HOBART had been born with a deep fundamental devotion to trees. His knowledge and understanding of them was partly natural gift, partly the result of observation and study. His love for them was instinctive and profound. He knew them scientifically and academically and one might even say metaphysically, because he felt himself see into them more deeply than their bark, their fibre and their sap.
Therefore when a long stretch of office overwork had finally resulted in the wrecking of his fortune and the near shattering of his nerves, it was natural that Hobart should have turned for rest and comfort to his friends, the trees. He equipped himself with a canoe and the simplest of camping outfits early in the summer, then, starting at the sources of a river, paddled in easy stages to the sea.
He had reached a point where the tides backed up the waters of the broad river estuary when he made his camp one evening on what appeared to be a flattened promontory or perhaps it might have been an island where even in the dusk the stand of white pine struck Hobart as the finest he had ever seen. There was some hardwood along the shore, but deeper in where the ground rose slightly the great primeval pines grew tall and straight and with that singular regularity of size and spacing to be found in a growth to which the axe has never been laid. Nature’s wdse forestry was here as perfect as Hobart could remember having seen it. This surprised him, because of the availability of the timber for cutting and rafting to the nearest tree slaughter house.
Paddling along close to the shore, he came presently to where a brook cut its way through the shingle, and there he grounded his canoe to camp for the night. It was nearly dark, but even in the gloom Hobart saw nailed to a maple a plank-end on which was roughly lettered, “TRESPASS FORBID.’’
He resented this curt injunction. No man living could have been more careful to prevent forest fires than himself. He decided to ignore the sign, especially as it was late and he was very tired from a long day’s paddling. Nobody could have seen him land, and he would leave with the dawn.
But when the dawn came the lure of that splendid forest was too great for him. The great pines were awesome yet welcoming. All night long their high
fronds had whispered gently, “Rest . . . rest . . . we soothe . . we solace . . . sleep . . rest.”
Now, in a rich sunrise, their branches stretched out. like strong welcoming arms and their pinnacles were bright. Besides, there was the brook, not very rapid but cold and crystal clear, unquestionably a trout stream. Who could suffer if he were to catch his breakfast, Hobart asked himself. He noticed that the stream was not posted, so took his rod and started up it on its bank, intending to go in a little way, then whip down under the protection of the pines.
But his interest in these stately hosts led him farther and farther on. The trees were superb, the carpet from which they sprang soft and sweet and aromatic. Whoever owned this forest must be himself a worshipper of trees, Hobart knew, and his ancestors before him, thus to have spared them through the generations. Each was perfect, like every member of a Hock of birds.
Presently a glint of open water showed ahead. A small spring lake widened like a Hashing smile on the austere yet benignant face of the forest.
Hobart, entranced, cut across under the trees toward a knoll of rocks, on the top of which was reared in aloof majesty what appeared to be the patriarch of the woods. This was an enormous pine that, unlike the serried ranks it commanded, was knobbed and knotted, its limbs uncouth and brawny and its top flattened, as if windblown.
As Hobart approached this dominating point there came from under its bluff border the sound of splashing. Some deer, he thought, or possibly a moose in the lily pads. Hobart moved forward soundlessly on a carpet of pine turf that must have been several feet in depth.
Peering from behind the huge tree trunk, he looked down on a little beach of fine sand. As he did so he scented the odor of balsamic smoke. Odd that these furtive creatures of the wild should be splashing about with the scent of a campfire in their
nostrils, he thought. He was about to move farther forward when there came suddenly within his field a vision of such sheer beauty that for the moment his amazement held him rooted motionless as the great tree against which his hand rested.
Then, as the brilliant tableau just beneath him revealed itself wholly to his sight and to his understanding, Hobart drew back as if he had unwittingly blundered into some sacred spot where it was anathema to set foot. He was conscious of an overwhelming sense of having intruded on the lovely materialized spirit of the brook and the forest and the shimmering lake. His lonely sojourn in solitudes had made him acutely sensitive, and the poetry of their pure associations had lifted his soul. It did not seem to him that he had seen merely a girl at her morning bath, or even a goddess at
her ablutions, but that he had glimpsed Spirit in material form.
There was nothing now but to steal away as silently as he had come. After all, he should have respected the crude sign on the maple tree. There were other reasons for signs than fires. This was evidently an enchanted place.
This forest was not like other forests, nor did the trees grow like other trees. The brook was more clear and limpid, the lake brighter. A tremendous order prevailed. Then, just as everything must have its symbol of spirit or inner essence, here was this radiant female creature. Hobart had glimpsed her in full as she waded out in the shallow water, then half turned and reached down to splash it over her lovely body like a shower of sparkling gems.
"L-TE DID not pause to cast his flies into the brook as otherwise he would have done, but held on for his little camp. He felt that he had trespassed quite enough and had best be on his way. By this time common sense had rallied to suggest that this property had probably been for generations the estate of some rich family who had seen fit to preserve the forest as a forest ought to be, undevastated and serene, and that there was a comfortable lodge in the bight of the lake close to where the girl had gone to bathe, confident that the premises must be inviolate.
This impression was confirmed as he came in sight of his tent and saw the figure of a man in a flannel shirt and baggy corduroys rise from a stone on which he had been sitting with shoulders hunched. It was an Indian. Probably a keeper of some sort, Hobart thought, waiting to order him away with more or less surly comment on his having landed there.
To his surprise, the Indian merely asked abruptly:
“You been to look at trees?”
The question struck Hobart as uncanny.
“Yes,” he answered.
“Well, what d’you think?”
“I never saw a finer stand of first growth white pines.” The Indian grunted.
"These here all right, so far. You ain’t been other side lake. Not so old, over there. Plenty small ones dead. Good many pretty sick. Got ’em blister bad.” Instantly Hobart understood. He had read of the newly imported blight that threatened to wipe out the white and other pines of the continent, and had already wrought havoc in the South. So far he had noticed no evidence of the disease here in the North. Evidently the Indian thought him to be a governmental tree expert detailed to examine the pines in this region. Hobart had forgot about the blight.
He did not bother to explain the error. The mere idea of a deadly menace to these great trees sickened him.
Henry C. Rowland
The strangely beautiful romance of a lover who made a mistress of the forest and a nymph whose love was only human
“Are you sure that it’s the blister blight?” he asked.
The Indian hunched his shoulders.
“Boss think so. He plenty sick now. This make him whole lot sicker.”
“Let’s go look at those trees you speak about,” Hobart said.
The Indian gave a nod. “Come on, Mister,” he said.
They did not follow the brook but struck off at an angle to it, skirting the lake. Before going half a mile the early inroads of the pest were evident. In the younger growth many trees were stricken. Some were already killed, their needles brown, the scaly leprous patches all too unmistakable to Hobart from what he had read and seen in illustrations. Many seedlings had been thus destroyed, broken in the middle as if gnawed through by a rodent ulcer. In this area the pines were second growth, often interspersed with spruce and balsam. Hobart looked back across the lake at the dark blue-green mass of splendid tress and his heart sank.
He recalled what he had read, that this curious pestilence was not transmitted from pine to pine, but through the intermediary host of wild currant and gooseberry. Searching the ground he found abundant colonies of the wild or “skunk” currant, so called from the smell of its roots. It was a surface trailing vine that thrust up clumps of bushes here and there.
“About how many acres are there of this sickly second growth?” he asked the Indian.
“Fifteen, twenty maybe. All this side the lake. S’pose it gets in the big timber? Pretty bad.”
Terrible even to contemplate, Hobart thought. Looking back across the lake, he saw the great patriarch pine gnarled and aloof, gripping its knoll of rock—where his startled eyes had seen a fair vision. The white sand of the little beach gleamed under it like a patch of snow. Close to the rock-rimmed shore in a little bight just beyond it, stood a long low cabin of peeled logs.
“I’ve seen enough.” Hobart told
his guide. “Too much. I’ll go talk to your boss. What is his name?”
“He’s Mr. Wade. His family always own this island. Never let urn cut trees. One time they got heaps o’ money. All gone now'.”
“How much of a family is there?”
“No family no more. Only daughter. Got no money. Only got plenty big trees and some foxes.”
“He breeds silver foxes?”
“Try to. Got heap bad luck. Foxes got ear sickness and worms. Lose plenty first of year.”
So here was the rich family Hobart had pictured. A sick man and his only daughter, and the family fortune now' reduced to a terrain of sickly trees and some runs of sickly foxes and such a magnificent white pine forest as Hobart had never seen, preserved through generations, now' possibly doomed. There was time enough to cut and to reap a fortune, but Hobart’s heart chilled at the thought of slaughtering those great friendly murmuring trees. It must not be done, even for the dowry of a demi-goddess.
They started back, skirting the farther shore of the little lake. As they reached the clearing w'here stood the roomy cabin and some few' outbuildings, a girl came out on the stoop and looked at them, shading her eyes with her hand. She was like a young tree herself, Hobart thought, a white birch. Her hair had the ripe golden yellow of birch leaves after the frost. But there was a tensity in her pose as she stood watching their approach.
“This man come to look at trees,” the Indian said briefly.
The girl gave Hobart a friendly look. Her face was flushed and her eyes looked as if she had been crying, but she managed a smile. She might be twenty-three or -four, he thought.
“Have our trees really got the pest?” she asked.
She stepped closer to him and wdiispered:
“Then don’t tell papa, please. He’s got another of his heart attacks. Bad news might make him w'orse.” c A man’s voice that held a curious gasping quality called from inside the cabin:
“Sabatis . ”
The Indian stepped to the door.
“Here, boss . . .”
“Is that the tree expert?”
“That’s him. He say our trees done for. Maybe big ones, too ”
The man moaned like one who has received a bayonet thrust. Hobart had heard such ultimate appeals in France. He growled at the Indian:
“You infernal idiot ...”
The girl whipped about with a gesture of grace that Hobart had seen before: like a wind-swept sapling. She darted into the room, then screamed.
Hobart followed her. On a big four-poster a haggard, bearded man had reached back and thrust himself upright. A great crimson flow gushed from his mouth, even while his eyes stared at. them in a‘startled questioning way. Hobart had seen that look also, many times. A bursting aneurism of the aorta presents the symptoms of a bayonet thrust through the heart.
TN A BRIEF interlude from hauling in long trailers of skunk currant, Hobart said:
“The first thirty days are the hardest, but I’m going to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer, ‘Rica.” “But why?”
“Partly because I promised my tall friends across the lake I’d protect them, if I had to cover every square yard of this twenty-acre second growth on hands and knees.”
“And partly ” She was sitting on a tree trunk fallen across a ledge, high enough to permit the swinging of her bare round legs and mocassined feet. She slanted her head at him, enquiringly.
“Trees are my guides, counsellors and friends; also my doctors, nurses and moral mentors. They are friendly to every living thing. These old ones across the lake should be grateful to you, and they are about the only friends you have. So I’ve got to save them for you, my dear.” “Why, Hobart?”
“Because I love you from the top of your frosted birch-leaf head to the tip of your buckskin moccasins. It would not be fitting to marry you a month after your father’s death, so the bed I can do is to serve you and your trees until the snow stops the salvage work.” “Perhaps by that time you’ll have decided that no girl Is worth living a bent-double life.” She laughed. “Besides, you might save the trees, only to have them delivered over to a headsman that’s been waiting with his axe. Papa put a four-thousand-dollar mortgage on the island to buy the first foxes, and when they were stolen he put on another for the same amount.”
“I know. And now their ears are running and their coats look its if they’d been packed without mothballs. W'hat with their grub and medicine, they’re more liability than asset. But I’ve stake enough left to pay the interest on the mortgages.”
“They run out next June, and the holder is certain to foreclose.”
“Well then,” Ilobart said savagely, “if the worst comes to the worst I’ll play Samson and tie firebrands to the tails of the foxes and chase them into the tall timber. Better those glorious trees went up in flames than down under the axe.”
He turned to his task again, dragging out a thick colony of currant that grew all about a ledge. In the past month he had cleared a considerable tract of the blight carrier. The work was monotonous, not hard. The currant vine trailed loosely on the leaf mold, and one had only to pick up the main cluster or stem and
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haul in gently, when little sprouts and bushes would seem to move mysteriously toward one from all sides.
Erica had been helping, but had paused to rest or perhaps the better to
watch Hobart. Since her father’s death and burial in the ancient little family cemetery of the island, Hobart had j shared a cabin with old Sabatis, whose j swarthy silent daughter Marie attended ; Erica in the large one. The Indian’s duties were to tend the foxes, cross the wide estuary to the mainland in a battered motor dory for supplies and mail, set and haul a fish net that helped provide both for the foxes and the family. He was supposed also to serve as gardener, but detailed his daughter for that unmanly task.
Hobart straightened up and asked: "Why did none of your fur-trading, ship-building ancestors never cut a tree on the island, Morgan le Fay?”
“There was a superstition that it would bring bad luck. And why do you call me that name from time to time?”
“I’ll tell you when we’re married. Wouldn’t dare, before. I suppose there was lots of pine as good in those days?” “Yes, it was mostly like this. Besides, they didn’t lack for money. The pirates used to slip in here for supplies. Corn and potatoes and turnips, and pork and mutton. They paid in Spanish gold and silver and other loot.”
"Perhaps they hid some of it on the island.”
“Perhaps,” she said indifferently. "The last pirate ship was Dixie Bull’s. He was killed in a duel on John’s Island, off Pemaquid, down to the westward. Then his ship was captured by a British sloopof-war, and every man aboard her hanged.”
“They couldn’t fix a quarterdeck court. Too bad there’s net some sort of a divining rod to locate treasure. But there’s one sort doesn’t need it.” He looked at her with a glow in his eyes.
She slid off the log.
* ! TIAT NIGHT, with the full moon passing in slow scrutiny over the lofty pine fronds of the old forest, Hobart and Erica went over to consult The Patriarch.
Hand in hand, they stood on the silver crescent of the little beach and looked up respectfully at the giant tree that seemed not only to support itself by the clutch of its huge bare roots on the rocky knoll but also to hold the rocks together, as one might grip a handful of broken stones.
"What about it, Patriarch?” Hobart asked. "Is it right for us to marry now, so soon after this sweet and tender lady’s father has gone to rest?”
A little night breeze that was fresh but too high to ruffle the surface of the sleeping lake whispered through the needles of an upper branch, that was flat and extended like a great hand asking alms of heaven. The answer to Hobart’s question thrilled down, sibilant and distinct.
“Yessss . . Yes . . s . . . s.”
"Thank you, father,” Hobart said, and gathered the girl into his arms and kissed her as such tender lips as hers were molded to be kissed.
Sabatis took them over to the mainland the next day and they were married by the pastor of the little village, and then Sabatis ferried them back again in the battered and asthmatic dory that seemed startled into fresh vigor by what was probably the first scrubbing-out of its life.
For the rest of the summer they lived in a sort of throbbing ecstasy that alternated the persistent warfare on currant and gooseberry and sometimes synchronized with it. By late summer, Hobart gave the tract of second growth a clean bill of health, so far as concerned the danger of fresh infection. Many of the younger trees were doomed, of course, for once the blight had started there was not, in the opinion of his expert advisers in the Department of Agriculture, any practical remedy for such a wild tract. Hobart was not so sure. He thought that perhaps a yearly fresh infection might be required to kill a stricken but robust tree.
"Besides,” he said to Erica, “they know they’re being protected, and that helps a lot. Bucks up their resistance and moral force.”
She smiled, but did not answer. In some ways, she opined, her husband was a nut. But so sweet a nut. When he talked like that she merely turned her face to him and said:
“Of course, old sweet . . . give me a kiss.”
VICHEN the first snow flew they went
* ^ to' Florida, leaving Sabatis to feed the foxes and Marie to feed Sabatis.
There in the sunny South, Hobart saw much devastation from the blight. Whole tracts of pine were seared as if by flame. The splendid trees of Dungeness were empested and cut down. From all sides came gloomy reports. This was what came of growing seedlings for reforestation in Europe because it was cheaper.
Hobart was almost afraid to return to Wade Island in the early summer. But their return was filled with fresh hope. The old forest showed no sign of scathe, and the second growth looked better. The foxes were better.
Hobart was jubilant. He gave Sabatis a present, then went to the knoll and paid his respects to The Patriarch, thanking the venerable tree personally and complimenting it on its excellent state of health. It was a pine that would have appealed more to the artist than to the lumberman. The cone from which it sprang had fallen into a crevice of the rock and sprouted. Then as it grew, its tree intelligence had evidently warned it that the scant amount of soil could not support and nourish it for many years, so that it had thrust out roots in quest of a vital supply. These, whipcords at first, had wound through cracks and crannies finally to arrive at a satisfactory depth of humus, and as erosion gradually washed this away they had travelled more widely and deeply.
Therefore now the great tree appeared to be poised upon and growing from naked rock that was seamed and fissured and bound with tremendous roots suggesting huge tortuous serpents. The upper part of the tree had assumed a similar distortion of form, the more so as it was exposed and isolated, a sentinel for the old forest and receiving the first buffeting« of savage wintry nor’westers that swept down the lake. Like an ancient warrior of knotted muscles and limbs and torso twisted from wounds, it stood there and defied the elements.
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Hobart did not worry about this aged paladin. He doubted that blister rust or any other pest could erode its rugged armor.
As soon as the currant leaves had I exfoliated he set himself to the renewed ; task of pest-carrier extermination. There i were bound to be some few spots overlooked, and some few shoots from sections of root left by breaking off. He was ; therefore pleased to lind how thorough his work had been.
“I’m going to win this campaign,” he said that night to Erica. “The trees tell me so. Some sick ones that I noted carefully look better.”
“What about the mortgage? The first comes due in August.”
“We’ve got the price to take it up. Those canoeing and camping yarns I wrote paid our winter, and then some. I’m a better writer than broker.”
“Of course, dear,” Erica agreed, and then with wifely candor: “I doubt there’s a worse business man alive.” She eased the sting of this statement by adding: “And I’m glad of it. Dreamers are sweeter.”
Then, as the summer swelled, Erica had reason to be less glad. Catastrophe was deflected from the big trees to their tiny treasury. An act of ruthless trickery on the part of a trusted business friend snatched away the little that Hobart had saved from the wreck of his fortune, and on which he had counted to meet the first mortgage and to pay the interest on the second.
Whirling in the wake of this calamity like some dancing devil, a form of red mange attacked the foxes, first ruining the pelts with savage irony before developing a purulent otitis that finished the last of them. But what was to Hobart, at least, an even more malignant stab of tragedy, he discovered to his horror a silvery leprous ulcerous patch eroding the bark where an upper branch of The Patriarch sprang from the stalwart trunk.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, aghast, to Erica. “The pest isn’t supposed to travel over six hundred feet, and I’ll take oath there’s no host within six hundred rods of the grand old man.”
“Perhaps it’s just an ice blister oozing.” “No bloomin’ chance. I know that filthy stuff by this time. It must have been carried by a grouse that had nested in currant somewhere.”
“Well, let’s hope the old chap's husky enough to throw it off,” Erica said soothingly. She had never seen her husband so distressed. Her practical mind marvelled that he could accept the lass of money and foxes with philosophic calm and now report with agony the threatened loss of a very old and distorted tree.
Yet she comforted him in the usual way, with arms and lips and assurances that it was at least no fault of his. Her love had by this time completely blinded her to all of his inconsistencies. In her husband’s embrace nothing else mattered greatly. She was the eternal woman who loves. Marriage had developed latent passions as pure and primeval and oneideaed as that of any pine in the old forest whose tree passion was to grow straight up toward light and warmth.
TT W AS now as if this shock had been necessary to rouse Hobart to full realization of their precarious position. Money gone, silver foxes gone, the standing army of the old guard threatened with a fatal issue, the staunch commander-in-chief already attaint. They could not cut. They would not cut. Sentiment, hierarchal responsibility aside, the sole value of the remote island lay in its trees. And Hobart did not even consider the trees as a commercial asset any more than he could have considered his lovely wife as such. It seemed to him that they were in a cul-de-sac, backed against the wall.
He was not dramatically emotional, but now a sort of frenzy fastened on him. He
strode up and down with his hands gripping his thick hair. If a grouse could kill a great tree, what about all the other trees? They were old but they were tender creatures, like sweet old patricians defenseless in the face of an obscene scourge.
But they were also strong and valiant. Besides, they had their responsibilities, their obligations. Erica’s family had protected them for many generations, since the early days when naked savages had brushed through them, and pirate ships had slipped up the estuary with the tide, screened in the drifting sea-fog. These tall aristocrats owed a debt of two centuries standing to this last lovely member of her race.
Hobart expressed something of all this to Erica as he strode up and down the hardwood floor of the spacious living room.
“Don’t you see, darling, they’ve simply got to stand by. To rally round. They owe their very existence to your forefathers, your father, yourself. They even owe a little to myself for rooting out all that accursed currant, last summer and this. Besides, they’re friendly to me. They asked me here to start with. And then The Patriarch showed me you . . ” He rambled on. An eavesdropper would have pronounced him a raving lunatic, but Erica understood. Hobart sometimes indulged himself with talk like this. No doubt he half believed it, the way children believe in Santa Claus. Still, it was a little different now. Hobart’s face was strained and there was a cut to his voice. None of the usual whimsicality. Erica became worried. The day had been hot and Hobart, grubbing as usual for currant vines without a hat, had often been in the clearings under a blazing sun. It was blackening now in the Northwest, and they would soon catch a hard thunder squall. Like most high-strung people, Hobart was apt to be excitable in the low barometic tension before a thunderstorm.
He checked himself suddenly, gave her a shamefaced smile.
“I must sound like that loon on the lake.”
“Well, the trees may be faithful retainers, but they can’t drag up their roots and form in companies with The Patriarch at their head and march up to the cabin and stand at attention while he salutes and asks for orders.”
“Maybe not. But they can do a lot more . . in a different way.”
“What, for instance?” she asked.
He evaded the question.
“I’m going over to the beach and put it up to The Patriarch.”
“Hobart, you’ve had a touch of sun. Lie down.”
“Sun nothing. We put it up to The Patriarch together a year ago. That worked out happily.”
“That was romance. There was only one answer.”
“Of course. But we got it, all the same.
I felt something. A sort of benediction. It cleared my doubts about marrying you next day. I’m going to try again.”
“What are you going to ask this time?” “For inspiration. How to get out ot this jam.”
“There might be something in that,” she admitted. It occurred to her that since Hobart possessed this curious superstition about the spiritual forces in trees, the very fact of his expecting to receive some idea that might solve their problem could promote the suggestion in his own mind.
It was darkening rapidly. There came a heavy reverberation. The face of the still lake looked pallid and wan. On the farther shore the smaller pines and spruces had a crouched position. Even the old forest ambushed itself in a protective obscurity. But on the knoll The Patriarch reared itself defiantly with muscles knotted to meet the threatened attack.
"This is going to be a smasher,” Hobart
said. “The big guns are cutting loose. I’m off for the front line.”
“I’ll go with you, Druid.”
“Oaks were their stuff. You might get hit.”
“Lightning was never known to strike Wade Island. We make up for it in wind. I want to see you work the oracle.”
“The works are all on the inside/’ he told her. "Get your slicker, then. If that black cloud busts ...”
“Too hot for slickers. This rag I’m •wearing needs rinsing out.”
They went out into the ominous hush. Over in the forest a vesper thrush sent out a brave note or two, was frightened at its tinkling voice lost in nothingness, and stopped. No fish broke the blanched surface of the lake, nor did any swallow skim it.
They passed along the shore to the white beach that now gave out a glare. Hobart planted himself in front of the rocky hummock on which the old warrior pine seemed tightening the grip of its talons against the tussle impending.
“Look at him, ’Rica,” Hobart cried admiringly. “Did you ever see such a truculent old warrior? Asking for trouble, and none too securely perched at that. Wounded, too. D’you see that raw patch up there under his left armpit?” “I’d say it was healing, dear.”
“God bless you, my sweet. I’ve been trying to think that. It could have been hidden last summer by the branch beneath, that’s blown away.”
“Well, let’s take our worries in order,” Erica said. “Tell him all about them. Right here and now there seems more sense in your claim that trees understand.”
“Of course they do. Not with ears and a brain, but directly in their spirit. They know how to help themselves, so why not how to help us? Look at the stance The Patriarch has made himself in all these years. See how squat and heavy framed he is, to resist squalls like this coming Gosh, listen to that; the
guns at Ypres! Well, here goes and if you giggle I’ll chuck you into the lake. This is the first crisis of our lives . and in the lives of all your vassals over there in the woods.”
TT WAS by this time dark as an hour after sunset but a gloomier murk. The heavy detonations were a continuous rumble, an artillery barrage, and the lightning stabbed like a rain of bursting shells. Although such celestial short circuitings had always followed the line of the mainland for some reason, Erica was terrified. There was something strange, uncouth about all this. It was absurd but sinister, bizarre, grotesque and fearful. Hobart started his wild apostrophizing. “O Patriarch of the Forest, we come to you for wise counsel: Our extremity is great, and the threat of ruin facing us involves our loyal and hereditary friends, The Trees. Never have I appealed to them in vain for strength and peace, nor do I now appeal to them through you for myself but for this sweet and tender lady who is the last of the line that has protected you . . . ”
“Hobart! Look out! Here comes the wind. Get down. Get off that rock . . ” A foaming bore of water was rushing at them from the head of the lake. Torn lacy fringes blew up from it like tongues of snowy flame, leaped ahead and outstripped the barrage of water lashed up by this first squall.
There was a big glacial boulder at the end of the crescent beach away from The Patriarch. Hobart whisked Erica into the lee of this. Here, completely sheltered, they watched for the giant pine tree to tear the first blast into shreds and fragments, as the old invincible had done at interludes lor so many many years.
The fresh spindrift of the lake’s rippedup coverlet hissed past and over them like a flight of arrows. The squall roared into The Patriarch, and The Patriarch
roared back his war cry. The pair could see no agony of writhing, no yielding to the onslaught. The brawny muscles of the huge roots seemed to swell and bulge and tighten their grip of the rocky knoll, securing it as a mass while securing the mass that it upheld.
Hobart shouted in Erica’s ear:
“A lot he minds the draught. Here comes the rain. Let’s hope it washes clean his sore.”
A deluge pelted down. It was crashing down warm and refreshing, and for all its violence, or because this violence was pleasant, it robbed the storm of everything that had been gruesome. Erica laughed as her thin dress was plastered against her body like wet paper.
“Light laundry; let Mother Nature do it,” she shouted gaily. Water was her symbol, just as the trees were Hobart’s.
He was watching The Patriarch intently. In a lull of the wind he shouted to Erica:
“Look, look! Is he giving way?”
She stared at the great tree. The weight of the wind bursts bore against it at right angles to their position. There could be no question but that the ancient pine was yielding. The gale was bearing it back out of the perpendicular. There was no perceptible spring to its trunk, but the whole mass was slanting backward. Yet this would seem impossible, a prodigy, as long as the titan roots held fast their grip on the fissured mass of rock.
Erica flung her beautiful arms above her head.
“What's happening? That tree is falling—and yet hanging to the rock.”
“Don’t you see? He’s going—going! He’s hauling the whole rock after him!”
The ferocious wind gathered itself for another consummate effort. It seemed to focus its force upon its ancient adversary. There were grinding, rending sounds, fearful gratings and wrenchings. There came a stupendous crash and splintering and shattering of huge brittle bones as The Patriarch fell.
Erica shrieked. Hobart gave something between a roar of anguish and a shouted groan. He gripped Erica by her round upper arm, so that her scream changed its character to a cry of physical pain.
“He’s failed us. Given up the fight. He knew the blight was on him and that finished it.”
“Oh, shut up!” Erica wrenched loose her arm. For the first time her husband’s monomania enraged her. The patience with which she had so far indulged it ran out. “That old tree hasn’t failed anybody or anything. It had to go sometime. No tree can last forever—and besides it was the rock that gave way. The tree hung on. It was just a big boulder, like this one, and it fetched away. This was the hardest squall I’ve ever seen.”
/_PHE roughness in her voice quieted 4Hobart. He had never heard Erica speak like this before. It swept over him that he had been talking and acting like an infatuated fool; that his fantasy had been overindulged, made him silly in a moment of crisis. His young wife’s good opinion was worth more to him than a whole continent of trees.
“You’re right,” he muttered.
“Of course I’m right. This tree outgrew its anchorage and went over, dragging its anchor with it. The only wonder is it held so long.”
“That’s true enough. This squall had hurricane force for the first few minutes. Now that it’s done its work, it’s easing. I’m sorry to have acted like an idiot . ”
“Oh, forget it, Hobart. Forget all this tree intelligence stuff, too. It’s one thing to love trees, and another to go nutty over them. Besides”—she stared at the prostrate giant—“that wasn’t the blight at all.”
“No, it’s just the sap running from a split and drying. Sometimes trees crack from the frost, and last winter was bitter. Come and look.”
They climbed the hank in the pushing rain, and as The Patriarch lay prone with what Hobart had taken to be the ulcerous patch on its upper side they were able to make a close examination. It was as Erica had said.
As they hurried back to the cabin, Hobart said remorsefully:
‘Tve been a blighted fool, myself. It’s tough to lose the old Patriarch. But perhaps it’s worth it.”
She agreed with him.
In the warm fragrant morning they went over to the beach to bathe. Happy and pagan for that hour, they swam side by side far out into the lake. With a sort of tacit agreement, they forebore to examine the details of The Patriarch’s fall. Hobart was still ashamed of his performance of the afternoon before, rushing out like a lunatic in the face of a violent cyclonic squall to apostrophize an ancient tree, and to implore dramatically its counsel and its aid.
Erica, the faster and easier swimmer, played round him in the water like an otter, arms flashing, bosom gleaming, as with strong strokes she raised herself above the surface to a degree that her heavier-boned husband could not have accomplished despite his brawny muscles. They had buried their unpleasant episode of the afternoon before. Erica’s sharp impatience had acted as a whip on Hobart’s superstition, that was of the dangerous sort likely to grow into an insistent idea.
Swimming back to the beach, curiosity impelled him to examine the operation of the strains and stresses that had laid low The Patriarch. Erica could not object to this, now that his mind was on the safe level of physical laws. For herself, she was glad that the tree was down. It had always seemed to her an uncouth and monstrous survivor of a harsher epoch, in which the lives and hard-won possessions of early shore settlers had been under the constant menace of savage men and beasts; Indians and pirates and panthers and wolves.
She did not join Hobart in his investigation, but watched him idly yet with a strange nervous premonition as he walked to the upheaved mass of rock and peered into the chasm where it had been torn from the sand and clay. Suddenly he seemed to stiffen, as a neolithic man, peering into a cavern, is caught and held for the instant by burning eyes in its depths.
“Hobart—what is it?” She paused with her peignoir over one beautiful shoulder.
He answered in a flat voice: “Come and look.”
"p RICA went to his side. She saw in the
deep livid gash what seemed at first to be a big rectangular stone, half the .size of a coffin. But stones did not have such evenly spaced markings. And a stone would not have had one corner torn away in ragged fashion. Stones might break, but they did not splinter and ; crumple about the edges of the fracture, nor did stones give out a gush of bright gleaming yellow . . .”
Hobart said, as if his throat had suddenly grown dry:
“Do you see it, too? Or am I suddenly gone daffy again?”
"I see it,” Erica said sombrely, “and I wish I didn’t.”
“Don’t worry, dear. I’m not going to
say that The Patriarch tricked the wind to pay the debt of the old forest. That would be hyperbole; poetic but untrue. Besides, I don’t believe it.”
She leaned unsteadily against him, slipped one long round arm behind his neck and over his shoulder.
“Oh, my dear, don’t you really— because I shouldn’t blame you. I almost believe it, myself. It was the best that he could do — an answer to your cry of distress—a sacrifice.”
“Nonsense.” Hobart put his arm about her waist. “We are through with all that. It’s not even coincidence. What better place for a pirate—Dixie Bull or some other—to cache a treasure chest? They often did that. And when the place was wild and uninhabited they’d want a positive landmark.”
"Of course,” she said eagerly, “and the tree was small then. Its roots had wide crevices between ...”
“And as you say, the tree outgrew its anchorage. Lots of trees hang on like that for years, until some uncommonly hard wind strikes them. This just happened to come about through a series of circumstances that were all natural and logical when you stop to think. It’s just the final result of the combination that seems staggering at first sight.”
"Do you really believe that, Hobart?” “Absolutely.” He spoke with quiet conviction. “The place is precisely the sort a pirate would have chosen to cache his treasure. Your ancestors used to trade with that gang--might even have been in cahoots. The old Patriarch was probably a rugged child even then, with his young roots well run out, or the loam might have been over the rock and washed gradually back and away. All that point has probably been eroded a lot.”
“Yes, of course. But its happening just when we were in the last ditch—and after your appeal-and our being there on the spot ...” Erica seemed now to be the one who needed saving from superstition.
“What of it?” Hobart challenged. “If it had been you and your father and had happened at any time these last twenty years it would have looked like a timely rescue. No doubt he’d have seen it as it looks to us, like the discharge of an ! obligation on the part of the trees. j Scarcely anybody could pick a time when the finding of a fortune would not seem providential. But I’ve always been more : or less nutty about trees, so what’s happened looks even more uncanny.” “Still, you had just harangued the Patriarch . . . ”
“And why? Because I’m even nuttier just before a thunderstorm and more apt to perform. The low barometer razzed my low spirits into pulling that stuff. That was effect. Then the cause romped in, and was the same that up-ended the grand old tree and the boulder mass it had been hanging on to all these years.” Erica nodded.
“The natural curiosity of a young tree that seemed to be growing out of bare living rock stuck in the pirates’ heads.” “Precisely. It was a catchy sign. Pays to advertise. Ina Poe or Stevenson pirate story, the chief would have written a cryptic verse. Like this:
Where from bed rock springs a pine Seek the red gold in the mine ...”
“How can I know which way you’re going to jump? After all your yammering about tree souls and tree gratitude and loyalty, something happens that you could offer as proving your claims. Instead, you call it bunk.”
“I’ve got to play fair, m’dear. Soul or no soul, a tree hasn’t got voluntary mobility. It can’t wrench out a big rock by muscular effort.”
"And how long are you going to stick to this new line?” she asked.
He tightened his clasp of her waist.
“As long as I keep on loving you best, more than I do trees or anything. And that’s to be forever.”
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