Mountain-Laurel

Mary E. Wilkins

From Understudies (Harper & Brothers; New York: 1901)

Ladd's mountain was to the eastward of the village, consequently the sun rose behind it. When the full radiance crowned it at last, the dewy depths of the shadows were revealed; great mysterious lights as of the very watch-fires of the day gleamed out, and here and there silver threads of mountain torrents dazzled as with diamonds. But the laurel, of course, could not be seen from the village; only to the farer in the mountain-ways were its gorgeous thickets displayed. There was a marvellous growth of it on Ladd's Mountain. Young people used to make parties to climb the mountain, and go home laden with great bunches of the superb chintz-patterned blossoms. In the winter its glossy evergreen leaves were in high demand for Christmas wreaths and decorations. But Samuel Ladd was the one who set the greatest value upon it. It had reached for him its highest beauty, being more to him than itself, and having, in a sense, flowered out beyond its own natural scope, in a far-reaching influence upon a human soul.

Samuel Ladd actually owned the mountain, and was land-poor in the fullest sense. Formerly a wide stretch of fertile meadows on the river-bank below had belonged to his family; now only the mountain remained. There was scarcely an acre of hay or pasturage on its rocky sides. Even the wood was of scanty growth and undesirable kinds. There was more laurel than anything else on Ladd's Mountain.

The Ladd house was half-way up the southern slope of the mountain, where the rough road ended and the rougher path to the summit began. The house stood on a narrow level of cultivated fields, a natural terrace of the mountain. There Samuel Ladd had been born, and there he had lived his whole life; he was nearly forty years old. He had been one of a large family — six brothers and three sisters — but every one was gone. Only the two oldest sisters had lived until middle life. They — two round-shouldered, hopeless, patient-faced women — died of consumption when Samuel was in his twenties. After that he lived alone, except during the busy season of the year, when he hired help from the village. Although a young man, he never sought companions. He never cared for any of the village merry-makings. Through the long winter evenings and the long storms he remained alone over his one fire, listening to the shrieking of the mountain wind around the old farm-house, but he was never, in the fullest sense, lonely. He possessed an imagination that, joined to the other qualities of brain needful, might have made him a great poet. To this man none of his family were really dead, but lived in a sublimated and wonderful fashion. His father's poor body lay in the graveyard over in the village, but in his stead sat, for the son's fancy, in his old place beside the hearth, a splendid, stalwart figure, radiant with the enjoyment of life; and instead of the feeble and worn mother was a grand creature as full of strength and grace as a mountain pine. And the two round-shouldered women, his sisters, who had dragged away their loveless lives in this mountain solitude, reappeared to the fair fancy of their young brother in all their lost loveliness and hope of youth. Samuel never imagined them as they had really been but always as they might have been had time and trouble not touched them. One might have wondered if the boy, through his affection, had always seen his lost dear ones as he afterwards pictured them to himself, and had actually never realized their true aspects in other eyes.

On moonlight nights in summer, as he sat peacefully on the step of the door overlooking the valley, seeing the village below as through the waves of a shifting silver flood, his beautiful young sisters used to come and sit beside him, and, as they talked together, Samuel's sisters were much more companions for him dead than when living, since he was so at liberty to reanimate them into accord with himself. In life, they had paid little attention to their younger brother. They had had their whole strength taken and exhausted by their treadmill of narrow duties, and the slow grinding of their hearts on the wheel of disappointment of the main ends of life. They had become breathing inanities of women, neither kind nor unkind, neither gloomy nor cheerful, sunken into as stupidly selfish regard of their own standing and feeding places as cows. But Samuel had invested them both, when they were gone, and, maybe, when they were still drudging along their narrow paths of earth, with such garments of glory that they had not known themselves in them, not even in their dim orthodox imaginations of their future harped and winged estates. Their brother made of them shapes infinitely more desirable than those of their own conception, and transcended, as love can often do, their dreams even of their own good.

When, one day some ten years after his last sister had died, a party of young people came up the mountain, and among them was a strange young girl, such a beauty that people turned to look after her, Samuel astonished the man who was working for him that summer by remarking that that girl looked like his sister Eunice.

“What?” cried the man, with an incredulous stare. He was a young fellow of about Samuel's age, full of stolid energy like an ox. He was a good farm-hand, and was earning enough money to buy a farm in the village and marry.

“She looks as my sister Eunice used to,” said Samuel.

“Your sister Eunice? Good Lord!” cried them man. “Your sister Eunice? Why, your sister Eunice was as thin as a lath, and stooped till she was most double, and her skin was yellow as saffron, and her eyes like a fish's! That girl look like your sister Eunice? You're stun-blind, Sammy.”

Samuel gazed at the girl, who was seated with her companions on the stone wall across the road, resting before they began the harder part of the ascent. He compared her laughing eyes, her sweet, rosy cheeks and lips, her yellow hair, her lovely young shoulders, with his memory of his poor dead sister's, and, wrought upon by some divine alchemy of love, he found the same likeness as before. “I should almost take her for Eunice, if I didn't know,” he said, with mild persistency.

“You're a fool,” said the hired man.

Samuel made no reply; he was meditating, his forehead knitted over his deep-set, pale-blue eyes. When the party had left their resting-place on the stone wall, and had disappeared up the mountain-path, he went promptly into the house.

“Ben't you goin' to turn that hay?” the hired man called after him, wonderingly.

“No,” said Samuel, gently but decisively. The hired man stood staring a moment, after the door closed behind Samuel, then he whistled and slouched off to the hay-field at the right of the house.

When the little party returned, Samuel was dressed in his best; he had shaved and brushed his long, sallow locks, he had put on a clean shirt, with an obsolete, rasping collar, and a tie which his sister Eunice had made for him out of a piece of her black-silk dress. His suit was one which had belonged to his father, and it hung in loose folds on his lank figure. Besides all this, Samuel wore in his button-hole a sprig of mountain-laurel. The long-unused parlor was open, and the paper curtains flapped in the wind like flowered green sails. The hired man out in the field saw them blowing, and made an errand around to the front of the house to get a drink of water from the well in the yard. He gulped it down, with long stares over the brim of the dipper. When he passed the parlor windows, he cast a shrewd and comprehensive stare at the interior and went on, whistling again. Samuel had set a great glass pitcher of milk on the mahogany card-table in the parlor. He had looked forlornly in his bachelor larder for some dainty to accompany the milk, but there was nothing except cold vegetables, a ham-bone, some eggs, and cheese. Then he had searched the cellar, and brought up, triumphantly, two little tumblers of currant-jelly which had survived since his sister Eunice's time. He set these out on the card-table beside the milk, with six of the best china plates, and six teaspoons. After that he hastened out behind the house and broke off branches of the mountain-laurel, which was in full blossom. He filled an old copper-gilt pitcher, which was precious, though he did not know it, with the laurel, and stuck the sprig in his coat. Then he was ready.

He stood on his front door-step when the four girls and the two young men who made up the party reached it. He was flaming with bashfulness, but resolute in his purpose. He invited them all in to have some refreshment. There was a moment's hesitation; the girls stared at him, then at one another, with covert smiles. Samuel Ladd's name had become a synonym in the village for rustic uncouthness and abashedness, and this was unprecedented. Then the beauty, who was a school-teacher from another town, took the lead. She accepted the invitation promptly, and followed Samuel into the house and the best parlor. Covert smiles became, in the case of two hysterical girls, almost open merriment at the sight of the refreshment spread before them, but the school-teacher's manner was perfect.

“How delicious!” she cried; “new milk! And I don't know when I have had any currant-jelly! It is currant-jelly, isn't it, Mr. Ladd? Yes, I thought so.”

When the guests left, the school-teacher bore in triumph the beautiful copper-gilt pitcher which she had admired, and which Samuel had urged upon her acceptance. One of the young men carried for her the great bouquet of mountain-laurel. Samuel stood looking after them. He had never been in his whole life so happy after the fashion of other men.

That evening he stole down the mountain to the farm-house at the foot where the school-teacher boarded. He was going courting for the first time in his life. He was dressed in his best; he wore an ancient silk hat which had belonged to his father when a young man, he had a fresh sprig of laurel in his button-hole, and he carried a superb bunch of it.

But just as he reached the gate of the farm-house where the school-teacher boarded another man was going up the flower-bordered path to the front door, and he recognized him as one of the party who had climbed the mountain in the afternoon. He was a stranger from the city who was in the village on some engineering business.

Samuel waited in the shadow of a bush at the gate until the other man had been admitted, then he turned away, but not before Mrs. Cutting, the woman of the house, had espied him. She was crossing the road from the field with a basket of greens, and she hailed him. “Hullo, Samuel!” said she; “couldn't you get in? The school-teacher is there. I should have thought she would have gone to the door. Did you knock?” Samuel stood before the woman, and he seemed to be settling down into his very boots with an abashedness which was almost ignominy. “I guess I won't go in,” said he. “I guess she's got company.”

Mrs. Cutting laughed significantly.

“Well, mebbe you'd better not, if he's come,” said she. “It's Mr. Crane, I s'pose. He's payin' attention to her. He comes every night. Mebbe you'd better not go in — still, as long as you've come —”

“I guess I won't go in,” replied Samuel, with a pathetic, breathless kind of dignity. He was quite pale. He extended the great bunch of laurel. “Mebbe you'll give her these flowers by-and-by, when he's gone,” said he.

“Land!” cried the woman, “she's got a bunch as big as my head now. I don't see what she can do with any more. But she'll be jest as much obliged to you, Samuel.”

“All right,” said Samuel.

Samuel went up the mountain with his despised offering of laurel. When he reached the terrace upon which his house stood, he paused and looked down over the valley, the cultivated fields and gardens, the river, and the white village beyond, all wavering under the silver film of moonlight into outlines of imaginary beauty. “Seems to me I never knew this house stood so high,” he muttered. Without knowing it, he had reached a new spiritual outlook, and even a material landscape seemed farther beneath his material mountain.

There was still a pained expression on his face when he entered his house, but it vanished at once. A moonbeam lay athwart the kitchen floor, and in it stood, white and fair, and radiant with smiles, beautiful beyond her utmost compass of pretty youthfulness, the same girl who was at that moment sitting with her lover in the farm-house in the valley.

“Lord, I forgot that,” said Samuel Ladd. “I can always have her this way as long as I live.”

Presently the few people who came up the mountain wondered what had started Samuel Ladd fixing up his house. He took a little hoard from the savings-bank, put the old place in perfect repair, and made some improvements. There was a new portico at the front door, with a climbing-rose trained over it; lace curtains swayed at the parlor windows. People began to surmise that Samuel Ladd was going to get married, but they were at a loss for the bride. None of them dreamed that the man had refurnished his house, not for a bride, but for a home for the most precious imagination of his soul. And the refurnishing did not extend to his house alone, for ever afterwards he was dainty, even to punctiliousness, in his attire. No man in the village wore more carefully brushed and mended clothes, or was more religiously shaven, and that, although he lived days and weeks on his solitary farm with no human eye to look upon him.

The pretty school-teacher did not return after the close of the spring term. She married the young engineer, and went to live in a distant city. Samuel saw the notice of her marriage in the paper; he cut it out and pasted it on a fly-leaf of his copy of Paradise Lost. He hesitated awhile between that and the Bible, but finally decided in favor of the former. Samuel had a small assortment of books, mostly of a religious character, with the exception of a history of Massachusetts. He cared especially for the Bible and the Milton. The Milton he pored over for hours at a time, but mostly for purposes of comparison after he began to write himself, which he did soon after the school-teacher left the village. This pretty, usual girl became, without knowing it, in a humble, almost ludicrous, fashion, a species of Laura to this rustic, inglorious Petrarch. Almost simultaneously with Samuel Ladd's love there awakened within him that desire which has from all time awakened in such wise — to achieve and succeed and win fame for love's sake. This male of his species had found, along with his love, his song, albeit it was a poor and discordant one. He looked at the laurel bushes, and a faint conception of their eternal symbolism came to him. He had no creative talent, so he followed the one poet whom he knew, afar off, with pompous halts and hitches of imitation. He filled reams of foolscap with trite sentiments and weighty platitudes, in a babel of strange rhymes and sonorous syllables and swollen metres. Samuel was fond of marching up and down, either in his orchard or his parlor, and mouthing his own poetry with solemn emphasis, his hands clasped rigidly behind his back. Sometimes his hired man used to overhear him, and stand aloof and listen, grinning. Gradually the report spread that Samuel Ladd wasn't quite in his right mind, though he seemed sane enough in all his business dealings. Occasionally the young people passing the house on their way to the summit used to hear Samuel declaiming, and stopped and stared and nudged one another. These young creatures, travelling along the common track of daily life, with all its wayside weeds as giant trees to their perspectives, saw much to jest at in the painful and futile efforts of this poor brother to raise himself above their level. When he fell back, or thought himself above when he was still below, they were keen to see the absurdity of it, being themselves accurately balanced to detect any eccentricity of orbit. However, they were kind to him. Often they used to stop, on their way down the mountain, and leave the remnants of their luncheons for the poor old bachelor with no woman to cook the village dainties for him. Samuel was fond of presenting them, in return, with copies of his poems.

Samuel never essayed the publication of his poems in a legitimate fashion by a publisher. He spent all his little savings, and went without necessary food, to have them printed at his own expense, in paper-covered volumes, by a local printer. These he used to give away; he never sold them — he was above that. He went about the village leaving the book at the doors, and it was the proudest day of his whole life. He knew of nothing wanting, not even the girl whom he loved. He was conscious of possessing something beyond her, which still included her — that which he had made of himself for her sake.

One May, long after the pretty school-teacher had married and gone away, she came back to the village, and one afternoon she joined a party for climbing the mountain and gathering laurel. Samuel, sitting in his doorway, saw her, and never knew her; and she had forgotten him. She had grown old, and all her pretty individualities, her diamond facets of character, had been rubbed smooth into utter commonness by the friction of an utterly common life. Her youthful bloom had gone, and something more — the essential perfume which had crowned and winged the bloom. Samuel looked at her as she passed, then he turned away; and she looked at him, and turned away also.

“That's Samuel Ladd,” said a woman at her side. “He writes poetry; he's sort of crazy.”

“He looks queer,” assented the other. She had seen neither Samuel as he was, nor beside him her own glorified image, that self to which she could never attain on earth, fadeless in transcendent youth, while she, coarse and common, passed on. Samuel held a volume of his poems in his hand; he had been reading them aloud to himself. Utter dross though they might be, they had yet not failed in the mission of perfect art. They had filled a soul with the conviction of work well done and the elation of success. After all, the worker is more than the work, and he who does his best with poor tools may crown himself with genuine laurels.

Samuel had planted laurel closely around his house, and his windows were almost hidden by it. All Samuel's rooms were, summer and winter, in a green twilight with the laurel, as was perhaps his mind. He loved it at all times, but especially in its blooming season as now.

Between those great bushes, resplendent with their white and rosy stars and evergreen leaves, sat the poor poet and lover, who had fed all his life upon the honey in his own soul in lieu of any other, and perhaps nourished himself to his own waste, but to his own happiness. No happier soul was there in the valley below, no happier soul ever came Maying up the mountain-side. Sitting there beneath the shade of his splendid symbolic flowers, with his fadeless ideal to wife, and his consciousness of an artist soul invincible by any poverty of art, he was one of the happiest crowned heads in the world.