A COUNTRY IDYL.
IN THE midst of New England mountains, covered with pine and cedar, lies the quiet town of Nineveh, looking towards the sea. Years ago it had mills where lumber was sawed and grain was ground; but now the old wheels alone are left, the dams are broken, and the water falls over the scattered rocks, making music in harmony with the winds among the pines. The houses have gone to decay; the roofs have fallen in, leaving the great, rough chimneys standing like the Druid towers of Ireland.
In one of these old houses, before the young men of New England had gone West to seek their fortunes, lived a miller and his wife. The Crandall family were happy, save that no children had come into the home. Finally a sister of the wife died, bequeathing her little girl to the Nineveh household.
Nellie Crandall grew from babyhood the picture of health, an innocent, cheerful girl, in sweet accord with the daisies of the fields and the old-fashioned flowers she cared for in her foster-mother’s garden.
In the house across the way lived John Harding, a tall, awkward boy, the pride of the country school for his good scholarship, and in principle as strong as the New England hills he lived among.
John and Nellie had played together from childhood. He had made chains for her neck of the pine needles; she had fastened golden coreopsis in his homespun coat; and, while no word had been spoken, the neighboring people expected that a new house would sometime be built in Nineveh, and a young couple begin anew the beautiful commonplaces of life.
There was considerable excitement one morning in the quiet town. Byron Marshall, a city youth, had come to Nineveh to visit the Monroe family, cousins of the Hardings. Byron was a handsome, slender lad, well-mannered, just leaving college and ready for a profession. He met Nellie Crandall, and was pleased with the natural country girl.
“No good’ll come of it,” said one of the old ladies of Nineveh. “I never believed in mismating. John Harding would give his life for that girl, while the city youth, I know, is a selfish fellow.”
The summer wore away with rides and picnics, and if John’s heart was pained at the attentions given to Nellie, and accepted by her, he said nothing.
After Byron’s return to the city a correspondence was begun by him.
One Sunday evening, when John came as usual to see Nellie, and they were sitting in the moonlight beside the old mill at the bridge, he said abruptly, “I’m going away from home, Nellie. I have begun to think you wouldn’t mind since Byron came.”
“But I do mind,” said the girl. “I like Bryon, and he seems fond of me; but, John, I don’t want you to go, we’ve been such good friends.”
“Yes, but we must be all in all to each other or I can’t stay. I’ve loved you all these years with never a thought of another. I’ve loved every flower in your garden because you have tended it. This old mill seems precious because you have sat here. All Nineveh is sacred to me because it is your home, but I cannot stay here now.”
Nellie was young; she had seen little of the world, did not know the true from the false, and, half captivated with the college youth, she dare not give her promise to John.
They parted in the moonlight, he heavy of heart at going and she regretting that two loved her. John went to a distant State and found employment. No word came from him, and Nellie, who missed him sadly, depended more than ever on the letters which came from Byron.
The next summer Byron spent at Nineveh, and it was talked about the little town that Nellie was engaged, and would soon be a city lady, living in comfort and prominence.
Two years later there was a wedding at the Crandall home, and the pretty bride said good-by to the old mill and the great pines, and left the miller and his wife desolate. Two years afterwards, when she brought back a little son, named Samuel, after the miller, they were in a measure comforted, though they never liked Byron as well as John, “who was of their kind.”
When John Harding knew that Nellie was really lost to him and married to another, he, longing for companionship, married a worthy girl, prospered in business, and was as happy as a man can be who does not possess the power to forget. He had learned what most of us learn sooner or later—that life does not pass according to our plan, plan we ever so wisely; that, broken and marred, we have to take up the years and make the mosaic as perfect as we can.
As time passed some of the Nineveh families died, and some moved away to other and busier scenes. Samuel Crandall had been laid in the little cemetery, and Mrs. Crandall was more lonely than ever.
One night there came a wagon to the door, and Nellie Marshall, her face stained with tears, alighted, with her three children. “We have come to stay, mother,” said the broken-hearted woman. “Byron has gone, nobody knows where. He has used the money of others, and we are penniless.”
Mrs. Crandall wept on her daughter’s neck, as she told somewhat of the hardships of her life with her unfaithful and dishonest husband.
Other years passed, and another grave was made beside that of Samuel Crandall, and Mrs. Marshall, now grown white-haired, lived for her three children, and reared them as best she could in their poverty.
One day there was a rumor in the town that John Harding was coming to Nineveh on a visit. He was well-to-do now, and would come in a style befitting his position. Mrs. Marshall wondered if he would call upon her, and if he would bring Mrs. Harding to see the woman so changed from her girlhood in looks, but nobler and sweeter in character.
Mr. Harding had been in Nineveh for a week. Nellie Marshall had heard of it, and her heart beat more quickly at any footstep on the threshold. One moonlight night she could not resist putting just one spray of golden coreopsis in the buttonhole of her black dress, for if he should come that night he would like to see it, perhaps; for, after all, women do not forget any more than men.
About eight o’clock there was a knock at the door; she was agitated. “Why should I be? He is married,” she assured herself.
She opened the door, and John, grown stouter in form and more attractive in face than ever, stood before her. He met her cordially, talked with the children, and seemed more joyous than when a boy.
“And where is Mrs. Harding?” Nellie finally found the courage to ask.
“She is not with me,” was the answer.
The call, really a long one, seemed short.
“When do you leave for the West, Mr. Harding?” She had almost said “John,” for she had thought of him all these years by the old familiar name.
“Not for two or three weeks, and I shall see you again.”
Day after day passed, and he did not come. And now she realized, as she had never before, that this was the only man she had ever loved; that his presence made day, his absence night; that she had loved him from childhood. And now all was too late.
The time came for him to return to the West, and once more he stood by the flower-beds along the walk to the Nineveh house, this time just as the sun was setting over the cedars. He kissed the children. “I have none of my own,” he said, and took Nellie’s hand, holding it a little longer than he had held it before. Her lips trembled, and her eyes must have told all her heart.
“I have felt so deeply for you,” he said; and his own voice grew tremulous. “And will you let me leave this little remembrance for the children?” He slipped a roll of bills into her hand, and was gone in a moment.
Weeks passed, and finally a letter came. She knew the handwriting. What could John wish of her? Perhaps he was inclined to adopt one of her children, and, if so, which could she spare?
Not the oldest boy, for he was her pride; not the second, a girl, who was her comfort and companion; not the youngest, for somehow he looked like John, and he was dearer to her than all beside. When Byron was unkind her heart always turned to John, and perchance stamped her thoughts upon the open, frank face of her youngest child.
She put the letter in her pocket; she must be calm before she read it. She would go out and sit by the mill where he and she sat together. She opened it there and read:
My dear old-time Friend: I am alone in the world. I told you my wife was not with me. She died some years ago. I wanted to see if you loved me, as I believed you did. I hope and believe you do still. You know me better than any one else, and you know whether I should care tenderly for your children. If you are willing to come and brighten my home, say so. How I longed to fold you in my arms as I left you, but restrained myself! Telegraph me if I shall come to take you.
A message was sent from Nineveh: “Come.”
The Crandall home has fallen like the others. The flower-beds have vanished, save here and there a self-sown golden coreopsis grows among the weeds. The moon shines silently upon the mill as of old. The few remaining aged people of Nineveh still tell of the faithful love of John Harding for the miller’s adopted daughter.
Categories: English Literature