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- The Re-Creation of Brian Kent - 2/41 -
Wakefield had learned of the needs of the Elbow Rock school, and so, finally, had come into the hills. It was the influential Tom who secured for her the modest position. It was the motherly Mrs. Tom who made her at home in the Warden household. It was the Warden boys and girls who first called her "Auntie Sue." But it was Auntie Sue herself who won so large a place in the hearts of the simple mountain folk of the district that she held her position year after year, until she finally gave up teaching altogether.
Not one of her Ozark friends ever came to know in detail the history of this remarkable woman's life. It was known in a general way that she was born in Connecticut; that she had a brother somewhere in some South-American country; that two other brothers had been killed in the Civil War; that she had taught in the lower and intermediate grades of public schools in various places all the years of her womanhood. Also, it was known that she had never married.
"And that," said Uncle Lige Potter, voicing the unanimous opinion, of the countryside, "is a doggone funny thing and plumb unnatural, considerin' the kind of woman she is."
To which Lem Jordan,--who was then living with his fourth wife, and might therefore be held to speak with a degree of authority,-- added: "Hit sure is a dad burned shame, an' a plumb disgrace to the men of this here country, when you come to look at the sort of wimmen most of 'em are a marryin' most of the time."
Another matter of universal and never-failing interest to the mountain folk was the unprecedented number of letters that Auntie Sue received and wrote. That some of these letters written by their backwoods teacher were addressed to men and women of such prominence in the world that their names were known even to that remote Ozark district was a source of no little pride to Auntie Sue's immediate neighbors, and served to mark her in their eyes with no small distinction.
It was during the fourth year of her life amid the scenes of this story,--as I recall time,--that Auntie Sue invested the small savings of her working years in the little log house by the river and the eighty acres of land known as the "Old Bill Wilson place."
The house was a substantial building of three rooms, a lean-to kitchen, and a porch overlooking the river. The log barn, with "Prince," a gentle old horse, and "Bess," a mild-mannered, brindle cow, completed the modest establishment. About thirty acres of the land were cleared and under cultivation of a sort. The remaining acreage was in timber. The price, under the kindly and expert supervision of Tom Warden, was fifteen dollars an acre. But Auntie Sue always laughingly insisted that she really paid fifty cents an acre for the land and fourteen dollars and a half an acre for the sunsets.
The tillable land, except for the garden, she "let out on shares," always under the friendly guardianship of neighbor Tom; while Tom's boys cared for the little garden in season, and saw to it that the woodpile was always ample and ready for the stove. And, in addition to these fixed and regular homely services, there were many offerings of helpful hands whenever other needs arose; for, as time passed, there came to be in all the Elbow Rock district scarce a man, young or old, who did not now and then honor himself by doing some little job for Auntie Sue; while the women and girls, in the same neighborly spirit, brought from their own humble households many tokens of their loving thoughtfulness. And never did one visit that little log house by the river without the consciousness of something received from the silvery-haired old teacher--a something intangible, perhaps, which they could not have expressed in words, but which, nevertheless, enriched the lives of those simple mountain people with a very real joy and a very tangible happiness.
For six years, Auntie Sue continued teaching the Elbow Rock school;--climbing the hill in the morning from her log house by the river to the cabin schoolhouse in the clearing on the mountain-side above; returning in the late afternoon, when her day's work was over, down the winding road to her little home, there to watch, from the porch that overlooked the river, the sunset in the evening. And every year the daily climb grew a little harder; the days of work grew a little longer; she went down the hill in the afternoon a little slower. And every year the sunsets were to her eyes more beautiful; the evening skies to her understanding glowed with richer meaning; the twilight hours filled her heart with a deeper peace.
And so, at last, her teaching days were over; that is, she taught no more in the log schoolhouse in the clearing on the mountain- side. But in her little home beside the river she continued her work; not from text-books, indeed, but as all such souls must continue to teach, until the sun sets for the last time upon their mortal days.
Work-worn, toil-hardened mountaineer mothers, whose narrow world denied them so many of the finer thoughts and things, came to counsel with this childless woman, and to learn from her a little of the art of contentment and happiness. Strong men, of rude dress and speech, whose lives were as rough as the hills in which they were reared, and whose thoughts were often as crude as their half- savage and sometimes lawless customs, came to sit at the feet of this gentle one, who received them all with such kindly interest and instinctive understanding. And young men and girls came, drawn by the magic that was hers, to confide in this woman who listened with such rare tact and loving sympathy to their troubles and their dreams, and who, in the deepest things of their young lives, was mother to them all.
Nor were the mountain folk her only disciples. Always there were the letters she continued to write, addressed to almost every corner of the land. And every year there would come, for a week or a month, at different times during the summer, men and women from the great world of larger affairs who had need of the strength and courage and patience and hope they never failed to find in that little log house by the river. And so, in time, it came to be known that those letters written by Auntie Sue went to men and women who, in their childhood school days, had received from her their first lessons in writing; and that her visitors, many of them distinguished in the world of railroads and cities, were of that large circle of busy souls who had never ceased to be her pupils.
Thus it came that the garden was made a little larger, and two rooms were added to the house, with other modest improvements, to accommodate Auntie Sue's grown-up boys and girls when they came to visit her. But never was there a hired servant, so that her guests must do their own household tasks, because, Auntie Sue said, that was good for them and mostly what they needed.
It should also be said here that among her many pupils who lived beyond the sky-line of the far, blue hills, not one knew more of the real secret of Auntie Sue's life and character than did the Ozark mountaineers of the Elbow Rock district, among whom she had chosen to pass the evening of her day.
Then came one who learned the secret. He learned--but that is my story. I must not tell the secret here.
THE MAN IN THE DARK.
A man stood at a window, looking out into the night. There was no light in the room. The stars were hidden behind a thick curtain of sullen clouds.
The house was a wretchedly constructed, long-neglected building of a type common to those old river towns that in their many years of uselessness have lost all civic pride, and in their own resultant squalor and filth have buried their self-respect. A dingy, scarcely legible sign over the treacherous board walk, in front, by the sickly light of a smoke-grimed kerosene lantern, announced that the place was a hotel.
Dark as it was, the man at the window could see the river. The trees that lined the bank opposite the town were mere ghostly shadows against the gloomy masses of the low hills that rose from the water's edge, indistinct, mysterious, and unreal, into the threatening sky. The higher mountains that reared their crests beyond the hills were invisible. The stream itself swept sullenly through the night,--a resistless flood of dismal power, as if, turbid with wrecked souls, with the lost hopes and ruined dreams of men, it was fit only to bear vessels freighted with sorrow, misfortune, and despair.
The manner of the man at the window was as if some woeful spirit of the melancholy scene were calling him. With head bowed, and face turned a little to one side, he listened intently as one listens to voices that are muffled and indistinct. He pressed his face close to the glass, and with straining eyes tried to see more clearly the ghostly trees, the sombre hills, and the gloomy river. Three times he turned from the window to pace to and fro in the darkened room, and every time his steps brought him again to the casement, as if in obedience to some insistent voice that summoned him. The fourth time, he turned from the window more quickly, with a gesture of assenting decision.
The crackling snap of a match broke the dead stillness. The sudden flare of light stabbed the darkness. As he applied the tiny, wavering flame to the wick of a lamp that stood on the cheap, old- fashioned bureau, the man's hand shook until the chimney rattled against the wire standards of the burner. Turning quickly from the lighted lamp, the man sprang again to the window to jerk down the tattered, old shade. Facing about, he stood with his back to the wall, searching the room with wide, fearful eyes. His fists were clenched. His chest rose and fell heavily with his labored breathing. His face worked with emotion. With trembling limbs and twitching muscles, he crouched like some desperate creature at bay.
But, save for the wretched man himself, there was in that shabby, dingy-papered, dirty-carpeted, poorly furnished apartment no living thing.
Suddenly, the man laughed;--and it was the reckless, despairing laughter of a soul that feels itself slipping over the brink of an abyss.
With hurried step and outstretched hands, he crossed the room to snatch a bottle of whisky from its place beside the lamp on the bureau. With trembling eagerness, he poured a water tumbler half- full of the red liquor. As one dying of thirst, he drank. Drawing a deep breath, and shaking his head with a wry smile, he spoke in
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