Under the Widespreading Hawthorns

Some days after, as I was pulling my boat home from the Iowa shore, thinking of Constance and watching the Penitent as it reflected its graceful foliage in the dark waters of the great river, a voice I knew and loved hailed me from the landing I was fast approaching. Pretending not to hear, it called again, and louder than before, and with such sweetness and cheerfulness of life that it made my heart beat the faster to hear it.
“Gilbert! Gilbert! Gilbert!”
Turning about as if hearing for the first time, I saw Constance standing in the shade of the hawthorns, holding something aloft in her hand.
“Hurry up, you lazy boy! See! I have a letter for you,” she cried, waving it above her head and turning about at the same time as if to go away.
“Wait; don’t go; I’ll be there in a minute,” I called back. Then, that I might be near her and not because of the letter, I lengthened my stroke, and put such strength into my arms that in a few seconds my boat shot into the soft bank near which she stood.
Springing ashore, I clasped her in my arms, but not in a way to shock any one’s modesty, for of all the cunning bowers Nature ever formed for lovers this was the fittest. Looking out on the great river, but apart, it was a place to seek, or to make the most of if by chance you met your love there, as in my case. Having many things to say, as lovers do, and will till the world ends, her errand was forgotten; but after a while recalling it—if that was really the thing that brought her—she gave me the letter, and together we fell to examining its superscription and seal, wondering the while who it was from and what it was all about. In this way our faces touched and our hands came in contact and lingered, loath to part, but not strangely, and as lovers should, you will say. There was no need of haste, it was plain, and, moreover, the getting of a letter was a thing to be treated with some formality. For, except as Uncle Job or Aunt Betty may have written me, I had never received such a thing before in all my life. The day, too, was one to invite idleness, and of lovers more especially. Above our heads great clouds, white as snow, floated slowly across the broad expanse, and on the bosom of the majestic river, a ripple here and a calm there, or maybe a bit of shadow, added to the placid beauty of the surroundings. About us soft winds stirred the leaves of the listening hawthorns, and from out the thicket beyond the road a thrush, awakened to life by our close proximity, called in impassioned notes for its absent mate.
Lying outstretched on the yielding turf, I asked Constance to open the letter, and this that I might the better look upon her and listen to her sweet voice while she read. No way suspecting my reason for asking, the missive presently lay open in her lap; and in those days, you must know, letters were not hidden away in wrappers as now, but folded and sealed and the address inserted in some nook or corner left for the purpose. When she had torn the letter apart, we looked it over, but without deciphering any word till we reached the end, and there, coming to the name, we were so startled at what we saw that our heads came together with a bump as we exclaimed with one voice: “Aunt Jane!” Yes, Aunt Jane; for printed matter never was plainer, and this notwithstanding some tremor of the letters as if they had been put down with labor, if not with pain. Astonished, we looked into each other’s faces, for nothing so surprising as this had ever happened before to either of us. Glancing above the signature, our eyes caught the closing words, “With tender love,” and seeing this, I cried out:
“What can it mean, Constance? Surely something strange must have happened! Read what it says, and from the beginning!”
Smoothing out the paper, she did as I asked, and this is the sad message the letter contained:
“Dying, my child, I may at last speak out my soul’s wish as it is and has been from the first, concealing nothing nor adding a word. My heart is now too weak, too yearning, too inexpressibly sad, to longer harbor reserve or any mystery of life. Sickness and tears and years of tender longing, my child, for you, my next of kin, have melted it; and now, coming to the end of my days, I may, all too late, speak as I am, and was even in the old time when your father and mother were yet alive. Of my coldness, oh, believe me! it was never real, but only a cloak, a shadowy thing put on without thought. For it had no real substance, but hid my heart, and foolishly, to my life’s undoing. I have no one but you, my child, and dying I am alone and forsaken, for only the walls of my house answer back my call for love and sympathy. Surely, if I have sinned through pride and in hiding my heart from you and those who sleep in their graves, I have suffered and am punished beyond bearing. You could have loved me, and your sweet-faced mother ever sought to win from me some show of tenderness; but erring, I put off the day of yielding until it was too late. Now I am as one abandoned in the world, for when you come to die only those of your own blood can respond to your heart’s yearnings. Sweet child, if you can yet conjure up some shadow of kindness for your poor aunt, come to her in her sickness and loneliness, that she may press you to her heart and have you by her when she yields her life to God. For believe me, her persecution, as you thought, was but her love and striving for your welfare, but oh, how mistakenly conveyed, as all her acts have been from the beginning. Then forgive and pity her, sweet one, and hasten if you would let her see you before she dies.”
Tears ran down our faces long ere Constance had finished reading, for of its truthfulness we had no shadow of doubt.
“Surely, she has been punished, if she has erred,” Constance at last said, as she took up the letter again.
“Yes; and how I have mistaken her all these years,” I mourned, for I could not now doubt her love and affection.
“You can’t be blamed, Gilbert, for she made no sign,” Constance answered, as if to comfort me; “but how lonely her life must have been, and how greatly she has suffered.”
“Had I gone to her as I ought, her coldness would have quickly given place to show of love; and it is I, not she, who should ask forgiveness,” I answered, remembering with shame the scant respect I had shown her.
“You were not in fault, Gilbert, for she being older and wiser should have been first to open her arms. How could you know her heart?” Constance answered, excusing me, as she did in all things.
“I wonder if all letters are so full of tears?” I exclaimed, taking the missive tenderly in my hands. “But see the date, and how long it has been in coming! She will have died, I know, ere I can reach her!”
“You will go to her, then?” Constance answered.
“Yes, and to-day, if there is a way,” I answered, getting to my feet.
“Oh, you can’t go so soon, Gilbert, and on so long a journey!” Constance answered, putting up her hand as if to restrain me.
“Why not? The distance is nothing,” I answered, with some pride.
“See, Gilbert, what is this?” Constance interrupted, unfolding a paper she had picked up from the ground; “an order to pay you money, and for five hundred dollars. Surely, your aunt means all she says and more!”
Yes, so it was; a fortune, and sent that I might come to her without loss of time or expense to my friends.
“Oh, aunt, I will come, be sure!” I cried, scarce able to decipher the paper, so clouded were my eyes with tears.
“You will need it all, Gilbert; it is so far, and you can’t go alone, you know. Oh, how I wish I were going with you!” the sweet girl exclaimed, clasping my neck as if no one could protect me so well as she.
“I wish you were, sweetheart, for I shall be unhappy till I come back to you,” I answered, my heart sinking at the thought of leaving her.
“You must not feel that way, Gilbert, for you will not be long away,” she answered, tears starting in her eyes.
“I must stay, once I get there; but I will come back, and often, till that day, you know when,” I answered, embracing her.
Thus it was arranged, and going to the house I showed Aunt Jane’s letter to Mr. and Mrs. Hayward, who were as much surprised as we had been. When I told them I thought I ought to go to her at once, they both assented, as I had felt sure they would from the first.
“If you think best,” I said to Mr. Hayward after we had talked the matter over, “I will go on to town with Constance, and if there is a boat, I will go by that, and if not will take a horse and go across the country.”
“Do as you think best; and you are welcome to one of our horses, if you conclude to go that way,” he answered.
For this I thanked him, but declined, for I knew he needed them in his business, which was now grown somewhat, but not as much as it ought.
“You will not think of going alone, Gilbert, I hope?” Mrs. Hayward spoke up, as she helped me to collect the few things I needed, and this as if she still saw in me the slender youth she had welcomed with so much kindness years before.
“Why not? The country is open, and I have but to go ahead, and in three or four days at the most I will be there.”
“He is not going alone,” Constance broke in at this. “The country is full of outlaws and wild beasts. Think what happened to him when he came to Appletop!”
“It is not so bad as that now, you know, Constance,” I answered; “and besides, I shall have money and a horse if I go overland.”
“It has not changed much, and some accident might happen to you, and then what would you do? Surely your Uncle Job or Mr. Fox will go with you, or if not, papa will be glad to, I know,” the sweet child insisted.
Matters being thus arranged, we took leave of Mr. and Mrs. Hayward, and this on my part with a sad heart. For in the years I had made my home with them they had been very tender and kind to me, and because of it I had grown to love them, more, indeed, than I thought till the hour of parting came.
2When we reached Appletop we stopped at Uncle Job’s on our way to the Dragon. Tears filled his eyes as he read and re-read Aunt Jane’s sad letter.
“Poor woman! You will go to her, Gilbert?” he said at last.
“Yes; and I am glad you think I should,” I answered.
“Of course; but when do you think of starting?” he asked.
“To-day if I can get off.”
“That is prompt,” he answered, as if pleased that I should respond so quickly to her request. “How will you make the journey, do you think?”
“By boat, if there is one, and if not, across the country. I would like the last best, though.”
“There will be no boat till to-morrow night, and then not surely,” he answered, after a moment’s thought.
“That is too long to wait, and a good horse will carry me as soon or sooner than I could go the other way.”
“You must not go alone,” he replied. “I would be glad to go if I could get away, but as I can’t, how would Fox do?”
“We had thought of him,” Constance spoke up.
“Then you have talked it over?” Uncle Job asked.
“Yes; it is not safe for him to go alone, and that is the way we happened to speak of it.”
“Fox will be a good companion, and more agreeable than I,” Uncle Job answered, pleasantly.
“You know that is not so, uncle,” I answered, “for I should like no one so well as you.”
“Well, it is nice of you to say so, anyway; but if you are to start to-day you must be off, and while you are looking up Fox I will get the dapple-gray mare in shape for you.”
“The mare!” I answered, surprised at the reference. “Will you let me take her?”
“Yes; and if you will accept the gift, I shall be glad to give her to you. I have been intending to do it for a long time,” he answered, smiling.
“I know that, for I have heard him say so before, Gilbert,” Aunt Betty here interposed, and as if pleased at what her husband proposed.
“Thank you,” I answered; “there is nothing in the world you could give me that would please me half so much”; for since the night I rode her to Appletop I thought her the finest animal in all the world.
Taking leave of Uncle Job and Aunt Betty, Constance and I started for the Dragon, and on our way ran across Fox, as good luck would have it. When we told him about the journey and our wish that he should go with me, he was delighted beyond power of speaking, for he had long desired to get away from Appletop, and only Uncle Job’s wish kept him back. This because the past had been a bar to his getting anything worthy of him, nor did it seem possible he could live it down, though he labored hard to be thought worthy of men’s confidence. It was plain, too, that he had now begun to despair of his future, in which we greatly pitied him, for he was in all things of blameless life and wholly free from folly of any kind.
“Do you know where you can get a horse?” I asked, when it had been arranged that he should go.
“Yes, I know a good one I can hire,” he answered, and sorrowfully enough, for it had been a long time since he had a horse of his own.
“We had better buy one; Aunt Jane has sent me money enough, and it can’t be used in a better way, can it?”
“That would be fine; and have you a horse?” he asked.
“Yes; Uncle Job has given me the gray mare.”
“Given her to you! Well, that’s past belief, for she is the very apple of his eye,” he answered, surprised.
While we were thus talking, Blott came up, bustling and fat and as full of color as an alderman. He had now been married a year, and was, moreover, deputy sheriff, an office he filled with great pride, and acceptably to the public. When I told him of our journey, the roving instinct in him showed itself in the way he straightened up.
“I’d like to go with you,” he answered, “for it’ll be a picnic; but business is business, an’ the peace of the county’s got to be looked after,” he added, with a sly glance at his wife, a little woman with a firm mouth and big nose, who had come up while he was speaking. This little lady was a very determined woman, and ruled her lord with an iron hand in all matters relating to temperance and early hours and things of that sort, but for his good, be it said, and not unkindly.
“We should like to have you go if you could get away,” I answered, for Blott was fine company.
“It would be great if both Blott and Mr. Fox could go, Gilbert,” Constance spoke up, seeing in this greater safety for me in fighting off the outlaws and desperadoes with which she had peopled every lonely place since the night in Murderer’s Hollow.
“He can’t, though, Miss Constance,” Mrs. Blott broke in. “He couldn’t be away so long, and besides he might have a return of the old malady, an’ I ain’t goin’ to risk it.”
“There ain’t a bit of danger, Sarah,” Blott answered, “for I’m livin’ too near the sky to ketch anything but a cold. Do you know, Gilbert, I can hardly keep my feet on the ground, an’ have to clip my wings every mornin’, I’m so good. Only Sarah’s stricter’n she need be sometimes.”
“No, I ain’t,” Mrs. Blott spoke up, “seein’ what indulgence led you into before.”
“You see how I’m treed,” Blott answered, looking at me ruefully.
“One can’t be too careful, Blott,” Fox answered; “being out nights and away from the comforts of home is bad for those inclined to malarial troubles.”
“That’s no dream; but there ain’t no danger in my case,” Blott answered.
“I don’t know about that,” Mrs. Blott broke in; “but we’ve got the habit broke up, an’ it’s best to keep it so.”
“Don’t that frost you, Gilbert! But she’ll have her way, she’ll have her way, an’ it’s probably the best. For I don’t mind tellin’ you, even if she’s by, that she knows more’n any doctor, an’ barrin’ a little too much watchfulness, is the best woman on earth.”
“One can see that with half an eye,” I answered.
“Yes; an’ she’s the kind of a woman for a poor man, knowin’ more’n to run into the fence when she gits to the end of the furrer. Rose-bushes is all right, Gilbert, in their place; but they don’t make good kindlin’ wood, an’ when women ain’t brought up to know nothin’ ‘cept to set ’round an’ make themselves pleasant-like, they shouldn’t break the back of a poor man by marryin’ him. Women is like trees; sum air only purty; other’s air just as purty, an’ make good rails an’ firewood, too, when the need comes.”
“How is it with men, Blott?” Fox asked, winking at Mrs. Blott.
“Well, I wasn’t talkin’ ’bout men,” he answered; “but there’s many a little woman takin’ in washin’ to support a hulk of a man who’s too lazy to work.”
“You will be sheriff some day, Blott, with such a wife,” I answered, bowing to the little woman as we started to leave.
“Yes, you can’t keep a good man down. I’m gettin’ old, too, an’ only young turkeys is willin’ to roost on the lower limbs. I’m pipe-layin’ for the place, Gilbert; but I mayn’t get it, for the deservin’ don’t always win, an’ if they did there’d be nothin’ left for the others. It’s the compeetin’ of the deservin’ with the ondeservin’ that makes the world interestin’ to everybody.”
Bidding Blott and his wife good by, Constance and I hurried on to the Dragon, where we found Mr. Seymour, who, as I expected, joined with the others in thinking I should lose no time in going to my aunt.
“Come, you can’t ride on an empty stomach!” he exclaimed, after we had talked the matter over, and with that led the way to the Treasure room, Constance and I following. Here luncheon was served, and eating it we spent an hour talking of the past and the future, for none of us could tell how much my present journey might change my way of life. Going downstairs at last, we found Uncle Job and Aunt Betty and Fox awaiting us, the latter mounted on a fine horse and holding the gray mare, saddled and bridled and looking as fine as a fiddle. Much affected by all their kindness, I came near to breaking down, but putting as good a face on it as I could, I bade them good by, and mounting my horse we set off at a gallop.