Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XIV

Not Far to Seek

In the present state of controversies most profoundly religious, the Lord alone can decide (though thousands of men would hurry to pronounce) for or against the orthodoxy of the ancient Sawyer’s prayer. But if sound doctrine can be established by success (as it always is), Uncle Sam’s theology must have been unusually sound; for it pleased a gracious Power to know what he wanted, and to grant it.

Brave as Mr. Gundry was, and much-enduring and resigned, the latter years of his life on earth must have dragged on very heavily, with abstract resignation only, and none of his blood to care for him. Being so obstinate a man, he might have never admitted this, but proved against every one’s voice, except his own, his special blessedness. But this must have been a trial to him, and happily he was spared from it.

For although Firm had been very badly shot, and kept us for weeks in anxiety about him, his strong young constitution and well-nourished frame got over it. A truly good and learned doctor came from Sacramento, and we hung upon his words, and found that there he left us hanging. And this was the wisest thing perhaps that he could do, because in America medical men are not absurdly expected, as they are in England, to do any good, but are valued chiefly upon their power of predicting what they can not help. And this man of science perceived that he might do harm to himself and his family by predicting amiss, whereas he could do no good to his patient by predicting rightly. And so he foretold both good and evil, to meet the intentions of Providence.

He had not been sent for in vain, however; and to give him his due, he saved Ephraim’s life, for he drew from the wound a large bullet, which, if left, must have poisoned all his circulation, although it was made of pure silver. The Sawyer wished to keep this silver bullet as a token, but the doctor said that it belonged to him according to miners’ law; and so it came to a moderate argument. Each was a thoroughly stubborn man, according to the bent of all good men, and reasoning increased their unreason. But the doctor won — as indeed he deserved, for the extraction had been delicate — because, when reason had been exhausted, he just said this:

“Colonel Gundry, let us have no more words. The true owner is your grandson. I will put it back where I took it from.”

Upon this, the Sawyer being tickled, as men very often are in sad moments, took the doctor by the hand, and gave him the bullet heartily. And the medical man had a loop made to it, and wore it upon his watch chain. And he told the story so often (saying that another man perhaps might have got it out, but no other man could have kept it), that among a great race who judge by facts it doubled his practice immediately.

The leader of the robbers, known far and wide as “Captain Pedro,” was buried where he fell; and the whole so raised Uncle Sam’s reputation that his house was never attacked again; and if any bad characters were forced by circumstances to come near him, they never asked for any thing stronger than ginger-beer or lemonade, and departed very promptly. For as soon as Ephraim Gundry could give account of his disaster, it was clear that Don Pedro owed his fate to a bottle of the Sawyer’s whiskey. Firm had only intended to give him a lesson for misbehavior, being fired by his grandfather’s words about swinging me on the saddle. This idea had justly appeared to him to demand a protest; to deliver which he at once set forth with a valuable cowhide whip. Coming thus to the Rovers’ camp, and finding their captain sitting in the shade to digest his dinner, Firm laid hold of him by the neck, and gave way to feelings of severity. Don Pedro regretted his misconduct, and being lifted up for the moment above his ordinary view, perceived that he might have done better, and shaped the pattern of his tongue to it. Firm, hearing this, had good hopes of him; yet knowing how volatile repentance is, he strove to form a well-marked track for it. And when the captain ceased to receive cowhide, he must have had it long enough to miss it.

Now this might have ended honorably and amicably for all concerned, if the captain had known when he was well off. Unluckily he had purloined a bottle of Mr. Gundry’s whiskey, and he drew the cork now to rub his stripes, and the smell of it moved him to try it inside. And before very long his ideas of honor, which he had sense enough to drop when sober, began to come into his eyes again, and to stir him up to mischief. Hence it was that he followed Firm, who was riding home well satisfied, and appeased his honor by shooting in cold blood, and justice by being shot anyhow.

It was beautiful, through all this trying time, to watch Uncle Sam’s proceedings: he appeared so delightfully calm and almost careless whenever he was looked at. And then he was ashamed of himself perpetually, if any one went on with it. Nobody tried to observe him, of course, or remark upon any of his doings, and for this he would become so grateful that he would long to tell all his thoughts, and then stop. This must have been a great worry to him, seeing how open his manner was; and whenever he wanted to hide any thing, he informed us of that intention. So that we exhorted Firm every day to come round and restore us to our usual state. This was the poor fellow’s special desire; and often he was angry with himself, and made himself worse again by declaring that he must be a milksop to lie there so long. Whereas, it was much more near the truth that few other men, even in the Western States, would ever have got over such a wound. I am not learned enough to say exactly where the damage was, but the doctor called it, I think, the sternum, and pronounced that “a building-up process” was required, and must take a long time, if it ever could be done.

It was done at last, thanks to Suan Isco, who scarcely ever left him by day or night, and treated him skillfully with healing herbs. But he, without meaning it, vexed her often by calling for me — a mere ignorant child. Suan was dreadfully jealous of this, and perhaps I was proud of that sentiment of hers, and tried to justify it, instead of laboring to remove it, as would have been the more proper course. And Firm most ungratefully said that my hand was lighter than poor Suan’s, and every thing I did was better done, according to him, which was shameful on his part, and as untrue as any thing could be. However, we yielded to him in all things while he was so delicate; and it often made us poor weak things cry to be the masters of a tall strong man.

Firm Gundry received that shot in May, about ten days before the twelvemonth was completed from my father’s death. The brightness of summer and beauty of autumn went by without his feeling them, and while his system was working hard to fortify itself by walling up, as the learned man had called it. There had been some difficulties in this process, caused partly, perhaps, by our too lavish supply of the raw material; and before Firm’s gap in his “sternum” was stopped, the mountains were coming down upon us, as we always used to say when the snow-line stooped. In some seasons this is a sharp time of hurry, broken with storms, and capricious, while men have to slur in the driving weather tasks that should have been matured long since. But in other years the long descent into the depth of winter is taken not with a jump like that, but gently and softly and windingly, with a great many glimpses back at the summer, and a good deal of leaning on the arm of the sun.

And so it was this time. The autumn and the winter for a fortnight stood looking quietly at each other. They had quite agreed to share the hours, to suit the arrangements of the sun. The nights were starry and fresh and brisk, without any touch of tartness; and the days were sunny and soft and gentle, without any sense of languor. It was a lovely scene — blue shadows gliding among golden light.

The Sawyer came forth, and cried, “What a shame! This makes me feel quite young again. And yet I have done not a stroke of work. No excuse; make no excuse. I can do that pretty well for myself. Praise God for all His mercies. I might do worse, perhaps, than have a pipe.”

Then Firm came out to surprise him, and to please us all with the sight of himself. He steadied his steps with one great white hand upon his grandfather’s Sunday staff, and his clear blue eyes were trembling with a sense of gratitude and a fear of tears. And I stepped behind a red strawberry-tree, for my sense of respect for him almost made me sob.

Then Jowler thought it high time to appear upon the scene, and convince us that he was not a dead dog yet. He had known tribulation, as his master had, and had found it a difficult thing to keep from the shadowy hunting ground of dogs who have lived a conscientious life. I had wondered at first what his reason could have been for not coming forward, according to his custom, to meet that troop of robbers. But his reason, alas! was too cogent to himself, though nobody else in that dreadful time could pay any attention to him. The Rovers, well knowing poor Jowler’s repute, and declining the fair mode of testing it, had sent in advance a very crafty scout, a half-bred Indian, who knew as much about dogs as they could ever hope to know about themselves. This rogue approached faithful Jowler — so we were told long afterward — not in an upright way, but as if he had been a brother quadruped. And he took advantage of the dog’s unfeigned surprise and interest to accost him with a piece of kidney containing a powerful poison. According to all sound analogy, this should have stopped the dear fellow’s earthly tracks; but his spirit was such that he simply went away to nurse himself up in retirement. Neither man nor dog can tell what agonies he suffered; and doubtless his tortures of mind about duty unperformed were the worst of all. These things are out of human knowledge in its present unsympathetic state. Enough that poor Jowler came home at last, with his ribs all up and his tail very low.

Like friends who have come together again, almost from the jaws of death, we sat in the sunny noon, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The trees above us looked proud and cheerful, laying aside the mere frippery of leaves with a good grace and contented arms, and a surety of having quite enough next spring. Much of the fruity wealth of autumn still was clustering in our sight, heavily fetching the arched bough down to lessen the fall, when fall they must. And against the golden leaves of maple behind the unpretending roof a special wreath of blue shone like a climbing Ipomaea. But coming to examine this, one found it to be nothing more nor less than the smoke of the kitchen chimney, busy with a quiet roasting job.

This shows how clear the air was; but a thousand times as much could never tell how clear our spirits were. Nobody made any “demonstration,” or cut any frolicsome capers, or even said any thing exuberant. The steadfast brooding breed of England, which despises antics, was present in us all, and strengthened by a soil whose native growth is peril, chance, and marvel. And so we nodded at one another, and I ran over and courtesied to Uncle Sam, and he took me to him.

“You have been a dear good child,” he said, as he rose, and looked over my head at Firm. “My own granddarter, if such there had been, could not have done more to comfort me, nor half so much, for aught I know. There is no picking and choosing among the females, as God gives them. But he has given you for a blessing and saving to my old age, my dearie.”

“Oh, Uncle Sam, now the nugget!” I cried, desiring like a child to escape deep feeling, and fearing any strong words from Firm. “You have promised me ever so long that I should be the first to show Firm the nugget.”

“And so you shall, my dear, and Firm shall see it before he is an hour older, and Jowler shall come down to show us where it is.”

Firm, who had little faith in the nugget, but took it for a dream of mine, and had proved conclusively from his pillow that it could not exist in earnest, now with a gentle, satirical smile declared his anxiety to see it; and I led him along by his better arm, faster, perhaps, than he ought to have walked.

In a very few minutes we were at the place, and I ran eagerly to point it; but behold, where the nugget had been, there was nothing except the white bed of the river! The blue water flowed very softly on its way, without a gleam of gold to corrupt it.

“Oh, nobody will ever believe me again!” I exclaimed, in the saddest of sad dismay. “I dreamed about it first, but it never can have been a dream throughout. You know that I told you about it, Uncle Sam, even when you were very busy, and that shows that it never could have been a dream.”

“You told me about it, I remember now,” Mr. Gundry answered, dryly; “but it does not follow that there was such a thing. My dear, you may have imagined it; because it was the proper time for it to come, when my good friends had no money to lend. Your heart was so good that it got into your brain, and you must not be vexed, my dear child; it has done you good to dream of it.”

“I said so all along,” Firm observed. “Miss Rema felt that it ought to be, and so she believed that it must be, there. She is always so warm and trustful.”

“Is that all you are good for?” I cried, with no gratitude for his compliment. “As sure as I stand here, I saw a great bowlder of gold, and so did Jowler, and I gave you the piece that he brought up. Did you take them all in a dream, Uncle Sam? Come, can you get over that?”

I assure you that for the moment I knew not whether I stood upon my feet or head, until I perceived an extraordinary grin on the Sawyer’s ample countenance; but Firm was not in the secret yet, for he gazed at me with compassion, and Uncle Sam looked at us both as if he were balancing our abilities.

“Send your dog in, missy,” at last he said. “He is more your dog than mine, I believe, and he obeys you like a Christian. Let him go and find it if he can.”

At a sign from me, the great dog dashed in, and scratched with all four feet at once, and made the valley echo with the ring of mighty barkings; and in less than two minutes there shone the nugget, as yellow and as big as ever.

“Ha! ha! I never saw a finer thing,” shouted Uncle Sam, like a school-boy. “I were too many for you, missy dear; but the old dog wollops the whole of us. I just shot a barrow-load of gravel on your nugget, to keep it all snug till Firm should come round; and if the boy had never come round, there the gold might have waited the will of the Almighty. It is a big spot, anyhow.”

It certainly was not a little spot, though they all seemed to make so light of it — which vexed me, because I had found it, and was as proud as if I had made it. Not by any means that the Sawyer was half as careless as he seemed to be; he put on much of this for my sake, having very lofty principles, especially concerning the duty of the young. Young people were never to have small ideas, so far as he could help it, particularly upon such matters as Mammon, or the world, or fashion; and not so very seldom he was obliged to catch himself up in his talking, when he chanced to be going on and forgetting that I, who required a higher vein of thought for my youth, was taking his words downright; and I think that all this had a great deal to do with his treating all that gold in such an exemplary manner; for if it had really mattered nothing, what made him go in the dark and shoot a great barrow-load of gravel over it?

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31