|←Chapter II|| Oolie by
|published in: Harper's new monthly magazine. / Volume 31, Issue 185. October 1865|
A new element has entered into our household in the person of little Jake—Nancy's child, about four years old, with hair that is almost wool yet fails in respect of kinkiness and color. Sadly neglected he has been, and wofully ignorant of even the simple lore of four-year-old childhood.
"Jake," said I, as we walked under the apple-trees last Sunday—"Jake, do you know what you are made for?"
"Yes, Sir," was the prompt answer as he switched off a clover-head with a stick, "made fur to work."
It took me some time to recover my gravity, and then I thought I would try and recall some Sunday-school rhymes for his benefit.
"Jake, now I want to teach a verse called Happy Land."
"Oh, massa, I know dat."
"You do? Well, let's hear it, then."
So he struck an attitude and commenced in a very high key, "Hail Columby, happy land," and looked at me for approval. I bent my head to hide a smile, and Jake added, triumphantly, "I know 'nuther one, shall I say it?" and without waiting for my answer, went on, "My kingdom fur a hoss—my kingdom fur a hoss."
Jake had finished his list of acquirements, and trotted off, saying, "Dat's all I know;" leaving me sadly puzzled to dispose of this new responsibility that had come to me unsought. Of course I must try and teach him something of all he ought to know, so he and I are great friends: I have promised him to raise a great kite to-morrow. Oolie has been helping me build one to-day, and promises to see the raising just after we finish our German lesson. The child has very pretty hands. So here I am as busy as I was in town. A bridge to build, fences to be laid, a little contraband to civilize, and a fair young girl as pupil in German. I shall have no lack of employment.
Oolie has a fine voice and sings in the village church every Sunday. The druggist's clerk whom I saw in town is the basso of the choir, and seems to feel it incumbent upon him to accompany the girl home. He is rather goodlooking; but I think I had better go to the choir meetings myself to bring her home, as she might take a fancy to this Mr. Lee and she is quite too young to be thinking of these things—quite too young. Not that I am so very old either, twenty-six—that would not sound old in speaking of any one else. I suppose that it seems very old to Oolie. I can not but feel the novelty of the sensation of having a grateful heart express itself in spite of pride. When I sent a strong man to take John Austin's place that hot day in the field, making him believe that I wanted him to look over some plans and drawings with me, it was very beautiful to see the great eyes flash their gratitude. But then, when I spoke a single word in reference to Mr. Lee, she drew herself up so proudly, and grew solemn and distant till I thought of the little owlet resemblance myself.
A whole fortnight has passed without a record, at least on paper. Let me see what was the last entry in this ledger of joys and sorrows. Oh, I remember—we were to raise the kite—Jake and Oolie and I.
The kite-raising was put off. It happened in this wise: In pursuance of my fatherly plan I went to the choir meeting with Oolie, though it pained me somewhat to fancy that she did not care for my society. When the singing was over Mr. Lee, a boy of only twenty summers, stepped up to her side and offered his escort homeward, being ignorant probably that I came in that capacity. She stepped a pace aside with him and interchanged whispers, and I distinctly heard her say, "For mother's sake, Arthur." She came close to me, and walked gravely beside me a while. I did not offer her my arm, and was in a savage mood. So we walked a while in silence.
"Miss Oolie"—I had made up my mind to lecture my pupil—"Miss Oolie, permit me to ask you if Mr. Lee's addresses are sanctioned by your parents?"
The girl stopped a moment in mute astonishment, and walked swiftly on without an answer. I repeated the question, and attempted to draw her hand within my arm.
"Mr. Owen"—and the eyes flashed in the moonlight like gems—"permit me to ask you what right you have to ask the question? For your great kindness to me and mine I am most truly grateful; but you forget yourself when you speak as now."
She spoke not another word, but drawing her little figure up, walked straight up the little gravel-walk, past the shadow of the porch, where I intended to apologize, on and up to her room out of sight.
When we met the next day she was studiously polite, but made an excuse to avoid her lesson. I felt guilty and miserable, trying in various ways to atone for my misconduct. I gathered the most charming bouquet I could find and left beside her hat in in the hall, and she left it to wither there. I bought confectionery, and was obliged to give it to Jake.
Jake and I are great friends, and between that and the bridge building I manage to amuse myself; but I can not disguise from myself that I was sorely troubled by the little owlet's cool disdain. I know that she is only a pretty country girl, whose frown should be no terror to me. I know that I am no love-sick boy, so break my heart about it; but I know better still that I had no right to speak as I did. If this Arthur Lee loves her, and she cares for him, why, it is no business of mine. I am only a—a friend, who cares for her very very much as the fairest and purest flower that ever bloomed. I would fain apologize, but she gives me no chance. I wonder if she will come out to help us with the kite to-morrow. Jake is to ask her. She would be sure to say no to me.
We flew that kite. It seems a long while ago, though, since then. Shall I ever forget it? The cool, fresh breath of the morning that rising swept over the tree-tops like an autumn wind, and drove the flying clouds above, while their shadows flitted over grain-field and meadow below. Shall I forget the tangled string that neither Jake nor I could untie, and which Oolie's little hands released so deftly? Nor how she drew those hands away when I tried to detain her to speak one word of remorseful acknowledgment, and so left Jake and I alone to wander off up the great rock which on this side rose steadily, but shelved straight down, rough and wayward Cress-kill? How the kite caught the wind, and, sailing out and up, pulled tightly on the string, while Jake was in an ecstasy of delight over its gambols, and even I felt all a boy's enthusiasm over the successful flight? Oolie was nowhere in sight. Up went the kite higher and higher, and, following its motions, I stepped back nearer and nearer the fringe of bushes at the summit of Greyrock, while Jake's shout of triumph rent the air.
Then I remember nothing more until I became conscious of a dull pain in my left arm, and half opening my eyes found myself beneath the ledge of rocks from whence I had undoubtedly fallen. Ah! but I bore the pain bravely, and gave no word of returning life; for I saw my little owlet, with her face buried in her hands, not far away. I shut my teeth to prevent a groan or quickened breath, for I heard her footstep come nearer. Then she tried to raise me up, but the broad shoulders belonging to six feet of humanity were quite too much for her; so she folded the shawl she wore and laid it under my head. Still I didn't move. It was worth some suffering to have those hands passing lightly over my hair, or laid tenderly enough now on mine. Five minutes more, and I did not move. Then there came down the softest little kiss on my forehead that ever blessed a dreaming man in love.
When I say that I kept my eeys shut after that I announce a feat of heroism unparalled, I heard her retreating footstep, and her clear voice calling over the hill. "Quick! quicker, father! He does not open his eyes at all. Send Susan for Dr. Mills." I thought I might as well indulge in a groan or two now, for the pain was very great, and I was suffering acutely, as I supposed, with a dislocated shoulder. Mr. Austin and one of the farm-hands, summoned by Jake's report, assisted me home to the house, where I did not wait long for Dr. Mill's skillful care. A man of about my own age, with Saxon hair and eye and deep-toned voice, I found Dr. Mills at once a skillful practitioner and an agreeable companion. He was about to leave soon after for a year's service in the hospitals, both for the benefit of himself and suffering men.
And this is why no entry stands upon my journal until to-day. I only see Oolie at rare intervals, and she is as cool as ever. She does not know—the little owlet—that I hold the memory of that fluttering kiss. But why can I not lure her to my side again? Mrs. Austin seems more melancholy and retired than ever, but is most undoubtedly anxious that I should care for Oolie, and perhaps this acting on her sensitive nature makes an involuntary revolt. I hear a troubled remonstrance now and then, and afterward my darling child is pale and sorrowful for days. If I dared I would ask her to try to like an old bachelor ever so little, and give him the right to take the little owlet to a cozy nest of his own planning.
But all the while I have been lying here she has come and gone unheeded, and more than once I have heard the heavy tones of Arthur Lee's voice as he said good-night by the gate. I must not write more, for I am feverish, and Dr. Mills forbids excitement.
Am I dreaming, or is it truly so? It seems like a dream that, away off by Cress-kill, on the very spot where I fell not long ago, I found my pupil, with pale-face and eyes dim with tears—that, kneeling by her side, I asked for the right to woo and win, and, unrebuked, held Oolie to my heart. It is even so, and the great solemn eyes just glancing up to mine have spoken our betrothal. Pray God I make make her happy.
Strange, dear, bewildering Oolie! Can I ever understand you, with your saddened moods and troubled brow? I fear—nay, sometimes I really think—that her mother has urged her to accept my addresses, knowing that I would be what the world calls a good match. I know that Oolie is happiest and brightest when her old father looks so well pleased to see us together. But still I cling to the memory of that kiss, so lightly and tenderly bestowed. I am sure I know her too well to think that, even for their sakes, she would give her hand without her heart.
To-night she pleaded a headache, and left me to seek my room and tell my patient journal all my thoughts. And so, with a shaded scholar's lamp throwing its circle of light around my pen and page, while the rest of the room is flooded with moonlight, I dream and write alternatately.
But what is that figure doing there by the garden gate? A man stands waiting just within the shadow. But see! a girl's light figure moves out from the side doorway and joins him. A strange calmness comes over me, although I see in the clear moonlight that it is Oolie. They walk off down the old garden path, and I can not turn my eyes or ears away if I would. Now she speaks brokenly, and I even hear her say, "It is a living death," and they pass on. I do not hear Arthur Lee's words, deep and full-toned as they are. I only hear those sweet, false lips, that—
They are parting. "'Tis the very last time." I hear it distinctly in those musical accents that have come to be so dear. And this then is the end of the bright midsummer dream. False and fair, she is lost to me forever.
A few written words to release her from the weary vow that makes this "living death" to her; a straightforward letter to John Austin explaining as well as I may the unfortunate position in which I find myself; a few business arrangements; a check sufficient to cover all expenses connected with my stay and forwarding my effects; a hasty tossing of garments into my trunks, and with the midnight moon low toward the west I bid adieu to Greyrock forever. "Oolie, dear, false angel, good-by!"