The Path – October 1891

A MONUMENT — Lily A. Long

The Teacher was dead.

This was the news that spread quickly one stormy evening through the little western village, where, a few days before, he whose quiet would nevermore be broken had been a sharer in the keenest life of the place. The calls of Death in a small community are more than a matter of statistics. They touch the public interest even when made upon the humblest, — and the teacher had been the most widely known, the best loved, and best hated man in the town. Friends and detractors alike dropped their careless talk as the word "Dead!" went from lip to lip, and among those who had sought shelter from the storm in the bar-room, as among those who, driven by anxiety for their homes, had gathered in groups along the dark banks of the dangerously full river, stories of the dead man were rife.

Some told how he had come, no one knew whence or why, to take up his abode in this unknown corner of the world and fulfil the humble calling of a district school-teacher. He was a queer teacher, to be sure, and if there had been money in the township to pay for a qualified instructor he would not long have been tolerated, but as he gave his services for next to nothing and the treasury was empty, the board had been constrained to overlook his eccentricities. It was quite his habit to carry the children off into the woods on a bright day and talk to them for hours about bugs and bird when they should have been learning the kings of England, and many a morning had he spent in telling them wonderful stories of knights and heroes that did them no good instead of keeping them on their tables. There were others who could tell of long, strange talks had with him during some lonely tramp through the woods or at night over his fire, — talks that had never been forgotten. Queer, impracticable ideas he had about the meaning of life and the things worth striving for, but there was no denying that a man was the better for talking with him. His thoughts were uplifting and bracing as mountain air. Still others told of some quiet deed of helpfulness, and were surprised to have their accounts matched by many others, all unknown before.

But not all the stories were laudatory. His tongue had had power to lash as well as to inspire, and there were not wanting victims ready to take verbal revenge. The tales told in the bar-room were mostly of this color, for the frequenters of that popular but demoralizing place had more debts of this sort to settle with the sharp old man than they had scores with the bar-keeper himself. Who was the teacher, after all, they questioned, and what reason had he had for burying himself here? It was very clear that he possessed a degree of learning which would have won him honor and companionship in the centers of culture. Why did he surrender both to fill an ill-paid and unrecognized post among people who were not of his kind? According to these practical philosophers, the reasons which prompted so anomalous a course of conduct could not be creditable ones. They could understand that a man might give his life to accumulating wealth if it chanced that money stood to him for the most desirable thing in the world, or that he might give it up to the pursuit of happiness by way of the whisky-glass if he had a correct appreciation of good whisky. Of such devotion they were themselves living examples. They could even understand that an artist might choose to paint visions in a garret rather than to waste divine days in drudgery that he might spend his sleeping hours in a palace. Such whimseys were inborn. But to maintain that a man might be born with a controlling inclination and talent for helpfulness and that he might select his home for the same reasons that would influence a merchant in selecting a favorable location for his business was to set at naught the wisdom of the world, which holds that a man is to be considered guilty of self-seeking even when he is proven innocent. Oh, they were not to be caught by such chaff as that. It was some shameful secret, undoubtedly, that had driven him into hiding.

But if the majority of his little public brought to his coffin pitying wonder or insult, there were a few (as there are in the larger world, thank Truth) who recognized simple honesty and felt the reality underlying his unconventional life. Four of these friends, three men who had known his purposes most intimately and a youth who had come under the inspiration of his teaching, were now gathered in a little room adjoining the chamber where the body had been laid awaiting the morrow's interment. They had been talking quietly of his uncommon character and the unusual course of life which he had chosen until far into the night.

"The pity of it is that it should all be forgotten," said one restlessly. He was an eager-faced man, whose every feature and attitude, even in his present quiet mood, suggested repressed activity. "Years and years of work for others, and then, — the door swings to and not even a memory remains."

"It is always so. Why expect anything different here? There may once have been a race of men who held gratitude in honor, but if so the very tradition has been lost." The speaker swept a melancholy glance toward the silent form of his dead friend, and, with a gesture expressive of resignation and sorrow, crossed the room and threw open the door to the night. The muttering of the dying tempest was still in the air, and the tall forest trees that overshadowed the little house sighed an echo to the hopeless words. There was a moment's hush in the room, and then the third watcher crossed to his side.

"That may be true enough in general," he said sturdily, "but there are ways to make people remember. If we want it done we can do it. We can give the town a monument that will keep his name and his memory alive as long as there is a man here to see it."

"That is a good idea," exclaimed the first. "Not a pile of marble or granite — that wouldn't suit a life like his — but some institution to help the people and so continue his work in a way."

"That is better. What do you suggest?"

The man with the melancholy eyes shook his head slightly at the question and pointed to a star in the west which a break in the riving clouds had just revealed. It seemed to tremble on the edge a moment, and then the black, rolling masses swept over it relentlessly.

The boy, who had not spoken, turned sharply away in impetuous protest.

"I shall remember," he whispered under his breath.

At that moment the echoing sound of a horse's feet at full gallop broke upon the night, and while they waited in suspense the horseman dashed into sight.

"The breakwater is down" he shouted to the men clustered in the doorway, and then he was swallowed up again in the darkness.

The breakwater down! That meant destruction to the lower part of the town. The men looked at each other in dismay for a minute, and then sprang for their hats.

"We must be needed there. Boy, watch here till we come back!"

The teacher's lonely house was a full mile from the village proper which clustered by the river bank, but the three men ran the distance in silence. The ominous rush of the water grew louder and louder, and when they reached the main street they found that it formed the channel of a new stream which was sweeping tumultuously about the foundations of the buildings on the riverside and bearing upon, its surface the wreckage of accomplished disaster. The stouter houses withstood the onset, but already several wooden structures had been whirled away and others were tottering.

The three friends had been separated in the crowd, and the foremost found himself pushed to the edge of the torrent. The rush of the water was deafening and men were shouting hoarsely on every side, when suddenly a thrill of horror swept through the responsive people. From the upper window of a threatened house directly across the way a child's face was looking down with piteous bewilderment. Frontiersmen have many faults to answer for, but indecision and cowardice are not among them. There was not a man in the crowd who would not have risked his life without a second thought in answer to that mute appeal, and it was no mark of exceptional virtue when the last man to join the throng fastened about his body the long rope tossed to him and plunged into the mad stream. The torrent caught him and carried him out, but, swimming when possible, yielding to the current when necessary, now swept under the surface and now tossed helplessly out, he fought the infuriated water as though it were a conscious antagonist. Breathless but triumphant he reached the opposite side and in a moment had the child in his arms. Then the battle again, sharp and hard, but with the steady pull of friends standing waist deep in the water it was over, and the child, trembling and terrified but alive, lay on the breast of the father, while the crowd cheered till the crash of the falling house as it went at last was overpowered and lost.

The father lifted his face at last and his rough features were working with emotion.

"How can I make it square?" he asked hoarsely. It was the barkeeper. The rescuer started with astonishment as he recognized him, and then a gleam of gay triumph shot into his eyes. It was the opportunity he would have coveted!

"Take her life as the gift of the teacher," he said in a low voice.

There was a questioning look, a meaning glance in reply, and the two men clasped hands over the form of the child.

But death as well as life was abroad that night. When the three friends were separated, one of them had been hurried off by a man who recognized him in the crowd.

"Gabriel Done is dead — killed by a falling timber. I've been trying to find a priest, for though Done wasn't a churchman his wife is stanch, and she is going on now enough to make a man shiver. Can't you come and talk to her? She thinks that because Gabriel was killed in his sins, as sir says, he has gone straight to hell. It would be lucky for the rest of us if we had no more sins to answer for than he, poor fellow!"

They hurried up the deserted street to the house where Done had been carried, but at the door the guide quailed.

"You go in alone. I don't think I can stand much more of it."

His companion might have truly pleaded equal helplessness, but when he entered the room and saw the widow in silent, dry-eyed despair beside her dead, he wholly forgot himself in a desire to bring help to her, and his melancholy face lightened with a look of sympathy that saved the need of words.

She recognized his presence without greeting.

"It is not that Gabriel is dead," she said at once with a nervous insistance. I could bear that, — I could learn to bear it in time. But to think that he is lost —" Her lips stiffened and she leaned back rigidly in her chair.

He took her hands in his and forced her eyes and her thoughts to himself.

"But Gabriel was a good man."

"He did not believe!"

"But he was a good man."

She quivered under the pressure of his words, but something like a gleam of hope came into her strained eyes.

"If a man like Gabriel, — honest and true and kind, — can be lost, then I have no reason for believing that the spring sunshine will bring joy to the earth, or that the fruit of the apple-blossoms yonder will not prove deadly. Do you believe that goodness rules the universe, or evil?"

She caught the thought beneath his words as a drowned man catches his first breath of air. The mental habits formed by a lifetime of clerical instruction might have withstood all unenforced argument, but the anguish of the hour had lifted her above her own level, and the perception that came to her overmastered her dogmatic loyalty as dawn conquers night. She laid her hand upon her heart for a moment, and then she moved to the side of the dead with a composed and lofty air and uncovered his face.

"Forgive me, Gabriel, that I could have doubted. I know it is well with thee," she murmured. Then nature conquered and she sank on her knees beside him in a burst of saving tears.

"Come away now. You have done all that could be done in giving her that hope. Let us leave her," whispered a new voice. It was the third of the three friends. "Tomorrow I shall see her," he continued when they were outside, "and take care of affairs until they are settled. She will be left pretty poor, I am afraid, and the boy ought to be at school."

"She will not heed any other trouble much, I fancy, if she can be rid of her greatest fear. How can people believe such irreligious atrocities?"

"Because they were so taught when they were young. But how did you think of just the right thing to say to her?"

"Why, the teacher used those words one day, and they came back to me now."

His friend smiled. "And yet you said his influence would pass away and be forgotten!" After a moment he added: "I shall see about the schooling of Done's boy. That shall be my part. "

And his friend answered his smile.

In the little house under the trees the youth had watched alone through the night by the beloved form of the teacher. To him more than to the others the loss had been a personal bereavement, and his sorrow was like the sorrow of a son. So beloved, so needed, so rare a nature, why had death claimed it? Bitterly he questioned thus during those lonely hours, and then his thought widened out to all the sorrow that the wide world holds. Was it all necessary and right? Was that what life meant, — the life that lay before him and which he had so eagerly yearned for? Was it all a delusion of enchantment to hide an unquenchable pain which lurked at the foundation of all things?

Baffled and heart-weary, he went out into the night. The storm had passed, and only a low, spent sighing in the forest depths recalled the tempest that had tossed the trees a few hours before. Overhead the sky was serenely clear. Folding his arms upon his breast he gazed silently into those depths of peace. The clouds that had rolled across had not dimmed their purity or ruffled their calm. A word of the teacher's came back to him suddenly, — "Lift your thought above the storm level." Ah, he understood it now. Climbing by that he found the answer to his passionate pain, and as he stood watching while the flooding dawn crept up to the stars, a percipience of the meaning of living came to him which somehow illuminated the backward-stretching years of the teacher and those which lay before himself. It transcended words as the day-dawn did. But when the three friends returned and found him there, he turned to meet them with a new light in his face and a new strength in his words.

"You were speaking of a monument to keep his memory alive. Let us be the monument. Let us carry on ourselves his mission of helpfulness." And the three men, remembering the events of the night, bowed their heads in silent acceptance of the trust.

The tablet over the teacher's tomb reads simply; —

     "Here lies one
whose life was consecrated to service,
     and whose influence
has been a consecrating chrism to others.

The Path