I did n't make any answer, went out into the hall, and communed awhile with my own hideous, tormented self. How my soul revolted against the prospect of giving to that innocent babe a name that would serve simply to scourge me through the rest of my wicked life! No, I could not consent to that. I would be a coward no longer!
I went back into Alice's room, and sat upon the bed beside her, and took one of Alice's dear little white hands in mine, and told her everything, told Alice the whole truth,—all about my wickedness and perjuries and deceptions; told her what a selfish, cruel monster I had been; dispelled all the sinful delusion about Flail, Trask, and Bisland; threw myself, penitent and hopeless, upon my deceived, outraged little wife's mercy. Was it a mean advantage to take of a sick woman?
I fancied she would reproach me, for I knew that her heart was set upon that new house she had talked of so often; I told her that the savings she had supposed were in bank, were in reality represented only by and in those stately folios and sumptuous quartos which the mythical Flail, Trask, and Bisland had presumably donated. "But," I added, "I shall sell them now, and with the money I shall build the home in which we may be happy again,—a lovely home, sweetheart, with no library at all, but all nursery if you wish it so!"
"No," said Alice, when I had ended my blubbering confession, "we shall not part with the books; they have caused you more suffering than they have me, and, moreover, their presence will have a beneficial effect upon you. Furthermore, I myself have become attached to them,—you know I thought they were given to you, and so I have learned to care for them. Poor Judge Trask and Colonel Flail and Mr. Bisland,—so they are only myths? Dear Hiram," she added with a sigh, "I can forgive you for everything except for taking those three good men out of our lives!"
After all this I have indeed reformed. I have actually become prudent, and I have a bank-account that is constantly increasing. I do not hate books; I simply do not buy them. And I eschew that old sinner, Kinzie, and all the sinister influences he represents. As for our third little boy, we have named him Reform Meigs, after Alice's mother's grandfather, who built the first saw-mill in what is now the State of Ohio, and was killed by the Indians in 1796.
THE TOUCH IN THE HEART
Old Abel Dunklee was delighted, and so was old Abel's wife, when little Abel came. For this coming they had waited many years. God had prospered them elsewise; this one supreme blessing only had been withheld. Yet Abel had never despaired. "I shall some time have a son," said he. "I shall call him Abel. He shall be rich; he shall succeed to my business; my house, my factory, my lands, my fortune,—all shall be his!" Abel Dunklee felt this to be a certainty, and with this prospect constantly in mind he slaved and pinched and bargained. So when at last the little one did come it was as heir to a considerable property.
The joy in the house of Dunklee was not shared by the community at large. Abel Dunklee was by no means a popular man. Folk had the well-defined opinion that he was selfish, miserly, and hard. If he had not been actually bad, he had never been what the world calls a good man. His methods had been of the grinding, sordid order. He had always been scrupulously honest in the payment of his debts, and in keeping his word; but his sense of duty seemed to stop there: Abel's idea of goodness was to owe no man any money. He never gave a penny to charities, and he never spent any time sympathizing with the misfortunes or distresses of other people. He was narrow, close, selfish, and hard, so his neighbors and the community at large said, and I shall not deny that the verdict was a just one.
When a little one comes into this world of ours, it is the impulse of the people here to bid it welcome, and to make its lot pleasant. When little Abel was born no such enthusiasm obtained outside the austere Dunklee household. Popular sentiment found vent in an expression of the hope that the son and heir would grow up to scatter the dollars which old man Dunklee had accumulated by years of relentless avarice and unflagging toil. But Dr. Hardy—he who had officiated in an all-important capacity upon that momentous occasion in the Dunklee household—Dr. Hardy shook his head wisely, and perhaps sadly, as if he were saying to himself: "No, the child will never do either what the old folk or what the other folk would have him do; he is not long for here."
Had you questioned him closely, Dr. Hardy would have told you that little Abel was as frail a babe as ever did battle for life. Dr. Hardy would surely never have dared say that to old Dunklee; for in his rapture in the coming of that little boy old Dunklee would have smote the offender who presumed even to intimate that the babe was not the most vigorous as well as the most beautiful creature upon earth. The old man was simply assotted upon the child,—in a selfish way, undoubtedly, but even this selfish love of that puny little child showed that the old man was capable of somewhat better than his past life had been. To hear him talk you might have fancied that Mrs. Dunklee had no part or parcel or interest in their offspring. It was always "my little boy,"—yes, old Abel Dunklee's money had a rival in the old man's heart at last, and that rival was a helpless, shrunken, sickly little babe.
Among his business associates Abel Dunklee was familiarly known as Old Growly, for the reason that his voice was harsh and discordant, and sounded for all the world like the hoarse growling of an ill-natured bear. Abel was not a particularly irritable person, but his slavish devotion to money-getting, his indifference to the amenities of life, his entire neglect of the tender practices of humanity, his rough, unkempt personality, and his deep, hoarse voice,—these things combined to make that sobriquet of "Old Growly" an exceedingly appropriate one. And presumably Abel never thought of resenting the slur implied therein and thereby; he was too shrewd not to see that, however disrespectful and evil-intentioned the phrase might be, it served him to good purpose; for it conduced to that very general awe, not to say terror, which kept people from bothering him with their charitable and sentimental schemes.
Yes, I think we can accept it as a fact that Abel liked that sobriquet; it meant more money in his pocket, and fewer demands upon his time and patience.
But Old Growly abroad and Old Growly at home were two very different people. Only the voice was the same. The homely, furrowed, wizened face lighted up, and the keen, restless eyes lost their expression of shrewdness, and the thin, bony hands that elsewhere clutched and clutched and pinched and pinched for possession unlimbered themselves in the presence of little Abel, and reached out their long fingers yearningly and caressingly toward the little child. Then the hoarse voice would growl a salutation that was full of tenderness, for it came straight from the old man's heart; only, had you not known how much he loved the child, you might have thought otherwise, for the old man's voice was always hoarse and discordant, and that was why they called him Old Growly. But what proved his love for that puny babe was the fact that every afternoon, when he came home from the factory, Old Growly brought his little boy a dime; and once, when the little fellow had a fever on him from teething, Old Growly brought him a dollar! Next day the tooth came through and the fever left him, but you could not make the old man believe but what it was the dollar that did it all. That was natural, perhaps; for his life had been spent in grubbing for money, and he had not the soul to see that the best and sweetest things in human life are not to be had by riches alone.
As the doctor had in one way and another intimated would be the case, the child did not wax fat and vigorous. Although Old Growly did not seem to see the truth, little Abel grew older only to become what the doctor had foretold,—a cripple. A weakness of the spine was developed, a malady that dwarfed the child's physical growth, giving to his wee face a pinched, starved look, warping his emaciated body, and enfeebling his puny limbs, while at the same time it quickened the intellectual faculties to the degree of precocity. And so two and three and four years went by, little Abel clinging to life with pathetic heroism, and Old Growly loving that little cripple with all the violence of his selfish nature. Never once did it occur to the father that his child might die, that death's seal was already set upon the misshapen little body; on the contrary, Old Growly's thoughts were constantly of little Abel's famous future, of the great fortune he was to fall heir to, of the prosperous business career he was to pursue, of the influence he was to wield in the world,—of dollars, dollars, dollars, millions of them which little Abel was some time to possess; these were Old Growly's dreams, and he loved to dream them!
Meanwhile the world did well by the old man; despising him, undoubtedly, for his avarice and selfishness, but constantly pouring wealth, and more wealth, and even more wealth into his coffers. As for the old man, he cared not for what the world thought or said, so long as it paid tribute to him; he wrought on as of old, industriously, shrewdly, hardly, but with this new purpose: to make his little boy happy and great with riches.
Toys and picture-books were vanities in which Old Growly never indulged; to have expended a farthing for chattels of that character would have seemed to Old Growly like sinful extravagance. The few playthings which little Abel had were such as his mother surreptitiously bought; the old man believed that a child should be imbued with a proper regard for the value of money from the very start, so his presents were always cash in hand, and he bought a large tin bank for little Abel, and taught the child how to put the copper and silver pieces into it, and he labored diligently to impress upon the child of how great benefit that same money would be to him by and by. Just picture to yourself, if you can, that fond, foolish old man seeking to teach this lesson to that wan-eyed, pinched-face little cripple! But little Abel took it all very seriously, and was so apt a pupil that Old Growly made great joy and was wont to rub his bony hands gleefully and say to himself, "He has great genius,—this boy of mine,—great genius for finance!"
But on a day, coming from his factory, Old Growly was stricken with horror to find that during his absence from home a great change had come upon his child. The doctor said it was simply the progress of the disease; that it was a marvel that little Abel had already held out so long; that from the moment of his birth the seal of death had been set upon him in that cruel malady which had drawn his face and warped his body and limbs. Then all at once Old Growly's eyes seemed to be opened to the truth, and like a lightning flash it came to him that perhaps his pleasant dreams which he had dreamed of his child's future could never be realized. It was a bitter awakening, yet amid it all the old man was full of hope, determination, and battle. He had little faith in drugs and nursing and professional skill; he remembered that upon previous occasions cures had been wrought by means of money; teeth had been brought through, the pangs of colic beguiled, and numerous other ailments to which infancy is heir had by the same specific been baffled. So now Old Growly set about wooing his little boy from the embrace of death,—sought to coax him back to health with money, and the dimes became dollars, and the tin bank was like to burst of fulness. But little Abel drooped and drooped, and he lost all interest in other things, and he was content to lie, drooping-eyed and listless, in his mother's arms all day. At last the little flame went out with hardly so much as a flutter, and the hope of the house of Dunklee was dissipated forever. But even in those last moments of the little cripple's suffering the father struggled to call back the old look into the fading eyes, and the old smile into the dear, white face. He brought treasure from his vaults and held it up before those fading eyes, and promised it all, all, all—everything he possessed, gold, houses, lands—all he had he would give to that little child if that little child would only live. But the fading eyes saw other things, and the ears that were deaf to the old man's lamentations heard voices that soothed the anguish of that last solemn hour. And so little Abel knew the Mystery.
Then the old man crept away from that vestige of his love, and stood alone in the night, and lifted up his face, and beat his bosom, and moaned at the stars, asking over and over again why he had been so bereaved. And while he agonized in this wise and cried there came to him a voice,—a voice so small that none else could hear, a voice seemingly from God; for from infinite space beyond those stars it sped its instantaneous way to the old man's soul and lodged there.
"Abel, I have touched thy heart!"
And so, having come into the darkness of night, old Dunklee went back into the light of day and found life beautiful; for the touch was in his heart.
After that, Old Growly's way of dealing with the world changed. He had always been an honest man, honest as the world goes. But now he was somewhat better than honest; he was kind, considerate, merciful. People saw and felt the change, and they knew why it was so. But the pathetic part of it all was that Old Growly would never admit—no, not even to himself—that he was the least changed from his old grinding, hard self. The good deeds he did were not his own; they were his little boy's,—at least so he said. And it was his whim when doing some kind and tender thing to lay it to little Abel, of whom he always spoke as if he were still living. His workmen, his neighbors, his townsmen,—all alike felt the graciousness of the wondrous change, and many, ah! many a lowly sufferer blessed that broken old man for succor in little Abel's name. And the old man was indeed much broken: not that he had parted with his shrewdness and acumen, for, as of old, his every venture prospered; but in this particular his mind seemed weakened; that, as I have said, he fancied his child lived, that he was given to low muttering and incoherent mumblings, of which the burden seemed to be that child of his, and that his greatest pleasure appeared now to be watching other little ones at their play. In fact, so changed was he from the Old Growly of former years, that, whereas he had then been wholly indifferent to the presence of those little ones upon earth, he now sought their company, and delighted to view their innocent and mirthful play. And so, presently, the children, from regarding him at first with distrust, came to confide in and love him, and in due time the old man was known far and wide as Old Grampa Growly, and he was pleased thereat. It was his wont to go every fair day, of an afternoon, into a park hard by his dwelling, and mingle with the crowd of little folk there; and when they were weary of their sports they used to gather about him,—some even clambering upon his knees,—and hear him tell his story, for he had only one story to tell, and that was the story that lay next his heart,—the story ever and forever beginning with, "Once ther' wuz a littl' boy." A very tender little story it was, too, told very much more sweetly than I could ever tell it; for it was of Old Grampa Growly's own little boy, and it came from that heart in which the touch—the touch of God Himself—lay like a priceless pearl.
So you must know that the last years of the old man's life made full atonement for those that had gone before. People forgot that the old man had ever been other than he was now, and of course the children never knew otherwise. But as for himself, Old Grampa Growly grew tenderer and tenderer, and his goodness became a household word, and he was beloved of all. And to the very last he loved the little ones, and shared their pleasures, and sympathized with them in their griefs, but always repeating that same old story, beginning with "Once ther' wuz a littl' boy."
The curious part of it was this: that while he implied by his confidences to the children that his own little boy was dead, he never made that admission to others. On the contrary, it was his wont, as I have said, to speak of little Abel as if that child still lived, and, humoring him in this conceit, it was the custom of the older ones to speak always of that child as if he lived and were known and beloved of all. In this custom the old man had great content and solace. For it was his wish that all he gave to and did for charity's sake should be known to come, not from him, but from Abel, his son, and this was his express stipulation at all such times. I know whereof I speak, for I was one of those to whom the old man came upon a time and said: "My little boy—Abel, you know—will give me no peace till I do what he requires. He has this sum of money which he has saved in his bank, count it yourselves, it is $50,000, and he bids me give it to the townsfolk for a hospital, one for little lame boys and girls. And I have promised him—my little boy, Abel, you know—that I will give $50,000 more. You shall have it when that hospital is built." Surely enough, in eighteen months' time the old man handed us the rest of the money, and when we told him that the place was to be called the Abel Dunklee hospital he was sorely distressed, and shook his head, and said: "No, no,—not my name! Call it the Little Abel hospital, for little Abel—my boy, you know—has done it all."
The old man lived many years,—lived to hear tender voices bless him, and to see pale faces brighten at the sound of his footfall. Yes, for many years the quaint, shuffling figure moved about our streets, and his hoarse but kindly voice—oh, very kindly now!—was heard repeating to the children that pathetic old story of "Once ther' wuz a littl' boy." And where the dear old feet trod the grass grew greenest, and the sunbeams nestled. But at last there came a summons for the old man,—a summons from away off yonder,—and the old man heard it and went thither.
The doctor—himself hoary and stooping now—told me that toward the last Old Grampa Growly sunk into a sort of sleep, or stupor, from which they could not rouse him. For many hours he lay like one dead, but his thin, creased face was very peaceful, and there was no pain. Children tiptoed in with flowers, and some cried bitterly, while others—those who were younger—whispered to one another: "Hush, let us make no noise; Old Grampa Growly is sleeping."
At last the old man roused up. He had lain like one dead for many hours, but now at last he seemed to wake of a sudden, and, seeing children about him, perhaps he fancied himself in that pleasant park, under the trees, where so very often he had told his one pathetic story to those little ones. Leastwise he made a feeble motion as if he would have them gather nearer, and, seeming to know his wish, the children came closer to him. Those who were nearest heard him say with the ineffable tenderness of old, "Once ther' wuz a littl' boy—"
And with those last sweet words upon his lips, and with the touch in his heart, the old man went down into the Valley.
DANIEL AND THE DEVIL
Daniel was a very wretched man. As he sat with his head bowed upon his desk that evening he made up his mind that his life had been a failure. "I have labored long and diligently," said he to himself, "and although I am known throughout the city as an industrious and shrewd business man, I am still a poor man, and shall probably continue so to the end of my days unless—unless—"
Here Daniel stopped and shivered. For a week or more he had been brooding over his unhappy lot. There seemed to be but one way out of his trouble, yet his soul revolted from taking that step. That was why he stopped and shivered.
"But," he argued, "I must do something! My nine children are growing up into big boys and girls. They must have those advantages which my limited means will not admit of! All my life so far has been pure, circumspect, and rigid; poverty has at last broken my spirit. I give up the fight,—I am ready to sell my soul to the Devil!"
"The determination is a wise one," said a voice at Daniel's elbow. Daniel looked up and beheld a grim-visaged stranger in the chair beside him. The stranger was arrayed all in black, and he exhaled a distinct odor of sulphur.
"Am I to understand," asked the stranger, "that you are prepared to enter into a league with the Devil?"
"Yes," said Daniel, firmly; and he set his teeth together after the fashion of a man who is not to be moved from his purpose.
"Then I am ready to treat with you," said the stranger.
"Are you the Devil?" asked Daniel, eying the stranger critically.
"No, but I am authorized to enter into contracts for him," explained the stranger. "My name is Beelzebub, and I am my master's most trusted agent."
"Sir," said Daniel, "you must pardon me (for I am loath to wound your feelings), but one of the rules governing my career as a business man has been to deal directly with principals, and never to trust to the offices of middle-men. The affair now in hand is one concerning the Devil and myself, and between us two and by us two only can the preliminaries be adjusted."
"As it so happens," explained Beelzebub, "this is Friday,—commonly called hangman's day,—and that is as busy a time in our particular locality as a Monday is in a laundry, or as the first of every month is at a book-keeper's desk. You can understand, perhaps, that this is the Devil's busy day; therefore be content to make this deal with me, and you will find that my master will cheerfully accept any contract I may enter into as his agent and in his behalf."
But no,—Daniel would not agree to this; with the Devil himself, and only the Devil himself, would he treat. So he bade Beelzebub go to the Devil and make known his wishes. Beelzebub departed, much chagrined. Presently back came the Devil, and surely it was the Devil this time,—there could be no mistake about it; for he wore a scarlet cloak, and had cloven feet, and carried about with him as many suffocating smells as there are kinds of brimstone, sulphur, and assafoetida.
The two talked over all Daniel's miseries; the Devil sympathized with Daniel, and ever and anon a malodorous, gummy tear would trickle down the Devil's sinister nose and drop off on the carpet.
"What you want is money," said the Devil. "That will give you the comfort and the contentment you crave."
"Yes," said Daniel; "it will give me every opportunity to do good."
"To do good!" repeated the Devil. "To do good, indeed! Yes, it's many a good time we shall have together, friend Daniel! Ha, ha, ha!" And the Devil laughed uproariously. Nothing seemed more humorous than the prospect of "doing good" with the Devil's money! But Daniel failed to see what the Devil was so jolly about. Daniel was not a humorist; he was, as we have indicated, a plain business man.
It was finally agreed that Daniel should sell his soul to the Devil upon condition that for the space of twenty-four years the Devil should serve Daniel faithfully, should provide him with riches, and should do whatsoever he was commanded to do; then, at the end of the twenty-fourth year, Daniel's soul was to pass into the possession of the Devil, and was to remain there forever, without recourse or benefit of clergy. Surely a more horrible contract was never entered into!
"You will have to sign your name to this contract," said the Devil, producing a sheet of asbestos paper upon which all the terms of the diabolical treaty were set forth exactly.
"Certainly," replied Daniel. "I have been a business man long enough to know the propriety and necessity of written contracts. And as for you, you must of course give a bond for the faithful execution of your part of this business."
"That is something I have never done before," suggested the Devil.
"I shall insist upon it," said Daniel, firmly. "This is no affair of sentiment; it is strictly and coldly business: you are to do certain service, and are to receive certain rewards therefor—"
"Yes, your soul!" cried the Devil, gleefully rubbing his callous hands together. "Your soul in twenty-four years!"
"Yes," said Daniel. "Now, no contract is good unless there is a quid pro quo."
"That's so," said the Devil, "so let's get a lawyer to draw up the paper for me to sign."
"Why a lawyer?" queried Daniel. "A contract is a simple instrument; I, as a business man, can frame one sufficiently binding."
"But I prefer to have a lawyer do it," urged the Devil.
"And I prefer to do it myself," said Daniel.
When a business man once gets his mind set, not even an Archimedean lever could stir it. So Daniel drew up the bond for the Devil to sign, and this bond specified that in case the Devil failed at any time during the next twenty-four years to do whatso Daniel commanded him, then should the bond which the Devil held against Daniel become null and void, and upon that same day should a thousand and one souls be released forever from the Devil's dominion. The Devil winced; he hated to sign this agreement, but he had to. An awful clap of thunder ratified the abominable treaty, and every black cat within a radius of a hundred leagues straightway fell to frothing and to yowling grotesquely.
Presently Daniel began to prosper; the Devil was a faithful slave, and he served Daniel so artfully that no person on earth suspected that Daniel had leagued with the evil one. Daniel had the finest house in the city, his wife dressed magnificently, and his children enjoyed every luxury wealth could provide. Still, Daniel was content to be known as a business man; he deported himself modestly and kindly; he pursued with all his old-time diligence the trade which in earlier days he had found so unproductive of riches. His indifference to the pleasures which money put within his reach was passing strange, and it caused the Devil vast uneasiness.
"Daniel," said the Devil, one day, "you're not getting out of this thing all the fun there is in it. You go poking along in the same old rut with never a suspicion that you have it in your power to enjoy every pleasure of human life. Why don't you break away from the old restraints? Why don't you avail yourself of the advantages at your command?"
"I know what you 're driving at," said Daniel, shrewdly, "Politics!"
"No, not at all," remonstrated the Devil. "What I mean is fun,—gayety. Why not have a good time, Daniel?"
"But I am having a good time," said Daniel. "My business is going along all right, I am rich. I 've got a lovely home; my wife is happy; my children are healthy and contented; I am respected,—what more could I ask? What better time could I demand?"
"You don't understand me," explained the Devil. "What I mean by a good time is that which makes the heart merry and keeps the soul youthful and buoyant,—wine, Daniel! Wine and the theatre and pretty girls and fast horses and all that sort of happy, joyful life!"
"Tut, tut, tut!" cried Daniel; "no more of that, sir! I sowed my wild oats in college. What right have I to think of such silly follies,—I, at forty years of age, and a business man too?"
So not even the Devil himself could persuade Daniel into a life of dissipation. All you who have made a study of the business man will agree that of all human beings he is the hardest to swerve from conservative methods. The Devil groaned and began to wonder why he had ever tied up to a man like Daniel,—a business man.
Pretty soon Daniel developed an ambition. He wanted reputation, and he told the Devil so. The Devil's eyes sparkled. "At last," murmured the Devil, with a sigh of relief,—"at last."
"Yes," said Daniel, "I want to be known far and wide. You must build a church for me."
"What!" shrieked the Devil. And the Devil's tail stiffened up like a sore thumb.
"Yes," said Daniel, calmly; "you must build a church for me, and it must be the largest and the handsomest church in the city. The sittings shall be free, and you shall provide the funds for its support forever."
The Devil frothed at his mouth, and blue fire issued from his ears and nostrils. He was the maddest devil ever seen on earth.
"I won't do it!" roared the Devil. "Do you suppose I'm going to spend my time building churches and stultifying myself just for the sake of gratifying your idle whims? I won't do it,—never!"
"Then the bond I gave is null and void," said Daniel.
"Take your old bond," said the Devil, petulantly.
"But the bond you gave is operative," continued Daniel. "So release the thousand and one souls you owe me when you refuse to obey me."
"Oh, Daniel!" whimpered the Devil, "how can you treat me so? Have n't I always been good to you? Have n't I given you riches and prosperity? Does no sentiment of friendship—"
"Hush," said Daniel, interrupting him. "I have already told you a thousand times that our relations were simply those of one business man with another. It now behooves you to fulfil your part of our compact; eventually I shall fulfil mine. Come, now, to business! Will you or will you not keep your word and save your bond?"
The Devil was sorely put to his trumps. But when it came to releasing a thousand and one souls from hell,—ah, that staggered him! He had to build the church, and a noble one it was too. Then he endowed the church, and finally he built a parsonage; altogether it was a stupendous work, and Daniel got all the credit for it. The preacher whom Daniel installed in this magnificent temple was severely orthodox, and one of the first things he did was to preach a series of sermons upon the personality of the Devil, wherein he inveighed most bitterly against that person and his work.
By and by Daniel made the Devil endow and build a number of hospitals, charity schools, free baths, libraries, and other institutions of similar character. Then he made him secure the election of honest men to office and of upright judges to the bench. It almost broke the Devil's heart to do it, but the Devil was prepared to do almost anything else than forfeit his bond and give up those one thousand and one souls. By this time Daniel came to be known far and wide for his philanthropy and his piety. This gratified him of course; but most of all he gloried in the circumstance that he was a business man.
"Have you anything for me to do today?" asked the Devil, one morning. He had grown to be a very meek and courteous devil; steady employment in righteous causes had chastened him to a degree and purged away somewhat of the violence of his nature. On this particular morning he looked haggard and ill,—yes, and he looked, too, as blue as a whetstone.
"I am not feeling robust," explained the Devil. "To tell the truth, I am somewhat ill."
"I am sorry to hear it," said Daniel; "but as I am not conducting a sanitarium, I can do nothing further than express my regret that you are ailing. Of course our business relations do not contemplate any interchange of sympathies; still I'll go easy with you to-day. You may go up to the house and look after the children; see that they don't smoke cigarettes, or quarrel, or tease the cat, or do anything out of the way."
Now that was fine business for the Devil to be in; but how could the Devil help himself? He was wholly at Daniel's mercy. He went groaning about the humiliating task.
The crash came at last. It was when the Devil informed Daniel one day that he was n't going to work for him any more.
"You have ruined my business," said the Devil, wearily. "A committee of imps waited upon me last night and told me that unless I severed my connection with you a permanent suspension of my interests down yonder would be necessitated. While I have been running around doing your insane errands my personal business has gone to the dogs—I would n't be at all surprised if I were to have to get a new plant altogether. Meanwhile my reputation has suffered; I am no longer respected, and the number of my recruits is daily becoming smaller. I give up,—I can make no further sacrifice."
"Then you are prepared to forfeit your bond?" asked Daniel.
"Not by any means," replied the Devil. "I propose to throw the matter into the courts."
"That will hardly be to your interest," said Daniel, "since, as you well know, we have recently elected honest men to the bench, and, as I recollect, most of our judges are members in good standing of the church we built some years ago!"
The Devil howled with rage. Then, presently, he began to whimper.
"For the last time," expostulated Daniel, "let me remind you that sentiment does not enter into this affair at all. We are simply two business parties cooeperating in a business scheme. Our respective duties are exactly defined in the bonds we hold. You keep your contract and I'll keep mine. Let me see, I still have a margin of thirteen years."
The Devil groaned and writhed.
"They call me a dude," whimpered the Devil.
"Who do?" asked Daniel.
"Beelzebub and the rest," said the Devil. "I have been trotting around doing pious errands so long that I 've lost all my sulphur-and-brimstone flavor, and now I smell like spikenard and myrrh."
"Pooh!" said Daniel.
"Well, I do," insisted the Devil. "You've humiliated me so that I hain't got any more ambition. Yes, Daniel, you've worked me shamefully hard!"
"Well," said Daniel, "I have a very distinct suspicion that when, thirteen years hence, I fall into your hands I shall not enjoy what might be called a sedentary life."
The Devil plucked up at this suggestion. "Indeed you shall not," he muttered. "I'll make it hot for you!"
"But come, we waste time," said Daniel. "I am a man of business, and I cannot fritter away the precious moments parleying with you. I have important work for you. Tomorrow is Sunday; you are to see that all the saloons are kept closed."
"I sha'n't—I won't!" yelled the Devil.
"But you must," said Daniel, firmly.
"Do you really expect me to do that?" roared the Devil. "Do you fancy that I am so arrant a fool as to shut off the very feeders whereby my hungry hell is supplied? That would be suicidal!"
"I don't know anything about that," said Daniel; "I am a business man, and by this business arrangement of ours it is explicitly stipulated—"
"I don't care what the stipulations are!" shrieked the Devil. "I'm through with you, and may I be consumed by my own fires if ever again I have anything to do with a business man!"
The upshot of it all was that the Devil forfeited his bond, and by this act Daniel was released from every obligation unto the Devil, and one thousand and one souls were ransomed from the torture of the infernal fires.
The discussion now going on between our clergymen and certain unbelievers touching the question of Cain and his wife will surely result beneficially, for it will set everybody to reading his Bible more diligently. Still, the biography of Cain is one that we could never become particularly interested in; in short, of all the Old Testament characters none other interests us so much as does Methuselah, the man who lived 969 years. Would it be possible to find in all history another life at once so grand and so pathetic? One can get a faint idea of the awful magnitude of Methuselah's career by pausing to recollect that 969 years represent 9.69 centuries, 96 decades, 11,628 months, 50,388 weeks, 353,928 days, 8,494,272 hours, 521,656,320 minutes, and 36,299,879,200 seconds!
How came he to live so long? Ah, that is easily enough explained. He loved life and the world,—both were beautiful to him. And one day he spoke his wish in words. "Oh, that I might live a thousand years!" he cried.
Then looking up straightway he beheld an angel, and the angel said: "Wouldst thou live a thousand years?"
And Methuselah answered him, saying: "As the Lord is my God, I would live a thousand years."
"It shall be even so," said the angel; and then the angel departed out of his sight. So Methuselah lived on and on, as the angel had promised.
How sweet a treasure the young Methuselah must have been to his parents and to his doting ancestors; with what tender solicitude must the old folks have watched the child's progress from the innocence of his first to the virility of his later centuries. We can picture the happy reunions of the old Adam family under the domestic vines and fig-trees that bloomed near the Euphrates. When Methuselah was a mere toddler of nineteen years, Adam was still living, and so was his estimable wife; the possibility is that the venerable couple gave young Methuselah a birthday party at which (we can easily imagine) there were present these following, to-wit: Adam, aged 687; Seth, aged 557; Enos, aged 452; Cainan, aged 362; Mahalaleel, aged 292; Jared, aged 227; Enoch, aged 65, and his infant boy Methuselah, aged 19. Here were represented eight direct generations, and there were present, of course, the wives and daughters; so that, on the whole, the gathering must have been as numerous as it was otherwise remarkable. Nowhere in any of the vistas of history, of romance, or of mythology were it possible to find a spectacle more imposing than that of the child Methuselah surrounded by his father Enoch, his grandfather Jared, his great-grandfather Mahalaleel, his great-great-grandfather Cainan, his great-great-great-grandfather Enos, his great-great-great-great-grandfather Seth, and his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Adam, as well as by his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Eve, and her feminine posterity for (say) four centuries! How pretty and how kindly dear old grandma Eve must have looked on that gala occasion, attired, as she must have been, in all the quaint simplicity of that primeval period; and how must the dear old soul have fretted through fear that little Methuselah would eat too many papaws, or drink too much goat's milk. It is a marvel, we think, that in spite of the indulgence and the petting in which he was reared, Methuselah grew to be a good, kind man.
Profane historians agree that just about the time he reached the age of ninety-four Methuselah became deeply enamoured of a comely and sprightly damsel named Mizpah,—a young thing scarce turned seventy-six. Up to this period of adolescence his cautious father Enoch had kept Methuselah out of all love entanglements, and it is probable that he would not have approved of this affair with Mizpah had not Jared, the boy's grandfather, counselled Enoch to give the boy a chance. But alas and alackaday for the instability of youthful affection! It befell in an evil time that there came over from the land of Nod a frivolous and gorgeously apparelled beau, who, with finely wrought phrases, did so fascinate the giddy Mizpah that incontinently she gave Methuselah the mitten, and went with the dashing young stranger of 102 as his bride.
This shocking blow so grievously affected Methuselah that for some time (that is to say, for a period of ninety-one years) he shunned female society. But having recovered somewhat from the bitterness of that great disappointment received in the callowness of his ninth decade, he finally met and fell in love with Adah, a young woman of 148, and her he married. The issue of this union was a boy whom they named Lamech, and this child from the very hour of his birth gave his father vast worriment, which, considering the disparity in their ages, is indeed most shocking of contemplation. The tableau of a father (aged 187) vainly coddling a colicky babe certainly does not call for our enthusiasm. Yet we presume to say that Methuselah bore his trials meekly, that he cherished and adored the baby, and that he spent weeks and months playing peek-a-boo and ride-a-cock-horse. In all our consideration of Methuselah we must remember that the mere matter of time was of no consequence to him.
Lamech grew to boyhood, involving his father in all those ridiculous complications which parents nowadays do not heed so much, but which must have been of vast annoyance to a man of Methuselah's advanced age and proper notions. Whittling with the old gentleman's razor, hooking off from school, trampling down the neighbors' rowen, tracking mud into the front parlor—these were some of Lamech's idiosyncrasies, and of course they tormented Methuselah, who recalled sadly that boys were no longer what they used to be when he was a boy some centuries previous. But when he got to be 182 years old Lamech had sowed all his wild oats, and it was then he married a clever young girl of 98, who bore him a son whom they called Noah. Now if Methuselah had been worried and plagued by Lamech, he was more than compensated therefor by this baby grandson, whom he found to be, aside from all prejudices, the prettiest and the smartest child he had ever seen. Old father Adam, who was now turned of his ninth century, tottered over to see the baby, and he, too, allowed that it was an uncommonly bright child. And dear old grandma Eve declared that there was an expression about the upper part of the little Noah's face that reminded her very much of the soft-eyed boy she lost 800 years ago. And dear old grandma Eve used to rock little Noah and sing to him, and cry softly to herself all the while.
Now, in good time, Noah grew to lusty youth, and although he was, on the whole, a joy to his grandsire Methuselah, he developed certain traits and predilections that occasioned the old gentleman much uneasiness. At the tender age of 265 Noah exhibited a strange passion for aquatics, and while it was common for other boys of that time to divert themselves with the flocks and herds, with slingshots and spears, with music and dancing, Noah preferred to spend his hours floating toy-ships in the bayous of the Euphrates. Every day he took his little shittim-wood boats down to the water, tied strings to them, and let them float hither and thither on the crystal bosom of the tide. Naturally enough these practices worried the grandfather mightily.
"May not the crocodiles compass him round about?" groaned Methuselah. "May not behemoth prevail against him? Or, verily, it may befall that the waves shall devour him. Woe is me and lamentation unto this household if destruction come to him through the folly of his fathers!"
So Methuselah's age began to be full of care and trouble, and many a time he felt weary of living, and sometimes—yes, sometimes—he wished he were dead. People in those times were not afraid to die; they believed in the second and better life, because God spoke with them and told them it should be.
The last century of this good man's sojourn upon earth was particularly pathetic. His ancestors were all dead; he alone remained the last living reminiscence of a time that but for him would have been forgotten. Deprived of the wise counsels of his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Adam and of the gentle admonitions of his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Eve, Methuselah felt not only lonesome but even in danger of wrong-doing, so precious to him had been the teachings of these worthy progenitors. And what particularly disturbed Methuselah were the dreadful changes that had taken place in society since he was a boy. Dress, speech, customs, and morals were all different now from what they used to be.
When Methuselah was a boy,—ah, he remembered it well,—people went hither and thither clad only in simple fig-leaf garb; and they were content therewith.
When Methuselah was a boy, people spoke a plain, direct language, strong in its truth, its simplicity, and its honest vigor.
When Methuselah was a boy, manners were open and unaffected, and morals were pure and healthy.
But now all these things were changed. An evil called fashion had filled the minds of men and women with vanity. From the sinful land of Nod and from other pagan countries came divers tradesmen with purples and linens and fine feathers, whereby a wicked pride was engendered, and from these sinful countries, too, came frivolous manners that supplanted the guileless etiquette of the past.
Moreover, traffic and intercourse with the subtle heathen had corrupted and perverted the speech of Adam's time: crafty phrases and false rhetorics had crept in, and the grand old Edenic idioms either were fast being debased or had become wholly obsolete. Such new-fangled words as "eftsoon," "albeit," "wench," "soothly," "zounds," "whenas," and "sithence" had stolen into common usage, making more direct and simpler speech a jest and a byword.
Likewise had prudence given way to extravagance, abstemiousness to intemperance, dignity to frivolity, and continence to lust; so that by these evils was Methuselah grievously tormented, and it repented him full sore that he had lived to see such exceeding wickedness upon earth. But in the midst of all these follies did Methuselah maintain an upright and godly life, and continually did he bless God for that he had held him in the path of rectitude.
Now when Methuselah was in the 964th summer of his sojourn he was called upon to mourn the death of his son Lamech, whom an inscrutable Providence had cut off in what in those days was considered the flower of a man's life,—namely, the eighth century thereof. Lamech's untimely decease was a severe blow to his doting father, who, forgetting all his son's boyish indiscretions, remembered now only Lamech's good and lovable traits and deeds. It is reasonable to suppose, however, that the old gentleman was somewhat beguiled from his grief by the lively dispositions and playful antics of Lamech's grandsons, Noah's sons, and his own great-grandsons,—Shem, Ham, and Japheth,—who at this time had attained to the frolicsome ages of ninety-five, ninety-two, and ninety-one, respectively. These boys inherited from their father a violent penchant for aquatics, and scarcely a day passed that they did not paddle around the bayous and sloughs of the Euphrates in their gopher-wood canoes.
"Gran'pa," Noah used to say, "the conduct of those boys causes me constant vexation. I have no time to follow them around, and I am haunted continually by the fear that they will be drowned, or that the crocodiles will get them if they don't watch out!"
But Methuselah would smiling answer: "Possess thy soul in patience and thy bowels in peace; for verily is it not written 'boys will be boys!'"
Now Shem, Ham, and Japheth were very fond of their great-grandpa, and to their credit be it said that next to paddling over the water privileges of the Euphrates they liked nothing better than to sit in the old gentleman's lap, and to hear him talk about old times. Marvellous tales he told them, too; for his career of nine and a half centuries had been well stocked with incident, as one would naturally suppose. Howbeit, the admiration which these callow youths had for Methuselah was not shared by a large majority of the people then on earth. On the contrary, we blush to admit it, Methuselah was held in very trifling esteem by his frivolous fellow-citizens, who habitually referred to him as an "old 'wayback," "a barnacle," an "old fogy," a "mossback," or a "garrulous dotard," and with singular irreverence they took delight in twitting him upon his senility and in pestering him with divers new-fangled notions altogether distasteful, not to say shocking, to a gentleman of his years.
It was perhaps, however, at the old settlers' picnics, which even then were of annual occurrence, that Methuselah most enjoyed himself; for on these occasions he was given the place of prominence and he was deferred to in everything, since he antedated all the others by at least three centuries. The historians and the antiquarians of the time found him of much assistance to them in their labors, since he was always ready to provide them with dates touching incidents of the remote period from which he had come down unscathed. He remembered vividly how, when he was 186 years of age, the Euphrates had frozen over to a depth of seven feet; the 209th winter of his existence he referred to as "the winter of the deep snow;" he remembered that when he was a boy the women had more character than the women of these later years; he had a vivid recollection of the great plague that prevailed in the city of Enoch during his fourth century; he could repeat, word for word, the address of welcome his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather Adam delivered to an excursion party that came over from the land of Nod one time when Methuselah was a mere child of eighty-seven,—oh, yes, poor old Methuselah was full of reminiscence, and having crowded an active career into the brief period of 969 years, it can be imagined that ponderous tomes would not hold the tales he told whenever he was encouraged.
One day, however, Methuselah's grandson Noah took the old gentleman aside and confided into his ear-trumpet a very solemn secret which must have grieved the old gentleman immensely, for he gnashed his gums and wrung his thin, bony hands and groaned dolorously.
"The end of all flesh is at hand," said Noah. "The earth is filled with violence through them, and God will destroy them with the earth. I will make an ark of gopher-wood, the length thereof 300 cubits, the breadth of it 50 cubits, and the height of it 30 cubits, and I will pitch it within and without with pitch. Into the ark will I come, and my sons and my wife, and my sons' wives, and certain living beasts shall come, and birds of the air, and we and they shall be saved. Come thou also, for thou art an austere man and a just."
But as Methuselah sate alone upon his couch that night he thought of his life: how sweet it had been,—how that, despite the evil now and then, there had been more of happiness than of sorrow in it. He even forgot the wickedness of the world and remembered only its good and its sunshine, its kindness and its love. He blessed God for it all, and he prayed for the death-angel to come to him ere he beheld the destruction of all he so much loved.
Then the angel came and spread his shadow about the old man.
And the angel said: "Thy prayer is heard, and God doth forgive thee the score-and-ten years of the promised span of thy life."
And Methuselah gathered up his feet into the bed, and prattling of the brooks, he fell asleep; and so he slept with his fathers.
FELICE AND PETIT-POULAIN
The name was singularly appropriate, for assuredly Felice was the happiest of all four-footed creatures. Her nature was gentle; she was obedient, long-suffering, kind. She had known what it was to toil and to bear burdens; sometimes she had suffered from hunger and from thirst; and before she came into the possession of Jacques she had been beaten, for Pierre, her former owner, was a hard master. But Felice was always a kind, faithful, and gentle creature; presumably that was why they named her that pretty name, Felice. She may not have been happy when Pierre owned and overworked and starved and beat her; that does not concern us now, for herein it is to tell of that time when she belonged to Jacques, and Jacques was a merciful man.
Jacques was a farmer; he lived a short distance from Cinqville, which, as you are probably aware, is a town of considerable importance upon what used to be the boundary line between France and Germany. The country round about is devoted to agriculture. You can fancy that, with its even roads, leafy woods, quiet lanes, velvety paddocks, tall hedges, and bountiful fields, this country was indeed as pleasant a home as Felice—or, for that matter, any other properly minded horse—could hope for. Toward the southern horizon there were hills that looked a grayish blue from a distance; upon these hills were vineyards, and the wine that came therefrom is very famous wine, as your uncle, if he be a club man, will very truly assure you. There was a pretty little river that curled like a silver snake through the fertile meadows, and lost its way among the hills, and there were many tiny brooks that scampered across lots and got tangled up with that pretty little river in most bewildering fashion. So, as you can imagine, this was a fair country, and you do not wonder that, with so merciful a master as Jacques, our friend Felice was happy.
But what perfected her happiness was the coming of her little colt, as cunning and as blithe a creature as ever whisked a tail or galloped on four legs. I do not know why they called him by that name, but Petit-Poulain was what they called him, and that name seemed to please Felice, for when farmer Jacques came thrice a day to the stile and cried, "Petit-Poulain, petit, petit, Petit-Poulain!" the kind old mother would look up fondly, and, with doting eyes, watch her dainty little colt go bounding toward his calling master. And he was indeed a lovely little fellow. The cure, the holy pere Francois, predicted that in due time that colt would make a great name for himself and a great fortune for his owner. The holy pere knew whereof he spake, for in his youth he had tasted of the sweets of Parisian life, and upon one memorable occasion had successfully placed ten francs upon the winner of le grand prix. We can suppose that Felice thought well of the holy pere. He never came down the road that she did not thrust her nose through the hedge and give a mild whinny of recognition, as if she fain would say: "Pray stop a moment and see Petit-Poulain and his old mother!"
What happy days those were for Felice and her darling colt. With what tenderness they played together in the paddock; or, when the sky was overcast and a storm came on, with what solicitude would the old mother lead the way into the thatched stable, where there was snug protection against the threatening element. There are those who say that none but humankind is immortal,—that none but man has a soul. I do not make or believe that claim. There is that within me which tells me that no thing in this world and life of ours which has felt the grace of maternity shall utterly perish. And this I say in all reverence, and with the hope that I offend neither God nor man.
You are to know that old Felice's devotion to Petit-Poulain was human in its tenderness. As readily, as gladly, and as surely as your dear mother would lay down her life for you would old Felice have yielded up her life for her innocent, blithe darling. So old Felice was happy that pleasant time in that fair country, and Petit-Poulain waxed hale and evermore blithe and beautiful.
Happy days, too, were those for that peaceful country and the other dwellers therein. There was no thought of evil there; the seasons were propitious, the vineyards thrived, the crops were bountiful; as far as eye could see all was prosperity and contentment. But one day the holy Father Francois came hurrying down the road, and it was too evident that he brought evil tidings. Felice thought it very strange that he paid no heed to her when, as was her wont, she thrust her nose through the hedge and gave a mild whinny of welcome. Anon she saw that he talked long and earnestly with her master Jacques, and presently she saw that Jacques went into the cottage and came again therefrom with his wife Justine and kissed her, and then went away with Pere Francois toward the town off yonder. Felice saw that Justine was weeping, and with never a suspicion of impending evil, she wondered why Justine should weep when all was so prosperous and bright and fair and happy about her. Felice saw and wondered, and meanwhile Petit-Poulain scampered gayly about that velvety paddock.
That night the vineyard hills, bathed in the mellow grace of moonlight, saw a sight they had never seen before. From the east an army came riding and marching on,—an army of strange, determined men, speaking a language before unheard in that fair country and threatening things of which that peaceful valley had never dreamed. You and I, of course, know that these were the Germans advancing upon France,—a nation of immortals eager to destroy the possessions and the human lives of fellow-immortals! But old Felice, hearing the din away off yonder,—the unwonted noise of cavalry and infantry advancing with murderous intent,—she did not understand it all, she did not even suspect the truth. You cannot wonder, for what should a soulless beast know of the noble, the human privilege of human slaughter? Old Felice heard that strange din, and instinct led her to coax her little colt from the pleasant paddock into that snug and secure retreat, the thatched stable, and there, in the early morning, they found her, Petit-Poulain pulling eagerly at her generous dugs.
Those who came riding up were strangers in those parts; they were ominously accoutred and they spoke words that old Felice had never heard before. Yes, as you have already guessed, they were German cavalry-men. A battle was impending, and they needed more horses.
"Old enough; but in lieu of a better, she will do." That was what they said. They approached her carefully, for they suspected that she might be vicious. Poor old Felice, she had never harmed even the flies that pestered her. "They are going to put me at the plough," she thought. "It is a long time since I did work of any kind,—nothing, in fact, since Petit-Poulain was born. Poor Petit-Poulain will miss me; but I will soon return." With these thoughts she turned her head fondly and caressed her pretty colt.
"The colt must be tied in the stall or he will follow her." So said the cavalrymen. They threw a rope about his neck and made him fast in the stable. Petit-Poulain was very much surprised, and he remonstrated vainly with his fierce little heels.
They put a halter upon old Felice. Justine, the farmer's wife, met them in the yard, and reproached them wildly in French. They laughed boisterously, and answered her in German. Then they rode away, leading old Felice, who kept turning her head and whinnying pathetically, for she was thinking of Petit-Poulain.
Of peace I know and can speak,—of peace, with its solace of love, plenty, honor, fame, happiness, and its pathetic tragedy of poverty, heartache, disappointment, tears, bereavement. Of war I know nothing, and never shall know; it is not in my heart of for my hand to break that law which God enjoined from Sinai and Christ confirmed in Galilee. I do not know of war, nor can I tell you of that battle which men with immortal souls fought one glorious day in a fertile country with vineyard hills all round about. But when night fell there was desolation everywhere and death. The Eden was a wilderness; the winding river was choked with mangled corpses; shell and shot had mowed down the acres of waving grain, the exuberant orchards, the gardens and the hedgerows; black, charred ruins, gaunt and ghostlike, marked the spots where homes had stood. The vines had been cut and torn away, and the despoiled hills seemed to crouch down like bereaved mothers under the pitiless gaze of the myriad eyes of heaven.
The victors went their way; a greater triumph was in store for them; a mighty capital was to be besieged; more homes were to be desolated,—more blood shed, more hearts broken. So the victors went their way, their hands red and their immortal souls elated.
In the early dawn a horse came galloping homeward. It is Felice, old Felice, riderless, splashed with mud, wild-eyed, sore with fatigue! Felice, Felice, what horrors hast thou not seen! If thou couldst speak, if that tongue of thine could be loosed, what would it say of those who, forgetful of their souls, sink lower than the soulless brutes! Better it is thou canst not speak; the anguish in thine eyes, the despair in thy honest heart, the fear, the awful fear in thy mother breast,—what tongue could utter them?
Adown the road she galloped,—the same road she had traversed, perhaps, a thousand times before, yet it was so changed now she hardly knew it. Twenty-four hours had ruthlessly levelled the noble trees, the hedgerows, and the fields of grain. Twenty-four hours of battle had done all this and more. In all those ghastly hours, one thought had haunted Felice; one thought alone,—the thought of Petit-Poulain! She pictured him tied in that far-away stall, wondering why she did not come. He was hungry, she knew; her dugs were full of milk and they pained her; how sweet would be her relief when her Petit-Poulain broke his long fast. Petit-Poulain, Petit-Poulain, Petit-Poulain,—this one thought and this alone had old Felice throughout those hours of battle and of horror.
Could this have been the farm-house? It was a ruin now. Shells had torn it apart. Where was the good master Jacques; had he gone with the cure to the defence of the town? And Justine,—where was she? Bullets had cut away the rose-trees and the smoke-bush; the garden was no more. The havoc, the desolation, was complete. The cote, which had surmounted the pole around which an ivy twined, had been swept away. The pigeons now circled here and there bewildered; wondering, perhaps, why Justine did not come and call to them and feed them.
To this seared, scarred spot came old Felice. He that had ridden her into battle lay with his face downward near those distant vineyard hills. His blood had stained Felice's neck; a bullet had grazed her flank, but that was a slight wound,—riderless, she turned and came from the battle-field and sought her Petit-Poulain once again.
Hard by the ruins of cottage, of garden, and of cote, she came up standing; she was steaming and breathless. She rolled her eyes wildly around,—she looked for the stable where she had left Petit-Poulain. She trembled as if an overwhelming apprehension of disaster suddenly possessed her. She gave a whinny, pathetic in its tenderness. She was calling Petit-Poulain. But there was no answer.
Petit-Poulain lay dead in the ruins of the stable. His shelter had not escaped the fury of the battle. He could not run away, for they had tied him fast when they carried his old mother off. So now he lay amid that debris, his eyes half open in death and his legs stretched out stark and stiff.
And old Felice,—her udder bursting with the maternal grace he never again should know, and her heart breaking with the agony of sudden and awful bereavement,—she staggered, as if blinded by despair, toward that vestige of her love, and bent over him and caressed her Petit-Poulain.
Once upon a time a little boy came, during his play, to the bank of a river. The waters of the river were very dark and wild, and there was so black a cloud over the river that the little boy could not see the further shore. An icy wind came up from the cloud and chilled the little boy, and he trembled with cold and fear as the wind smote his cheeks and ran its slender icicle fingers through his yellow curls. An old man sat on the bank of the river; he was very, very old; his head and shoulders were covered with a black mantle; and his beard was white as snow.
"Will you come with me, little boy?" asked the old man.
"Where?" inquired the little boy.
"To yonder shore," replied the old man.
"Oh, no; not to that dark shore," said the little boy. "I should be afraid to go."
"But think of the sunlight always there," said the old man, "the birds and flowers; and remember there is no pain, nor anything of that kind to vex you."
The little boy looked and saw the dark cloud hanging over the waters, and he felt the cold wind come up from the river; moreover, the sight of the strange man terrified him. So, hearing his mother calling him, the little boy ran back to his home, leaving the old man by the river alone.
Many years after that time the little boy came again to the river; but he was not a little boy now,—he was a big, strong man.
"The river is the same," said he; "the wind is the same cold, cutting wind of ice, and the same black cloud obscures yonder shore. I wonder where the strange old man can be."
"I am he," said a solemn voice.
The man turned and looked on him who spoke, and he saw a warrior clad in black armor and wielding an iron sword.
"No, you are not he!" cried the man. "You are a warrior come to do me harm."
"I am indeed a warrior," said the other. "Come with me across the river."
"No," replied the man, "I will not go with you. Hark, I hear the voices of my wife and children calling to me,—I will return to them!"
The warrior strove to hold him fast and bear him across the river to the yonder shore, but the man prevailed against him and returned to his wife and little ones, and the warrior was left upon the river-bank.
Then many years went by and the strong man became old and feeble. He found no pleasure in the world, for he was weary of living. His wife and children were dead, and the old man was alone. So one day in those years he came to the bank of the river for the third time, and he saw that the waters had become quiet and that the wind which came up from the river was warm and gentle and smelled of flowers; there was no dark cloud overhanging the yonder shore, but in its place was a golden mist through which the old man could see people walking on the yonder shore and stretching out their hands to him, and he could hear them calling him by name. Then he knew they were the voices of his dear ones.
"I am weary and lonesome," cried the old man. "All have gone before me: father, mother, wife, children,—all whom I have loved. I see them and hear them on yonder shore, but who will bear me to them?"
Then a spirit came in answer to this cry. But the spirit was not a strange old man nor yet an armored warrior; but as he came to the river's bank that day he was a gentle angel, clad in white; his face was very beautiful, and there was divine tenderness in his eyes.
"Rest thy head upon my bosom," said the angel, "and I will bear thee across the river to those who call thee."
So, with the sweet peace of a little child sinking to his slumbers, the old man drooped in the arms of the angel and was borne across the river to those who stood upon the yonder shore and called.
Many years ago a young composer was sitting in a garden. All around bloomed beautiful roses, and through the gentle evening air the swallows flitted, twittering cheerily. The young composer neither saw the roses nor heard the evening music of the swallows; his heart was full of sadness and his eyes were bent wearily upon the earth before him.
"Why," said the young composer, with a sigh, "should I be doomed to all this bitter disappointment? Learning seems vain, patience is mocked,—fame is as far from me as ever."
The roses heard his complaint. They bent closer to him and whispered, "Listen to us,—listen to us." And the swallows heard him, too, and they flitted nearer him; and they, too, twittered, "Listen to us,—listen to us." But the young composer was in no mood to be beguiled by the whisperings of the roses and the twitterings of the birds; with a heavy heart and sighing bitterly he arose and went his way.
It came to pass that many times after that the young composer came at evening and sat in the garden where the roses bloomed and the swallows twittered; his heart was always full of disappointment, and often he cried out in anguish against the cruelty of fame that it came not to him. And each time the roses bent closer to him, and the swallows flew lower, and there in the garden the sweet flowers and little birds cried, "Listen to us,—listen to us, and we will help you."
And one evening the young composer, hearing their gentle pleadings, smiled sadly, and said: "Yes, I will listen to you. What have you to say, pretty roses?"
"Make your songs of us," whispered the roses,—"make your songs of us."
"Ha, ha!" laughed the composer. "A song of the roses would be very strange, indeed! No, sweet flowers,—it is fame I seek, and fame would scorn even the beauty of your blushes and the subtlety of your perfumes."
"You are wrong," twittered the swallows, flying lower. "You are wrong, foolish man. Make a song for the heart,—make a song of the swallows and the roses, and it will be sung forever, and your fame shall never die."
But the composer laughed louder than before; surely there never had been a stranger suggestion than that of the roses and the swallows! Still, in his chamber that night the composer thought of what the swallows had said, and in his dreams he seemed to hear the soft tones of the roses pleading with him. Yes, many times thereafter the composer recalled what the birds and flowers had said, but he never would ask them as he sat in the garden at evening how he could make the heart-song of which they chattered. And the summer sped swiftly by, and one evening when the composer came into the garden the roses were dead, and their leaves lay scattered on the ground. There were no swallows fluttering in the sky, and the nests under the eaves were deserted. Then the composer knew his little friends were beyond recall, and he was oppressed by a feeling of loneliness. The roses and the swallows had grown to be a solace to the composer, had stolen into his heart all unawares,—now that they were gone, he was filled with sadness.
"I will do as they counselled," said he; "I will make a song of them,—a song of the swallows and the roses. I will forget my greed for fame while I write in memory of my little friends."
Then the composer made a song of the swallows and the roses, and, while he wrote, it seemed to him that he could hear the twittering of the little birds all around him, and scent the fragrance of the flowers, and his soul was warmed with a warmth he had never felt before, and his tears fell upon his manuscript.
When the world heard the song which the composer had made of the swallows and the roses, it did homage to his genius. Such sentiment, such delicacy, such simplicity, such melody, such heart, such soul,—ah, there was no word of rapturous praise too good for the composer now: fame, the sweetest and most enduring kind of fame, had come to him.
And the swallows and the roses had done it all. Their subtle influences had filled the composer's soul with a great inspiration,—by means like this God loves to speak to the human heart.
"We told you so," whispered the roses when they came again in the spring. "We told you that if you sang of us the world would love your song."
Then the swallows, flying back from the south, twittered: "We told you so; sing the songs the heart loves, and you shall live forever."
"Ah, dear ones," said the composer, softly; "you spoke the truth. He who seeks a fame that is immortal has only to reach and abide in the human heart."
The lesson he learned of the swallows and the roses he never forgot. It was the inspiration and motive of a long and beautiful life. He left for others that which some called a loftier ambition. He was content to sit among the flowers and hear the twitter of birds and make songs that found an echo in all breasts. Ah, there was such a beautiful simplicity,—such a sweet wisdom in his life! And where'er the swallows flew, and where'er the roses bloomed, he was famed and revered and beloved, and his songs were sung.
Then his hair grew white at last, and his eyes were dim and his steps were slow. A mortal illness came upon him, and he knew that death was nigh.
"The winter has been long," said he, wearily. "Open the window and raise me up that I may see the garden, for it must be that spring is come."
It was indeed spring, but the roses had not yet bloomed. The swallows were chattering in their nests under the eaves or flitting in the mild, warm sky.
"Hear them," he said faintly. "How sweetly they sing. But alas! where are the roses?"
Where are the roses? Heaped over thee, dear singing heart; blooming on thy quiet grave in the Fatherland, and clustered and entwined all in and about thy memory, which with thy songs shall go down from heart to heart to immortality.
This is to tell of our little Mistress Merciless, who for a season abided with us, but is now and forever gone from us unto the far-off land of Ever-Plaisance. The tale is soon told; for it were not seemly to speak all the things that are in one's heart when one hath to say of a much-beloved child, whose life here hath been shortened so that, in God's wisdom and kindness, her life shall be longer in that garden that bloometh far away.
You shall know that all did call her Mistress Merciless; but her mercilessness was of a sweet, persuasive kind: for with the beauty of her face and the music of her voice and the exceeding sweetness of her virtues was she wont to slay all hearts; and this she did unwittingly, for she was a little child. And so it was in love that we did call her Mistress Merciless, just as it was in love that she did lord it over all our hearts.
Upon a time walked she in a full fair garden, and there went with her an handmaiden that we did call in merry wise the Queen of Sheba; for this handmaiden was in sooth no queen at all, but a sorry and ill-favored wench; but she was assotted upon our little Mistress Merciless and served her diligently, and for that good reason was vastly beholden of us all. Yet, in a jest, we called her the Queen of Sheba; and I make a venture that she looked exceeding fair in the eyes of our little Mistress Merciless: for the eyes of children look not upon the faces but into the hearts and souls of others. Whilst these two walked in the full fair garden at that time they came presently unto an arbor wherein there was a rustic seat, which was called the Siege of Restfulness; and hereupon sate a little sick boy that, from his birth, had been lame, so that he could not play and make merry with other children, but was wont to come every day into this full fair garden and content himself with the companionship of the flowers. And, though he was a little lame boy, he never trod upon those flowers; and even had he done so, methinks the pressure of those crippled feet had been a caress, for the little lame boy was filled with the spirit of love and tenderness. As the tiniest, whitest, shrinking flower exhaleth the most precious perfume, so in and from this little lame boy's life there came a grace that was hallowing in its beauty.
Since they never before had seen him, they asked him his name; and he answered them that of those at home he was called Master Sweetheart, a name he could not understand: for surely, being a cripple, he must be a very sorry sweetheart; yet, that he was a sweetheart unto his mother at least he had no doubt, for she did love to hold him in her lap and call him by that name; and many times when she did so he saw that tears were in her eyes,—a proof, she told him when he asked, that Master Sweetheart was her sweetheart before all others upon earth.
It befell that our little Mistress Merciless and Master Sweetheart became fast friends, and the Queen of Sheba was handmaiden to them both; for the simple, loyal creature had not a mind above the artless prattle of childhood, and the strange allegory of the lame boy's speech filled her with awe, even as the innocent lisping of our little Mistress Merciless delighted her heart and came within the comprehension of her limited understanding. So each day, when it was fair, these three came into the full fair garden, and rambled there together; and when they were weary they entered into the arbor and sate together upon the Siege of Restfulness. Wit ye well there was not a flower or a tree or a shrub or a bird in all that full fair garden which they did not know and love, and in very sooth every flower and tree and shrub and bird therein did know and love them.
When they entered into the arbor, and sate together upon the Siege of Restfulness, it was Master Sweetheart's wont to tell them of the land of Ever-Plaisance, for it was a conceit of his that he journeyed each day nearer and nearer to that land, and that his journey thitherward was nearly done. How came he to know of that land I cannot say, for I do not know; but I am fain to believe that, as he said, the exceeding fair angels told him thereof when by night, as he lay sleeping, they came singing and with caresses to his bedside.
I speak now of a holy thing, therefore I speak truth when I say that while little children lie sleeping in their beds at night it pleaseth God to send His exceeding fair angels with singing and caresses to bear messages of His love unto those little sleeping children. And I have seen those exceeding fair angels bend with folded wings over the little cradles and the little beds, and kiss those little sleeping children and whisper God's messages of love to them, and I knew that those messages were full of sweet tidings; for, even though they slept, the little children smiled. This have I seen, and there is none who loveth little children that will deny the truth of this thing which I have now solemnly declared.
Of that land of Ever-Plaisance was our little Mistress Merciless ever fain to hear tell. But when she beset the rest of us to speak thereof we knew not what to say other than to confirm such reports as Master Sweetheart had already made. For when it cometh to knowing of that far-off land,—ah me, who knoweth more than the veriest little child? And oftentimes within the bosom of a little, helpless, fading one there bloometh a wisdom which sages cannot comprehend. So when she asked us we were wont to bid her go to Master Sweetheart, for he knew the truth and spake it.
It is now to tell of an adventure which on a time befell in that full fair garden of which you have heard me speak. In this garden lived many birds of surpassing beauty and most rapturous song, and among them was one that they called Joyous, for that he did ever carol forth so joyously, it mattered not what the day soever might be. This bird Joyous had his home in the top of an exceeding high tree, hard by the pleasant arbor, and here did he use to sit at such times as the little people came into that arbor, and then would he sing to them such songs as befitted that quiet spot, and them that came thereto. But there was a full evil cat that dwelt near by, and this cruel beast found no pleasure in the music that Joyous did make continually; nay, that music filled this full evil cat with a wicked thirst for the blood of that singing innocent, and she had no peace for the malice that was within her seeking to devise a means whereby she might comprehend the bird Joyous to her murderous intent. Now you must know that it was the wont of our little Mistress Merciless and of Master Sweetheart to feed the birds in that fair garden with such crumbs as they were suffered to bring with them into the arbor, and at such times would those birds fly down with grateful twitterings and eat of those crumbs upon the greensward round about the arbor. Wit ye well, it was a merry sight to see those twittering birds making feast upon the good things which those children brought, and our little Mistress Merciless and little Master Sweetheart had sweet satisfaction therein. But, on a day, whilst thus those twittering birds made great feasting, lo! on a sudden did that full evil cat whereof I have spoken steal softly from a thicket, and with one hideous bound make her way into the very midst of those birds and seize upon that bird Joyous, that was wont to sing so merrily from the tree hard by the arbor. Oh, there was a mighty din and a fearful fluttering, and the rest flew swiftly away, but Joyous could not do so, because the full evil cat held him in her cruel fangs and claws. And I make no doubt that Joyous would speedily have met his death, but that with a wrathful cry did our little Mistress Merciless hasten to his rescue. And our little Mistress belabored that full evil cat with Master Sweetheart's crutch, until that cruel beast let loose her hold upon the fluttering bird and was full glad to escape with her aching bones into the thicket again. So it was that Joyous was recovered from death; but even then might it have fared ill with him, had they not taken him up and dressed his wounds and cared for him until duly he was well again. And then they released him to do his plaisance, and he returned to his home in the tree hard by the arbor and there he sung unto those children more sweetly than ever before; for his heart was full of gratitude to our little Mistress Merciless and Master Sweetheart.
Now, of the dolls that she had in goodly number, that one which was named Beautiful did our little Mistress Merciless love best. Know well that the doll Beautiful had come not from oversea, and was neither of wax nor of china; but she was right ingeniously constructed of a bed-key that was made of wood, and unto the top of this bed-key had the Queen of Sheba superadded a head with a fair face, and upon the body and the arms of the key had she hung passing noble raiment. Unto this doll Beautiful was our little Mistress Merciless vastly beholden, and she did use to have the doll Beautiful lie by her side at night whilst she slept, and whithersoever during the day she went, there also would she take the doll Beautiful, too. Much sorrow and lamentation, therefore, made our little Mistress Merciless when on an evil day the doll Beautiful by chance fell into the fish-pond, and was not rescued therefrom until one of her beauteous eyes had been devoured of the envious water; so that ever thereafter the doll Beautiful had but one eye, and that, forsooth, was grievously faded. And on another evil day came a monster ribald dog pup and seized upon the doll Beautiful whilst she reposed in the arbor, and bore her away, and romped boisterously with her upon the sward, and tore off her black-thread hair, and sought to destroy her wholly, which surely he would have done but for the Queen of Sheba, who made haste to rescue the doll Beautiful, and chastise that monster ribald dog pup.
Therefore, as you can understand, the time was right busily spent. The full fair garden, with its flowers and the singing birds and the gracious arbor and the Siege of Restfulness, found favor with those children, and amid these joyous scenes did Master Sweetheart have to tell each day of that far-off land of Ever-Plaisance, whither he said he was going. And one day, when the sun shone very bright, and the full fair garden joyed in the music of those birds, Master Sweetheart did not come, and they missed the little lame boy and wondered where he was. And as he never came again they thought at last that of a surety he had departed into that country whereof he loved to tell. Which thing filled our little Mistress Merciless with wonder and inquiry; and I think she was lonely ever after that,—lonely for Master Sweetheart.
I am thinking now of her and of him; for this is the Christmas season,—the time when it is most meet to think of the children and other sweet and holy things. There is snow everywhere, snow and cold. The garden is desolate and voiceless: the flowers are gone, the trees are ghosts, the birds have departed. It is winter out there, and it is winter, too, in this heart of mine. Yet in this Christmas season I think of them, and it pleaseth me—God forbid that I offend with much speaking—it pleaseth me to tell of the little things they did and loved. And you shall understand it all if, perchance, this sacred Christmas time a little Mistress Merciless of your own, or a little Master Sweetheart, clingeth to your knee and sanctifieth your hearthstone.
When of an evening all the joy of day was done, would our little Mistress Merciless fall aweary; and then her eyelids would grow exceeding heavy and her little tired hands were fain to fold. At such a time it was my wont to beguile her weariness with little tales of faery, or with the gentle play that sleepy children like. Much was her fancy taken with what I told her of the train that every night whirleth away to Shut-Eye Town, bearing unto that beauteous country sleepy little girls and boys. Nor would she be content until I told her thereof,—yes, every night whilst I robed her in her cap and gown would she demand of me that tale of Shut-Eye Town, and the wonderful train that was to bear her thither. Then would I say in this wise:—