The First Settler's Story by Will Carleton

Nature, who moved in first—a good long while—
Has things already somewhat her own style,
And she don't want her woodland splendors battered,
Her rustic furniture broke up and scattered,
Her paintings, which long years ago were done
By that old splendid artist-king, the sun,
Torn down and dragged in civilization's gutter,
Or sold to purchase settlers' bread and butter.
She don't want things exposed from porch to closet,
And so she kind o' nags the man who does it.
She carries in her pockets bags of seeds,
As general agent of the thriftiest weeds;
She sends her blackbirds, in the early morn,
To superintend his fields of planted corn;
She gives him rain past any duck's desire—
Then maybe several weeks of quiet fire;
She sails mosquitoes—leeches perched on wings—
To poison him with blood-devouring stings;
She loves her ague-muscle to display,
And shake him up—say every other day;
With, thoughtful, conscientious care she makes
Those travelin' poison-bottles, rattlesnakes;
She finds time, 'mongst her other family cares,
To keep in stock good wild-cats, wolves, and bears.
Well, when I first infested this retreat,
Things to my view looked frightful incomplete;
But I had come with heart-thrift in my song,
And brought my wife and plunder right along;
I hadn't a round trip ticket to go back,
And if I had there wasn't no railroad track;
And drivin' East was what I couldn't endure:
I hadn't started on a circular tour.
My girl-wife was as brave as she was good,
And helped me every blessed way she could;
She seemed to take to every rough old tree,
As sing'lar as when first she took to me.
She kep' our little log-house neat as wax,
And once I caught her fooling with my axe.
She learned a hundred masculine things to do:
She aimed a shot-gun pretty middlin' true,
Although in spite of my express desire,
She always shut her eyes before she'd fire.
She hadn't the muscle (though she had the heart)
In out-door work to take an active part;
Though in our firm of Duty and Endeavor
She wasn't no silent partner whatsoever.
When I was logging, burning, choppin' wood,
She'd linger round and help me all she could,
And keep me fresh-ambitious all the while,
And lifted tons just with her voice and smile.
With no desire my glory for to rob,
She used to stan' around and boss the job;
And when first-class success my hands befell,
Would proudly say, "We did that pretty well!"
She was delicious, both to hear and see—
That pretty wife-girl that kep' house for me.
Well, neighborhoods meant counties in those days;
The roads didn't have accommodating ways;
And maybe weeks would pass before she'd see—
And much less talk with—any one but me.
The Indians sometimes showed their sun-baked faces,
But they didn't teem with conversational graces;
Some ideas from the birds and trees she stole,
But 'twasn't like talking with a human soul;
And finally I thought that I could trace
A half heart-hunger peering from her face.
Then she would drive it back and shut the door;
Of course that only made me see it more.
'Twas hard to see her give her life to mine,
Making a steady effort not to pine;
'Twas hard to hear that laugh bloom out each minute,
And recognize the seeds of sorrow in it.
No misery makes a close observer mourn
Like hopeless grief with hopeful courage borne;
There's nothing sets the sympathies to paining
Like a complaining woman uncomplaining.
It always draws my breath out into sighs
To see a brave look in a woman's eyes.
Well, she went on, as plucky as could be,
Fighting the foe she thought I did not see,
And using her heart-horticultural powers
To turn that forest to a bed of flowers.
You cannot check an unadmitted sigh,
And so I had to soothe her on the sly,
And secretly to help her draw her load;
And soon it came to be an up-hill road.
Hard work bears hard upon the average pulse,
Even with satisfactory results;
But when effects are scarce, the heavy strain
Falls dead and solid on the heart and brain.
And when we're bothered, it will oft occur
We seek blame-timber; and I lit on her;
And looked at her with daily lessening favor,
For what I knew she couldn't help, to save her.
And Discord, when he once had called and seen us,
Came round quite often, and edged in between us.
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."
That speech—it hadn't been gone a half a minute
Before I saw the cold black poison in it;
And I'd have given all I had, and more,
To've only safely got it back in-door.
I'm now what most folks "well-to-do" would call
I feel to-day as if I'd give it all,
Provided I through fifty years might reach
And kill and bury that half-minute speech.
She handed back no words, as I could hear;
She didn't frown; she didn't shed a tear;
Half proud, half crushed, she stood and looked me o'er,
Like some one she had never seen before!
But such a sudden anguish-lit surprise
I never viewed before in human eyes.
(I've seen it oft enough since in a dream;
It sometimes wakes me like a midnight scream.)
Next morning, when, stone-faced, but heavy-hearted,
With dinner pail and sharpened axe 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 good-by 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 a short "Good-by," I shut the door,
And left her as I never had before.
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 pansies 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, "To-night 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 thunder-storm was coming from the west.
('Tis strange, when one sly reason fills the heart,
How 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 these are something like the words it said:
"The cows have strayed away again, I fear;
I watched them pretty close; don't scold me, dear.
And where they are, 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 get back."
Scarce did I give this letter sight and tongue—
Some swift-blown rain-drops to the window clung,
And from the clouds a rough, deep growl proceeded:
My thunder-storm had come, now 'twasn't needed.
I rushed out-door. 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'd 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 toil and sorrow bent,
Back to what used to be my home I went.
But as I neared our little clearing-ground—
Listen!—I heard the cow-bell's tinkling sound.
The cabin door was just a bit ajar;
It gleamed upon my glad 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 heart-ruins of oar 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 sweetly resolute face,
I once again the mournful words could read,
"I have 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 'mongst them confidential tears,
But you'll protect an old man with his years;
And wheresoe'er this story's voice can reach,
This is the sermon I would have it preach:
Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds:
You can't do that way when you're flying words.
"Careful with fire," is good advice we know:
"Careful with words," is ten times doubly so.
Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead,
But God himself can't kill them when they're said!
Yon 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 cost to give it.