We believe it to be a case of life and death. It is death to remain connected with those bodies that speak lightly of, or oppose, the coming of the Lord. It is life to come out from all human tradition, and stand upon the Word of God... We therefore now say to all who are in any way entangled in the yoke of bondage, "Come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord."
Joshua V. Himes, in the imminent-advent newspaper,
If I chose to I could find you and bring you home. I am known in the several towns where you may be lodged, even as far as Grasstown where the mayor once welcomed my money. Favors are owed to me up and down this county. I could employ men to go around the towns and knock on the doors and demand that the landladies array their boarders on the steps. This would flush you out eventually, no matter how you covered your ears and ignored the noise. But why should your foolishness disrupt my day's work? Duty and self-regard forbid me to go snuffing at your footprints. I shall simply write, and make several copies and distribute them around to those you may have dealings with. In this way you may receive a letter and be assured of my feelings in this matter, that is to say, irked, and faintly amused.
The horse you rode I will consider leased by the day. I will determine the schedule of repayment when you have come home.
Your mother is cheerful but weak, and stays
abed. She does not know you've gone. I have said you are traveling with
Daniel Kimball to hear the concerts at Braxton. A lie.
Perhaps shame has made you shy. But let me say that if you will see your error and come back, we will forget this episode. It will never color our relations in the future. And your mother need never know.
I have had no response from you this week. Twice I sent letters to the Congregation men ofBraxton, Lewiston, Rocky Ford, Carlisle, and Big Grasstown. I have of course bound them to discretion, as reputations are not easily repaired in this county. One letter went along in the pocket of James Spencer, who was traveling to Lewiston. His Marie asks after you, he tells me. I was silent, unwilling to lie—a rude man and a bad neighbor. For this I thank you. The other letters I took myself. I gave them to these church men because who knows where your fellows may gather to worship—I know only that some of them have been expelled from their congregations, and that these ministers may be able to name them. So this is what you want. To leave the world of warm society and sensible character. To shame your family into lies.
Not a man has seen you in any town. I made discreet inquiry, saying my son had passed through recently and asking, had he stopped in to pass the time? No? A heedless young man, too thoughtful, too studious, and thus rude. In this way I dressed your disrespect in the clothes of a common flaw. Again and again, I gave a chuckle that hurt my throat.
But no one had seen you. Once I asked myself if you might be hurt, struck down by robbers on a road. But no. We argued, and you have taken yourself off on your own legs for your own fool's vision. Moreover on my travels a corroborating rumor came to my attention. This was in the hatter's shop in Rocky Ford. The hatter had heard of a gathering, an encampment across the river. People of all kinds were wading the ford with their children, he said, even carrying their babies still in skirts. They've come to play at some absurd game, he said, they're bewitched by preachers with loud voices who rattle chains. And why they chose us, a sensible township, I don't know. Perhaps because they could get space near the river, and so carry water a shorter distance.
I said, Some people will let their fields to any rabble with cash.
You may be among these feverish pilgrims wetting their toes at the ford. Perhaps you wonder if I was tempted to cross and look for you. I was not. My equilibrium is not such that a gadding child can disturb it, and I had business at the bank. My goodbye to the hatter was comfortable. I've known him for years.
Your silence perplexes me, John Ephraim.
My hand begins to tire from copying letters. Colleagues at the bank have noticed it shake a bit when I sign my name. They wonder, too, why I send these letters out to Lewiston, Rocky Ford, Carlisle, Grasstown. They may believe I correspond with creditors. Or, perhaps, a woman. They may be saying Josiah Cole has turned from his wife in her illness.
But now I need not copy. I need send only to the minister Gearhart at Rocky Ford, who will find a suitable messenger. I am sure you are there.
For the story of the great blue tent erected at the crook of the river has appeared in the newspapers amid great joking. It's said that wild-eyed unmarried women make up the majority of the congregation, and are given to shouting prayers until they lose strength and must be carried out. Then there are drinkers, crawling babies, servants, and shaking old men who sing. A respectable community, my son! I see that there are many who share your brooding reading of Revelations, many others who have sat in their attics over the last year eschewing decent work and company, totting up numbers from the Bible as though God would speak to us in some heathenish code. There is even a report that your fellows have ordered a hundred bolts of white cloth, that they may sew robes to wear when they ascend. This sewing at least might someday get you respectable employment. We've had tailors in the family before this, and you've already shown you don't mind spending time on your knees. Do you sleep on the ground with strangers, John Ephraim? Pardon my interest. I understand that they are brothers to you, and will live with you when God has annihilated the rest of us in a storm of fire. Well that you should learn their names, I suppose.
I scarcely dare hope that you have sent a letter crossing this, explaining.
Let me amend the common saying and tell you that there's no great tomfoolery without some small gain. I had stopped over for supper with Mr. Partle, the new lawyer, and his wife. There was a good roast of pork and a glass of sherry and pleasant talk. The Partle boy is down at college and will begin to learn law in the autumn. Peculiar how many people seem to plan on autumn actually arriving.
Partle told me of a story he'd heard, that a woman out in Missouri had suckled an elk and raised it as her child. At least, several people had told him it was true. I opined that we were living in a climate of odd gullibility. Of course I did not elaborate. But see how my point was made for me! As I sat with Partle, there was a knock at the door, and on the stoop was a visitor looking for me. I recognized Will Whiting, our hired man years ago when you were a boy. Do you remember him? The one with a face like a shrew, who could not converse with your mother because he was always hiding his teeth.
Will, I said, it's quite a surprise. I thought you were in Indiana with the railroad.
I was, he said, but I've come back with a bad conscience. He took a little parcel from inside his coat. I opened it. Seven dollars in coin.
He said, When I worked for you I stole seven dollars. Now I'm here to settle my accounts. The Lord is coming, he said, and I want to meet him free and clear.
And out he goes! Partle and I had a little laugh over him. To think of old Will Whiting taking his soul so seriously. So the advent-near may have seduced my son, but it has at least given me seven dollars. Partle thought he'd write to all his old hired men anonymously and give them a little shove.
Naturally I have had to tell your mother. You may not have considered when you left that she would long for you. Last night she listened to my excuse, and lifted her hand off the blanket.
Enough, now, Josiah, she said. Did he become ill traveling? What is there to tell?
I brought her the newspaper and held the lamp to it. She read slowly.
She said, It's the same as he has been saying these ten months. That God will come to us in the springtime.
They seem very confident, I told her.
So there is no use in planting seeds this year? she asked. Nor in other work?
I told her, No. Nor in repairing the barn or training the foals.
No use to send for a French bonnet?
No use to convert the native. No use to marry.
To marry was ever useless, she said. Oh, your mother smiling.
Then she said, He told us we were in danger. The foolish virgins who keep no oil in their lamps will be shut out from the wedding feast. Ah. This was the danger. Our young man gone.
This is beyond a jest. It is time for you to clear your head and come home.
No answer from you so I will not write.
Gearhart writes that he gives my letters to an old man who claims to belong to your blue congregation. He cannot take them himself, as he is too busy with his own alarmed and talkative flock. But he is not sure this fellow, a troubled drinker of spirits, and full of self-praise, tells him the truth. So I do not know if you read my lines and ignore them, or never receive them at all. Do you reject us utterly? I feel perhaps I
I cannot remember what I meant to say, yesterday, so I start again (you see my strict use of paper has not changed). You may be pleased to know that your mother was up today for nearly two hours. I made her a long chair with a few blankets and the pillow from your bed. I brought out another chair and sat with her. It was very warm, and there were birds calling now and then—in February! The skin of her hand is as thin as silk now. I touched it while she slept. So your parents, hopelessly depraved, spent the afternoon. You may think on this.
Today I rode to Rocky Ford myself. Some children on the street directed me out to the bank of the river, to a muddy place marked by hooves, where other people had come to look. The river went sliding along, very deep, so the surface spun slowly. There seemed to be no ice at all. Across, in the field, I saw the blue tent snapping in the warm wind above the winter grasses. The teetering skeleton of a fence encircled it, in some places ten feet high. Young boys were hammering boards and raw branches to the uprights. Under the crosspieces, children ran to and fro. One little girl dragged out a basket as big as a wheelbarrow, and began to pull it toward the water. A slender young man came out—my heart leapt, and fell—and took basket and child back inside. I stood until only a few blue triangles and the crackling blue roof were still visible to me. I turned to go.
Behind me a man stood on a tree stump. He was dressed like a farmer, with clumsy chunks of mud on his boots. He spoke down to me in an angry voice, and struck his own leg with his cap. He said, Who are they to build a bloody ark? As full of sin as the rest, and now living like that. A crime. And children with them. He said, They should be whipped.
It took me a long time to ride back to Broadhill, and Marie Spencer, who was looking after your mother, was late for her supper at home.
Today I met James Spencer on the street and lifted my hand and smiled, and he went on past as though I'd been a phantom. I was so shaken. No explanation occurred to me at first. I went in at the feed- store and there was talking that hushed as the bell of the door died away. In the silence I bought twenty pounds of oats and had to pat my coat endlessly before I found money in its usual pocket.
Usually when I walk into the bank in the morning there is a flurry of industry at the desks; one can hear quills snap in earnestness. Today there was quiet, and a peering-round over shoulders. I sat in my chair and drew my papers toward me but I could not see. In a moment Satterwhite, James's clerk, came in to explain his absence. Addressing not me but the sleeve of my coat, he said that young Marie Spencer had left home on foot to go to the encampment at Rocky Ford, and had been gone all night before her parents caught up to her. They'd brought her back between them in the wagon and were seen by early risers. She spoke of your son, the clerk told me softly So you see, John Ephraim, naturally the town has lunged to this repast of gossip. While you dally by the river, they feed on our good name.
At dusk, I walked over to the Spencers' place. I brooded on what could be done to quell the talk, to make the town forget you. It was one of the strange warm evenings we've been having, and I passed through the thin black trees of the woodlot, squinting into the last orange glint of the sun. Over my shoulder I saw that my shadow was as long as a path. Have you noticed, where you are, that though it is warm there are no new leaves?
Kit Spencer did not want to invite me in, I could see. But James motioned at the window. He offered me my usual chair and cup of tea. When we had drunk, he said, Well, Josiah, she wants to be his wife in Heaven.
I tried to laugh a bit. He did not join me. He looked into the fire and rubbed his pinched nose. His face looked as it did years ago, when the river came up suddenly and drowned the lambs in their pen.
I have been wrong, he said, to trust his interest in her well-being.
Should I have said to him then what I had long hoped, that one day our children might love one another, and unite my family with that of my closest friend? I could not. I was afraid to see the impatient jerk of his face, the disdain. I stirred my tea.
He said, He has convinced her that the world will end and that he knows the day.
I said, It is the mad fervor of youth. It will pass. James, it must pass.
But his face was set against me.
Then we saw young Marie at the door. Come through, my dear, said her father, and she came through the room without looking at me. If you are concerned for her, I will tell you: she looked much as usual, but tired. Her hair was escaping around her face and her red braid was rough and unruly behind. They have shown her that she must remain at home, James says. Twice, though, she has woken up weeping. She believes she will die by fire. For shame, John Ephraim. For shame.
Dear John Ephraim,
You may have noticed that I have not written for some time. I had thought of remaining silent and letting curiosity bring you out. But I find there is too much to say to you. It is an empty house, with you gone, and your mother lying quietly abed. I find the space filling up with my thoughts. I build a stingy fire and, when your mother is sleeping, go down and deliberate beside it until it fades. I have been to Sunday services but twice since you went, preferring to worship at home with your mother. I'm not so pleased with this new man Wheelwright. He knows any amount of Scripture, but as for shedding light—he preaches hard on the thinnest verses, with much perspiring and waving of the elbows. In my evenings alone I have turned again to my Bible, and, I must say, have found much censure of your flight. The obvious I need not quote. We both know God's first direction to children, that their days might be long on the land. But do you ever chance to refresh your mind among the Psalms, and read: Rid me and deliver me from the hand of strange children, whose mouth speakest vanity, and their right hand is the hand of falsehood, that our sons may be as green plants grown up in their youth and our daughters may be as cornerstones? And Malachi, who writes that the heart of the children shall turn to the fathers lest the earth be smited with a curse. With these plain instructions and what natural love for us you may still bear, why do you stay away?
To be truthful I have also been reminded that it is not for a father to provoke his son to anger, and I have sat in reverie, considering it. After a week of such thinking I have decided this. That though your disrespect to your father is a clear sin, though your talk is humbug by his standard, though you have fled your family into a squalid delusion and corrupted the mind of a young girl—though these things be true without doubt in my mind, still I think I may have offended in my own small way. The afternoon before you went, when we spoke hotly near the barn, I implied that your mind was not your own. I saw you step back, brush in hand, from the sorrel who stood stamping and rippling her skin, but I continued as I felt I must. I did believe it was my duty to decide for you what might enrich or endanger your soul—you were my son, and still young, and living in my house. But when I shook your arm, and called you vain and dramatic, this may have hurt you. I acknowledge it.
Your mother requests that I come to you and ask you back. I cannot see my way to it just now. You must extend your own hand. But may this clear the air between us.
For a week I've gone to the bank and concentrated only on that work. My regular hours, my usual dinner in the safety of friends. I've held conversations that never refer to my family. But at my desk I read. In the lectures and letters the papers print, I see that there is discussion of the 18th, 19th, and 20th days of this month, and of whether one must measure time by the time of day in Jerusalem. It is also said that in the encampments the people weave baskets in which they may sit and be whisked to heaven. It is the sneering writers who report this, I admit. I should think it general knowledge that if God wanted to take a man up He would not need to be provided with handles. I make these jokes to myself at my desk and then I lift my head and stare out into the street, and my heart pounds. Since James Spencer has given Marie leave to stay with your mother (though oh how coldly), I rode today to Rocky Ford.
The earth is hard under the drying decay of leaves; one can feel the shock of hooves against it. At the side of the road, poor bleached grasses wave. Some trees bear on their trunks a sleeve of grime, where ice was pooled only a few weeks past. The sun comes up strange, I think, with a light that looks very old, sharply yellow, biting at the eye. And yet nothing grows. Perhaps you have come out of your tent and seen this. The hatter says the weather is called a bright winter and, if one accepts the almanac, should precede an icy wet spring. I think of your tattered, disappointed tent, the rain thudding on you after the joyless great day.
The streets of Rocky Ford are also odd nowadays. They are dusty, and cheap newspapers are forever blowing about. The citizenry look furtive and exhausted. Occasionally I see a strange tight group of women moving along the walk. They carry baskets and buy flour and sugar in small supplies. I saw the storekeeper, the old one, sell a bag of sugar to a woman. He said. Let me sell you the ten pounds, since the price will be better, and looked at her with his face expectant. She laughed and said, No, sir, I thank you, but I buy sugar for this week, and next week, and the week after that. Then I'll have no need to sweeten the food on my table. When she went out, another woman, who had stood stock still and watched, went flying up to the old man and scolded him for selling at all to a wretched woman of the Blue Tent. The old man's hoarse voice followed me out and was audible on the street.
Your mother had asked again that I go to see you. I went as far as do the muddy place from which I watched before. Now the wall is high and sturdy. From where I stood I could see no gate. I did not go around to the ford to seek you. I am still waiting for you to make your choice.
What I did not say yesterday. I heard a conversation that lowered my spirits. I had gone into the inn between Rocky Ford and Broadhill to drink a little wine and some tea. I thought I'd hear the politics, or about a new book to take home to your mother. But the place was crowded with laughing rabble, in for noon dinner. While I sat watching they hooted and slapped each other, and soon one stood up and called in a high, stern voice for all those at his table to be quiet.
Parson, they cried, Put down that beer, unseemly fellow!
Their friend shook his finger at them. Look here, you lot of ruined dogs, he said, still in this high voice like a woman's. Here's a prophecy.
The very word prophecy set them howling.
Then he said, I counted the sneezes of my cross-eyed goat and multiplied it by the seeds of a crooked-neck squash, and subtracted the freckles on the neck of my fat little bride! (A roar.)
How long did you count those freckles, sir? said one who wore a redcap.
Two days, said this parson, And carefully. You may be sure I'm in the right.
And what did you learn, brother? sang out another.
Blockhead! he said. The end of the world! Oh, then it was a merry table. One old fellow pushed back from the board and came over near me to rummage among bags on the floor.
The clever herd was clamoring for instruction. When must I be ready for the end? said the red cap.
No need, said the parson. It came and went the day you were born. The world coughed you up and then died.
Why, Parson, said one, soft and sly, That's no prophecy, then. That's history.
The parson looked into his beer and said, It's prophecy in a look- ing glass.
It's Jesus don't know if he's coming or going, crowed the red cap. Much laughter.
So I been in hell and never knew the difference, said the sly one.
Here's the richest bit, said the parson, Those as went to Heaven never knew the difference either.
All stopped a minute and drank. The man at the bags stood near me, watching. Suddenly he turned to me and said, That's some bad nonsense, ain't it?
In my surprise I only nodded. He wiped his hands on his pants, and said, This is how you know it's a democracy. When you see fools free to believe in nothing.
And he took up his bags and went out.
While my attention was on him, the table had quieted. The men were at their food. One fellow, who had eyes skewed almost to the sides of his head, said gravely into the silence, I've got a stony soul or two to throw to that boy parson. I can pick them up off the ground, and throw them right to him. Let us see how quick his hands are.
From the table somewhere, Amen.
I confess I was concerned by this. The derision of the newspaper editors has given way to a savage rancor among the people.
Who is this boy parson, John Ephraim?
Once I had a little boy, a sturdy gentle fellow,
who crouched peering into the nests of grass fowl, and waited for hours
at the lairs of small animals, until his knees were locked and painful
and I had to work them with my hands. So where is my patient boy in
the young man who demands his Lord come now to earth in his own lifetime?
I wonder why the brightest young scholar I ever saw hold a slate should
abnegate the future?
Marie Spencer has made supper for your mother and has just brought me apples and cheese. I watched her today as she brought water up the hill from the well. One moment she stopped to rest her pail on the ground, and the wind blew and pressed her dress back against her. The cat ran to her, and she picked it up and put it against her shoulder, and took up her pail and walked on. You are giving away forty years of sleep beside this girl. When this fever is off you, and you come back to look around, what will be left? The door is closing. The world and its doors. My son a gateless tabernacle. My wife a room growing darker.
I go down the streets now with coat flapping and people stare. Your mother is worse. She is making preparations. How can you not come |to her?
I hear her breathing all night. I hear her.
The hatter was not there. Business hours, mind you, and a Monday. The door was looped shut with a piece of rope. I could hardly believe it, but I knew what it meant. This dour and precise little man, this ready scoffer, had abandoned his life. Strange that I should not have seen it coming, but I have overlooked before this what was placed in plain sight. Inside on the floor of the shop, I could see a man's silk hat. The crown was smashed flat. Beyond were others, treated likewise. I withdrew from this scene along the boardwalk, as if from the fatal spill of a runaway wagon. If the hatter is among you now I beg you do not tell him the hats are ruined. I consider him my friend, and hope to see him soon, back in his shop. I have known him for years, you know.
But it was more than this. As I came back along the street I saw two men standing some twenty feet apart from a woman I thought I knew, looking at her quite rudely. Other people were at their business all along the street, but they moved slow, slower, as though the spin of the earth were winding down like a clock. It was the woman who had bought such a small bag of sugar from the grocer a few weeks ago. She was not as gay, now, turning her shoulder to these men and tucking her chin down. Then—my God!—a stone rang on the iron ground, and skittered along under her skirt. The people listening moved slowly as lengthening shadows.
I rejoice, said the woman, I rejoice to be persecuted for the sake of the truth.
One rough laugh, a bray, floated down the street. The scene bore no resemblance to civilized life. I hurried into the breach between them, and took off my hat. Gentlemen, I called, look at yourselves.
I might have gone on but I saw that both victim and perpetrators had faded away. I was left standing alone, while the livid townspeople stumped past me across the baked and splintered storefronts. I still held my hat in my hand. I thought I heard someone breathe, Who does this old beggar think he is?
Were the people this way before you called them lost, John? Was kind company always a deep fraud, and the mild face of the land a harlot mask? The fence you have built has divided us, son from father. You have called us graceless, and we have plucked up that name and wear it.
I went home and sat by your mother; I sit there now as I write. She drinks a little water now and then. I feel severed even from her, by what I cannot describe. I can write only to you, who never respond, and who indeed may never hear me. I am tired now. The world doubles before me.
I hurry to write because the post bag is leaving and I've detained the man at my desk. I think I will come to you the morning after. If you are willing, come out of there and down to the water to meet me.
Your great day approaches quickly. I have read that all expectations are now for the night of the 19th. Your mother wishes you well. That is all she will say.
Tonight I read to her from the naturalist's book about northern birds. She fell asleep suddenly, with her body twisted round and I sat there for a moment with my hand in the book, waiting to see if she would stir. Then suddenly I felt strongly that I must write to you. I thought, this is why the Lord is not coming. Not this year. Not the next. I was sure of it. (But why I should I feel so urgent to tell you why the end of the world is not coming, if the end of the world is not coming? I should have plenty of time.) It was this of which I thought, a story you may not know the whole of. Before your mother and I married, I worked at the bank to earn a home for us. She was waiting. But she had left school and was restless; she spent so much time reading books and seeing lectures that she was full of convictions. These led her to do work through her church down at Braxton. There's a house for the insane there, you know. Faithless, reasonless creatures, calling out like animals. I'd seen them. I was, I confess, against it.
But your mother went to them. She was with another girl; they were both eighteen. She sent me letters. In the mornings she washed their faces and bodies, and fed them by hand. The bedding was always foul and had to be washed nearly every day. Once she wrote me mourning for a white shirtwaist she'd made, that had become so torn, and so dirty with food and refuse, that she'd had to throw it away. But it was as though Providence had ruined her blouse, not people. She did not blame the mad, nor even mention them. In the afternoons, she read Scripture to a huddled group; the men were brought in and seated so they could listen. I remember her writing that Saint Francis had had no easy work, preaching to birds. Her audience argued with her, or performed strange sudden dances, or repeated her words a half measure behind until she could hardly understand her own voice. On the terrible afternoon (she told me when I went down to fetch her) she was read- ing Psalms—some of the congregation were even asleep in their chairs—and one great sad boy stood up and began singing, and came forward and caught your mother up in his hands. He held her above his head, and she could see the floor turning and the cowering mad women crying. Then he threw her to the ground. Her back was hurt. That is why she has walked so poorly. And perhaps why she is sick now, still a woman in her prime,
I mean just that when I saw your mother sleeping in that twisted way, I think of what she gave, in pain and lost time, in lost work and sickness, to bring God to a place where there was no God. In hope that when she had worked to make earth holy, then God would see his place prepared, and return to us. But John Ephraim! You say God never blinked his distant white eye! That his vision is overcrusted with secret plans, and he will come to earth when it shall suit him, regardless of the extent of goodness, the number of saved. At his whim he will raze our land and purify it for his dwelling—a finer earth will suit him to dwell in, not the one he made long ago, a novice. No. Everything in me rebels at this, a Lord who averts his face from the like of your mother, who wraps his head in a cloak.
For years I have stood at evening on the rise next to Spencer's woodlot and heard every sound and smelled it all, and though the light fades my eyes are wider and wider open. Then I know a deer has come nosing among the brambles. I do not see her move but feel her there, her wiry fear and unconscious beauty. And by her that landscape is graced. Transformed by that black delicate hoof, the bone shin against which she rubs her face. So the landscape is more graceful for the work we may do, and God sees it. When we have brought all the deer out of the woods to stand in dark-eyed calm, then he will walk among us and feed us from his hand.
You may think I am too selfish an old fellow to speak of such progress. I am sure that I am selfish. But the finer earth must be partly of our making, John. I am sure of this also.
Dear Reverend Gearhart,
I thank you for your note of March 19th, and the uncollected letter. I am not surprised our letter carrier did not visit you as usual. As you know, it was a difficult morning for many people. I will tell you what I saw, if it will add anything for those who suffered. I went to the camp very early, while it was still night. I won't say I didn't watch the sky as I rode. The stars were weak up there. The nail holes in the tin of my lantern made more light. That night the cold descended—this bright weather has broken all over the state, I hear. It was a queer plea- sure to see the deep frost form in the ditches, and the usual fingers of ice extend from the bank of the river. My horse slipped sharply once at the ford, and I had to get down and walk her. When I arrived at the camp, I looked back across the stream and saw the advancing day as a grayness among the trees.
A few people were camped under their wagons, asleep. Beyond them the enclosure looked huge and dark, but above it the tent could be seen, and a little light paled its blue roof. Inside the people were singing. The sound was melodious and brave but very soft. I wondered if some were dozing while others kept the watch, or if all were awake and the gray dawn was striking them, one by one, silent with despair. I stood listening, and my heart was turning inside me.
In the trees across the clearing there was motion. I peered, stopped, blew on my hands, widened my eyes again but could gather little light. I went over to my horse and put my hands under her blan- ket to warm them. In retrospect, I believe I saw the ruffians who started the fire. They must have crept up from the south side and there set the brush burning. They must have muffled their lanterns with cloths. If I had seen a glow I might have investigated. But how strange that I should have seen no light, that they should have been that stealthy.
The flames came quickly in the vegetation, dry under its frost. Those lying under wagons woke, ran to a small door in the wall, and began pounding upon it. I followed them, and pounded with my frozen hands. The singing separated into individual voices, then ceased. Behind me, my horse reared and tore at her reins. In a few moments the fire drove me back to her. I set her loose. She thumped into the ford, and I followed her, and others were on either side of me, carrying things—a gun, a bag of potatoes. They had abandoned their wagons. The fire was running along the ground, and twigs and branches were jerking and popping as though inspirited. The fence had turned a sweating dark brown, and the uprights were blackening. When the sun came up, that yellow light swallowed the flame, so it appeared, simply, that the air between us and the enclosure was deforming and wrinkling. I heard shouts and, somewhere, the ringing of an axe on wood. We stood dumbly across the water.
Well, it's as you know. Most came out through the new-cut door and scattered toward us, wailing, through the north-side trees. Eighteen were burned. A few went into the deep curve of the river and were lost.
My son was not among the living or the dead. Late in the day I walked on the smoldering site of the tent, which had burned and floated away in dark feathers that caught on the trees. I looked under the blankets at the wizened black figures. They had held their hands up at the approach of the fire, and still held them there in postures of fear, or praise. None were my boy. I walked along the river and found nothing. The ice had by then made a deep opaque ruffle along the bank. I suppose we will know little until the next thaw. There are others missing. Mine is not the only one. We may yet have peace of mind.
Thank you for asking after Nell. She continues. This, at least. But I look across a threshold always, into the place where I will live as a man alone. And you will be surprised to know of whom I am thinking, Reverend. It is the letter carrier who fills my mind. Yes, I know I have never met him.
You said he was about my age, perhaps older. I will be fifty soon. He was whiskered, and either drunk or longing to be drunk. But he always put the letters under his coat and touched his forehead respectfully. I can imagine him walking up to John Ephraim in the camp, saying, Here's another, and John opening it with his thin hands, and reading. I do not see his face, of course. To recollect the whole face is hard. I have only the feeling the face gave me. He puts the letters carefully between the leaves of his Bible. My letters make that Bible bristly and awkward to handle.
But if John were never there, or if this old man were a liar? Do you see what I am saying, Gearhart? The man takes the letters back to some room, and opens them with his yellow fingers. But the poor fellow cannot read. What was sent in faith he receives with confusion. Plea, argument, and lament are alike unintelligible to him. He touches the hieroglyphs with his fingers. He puzzles over my words in that high far room, he rubs the page against his sunken cheek and smears the ink. It falls from his hand. Already he has forgotten it. He goes to his window across a floor ankle-deep in letters. He treads on every unde- ciphered word.
If you have the time, Gearhart, I would like to come and see you. I would like to hear your voice.