Read THE AGE OF FABLE : CHAPTER V of The Seeker, free online book, by Harry Leon Wilson, on


It came to seem expedient to Bernal, however, in the first spring of his new life, to make a final choice between early death and a life, of sin.  Matters came to press upon him, and since virtue was useful only to get one into Heaven, it was not worth the effort unless one meant to die at once.  This was an alternative not without its lures, despite the warnings preached all about him.  It would surely be interesting to die, if one had come properly to the Feet.  Even coming to but one of the Feet, as he had, might make it still more interesting.  Perhaps he would not, for this reason, be always shut up in Heaven.  In his secret heart was a lively desire to see just what they did to Milo Barrus, if he should continue to spell God with a little g on his very death-bed ­that is, if he could see it without disadvantage to himself:  But then, you could save that up, because you must die sometime, like Xerxes the Great; and meantime, there was the life of evil now opening wide to the vision with all enticing refreshments.

First, it meant no school.  He had ceased to picture relief in this matter by the school-house burning some morning, preferably a Monday morning, one second after school had taken in.  For a month he had daily dramatised to himself the building’s swift destruction amid the kind and merry flames.  But Allan, to whom he had one day hinted the possibility of this gracious occurrence, had reminded him brutally that they would probably have school in the Methodist church until a new school-house could be built.  For Allan loved his school and his teacher.

But a life of evil promised other joys besides this negative one of no school.  In his latest Sunday-school book, Ralph Overton, the good boy, not only attended school slavishly, so that at thirteen he “could write a good business hand”; but he practised those little tricks of picking up every pin, always untying the string instead of cutting it, keeping his shoes neatly polished and his hands clean, which were, in a simpler day, held to lay the foundations of commercial success in our republic.  Besides this, Ralph had to be bright and cheery to every one, to work for his widowed mother after school; and every Saturday afternoon he went, sickeningly of his own accord, to split wood for an aged and poor lady.  This lady seemed to Bernal to do nothing much but burn a tremendous lot of stove-wood, but presently she turned out to be the long-lost cousin of Mr. Granville Parkinson, the Great Banker from the City, who thereupon took cheery Ralph there and gave him a position in the bank where he could be honest and industrious and respectful to his superiors.  Such was the barren tale of Virtue’s gain.  But contrasted with Ralph Overton in this book was one Budd Jackson, who led a life of voluptuous sloth, except at times when the evil one moved him to activity.  At these bad moments he might go bobbing for catfish on a Sabbath, or purloin fruit from the orchard of Farmer Haskins (who would gladly have given some to him if he had but asked for it civilly, so the book said); or he might bully smaller boys whom he met on their way to school, taking their sailor hats away from them, or jeering coarsely at their neatly brushed garments.  When Budd broke a window in the Methodist parsonage with his slung-shot and tried to lie it on to Ralph Overton, he seemed to have given way utterly to his vicious nature.  He was known soon thereafter to have drunk liquor and played a game called pin-pool with a “flashy stranger” at the tavern; hence no one was surprised when he presently ran off with a circus, became an infidel, and perished miserably in the toils of vice.

This touch about the circus, well-intended, to be sure, was yet fatal to all good the tale might have done the little boy.  Clytie, who read most of the story to him, declared Budd Jackson to be “a regular mean one.”  But in his heart Bernal, thinking all at once of the circus, sickened unutterably of Virtue.  To drive eight spirited white horses, seated high on one of those gay closed wagons ­those that went through the street with that delicious hollow rumble ­hearing perchance the velvet tread, or the clawing and snarling of some pent ferocity ­a leopard, a lion, what not; to hear each day that muffled, flattened beating of a bass drum and cymbals far within the big tent, quick and still more quickly, denoting to the experienced ear that pink and spangled Beauty danced on the big white horse at a deathless gallop; to know that one might freely enter that tented elysium ­if it were possible he would run off with a circus though it meant that he had the morals of a serpent!

Now, eastward from the big house lay the village and its churches:  thither was tame virtue.  But westward lay a broad field stretching off to an orchard, and beyond swelled a gentle hill, mellow in the distance.  Still more remotely far, at the hill’s rim, was a blur of woods beyond which the sun went down each night.  This, in the little boy’s mind, was the highway to the glad free Life of Evil.  Many days he looked to that western wood when the sky was a gush of colour behind its furred edge, perceiving all manner of allurements to beckon him, hearing them plead, feeling them tug.  Daily his spirit quickened within him to their solicitations, leaping out and beyond him in some magic way to bring back veritable meanings and values of the future.

Then a day came when the desire to be off was no longer resistible.  There was a month of school yet; an especially bitter thought, for had he not lately been out of school a week with mumps; and during that very week had not the teacher’s father died, so that he was cheated out of the resulting three-days’ vacation, other children being free while he lay on a bed of pain ­if you tasted pickles or any sour thing?  Not only was it useless to try to learn to write “a good business hand,” like Ralph Overton ­he took the phrase to mean one of those pictured hands that were always pointing to things in the newspaper advertisements ­but there was the circus and other evil things ­and he was getting on in years.

It was a Saturday afternoon.  To-morrow would be too late.  He knew he would not be allowed to start on the Sabbath, even in a career that was to be all wickedness.  In the grape-arbour he massed certain articles necessary for the expedition:  a very small strip of carpet on which he meant to sleep; a copy of “Golden Days,” with an article giving elaborate instructions for camping in the wilderness.  He was compelled to disregard all of them, but there was comfort and sustenance in the article itself.  Then there was the gun that came at Christmas.  It shot a cork as far as the string would let it go, with a fairly satisfying report (he would have that string off, once he was in the woods!).  Also there were three glass alleys, two agate taws and thirty-eight commies.  And to hold his outfit there was a rather sizable box which he with his own hands had papered inside and out from a remnant of gorgeously flowered wall-paper.

When all was ready he went in to break the news to Clytie.  She, busy with her baking, heard him declare: 

“Now ­I’m going to leave this place!” with the look of one who will not be coaxed nor in any manner dissuaded.  He thought she took it rather coolly, though Allan ran, as promptly as he could have wished, to tell his grandfather.

“I’m going to be a regular mean one ­worse’n Budd Jackson!” he continued to Clytie.  He was glad to see that this brought her to her senses.

“Will you stay if I give you ­an orange?”

“No, sir; ­you’ll never set eyes on me again!”

“Oh, now! ­two oranges?”

“I can’t ­I got to go!” in a voice tense with effort.

“All right!  Then I’ll give them to Allan.”

She continued to take brown loaves from the oven and to put other loaves in to bake, while he stood awkwardly by, loath to part from her.  Allan came back breathless.

“Grandpa says you can go as far as you like and you needn’t come back till you get ready!”

He shifted from one foot to the other and absently ate a warm cookie from the jarful at his hand.  He thought this seemed not quite the correct attitude to take toward him, yet he did not waver.  They would be sorry enough in a few days, when it was too late.

“I guess I better take a few of these along with me,” he said, stowing cookies in the pockets of his jacket.  He would have liked one of the big preserved peaches all punctuated with cloves, but he saw no way to carry it, and felt really unable to eat it on the spot.

“Well, good-bye!” he called to Clytie, turning back to her from the door.

“Good-bye!  Won’t you shake hands with me?”

Very solemnly he shook her big, floury hand.

“Now ­could I take Penny along?” (Penny was an inconsequential dog that had been given to Clytie by one whom she called Cousin Bill J.)

“Yes, you’ll need a dog to keep the animals off.  Now be sure you write to us ­at least twice a year ­don’t forget!” And, brutally before his very eyes, she handed the sniffing and virtuous Allan two of the largest, most goldenly beautiful oranges ever beheld by man.

Bitterly the self-exiled turned from this harrowing scene and strode toward his box.

Here ensued a fresh complication.  Nancy, who had chosen the good name of Lillian May, wanted to go with him.  She, too, it appeared, was fresh from a Sunday-school book ­one in which a girl of her own age was so proud of her long raven curls that she was brought to an illness and all her hair came out.  There was a distressing picture of this little girl after a just Providence had done its work as a depilatory.  And after she recovered from the fever, it seemed, she had cared to do nothing but read the Scriptures to bed-ridden old ladies ­even after a good deal of her hair came in again ­though it didn’t curl this time.  The only pleasure she ever experienced thereafter was that, by virtue of her now singularly angelic character, she was enabled to convert an elderly female Papist ­an achievement the joys of which were problematic, both to Nancy and the little boy.  Certainly, whatever converting a Papist might be, it was nothing comparable to driving a red-and-green-and-gold wagon in which was caged the Scourge of the Jungle.

But Nancy could not go with him.  He told her so plainly.  It was no place for a girl beyond that hill where they commonly drove caged beasts, and no one ever so much as thought of Coming to the Feet or washing in the blood of the Lamb, or writing a good business hand with the first finger of it pointing out, or anything.

The little girl pleaded, promising to take her new pink silk parasol, her buff buttoned shoes, a Christmas card with real snow on it, shining like diamonds, and Fragile, her best doll.  The thing was impossible.  Then she wept.

He whistled to Penny, who came barking joyously ­a pretender of a dog, if there ever was one ­and they moved off.  Weeping after them went Nancy ­as far as the first fence, between two boards of which she put her head and sobbed with a heavenly bitterness; for to the little boy, pushing sternly on, her tears afforded that certain thrill of gratified brutality under conscious rectitude, the capacity for which is among those matters by which Heaven has set the male of our species apart from the female.  The sensation would have been flawless but for Allan’s lack of dignity:  from the top board of the fence he held aloft in either hand a golden orange, and he chanted in endless inanity: 

  Chink, Chink Chiraddam! 
  Don’t you wisht you had ’em? 
    Chink, Chink Chiraddam! 
    Don’t you wisht you had ’em?

Still he was actually and triumphantly off.

And here should be recalled the saying of a certain wise, simple man:  “If our failures are made tragic by courage they are not different from successes.”  For it came about that the subsequent dignity of this revolt was to be wholly in its courage.

The way led over a stretch of grassy prairie to a fence.  This surmounted, there came a ploughed field, of considerable extent to one carrying an inconvenient box.  At the farther end of this was another fence, and beyond this an ancient orchard with a grassy floor, where lingered a few old apple-trees, under which the recumbent cows, chewing and placid, dozed like stout old ladies over their knitting.

Nearest the fence was an aged, gnarled and riven tree, foolishly decked in blossoms, like some faded, wrinkled dame, fatuously reluctant to leave off girlish finery.  Under its frivolous branches on the grassy sward would be the place for his first night’s halt ­for the magic wood just this side of the sun was now seen to be farther off than he had once supposed.  So he spread his carpet, arranged the contents of his box neatly, and ate half his food-supply, for one’s strength must be kept up in these affairs.  As he ate he looked back toward the big house ­now left forever ­and toward the village beyond.  The spires of the three churches were all pointing sternly upward, as if they would mutely direct him aright, but in their shelter one must submit to the prosaic trammels of decency.  It was not to be thought of.

He longed for morning to come, so that he might be up and on.  He lay down on his mat to be ready for sleep, and watched a big bird far above, cutting lazy graceful figures in the air, like a fancy skater.  Then, on a bough above him, a little dusty-looking bird tried to sing, but it sounded only like a very small door creaking on tiny rusted hinges.  A fat, gluttonous robin that had been hopping about to peer at him, chirped far more cheerfully as it flew away.

Just at this point he suffered a real adventure.  Eight cows sauntered up interestedly and chewed their cuds at him in unison, standing contemplative, calculating, determined.  It is a fact in natural history not widely enough recognised that the domestic cow is the most ferocious appearing of all known beasts ­a thing to be proved by any who will survey one amid strange surroundings, with a mind cleanly disabused of preconceptions.  A visitor from another planet, for example, knowing nothing of our fauna, and confronted in the forest simultaneously by a common red milch cow and the notoriously savage black leopard of the Himalyas, would instinctively shun the cow as a dangerous beast and confidingly seek to fondle the pretty leopard, thus terminating his natural history researches before they were fairly begun.

It can be understood, then, that a moment ensued when the little boy wavered under the steady questioning scrutiny of eight large and powerful cows, all chewing at him in unison.  Yet, even so, and knowing, moreover, that strange cows are ever untrustworthy, only for a moment did he waver.  Then his new straw hat was off to be shaken at them and he heaved a fierce “H-a-y ­y-u-p!

At this they started, rather indignantly, seeming to meditate his swift destruction; but another shout turned and routed them, and he even chased them a little way, helped now by the inconsiderable dog who came up from pretending to hunt gophers.

After this there seemed nothing to do but eat the other half of the provisions and retire again for the night.  Long after the sun went down behind the magic wood he lay uneasily on his lumpy bed, trying again and again to shut his eyes and open them to find it morning ­which was the way it always happened in the west bedroom of the big house he had left forever.

But it was different here.  And presently, when it seemed nearly dark except for the stars, a disgraceful thing happened.  He had pictured the dog as faithful always to him, refusing in the end even to be taken from over his dead body.  But the treacherous Penny grew first restive, then plainly desirous of returning to his home.  At last, after many efforts to corrupt the adventurer, he started off briskly alone ­cornerwise, as little dogs seem always to run ­fleeing shamelessly toward that east where shone the tame lights of Virtue.

Left alone, the little boy began strangely to remember certain phrases from a tract that Clytie had tried to teach him ­“the moment that will close thy life on earth and begin thy song in heaven or thy wail in hell” ­“impossible to go from the haunts of sin and vice to the presence of the Lamb” ­“the torments of an eternal hell are awaiting thee” ­

  “To-night may be thy latest breath,
    Thy little moment here be done. 
  Eternal woe, the second death,
    Awaits the Christ-rejecting one.”

This was more than he had ever before been able to recall of such matters.  He wished that he might have forgotten them wholly.  Yet so was he turned again to better things.  Gradually he began to have an inkling of a possibility that made his blood icy ­a possibility that not even the spectacle of Milo Barrus having interesting things done to him could mitigate ­namely, a vision of himself in the same plight with that person.

Now it was that he began to hear Them all about him.  They walked stealthily near, passed him with sinister rustlings, and whispered over him.  If They had only talked out ­but they whispered ­even laughing, crying and singing in whispers.  This horror, of course, was not long to be endured.  Yet, even so, with increasing myriads of Them all about, rustling and whispering their awful laughs and cries ­it was no ignominious rout.  With considerable deliberation he folded the carpet, placed it in the box with his other treasure, and started at a pace which may, perhaps, have quickened a little, yet was never undignified ­never more than a moderately fast trudge.

He wondered sadly if Clytie would get up to unlock the door for him so late at night.  As for Penny, things could never be the same between them again.

He was astounded to see lights burning and the house open ­how weird for them to have supper at such an hour!  He concealed his box in the grape-arbour and slunk through the kitchen into the dining-room.  Probably they had gotten up in the middle of the night, out of tardy alarm for him.  It served them right.  Yet they seemed hardly to notice him when he slid awkwardly into his chair.  He looked calculatingly over the table and asked, in tones that somehow seemed to tell of injury, of personal affront: 

“What you having supper for at this time of night?”

His grandfather regarded him now not unkindly, while Clytie seemed confused.

“It’s more’n long past midnight!” he insisted.

“Huh! it ain’t only a quarter past seven,” put in his superior brother.  He seemed about to say more, but a glance from the grandfather silenced him.

So that was as late as he had stayed ­a quarter after seven?  He was ready now to rage at any taunt, and began to eat in haughty silence.  He was still eating when his grandfather and Allan left the table, and then he began to feel a little grateful that they had not noticed or asked annoying questions, or tried to be funny or anything.  Over a final dish of plum preserves and an imposing segment of marble cake he relented so far as to tell Clytie something of his adventures ­especially since she had said that the big hall-clock was very likely slow ­that it must surely be a lot later than a quarter past seven.  The circumstances had combined to produce a narrative not entirely perspicuous ­the two clear points being that They do everything in a whisper, and that Clytie ought to get rid of Penny at once, since he could not be depended upon at great moments.

As to ever sleeping under a tree, Clytie discouraged him.  She knew of some Boys that once sat under a tree which was struck by lightning, all being Killed save one, who had the rare good luck to be the son of a Presbyterian clergyman.  The little boy resolved next time to go beyond the trees to sleep; perhaps if he went far enough he would come to the other one of the Feet, and so have a safeguard against lightning, foreign cows, and Those that walk with rustlings and whisper in the lonely places at night.

The little boy fell asleep, half-persuaded again to virtue, because of its superior comforts.  The air about his head seemed full of ghostly “good business hands,” each with its accusing forefinger pointed at him for that he had not learned to write one as Ralph Overton did.

Down the hall in his study the old man was musing backward to the delicate, quiet girl with the old-fashioned aureole of curls, who would now and then toss them with a little gesture eloquent of possibilities for unrestraint when she felt the close-drawn rein of his authority.  Again he felt her rebellious little tugs, and the wrench of her final defiance when she did the awful thing.  He had been told by a plain speaker that her revolt was the fault of his severity.  And here was the flesh of her flesh ­was it in the same spirit of revolt against authority, a thousandfold magnified?  Might he not by according the boy a wise liberty save him in after years from some mad folly akin to his mother’s?