Tales From Home.
Jacob Flint's Journey.
If there ever was a man crushed out of all courage, all self- reliance, all comfort in life, it was Jacob Flint. Why this should have been, neither he nor any one else could have explained; but so it was. On the day that he first went to school, his shy, frightened face marked him as fair game for the rougher and stronger boys, and they subjected him to all those exquisite refinements of torture which boys seem to get by the direct inspiration of the Devil. There was no form of their bullying meanness or the cowardice of their brutal strength which he did not experience. He was born under a fading or falling star,--the inheritor of some anxious or unhappy mood of his parents, which gave its fast color to the threads out of which his innocent being was woven.
Even the good people of the neighborhood, never accustomed to look below the externals of appearance and manner, saw in his shrinking face and awkward motions only the signs of a cringing, abject soul.
"You'll be no more of a man than Jake Flint!" was the reproach which many a farmer addressed to his dilatory boy; and thus the parents, one and all, came to repeat the sins of the children.
If, therefore, at school and "before folks," Jacob's position was always uncomfortable and depressing, it was little more cheering at home. His parents, as all the neighbors believed, had been unhappily married, and, though the mother died in his early childhood, his father remained a moody, unsocial man, who rarely left his farm except on the 1st of April every year, when he went to the county town for the purpose of paying the interest upon a mortgage. The farm lay in a hollow between two hills, separated from the road by a thick wood, and the chimneys of the lonely old house looked in vain for a neighbor-smoke when they began to grow warm of a morning.
Beyond the barn and under the northern hill there was a log tenant- house, in which dwelt a negro couple, who, in the course of years had become fixtures on the place and almost partners in it. Harry, the man, was the medium by which Samuel Flint kept up his necessary intercourse with the world beyond the valley; he took the horses to the blacksmith, the grain to the mill, the turkeys to market, and through his hands passed all the incomings and outgoings of the farm, except the annual interest on the mortgage. Sally, his wife, took care of the household, which, indeed, was a light and comfortable task, since the table was well supplied for her own sake, and there was no sharp eye to criticise her sweeping, dusting, and bed-making. The place had a forlorn, tumble-down aspect, quite in keeping with its lonely situation; but perhaps this very circumstance flattered the mood of its silent, melancholy owner and his unhappy son.
In all the neighborhood there was but one person with whom Jacob felt completely at ease--but one who never joined in the general habit of making his name the butt of ridicule or contempt. This was Mrs. Ann Pardon, the hearty, active wife of Farmer Robert Pardon, who lived nearly a mile farther down the brook. Jacob had won her good-will by some neighborly services, something so trifling, indeed, that the thought of a favor conferred never entered his mind. Ann Pardon saw that it did not; she detected a streak of most unconscious goodness under his uncouth, embarrassed ways, and she determined to cultivate it. No little tact was required, however, to coax the wild, forlorn creature into so much confidence as she desired to establish; but tact is a native quality of the heart no less than a social acquirement, and so she did the very thing necessary without thinking much about it.
Robert Pardon discovered by and by that Jacob was a steady, faithful hand in the harvest-field at husking-time, or whenever any extra labor was required, and Jacob's father made no objection to his earning a penny in this way; and so he fell into the habit of spending his Saturday evenings at the Pardon farm-house, at first to talk over matters of work, and finally because it had become a welcome relief from his dreary life at home.
Now it happened that on a Saturday in the beginning of haying-time, the village tailor sent home by Harry a new suit of light summer clothes, for which Jacob had been measured a month before. After supper he tried them on, the day's work being over, and Sally's admiration was so loud and emphatic that he felt himself growing red even to the small of his back.
"Now, don't go for to take 'em off, Mr. Jake," said she. "I spec' you're gwine down to Pardon's, and so you jist keep 'em on to show 'em all how nice you kin look."
The same thought had already entered Jacob's mind. Poor fellow! It was the highest form of pleasure of which he had ever allowed himself to conceive. If he had been called upon to pass through the village on first assuming the new clothes, every stitch would have pricked him as if the needle remained in it; but a quiet walk down the brookside, by the pleasant path through the thickets and over the fragrant meadows, with a consciousness of his own neatness and freshness at every step, and with kind Ann Pardon's commendation at the close, and the flattering curiosity of the children,--the only ones who never made fun of him,--all that was a delightful prospect. He could never, never forget himself, as he had seen other young fellows do; but to remember himself agreeably was certainly the next best thing.
Jacob was already a well-grown man of twenty-three, and would have made a good enough appearance but for the stoop in his shoulders, and the drooping, uneasy way in which he carried his head. Many a time when he was alone in the fields or woods he had straightened himself, and looked courageously at the buts of the oak-trees or in the very eyes of the indifferent oxen; but, when a human face drew near, some spring in his neck seemed to snap, some buckle around his shoulders to be drawn three holes tighter, and he found himself in the old posture. The ever-present thought of this weakness was the only drop of bitterness in his cup, as he followed the lonely path through the thickets.
Some spirit in the sweet, delicious freshness of the air, some voice in the mellow babble of the stream, leaping in and out of sight between the alders, some smile of light, lingering on the rising corn-fields beyond the meadow and the melting purple of a distant hill, reached to the seclusion of his heart. He was soothed and cheered; his head lifted itself in the presentiment of a future less lonely than the past, and the everlasting trouble vanished from his eyes.
Suddenly, at a turn of the path, two mowers from the meadow, with their scythes upon their shoulders, came upon him. He had not heard their feet on the deep turf. His chest relaxed, and his head began to sink; then, with the most desperate effort in his life, he lifted it again, and, darting a rapid side glance at the men, hastened by. They could not understand the mixed defiance and supplication of his face; to them he only looked "queer."
"Been committin' a murder, have you?" asked one of them, grinning.
"Startin' off on his journey, I guess," said the other.
The next instant they were gone, and Jacob, with set teeth and clinched hands, smothered something that would have been a howl if he had given it voice. Sharp lines of pain were marked on his face, and, for the first time, the idea of resistance took fierce and bitter possession of his heart. But the mood was too unusual to last; presently he shook his head, and walked on towards Pardon's farm-house.
Ann wore a smart gingham dress, and her first exclamation was: "Why, Jake! how nice you look. And so you know all about it, too?"
"I see you don't," said she. "I was too fast; but it makes no difference. I know you are willing to lend me a helping hand."
"Oh, to be sure," Jacob answered.
"And not mind a little company?"
Jacob's face suddenly clouded; but he said, though with an effort: "No--not much--if I can be of any help."
"It's rather a joke, after all," Ann Pardon continued, speaking rapidly; "they meant a surprise, a few of the young people; but sister Becky found a way to send me word, or I might have been caught like Meribah Johnson last week, in the middle of my work; eight or ten, she said, but more may drop in: and it's moonlight and warm, so they'll be mostly under the trees; and Robert won't be home till late, and I do want help in carrying chairs, and getting up some ice, and handing around; and, though I know you don't care for merry makings, you can help me out, you see-- "
Here she paused. Jacob looked perplexed, but said nothing.
"Becky will help what she can, and while I'm in the kitchen she'll have an eye to things outside," she said.
Jacob's head was down again, and, moreover, turned on one side, but his ear betrayed the mounting blood. Finally he answered, in a quick, husky voice: "Well, I'll do what I can. What's first?"
Thereupon he began to carry some benches from the veranda to a grassy bank beside the sycamore-tree. Ann Pardon wisely said no more of the coming surprise-party, but kept him so employed that, as the visitors arrived by twos and threes, the merriment was in full play almost before he was aware of it. Moreover, the night was a protecting presence: the moonlight poured splendidly upon the open turf beyond the sycamore, but every lilac-bush or trellis of woodbine made a nook of shade, wherein he could pause a moment and take courage for his duties. Becky Morton, Ann Pardon's youngest sister, frightened him a little every time she came to consult about the arrangement of seats or the distribution of refreshments; but it was a delightful, fascinating fear, such as he had never felt before in his life. He knew Becky, but he had never seen her in white and pink, with floating tresses, until now. In fact, he had hardly looked at her fairly, but now, as she glided into the moonlight and he paused in the shadow, his eyes took note of her exceeding beauty. Some sweet, confusing influence, he knew not what, passed into his blood.
The young men had brought a fiddler from the village, and it was not long before most of the company were treading the measures of reels or cotillons on the grass. How merry and happy they all were! How freely and unembarrassedly they moved and talked! By and by all became involved in the dance, and Jacob, left alone and unnoticed, drew nearer and nearer to the gay and beautiful life from which he was expelled.
With a long-drawn scream of the fiddle the dance came to an end, and the dancers, laughing, chattering, panting, and fanning themselves, broke into groups and scattered over the enclosure before the house. Jacob was surrounded before he could escape. Becky, with two lively girls in her wake, came up to him and said: "Oh Mr. Flint, why don't you dance?"
If he had stopped to consider, he would no doubt have replied very differently. But a hundred questions, stirred by what he had seen, were clamoring for light, and they threw the desperate impulse to his lips.
"If I could dance, would you dance with me?"
The two lively girls heard the words, and looked at Becky with roguish faces.
"Oh yes, take him for your next partner!" cried one.
"I will," said Becky, "after he comes back from his journey."
Then all three laughed. Jacob leaned against the tree, his eyes fixed on the ground.
"Is it a bargain?" asked one of the girls.
"No," said he, and walked rapidly away.
He went to the house, and, finding that Robert had arrived, took his hat, and left by the rear door. There was a grassy alley between the orchard and garden, from which it was divided by a high hawthorn hedge. He had scarcely taken three paces on his way to the meadow, when the sound of the voice he had last heard, on the other side of the hedge, arrested his feet.
"Becky, I think you rather hurt Jake Flint," said the girl.
"Hardly," answered Becky; "he's used to that."
"Not if he likes you; and you might go further and fare worse."
"Well, I must say!" Becky exclaimed, with a laugh; "you'd like to see me stuck in that hollow, out of your way!"
"It's a good farm, I've heard," said the other.
"Yes, and covered with as much as it'll bear!"
Here the girls were called away to the dance. Jacob slowly walked up the dewy meadow, the sounds of fiddling, singing, and laughter growing fainter behind him.
"My journey!" he repeated to himself,--" my journey! why shouldn't I start on it now? Start off, and never come back?"
It was a very little thing, after all, which annoyed him, but the mention of it always touched a sore nerve of his nature. A dozen years before, when a boy at school, he had made a temporary friendship with another boy of his age, and had one day said to the latter, in the warmth of his first generous confidence: "When I am a little older, I shall make a great journey, and come back rich, and buy Whitney's place!"
Now, Whitney's place, with its stately old brick mansion, its avenue of silver firs, and its two hundred acres of clean, warm- lying land, was the finest, the most aristocratic property in all the neighborhood, and the boy-friend could not resist the temptation of repeating Jacob's grand design, for the endless amusement of the school. The betrayal hurt Jacob more keenly than the ridicule. It left a wound that never ceased to rankle; yet, with the inconceivable perversity of unthinking natures, precisely this joke (as the people supposed it to be) had been perpetuated, until "Jake Flint's Journey" was a synonyme for any absurd or extravagant expectation. Perhaps no one imagined how much pain he was keeping alive; for almost any other man than Jacob would have joined in the laugh against himself and thus good-naturedly buried the joke in time. "He's used to that," the people said, like Becky Morton, and they really supposed there was nothing unkind in the remark!
After Jacob had passed the thickets and entered the lonely hollow in which his father's house lay, his pace became slower and slower.
He looked at the shabby old building, just touched by the moonlight behind the swaying shadows of the weeping-willow, stopped, looked again, and finally seated himself on a stump beside the path.
"If I knew what to do!" he said to himself, rocking backwards and forwards, with his hands clasped over his knees,--"if I knew what to do!"
The spiritual tension of the evening reached its climax: he could bear no more. With a strong bodily shudder his tears burst forth, and the passion of his weeping filled him from head to foot. How long he wept he knew not; it seemed as if the hot fountains would never run dry. Suddenly and startlingly a hand fell upon his shoulder.
"Boy, what does this mean?"
It was his father who stood before him.
Jacob looked up like some shy animal brought to bay, his eyes full of a feeling mixed of fierceness and terror; but he said nothing.
His father seated himself on one of the roots of the old stump, laid one hand upon Jacob's knee, and said with an unusual gentleness of manner, "I'd like to know what it is that troubles you so much."
After a pause, Jacob suddenly burst forth with: "Is there any reason why I should tell you? Do you care any more for me than the rest of 'em?"
"I didn't know as you wanted me to care for you particularly," said the father, almost deprecatingly. "I always thought you had friends of your own age."
"Friends? Devils!" exclaimed Jacob. "Oh, what have I done--what is there so dreadful about me that I should always be laughed at, and despised, and trampled upon? You are a great deal older than I am, father: what do you see in me? Tell me what it is, and how to get over it!"
The eyes of the two men met. Jacob saw his father's face grow pale in the moonlight, while he pressed his hand involuntarily upon his heart, as if struggling with some physical pain. At last he spoke, but his words were strange and incoherent.
"I couldn't sleep," he said; "I got up again and came out o' doors.
The white ox had broken down the fence at the corner, and would soon have been in the cornfield. I thought it was that, maybe, but still your--your mother would come into my head. I was coming down the edge of the wood when I saw you, and I don't know why it was that you seemed so different, all at once--"
Here he paused, and was silent for a minute. Then he said, in a grave, commanding tone: "Just let me know the whole story. I have that much right yet."
Jacob related the history of the evening, somewhat awkwardly and confusedly, it is true; but his father's brief, pointed questions kept him to the narrative, and forced him to explain the full significance of the expressions he repeated. At the mention of "Whitney's place," a singular expression of malice touched the old man's face.
"Do you love Becky Morton?" he asked bluntly, when all had been told.
"I don't know," Jacob stammered; "I think not; because when I seem to like her most, I feel afraid of her."
"It's lucky that you're not sure of it!" exclaimed the old man with energy; "because you should never have her."
"No," said Jacob, with a mournful acquiescence, "I can never have her, or any other one."
"But you shall--and will I when I help you. It's true I've not seemed to care much about you, and I suppose you're free to think as you like; but this I say: I'll not stand by and see you spit upon! `Covered with as much as it'll bear!' That's a piece o' luck anyhow. If we're poor, your wife must take your poverty with you, or she don't come into my doors. But first of all you must make your journey!"
"My journey!" repeated Jacob.
"Weren't you thinking of it this night, before you took your seat on that stump? A little more, and you'd have gone clean off, I reckon."
Jacob was silent, and hung his head.
"Never mind! I've no right to think hard of it. In a week we'll have finished our haying, and then it's a fortnight to wheat; but, for that matter, Harry and I can manage the wheat by ourselves. You may take a month, two months, if any thing comes of it. Under a month I don't mean that you shall come back. I'll give you twenty dollars for a start; if you want more you must earn it on the road, any way you please. And, mark you, Jacob! since you are poor, don't let anybody suppose you are rich. For my part, I shall not expect you to buy Whitney's place; all I ask is that you'll tell me, fair and square, just what things and what people you've got acquainted with. Get to bed now--the matter's settled; I will have it so."
They rose and walked across the meadow to the house. Jacob had quite forgotten the events of the evening in the new prospect suddenly opened to him, which filled him with a wonderful confusion of fear and desire. His father said nothing more. They entered the lonely house together at midnight, and went to their beds; but Jacob slept very little.
Six days afterwards he left home, on a sparkling June morning, with a small bundle tied in a yellow silk handkerchief under his arm. His father had furnished him with the promised money, but had positively refused to tell him what road he should take, or what plan of action he should adopt. The only stipulation was that his absence from home should not be less than a month.
After he had passed the wood and reached the highway which followed the course of the brook, he paused to consider which course to take. Southward the road led past Pardon's, and he longed to see his only friends once more before encountering untried hazards; but the village was beyond, and he had no courage to walk through its one long street with a bundle, denoting a journey, under his arm. Northward he would have to pass the mill and blacksmith's shop at the cross-roads. Then he remembered that he might easily wade the stream at a point where it was shallow, and keep in the shelter of the woods on the opposite hill until he struck the road farther on, and in that direction two or three miles would take him into a neighborhood where he was not known.
Once in the woods, an exquisite sense of freedom came upon him. There was nothing mocking in the soft, graceful stir of the expanded foliage, in the twittering of the unfrightened birds, or the scampering of the squirrels, over the rustling carpet of dead leaves. He lay down upon the moss under a spreading beech- tree and tried to think; but the thoughts would not come. He could not even clearly recall the keen troubles and mortifications he had endured: all things were so peaceful and beautiful that a portion of their peace and beauty fell upon men and invested them with a more kindly character.
Towards noon Jacob found himself beyond the limited geography of his life. The first man he encountered was a stranger, who greeted him with a hearty and respectful "How do you do, sir?"
"Perhaps," thought Jacob, "I am not so very different from other people, if I only thought so myself."
At noon, he stopped at a farm-house by the roadside to get a drink of water. A pleasant woman, who came from the door at that moment with a pitcher, allowed him to lower the bucket and haul it up dripping with precious coolness. She looked upon him with good- will, for he had allowed her to see his eyes, and something in their honest, appealing expression went to her heart.
"We're going to have dinner in five minutes," said she; "won't you stay and have something?"
Jacob stayed and brake bread with the plain, hospitable family. Their kindly attention to him during the meal gave him the lacking nerve; for a moment he resolved to offer his services to the farmer, but he presently saw that they were not really needed, and, besides, the place was still too near home.
Towards night he reached an old country tavern, lording it over an incipient village of six houses. The landlord and hostler were inspecting a drooping-looking horse in front of the stables. Now, if there was any thing which Jacob understood, to the extent of his limited experience, it was horse nature. He drew near, listened to the views of the two men, examined the animal with his eyes, and was ready to answer, "Yes, I guess so," when the landlord said, "Perhaps, sir, you can tell what is the matter with him."
His prompt detection of the ailment, and prescription of a remedy which in an hour showed its good effects, installed him in the landlord's best graces. The latter said, "Well, it shall cost you nothing to-night," as he led the way to the supper-room. When Jacob went to bed he was surprised on reflecting that he had not only been talking for a full hour in the bar-room, but had been looking people in the face.
Resisting an offer of good wages if he would stay and help look after the stables, he set forward the next morning with a new and most delightful confidence in himself. The knowledge that now nobody knew him as "Jake Flint" quite removed his tortured self- consciousness. When he met a person who was glum and ungracious of speech, he saw, nevertheless, that he was not its special object. He was sometimes asked questions, to be sure, which a little embarrassed him, but he soon hit upon answers which were sufficiently true without betraying his purpose.
Wandering sometimes to the right and sometimes to the left, he slowly made his way into the land, until, on the afternoon of the fourth day after leaving home, he found himself in a rougher region--a rocky, hilly tract, with small and not very flourishing farms in the valleys. Here the season appeared to be more backward than in the open country; the hay harvest was not yet over.
Jacob's taste for scenery was not particularly cultivated, but something in the loneliness and quiet of the farms reminded him of his own home; and he looked at one house after another, deliberating with himself whether it would not be a good place to spend the remainder of his month of probation. He seemed to be very far from home--about forty miles, in fact,--and was beginning to feel a little tired of wandering.
Finally the road climbed a low pass of the hills, and dropped into a valley on the opposite side. There was but one house in view--a two-story building of logs and plaster, with a garden and orchard on the hillside in the rear. A large meadow stretched in front, and when the whole of it lay clear before him, as the road issued from a wood, his eye was caught by an unusual harvest picture.
Directly before him, a woman, whose face was concealed by a huge, flapping sun-bonnet, was seated upon a mowing machine, guiding a span of horses around the great tract of thick grass which was still uncut. A little distance off, a boy and girl were raking the drier swaths together, and a hay-cart, drawn by oxen and driven by a man, was just entering the meadow from the side next the barn.
Jacob hung his bundle upon a stake, threw his coat and waistcoat over the rail, and, resting his chin on his shirted arms, leaned on the fence, and watched the hay-makers. As the woman came down the nearer side she appeared to notice him, for her head was turned from time to time in his direction. When she had made the round, she stopped the horses at the corner, sprang lightly from her seat and called to the man, who, leaving his team, met her half-way. They were nearly a furlong distant, but Jacob was quite sure that she pointed to him, and that the man looked in the same direction. Presently she set off across the meadow, directly towards him.
When within a few paces of the fence, she stopped, threw back the flaps of her sun-bonnet, and said, "Good day to you!" Jacob was so amazed to see a bright, fresh, girlish face, that he stared at her with all his eyes, forgetting to drop his head. Indeed, he could not have done so, for his chin was propped upon the top rail of the fence.
"You are a stranger, I see," she added.
"Yes, in these parts," he replied.
"Looking for work?"
He hardly knew what answer to make, so he said, at a venture, "That's as it happens." Then he colored a little, for the words seemed foolish to his ears.
"Time's precious," said the girl, "so I'll tell you at once we want help. Our hay must be got in while the fine weather lasts."
"I'll help you!" Jacob exclaimed, taking his arms from the rail, and looking as willing as he felt.
"I'm so glad! But I must tell you, at first, that we're not rich, and the hands are asking a great deal now. How much do you expect?"
"Whatever you please?" said he, climbing the fence.
"No, that's not our way of doing business. What do you say to a dollar a day, and found?"
"All right!" and with the words he was already at her side, taking long strides over the elastic turf.
"I will go on with my mowing," said she, when they reached the horses, "and you can rake and load with my father. What name shall I call you by?"
"Everybody calls me Jake."
"`Jake!' Jacob is better. Well, Jacob, I hope you'll give us all the help you can."
With a nod and a light laugh she sprang upon the machine. There was a sweet throb in Jacob's heart, which, if he could have expressed it, would have been a triumphant shout of "I'm not afraid of her! I'm not afraid of her!"
The farmer was a kindly, depressed man, with whose quiet ways Jacob instantly felt himself at home. They worked steadily until sunset, when the girl, detaching her horses from the machine, mounted one of them and led the other to the barn. At the supper-table, the farmer's wife said: "Susan, you must be very tired."
"Not now, mother!" she cheerily answered. "I was, I think, but after I picked up Jacob I felt sure we should get our hay in."
"It was a good thing," said the farmer; "Jacob don't need to be told how to work."
Poor Jacob! He was so happy he could have cried. He sat and listened, and blushed a little, with a smile on his face which it was a pleasure to see. The honest people did not seem to regard him in the least as a stranger; they discussed their family interests and troubles and hopes before him, and in a little while it seemed as if he had known them always.
How faithfully he worked! How glad and tired he felt when night came, and the hay-mow was filled, and the great stacks grew beside the barn! But ah! the haying came to an end, and on the last evening, at supper, everybody was constrained and silent. Even Susan looked grave and thoughtful.
"Jacob," said the farmer, finally, "I wish we could keep you until wheat harvest; but you know we are poor, and can't afford it. Perhaps you could--"
He hesitated; but Jacob, catching at the chance and obeying his own unselfish impulse, cried: "Oh, yes, I can; I'll be satisfied with my board, till the wheat's ripe."
Susan looked at him quickly, with a bright, speaking face. "It's hardly fair to you," said the farmer.
"But I like to be here so much!" Jacob cried. "I like--all of you!"
"We do seem to suit," said the farmer, "like as one family. And that reminds me, we've not heard your family name yet."
"Jacob Flint!" exclaimed the farmer's wife, with sudden agitation.
Jacob was scared and troubled. They had heard of him, he thought, and who knew what ridiculous stories? Susan noticed an anxiety on his face which she could not understand, but she unknowingly came to his relief.
"Why, mother," she asked, "do you know Jacob's family?"
"No, I think not," said her mother, "only somebody of the name, long ago."
His offer, however, was gratefully accepted. The bright, hot summer days came and went, but no flower of July ever opened as rapidly and richly and warmly as his chilled, retarded nature. New thoughts and instincts came with every morning's sun, and new conclusions were reached with every evening's twilight. Yet as the wheat harvest drew towards the end, he felt that he must leave the place. The month of absence had gone by, he scarce knew how. He was free to return home, and, though he might offer to bridge over the gap between wheat and oats, as he had already done between hay and wheat, he imagined the family might hesitate to accept such an offer. Moreover, this life at Susan's side was fast growing to be a pain, unless he could assure himself that it would be so forever.
They were in the wheat-field, busy with the last sheaves; she raking and he binding. The farmer and younger children had gone to the barn with a load. Jacob was working silently and steadily, but when they had reached the end of a row, he stopped, wiped his wet brow, and suddenly said, "Susan, I suppose to-day finishes my work here."
"Yes," she answered very slowly.
"And yet I'm very sorry to go."
"I--we don't want you to go, if we could help it."
Jacob appeared to struggle with himself. He attempted to speak. "If I could--" he brought out, and then paused. "Susan, would you be glad if I came back?"
His eyes implored her to read his meaning. No doubt she read it correctly, for her face flushed, her eyelids fell, and she barely murmured, "Yes, Jacob."
"Then I'll come!" he cried; "I'll come and help you with the oats. Don't talk of pay! Only tell me I'll be welcome! Susan, don't you believe I'll keep my word?"
"I do indeed," said she, looking him firmly in the face.
That was all that was said at the time; but the two understood each other tolerably well.
On the afternoon of the second day, Jacob saw again the lonely house of his father. His journey was made, yet, if any of the neighbors had seen him, they would never have believed that he had come back rich.
Samuel Flint turned away to hide a peculiar smile when he saw his son; but little was said until late that evening, after Harry and Sally had left. Then he required and received an exact account of Jacob's experience during his absence. After hearing the story to the end, he said, "And so you love this Susan Meadows?"
"I'd--I'd do any thing to be with her."
"Are you afraid of her?"
"No!" Jacob uttered the word so emphatically that it rang through the house.
"Ah, well!" said the old man, lifting his eyes, and speaking in the air, "all the harm may be mended yet. But there must be another test." Then he was silent for some time.
"I have it!" he finally exclaimed. "Jacob, you must go back for the oats harvest. You must ask Susan to be your wife, and ask her parents to let you have her. But,--pay attention to my words!--you must tell her that you are a poor, hired man on this place, and that she can be engaged as housekeeper. Don't speak of me as your father, but as the owner of the farm. Bring her here in that belief, and let me see how honest and willing she is. I can easily arrange matters with Harry and Sally while you are away; and I'll only ask you to keep up the appearance of the thing for a month or so."
"But, father,"--Jacob began.
"Not a word! Are you not willing to do that much for the sake of having her all your life, and this farm after me? Suppose it is covered with a mortgage, if she is all you say, you two can work it off. Not a word more! It is no lie, after all, that you will tell her."
"I am afraid," said Jacob, "that she could not leave her home now. She is too useful there, and the family is so poor."
"Tell them that both your wages, for the first year, shall go to them. It'll be my business to rake and scrape the money together somehow. Say, too, that the housekeeper's place can't be kept for her--must be filled at once. Push matters like a man, if you mean to be a complete one, and bring her here, if she carries no more with her than the clothes on her back!"
During the following days Jacob had time to familiarize his mind with this startling proposal. He knew his father's stubborn will too well to suppose that it could be changed; but the inevitable soon converted itself into the possible and desirable. The sweet face of Susan as she had stood before him in the wheat-field was continually present to his eyes, and ere long, he began to place her, in his thoughts, in the old rooms at home, in the garden, among the thickets by the brook, and in Ann Pardon's pleasant parlor. Enough; his father's plan became his own long before the time was out.
On his second journey everybody seemed to be an old acquaintance and an intimate friend. It was evening as he approached the Meadows farm, but the younger children recognized him in the dusk, and their cry of, "Oh, here's Jacob!" brought out the farmer and his wife and Susan, with the heartiest of welcomes. They had all missed him, they said--even the horses and oxen had looked for him, and they were wondering how they should get the oats harvested without him.
Jacob looked at Susan as the farmer said this, and her eyes seemed to answer, "I said nothing, but I knew you would come." Then, first, he felt sufficient courage for the task before him.
He rose the next morning, before any one was stirring, and waited until she should come down stairs. The sun had not risen when she appeared, with a milk-pail in each hand, walking unsuspectingly to the cow-yard. He waylaid her, took the pails in his hand and said in nervous haste, "Susan, will you be my wife?"
She stopped as if she had received a sudden blow; then a shy, sweet consent seemed to run through her heart. "O Jacob!" was all she could say.
"But you will, Susan?" he urged; and then (neither of them exactly knew how it happened) all at once his arms were around her, and they had kissed each other.
"Susan," he said, presently, "I am a poor man--only a farm hand, and must work for my living. You could look for a better husband."
"I could never find a better than you, Jacob."
"Would you work with me, too, at the same place?"
"You know I am not afraid of work," she answered, "and I could never want any other lot than yours."
Then he told her the story which his father had prompted. Her face grew bright and happy as she listened, and he saw how from her very heart she accepted the humble fortune. Only the thought of her parents threw a cloud over the new and astonishing vision. Jacob, however, grew bolder as he saw fulfilment of his hope so near. They took the pails and seated themselves beside neighbor cows, one raising objections or misgivings which the other manfully combated. Jacob's earnestness unconsciously ran into his hands, as he discovered when the impatient cow began to snort and kick.
The harvesting of the oats was not commenced that morning. The children were sent away, and there was a council of four persons held in the parlor. The result of mutual protestations and much weeping was, that the farmer and his wife agreed to receive Jacob as a son-in-law; the offer of the wages was four times refused by them, and then accepted; and the chance of their being able to live and labor together was finally decided to be too fortunate to let slip. When the shock and surprise was over all gradually became cheerful, and, as the matter was more calmly discussed, the first conjectured difficulties somehow resolved themselves into trifles.
It was the simplest and quietest wedding,--at home, on an August morning. Farmer Meadows then drove the bridal pair half-way on their journey, to the old country tavern, where a fresh conveyance had been engaged for them. The same evening they reached the farm- house in the valley, and Jacob's happy mood gave place to an anxious uncertainty as he remembered the period of deception upon which Susan was entering. He keenly watched his father's face when they arrived, and was a little relieved when he saw that his wife had made a good first impression.
"So, this is my new housekeeper," said the old man. "I hope you will suit me as well as your husband does."
"I'll do my best, sir," said she; "but you must have patience with me for a few days, until I know your ways and wishes."
"Mr. Flint," said Sally, "shall I get supper ready?" Susan looked up in astonishment at hearing the name.
"Yes," the old man remarked, "we both have the same name. The fact is, Jacob and I are a sort of relations."
Jacob, in spite of his new happiness, continued ill at ease, although he could not help seeing how his father brightened under Susan's genial influence, how satisfied he was with her quick, neat, exact ways and the cheerfulness with which she fulfilled her duties. At the end of a week, the old man counted out the wages agreed upon for both, and his delight culminated at the frank simplicity with which Susan took what she supposed she had fairly earned.
"Jacob," he whispered when she had left the room, "keep quiet one more week, and then I'll let her know."
He had scarcely spoken, when Susan burst into the room again, crying, "Jacob, they are coming, they have come!"
"Father and mother; and we didn't expect them, you know, for a week yet."
All three went to the door as the visitors made their appearance on the veranda. Two of the party stood as if thunderstruck, and two exclamations came together:
There was a moment's silence; then the farmer's wife, with a visible effort to compose herself, said, "Lucy Meadows, now."
The tears came into Samuel Flint's eyes. "Let us shake hands, Lucy," he said: "my son has married your daughter."
All but Jacob were freshly startled at these words. The two shook hands, and then Samuel, turning to Susan's father, said: "And this is your husband, Lucy. I am glad to make his acquaintance."
"Your father, Jacob!" Susan cried; "what does it all mean?"
Jacob's face grew red, and the old habit of hanging his head nearly came back upon him. He knew not what to say, and looked wistfully at his father.
"Come into the house and sit down," said the latter. "I think we shall all feel better when we have quietly and comfortably talked the matter over."
They went into the quaint, old-fashioned parlor, which had already been transformed by Susan's care, so that much of its shabbiness was hidden. When all were seated, and Samuel Flint perceived that none of the others knew what to say, he took a resolution which, for a man of his mood and habit of life, required some courage.
"Three of us here are old people," he began, "and the two young ones love each other. It was so long ago, Lucy, that it cannot be laid to my blame if I speak of it now. Your husband, I see, has an honest heart, and will not misunderstand either of us. The same thing often turns up in life; it is one of those secrets that everybody knows, and that everybody talks about except the persons concerned. When I was a young man, Lucy, I loved you truly, and I faithfully meant to make you my wife."
"I thought so too, for a while," said she, very calmly.
Farmer Meadows looked at his wife, and no face was ever more beautiful than his, with that expression of generous pity shining through it.
"You know how I acted," Samuel Flint continued, "but our children must also know that I broke off from you without giving any reason.
A woman came between us and made all the mischief. I was considered rich then, and she wanted to secure my money for her daughter. I was an innocent and unsuspecting young man, who believed that everybody else was as good as myself; and the woman never rested until she had turned me from my first love, and fastened me for life to another. Little by little I discovered the truth; I kept the knowledge of the injury to myself; I quickly got rid of the money which had so cursed me, and brought my wife to this, the loneliest and dreariest place in the neighborhood, where I forced upon her a life of poverty. I thought it was a just revenge, but I was unjust. She really loved me: she was, if not quite without blame in the matter, ignorant of the worst that had been done (I learned all that too late), and she never complained, though the change in me slowly wore out her life. I know now that I was cruel; but at the same time I punished myself, and was innocently punishing my son. But to him there was one way to make amends. `I will help him to a wife,' I said, `who will gladly take poverty with him and for his sake.' I forced him, against his will, to say that he was a hired hand on this place, and that Susan must be content to be a hired housekeeper. Now that I know Susan, I see that this proof might have been left out; but I guess it has done no harm. The place is not so heavily mortgaged as people think, and it will be Jacob's after I am gone. And now forgive me, all of you,--Lucy first, for she has most cause; Jacob next; and Susan,--that will be easier; and you, Friend Meadows, if what I have said has been hard for you to hear."
The farmer stood up like a man, took Samuel's hand and his wife's, and said, in a broken voice: "Lucy, I ask you, too, to forgive him, and I ask you both to be good friends to each other."
Susan, dissolved in tears, kissed all of them in turn; but the happiest heart there was Jacob's.
It was now easy for him to confide to his wife the complete story of his troubles, and to find his growing self-reliance strengthened by her quick, intelligent sympathy. The Pardons were better friends than ever, and the fact, which at first created great astonishment in the neighborhood, that Jacob Flint had really gone upon a journey and brought home a handsome wife, began to change the attitude of the people towards him. The old place was no longer so lonely; the nearest neighbors began to drop in and insist on return visits. Now that Jacob kept his head up, and they got a fair view of his face, they discovered that he was not lacking, after all, in sense or social qualities.
In October, the Whitney place, which had been leased for several years, was advertised to be sold at public sale. The owner had gone to the city and become a successful merchant, had outlived his local attachments, and now took advantage of a rise in real estate to disburden himself of a property which he could not profitably control.
Everybody from far and wide attended the sale, and, when Jacob Flint and his father arrived, everybody said to the former: "Of course you've come to buy, Jacob." But each man laughed at his own smartness, and considered the remark original with himself.
Jacob was no longer annoyed. He laughed, too, and answered: "I'm afraid I can't do that; but I've kept half my word, which is more than most men do."
"Jake's no fool, after all," was whispered behind him.
The bidding commenced, at first very spirited, and then gradually slacking off, as the price mounted above the means of the neighboring farmers. The chief aspirant was a stranger, a well- dressed man with a lawyer's air, whom nobody knew. After the usual long pauses and passionate exhortations, the hammer fell, and the auctioneer, turning to the stranger, asked, "What name?"
There was a general cry of surprise. All looked at Jacob, whose eyes and mouth showed that he was as dumbfoundered as the rest.
The stranger walked coolly through the midst of the crowd to Samuel Flint, and said, "When shall I have the papers drawn up?"
"As soon as you can," the old man replied; then seizing Jacob by the arm, with the words, "Let's go home now!" he hurried him on.
The explanation soon leaked out. Samuel Flint had not thrown away his wealth, but had put it out of his own hands. It was given privately to trustees, to be held for his son, and returned when the latter should have married with his father's consent. There was more than enough to buy the Whitney place.
Jacob and Susan are happy in their stately home, and good as they are happy. If any person in the neighborhood ever makes use of the phrase "Jacob Flint's Journey," he intends thereby to symbolize the good fortune which sometimes follows honesty, reticence, and shrewdness.