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Aftermath / Part second of A Kentucky Cardinal"" By James Lane Allen Characters: 25099

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


I have forgotten nature. I barely know that July, now nearly gone, has passed, sifted with sweetness and ablaze with light. Time has swept on, the world run round; but I have stood motionless, abiding the hour of my marriage as a tree the season of its leaves. For all that it looks so calm, within goes on a tremendous surging of sap against its moments of efflorescence.

After which I pray that, not as a tree, but as a man, I may have a little peace. When Georgiana confessed her love, I had supposed this confession to mark the end of her elusiveness. When later on she presented to me the symbol of a heart pierced with needles, I had taken it for granted that thenceforth she would settle down into something like a state of prenuptial domestication, growing less like a swift and more like a hen. But there is nothing gallinaceous about my Georgiana. I took possession of her vow and the emery-ball, not of her; the privilege was merely given to plant my flag-staff on the uncertain edge of an unknown land. In war it sometimes becomes necessary to devastate a whole country in order to control a single point: I should be pleased to learn what portion of the earth's surface I am required to subdue ere I shall hold one little citadel.

As for me, Georgiana requires that I shall be a good deal like an old rock jutting out of the quiet earth: never ruffled, never changing either on the surface or at heart, bearing whatever falls upon me, be it frost or sun, and warranted to waste away only by a sort of impersonal disintegration at the rate of half an inch to the thousand years. Meantime she exacts for herself the privilege of dwelling near as the delighted cave of the winds. The part of wisdom in me then is not to heed each sallying gust, but to capture the cave and drive the winds away.

For I know in whom I have believed; I know that this myriad caprice is but the deepening of excitement on the verge of captivity; I know that on ahead lie the regions of perpetual calm-my Islands of the Blest.

Georgiana does not play upon the pianoforte; or, as Mrs. Walters would declare, she does not perform upon the instrument. Sylvia does; she performs, she executes. There are times when she will execute a piece called "The Last Hope" until the neighbors are filled with despair and ready to stretch their heads on the block to any more merciful executioner. Nor does Georgiana sing to company in the parlor. That is Sylvia's gift; and upon the whole it was this unmitigated practice in the bosom-and in the ears-of her family that enabled Sylvia to shine with such vocal effulgence in the procession on the last Fourth of July and devote a pair of unflagging lungs to the service of her country.

But Georgiana I have never known to sing except at her sewing and alone, as the way of women often is. During a walk across the summer fields my foot has sometimes paused at the brink of a silvery runlet, and I have followed it backward in search of the spring. It may lead to the edge of a dark wood; thence inward deeper and deeper; disappearing at last in a nook of coolness and shadow, green leaves and mystery. The overheard rill of Georgiana's voice issues from inner depths of being that no human soul has ever visited, or perhaps will ever visit. What would I not give to thread my way, bidden and alone, to that far region of uncaptured loveliness?

Of late some of the overhead lullabies have touched me inexpressibly. They beat upon my ear like the musical reveries of future mother hood-they betoken in Georgiana's maidenhood the dreaming unrest of the maternal.

One morning not long ago, with a sort of pitiful gayety, her song ran in the wise of saying how we should gather our rose-buds while we may. The warning could not have been addressed to me; I shall gather mine while I may-the unrifled rose of Georgiana's life, body and spirit.

Naturally she and I have avoided the subject of the Cardinal. But to the tragedy of his death was joined one circumstance of such coarse and brutal unconcern that it had left me not only remorseful but resentful. As we sat together the other evening, after one of those silences that fall unregarded between us, I could no longer forbear to face an understanding.

"Georgiana," I said, "do you know what became of the redbird?"

Unwittingly the color of reproach must have lain upon my words, for she answered quickly with yet more in hers,

"I had it buried!"

It was my turn to be surprised.

"Are you sure?"

"I am sure. I told them where to bury it; I showed them the very spot-under the cedar. They told me they had. Why?"

I thought it better that she should learn the truth.

"You know we can't trust our negroes. They disobeyed you. They lied to you; they never buried it. They threw it on the ash-pile. The pigs tore it to pieces; I saw them; they were rooting at it and tearing it to pieces."

She had clasped her hands, and turned towards me in acute distress.

After a while, with her face aside, she said, slowly,

"And you have believed that I knew of this-that I permitted it?"

"I have believed nothing. I have waited to understand."

A few minutes later she said, as if to herself,

"Many a person would have been only too glad to believe it, and to blame me." Then folding her hands over one of mine, she said, with tears in her eyes:

"Promise me-promise me, Adam, until we are married, and-yes, after we are married-as long as I live, that you will never believe anything of me until you know that it is true!"

"I do promise, dear, dear, dearest one-!" I cried, trying to draw her to me, but she would not permit it. "And you?"

"I shall never misunderstand," she replied, as with a flash of white inward light. "I know that you can never do anything that will make me think the less of you."

Since the sad, sad day on which I caused the death of the Cardinal, I have paid little heed to the birds. The subject has been a sore one. Besides, my whole life is gradually changing under the influence of Georgiana, who draws me farther and farther away from nature, and nearer and nearer to my own kind.

When, two years ago, she moved into this part of the State, I dwelt on the outskirts of the town and of humanity. On the side of them lay the sour land of my prose; the country, nature, rolled away on the other as the sweet deep ocean of my poetry. I called my neighbors my manifestations of prose; my doings with the townspeople, prose passages. The manifestations and passages scarce made a scrimp volume. There was Jacob, who lived on his symptoms and died without any; there was and there is Mrs. Walters-may she last to the age of the eagle. In town, a couple of prose items of cheap quality: an old preacher who was willing to save my soul while my strawberries were ripe, and an old doctor who cared to save my body so long as he could eat my pears-with others interested severally in my asparagus, my rhubarb, my lilies, and sweet-peas. Always not forgetting a few inestimably wholesome, cheery, noble souls, who sought me out on the edge of human life rather than succeeded in drawing me over the edge towards the centre.

But this Georgiana has been doing-long without my knowing it. I have become less a woodsman, more a civilian. Unless she relents, it may end in my ceasing to be a lover of birds, and running for the Legislature. Seeing me so much on the streets, one of my fellow-townsmen declared the other day that if I would consent to come out of the canebrakes for good they would make me postmaster.

It has fallen awkwardly for me that this enforced transformation in my tastes and habits should coincide with the season of my love-making; and it is well that Georgiana does not demand in me the capering or strutting manners of those young men of my day who likewise are exerting themselves to marry. I am more like a badger than like one of them; and indeed I find the image of my fate and my condition in a badger-like creature close at hand.

For the carpenter who is at work upon bridal repairs in my house has the fancy not uncommon among a class hereabouts to keep a tamed raccoon. He brings it with him daily, and fastens it by its chain to a tree in my front yard: a rough, burly, knowing fellow, loving wild nature, but forced to acquire the tediousness of civilization; meantime leading a desperately hampered life; wondering at his own teeth and claws, and sorely put to it to invent a decent occupation. So am I; and as the raccoon paces everywhere after the carpenter, so do I in spirit pace everywhere after Georgiana; only his chain seems longer and more easily to be broken. The restless beast enlivens his captivity by the keenest scrutiny of every object within his range; I too have busied myself with the few people that have come this way.

First, early in the month, Georgiana's brother-down from West Point, very stately, and with his brow stern, as if for gory war. When I called promptly to pay my respects, as his brother-in-law to be, he was sitting on the front porch surrounded by a subdued family, Georgiana alone remaining unawed. He looked me over indifferently, as though I were a species of ancient earthworks not worth any more special reconnoissance, and continued his most superior remarks to his mother on the approaching visit of three generals.

Upon leaving I invited him to join me on the morrow in a squirrel hunt with smooth-bores, whereupon he manifested surprise that I was acquainted with the use of fire-arms. Whereupon I remarked that I would sometimes hit big game if it were so close that I could not miss it, and further urged him to have breakfast with me at a very early hour in order that we might reach the woods while the squirrels were at theirs.

Going home, I knocked at the cabin where Jack and Dilsy lay snoring side by side with the velocity of rival saw-mills, and begged Dilsy to give me a bite about daybreak-coffee and corn-batter cakes-saying that I could get breakfast when I returned. I shared this scant bite with my young soldier-to Dilsy's abject mortification, I not having told her of his coming. Then we set off at a brisk pace towards a great forest south of the town some five miles away, where the squirrels had appeared and were doing great damage, being the last of a countless plague of them that overran northern and central Kentucky a year ago.

On the way I dragged him through several canebrakes, a thicket of blackberry; kept him out all day; said not a word about dinner; avoided every spot where he could have gotten a swallow of water; not once sat down to rest; towards the middle of the afternoon told him I desired to take enough squirrels home to make Jack a squirrel-skin overcoat, and asked him to carry while I killed; loaded him with squirrels, neck, shoulders, breast, back, and loins, till as he moved he tottered and swayed like a squirrel pyramid; about sundown challenged him to what he had not yet had, some crack shooting, which in that light requires young eyesight, and barked the squirrel for him four times; later still snuffed the candle for him, having brought one along for the purpose; and then, with my step fresh, led him swiftly home.

He has the blood of Georgiana in him, and stood it like a man. But he was nearly dead. He has saluted me since as though I were a murderous garrison intrenched on the Heights of Abraham.

Then the three generals of the United States army descended in a body-or in three bodies; and the truth is that their three bodies scarce held them, they were in such a state of flesh when they reached Kentucky, and of being perpetually overfed while they remained. The object of their joint visit under a recent act of Congress was to locate a military asylum for disabled soldiers; and had they stayed much longer they must have had themselves admitted to their own institution as foremost of the disabled. Having spent some time at the Lower Blue Lick Springs, the proposed site-where this summer are over five hundred guests of our finest Southern society-they afterwards were drawn around with immense solidity towards Louisville, Frankfort, Maysville, Paris, and Lexington, being everywhere received with such honors and provisions that these great guns were in danger of becoming spiked forever in both barrel and tube.

Upon reaching this town one of them detached himself from the heated rolling mass and accepted the invitation of young Cobb-who had formed the acquaintance at West Point-to make a visit in his

home. He had not been there many days before he manoeuvred to establish a private military retreat for himself in the affections of Mrs. Cobb. So that his presence became a profanation to Georgiana, whose reverence for her heroic father burns like an altar of sacred fire, and whose nature became rent in twain between her mother's suitor and her brother's guest.

A most pestiferous variety of caterpillar has infested the tops of my cherry-trees this summer, and during the general's encampment near Mrs. Cobb I happened several times to be mounted on my step-ladder, busy with my pruning-shears, when he was decoying her around her garden-just over the fence-buckled in to suffocation, and with his long epaulettes golden in the sun like tassels of the corn. I was engaged in exterminating this insect on the last day of his sojourn. They were passing almost beneath me on the other side; he had been talking; I heard her brief reply, in a voice low and full of dignity,

"I have been married, sir!"

"Mother of Georgiana!" I cried, within myself. But had she ever thought of taking a second husband she must have seen through "Old Drumbeater," as Sylvia called him. There were times when their breakfast would be late-for the sake of letting his chicken be broiled in slow perfection or his rolls or waffles come to a faultless brown; and I, being at work near the garden fence, would hear him tramping up and down the walk on the other side and swearing at a family that had such irregular meals. The camel, a lean beast, requires an extraordinary supply of food, which it proceeds to store away in its hump as nourishment to be drawn upon while it is crossing the desert. There may be no long campaigning before the general; but if there were and rations were short, why could he not live upon his own back? It is of a thickness, a roundness, and an impenetrability that would have justified Jackson in using him as a cotton-bale at the battle of New Orleans.

Thus in my little corner of the world we have all been at the same business of love, and I wonder whether the corner be not the world itself: Mrs. Cobb and the general, Georgiana and I the sewing-girl and the carpenter; for I had forgotten to note how quickly these two have found out that they want each other. My arbor is at his service, if he wishes it; and Jack shall keep silent about the mastodon.

It is true that from this sentimental enumeration I have omitted the name of Mrs. Walters; but there is a secret here which not even Georgiana herself will ever get from me. Mrs. Walters came to this town twenty years ago from the region of Bowling Green. Some years afterwards I made a trip into that part of the State to hear the mocking-bird-for it fills those more southern groves, but never visits ours; and while there I stepped by accident on this discovery: There never was any Mr. Walters. It is her maiden name. But as I see the freedom of her life and reflect upon the things that a widow can do and an old maid cannot-with her own sex and with mine-I commend her wisdom and leave her at peace. Indeed I have gone so far, when she has asked for my sympathy, as to lament with her Mr. Walters's death. After all, what great difference is there between her weeping for him because he is no more, and her weeping for him because he never was? After which she freshens herself up with another handkerchief, a little Florida water, and a touch of May roses from the apothecary's.

And I have omitted the name of Sylvia; but then Sylvia's name, like that of Lot's wife, can never be used as one of a class, and she herself must always be spoken of alone. However, if Sylvia had been Lot's wife she would not have turned to a pillar of salt, she would most probably have become a geyser.

I don't know why, but she went on a visit to Henderson after that evening in the arbor. I suspect the governing power of Georgiana's wisdom to have been put forth here, for within a few days I received from Sylvia a letter which she asked me not to show to Georgiana, and in which she invited me to correspond with her secretly. The letter was of a singularly adhesive quality as to the emotions. Throughout she referred to herself as "the exile," although it was plain that she wrote in the highest spirits; and in concluding she openly charged Georgiana with having given her a black eye-a most unspeakable phrase, surely picked up in the school-room. As a return for the black eye, Sylvia said that she had composed a poem to herself, a copy of which she enclosed.

I quote Sylvia's commemorative verses upon her wrongs and her banishment. They show features of metrical excess, and can scarcely claim to reflect the polish of her calmer art; but they are of value to me as proving that whatever the rebuke Georgiana may have given, it had rebounded from that elastic spirit.

LINES TO MYSELF

Oh! she was a lovely girl,

So pretty and so fair,

With gentle, love-lit eyes,

And wavy, dark brown hair.

I loved the gentle girl,

But, oh! I heaved a sigh

When first she told me she could see

Out of only one eye.

But soon I thought within myself

I'd better save my tear and sigh

To bestow upon an older person I know

Who has more than one eye.

She is brave and intelligent

Too. She is witty and wise.

She'll accomplish more now than another person I know

Who has two eyes.

Ah, you need not pity her!

She needs not your tear and sigh.

She'll make good use, I tell you,

Of her one remaining eye.

In the home where we are hastening,

In our eternal Home on High,

See that you be not rivalled

By the girl with only one eye.[*]

[*]Miss Sylvia could not have been speaking seriously when she wrote that she had "composed" this poem. It is known to be the work of another hand, though Sylvia certainly tampered with the original and produced a version of her own. J. L. A.

Having thus dealt a thrust at Georgiana, Sylvia seems to have turned in the spirit of revenge upon her mother; and when she came home some days ago she brought with her a distant cousin of her own age-a boy, enormously fat-whom she soon began to decoy around the garden as her mother had been decoyed by the general. Further to satirize the similarity of lovers, she one day pinned upon his shoulders rosettes of yellow ribbon.

Sylvia has now passed from Scott to Moore; and several times lately she has made herself heard in the garden with recitations to the fat boy on the subject of Peris weeping before the gates of Paradise, or warbling elegies under the green sea in regard to Araby's daughter. There is a real aptness in the latter reference; for this boy's true place in nature is the deep seas of the polar regions, where animals are coated with thick tissues of blubber. If Sylvia ever harpoons him, as she seems seriously bent on doing, she will have to drive her weapon in deep.

Yesterday she sprang across to me with her hair flying and an open letter in her hand.

"Oh, read it!" she cried, her face kindling with glory.

It turned out to be a letter from the great Mr. Prentice, of the

Louisville Journal accepting a poem she had lately sent him, and

assigning her a fixed place among his vast and twinkling galaxy of

Kentucky poetesses. The title of the poem was, "My Lover Kneels to

None but God."

"I infer from this," I said, gravely, "that your lover is a Kentuckian."

"He is," cried Sylvia. "Oh, his peerless, haughty pride!"

"Well, I congratulate you, Sylvia," I continued, mildly, "upon having such an editor and such a lover; but I really think that your lover ought to kneel a little to Mr. Prentice on this one occasion."

"Never!" cried Sylvia. "I would spurn him as chaff!"

"Some day when you meet Mr. Prentice, Sylvia," I continued, further, "you will want to be very nice to him, and you might give him something new to parse."

Sylvia studied me dubiously; the subject is not one that reassures her.

"Because the other day I heard a very great friend of Mr. Prentice's say of him that when he was fifteen he could parse every sentence in Virgil and Homer. And if he could do that then, think what he must he able to do now, and what a pleasure it must afford him!"

I would not imbitter Sylvia's joy by intimating that perhaps Mr. Prentice's studious regard for much of the poetry that he published was based upon the fact that he could not parse it.

There has been the most terrible trouble with the raccoon.

This morning the carpenter tied him in my yard as usual; but some time during the forenoon, in a fit of rage at his confinement, he pulled the collar over his head and was gone. Whither and how long no one knew; but it seems that at last, by dint of fences and trees, he attained to the unapproachable distinction of standing on the comb of Mrs. Walters's house-poor Mrs. Walters, who has always held him in such deadly fear! she would as soon have had him on the comb of her head. Advancing along the roof, he mounted the chimney. Glancing down this, he perhaps reached the conclusion that it was more like nature and a hollow tree than anything that civilization had yet been able to produce, and he proceeded to descend to the ground again by so dark and friendly a passage. His progress was stopped by a bundle of straw at the bottom, which he quickly tore away, and having emerged from a grove of asparagus in the fireplace, he found himself not on the earth, but in Mrs. Walters's bedroom. In what ways he now vented his ill-humor is not clear; but at last he climbed to the bed, white as no fuller could white it, and he dripping with soot. Here the ground beneath him was of such a suspicious and unreasonable softness that he apparently resolved to dig a hole and see what was the matter. In the course of his excavation he reached Mrs. Walters's feather-bed, upon which he must have fallen with fresh violence, tooth and nail, in the idea that so many feathers could not possibly mean feathers only.

It was about this time that Mrs. Walters returned from town, having left every window closed and every door locked, as is her custom. She threw open her door and started in, but paused, being greeted by a snow-storm of goose feathers that filled the air and now drifted outward.

"Why, what on earth is the matter?" she exclaimed, peering in, blank with bewilderment. Then her eyes caught sight of what had once been her bed. Sitting up in it was the raccoon, his long black jaws bearded with down, his head and ears stuck about with feathers, and his eyes blazing green with defiance.

She slammed and locked the door.

"Run for the sheriff!" she cried, in terror, to the boy who had brought her market basket; and she followed him as he fled.

"What is it, Mrs. Walters?" asked the sheriff, sternly, meeting her and bringing the handcuffs.

"There's somebody in my bed!" she cried, wringing her hands. "I believe it's the devil."

"It's my 'coon," said the carpenter, laughing; for by this time we were all gathered together.

"What a dear 'coon!" said the sewing-girl.

"Oh, Mrs. Walters! You are like Little Red Riding-hood!" said Sylvia.

"I can't arrest a 'coon, madam!" exclaimed the sheriff, red in the neck at being made ridiculous.

"Then arrest the carpenter!" cried poor, unhappy, excited Mrs. Walters, bursting into tears and hiding her face on Georgiana's shoulder.

And among us all Georgiana was the only comforter. She laid aside her own work for that day, spent the rest of it as Samaritan to her desperately wounded neighbor, and at nightfall, over the bed, now peaceful and snowy once more, she spread a marvellous priceless quilt that she had long been making to exhibit at the approaching World's Fair in New York.

"Georgiana," I said, as I walked home with her at bedtime, "it seems to me that things happen in order to show you off."

"Only think!" Georgiana replied; "she will never get into bed again without a shiver and a glance at the chimney. I begrudge her the quilt for one reason: it has a piece of one of your old satin waistcoats in it."

"Did she tell you that she had had those bedclothes ever since her marriage?"

"Yes; but I have always felt that she couldn't have been married very long."

"How long should you think?"

"Oh, well-about a minute."

"And yet she certainly has the clearest possible idea of Mr. Walters. I imagine that very few women ever come to know their husbands as perfectly as Mrs. Walters knew hers."

"Or perhaps wish to."

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