The Great Pine

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Six Trees (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1903)

It was in the summer-time that the great pine sang his loudest song of winter, for always the voice of the tree seemed to arouse in the listener a realization of that which was past and to come, rather than of the present. In the winter the tree seemed to sing of the slumberous peace under his gently fanning boughs, and the deep swell of his aromatic breath in burning noons, and when the summer traveller up the mountain-side threw himself, spent and heated, beneath his shade, then the winter song was at its best. When the wind swelled high came the song of the icefields, of the frozen mountain-torrents, of the trees wearing hoary beards and bent double like old men, of the little wild things trembling in their covers when the sharp reports of the frost sounded through the rigid hush of the arctic night and death was abroad. The man who lay beneath the tree had much uncultivated imagination, and, though hampered by exceeding ignorance, he yet saw and heard that which was beyond mere observation. When exhausted by the summer heat, he reflected upon the winter with that keen pleasure which comes from the mental grasp of contrast to discomfort. He did not know that he heard the voice of the tree and not his own thought, so did the personality of the great pine mingle with his own. He was a sailor, and had climbed different heights from mountains, even masts made from the kindred of the tree.

Presently he threw his head back, and stared up and up, and reflected what a fine mast the tree would make, if only it were not soft pine. There was a stir in a branch, and a bird which lived in the tree in summer cast a small, wary glance at him from an eye like a point of bright intelligence, but the man did not see it. He drew a long breath, and looked irresolutely at the upward slope beyond the tree. It was time for him to be up and on if he would cross the mountain before nightfall. He was a wayfarer without resources. He was as poor as the tree, or any of the wild creatures which were in hiding around him on the mountain. He was even poorer, for he had not their feudal tenure of an abiding-place for root and foot on the mountain by the inalienable right of past generations of his race. Even the little, wary-eyed, feathered thing had its small freehold in the branches of the great pine, but the man had nothing. He had returned to primitive conditions; he was portionless save for that with which he came into the world, except for two garments which were nearly past their use as such. His skin showed through the rents; the pockets were empty. Adam expelled from Eden was not in much worse case, and this man also had at his back the flaming sword of punishment for wrong-doing. The man arose. He stood for a moment, letting the cool wind fan his forehead a little longer; then he bent his shoulders doggedly and resumed his climb up the dry bed of a brook which was in winter a fierce conduit for the melting ice and snow. Presently he came to such a choke of fallen trees across the bed that he had to leave it; then there was a sheer rock ascent which he had to skirt and go lower down the mountain to avoid.

The tree was left alone. He stood quiescent with the wind in his green plumes. He belonged to that simplest form of life which cannot project itself beyond its own existence to judge of it. He did not know when presently the man returned and threw himself down with a violent thud against his trunk, though there was a slight shock to his majesty. But the man looked up at the tree and cursed it. He had lost his way through avoiding the rocky precipice, and had circle back to the tree. He remained there a few minutes to gain breath; then he rose, for the western sunlight was filtering in gold drops through the foliage below the pine, and plodded heavily on again.

It might have been twenty minutes before he returned. When he saw the pine he cursed more loudly than before. The sun was quite low. The mountain seemed to be growing in size, the valleys were fast becoming gulfs of black mystery. The man looked at the tree malignantly. He felt in his pocket for a knife which he used to own, then for a match, the accompaniment of the tobacco and pipe which formerly comforted him, but there was none there. The thought of the lost pipe and tobacco filled him with a childish savagery. He felt that he must vent his spite upon something outside himself. He picked up two dry sticks, and began rubbing them together. He had some skill in woodcraft. Presently a spark gleamed; then another. He scraped up a handful of dry leaves. Presently smoke arose pungently in his face, then a flame leaped to life. The man kept on his way, leaving a fire behind him, and swore with an oath that he would not be trapped by the tree again.

He struggled up the old waterway, turning aside for the prostrate skeletons of giant trees, clambering over heaps of stones which might have been the cairns of others, and clawing up precipices like a panther. After one fierce scramble he paused for breath, and, standing on a sheer rock ledge, gazed downward. Below him was a swaying, folding gloom full of vague whispers and rustlings. It seemed to wave and eddy before him like the sea from the deck of a ship, and, indeed, it was another deep, only of air instead of water. Suddenly he realized that there was no light, that the fire which he had kindled must have gone out. He stared into the waving darkness below, and sniffed hard. He could smell smoke faintly, although he could see no fire. Then all at once came a gleam of red, then a leap of orange flame. Then — no human being could have told how it happened, he himself least of all, what swift motive born of deeds and experiences in his own life, born perhaps of deeds and experiences of long-dead ancestors, actuated him. He leaped back down the mountain, stumbling headlong, falling at times, and scrambled to his feet again, sending loose stones down in avalanches, running risks of life and limb, but never faltering until he was beside the pine, standing, singing in the growing glare of the fire. Then he began beating the fire fiercely with sticks, trampling it until he blistered his feet. At last the fire was out. People on a hotel piazza down in the valley, who had been watching it, turned away. “The fire is out,” they said, with the regret of those who miss a spectacular delight, although admitting the pity and shame of it, yet coddling with fierce and defiant joy the secret lust of destruction of the whole race. “The fire is out,” they said; but more than the fire had burned low, and was out, on the mountain. The man who had evoked destruction to satisfy his own wrath and bitterness of spirit, and then repented, sat for a few minutes outside the blackened circle around the great pine, breathing hard. He drew his rough coat-sleeve across his wet forehead, and stared up at the tree, which loomed above him like a prophet with solemnly waving arms of benediction, prophesying in a great unknown language of his own. He gaped as he stared; his face looked vacant. He felt in his pocket for his departed pipe, then withdrew his hand forcibly, dashing it against the ground. Then he sighed, swore mildly under his breath an oath of weariness and misery rather than of wrath. Then he pulled himself up by successive stages of his stiff muscles, like an old camel, and resumed his journey.

After a while he again paused and looked back. The moon had arisen, and he could see quite plainly the great pine standing crowned with white light, tossing his boughs like spears and lances of silver. “Thunderin' big tree,” he muttered, with a certain pride and self-approbation. He felt that that majestic thing owed its being to him, to his forbearance with his own hard fate. Had it not been for that it would have been a mere blackened trunk. At that moment, for the first time in his history, he rose superior to his own life. In some unknown fashion this seemingly trivial happening had, as it were, tuned him to a higher place in the scale of things than he had ever held. He, through saving the tree from himself, gained a greater spiritual growth than the tree had gained in height since it first quickened with life. Who shall determine the limit at which the intimate connection and reciprocal influence of all forms of visible creation upon one another may stop? A man may cut down a tree and plant one. Who knows what effect the tree may have upon the man, to his raising or undoing?

Presently the man frowned and shook his head in a curious fashion, as if he questioned his own identity; then he resumed his climb. After the summit was gained he went down the other side of the mountain, then northward through a narrow gorge of valley to which the moonbeams did not yet penetrate. This valley, between mighty walls of silver-crested darkness, was terrifying. The man felt his own smallness and the largeness of nature which seemed about to fall upon him. Spirit was intimidated by matter. The man, rude and unlettered, brutalized and dulled by his life, yet realized it. He rolled his eyes aloft from side to side, and ran as if pursued.

When he had reached the brow of a little decline in the valley road he paused and searched eagerly with straining eyes the side of the mountain on the right. Then he drew a long breath of relief. He had seen what he wished to see — a feeble glimmer of lamplight from a window of a house, the only one on that lonely road for five miles in either direction. It was the dwelling-house on a small farm which had been owned by the father of the woman whom the man had married fifteen years before. Ten years ago, when he had run away, there had been his wife, his little girl, and his wife's mother living on the farm. The old farmer father had died two years before that, and the man, who had wild blood in his veins, had rebelled at the hard grind necessary to wrest a livelihood by himself from the mountain soil. So one morning he was gone, leaving a note saying that he had gone to sea, and would write and send money, that he could earn more than on a farm. But he never wrote, and he never sent the money. He had met with sin and disaster, and at last he started homeward, shorn, and, if not repentant, weary of wrong-doing and its hard wages. He had retreated from the broad way with an ignoble impulse, desiring the safety of the narrow, and the loaves and fishes, which, after all, can be found in it with greater certainty; but now, as he hastened along, he became conscious of something better than that. One good impulse begat others by some law of spiritual reproduction. He began to think how he would perhaps do more work than he had formerly, and please his wife and her mother.

He looked at the light in the window ahead with something akin to thankfulness. He remembered how very gentle his wife had been, and how fond of him. His wife's mother also had been a mild woman, with reproving eyes only, never with a tongue of reproach. He remembered his little girl with a thrill of tenderness and curiosity. She would be a big girl now; she would be like her mother. He began picturing to himself what they would do and say, what they would give him for supper. He thought he would like a slice of ham cut from one of those cured on the farm, that and some new-laid eggs. He would have some of those biscuits that his wife's mother used to make, and some fresh butter, and honey from the home bees. He would have tea and cream. He seemed to smell the tea and the ham. A hunger which was sorer than any hunger of the flesh came over him. All at once the wanderer starved for home. He had been shipwrecked and at the point of death from hunger, but never was hunger like this. He had planned speeches of contrition; now he planned nothing. He feared no blame from those whom he had wronged; he feared nothing except his own need of them. Faster and faster he went. He seemed to be running a race. At last he was quite close to the house. The light was in a window facing the road, and the curtain was up. He could see a figure steadily passing and repassing it. He went closer, and saw that it was a little girl with a baby in her arms, and she was walking up and down hushing it. A feeble cry smote his ears, though the doors and windows were closed. It was chilly even in midsummer in the mountains. He went around the house to the side door. He noticed that the field on the left was waving with tall, dry grass, which should have been cut long ago; he noticed that there were no beanpoles in the garden. He noticed that the house looked gray and shabby even in the moonlight, that some blinds were gone and a window broken. He leaned a second against the door. Then he opened it and entered. He came into a little, square entry; on one side was the kitchen door, on the other the room where the light was. He opened the door leading to this room. He stood staring, for nothing which he had anticipated met his eyes, except the little girl. She stood gazing at him, half in alarm, half in surprise, clutching close the baby, which was puny, but evidently about a year old. Two little boys stood near the table on which the lamp was burning, and they stared at him with wide-open mouths and round eyes. But the sight which filled the intruder with the most amazement and dismay was that of a man in the bed in the corner. He recognized him at once as a farmer who had lived, at the time of his departure, five miles away in the village. He remembered that his wife was recently dead when he left. The man, whose blue, ghastly face was sunken in the pillows, looked up at him. He thrust out a cadaverous hand as if to threaten. The little girl with the baby and the two little boys edged nearer the bed, as if for protection.

“Who be you?” inquired the sick man, with feeble menace. “What d'ye want comin' in here this way?” It was like the growl of a sick dog.

The other man went close to the bed. “Where is my wife?” he asked, in a strange voice. It was expressive of horror and anger and a rage of disappointment.

“You ain't — Dick?” gasped the man in bed.

“Yes, I be; and I know you, Johnny Willet. Where is my wife? What are you here for?”

“Your wife is dead,” answered the man, in a choking voice. He began to cough; he half raised himself on one elbow. His eyes bulged. He crowed like a child with the croup. The little girl promptly laid the baby on the bed and ran to a chimney cupboard for a bottle of medicine, which she administered with a spoon. The sick man lay back, gasping for breath. He looked as if already dead; his jaw dropped; there were awful blue hollows in his face.

“Dead!” repeated the visitor, thinking of his wife, and not of the other image of death before him.

“Yes, she's dead.”

“Where's my little girl?”

The sick man raised one shaking hand and pointed to the little girl who had taken up the whimpering baby.

“That?”

The sick man nodded.

The other eyed the little girl, rather tall for her age, but very slim, her narrow shoulders already bent with toil. She regarded him, with serious blue eyes in a little face, with an expression of gentleness so pronounced that it gave the impression of a smile. The man's eyes wandered from the girl to the baby in her arms and the two little boys.

“What be you all a-doin' here?” he demanded, gruffly, and made a movement towards the bed. The little girl turned pale, and clutched the baby more closely. The sick man made a feeble sound of protest and deprecation. “What be you all a-doin' here?” demanded the other again.

“I married your wife after we heard your ship was lost. We knew you was aboard her from Abel Dennison. He come home, and said you was dead for sure, some eight year ago, and then she said she'd marry me. I'd been after her some time. My wife died, and my house burned down, and I was left alone without any home, and I'd always like her. She wasn't any too willin', but finally she give in.”

The man whom he had called Dick glared at him speechlessly.

“We both thought you was dead, sure,” said the sick man, in a voice of mild deprecation, which was ludicrously out of proportion to the subject.

Dick looked at the children.

“We had 'em,” said the sick man. “She died when the baby was two months old, and your girl Lottie has been taking care of it. It has been pretty hard for her, but I was took sick, and 'ain't been able to do anything. I can jest crawl round a little, and that's all. Lottie can milk — we've got one cow left — and she feeds the hens, and my first wife's brother has given us some flour and meal, and cuts up some wood to burn, and we've worried along, but we can't stand it when winter comes, anyhow. Somethin' has got to be done.” Suddenly an expression of blank surprise before an acquisition of knowledge came over his face. “Good Lord! Dick,” he gasped out, “it's all yours. It's all yours, anyway, now.”

“Where's the old woman?” asked Dick, abruptly, ignoring what the other said.

“Your wife's mother? She died of pneumonia about two year ago. Your wife she took it to heart pretty bad. She was a heap of help about the children.”

Dick nodded. “The old woman always was smart to work,” he assented.

“Yes, and your wife she wa'n't overstrong.”

“Never was.”

“No.”

“S'pose there was enough to put her away decent?”

“I sold the wood-lot on the back road. There's a gravestone. Luckily I had it done before I was took sick.”

“S'pose you're pretty hard pinched now?”

“Awful hard. We can't get along so much longer. There's enough wood to cut, if I could do it, that would bring in somethin'; and there's the hay, that's spoilin'. I can't do nothin'. There's nothin' but this house over our heads.” Suddenly that look of surprised knowledge came over his face again. “Lord! it's all yours, and the girl's, anyhow,” he muttered.

“She's been doin' the work?” asked Dick, pointing to the girl.

“Yes; she does the best she can, but she ain't very big, and the children 'ain't got enough to be decent, and we can't get much cooked.”

Dick made a resolute step towards the door.

“Where be you a-goin', Dick?” asked the sick man, with a curious wistfulness. “You ain't goin' to-night?”

“What is there in the house to eat?”

“What's in the house, Lottie?”

“There's some meal and milk and eggs,” answered the child, in a high, sweet voice.

“Come here and give us a kiss, Lottie,” said Dick, suddenly.

The little girl approached him timidly, staggering under the weight of the baby. She lifted her face, and the man kissed her with a sort of solemnity. “I'm your father, Lottie,” said he.

The two looked at each other, the child shrinking, yet smiling.

“Glad I got home?” asked the man.

“Yes, sir.”

Dick went out into the kitchen, and the children followed and stood in the doorway, watching. He gravely set to work with such utensils and materials as he found, which were scanty enough. He kindled a fire and made a corn-cake. He made porridge for the sick man and carried him a bowl of it smoking hot. “'Ain't had nothin' like this sence she died,” said the sick man.

After supper Dick cleaned the kitchen. He also tidied up the other room and made the bed, and milked, and split some wood wherewith to cook breakfast.

“You ain't goin' to-night, Dick?” the sick man said, anxiously, when he came in after the work was done.

“No, I ain't.”

“Lord! I forgot; it's your house,” said the sick man.

“I wa'n't goin' anyhow,” said Dick.

“Well, there's a bed up-stairs. You 'ain't got any more clothes than what you've got on, have you?”

“No, I 'ain't,” replied Dick, shortly.

“Well, there's mine in the closet out of this room, and you might jest as well wear 'em till I get up. There's some shirts and some pants.”

“All right,” said Dick.

The next morning Dick got the breakfast, cooking eggs with wonderful skill and frying corn-cakes. Then, dressed in the sick man's shirt and trousers, he set forth, axe in hand. He toiled all day in the woods; he toiled every day until he had sufficient wood cut, then he hired a horse, to be paid for when the wood was sold. He carted loads to the hotels and farm-houses where summer-boarders were taken. He arose before dawn and worked in the field and garden. He cut the hay. He was up half the night setting the house to rights. He washed and ironed like a woman. The whole establishment was transformed. He got a doctor for the sick man, but he gave small encouragement. He had consumption, although he might linger long. “Who's going to take care of the poor fellow, I don't know,” said the doctor.

“I be,” said Dick.

“Then there are the children,” said the doctor.

“One of 'em is mine, and I'll take care of his,” said Dick.

The doctor stared, as one stares who sees a good deed in a naughty world, with a mixture of awe, of contempt, and of incredulity.

“Well,” he said, “it's lucky you came along.”

After that Dick simply continued in his new path of life. He worked and nursed. It was inconceivable how much the man accomplished. He developed an enormous capacity for work. In the autumn he painted the house; the cellar was full of winter vegetables, the wood-pile was compact. The children were warmly clad, and Lottie went to school. Her father had bought an old horse for a song, and he carried her to school every day. Once in January he had occasion to drive around the other side of the mountain which he had climbed the night of his return. He started early in the afternoon, that he might be in season to go for Lottie.

It was a clear, cold day. Snow was on the ground, a deep, glittering level, with a hard crust of ice. The sleigh slid over the frozen surface with long hisses. The trees were all bare and had suffered frightfully in the last storm. The rain had frozen as it fell, and there had been a high gale. The ice-mailed branches had snapped, and sometimes whole trees. Dick, slipping along on the white line of road below, gazed up at the side of the mountain. He looked and looked again. Then he desisted. He reached over and cut the horse's back with the reins. “Get up!” he cried, harshly.

The great pine had fallen from his high estate. He was no more to be seen dominating the other trees, standing out in solitary majesty among his kind. The storm had killed him. He lay prostrate on the mountain.

And the man on the road below passed like the wind, and left the mountain and the dead tree behind.