Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 27

Chapter 27

Uncle Eb and David were away buying cattle, half the week, but Elizabeth Brower was always at home to look after my comfort. She was up betimes in the morning and singing at her work long before I was out of bed. when the breakfast was near ready she came to my door with a call so fall of cheerfulness and good-nature it was the best thing in the day. And often, at night, I have known her to come into my room when I was lying awake with some hard problem, to see that I was properly covered or that my window was not open too far. As we sat alone together, of an evening, I have seen her listen for hours while I was committing the Odes of Horace with a curiosity that finally gave way to resignation. Sometimes she would look over my shoulder at the printed page and try to discern some meaning in it when Uncle Eb was with us he would often sit a long time his head turned attentively as the lines came rattling off my tongue.

'Cur'us talk!' he said, one evening, as I paused a moment, while he crossed the room for a drink of water. 'Don' seem t' make no kind O' sense. I can make out a word here 'n there but fer good, sound, common sense I call it a purtythin crop.'

Hope wrote me every week for a time. A church choir had offered her a place soon after she went to the big city. She came home intending to surprise us all, the first summer but unfortunately, I had gone away in the woods with a party of surveyors and missed her. We were a month in the wilderness and came out a little west of Albany where I took a boat for New York to see Hope. I came down the North River between the great smoky cities, on either side of it, one damp and chilly morning. The noise, the crowds, the immensity of the town appalled me. At John Fuller's I found that Hope had gone home and while they tried to detain me longer I came back on the night boat of the same day. Hope and I passed each other in that journey and I did not see her until the summer preceding my third and last year in college - the faculty having allowed me to take two years in one. Her letters had come less frequently and when she came I saw a grand young lady of fine manners, her beauty shaping to an ampler mould, her form straightening to the dignity of womanhood.

At the depot our hands were cold and trembling with excitement - neither of us, I fancy, knowing quite how far to go in our greeting. Our correspondence had been true to the promise made her mother - there had not been a word of love in it - only now and then a suggestion of our tender feeling. We hesitated only for the briefest moment. Then I put my arm about her neck and kissed her.

'I am so glad to see you,' she said.

Well, she was charming and beautiful, but different, and probably not more different than was I. She was no longer the laughing, simple-mannered child of Faraway, whose heart was as one's hand before him in the daylight. She had now a bit of the woman's reserve - her prudence, her skill in hiding the things of the heart. I loved her more than ever, but somehow I felt it hopeless - that she had grown out of my life. She was much in request among the people of Hillsborough, and we went about a good deal and had many callers. But we had little time to ourselves. She seemed to avoid that, and had much to say of the grand young men who came to call on her in the great city. Anyhow it all hurt me to the soul and even robbed me of my sleep. A better lover than I would have made an end of dallying and got at the truth, come what might. But I was of the Puritans, and not of the Cavaliers, and my way was that which God had marked for me, albeit I must own no man had ever a keener eye for a lovely woman or more heart to please her. A mighty pride had come to me and I had rather have thrown my heart to vultures than see it an unwelcome offering. And I was quite out of courage with Hope; she, I dare say, was as much out of patience with me.

She returned in the late summer and I went back to my work at college in a hopeless fashion that gave way under the whip of a strong will.

I made myself as contented as possible. I knew all the pretty girls and went about with some of them to the entertainments of the college season. At last came the long looked for day of my graduation - the end of my student life.

The streets of the town were thronged, every student having the college colours in his coat lapel. The little company of graduates trembled with fright as the people crowded in to the church, whispering and faring themselves, in eager anticipation. As the former looked from the two side pews where they sat, many familiar faces greeted them - the faces of fathers and mothers aglow with the inner light of pride and pleasure; the faces of many they loved come to claim a share in the glory of that day. I found my own, I remember, but none of them gave me such help as that of Uncle Eb. However I might fare, none would feel the pride or disgrace of it more keenly than he. I shall never forget how he turned his head to catch every word when I ascended the platform. As I warmed to my argument I could see him nudging the arm of David, who sat beside him, as if to say, 'There's the boy that came over the hills with me in a pack basket.' when I stopped a moment, groping for the next word, he leaned forward, embracing his knee, firmly, as if intending to draw off a boot. It was all the assistance he could give me. when the exercises were over I found Uncle Eb by the front door of the church, waiting for me.

'Willie, ye done noble!' said he.

'Did my very best, Uncle Eb,' I replied.

'Liked it grand - I did, sartin.' 'Glad you liked it, Uncle Eb.'

'Showed great larnin'. who was the man 'at give out the pictur's?'

He meant the president who had conferred the degrees. I spoke the name.

'Deceivin' lookin' man, ain't he? Seen him often, but never took no pertick'lar notice of him before.'

'How deceiving?' I enquired.

'Talked so kind of plain,' he replied. 'I could understan' him as easy as though he'd been swappin' hosses. But when you got up, Bill'. why, you jes' riz right up in the air an, there couldn't no dum fool tell what you was talkin' 'bout.'

Whereat I concluded that Uncle Eb's humour was as deep as it was kindly, but I have never been quite sure whether the remark was a compliment or a bit of satire.