Aftermath (Allen)/Chapter V

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Aftermath by James Lane Allen
Chapter V

It is nearly dark when I reach home from town these January evenings.
However the cold may sting the face and dart inward to the marrow,
Georgiana is waiting at the yard gate to meet me, so hooded and shawled
and ringed about with petticoats—like a tree within its layers of
bark—that she looks like the most thick-set of ordinary sized women;
for there is a heavenly but very human secret hiding in this household
now, and she is thoughtfully keeping it.

"We press our half-frozen cheeks together, as red as wine-sap apples,
and grope for each other's hand through our big lamb's-wool mittens,
and warm our hearts with the laughter in each other's eyes. One
evening she feigned to be mounted on guard, pacing to and fro inside
the gate, against which rested an enormous icicle. When I started to
enter she seized the icicle, presented arms, and demanded the
countersign.

"Love, captain," I said, "If it be not that, slay me at your feet!"

She threw away her great white spear and put her arms around my neck.

"It is 'Peace,'" she said. "But I desert to the enemy."

Without going to my fireside that evening I hurried on to the stable;
for I do not relinquish to my servants the office of feeding my stock.

Believe in the divine rights of kings I never shall, except in the
divine right to be kingly men, which all men share; but truly a divine
right lies for any man in the ownership of a comfortable barn in
winter. It is the feudal castle of the farm to the lower animals, who
dwell in the Dark Ages of their kind—dwell on and on in affection,
submission, and trust, while their lord demands of them their labor,
their sustenance, or their life.

Of a winter's day, when these poor dumb serfs have been scattered over
the portionless earth, how often they look towards this fortress and
lift up their voices with cries for night to come; the horses, ruffled
and shivering, with their tails to the wind, as they snap their frosted
fodder, or paw through the rime to the frozen grass underneath, causing
their icy fetlocks to rattle about their hoofs; the cattle, crowded to
leeward of some deep-buried haystack, the exposed side of the outermost
of them white with whirling flakes; the sheep, turning their pitiful,
trusting eyes about them over the fields of storm in earth and sky!

What joy at nightfall to gather them home to food and warmth and rest!
If there is ever a time when I feel myself a mediaeval lord to trusty
vassals, it is then. Of a truth I pass entirely over the Middle Ages,
joining my life to the most ancient dwellers of the plains, and
becoming a simple father of flocks and herds. When they have been duly
stabled according to their kinds, I climb to the crib in the barn and
create a great landslide of the fat ears that is like laughter; and
then from every stall what a hearty, healthy chorus of cries and
petitions responds to that laughter of the corn! What squeals and
grunts persuasive beyond the realms of rhetoric! What a blowing of
mellow horns from the cows! And the quick nostril trumpet-call of the
horse, how eager, how dependent, yet how commanding! As I mount to the
top of the pile, if I ever feel myself a royal personage it is then; I
ascend my throne; I am king of the corn; and there is not a brute
peasant in my domain that does not worship me as ruler of heaven and
earth.

Or I love to catch up the bundles of oats as they are thrown down from
the loft and send them whirling through the cutting-box so fast that
they pour into the big baskets like streams of melted gold; or,
grasping my pitchfork, I stuff the ricks over the mangers with the rich
aromatic hay until I am as warm as when I loaded the wagons with it at
midsummer noons.

With what sweet sounds and odors now the whole barn is filled! How
robust, clean, well-meaning are my thoughts! In what comfort of mind I
can turn to my own roof and store!

This hour in my stable is the only one out of the twenty-four left to
me in which my feet may cross the boundary of human life into the world
of the other creatures; for I have gone into business in town to
gratify Georgiana. I think little enough of this business otherwise.
Every day I pass through the groove of it with no more intellectual
satisfaction in it than I feel an intellectual satisfaction in passing
my legs through my pantaloons of a morning. But a man can study
nothing in nature that does not outreach his powers.

If time is left, I veer off from the barn to the wood-pile, for I love
to wield an axe, besides having a taste to cut my own wood for the
nightly burning. This evening I could but stop to notice how the
turkeys in the tree tops looked like enormous black nutgalls on the
limbs, except that the wind whisked their tails about as cheerily as
though they were already hearth-brooms.

It is well for my poor turkeys that their tails contain no moisture;
for on a night like this they would freeze stiff, and the least
incautious movement of a fowl in the morning would serve to crack its
tail off—up to the pope's-nose.

As I set my foot on the door-step, I went back to see whether the two
snow-birds were in their nightly places under the roof of the
porch—the guardian spirits of our portal. There they were, wedged
each into a snug corner as tightly as possible, so not to break their
feathers, and leaving but one side exposed. Happening to have some
wheat in my pocket, I pitched the grains up to the projecting ledge;
they can take their breakfast in bed when they wake in the morning.
Little philosophers of the frost, who even in their overcoats combine
the dark side and the white side of life into a wise and weathering
gray—the no less fit external for a man.

The thought of them to-night put me strongly in mind of a former habit
of mine to walk under the cedar-trees at such dark winter twilights and
listen to the low calls of the birds as they gathered in and settled
down. I have no time for such pleasant ways now, they have been given
up along with my other studies.

This winter of 1851 and 1852 has been cold beyond the memory of man in
Kentucky—the memory of the white man, which goes back some
three-quarters of a century. Twice the Ohio River has been frozen
over, a sight he had never seen. The thermometer has fallen to thirty
degrees below zero. Unheard of snows have blocked the two or three
railroads we have in the State.

News comes that people are walking over the ice on East River, New
York, and that the Mississippi at Memphis bears the weight of a man a
hundred yards from the bank.

Behind this winter lay last year's spring of rigors hitherto unknown,
destroying orchards, vineyards, countless tender trees and plants. It
set everybody to talking of the year 1834, when such a frost fell that
to this day it is known as Black Friday in Kentucky; and it gave me
occasion to tell Georgiana a story my grandfather had told me, of how
one night in the wilderness the weather grew so terrible that the wild
beasts came out of the forests to shelter themselves around the cabins
of the pioneers, and how he was awakened by them fighting and crowding
for places against the warm walls and chimney-corners. If he had had
opened his door and crept back into bed, he might soon have had a
buffalo on one side of his fireplace and a bear on the other, with a
wild-cat asleep on the hearth between, and with the thin-skinned deer
left shivering outside as truly as if they had all been human beings.

Such a spring, with its destruction of seed-bearing and nut-hearing
vegetation, followed by a winter that seals under ice what may have
been produced, has spread starvation among the wild creatures. A
recent Sunday afternoon walk in the woods—Georgiana being away from
home with her mother—showed me that part of the earth's surface rolled
out as a vast white chart, on which were traced the desperate travels
of the snow-walkers in search of food. Squirrel, chipmunk, rabbit,
weasel, mouse, mink, fox—their tracks crossed and recrossed, wound in
and out and round and round, making an intricate lace-work beautiful
and pitiful to behold. Crow prints ringed every corn-shock in the
field. At the base of one I picked up a frozen dove—starved at the
brink of plenty. Rabbit tracks grew thickest as I entered my turnip
and cabbage patches, converging towards my house, and coming to a focus
at a group of snow-covered pyramids, in which last autumn, as usual, I
buried my vegetables. I told Georgiana:

"They are attracted by the leaves that Dilsy throws away when she gets
out what we need. Think of it—a whole neighborhood of rabbits
hurrying here after dark for the chance of a bare nibble at a possible
leaf." Once that night I turned in bed, restless. Georgiana did the
same.

"Are you awake?" she said, softly.

"Are you?"

"Are you thinking about the rabbits?"

"Yes; are you?"

"What do you suppose they think about us?"

"I'd rather not know."


Georgiana tells me that the birds in unusual numbers are wintering
among the trees, driven to us with the boldness of despair. God and
nature have forgotten them; they have nothing to choose between but
death and man. She has taken my place as their almoner and nightly
renders me an account of what she has done. This winter gives her a
great chance and she adorns it. It seems that never before were so
many redbirds in the cedars; and although one subject is never
mentioned between us, unconsciously she dwells upon these in her talk,
and plainly favors them in her affection for the sake of the past.
There are many stories I could relate to show how simple and beautiful
is this whole aspect of her nature.

A little thing happened to-night.

Towards ten o'clock she brought my hat, overcoat, overshoes, mittens,
comforter.

"Put them on," she said, mysteriously.

She also got ready, separating herself from me by so many clothes that
I could almost have felt myself entitled to a divorce.

It was like day out-of-doors with the moon shining on the snow. We
crept towards the garden, screened behind out-buildings. When we
reached the fence, we looked through towards the white pyramids. All
that part of the ground was alive with rabbits. Georgiana had spread
for them a banquet of Lucullus, a Belshazzar's feast. It had been done
to please me, I knew, and out of a certain playfulness of her own; out
there are other charities of hers, which she thinks known only to
herself, that show as well the divine drift of her thoughtfulness.

She is asleep now—for the sake of the Secret. After she had gone to
bed, what with the spectacle of the rabbits and what with our talk
beforehand of the many cardinals in the cedars, my thoughts began to
run freshly on old subjects, and, unlocking my bureau, I got out my
notes and drawings for the work on Kentucky birds. Georgiana does not
know that they exist; she never shall. With what authority those
studies call me still, as with a trumpet from the skies! and I know
that trumpet will sound on till my ears are past hearing. Sometimes I
look upon myself as a man who has had two hearts; one lies buried in
the woods, and the other sits at the fireside thinking of it. But
sleep on, Georgiana—mother that is to be. The dreams of your life
shall never be disturbed by the old dreams of mine.