FADING FOOTPRINTS. OR THE LOWLY LIVES

OF LONG AGO

 

A  series of articles that appeared

in the 1879 Arthur’s Home Magazine

No. 2 … Wagon Ride Into the Past

 

‘Let us coax papa to go, too; that would be so funny. You know when he gets out into the woods he is almost a boy again; he fairly cuts up capers, and the good stories that he spins are just delightful — wonderful!"

 

This was what we said one October afternoon when the boys were putting baskets into the big wagon, and we were all going up to the creek bottom to gather butter-nuts. Going nutting in the glorious October days is rare enjoyment, even though one finds no nuts at all, and tears her clothes on roots and snags, and catches every burr that is waiting on ripened stalk.

 

Father twisted his head from very lack of excuse, and looked intently at the cider-mill, and then at the willow swaying in the spicy breezes, and he buttoned his blouse and unbuttoned it, and finally, with a low, ashamed laugh, he said, tardy of speech: "W-e-l-l, I don't care."

 

And he went. If he hadn't gone, we, his children — all men and women grown — would have rode off silently, and with twinges of disappointment, for it is so cheerful and pleasant to have that old man, Papa, accompany us. Every tree, and stump, and knoll talks to him; they tell him stories about the olden time; they seem to preface their reminiscences with, "Say, Alex, do you mind that time?" or, "Oh, do you recollect, Alex, the day that” — and then follows a running fire of gossipy, chatty stories, which freshen up his memory and make him laugh as heartily as he did at first — that long, long ago time. That was why we wanted him with us. I sat on the same seat with him, on the same folded quilt, and we hustled the clean-smelling oat-straw all up under our feet and about our ankles, and we nestled and made ourselves truly comfortable before the boys chirruped to the horses or drew on the lines.

 

Now it is not at all likely that this old foot-print "on the sands of time" will run into a story, so don't begin to think of Indians, and murder, and massacre, and kidnapped white children; just jump into the back part of the wagon and go with us. These October airs are good to quicken the pulses, and bring the roses to the cheeks, and the ring to the voice, and a lustre to the eyes, and to rid one of fears and forebodings, and the unkindly thoughts that may have crept in unbidden, and made you cherish something against a friend or a neighbor. Wonderful purifiers are these autumn days spent in freedom out under the delicious blue skies.

 

Before we turned into the other road, the wagon wheels on one side struck down with a jolt that made us cling like chimney-swallows.

 

"Well, I do declare," said father, "I suppose there will be a chuck-hole there as long as the world stands. Now, my father, more than fifty-eight years ago, hauled stone and filled up that place, and for awhile it was tolerable good; but after little the ground became spongy and shaky, and as long as he lived he kept hauling and filling in occasionally. Then after he died we fixed it up with saplings, but it 'pears like it couldn't be made into solid ground."

 

We turned and looked back, and then we sighed dreamily as we thought of the heaps of stones down in that spot far out of sight, and of the poor hands that had placed them there — hands mouldered back to dust, almost forgotten, almost unknown by name in the place that shall know him no more forever. And we said we wondered why there were such spongy, strange, shaky spots. And then as we rode along, one to whom science had opened wide her doors, told us that long ago this strip of delightful valley through which we were riding had been covered with water, and that these wooded ranges of hills on either side had been the bluff banks overlooking the broad and beautiful stream. And our eyes sparkled, and we held our fingers closely interlocked while we listened with bated breath; and then we said: "Oh, that we could have lived and looked abroad in that far-away time, when these grand old hill-tops stood like sturdy sentinels, seeing the beauty and the grandeur of the primeval scene, hearing the swash of the waters and the bold dashing of the waves that swept against their firmly-planted feet, while thin, rugged brows were familiar with the summers of sunshine, the winters of wailing winds and storms, the soft sighing of the spring-time southern breezes, and the gorgeous colors of the autumn-tinted leaves."

 

Twice in the memory of the red men who dwelt here one hundred years ago, had these same old sturdy woodland hills been rocked, and thin oaks riven and whirled by wrathful tornadoes; so long ago that even then the swaths of trees mown down were merely lines of mellow soil, and covered by the rich plush of softest mosses. The faint outline of tradition recorded these scenes as terrible beyond description, and the old warriors shuddered when they referred to them, for the anger of the Great Spirit spoke in the loud voice of the hurricane and in the destruction that swept over their vast hunting grounds.

 

As we wound round the base of a hill, and looked upon the fertile meadow-lands that lay outspread so beautiful that the view was soothing and gratifying, we said: "How charmingly that low old elm sweeps and waves even down to the soft grass!"

 

Ah me! The long, lithe branches suggested nothing to us but grace and beauty; but to father they told a tale. He said "everything talked to him!" And this was the tale it told. That elm grew out of an old well. In the long, long ago, when poverty and direst privation laid hold of whole families of pioneers, a man and his wife and six poor little ones lived on the knoll that rose up at the edge of the meadow, in a log-cabin ten by twelve. They were exceedingly poor, and almost entirely dependent on the husband and father. He had no trade, no team, no tools, and not half so much vim and enterprise as the average poor man of this present day. One of their children was an idiot — a babbling, chattering, swaying, sprawling idiot — a heavy charge on them, on their time, and means, and patience. The mother could not go abroad to pull flax, or hackle or scotch it; could not go out to gather medicinal roots or herbs to sell to the doctor; and could not leave the house to carry sugar-water nor to gather service berries. She often wished that she had more freedom,or that Jakey, the boy, did not miss her in absence, and howl after her. His howl was a doleful half whoop, like an Indian's, and half-cry like that of an ranged wild-cat. And once as she sat alone at nightfall smoking her cob-pipe — after the consoling fashion of the nowise over-fastidious poor woman of those primeval days — she looked up at the starry sky, and thought of the home of the dead who are blest, and she wished the Lord had only seen fit to take poor Jakey in his earliest infancy, before the tender chords of her mother-love had knit themselves about him so closely.

 

Dangerous wish. Only the next evening it was, that when she went to the well for water, Jakey followed her, and stood and watched the play of the creaking sweep, and he jabbered noisily, and wound his arms in an over-and-over motion, and he jerked his head in gesticulation, and the one fluttering rag of a garment that fell in slits about his knees was the merest apology of a covering. When the mother started back to the house, she ordered Jakey away, and he sauntered zigzagging across the path, tramping on the bending ferns, and all the while his bony arms were going like the arms of a wind-mill, and his head jerking excitedly. While the mother was winning the hominy for supper, the boy Jakey wandered out and down to the well, and he fell in or walked in, and that was all.

 

Not in his infancy had he been removed from earth, but then; and the poor mother recalled the thought of the evening previous, and her heart was doubly agonized. And while the ill-shapen body lay in the clearing beside the well, until the arrival of the nearest neighbors, pressing dank and heavily the ferns and the rank leaves, the face of the poor child was upturned in the half-moonlight, and his eyes stared wide open with that fearful blank stare that dwells only in dead eyes from which the light is shut out forever. The weeping mother read reproach in them; they seemed to chide her and to blame. And when the moon went under a cloud, and the thick darkness veiled that lonely scene as with a tender solicitude, a wish to shut away from the mother's sight the harrowing vision, then she gathered the dripping corpse close to her warm bosom, and kissed it lovingly, and murmured words of fondest endearment. And the neighbors came with scared faces, and they shuddered visibly as the bravest man among them laid the ungainly form on a wide strip of oak bark and bore it to the cabin on the knoll.

 

It was years before the mother recovered from the shock. They never heard the old well-sweep creak any more, and the waters that used to mirror her thin face and the yellow hair that fluffed on her forehead and neck, never saw her face again, for they stood undisturbed, and finally the green scum spread over, and frogs leaped in, and darting lizards ran in and out of the loose stone-wall. And the little striped snakes sunned themselves on the topmost stones that were first to catch the sunshine in the later springtime, and the wild ferns and meadow-grass grew in clumps and tufts, and when the lonely old well was shunned altogether by the country folk then some superstitions boys filled it up with stones, and ends of logs and brush, and when the tenants, moving on and off the farm, had quite used up the old cabin, then it changed hands, and a wealthy speculator became the owner. By this time a little elm sprout had taken root in the soft soil atop of the old well, and it escaped the browsing teeth of domestic animals and became a tree, large enough for the birds to find shelter in its branches, and the cattle a shade underneath in which to seek coolness in the midsummer heat.

 

And this was the story that the elm-tree told the aged man sitting beside me, and he repeated it as though reading aloud snatches, here and there, from the dim pages of an old book; reading in the uncertain light that cometh after the setting of' sun.

 

As the wagon descended a steep hill we came down into such a pretty place, scooped out and round great bowl, with a rim of soft emerald grasses it. We were delighted. It was nothing new.  We had many and many a time paused on the circular rim of that basin, and wondered how it looked long ago when nature wore her primeval robes, and the  forest was dim with that glorious twilight made by dense trees, and interlocking branches, and rustling leaves crowding together and whispering all the summers long, that one sweet breezy language understood only by the spirits of the wild wood.

 

But father broke upon our wondering delight with a hearty laugh. And then he explained why: There was the stump, the crumbling remains of one, behind which Joe, and Ike, and Mose hid the night they frightened their grandfather. The old fellow was afraid of ghosts; he knew that ghosts walked o' nights in out-of-the-way places, especially when they wanted to tell something that was on their minds when they left this world. If guilt, they wanted to confess; if a secret, they wished to divulge; if cognizant of buried treasure, they longed to make its hiding-place known, and if they had knowledge which would benefit their dear ones left behind they desired to impart it. Yes, he was sure that ghosts walked the earth, for his mother had come face to face with them on several occasions, and in much fear and trembling had watched them fade away into thin air — dissolve, vanish — just like ghosts always did.

 

These boys played a trick on their grandsire. They knew of a soft, rotten log in the bottom which yielded a phosphorescent glow in the damp, dark evening, and they obtained some of this, stuffed an old black shawl up into a ball about the size of Henry Clay's head, and made horrid eyes, eyebrows, nose, and a yawning, cavernous mouth with big, glaring, grinning teeth; and this ugly thing was arranged with a form draped in a white linen sheet, to imitate as nearly as possible the style of ghosts such as grand'ther told about. He was stumbling along home from the nearest still-house, late at night, a jug in each hand, when, just as he clambered over the rude brush fence, the ghost was seen beside the path where it curved round the stump. He stopped with an ugh! like an Indian would articulate, and then, as the ghost with outstretching arms came toward him with a wavering, unsteady motion, he dropped both jugs and ran with all his might. He never looked behind, not even over his shoulder, and he rushed into the cabin without pulling on the leather thong that raised the smooth hickory latch. He just pushed himself against it with all his strength. Why not? Hickory was plenty, it grew all through the woods; what was a paltry door-latch compared to the value of a man's life?

We all laughed over the reminiscence, probably not so boisterously nor so long, nor with the utter abandon that the boys, Joe, and Ike, and Mose did.

 

And there, where the creek swept around with an eddying swirl of bubbling waters, bent over the old tree whose hollow trunk the constable and his posse hid the night they were watching for the outlaws hiding in the swamp. And father told they were and what they said and did; and of all the number, not one lives yet, but himself; they had been men of those times; but all save him, had passed away, and their names were well-nigh forgotten in this township.

And there, where the steep bank juts over like a shelf, he had once shot a deer; and there, where the strip of prairie-land ran down to the stream, once stood a distillery, and the purest spring-water fed it, and the result was whisky by the barrel full, free for all who paid the price of sixty cents a gallon. And over there, where lies that singular gray rock, with the monarch oaks surrounding it, was the old-time school-house, and the lads and lassies walked miles to school, and then back to evening spelling-schools. As he ran over the names of the boys and girls, many of them were strange to us, and the rest were the grandparents of those we knew, who bear those names now. And we thought, as we meditated, and in a dreamy mood looked up at the rare October sky, and away to the grandly-spread hills and valleys, of the time passing swiftly, and bearing us away, and of others filling our places, and our names forgotten.

How like pages torn out, here and there, were the reminiscent thoughts that came to this old man's memory, as he rode along that day. "Everything talked" to him, voices came up from objects that, to the rest of us, were merely beheld with a passing glance. And when we hitched our horses under the spreading limbs of a beautiful maple, and wandered off to gather the nuts that lay among the brown leaves, we found ourselves sitting thoughtful and sad, and alone, listening to the murmur of the waves and watching the beautiful reflection of the trees and clouds, mirrored where the limpid waters were stirred not by even a ripple.

 

How sad to us it seemed of a long and well-spent life returning back and living over the scenes of years so long gone by; of having them come again as fresh and vigorous as ever, and bringing with them the laugh of long ago; and the tears, too, of that bygone time, robbed of their bitterness. How wise, and how kind of the Father, to lead the aged down so gently by the same paths that they trod in the morning of life, stripped, too, of the thorns that beset them, while the flowers bloomed with a newness and a freshness as sweet and as fragrant as ever.

© 2011 Peggy Mershon                                                                                     Contact at marwelmer@aol.com