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Black Cross Farm

(To F. S.)

After full many a mutual delay
My friend and I at last fixed on a day
For seeing Black Cross Farm, which he had long
Boasted the fittest theme for tale or song
In all that charming region round about:
Something that must not really be left out
Of the account of things to do for me.
It was a teasing bit of mystery,
He said, which he and his had tried in vain,
Ever since they had found it, to explain.
The right way was to happen, as they did,
Upon it in the hills where it was hid;
But chance could not be always trusted, quite,
You might not happen on it, though you might;
Encores were usually objected to
By chance. The next best thing that we could do
Was in his carryall, to start together,
And trust that somehow favoring wind and weather,
With the eccentric progress of his horse,
Would so far drift us from our settled course
That we at least could lose ourselves, if not
Find the mysterious object that we sought.
So one blithe morning of the ripe July
We fared, by easy stages, toward the sky
That rested one rim of its turquoise cup
Low on the distant sea, and, tilted up,
The other on the irregular hilltops. Sweet
The sun and wind that joined to cool and heat
The air to one delicious temperature;
And over the smooth-cropt mowing-pieces pure
The pine-breath, borrowing their spicy scent
In barter for the balsam that it lent!
And when my friend handed the reins to me,
And drew a fuming match along his knee,
And, lighting his cigar, began to talk,
I let the old horse lapse into a walk
From his perfunctory trot, content to listen,
Amid that leafy rustle and that glisten
Of field, and wood, and ocean, rapt afar,
From every trouble of our anxious star.
From time to time, between effect and cause
In this or that, making a questioning pause,
My friend peered round him while he feigned a gay
Hope that we might have taken the wrong way
At the last turn, and then let me push on,
Or the old horse rather, slanting hither and yon,
And never in the middle of the track,
Except when slanting off or slanting back.
He talked, I listened, while we wandered by
The scanty fields of wheat and oats and rye,
With patches of potatoes and of corn,
And now and then a garden spot forlorn,
Run wild where once a house had stood, or where
An empty house yet stood, and seemed to stare
Upon us blindly from the twisted glass
Of windows that once let no wayfarer pass
Unseen of children dancing at the pane,
And vanishing to reappear again,
Pulling their mother with them to the sight.
Still we kept on, with turnings left and right,
Past farmsteads grouped in cheerful neighborhoods,
Or solitary; then through shadowy woods
Of pine or birch, until the road, grass-grown,
Had given back to Nature all her own
Save a faint wheel-trace, that along the slope,
Rain-gullied, seemed to stop and doubt and grope,
And then quite ceased, as if 't had turned and fled
Out of the forest into which it led,
And left us at the gate whose every bar
Was nailed against us. But, "Oh, here we are!"
My friend cried joyously. "At last, at last!"
And making our horse superfluously fast,
He led the way onward by what had been
A lane, now hid by weeds and briers between
Meadows scarce worth the mowing, to a space
Shaped as by Nature for the dwelling-place
Of kindly human life: a small plateau
Open to the heaven that seemed bending low
In liking for it. There beneath a roof
Still against winter and summer weather-proof,
With walls and doors and windows perfect yet,
Between its garden and its graveyard set,
Stood the old homestead, out of which had perished
The home whose memory it dumbly cherished,
And which, when at our push the door swung wide,
We might have well imagined to have died
And had its funeral the day before:
So clean and cold it was from floor to floor,
So lifelike and so deathlike, with the thrill
Of hours when life and death encountered still
Passionate in it. They that lay below
The tangled grasses or the drifted snow,
Husband and wife, mother and little one,
From that sad house less utterly were gone
Than they that living had abandoned it.
In moonless nights their Absences might flit,
Homesick, from room to room, or dimly sit
Around its fireless hearths, or haunt the rose
And lily in the neglected garden close;
But they whose feet had borne them from the door
Would pass the footworn threshold nevermore.
We read the moss-grown names upon the tombs,
With lighter melancholy than the glooms
Of the dead house shadowed us with, and thence
Turning, my heart was pierced with more intense
Suggestion of a mystical dismay,
As in the brilliance of the summer day
We faced the vast gray barn. The house was old,
Though so well kept, as age by years is told
In our young land; but the barn, gray and vast,
Stood new and straight and strong—all battened fast
At every opening; and where once the mow
Had yawned wide-windowed, on the sheathing now
A Cross was nailed, the bigness of a man,
Aslant from left to right, athwart the span,
And painted black as paint could make it. Hushed,
I stood, while manifold conjecture rushed
To this point and to that point, and then burst
In the impotent questionings rejected first.
What did it mean? Ah, that no one could tell.
Who put it there? That was unknown as well.
Was there no legend? My friend knew of none.
No neighborhood story? He had sought for one
In vain. Did he imagine it accident,
With nothing really implied or meant
By the boards set in that way? It might be,
But I could answer that as well as he.
Then (desperately) what did he guess it was:
Something of purpose, or without a cause
Other than chance? He slowly shook his head,
And with his gaze fixed on the symbol said:
"We have quite ceased from guessing or surmising,
For all our several and joint devising
Has left us finally where I must leave you.
But now I think it is your part to do
Yourself some guessing. I hoped you might bring
A fresh mind to the riddle's unraveling.

And thus challenged I could not deny
The sort of right he had to have me try;
And yielding, I began—instinctively
Proceeding by exclusion: "We agree
It was not put there as a pious charm
To keep the abandoned property from harm?
The owner could have been no Catholic;
And yet it was no sacrilegious trick
To make folks wonder; and it was not chance
Assuredly that set those boards askance
In that shape, or before or after, so
Painted them to that coloring of woe.
Do you suppose, then, that it could have been
Some secret sorrow or some secret sin,
That tried to utter or to expiate
Itself in that way: some unhappy hate
Turned to remorse, or some life-rending grief
That could not find in years or tears relief?
Who lived here last?"

"Ah," my friend made reply,
"You know as much concerning that as I.
All I could tell is what those gravestones tell,
And they have told it all to you as well.
The names, the dates, the curious epitaphs
At whose quaint phrase one either sighs or laughs,
Just as one's heart or head happens to be
Hollow or not, are there for each to see.
But I believe they have nothing to reveal:
No wrong to publish, no shame to conceal."

"And yet that Cross!" I turned at his reply,
Fixing the silent symbol with my eye,
Insistently. "And you consent," I said,
"To leave the enigma uninterpreted?"

"Why, no," he faltered, then went on: "Suppose
That some one that had known the average woes
Of human nature, finding that the load
Was overheavy for him on life's road,
Had wished to leave some token in this Cross,
Of what had been his gain and been his loss,
Of what had been his suffering and of what
Had also been the solace of his lot?
Whoever that unknown brother-man might be,
I think he must have been like you and me,
Who bear our Cross, and when we fail at length,
Bow down and pray to it for greater strength."

I mused, and as I mused, I seemed to find
The fancy more and still more to my mind.

"Well, let it go at that! I think, for me,
I like that better than some tragedy
Of clearer physiognomy, which were
In being more definite the vulgarer.
For us, what, after all, would be the gain
Of making the elusive meaning plain?
I really think, if I were you and yours,
I would not lift the veil that now obscures
The appealing fact, lest I should spoil the charm
Deeding me for my own the Black Cross Farm."

"A good suggestion! I am glad," said he,
"We have always practised your philosophy."

He smiled, we laughed; we sighed and turned away,
And left the mystery to the summer day
That made as if it understood, and could
Have read the riddle to us if it would:
The wide, wise sky, the clouds that on the grass
Let their vague shadows dreamlike trail and pass;
The conscious woods, the stony meadows growing
Up to birch pastures, where we heard the lowing
Of one disconsolate cow. All the warm afternoon,
Lulled in a reverie by the myriad tune
Of insects, and the chirp of songless birds,
Forgetful of the spring-time's lyric words,
Drowsed round us while we tried to find the lane
That to our coming feet had been so plain,
And lost ourselves among the sweetfern's growth,
And thickets of young pine-trees, nothing loath,
Amidst the wilding loveliness to stray,
And spend, if need were, looking for the way,
Whole hours; but blundered into the right course
Suddenly, and came out upon our horse,
Where we had left him—to our great surprise,
Stamping and switching at the pestering flies,
But not apparently anxious to depart,
When nearly overturning at the start,
We followed down that evanescent trace
Which, followed up, had brought us to the place.

Then, all the wayside scenes reversing, we
Dropped to the glimpses of the distant sea,
Content as if we brought, returning thus,
The secret of the Black Cross back with us.

William Dean Howells