The Graven Image

By Hamlin Garland

Roger Barnes, son of an elder in the little Iowa Society of Friends and himself "a man of weight," found his faith sorely tried by the death of his young wife, and as the weeks passed without a perceptible lightening of his face, the Meeting came at last to consider his deep grief unseemly and rebellious. He remained deaf to all words of comfort and occupied his Sabbath seat in moody silence, his heart closed to the Spirit, his thought bitter toward life and forgetful of God's grace.

The admonition of the elders at last roused him to defense. "Why should I not ache?" he demanded. "I have been smitten of the rod." And when old Nicholas Asche again reproved him before the assembly, he arose, went out, refusing to return, and several of his friends were greatly troubled, for it was known that for a long time he had been increasingly impatient of the "Discipline" and on terms of undue intimacy with Orrin Bailey, one of "the world's people."

As the spring came on his passionate grief calmed, but a new consideration came, one which troubled him more and more, until at last he opened his heart to his friend.

"Thee knew my wife, friend Bailey. Thee knew her loveliness? Well, now she is gone, and does thee know I am utterly disconsolate, for I have no portrait of her. No image, no shadow of her, exists and I fear I shall lose the memory of her sweet face. Already it is growing dim in my mind. What can I do?"

This was in the days when even daguerreotypes were rare, and Bailey, who had never seen a painted portrait and could not conceive of an artist skillful enough to depict an object he had never known, was not able to advise, and the grieving man's fear remained unassuaged till, some months later, on a trip to Decorah, he came by accident past the gate of a newly established stone-cutter's yard, and there, for the first time in his life, he saw human figures cut enduringly in marble. Cunning cherubs and angels with calm faces and graceful, half-furled wings surrounded granite soldiers standing stiff and straight.

Roger was amazed. The sculptor's magic was an astonishment to him. He had never seen the like, and as he looked upon these figures there came into his sad eyes the light of a startling purpose.

"I will have this workman cut for me an image of my dear Rachel," he resolved and, following this impulse, approached the stone-cutter. "Friend," he said abruptly, "I would have thee chisel for me the form of my dead wife."

Although an aspiring and self-confident artist, Conrad Heffnew was, nevertheless, a little shaken as he drew from his visitor the conditions of this commission. "The lack of even a small drawing or portrait of the subject is discouraging," he said. "If she had a sister, now," he added slowly, "someone about her build, to wear her clothes, I might be able to do the figure."

"She has a sister, Ruth," Roger eagerly answered. "She is slimmer than Rachel was, but her cast of features is much the same. I am sure she will help thee, for she loved Rachel. I will bring her down to see thee."

"Very well," replied Conrad. "If she will sit for me I will see what I can do for you."

Resting upon this arrangement Roger drove away to his prairie home lighter of heart than he had been for many weeks. "Truly an artist is of use in the world after all—one to be honored," he thought.

To Ruth he told the story and expressed his wish, but enjoined secrecy. "Thee knows how some of our elders would pother about this," he added. "Let us conspire together, therefore, so that thee may make the trip to the city without exciting undue comment."

Ruth was quite willing to adventure, for the town far down on the shining river was a lure to her; but the road was long and after a great deal of thought Roger decided to ask the young stone-cutter to come first to Hesper, which he could do without arousing suspicion. "We will contrive to see him afterward in his shop if necessary," he ended decisively, for he could not bring himself to lead Ruth into the society of the world's people to serve as a model, an act which might be mistaken as a wrong-doing.

The sculptor, anticipating a goodly fee (as well as an increase in orders for grave-stones), readily enough consented to visit Hesper, but only to study his problem. He immediately insisted on Ruth's coming to his studio. "I can't do all the work here—I want to make this my best piece," he remarked in explanation. "It is hard to remember the details of face and form. It may require several sittings."

Thereafter, as often as he dared, Roger called at his father-in-law's house for Ruth and drove her down to the sculptor's shop, and although there were many smiling comments on these trips, no one knew their real purpose.

Slowly the figure grew from a harsh marble block into an ever more appealing female figure, and Roger loved to stand beside the artist while he chipped the stone, for Conrad was in very truth a sculptor, a stalwart fist at the chisel, not a weak modeller in clay. He often hummed a tune as he swung his mall; and so, to the lively beat of worldly melodies, the fair form of the Quaker maid emerged from its flinty covering.

One day in early autumn, conditions favoring, Ruth went to town with Roger for the fifth time and ventured timidly into the stone-cutter's yard to gaze with awe upon the nearly-finished snow-white image, and to the artist's skill gave breathless words of praise. "Truly thee is a magician," she said. "Thee has made a beautiful bonnet out of marble and likewise slippers," she added, looking down to where one small foot in its square-toed shoe peeped from the plain skirt. "Thee does right to make it lovely, for my sister was most comely," she ended with a touch of pride.

"My model was also comely," replied Conrad with a glance which made her flush with pleasure.

During all these months Roger had maintained such careful logic in his comings and goings that only Bailey and one or two of his most intimate friends had even a suspicion of what was happening, though many predicted that he and Ruth would wed; for it was known that she had taken his little son to her father's house and was caring for him. Nevertheless Roger well knew that a struggle was preparing for him, and that some of the elders would be shocked by the audacity of his plan, but no fear of man or church could avail against the force of his resolution.

On this final visit, even as they both stood beside him, Conrad threw down his mallet saying: "I can do no more. It is finished," and turning to Ruth, "What do you think of it?" he demanded.

She, gazing upon the finished statue and seeing only her sister in it, said: "I think it beautiful."

And Roger, deeply wrapt in worship of the sculptured face, said: "Thee has done wonders. The sweet smile of my beloved is fixed in marble forever, and my heart is filled with gratitude to thee." All his training was against the graven art, but he gave his hand to the sculptor. "Friend Conrad, I thank thee; thee has made me very happy. Truly thee has caused this cold marble to assume the very image of my Rachel."

As Roger turned again to gaze upon the statue Conrad touched Ruth upon the arm and drew her aside, leaving the bereaved man alone with his memories.

It was all so wonderful, so moving to Roger that he remained before it a long time, absorbed, marveling, exultant. Safe against the years he seemed now, and yet, as he gazed, his pleasure grew into a pain, so vividly did the chiseled stone bring back the grace he had known. Close upon the exultant thought: "Now she can never fade from my memory," came the reflection that his little son would never know how like to his mother this image was. "He will know only the cold marble—his mother will not even be a memory."

One sixth day morning in the eighth month word was brought to Nicholas Asche, leader of the Meeting, that Roger Barnes was about to erect a graven image among the low headstones of the burial grounds, and in amazement and indignation the old man hastened that way.

He found his two sons and several others of the congregation already gathered, gazing with surprise and a touch of awe upon the statue which Conrad and young Bailey had already securely based beneath a graceful young oak in the very centre of his family plot. Gleaming, life-size, it rose above the modest records of the other graves.

As the stern old elder rode up, the throng of onlookers meekly gave way for him. He halted only when he had come so near the offending monument that he could touch it. For a full minute he regarded it with eyes whose anger lit the shadow of his broad-brim, glaring with ever-increasing resentment as he came fully to realize what it meant to have a tall statue thus set up to dwarf the lowly records of its neighbors. It seemed at once impious and rebellious.

Harshly he broke forth: "What has come to thee, Roger Barnes, that thee has broken all the rules of the Discipline relative to burial? Thee well knows our laws. No one could convey a greater insult to the elders, to the dead beneath these other stones, than thee has done by this act. Lay that impious object low or I will fetch thee before the Meeting."

"I will not," replied the young man. "I was even thinking of exalting it still more by putting beneath it another foot of granite block."

"Thee knows full well that by regulation no gravestone can be more than three hands high," Nicholas stormed.

"I know that well, but this is not a gravestone," Roger retorted. "It is a work of art. It is at once a portrait and a thing of beauty."

"That is but paltering. Thee knows well it is at once a forbidden thing and a monument beyond the regulation in height, and therefore doubly offensive to the Meeting. We will not tolerate such folly. I say to thee again, take the unholy thing down. Will thee urge disrespect to the whole Society? Thee knows it is in opposition to all our teaching. What devil's spirit has seized upon thee?"

"Thee may storm," stoutly answered Roger, "but I am not to be frightened. This plot of ground is mine. This figure is also mine. It is a blessed comfort, a sign of love and not a thing of evil—and I will not take it away from here for thee nor for all the elders."

Nicholas, perceiving that Roger was not to be coerced at the moment, ceased argument, but his wrath did not cool.

"Thee shall come before the Meeting forthwith."

The following day a summons was issued calling a council, and a messenger came to Roger calling him before his elders in judgment.

Thereupon a sharp division was set up among the neighbors and the discussion spread among the Friends. The question of "Free Will in Burial Stones" was hotly debated wherever two or three of the members met, so that the mind of each was firmly made up by the time the Meeting came together to try the question publicly. "I see no wrong in it," said some. "It is disgraceful," others heatedly charged.

Roger's act was denounced by his own family as treason to the Meeting, as well as heretical to the faith, and his father, old Nathan Barnes, rising with solemn and mournful dignity, admitted this.

"I know not what I have done that a son of mine should bring such shame and sorrow to my old age. It is the influence of the world's people whose licentious teachings corrupt even the most steadfast of our youth. We came here—to this lonely place—to get away from the world's people. They thicken about us now, these worldlings; hence I favor another journey into a far wilderness where we can live at peace, shut away from the contamination of these greedy and blasphemous idolators."

All realized that he spoke in anger as well as in sorrow, and the more candid and cool-headed of the Friends deplored his words, for they had long since determined that the world's forces must be met and endured; but Jacob Farnum was quick to declare himself.

"The welfare of our Society demands the punishment of Roger Barnes. I move that a committee be appointed to proceed to the burial ground and throw down and break in pieces this graven image."

Here something unexpectedly hot and fierce filled Roger's heart to the exclusion of his peaceful teaching and his lifelong awe of his elders. Rising to his feet he violently exclaimed: "By what right will thee so act? Is it more wicked to have a marble portrait than an ambrotype? It is true that I learned the secrets of sculpture from one of the world's people; it is true that an outsider has cut the stone, but I believe his trade to be worthy and his work justifiable. I believe in such portraits." He addressed himself to Nicholas Asche: "Had thee permitted Rachel to have had a daguerreotype, it would not have been necessary for me to treat with this carver of stone, who is, notwithstanding, a man of probity. I will not have him traduced by anyone present," he ended with a threat in his eyes; "he is my friend."

Thereupon Nicholas Asche curtly answered: "There also thee is gravely at fault. Thee has brought my daughter Ruth under the baleful influence of this worldling; and she is even now filled with admiration for him. She too needs be admonished of the elders for too much thinking upon light affairs. Thee is a traitor to thy sister-in-law, Roger Barnes, as thee is a traitor to the Meeting. To permit thee to go thy present ways would be to open our gates to vanity and envy and all imaginable folly. If thee does not at once remove this graven image from our burial grounds, we will ourselves proceed against it and break it and throw it into the highway."

Then again young Roger rose in his seat and with his strong hands doubled into weapons cried out: "Thee will do well to take this matter guardedly and my words to heart, for I tell thee that whosoever goes near to lay rude hands on that fair form will himself be thrown down. I will break him like a staff across my knee."

He stood thus for a moment like a proud young athlete, meeting the eye of his opponent, then, as no one spoke, turned and strode out, resolute to be first on the ground, ready to defend with his whole strength the marble embodiment of his vanished wife.

And yet, even as he walked away from the church, hot and blinded with anger, he began to ache with an indefinable, increasing sorrow. He had expected opposition, but not such fury as this. He had noted the downcast eyes of his friends. It seemed as if something very precious had gone out of his life—as though the whole world had suddenly become inimical.

"They were ashamed of me," he said and his heart sank, for notwithstanding his resentment he loved the Meeting and its ways. For the most part the faces of the congregation were dear to him and the pain that sprang from a knowledge that he had cut himself off from those he respected soon softened his indignation. Nevertheless he hurried on to the burying ground.

It was a glorious September day and all through the fields the crickets were softly singing as if in celebration of the gathered ample harvest. They spoke from the green grass above the graves with the same insistent cheer as from the sere stubble, but Roger heard them not, for his ears still rang with the elder's stern voice and his eyes were darkened by the lowering brows of his father's moody face. Only when the statue rose before him white and still and fair in the misty sunlight did his mood lighten.

"How beautiful it is," he exclaimed. "How can they desire to destroy it?"

Nevertheless he was smitten with a kind of dismay as he looked around upon the low, drab headstones and perceived with what singular significance the marble rose above them. "In truth I have dared much in doing this thing." It was as if he had been led by some inner spirit braver than himself.

And then—even as he raised a first glance to the statue—a pang of keen surprise shot through his heart. The face was changed. Something new had come into it. It was not his Rachel! With hand pressed upon his chilling heart he studied it with new understanding. He had known that it somewhat resembled Ruth, for Ruth indeed resembled Rachel—but that it was verily in every line and shadow a portrait of the living and not of the dead he now realized for the first time.

"The sculptor has deceived me!" he cried. "He loves Ruth and with the craft of a lover has wrought out his design deliberately and with cunning. He has carved the cold stone to the form of his own desire. How blind I have been."

In complete comprehension he addressed the statue: "Thee is but a symbol of this artist's love for another after all. Nicholas Asche was right. This sculptor under cover of my love—in pretending to work out my ideal—has betrayed me and bewitched Ruth."

Ruth, his constant sunny companion, the keeper, the almost second mother of his child, had been snared by the fowler! He no longer doubted it. He recalled the gladness with which she always accompanied him to the sculptor's studio and her silence and preoccupation on the homeward drive. She loved the artist. She was about to be taken away.

Something fierce and wild clutched at his throat and with a groan he fell upon the ground beneath the figure: "Oh, Ruth, Ruth! Am I to lose thee too?"

At this moment he forgot all else but the sweet girl who had become so necessary to his life. Truly, to lose all hope of her was to be doubly bereaved. "I am now most surely solitary," he mourned. "What will become of me hereafter? Who will care for my little son?"

While still he lay there, dark with despair and lax with weakness, Ruth and the sculptor came up the walk to the gate and saw his prostrate form. Ruth checked the sculptor's advance. "Let me go up to him alone," she said, and approached where Roger lay. She did not know the true cause of his grief, but she pitied him: "Do not grieve, Roger; they will not dare to touch the figure."

He looked up at her with a glance which was at once old and strange, but uttered no word of reply, only steadfastly regarded her; then his head dropped upon his arm and his body shook only with sobbing.

She spoke again: "Thee must not despair. There are quite as many for thee as there are against thee. All the young people are on thy side. No one will dare to harm the statue."

As they stood thus Conrad approached and said: "What does it matter? Come out from among these narrow folk. Ruth is to come out and be my wife. Why do you stay to be worried by the elders who——"

He spoke no further, for Roger waved his hand in dismissal of them and cried out in most lamentable voice: "Leave me. Leave me," and again hid his face in his hands.

In troubled wonder the young people moved away slowly, Ruth with tear-filled eyes, Conrad very grave. Together they took their stand at the gate to guard against the approach of others less sympathetic. "His grief is profound," said Ruth, "but the statue will comfort him."

Roger, overwhelmed now by another emotion—a sense of shame, of deep contrition—was face to face with a clear conception of his disloyalty to the dead. Aye, the statue was Ruth. Its youth, its tender, timid smile, its arch brow, all were hers, and as he remembered how Conrad had taken the small unresisting hand in his, he knew himself to be baser than Nicholas Asche had dared imagine. "I loved thee," he confessed; "not as I loved Rachel—but in a most human way. My life has closed round thee. I have unconsciously thought of thee as the guardian of my child. Thy shining figure I have placed in the glow of my fire."

This was true. Ruth had not displaced the love he still bore for his sweet wife—but she had made it an echo of passion, a dim song, a tender and haunting memory of his youth.

The sun sank and dusk came on while still he lay at the statue's feet in remorseful agony of soul, and those who came near enough to speak with him respected his wish and left him undisturbed.

Softly the darkness rose and a warm and mellow night covered the mourner, clothing the marble maid with mystery.

The crickets singing innumerably all about him came at last to express in some subtle way the futility of his own purpose, the smallness of his own affairs, and as he listened he lost the sharpness of his grief. His despair lightened. He ceased to accuse; his desire of battle died. "How could Conrad know that I had grown disloyal? And how was Ruth to perceive my change of heart? The treachery is mine, all mine, dear angel, but I will atone. I will atone. Forgive me. Come to me and forgive me! Comfort me."

Within his heart the spirit of resentment gave way to one of humbleness, of submission. The contest for a place among these gray old monuments no longer seemed worthy—or rather he felt himself no longer worthy to wage it. His disloyalty to his dead disqualified him as a base act disqualified the knights of old. "My cause is lost because my heart was false!" he said.

So during the long hours of the night he kept remorseful vigil. The moon set, the darkness deepened, cool, odorous, musical with lulling songs of insects; and still he lingered, imploring solace, seeking relief from self-reproach. At last, just before dawn, the spirit of his dead Rachel stepped from the shadow. She approached him and bending above him softly said:

"Dear heart, it is true I am not within the graven image. You have no need of it. Go home. There I am, always near thee and the child. I am not for others; I am thine. Return. Make thy peace with the elders. Thee must not live solitary and sad. Our son waits for thee, and when thee sits beside his bed, I will be there."

He woke chilled and wet with the midnight damp, but in his heart a new-found sense of peace had come. His interest in the statue was at an end. He now knew that it was neither the monument he had desired nor the image of his love. "How gross I have been," he said, addressing himself to the unseen presence, "to think that the beauty of my dead could be embodied in stone! Ruth shall go her ways to happiness with my blessing."

In this mood he rose and went to his home, deeply resolved to put aside his idolatry of Ruth even as he had put behind him the gleaming, beautiful figure beneath the shadow of the oak.