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Aftermath / Part second of A Kentucky Cardinal"" By James Lane Allen Characters: 11806

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


Last summer I felled a dead oak in the woods and had the heart of him stored away for my winter fuel: a series of burnt-offerings to the worshipful spirit of my hearth-stone. There should have been several of these offerings already, for October is almost ended now, and it is the month during which the first cool nights come on in Kentucky and the first fires are lighted.

A few twilights ago I stood at my yard gate watching the red domes of the forest fade into shadow and listening to the cawing of crows under the low gray of the sky as they hurried home. A chill crept over the earth. It was a fitting hour; I turned in-doors and summoned Georgiana.

"We will light our first fire together," I said, straining her to my heart.

Kneeling gayly down, we piled the wood in the deep, wide chimney. Each of us then brought a live coal, and together we started the blaze. I had drawn Georgiana's chair to one side of the fireplace, mine opposite; and with the candles still unlit we now sat silently watching the flame spread. What need was there of speech? We understood.

By-and-by some broken wreaths of smoke floated, outward into the room. My sense caught the fragrance. I sniffed it with a rush of memories. Always that smell of smoke, with other wild, clean, pungent odors of the woods, had been strangely pleasant to me. I remember thinking of them when a boy as incense perpetually and reverently set free by nature towards the temple of the skies. They aroused in me even then the spirit of meditation on the mystery of the world; and later they became in-wrought with the pursuit and enjoyment of things that had been the delight of my life for many years. So that coming now, at the very moment when I was dedicating myself to my hearth-stone and to domestic life, this smell of wood smoke reached me like a message from my past. For an instant ungovernable longings surged over me to return to it. For an instant I did return; and once more I lay drowsing before my old camp-fires in the autumn woods, with the frosted trees draping their crimson curtains around me on the walls of space and the stars flashing thick in the ceiling of my bedchamber. My dog, who had stretched himself at my feet before the young blaze, inhaled the smoke also with a full breath of reminiscence, and lay watching me out of the corner of his eye-I fancied with reproachful constancy. I caught his look with a sense of guilt, and glanced across at Georgiana.

Her gaze was buried deep in the flames. And how sweet her face was, how inexpressibly at peace. She had folded the wings of her whole life, and sat by the hearth as still as a brooding dove. No past laid its disturbing touch upon her shoulder. Instead, I could see that if there were any flight of her mind away from the present it was into the future-a slow, tranquil flight across the years, with all the happiness that they must bring. As I set my own thoughts to journey after hers, suddenly the scene in the room changed, and I beheld Georgiana as an old, old lady, with locks of silver on her temples, spectacles, a tiny sock stuck through with needles on her knee, and her face finely wrinkled, but still blooming with unconquerable gayety and youth.

"How sweet that smoke is, Georgiana," I said, rousing us both, and feeling sure that she will understand me in whatsoever figure I may speak. "And how much we are wasting when we change this old oak back into his elements-smoke and light, heat and ashes. What a magnificent work he was on natural history, requiring hundreds of years for his preparation and completion, written in a language so learned that not the wisest can read him wisely, and enduringly bound in the finest of tree calf! It is a dishonor to speak of him as a work. He was a doctor of philosophy! He should have been a college professor! Think how he could have used his own feet for a series of lectures on the laws of equilibrium, capillary attraction, or soils and moisture! Was there ever a head that knew as much as his about the action of light? Did any human being ever more grandly bear the burdens of life or better face the tempests of the world? What did he not know about birds? He had carried them in his arms and nurtured them in his bosom for a thousand years. Even his old coat, with all its rents and patches-what roll of papyrus was ever so crowded with the secrets of knowledge? The august antiquarian! The old king! Can you imagine a funeral urn too noble for his ashes? But to what base uses, Georgiana! He will not keep the wind away any longer; we shall change him into a kettle of lye with which to whiten our floors."

What Georgiana's reply could have been I do not know, for at that moment Mrs. Walters flitted in.

"I saw through the windows that you had a fire," she said, volubly, "and ran over to get warm. And, oh! yes, I wanted to tell you-"

"Stop, please, Mrs. Walters!" I cried, starting towards her with an outstretched hand and a warning laugh. "You have not yet been formally introduced to this room, and a formal introduction is necessary. You must be made acquainted with the primary law of its being;" and as Mrs. Walters paused, dropping her hands into her lap and regarding me with an air of mystification, I went on:

"When I had repairs made in my house last summer, I had this fireplace rebuilt, and I ordered an inscription to be burnt into the bricks. We expect to ask that all our guests will kindly notice this inscription, in order to avoid accidents or misunderstandings. So I beg of you not to speak until you have read the words over the fireplace."

Mrs. Walters wonderingly read the following legend, running in an arch across the chimney:

Good friend, around these hearth-stones speak

no evil word of any creature.

She wheeled towards me with instantaneous triumph.

"I'm glad you put it there!" she cried. "I'm glad you put it

there!

It will teach them a lesson about their talking. If there is one thing

I cannot stand it is a gossip."

I have observed that a fowl before a looking-glass will fight its own image.

"Take care, Mrs. Walters!" I said, gently. "You came very near to violating the law just then."

"He meant it for me, Mrs. Walters," said Georgiana, fondling our neighbor's hand, and looking at me with an awful rebuke.

"I meant it for myself," I said. "And now it is doing its best to make me feel like a Pharisee. So I hasten to add that there are other rooms in the house in which it will be allowed human nature to assert itself in this long-established, hereditary, and ineradicable right. Our guests have only to intimate that they can no longer restrain their propensities and we will conduct them to another chamber. Mrs. Moss and I will occasionally make use of these chambers ourselves, to relieve the tension of too much virtue. But it is seriously our idea to have one room in the house where we shall feel safe, both as respects ourselves and as respects others, from the discomfort of evil-speaking. As long as these walls stand or we dwell in them, this is to be the room of charity and kindness to all creatures."

Although we exerted ourselves, conversation flagged during the visit of Mrs. Walters. Several times she began to speak, but, with a frightened look at the fireplace, dropped into a cough, or cleared her throat in a way that called to mind the pleasing habit of Sir Roger de Coverly in the Gardens of Gray's Inn.

Later in the evening other guests came. Upon each the law of that fireside was lightly yet gravely impressed. They were in the main the few friends I know in whom such an outward check would call for the least inner restraint; nevertheless, on what a footing of confidence it placed our conversation! To what a commanding level we were safely lifted! For nothing so releases the best powers of the mind as the understanding that the entire company are under bond to keep the peace of the finest manners and of perfect breeding.

And Georgiana-how she shone! I knew that she could perfectly fill a window; I now see that she can as easily fill a room. Our bodies were grouped about the fireplace; our minds centred around her, and she flashed like the evening star along our intellectual pathway.

The next day Mrs. Walters talked a long time to Georgiana on the edge of the porch.

Thus my wife and I have begun life together. I think that most of our evenings will be spent in the room dedicated to a kind word for life universal. No matter how closely the warring forces of existence, within or without, have pressed upon us elsewhere, when we enter there we enter peace. We shall be walled in, from all darkness of whatsoever meaning; our better selves will be the sole guests of those luminous hours. And surely no greater good-fortune can befall any household than to escape an ignoble evening. To attain a noble one is like lying calmly down to sleep on a mountain-top towards which our feet have struggled upward amid enemies all day long.

Although we have now been two months married, I have not yet captured the old uncapturable loveliness of nature which has always led me and still leads me on in the person of Georgiana, I know but too well now that I never shall. The charm in her which I pursue, yet never overtake, is part and parcel of that ungraspable beauty of the world which forever foils the sense while it sways the spirit-of that elusive, infinite splendor of God which flows from afar into all terrestrial things, filling them as color fills the rose. Even while I live with Georgiana in the closest of human relationships, she retains for me the uncomprehended brightness and freshness of a dream that does not end and has no waking.

This but edges yet more sharply the eagerness of my desire to enfold her entire self into mine. We have been a revelation to each other, but the revelation is not complete; there are curtains behind curtains, which one by one we seek to lift as we penetrate more deeply into the discoveries of our union. Sometimes she will seek me out and, sitting beside me, put her arm around my neck and look long into my eyes, full of a sort of beautiful, divine wonder at what I am, at what love is, at what it means for a man and a woman to live together as we live. Yet, folded to me thus, she also craves a still larger fulfilment. Often she appears to be vainly hovering on the outside of a too solid sphere, seeking an entrance to where I really am. Even during the intimate silences of the night we try to reach one another through the throbbing walls of flesh-we but cling together across the lone, impassable gulfs of individual being.

During these October nights the moon has reached its fulness and the earth been flooded with beauty.

Our bed is placed near a window; and as the planet sinks across the sky its rays stream through the open shutter and fall upon Georgiana in her sleep. Sometimes I lie awake for the sole chance of seeing them float upon her hair, pass lingeringly across her face, and steal holily downward along her figure. How august she is in her purity! The whiteness of the fairest cloud that brushes the silvering orb is as pitch to the whiteness of her nature.

The other night as I lay watching her thus, and while the lower part of the bed remained in deep shadow, I could see that the thin covering had slipped aside, leaving Georgiana's feet exposed.

With a start of pain I recollected an old story about her childhood: that one day for the sake of her rights she had received a wound in one of her feet-how serious I had never known, but perhaps deforming, irremediable. My head was raised on the pillow; the moonlight was moving down that way; it would cross her feet; it would reveal the truth.

I turned my face away and closed my eyes.

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