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- St. Elmo - 4/104 -
"I thank you, child." Then spurring his horse, he was out of sight in a moment.
"He is a rude, blasphemous, wicked man," said Mr. Hunt as Edna reentered the shop, and picked up the coin, which lay glistening amid the cinders around the anvil.
"Why do you think him wicked?"
"No good man swears as he did, before you came; and didn't you notice the vicious, wicked expression of his eyes?"
"No, sir, I did not see much of his face, he never looked at me but once. I should not like to meet him again; I am afraid of him."
"Never fear, Pearl, he is a stranger here, and there's little chance of your ever setting your eyes on his ugly, savage face again. Keep the money, dear; I won't have it after all the airs he put on. If, instead of shoeing his wild brute, I had knocked the fellow down for his insolence in cursing me, it would have served him right. Politeness is a cheap thing; and a poor man, if he behaves himself, and does his work well, is as much entitled to it as the President."
"I will give the dollar to grandma, to buy a new coffee-pot; for she said to-day the old one was burnt out, and she could not use it any longer. But what is that yonder on the grass? That man left something after all."
She picked up from the spot where he had thrown his shawl a handsome morocco-bound pocket copy of Dante, and opening it to discover the name of the owner, she saw written on the fly-leaf in a bold and beautiful hand, "S. E. M., Boboli Gardens, Florence. Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch' entrate."
"What does this mean, grandpa?"
She held up the book and pointed out the words of the dread inscription.
"Indeed, Pearl, how should I know? It is Greek, or Latin, or Dutch, like the other outlandish gibberish he talked to that devilish horse. He must have spent his life among the heathens, to judge from his talk; for he has neither manner nor religion. Honey, better put the book there in the furnace; it is not fit for your eyes."
"He may come back for it if he misses it pretty soon."
"Not he. One might almost believe that he was running from the law. He would not turn back for it if it was bound in gold instead of leather. It is no account, I'll warrant, or he would not have been reading it, the ill-mannered heathen!"
Weeks passed, and as the owner was not heard of again, Edna felt that she might justly claim as her own this most marvellous of books, which, though beyond her comprehension, furnished a source of endless wonder and delight. The copy was Gary's translation, with illustrations designed by Flaxman; and many of the grand, gloomy passages were underlined by pencil and annotated in the unknown tongue, which so completely baffled her curiosity. Night and day she pored over this new treasure; sometimes dreaming of the hideous faces that scowled at her from the solemn, mournful pages; and anon, when startled from sleep by these awful visions, she would soothe herself to rest by murmuring the metrical version of the Lord's Prayer contained in the "Purgatory." Most emphatically did Mrs. Hunt disapprove of the studious and contemplative habits of the ambitious child, who she averred was indulging dreams and aspirations far above her station in life, and well calculated to dissatisfy her with her humble, unpretending home and uninviting future. Education, she contended, was useless to poor people, who could not feed and clothe themselves with "book learning;" and experience had taught her that those who lounged about with books in their hands generally came to want, and invariably to harm. It was in vain that she endeavored to convince her husband of the impropriety of permitting the girl to spend so much time over her books; he finally put the matter at rest by declaring that, in his opinion, Edna was a remarkable child; and if well educated, might even rise to the position of teacher for the neighborhood, which would confer most honorable distinction upon the family. Laying his brawny hand fondly on her head, he said, tenderly:
"Let her alone, wife! let her alone! You will make us proud of you, won't you, little Pearl, when you are smart enough to teach a school? I shall be too old to work by that time, and you will take care of me, won't you, my little mocking-bird?"
"Oh, Grandy; that I will. But do you really think I ever shall have sense enough to be a teacher? You know I ought to learn everything, and I have so few books."
"To be sure you will. Remember there is always a way where there's a will. When I pay off the debt I owe Peter Wood, I will see what we can do about some new books. Put on your shawl now, Pearl, and hunt up old Brindle, it is milking time, and she is not in sight."
"Grandpa, are you sure you feel better this evening?" She plunged her fingers in his thick white hair, and rubbed her round, rosy cheek softly against his.
"Oh! yes, I am better. Hurry back, Pearl, I want you to read to me."
It was a bright day in January, and the old man sat in a large rocking-chair on the porch, smoking his pipe, and sunning himself in the last rays of the sinking sun. He had complained all day of not feeling well, and failed to go to his work as usual; and now, as his grandchild tied her pink calico bonnet under her chin, and wrapped herself in her faded plaid shawl, he watched her with a tender, loving light in his keen gray eyes. She kissed him, buttoned his shirt collar, which had become unfastened, drew his homespun coat closer to his throat, and springing down the steps bounded away in search of the cow, who often strayed so far off that she was dispatched to drive her home. In the grand, peaceful, solemn woods, through which the wintry wind now sighed in a soothing monotone, the child's spirit reached an exaltation which, had she lived two thousand years earlier, and roamed amid the vales and fastnesses of classic Arcadia, would have vented itself in dithyrambics to the great "Lord of the Hyle," the Greek "All," the horned and hoofed god, Pan. In every age, and among all people--from the Parsee devotees and the Gosains of India to the Pantheism of Bruno, Spinoza, and New England's "Illuminati"--nature has been apotheosized; and the heart of the blacksmith's untutored darling stirred with the same emotions of awe and adoration which thrilled the worshipers of Hertha, when the veiled chariot stood in Helgeland, and which made the groves and grottoes of Phrygia sacred to Dindymene. Edna loved trees and flowers, stars and clouds, with a warm, clinging affection, as she loved those of her own race; and that solace and amusement which most children find in the society of children and the sports of childhood this girl derived from the solitude and serenity of nature. To her woods and fields were indeed vocal, and every flitting bird and gurgling brook, every passing cloud and whispering breeze, brought messages of God's eternal love and wisdom, and drew her tender, yearning heart more closely to Jehovah, the Lord God Omnipotent. To-day, in the boundless reverence and religious enthusiasm of her character, she directed her steps to a large spreading oak, now leafless, where in summer she often came to read and pray; and here falling on her knees she thanked God for the blessings showered upon her. Entirely free from discontent and querulousness, she was thoroughly happy in her poor humble home, and over all, like a consecration, shone the devoted love for her grandfather, which more than compensated for any want of which she might otherwise have been conscious. Accustomed always to ask special favor for him, his name now passed her lips in earnest supplication, and she fervently thanked the Father that his threatened illness had been arrested without serious consequences. The sun had gone down when she rose and hurried on in search of the cow. The shadows of a winter evening gathered in the forest and climbed like trooping spirits up the rocky mountain side, and as she plunged deeper and deeper into the woods, the child began a wild cattle call that she was wont to use on such occasions. The echoes rang out a weird Brocken chorus, and at last, when she was growing impatient of the fruitless search, she paused to listen, and heard the welcome sound of the familiar lowing, by which the old cow recognized her summons. Following the sound, Edna soon saw the missing favorite coming slowly toward her, and ere many moments both were running homeward. As she approached the house, driving Brindle before her, and merrily singing her rude 'Ranz des vaches', the moon rose full and round, and threw a flood of light over the porch where the blacksmith still sat. Edna took off her bonnet and waved it at him, but he did not seem to notice the signal, and driving the cow into the yard, she called out as she latched the gate:
"Grandy, dear, why don't you go in to the fire? Are you waiting for me, out here in the cold? I think Brindle certainly must have been cropping grass around the old walls of Jericho, as that is the farthest off of any place I know. If she is half as tired and hungry as I am, she ought to be glad to get home." He did not answer, and running up the steps she thought he had fallen asleep. The old woolen hat shaded his face, but when she crept on tiptoe to the chair, stooped, put her arms around him, and kissed his wrinkled cheek, she started back in terror. The eyes stared at the moon, the stiff fingers clutched the pipe from which the ashes had not been shaken, and the face was cold and rigid. Aaron Hunt had indeed fallen asleep, to wake no more amid the storms and woes and tears of time.
Edna fell on her knees and grasped the icy hands. "Grandpa! wake up! Oh, grandpa! speak to me, your little Pearl! Wake up! dear Grandy! I have come back! My grandpa! Oh!--"
A wild, despairing cry rent the still evening air, and shrieked dismally back from the distant hills and the gray, ghostly mountain- -and the child fell on her face at the dead man's feet.
Throughout that dreary night of agony, Edna lay on the bed where her grandfather's body had been placed, holding one of the stiffened hands folded in both hers, and pressed against her lips. She neither wept nor moaned, the shock was too terrible to admit of noisy grief; but completely stunned, she lay mute and desolate.
For the first time in her life she could not pray; she wanted to turn away from the thought of God and heaven, for it seemed that she had nothing left to pray for. That silver-haired, wrinkled old man was the only father she had ever known; he had cradled her in his sinewy arms, and slept clasping her to his heart; had taught her to walk, and surrounded her with his warm, pitying love, making a home of peace and blessedness for her young life. Giving him, in return, the whole wealth of her affection, he had become the centre of all her hopes, joys and aspirations; now what remained? Bitter, rebellious feelings hardened her heart when she remembered that even while she was kneeling, thanking God for his preservation from illness, he had already passed away; nay, his sanctified spirit
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