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- The Valley of Vision - 5/31 -
The tracts of forest which still belonged to his diminished estate were crowded with the growths native to the foot-hills of the Ardennes. In the park around the small chateau, built in a Belgian version of the First Empire style, trees from many lands had been assembled by his father and grandfather: drooping spruces from Norway, dark-pillared cypresses from Italy, spreading cedars from Lebanon, trees of heaven from China, fern-leaved gingkos from Japan, lofty tulip-trees and liquidambars from America, and fantastic sylvan forms from islands of the Southern Ocean. But the royal avenue of beeches! Well, I must tell you more about that, else you can never feel the meaning of this story.
The love of trees was hereditary in the family and antedated their other nobility. The founder of the house had begun life as the son of a forester in Luxemburg. His name was Pol Staar. His fortune and title were the fruit of contracts for horses and provisions which he made with the commissariat of Napoleon I. in the days when the Netherlands were a French province. But though Pol Staar's hands were callous and his manners plain, his tastes were aristocratic. They had been formed young in the company of great trees.
Therefore when he bought his estate of Azan (and took his title from it) he built his chateau in a style which he considered complimentary to his imperial patron, but he was careful also to include within his domain large woodlands in which he could renew the allegiance of his youth. These woodlands he cherished and improved, cutting with discretion, planting with liberality, and rejoicing in the thought that trees like those which had befriended his boyhood would give their friendly protection to his heirs. These are traits of an aristocrat--attachment to the past, and careful provision for posterity. It was in this spirit that Pol Staar, first Baron d'Azan, planted in 1809 the broad avenue of beeches, leading from the chateau straight across the park to the highroad. But he never saw their glory, for he died when they were only twenty years old.
His son and successor was of a different timber and grain; less aristocratic, more bourgeois--a rover, a gambler, a man of fashion. He migrated from the gaming-tables at Spa to the Bourse at Paris, perching at many clubs between and beyond, and making seasonal nests in several places. This left him little time for the Chdteau d'Azan. But he came there every spring and autumn, and showed the family fondness for trees in his own fashion. He loved the forests so much that he ate them. He cut with liberality and planted without discretion. But for the great avenue of beeches he had a saving admiration. Not even to support the gaming-table would he have allowed them to be felled.
When he turned the corner of his thirty-first year he had a sharp illness, a temporary reformation, and brought home as his wife a very young lovely actress from the ducal theatre at Saxe-Meiningen. She was a good girl, deeply in love with her handsome husband, to whom she bore a son and heir in the first year of their marriage. Not many moons thereafter the pleased but restless father slid back into his old rounds again. The forest waned and the debts waxed. Rumors of wild doings came from Spa and Aix, from Homburg and Baden, from Trouville and Ostend. After four years of this the young mother died, of no namable disease, unless you call it heart-failure, and the boy was left to his grandmother's care and company among the trees.
Every day when it was fair the old lady and the little lad took their afternoon walk together in the beech-tree avenue, where the tips of the branches now reached the road. At other times he roamed the outlying woods and learned to know the birds and the little wild animals. When he was twelve his grandmother died. After that he was left mainly to the housekeeper, his tutors, and the few friends he could make among the children of the neighborhood.
When he had finished his third year at the University of Louvain and attained his majority, his father returned express-haste from somewhere in Bohemia, to attend the coronation of Leopold II, that remarkable King of Belgium and the Bourse. But by this time the gay Baron d'Azan had become stout, the pillar of his neck seemed shorter because it was thicker, and the rose in his bold cheek had the purplish tint of a crimson rambler. So he died of an apoplexy during the festivities, and his son brought him back to the Chateau d'Azan, and buried him there with due honor, and mourned for him as was fitting. Thus Albert, third Baron d'Azan, entered upon his inheritance.
It seemed, at first, to consist mainly of debts. These were paid by the sale of the deforested lands and of certain detached woodlands. By the same method, much as he disliked it, he made a modest provision of money for continuing his education and beginning his travels. He knew that he had much to learn of the world, and he was especially desirous of pursuing his favorite study of botany, which a wise old priest at Louvain had taught him to love. So he engaged an intelligent and faithful forester to care for the trees and the estate, closed the house, and set forth on his journeys.
They led him far and wide. In the course of them no doubt he studied other things than botany. It may be that he sowed some of the wild oats with which youth is endowed; but not in the gardens of others; nor with that cold self-indulgence which transforms passionate impulse into sensual habit. He had a permanent and regulative devotion to botanical research; and that is a study which seems to promote modesty, tranquillity, and steadiness of mind in its devotees, of whom the great Linnaeus is the shining exemplar. Young Albert d'Azan sat at the feet of the best masters in Europe and America. He crossed the western continent to observe the oldest of living things, the giant Sequoias of California. He went to Australasia and the Dutch East Indies and South America in search of new ferns and orchids. He investigated the effect of ocean currents and of tribal migrations in the distribution of trees. His botanical monographs brought him renown among those who know, and he was elected a corresponding member of many scientific societies. After twenty years of voyaging he returned to port at Azan, richly laden with observation and learning, and settled down among his trees to pursue his studies and write his books.
The estate, under the forester's care, had improved a little and promised a modest income. The house, though somewhat dilapidated, was easily made livable. But the one thing that was full of glory and splendor, triumphantly prosperous, was the great avenue of beeches. Their long, low aisle of broad arches was complete. They shimmered with a pearly mist of buds in early spring and later with luminous green of tender leafage. In mid-summer they formed a wide, still stream of dark, unruffled verdure; in autumn they were transmuted through glowing yellow into russet gold; in winter their massy trunks were pillars of gray marble and the fan-tracery of their rounded branches was delicately etched against the sky.
"Look at them," the baron would say to the guests whom the fame of his learning and the charm of his wide-ranging conversation often brought to his house. "Those beeches were planted by my grandfather after the battle of Wagram, when Napoleon whipped the Austrians. After that came the Beresina and Leipsic and Waterloo and how many battles and wars of furious, perishable men. Yet the trees live on peaceably, they unfold their strength in beauty, they have not yet reached the summit of their grandeur. We are all _parvenus_ beside them."
"If you had to choose," asked the great sculptor Constantin Meunier one day, "would you have your house or one of these trees struck by lightning?"
"The house," answered the botanist promptly, "for I could rebuild it in a year; but to restore the tree would take three-quarters of a century."
"Also," said the sculptor, with a smile, "you might change the style of your house with advantage, but the style of these trees you could never improve."
"But tell me," he continued, "is it true, as they say, that lightning never strikes a beech?"
"It is not entirely true," replied the botanist, smiling in his turn, "yet, like many ancient beliefs, it has some truth in it. There is something in the texture of the beech that seems to resist electricity better than other trees. It may be the fatness of the wood. Whatever it is, I am glad of it, for it gives my trees a better chance."
"Don't be too secure," said the sculptor, shaking his head. "There are other tempests besides those in the clouds. When the next war comes in western Europe Belgium will be the battle-field. Beech-wood is very good to burn."
"God forbid," said the baron devoutly. "We have had peace for a quarter of a century. Why should it not last?"
"Ask the wise men of the East," replied the sculptor grimly.
When he was a little past fifty the baron married, with steadfast choice and deep affection, the orphan daughter of a noble family of Hainault. She was about half his age; of a tranquil, cheerful temper and a charm that depended less on feature than on expression; a lover of music, books, and a quiet life. She brought him a small dowry by which the chateau was restored to comfort, and bore him two children, a boy and a girl, by whom it was enlivened with natural gayety. The next twenty years were the happiest that Albert d'Azan and his wife ever saw. The grand avenue of beeches became to them the unconscious symbol of something settled and serene, august, protective, sacred.
On a brilliant morning of early April, 1914, they had stepped out together to drink the air. The beeches were in misty, silver bloom above them. All around was peace and gladness.
"I want to tell you a dream I had last night," he said, "a strange dream about our beeches."
"If it was sad," she answered, "do not let the shadow of it fall on the morning."
"But it was not sad. It seemed rather to bring light and comfort. I dreamed that I was dead and you had buried me at the foot of the largest of the trees."
"Do you call that not sad?" she interrupted reproachfully.
"It did not seem so. Wait a moment and you shall hear the way of it. At first I felt only a deep quietness and repose, like one who has been in pain and is very tired and lies down in the shade to sleep. Then I was waking again and something was drawing me gently upward. I cannot exactly explain it, but it was as if I were passing through the roots and the trunk and the boughs of the beech-tree toward the upper air. There I saw the light again and heard the
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