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Aftermath / Part second of A Kentucky Cardinal"" By James Lane Allen Characters: 11288

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

It is nearly dark when I reach home from town these January evenings. However the cold may sting the face and dart inward to the marrow, Georgiana is waiting at the yard gate to meet me, so hooded and shawled and ringed about with petticoats-like a tree within its layers of bark-that she looks like the most thick-set of ordinary sized women; for there is a heavenly but very human secret hiding in this household now, and she is thoughtfully keeping it.

"We press our half-frozen cheeks together, as red as wine-sap apples, and grope for each other's hand through our big lamb's-wool mittens, and warm our hearts with the laughter in each other's eyes. One evening she feigned to be mounted on guard, pacing to and fro inside the gate, against which rested an enormous icicle. When I started to enter she seized the icicle, presented arms, and demanded the countersign.

"Love, captain," I said, "If it be not that, slay me at your feet!"

She threw away her great white spear and put her arms around my neck.

"It is 'Peace,'" she said. "But I desert to the enemy."

Without going to my fireside that evening I hurried on to the stable; for I do not relinquish to my servants the office of feeding my stock.

Believe in the divine rights of kings I never shall, except in the divine right to be kingly men, which all men share; but truly a divine right lies for any man in the ownership of a comfortable barn in winter. It is the feudal castle of the farm to the lower animals, who dwell in the Dark Ages of their kind-dwell on and on in affection, submission, and trust, while their lord demands of them their labor, their sustenance, or their life.

Of a winter's day, when these poor dumb serfs have been scattered over the portionless earth, how often they look towards this fortress and lift up their voices with cries for night to come; the horses, ruffled and shivering, with their tails to the wind, as they snap their frosted fodder, or paw through the rime to the frozen grass underneath, causing their icy fetlocks to rattle about their hoofs; the cattle, crowded to leeward of some deep-buried haystack, the exposed side of the outermost of them white with whirling flakes; the sheep, turning their pitiful, trusting eyes about them over the fields of storm in earth and sky!

What joy at nightfall to gather them home to food and warmth and rest! If there is ever a time when I feel myself a mediaeval lord to trusty vassals, it is then. Of a truth I pass entirely over the Middle Ages, joining my life to the most ancient dwellers of the plains, and becoming a simple father of flocks and herds. When they have been duly stabled according to their kinds, I climb to the crib in the barn and create a great landslide of the fat ears that is like laughter; and then from every stall what a hearty, healthy chorus of cries and petitions responds to that laughter of the corn! What squeals and grunts persuasive beyond the realms of rhetoric! What a blowing of mellow horns from the cows! And the quick nostril trumpet-call of the horse, how eager, how dependent, yet how commanding! As I mount to the top of the pile, if I ever feel myself a royal personage it is then; I ascend my throne; I am king of the corn; and there is not a brute peasant in my domain that does not worship me as ruler of heaven and earth.

Or I love to catch up the bundles of oats as they are thrown down from the loft and send them whirling through the cutting-box so fast that they pour into the big baskets like streams of melted gold; or, grasping my pitchfork, I stuff the ricks over the mangers with the rich aromatic hay until I am as warm as when I loaded the wagons with it at midsummer noons.

With what sweet sounds and odors now the whole barn is filled! How robust, clean, well-meaning are my thoughts! In what comfort of mind I can turn to my own roof and store!

This hour in my stable is the only one out of the twenty-four left to me in which my feet may cross the boundary of human life into the world of the other creatures; for I have gone into business in town to gratify Georgiana. I think little enough of this business otherwise. Every day I pass through the groove of it with no more intellectual satisfaction in it than I feel an intellectual satisfaction in passing my legs through my pantaloons of a morning. But a man can study nothing in nature that does not outreach his powers.

If time is left, I veer off from the barn to the wood-pile, for I love to wield an axe, besides having a taste to cut my own wood for the nightly burning. This evening I could but stop to notice how the turkeys in the tree tops looked like enormous black nutgalls on the limbs, except that the wind whisked their tails about as cheerily as though they were already hearth-brooms.

It is well for my poor turkeys that their tails contain no moisture; for on a night like this they would freeze stiff, and the least incautious movement of a fowl in the morning would serve to crack its tail off-up to the pope's-nose.

As I set my foot on the door-step, I went back to see whether the two snow-birds were in their nightly places under the roof of the porch-the guardian spirits of our portal. There they were, wedged each into a snug corner as tightly as possible, so not to break their feathers, and leaving but one side exposed. Happening to have some wheat in my pocket, I pitched the grains up to the projecting ledge; they can take their breakfast in bed when they wake in the morning. Little philosophers of the frost, who even in their overcoats combine the dark side and the white side of life into a wise an

d weathering gray-the no less fit external for a man.

The thought of them to-night put me strongly in mind of a former habit of mine to walk under the cedar-trees at such dark winter twilights and listen to the low calls of the birds as they gathered in and settled down. I have no time for such pleasant ways now, they have been given up along with my other studies.

This winter of 1851 and 1852 has been cold beyond the memory of man in Kentucky-the memory of the white man, which goes back some three-quarters of a century. Twice the Ohio River has been frozen over, a sight he had never seen. The thermometer has fallen to thirty degrees below zero. Unheard of snows have blocked the two or three railroads we have in the State.

News comes that people are walking over the ice on East River, New York, and that the Mississippi at Memphis bears the weight of a man a hundred yards from the bank.

Behind this winter lay last year's spring of rigors hitherto unknown, destroying orchards, vineyards, countless tender trees and plants. It set everybody to talking of the year 1834, when such a frost fell that to this day it is known as Black Friday in Kentucky; and it gave me occasion to tell Georgiana a story my grandfather had told me, of how one night in the wilderness the weather grew so terrible that the wild beasts came out of the forests to shelter themselves around the cabins of the pioneers, and how he was awakened by them fighting and crowding for places against the warm walls and chimney-corners. If he had had opened his door and crept back into bed, he might soon have had a buffalo on one side of his fireplace and a bear on the other, with a wild-cat asleep on the hearth between, and with the thin-skinned deer left shivering outside as truly as if they had all been human beings.

Such a spring, with its destruction of seed-bearing and nut-hearing vegetation, followed by a winter that seals under ice what may have been produced, has spread starvation among the wild creatures. A recent Sunday afternoon walk in the woods-Georgiana being away from home with her mother-showed me that part of the earth's surface rolled out as a vast white chart, on which were traced the desperate travels of the snow-walkers in search of food. Squirrel, chipmunk, rabbit, weasel, mouse, mink, fox-their tracks crossed and recrossed, wound in and out and round and round, making an intricate lace-work beautiful and pitiful to behold. Crow prints ringed every corn-shock in the field. At the base of one I picked up a frozen dove-starved at the brink of plenty. Rabbit tracks grew thickest as I entered my turnip and cabbage patches, converging towards my house, and coming to a focus at a group of snow-covered pyramids, in which last autumn, as usual, I buried my vegetables. I told Georgiana:

"They are attracted by the leaves that Dilsy throws away when she gets out what we need. Think of it-a whole neighborhood of rabbits hurrying here after dark for the chance of a bare nibble at a possible leaf." Once that night I turned in bed, restless. Georgiana did the same.

"Are you awake?" she said, softly.

"Are you?"

"Are you thinking about the rabbits?"

"Yes; are you?"

"What do you suppose they think about us?"

"I'd rather not know."

Georgiana tells me that the birds in unusual numbers are wintering among the trees, driven to us with the boldness of despair. God and nature have forgotten them; they have nothing to choose between but death and man. She has taken my place as their almoner and nightly renders me an account of what she has done. This winter gives her a great chance and she adorns it. It seems that never before were so many redbirds in the cedars; and although one subject is never mentioned between us, unconsciously she dwells upon these in her talk, and plainly favors them in her affection for the sake of the past. There are many stories I could relate to show how simple and beautiful is this whole aspect of her nature.

A little thing happened to-night.

Towards ten o'clock she brought my hat, overcoat, overshoes, mittens, comforter.

"Put them on," she said, mysteriously.

She also got ready, separating herself from me by so many clothes that

I could almost have felt myself entitled to a divorce.

It was like day out-of-doors with the moon shining on the snow. We crept towards the garden, screened behind out-buildings. When we reached the fence, we looked through towards the white pyramids. All that part of the ground was alive with rabbits. Georgiana had spread for them a banquet of Lucullus, a Belshazzar's feast. It had been done to please me, I knew, and out of a certain playfulness of her own; out there are other charities of hers, which she thinks known only to herself, that show as well the divine drift of her thoughtfulness.

She is asleep now-for the sake of the Secret. After she had gone to bed, what with the spectacle of the rabbits and what with our talk beforehand of the many cardinals in the cedars, my thoughts began to run freshly on old subjects, and, unlocking my bureau, I got out my notes and drawings for the work on Kentucky birds. Georgiana does not know that they exist; she never shall. With what authority those studies call me still, as with a trumpet from the skies! and I know that trumpet will sound on till my ears are past hearing. Sometimes I look upon myself as a man who has had two hearts; one lies buried in the woods, and the other sits at the fireside thinking of it. But sleep on, Georgiana-mother that is to be. The dreams of your life shall never be disturbed by the old dreams of mine.

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