Abel and His Great Adventure by Lucy Maud
"Come out of doors, master—come out of doors. I can't talk or think
right with walls around me—never could. Let's go out to the garden."
These were almost the first words I ever heard Abel Armstrong say. He
was a member of the board of school trustees in Stillwater, and I had
not met him before this late May evening, when I had gone down to
confer with him upon some small matter of business. For I was "the new
schoolmaster" in Stillwater, having taken the school for the summer
It was a rather lonely country district—a fact of which I was glad,
for life had been going somewhat awry with me and my heart was sore
and rebellious over many things that have nothing to do with this
narration. Stillwater offered time and opportunity for healing and
counsel. Yet, looking back, I doubt if I should have found either had
it not been for Abel and his beloved garden.
Abel Armstrong (he was always called "Old Abel", though he was barely
sixty) lived in a quaint, gray house close by the harbour shore. I
heard a good deal about him before I saw him. He was called "queer",
but Stillwater folks seemed to be very fond of him. He and his sister,
Tamzine, lived together; she, so my garrulous landlady informed me,
had not been sound of mind at times for many years; but she was all
right now, only odd and quiet. Abel had gone to college for a year
when he was young, but had given it up when Tamzine "went crazy".
There was no one else to look after her. Abel had settled down to it
with apparent content: at least he had never complained.
"Always took things easy, Abel did," said Mrs. Campbell. "Never
seemed to worry over disappointments and trials as most folks do.
Seems to me that as long as Abel Armstrong can stride up and down in
that garden of his, reciting poetry and speeches, or talking to that
yaller cat of his as if it was a human, he doesn't care much how the
world wags on. He never had much git-up-and-git. His father was a
hustler, but the family didn't take after him. They all favoured the
mother's people—sorter shiftless and dreamy. 'Taint the way to git on
in this world."
No, good and worthy Mrs. Campbell. It was not the way to get on in
your world; but there are other worlds where getting on is estimated
by different standards, and Abel Armstrong lived in one of these—a
world far beyond the ken of the thrifty Stillwater farmers and
fishers. Something of this I had sensed, even before I saw him; and
that night in his garden, under a sky of smoky red, blossoming into
stars above the harbour, I found a friend whose personality and
philosophy were to calm and harmonize and enrich my whole existence.
This sketch is my grateful tribute to one of the rarest and finest
souls God ever clothed with clay.
He was a tall man, somewhat ungainly of figure and homely of face. But
his large, deep eyes of velvety nut-brown were very beautiful and
marvellously bright and clear for a man of his age. He wore a little
pointed, well-cared-for beard, innocent of gray; but his hair was
grizzled, and altogether he had the appearance of a man who had passed
through many sorrows which had marked his body as well as his soul.
Looking at him, I doubted Mrs. Campbell's conclusion that he had not
"minded" giving up college. This man had given up much and felt it
deeply; but he had outlived the pain and the blessing of sacrifice had
come to him. His voice was very melodious and beautiful, and the brown
hand he held out to me was peculiarly long and shapely and flexible.
We went out to the garden in the scented moist air of a maritime
spring evening. Behind the garden was a cloudy pine wood; the house
closed it in on the left, while in front and on the right a row of
tall Lombardy poplars stood out in stately purple silhouette against
the sunset sky.
"Always liked Lombardies," said Abel, waving a long arm at them. "They
are the trees of princesses. When I was a boy they were fashionable.
Anyone who had any pretensions to gentility had a row of Lombardies at
the foot of his lawn or up his lane, or at any rate one on either side
of his front door. They're out of fashion now. Folks complain they die
at the top and get ragged-looking. So they do—so they do, if you
don't risk your neck every spring climbing up a light ladder to trim
them out as I do. My neck isn't worth much to anyone, which, I
suppose, is why I've never broken it; and my Lombardies never look
out-at-elbows. My mother was especially fond of them. She liked their
dignity and their stand-offishness. They don't hobnob with every
Tom, Dick and Harry. If it's pines for company, master, it's
Lombardies for society."
We stepped from the front doorstone into the garden. There was another
entrance—a sagging gate flanked by two branching white lilacs. From
it a little dappled path led to a huge apple-tree in the centre, a
great swelling cone of rosy blossom with a mossy circular seat around
its trunk. But Abel's favourite seat, so he told me, was lower down
the slope, under a little trellis overhung with the delicate emerald
of young hop-vines. He led me to it and pointed proudly to the fine
view of the harbour visible from it. The early sunset glow of rose and
flame had faded out of the sky; the water was silvery and mirror-like;
dim sails drifted along by the darkening shore. A bell was ringing in
a small Catholic chapel across the harbour. Mellowly and dreamily
sweet the chime floated through the dusk, blent with the moan of the
sea. The great revolving light at the channel trembled and flashed
against the opal sky, and far out, beyond the golden sand-dunes of the
bar, was the crinkled gray ribbon of a passing steamer's smoke.
"There, isn't that view worth looking at?" said old Abel, with a
loving, proprietary pride. "You don't have to pay anything for it,
either. All that sea and sky free—'without money and without price'.
Let's sit down here in the hop-vine arbour, master. There'll be a
moonrise presently. I'm never tired of finding out what a moonrise
sheen can be like over that sea. There's a surprise in it every time.
Now, master, you're getting your mouth in the proper shape to talk
business—but don't you do it. Nobody should talk business when he's
expecting a moonrise. Not that I like talking business at any time."
"Unfortunately it has to be talked of sometimes, Mr. Armstrong," I
"Yes, it seems to be a necessary evil, master," he acknowledged. "But
I know what business you've come upon, and we can settle it in five
minutes after the moon's well up. I'll just agree to everything you
and the other two trustees want. Lord knows why they ever put me on
the school board. Maybe it's because I'm so ornamental. They wanted
one good-looking man, I reckon."
His low chuckle, so full of mirth and so free from malice, was
infectious. I laughed also, as I sat down in the hop-vine arbour.
"Now, you needn't talk if you don't want to," he said. "And I won't.
We'll just sit here, sociable like, and if we think of anything worth
while to say we'll say it. Otherwise, not. If you can sit in silence
with a person for half an hour and feel comfortable, you and that
person can be friends. If you can't, friends you'll never be, and you
needn't waste time in trying."
Abel and I passed successfully the test of silence that evening in the
hop-vine arbour. I was strangely content to sit and think—something I
had not cared to do lately. A peace, long unknown to my stormy soul,
seemed hovering near it. The garden was steeped in it; old Abel's
personality radiated it. I looked about me and wondered whence came
the charm of that tangled, unworldly spot.
"Nice and far from the market-place isn't it?" asked Abel suddenly,
as if he had heard my unasked question. "No buying and selling and
getting gain here. Nothing was ever sold out of this garden. Tamzine
has her vegetable plot over yonder, but what we don't eat we give
away. Geordie Marr down the harbour has a big garden like this and he
sells heaps of flowers and fruit and vegetables to the hotel folks. He
thinks I'm an awful fool because I won't do the same. Well, he gets
money out of his garden and I get happiness out of mine. That's the
difference. S'posing I could make more money—what then? I'd only be
taking it from people that needed it more. There's enough for Tamzine
and me. As for Geordie Marr, there isn't a more unhappy creature on
God's earth—he's always stewing in a broth of trouble, poor man. O'
course, he brews up most of it for himself, but I reckon that doesn't
make it any easier to bear. Ever sit in a hop-vine arbour before,
I was to grow used to Abel's abrupt change of subject. I answered that
I never had.
"Great place for dreaming," said Abel complacently. "Being young, no
doubt, you dream a-plenty."
I answered hotly and bitterly that I had done with dreams.
"No, you haven't," said Abel meditatively. "You may think you have.
What then? First thing you know you'll be dreaming again—thank the
Lord for it. I ain't going to ask you what's soured you on dreaming
just now. After awhile you'll begin again, especially if you come to
this garden as much as I hope you will. It's chockful of dreams—any
kind of dreams. You take your choice. Now, I favour dreams of
adventures, if you'll believe it. I'm sixty-one and I never do anything
rasher than go out cod-fishing on a fine day, but I still lust after
adventures. Then I dream I'm an awful fellow—blood-thirsty."
I burst out laughing. Perhaps laughter was somewhat rare in that old
garden. Tamzine, who was weeding at the far end, lifted her head in a
startled fashion and walked past us into the house. She did not look
at us or speak to us. She was reputed to be abnormally shy. She was
very stout and wore a dress of bright red-and-white striped material.
Her face was round and blank, but her reddish hair was abundant and
beautiful. A huge, orange-coloured cat was at her heels; as she passed
us he bounded over to the arbour and sprang up on Abel's knee. He was
a gorgeous brute, with vivid green eyes, and immense white double
"Captain Kidd, Mr. Woodley." He introduced us as seriously as if the
cat had been a human being. Neither Captain Kidd nor I responded very
"You don't like cats, I reckon, master," said Abel, stroking the
Captain's velvet back. "I don't blame you. I was never fond of them
myself until I found the Captain. I saved his life and when you've
saved a creature's life you're bound to love it. It's next thing to
giving it life. There are some terrible thoughtless people in the
world, master. Some of those city folks who have summer homes down the
harbour are so thoughtless that they're cruel. It's the worst kind of
cruelty, I think—the thoughtless kind. You can't cope with it. They
keep cats there in the summer and feed them and pet them and doll them
up with ribbons and collars; and then in the fall they go off and
leave them to starve or freeze. It makes my blood boil, master."
"One day last winter I found a poor old mother cat dead on the shore,
lying against the skin and bone bodies of her three little kittens.
She had died trying to shelter them. She had her poor stiff claws
around them. Master, I cried. Then I swore. Then I carried those poor
little kittens home and fed 'hem up and found good homes for them. I
know the woman who left the cat. When she comes back this summer I'm
going to go down and tell her my opinion of her. It'll be rank
meddling, but, lord, how I love meddling in a good cause."
"Was Captain Kidd one of the forsaken?" I asked.
"Yes. I found him one bitter cold day in winter caught in the
branches of a tree by his darn-fool ribbon collar. He was almost
starving. Lord, if you could have seen his eyes! He was nothing but a
kitten, and he'd got his living somehow since he'd been left till he
got hung up. When I loosed him he gave my hand a pitiful swipe with
his little red tongue. He wasn't the prosperous free-booter you behold
now. He was meek as Moses. That was nine years ago. His life has been
long in the land for a cat. He's a good old pal, the Captain is."
"I should have expected you to have a dog," I said.
Abel shook his head.
"I had a dog once. I cared so much for him that when he died I
couldn't bear the thought of ever getting another in his place. He was
a friend—you understand? The Captain's only a pal. I'm fond of the
Captain—all the fonder because of the spice of deviltry there is in
all cats. But I loved my dog. There isn't any devil in a good dog.
That's why they're more lovable than cats—but I'm darned if they're
I laughed as I rose regretfully.
"Must you go, master? And we haven't talked any business after all. I
reckon it's that stove matter you've come about. It's like those two
fool trustees to start up a stove sputter in spring. It's a wonder
they didn't leave it till dog-days and begin then."
"They merely wished me to ask you if you approved of putting in a new
"Tell them to put in a new stove—any kind of a new stove—and be
hanged to them," rejoined Abel. "As for you, master, you're welcome to
this garden any time. If you're tired or lonely, or too ambitious or
angry, come here and sit awhile, master. Do you think any man could
keep mad if he sat and looked into the heart of a pansy for ten
minutes? When you feel like talking, I'll talk, and when you feel like
thinking, I'll let you. I'm a great hand to leave folks alone."
"I think I'll come often," I said, "perhaps too often."
"Not likely, master—not likely—not after we've watched a moonrise
contentedly together. It's as good a test of compatibility as any I
know. You're young and I'm old, but our souls are about the same age,
I reckon, and we'll find lots to say to each other. Are you going
straight home from here?"
"Then I'm going to bother you to stop for a moment at Mary Bascom's
and give her a bouquet of my white lilacs. She loves 'em and I'm not
going to wait till she's dead to send her flowers."
"She's very ill just now, isn't she?"
"She's got the Bascom consumption. That means she may die in a month,
like her brother, or linger on for twenty years, like her father. But
long or short, white lilac in spring is sweet, and I'm sending her a
fresh bunch every day while it lasts. It's a rare night, master. I
envy you your walk home in the moonlight along that shore."
"Better come part of the way with me," I suggested.
"No." Abel glanced at the house. "Tamzine never likes to be alone o'
nights. So I take my moonlight walks in the garden. The moon's a great
friend of mine, master. I've loved her ever since I can remember. When
I was a little lad of eight I fell asleep in the garden one evening
and wasn't missed. I woke up alone in the night and I was most scared
to death, master. Lord, what shadows and queer noises there were! I
darsn't move. I just sat there quaking, poor small mite. Then all at
once I saw the moon looking down at me through the pine boughs, just
like an old friend. I was comforted right off. Got up and walked to
the house as brave as a lion, looking at her. Goodnight, master. Tell
Mary the lilacs'll last another week yet."
From that night Abel and I were cronies. We walked and talked and kept
silence and fished cod together. Stillwater people thought it very
strange that I should prefer his society to that of the young fellows
of my own age. Mrs. Campbell was quite worried over it, and opined
that there had always been something queer about me. "Birds of a
I loved that old garden by the harbour shore. Even Abel himself, I
think, could hardly have felt a deeper affection for it. When its gate
closed behind me it shut out the world and my corroding memories and
discontents. In its peace my soul emptied itself of the bitterness
which had been filling and spoiling it, and grew normal and healthy
again, aided thereto by Abel's wise words. He never preached, but he
radiated courage and endurance and a frank acceptance of the hard
things of life, as well as a cordial welcome of its pleasant things.
He was the sanest soul I ever met. He neither minimized ill nor
exaggerated good, but he held that we should never be controlled by
either. Pain should not depress us unduly, nor pleasure lure us into
forgetfulness and sloth. All unknowingly he made me realize that I had
been a bit of a coward and a shirker. I began to understand that my
personal woes were not the most important things in the universe, even
to myself. In short, Abel taught me to laugh again; and when a man can
laugh wholesomely things are not going too badly with him.
That old garden was always such a cheery place. Even when the east
wind sang in minor and the waves on the gray shore were sad, hints of
sunshine seemed to be lurking all about it. Perhaps this was because
there were so many yellow flowers in it. Tamzine liked yellow flowers.
Captain Kidd, too, always paraded it in panoply of gold. He was so
large and effulgent that one hardly missed the sun. Considering his
presence I wondered that the garden was always so full of singing
birds. But the Captain never meddled with them. Probably he understood
that his master would not have tolerated it for a moment. So there was
always a song or a chirp somewhere. Overhead flew the gulls and the
cranes. The wind in the pines always made a glad salutation. Abel and
I paced the walks, in high converse on matters beyond the ken of cat
"I liked to ponder on all problems, though I can never solve them,"
Abel used to say. "My father held that we should never talk of things
we couldn't understand. But, lord, master, if we didn't the subjects
for conversation would be mighty few. I reckon the gods laugh many a
time to hear us, but what matter? So long as we remember that we're
only men, and don't take to fancying ourselves gods, really knowing
good and evil, I reckon our discussions won't do us or anyone much
harm. So we'll have another whack at the origin of evil this evening,
Tamzine forgot to be shy with me at last, and gave me a broad smile of
welcome every time I came. But she rarely spoke to me. She spent all
her spare time weeding the garden, which she loved as well as Abel
did. She was addicted to bright colours and always wore wrappers of
very gorgeous print. She worshipped Abel and his word was a law unto
"I am very thankful Tamzine is so well," said Abel one evening as we
watched the sunset. The day had begun sombrely in gray cloud and mist,
but it ended in a pomp of scarlet and gold. "There was a time when she
wasn't, master—you've heard? But for years now she has been quite
able to look after herself. And so, if I fare forth on the last great
adventure some of these days Tamzine will not be left helpless."
"She is ten years older than you. It is likely she will go before
you," I said.
Abel shook his head and stroked his smart beard. I always suspected
that beard of being Abel's last surviving vanity. It was always so
carefully groomed, while I had no evidence that he ever combed his
grizzled mop of hair.
"No, Tamzine will outlive me. She's got the Armstrong heart. I have
the Marwood heart—my mother was a Marwood. We don't live to be old,
and we go quick and easy. I'm glad of it. I don't think I'm a coward,
master, but the thought of a lingering death gives me a queer sick
feeling of horror. There, I'm not going to say any more about it. I
just mentioned it so that some day when you hear that old Abel
Armstrong has been found dead, you won't feel sorry. You'll remember I
wanted it that way. Not that I'm tired of life either. It's very
pleasant, what with my garden and Captain Kidd and the harbour out
there. But it's a trifle monotonous at times and death will be
something of a change, master. I'm real curious about it."
"I hate the thought of death," I said gloomily.
"Oh, you're young. The young always do. Death grows friendlier as we
grow older. Not that one of us really wants to die, though, master.
Tennyson spoke truth when he said that. There's old Mrs. Warner at the
Channel Head. She's had heaps of trouble all her life, poor soul, and
she's lost almost everyone she cared about. She's always saying that
she'll be glad when her time comes, and she doesn't want to live any
longer in this vale of tears. But when she takes a sick spell, lord,
what a fuss she makes, master! Doctors from town and a trained nurse
and enough medicine to kill a dog! Life may be a vale of tears, all
right, master, but there are some folks who enjoy weeping, I reckon."
Summer passed through the garden with her procession of roses and
lilies and hollyhocks and golden glow. The golden glow was
particularly fine that year. There was a great bank of it at the lower
end of the garden, like a huge billow of sunshine. Tamzine revelled in
it, but Abel liked more subtly-tinted flowers. There was a certain
dark wine-hued hollyhock which was a favourite with him. He would sit
for hours looking steadfastly into one of its shallow satin cups. I
found him so one afternoon in the hop-vine arbour.
"This colour always has a soothing effect on me," he explained.
"Yellow excites me too much—makes me restless—makes me want to sail
'beyond the bourne of sunset'. I looked at that surge of golden glow
down there today till I got all worked up and thought my life had been
an awful failure. I found a dead butterfly and had a little
funeral—buried it in the fern corner. And I thought I hadn't been
any more use in the world than that poor little butterfly. Oh, I was
woeful, master. Then I got me this hollyhock and sat down here to look
at it alone. When a man's alone, master, he's most with God—or with
the devil. The devil rampaged around me all the time I was looking at
that golden glow; but God spoke to me through the hollyhock. And it
seemed to me that a man who's as happy as I am and has got such a
garden has made a real success of living."
"I hope I'll be able to make as much of a success," I said sincerely.
"I want you to make a different kind of success, though, master," said
Abel, shaking his head. "I want you to do things—the things I'd
have tried to do if I'd had the chance. It's in you to do them—if you
set your teeth and go ahead."
"I believe I can set my teeth and go ahead now, thanks to you, Mr.
Armstrong," I said. "I was heading straight for failure when I came
here last spring; but you've changed my course."
"Given you a sort of compass to steer by, haven't I?" queried Abel
with a smile. "I ain't too modest to take some credit for it. I saw I
could do you some good. But my garden has done more than I did, if
you'll believe it. It's wonderful what a garden can do for a man when
he lets it have its way. Come, sit down here and bask, master. The
sunshine may be gone to-morrow. Let's just sit and think."
We sat and thought for a long while. Presently Abel said abruptly:
"You don't see the folks I see in this garden, master. You don't see
anybody but me and old Tamzine and Captain Kidd. I see all who used to
be here long ago. It was a lively place then. There were plenty of us
and we were as gay a set of youngsters as you'd find anywhere. We
tossed laughter backwards and forwards here like a ball. And now old
Tamzine and older Abel are all that are left."
He was silent a moment, looking at the phantoms of memory that paced
invisibly to me the dappled walks and peeped merrily through the
swinging boughs. Then he went on:
"Of all the folks I see here there are two that are more vivid and
real than all the rest, master. One is my sister Alice. She died
thirty years ago. She was very beautiful. You'd hardly believe that to
look at Tamzine and me, would you? But it is true. We always called
her Queen Alice—she was so stately and handsome. She had brown eyes
and red gold hair, just the colour of that nasturtium there. She was
father's favourite. The night she was born they didn't think my mother
would live. Father walked this garden all night. And just under that
old apple-tree he knelt at sunrise and thanked God when they came to
tell him that all was well.
"Alice was always a creature of joy. This old garden rang with her
laughter in those years. She seldom walked—she ran or danced. She
only lived twenty years, but nineteen of them were so happy I've never
pitied her over much. She had everything that makes life worth
living—laughter and love, and at the last sorrow. James Milburn was
her lover. It's thirty-one years since his ship sailed out of that
harbour and Alice waved him good-bye from this garden. He never came
back. His ship was never heard of again.
"When Alice gave up hope that it would be, she died of a broken heart.
They say there's no such thing; but nothing else ailed Alice. She
stood at yonder gate day after day and watched the harbour; and when
at last she gave up hope life went with it. I remember the day: she
had watched until sunset. Then she turned away from the gate. All the
unrest and despair had gone out of her eyes. There was a terrible
peace in them—the peace of the dead. 'He will never come back now,
Abel,' she said to me.
"In less than a week she was dead. The others mourned her, but I
didn't, master. She had sounded the deeps of living and there was
nothing else to linger through the years for. My grief had spent
itself earlier, when I walked this garden in agony because I could
not help her. But often, on these long warm summer afternoons, I seem
to hear Alice's laughter all over this garden; though she's been dead
He lapsed into a reverie which I did not disturb, and it was not until
another day that I learned of the other memory that he cherished. He
reverted to it suddenly as we sat again in the hop-vine arbour,
looking at the glimmering radiance of the September sea.
"Master, how many of us are sitting here?"
"Two in the flesh. How many in the spirit I know not," I answered,
humouring his mood.
"There is one—the other of the two I spoke of the day I told you
about Alice. It's harder for me to speak of this one."
"Don't speak of it if it hurts you," I said.
"But I want to. It's a whim of mine. Do you know why I told you of
Alice and why I'm going to tell you of Mercedes? It's because I want
someone to remember them and think of them sometimes after I'm gone. I
can't bear that their names should be utterly forgotten by all living
"My older brother, Alec, was a sailor, and on his last voyage to the
West Indies he married and brought home a Spanish girl. My father and
mother didn't like the match. Mercedes was a foreigner and a Catholic,
and differed from us in every way. But I never blamed Alec after I saw
her. It wasn't that she was so very pretty. She was slight and dark
and ivory-coloured. But she was very graceful, and there was a charm
about her, master—a mighty and potent charm. The women couldn't
understand it. They wondered at Alec's infatuation for her. I never
did. I—I loved her, too, master, before I had known her a day. Nobody
ever knew it. Mercedes never dreamed of it. But it's lasted me all my
life. I never wanted to think of any other woman. She spoiled a man
for any other kind of woman—that little pale, dark-eyed Spanish girl.
To love her was like drinking some rare sparkling wine. You'd never
again have any taste for a commoner draught.
"I think she was very happy the year she spent here. Our thrifty
women-folk in Stillwater jeered at her because she wasn't what they
called capable. They said she couldn't do anything. But she could do
one thing well—she could love. She worshipped Alec. I used to hate
him for it. Oh, my heart has been very full of black thoughts in its
time, master. But neither Alec nor Mercedes ever knew. And I'm
thankful now that they were so happy. Alec made this arbour for
Mercedes—at least he made the trellis, and she planted the vines.
"She used to sit here most of the time in summer. I suppose that's why
I like to sit here. Her eyes would be dreamy and far-away until Alec
would flash his welcome. How that used to torture me! But now I like
to remember it. And her pretty soft foreign voice and little white
hands. She died after she had lived here a year. They buried her and
her baby in the graveyard of that little chapel over the harbour where
the bell rings every evening. She used to like sitting here and
listening to it. Alec lived a long while after, but he never married
again. He's gone now, and nobody remembers Mercedes but me."
Abel lapsed into a reverie—a tryst with the past which I would not
disturb. I thought he did not notice my departure, but as I opened the
gate he stood up and waved his hand.
Three days later I went again to the old garden by the harbour shore.
There was a red light on a distant sail. In the far west a sunset city
was built around a great deep harbour of twilight. Palaces were there
and bannered towers of crimson and gold. The air was full of music;
there was one music of the wind and another of the waves, and still
another of the distant bell from the chapel near which Mercedes slept.
The garden was full of ripe odours and warm colours. The Lombardies
around it were tall and sombre like the priestly forms of some mystic
band. Abel was sitting in the hop-vine arbour; beside him Captain
Kidd slept. I thought Abel was asleep, too; his head leaned against
the trellis and his eyes were shut.
But when I reached the arbour I saw that he was not asleep. There was
a strange, wise little smile on his lips as if he had attained to the
ultimate wisdom and were laughing in no unkindly fashion at our old
blind suppositions and perplexities.
Abel had gone on his Great Adventure.