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The man halted on the crest of the hill and looked sombrely down into the long valley below. It was evening, and although the hills around him were still in the light the valley was already filled with kindly, placid shadows. A wind that blew across it from the misty blue sea beyond was making wild music in the rugged firs above his head as he stood in an angle of the weather-grey longer fence, knee-deep in bracken. It had been by these firs he had halted twenty years ago, turning for one last glance at the valley below, the home valley which he had never seen since. But then the firs had been little more than vigorous young saplings; they were tall, gnarled trees now, with lichened trunks, and their lower boughs were dead. But high up their tops were green and caught the saffron light of the west. He remembered that when a boy he had thought there was nothing more beautiful than the evening sunshine falling athwart the dark green fir boughs on the hills.
As he listened to the swish and murmur of the wind, the earth-old tune with the power to carry the soul back to the dawn of time, the years fell away from him and he forgot much, remembering more. He knew now that there had always been a longing in his heart to hear the wind-chant in the firs. He had called that longing by other names, but he knew it now for what it was when, hearing, he was satisfied.
He was a tall man with iron-grey hair and the face of a conqueror—strong, pitiless, unswerving. Eagle eyes, quick to discern and unfaltering to pursue; jaw square and intrepid; mouth formed to keep secrets and cajole men to his will—a face that hid much and revealed little. It told of power and intellect, but the soul of the man was a hidden thing. Not in the arena where he had fought and triumphed, giving fierce blow for blow, was it to be shown; but here, looking down on the homeland, with the strength of the hills about him, it rose dominantly and claimed its own. The old bond held. Yonder below him was home—the old house that had sheltered him, the graves of his kin, the wide fields where his boyhood dreams had been dreamed.
Should he go down to it? This was the question he asked himself. He had come back to it, heartsick of his idols of the marketplace. For years they had satisfied him, the buying and selling and getting gain, the pitting of strength and craft against strength and craft, the tireless struggle, the exultation of victory. Then, suddenly, they had failed their worshipper; they ceased to satisfy; the sacrifices he had heaped on their altars availed him nothing in this new need and hunger of his being. His gods mocked him and he wearied of their service. Were there not better things than these, things he had once known and loved and forgotten? Where were the ideals of his youth, the lofty aspirations that had upborne him then? Where was the eagerness and zest of new dawns, the earnestness of well-filled, purposeful hours of labour, the satisfaction of a good day worthily lived, at eventide the unbroken rest of long, starry nights? Where might he find them again? Were they yet to be had for the seeking in the old valley? With the thought came a great yearning for home. He had had many habitations, but he realized now that he had never thought of any of these places as home. That name had all unconsciously been kept sacred to the long, green, seaward-looking glen where he had been born.
So he had come back to it, drawn by a longing not to be resisted. But at the last he felt afraid. There had been many changes, of that he felt sure. Would it still be home? And if not, would not the loss be most irreparable and bitter? Would it not be better to go away, having looked at it from the hill and having heard the saga of the firs, keeping his memory of it unblurred, than risk the probable disillusion of a return to the places that had forgotten him and friends whom the varying years must certainly have changed as he had changed himself? No, he would not go down. It had been a foolish whim to come at all—foolish, because the object of his quest was not to be found there or elsewhere. He could not enter again into the heritage of boyhood and the heart of youth. He could not find there the old dreams and hopes that had made life sweet. He understood that he could not bring back to the old valley what he had taken from it. He had lost that intangible, all-real wealth of faith and idealism and zest; he had bartered it away for the hard, yellow gold of the marketplace, and he realized at last how much poorer he was than when he had left that home valley. His was a name that stood for millions, but he was beggared of hope and purpose.
No, he would not go down. There was no one left there, unchanged and unchanging, to welcome him. He would be a stranger there, even among his kin. He would stay awhile on the hill, until the night came down over it, and then he would go back to his own place.
Down below him, on the crest of a little upland, he saw his old home, a weather-grey house, almost hidden among white birch and apple trees, with a thick fir grove to the north of it. He had been born in that old house; his earliest memory was of standing on its threshold and looking afar up to the long green hills.
"What is over the hills?" he had asked of his mother. With a smile she had made answer,
"Many things, laddie. Wonderful things, beautiful things, heart-breaking things."
"Some day I shall go over the hills and find them all, Mother," he had said stoutly.
She had laughed and sighed and caught him to her heart. He had no recollection of his father, who had died soon after his son's birth, but how well he remembered his mother, his little, brown-eyed, girlish-faced mother!
He had lived on the homestead until he was twenty. He had tilled the broad fields and gone in and out among the people, and their life had been his life. But his heart was not in his work. He wanted to go beyond the hills and seek what he knew must be there. The valley was too narrow, too placid. He longed for conflict and accomplishment. He felt power and desire and the lust of endeavour stirring in him. Oh, to go over the hills to a world where men lived! Such had been the goal of all his dreams.
When his mother died he sold the farm to his cousin, Stephen Marshall. He supposed it still belonged to him. Stephen had been a good sort of a fellow, a bit slow and plodding, perhaps, bovinely content to dwell within the hills, never hearkening or responding to the lure of the beyond. Yet it might be he had chosen the better part, to dwell thus on the land of his fathers, with a wife won in youth, and children to grow up around him. The childless, wifeless man looking down from the hill wondered if it might have been so with him had he been content to stay in the valley. Perhaps so. There had been Joyce.
He wondered where Joyce was now and whom she had married, for of course she had married. Did she too live somewhere down there in the valley, the matronly, contented mother of lads and lassies? He could see her old home also, not so far from his own, just across a green meadow by way of a footpath and stile and through the firs beyond it. How often he had traversed that path in the old days, knowing that Joyce would be waiting at the end of it among the firs—Joyce, the playmate of childhood, the sweet confidante and companion of youth! They had never been avowed lovers, but he had loved her then, as a boy loves, although he had never said a word of love to her. Joyce alone knew of his longings and his ambitions and his dreams; he had told them all to her freely, sure of the understanding and sympathy no other soul in the valley could give him. How true and strong and womanly and gentle she had always been!
When he left home he had meant to go back to her some day. They had parted without pledge or kiss, yet he knew she loved him and that he loved her. At first they corresponded, then the letters began to grow fewer. It was his fault; he had gradually forgotten. The new, fierce, burning interests that came into his life crowded the old ones out. Boyhood's love was scorched up in that hot flame of ambition and contest. He had not heard from or of Joyce for many years. Now, again, he remembered as he looked down on the homeland fields.
The old places had changed little, whatever he might fear of the people who lived in them. There was the school he had attended, a small, low-eaved, white-washed building set back from the main road among green spruces. Beyond it, amid tall elms, was the old church with its square tower hung with ivy. He felt glad to see it; he had expected to see a new church, offensively spick-and-span and modern, for this church had been old when he was a boy. He recalled the many times he had walked to it on the peaceful Sunday afternoons, sometimes with his mother, sometimes with Joyce.
The sun set far out to sea and sucked down with it all the light out of the winnowed dome of sky. The stars came out singly and crystal clear over the far purple curves of the hills. Suddenly, glancing over his shoulder, he saw through an arch of black fir boughs a young moon swung low in a lake of palely tinted saffron sky. He smiled a little, remembering that in boyhood it had been held a good omen to see the new moon over the right shoulder.
Down in the valley the lights began to twinkle out here and there like earth-stars. He would wait until he saw the kitchen light from the window of his old home. Then he would go. He waited until the whole valley was zoned with a glittering girdle, but no light glimmered out through his native trees. Why was it lacking, that light he had so often hailed at dark, coming home from boyish rambles on the hills? He felt anxious and dissatisfied, as if he could not go away until he had seen it.
When it was quite dark he descended the hill resolutely. He must know why the homelight had failed him. When he found himself in the old garden his heart grew sick and sore with disappointment and a bitter homesickness. It needed but a glance, even in the dimness of the summer night, to see that the old house was deserted and falling to decay. The kitchen door swung open on rusty hinges; the windows were broken and lifeless; weeds grew thickly over the yard and crowded wantonly up to the very threshold through the chinks of the rotten platform.
Cuthbert Marshall sat down on the old red sandstone step of the door and bowed his head in his hands. This was what he had come back to—this ghost and wreck of his past! Oh, bitterness!
From where he sat he saw the new house that Stephen had built beyond the fir grove, with a cheerful light shining from its window. After a long time he went over to it and knocked at the door. Stephen came to it, a stout grizzled farmer, with a chubby boy on his shoulder. He was not much changed; Cuthbert easily recognized him, but to Stephen Marshall no recognition came of this man with whom he had played and worked for years. Cuthbert was obliged to tell who he was. He was made instantly and warmly welcome. Stephen was unfeignedly glad to see him, and Stephen's comely wife, whom he remembered as a slim, fresh-cheeked valley girl, extended a kind and graceful hospitality. The boys and girls, too, soon made friends with him. Yet he felt himself the stranger and the alien, whom the long, swift-passing years had shut forever from his old place.
He and Stephen talked late that night, and in the morning he yielded to their entreaties to stay another day with them. He spent it wandering about the farm and the old haunts of wood and stream. Yet he could not find himself. This valley had his past in its keeping, but it could not give it back to him; he had lost the master word that might have compelled it.
He asked Stephen fully about all his old friends and neighbours with one exception. He could not ask him what had become of Joyce Cameron. The question was on his lips a dozen times, but he shrank from uttering it. He had a vague, secret dread that the answer, whatever it might be, would hurt him.
In the evening he yielded to a whim and went across to the Cameron homestead, by the old footpath which was still kept open. He walked slowly and dreamily, with his eyes on the far hills scarfed in the splendour of sunset. So he had walked in the old days, but he had no dreams now of what lay beyond the hills, and Joyce would not be waiting among the firs.
The stile he remembered was gone, replaced by a little rustic gate. As he passed through it he lifted his eyes and there before him he saw her, standing tall and gracious among the grey trees, with the light from the west falling over her face. So she had stood, so she had looked many an evening of the long-ago. She had not changed; he realized that in the first amazed, incredulous glance. Perhaps there were lines on her face, a thread or two of silver in the soft brown hair, but those splendid steady blue eyes were the same, and the soul of her looked out through them, true to itself, the staunch, brave, sweet soul of the maiden ripened to womanhood.
"Joyce!" he said, stupidly, unbelievingly.
She smiled and put out her hand. "I am glad to see you, Cuthbert," she said simply. "Stephen's Mary told me you had come. And I thought you would be over to see us this evening."
She had offered him only one hand but he took both and held her so, looking hungrily down at her as a man looks at something he knows must be his salvation if salvation exists for him.
"Is it possible you are here still, Joyce?" he said slowly. "And you have not changed at all."
She coloured slightly and pulled away her hands, laughing. "Oh, indeed I have. I have grown old. The twilight is so kind it hides that, but it is true. Come into the house, Cuthbert. Father and Mother will be glad to see you."
"After a little," he said imploringly. "Let us stay here awhile first, Joyce. I want to make sure that this is no dream. Last night I stood on those hills yonder and looked down, but I meant to go away because I thought there would be no one left to welcome me. If I had known you were here! You have lived here in the old valley all these years?"
"All these years," she said gently, "I suppose you think it must have been a very meagre life?"
"No. I am much wiser now than I was once, Joyce. I have learned wisdom beyond the hills. One learns there—in time—but sometimes the lesson is learned too late. Shall I tell you what I have learned, Joyce? The gist of the lesson is that I left happiness behind me in the old valley, when I went away from it, happiness and peace and the joy of living. I did not miss these things for a long while; I did not even know I had lost them. But I have discovered my loss."
"Yet you have been a very successful man," she said wonderingly.
"As the world calls success," he answered bitterly. "I have place and wealth and power. But that is not success, Joyce. I am tired of these things; they are the toys of grown-up children; they do not satisfy the man's soul. I have come back to the old valley seeking for what might satisfy, but I have little hope of finding it, unless—unless—"
He was silent, remembering that he had forfeited all right to her help in the quest. Yet he realized clearly that only she could help him, only she could guide him back to the path he had missed. It seemed to him that she held in her keeping all the good of his life, all the beauty of his past, all the possibilities of his future. Hers was the master word, but how should he dare ask her to utter it?
They walked among the firs until the stars came out, and they talked of many things. She had kept her freshness of soul and her ideals untarnished. In the peace of the old valley she had lived a life, narrow outwardly, wondrously deep and wide in thought and aspiration. Her native hills bounded the vision of her eyes, but the outlook of the soul was far and unhindered. In the quiet places and the green ways she had found what he had failed to find—the secret of happiness and content. He knew that if this woman had walked hand in hand with him through the years, life, even in the glare and tumult of that world beyond the hills, would never have lost its meaning for him. Oh, fool and blind that he had been! While he had sought and toiled afar, the best that God had meant for him had been here in the home of youth. When darkness came down through the firs he told her all this, haltingly, blunderingly, yearningly.
"Joyce, is it too late? Can you forgive my mistake, my long blindness? Can you care for me again—a little?"
She turned her face upward to the sky between the swaying fir tops and he saw the reflection of a star in her eyes. "I have never ceased to care," she said in a low tone. "I never really wanted to cease. It would have left life too empty. If my love means so much to you it is yours, Cuthbert—it always has been yours."
He drew her close into his arms, and as he felt her heart beating against his he understood that he had found the way back to simple happiness and true wisdom, the wisdom of loving and the happiness of being loved.
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