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   Chapter 3 THE SHADOW.

Betty's Bright Idea; Deacon Pitkin's Farm; and the First Christmas of New England By Harriet Beecher Stowe Characters: 11099

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


There is no moment of life, however festive, that does not involve the near presence of a possible tragedy. When the concert of life is playing the gayest and airiest music, it requires only the change of a little flat or sharp to modulate into the minor key.

There seemed at first glance only the elements of joyousness and gayety in the surroundings at the Pitkin farm. Thanksgiving was come-the family, healthy, rosy, and noisy, were all under the one roof-tree. There was energy, youth, intelligence, beauty, a pair of lovers on the eve of betrothal-just in that misty, golden twilight that precedes the full sunrise of avowed and accepted love-and yet behind it all was walking with stealthy step the shadow of a coming sorrow.

"What in the world ails James?" said Diana as she retreated from the door and surveyed him at a distance from her chamber window. His face was like a landscape over which a thunder-cloud has drifted, and he walked beside his father with a peculiar air of proud displeasure and repression.

At that moment the young man was struggling with the bitterest sorrow that can befall youth-the breaking up of his life-purpose. He had just come to a decision to sacrifice his hopes of education, his man's ambition, his love, his home and family, and become a wanderer on the face of the earth. How this befell requires a sketch of character.

Deacon Silas Pitkin was a fair specimen of a class of men not uncommon in New England-men too sensitive for the severe physical conditions of New England life, and therefore both suffering and inflicting suffering. He was a man of the finest moral traits, of incorruptible probity, of scrupulous honor, of an exacting conscientiousness, and of a sincere piety. But he had begun life with nothing; his whole standing in the world had been gained inch by inch by the most unremitting economy and self-denial, and he was a man of little capacity for hope, of whom it was said, in popular phraseology, that he "took things hard." He was never sanguine of good, always expectant of evil, and seemed to view life like a sentinel forbidden to sleep and constantly under arms.

For such a man to be harassed by a mortgage upon his homestead was a steady wear and drain upon his vitality. There were times when a positive horror of darkness came down upon him-when his wife's untroubled, patient hopefulness seemed to him like recklessness, when the smallest item of expense was an intolerable burden, and the very daily bread of life was full of bitterness; and when these paroxysms were upon him, one of the heaviest of his burdens was the support of his son in college. It was true that he was proud of his son's talents and sympathized with his love for learning-he had to the full that sense of the value of education which is the very vital force of the New England mind-and in an hour when things looked brighter to him he had given his consent to the scheme of a college education freely.

James was industrious, frugal, energetic, and had engaged to pay the most of his own expenses by teaching in the long winter vacations. But unfortunately this year the Mapleton Academy, which had been promised to him for the winter term, had been taken away by a little maneuver of local politics and given to another, thus leaving him without resource. This disappointment, coming just at the time when the yearly interest upon the mortgage was due, had brought upon his father one of those paroxysms of helpless gloom and discouragement in which the very world itself seemed clothed in sack-cloth.

From the time that he heard the Academy was gone, Deacon Silas lay awake nights in the blackness of darkness. "We shall all go to the poorhouse together-that's where it will end," he said, as he tossed restlessly in the dark.

"Oh no, no, my dear," said his wife, with those serene eyes that had looked through so many gloomy hours; "we must cast our care on God."

"It's easy for women to talk. You don't have the interest money to pay, you are perfectly reckless of expense. Nothing would do but James must go to college, and now see what it's bringing us to!"

"Why, father, I thought you yourself were in favor of it."

"Well, I did wrong then. You persuaded me into it. I'd no business to have listened to you and Jim and got all this load on my shoulders."

Yet Mary Pitkin knew in her own calm, clear head that she had not been reckless of expense. The yearly interest money was ever before her, and her own incessant toils had wrought no small portion of what was needed to pay it. Her butter at the store commanded the very highest price, her straw braiding sold for a little more than that of any other hand, and she had calculated all the returns so exactly that she felt sure that the interest money for that year was safe. She had seen her husband pass through this nervous crisis many times before, and she had learned to be blamed in silence, for she was a woman out of whom all selfness had long since died, leaving only the tender pity of the nurse and the consoler. Her soul rested on her Saviour, the one ever-present, inseparable friend; and when it did no good to speak to her husband, she spoke to her God for him, and so was peaceful and peace-giving.

Even her husband himself felt her strengthening, rest-giving power, and for this reason he bore down on her with the burden of all his tremors and his cares; for while he disputed, he yet believed her, and rested upon her with an utter helpless trust, as the good angel of his house. Had

she for a moment given way to apprehension, had her step been a thought less firm, her eye less peaceful, then indeed the world itself would have seemed to be sinking under his feet. Meanwhile she was to him that kind of relief which we derive from a person to whom we may say everything without a fear of its harming them. He felt quite sure that, say what he would, Mary would always be hopeful and courageous; and he felt some secret idea that his own gloomy forebodings were of service in restricting and sobering what seemed to him her too sanguine nature. He blindly reverenced, without ability fully to comprehend, her exalted religious fervor and the quietude of soul that it brought. But he did not know through how many silent conflicts, how many prayers, how many tears, how many hopes resigned and sorrows welcomed, she had come into that last refuge of sorrowful souls, that immovable peace when all life's anguish ceases and the will of God becomes the final rest.

But, unhappily for this present crisis, there was, as there often is in family life, just enough of the father's nature in the son to bring them into collision with each other. James had the same nervously anxious nature, the same intense feeling of responsibility, the same tendency towards morbid earnestness; and on that day there had come collision.

His father had poured forth upon him his fears and apprehensions in a manner which implied a censure on his son, as being willing to accept a life of scholarly ease while his father and mother were, as he expressed it, "working their lives away."

"But I tell you, father, as God is my witness, I mean to pay all; you shall not suffer; interest and principal-all that my work would bring-I engage to pay back."

"You!-you'll never have anything! You'll be a poor man as long as you live. Lost the Academy this

Fall-that tells the story!"

"But, father, it wasn't my fault that I lost the Academy."

"It's no matter whose fault it was-that's neither here nor there-you lost it, and here you are with the vacation before you and nothing to do! There's your mother, she's working herself to death; she never gets any rest. I expect she'll go off in a consumption one of these days."

"There, there, father! that's enough! Please don't say any more. You'll see I will find something to do!"

There are words spoken at times in life that do not sound bitter though they come from a pitiable depth of anguish, and as James turned from his father he had taken a resolution that convulsed him with pain; his strong arms quivered with the repressed agony, and he hastily sought a distant part of the field, and began cutting and stacking corn-stalks with a nervous energy.

"Why, ye work like thunder!" was Biah's comment. "Book l'arnin' hain't spiled ye yet; your arms are good for suthin'."

"Yes, my arms are good for something, and I'll use them for something," said Jim.

There was raging a tempest in his soul. For a young fellow of a Puritan education in those days to be angry with his father was somewhat that seemed to him as awful a sacrilege as to be angry with his God, and yet he felt that his father had been bitterly, cruelly unjust towards him. He had driven economy to the most stringent extremes; he had avoided the intimacy of his class fellows, lest he should be drawn into needless expenses; he had borne with shabby clothing and mean fare among better dressed and richer associates, and been willing to bear it. He had studied faithfully, unremittingly, for two years, but at the moment he turned from his father the throb that wrung his heart was the giving up of all. He had in his pocket a letter from his townsman and schoolmate, Sam Allen, mate of an East Indiaman just fitting out at Salem, and it said:

"We are going to sail with a picked crew, and we want one just such a fellow as you for third mate. Come along, and you can go right up, and your college mathematics will be all the better for us. Come right off, and your berth will be ready, and away for round the world!"

Here, to be sure, was immediate position-wages-employment-freedom from the intolerable burden of dependence; but it was accepted at the sacrifice of all his life's hopes. True, that in those days the experiment of a sea-faring life had often, even in instances which he recalled, brought forth fortune and an ability to settle down in peaceful competence in after life. But there was Diana. Would she wait for him? Encircled on all sides with lovers, would she keep faith with an adventurer gone for an indefinite quest? The desponding, self-distrusting side of his nature said, "No. Why should she?" Then, to go was to give up Diana-to make up his mind to have her belong to some other. Then there was his mother. An unutterable reverential pathos always to him encircled the idea of his mother. Her life to him seemed a hard one. From the outside, as he viewed it, it was all self-sacrifice and renunciation. Yet he knew that she had set her heart on an education for him, as much as it could be set on anything earthly. He was her pride, her hope; and just now that very thought was full of bitterness. There was no help for it; he must not let her work herself to death for him; he would make the household vessel lighter by the throwing himself into the sea, to sink or swim as might happen; and then, perhaps, he might come back with money to help them all.

All this was what was surging and boiling in his mind when he came in from his work to the supper that night.

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