memories.
Always that smell of smoke, with other wild, clean, pungent odors of
the woods, had been strangely pleasant to me. I remember thinking of
them when a boy as incense perpetually and reverently set free by
nature towards the temple of the skies. They aroused in me even then
the spirit of meditation on the mystery of the world; and later they
became in-wrought with the pursuit and enjoyment of things that had
been the delight of my life for many years. So that coming now, at the
very moment when I was dedicating myself to my hearth-stone and to
domestic life, this smell of wood smoke reached me like a message from
my past. For an instant ungovernable longings surged over me to return
to it. For an instant I did return; and once more I lay drowsing
before my old camp-fires in the autumn woods, with the frosted trees
draping their crimson curtains around me on the walls of space and the
stars flashing thick in the ceiling of my bedchamber. My dog, who had
stretched himself at my feet before the young blaze, inhaled the smoke
also with a full breath of reminiscence, and lay watching me out of the
corner of his eye—I fancied with reproachful constancy. I caught his
look with a sense of guilt, and glanced across at Georgiana.

Her gaze was buried deep in the flames. And how sweet her face was,
how inexpressibly at peace. She had folded the wings of her whole
life, and sat by the hearth as still as a brooding dove. No past laid
its disturbing touch upon her shoulder. Instead, I could see that if
there were any flight of her mind away from the present it was into the
future—a slow, tranquil flight across the years, with all the
happiness that they must bring. As I set my own thoughts to journey
after hers, suddenly the scene in the room changed, and I beheld
Georgiana as an old, old lady, with locks of silver on her temples,
spectacles, a tiny sock stuck through with needles on her knee, and her
face finely wrinkled, but still blooming with unconquerable gayety and
youth.

"How sweet that smoke is, Georgiana," I said, rousing us both, and
feeling sure that she will understand me in whatsoever figure I may
speak. "And how much we are wasting when we change this old oak back
into his elements—smoke and light, heat and ashes. What a magnificent
work he was on natural history, requiring hundreds of years for his
preparation and completion, written in a language so learned that not
the wisest can read him wisely, and enduringly bound in the finest of
tree calf! It is a dishonor to speak of him as a work. He was a
doctor of philosophy! He should have been a college professor! Think
how he could have used his own feet for a series of lectures on the
laws of equilibrium, capillary attraction, or soils and moisture! Was
there ever a head that knew as much as his about the action of light?
Did any human being ever more grandly bear the burdens of life or
better face the tempests of the world? What did he not know about
birds? He had carried them in his arms and nurtured them in his bosom
for a thousand years. Even his old coat, with all its rents and
patches—what roll of papyrus was ever so crowded with the secrets of
knowledge? The august antiquarian! The old king! Can you imagine a
funeral urn too noble for his ashes? But to what base uses, Georgiana!
He will not keep the wind away any longer; we shall change him into a
kettle of lye with which to whiten our floors."

What Georgiana's reply could have been I do not know, for at that
moment Mrs. Walters flitted in.

"I saw through the windows that you had a fire," she said, volubly,
"and ran over to get warm. And, oh! yes, I wanted to tell you—"

"Stop, please, Mrs. Walters!" I cried, starting towards her with an
outstretched hand and a warning laugh. "You have not yet been formally
introduced to this room, and a formal introduction is necessary. You
must be made acquainted with the primary law of its being;" and as Mrs.
Walters paused, dropping her hands into her lap and regarding me with
an air of mystification, I went on:

"When I had repairs made in my house last summer, I had this fireplace
rebuilt, and I ordered an inscription to be burnt into the bricks. We
expect to ask that all our guests will kindly notice this inscription,
in order to avoid accidents or misunderstandings. So I beg of you not
to speak until you have read the words over the fireplace."

Mrs. Walters wonderingly read the following legend, running in an arch
across the chimney:


  Good friend, around these hearth-stones speak
         no evil word of any creature.


She wheeled towards me with instantaneous triumph.

"I'm glad you put it there!" she cried. "I'm glad you put it there!
It will teach them a lesson about their talking. If there is one thing
I cannot stand it is a gossip."

I have observed that a fowl before a looking-glass will fight its own
image.

"Take care, Mrs. Walters!" I said, gently. "You came very near to
violating the law just then."

"He meant it for me, Mrs. Walters," said Georgiana, fondling our
neighbor's hand, and looking at me with an awful rebuke.

"I meant it for myself," I said. "And now it is doing its best to make
me feel like a Pharisee. So I hasten to add that there are other rooms
in the house in which it will be allowed human nature to assert itself
in this long-established, hereditary, and ineradicable right. Our
guests have only to intimate that they can no longer restrain their
propensities and we will conduct them to another chamber. Mrs. Moss
and I will occasionally make use of these chambers ourselves, to
relieve the tension of too much virtue. But it is seriously our idea
to have one room in the house where we shall feel safe, both as
respects ourselves and as respects others, from the discomfort of
evil-speaking. As long as these walls stand or we dwell in them, this
is to be the room of charity and kindness to all creatures."

Although we exerted ourselves, conversation flagged during the visit of
Mrs. Walters. Several times she began to speak, but, with a frightened
look at the fireplace, dropped into a cough, or cleared her throat in a
way that called to mind the pleasing habit of Sir Roger de Coverly in
the Gardens of Gray's Inn.

Later in the evening other guests came. Upon each the law of that
fireside was lightly yet gravely impressed. They were in the main the
few friends I know in whom such an outward check would call for the
least inner restraint; nevertheless, on what a footing of confidence it
placed our conversation! To what a commanding level we were safely
lifted! For nothing so releases the best powers of the mind as the
understanding that the entire company are under bond to keep the peace
of the finest manners and of perfect breeding.

And Georgiana—how she shone! I knew that she could perfectly fill a
window; I now see that she can as easily fill a room. Our bodies were
grouped about the fireplace; our minds centred around her, and she
flashed like the evening star along our intellectual pathway.

The next day Mrs. Walters talked a long time to Georgiana on the edge
of the porch.


Thus my wife and I have begun life together. I think that most of our
evenings will be spent in the room dedicated to a kind word for life
universal. No matter how closely the warring forces of existence,
within or without, have pressed upon us elsewhere, when we enter there
we enter peace. We shall be walled in, from all darkness of whatsoever
meaning; our better selves will be the sole guests of those luminous
hours. And surely no greater good-fortune can befall any household
than to escape an ignoble evening. To attain a noble one is like lying
calmly down to sleep on a mountain-top towards which our feet have
struggled upward amid enemies all day long.

Although we have now been two months married, I have not yet captured
the old uncapturable loveliness of nature which has always led me and
still leads me on in the person of Georgiana, I know but too well now
that I never shall. The charm in her which I pursue, yet never
overtake, is part and parcel of that ungraspable beauty of the world
which forever foils the sense while it sways the spirit—of that
elusive, infinite splendor of God which flows from afar into all
terrestrial things, filling them as color fills the rose. Even while I
live with Georgiana in the closest of human relationships, she retains
for me the uncomprehended brightness and freshness of a dream that does
not end and has no waking.

This but edges yet more sharply the eagerness of my desire to enfold
her entire self into mine. We have been a revelation to each other,
but the revelation is not complete; there are curtains behind curtains,
which one by one we seek to lift as we penetrate more deeply into the
discoveries of our union. Sometimes she will seek me out and, sitting
beside me, put her arm around my neck and look long into my eyes, full
of a sort of beautiful, divine wonder at what I am, at what love is, at
what it means for a man and a woman to live together as we live. Yet,
folded to me thus, she also craves a still larger fulfilment. Often
she appears to be vainly hovering on the outside of a too solid sphere,
seeking an entrance to where I really am. Even during the intimate
silences of the night we try to reach one another through the throbbing
walls of flesh—we but cling together across the lone, impassable gulfs
of individual being.

During these October nights the moon has reached its fulness and the
earth been flooded with beauty.

Our bed is placed near a window; and as the planet sinks across the sky
its rays stream through the open shutter and fall upon Georgiana in her
sleep. Sometimes I lie awake for the sole chance of seeing them float
upon her hair, pass lingeringly across her face, and steal holily
downward along her figure. How august she is in her purity! The
whiteness of the fairest cloud that brushes the silvering orb is as
pitch to the whiteness of her nature.

The other night as I lay watching her thus, and while the lower part of
the bed remained in deep shadow, I could see that the thin covering had
slipped aside, leaving Georgiana's feet exposed.

With a start of pain I recollected an old story about her childhood:
that one day for the sake of her rights she had received a wound in one
of her feet—how serious I had never known, but perhaps deforming,
irremediable. My head was raised on the pillow; the moonlight was
moving down that way; it would cross her feet; it would reveal the
truth.

I turned my face away and closed my eyes.