"Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing boy;
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy.
The youth who daily farther from the East
Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day."
"It is but little we can do for each other. We accompany the youth with sympathy and manifold old sayings of the wise to the gate of the arena, but it is certain that not by strength of ours, or by the old sayings, but only on strength of his own, unknown to us or to any, he must stand or fall." – Emerson.
"Does it look well, father?"
"Does this look well?"
William Douglas stopped playing for a moment, and turned his head toward the speaker, who, standing on a ladder, bent herself to one side, in order that he might see the wreath of evergreen, studded with cones, which she had hung on the wall over one of the small arched windows.
"It is too compact, Anne, too heavy. There should be sprays falling from it here and there, like a real vine. The greenery, dear, should be either growing naturally upward or twining; large branches standing in the corners like trees, or climbing vines. Stars, stiff circles, and set shapes should be avoided. That wreath looks as though it had been planed by a carpenter."
"Miss Lois made it."
"Ah," said William Douglas, something which made you think of a smile, although no smile was there, passing over his face, "it looks like her work; it will last a long time. And there will be no need to remove it for Ash-Wednesday, Anne; there is nothing joyous about it."
"I did not notice that it was ugly," said the girl, trying in her bent posture to look at the wreath, and bringing one eye and a portion of anxious forehead to bear upon it.
"That is because Miss Lois made it," replied William Douglas, returning to his music.
Anne, standing straight again, surveyed the garland in silence. Then she changed its position once or twice, studying the effect. Her figure, poised on the round of the ladder, high in the air, was, although unsupported, firm. With her arms raised above her head in a position which few women could have endured for more than a moment, she appeared as unconcerned, and strong, and sure of her footing, as though she had been standing on the floor. There was vigor about her and elasticity, combined unexpectedly with the soft curves and dimples of a child. Viewed from the floor, this was a young Diana, or a Greek maiden, as we imagine Greek maidens to have been. The rounded arms, visible through the close sleeves of the dark woollen dress, the finely moulded wrists below the heavy wreath, the lithe, natural waist, all belonged to a young goddess. But when Anne Douglas came down from her height, and turned toward you, the idea vanished. Here was no goddess, no Greek; only an American girl, with a skin like a peach. Anne Douglas's eyes were violet-blue, wide open, and frank. She had not yet learned that there was any reason why she should not look at everything with the calm directness of childhood. Equally like a child was the unconsciousness of her mouth, but the full lips were exquisitely curved. Her brown hair was braided in a heavy knot at the back of her head; but little rings and roughened curly ends stood up round her forehead and on her temples, as though defying restraint. This unwritten face, with its direct gaze, so far neutralized the effect of the Diana-like form that the girl missed beauty on both sides. The usual ideal of pretty, slender, unformed maidenhood was not realized, and yet Anne Douglas's face was more like what is called a baby face than that of any other girl on the island. The adjective generally applied to her was "big." This big, soft-cheeked girl now stood irresolutely looking at the condemned wreath.
The sun was setting, and poured a flood of clear yellow light through the little west windows; the man at the organ was playing a sober, steadfast German choral, without exultation, yet full of a resolute purpose which defied even death and the grave. Out through the eastern windows stretched the frozen straits, the snow-covered islands, and below rang out the bugle. "It will be dark in a few moments," said Anne to herself; "I will do it."
She moved the ladder across to the chancel, mounted to its top again, and placed the wreath directly over the altar, connecting it deftly with the numerous long lines of delicate wreathing woven in thread-like green lace-work which hung there, waiting for their key-stone – a place of honor which the condemned wreath was to fill. It now crowned the whole. The little house of God was but an upper chamber, roughly finished and barren; its only treasure was a small organ, a gift from a father whose daughter, a stranger from the South, had died upon the island, requesting that her memorial might be music rather than a cold stone. William Douglas had superintended the unpacking and placing of this gift, and loved it almost as though it had been his own child. Indeed, it was a child, a musical child – one who comprehended his varying moods when no one else did, not even Anne.
"It makes no difference now," said Anne, aloud, carrying the ladder toward the door; "it is done and ended. Here is the ladder, Jones, and please keep up the fires all night, unless you wish to see us frozen stiff to-morrow."
A man in common soldier's uniform touched his cap and took the ladder. Anne went back. "Now for one final look, father," she said, "and then we must go home; the children will be waiting."
William Douglas played a few more soft strains, and turned round. "Well, child," he said, stroking his thin gray beard with an irresolute motion habitual with him, and looking at the small perspective of the chapel with critical gaze, "so you have put Miss Lois's wreath up there?"
"Yes; it is the only thing she had time to make, and she took so much pains with it I could not bear to have her disappointed. It will not be much noticed."
"Yes, it will."
"I am sorry, then; but it can not be moved. And to tell the truth, father, although I suppose you will laugh at me, I think it looks well."
"It looks better than anything else in the room, and crowns the whole," said Douglas, rising and standing by his daughter's side. "It was a stroke of genius to place it there, Anne."
"Was it?" said the girl, her face flushing with pleasure. "But I was thinking only of Miss Lois."
"I am afraid you were," said Douglas, with his shadowy smile.
The rough walls and beams of the chapel were decorated with fine spray-like lines of evergreen, all pointing toward the chancel; there was not a solid spot upon which the eye could rest, no upright branches in the corners, no massed bunches over the windows, no stars of Bethlehem, anchors, or nondescript Greek letters; the whole chapel was simply outlined in light feathery lines of green, which reached the chancel, entered it, played about its walls, and finally came together under the one massive wreath whose even circle and thick foliage held them all firmly in place, and ended their wanderings in a restful quiet strength. While the two stood gazing, the lemon-colored light faded, and almost immediately it was night; the red glow shining out under the doors of the large stoves alone illuminated the room, which grew into a shadowy place, the aromatic fragrance of the evergreens filling the warm air pungently, more perceptible, as fragrance always is, in the darkness. William Douglas turned to the organ again, and began playing the music of an old vigil.
"The bugle sounded long ago, father," said Anne. "It is quite dark now, and very cold; I know by the crackling noise the men's feet make across the parade-ground."
But the father played on. "Come here, daughter," he said; "listen to this waiting, watching, praying music. Do you not see the old monks in the cloisters telling the hours through the long night, waiting for the dawn, the dawn of Christmas? Look round you; see this dim chapel, the air filled with fragrance like incense. These far-off chords, now; might they not be the angels, singing over the parapet of heaven?"
Anne stood by her father's side, and listened. "Yes," she said, "I can imagine it. And yet I could imagine it a great deal better if I did not know where every bench was, and every darn in the chancel carpet, and every mended pane in the windows. I am sorry I am so dull, father."
"Not dull, but unawakened."
"And when shall I waken?" pursued the girl, accustomed to carrying on long conversations with this dreaming father, whom she loved devotedly.
"God knows! May He be with you at your wakening!"
"I would rather have you, father; that is, if it is not wicked to say so. But I am very often wicked, I think," she added, remorsefully.
William Douglas smiled, closed the organ, and, throwing his arm round his tall young daughter, walked with her down the aisle toward the door.
"But you have forgotten your cloak," said Anne, running back to get it. She clasped it carefully round his throat, drew the peaked hood over his head, and fastened it with straps of deer's hide. Her own fur cloak and cap were already on, and thus enveloped, the two descended the dark stairs, crossed the inner parade-ground, passed under the iron arch, and made their way down the long sloping path, cut in the cliff-side, which led from the little fort on the height to the village below. The thermometer outside the commandant's door showed a temperature several degrees below zero; the dry old snow that covered the ground was hardened into ice on the top, so that boys walked on its crust above the fences. Overhead the stars glittered keenly, like the sharp edges of Damascus blades, and the white expanse of the ice-fields below gave out a strange pallid light which was neither like that of sun nor of moon, of dawn nor of twilight. The little village showed but few signs of life as they turned into its main street; the piers were sheets of ice.
Nothing wintered there; the summer fleets were laid up in the rivers farther south, where the large towns stood on the lower lakes. The shutters of the few shops had been tightly closed at sunset, when all the inhabited houses were tightly closed also; inside there were curtains, sometimes a double set, woollen cloth, blankets, or skins, according to the wealth of the occupants. Thus housed, with great fires burning in their dark stoves, and one small lamp, the store-keepers waited for custom until nine o'clock, after which time hardly any one stirred abroad, unless it was some warm-blooded youth, who defied the elements with the only power which can make us forget them.
At times, early in the evening, the door of one of these shops opened, and a figure entered through a narrow crack; for no islander opened a door widely – it was giving too much advantage to the foe of his life, the weather. This figure, enveloped in furs or a blanket, came toward the stove and warmed its hands with deliberation, the merchant meanwhile remaining calmly seated; then, after some moments, it threw back its hood, and disclosed the face of perhaps an Indian, perhaps a French fisherman, perhaps an Irish soldier from the barracks. The customer now mentioned his errand, and the merchant, rising in his turn, stretched himself like a shaggy dog loath to leave the fire, took his little lamp, and prepared to go in quest of the article desired, which lay, perhaps, beyond the circle of heat, somewhere in the outer darkness of the dim interior. It was an understood rule that no one should ask for nails or any kind of ironware in the evening: it was labor enough for the merchant to find and handle his lighter goods when the cold was so intense. There was not much bargaining in the winter; people kept their breath in their mouths. The merchants could have made money if they had had more customers or more energy; as it was, however, the small population and the cold kept them lethargically honest.
Anne and her father turned northward. The southern half of the little village had two streets, one behind the other, and both were clogged and overshadowed by the irregular old buildings of the once-powerful fur company. These ancient frames, empty and desolate, rose above the low cottages of the islanders, sometimes three and four stories in height, with the old pulleys and hoisting apparatus still in place under their peaked roofs, like gallows ready for the old traders to hang themselves upon, if they came back and saw the degeneracy of the furless times. No one used these warehouses now, no one propped them up, no one pulled them down; there they stood, closed and empty, their owners being but so many discouraged bones under the sod; for the Company had dissolved to the four winds of heaven, leaving only far-off doubtful and quarrelling heirs. The little island could not have the buildings; neither could it pull them down. They were dogs in the manger, therefore, if the people had looked upon them with progressive American eyes; but they did not. They were not progressive; they were hardly American. If they had any glory, it was of that very past, the days when those buildings were full of life. There was scarcely a family on the island that did not cherish its tradition of the merry fur-trading times, when "grandfather" was a factor, a superintendent, a clerk, a hunter; even a voyageur had his importance, now that there were no more voyageurs. Those were gay days, they said; they should never look upon their like again: unless, indeed, the past should come back – a possibility which did not seem so unlikely on the island as it does elsewhere, since the people were plainly retrograding, and who knows but that they might some time even catch up with the past?
North of the piers there was only one street, which ran along the water's edge. On the land side first came the fort garden, where successive companies of soldiers had vainly fought the climate in an agricultural way, redcoats of England and blue-coats of the United States, with much the same results of partially ripened vegetables, nipped fruits, and pallid flowers; for the island summer was beautiful, but too short for lusciousness. Hardy plants grew well, but there was always a persistent preference for those that were not hardy – like delicate beauties who are loved and cherished tenderly, while the strong brown maids go by unnoticed. The officers' wives made catsup of the green tomatoes, and loved their weakling flowers for far-away home's sake; and as the Indians brought in canoe-loads of fine full-jacketed potatoes from their little farms on the mainland, the officers could afford to let the soldiers do fancy-work in the government fields if it pleased the exiled ladies. Beyond the army garden was the old Agency house. The Agency itself had long been removed farther westward, following the retreating, dwindling tribes of the red men farther toward the Rocky Mountains; but the old house remained. On its door a brass plate was still fixed, bearing the words, "United States Agency." But it was now the home of a plain, unimportant citizen, William Douglas.
Anne ran up the path toward the front door, thinking of the children and the supper. She climbed the uneven snow-covered steps, turned the latch, and entered the dark hall. There was a line of light under the left-hand door, and taking off her fur-lined overshoes, she went in. The room was large; its three windows were protected by shutters, and thick curtains of red hue, faded but cheery; a great fire of logs was burning on the hearth, lighting up every corner with its flame and glow, and making the poor furniture splendid. In its radiance the curtains were damask, the old carpet a Persian-hued luxury, and the preparations for cooking an Arabian Nights' display. Three little boys ran forward to meet their sister; a girl who was basking in the glow of the flame looked up languidly. They were odd children, with black eyes, coal-black hair, dark skins, and bold eagle outlines. The eldest, the girl, was small – a strange little creature, with braids of black hair hanging down behind almost to her ankles, half-closed black eyes, little hands and feet, a low soft voice, and the grace of a young panther. The boys were larger, handsome little fellows of wild aspect. In fact, all four were of mixed blood, their mother having been a beautiful French quarter-breed, and their father – William Douglas.
"Annet, Annet, can't we have fried potatoes for supper, and bacon?"
"Annet, Annet, can't we have coffee?"
"It is a biting night, isn't it?" said Tita, coming to her sister's side and stroking her cold hands gently. "I really think, Annet, that you ought to have something substantielle. You see, I think of you; whereas those howling piggish bears think only of themselves."
All this she delivered in a soft, even voice, while Anne removed the remainder of her wrappings.
"I have thought of something better still," said William Douglas's eldest daughter, kissing her little sister fondly, and then stepping out of the last covering, and lifting the heap from the floor – "batter cakes!"
The boys gave a shout of delight, and danced up and down on the hearth; Tita went back to her corner and sat down, clasping her little brown hands round her ankles, like the embalmed monkeys of the Nile. Her corner was made by an old secretary and the side of the great chimney; this space she had lined and carpeted with furs, and here she sat curled up with her book or her bead-work all through the long winter, refusing to leave the house unless absolutely ordered out by Anne, who filled the place of mother to these motherless little ones. Tita was well satisfied with the prospect of batter cakes; she would probably eat two if Anne browned them well, and they were light and tender. But as for those boys, those wolf-dogs, those beasts, they would probably swallow dozens. "If you come any nearer, Louis, I shall lay open the side of your head," she announced, gently, as the boys danced too near her hermitage; they, accustomed alike to her decisions and her words, danced farther away without any discussion of the subject. Tita was an excellent playmate sometimes; her little moccasined feet, and long braids streaming behind, formed the most exciting feature of their summer races; her blue cloth skirt up in the tops of the tallest trees, the provocative element in their summer climbing. She was a pallid little creature, while they were brown; small, while they were large; but she domineered over them like a king, and wreaked a whole vocabulary of roughest fisherman's terms upon them when they displeased her. One awful vengeance she reserved as a last resort: when they had been unbearably troublesome she stole into their room at night in her little white night-gown, with all her long thick black hair loose, combed over her face, and hanging down round her nearly to her feet. This was a ghostly visitation which the boys could not endure, for she left a lamp in the hall outside, so that they could dimly see her, and then she stood and swayed toward them slowly, backward and forward, without a sound, all the time coming nearer and nearer, until they shrieked aloud in terror, and Anne, hurrying to the rescue, found only three frightened little fellows cowering together in their broad bed, and the hairy ghost gone.
"How can you do such things, Tita?" she said.
"It is the only way by which I can keep the little devils in order," replied Tita.
"Do not use such words, dear."
"Mother did," said the younger sister, in her soft calm voice.
This was true, and Tita knew that Anne never impugned the memory of that mother.
"Who volunteers to help?" said Anne, lighting a candle in an iron candlestick, and opening a door.
"I," said Louis.
"I," said Gabriel.
"Me too," said little André.
They followed her, hopping along together, with arms interlinked, while her candle shed a light on the bare walls and floors of the rooms through which they passed, a series of little apartments, empty and desolate, at the end of which was the kitchen, inhabited in the daytime by an Irishwoman, a soldier's wife, who came in the morning before breakfast, and went home at dusk, the only servant William Douglas's fast-thinning purse could afford. Anne might have had her kitchen nearer what Miss Lois called the "keeping-room"; any one of the five in the series would have answered the purpose as well as the one she had chosen. But she had a dream of furnishing them all some day according to a plan of her own, and it would have troubled her greatly to have used her proposed china closet, pantry, store-room, preserve closet, or fruit-room for culinary purposes. How often had she gone over the whole in her mind, settling the position of every shelf, and deliberating over the pattern of the cups! The Irishwoman had left some gleams of fire on the hearth, and the boys immediately set themselves to work burying potatoes in the ashes, with the hot hearth-stone beneath. "For of course you are going to cook in the sitting-room, Annet," they said. "We made all ready for you there; and, besides, this fire is out."
"You could easily have kept it up," said the sister, smiling. "However, as it is Christmas-eve, I will let you have your way."
The boys alertly loaded themselves with the articles she gave them, and went hopping back into the sitting-room. They scorned to walk on Christmas-eve; the thing was to hop, and yet carry every dish steadily. They arranged the table, still in a sort of dancing step, and sang together in their shrill childish voices a tune of their own, without any words but "Ho! ho! ho!" Tita, in her corner, kept watch over the proceedings, and inhaled the aroma of the coffee with indolent anticipation. The tin pot stood on the hearth near her, surrounded by coals; it was a battered old coffee-pot, grimy as a camp-kettle, but dear to all the household, and their principal comforter when the weather was bitter, provisions scarce, or the boys especially troublesome. For the boys said they did not enjoy being especially troublesome; they could not help it any more than they could help having the measles or the whooping-cough. They needed coffee, therefore, for the conflict, when they felt it coming on, as much as any of the household.
Poor Anne's cooking utensils were few and old; it was hard to make batter cakes over an open fire without the proper hanging griddle. But she attempted it, nevertheless, and at length, with scarlet cheeks, placed a plateful of them, brown, light, and smoking, upon the table. "Now, Louis, run out for the potatoes; and, Tita, call father."
This one thing Tita would do; she aspired to be her father's favorite. She went out with her noiseless step, and presently returned leading in the tall, bent, gray-haired father, her small brown hand holding his tightly, her dark eyes fixed upon him with a persistent steadiness, as if determined to isolate all his attention upon herself. William Douglas was never thoroughly at ease with his youngest daughter; she had this habit of watching him silently, which made him uncomfortable. The boys he understood, and made allowances for their wildness; but this girl, with her soft still ways, perplexed and troubled him. She seemed to embody, as it were, his own mistakes, and he never looked at her little pale face and diminutive figure without a vague feeling that she was a spirit dwelling on earth in elfish form, with a half-developed contradictory nature, to remind him of his past weakness. Standing at the head of the table, tall and straight, with her nobly poised head and clear Saxon eyes, his other daughter awaited him, and met his gaze with a bright smile; he always came back to her with a sense of comfort. But Tita jealously brought his attention to herself again by pulling his hand, and leading him to his chair, taking her own place close beside him. He was a tall man, and her head did not reach his elbow, but she ruled him. The father now asked a blessing; he always hesitated on his way through it, once or twice, as though he had forgotten what to say, but took up the thread again after an instant's pause, and went on. When he came to the end, and said "Amen," he always sat down with a relieved air. If you had asked him what he had said, he could not have told you unless you started him at the beginning, when the old formula would have rolled off his lips in the same vague, mechanical way. The meal proceeded in comparative quiet; the boys no longer hummed and shuffled their feet; they were engaged with the cakes. Tita refrained from remarks save once, when Gabriel having dropped buttered crumbs upon her dress, she succinctly threatened him with dismemberment. Douglas gazed at her helplessly, and sighed.
"She will be a woman soon," he said to his elder daughter, when, an hour or two later, she joined him in his own apartment, and drew from its hiding-place her large sewing-basket, filled with Christmas presents.
"Oh no, father, she is but a child," answered Anne, cheerfully. "As she grows older these little faults will vanish."
"How old is she?" said Douglas.
The father played a bar of Mendelssohn noiselessly on the arm of his chair with his long thin fingers; he was thinking that he had married Tita's mother when she was hardly three years older. Anne was absorbed in her presents.
"See, father, will not this be nice for André? And this for Gabriel? And I have made such a pretty doll for Tita."
"Will she care for it, dear?"
"Of course she will. Did I not play with my own dear doll until I was fourteen years old – yes, almost fifteen?" said the girl, with a little laugh and blush.
"And you are now – "
"I am over sixteen."
"A great age," said Douglas, smoothing her thick brown hair fondly, as she sat near him, bending over her sewing.
The younger children were asleep up stairs in two old bedrooms with rattling dormer windows, and the father and elder daughter were in a small room opposite the sitting-room, called the study, although nothing was ever studied there, save the dreams of his own life, by the vague, irresolute, imaginative soul that dwelt therein, in a thin body of its own, much the worse for wear. William Douglas was a New England man of the brooding type, sent by force of circumstances into the ranks of United States army surgeons. He had married Anne's mother, who had passionately loved him, against the wishes of her family, and had brought the disinherited young bride out to this far Western island, where she had died, happy to the last – one of those rare natures to whom love is all in all, and the whole world well lost for its dear and holy sake. Grief over her death brought out all at once the latent doubts, hesitations, and strange perplexities of William Douglas's peculiar mind – perplexities which might have lain dormant in a happier life. He resigned his position as army surgeon, and refused even practice in the village. Medical science was not exact, he said; there was much pretense and presumption in it; he would no longer countenance deception, or play a part. He was then made postmaster, and dealt out letters through some seasons, until at last his mistakes roused the attention of the new officers at the fort; for the villagers, good, easy-tempered people, would never have complained of such trifles as a forgotten mail-bag or two under the counter. Superseded, he then attended nominally to the highways; but as the military authorities had for years done all that was to be done on the smooth roads, three in number, including the steep fort hill, the position was a sinecure, and the superintendent took long walks across the island, studying the flora of the Northern woods, watching the birds, noticing the clouds and the winds, staying out late to experiment with the flash of the two light-houses from their different distances, and then coming home to his lonely house, where the baby Anne was tenderly cared for by Miss Lois Hinsdale, who superintended the nurse all day, watched her charge to bed, and then came over early in the morning before she woke. Miss Lois adored the baby; and she watched the lonely father from a distance, imagining all his sadness. It was the poetry of her life. Who, therefore, can picture her feelings when, at the end of three years, it was suddenly brought to her knowledge that Douglas was soon to marry again, and that his choice was Angélique Lafontaine, a French quarter-breed girl!
Angélique was amiable, and good in her way; she was also very beautiful. But Miss Lois could have borne it better if she had been homely. The New England woman wept bitter, bitter tears that night. A god had come down and showed himself flesh; an ideal was shattered. How long had she dwelt upon the beautiful love of Dr. Douglas and his young wife, taking it as a perfect example of rare, sweet happiness which she herself had missed, of which she herself was not worthy! How many times had she gone up to the little burial-ground on the height, and laid flowers from her garden on the mound, whose stone bore only the inscription, "Alida, wife of William Douglas, aged twenty-two years." Miss Lois had wished to have a text engraved under this brief line, and a date, but Dr. Douglas gently refused a text, and regarding a date he said: "Time is nothing. Those who love her will remember the date, and strangers need not know. But I should like the chance visitor to note that she was only twenty-two, and, as he stands there, think of her with kindly regret, as we all think of the early dead, though why, Miss Lois, why, I can not tell, since in going hence early surely the dead lose nothing, for God would not allow any injustice, I think – yes, I have about decided in my own mind that He does not allow it."
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