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Aftermath / Part second of A Kentucky Cardinal"" By James Lane Allen Characters: 25845

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


The end of August-the night before my marriage.

Several earthquakes have lately been felt in this part of the globe.

Coming events cast their shocks before.

The news of it certainly came like the shock of an earthquake to many people of the town, who know perfectly well that no woman will allow the fruit and flowers to be carried off a place as a man will. The sagacious old soul who visits me yearly for young pie-plant actually hurried out and begged for a basketful of the roots at once, thus taking time-and the rhubarb-by the forelock. And the old epicurean harpy whose passion is asparagus, having accosted me gruffly on the street with an inquiry as to the truth of my engagement and been quietly assured, how true it was, informed me to my face that any man situated as happily as I am was an infernal fool to entangle himself with a wife, and bade me a curt and everlasting good-morning on the spot. Yet every day the theme of this old troubadour's talk around the hotels is female entanglements-mendacious, unwifely, and for him unavailing.

Through divers channels some of my fellow-creatures-specimens of the most dreadful prose-have let me know that upon marrying I shall forfeit their usurious regard. As to them, I shall relapse into the privacy of an orchard that has been plucked of its fruit. But my wonderment has grown on the other hand at the number of those to whom, as the significant unit of a family instead of a bachelor zero, I have now acquired a sterling mercantile valuation. Upon the whole, I may fairly compute that my relation to the human race has been totally changed by the little I may cease to give away and by the less that I shall need to buy.

And Mrs. Walters! Although I prefer to think of Mrs. Walters as a singer, owing to her unaccountable powers of reminiscential vocalization, I have upon occasion classified her among the waders; and certainly, upon the day when my engagement to Georgiana transpired, she waded not only all around the town but all over it, sustained by a buoyancy of spirit that enabled her to keep her head above water in depths where her feet no longer touched the bottom.

It was the crowning triumph of this vacant soul's life to boast that she had made this match; and for the sake of giving her so much happiness, I think I should have been willing to marry Georgiana whether I loved her or not.

So we are all happy: Sylvia, who thus enters upon a family right to my flowers and to the distinction of being the only Miss Cobb; Dilsy, who, while gathering vegetables about the garden, long ago began to receive little bundles of quilt pieces thrown down to her with a smile and the right word from the window above; and Jack, who is to drive us on our bridal-trip to the Blue Lick Springs, where he hopes to renew his scientific studies upon the maxillary bones. I have hesitated between Blue Lick and Mud Lick, though to a man in my condition there can be no great difference between blue and mud. And I had thought of the Harrodsburg Springs, but the negro musicians there were lately hurried off to Canada by the underground railway, out of which fact has grown a lawsuit for damages between the proprietor and his abolitionist guest.

A few weeks ago I intrusted a secret to Georgiana. I told her that before she condescended to shine upon this part of the world-now the heavenlier part-I had been engaged upon certain researches and discoveries relating to Kentucky birds, especially to the Kentucky warbler. I admitted that these studies had been wretchedly put aside under the more pressing necessity of fixing the attention of all my powers, ornithological and other, upon her garden window. But as I placed specimens of my notes and drawings in her hand, I remarked gravely that after our marriage I should be ready to push my work forward without delay.

All this was meant to give her a delightful surprise; and indeed she examined the evidences of my undertaking with devouring and triumphant eagerness. But what was my amazement when she handed them back in silence, and with a face as white as though as fragrant as a rose.

"I have distressed you, Georgiana!" I cried, "and my only thought had been to give you pleasure. I am always doing something wrong!"

She closed her eyes and passed her fingers searchingly across her brow, as we sometimes instinctively try to brush away our cares. Then she sat looking down rather pitifully at her palms, as they lay in her lap.

"You have shared your secret with me," she said, solemnly, at length. "I'll share mine with yon. It is the only fear that I have ever felt regarding our future. It has never left me; and what you have just shown me fills me with terror."

I sat aghast.

"I am not deceived," she continued; "you have not forgotten nature. It draws you more powerfully than anything else in the world. Whenever you speak of it, you say the right thing, you find the right word, you get the right meaning. With nature alone you are perfectly natural. Towards society you show your shabby, awkward, trivial, uncomfortable side. But these drawings, these notes-there lies your power, your gift, your home. You truly belong to the woodsmen."

Never used to study myself, I listened, to this as to fresh talk about a stranger.

"Do you not foresee what will happen?" she went on, with emotion. "After we have been married a while you will begin to wander off-at first for part of a day, then for a day, then for a day and a night, then for days and nights together. That was the way with Audubon, that was the way with Wilson, that is the way with Thoreau, that will be the way with all whom nature draws as it draws you. And, me-think of me-at home! A woman not able to go with you! Not able to wade the creeks and swim the rivers! Not able to sleep out in the brown leaves, to endure the rain, the cold, the travel! And, so I shall never be able to fill your life with mine as you fill mine with yours. As time passes, I shall fill it less and less. Every spring nature will be just as young to you; I shall be always older. The water you love ripples, never wrinkles. I shall cease rippling and begin wrinkling. No matter what happens, each summer the birds get fresh feathers; only think how my old ones will never drop out. I shall want you to go on with your work. If I am to be your wife, I must be wings to you. But think of compelling me to furnish you the wings with which to leave me! What is a little book on Kentucky birds in comparison with my happiness!"

She was so deeply moved that my one desire was to uproot her fears on the spot.

"Then there shall be no little book on Kentucky birds!" I cried. "I'll throw these things into the fire as soon as I go home. Only say what you wish me to be, Georgiana," I continued, laughing, "and I'll be it-if it's the town pump."

"Then if I could only be the town well," she said, with a poor little effort to make a heavy heart all at once go merrily again.

Bent on making it go merrily as long as I shall live, the following day

I called out to her at the window:

"Georgiana, I'm improving. I'm getting along."

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"Well, in town this morning they chose me as one of the judges of vegetables at the fair next month. I said, 'Gentlemen, I expect to be married before that time, and I do not intend to be separated from my wife. Will she have the privilege of accompanying me among these competing vegetables? And last month they made me director of a turnpike company-I suppose because it runs through my farm. To-day at a meeting of the directors I said, 'Gentlemen, how far is this turnpike to run? I will direct it to the end of my farm and not a step farther. I do not wish to be separated from my wife.'"

Georgiana has teased me a good deal in my life. It is well to let a woman taste of the tree of knowledge whose fruit she is fond of dispensing.

"You'd better be careful!" she said, archly.

"Remember, I haven't married you yet."

"I am careful," I replied. "I haven't married you yet, cither! My idea, Georgiana," I continued, "is to plant a grove and raise cocoons. That would gratify my love of nature and your fancy for silk dresses. I could have my silk woven and spun in our manufactory at Newport, Kentucky; and you know that we couldn't possibly lose each other among the mulberry-trees."

"You'd better take care!" she repeated. "Do you expect to talk to me in this style after we are married?"

"That will all depend upon how you talk to me," I answered. "But I have always understood married life to be the season when the worm begins to turn."

Despite my levity, I have been secretly stricken with remorse at the monstrous selfishness that lay coiled like a canker in my words. I was really no better than those men who say to their wives:

"While I was trying to win you, the work of my life was secondary-you were everything. Now that I have won you, it will be everything, and you must not stand in the way."

But the thought is insupportable that Georgiana should not be happy with me at any cost. I divine now the reason of the effort she has long been making to win me from nature; therefore of my own free will I have privately set about changing the character of my life with the idea of suiting it to some other work in which she too may be content. And thus it has come about that during the August now ended-always the month of the year in which my nature will go its solitary way and seek its woodland peace-I have hung about the town as one who is offered for hire to a master whom he has never seen and for a work that he hates to do. Many of the affairs that engage the passions of my fellow-beings are to me as the gray stubble through which I walk in the September fields-the rotting wastage of harvests long since gathered in. At other times I drive myself upon their sharp and piercing conflicts as a bird is blown uselessly again and again by some too strong a wind upon the spikes of the thorn. I hear the angry talk of our farmers and merchants, I listen to the fiery orations of our statesmen and the warning sermons of our divines. (Think of a human creature calling himself a divine.) The troubled ebb and flow of events in Kentucky, the larger movements of unrest throughout the great republic-these have replaced for me the old communings with nature that were full of music and of peace.

Evening after evening now I turn my conversations with Georgiana as gayly as I can upon some topic of the time. She is not always pleased with what I style my researches into civilized society. One evening in particular our talk was long and serious, beginning in shallows and then steering for deep waters.

"Well, Georgiana," I had said, "Miss Delia Webster has suddenly returned to her home in Vermont."

"And who is Miss Delia Webster?" she had inquired, with unmistakable acidity.

"Miss Delia Webster is the lady who was sentenced to the State penitentiary for abducting our silly old servants into Ohio. But the jury of Kentucky noblemen who returned the verdict-being married men, and long used to forgiving a woman anything-petitioned the governor to pardon Miss Delia on the ground that she belongs to the sex that can do no wrong-and be punished for it. Whereupon the governor, seasoned to the like large experience, pardoned the lady. Whereupon Miss Webster, having passed a few weeks in the penitentiary, left, as I stated, for her home in Vermont, followed by her father, who does not, however, seem to have been able to overtake her."

"If she'd been a man, now," suggested Georgiana.

"If she'd been a man she would have shared the fortunes of her principal, the Reverend Mr. Fairbanks, who has not returned to his home in Ohio, and will not-for fifteen years."

"Do you think it an agreeable subject of conversation?" inquired

Georgiana.

"Then I will change it," I said. "The other day the editor of the Smithland Bee was walking along the street with his little daughter and was shot down by a doctor."

"Horrible!" exclaimed Georgiana. "Why?"

"Self-defence," I answered. "And last week in the court-room in Mount Sterling a man was shot by his brother-in-law during the sitting of court."

"And why did he kill him?"

"Self-defence!" I answered. "And in Versailles a man down in the street was assassinated with a rifle fired from the garret of a tavern. Self-defence. And in Lexington a young man shot and killed another for drawing his handkerchief from his pocket. Self-defence!-the sense of the court being that whatever such an action might mean in other civilized, countries, in Kentucky and under the circumstances-the young fellows were quarrelling-it naturally betokened the reaching for a revolver. Thus in Kentucky, Georgiana, and during a heated discussion, a man cannot blow his nose but at the risk of his life."

"I'll

see that you never carry a handkerchief," said Georgiana. "So remember-don't you ever reach for one!"

"And the other day in Eddysville," I went on, "two men fought a duel by going to a doctor's shop and having him open a vein in the arm of each. Just before they fainted from exhaustion they made signs that their honor was satisfied, so the doctor tied up the veins. I see that you don't believe it, but it's true."

"And why did they fight a duel in that way?"

"I give it up," I said, "unless it was in self-defence. We are a most remarkable society of self-defenders. But if every man who fights in Kentucky is merely engaged in warding off a murderous attack upon his life, who does all the murderous attacking? You know the seal of our commonwealth: two gentlemen in evening dress shaking hands and with one voice declaring, 'United we stand, divided we fall.' So far as the temper of our time goes, these two gentlemen might well be represented as twenty paces apart, and as calling out, 'United, we stood; divided, you fall!' Killings and duels! Killings and duels! Do you think we need these as proofs of courage? Do you suppose that the Kentuckians of our day are braver than the pioneers? Do you suppose that any people ever elevated its ideal of courage in the eyes of the world by all the homicides and all the duels that it could count? There is only one way in which any civilized people has ever done that, there is only one way in which any civilized people has ever been able to impress the world very deeply with a belief in the reality and the nobility of its ideal of courage: it is by the warlike spirit of its men in times of war, and by the peaceful spirit of its men in times of peace. Only, you must add this: that when those times of peace have come on, and it is no longer possible for such a people to realize its ideal of courage in arms, it is nevertheless driven to express the ideal in other ways-by monuments, arches, inscriptions, statues, literature, pictures, all in honor of those of their countrymen who lived the ideal before the world and left it more lustrous in their dying. That is the full reason why we know how brave a people the Greeks were-by their peaceful ways of honoring valor in times of peace. And that in part is why no nation in the world doubts the courage of the English, because when the English are not fighting they are forever doing something to honor those who have fought well. So that they never have a peace but they turn it into preparation for the next war.

"And that is why, as the outside world looks in upon us to-day and sifts the evidence of whether or not we are a brave people, it does not find the proof of this in our homicides and duels, but in the spirit of our forefathers of the Revolution, in the soldiers of the wilderness and of Indian warfare, of the war of 1812, of the war with Mexico, at Cerro Gordo, at Buena Vista, at Palo Alto, at Resaca de la Palma. Wherever the Kentuckians have fought as soldiers, many or few, on whatever battle-field, in whatsoever cause, there you may see whether they know what it is to be men, and whether they have an ideal of courage that is worth the name.

"Then a few years ago in Frankfort twenty thousand people followed to the grave the bodies of the men who had fallen in Mexico. The State has raised a monument to them, to the soldiers of 1812, to those who fought at the river Raisin. The Legislature has ordered a medal to be struck in honor of a boy who had defended his ensign. No man can make a public speech in Kentucky without mention of Encancion and Monterey, or of the long line of battles in which every generation of our people has fought. This is the other proof that in times of peace we do not forget. It is not much, but it is of the right kind-it is the soldier's monument, it is the soldier's medal, it is the soldier's funeral oration, it is the recognition by the people of its ideal of courage in times of peace. And with every other brave people this proof passes as the sign universal. But our homicides and our duels, nearly all of them brought about in the name-even under the fear-of courage, what effect have they had in giving us abroad our reputation as a community? I ask myself the question, what if all the men who have killed their personal enemies or been killed by them in Kentucky, and if all the men who have killed their personal friends or been killed by them in Kentucky, had spent their love of fighting and their love of courage upon a monument to the Pioneers-such a monument as stands nowhere else in the world, and might fitly stand in this State to commemorate the winning of the West? Would the world think the better or the worse of the Kentucky ideal of bravery?

"I had not meant to talk to you so long on this subject," I added, in apology, "but I have been thinking of these things lately since I have been so much in town."

"I am interested," said Georgiana; "but as I agree with you we need not both speak." But she looked pained, and I sought to give a happier turn to the conversation.

"There is only one duel I ever heard of that gave me any pleasure, and that one never came off. A few years ago a Kentuckian wrote a political satire on an Irishman in Illinois-wrote it as a widow. The Irishman wished to fight. The widow offered to marry the Irishman, if such a sacrifice would be accepted as satisfactory damages. The Irishman sent a challenge, and the Kentuckian chose cavalry broadswords of the largest size. He was a giant; he had the longest arms of any man in Illinois; he could have mowed Erin down at a stroke like a green milkweed; he had been trained in duelling with oak-trees. You never heard of him: his name is Abraham Lincoln."

"I have heard of him, and I have seen him-in Union County before I came here," said Georgiana, with enthusiasm.

"He came here once to hear Mr. Clay speak," I resumed; "and I saw them walking together one day under the trees at Ashland-the two most remarkable-looking men that I ever beheld together or in human form."

My few acres touch the many of the great statesman. Georgiana and I often hear of the movements of his life, as two little boats in a quiet bay are tossed by the storms of the ocean. Any reference to him always makes us thoughtful, and we fell silent now.

"Georgiana," I said at length, softly. "It's all in self-defence. I believe you promised to marry me in self-defence."

"I did!" she said, promptly.

"Well, I certainly asked you in self-defence, Miss Cobb," I replied. "And now in a few days, according to the usage of my time, I am going to take your life-even at the peril of my own. If you desire, it is your privilege to examine the deadly weapons before the hour of actual combat," and I held out my arms to her appealingly.

She bent her body delicately aside, as always. "I am upset," she said, discouragingly. "You have been abusing Kentucky."

"Ah, that is the trouble!" I answered. "You wish me to become more interested in my fellow-creatures. And then you will not let me speak of what they do. And the other day you told me that I am not perfectly natural with anything but nature. Nature is the only thing that is perfectly natural with me. When I study nature there are no delicate or dangerous or forbidden subjects. The trees have no evasions. The weeds are honest. Running water is not trying to escape. The sunsets are not colored with hypocrisy. The lightning is not revenge. Everything stands forth in the sincerity of its being, and nature invites me to exercise the absolute liberty of my mind upon all life. I am bidden to master and proclaim whatsoever truth she has fitted me to grasp. If I am worthy to investigate, none are offended; if I should be wise enough to discover any law of creation, the entire world would express its thanks. Imagine my being assassinated because I had published a complete report upon the life and habits of the field-mouse!"

"If one mouse published a report on the life and habits of another, there'd be a fight all over the field," said Georgiana.

"A ridiculous extreme," I replied. "But after you have grown used to study nature with absolute freedom and absolute peace, think how human life repels you. You may not investigate, you may not speak out, you may not even think, you may not even feel. You are not allowed to reveal what is concealed, and you are required to conceal what is revealed. Natural! Have you ever known any two men to be perfectly natural with each other except when they were fighting? As for the men that I associate with every day, they weigh their words out to one another as the apothecary weighs his poisons, or the grocer his gunpowder."

"You forget," said Georgiana, "that we are living in a very extraordinary time, when everybody is sensitive and excited."

"It is so always and everywhere," I replied. "You may never study life as you study nature. With men you must take your choice: liberty for your mind and a prison for your body; liberty for your body and a prison for your mind. Nearly all people choose the latter; we know what becomes of the few who do not."

But this reference to the times led us to speak slowly and solemnly of what all men now are speaking-war that must come between the North and the South. We agreed that it would come from each side as a blazing torch to Kentucky, which lies between the two and is divided between the two in love and hate-to Kentucky, where the ideal of a soldier's life is always the ideal of a man's duty and utmost glory.

At last I felt that my time had come.

"Georgiana," I said, "there is one secret I have never shared with you. It is the only fear I have ever felt regarding our future. But, if there should be a war-you'd better know it now-leave you or not leave you, I am going to join the army."

She grew white and faint with the thought of a day to come. But at last she said:

"Yes; you must go."

"I know one thing," I added, after a long silence; "if I could do my whole duty as a Kentuckian-as an American citizen-as a human being-I should have to fight on both sides."

I have thus set down in a poor way a part of the only talk I ever had with Georgiana on these subjects during the year 1851.

Yesterday, about sunset, the earth and sky were beautiful with that fulness of peace which things often attain at the moment before they alter and end. The hour seemed to me the last serene loveliness of summer, soon to be ruffled by gales and blackened by frosts.

Georgiana stood at her window looking into the west. The shadows of the trees in my yard fell longer and longer across the garden towards her. Darkest among these lay the shapes of the cedars and the pines in which the redbird had lived. Her whole attitude bespoke a mood surrendered to memory; and I felt sure that we two were thinking of the same thing.

As she has approached that mystical revelation of life which must come with our marriage, Georgiana's gayety has grown subtly overcast. It is as if the wild strain in her were a little sad at having to be captured at last; and I too experience an indefinable pain that it has become my lot to subdue her in this way. The thought possesses me that she submits to marriage because she cannot live intimately with me and lavish her love upon me in any other relation; and therefore I draw back with awe from the idea of taking such possession of her as I will and must.

As she stood at her window yesterday evening she caught sight of me across the yard and silently beckoned. I went over and looked up at her, waiting and smiling.

"Well, what is it?" I asked at length, as her eyes rested on me with the fulness of affection.

"Nothing. I wanted to see you standing down there once more. Haven't you thought of it? This is the last time-the last of the window, the last of the garden, the end of the past. Everything after this will be so different. Aren't you a little sorry that you are going to marry me?"

"Will you allow me to fetch the minister this instant?"

In the evening they put on her bridal dress and sent over for me, and, drawing the parlor doors aside, blinded me with the sight of her standing in there, as if waiting in duty for love to claim its own. As I saw her then I have but to close my eyes to see her now. I scarce know why, but that vision of her haunts my mind mysteriously.

I see a fresh snow-drift in a secret green valley between dark mountains. The sun must travel far and be risen high to reach it; but when it does, its rays pour down from near the zenith and are most powerful and warm; then in a little while the whole valley is green again and a white mist, rising from it, muffles the face of the sun.

Oh, Georgiana! Georgiana! Do not fade away from me as I draw you to me.

My last solitary candle flickers in the socket: it is in truth the end of the past.

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