Twice a Child by S. Elizabeth Hall

H

alfway up the mountain-side, overlooking a ravine, through which a streamlet flowed to the lake, stood a woodman's cottage. In the room on which the front door opened were two persons—an infant in a wooden cradle, in the corner between the fire-place and the window; and, seated on a stool in the flood of sunlight that streamed through the doorway, an old man. His lips were moving slightly, and his face had the look of one whose thoughts were far away. On the patch of floor in front of him lay cross-bars of sunlight, which flowed in through the casement window. The sky overhead was cloudless, while the murky belt on the horizon was not visible from the cottage door. In the windless calm no leaf seemed to stir in the forest around. The cottage clock in the corner ticked the passing moments; the wild cry of the "curry fowl" was heard now and again from the lake; there was no other sound in the summer afternoon, and the deep heart of nature seemed at rest.

The old man's eyes rested on the bars of sunlight, but he saw another scene. On his face, in which the simplicity of childhood seemed to have reappeared, was a knowing, amused look, expressing infinite relish of some inward thought, the simple essence of mischief. Bars of sunlight, just like those, used to lie on the schoolroom floor when he was a little boy, and was sent to Dame Gartney's school to be kept out of harm's way, and to learn what he might. He saw himself, an urchin of five or six years, seated on a stool beside the Dame's great arm-chair. She was slowly, with dim eyes, threading a needle for the tiny maiden standing before her, clutching in her hot little hand the unhemmed duster on which she was to learn to sew. The thread approached the needle's eye; it was nearly in, when the arm-chair gave a very little shake, apparently of its own accord; the old lady missed her aim, and the needle and the thread were as far apart as ever, while the small imp sitting quiet at her side was unsuspected. Not once nor twice only was this little game successfully played. It used to enliven the hot, sleepy afternoon, while the bars of light were crawling slowly—oh! so slowly—across the floor. He knew school would be over when the outer edge of sunlight touched the corner of the box-bed against the wall, where the little girl that lived there and called the dame "Granny" was put to sleep of a night.

His school experience was short, consisting, indeed, of but six bright summer weeks, after which it had become his business to mind the baby, while his mother went out to work. But the most vivid of the impressions of his childhood were connected with that brief school career. Distinct above the rest stood out the memory of one afternoon, when sitting on his low stool he had seen dark smudges of shadow come straying, curling, whirling across the squares of sunlight; when shouts had arisen in the yard, and just as the dame had made Effie May hold out her hand for dropping her thimble the third time, the back-door was burst open by Ebenezer, the milkman, who cried out that the Dame's cow-house was on fire. He could see the old lady now, with the child's shrinking fingers firmly gripped in hers, her horny old hand arrested in the act of descending on the little pink palm (which escaped scot-free in the confusion) while she gazed for a moment, open-mouthed, at the speaker, as though she had come to a word which she couldn't spell, then jumped up with surprising quickness and hobbled across the floor without her stick, the point of her mob-cap nodding to every part of the room, while she moved the whole of herself first to one side and then to the other as she walked, like one of the geese waddling across the common.

"Goo back and mind yerr book!" cried the old lady to the sharp-eyed little boy, who was peeping round her skirts. But he did not go back. Who could, when they saw those tongues of flame shooting up, and the volumes of smoke darkening the summer sky, as the wooden shed and the palings near it caught and smoked and crackled, and heard the cries of men and boys shouting for water and more water, which old Jack Foster, and idiot Tom, and some women, with baskets hastily deposited by the roadside, and even boys not much bigger than himself, were toiling to bring as fast as possible in pails from the brook, before the flames should spread to the row of cottages so perilously near? No earthly power could have kept the mite out of the fray. Before the old dame knew where he was, his little hands were clenched round the handle of a heavy iron pail, and he was struggling up the yard to where the men were tearing down the connecting fences, in a desperate endeavour to stay the onrush, of the flames. To and fro, to and fro, the child toiled, begrimed by falling blacks, scorched by the blaze, his whole mind intent on one thing—to stop the burning of that charred and tottering mass.

It was done at last, and the cottages were saved. The rescue party dispersed, and the dirty, tired boy strayed slowly homeward down the village street. He could see himself now arriving soot-covered, and well-nigh speechless with fatigue, at his mother's door, could hear the cries and exclamations that arose at the sight of him, could feel the tender hands that removed the clothes from his hot little body, and washed him, and put him to bed. It took him several days to recover from the fever into which he had put himself, and it was then he had begun to mind the baby instead of going to school. Praise was liberally bestowed in the county paper on Mr. Ebenezer Rooke and his assistants, who by their energy and forethought had saved the village from destruction but no one had noticed the efforts of the tiny child, working beyond his strength; and, indeed, he himself had had no idea of being noticed.

As he sat now on the stool in the sunny doorway, and looked up the mountain-valley, to which he had been brought in his declining years to share his married daughter's home, the detail in that tragedy of his childhood, which pictured itself in his mind's eye more clearly than any other, was the shadow of the spreading, coiling puffs of smoke, which had first caught his childish attention, blurring the bars of sunlight on the floor of the Dame's kitchen. Perhaps it was on account of the likeness to the pattern now made by the sun, as it shone through the casement between him and the baby's cradle. For the gentle, domestic old man was often now, as in his docile childhood, charged to "mind the baby," and one of the quiet pleasures of his latter days was the sight of the little floweret, that grew so sweetly beside his sere and withered life. An uncultured sense of beauty within him was appealed to by the rounded limbs, the silent, dimpled laugh, the tottering feet feeling their unknown way, and all the sweet curves and softnesses, the innocent surprises and naïve desires, which made up for him the image of "the baby." He would have said she was "prutty," implying much by the word.

As he gazed at his precious charge, and watched the sunlight pattern slowly but surely creeping towards the foot of the cradle, he had an odd feeling that school would soon be over. A moment after he rubbed his eyes and looked again. Was it true, or was he dreaming? Were those shadowy whirls of smoke, dimming the sunshine, a vision of the past, or did he actually see them before him, as of old, coiling about and around the bars of light on the floor? It was certainly there, the shadow of smoke, and came he could not tell whence; for in all the unpeopled valley there were, of human beings, as far as he knew at that moment, only himself and the baby. To his mind, so full of the past, it seemed the herald of another danger.

He raised himself with difficulty from his stool, and moved his stiff limbs to the threshold. As he did so, he noticed that the smoke was within the room as well as without; it was festooning about the baby's cradle, it was filling the place, there was scarcely air to breathe. His first idea, as he smelt the soot, and saw the blacks showering on the hearth, was that the chimney was on fire. He went straight to the baby in its cradle, and, his limbs forgetting their stiffness, lifted her in his arms to carry her to a place of safety; when that was done he would take off the embers from the grate, and sprinkle salt on the hearth to quench the fire.

Not till he reached the door did he notice a sound that filled the valley. A strange, high-pitched note, like a hundred curry-fowl crying at once—a wail, as of spirits in hell. Now from one direction, now from another; now rising, now falling, the weird, unearthly shriek seemed everywhere at once, increasing each moment in force and shrillness. As the old man, holding the baby close to him, looked up and listened, fear struck his lips with a sudden trembling. Opposite to him he saw a strange sight. Halfway up the mountain, on the other side of the valley, not a leaf on the trees was stirring: the lower slopes lay basking in the sunshine, and the shadows of fleeting clouds only added to the peaceful beauty of the scene; while the trees above were raging bacchanals, whirling, swaying, tossing their long arms in futile agony, as though possessed by some unseen demoniacal power.

In a moment the old man knew what had befallen him. The bewitched smoke, the shrieking spirits of the air, the motionless valley, and the maddened trees, of all these he had heard before, for he had listened to tales of the tornado in the valley, and knew what it meant to the defenceless dwellers on the upper slopes. The skirts of the fury were touching him even now; a sudden gust swept by; to draw breath for the moment was impossible, and his unsteady balance would soon have been overthrown; he was forced to cling to the doorpost, still holding the baby close. But the quiet, comprehending expression never left his face; he knew what was to be done, and he meant to do it; there might be time.

He set down the baby in the cradle, took off his coat, grasped a spade in his shaking hand, and hobbled across the patch of open ground to a spot as far distant as possible both from the cottage and from the borders of the wood; the maddened wind was wailing itself away in the distance, and happily for a few minutes there was a lull in the air. He could hear the baby crying, left alone in the cottage. He never looked off from his work, but went on digging a hole in the form of a little grave. The surface of the ground was hard, and the old man was short-winded; he could hardly gather enough force to drive the spade in. Before long, however, a few inches of the upper crust were removed from a space about three feet in length. The digging in the softer earth would now be easier and more rapid. As he worked on, a few heavy drops of rain fell. He looked up and saw the whole sky, lately full of sunlight, a mass of driving, ink-black clouds, while the shriek of the hurricane was heard again in the distance. The baby's cry was drowned by it. The hole was as yet only half a foot deep. At the next thrust the spade struck on a slanting ledge of slaty rock. No further progress could be made there; the trench must be dug in a different direction. Once more the old man, panting heavily, drove the spade into the hard ground, and in two or three minutes had so far altered the position of the hole that the rock was avoided. The gale was increasing every moment, and at times he could hardly keep his feet.

Suddenly, through the roar of the wind, was heard another sound, a rattling and rushing, as of loosened stones and of earth. All his senses on the alert, the old man glanced swiftly up, and saw a row of four tall fir trees, which stood out like sentinels, on a ridge of the mountain, in the very path of the storm, turn over like nine-pins, one after the other, and tearing up the soil with their roots, slip down the mountain-side, dragging with them an avalanche of earth. His eye darted to the cottage with a sudden fear. Even as he looked, the wind was lifting some of the slates on the roof, rattling them, loosening them, and in a few moments would scatter them around like chaff, chaff that would bring death to any on whom it should chance to light. With an odd, calculating look, the old man turned again to his digging, and, breathless as before, shovelled out the earth from the hole, with a speed of which his stiff and feeble frame would have been thought incapable; while now and again, without ceasing his work, he darted a backward glance at the doomed cottage. It ought to stand until the hole was dug; and at least in the digging there was a chance of safety: in going back to fetch the baby now, there was none.

After about five minutes, with a hideous yell, the demon tore in such fury across the mountain-side, that the old man would have been carried off his feet in a moment, and swept with the rest of the débris into the valley, but that he threw himself on the ground, clutching tightly with his fingers the edge of the hole he had dug. In the bottom of the hole a thistle-down lay unmoved. When the lull came, and he could raise his head, having escaped injury or death from falling stocks and stones, he darted over his shoulder a glance of awful anxiety at the cottage—of such anxiety as a strong man may reach to the depths of but once or twice in his prime. The roof of the cottage was gone; there were no fragments, for the wind was a clean sweeper; it had bodily vanished. The walls stood. He dragged himself unsteadily to his feet, and looked about for his spade. It was nowhere to be seen; the besom of the gale had whirled it to some unknown limbo.

The hole was still not quite a foot and a half deep, and would not preserve the cradle, if placed therein, from the destroyer. He shuffled back to the cottage with awkward, hasty steps. The baby had cried itself to sleep, and lay in its cradle in the corner, unconscious of the ruin of its home. The old man went to the hearth, on which the fire had been blown out, and from under the ashes dragged out a battered fire-shovel, its edge worn away, its handle loose. It was the nearest approach to a spade that was left him. Just as he got back to the hole another blast carried him off his feet, and he fell prostrate, this time clutching his substitute spade beneath him. He rose again, stepped into the hole, crouching down as low as possible, and rapidly raised out of it one shovelful of earth after another; it was no sooner on the surface than it was whisked away like dust. In the wood, a furlong to the right, some dozen trees were prostrated between one thrust of the shovel and the next; dark straight firs and silver birches, that slipped downwards to the valley like stiff, gleaming snakes.

Meanwhile the shovel had struck on a layer of stones, the remains of some past landslip, since buried under flowering earth. With its turned-back edge, it was hard to insert it below them, and again and again it came up having raised nothing but a little gravel; but the old man worked on still with his docile, child-like look, intent upon his task. Presently the infirm handle came off, and the shovel dropped into the bottom of the hole. At the same moment, with a wilder shriek and a fiercer on-rush, the fury came tearing again along the mountain side; the whole of the trees that yet remained in the patch of forest nearest to the cottage were swept away at once, and the slope was left bare. The old man crouched down in his hole, with his anxious eye fixed on the four walls within which the baby was sheltered; they still stood, the only object which the demon had not yet swept from his path. And even as the old man looked, he saw the upper part of the back wall begin to loosen, to totter, and give way. The baby was in the front room, but was under the windward wall. In the teeth of the gale the old man crawled out of the hole, extended his length on the ground, and began to drag his stiff and trembling frame, with hands, elbows and knees, across the fifty feet or so of barren soil that lay between the hole and the cottage. He heard the crash of bricks before he had accomplished half the distance; without pausing to look he crawled rapidly on till he crossed the threshold, and saw the babe still sleeping safely in its wooden cradle. There were two large iron dogs in the grate; he drew them out and placed them—panting painfully with the effort, for they were almost beyond his strength to lift—in the cradle, under the little mattress, one at each end. The baby, disturbed in its slumber, stretched its little limbs, smiled at him, and went to sleep again. He doubled a sack over the coverlet, tied a rope round the cradle, fastened it by a slip-knot underneath, pulled out the end at the back, and tightened it till it dragged against the hood. The cradle went on its wheels well enough to the door. Then the old man summoned his remaining strength, and having knotted the rope round his waist, threw himself on the ground again, and emerged with his precious charge into the roaring hurricane. Across the barren mountain slope, far above the ken of any fellow-being, in the teeth of death, the old man crept with the sleeping babe. Another threatening of the deluge of rain, which would surely accompany the tornado, added to the misery of the painful journey; the sudden downpour of heavy drops drenched the grandfather to the skin, but the grandchild was protected under the sacking.

They reached the hole at length, and raising himself to his knees, the wind being somewhat less boisterous while the rain was falling, the old man clutched the heavily-weighted cradle in both arms, and attempted to force it into the haven of safety he had spent his strength in forming. Alas! there was not room. The cradle was wider across than he had calculated. To take the child out and place it with the bedding in the hole would be leaving it to drown. Should the expected deluge descend, the trench he had dug would but form a reservoir for water. He seized the shovel, working it as well as he could without a handle, and attempted to break down and widen the edges. Pushing, stamping, driving with his make-shift spade, now clutching at the edges with his fingers and loosening the stones, now forcing them in with his heel, he succeeded in working through the hard upper surface; then breathless, dizzy, spent, with hands that could scarce grasp the shovel, and stumbling feet that each moment threatened to fail him, he spaded out the softer earth below and scraped and tore at the sides, till the hole was wide enough to contain the cradle, and deep enough to ensure its safety.

The last shovelful was raised, and the old man was stooping down to lift the cradle in, when the wildest war-cry yet uttered by the raging elements rang round the mountain side; all the former blasts seemed to have been but forerunners or skirmishers heralding the approach of the elemental forces; but now with awful ferocity and determination advanced the very centre of the fiendish host; while the horns were blown from mountain to mountain, announcing utter destruction to whatsoever should venture to obstruct the path of the army of the winds. In the shrieking solitude it seemed as if chaos and the end of the world were come. The poor old man crouched down, keeping his body between the gale and the baby's cradle, while the last remaining wall of the cottage fell flat before his eyes. But he felt himself being urged slowly but surely away from the refuge of the trench, downwards, downwards. The cradle, in spite of its iron ballast, was just overturning, when, with the strength of despair, he threw his body across it, digging his feet into the ground, and once more knotted the loose end of rope around his waist. The downward slip was stayed. Pushing the cradle with knees and arms, clutching the soil with hands and feet, he crept with his precious charge nearer and nearer the widened hole. Once over the edge the baby would be safe. The windy fiend seemed to be pursuing him with vindictive hate. It shrieked and tore around that bare strip of mountain side, as though the whole purpose of its fury was to destroy the old man and the babe. With a superhuman effort he grasped the cradle in both arms and lifted it in, then fell senseless across the opening.

Gradually the demon horns ceased to blow, the great guns died into silence, and the army of the air dispersed. The rain fell in torrents, but the old man never moved.

When the storm was over, and anxious steps hastened up the mountain path, and horror-stricken faces gazed at the ruined home and the havoc all around, there was broken-hearted lamentation for the old man and the child, supposed to have perished in the tornado. At last the mother's searching eye discerned in the sunshine that lay across the still mountain-side an unfamiliar object; and hastening towards it with the lingering hope of learning some news of her darling, she perceived the old man lying in his last sleep, with the eternal Peace in his child-like face, still stretched as if in protection across a trench, in which the baby lay safe in its cradle, sleeping as peacefully as he.