The First Settler’s Story

One night when I came home unusual late,
Too hungry and too tired to feel first-rate,
Her supper struck me wrong (though I’ll allow
She hadn’t much to strike with, anyhow);
And when I went to milk the cows, and found
They’d wandered from their usual feeding ground
And maybe’d left a few long miles behind’em,
Which I must copy if I meant to find’em,
Flash quick the stay-chains of my temper broke,
And in a trice these hot words I had spoke:
“You ought to’ve kept the animals in view,
And drove’em in: you’d nothing else to do;
The heft of all our life on me must fall;
You just lie round, and let me do it all.”

The speech – it hadn’t been gone a half a minute
Before I saw the cold, black poison in it;
And I’s have given half I’d had and more
To’ve only safely got it back indoor.
I’m now what most folks “well-to-do” would call:
I feel today as if I’d give it all.
Provided I through fifty years might reach
And kill and bury that half minute speech.
Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged bird;
You can’t do that when you’re flying words;
Things that we think may sometimes fall back dead:
But God himself can’t kill them when they’re said.

She handed back no words as I could hear;
She didn’t frown, she didn’t shed a tear.
Half proud, half crushed, she sat and looked me o’er.
Like someone she had never seen before!
But such a sudden anguish-lit surprise
I never viewed before in human eyes.
(I’ve seen it off enough since in a dream;
it sometimes wakes me like a midnight scream.)

That night when theoretically sleeping,
I half heard and half felt that she was weeping,
And my heart then projected a design
To softly draw her face close up to mine,
And beg of her forgiveness to bestow
For saying what we both knew wasn’t so,
I’ve got enough of this world’s goods to do me,
And make my nephews painfully civil to me;
I’d give it all to know she only knew
How near I came to what was square and true.
But somehow every single time I’d try
Pride would appear and kind o’catch my eye,
And hold me on the edge of my advance
With the cold steel of one sly, scornful glance.

Next morning when stone-faced, but heavy-hearted,
With dinner pail and sharpened ax I started
Away for my day’s work, she watched the door,
And followed me half way to it or more;
And I was just a-turning round at this,
And asking for my usual goodby kiss,
But on her lip I saw a proudish curve,
And in her eye a shadow of reserve,
And she had shown – perhaps half unawares –
Some little independent breakfast airs –
And so the usual parting didn’t occur,
Although her eyes invited me to her;
Or rather half invited me, for she
Didn’t advertise to furnish kisses free.
You always had – that is, I had – to pay
Full market price, and go more’n half the way;
So with short “goodby” I shut the door,
And left her as I never had before.

Now when a man works with his muscle smartly,
It makes him up into machinery partly,
And any trouble he may have on hand
Gets deadened like and easier to stand,
And though the memory of last night’s mistake
Bothered me with a dull and heavy ache
I all the forenoon gave my strength full rein
And made the wounded trees bear half the pain;
But when at noon my lunch I came to eat,
Put up by her so delicately neat –
Choicer, somewhat, than yesterday’s had been,
And some fresh, sweet-eyed panseys she’d put in –
“Tender and pleasant thoughts” I knew they meant –
It seemed as if her kiss with me she’d sent;
Then I became once more her humble lover,
And said, “Tonight I’ll ask forgiveness of her.”

I went home over-early on that eve,
Having contrived to make myself believe
By various signs I kind o’knew and guessed,
A thunderstorm was coming from the west,
(‘Tis strange when one sly reason fills the heart
But many honest ones will take its part;
A dozen first-class reasons said ’twas right
That I should strike home early on that night),
Half out of breath, the cabin door I swung
With tender heart-words trembling on my tongue,
But all within looked desolate and bare;
My house had lost its soul – she was not there!
A penciled note was on the table spread,
And there are something like the words it said;
“The cows have strayed away again, I fear;
I’ve watched them pretty close; don’t scold me, dear,
And where are they I think I nearly know,
I heard the bell not very long ago –
I’ve hunted for them all the afternoon;
I’ll try once more – I think I’ll find them soon,

Dear, if a burden I have been to you,
And haven’t helped you as I ought to do,
Let old-time memories my forgiveness plead;
I’ve tried to do my best – I have, indeed.
Darling, piece out with love the strength I lack,
And have kind words for me when I come back.”

Scare did I give this letter sight and tongue –
Some shift-blown raindrops to the window clung,
And from the clouds a rough, deep growl proceeded;
My thunderstorm had come, now ’twasn’t needed.
I rushed outdoor. The air was stained with black,
Night had come early on the storm cloud’s back,
And everything kept dimming to the sight,
Save when the clouds threw their electric light,
When for a flash so clean cut was the view
I’d think I saw her – knowing ’twas not true,
Through my small clearing dashed wide sheets of spray,
As if the ocean waves had lost their way;
Scarcely a pause the thunder-battle made,
In the bold clamor of its cannonade,
And she, while I was sheltered dry and warm,
Was somewhere in the clutches of this storm:
She who when storm-frights found her at her best
Had always hid her white face on my breast:

My dog who skirmished round me all the day,
Now crouched and whimpering in a corner lay;
I dragged him by the collar to the wall,
I pressed his quivering muzzle to a shawl –
“Track her, old boy!” I shouted, and he whined,
Matched eyes with me as if to read my mind;
Then with a yell went tearing through the wood,
I followed him as faithful as I could.
No pleasure trip was that through flood and flame;
We raced with death, we hunted noble game.
All night we dragged the woods without avail,
The ground got drenched – we could not keep the trail.
Three times again my cabin home I found,
Half hoping she might be there safe and sound,
But each time ’twas an unavailing care –
My house had lost its soul – she was not there!

When climbing the wet trees, next morning sun
Laughed at the ruin that the night had done,
Bleeding and drenched, by sorrow and toil bent,
Back to what used to be my home I went,
But as I neared our little clearing ground –
Listen! – I heard the cowbell’s tinkling sound,
The cabin door was just a bit ajar;
It gleamed upon my sad eyes like a star.
“Brave heart,” I said, “for such a fragile form!
She made them guide her homeward through the storm!”
Such pangs of joy, I never felt before.
“You’ve come!” I shouted, and rushed through the door.
Yes, she had come and gone again. She lay
With all her young life crushed and wrenched away –
Lay, the ruins of our home among.
Not far from where I killed her with my tongue.
The rain drops glittered ‘mid her hair’s long strands,
The forest thorns had torn her feet and hands,
And ‘midst the tears – brave tears – that one could trace
Upon the pale but sweet resolute face,
I once again the mournful words could read,
“I’ve tried to do my best – I have, indeed.”

And now I’m mostly done, my story’s o’er
Part of it never breathed the air before,
‘Tisn’t over-usual, it must be allowed,
To volunteer heart history to a crowd,
And scatter ‘monst them confidential tears;
But you’ll protect an old man with his years,
And whosoe’r this story’s voice may reach,
This is the sermon I would have it preach!

Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds,
You can’t do that when you’re flying words,
“Be careful with fire” is good advice we know;
“Careful with birds” is ten time doubly so,
Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead,
But God Himself can’t kill them when they’re said!
You have my life-grief; do not think a minute
‘Twas told to take up time. There’s business in it.
It sheds advice, whoe’er will take and live it
Is welcome to the pain it costs and give it.


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