The Lane that had No Turning/Parables of a Province/There was a Little City

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THERE WAS A LITTLE CITY

IT lay between the mountains and the sea, and a river ran down past it, carrying its good and ill news to a pacific shore, and out upon soft winds, travelling lazily to the scarlet east. All white and a tempered red, it nestled in a valley with other valleys on lower steppes, which seemed as if built by the gods, that they might travel easily from the white-topped mountains, Margath, Shaknon, and the rest, to wash their feet in the sea. In the summer a hot but gracious mistiness softened the green of the valleys, the varying colours of the hills, the blue of the river, the sharp outlines of the cliffs. Along the high shelf of the mountain, mule-trains travelled like a procession seen in dreams—slow, hazy, graven yet moving, a part of the ancient hills themselves; upon the river great rafts, manned by scarlet-vested crews, swerved and swam, guided by the gigantic oars which needed five men to lift and sway—argonauts they from the sweet-smelling forests to the salt-smelling main. In winter the little city lay still under a coverlet of pure white, with the mists from the river and the great falls above frozen upon the trees, clothing them as graciously as with white samite, so that far as eye could see there was a heavenly purity upon all, covering every mean and distorted thing. There were days when no wind stirred anywhere, and the gorgeous sun made the little city and all the land round about a pretty silver kingdom, where Oberon and his courtiers might have danced and been glad.

Often, too, you could hear a distant woodcutter’s axe make a pleasant song in the air, and the woodcutter himself, as the hickory and steel swung in a shining half-circle to the bole of balsam, was clad in the bright livery of frost, his breath issuing in grey smoke like life itself, mystic and peculiar, man, axe, tree, and breath one common being. And when, by-and-by, the woodcutter added a song of his own to the song his axe made, the illusion was not lost, but rather heightened; for it, too, was part of the unassuming pride of nature, childlike in its simplicity, primeval in its suggestion and expression. The song had a soft monotony, swinging backwards and forwards to the waving axe like the pendulum of a clock. It began with a low humming, as one could think man made before he heard the Voice which taught him how to speak. And then came the words:

 

"None shall stand in the way of the lord,
The lord of the Earth—of the rivers and trees,
Of the cattle and fields and vines!
Hew!
Here shall I build me my cedar home,
A city with gates, a road to the sea—
For I am the lord of the Earth!
Hew! Hew!
Hew and hew, and the sap of the tree
Shall be yours, and your bones shall be strong,
Shall be yours, and your heart shall rejoice,
Shall be yours, and the city be yours,
And the key of its gates be the key
Of the home where your little ones dwell.
Hew and be strong! Hew and rejoice!
For man is the lord of the Earth,
And God is the Lord over all!"

 

And so long as the little city stands will this same woodcutter’s name and history stand also. He had camped where it stood now, when nothing was there save the wild duck in the reeds, the antelopes upon the hills, and all manner of furred and feathered things; and it all was his. He had seen the yellow flashes of gold in the stream called Pipi, and he had not gathered it, for his life was simple, and he was young enough to cherish in his heart the love of the open world, beyond the desire of cities and the stir of the market-place. In those days there was not a line in his face, not an angle in his body—all smoothly rounded and lithe and alert, like him that was called "the young lion of Dedan." Day by day he drank in the wisdom of the hills and the valleys, and he wrote upon the dried barks of trees the thoughts that came as he lay upon the bearskin in his tent, or cooled his hands and feet, of a hot summer day, in the moist sandy earth, and watched the master of the deer lead his cohorts down the passes of the hills.

But by-and-by mule-trains began to crawl along the ledges of Margath Mountain, and over Shaknon came adventurers, and after them, wandering men seeking a new home, women and children coming also. But when these came he had passed the spring-time of his years, and had grown fixed in the love of the valley, where his sole visitors had been passing tribes of Indians, who knew his moods and trespassed not at all on his domain. The adventurers hungered for the gold in the rivers, and they made it one long washing-trough, where the disease that afflicted them passed on from man to man like poison down a sewer. Then the little city grew, and with the search for gold came other seekings and findings and toilings, and men who came as one stops at an inn to feed, stayed to make their home, and women made the valley cheerful, and children were born, and the pride of the place was as great as that of some village of the crimson East, where every man has ancestors to Mahomet and beyond.

And he, Felion, who had been lord and master of the valley, worked with them, but did not seek for riches, and more often drew away into the hills to find some newer place unspoiled by man. But again and again he returned; for no fire is like the old fire, and no trail like the old trail. And at last it seemed as if he had driven his tent-peg in the Pipi Valley forever; for, from among the women who came, he chose one comely and wise and kind, and for five years the world grew older, and Felion did not know it. When he danced his little daughter on his knee, he felt that he had found a new world.

But a day came when trouble fell upon the little city, for of a sudden the reef of gold was lost, and the great crushing mills stood idle, and the sound of the hammers was stayed. And they came to Felion, because in his youth he had been of the best of the schoolmen; and he got up from his misery—only the day before his wife had taken a great and lonely journey to that Country which welcomes, but never yields again—and leaving his little child behind, he went down to the mines. And in three days they found the reef once more; for it had curved like the hook of a sickle, and the first arc of the yellow circle had dropped down into the bowels of the earth.

And so he saved the little city from disaster, and the people blessed him at the moment; and the years went on.

Then there came a time when the little city was threatened with a woeful flood, because of a breaking flume; but by a simple and wise device Felion stayed the danger.

And again the people blessed him; and the years went on.

By-and-by an awful peril came, for two-score children had set a great raft loose upon the river, and they drifted down towards the rapids in the sight of the people; and mothers and helpless fathers wrung their hands, for on the swift tide no boat could reach them, and none could intercept the raft. But Felion, seeing, ran out upon the girders of a bridge that was being builded, and there, before them all, as the raft passed under, he let himself fall, breaking his leg as he dropped among the timbers of the fore-part of the raft; for the children were all gathered at the back, where the great oars lay motionless, one dragging in the water behind. Felion drew himself over to the huge oar, and with the strength of five men, while the people watched and prayed, he kept the raft straight for the great slide, else it had gone over the dam and been lost, and all that were thereon. A mile below, the raft was brought to shore, and again the people said that Felion had saved the little city from disaster.

And they blessed him for the moment; and the years went on.

Felion’s daughter grew towards womanhood, and her beauty was great, and she was welcome everywhere in the valley, the people speaking well of her for her own sake. But at last a time came when of the men of the valley one called, and Felion’s daughter came quickly to him, and with tears for her father and smiles for her husband, she left the valley and journeyed into the east, having sworn to love and cherish him while she lived. And her father, left solitary, mourned for her, and drew away into a hill above the valley in a cedar house that he built; and having little else to love, loved the earth, and sky, and animals, and the children from the little city when they came his way. But his heart was sore; for by-and-by no letters came from his daughter, and the little city, having prospered, concerned itself no more with him. When he came into its streets there were those who laughed, for he was very tall and rude, and his grey hair hung loose on his shoulders, and his dress was still a hunter’s. They had not long remembered the time when a grievous disease, like a plague, fell upon the place, and people died by scores, as sheep fall in a murrain. And again they had turned to him, and he, because he knew of a miraculous medicine got from Indian sachems, whose people had suffered of this sickness, came into the little city, and by his medicines and fearless love and kindness stayed the plague.

And thus once more he saved the little city from disaster, and they blessed him for the moment; and the years went on.

In time they ceased to think of Felion at all, and he was left alone; even the children came no more to visit him; and he had pleasure only in hunting and shooting and in felling trees, with which he built a high stockade and a fine cedar house within it. And all the work of this he did with his own hands, even to the polishing of the floors and the carved work of the large fireplaces. Yet he never lived in the house, nor in any room of it, and the stockade gate was always shut; and when any people passed that way they stared and shrugged their shoulders, and thought Felion mad or a fool. But he was wise in his own way, which was not the way of those who had reason to bless him for ever, and who forgot him, though he had served them through so many years. Against the little city he had an exceeding bitterness; and this grew, and had it not been that his heart was kept young by the love of the earth, and the beasts about him in the hills, he must needs have cursed the place and died. But the sight of a bird in the nest with her young, and the smell of a lair, and the light of the dawn that came out of the east, and the winds that came up from the sea, and the hope that would not die kept him from being of those who love not life for life’s sake, be it in ease or in sorrow. He was of those who find all worth the doing, even all worth the suffering; and so, though he frowned and his lips drew tight with anger when he looked down at the little city, he felt that elsewhere in the world there was that which made it worth the saving.

If his daughter had been with him he would have laughed at that which his own hands had founded, protected, and saved. But no word came from her, and laughter was never on his lips—only an occasional smile when, perhaps, he saw two sparrows fighting, or watched the fish chase each other in the river, or a toad, too lazy to jump, walk stupidly like a convict, dragging his long, green legs behind him. And when Felion looked up towards Shaknon and Margath, a light came in his eyes, for they were wise and quiet, and watched the world, and something of their grandeur drew about him like a cloak. As age cut deep lines in his face and gave angles to his figure, a strange, settled dignity grew upon him, whether he swung his axe by the balsams or dressed the skins of the animals he had killed, piling up the pelts in a long shed in the stockade, a goodly heritage for his daughter, if she ever came back. Every day at sunrise he walked to the door of his house and looked eastward steadily, and sometimes there broke from his lips the words: "My daughter—Malise!" Again, he would sit and brood with his chin in his hand, and smile, as though remembering pleasant things.

One day at last, in the full tide of summer, a man, haggard and troubled, came to Felion’s house, and knocked, and, getting no reply, waited, and whenever he looked down at the little city he wrung his hands, and more than once he put them up to his face and shuddered, and again looked for Felion. Just when the dusk was rolling down, Felion came back, and, seeing the man, would have passed him without a word, but that the man stopped with an eager, sorrowful gesture and said: "The plague has come upon us again, and the people, remembering how you healed them long ago, beg you to come."

At that Felion leaned his fishing-rod against the door and answered: "What people?"

The other then replied: "The people of the little city below, Felion."

"I do not know your name," was the reply; "I know naught of you or of your city."

"Are you mad?" cried the man. "Do you forget the little city down there? Have you no heart?"

A strange smile passed over Felion’s face, and he answered: "When one forgets why should the other remember?"

He turned and went into the house and shut the door, and though the man knocked, the door was no opened, and he went back angry and miserable, and the people could not believe that Felion would no come to help them, as he had done all his life. A dawn three others came, and they found Felion looking out towards the east, his lips moving as though he prayed. Yet it was no prayer, only a call, that was on his lips. They felt a sort of awe in his presence, for now he seemed as if he had lived more than a century, so wise and old was the look of his face, so white his hair, so set and distant his dignity. They begged him to come, and, bringing his medicines, save the people, for death was galloping through the town, knocking at many doors.

"One came to heal you," he answered—"the young man of the schools, who wrote mystic letters after his name; it swings on a brass by his door—where is he?"

"He is dead of the plague," they replied, "and the other also that came with him, who fled before the sickness, fell dead of it on the roadside, going to the sea."

"Why should I go?" he replied, and he turned threateningly to his weapon, as if in menace of their presence.

"You have no one to leave behind," they answered eagerly, "and you are old."

"Liars," he rejoined, "let the little city save itself!" and he wheeled and went into his house, and they saw that they had erred in not remembering his daughter, whose presence they had once prized. They saw that they had angered him beyond soothing; and they went back in grief, for two of them had lost dear relatives by the fell sickness. When they told what had happened, the people said: "We will send the women; he will listen to them—he had a daughter."

That afternoon, when all the hills lay still and dead, and nowhere did bird or breeze stir, the women came, and they found him seated with his back turned to the town. He was looking into the deep woods, into the hot shadows of the trees.

"We have come to bring you to the little city," they said to him; "the sick grow in numbers every hour."

"It is safe in the hills," he answered, not looking at them. "Why do the people stay in the valley?"

"Every man has a friend, or a wife, or a child, ill or dying, and every woman has a husband, or a child, or a friend, or a brother. Cowards have fled, and many of them have fallen by the way."

"Last summer I lay sick here many weeks and none came near me—why should I go to the little city?" he demanded austerely. "Four times I saved it, and of all that I saved none came to give me water to drink, or food to eat, and I lay burning with fever, and thirsty and hungry—God of heaven, how thirsty!"

"We did not know," they answered humbly; "you came to us so seldom, we had forgotten; we were fools."

"I came and went fifty years," he answered bitterly, "and I have forgotten how to rid the little city of the plague!"

At that one of the women, mad with anger, made as if to catch him by his beard, but she forbore, and said: "Liar—the men shall hang you to your own roof-tree!"

His eyes had a wild light, but he waved his hand quietly, and answered: "Begone, and learn how great a sin is ingratitude."

He turned away from them gloomily, and would have entered his home, but one of the women, who was young, plucked his sleeve, and said sorrowfully: "I loved Malise, your daughter."

"And forgot her and her father. I am three score and ten years, and she has been gone fifteen, and for the first time I see your face," was his scornful reply.

She was tempted to say: "I was ever bearing children and nursing them, and the hills were hard to climb, and my husband would not go;" but she saw how dark his look was, and she hid her face in her hands and turned away to follow after the others. She had five little children, and her heart was anxious for them and her eyes full of tears.

Anger and remorse seized on the little city, and there were those who would have killed Felion, but others saw that the old man had been sorely wronged in the past, and these said: "Wait until the morrow and we will devise something."

That night a mule-train crept slowly down the mountain side and entered the little city, for no one who came with them knew of the plague. The caravan had come from the east across the great plains, and not from the west, which was the travelled highway to the sea. Among them was a woman who already was ill of a fever, and knew naught of what passed round her. She had with her a beautiful child; and one of the women of the place devised a thing.

"This woman," she said, "does not belong to the little city, and he can have nothing against her; she is a stranger. Let one of us take this beautiful lad to him, and he shall ask Felion to come and save his mother."

Every one approved the woman’s wisdom, and in the early morning she herself, with another, took the child and went up the long hillside in the gross heat; and when they came near Felion’s house the women stayed behind, and the child went forward, having been taught what to say to the old man.

Felion sat just within his doorway, looking out into the sunlight which fell upon the red and white walls of the little city, flanked by young orchards, with great, oozy meadows beyond these, where cattle ate, knee-deep in the lush grass and cool reed-beds. Along the riverside, far up on the high banks, were the tall couches of dead Indians, set on poles, their useless weapons laid along the deerskin pall. Down the hurrying river there passed a raft, bearing a black flag on a pole, and on it were women and children who were being taken down to the sea from the doomed city. These were they who had lost fathers and brothers; and now were going out alone with the shadow of the plague over them, for there was none to say them nay. The tall oarsmen bent to their task, and Felion felt his blood beat faster when he saw the huge oars swing high, then drop and bend in the water, as the raft swung straight in its course and passed on safe through the narrow slide into the white rapids below, which licked the long timbers as with white tongues, and tossed spray upon the sad voyagers. Felion remembered the day when he left his own child behind and sprang from the bridge to the raft whereon were the children of the little city, and saved them.

And when he tried to be angry now, the thought of the children as they watched him, with his broken leg striving against their peril, softened his heart. He shook his head, for suddenly there came to him the memory of a time, three-score years before, when he and the foundryman’s daughter had gone hunting flag-flowers by the little trout stream; of the songs they sang together at the festivals, she in her sweet Quaker garb and demure Quaker beauty, he lithe, alert, and full of the joy of life and loving. As he sat so, thinking, he wondered where she was, and why he should be thinking of her now, facing the dreary sorrow of this pestilence and his own anger and vengeance. He nodded softly to the waving trees far down in the valley, for his thoughts had drifted on to his wife as he first saw her. She was standing bare-armed among the grape-vines by a wall of rock, the dew of rich life on her lip and forehead, her grey eyes swimming with a soft light; and looking at her he had loved her at once, as he had loved, on the instant, the little child that came to him later; as he had loved the girl into which the child grew, till she left him and came back no more. Why had he never gone in search of her?

He got to his feet involuntarily and stepped towards the door, looking down into the valley. As his eyes rested on the little city his face grew dark, but his eyes were troubled and presently grew bewildered, for out of a green covert near there stepped a pretty boy, who came to him with frank, unabashed face and a half-shy smile.

Felion did not speak at first, but stood looking, and presently the child said: "I have come to fetch you."

"To fetch me where, little man?" asked Felion, a light coming into his face, his heart beating faster.

"To my mother. She is sick."

"Where is your mother?"

"She’s in the village down there," answered the boy, pointing.

In spite of himself, Felion smiled in a sour sort of way, for the boy had called the place a village, and he relished the unconscious irony.

"What is the matter with her?" asked Felion, beckoning the lad inside.

The lad came and stood in the doorway, gazing round curiously, while the old man sat down and looked at him, moved, he knew not why.

The bright steel of Felion’s axe, standing in the corner, caught the lad’s eye and held it. Felion saw, and said: "What are you thinking of?"

The lad answered: "Of the axe. When I’m bigger I will cut down trees and build a house, a bridge, and a city. Aren’t you coming quick to help my mother? She will die if you don’t come."

Felion did not answer, and from the trees without two women watched him anxiously.

"Why should I come?" asked Felion curiously.

"Because she’s sick, and she’s my mother."

"Why should I do it because she’s your mother?"

"I don’t know," the lad answered, and his brow knitted in the attempt to think it out, "but I like you." He came and stood beside the old man and looked into his face with a pleasant confidence. "If your mother was sick, and I could heal her, I would—I know I would—I wouldn’t be afraid to go down into the village."

Here were rebuke, love, and impeachment, all in one, and the old man half started from his seat.

"Did you think I was afraid?" he asked of the boy, as simply as might a child of a child, so near are children and wise men in their thoughts.

"I knew if you didn’t it’d be because you were angry or were afraid, and you didn’t look angry."

"How does one look when one is angry?"

"Like my father."

"And how does your father look?"

"My father’s dead."

"Did he die of the plague?" asked Felion, laying his hand on the lad’s shoulder.

"No," said the lad quickly, and shut his lips tight.

"Won’t you tell me?" asked Felion, with a strange inquisitiveness.

"No. Mother’ll tell you, but I won’t." The lad’s eyes filled with tears.

"Poor boy! poor boy!" said Felion, and his hand tightened on the small shoulder.

"Don’t be sorry for me; be sorry for mother, please," said the boy, and he laid a hand on the old man’s knee, and that touch went to a heart long closed against the little city below; and Felion rose and said: "I will go with you to your mother."

Then he went into another room, and the boy came near the axe and ran his fingers along the bright steel, and fondled the handle, as does a hunter the tried weapon which has been his through many seasons. When the old man came back he said to the boy: "Why do you look at the axe?"

"I don’t know," was the answer; "maybe because my mother used to sing a song about the woodcutters."

Without a word, and thinking much, he stepped out into the path leading to the little city, the lad holding one hand. Years afterwards men spoke with a sort of awe or reverence of seeing the beautiful stranger lad leading old Felion into the plague-stricken place, and how, as they passed, women threw themselves at Felion’s feet, begging him to save their loved ones. And a drunkard cast his arm round the old man’s shoulder and sputtered foolish pleadings in his ear; but Felion only waved them back gently, and said: "By-and-by, by-and-by—God help us all!"

Now a fevered hand snatched at him from a doorway, moanings came from everywhere, and more than once he almost stumbled over a dead body; others he saw being carried away to the graveyard for hasty burial. Few were the mourners that followed, and the faces of those who watched the processions go by were set and drawn. The sunlight and the green trees seemed an insult to the dead.

They passed into the house where the sick woman lay, and some met him at the door with faces of joy and meaning; for now they knew the woman and would have spoken to him of her; but he waved them off, and put his fingers upon his lips and went where a fire burned in a kitchen, and brewed his medicines. And the child entered the room where his mother lay, and presently he came to the kitchen and said: "She is asleep—my mother."

The old man looked down on him a moment steadily, and a look of bewilderment came into his face. But he turned away again to the simmering pots. The boy went to the window and, leaning upon the sill, began to hum softly a sort of chant, while he watched a lizard running hither and thither in the sun. As he hummed, the old man listened, and presently, with his medicines in his hands and a half-startled look, he came over to the lad.

"What are you humming?" he asked.

The lad answered: "A song of the woodcutters."

"Sing it again," said Felion.

The lad began to sing:

 

"Here shall I build me my cedar house,
A city with gates, a road to the sea—
For I am the lord of the Earth!
Hew! Hew!"

 

The old man stopped him. "What is your name?"

"My name is Felion," answered the lad; and he put his face close to the jug that held the steaming tinctures: but the old man caught the little chin in his huge hand and bent back the head, looking long into the lad’s eyes. At last he caught little Felion’s hand and hurried into the other room, where the woman lay in a stupor. The old man came quickly to her and looked into her face. Seeing, he gave a broken cry and said: "Malise, my daughter! Malise!"

He drew her to his breast, and as he did so he groaned aloud, for he knew that inevitable Death was waiting for her at the door. He straightened himself up, clasped the child to his breast, and said: "I, too, am Felion, my little son."

And then he set about to defeat that dark, hovering Figure at the door.

For three long hours he sat beside her, giving her little by little his potent medicines; and now and again he stopped his mouth with his hand, lest he should cry out; and his eyes never wavered from her face, not even to the boy, who lay asleep in the corner.

At last his look relaxed its vigilance, for a dewy look passed over the woman’s face, and she opened her eyes and saw him, and gave a little cry of "Father!" and was straightway lost in his arms.

"I have come home to die," she said.

"No, no, to live," he answered firmly. "Why did you not send me word all these long years?"

"My husband was in shame, in prison, and I in sorrow," she answered sadly. "I could not."

"He is——" he paused. "He did evil?"

"He is dead," she said. "It is better so." Her eyes wandered round the room restlessly, and then fixed upon the sleeping child, and a smile passed over her face. She pointed to the lad.

The old man nodded. "He brought me here," he said gently. Then he got to his feet. "You must sleep now," he added, and he gave her a cordial. "I must go forth and save the sick."

"Is it a plague?" she asked.

He nodded. "They said you would not come to save them," she continued reproachfully. "You came to me because I was your Malise, only for that?"

"No, no," he answered; "I knew not who you were. I came to save a mother to her child."

"Thank God, my father," she said.

With a happy smile she hid her face in the pillow. At last, leaving her and the child asleep, old Felion went forth into the little city, and the people flocked to him, and for many days he came and went ceaselessly. And once more he saved the city, and the people blessed him: and the years go on.