Mac of the Island by Francis Clement Kelley

WHEN the "Boston Boat" drew near Charlottetown I could see Mac waving me a welcome to the "Island" from the very last inch of standing space upon the dock. When I grasped his hard and muscular hand fifteen minutes later, I knew that my old college chum had changed, only outwardly. True, the stamp of Prince Edward Island, which the natives call "the Island," as if there were no other, was upon him; but that stamp really made Mac the man he was. The bright red clay was over his rough boots. Could any clay be redder? It, with his homespun clothes, made the Greek scholar look like a typical farmer.

We had dinner somewhere in the town before we left for the farm. It was a plain, honest dinner. I enjoyed it. Of course, there was meat; but the mealy potatoes and the fresh cod—oh, such potatoes and cod—were the best part of it. I then and there began to like the Island for more reasons than because it had produced Mac. 

We drove out of town, across the beautiful river and away into the country, along red clay roads which were often lined with spruce, and always with grass cropped down to a lawnlike shortness by the sheep and kept bright green by the moisture.

"You must enjoy this immensely, you old hermit," I said to Mac, as the buggy reached the top of a charming hill, overlooking a picture in which the bright green fields, the dark green spruce, the blue sky and the bluer waters were blended.

"Yes, I do," replied Mac. "This is Tea Hill. You know I think if I were in Africa but wanted to write something about home, I could close my eyes, think of red and green slopes and blue waters and the smell of haymaking, and have the atmosphere in an instant. Just look at that," he pointed toward the water. "We call it Pownal Bay. Do you see how it winds in and out everywhere among the spruce and the fields. Then look off in the distance. That is Hillsboro Bay. You passed through it this morning. Do you see the little islands out there? One is called St. Peter's and the other is called Governor's. It is a funny thing, but every man, woman and child on the Island knows them by name, yet I could wager a farm that not one in a thousand has ever set foot upon them. But it is a grand scene, isn't it, Bruce?"

"Yes, yes," I replied. "It is a grand scene, Mac, and—" But Mac turned to salute a gentleman wearing a silk hat who was passing in a buggy. 

"Good morning, Doctor," he called. The doctor bowed with what looked like gracious condescension.

Mac turned to me again. "What were you saying, Bruce? Oh, yes, that I must love it. Why, of course I do. Wasn't I born here? By the way, that chap who passed us is Franklin, Doctor Franklin. He is head of a college in Charlottetown. Prince of Wales they call it. It is a very important part of Island life."

"But I do not think, Mac," I suggested, "that he was quite as fraternal in his greeting as I might have expected him to be."

"Oh, he does not know me, except as a farmer," said Mac quickly. "In fact, nobody around here does. You see, Bruce, I am just plain Alec McKinney, who went to Boston when a young fellow—you know that Boston, Bruce, is another name for the whole United States, on this Island—and who came back a fizzle and a failure to work his father's farm. But say, Bruce," and Mac turned to me very quickly, "what brought you here, anyhow? I wager there is a reason for the visit. Now, own up." He stopped the buggy right in the middle of the road and looked me in the face. "Surely," he went on, "you would not have thought of coming to the Island just to gossip about old times."

"Well, perhaps I would, Mac. In fact, I am glad I came," I answered, "but you guess well, for this time I was sent." 

Mac interrupted me with a ring of joy in his voice: "You were sent? Good! I am glad. Now, out with it."

"Well, I am glad if it pleases you, Mac, for it looks as if I had a chance to get you."

"Get me?" Mac grew grave again.

"Yes, the old place wants you—for Greek, Mac. We need you badly. Old Chalmers is dead. His place is vacant. No one can fill it better than the best Greek scholar the college ever produced. Mac, you must come, and I must bring you home. You know the old college is home for you. You can't fool me, Mac. You love it better even than this." And I waved my hand toward the bay.

Mac's face showed emotion. I expected it would. I had prepared for the interview, and I knew Mac. I thought I had won; but he changed the conversation abruptly.

"Look over there, Bruce," and he pointed with his whip toward the distance. "Away off on the other side of the Island is where Schurman of Cornell was born. There are lots of such men who come from around here. Down in that village is the birthplace of your Secretary of the Interior. These people, my people, worship God first and learning next. They are prouder of producing such men than they are of the Island itself, and to use student language, that is 'going some.'"

"Yes, I suppose you are right, Mac," I answered,  not quite seeing why he had thrown me off, "but they do not seem to know you."

"No," he answered quickly. "they do not, and I do not want them to. It would frighten them off. It would require explanations. What difference if I have six letters after my name? To these people, worshiping what I know rather than what I am, I would not be Alec any more."

"But Mac, you will come back now, won't you! The college wants you; you mustn't refuse."

There was still more emotion in Mac's voice, when he answered: "Bruce, old man, don't tempt me. You can not know, and the faculty can not know. You say I ought to love all this and I do; but not with the love I have for the old college, though I was born here. Can you imagine that old Roman general, whom they took away from his plow to lead an army, refusing the offer but keeping the memory of it bright in his heart ever after? That is my case now, old man. There is nothing in this world I would rather have had than your message, but I must refuse the offer."

"Now Mac," I urged, "be reasonable. There is nothing here for you. Scenery won't make up."

"Don't I know it?" and Mac stopped the buggy again. "Don't I know it? But there is something bigger to me here than the love of the things God made me to do—and he surely made me for Greek, Bruce. Do not think I am foolish or headstrong, I  long for my work. But Bruce, if you can not have two things that you love, all you can do is to give up one and go on loving the other, without having it. That's my fix, Bruce."

"Yes, Mac, but are you sure you realize what it means to you?" I began urging, because I knew that I would soon have to play my trump card. "Here you are, a grayhead at thirty-five, without a thing in life but that farm, and you—heavens, Mac, don't you know that you are one of the greatest Greek scholars in the world? Don't you think you owe the world something? What are you giving? Nothing! You have suppressed even the knowledge of what you are from the people around you. You get a curt nod from the head of a little college. These people call you Alec, when the whole world wants to call you Master. You are doing work that any farm hand could do, when you ought to be doing work that no one can do as well as yourself. Is this a square deal for other people, Mac? Were you not given obligations as well as gifts?"

"Yes, Bruce." Mac said it sadly. "There's the rub. I was given obligations as well as gifts, and I am taking you home with me now, instead of threshing this out in the hotel at Charlottetown, because I want you and you alone to realize that I am not just a stubborn Islander. And there is home."

He pointed to a cottage in the field. The cottage was back from the road nearly a quarter of a mile.  Mac opened the gate, led the horse through it, closed it again and climbed back into the buggy beside me. There were tears in his brown eyes.

"Is every one well?" said Mac hesitatingly. "Is everybody well—I mean of the people I knew best back there?" he asked. I knew what he meant.

"Yes, Mac, she is well," I said, "and I know she is waiting."

I had played my "trump card," but Mac was silent.

The farm was typical of the Island. The kitchen door opened directly on the farmyard, and around it, at the moment, were gathered turkeys, ducks, geese and chickens. Mac brought me to a little gate in the flower-garden fence, and, passing through it, we walked along the pathway before the house, so that I could enter through the front door and be received in the "front room." Island opposition to affectation or "putting on," as the people say, forbade calling this "front room" a parlor. No one would think of doing such a thing, unless he was already well along the way to "aristocracy." One dare not violate the unwritten Island law to keep natural and plain.

I noticed that when Mac spoke to me he used the cultured accents of the old college; but before others he spoke as the Islanders spoke—good English, better English than that of the farmers I knew, but flat—the extremity of plainness. I could not analyze  that Island brogue. It sounded like a mixture of Irish and Scotch, unpleasant only because unsoftened. But you could scarcely call it brogue. It struck me as a sort of protest against affectation; as the Islander's way of explaining, without putting it in the sense of the words, that he does not want to be taken at a false valuation. The Island brogue is a notice that the user of it meets you man to man. So it reflected Mac, and it reflected his people, unspoiled, unvarnished, true as steel, full of rigid honesty; but undemonstrative, with the wells of affection hidden, yet full to the top, of pure, bright, limpid water.

The "front room" had a hand-woven carpet on the floor, made of a material called "drugget." A few old prints, in glaring colors, were on the walls. There was a Sacred Heart and an odd-looking picture of the dead Christ resting in a tomb, with an altar above and candles all around it. It was a strange religious conceit. On another wall was a coffin plate, surrounded with waxed flowers and framed, with a little photograph of a young man in the center of the flowers. The chairs were plain enough, but covered with a coarse hand-made lace. It was not Mac's kind of a room, at all. It made me shudder and wonder how the scholar who loved his old book-lined college den and knew the old masters, could even live near to it.

Mac came in very soon, leading an old lady, who walked with a cane. She was bent and wrinkled with  age. I could see that she was blind. She had a strange-looking old shawl, the like of which I had only a vague recollection of seeing as a boy, about her shoulders; and on her head was a black cap with white ruching around her face.

"My mother, Bruce," he said, very simply.

As I took the old lady's hand, he said to her: "This is my old friend, Professor Bruce, mother. He has come all the way from New York to see me. I'll leave you together while I go to see sister. Sister has been bedridden for years, Bruce."

The old lady was too much embarrassed to speak. Mac smiled at me as he led her to a chair and said: "Bruce does not look like a professor, mother. He just looks like me."

I could see all the Island respect for learning in the poor old lady's deference. Mac left us, and his mother asked if I would not have some tea. I refused the tea, giving as excuse that it was so close to the hour of the evening meal.

"So, you knew my son at college?" said the mother.

"I knew him well, Mrs. McKinney. He was my dearest friend."

The old lady began to cry softly.

"I am so sorry," she said, "that he failed in his examinations, and yet, I ought to be glad, I suppose, for it is a comfort to have him. Ellie is a cripple and without Alec what would we do? Of course, if  he hadn't failed, I couldn't hope to keep him, so it is better, perhaps, as it is. But he was such a smart boy and so anxious to get on. It was a great disappointment to him; and then, of course, none of us liked to have the neighbors know that the boy was not cut out for something better than a farmer. But you must have liked him, when you came all the way from New York to see him."

I began to understand.

That night I thought it all out in my little room, with the flies buzzing around me and the four big posts standing guard over a feather bed, into which I sank and disappeared. I was prepared to face Mac in the morning.

He had already done a good day's work in the fields, before I was up for breakfast, so we went into the garden to thresh it out.

"Mac," I said severely, "did you tell your mother and sister and the people around here that you had failed in your examinations?"

"Well, Bruce," he said haltingly, "I did not exactly tell them that, but I let them think it."

"Good Lord!" I thought, "the man who easily led the whole college." But aloud: "Did you tell them you had no career open to you in New York?"

"Well, Bruce, I had to let them think that, too."

"And you did not tell them, Mac, of the traveling scholarship you won, or the offers that Yale made you?" 

"Oh, what was the use, Bruce?" said Mac desperately. "I know it was wrong, but it was the only way I saw. Look here. When I got back home, with all these letters after my name and that traveling scholarship to my credit, I found sister as I told you she was—you'll see her yourself this morning, poor girl—and mother blind. Brother, the best brother that ever lived—it is his picture they have in that hideous frame in the front room—died two months before I graduated. Bruce, there was no one but me. If I had told the truth, they would not have let me stay. They would have starved first. Why, Bruce, sister never wore a decent dress or a decent hat, and mother never had that thing that every old lady on the Island prizes, a silk dress, just because she saved the money for me. I told you that these people worship learning after God." He put his hand to his eyes. "Bruce, I am lonely. I have grown out of the ways of my people. But you wouldn't ask me to grow out of a sense of my duty too?"

"No, I don't want you to come with me, Mac," I said. "I am going back alone. When you are free, the college is waiting. She can be as generous as her son, and, I hope, as patient."

Mac drove me back over Tea Hill and looked with me again from its summit over the waters of Pownal Bay. I understood now its appeal to him. The waters, beautiful as they were, were barriers to his Promised Land. Would Tea Hill, plain little eminence,  be to Mac a new Mount Nebo, from which he should gaze longingly, but never leave?

Plain Mac of the Island, farmer with hard hands, scholar with a great mind, son and brother with heart of purest gold! I could not see you through the mist of my tears as the boat carried me from this your Island of the good and true amongst God's children, but I could think only of you as she passed the lighthouse, and the two tiny islands that every one knows but no one visits, and moved down the Strait of Northumberland toward the world that is yours by right of your genius, that wants you and is denied. And I did not ask God to bless you, Mac, though my heart was full of prayer, for I knew, oh, so well, that already had He given you treasures beyond a selfish world's ken to value or to understand.