Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter LVIII

Beyond Desert, and Deserts

From all the carnage, havoc, ruin, hatred, and fury of that wicked war we set our little convoy forth, with passes procured from either side. According to all rules of war, Firm was no doubt a prisoner; but having saved his life, and taken his word to serve no more against them, remembering also that he had done them more service than ten regiments, the Federal authorities were not sorry to be quit of him.

He, for his part, being of a deep, retentive nature, bore in his wounded breast a sorrow which would last his lifetime. To me he said not a single word about his bitter fortune, and he could not bring himself to ask me whether I would share it. Only from his eyes sometimes I knew what he was thinking; and having passed through so much grief, I was moved with deep compassion. Poor Firm had been trained by his grandfather to a strong, earnest faith in Providence, and now this compelled him almost to believe that he had been specially visited. For flying in the face of his good grandfather, and selfishly indulging his own stiff neck, his punishment had been hard, and almost heavier than he could bear. Whatever might happen to him now, the spring and the flower of his life were gone; he still might have some calm existence, but never win another day of cloudless joy. And if he had only said this, or thought about it, we might have looked at him with less sadness of our own.

But he never said any thing about himself, nor gave any opening for our comfort to come to him. Only from day to day he behaved gently and lovingly to both of us, as if his own trouble must be fought out by himself, and should dim no other happiness. And this kept us thinking of his sorrow all the more, so that I could not even look at him without a flutter of the heart, which was afraid to be a sigh.

At last, upon the great mountain range, through which we now were toiling, with the snow little more than a mantle for the peaks, and a sparkling veil for sunrise, dear Uncle Sam, who had often shown signs of impatience, drew me apart from the rest. Straightforward and blunt as he generally was, he did not seem altogether ready to begin, but pulled off his hat, and then put it on again, the weather being now cold and hot by turns. And while he did this he was thinking at his utmost, as every full vein of his forehead declared. And being at home with his ways, I waited.

“Think you got ahead of me? No, not you,” he exclaimed at last, in reply to some version of his own of my ideas, which I carefully made a nonentity under the scrutiny of his keen blue eyes. “No, no, missy; you wait a bit. Uncle Sam was not hatched yesterday, and it takes fifty young ladies to go round him.”

“Is that from your size, Uncle Sam, or your depth?”

“Well, a mixture of both, I do believe. Now the last thing you ever would think of, if you lived to be older than Washington’s nurse, is the very thing I mean to put to you. Only you must please to take it well, according to my meaning. You see our Firm going to a shadow, don’t you? Very well; the fault of that is all yourn. Why not up and speak to him?”

“I speak to him every day, Uncle Sam, and I spare no efforts to fatten him. I am sure I never dreamed of becoming such a cook. But soon he will have Suan Isco.”

“Old Injun be darned! It’s not the stomach, it’s the heart as wants nourishment with yon poor lad. He looketh that pitiful at you sometimes, my faith, I can hardly tell whether to laugh at his newings or cry at the lean face that does it.”

“You are not talking like yourself, Uncle Sam. And he never does any thing of the kind. I am sure there is nothing to laugh at.”

“No, no; to be sure not. I made a mistake. Heroic is the word, of course — every thing is heroic.”

“It is heroic,” I answered, with some vexation at his lightness. “If you can not see it, I am sorry for you. I like large things; and I know of nothing larger than the way poor Firm is going on.”

“You to stand up for him!” Colonel Gundry answered, as if he could scarcely look at me. “You to talk large of him, my Lady Castlewood, while you are doing of his heart into small wittles! Well, I did believe, if no one else, that you were a straightforward one.”

“And what am I doing that is crooked now?”

“Well, not to say crooked, Miss ‘Rema; no, no. Only onconsistent, when squared up.”

“Uncle Sam, you’re a puzzle to me today. What is inconsistent? What is there to square up?”

He fetched a long breath, and looked wondrous wise. Then, as if his main object was to irritate me, he made a long stride, and said, “Soup’s a-bilin now.”

“Let it boil over, then. You must say what you mean. Oh, Uncle Sam, I only want to do the right!”

“I dessay. I dessay. But have you got the pluck, miss? Our little missy would ‘a done more than that. But come to be great lady — why, they take another tune. With much mind, of course it might be otherwise. But none of ’em have any much of that to spare.”

“Your view is a narrow one,” I replied, knowing how that would astonish him. “You judge by your own experience only; and to do that shows a sad want of breadth, as the ladies in England express it.”

The Sawyer stared, and then took off his hat, and then felt all about for his spectacles. The idea of being regarded by a “female” from a larger and loftier point of view, made a new sensation in his system.

“Yes,” I continued, with some enjoyment, “let us try to look largely at all things, Uncle Sam. And supposing me capable of that, what is the proper and the lofty course to take?”

He looked at me with a strange twinkle in his eyes, and with three words discomfited me —“Pop the question.”

Much as I had heard of woman’s rights, equality of body and mind with man, and superiority in morals, it did not appear to me that her privilege could be driven to this extent. But I shook my head till all my hair came down; and so if our constitutional right of voting by color was exercised, on this occasion it claimed the timid benefit of ballot.

With us a suggestion, for the time discarded, has often double effect by-and-by; and though it was out of my power to dream of acting up to such directions, there could be no possible harm in reviewing such a theory theoretically.

Now nothing beyond this was in my thoughts, nor even so much as that (safely may I say), when Firm and myself met face to face on the third day after Uncle Sam’s ideas. Our little caravan, of which the Sawyer was the captain, being bound for Blue River and its neighborhood, had quitted the Sacramento track by a fork on the left not a league from the spot where my father had bidden adieu to mankind. And knowing every twist and turn of rock, our drivers brought us at the camping-time almost to the verge of chaparral.

I knew not exactly how far we were come, but the dust-cloud of memory was stirring, and though mountains looked smaller than they used to look, the things done among them seemed larger. And wandering forth from the camp to think, when the evening meal was over, lo! there I stood in that selfsame breach or portal of the desert in which I stood once by my father’s side, with scared and weary eyes, vainly seeking safety’s shattered landmark. The time of year was different, being the ripe end of October now; but though the view was changed in tint, it was even more impressive. Sombre memories, and deep sense of grandeur, which is always sad, and solemn lights, and stealing shadows, compassed me with thoughtfulness. In the mouth of the gorge was a gray block of granite, whereupon I sat down to think.

Old thoughts, dull thoughts, thoughts as common as the clouds that cross the distant plain, and as vague as the wind that moves them — they please and they pass, and they may have shed kindly influence, but what are they? The life that lies before us is, in some way, too, below us, like yon vast amplitude of plain; but it must be traversed foot by foot, and laboriously travailed, without the cloudy vaporing or the high-flown meditation. And all that must be done by me, alone, with none to love me, and (which for a woman is so much worse) nobody ever to have for my own, to cherish, love, and cling to.

Tier upon tier, and peak over peak, the finest mountains of the world are soaring into the purple firmament. Like northern lights, they flash, or flush, or fade into a reclining gleam; like ladders of heaven, they bar themselves with cloudy air; and like heaven itself, they rank their white procession. Lonely, feeble, puny, I look up with awe and reverence; the mind pronounces all things small compared with this magnificence. Yet what will all such grandeur do — the self-defensive heart inquires — for puny, feeble, lonely me?

Before another shadow deepened or another light grew pale, a slow, uncertain step drew near, and by the merest chance it happened to be Ephraim Gundry’s. I was quite surprised, and told him so; and he said that he also was surprised at meeting me in this way. Remembering how long I had been here, I thought this most irrational, but checked myself from saying so, because he looked so poorly. And more than that, I asked him kindly how he was this evening, and smoothed my dress to please his eye, and offered him a chair of rock. But he took no notice of all these things.

I thought of the time when he would have behaved so very differently from this, and nothing but downright pride enabled me to repress vexation. However, I resolved to behave as kindly as if he were his own grandfather.

“How grand these mountains are!” I said. “It must do you good to see them again. Even to me it is such a delight. And what must it be to you, a native?”

“Yes, I shall wander from them no more. How I wish that I had never done so?”

“Have men less courage than women?” I asked, with one glance at his pale worn face. “I owe you the debt of life; and this is the place to think and speak of it. I used to talk freely of that, you know. You used to like to hear me speak; but now you are tired of that, and tired of all the world as well, I fear.”

“No, I am tired of nothing, except my own vile degradation. I am tired of my want of spirit, that I can not cast my load. I am tired of my lack of reason, which should always guide a man. What is the use of mind or intellect, reasoning power, or whatever it is called, if the whole of them can not enable a man to hold out against a stupid heart?”

“I think you should be proud,” I said, while trembling to approach the subject which never had been touched between us, “at having a nature so sensitive. Your evil chance might have been any body’s, and must of course have been somebody’s. But nobody else would have taken it so — so delightfully as you have done!”

“Delightfully! Is that the word you use? May I ask who gets any delight from it?”

“Why, all who hate the Southern cause,” I replied, with a sudden turn of thought, though I never had meant to use the word. “Surely that needs no explanation.”

“They are delighted, are they? Yes, I can very well believe it. Narrow-minded bigots! Yes, they are sure to be delighted. They call it a just visitation, of course, a righteous retribution. And they hope I may never get over it.”

“I pray you to take it more gently,” I said; “they are very good men, and wish you no harm. But they must have their own opinions; and naturally they think them just.”

“Then all their opinions are just wrong. They hope to see me go down, to my grave. They shall not have that pleasure. I will outlive every old John Brown of them. I did not care two cents to live just now. Henceforth I will make a point of it. If I cannot fight for true freedom any more, having ruined it perhaps already, the least I can do is to give no more triumph to its bitter enemies. I will eat and drink, and begin this very night. I suppose you are one of them, as you put their arguments so neatly. I suppose you consider me a vile slave-driver?”

“You are very ill,” I said, with my heart so full of pity that anger could not enter; “you are very ill, and very weak. How could you drive the very best slave now — even such a marvel as Uncle Tom?”

Firm Gundry smiled; on his lean dry face there shone a little flicker, which made me think of the time when he bought a jest-book, published at Cincinnati, to make himself agreeable to my mind. And little as I meant it, I smiled also, thinking of the way he used to come out with his hard-fought jokes, and expect it.

“I wish you were at all as you used to be,” he said, looking at me softly through the courage of his smile, “instead of being such a grand lady.”

“And I wish you were a little more like yourself,” I answered, without thinking; “you used to think always there was nobody like me.”

“Suppose that I am of the same opinion still? Tenfold, fiftyfold, a millionfold?”

“To suppose a thing of that sort is a little too absurd, when you have shown no sign of it.”

“For your own dear sake I have shown no sign. The reason of that is too clear to explain.”

“Then how stupid I must be not to see an atom of it!”

“Why, who would have any thing to say to me — a broken-down man, a fellow marked out for curses, one who hates even the sight of himself? The lowest of the low would shun me.”

He turned away from me, and gazed back toward the dismal, miserable, spectral desert; while I stood facing the fruitful, delicious, flowery Paradise of all the world. I thought of the difference in our lots, and my heart was in misery about him. Then I conquered my pride and my littleness and trumpery, and did what the gentle sweet Eve might have done. And never have I grieved for that action since.

With tears on my cheeks quite undissembled, and a breast not ashamed of fluttering, I ran to Firm Gundry, and took his right hand, and allowed him no refuge from tender wet eyes. Then before he could come to see the meaning of this haste — because of his very high discipline — I was out of his distance, and sitting on a rock, and I lifted my eyes, full of eloquence, to his; then I dropped them, and pulled my hat forward, and said, as calmly as was possible, “I have done enough. The rest remains with you, Firm Gundry.”

The rest remained with him. Enough that I was part of that rest; and if not the foundation or crown of it, something desirous to be both, and failing (if fail it ever does) from no want of trial. Uncle Sam says that I never fail at all, and never did fail in any thing, unless it was when I found that blamed nugget, for which we got three wagon-loads of greenbacks; which (when prosperity at last revives) will pay perhaps for greasing all twelve wheels.

Jowler admits not that failure even. As soon as he recovered from canine dementia, approaching very closely to rabies, at seeing me in the flesh once more (so that the Sierra Nevada rang with avalanches of barking), he tugged me to the place where his teeth were set in gold, and proved that he had no hydrophobia. His teeth are scanty now, but he still can catch a salmon, and the bright zeal and loyalty of his soft brown eyes and the sprightly elevation of his tail are still among dogs as pre-eminent as they are to mankind inimitable.

Now the war is past, and here we sit by the banks of the soft Blue River. The early storm and young conflict of a clouded life are over. Still out of sight there may be yet a sea of troubles to buffet with; but it is not merely a selfish thought that others will face it with me. Dark mysteries have been cleared away by being confronted bravely; and the lesson has been learned that life (like California flowers) is of infinite variety. This little river, ten steps wide, on one side has all lupins, on the other side all larkspurs. Can I tell why? Can any body? Can even itself, so full of voice and light, unroll the reason?

Behind us tower the stormy crags, before us spread soft tapestry of earth and sweep of ocean. Below us lies my father’s grave, whose sin was not his own, but fell on him, and found him loyal. To him was I loyal also, as a daughter should be; and in my lap lies my reward — for I am no more Erema.

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