The Heart of the Woods
by Will Allen
Twilight fell softly over Beersheba, beautiful Beersheba. It is going
into history now with its sad old fancies and its quaint old
legends,—its record of happiness and of heartbreak,—those two
opposing, yet closely interwoven inevitables which always belong to
a summer resort.
But Beersheba is different from the rest, in that the railroads have
never found it; and it goes into history a monument to the old days
when the wealthy among the southern folk flocked to the mountains, and
to Beersheba—queen of the hill country of Tennessee.
The western sky, where it seemed to slope down toward Dan, had turned
to gaudy orange; the east was hazy and dimly purple, streaked with
long lines of shadow, resembling, in truth, some lives we remember to
have noticed, lives that for all the sombre purple were still blotched
with the heavier shadows of pain that is never spoken.
It was inexpressibly lonely; true, a cowbell tingled in the distance,
and now and then a fox barked in a covert of Dark Hollow, that almost
impenetrable jungle that lies along the “Back Bone,” a narrow, zigzag
ridge stretching from Dan to Beersheba.
Dan, modest little Dan, seven furlongs distant from queenly Beersheba,
with its one artistic little house refusing in spite of time and
weather, and that more deadly foe, renters, to be other than pretty
and picturesque, as it nestles like a little gray dove in its nest of
cedar and wild pine. A very dreamful place is Dan, dreamful and safe.
Safe, so thought the man leaning upon the low fence that inclosed the
old ante-bellum graveyard that was a part of Beersheba also. For in
the olden days people came by families and family connections,
bringing their servants and carriages. And those who died at Beersheba
were left sleeping in the little graveyard—a quiet spot, shut in by
old cedars and rustling laurel. A very solemn little resting-place,
with the cedars moaning, and the winds soughing, as if in continual
lament for the dead left to their care. Among the quiet sleepers was
one concerning whom the man leaning upon the fence never tired of
thinking, while he made, by instinct it seemed to him, a daily
pilgrimage to her grave. It was marked by a long, narrow shaft,
exceedingly small at the top. Midway the shaft a heart, chased out of
the yellow, moss-stained marble, a heart pierced by a bullet. He had
brushed the moss aside long ago to read the quaint yet fascinating
“Millicent—April, 1862. ‘Oh, Shiloh! Shiloh!’”
He had heard the story of the sleeper underneath often, often. It is
one of the legends now, of Beersheba. Yet he thought of it with
peculiar interest, that twilight time, as he stood leaning upon the
low fence while the sun set over Dan. His face, with the after-glow of
sunset full upon it, was not a face in keeping with the quiet scene
about him. It was not a youthful face, although handsome. Yet the
lines upon it were not the lines made by time: a stronger enemy than
time had left his mark there. Dissipation was written in the ruddy
complexion, the bloated flesh, and the bloodshot eye. The continual
movement of the hand feeling along the whitewashed plank, or
fingering, unconsciously, the trigger of the loaded rifle, testified,
in a dumb way, to the derangement of the nervous system which had been
surrendered to that most debasing of all passion, drink. He had sought
the invigorating mountains, the safety of isolation, to do for him
that which an abused and deadened will refused to do. It is a
terrible thing to stand alone with the wreck of one’s self. It is
worse to set the Might-Have-Been side by side with the Is, and
know that it is everlastingly too late to alter the colorings of
His was an hereditary passion, an iniquity of the father visited
upon the son. Against such there is no law, and for such no remedy.
He thought bitterly of these things as he stood leaning upon the
graveyard fence. His life was a graveyard, a tangle of weeds, a plat
of purposes overgrown with rank despair. He had struggled since he
could remember. All his life had been one terrible struggle. And now,
he knew that it was useless, he understood that the evil was
hereditary, and to conquer it, or rather to free himself from it,
there was but one alternative. He glanced down at the rifle resting
against his knee. He did not intend to endure the torture any very
great while longer. He possessed the instincts of a gentleman,—the
cravings of a beast. The former had won him something of friends and
sympathy,—and love. The latter had cost him all the other had won.
For coming across the little graveyard in a straight line with the
shadows of the old cedars, her arms full of the greens and tender wild
blossoms of the mountain, was the one woman he had loved. She had done
her best to “reform” him. The world called it a “reform.” If reform
meant a new birth, that was the proper name for it, he thought, as he
watched her coming down the shadow-line, and tried to think of her as
another man’s wife; this woman he loved, and who had loved him.
He saw her stop beside a little mound, kneel down, and carefully
dividing her flowers, place the half of them upon a child’s grave. Her
face was wet with tears when she arose, and crossing over to the tall,
yellow shaft, placed the remainder of the offering at its base. She
stood a moment, as if studying the odd inscription. And when she
turned away he saw that the tears were gone, and a hopeless patience
gave the sweet face a tender beauty.
“‘Oh, Shiloh! Shiloh!’”
He heard her repeat the melancholy words as she moved away from the
old shaft, and opening the gate he waited until she should pass out.
“I couldn’t help it, Alice. You are going away to-morrow; it is the
last offence. You will forgive it because it is the last.”
“You ought not to follow me in this way, it isn’t honorable. See! I
have been to put some flowers on my little baby’s grave.” She glanced
back, as she stood, her hand upon the gate, at the little
flower-bedecked grave where two months before she had buried her only
“You shared your treasures with the other,” he said, indicating the
“I always do,” said she. “There is something about that grave that
touches me with singular pity. I feel as if it were myself who is
buried there. I think the girl must have died of a broken heart.”
“Have you never heard the story?” said Donald. “I suppose it might be
called a broken heart, although the doctors gave it the more agreeable
title of ‘heart disease.’ It is very well for the world that doctors
do not call things by their right name always. Now, if I should be
found dead to-morrow morning in my little room at Dan, the doctors
would pronounce me a victim of ‘apoplexy,’ or ‘heart failure.’ That
would be very generous of the doctors so far as I am concerned. But
would it not be more generous to struggling humanity to say the truth:
‘This man died of delirium tremens,—killed himself with whiskey.
Now you other sots take warning.’”
“Donald Rives!” the sad eyes, full of unspoken pity, not unmixed with
regret, sought his.
“Truth,” said Donald. “And truth, Alice, is always best. The world,
the sick moral world, cannot be healed with falsehood. But the woman
sleeping there—she has a pretty story. Will you wait while I tell
it—you are going away to-morrow.”
She glanced down the road, dim with the twilight.
“The others are gone on to Dan, to see the moon rise,” she said
“We will follow them there in a moment,” said Donald. “I have a fancy
for telling you that story.”
He laughed, a nervous, mirthless kind of laugh, and slipped his rifle
to his other hand.
“She had a lover in the army, you understand. She was waiting here
with hundreds of others until ‘the cruel war should cease.’ One day
when there had been a great battle, a messenger came to Beersheba,
bringing news for her. He brought a letter, and she came across the
little court there at Beersheba, and received it from the messenger’s
own hand. She tore it open and read the one line written there. Then
the white page fluttered to the ground. She placed her hands upon her
heart as if the bullet had pierced her. ‘Oh, Shiloh! Shiloh!’ That was
all she said or did. The ball from old Shiloh did its work. The next
day they buried her up there under the cedars. The letter had but one
line: ‘Shot at Shiloh, fatally,’ and signed by the captain of the
company who had promised to send news of the battle. Just a line; but
enough to break a heart. Hearts break easily, sweetheart.”
She looked at him with her earnest eyes full of tears.
“Do you think hers broke?” she asked. “I do not. She merely went to
“As I should go to you, if you were to die, because I cannot live
“Hush! I am nothing to you now. Only a friend who loves you, and would
help you if she could, but she is powerless.”
“O Alice, do not say that. Do not give me over in that hopeless way to
ruin. Do not abandon me now.”
“Donald,” the voice was very low, and sweet, and—strong. “There was
a time I thought to help you. I did my best and—failed. It is too
late now. I am married. You who could not put aside your passion for
the girl whose heart was yours, and whom you loved sincerely, could
not, assuredly, put it by for the woman whose love, and life, and duty
are pledged to another. Yet, you know I feel for you. You know what it
is to be tempted, so alas! do I. Wait! stand back. There is this
difference. You know what it is to yield; but I have that little
mound back there”—she nodded toward the little flower-decked
grave,—“the dead help me, the sleeper underneath is my strength. If
I were dead now, I would come to you, and help you. Do that which,
living, I failed in doing. Come, now; let us go on and see yon moon
rise over Dan. The others have gone long ago.”
They passed out, and the little gate swung to its place. The dead at
Beersheba were left alone again. Left to their tranquil slumbers.
Tranquil? Aye, it is only the living who are eager and unhappy.
Down the shadowy road they passed, those two whose lives had met, and
mingled, and parted again. Those two so necessary to each other, and
who, despite the necessity, must touch hands and part.
‘Tis said God makes for every human soul a counterpart, a soul-helper.
If this be so, then is it true that every soul must find its
counterpart, since God does not work by half, and knows no bungling in
His work. That other self is somewhere,—on this earth, or else in
some other sphere. The souls are separated, perhaps, by death, or even
by some human agency. What of that? Soul will seek soul; will find its
counterpart and perform its work, its own half share, though death and
vast eternity should roll between.
They passed on, those two wishing for and needing each the other.
Wishing until God heard, and made the wish a prayer, and answered it,
in His own time and manner.
At the crossing of the roads where one turns off to Dan, the mountain
preacher’s little cabin stood before them. Nothing, and yet it had a
bearing on their lives. On his, at all events.
Before the door, leaning upon the little low gate, an old man with
white hair and beard was watching the gambols of two children playing
with a large dog. The cabin, old and weatherworn, the man, the
tumbledown appearance of things generally, formed a strange contrast
with the magnificence of nature visible all around. To Donald, with
his southern ideas of ease and elegance, there was something repulsive
in the scene. But the woman was evidently more charitable.
“Good evening, parson,” she called, “we are going over to Dan to watch
the moon rise.”
“Yes, yes,” said the old man. “An’ hadn’t ye better leave the gun,
sir? There’s no use luggin’ that to Dan. An’ ye’ll find it here ‘ginst
you come back.”
“Why, we’re going back another route,” they told him; not dreaming
what that route would be.
“You have a goodly country, parson,” said Donald, “and so near heaven
one ought to find peace here.”
“It be not plentiful,” said the old man. “An’ man be born to trouble
as the sparks go upward. But all be bretherin, by the grace o’ God,
an’ bound alike for Canaan.”
They passed on, bearing the old man’s meaning in their hearts. All
bound upon one common road for Canaan.
Oh, Israel! Israel! the wandering in the wilderness still goes on. The
Promised Land still lies ahead, and wanderers in earth’s wilderness
still seek it, panting and dying with none to strike a rock in Horeb.
The Promised Land! what glimpses of that glorious country are
vouchsafed, mere glimpses, from those rugged heights, such as were
granted him, who, weary with his wanderings, sought Pisgah’s top to
Sometimes, when the mists are lifted and the sun shines through the
rifted clouds, what dreams, what visions, what communion with those
whom the angels met upon the mountain. They thought upon it, those
two, as they passed on to Dan.
To Dan, through the broad gate artistically set with palings of green
and white. Under the sweet old cedars deep down into the heart of the
woods, with the solemn mountains rising, grim and mysterious, in the
twilight. Down the great bluff where the tinkle of falling water tells
of the spring hidden in the dim wood’s shadowy heart. The golden
arrows of sunset are put out one by one by the shadow-hands of the
twilight hidden in the haunted hemlocks. One star rises above the
tree’s and peeps down to find itself quivering in the dusky pool. A
little bird flits by with an evening hymn fluttering in its throat.
They stopped at the foot of the bluff and seated themselves upon a
fallen tree, the rifle resting, the stock upon the ground, the muzzle
against the tree, between them.
Between them, the loaded rifle. She herself had placed it there. They
had scarcely spoken, but words are weak; feeling is strong—and
silent. His heart was breaking; could words help that? It was she
who spoke at last, nestling closer to him a moment, then quickly
drawing back. Her hand had touched the iron muzzle of the gun—it was
cold, and it reminded her. She drew her hands together and folded
them, palm to palm, between her knees, and held them there, lest the
sight of his agony drag them from duty and honor. She could not bear
to look at him, she could only speak to him, with her eyes turned away
toward the distant mountains.
“Donald,” her voice was low and very steady, “there are so many
mistakes made, dear, and my marriage was one of them. But, the blunder
having been committed, I must abide by it. And who knows if, after
all, it be a mistake? Who can understand, and who dares judge God’s
plans? But right cannot grow from wrong. We part. But I shall not
leave you, Donald. Here in the heart of the woods—”
“Don’t!” he lifted his face, white with agony. “Your suffering can but
increase mine. Go back, dear, and forget. Our paths crossed too late,
too late. Go back, and leave me to my lonely struggles. I shall miss
you, oh, my beloved,—” the words choked him, “forget, forget—”
“Never!” again she moved toward him, and again drew back. The iron
muzzle had touched her shoulder, warningly. She still held her hands
fast clasped between her knees. Suddenly she loosed them; opened them,
looked at them; so frail, so small, so delicately womanly as they
were. He, too, saw them, the dear hands, and made a motion to clasp
them, restrained himself, and groaned. She understood, and her whole
soul responded. The old calm was gone; the wife forgotten. It was only
the woman that spoke as she slipped from her place beside him, to
the ground at his feet; and extended the poor hands toward him.
“Donald, O Donald!” she sobbed. “Look at my hands. How frail they are,
and weak, and white, and clean. Aye, they are clean, Donald. Take
them in your own; hold them fast one moment, for they are worthy. But
oh, my beloved, if they falter or go wrong, those little hands, who
would pity their polluted owner? Not you, oh, not you. I know the
sequel to such madness. Help me to keep them clean. Help me—oh,
She lifted them pleadingly, the tears raining down her cheeks. She,
the strong, the noble, appealing to him. In that moment she became a
saint, a being to be worshipped afar off, like God.
“Help me!” She appealed to him, to his manhood which he had supposed
dead so long the hollow corpse would scarcely hear the judgment trump.
Her body swayed to and fro with the terrible struggle. Aye, she knew
what it was to be tempted. She who would have died for that poor
drunkard’s peace. But that little mound—that little child’s grave on
the hill—“Help me!” She reeled forward and he sprang to clasp her.
The rifle slipped its place against the log; but it was between them
still; the iron muzzle pointed at her heart. There was a flash, a
sharp report, and she fell, just missing the arms extended to receive
“O my God!” the cry broke from him, a wild shriek, torn from his
inmost heart. “O my God! my God! I have killed her. Alice! oh, speak
to me! speak to me before my brain goes mad.” He had dropped beside
her, on his knees, and drawn the poor face to his bosom. She opened
her eyes and nestled there, closer to his heart. There was no iron
muzzle between them now. She smiled, and whispered, softly:—
“In the heart of the woods. O Love; O Love!”
And seeing that he understood, she laid her hand upon his bosom,
gasped once, and the little hands were safe. They would never “go
wrong” now, never. Even love, which tempts the strongest into sin,
could never harm them now, those little dead hands.
“In the heart of the woods.” It was there they buried her, beside that
broken-hearted one whose life went with the tidings from old Shiloh,
in the little mountain graveyard in the woods between Dan and
As for him, her murderer, they said, “the accident quite drove him
mad.” Perhaps it did; he thought so, often; only that he never called
it by the name of accident.
“It was God’s plan for helping me,” he told himself during those slow
hours of torture that followed. There were days and weeks when the
very mention of the place would tear his very soul. Then the old
craving returned. Drink; he could forget, drown it all if only he
could return to the old way of forgetting. But something held him
back. What was it? God? No, no. God did not care for such as he, he
told himself. He was alone; alone forever now. One night there was a
storm, the cedars were lashed and broken, and the windows rattled and
shook with the fury of the wind. The rain beat against the roof in
torrents. The night was wild, as he was. Oh, he, too, could tear, and
howl, and shriek. Tear up the very earth, he thought, if only he let
his demon loose.
He arose and threw on his clothes. He wanted whiskey; he was tired of
the struggle, the madness, the despair. A mile beyond there was a
still, an illicit concern, worked only at night. He meant to find it.
His brain was giving way, indeed. Had already given way, he thought,
as he listened to the wind calling him, the storm luring him on to
destruction. The very lightning beckoned him to “come and be healed.”
Healed? Aye, he knew what it was that healed the agonies of mind which
physics could not reach. He knew, he knew. He had been a fool to think
he would forego this healing.
He laughed as he tore open the door and stepped out into the night.
The cool rain struck upon his burning brow as he plunged forward into
the arms of the darkness. He had gone but two steps when the fever
that had mounted to his brain began to cool. And the wind—he paused.
Was it speaking to him, that wild, midnight wind? “‘In the heart of
the woods. O Love, O Love!’”
There was a shimmery glister of lightning among the shadowy growth.
Was it a figure, a form of a woman beckoning him, guiding him. He
turned away from the midnight still, and followed that shimmery light,
straight to the little graveyard in the woods, and fell across the
little new mound there, and sobbed like a child that has rebelled and
yielded. A soft presence breathed among the shadows; a soft presence
that crept to his bosom when he opened his arms, his face still
pressed against the soft, new sod. A strange, sweet peace came to him,
such as he had never felt before, filling him with restful, chastened,
and exquisite sadness. The storm passed by after awhile, and the rain
fell softly—as the dew falls on flowers. And he arose and went home,
with the chastened peace upon him, and the old passionate pain gone
… … … .
But as the summers drifted by, year after year, he returned. He became
a familiar comer to the humble mountain folk, where summer twilight
times they saw him leaning on the parson’s little gate, conversing
with the old man of the “Promised Land” toward which, as “brethren,”
they were travelling. Sometimes they talked of the blessed dead—the
dear, dear dead who are permitted to return to give help to their
Aye, he believes it, knows it, for the old temptation assails him no
more forever. That is enough to know.
And in the heart of the woods in the dewy twilight, or at the solemn
midnight, she comes to meet him, unseen but felt, and walks with him
again along the way from Dan to Beersheba. He holds communion with her
there, and is satisfied and strengthened.
God knows, God knows if it be true, she meets him there. But life is
no longer agony and struggle with him. And often when he starts upon
his lonely walks, he hears the wind passing through the ragged cedars
with a low, tremulous soughing and bends his ear to listen. “In the
heart of the woods, O Love, O Love.”
And he understands at last how to those passed on is vouchsafed a
power denied the human helper, and that she who would have been his
guide and comforter now gave him better guardianship—a watchful and a