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The Heart of the Woods

by Will Allen Dromgoole

1891

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 inscription:—

“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 either picture.

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.

“Donald!”

“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 child.

“You shared your treasures with the other,” he said, indicating the tall shaft.

“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 hesitatingly.

“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 him.”

“As I should go to you, if you were to die, because I cannot live without you.”

“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 die.

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, help me!”

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 her.

“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 Beersheba.

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 forever.

… … … .

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 loved ones.

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 holy spirit.