A Kentucky Cardinal/Chapter VI
This morning, the 3d of June, the Undine from Green River rose above the waves.
The strawberry bed is almost under their windows. I had gone out to pick the first dish of the season for breakfast; for while I do not care to eat except to live, I never miss an opportunity of living upon strawberries.
I was stooping down and bending the wet leaves over, so as not to miss any, when a voice at the window above said, timidly and playfully,
“Are you the gardener?”
I picked on, turning as red as the berries. Then the voice said again,
“Old man, are you the gardener?”
Of course a person looking down carelessly on the stooping figure of any man, and seeing nothing but a faded straw hat, and arms and feet and ankles bent together, might easily think him decrepit with age. Some things touch off my temper. But I answered, humbly,
“I am the gardener, madam.”
“How much do you ask for your strawberries?”
“The gentleman who owns this place does not sell his strawberries. He gives them away, if he likes people. How much do you ask for your strawberries?”
“What a nice old gentleman! Is he having those picked to give away?”
“He is having these picked for his breakfast.”
“Don't you think he'd like you to give me those, and pick him some more?”
“I fear not, madam.”
“Nevertheless, you might. He’d never know.”
“I think he’d find it out.”
“You are not afraid of him, are you?”
“I am when he gets mad.”
“Does he treat you badly?”
“If he does, I always forgive him.”
“He doesn’t seem to provide you with very many clothes.”
I picked on.
“But you seem nicely fed.”
I picked on.
“What is his name, old man? Don’t you like to talk?”
“Such a green, cool, soft name! It is like his house and yard and garden. What does he do?”
“Whatever he pleases.”
“You must not be impertinent to me, or I’ll tell him. What does he like?”
“Birds—red-birds. What do you like?”
“Red-birds! How does he catch them? Throw salt on their tails?”
“He is a lover of Nature, madam, and particularly of birds.”
“What does he know about birds? Doesn’t he care for people?”
“He doesn’t think many worth caring for.”
“Indeed! And he is perfect, then, is he?”
“He thinks he is nearly as bad as any; but that doesn't make the rest any better.”
“Poor old gentleman! He must have the blues dreadfully. What does he do with his birds? Eat his robins, and stuff his cats, and sell his red-birds in cages?”
“He considers it part of his mission in life to keep them from being eaten or stuffed or caged.”
“And you say he is nearly a hundred?”
“He is something over thirty years of age, madam.”
“Thirty? Surely we heard he was very old. Thirty! And does he live in that beautiful little old house all by himself?”
“I live with him!”
“You! Ha! ha! ha! And what is your name, you dear good old man?”
“Two Adams living in the same house! Are you the old Adam? I have heard so much of him.”
At this I rose, pushed back my hat, and looked up at her.
“I am Adam Moss,“ I said, with distant politeness. “You can have these strawberries for your breakfast if you want them.”
There was a low quick “Oh!” and she was gone, and the curtains closed over her face. It was rude; but neither ought she to have called me the old Adam. I have been thinking of one thing: why should she speak slightingly of my knowledge of birds? What does she know about them? I should like to inquire.
Late this afternoon I dressed up in my high gray wool hat, my fine long-tailed blue cloth coat with brass buttons, by pink waistcoat, frilled shirt, white cravat, and yellow nankeen trousers, and walked slowly several times around my strawberry bed. Did not see any more ripe strawberries.
Within the last ten days I have called twice upon the Cobbs, urged no doubt by an extravagant readiness to find them all that I feared they were not. How exquisite in life is the art of not seeing many things, and of forgetting many that have been seen! They received me as though nothing unpleasant had happened. Nor did the elder daughter betray that we had met. She has not gotten, for more than once I surprised a light in her eyes as though she were laughing. She has not, it is certain, told even her mother and sister. Somehow this fact invest her character with a charm as of subterranean roominess and secrecy. Women who tell everything are like finger-bowls of clear water.
But it is Sylvia that pleases me. She must be about seventeen; and so demure and confiding that I was ready to take her by the hand, lead her to the garden-gate, and say: Dear child, everything in here—butterflies, flowers, fruit, honey, everything—is yours; come and go and gather as you like.
Yesterday morning I sent them a large dish of strawberries, with a note asking whether they would walk during the day over to my woodland pasture, where the soldiers had a barbecue before setting out for the Mexican war. The mother and Sylvia accepted. Our walk was a little overshadowed by their loss; and as I thoughtlessly described the of that scene—the splendid young fellows dancing in their bright uniforms, and now and then pausing to wipe their foreheads, the speeches, the cheering, the dinner under the trees, and, a few days later, the tear-dimmed eyes, the hand-wringing and embracing, and at last the marching proudly away, each with a Bible in his pocket, and many never, never to return—I was sorry that I had not foreseen the sacred chord I was touching. But it made good friends of us more quickly, and they were well-bred, so that we returned to all appearance in gay spirits. The elder daughter came to meet us, and went at once silently to her mother’s side, as though she had felt the separation. I wondered whether she had declined to go because of the memory of her father. As we passed my front gate, I asked them to look at my flowers. The mother praised also the cabbages, thus showing an admirably balanced mind; the little Sylvia fell in love with a vine-covered arbor; the elder daughter appeared to be secretly watching the many birds about the grounds, but when I pointed out several less-known species, she lost interest.
What surprises most is that they are so refined and intelligent. It is greatly to be feared that we Kentuckians in this part of the State are profoundly ignorant as to the people in other parts. I told Mrs. Walters this, and she, seeing that I am beginning to like them, is beginning to like them herself. Dear Mrs. Walters! Her few ideas are like three or four marbles on a level floor; they have no power to move themselves, but roll equally well in any direction you push them.
This afternoon I turned a lot of little town boys into my strawberry bed, and now it looks like a field that had been harrowed and rolled. I think they would gladly have pulled up some of the plants to see whether there might not be berries growing on the roots.
It is unwise to do everything that you can for people at once; for when you can do nothing more, they will say you are no longer like yourself, and turn against you. So I have meant to go slowly with the Cobbs in my wish to be neighborly, and do not think that they could reasonably be spoiled on one dish of strawberries in three weeks. But the other evening Mrs. Cobb sent over a plate of golden sally-lunn on a silver waiter, covered with a snow-white napkin; and acting on this provocation, I thought they could be trusted with a basket of cherries.
So next morning, in order to save the ripening fruit on a rather small tree of choice variety, I thought I should put up a scarecrow, and to this end rummaged a closet for some last winter’s old clothes. These I crammed with straw, and I fastened the resulting figure in the crotch of the tree, tying the arms to the adjoining limbs, and giving it the dreadful appearance of shouting, “Keep out of here, you rascals, or you’ll get hurt!” And, in truth, it did look so like me that I felt a little uncanny about it myself.
Returning home late, I went at once to the tree, where I found not a quart of cherries, and the servants told of an astonishing thing: that no sooner had the birds discovered who was standing in the tree, wearing the clothes in which he used to feed them during the winter, than the news spread like wildfire to the effect that he had climbed up there and was calling out: “Here is the best tree, fellows! Pitch in and help yourselves!” So that the like of the chattering and fetching away was never seen before. This was the story; but little negroes love cherries, and it is not incredible that the American birds were assisted in this instance by a large family of fat young African spoon-bills.
Anxious to save another tree, and afraid to use more of my own clothes, I went over to Mrs. Walters, and got from her an old bonnet and veil, a dress and cape, and a pair of her cast-off yellow gaiters. These garments I strung together and prepared to look life-like, as nearly as a stuffing of hay would meet the inner requirements of the case. I them seated the dread apparition in the fork of a limb, and awaited results. The first thief was an old jay, who flew towards the tree with his head turned to one side to see whether any one was overtaking him. But scarcely had he alighted when he uttered a scream of horror that was sickening to hear, and dropped on the grass beneath, after which he took himself off with a silence and speed that would have done credit to a passenger-pigeon. That tree was rather avoided for some days, or it may have been let alone merely because others were ripening; so that Mrs. Cobb got her cherries, and I sent Mrs. Walter some also for the excellent loan of her veil and gaiters.
As the days pass I fall in love with Sylvia, who has been persuaded to turn my arbor into a reading-room, and is often to be found there of mornings with one of Sir Walter’s novels. Sometimes I leave her alone, sometimes lie on the bench facing her, while she reads aloud, or, tiring, prattles. Little half-fledged spirit, to whom the yard is the earth and June eternity, but who peeps over the edge of the nest at the chivalry of the ages, and fancies that she knows the world. The other day, as we were talking, she tapped the edge of her Ivanhoe with a slate-pencil—for she is also studying the Greatest Common Divisor—and said, warningly, "You must not make epigrams; for if you succeeded you would be brilliant, and everything brilliant is tiresome."
“Who is your authority for that epigram, Miss Sylvia?” I said, laughing.
“Don’t you suppose that I have any ideas but what I get from books?”
“You may have all wisdom, but those sayings proceed only from experience.”
“I have my intuitions; they are better than experience.”
“If you keep on, you will be making epigrams presently, and then I shall find you tiresome, and go away.”“You couldn’t. I am your guest. How unconventional I am to come over and sit in your arbor! But it is Georgiana’s fault.” “Did she tell you to come?”
“No; but she didn’t keep me from coming. Whenever any one of us does anything improper we always say to each other, ‘It’s Georgiana’s fault. She ought not to have taught us to be so simple and unconventional.’”
“And is she the family governess?”
“She governs the family. There doesn’t seem to be any real government, but we all do as she says. You might think at first that Georgiana was the most light-headed member of the family, but she isn’t. She’s deep. I’m shallow in comparison with her. She calls me sophisticated, and introduces me as the elder Miss Cobb, and says that if I don’t stop reading Scott’s novels and learn more arithmetic she will put white caps on me, and make me walk to church in carpet slippers and with grandmother’s stick.”
“But you don’t seem to have stopped, Miss Sylvia.”
“No; but I’m stopping. Georgiana always gives us time, but we get right at last. It was two years before she could make my brother go to West Point. He was wild and rough, and wanted to raise tobacco, and float with it down to New Orleans, and have a good time. Then when she had gotten him to go she was afraid he’d come back, and so she persuaded my mother to live here, where there isn’t any tobacco, and where I could be sent to school. That took her a year, and now she is breaking up my habit of reading nothing but novels. She gets us all down in the end. One day when she and Joe were little children they were out at the wood-pile, and Georgiana was sitting on a log eating a jam biscuit, with her feet on the log in front of her. Joe had a hand-axe, and was chopping at anything till he caught sight of her feet. Then he went to the end of the log, and whistled like a steamboat, and began to hack down in that direction, calling out to her: ‘Take your toes out of the way, Georgiana. I am coming down the river. The current is up and I can’t stop.’ ‘My toes were there first,’ said Georgiana, and went on eating her biscuit. ‘Take them out of the way, I tell you,’ he shouted as he came nearer, ‘or they’ll get cut off.’ ‘They were there first,’ repeated Georgiana, and took another delicious nibble. Joe cut straight along, and went whack right into her five toes. Georgiana screamed with all her might, but she held her foot on the log, till Joe dropped the hatchet with horror, and caught her in his arms. ‘Georgiana, I told you to take your toes away,’ he cried; ‘you are such a little fool,’ and ran with her to the house. But she always had control over him after that.”
To-day I saw Sylvia enter the arbor, and shortly afterwards I followed with a book.}
“When you stop reading novels and begin to read history, Miss Sylvia, here is the most remarkable history of Kentucky that was ever written or ever will be. It is by my father’s old teacher of natural history in Transylvania University, Professor Rafinesque, who also had a wonderful botanical garden on this side of the town; perhaps the first ever seen in this country.”
“I know all about it,” replied Sylvia, resenting this slight upon her erudition. “Georgiana has my father’s copy, and his was presented to him by Mr. Audubon.”
“Audubon?” I said, with a doubt.
“Never heard of Audubon?” cried Sylvia, delighted to show up my ignorance.
“Only of the great Audubon, Miss Sylvia; the great, the very great Audubon.”
“Well, this was the great, the very great Audubon. He lived in Henderson, and kept a corn-mill. He and my father were friends, and he gave my father some of his early drawings of Kentucky birds. Georgiana has them now, and that is where she gets her love of birds—from my father, who got his from the great, the very great Audubon.”
“Would Miss Cobb let me see these drawings?” I asked, eagerly.
“She might; but she prizes them as much as if they were stray leaves out of the only Bible in the world.”
As Sylvia turned inside out this pocket of her mind, there had dropped out a key to her sister’s conduct. Now I understood her slighting attitude towards my knowledge of birds. But I shall feel some interest in Miss Cobb from this time on. I never dreamed that she could bring me fresh news of that rare spirit whom I have so wished to see, and for one week in the woods with whom I would give any year of my life. Are they possibly the Henderson family to whom dubon intrusted the box of his original drawings during his absence in Philadelphia, and who let a pair of Norway rats rear a family in it, and cut to pieces nearly a thousand inhabitants of the air?
There are two more days of June. Since the talk with Sylvia I have called twice more upon the elder Miss Cobb. Upon reflection, it is misleading to refer to this young lady in terms so dry, stiff, and denuded; and I shall drop into Sylvia’s form, and call her simply Georgiana. That looks better—Georgiana! It sounds well, too—Georgiana!
Georgiana, then, is a rather elusive character. The more I see of her the less I understand her. If your nature draws near hers, it retreats. If you pursue, it flies—a little frightened perhaps. If then you keep still and look perfectly safe, she will return, but remain at a fixed distance, like a bird that will stay in your yard, but not enter your house. It is hardly shyness, for she is not shy, but more like some strain of wild nature in her that refuses to be domesticated. One’s faith is strained to accept Sylvia’s estimate that Georgiana is deep—she is so light, so airy, so playful. Sylvia is a demure little dove that has pulled over itself an owl’s skin, and is much prouder of its wicked old feathers than of its innocent heart; but Georgiana—what is she? Secretly an owl with the buoyancy of a humming-bird? However, it’s nothing to me. She hovers around her mother and Sylvia with a fondness that is rather beautiful. I did not mention the subject of Audubon and her father, for it is never well to let an elder sister know that a younger one has been talking about her. I merely gave her several chances to speak of birds, but she ignored them. As for me and my love of birds, such trifles are beneath her notice. I don’t like her, and it will not be worth while to call again soon, though it would be pleasant to see those drawings.
This morning as I was accidentally passing under her window I saw her at it and lifted my hat. She leaned over with her cheek in her palm, and said, smiling,
“You mustn’t spoil Sylvia!”
“What is my definite offence in that regard?”
“Too much arbor, too many flowers, too much fine treatment.”
“Does fine treatment ever harm anybody? Is it not bad treatment that spoils people?”
“Good treatment may never spoil people who are old enough to know its rarity and value. But you say you are a student of nature; have you not observed that nature never lets the sugar get to things until they are ripe? Children must be kept tart.”
“The next time that Miss Sylvia comes over, then, I am to give her a tremendous scolding and a big basket of green apples.”
“Or, what is worse, suppose you encourage her to study the Greatest Common Divisor? I am trying to get her ready for school in the fall.”
“Is she being educated for a teacher?”
“You know that Southern ladies never teach.”
“Then she will never need the Greatest Common Divisor. I have known many thousands of human beings, and none but teachers ever have the least use for the Greatest Common Divisor.”
“But she needs to do things that she dislikes. We all do.”
I smiled at the memory of a self-willed little bare foot on a log years ago.
“I shall see that my grape arbor does not further interfere with Miss Sylvia’s progress towards perfection.”
“Why didn’t you wish us to be your neighbors?”
“I didn’t know that you were the right sort of people.”
“Are we the right sort?”
“The value of my land has almost been doubled.”
It is a pleasure to know that you approve of us on those grounds. Will the value of our land rise also, do you think? And why do you suppose we objected to you as a neighbor?”
“I cannot imagine.”
“The imagination can be cultivated, you know. Then tell me this: why do Kentuckians in this part of Kentucky think so much of themselves compared with the rest of the world?”
“Perhaps it’s because they are Virginians. There may be various reasons.”
“Do the people ever tell what the reasons are?”
“I have never heard one.”
“And if we stayed here long enough, and imitated them very closely, do you suppose we would get to feel the same way?”
“I am sure of it.”
“It must be so pleasant to consider Kentucky the best part of the world, and your part of Kentucky the best of the State, and your family the best of all the best families in that best part, and yourself the best member of your family. Ought not that to make one perfectly happy?”
“I have often observed that it seems to do so.”
“It is delightful to remember that you approve of us. And we should feel so glad to be able to return the compliment. Good-bye!”
Any one would have to admit, however, that there is no sharpness in Georgiana’s pleasantry. The child-nature in her is so sunny, sportive, so bent on harmless mischief. She still plays with life as a kitten with a ball of yarn. Some day Kitty will fall asleep with the Ball poised in the cup of one foot. Then, waking, when her dream is over, she will find that her plaything has become a rocky, thorny, storm-swept, immeasurable world, and that she, a woman, stands holding out towards it her imploring arms, and asking only for some littlest part in its infinite destinies.
After the last talk with Georgiana I felt renewed desire to see those Audubon drawings. So yesterday morning I sent over to her some things written by a Northern man, whom I call the young Audubon of the Maine woods. His name is Henry D. Thoreau, and it is, I believe, known only to me down here. Everything that I can find of his is as pure and cold and lonely as a wild cedar of the mountain rocks, standing far above its smokeless valley and hushed white river. She returned them to-day with word that she would thank me in person, and to-night I went over in a state of rather senseless eagerness.
Her mother and sister had gone out, and she sat on the dark porch alone. The things of Thoreau’s have interested her, and she asked me to tell her all I knew of him, which was little enough. Then of her own accord she began to speak of her father and Audubon—of the one with the worship of love, of the other with the worship of greatness. I felt as though I were in a moonlit cathedral; for her voice, the whole revelation of her nature, made the spot so impressive and so sacred. She scarcely addressed me; she was communing with them. Nothing that her father told her regarding Audubon appears to have been forgotten; and, brought nearer than ever before to that lofty, tireless spirit in its wanderings through the Kentucky forests, I almost forgot her to whom I was listening. But in the midst of it she stopped, and it was again kitten and yarn. I left quite as abruptly. Upon my soul, I believe that Georgiana doesn’t think me worth talking to seriously.