In the Honest Woods

In the Honest Woods  (1905) 
by Holman F. Day

Extracted from "Leslie's" magazine, v.69 1904, pp. 305-311. Illustrated by Philip R. Goodwin

Leslie's Mag Jan 1905 frontis--'twas too big for me--the problem.jpg

"'Twas too big for me—the problem."


By Holman F. Day

This remarkable story seems to the Editors so essentially right-minded that it is published in spite of natural objections rising from the possibility of perverting the writer's attitude into one of criticism toward our most respected profession.

IN the summit of the Ambejejus horseback the party divided and the Reverend Doctor Ransom Wallace went away by himself. Doctor Wallace enjoyed solitude on his hunting trips. To be sure, the Jo Mary section was new in his experience, but he had informed a rather skeptical guide that "there was no losing him."

"I have a sort of innate sense of locality," boasted he blandly, yet with smooth obstinacy, to his friends. "You keep the guide and I will steal away by myself. Don't mind me. I'll show up at the camp for tea."

Doctor Wallace called his solitary tramps "revels with Nature." The hunting companions who knew him well hinted that he liked to "shake the crowd," because he was a skilful hunter and abominated the tagging along of twig-cracking bunglers. It was certainly worthy of remark that Doctor Wallace always shot his "quota of game" promptly and privately, as favorite members of his fashionable congregation could annually testify.

When the last murmurings of voices had died away behind him in the forest aisles, Doctor Wallace gleefully brandished his rifle like a dumb-bell, snuffled the crisp mellowness of the autumn woods and gurgled.

"Ah, it's good to be alive—and alone!"

Ten hours later it wasn't as good to be alone. It was dark. The wind volleyed down the rocky valley and the spruces "boo-ed" lonesomely. Doctor Wallace arose from his knees, but not from devotions. He had been trying to blow into life the little blaze his last match had ignited in the painfully collected pile of dry-kye. But the wind had puffed against him victoriously. It had blackened his face, scorched his eyebrows and singed his neat puffs of side-whiskers, and finally, aided by a wet drizzle, had doused the kit flicker of blaze. Doctor Wallace looked away into the mystic gloom, harked to the weird voices of the woods, and sat down and groaned between his shiverings.

He was lost—lost!

As he sat and discontentedly plipped apart his fingers, pitchy from his clambering of sentinel trees, he pondered remorsefully that all his misfortune had come from leaving the straight and narrow path of the horseback. A broad and easy way leading to the valley had tempted him astray. He reflected with mournful wistfulness that his experience would make admirable illustration for a sermon. But would he ever stand again before his urban congregation? Solemn thought! Lost men were like lost needles in that wilderness. He, tattered and scratched and unkempt and aching after his mad scamperings in his lost man's panic, had he ever been well-garbed and calm and eloquent in a pulpit? This cowering wretch, shivering under the great trees, seemed to be some one else,

Then, growing philosophic, he reflected more bitterly that he had not always in this life kept on through the difficulties of the high and narrow path. Away back there in the old days he had gone down into the valley. He had since made himself believe sometimes that he was back on the heights again, but now, face to face with himself, and with elemental and naked Nature talking its truths about him, he realized the futility of his self-deception.

A loon on some far mountain-locked pond halleloo-ed its almost human cry like a wail of regret. And nearer still a black bear barked in threatening staccato. The trees voiced melancholy rebuke that his soul in its new sensitiveness translated for him. Nature's loneliness in the sunshine had always been a welcome release from the life in which he moved with almost the artificiality of an actor. Not that the Reverend Doctor Ransom Wallace was a corrupt man. His daily life—since—had been clean. But he himself knew that his manners, his comings and goings at home, with the gaze of the world on him, even the bland and unctuous intonations of his voice, were part of the assumption that a city pastor must carry to his rôle.

In his canvas coat, bob-tailed to a luxurious degree, in his knickerbockers, with his rifle slung into the hollow of his arm and the glory of sunlit outdoors about him, he was again himself, the actor behind the scenes, relaxing the spiritual and physical muscles that ached—allowing himself the rare delight of hating the squirming mob of city schemers for a day—unpastoral indulgence, but none the less comforting. But now, with the sun gone, the night brooding, the cold numbing his body and fear chilling his soul, he met himself—and hated himself. And he put aside all specious excuses, and knew why!

When at last the dawn came—he watching toward what his somewhat obstinate judgment declared to be east—the sun as though in malicious jest rose through watery clouds in the south-west.

For a half hour Doctor Wallace sat there on his hillock and with mental fractiousness tried to browbeat the sun into egregious error. When the doctor had reluctantly admitted to himself that the luminary probably knew its business, he found that under the new conditions east or west or south meant nothing helpful for him. Points of compass suggested nothing. All the world seemed ske-wowed. He got up and staggered away into the woods, impelled to keep on his wanderings, firing his rifle occasionally, harkening breathlessly for a reply, sustained only by the dim hope that somewhere in those vast tracts were other human beings to whom chance might lead him.

Late that afternoon, spent and tortured by hunger, he came across a small stream roaring in zigzag course through a deep gully. He numbly realized that the brook might lead to a lake, and there might be a camp on the lake.

Just as the dusk deepened he dragged his feet out upon the moist and mossy level of a pond's shore. A prayer of thanksgiving—the most honest prayer that ever burst from the lips of the Reverend Doctor Wallace—greeted the sight of a small log cabin across the cove.

A trail of smoke from the funnel tossed across the little clearing on the breeze, and the glimmer of an out-doors cook fire winked cheerily through the trees, When a voice answered his shout and a canoe came bobbing across the cove, the clergyman sat down on a convenient tussock and wept weakly, the tears trailing through the soot on his face. The man in the canoe was roughly garbed and unshaven, and the man on the shore was a miserable spectacle, but each with the masonry of the huntsman, recognized the other as city-bred.

Ten minutes later Doctor Wallace was telling his story in the camp to two sympathizing New Yorkers. Outside, the guide was stooping his grizzled head over the spider and the teapot steaming on the coals. The frizzle of meat sounded pleasantly appetizing and the odor of bacon was wafted to the nostrils of a clergyman who had never before in his life fully realized that hunger can so wholly dominate spirituality. He made the mental resolution that thereafter he would entertain more compassion for hungry people in the cities. He even found himself framing the introduction to a sermon on the subject—and then the guide brought in the pannikins and set the food on the rough table.

At first the clergyman, occupied with his eager story and enjoying the savor of the arriving dishes, did nothing but glance idly at the man who pad-padded here and there so lightly in his moccasins. And the low camp had many shadows. But when the guide moved the lamp from its shelf to the table and quietly announced that the meal was ready. Doctor Wallace raised his careless gaze to the brown face that appeared for a moment in the yellow flare. He had been rising with hungry alacrity. He fell back upon the "deacon-seat" and sat clutching its edge. The man looked at him a moment and quietly went out, saying at the door:—

"I am going to fry some more meat. Pull up, gentlemen, while the supper is hot" There was not a quiver in the low, even voice.

"I—I think my hunger must have made me a bit faint," the clergyman stammered to the alarmed hosts who were questioning him solicitously. He stared apprehensively through the camp's little window as though he feared some ruse behind those placid words of the guide. The grizzled head was bent over the fire again.

After Doctor Wallace had staggered to his bench at table he noted that the New Yorkers, made aware by his early self-introduction that he was a minister, were waiting decorously for grace. Conscious now whose hands had prepared the food that awaited his blessing and his starved appetite, the perfunctory words almost choked him. Then he ate without sense of taste, face blanched, hands shaking and gulping the gobbets of deer's flesh with a hungry avidity that had no relish.

Once the guide came in with newly fried meat. The clergyman felt his gray hair bristle from neck to crown at sound of the moccasin's soft thud behind him. The man quietly poured a pannikin of tea from the pot on the table, carried it out of doors and through the little window the reverend guest saw him eating beside the fire.

Doctor Wallace declined tobacco. The sportsmen puffed their pipes comfortably and buzzed conversation with the languid calm of those enjoying digestion. The quiet man in moccasins cleared the table, soused the pans at the pond's side and replenished his fire from time to time. Doctor Wallace, clasping and unclasping his flat fingers, watched him with side-long glances and endeavored to continue his hat, but his inapposite replies, his embarrassment, his incoherency at least became apparent even to their rather careless attention.

"Why, Jim," cried one, "here is Doctor Wallace, dead tired, and we not putting him to bed where he belongs. Two weeks here have given us woods' manners in earnest," he observed jocosely. "Now, sir, to your bunk, and a dreamless—"

The guide had stepped into the low doorway.

"Excuse me, Mr. Manning, and you, Mr. Ballou," he said courteously, for interrupting the party. But I have a little business with this visiting gentleman here, and he will oblige me if he will step outside." He had the low, soft voice of the veteran woodsman. Forest dwellers never speak loudly.

Dr. Wallace half rose, choked with an audible rattle, and sat down. The New York men stared a bit, for even in the unconventional woods such a request from a guide was not usual.

"What is it, Tom?" one of them demanded.

"This gentleman knows," the man replied quietly. "It is something that we need to talk over alone—with all respect to you and Mr. Ballou."

With mystification wrinkling their faces the hosts turned to the clergyman. Perspiration was beaded on his forehead. His lips moved wordlessly. He raked his trembling fingers through his whisker tufts, As he did not speak, Manning said brusquely.

"Doctor Wallace is tired and played out to-night, Tom. Whatever your business is it must wait till morning. After a good sleep he—"

"I beg your pardon, Mr. Manning, but my business cannot wait, and as for sleeping, this man cannot sleep under my roof, humble as it is. This is my roof, you understand, the only one I have. He has slept under my roof before and—" The man broke off, for his voice was growing hard. He concluded in his ordinary repressed voice, "It's all a matter between us two. Will you step outside, sir?"

"I—I don't think I will," stuttered the doctor, after a despairing glance at his new friends.

"Say, look here, Tom," blurted Manning, "Ballou and I have been coming here a good many years, and I never knew you to rear up and butt in after this fashion before. You'd better go out by the pond and cool off. Doctor Wallace will probably give you a few moments in the morning for your—your business." The New Yorker spoke with the acerbity of one rebuking the presumption of an inferior,

"Will you come out?" persisted the guide gazing straight at the clergyman. The man's eyes flamed now in the dusk.

"No," gasped Dr. Wallace.

Manning and Ballou, with an angry grunt in unison, started toward the importunate woodsman. But he straightened his shoulders, bent by many years of duffle toting, and faced them unflinchingly.

"Don't touch me," he said, and there was a grim menace in his low tones that checked them more effectually than a shout or an oath could have done. "Mr. Manning and you, Mr. Ballou, I call you to witness that I have given this man the chance to talk our business privately. It is for his good as well as for my own pride and peace of mind that I have asked it. I still say he must talk with me. Will you come outside, sir?" His calm persistence in the same query began to seem dark and ominous.

"No," mumbled the clergyman, huddling with the obstinacy of a trapped creature. He shuddered as he looked into the blackness framed at the door. He edged toward the light on the table.

"Then I appeal to you as gentlemen I have known in these woods year by year for a long time," said the guide, turning to his employers. He realized how his presumption must have angered them. "You have never before seen in me anything except patience and courtesy, have you? Thank you, sirs. I don't blame you for the stand you are taking against me now, but it is because you do not know. I would not have told you, but a coward forces me. When I was three years married and just getting together our first little home—awful poor, sirs—we thought to help out on housekeeping expense by taking a boarder, my wife and I. He was a theological student And—well, sirs, all there is to tell, he took my wife away from me—my wife, gentlemen—" For the first time in their knowledge of him Manning and Ballou heard Tom Ballard's voice break into a cry, a wail of sudden woe. "All I was working and struggling for on God's earth. Took her away—I never saw her again. That's all! I never saw her again—and the bonds that I was fool enough to think God tied they cut asunder, and I knew nothing of it until it had been done. The goddess of the lawyers may be blind, gentlemen, but those with long ladders may whisper in her ear. And this,"—he swept his hand around his little cabin—"this is all I've got for a home, and you know how many years I've been here. Shut your eyes, you gentlemen, and think of your own. And that's why I want to talk to this man privately.—God forgive me for saying so much here, but I had to, to make you understand. Will you come, sir?" His voice in the query had the same calm, ominous evenness.

"No, I will not," screamed the clergyman. Physical exhaustion accentuated his natural timidity. This remorseless insistence was maddening.

"You'd better wait, Tom," urged Manning, stammering in his sudden agitation, This unveiling of a tragedy shocked him. This stern call to the night outside made him apprehensive of consequences. "In the morning—"

"I cannot sleep," broke in Ballard, "and he shall not sleep until we talk, You two have known me. I am not a thug. I am not an assassin. I am not a butcher of sheep. But I say to you—and all here take warning—that man must now this night go out with me and talk with me man fashion on my ground, under God's stars and in God's open, where he is not a frocked parson nor I a moccasined guide, but just two men with business to settle. Rans Wallace, walk out."

He reached behind him, lifted a rifle that had been standing against the log wall, swung it into the hollow of his arm, stepped to one side and grimly waited near the door. The New York men stared at each other, blinking in their uncertainty, and were silent.

Doctor Wallace broke the hush. He hastened toward his hosts, his hands out spread in the gesture of ingenuousness familiar to him.

"I am a clergyman," he panted. "I cannot talk with that man. I fear he means to murder me. I cannot fight with him. I am a clergyman." He iterated the plea as though it were convincing argument "I—"

"Is he telling the truth?" asked Ballou.

"It was the mistake of my youth," the doctor stammered; "an error of the heart, a—I loved her very much. It is Mrs. Wallace of whom we are speaking," he added with a pitiful attempt at dignity, "After she got her divorce I married her. We loved each other very much, and being young I—But I have expiated in daily prayer and constant repentance and in penitential sackcloth. Don't you see, gentlemen, that it will do no good for me to go out with him?"

The New Yorkers were grave and silent. They looked on the guide's face, hard as carved wood, and on this stuttering coward, vibrating his arms as he appealed to them.

"And there is much that you do not understand," went on the doctor with an eagerness almost maudlin. "Her longing for a higher and better life—her seeking for intellectual companionship and her—"

"I am waiting, Rans Wallace," broke in Ballard.

The doctor came closer to his hosts. His teeth chattered. "I am a clergyman," he began again in tones which he endeavored to make confidential.

"It appears to me that you were a man before that," interrupted Ballou with grim significance. Doctor Wallace stared at the faces of his new friends and seemed to read hostility there. There was bluff sincerity as well.

"You don't mean to let this man force me out into the woods, do you?" he gasped. His paltering was becoming tedious and piteous. "We—we three are men of the city—of the world together—I look to you—"

Manning gave a grunt that seemed to resent this grouping.

"We are in the woods now," he said. "We're on the level of Nature where a man sizes things differently in spite of himself. I've known Tom Ballard a good many years. I never saw yellow in him. My opinion is only that of a layman, parson, but as long as the white tie and frock coat are off you just now you'd better be merely plain man and settle your man's business in private. Ballou and I don't care to listen or to meddle. Really, we don't."

The frankness of the elemental was in the hearts of the twain. The sympathy of the woods had stripped away their urban prejudices and artificial affinities. The man at the door seemed for the moment the superior of the man who cowered.

"But I—" began the clergyman passionately.

"Don't make us say it," interrupted Ballou coldly. "He's waiting for you." He and Manning turned their backs.

Stung to desperation, a flush replacing his pallor, the Reverend Doctor Wallace stumbled toward the door.

"Here's your rifle," said Ballard, poking the weapon into the minister's unwilling grasp. "You'd better take it along, for you won't be coming back this way."

When they were outside, the guide lifted a canoe that was overturned on the shore, dropped it like a feather upon the water and waved his hand.

"Take the bow paddle," he said. The minister sagged his shaking bulk under the forward thwart. Ballard carefully stood his own rifle beside him in the stern and pushed away. The canoe slipped into the shadows as it clove its noiseless way up the lake along the tree-bordered shore.

Ballou and Manning slept after a time, but it was only nervous rest that the soft clatter of pans outside startled into alarmed wakefulness. The dawn was there wide-eyed, the early catbirds were yawling.

The guide was moving about through the volleying smoke from the newly kindled fire. He greeted them quietly when they came out and placidly kept on at his work, The food that he set before them went down chokingly and their tea pannikins wavered in their grasp, but with true woods' reserve they respected his calm reticence.

However, when they had lighted their pipes and ventured a few limping attempts at general conversation, he came and stood leaning against a tree near them.

For a while he whittled at a chip and gazed thoughtfully down at the woods' carpet of pine needles. Then he clicked his big knife shut and looked them straight in the face.

"It's bad business, all of it, gentlemen," he began, "sorrowful business, and I'm ashamed that you have been troubled with it—when all the rest of your stay had been so pleasant I wouldn't say anything more to bother you with my affairs, but I'd sort of hate to have you go away not knowing just how it was settled. For we've been good friends, and—and I'll kind of look for you next year as usual."

Both men tried to say something, but he checked their embarrassed stammerings.

"Oh, I know! You wouldn't want to come if you thought that—well, so you see I've got to square myself, but it will never be mentioned by me again, Mr. Ballou and Mr. Manning, if you'll only let yourselves be bothered a minute now. You were men to me last night. I'll never forget it." His voice shook. "You put me where a man belongs. You put a man into my hands without aye, yes or no. It's all bad business, though. You see, when I married her she was only sixteen, and I was a hostler and her folks weren't willing. I shouldn't 'a' done it. I was wrong. I had to nail burlap in a horse stall to make a place for us to live. Awful, wasn't it? And she used to wake in the night and say that a bright spirit seemed to be calling to her to come to better things. She wasn't for me. And I don't have to tell you the rest. And it hurts me. I was most to blame, I reckon. But I'm human, gentlemen, and when I saw him last night, and saw what he was, and remembered what I have had to be, my—my," he choked, walked away and then came back. His voice was calm again. "You put him in my hands. I ain't going to bother you with what I thought I'd do. Sometimes a man isn't responsible for what he thinks or does, is he? I took him down the lake, and there wasn't anything said. His back was towards me. He shivered all the time. There are crust hunters that can snow-shoe up to a slumping deer and cut its throat while the creature looks up and bleats and rolls those great eyes. Did you ever hear of Tom Ballard doing that?"

He threw up his arms and stood before them, straightening his pack-bowed shoulders. His paddle-calloused hands vibrated. He was evidently about to burst into passionate speech, but once more the iron self-restraint of the woods closed his square jaws resolutely. To the astonishment of both men, who were hanging breathlessly on his words, he abruptly changed the subject and said with a half smile:—

"Mr. Ballou, I reckon I can't send those fresh-water pearls out by you to your friend, the jeweler."

"Why, Tom," cried Ballou, his mind for the moment jarred off the tragedy, "you can clean up nigh a thousand dollars if I take them."

"Maybe so, Mr. Ballou, but they're gone on ahead. He said she'd never got done sorrowing over the way she'd used me. I'd hate to have to stay here alone, as I do, thinking of a woman grieving all the time over what's past and done for. So I told him how many years and how many bushels of clams those pearls stood for, and I've been pondering that she'll know that such a present to her means forgiveness and good will for what little of life that's left to us."

The New Yorkers were on their feet gasping at him.

"You mean—," they began in unison.

"I mean I took him across the carry to the Pamedumcook shore, waited till the first streak o' light, lent him my rowboat, and started him across to his own camp, That seemed to be the only way. I looked at him and he looked at me there when we could see each other, and it came to me that 'twas a bigger thing than I had thought—this meeting of the man I had been hankering to meet, even though I had him face to face, just as I wanted him, after all the years I have been alone and pondering on it. 'Twas too big for me—the problem. And I said so to him when I pushed the boat off the shore, and I said, too, 'I ain't one of those that hold God's commission to meddle.' But I'd forgot then that he is a minister, and I'm afraid he'll think I meant to twit him. For he bowed his head and rowed off. But I didn't mean it that way. And it's all between us right here, ain't it, Mr. Ballou and Mr. Manning? Ministers are an example to them that sit under them and look to them, and women have tender feelings. I should feel bad to have you speak of it outside."

Tears ran down Ballou's sun-reddened nose. "Tom," he said with futile attempt to make his voice bluff, "you don't look it outside, but inside you've developed symptoms of being a saint."

"No," returned the guide humbly, "a saint would not have kneeled there in the alders when he rowed away, jacked a shell into the chamber and taken aim the whilst he growled, 'Damn ye, I can't let ye go!' No, that wasn't saint-like. Why, gentlemen, if I hadn't had the sense to ram that rifle-butt down into the lake and hold it there, I'd have bored him as I would a buck deer."

"I insist, old Tom Ballard, that you're one of God's elect," choked Manning, blinking back his tears.

"I wish you wouldn't say such things—and I knowing what's inside me all the time," pleaded the guide ingenuously. "If anything I did was square, it's only that the old woods, the great, wide, honest, open woods, have been talking to me all these years, Mr. Manning and Mr. Ballou. I've been alone with them a long time, and it's done me a mighty heap of good. And to-day I'm hot and bitter and swearing and cursing inside—wishing now that I'd put a forty-four between those whisker tufts—sorry I let him go. I'm an awful man, gentlemen, inside me. I figure 'twas only accident I let him go, after all But if you'll hunt alone to-day, I reckon I'll go out and let the woods talk to me—the big, generous, soothing, crooning, honest woods. And then I'll come back all right to-night, gentlemen,—all right to-night!"

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1935, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 87 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.