Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter VIII

A Doubtful Loss

When I tried to look out of my window in the morning, I was quite astonished at the state of things. To look out fairly was impossible; for not only was all the lower part of the frame hillocked up like a sandglass, and the sides filled in with dusky plaits, but even in the middle, where some outlook was, it led to very little. All the air seemed choked with snow, and the ground coming up in piles to meet it; all sounds were deadened in the thick gray hush, and nothing had its own proportion. Never having seen such a thing before, I was frightened, and longed to know more of it.

Mr. Gundry had a good laugh at me, in which even Suan Isco joined, when I proposed to sweep a path to the mill, and keep it open through the winter.

“It can be done — I am sure it can,” I exclaimed, with vigorous ignorance. “May I do it if I can? It only requires perseverance. If you keep on sweeping as fast as it falls, you must overcome it. Don’t you see, Uncle Sam?”

“To be sure I do, Miss Rema, as plain as any pikestaff. Suan, fetch a double bundle of new brooms from top loft, and don’t forget while you be up there to give special orders — no snow is to fall at night or when missy is at dinner.”

“You may laugh as much as you please, Uncle Sam, but I intend to try it. I must try to keep my path to — somewhere.”

“What a fool I am, to be sure!” said Mr. Gundry, softly. “There, now, I beg your pardon, my dear, for never giving a thought to it. Firm and I will do it for you, as long as the Lord allows of it. Why, the snow is two foot deep a’ready, and twenty foot in places. I wonder whether that rogue of a Goad got home to Sylvester’s ranch last night? No fault of mine if he never did, for go he would in spite of me.”

I had not been thinking of Mr. Goad, and indeed I did not know his name until it was told in this way. My mind was dwelling on my father’s grave, where I used to love to sit and think; and I could not bear the idea of the cold snow lying over it, with nobody coming to care for him. Kind hands had borne him down the mountains (while I lay between life and death) and buried him in the soft peach orchard, in the soothing sound of the mill-wheel. Here had been planted above his head a cross of white unpainted wood, bearing only his initials, and a small “Amen” below them.

With this I was quite content, believing that he would have wished no better, being a very independent man, and desirous of no kind of pomp. There was no “consecrated ground” within miles and miles of traveling; but I hoped that he might rest as well with simple tears to hallow it. For often and often, even now, I could not help giving way and sobbing, when I thought how sad it was that a strong, commanding, mighty man, of great will and large experience, should drop in a corner of the world and die, and finally be thought lucky — when he could think for himself no longer — to obtain a tranquil, unknown grave, and end with his initials, and have a water-wheel to sing to him. Many a time it set me crying, and made me long to lie down with him, until I thought of earth-worms.

All that could be done was done by Sampson and Firm Gundry, to let me have my clear path, and a clear bourne at the end of it. But even with a steam snow-shovel they could not have kept the way unstopped, such solid masses of the mountain clouds now descended over us. And never had I been so humored in my foolish wishes: I was quite ashamed to see the trouble great men took to please me.

“Well, I am sorry to hear it, Firm,” said the Sawyer, coming in one day, with clouts of snow in his snowy curls. “Not that I care a cent for the fellow — and an impudenter fellow never sucked a pipe. Still, he might have had time to mend, if his time had been as good as the room for it. However, no blame rests on us. I told him to bed down to saw-mill. They Englishmen never know when they are well off. But the horse got home, they tell me?”

“The horse got home all right, grandfather, and so did the other horse and man. But Sylvester thinks that a pile of dollars must have died out in the snow-drift. It is a queer story. We shall never know the rights.”

“How many times did I tell him,” the Sawyer replied, without much discontent, “that it were a risky thing to try the gulches, such a night as that? His own way he would have, however; and finer liars than he could ever stick up to be for a score of years have gone, time upon time, to the land of truth by means of that same view of things. They take every body else for a liar.”

“Oh, Uncle Sam, who is it?” I cried. “Is it that dreadful — that poor man who wanted to carry me away from you?”

“Now you go in, missy; you go to the fire-hearth,” Mr. Gundry answered, more roughly than usual. “Leave you all such points to the Lord. They are not for young ladies to talk about.”

“Grandfather, don’t you be too hard,” said Firm, as he saw me hurrying away. “Miss Rema has asked nothing unbecoming, but only concerning her own affairs. If we refuse to tell her, others will.”

“Very well, then, so be it,” the Sawyer replied; for he yielded more to his grandson than to the rest of the world put together. “Turn the log up, Firm, and put the pan on. You boys can go on without victuals all day, but an old man must feed regular. And, bad as he was, I thank God for sending him on his way home with his belly full. If ever he turneth up in the snow, that much can be proved to my account.”

Young as I was, and little practiced in the ways of settlers, I could not help perceiving that Uncle Sam was very much put out — not at the death of the man so sadly, as at the worry of his dying so in going from a hospitable house. Mr. Gundry cared little what any body said concerning his honor, or courage, or such like; but the thought of a whisper against his hospitality would rouse him.

“Find him, Firm, find him,” he said, in his deep sad voice, as he sat down on the antlered stump and gazed at the fire gloomily. “And when he is found, call a public postmortem, and prove that we gave him his bellyful.”

Ephraim, knowing the old man’s ways, and the manners, perhaps, of the neighborhood, beckoned to Suan to be quick with something hot, that he might hurry out again. Then he took his dinner standing, and without a word went forth to seek.

“Take the snow-harrow, and take Jowler,” the old man shouted after him, and the youth turned round at the gate and waved his cap to show that he heard him. The snow was again falling heavily, and the afternoon was waning; and the last thing we saw was the brush of the mighty tail of the great dog Jowler.

“Oh, uncle, Firm will be lost himself!” I cried, in dismay at the great white waste. “And the poor man, whoever he is, must be dead. Do call him back, or let me run.”

Mr. Gundry’s only answer was to lead me back to the fireside, where he made me sit down, and examined me, while Suan was frying the butter-beans.

“Who was it spied you on the mountains, missy, the whole of the way from the redwood-tree, although you lay senseless on the ground, and he was hard at work with the loppings?”

“Why, Ephraim, of course, Uncle Sam; every body says that nobody else could have noticed such a thing at such a distance.”

“Very well, my dear; and who was it carried you all the way to this house, without stopping, or even letting your head droop down, although it was a burning hot May morn?”

“Mr. Gundry, as if you did not know a great deal better than I do! It was weeks before I could thank him, even. But you must have seen him do it all.”

The Sawyer rubbed his chin, which was large enough for a great deal of rubbing; and when he did that, I was always sure that an argument went to his liking. He said nothing more for the present, but had his dinner, and enjoyed it.

“Supposing now that he did all that,” he resumed, about an hour afterward, “is Firm the sort of boy you would look to to lose his own self in a snow-drift? He has three men with him, and he is worth all three, let alone the big dog Jowler, who has dug out forty feet of snow ere now. If that rogue of an Englishman, Goad, has had the luck to cheat the hangman, and the honor to die in a Californy snow-drift, you may take my experience for it, missy, Firm and Jowler will find him, and clear Uncle Sam’s reputation.”

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