A Second-hand Story
A SECOND-HAND STORY.
By H. C. Bunner.
I HAVE a small book, and a small story, that I bought, the two together, for fifteen cents. He thought, I suppose, that he was selling the book alone; and I must admit that it was but a shabby sort of book. You will hardly find it in the catalogues. It is not a first edition. It is not a tall copy—it is a squat little volume, in truth. It bears a modest imprimatur.
The title page reads thus:
UNITED STATES of AMERICA.
AN IMPROVEMENT OF THE OLD VERSION
OF THE PSALMS OF DAVID
York and Philadelphia, to be uſed in
All things written in the law of Moſes,
and the prophets, and the pſalms, con-
cerning me, muſt be fulfilled.
Printed by SHEPARD KOLLOCK.
"Oh, I don't know," said the bookseller, as I leaned over the "second-hand counter," and held it up to him. "Fifteen cents, if you want it. Now, here's something you ought to see——"
But I did not care to see it. I took my fifteen cents worth away, and asked myself in what Elizabethtown it was printed; what manner of man Shepard Kollock might have been; but most, what human being owned this little book, handled it, read it, sang from it belonged to it, in short, as we all belong to our books.
I am told that to the man who has determined to hand his conscience over to the keeping of an established church this much liberty of personal choice is conceded: that he may elect to which one of the established churches he will make delivery. Of this initial liberty of personal choice I shall take advantage in my search after truth. To discover the true history of this volume, I must accept certain premises, and draw conclusions therefrom. If the conclusions are wrong, the premises are clearly to blame, and I am not.
Now, I find, on the second page behind the title, this official commission of the book:
Philadelphia, May 24th, 1787.
THE Synod of New-York and Phi-
ladelpbia did allow Dr. Watts's Invi-
tation of David's Pſalms, as reviſed by
Mr. Barlow to be ſung in the Churches
end Families under their care.
Extracted from the record of Synod, by
GEORGE DUFFIELD, D. D.
Stated Clerk of Synod.
Hence we may set out with the almost certain knowledge that this copy of Mr. Barlow's revision was owned in Pennsylvania, in New York, or in New Jersey, tucked away between them. If the owner were a Pennsylvanian, why did the book not drift, in the end, to Philadelphia instead of to New York?—there are book-shops in Philadelphia, I think. I found it in New York, yet I hardly think it was first sold there. Dr. Watts must have been tongueless among the Dutch churches in 1791, and he could hardly have been made welcome among the modish Church-of-England sinners in Trinity or St. John's. It was in New Jersey, then, that she lived—for I have decided that this book was owned by a woman and that her name was Prudence—in New Jersey, perhaps on some rich lowland along the calm Passaic.
I have a fancy that I know the place. It is a small town, set between the river and the softly rising hills that slope and fall and slope and fall to the feet of the Orange Mountains. Half-way up the long main street lies a little triangle of green, bounded by posts and chains, that is called "the square." The church stands on the highest side, a solid building of reddish-brown stone, with plain rectangular windows, that look blankly out from their many panes of pale-green flint glass. It has a squat wooden spire, painted white—a white that has been softened and made pleasant to the eye by the ministrations of the weather. Directly opposite the church is a large Square house of brick, with stone about the doors and windows, and with a little white-painted Grecian portico—on that the paint is ever white and new, defying the kindly hand of time. That is the Squire's house, and that is where Prudence lives.
There are trees all around the square, and trees in it—chestnuts and graceful beeches and young oaks—trees that seem to bring something of the wood into the heart of the town. You will not see the great drooping arbors of the New England elms, set at regular intervals, massive, shapely and urban. These are children of the forest, not afraid to venture into the little town and to scatter themselves about her grassy streets.
Their boughs that wave in the sunlight, are almost the only things that move, early of a summer Sunday morning. The front-doors are closed that of a week-day open wide their broad upper halves. There are no people in the streets. Everybody is within doors, making ready for church. Even the dogs refrain from running about the highways and byways on the aimless errands which dogs affect; they lie in the sun on the doorsteps and wait the appearance of that human world of which they are but an humble auxiliary. Perhaps Prudence, pinning her neckerchief before her dressing-glass, gives a look through her window—hers is the little room over the front door—the window with the fanlight at the top—and smiles to see the sunshine and the billowing leaves flickering red and green; but she is the only woman in the town who has a thought to give to anything save the great business of Sunday morning tiring.
At last the old sexton stalks across the square, and opens the church doors with his huge iron key. Out of the sunlight he vanishes into the black hollow of the vestibule; there is silence for a moment, then the husky whirr of the rope over the wooden wheel on high, and the bell clangs out brazen and loud, and the startled birds rise for a second above the tree-tops, and Sunday life begins.
You will not see Prudence until all the townspeople and the farmers from the country round about are seated in the pews—not until the Dominie appears at the side door of the church. Then the broad portal of the Squire's house springs open and the Squire marches forth, looking larger than ever in his Sunday black. There is a sombre grandeur about the very silk stockings on his sturdy old legs. Behind him comes Csæsar—black Cæsar—his wool as white as the Squire's powdered wig. Csæsar has his kit in his hand; he plays the first fiddle in the choir, and thereby enjoys a proud eminence above all the other negroes in the neighborhood. Moreover, he has been a free man since the first Squire died.
Prudence walks by her father's side. The white neckerchief is folded over her breast; her dress is gray; her eyes are gray and dovelike. She holds her hymn-book and a spray of caraway in one hand; the other lifts her clinging skirt. The Squire looks straight ahead as he walks, and Csæsar looks straight at the Squire's back. But Prudence's soft eyes wander a little. Perhaps she is not sorry that the Squire walks slowly; that she has these few moments under the trees and among the birds before the great bare hollow of the church swallows her up for the two long hours of service.
As Prudence sits in her pew to-day—the front pew to the left of the aisle as you face the Dominie—she is conscious that there is among the worshippers a concentration of furtive attention upon the pew behind her the one where old Jan Onderdonck used to sit until he went to finish his mortal slumbers in the graveyard. She does not wonder who may be there; she is too good a girl for that. But she cannot help remembering that she will know when church is out. And now she rises to sing in the hymn, and—she must have been wondering, in spite of herself, or why is there such a guilty start and thrill under the white neckerchief when she hears the strong baritone voice rise resonant behind her? The little brown hymn-book trembles in her hands; she knows she is a wicked girl, and yet—perhaps it is part of her wickedness that she cannot feel properly unhappy. Nay, she knows there is a jubilant lilt in her voice as it joins the strange voice and sings:
"Happy the heart where graces reign.
Where love inspires the breast;
Love is the brightest of the train,
And strengthens all the rest."
Her father turned half around where he stood, as a pillar of the church turning on its base, and gazed at the stranger. Prudence could not turn; she could only glance shyly at her father. He had his Sunday face on, and she knew that he would not relax a muscle of it until he had shaken hands with the Dominie in the porch.
I do not know what else Prudence sang that day out of the brown hymn-book. Perhaps it was "The Shortness and Misery of Life" or "The World's Three Chief Temptations" or "Corrupt Nature from Adam" or "The Song of Zacharias, and the Message of John the Baptist;" but I do know that, as she was going out of church, Prudence did something she had never done since, ten years before, her father put her dead mother's hymn-book into her small hand and told her it was hers. She left it lying on the seat behind her. It did not lie there long; she was not two steps down the aisle before the tall, broad-shouldered young man in the pew behind had presented it to her with a low bow. She took it with a frightened courtesy, and went down the aisle, her heart beating hard. Indeed, now, there was no doubt about it. She was sinful, perverse, and wholly unregenerate to the last degree. She wondered if iniquity so possessed other girls. And just in that moment when he bowed she had noticed that he had fine eyes, and that he wore his black clothes with an air of distinction. Of what use was it to go to church at all, if such sinfulness was in grained in her?
The disturbed dust was settling down on the pulpit cushion once more. The Dominie and the Squire stood in front of the church. The Dominie was powdering himself with snuff, as he always did after a hard sermon, and waiting for his regular invitation to dinner. The Squire, however, was not as prompt as usual to-day. His eyes followed a broad-shouldered figure in black clothes of foreign cut, that strolled idly through the square.
"Dr. Kuypers," he finally demanded, "who is that young man?"
"That," said the Dominie, as he put his snuff-box in his pocket, "is Rick Onderdonck, or, I might better say, Master Richard Onderdonck, the son of our old friend Jan Onderdonck, now at rest. He has been these four years in Germany, where he has learnt a pretty deal of Latin, I must say for him."
The Squire shook his head.
"A godless country for a boy," he said. "I hope he got no worse than Latin there."
"Nay, nay," said the Dominie, indulgently; "I find him a good youth, and uncorrupted. He came home but yesterday, and stays with me till his father's house shall be aired. He will work the old farm, he says, and I trust his Latin may do him no harm."
Dr. Kuypers and the Squire bowed with solemn courtesy. "I shall be honored with your company at dinner, and with that of Mr. Onderdonk." Then he dropped to a simple week-day tone: "Four years, Dominie, four years, is it, since you and I and Jan Onderdonk sat at dinner together? Yes, bring the lad."
And Prudence, during this conversation, stood at her father's elbow and said nothing at all, as was decorous in a young girl.
Dr. Kuypers was a terrible man in the pulpit, and a kind-hearted and merry man out of it. The Sunday dinners in the great brick house were always the brighter for his coming; and if this dinner seemed to Prudence the brightest she had ever known, the credit must have been due to Dr. Kuypers, for young Mr. Onderdonck was certainly most quiet and modest, and contented himself for the most part with giving fitting and well-considered answers to the questions of the elder gentlemen as to his studies and the state of Europe.
The dinner came to an end long before Prudence wished it. And yet, at the end, there was a new and delightful experience for her, which she fled to her room to dream over.
She was only nineteen; she sat at the head of the table, but it was only as she had sat since she was a little girl, just learning to pour her father's coffee, and she had always been a little girl to the Squire and the Dominie. But to-day, when she rose from her seat, Mr. Onderdonck rose too, and hurried to open the door for her, and bowed low as she went out—and, O, wondrous day!—as if this were not joy enough, she saw over her shoulder that her father and the Dominie rose too, and stood until the door had closed behind her.
Mr. Rick Onderdonck was modest even after Mistress Prudence had left the room. I think that the deference of young men toward their elders will not idle out in this world while old men have fair daughters. Mr. Onderdonck took his portion of post-prandial schnapps, and patiently let the Squire and the Dominie whet their rusty Latin on his brand-new learning.
Of course, Prudence married Rick Onderdonck. That was written from the beginning. Why should it not be so? What had the Squire to say against the pretensions of young Kick Onderdonck, heriter of all the square miles of green upland that had once belonged to old Jan, owner of seventy slaves, a virtuous and a comely man, with very pretty manners in the presence of his elders? Why, nothing. He might, indeed, have said that the house would be lonelier than he had thought without Prudence silently flitting here and there; but it was not the Squire's way to give such reasons as that: and so the young people were betrothed early in the spring that followed that first winter when the neighborhood remarked that Rick Onderdonck had taken to going to the Squire's house more than his father ever did.
I don't think the hymn-book saw much of their courtship, although, to be sure, Mr. Onderdonk probably went to church quite regularly during that period of probation. But she sang in the pew in front and he in the pew behind her, and the most that the hymn-book could know of what either of them felt was that her fingers tightened on its smooth cover whenever she heard his voice.
But she probably confided some thought of her heart to the little book that had been her mother's when she came to pack up her "things" a day or two before the wedding—I mean her personal belongings—the trifles dear to her heart.
For days the ox-carts had creaked and groaned up the rough hill roads to the Onderdonck farm-house, leaving great loads of tables, and chairs, and wardrobes, and chests of drawers, and corded boxes that held hundreds of yards of sweet-clover scented linen, and dresses made by modish seamstresses in New York, and even liberal gifts from the Squire's store of family silver. But besides such things as these, there is always the pitiful little kit that a girl makes up when she leaves the old home-roof and takes ship on the great sea of wifehood.
This was truly a kit, done up in the red bandanna handkerchief that old Susan, her nurse (Cæsar's wife, in her life-time), had given her long ago. For that matter, all the poor treasures had been given to her. There was this little hymn-book, first of all, and the gold chain and locket with her mother's miniature. Prudence sometimes looked at her mother's portrait and wondered if those gentle blue eyes had not looked frightened when the Squire proposed to marry them. Then there were the emery-bag and scissors she had got at school, for working the neatest sampler, and there was the sampler to speak for itself. There was the ivory ship that Ezra Saunders had carved for her—Ezra, the dry, shrivelled old cobbler, from some strange, far place in New England, who had followed the sea in his younger days, and whose dark back room in the cabin by the river-side was hung with sharks' teeth and sword-fish spears, and ingeniously-carved stay-bones, with a smell of sandal-wood about them all, wrapping north and south and east and west in one atmosphere of spicy oriental mystery. There, too, was her collection of trinkets—an enamelled brooch, a tall tortoise-shell comb, a garnet ring or two, and such modest odds and ends as served her for jewelry. And all of these she did up in the red bandanna handkerchief, with a guilty feeling, as though she were deserting her girlish life after an ungrateful fashion, and may be the brown book was sensible of some poor unformulated prayers for the strange future.
And so it came about—for the contents of the handkerchief went up to her new home the day before the wedding—that the hymn-book was not in church when she was married. If it had been, I think it would have lain open at page 271, as old Cæsar's bow slid softly over the strings, and the congregation sang:
"Thy wife shall be a fruitful vine,
Thy children round thy board,
Each, like a plant of honor, shine,
And learn to fear the Lord."
So now we have the brown hymn-book at home in the Onderdonck homestead, a long, low building, the lower story of red stone, the upper of wood. It stood high up on the hills, and looked down over grassy slopes of meadow land across the tops of the trees in the town, to the clear, shining line of the river, that ran in pleasant curves as far as the eye could follow it.
It is here that Prudence begins and ends her life. For the best of life be gins where she began in the old farm-house, and what end the world saw she made there.
There life's new joys and life's new troubles began: the new joy of two living one life together; and then the great and awful trouble of child-birth—the worst, forgotten, however, as she lay in Grandmother Onderdonck's four-posted bed and heard the sharp, small, querulous wailing from the next room. I think that was of a Saturday morning in May, and I am sure that on the Sunday she sent Kick to church to receive the congratulations of the neighborhood, and lay in her bed the while, and perhaps turned over a page or two of the hymn-book, finding a comfort in its terror-fraught pages which our generation might seek in vain. Then old Mother, who brought all the town's babies into the world, took the book away from her, for fear it might hurt her dear eyes; and she lay there and hummed the familiar airs under her breath, and if the tune was sweet to her memory it mattered little though the words ran:
"Should'st thou condemn my soul to hell,
And crush my flesh to dust,
Heav'n would approve thy vengeance well,
And earth must own it just."
The time went slowly, lying there in the white waste of the four-poster bed; but it came to an end in time, and there was a day when she went up the church aisle on her husband's arm, just after the sermon, and Dominie Kuypers sprinkled water on the head of the infant, conceived in sin and born in iniquity, and totally unconscious of it, while the choir sang:
"Thus Lydia sanctified her house,
When she received the word;
Thus the believing jailer gave
His household to the Lord."
There were other children after that boy, and Prudence found her days well filled up with the little duties of a woman's life—those little duties which would distress women less could they but see the grand total and estimate the value of it. Prudence must have had some blessed comprehension of the worth of a woman's work who does her duty as wife and mother, for I can see her going about her daily tasks with a sweet and placid face, and lifting tender welcoming eyes to her husband as he comes home at sunset from some far corner of the farm—those sweet gray eyes that were content, only a little while ago, with the light of the sun on the trees and the gay face of the summer-clad world.
It was a serious face, sometimes, that met her look, for Rick was a man who took on his broad shoulders some share of the world's burdens beyond his necessary stint. They had a troublous time when they made up their minds to let their slaves work out their freedom. It was some years before Rick regained his popularity among the neighbors; he had practically manumitted his entire holding of slaves, and although such an act might have been forgiven to mere benevolence, it was a crime against the community when it was dictated by principle. Rick had a sad scene with the old Squire, who all but cursed him for his foreign atheistical notions; and even good Dominie Kuypers looked gravely disappointed. They did not, in fact, fully restore Rick to favor until it became clear beyond a doubt that the farm was paying better under a system of free labor than it had ever paid while it supported a horde of irresponsible slaves. When that fact was proved beyond a doubt, the most notoriously mean man in the county ordered his slaves to work out their freedom at the highest market price; and, after that, the curse was taken off Rick and Prudence.
The shutters of the old farm-house are closed. The broad spread of fields is empty of all but waving grain and nodding corn. The farm-hands stand about the kitchen door, looking strange in their Sunday clothes of black. At the front door stands young Jan Onderdonck, a shapely boy of eighteen, looking out on the world with that white, blank face which the first sight of death among his own puts on a boy. He meets the neighbors as they drive up to the gate in swaying carryalls or lumbering wagons, and goes silently before them to the door. They go in, out of the clear, summer sunshine, leaving the slope of long, unmown grass, the beds of bright flowers, the tremulous green beeches behind them, into the dim, cool front sitting-room, and range themselves along the wall. Friend bows to friend, in a constrained fashion, and here and there are hushed interchanges of speech. "She is taking it hard, poor soul," they say; "but so quiet and still, the doctor was frightened for her."
Across the hall he lies, in the room opened only for company. The air is close; the shutters will not let the scent of the rose-bushes enter. His calm face looks up to the cracked, whitewashed ceiling of the plain old house that was his home a few hours ago. How calm it is! How calm, to leave behind such a void, so much and so unconquerable grief! Yet, would we have the shadow and impress of our sorrow on his face? Good man, good husband, good father, he is gone. And this poor face that lies here to tell us of him, let us be thankful that it smiles calmly as our poor bewildered eyes look at it for the last time.
The darkest room in all the dim, closed house is where Prudence sits, on the floor above. There is a child at each side of her, and when her hands are not clasped trembling in her lap, they move to touch the soft, tear-wet faces. And now the eldest son comes softly into the room and slips his arm about her, and a quick tremor shakes her, and she hears the voice of the old minister, standing upon the stairs, midway between the dead and the living half of one existence, speaking the words that part husband and wife upon this earth. There is a silence, and then the voices of the singers come with a far-away sound from the rooms below. One of the children, with a child's poor, helpless effort to serve, slips the book into her hands. She cannot open it; she could not see the page; she does not need it. She knows the words; only two lines come new to her ears—"Nor should we wish the hours more slow, to keep us from our love."
It has been dropping light showers all the afternoon; showers that have caught the first swaths of the cut grass. Then there has been the brief glow of a high-hung rainbow, and the warm sun has come to rest a few minutes on the long heaps of grass, and to distil from them an exquisite attar of new-mown hay. The sun is behind the hills now; the front of the old farm-house where Prudence is sitting in shade. She looks across her flower-beds, down the long slope to where, beyond town and trees, there is still a warm light on the winding Passaic, that goes, presently, creeping up the further hills, and last of all resting on the white houses of a little settlement that perched on those hills—how many years ago? Prudence forgets: many years ago, yet long since the one date from which she reckons all her days. Rick never saw it. The woods were there when he died.
For thirty years Prudence has seen the sun rise and set since he died. Thirty summers she has tendered the garden he dug for her in their honeymoon. The house he left empty is still home to her, to his children, and to his children's children. The fires have long gone out in the house where she was born; she looks now over the smokeless chimney; but his home is still as he would wish to find it were he coming home this evening across the sweet fields.
Prudence, sitting there, sees his grandson coming homeward now. She knows the broad shoulders and the springy gait. She has always called the boy Richard, though everyone else calls him Rick. She knows, too, the girlish figure by his side; she knows that he will go past the gate and through the woods to the Van Vorst farm. Yes, on he goes, bending his tall head to talk with Mary Van Vorst.
Prudence's face is sweet and her eyes are patient; but who shall blame her if the longing of her heart springs up and knows not day or years? What days or years shall touch that immortal youth? Has the summer grown old? Has the green of the world grown dull, and the gold of the sun grown dim? He walked with her then, and the hay smelt as it smells to-day; the twilight air grew tender and misty about them, the murmur of woodland life made the cool darkness shrill, and the young stars came out in the vague blue of the sky.
What has grown old? What is changed in her heart that it should not cry out for love and joy? Why may she not feel his strong arm about her shoulders, hear his voice in her ears? Why may she not look up now and see his 1 ace bent over hers, love speaking to love in their eyes.
A small brown book slips from her hand and falls upon the ground; but she does not need the printed page. She knows the hymn by heart. The bassoon and the fiddle play softly in the choir of the old church; she hears them faintly, for her heart is fluttering; her hands are cold, there is a mist of tears in her eyes as she looks up into her husband's face, standing before the altar.
It must have been on some evening such as this that the little book dropped from Prudence's hands for the last time. For unless it fell there, and lay among the flowers, and the flowers were untended after her death, so that some stranger picked it up and took it away as a thing of no account, I cannot tell why her children let their mother's book find its way to a second-hand book-shop. I am glad that in the end it did not fall into the hands of some one who might not have known her story.