In the shadow of the bridge a boy lay reading on the grass,—a slender lad, broad-browed and clear-eyed, barefooted and clad in homespun, yet happy as a king; for health sat on his sunburned cheeks, a magic book lay open before him, and sixteen years of innocence gave him a passport to the freshest pleasures life can offer.
"Nat! Nat! come here and see!" cried a shrill voice from among the alders by the river-side.
But Nat only shook his head as if a winged namesake had buzzed about his ears, and still read on. Presently a twelve-years child came scrambling up the bank, dragging a long rod behind her with a discontented air.
"I wish you'd come and help me. The fish won't bite and my line is in a grievous snarl. Don't read any more. I'm tired of playing all alone."
"I forgot you, Ruthy, and it was ill done of me. Sit here and rest while I undo the tangle," and Nat looked up good-naturedly at the small figure before him, with its quaint pinafore, checked linen gown, and buckled shoes; for this little maid lived nearly a hundred years ago and this lad had seen Washington face to face.
"Now tell me a story while I wait. Not out of that stupid play-book you are always reading, but about something that really happened, with naughty children and nice folks in it, and have it end good," said Ruth, beginning a dandelion chain; for surely it is safe to believe that our honored grandmothers enjoyed that pretty pastime in their childhood.
Nat lay in the grass, dreamily regarding the small personage who ruled him like a queen and whom he served with the devotion of a loyal heart. Now the royal command was for a story, and, stifling a sigh, this rustic gentleman closed the book, whose magic had changed the spring morning to a Midsummer Night's Dream for an hour, and set himself to gratify the little damsel's whim.
"You liked the last tale about the children who were lost. Shall I tell one about a child who was found? It really happened, and you never heard it before," he asked.
"Yes; but first put your head in my lap, for there are ants in the grass and I like to see your eyes shine when you spin stories. Tell away."
"Once upon a time there was a great snow-storm," began Nat, obediently pillowing his head on the blue pinafore.
"Whereabouts?" demanded Ruth.
"Don't spoil the story by interrupting. It was in this town, and I can show you the very house I'm going to tell about."
"I like to know things straight along, and not bounce into a snow-storm all in a minute. I'll be good. Go on."
"Well, it snowed so hard that people stayed indoors till the storm had beat and blown itself away. Right in the worst of it, as a farmer and his wife sat by the fire that night, they heard a cry at the door. You see they were sitting very still, the man smoking his pipe and the woman knitting, both thinking sorrowfully of their only son, who had just died."
"Don't have it doleful, Nat," briskly suggested Ruth, working busily while the narrator's hands lay idle, and his eyes looked as if they actually saw the little scene his fancy conjured up.
"No, I won't; only it really was like that," apologized Nat, seeing that sentiment was not likely to suit his matter-of-fact auditor. "When the cry came a second time, both of these people ran to the door. No one was to be seen, but on the wide step they saw a little mound not there an hour before. Brushing off the snow, they found a basket; and, when they opened it, there lay a little baby, who put out its arms with a pitiful cry, that went to their hearts. The woman hugged it close, fed it, and hushed it to sleep as if it had been her own. Her husband let her do as she liked, while he tried to find where it came from; but no trace appeared, and there was no name or mark on the poor thing's clothes."
"Did they keep it?" asked Ruth, tickling Nat's nose with a curly dandelion stem, to goad him on, as he lay silent for a moment.
"Yes, they kept it; for their hearts were sore and empty, and the forlorn baby seemed to fill them comfortably. The townsfolk gossiped awhile, but soon forgot it; and it grew up as if it had been born in the farmer's house. I've often wondered if it wasn't the soul of the little son who died, come back in another shape to comfort those good people."
"Now don't go wandering off, Nat; but tell me if he was a pretty, nice, smart child," said Ruth, with an eye to the hero's future capabilities.
"Not a bit pretty," laughed Nat, "for he grew up tall and thin, with big eyes and a queer brow. He wasn't 'nice,' either, if you mean good, for he got angry sometimes and was lazy; but he tried,—oh! yes, he truly tried to be a dutiful lad. He wasn't 'smart,' Ruth; for he hated to study, and only loved story books, ballads, and plays, and liked to wander round alone in the woods better than to be with other boys. People laughed at him because of his queersome ways; but he couldn't help it,—he was born so, and it would come out."
"He was what Aunt Becky calls shiftless, I guess. She says you are; but I don't mind as long as you take care of me and tell me stories."
The boy sighed and shook his head as if a whole swarm of gnats were annoying him now. "He was grateful, anyhow, this fellow I'm telling about; for he loved the good folks and worked on the farm with all his might to pay them for their pity. He never complained; but he hated it, for delving day after day in the dirt made him feel as if he was nothing but a worm."
"We are all worms," Deacon Hurd says; "so the boy needn't have minded," said Ruth, trying to assume a primly pious expression, that sat very ill upon her blooming little face.
"But some worms can turn into butterflies, if they get a chance; so the boy did mind, Ruthy." And Nat looked out into the summer world with a longing glance, which proved that he already felt conscious of the folded wings and was eager to try them.
"Was he a God-fearing boy?" asked Ruth, with a tweak of the ear; for her friend showed signs of "wandering off" again into a world where her prosaic little mind could not follow him.
"He didn't fear God; he loved Him. Perhaps it was wrong; but somehow he couldn't believe in a God of wrath when he saw how good and beautiful the world was and how kind folks were to him. He felt as if the Lord was his father, for he had no other; and when he was lonesomest that thought was right comfortable and helpful to him. Was it wrong?" asked Nat of the child.
"I'm afraid Aunt Becky would think so. She's awful pious, and boxed my ears with a psalm-book last Sabbath, when I said I wished the lions would bite Daniel in the den, I was so tired of seeing them stare and roar at him. She wouldn't let me look at the pictures in the big Bible another minute, and gave me a long hymn to learn, shut up in the back bed-room. She's a godly woman, Deacon Hurd says; but I think she's uncommon strict."
"Shall I tell any more, or are you tired of this stupid boy?" said Nat, modestly.
"Yes, you may as well finish. But do have something happen. Make him grow a great man, like Whittington, or some of the story-book folks, it's so nice to read about," answered Ruth, rather impatiently.
"I hope he did something better than trade cats and be lord mayor of London. But that part of the story hasn't come yet; so I'll tell you of two things that happened, one sad and one merry. When the boy was fourteen, the good woman died, and that nearly broke his heart; for she had made things easy for him, and he loved her dearly. The farmer sent for his sister to keep house, and then the boy found it harder than ever to bear his life; for the sister was a notable woman, well-meaning, but as strict as Aunt Becky, and she pestered the lad as Aunt pesters me. You see, Ruthy, it grew harder every year for him to work on the farm, for he longed to be away somewhere quiet among books and learned folk. He was not like those about him, and grew more unlike all the time, and people often said: 'He's come of gentle blood. That's plain to see.' He loved to think it was true,—not because he wanted to be rich and fine, but to find his own place and live the life the Lord meant him to. This feeling made him so unhappy that he was often tempted to run away, and would have done it but for the gratitude that kept him.
"Lack-a-daisy! What a bad boy, when he had good clothes and victuals and folks were clever to him! But did he ever find his grand relations?" asked Ruth, curiosity getting the better of the reproof she thought it her duty to administer.
"I don't know yet. But he did find something that made him happier and more contented. Listen now; for you'll like this part, I know. One night, as he came home with the cows, watching the pretty red in the sky, hearing the crickets chirp, and picking flowers along the way, because he liked to have 'em in his room, he felt uncommon lonesome, and kept wishing he'd meet a fairy who'd give him all he wanted. When he got to the house, he thought the fairy had really come; for there on the door-stone stood a little lass, looking at him. A right splendid little lass, Ruth, with brown hair long upon her shoulders, blue eyes full of smiles, and a face like one of the pink roses in Madam Barrett's garden."
"Did she have good clothes?" demanded Ruth, eagerly, for this part of the tale did interest her, as Nat foretold.
"Let me see. Yes, nice clothes; but sad-colored, for the riding-cloak that hung over her white dimity frock was black. Yet she stood on a pair of the trimmest feet ever seen, wearing hose with fine clocks, and silver buckles in the little shoes. You may believe the boy stared well, for he had never seen so pretty a sight in all his days, and before he knew it he had given her his nosegay of sheepsbane, fern, and honeysuckle. She took it, looking pleased, and made him as fine a courtesy as any lady; whereat he turned red and foolish, being shy, and hurried off into the barn. But she came skipping after, and peeped at him as he milked, watched how he did it for a bit, and then said, like a little queen, 'Boy, get up and let me try.' That pleased him mightily; so, taking little madam on his knee, he let her try. But something went amiss, for all at once Brindle kicked over the pail, away went the three-legged stool, and both the milkers lay in the dirt."
"Why, Nat! why, Nat! that was you and I," cried Ruth, clapping her hands delightedly, as this catastrophe confirmed the suspicions which had been growing in her mind since the appearance of the child.
"Hush! or I'll never tell how they got up," said Nat, hurrying on with a mirthful face. "The boy thought the little maid would cry over her bruised arm or go off in a pet at sight of the spoilt frock. But no; she only laughed, patted old Brindle, and sat down, saying stoutly, 'I shall try again and do it right.' So she did, and while she milked she told how she was an orphan and had come to be Uncle Dan's girl all her life. That was a pleasant hearing for the lad, and he felt as if the fairy had done better by him than he had hoped. They were friends at once, and played cat's cradle on the kitchen settle all the evening. But, when the child was put to bed in a strange room, her little heart failed her, and she fell a-sobbing for her mother. Nothing would comfort her till the boy went up and sang her to sleep, with her pretty hand in his and all her tears quite gone. That was nigh upon two years ago; but from that night they were fast friends, and happier times began for the boy, because he had something to love and live for besides work. She was very good to him, and nowhere in all the world was there a dearer, sweeter lass than Nat Snow's little maid."
During the latter part of this tale "founded upon fact," Ruth had been hugging her playmate's head in both her chubby arms, and when he ended by drawing down the rosy face to kiss it softly on the lips it grew a very April countenance, as she exclaimed, with a childish burst of affection, curiosity, and wonder,—
"Dear Nat, how good you were to me that night and ever since! Did you really come in a basket, and don't you know any thing about your folks? Good lack! And to think you may turn out a lord's son, after all!"
"How could I help being good to you, dear? Yes, I'll show you the very basket, if Aunt Becky has not burnt it up as rubbish. I know nought about my folk, and have no name but Snow. Uncle Dan gave me that because I came in the storm, and the dear mother added Nathaniel, her own boy's name, since I was sent to take his place, she said. As for being a lord's son, I'd rather be a greater man than that."
And Nat rose up with sudden energy in his voice, a sudden kindling of the eyes, that pleased Ruth, and made her ask, with firm faith in the possibility of his being any thing he chose,—
"You mean a king?"
"No, a poet!"
"But that's not fine at all!" and Ruth looked much disappointed.
"It is the grandest thing in the world! Look now, the man who wrote this play was a poet, and, though long dead, he is still loved and honored, when the kings and queens he told about would be forgotten but for him. Who cares for them, with all their splendor? Who does not worship William Shakespeare, whose genius made him greater than the whole of them!" cried Nat, hugging the dingy book, his face all aglow with the beautiful enthusiasm of a true believer.
"Was Master Shakespeare rich and great?" asked Ruth, staring at him with round eyes.
"Never rich or great in the way you mean, or even famous, till after he was dead."
"Then I'd rather have you like Major Wild, for he owns much land, lives in a grand house, and wears the finest-laced coat in all the town. Will you be like him, please, Nat?"
"No, I won't!" answered the lad, with emphatic brevity, as the image of the red-faced, roystering Major passed before his mind's eye.
His bluntness ruffled his little sovereign's temper for a moment, and she asked with a frown,—
"What do you think Aunt Becky said yesterday, when we found ever so many of your verses hidden in the clothes-press, where we went to put lavender among the linen?"
"Something sharp, and burnt the papers, I'll warrant," replied Nat, with the resignation of one used to such trials.
"No, she kept 'em to cover jam-pots with, and she said you were either a fool or a genus. Is a genus very bad, Nat?" added Ruth, relenting as she saw his dreamy eyes light up with what she fancied was a spark of anger.
"Aunt Becky thinks so; but I don't, and, though I may not be one, sooner or later folks shall see that I'm no fool, for I feel, I know, I was not born to hoe corn and feed pigs all my life."
"What will you do?" cried Ruth, startled by the almost passionate energy with which he spoke.
"Till I'm twenty-one I'll stay to do my duty. When the time comes, I'll break away and try my own life, for I shall have a right to do it then."
"And leave me? Nay, I'll not let you go." And Ruth threw her dandelion chain about his neck, claiming her bondsman with the childish tyranny he found so sweet.
He laughed and let her hold him, seeing how frail the green links were; little dreaming how true a symbol it was of the stronger tie by which she would hold him when the time came to choose between liberty and love.
"Five years is a long time, Ruthy. You will get tired of my odd ways, and be glad to have me go. But never fret about it; for, whatever happens, I'll not forget you."
Quite satisfied with this promise, the little maid fell to sticking buttercups in the band of the straw hat her own nimble fingers had braided, as if bent on securing one crown for her friend. But Nat, leaning his head upon his hand, sat watching the sunshine glitter on the placid stream that rippled at his feet, with such intentness that Ruth presently disturbed him by demanding curiously,—
"What is it? A kingfisher or a turtle?"
"It's the river, dear. It seems to sing to me as it goes by. I always hear it, yet I never understand what it says. Do you?"
Ruth fixed her blue eyes on the bluer water, listened for an instant, then laughed out blithely, and sprung up, saying,—
"It sings: 'Come and fish, Nat. Come and fish!'"
The boy's face fell, the dreamy look faded, and, with a patient sort of sigh, he rose and followed her, leaving his broken dream with his beloved book among the buttercups. But, though he sat by Ruth in the shadow of the alder-bushes, his rod hung idly from his hand, for he was drawing bright fancies from a stream she never saw, was dimly feeling that he had a harder knot to disentangle than his little friend's, and faintly hearing a higher call than hers, in the ripple of the river.
Five years later Ruth was in the dairy making up butter, surrounded by tier above tier of shining pans, whence proceeded a breath as fresh and fragrant as if the ghosts of departed king-cups and clover still haunted the spot. Standing before a window where morning-glories rung their colored bells in the balmy air, she was as pleasant a sight as any eye need wish to see upon a summer's day; for the merry child had bloomed into a sprightly girl, rich in rustic health and beauty. All practical virtues were hers; and, while they wore so comely a shape, they possessed a grace that hid the lack of those finer attributes which give to womanhood its highest charm. The present was all in all to Ruth. Its homely duties were her world, its petty griefs and joys her life, and her ambition was bounded by her desire to show her mates the finest yarn, the sweetest butter, the gayest cardinal, and the handsomest sweetheart, in the town. An essentially domestic character, cheery as the blaze upon the hearth, contented as the little kettle singing there, and so affectionate, discreet, and diligent that she was the model damsel of the town, the comfort of Uncle Daniel's age, the pride of Aunt Becky's heart, the joy of Nat's life, and the desire of his eyes.
Unlike as ever, the pair were still fast friends. Nay, more, for the past year had been imperceptibly transforming that mild sentiment into a much warmer one by the magic of beauty, youth, and time. Year after year Nat had patiently toiled on, for gratitude controlled ambition, and Ruth's presence made his life endurable. But Nature was stronger than duty or love, and as the boy ripened into the man he looked wistfully beyond the narrow present into the great future, which allures such as he with vague, sweet prophecies, hard to be resisted. Silently the struggle went on, steadily the inborn longing strengthened, and slowly the resolution was fixed to put his one gift to the test and learn if it was a vain delusion or a lovely possibility. Each year proved to himself and those about him that their world was not his world, their life his life; for, like Andersen's young swan, the barnyard was no home to him, and when the other fowls cackled, hissed, and scolded, he could only put his head under his wing and sigh for the time when he should join "the beautiful white birds among the rushes of the stream that flowed through the poet's garden, where the sun shone and the little children played."
Ruth knew his dreams and desires; but, as she could not understand them, she tried to cure them by every innocent art in her power, and nursed him through many a fit of the heart-sickness of hope deferred as patiently as she would have done through any less occult disease that flesh is heir to. She was thinking of him as she worked that day, and wishing she could mould his life as easily as she did the yellow lumps before her, stamping them with her own mark, and setting them away for her own use. She felt that some change was about to befall Nat, for she had listened to the murmur of voices as the old man and the young sat talking far into the night. What the result had been was as yet unknown; for Uncle Daniel was unusually taciturn that morning, and Nat had been shut up in his room since breakfast, though spring work waited for him all about the farm.
An unwonted sobriety sat on Ruth's usually cheerful face, and she was not singing as she worked, but listening intently for a well-known step to descend the creaking stairs. Presently it came, paused a moment in the big kitchen, where Aunt Becky was flying about like a domestic whirlwind, and Ruth heard Nat ask for her with a ring in his voice that made her heart begin to flutter.
"She's in the dairy. But for landsake where are you a-going, boy? I declare for't, you look so fine and chirk I scursely knew yer," answered the old lady, pausing in her work to stare at the astonishing spectacle of Nat in his Sunday best upon a week day.
"I'm going to seek my fortune, Aunty. Won't you wish me luck?" replied Nat, cheerily.
Aunt Becky had a proverb for every occasion, and could not lose this opportunity for enriching the malcontent with a few suited to his case.
"Yes, child, the best of lucks; but it's my opinion that, if we 'get spindle and distaff ready, the Lord will send the flax,' without our goin' to look for't. 'Every road has its puddle,' and 'he that prieth into a cloud may get struck by lightenin'.' God bless you, my dear, and remember that 'a handful of good life is wuth a bushel of learnin'.'"
"I will, Ma'am; and also bear in mind that 'he who would have eggs must bear the cackling of hens,'" with which return shot Nat vanished, leaving the old lady to expend her energies and proverbs upon the bread she was kneading with a vigor that set the trough rocking like a cradle.
Why Ruth began to sing just then, and why she became so absorbed in her oleaginous sculpture as to seem entirely unconscious of the appearance of a young man at the dairy door, are questions which every woman will find no difficulty in answering. Actuated by one of the whims which often rule the simplest of the sex, she worked and sang as if no anxiety had ruffled her quiet heart; while Nat stood and watched her with an expression which would have silenced her, had she chosen to look up and meet it.
The years that had done much for Ruth had been equally kind to Nat, in giving him a generous growth for the figure leaning in the doorway seemed full of the vigor of wholesome country life. But the head that crowned it was such as one seldom sees on a farmer's shoulders; for the brown locks, gathered back into a ribbon, after the fashion of the time, showed a forehead of harmonious outline, overarching eyes full of the pathos and the passion that betray the presence of that gift which is divine when young. The mouth was sensitive as any woman's, and the lips were often folded close, as if pride controlled the varying emotions that swayed a nature ardent and aspiring as a flame of fire. Few could read the language of this face, yet many felt the beauty that it owed to a finer source than any grace of shape or color, and wondered where the subtle secret lay.
"Ruth, may I tell you something?"
"Of course you may. Only don't upset the salt-box or sit down upon the churn."
Nat did neither, but still leaned in the doorway and still watched the trim figure before him, as if it was very pleasant to his eyes; while Ruth, after a brief glance over her shoulder, a nod and a smile, spatted away as busily as ever.
"You know I was one-and-twenty yesterday?"
"I'm not like to forget it, after sewing my eyes out to work a smart waistcoat as a keepsake."
"Nor I; for there's not such another in the town, and every rosebud is as perfect as if just pulled from our bush yonder. See, I've put it on as knights put on their armor when they went to fight for fortune and their ladies' love."
As he spoke, Nat smilingly thrust his hands into the pockets of a long-flapped garment, which was a master-piece of the needlework in vogue a century ago. Ruth glanced up at him with eyes full of hearty admiration for the waistcoat and its wearer. But something in those last words of his filled her with a trouble both sweet and bitter, as she asked anxiously,—
"Are you going away, Nat?"
"For a week only. Uncle has been very kind, and given me a chance to prove which road it's best for me to take, since the time has come when I must choose. I ride to Boston this afternoon, Ruth, carrying my poems with me, that I may submit them to the criticism of certain learned gentlemen, who can tell me if I deceive myself or not. I have agreed to abide by their decision, and if it is in my favor—as God grant it be—Uncle leaves me free to live the life I love, among my books and all that makes this world glorious. Think, Ruth,—a poet in good truth, to sing when I will, and delve no more! Will you be pleased and proud if I come back and tell you this?"
"Indeed, I will, if it makes you happy. And yet"—She paused there, looking wistfully into his face, now all aglow with the hope and faith that are so blissful and so brief.
"What is it, lass? Speak out and tell me all that's in your heart, for I mean to show you mine," he said in a commanding tone seldom heard before, for he seemed already to have claimed the fair inheritance that makes the poet the equal of the prince.
Ruth felt the change with a thrill of pride, yet dared suggest the possibility of failure, as a finer nature would have shrunk from doing in such a happy, hopeful hour as that.
"If the learned gentlemen decide that the poems have no worth, what then?"
He looked at her an instant, like one fallen from the clouds, then squared his shoulders, as if resettling the burden put off for a day, and answered bravely, though a sudden shadow crossed his face, "Then I give up my dream and fall to work again,—no poet, but a man, who will do his best to be an honest one. I have promised Uncle to abide by this decision, and I'll keep my word."
"Will it be very hard, Nat?" and Ruth's eyes grew pitiful, for in his she read how much the sacrifice would cost him.
"Ay, lass, very hard," he said briefly; then added, with an eloquent change in voice and face, "unless you help me bear it. Sweetheart, whichever road I take, I had no thought to go alone. Will you walk with me, Ruth? God knows I'll make the way as smooth and pleasant as a faithful husband can."
The busy hands stopped working there, for Nat held them fast in his, and all her downcast eyes could see were the gay flowers her needle wrought, agitated by the beating of the man's heart underneath. Her color deepened beautifully and her lips trembled, in spite of the arch smile they wore, as she said half-tenderly, half-wilfully,—
"But I should be afeared to marry a poet, if they are such strange and delicate creatures as I've heard tell. 'Twould be like keeping house for a butterfly. I tried to cage one once; but the poor thing spoilt its pretty wings beating against the bars, and when I let it go it just dropped down and died among the roses there."
"But if I be no poet, only a plain farmer, with no ambition except how I may prosper and make my wife a happy woman, what answer then, Ruth?" he asked, feeling as the morning-glories might have felt if a cold wind had blown over them.
"Dear lad, it's this!" and, throwing both arms about his neck, the honest little creature kissed his brown cheek heartily.
After that no wonder if Ruth forgot her work, never saw an audacious sunbeam withering the yellow roses she had caused to bloom, never heard the buzz of an invading fly, nor thought to praise the labor of her hands, though her plump cheek was taking off impressions of the buttons on the noble waistcoat. While to Nat the little dairy had suddenly become a Paradise, life for a moment was all poetry, and nothing in the wide world seemed impossible.
"Ruth! Ruth! The cat's fell into the pork-kag, and my hands is in the dough. For massy sake, run down suller and fish her out!"
That shrill cry from Aunt Becky broke the spell, dissolved the blissful dream, for, true to her instincts, Ruth forgot the lover in the housewife, and vanished, leaving Nat alone with his love—and the butter-pats.
He rode gallantly away to Boston that afternoon, and ten days later came riding slowly home again, with the precious manuscript still in his saddle-bag.
"What luck, boy?" asked Uncle Dan, with a keen glance from under his shaggy brows, as the young man came into the big kitchen, where they all sat together when the day's work was done.
"Pretty much what you foretold, sir," answered Nat, trying to smile bravely as he took his place beside Ruth on the settle, where she sat making up cherry-colored breast-knots by the light of one candle.
"Fools go out to shear and come home shorn," muttered Aunt Becky from the chimney-corner, where she sat reeling yarn and brooding over some delectable mess that simmered on the coals.
Nat did not hear the flattering remark; for he was fingering a little packet that silently told the story of failure in its dog-eared leaves, torn wrappers, and carelessly knotted string.
"Yes," he said rapidly, as if anxious to have a hard task over, "I showed my poems to sundry gentlemen, as I proposed. One liked them much, and said they showed good promise of better things; but added that it was no time for such matters now, and advised me to lay them by till I was older. A very courteous and friendly man this was, and I felt much beholden to him for his gracious speeches. The second criticized my work sharply, and showed me how I should mend it. But, when he was done, I found all the poetry had gone out of my poor lines, and nothing was left but fine words; so I thanked him and went away, thinking better of my poems than when I entered. The third wise man gave me his opinion very briefly, saying, as he handed back the book, 'Put it in the fire.'"
"Nay! but that was too harsh. They are very pretty verses, Nat, though most of them are far beyond my poor wits," said Ruth, trying to lighten the disappointment that she saw weighed heavily on her lover's spirit.
"In the good gentleman's study, I had a sight of some of the great poets of the world, and while he read my verses I got a taste of Milton, Spenser, and my own Shakespeare's noble sonnets. I saw what mine lacked; yet some of them rang true, so I took heart and trimmed them up in the fashion my masters set me. Let me read you one or two, Ruth, while you tie your true lover's knots."
And, eagerly opening the beloved book, Nat began to read by the dim light of the tallow candle, blind to the resigned expression Ruth's face assumed, deaf to Aunt Becky's muttered opinion that "an idle brain is the devil's workshop," and quite unconscious that Uncle Dan spread a checked handkerchief over his bald pate, ready for a nap. Absorbed in his delightful task, the young poet went on reading his most perfect lines, with a face that brightened blissfully, till, just as he was giving a love-lay in his tenderest tone, a mild snore checked his heavenward flight, and brought him back to earth with a rude shock. He started, paused, and looked about him, like one suddenly wakened from a happy dream. Uncle Dan was sound asleep, Aunt Becky busily counting her tidy skeins, and Ruth, making a mirror of one of the well-scoured pewter platters on the dresser, was so absorbed in studying the effect of the gay breast-knots that she innocently betrayed her inattention by exclaiming, with a pretty air of regret,—
"And that's the end?"
"That is the end," he answered, gently closing the book which no one cared to hear, and, hiding his reproachful eyes behind his hand, he sat silent, till Uncle Dan, roused by the cessation of the melodious murmur that had soothed his ear, demanded with kindly bluntness,—
"Well, boy, which is it to be, moonshine or money? I want you to be spry about decidin', for things is gittin' behindhand, and I cattle'ate to hire if you mean to quit work."
"Sakes alive! No man in his senses would set long on the fence when there's a good farm and a smart wife a-waitin' on one side and nothin' but poetry and starvation on the other!" ejaculated Aunt Becky, briskly clattering the saucepan-lid, as if to add the savory temptations of the flesh to those of filthy lucre.
Ruth said nothing, but looked up at Nat with the one poetic sentiment of her nature shining in her eyes and touching her with its tender magic, till it seemed an easy thing to give up liberty for love. The dandelion chain the child wove round the boy had changed to a flowery garland now, but the man never saw the thorns among the roses, and let the woman fetter him again; for, as he looked at her, Nat flung the cherished book into the fire with one hand, and with the other took possession of the only bribe that could win him from that other love.
"I decide as you would have me, sir. Not for the sake of the farm you promise me, but for love of her who shall one day be its happy mistress, please God."
"Now that's sensible and hearty, and I'm waal pleased, my boy. You jest buckle to for a year stiddy and let your ink-horn dry, and we'll have as harnsome a weddin' as man could wish,—always providin' Ruth don't change her mind," said Uncle Dan, beaming benignantly at the young pair through a cloud of tobacco smoke; while Aunt Becky poked the condemned manuscript deeper into the coals, as if anxious to exorcise its witchcraft by fire, in the good old fashion.
But even in Ruth's arms Nat cast one longing, loving glance at his first-born darling on its funeral-pyre; then turned his head resolutely away, and whispered to the girl,—
"Never doubt that I love you, sweetheart, since for your sake I have given up the ambition of my life. I don't regret it, but be patient with me till I learn to live without my 'moonshine,' as you call it."
"Sunshine is better, and I'll make it for you, if I can. So cheer up, dear lad, fall to work like a man, and you'll soon forget your pretty nonsense," answered Ruth, with firm faith in the cure she proposed.
And, folding his wings, Pegasus bent his neck to the yoke and fell to ploughing.
Nat kept his word and did try manfully, working early and late, with an energy that delighted Uncle Dan, made Aunt Becky bestir herself to bleach her finest webs for the wedding outfit, and caused Ruth to believe that he had forgotten the "pretty nonsense;" for the pen lay idle and he gave all his leisure to her, discussing house-gear and stock with as deep an interest as herself apparently. All summer long he toiled like one intent only on his crops; all winter he cut wood and tended cattle, as if he had no higher hope than to sell so many cords and raise likely calves for market.
Outwardly he was a promising young farmer, with a prosperous future and a notable wife awaiting him. But deep in the man's heart a spark of the divine fire still burned, unquenched by duty, love, or time. The spirit that made light in Milton's darkness, walked with Burns beside the plough, and lifted Shakespeare higher than the royal virgin's hand, sang to Nat in the airy whisper of the pines, as he labored in the wintry wood, smiled back at him in every ox-eyed daisy his scythe laid low along the summer fields, and solaced him with visions of a fairer future than any buxom Ruth could paint. It would not leave him, and he learned too late that it was the life of his life, a gift that could not be returned, a blessing turned into a curse; for, though he had burned the little book, from its ashes rose a flame that consumed him, since it could find no vent. Even the affection, for which he had made a costlier sacrifice than he knew, looked pale and poor beside the loftier loveliness that dawned upon him in the passionate struggle, ripening heart and soul to sudden manhood; and the life that lay before him seemed very bleak and barren when he returned from playing truant in the enchanted world Imagination opens to her gifted children.
Ruth vaguely felt the presence of this dumb despair, dimly saw its shadow in the eyes that sometimes wore a tragic look, and fancied that the hand working so faithfully for her was slipping from her hold, it grew so thin and hot with the inward fever, which no herb in all her garden could allay. She vainly tried to rise to his level; but the busy sparrow could not follow the aspiring lark, singing at heaven's gate. It could only chirp its little lay and build its nest, with no thought beyond a straw, a worm, and the mate that was to come.
Nat never spoke of the past, and Ruth dared not, for she grew to feel that he did "regret it" bitterly, though too generous for a word of reproach or complaint.
"I'll make it up to him when we are married; and he will learn to love the farm when he has little lads and lasses of his own to work for," she often said to herself, as she watched her lover sit among them, after his day's work, listening to their gossip with a pathetic sort of patience, or, pleading a weariness there was no need to feign, lie on the old settle, lost in thoughts that made his face shine like one who talked with angels.
So the year rolled round, and May came again. Uncle Dan was well satisfied, Aunt Becky's preparations were completed, and Ruth had not "changed her mind."
"Settle about the weddin' as soon as you like, my girl, and I'll see that it is a merry one," said the old man, coming in from work, as Ruth blew the horn from the back porch one night at sunset.
"Nat must decide that. Where is he, Uncle?" asked the girl, looking out upon the quiet landscape, touched with spring's tenderest green.
"Down in the medder, ploughin'. It's a toughish bit, and he'll be late, I reckon; for he took a long noon-spell, and I give him a piece of my mind about it, so I'll venter to say he won't touch a bit of victuals till the last furrow is laid," answered Uncle Dan, plodding away to wash his hands at the horse-trough.
"Nay, Uncle, it is his birthday, and surely he had a right to a little rest, for he works like a slave, to please us, though far from well, I'm thinking." And, waiting for no reply, Ruth hurried in, filled a tankard with cider, and tripped away to bring her lover home, singing as she went, for Nat loved to hear her voice.
Down the green lane toward the river the happy singer stepped, thinking in what sweet words she could give the old man's message. But the song died on her lips and the smiling eyes grew wistful suddenly; for, passing by the willow-trees, she saw the patient oxen standing in the field alone.
"Nat is hunting violets for me," she thought, with a throb of pleasure; for she was jealous of a viewless rival, and valued every token of fidelity her lover gave her.
But as she drew nearer Ruth frowned; for Nat lay beside the river, evidently quite forgetful of scolding, supper, and sweetheart. No, not of the latter; for a little nosegay of violets lay ready near the paper on which he seemed to be writing a song or sonnet to accompany the gift.
Seeing this, the frown faded, as the girl stole noiselessly across the grass, to peep over his shoulder, with a soft rebuke for his imprudence and delay.
Alas for Ruth! One glance at the placid face, pillowed on his arm, told her that this birthday was Nat's last; for the violets were less white than the cheek they touched, the pencil had fallen from nerveless fingers, and Death's hand had written "Finis" to both life and lay. With a bitter cry, she gathered the weary head into her arms, fearing she had come too late to say good-by. But the eyes that opened were so tranquil, and the pale lips that answered wore such a happy smile, she felt that tears would mar his peace, and hushed her sobs, to listen as he whispered brokenly, with a glance that brightened as it turned from the wide field where his last hard day's work lay finished, to the quiet river, whose lullaby was soothing him to sleep.
"Tell Uncle I did not stop till the job was done, nor break my promise; for the year is over now, and it was so sweet to write again that I forgot to go home till it was too late."
"O Nat, not too late. You shall work no more, but write all day, without a care. We have been too hard upon you, and you too patient with our blindness. Dear lad, forgive us, and come home to live a happier year than this has been," cried Ruth, trying with remorseful tenderness to keep the delicate spirit that was escaping from her hold, like the butterfly that died among her roses with broken wings.
But Nat had no desire to stay; for he was going home, to feel hunger, thirst, and weariness no more, to find a love Ruth could not give, and to change earth's prose to heaven's immortal poetry. Yet he lingered on the threshold to look back and whisper gently: "It is better so, sweetheart. There was no place for me here, and I was homesick for my own friends and country. I'm going to find them, and I'm quite content. Forget me and be happy; or remember me only in the springtime, when the world is loveliest and my birthday comes. See, this is all I had to give you; but my heart was in it."
He tried to lift the unfinished song and give it to her; but it fluttered down upon his breast, and the violets dropped after, lying there unstirred by any breath, for with the words a shadow deeper than that twilight laid upon the fields stole over the face on Ruth's bosom, and all the glory of the sunset sky could only touch it with a pathetic peace, as the poet lay asleep beside the river.
He lies there still, the legend says, under the low green mound, where violets bloom earliest, where the old willows drop their golden tassels in the spring, and blackbirds fill the air with their melodious ecstasy. No song of his lived after him; no trace of him remains, except that nameless grave; and few ever heard of one who came and went like the snow for which they christened him. Yet it seems as if his gentle ghost still haunted those sunny meadows, still listened to the enchanted river, and touched with some mysterious charm the places that knew him once. For strangers find a soft attraction in the quiet landscape; lovers seek those green solitudes to tell the story that is always new; and poets muse beside the shadowy stream, hearing, as he heard, a call to live the life that lifts them highest by unwavering fidelity to the gift Heaven sends.