The Stick in the Muds by Rupert Hughes
From Collier's Weekly
A skiff went prowling along the Avon River in the unhurried English
twilight that releases the sunset with reluctance and defers
luxuriously the roll call of the stars.
The skiff floated low, for the man alone in it was heavy and he was
in no greater haste than the northern night. Which was against the
traditions, for he was an American, an American business man.
He was making his way through the sky-hued water stealthily lest he
disturb the leisure of the swans, drowsy above their own images; lest
he discourage the nightingale trying a few low flute notes in the
cathedral tower of shadow that was a tree above the tomb of
The American had never heard a nightingale and it was his first
pilgrimage to the shrine of the actor-manager whose productions
Americans curiously couple with the Bible as sacred lore.
During the day Joel Wixon had seen the sights of Stratford with the
others from his country and from England and the Continent. But now he
wanted to get close to Shakespeare. So he hired the skiff and declined
the services of the old boat lender.
And now he was stealing up into the rich gloom the church spread
across the river. He was pushing the stern of the boat foremost so that
he could feast his eyes. He was making so little speed that the only
sounds were the choked sob of the water where the boat cleaved it
gently and the tinkle of the drops that fell from the lazy oars with
something of the delicate music of the uncertain nightingale.
Being a successful business man, Wixon was a suffocated poet. The
imagination and the passion and the orderliness that brought him money
were the same energies that would have made him a success in verse. But
lines were not his line, and he was inarticulate and incoherent when
beauty overwhelmed him, as it did in nearly every form.
He shivered now before the immediate majesty of the scene, and the
historic meanings that enriched it as with an embroidered arras. Yet he
gave out no more words than an Ã†olian harp shuddering with ecstasy in
a wind too gentle to make it audible.
In such moods he hunted solitude, for he was ashamed to be seen,
afraid to be observed in the raptures that did not belong in the
vocabulary of a business man.
He had talked at noon about the fact that he and Shakespeare's
father were in wool, and he had annoyed a few modest Americans by
comparing the petty amount of the elder Shakespeare's trade with the
vast total pouring from his own innumerable looms driven with the
electricity that the Shakespeares had never dreamed of.
He had redeemed himself for his pretended brag by a meek admission:
But I'm afraid my boy will never write another 'Hamlet.'
Yet what could he know of his own son? How little Will Shakespeare's
father or his scandalized neighbors could have fancied that the
scapegrace good-for-naught who left the town for the town's good would
make it immortal; and, coming back to die and lie down forever beside
the Avon, would bring a world of pilgrims to a new Mecca, the shrine of
the supreme unique poet of all human time?
A young boy even now was sauntering the path along the other shore,
so lazily tossing pebbles into the stream that the swans hardly
protested. It came upon Wixon with a kind of silent lightning that
Shakespeare had once been such another boy skipping pebbles across the
narrow river and peering up into the trees to find out where the
Perhaps three hundred years from now some other shrine would claim
the pilgrims, the home perhaps of some American boy now groping through
the amber mists of adolescence or some man as little revered by his own
neighbors and rivals as the man Shakespeare was when he went back to
Avon to send back to London his two plays a year to the theatres.
Being a practical man, which is a man who strives to make his
visions palpable, Wixon thought of his own home town and the colony of
boys that prospered there in the Middle West.
He knew that no one would seek the town because of his birth there,
for he was but a buyer of fleeces, a carder of wools, a spinner of
threads, and a weaver of fabrics to keep folks' bodies warm. His weaves
wore well, but they wore out.
The weavers of words were the ones whose fabrics lasted beyond the
power of time and mocked the moths. Was there any such spinner in
Carthage to give the town eternal blazon to ears of flesh and blood?
There was one who might have been the man if
Suddenly he felt himself again in Carthage. There was a river there
too; not a little bolt of chatoyant silk like the Avon, which they
would have called a crick back there. Before Carthage ran the
incomprehensible floods of old Mississippi himself, Father of Waters,
deep and vast and swift. They had lately swung a weir across it to make
it worka concrete wall a mile wide and more, and its tumbling
cascades spun no little mill wheels, but swirled thundering turbines
that lighted cities and ran street cars a hundred miles away.
And yet it had no Shakespeare.
And yet again it might have had if
The twilight was so deep now that he shipped his oars in the gloom
and gave himself back to the past.
He was in another twilight, only it was the counter twilight between
star quench and sun blaze.
Two small boys, himself one of them; his sworn chum, Luke Mellows,
the other, meeting in the silent street just as the day tide seeped in
from the east and submerged the stars.
Joel had tied a string to his big toe and hung it from his window.
Luke had done the same. They were not permitted to explode alarm clocks
and ruin the last sweets of sleep in either home. So they had agreed
that the first to wake should rise and dress with stealth, slip down
the dark stairs of his house, into the starlit street and over to the
other's home and pull the toe cord.
On this morning Luke had been the earlier out, and his triumphant
yanks had dragged Joel feet first from sleep, and from the bed and
almost through the window. Joel had howled protests in shrill whispers
down into the gloom, and then, untying his outraged toe, had limped
into his clothes and so to the yard.
The two children, in the huge world disputed still by the night, had
felt an awe of the sky and the mysteries going on there. The envied man
who ran up the streets of evenings lighting the gas street lamps was
abroad again already with his little ladder and his quick insect-like
motions; only, now he was turning out the lights, just as a similar but
invisible being was apparently running around heaven and putting out
Joel remembered saying: I wonder if they're turnin' off the stars
up there to save gas too.
Luke did not like the joke. He said, using the word funny
solemnly: It's funny to see light putting out light. The stars will be
there all day, but we won't be able to see 'em for the sun.
(Wixon thought of this now, and of how Shakespeare's fame had
drowned out so many stars. A man had told him that there were hundreds
of great writers in Shakespeare's time that most people never heard
As the boys paused, the air quivered with a hoarse moo! as of
a gigantic cow bellowing for her lost calf. It was really a steamboat
whistling for the bridge to open the draw and let her through to the
south with her raft of logs.
Both of the boys called the boat by name, knowing her voice: It's
the Bessie May Brown! They started on a run to the bluff overlooking
the river, their short legs making a full mile of the scant furlong.
Often as Joel had come out upon the edge of that bluff on his
innumerable journeys to the river for fishing, swimming, skating, or
just staring, it always smote him with the thrill Balboa must have felt
coming suddenly upon the Pacific.
On this morning there was an unwonted grandeur: the whole vault of
the sky was curdled with the dawn, a reef of solid black in the west
turning to purple and to amber and finally in the east to scarlet, with
a few late planets caught in the meshes of the sunlight and trembling
like dew on a spider's web.
And the battle in the sky was repeated in the sea-like river with
all of the added magic of the current and the eddies and the wimpling
rushes of the dawn winds.
On the great slopes were houses and farmsteads throwing off the
night and in the river the Bessie May Brown, her red light and her
green light trailing scarfs of color on the river, as she chuffed and
clanged her bell, and smote the water with her stern wheel. In the
little steeple of the pilot house a priest guided her and her unwieldy
acre of logs between the piers of the bridge whose lanterns were still
belatedly aglow on the girders and again in echo in the flood.
Joel filled his little chest with a gulp of morning air and found no
better words for his rhapsody than: Gee, but ain't it great?
To his amazement, Luke, who had always been more sensitive than he,
shook his head and turned away.
Gosh, what do you want for ten cents? Joel demanded, feeling
called upon to defend the worthiness of the dawn.
Luke began to cry. He dropped down on his own bare legs in the weeds
and twisted his face and his fists in a vain struggle to fight off
Joel squatted at his side and insisted on sharing the secret; and
finally Luke forgot the sense of family honor long enough to yield to
the yearning for company in his misery.
I was up here at midnight last night, and I don't like this place
You didn't come all by yourself? Gee!
No, Momma was here too.
What she bring you out here at a time like that for?
She didn't know I was here.
Didn't knowWhat she doin' out here, then?
She and Poppa had a turble quar'l. I couldn't hear what started it,
but finely it woke me up and I listened, and Momma was cryin' and Poppa
was swearin'. And at last Momma said: 'Oh, I might as well go and throw
myself in the river,' and Poppa said: 'Good riddance of bad rubbish!'
and Momma stopped cryin' and she says: 'All right!' in an awful kind of
a voice, and I heard the front door open and shut.
Well, I jumped into my shirt and pants and slid down the rain pipe
and ran along the street, and there sure enough was Momma walkin' as
fast as she could.
I was afraid to go near her. I don't know why, but I was. So I just
sneaked along after her. The street was black as pitch 'cep' for the
street lamps, and as she passed ever' one I could see she was still
cryin' and stumblin' along like she was blind.
It was so late we didn't meet anybody at tall, and there wasn't a
light in a single house except Joneses, where somebody was sick, I
guess. But they didn't pay any attention, and at last she came to the
bluff here. And I follered. When she got where she could see the river
she stopped and stood there, and held her arms out like she was goin'
to jump off or fly, or somethin'. The moon was up, and the river was so
bright you could hardly look at it, and Momma stood there with her arms
'way out like she was on the Cross, or something.
I was so scared and so cold I shook like I had a chill. I was
afraid she could hear my teeth chatterin', so I dropped down in the
weeds and thistles to keep her from seein' me. It was just along about
By and by Momma kind of broke like somebody had hit her, then she
began to cry again and to walk up and down wringin' her hands. Once or
twice she started to run down the bluff and I started to foller; but
she stopped like somebody held her back, and I sunk down again.
Then, after a long time, she shook her head like she couldn't, and
turned back. She walked right by me and didn't see me. I heard her
whisperin': 'I can't, I can't. My pore children!'
Then she went back down the street and me after her wishin' I could
go up and help her. But I was afraid she wouldn't want me to know, and
I just couldn't go near her.
Luke wept helplessly at the memory of his poltroonery, and Joel
tried roughly to comfort him with questions.
Gee! I don't blame you. I don't guess I could have either. But what
was it all about, d'you s'pose?
I don't know. Momma went to the front door, and it was locked, and
she stood a long, long while before she could bring herself to knock.
Then she tapped on it soft like. And by and by Poppa opened the door
and said: 'Oh, you're back, are you? Then he turned and walked away,
and she went in.
I could have killed him with a rock, if she hadn't shut the door.
But all I could do was to climb back up the rain pipe. I was so tired
and discouraged I nearly fell and broke my neck. And I wisht I had
have. But there wasn't any more quar'l, only Momma kind of whimpered
once or twice, and Poppa said: 'Oh, for God's sake, shut up and lea' me
sleep. I got to open the store in the mornin', ain't I?' I didn't do
much sleepin', and I guess that's why I woke up first.
That was all of the story that Joel could learn. The two boys were
shut out by the wall of grown-up life. Luke crouched in bitter
moodiness, throwing clods of dirt at early grasshoppers and
reconquering his lost dignity. At last he said: If you ever let on to
anybody what I told you
Aw, say! was Joel's protest. His knighthood as a sworn chum was
put in question and he was cruelly hurt.
Luke took assurance from his dismay and said in a burst of fury:
Aw, I just said that! I know you won't tell. But just you wait till I
can earn a pile of money. I'll take Momma away from that old scoundrel
so fast it'll make his head swim! Then he slumped again. But it takes
so doggone long to grow up, and I don't know how to earn anything.
Then the morning of the world caught into its irresistible vivacity
the two boys in the morning of their youth, and before long they had
forgotten the irremediable woes of their elders, as their elders also
forgot the problems of national woes and cosmic despair.
The boys descended the sidelong path at a jog, brushing the dew and
grasshoppers and the birds from the hazel bushes and the papaw shrubs,
and scaring many a dewy rabbit from cover.
At the bottom of the bluff the railroad track was the only road
along the river, and they began the tormenting passage over the uneven
ties with cinders everywhere for their bare feet. They postponed as
long as they could the delight of breakfast, and then, sitting on a
pile of ties, made a feast of such hard-boiled eggs, cookies, cheese,
and crackers as they had been able to wheedle from their kitchens the
Their talk that morning was earnest, as boys' talk is apt to be.
They debated their futures as boys are apt to do. Being American boys,
two things characterized their plans: one, that the sky itself was the
only limit to their ambitions; the other, that they must not follow
their fathers' businesses.
Joel's father was an editor; Luke's kept a hardware store.
So Joel wanted to go into trade and Luke wanted to be a writer.
The boys wrangled with the shrill intensity of youth. A stranger
passing might have thought them about to come to blows. But they were
simply noisy with earnestness. Their argument was as unlike one of the
debates in Vergil's Eclogues as possible. It was an antistrophe of
twang and drawl:
Gee, you durned fool, watcha want gointa business for?
Durned fool your own self! Watcha wanta be a writer for?
Then they laughed wildly, struck at each other in mock hostility,
and went on with their all-day walk, returning at night too weary for
books or even a game of authors or checkers.
Both liked to read, and they were just emerging from the stratum of
Old Cap Collier, Nick Carter, the Kid-Glove Miner, and the Steam Man
into Ivanhoe, Scottish Chiefs, and Cudjo's Cave. They had passed
out of the Oliver Optic, Harry Castlemon, James Otis era.
Joel Wixon read for excitement; Luke Mellows for information as to
the machinery of authorship.
Young as they were, they went to the theatreto the op'ra house,
which never housed opera.
Joel went often and without price, since his father, being an
editor, had the glorious prerogative of comps. Perhaps that was why
Luke wanted to be a writer.
Mr. Mellows, as hard as his own ware, did not believe in the theatre
and could not be bullied or wept into paying for tickets. But Luke
became a program boy and got in free, a precious privilege he kept
secret as long as possible, and lost as soon as his father noticed his
absences from home on play nights. Then he was whipped for wickedness
and ordered to give up the theatre forever.
Perhaps Luke would never suffer again so fiercely as he suffered
from that denial. It meant a free education and a free revel in the
frequent performances of Shakespeare, and of repertory companies that
gave such triumphs as East Lynne and Camille, not to mention the
road companies that played the uproarious Peck's Bad Boy, Over the
Garden Wall, Skipped by the Light of the Moon, and the Charles Hoyt
The theatre had been a cloud-veiled Olympus of mystic exultations,
of divine terrors, and of ambrosial laughter. But it was a bad
influence. Mr. Mellows's theories of right and wrong were as simple and
sharp as his own knives: whatever was delightful and beautiful and
laughterful was manifestly wicked, God having plainly devised the
pretty things as baits for the devil's fishhooks.
Joel used to tell Luke about the plays he saw, and the exile's heart
ached with envy. They took long walks up the river or across the bridge
into the wonderlands that were overflowed in high-water times. And they
talked always of their futures. Boyhood was a torment, a slavery.
Heaven was just over the twenty-first birthday.
Joel got his future, all but the girl he planned to take with him up
the grand stairway of the palace he foresaw. Luke missed his future,
and his girl and all of his dreams.
Between the boys and their manhood stood, as usual, the fathers,
strange monsters, ogres, who seemed to have forgotten, at the top of
the beanstalk, that they had once been boys themselves down below.
After the early and unceasing misunderstandings as to motives and
standards of honor and dignity came the civil war over education.
Wouldn't you just know that each boy would get the wrong dad? Joel's
father was proud of Luke and not of Joel. He had printed some of Luke's
poems in the paper and called him a precocious native genius. Joel's
father wished that his boy could have had his neighbor's boy's gift. It
was his sorrow that Joel had none of the artistic leanings that are
called gifts. He regretfully gave him up as one who would not carry
on the torch his father had set out with. He could not force his child
to be a genius, but he insisted that Joel should have an education. The
editor had found himself handicapped by a lack of the mysterious
enrichment that a tour through college gives the least absorbent mind.
He was determined to provide it for his boy, though Joel felt that
every moment's delay in leaping into the commercial arena was so much
delay in arriving at gladiatorial eminence.
Luke's father had had even less education than Editor Wixon, but he
was proud of it. He had never gone far in the world, but he was one of
those men who are automatically proud of everything they do and derive
even from failure or humiliation a savage conceit.
He made Luke work in his store or out of it as a delivery boy during
vacations from such school terms as the law required. He saw the value
of education enough to make out bills and write dunning letters.
Books to him meant the doleful books that bookkeepers keep.
As for any further learning, he thought it a waste of time, a kind
He felt that Providence had intentionally selected a cross for him
in the son who was wicked and foolish enough to want to read stories
and see plays and go to school for years instead of going right into
The thought of sending his boy through a preparatory academy and
college and wasting his youth on nonsense was outrageous. It maddened
him to have the boy plead for such folly. He tried in vain to whip it
out of him.
Joel's ideas of education were exactly those of Mr. Mellows, but he
did not like Mr. Mellows because of the anguish inflicted on Luke. Joel
used to beg Luke to run away from home. But that was impracticable for
two reasons: Luke was not of the runaway sort, but meek, and shy, and
obedient to a fault.
Besides, while a boy can run away from school, he cannot easily run
away to school. If he did, he would be sent back, and if he were not
sent back, how was he to pay for his tooition and his board and books
It was Luke's influence that sent Joel away to boardin' school. He
so longed to go himself that Joel felt it foolish to deny himself the
godlike opportunity. So Luke went to school vicariously in Joel, as he
got his other experiences vicariously in books.
At school Joel found so much to do outside of his classes that he
grew content to go all the way. There was a glee club to manage, also
an athletic club; a paper to solicit ads and subscriptions for; class
officers to be elected, with all the delights of political
maneuveringa world in little to run with all the solemnity and
competition of the adult cosmos. So Joel was happy and lucky and
successful in spite of himself.
The day after Joel took train up the river to his academy Luke took
the position his father secured for him and entered the little back
room where the Butterly Bottling Works kept its bookkeepers on high
The Butterly soda pop, ginger ales, and other soft drinks were
triumphs of insipidity, and their birch beer sickened the thirstiest
child. But the making and the marketing and even the drinking of them
were matters of high emprise compared to the keeping of the books.
One of the saddest, sweetest, greatest stories ever written is
Ellis' Pigsispigs Butler's fable of the contented little donkey that
went round and round in the mill and thought he was traveling far. But
that donkey was blind and had no dreams denied.
Luke Mellows was a boy, a boy that still felt his life in every
limb, a boy devoured with fantastic ambitions. He had a genius within
that smothered and struggled till it all but perished unexpressed. It
lived only enough to be an anguish. It hurt him like a hidden,
unmentioned ingrowing toe nail that cuts and bleeds and excruciates the
fleet member it is meant to protect.
When Joel came home for his first vacation, with the rush of a young
colt that has had a good time in the corral but rejoices in the old
pastures, his first cry was for Luke. When he learned where he was, he
hurried to the Bottling Works. He was turned away with the curt remark
that employees could not be seen in business hours. In those days there
were no machines to simplify and verify the bookkeeper's treadmill
task, and business hours were never over.
Joel left word at Luke's home for Luke to call for him the minute he
was free. He did not come that evening, nor the next. Joel was hurt
more than he dared admit.
It was Sunday afternoon before Luke came round, a different Luke, a
lean, wan, worn-out shred of a youth. His welcome was sickly.
Gee-min-ent-ly! Joel roared. I thought you was mad at me
about something. You never came near.
I wanted to come, Luke croaked, but nights, I'm too tired to walk
anywheres, and besides, I usually have to go back to the offus.
Gee, that's damn tough, said Joel, who had grown from darn to
Thinking to light Luke up with a congenial theme, Joel heroically
forbore to describe the marvels of academy life, and asked: What you
been readin' lately? A little bit of everything, I guess, hey?
A whole lot of nothin', Luke sighed. I got no strength for
readin' by the time I shut my ledgers. I got to save my eyes, you know.
The light's bad in that back room.
What you been writin', then?
Miles of figures and entries about one gross bottles lemon, two
gross sassaprilla, one gross empties returned.
No more poetry?
No more nothin'.
Joel was obstinately cheerful. Well, you been makin' money,
anyways; that's something.
Yeh. I buy my own shoes and clo'es now and pay my board and lodgin'
at home. And paw puts the two dollars that's left into the savings
bank. I got nearly thirty dollars there now. I'll soon have enough for
a winter soot and overcoat.
Gee, can't you go buggy ridin' even with Kit?
I could if I had the time and the price, and if her maw wasn't so
poorly that Kitty can't get away. I go over there Sunday afternoons
sometimes, but her maw always hollers for her to come in. She's afraid
to be alone. Kit's had to give up the high school account of her maw.
How about her goin' away to be a great singer?
Luke grinned at the insanity of such childish plans. Oh, that's all
off. Kit can't even practice any more. It makes her mother nervous. And
Kit had to give up the church choir too. You'd hardly know her. She
cries a lot about lookin' so scrawny. O' course I tell her she's
pirtier than ever, but that only makes her mad. She can't go to
sociables or dances or picnics, and if she could she's got no clo'es.
We don't have much fun together; just sit and mope, and then I say:
'Well, guess I better mosey on home,' and she says: 'All right; see you
again next Sunday, I s'pose. G'by.'
The nightingale annoyed the owl and was hushed, and the poet rimed
sums in a daybook.
The world waited for them and needed them without knowing it; it
would have rewarded them with thrilled attention and wealth and fame.
But silence was their portion, silence and the dark and an ache that
had no voice.
Joel listened to Luke's elegy and groaned: Gee!
But he had an optimism like a powerful spring, and it struck back
now with a whirr: I'll tell you what, Luke. Just you wait till I'm
rich, then I'll give you a job as vice president, and you can marry
Kitty and live on Broadway, in Noo York.
I've got over believin' in Sandy Claus, said Luke.
Joel saw little of him during this vacation and less during the
next. Being by nature a hater of despair, he avoided Luke. He had fits
of remorse for this, and once he dared to make a personal appeal to old
Mr. Mellows to send Luke away to school. He was received with scant
courtesy, and only tolerated because he gave the father a chance to
void some of his bile at the worthlessness of Luke.
He's no good; that's what's the matter of him. And willful toohe
just mopes around because he wants to show me I'm wrong. But he's only
cuttin' off his own nose to spite his face. I'll learn him who's got
the most will power.
Joel was bold enough to suggest: Maybe Luke would be differ'nt if
you'd let him go to college. You know, Mr. Mellows, if you'll 'scuse my
saying it, there's some natures that are differ'nt from others. You
hitch a race horse up to a plow and you spoil a good horse and your
field both. Seems to me as if, if Luke got a chance to be a writer or a
professor or something, he might turn out to be a wonder. You can't
teach a canary bird to be a hen, you know, and
Mr. Mellows locked himself in that ridiculous citadel of ancient
folly. When you're as old as I am, Joel, you'll know more. The first
thing anybody's got to learn in this world is to respect their
Joel wanted to say: I should think that depended on the parents.
But, of course, he kept silent, as the young usually do when they
hear the old maundering, and he gave up as he heard the stupid dolt
returning to his old refrain: I left school when I was twelve years
old. Ain't had a day sence, and I can't say as I've been exactly a
failure. Best hardware store in Carthage and holdin' my own in spite of
Joel slunk away, unconvinced but baffled. One summer he brought all
his pressure to bear on Luke to persuade him to run away from his job
and strike out for the big city where the big opportunities grew.
But Luke shook his head. He lacked initiative. Perhaps that was
where his talent was not genius. It blistered him, but it made no
Shakespeare had known enough to leave Stratford. He had had to hold
horses outside the theatre, and even then he had organized a little
business group of horse holders called Shakespeare's boys. He had the
business sense, and he forced his way into the theatre and became a
stockholder. Shakespeare was always an adventurer. He had to work in a
butcher's shop, but before he was nineteen he was already married to a
woman of twenty-six, and none too soon for the first child's sake.
Luke Mellows had not the courage or the recklessness to marry Kitty,
though he had as good a job as Shakespeare's. Shakespeare would not let
a premature family keep him from his ambition.
He was twenty-one when he went to London, but he went.
London was a boom town then, about the size of Trenton, or Grand
Rapids, or Spokane, and growing fast. Boys were running away from the
farms and villages as they always have done. Other boys went to London
from Stratford. John Sadler became a big wholesale grocer and Richard
Field a publisher. They had as various reasons then as now.
But the main thing was that they left home. That might mean a noble
or a selfish ambition, but it took action.
Luke Mellows would not go. He dreaded to abandon his mother to the
father who bullied them both. He could not bear to leave Kitty alone
with the wretched mother who ruled her with tears.
Other boys ran or walked away from Carthage, some of them to become
failures, and some half successes, and some of them to acquire riches
and power. And other boys stayed at home.
Girls, too, had won obscurity by inertia or had swung into fame.
Some of the girls had stayed at home and gone wrong there. Some had
gone away in disgrace, and redeemed or damned themselves in larger
parishes. There were Aspasias and Joans of Arc in miniature, minor
Florence Nightingales and Melbas and Rosa Bonheurs. But they had all
had to leap from the nest and try their wings. Of those that did not
take the plunge, none made the flight.
Cowardice held some back, but the purest self-sacrifice others. Joel
felt that there ought to be a heaven for these latter, yet he hoped
that there was no hell for the former. For who can save himself from
his own timidity, and who can protect himself from his own courage?
Given that little spur of initiative, that little armor of selfish
indifference to the clinging hands at home, and how many a soul might
not have reached the stars? Look at the women who were crowding the
rolls of fame of late just because all womankind had broken free of the
apron strings of alleged respectability.
Joel had no proof that Luke Mellows would have amounted to much.
Perhaps, if he had ventured over the nest's edge, he would have
perished on the ground, trampled into dust by the fameward mob, or
devoured by the critics that pounce upon every fledgling and suck the
heart out of all that cannot fling them off.
But Joel could not surrender his childhood faith that Luke Mellows
had been meant for another Shakespeare. Yet Mellows had never written a
play or an act of a play. But, for that matter, neither had Shakespeare
before he went to London. He was only a poet at first, and some of his
poems were pretty poor stuffif you took Shakespeare's name off it.
And his first poems had to be published by his fellow townsman Field.
There were the childish poems by Luke Mellows that Joel's father had
published in the Carthage Clarion. Joel had forgotten them utterly,
and they were probably meritorious of oblivion. But there was one poem
Luke had written that Joel memorized.
It appeared in the Clarion years after Joel was a success in wool.
His father still sent him the paper, and in one number Joel was
rejoiced to read these lines:
By Luke Mellows
Sometimes at night within a wooded park
Like an ocean cavern, fathoms deep in bloom,
Sweet scents, like hymns, from hidden flowers fume, And make the
wanderer happy, though the dark
Obscures their tint, their name, their shapely bloom.
So, in the thick-set chronicles of fame,
There hover deathless feats of souls unknown.
They linger like the fragrant smoke wreaths blown From liberal
sacrifice. Gone face and name;
The deeds, like homeless ghosts, live on alone.
Wixon, seated in the boat on Avon and lost in such dusk that he
could hardly see his hand upon the idle oar, recited the poem softly to
himself, intoning it in the deep voice one saves for poetry. It sounded
wonderful to him in the luxury of hearing his own voice upon the water
and indulging his own memory. The somber mood was perfect, in accord
with the realm of shadow and silence where everything beautiful and
living was cloaked in the general blur.
After he had heard his voice chanting the last long oh's of the
final verse, he was ashamed of his solemnity, and terrified lest some
one might have heard him and accounted him insane. He laughed at
himself for a sentimental fool.
He laughed too as he remembered what a letter of praise he had
dictated to his astonished stenographer and fired off at Luke Mellows;
and at the flippant letter he had in return.
Lay readers who send incandescent epistles to poets are apt to
receive answers in sardonic prose. The poet lies a little, perhaps, in
a very sane suspicion of his own transcendencies.
Luke Mellows had written:
Dear Old Joel:
I sure am much obliged for your mighty handsome letter. Coming
one of the least successful wool-gatherers in the world from
the most successful wool distributors, it deserves to be
prized. And is. I will have it framed and handed down to my
of which there are more than there will ever be looms.
You ask me to tell you all about myself. It won't take long.
the Butterly Bottlery went bust, I had no job at all for six
months, so I got married to spite my father. And to please
whose poor mother ceased to suffer about the same time.
The poor girl was so used to taking care of a poor old woman
couldn't be left alone that I became her patient just to keep
her talents from going to waste.
The steady flow of children seems to upset the law of supply
demand, for there is certainly no demand for more of my
there is no supply for them. But somehow they thrive.
I am now running my father's store, as the old gentleman had a
stroke and then another. The business is going to pot as
you would expect, but I haven't been able to kill it off quite
Thanks for advising me to go on writing immortal poetry. If I
immortal, I might, but that fool thing was the result of about
years' hard labor. I tried to make a sonnet of it, but I gave
the end of the decade and called it whatever it is.
Your father's paper published it free of charge, and so my
from my poetry has been one-tenth of nothing per annum. Please
don't urge me to do any more. I really can't afford it.
The poem was suggested to me by an ancient fit of blues over
fact that Kit's once-so-beautiful voice would never be heard
song, and by the fact that her infinite goodnesses will never
any recompense or even acknowledgment.
I was bitter the first five years, but the last five years I
to feel how rich this dark old world is in good, brave, sweet,
lovable, heartbreakingly beautiful deeds that simply cast a
fragrance on the dark and are gone. They perfume the night and
busy daylight dispels them like the morning mists that we used
watch steaming and vanishing above the old river. The
is still here, still rolling along its eternal multitudes of
and flowers and fruits and fish and snakes and dead men and
They go where they came from, I guessin and out of nothing
It is a matter of glory to all of us that you are doing so
Keep it up and give us something to brag about in our
Don't worry. We are happy enough in the dark. We have our
sports and our owllike prides, and the full sun would blind us
lose us our way.
Kit sends you her loveand blushes as she says it. That is a
daring word for such shy moles as we are, but I will echo it.
Yours for old sake's sake. Luke.
Vaguely remembering this letter now Joel inhaled a bit of the
merciful chloroform that deadens the pain of thwarted ambition.
The world was full of men and women like Luke and Kit. Some had
given up great hopes because they were too good to tread others down in
their quest. Some had quenched great talents because they were too
fearsome or too weak or too lazy to feed their lamps with oil and keep
them trimmed and alight. Some had stumbled through life darkly with no
gifts of talent, without even appreciation of the talents of others or
of the flowerlike beauties that star the meadows.
Those were the people he had known. And then there were the people
he had not known, the innumerable caravan that had passed across the
earth while he lived, the inconceivable hosts that had gone before,
tribe after tribe, generation upon generation, nation at the heels of
nation, cycle on era on age, and the backward perpetuity from
everlasting unto everlasting. People, people, peoplespoor souls,
until the thronged stars that make a dust of the Milky Way were a
Here in this graveyard at Stratford lay men who might have
overtopped Shakespeare's glory if they had but had a mind to. Some of
them had been held in higher esteem in their town. But they were
forgotten, their names leveled with the surface of their fallen
Had he not cried out in his own Hamlet: O God, I could be bounded
in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not
that I have bad dreamswhich dreams indeed are ambition; for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dreamand I hold
ambition of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow's
After all, the greatest of men were granted but a lesser oblivion
than the least. And in that overpowering thought there was a strange
comfort, the comfort of misery finding itself in an infinite company.
The night was thick upon Avon. The swans had gone somewhere. The
lights in the houses had a sleepy look. It was time to go to bed.
Joel yawned with the luxury of having wearied his heart with
emotion. He had thought himself out for once. It was good to be tired.
He put his oars into the stream and, dipping up reflected stars, sent
them swirling in a doomsday chaos after him with the defiant revenge of
a proud soul who scorns the universe that grinds him to dust.
The old boatman was surly with waiting. He did not thank the
foreigner for his liberal largeness, and did not answer his good night.
As Wixon left the river and took the road for his hotel, the
nightingale (that forever anonymous nightingale, only one among the
millions of forgotten or throttled songsters) revolted for a moment or
two against the stifling doom and shattered it with a wordless sonnet
of fierce and beautiful protestThe tawny-throated! What triumph!
It was as if Luke Mellows had suddenly found expression in something
better than words, something that any ear could understand, an ache
Wixon stopped, transfixed as by flaming arrows. He could not
understand what the bird meant or what he meant, nor could the bird.
But as there is no laughter that eases the heart like unpacking it of
its woes in something beyond wording, so there is nothing that
brightens the eyes like tears gushing without shame or restraint.
Joel Wixon felt that it was a good, sad, mad world, and that he had
been very close to Shakespeareso close that he heard things nobody
had ever found the phrases forthings that cannot be said but only
felt, and transmitted rather by experience than by expression from one
proud worm in the mud to another.
Copyright, 1920, by P. F. Collier &Son, Inc. Copyright, 1921,
by Rupert Hughes.