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Once and Again by Charles Warren Stoddard

Once and again I have nestled in the lap of a small village and wondered at the necessity of any world beyond my peaceful horizon. Once and again, after long years, I have entered the old school-room with the fearful and impatient heart of a boy: I have paced the play-ground and gone to and fro in the village streets singing, but the song I once sang came not again to my lips, for it no longer suited the time or the occasion.

I thought to take up the thread of life where I had dropped it near a score of years before, and complete the web which fancy had embroidered with many a flower of memory and hope and love. I had forgotten that the loom weaves steadily and persistently whether my hand be on it or not, and that I can never mend the rent in the fabric I so long neglected.

My record elsewhere is replete with numerous accidents by flood and field—with the epochs of meetings and marryings, of births and deaths. Meanwhile, the friends who had held fast to me through all these changes wrote ever in the selfsame vein, and plotted for my return with such even and sturdy faith that I had grown to look upon them as having drunk at the fountain of immortal youth.

Of course the delectable spring gushed out of the heart of one of those dear old hills that walled in the village, for how else could they have quaffed it? The bones of more than two centuries pave the highway between New England and California. As jubilant as young Lochinvar, I came out of the West one summer dawn, and took train for Heartsease. I had resolved to compass in a single week the innumerable landmarks that dot mountain and desert and prairie—to leap as it were from sea to sea, from the present to the past, from manhood to early youth.

Is it any wonder that I forestalled the time, and was a day and a night distant before inquiring friends discovered my flight? Is it any wonder that the shrieking and swaying train seemed slow to me, for already my spirit had folded its swift wings in the nest-like village of Heartsease? I had, moreover, by this brilliant manoeuvre, left the bitter cup of parting untasted—but nothing more serious than this—and seemed to have won a whole day from the clutches of Time, who deals them out so stingily to the expectant and impatient watcher.

San Francisco faces the sunrise, but there is a broad glittering bay and a coast range with brawny bare shoulders between them: I sailed over the flashing water, rode under the mountains and threaded three tunnels before I began to realize that I was a fugitive from home. It was midsummer; the car-windows were half open; whiffs of warm wind blew in upon me scented with bay-leaves and sage. For a moment I forgot Heartsease and the home of my youth, and turned tenderly to take a last farewell of the beloved land of my adoption. The corn was cut and stacked in long dusty rows: it looked like a deserted camp; the grain was down; small squirrels skipped lightly over the shining stubble, whisking their bushy tails like puffs of smoke. It seemed to me that no fairer land ever baked in summer's sunshine. Even the parched earth, with its broken and powdered crust, was lovely in my eyes. Small day-owls sat in the corners of the fences, when there were any fences to sit in, and nodded to me from behind their feather masks: all the birds of the air taunted me with heads on one side and drooping wings. I might escape trusting humanity and steal away betimes, but these airy messengers waylaid me and chirped a sarcastic adieu from every field we crossed.

In the compulsory solitude of travel a man is thrown back upon himself: at any rate, I am, and with waning courage and a growing regret I sank into a corner of my seat by the window, and glowered at the interminable slices of landscape that slid past me on both sides of the rocking train. Have you ever noted the refrain of the flying wheels as they hurry from town to town? There is a sharp shriek from the locomotive, and a groan from one end of the train to the other, as if every screw were rheumatic and nothing but a miracle held it in its place. Then the song begins, very slowly at first, and in the old familiar strain: "Ko—ka—chi—lunk, ko—ka—chilunk, koka—chilunk, kokachilunk," repeated again and again, varied only when the short rails are crossed, where it adds a few extra syllables in this style: "Kokachilunk—chilunk, chilunk," growing faster and faster every moment until the utmost speed is attained: it then soars into this impressive refrain: "Lickity-cut, lickity-cut, lickity-cut, lickity-cut," repeated as often and as rapidly as possible. All the world goes by in two dizzy landscapes, yet the song is unvaried until you approach a town with a straggling and unfinished edge, where the houses are waltzing about as if they had not yet decided upon any permanent location. Here you slacken speed and drop into a third movement, as monotonous as the others and far more drowsy, for it suggests all that is soothing and nerve-relaxing and sleep-begetting. It is "Killi-kinick, killi—kinick, killi—kin—nick; eh! ah! bang!" A long groan from the wheels, a deep sigh from the locomotive, and you are stockstill at some inland hamlet that knows no emotion greater than that occasioned by your arrival.

To this dull accompaniment I climbed out of the golden lowlands, the basins of the San Joaquin and the Sacramento, into the silver mountains where the full moon was just rising. The train seemed to soar through space; we passed from cliff to cliff, above dark ravines, on bridges like spider-webs; we whirled around sharp corners as if we had started for some planet, but thought better of it and clung to earth, with our hair on end and half the breath out of our bodies. We were continually ascending; the locomotive panted hideously; every throb of the powerful machine sent a shudder through the whole length of the train.

Again and again we paused: it seemed that we could not go farther without rest. Sometimes we hung on the edge of a chasm in whose fathomless shadow were buried a forest and a stream, both of which sent upward to us a fragrant and melodious greeting; sometimes we rested under a mighty mountain, whose adamantine brow scowled upon us, and we were glad when we once more resumed the toilsome ascent of the Sierras and escaped unharmed from that giant's lair.

Once we tarried on the brink of a wild cañon. Midnight and silence seemed to slumber there: the moon flooded one half the mysterious gulf with light, revealing a slender waterfall whose plash was faintly heard: it served only to make the silence more profound. Near at hand the torn and ragged earth, robbed of its treasure, looked painful even in that softening light. On the dark side of the cañon, in among the trees, a flame danced. I saw the gaunt forms of rough-clad men gathered about the camp-fire, and beyond them a rude cabin of un-barked logs, looking cheerful enough in the rosy light.

There was nothing lovelier than this or more characteristic in the glorious ride over the Sierras—not even the lake, above whose green shores we rushed with half a mountain between us; nor the ice-gorges, nor the black forests, nor the chaos of rock and ravine that has defied the humanizing touch of time. I felt the burden of the mountains then, and it is for ever associated with a memory of the high Sierras, caught and fixed as we swept onward into the wild, wide snow-lands.

The burden of the mountains: There shall come a day when the ravine for the silver is drained and the gold-seekers turn from thee disconsolate, but thy years are unnumbered and thy strength unfailing: the grass shall cover thy nakedness and the pine-boughs brood over thee for ever and ever; the clouds shall visit thee and the springs increase; the snows shall gather in the clefts of thy bosom; thy breasts shall give nourishment, thy breath life to the fainting, and the sight of thy face joy. The people shall go up to thee and build in thy shadow; their flocks shall feed in peace: out of thy days shall come fatness, and out of thy nights rest, for thou hast that within thee more precious than silver, yea, better than much fine gold.

When the burden was past I looked out into the night. A soft wind was stirring; I scented the balsam of the piny woods; the moon had descended beyond the crest of the mountain, and above me the sky was flooded with pale and palpitating stars. We slid out of the mountains into the broad Humboldt desert one cloudless day: it was like getting on the roof of the world—the great domed roof with its eaves sloping away under the edges of heaven, and whereon there is nothing but a matting of sagebrush, looking like grayish moss, and a deep alkali dust as white and as fine as flour.

There were but two features in the landscape on which to fix the eye, and these were infrequent—the dusty beds of the dead rivers and the wind-sculptured rocks. It was the abomination of desolation: the air was thin, but spicy; the sky was bare. When we had followed with eager glance the shadow-like gazelle in his bounding flight, and brought the heavy-headed buffalo to a momentary stand, with his small evil eye fixed upon us, he wheeled suddenly and disappeared in a cloud of dust; and we were alone in the desert.

Those mellow hours by the inland sea, where sits the Garden City, with its wide grass-grown streets and its vine-veiled cottages basking in summer sunshine, were precious indeed! We had ample opportunity for developing philosophy, sentiment and politics at one sitting. Coming out of the fair and foul refuge of the fleshly saints, I thought of the wisdom of the French poet who once said to me, "Oui, monsieur: life is an oasis in which there is many a desert." In the unfruitful shoots of those thorn-bearing vines and withered fig trees I learned the burden of the desert: Though it blossom as the rose, if it yield not honey it shall be laid waste; though it deck itself with beauty, though it sing with the voice of the charmer, its fairness is a mock and its song is the song of the harlot. Harbor it not in your hearts. Let it be purged of uncleanness, let the stain be washed from it. Though the builders build cunningly, they have builded in vain. There is blood on their lintels, and their hearts are full of lust. He that sits in the seat of the scornful and is girded about with pride, let him fall as the tree falls, even the king of the forest, for there is rottenness at the core.

Like pilgrims in the earthly paradise we ploughed the long grass of the prairies; like a fiery snake our train trailed over the flowering land; its long undulations were no impediment; the grassy billows parted before us; we cleft the young forests that have here and there sprung up at the call of patient husbandry; myriads of wild-fowl wheeled over the fragrant and boundless fields; every flower in the floral calendar seemed at home in those meadow-lands of the world: the sunset was not more glorious than the gentle slopes that swept to our feet like a long wave of the sea, and then broke in a foam of flowers. Not only was the delicious day promise-crammed, but the night, loud with the chirp of the cricket and the cry of the sentinel owl, seemed the realization of some splendid dream.

Out of the redundant and prophetic life of that land I heard a prophecy, and the prophecy was the burden of the prairies. It is the chant of the future, full of life and hope. I see now rows of men and women, the toilers of the earth; they have planted forests and the strong wind is stayed; they have broken the soil and the grain is breast-high; they are merry, for they are free, and their stores increase with the years. Wine and oil are their portion, and fat kine and all manner of cunning workmanship; their cities are greater and better than the old cities, for they are builded on virgin soil; and the day shall come when the jubilee of the prairies will assemble the hosts from the borders of the two seas, and they will hear their praises sung and receive tribute, for the strength of the land is theirs.

And we came into other countries that were full of people, and of cities great and small. A thousand strange faces were turned upon us as we shot past the open doors of houses wherein the table was spread for the domestic meal. We hailed the field-laborers and the town-artisans at their toil, and every hour plunged deeper and deeper into the old civilization of the East, which in some respects differs greatly from that of our breezy West. It was time to be thinking on my journey's end and its probable results. I seemed to read it all beforehand: Ellen would greet me at the gate of the parsonage on the edge of Heartsease, looking just as she looked when I parted with her long, long years before. Ellen had not changed with time: she had written me the same sweet, placid, sympathetic letters from the beginning, and the beginning was when, a mere child, I had worn out my heart with longing for home, and had at last been welcomed back over the two seas and across the slender chain of flowers that binds the two Americas together—back to the land I love, California. Ellen would lead me in all the old paths; we would see the garden in which, as a beautiful boy, I more than once sought her to confess some grief, knowing there was no ear so willing as hers, no heart tenderer, no counsel more comforting. We would row up the stream that runs under the hill by the willows, and strand in the same shallow nook, in honor of the festal Saturdays dead and gone. We would gather the old friends about us, and eat very large apples by the study-window; we would hunt nests in the hayloft and acorns in the wood; the school-room would take us back again, and all the half-obliterated memories of the past would glow with fresher color. A hundred hands would be stretched out to me, and I would recognize the clasp of each. Ah, happy day when I again returned to Heartsease and found the lost thread of my youth unbroken, and I had only to weave on and complete the fabric so long neglected!

There were a dozen trains to enter and get out of before I could be whirled across the country to Heartsease. Now that Heartsease was easily attainable, all the restless world would be fleeing thither, and it would no longer be worthy of its name. I felt my way from town to town, pausing an hour here, another hour there, in an impatient mood, for the last train was behind time, and I feared I should not arrive in the village at the moment of all others I most desired to. Why should I not come at sunset to the parsonage—one from the land of the sunset wearing, as it were, his colors on his heart? The hour is so mysterious and pathetic—the very hour to step in upon the village, for so you can gloat over it all night, before the sun has laid the whole truth bare to you on the following morning. And moreover I had not written Ellen of my intended visit: why should I, when she had been looking for me these ten years at least? Why should I say, "At last I am coming," when a thousand things might have prevented me? Was it not better to walk up the long road from the station at twilight, pass silently through the quiet, familiar streets, and then, as I approached the gate of the parsonage, discover a form waiting there as if expecting some one, but whom it was hard to say? Drawing nearer, I would recognize the form, slender and graceful, and then the face, placid and pale, with the soft hair drawn smoothly over the temples and the thin hands folded in peace. Oh yes, it was much better thus.

At the last change of trains, ten miles from Heartsease, a heavy summer shower was drenching the town; the very rain was hot, and the earth steamed lustily. I feared, my plan was spoiled, my meeting at the gate after long years of patient and hopeful waiting. But the rain passed over, and I was again under way. Now every inch of the land was familiar: I recognized old houses and barns and strips of fence and streams that had not been in my mind once in all these years. I knew every block of forest that had been left on the border of the upland fields, and all the meadows, marshy or dry: the very faces of the people seemed to recall some one I had known before. The hills were like lessons learned by heart; and now I came upon the actual haunts of my school-boy days—the wood where we gave our picnics; the red house, a little out of the village, where one of the boys lived—strangely enough, the house I remembered, but the boy's looks and name had gone from me—and then the train stopped. I felt a tingling sensation, as if the blood were coming to the surface all over me.

A switchman, and a stranger, waved us welcome with a yard of flaming bunting. I hurried out of the car and alighted within half a mile of Heartsease. On the platform, where I had parted with my schoolmates fifteen years before, I waited till the train had passed onward and out of sight. I was alone: the switchman asked no odds of me, but furled his bunting and immediately withdrew. For a moment I looked about me in bewilderment. I think I could have turned back had I been encouraged to do so, for I felt half guilty in thus surprising my friends. A moment later I plucked up heart and struck into the road that leads up to the village.

The road has a margin of grass and weeds, and there are meadows on both sides. I walked in the very middle of it, with my portmanteau in my hand, and looked straight ahead. Before me lay the village, a cluster of white houses embowered in trees. It was sunset; the rain had washed the leaves and laid the dust in the road; the air was exquisitely fragrant and of uncommon softness; the white spire of the village church, flanked by a long line of poplars, was gilded with a sunbeam, but the lowly roofs of the villagers were bathed in the radiant twilight that had deepened under the western hills. Cattle were lowing in the meadows; the crickets chirped everywhere; a barbed swallow clove the air like an arrow whose force is nigh spent; and a child's voice rang out on the edge of the village as clear as a clarion. I paused and laughed aloud. I was mad with joy; an exquisite thrill ran through me; it seemed to me that the most delicious moment of my life had come.

I entered the village a boy again, with all the wild ambition of a boy and with a boy's roguish spirit. I resolved to play upon them at the parsonage. If Ellen were not at the gate waiting for me, I would enter as a stranger and remain a season before throwing off disguise. I would cunningly lead the conversation from topic to topic until we came naturally to the past, and there in the past my shadow would appear, and then at the right moment I would throw myself at Ellen's feet and bury my head in her lap and weep for very joy.

These dreams beguiled me as I drew near the village. My step was buoyant; I scarcely felt the weight of my portmanteau; I was drunk with expectation and delight. In the village I found the streets and houses and signs for the most part unchanged, but I looked in vain for a familiar face. A few lads were playing about "the corners," and when I saw them it suddenly occurred to me that all those youngsters under fifteen were not born when I was a schoolboy in Heartsease. I turned away from them with a feeling of unutterable disappointment. Why should not all my playmates be married or dead or have moved out of the village if changes had come to it? I had not thought much of change in this connection, and it was a hard blow.

A faint flush was in the evening sky: it was the afterglow, and in its light I pressed onward toward the parsonage. A hollow in the road, through which a stream rippled, lay between me and the grove that sheltered Ellen's home: I hastened down it, and began climbing the easy ascent on the other side of the stream. I seemed to grow years older with every step I took, for I knew that the change which comes to all must have come to me in like measure, though I was a boy again when I came up the road laughing and heard the first sweet village voice.

There was no form at the gate awaiting me, but the house was quite unaltered, and I knew every leaf in the garden. The flush in the sky had turned to gold and the air throbbed with light as I hid my portmanteau under the rosebush by the gate and stole up to the study-door. I would not give so palpable a clew to my identity as that: I wished to appear like one who had dropped in for a moment to ask the hour or the loan of a late journal. I rapped at the shutters that enclosed the outer door, and waited in a tremor of expectation: there was no response. Again I rapped, and again waited in vain for a reply.

The shadows deepened in the grove; a thin light sifted down through the leaves and fell upon the doorstep in pale disks that seemed to tremble with agitation and suspense. I grew uneasy, and feared it was not wise of me to have come without announcement, and my heart beat heavily. I walked nervously to the side of the house and glanced in at the deep bow-window; a shadow crossed the room: it was Ellen's shadow, and unchanged, thank God! I knew she would not change, for she was one whom time wearied not and fear fretted not, but to whom all things were alike welcome, inasmuch as they came from the Hand that can work no ill.

I returned to the study-door and rapped again, and then grew suddenly much excited: I almost wished I had not summoned her so soon, but already I heard her step upon the carpet, her hand on the latch and the shutters swung apart. I strove to calm myself and ask carelessly if she were at home, when I thought I saw a difference in the form and face before me: they were so like Ellen's, but not hers. Had it been in my power to do so, I would have turned at that moment and gone out into the world without questioning any one: I would gladly have avoided any revelation of ill that might have befallen that household, and gone on as before, thinking it was well with them. But it was too late: at the same instant we recognized one another.

"Is it Emma?" I asked fearfully.

"You are not—"

Ah, yes, it was he who had promised all these years to come, and had come at last!

Then she added, "You have come too late: Ellen left us one week ago."

I knew what that meant: it was the leaving that takes all along with it, and there remains nothing but a memory instead. It was the leaving that lays bare the heart of hearts, and strikes blind and dumb the agonized soul—the leaving and the leave-taking that is all bitterness, call it by what name you will—that makes weak, the strong and confounds the wise, and strikes terror to the breast of stone—the leaving which is the leaving off of everything that is near and dear and familiar, and the taking on of all that is new and strange—Death! Death! at the thought of which even the Son of God faltered and cried, "If it be possible let this cup pass from Me," alone in that wild night in the garden, with watching and prayers and tears.

I had dreamed out my dream: it was glorious while it lasted, but I wakened to a reality that was as cruel as it was unexpected.

Emma was a mere child when I left Heartsease: she had grown into the living image of her sister. Whenever Emma spoke I seemed to hear the voice and feel the presence of the one who had been gone a whole week when I came in search of her. I entered the stricken home: father, mother and maiden aunt—that good angel of all homes—were to me as if I had parted with them but yesterday. We sat in silence for a time: it seemed to me that if any one spoke there the very walls of the house would distill sorrowful drops. Our hearts were brimming, our lips were quivering, with inexpressible grief. It was a solemn and a holy hour; the night closed in about us with unutterable tenderness; the summer stars shed down their radiant beams.

The vesper-song of some invisible bird called me into the garden, and I walked there alone. Did I walk utterly alone? A spirit was with me. I wandered out to the gate and drew my portmanteau from its hiding-place: I placed my hand upon the latch; the gate swung easily, but I paused a moment. Shall I go or shall I stay? asked my heart: "Stay," said the spirit that was with me. I returned to the house and joined in the evening meal: sorrow sat at the board with us, but not a hopeless sorrow. The magnetism of her touch had not yet left that home: it never need, it never will leave it, for it is treasured there. Her piano was closed, and I would not open it: any harmony would have been too harsh for the hallowed silence of the place. Her books, her pictures, her dainty needlework, her words—all that had been a part of her life—still lived, though she had left us.

Those were sweet days to me. Emma and I went side by side to the old haunts—to most of them, but not all, for there were some I cared no longer to revisit. Before we had compassed the narrow limits of Heartsease I began to wonder if there was a stone left that would give back to me the impression of my early days: they all told another story now, and most of them a sad one. Even the school-room was as a dead thing, though I sat on the old benches and mounted the rostrum whereon I was wont to "speak my piece" with much trepidation of spirit and an inexplicable weakness of the knees. I wrote my name on the wall in an obscure corner, simply because I didn't want it to be stricken off from the roll entirely, and then turned back into the street with less regret than I had reckoned on.

Of all the old friends I had known in boyhood, I saw but two besides Emma—two sisters whose histories were strange and wonderful. They greeted me as of yore, and we talked of the past with pity mingled with delight. Dick, my old chum, Emma's soldier-brother, was miles and miles away: not a boy of all our tribe was left in Heartsease to tell me the story of the past. I began to be glad that it was so, for the great gulf that lay between me and the boy I had been seemed to render up no ghosts but were shrouded in sorrow.

There was one spot I might have visited, but did not: it seemed to me better to wander to and fro about the dear old parsonage with the living spirit near me, and to go out again into the world with the softened influences of that lessened but unbroken circle consoling me, than to seek the new grave that had not yet had time to clothe itself with violets, and the sight of which could have given me nothing but pain. By and by, I thought, let me return, and when it has healed over and is sweet with summer flowers I will sprinkle rue upon it and breathe her name. I went back from Heartsease like the bearer of strange news. We had all sat together and thought, rather than uttered, the memories of the past: they weighed me down, but they were precious freights. When I looked once more, and for the last time, upon the darling village drowsing in the sunshine, I felt that I had learned the burden of the hearth: Not length of days is given, but the sweetness and strength thereof: their memory shall live even though the dead be dust. Out of the loam of this corrupting body springs heavenward the invisible blossom of the soul. You have watered it with tears: let the performance thereof comfort you. Though ye die, yet shall ye live: thus saith the Lord. But shall the old days delight us and the past live? Yea, verily, saith the Spirit—once, but never again!