English Literature

A Forest Hearth by Charles Major

A Forest Hearth by Charles Major.jpg


On the Heart of the Hearth

A strenuous sense of justice is the most disturbing of all virtues, and those persons in whom it predominates are usually as disagreeable as they are good. Any one who assumes the high plane of “justice to all, and confusion to sinners,” may easily gain a reputation for goodness simply by doing nothing bad. Look wise and heavenward, frown severely but regretfully upon others’ faults, and the world will whisper, “Ah, how good he is!” And you will be good—as the sinless, prickly pear. If the virtues of omission constitute saintship, and from a study of the calendar one might so conclude, seek your corona by the way of justice. For myself, I would rather be a layman with a few active virtues and a small sin or two, than a sternly just saint without a fault. Breed virtue in others by giving them something to forgive. Conceive, if you can, the unutterable horror of life in this world without a few blessed human faults. He who sins not at all, cannot easily find reason to forgive; and to forgive those who trespass against us, is one of the sweetest benedictions of life. I have known many persons who built their moral structure upon the single rock of justice; but they all bred wretchedness among those who loved them, and made life harder because they did not die young.[Pg 14]

One woman of that sort, I knew,—Mrs. Margarita Bays. To her face, or in the presence of those who might repeat my words, I of course called her “Mrs. Bays”; but when I felt safe in so doing, I called her the “Chief Justice”—a title conferred by my friend, Billy Little. Later happenings in her life caused Little to christen her “my Lady Jeffreys,” a sobriquet bestowed upon her because of the manner in which she treated her daughter, whose name was also Margarita.

The daughter, because she was as sweet as the wild rose, and as gentle as the soft spring sun, received from her friends the affectionate diminutive of Rita. And so I shall name her in this history.

Had not Rita been so gentle, yielding, and submissive, or had her father, Tom Bays,—husband to the Chief Justice,—been more combative and less amenable to the corroding influences of henpeck, I doubt if Madam Bays would ever have attained a dignity beyond that of “Associate Justice.” That strong sense of domineering virtue which belongs to the truly just must be fed, and it waxes fat on an easy-going husband and a loving, tender daughter.

In the Bays home, the mother’s righteous sense of justice and duty, which applied itself relentlessly upon husband and daughter, became the weakest sort of indulgence when dealing with the only son and heir. Without being vicious, Tom, Jr., was what the negroes called “jes’ clean triflin’,” and dominated his mother with an inherited club of inborn selfishness. Before Tom’s selfishness, Justice threw away her scales and became maudlin sentiment.

I have been intimately acquainted with the Bays family ever since they came to Blue River settlement from North Carolina, and I am going to tell you the story of the sweetest, gentlest nature God has ever given me to know—Rita Bays. I warn you there will be no heroics in this history, no palaces, no grand people—nothing but human[Pg 15] nature, the forests, and a few very simple country folk indeed.

Rita was a babe in arms when her father, her mother, and her six-year-old brother Tom moved from North Carolina in two great “schooner” wagons, and in the year ’20 or ’21 settled upon Blue River, near the centre of a wilderness that had just been christened “Indiana.”

The father of Tom Bays had been a North Carolina planter of considerable wealth and culture; but when the old gentleman died there were eight sons and two daughters among whom his estate was to be divided, and some of them had to choose between moving west and facing the terrors of battle with nature in the wilderness, and remaining in North Carolina to become “poor white trash.” Tom Bays, Sr., had married Margarita, daughter of a pompous North Carolinian, Judge Anselm Fisher. Whether he was a real judge, or simply a “Kentucky judge,” I cannot say; but he was a man of good standing, and his daughter was not the woman to endure the loss of caste at home. If compelled to step down from the social position into which she had been born, the step must be taken among strangers, that part at least of her humiliation might be avoided.

With a heart full of sorrow and determination, Madam Bays, who even then had begun to manifest rare genius for leadership, loaded two “schooners” with her household goods, her husband, her son, and her daughter, and started northwest with the laudable purpose of losing herself in the wilderness. They carried with them their inheritance, a small bag of gold, and with it they purchased from the government a quarter-section—one hundred and sixty acres—of land, at five shillings per acre. The land on Blue was as rich and fertile as any the world could furnish; but for miles upon miles it was covered with black forests, almost impenetrable to man, and was infested by[Pg 16] wild beasts and Indians. Here madam and her husband began their long battle with the hardest of foes—nature; and that battle, the terrors of which no one can know who has not fought it, doubtless did much to harden the small portion of human tenderness with which God had originally endowed her. They built their log-cabin on the east bank of Blue River, one mile north of the town of the same name. The river was spoken of simply as Blue.

Artistic beauty is not usually considered an attribute of log-cabins; but I can testify to the beauty of many that stood upon the banks of Blue,—among them the house of Bays. The main building consisted of two ground-floor rooms, each with a front door and a half-story room above. A clapboard-covered porch extended across the entire front of the house, which faced westward toward Blue. Back of the main building was a one-story kitchen, and adjoining each ground-floor room was a huge chimney, built of small logs four to six inches in diameter. These chimneys, thickly plastered on the inside with clay, were built with a large opening at the top, and widened downward to the fireplace, which was eight or ten feet square, and nearly as high as the low ceiling of the room. The purpose of these generous dimensions was to prevent the wooden chimney from burning. The fire, while the chimney was new, was built in the centre of the enormous hearth that the flames might not touch the walls, but after a time the heat burnt the clay to the hardness of brick, and the fire was then built against the back wall. By pointing up the cracks, and adding a coat of clay now and then, the walls soon became entirely fireproof, and a fire might safely be kindled that would defy Boreas in his bitterest zero mood. An open wood fire is always cheering; so our humble folk of the wilderness, having little else to cheer them during the long winter evenings, were mindful to be prodigal in the matter of fuel, and often[Pg 17] burned a cord of wood between candle-light and bedtime on one of their enormous hearths. A cord of wood is better than a play for cheerfulness, and a six-foot back-log will make more mirth than Dan Rice himself ever created. Economy did not enter into the question, for wood was nature’s chief weapon against her enemies, the settlers; and the question was not how to save, but how to burn it.

To this place Rita first opened the eyes of her mind. The girl’s earliest memories were of the cozy log-cabin upon the banks of the limpid, gurgling creek. Green in her memory, in each sense of the word, was the soft blue-grass lawn, that sloped gently a hundred yards from the cabin, built upon a little rise in the bottom land, down to the water’s edge. Often when she was a child, and I a man well toward middle life, did I play with the enchanting little elf upon the blue-grass lawn, and drink the waters of perennial youth at the fountain of her sweet babyhood. Vividly I remember the white-skinned sycamores, the gracefully drooping elms, and the sweet-scented honey-locust that grew about the cabin and embowered it in leafy glory. Even at this long distance of time, when June is abroad, if I catch the odor of locust blossoms, my mind and heart travel back on the wings of a moment, and I hear the buzzing of the wild bees, the song of the meadow-lark, the whistle of bob-white, and the gurgling of the creek—all blended into one sweet refrain like the mingling tones of a perfect orchestra by the soft-voiced babble of my wee girl-baby friend. I close my eyes, and see the house amid the hollyhocks and trees, a thin line of blue smoke curling lazily from the kitchen chimney and floating away over the deep, black forest to the north and east. I see the maples languidly turning the white side of their leaves to catch the south wind’s balmy breath, and I see by my side a fate-charged, tiny tot, dabbling in the water, mocking the songs of the birds, and ever turning her[Pg 18] face, with its great brown wistful eyes, to catch the breath of destiny and to hear the sad dread hum of the future. But my old chum Billy Little was the child’s especial friend.

In those good times there was another child, a boy, Diccon Bright, who often came down from his cabin home a mile up river to play with Rita on the blue-grass lawn in summer, or to sit with her on the hearth log in winter. In cold weather the hearth log was kept on one side of the hearth, well within the fireplace itself, ready for use when needed. It gloried in three names, all of which were redolent of home. It was called the “hearth log” because it was kept upon the hearth; the “waiting log” because it was waiting to take the place of the log that was burning, and the “ciphering log” because the children sat upon it in the evening firelight to do their “ciphering”—a general term used to designate any sort of preparation for the morrow’s lesson. In those times arithmetic was the chief study, and from it the acquisition of all branches of knowledge took the name of ciphering.

Diccon—where on earth his parents got the name, I cannot tell—was four or five years older than Rita. He was a manly boy, and when my little friend could hardly lisp his name she would run to him with the unerring instinct of childhood and nestle in his arms or cling to his helpful finger. The little fellow was so sturdy, strong, and brave, and his dark gray eyes were so steadfast and true, that she feared no evil from him, though ordinarily she was a timid child. She would sit by him on the ciphering log during the long winter evenings, and the boy, the girl, and the fire were the best of friends, and had glorious times together on the heart of the cheery hearth. The north wind might blow, the snow might snow, and the cold might freeze, Rita, Dic, and the fire cared not a straw.

“I want no better mirror, my little sweetheart,” he would say, “than your brown eyes; no prettier color than[Pg 19] your rosy cheeks and glossy black hair, and no truer friend than your loving little heart.” And the fire crackled its entire approval.

“Very well, Dic,” she would reply, laughing with delight, “if you really want them, you may have them; they are all yours.” And the fire smiled rosily, beaming its benediction.

“But what will your father and mother say and Tom?” asked Dic.

“We’ll not tell them,” replied this tiny piece of Eve; and the fire almost choked itself with spluttering laughter. So, with the fire as a witness, the compact was made and remade many times, until she thought she belonged to Dic and gloried in her little heart because of it.

Diccon and Rita’s brother, Tom, even during their early childhood, when they were hardly half so tall as the guns they carried, were companion knights in the great wars waged by the settlers against the wild beasts of the forests, and many a bear, wolf, wildcat, and deer fell before the prowess of small Sir Diccon la Valorous and little Sir Thomas de Triflin’. Out of their slaughter grew friendship, and for many years Sir Thomas was a frequent guest upon the ciphering log of Sir Diccon, and Sir Diccon spent many winter evenings on the hearth at Castle Bays.

As the long years of childhood passed, Dic began to visit the Bays home more frequently than Tom visited the Brights’. I do not know whether this change was owing to the increasing age of the boys, or—but Rita was growing older and prettier every day, and you know that may have had something to do with Dic’s visits.

Dic had another boy friend—an old boy, of thirty-five or more—whose name was William Little. He was known generally as Billy Little, and it pleased the little fellow to be so called, “Because,” said he, “persons give the diminutive to fools and those whom they love; and I[Pg 20] know I am not a fool.” The sweetest words in the German language are their home diminutives. It is difficult to love a man whom one must call Thomas. Tom, Jack, and Billy are the chaps who come near to us.

Billy was an old bachelor and an Englishman. His family had intended him for the church, and he was educated at Trinity with that end in view. Although not an irreligious man, he had views on religion that were far from orthodox.

“I found it impossible,” he once remarked, “to induce the church to change its views, and equally impossible to change my own; so the church and I, each being unreasonably stubborn, agreed to disagree, and I threw over the whole affair, quarrelled with my family, was in turn thrown over by them, and here I am, in the wilderness, very much pleased.”

He lived in the little town of Blue River, and was justice of the peace, postmaster, storekeeper, and occasionally school-teacher. He was small in stature, with a tendency to become rotund as he grew older. He took pride in his dress and was as cleanly as an Englishman. He was reasonably willing to do the duty that confronted him, and loved but three forms of recreation,—to be with his two most intimate friends, Rita and Dic, to wander in the trackless forests, and to play upon his piano. His piano was his sweetheart, and often in the warm summer evenings, when his neighbors were in bed, would the strains of his music lull them to sleep, and float out into the surrounding forests, awakening the whippoorwill to heart-rending cries of anguish that would give a man the “blues” for a month. I believe many ignorant persons thought that Billy was not exactly “right in the top,” as they put it, because he would often wander through the forests, night or day, singing to himself, talking to the trees and birds, and clasping to his soul fair nature in her virgin strength and sweetness. He[Pg 21] often communed with himself after this fashion: “I am a fortunate man in the things I love, for I have them to my heart’s content. Rita and Dic are children. I give them knowledge. They give me youth. I touch my piano. It fills my soul with peace. If it gives me a discordant note, the fault is mine. I go to the forest, and sweet Nature takes me in her arms and lulls me to ecstasy.”

Billy Little and I had been college chums, and had emigrated on the same ship. I studied law, entered the practice, married, and have a family. While my wife and family did not mar the friendship between Little and myself, it prevented frequency of intercourse, for a wife and family are great absorbents. However, he and I remained friends, and from him I have most of the facts constituting this story.

This friend of Dic’s was a great help to the boy intellectually, and at fourteen or fifteen years of age, when other boys considered their education complete if they could spell phthisis and Constantinople, our hero was reading Virgil and Shakespeare, and was learning to think for himself. The knowledge obtained from Billy Little the boy tried to impart to Rita. Tom held learning and books to be effeminate and wasteful of time; but Rita drank in Dic’s teaching, with now and then a helpful draught from Billy Little, and the result soon began to show upon the girl.

Thus it was that Dic often went to see Tom, but talked to Tom’s sister. Many an evening, long after Tom had unceremoniously climbed the rude stairway to bed, would the brown-eyed maid, with her quaint, wistful touch of womanhood, sit beside Dic on the ciphering log inside the fireplace, listening to him read from one of Billy Little’s books, watching him trace continents, rivers, and mountains on a map, or helping him to cipher a complicated problem in arithmetic. The girl by no means understood[Pg 22] all that Dic read, but she tried, and even though she failed, she would clasp her hands and say, “Isn’t it grand, Dic?” And it was grand to her because Dic read it.

Lamps were unknown to our simple folk, so the light of the fireplace was all they had to read by. It was, therefore, no uncommon sight in those early cabin homes to see the whole family sitting upon the broad hearth, shading their eyes with their hands, while some one—frequently the local school-teacher—sat upon the hearth log and read by the fire that furnished both light and heat. This reading was frequently Dic’s task in the Bays home.

One who has seen a large family thus gathered upon the spacious hearth will easily understand the love for it that ages ago sprang up in the hearts of men and crickets. At no place in all the earth, and at no time in all its history, has the hearth done more in moulding human character than it did in the wilderness on the north side of the lower Ohio when the men who felled the forest and conquered nature offered their humble devotions on its homely altar.

So it came to pass that Dic and Rita grew up together on the heart of the hearth; and what wonder that their own hearts were welded by the warmth and light of its cheery god. Thus the boy grew to manhood and the girl to maidenhood, then to young womanhood, at which time, of course, her troubles began.

Chief among the earlier troubles of our little maid was a growing tenderness for Dic. Of that trouble she was not for many months aware. She was unable to distinguish between the affection she had always given him and the warming tenderness she was beginning to feel, save in her disinclination to make it manifest. When with him she was under a constraint as inexplicable to her as it was annoying. It brought grief to her tender heart, since it led her into little acts of rudeness or neglect, which in turn always led to tears. She often blamed Dic for the altered[Pg 23] condition, though it was all owing to the change in herself. There was no change in him. He sought the girl’s society as frankly as when they were children, though at the time of which I write he had made no effort to “keep company” with her. She, at fifteen, believing herself to be a young lady, really wished for the advances she feared. Sukey Yates, who was only fourteen, had “company” every Sunday evening, and went to all the social frolics for miles around. Polly Kaster, not sixteen, was soon to be married to Bantam Rhodes. Many young men had looked longingly upon Rita, who was the most beautiful girl on Blue; but the Chief Justice, with her daughter’s hearty approval, drove all suitors away. The girl was wholly satisfied with Dic, who was “less than kin,” but very much “more than kind.” He came to see the family, herself included; but when he went out to social functions, church socials, corn-huskings, and dances he took Sukey Yates, or some other girl, and upon such evenings our own little maiden went to bed dissatisfied with the world at large, and herself in particular. Of course, she would not have gone to dances, even with Dic. She had regard for the salvation of her soul, and the Chief Justice, in whom the girl had unquestioning faith, held dancing to be the devil’s chief instrument of damnation. Even the church socials were not suitable for young girls, as you will agree if you read farther; and Mrs. Margarita, with a sense of propriety inherited from better days, tried to hold her daughter aloof from the country society, which entertained honest but questionable views on many subjects.

Dic paid his informal visit to the Bays household in the evenings, and at the time of the girl’s growing inclination she would gaze longingly up the river watching for him; while the sun, regretful to leave the land, wherein her hero dwelt, sank slowly westward to shine upon those poor waste places that knew no Diccon. When she would see[Pg 24] him coming she would run away for fear of herself, and seek her room in the loft, where she would scrub her face and hands in a hopeless effort to remove the sun-brown. Then she would scan her face in a mirror, for which Dic had paid two beautiful bearskins, hoping to convince herself that she was not altogether hideous.

“If I could only be half as pretty as Sukey Yates,” she often thought, little dreaming that Sukey, although a very pretty girl, was plain compared with her own winsome self.

After the scrubbing she would take from a little box the solitary piece of grandeur she possessed,—a ribbon of fiery red,—and with this around her neck or woven through the waving floods of her black hair, she felt she was bedecked like a veritable queen of hearts. But the ribbon could not remove all doubts of herself, and with tears ready to start from her eyes she would stamp her foot and cry out: “I hate myself. I am an ugly fool.” Then she would slowly climb down the rude stairway, and, as we humble folk would say, “take out her spite” against herself on poor Dic. She was not rude to him, but, despite her inclination, she failed to repay his friendliness in kind as of yore.

Tom took great pleasure in teasing her, and chuckled with delight when his indulgent mother would tell her visiting friends that he was a great tease.

One evening when Rita had encountered more trouble than usual with the sun-brown, and was more than ever before convinced that she was a fright and a fool, she went downstairs, wearing her ribbon, to greet Dic, who was sitting on the porch with father, mother, and Tom. When she emerged from the front door, Tom, the teaser, said:—

“Oh, just look at her! She’s put on her ribbon for Dic.” Then, turning to Dic, “She run to her room and spruced up when she saw you coming.”

Dic laughed because it pleased him to think, at least to[Pg 25] hope, that Tom had spoken the truth. Poor Rita in the midst of her confusion misunderstood Dic’s laughter; and, smarting from the truth of Tom’s words, quickly retorted:—

“You’re a fool to say such a thing, and if—if—if—Mr.—Mr. Bright believes it, he is as great a fool as you.”

“Mr. Bright!” cried de Triflin’. “My, but she’s getting stylish!”

Rita looked at Dic after she spoke, and the pain he felt was so easily discernible on his face that she would have given anything, even the ribbon, to have had her words back, or to have been able to cry out, “I didn’t mean it, Dic; I didn’t mean it.”

But the words she had spoken would not come back, and those she wanted to speak would not come forward, so tears came instead, and she ran to her loft, to do penance in sobs greatly disproportionate to her sin.

Soon Dic left, and as he started up the forest path she tried by gazing at him from her window to make him know the remorse she felt. She wanted to call to him, but she dared not; then she thought to escape unseen from the house and run after him. But darkness was rapidly falling, and she feared the black, terrible forest.

We talk a great deal about the real things of after life; but the real things of life, the keen joys and the keenest pains, come to a man before his first vote, and to a woman before the days of her mature womanhood.


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