Bressant by Julian Hawthorne
HOW PROFESSOR VALEYON LOSES HIS HANDKERCHIEF.

One warm afternoon in June--the warmest of the season thus
far--Professor Valeyon sat, smoking a black clay pipe, upon the broad
balcony, which extended all across the back of his house, and overlooked
three acres of garden, inclosed by a solid stone-wall. All the doors in
the house were open, and most of the windows, so that any one passing in
the road might have looked up through the gabled porch and the
passage-way, which divided the house, so to speak, into two parts, and
seen the professor's brown-linen legs, and slippers down at the heel,
projecting into view beyond the framework of the balcony-door.
Indeed--for the professor was an elderly man, and, in many respects, a
creature of habit--precisely this same phenomenon could have been
observed on any fine afternoon during the summer, even to the exact
amount of brown-linen leg visible.

Why the old gentleman's chair should always have been so placed as to
allow a view of so much of his anatomy and no more is a question of too
subtle and abstruse conditions to be solved here. One reason doubtless
lay in the fact that, by craning forward over his knees, he could see
down the passage-way, through the porch, and across the grass-plot which
intervened between the house and the fence, to the road, thus commanding
all approaches from that direction, while his outlook on either side,
and in front, remained as good as from any other position whatsoever. To
be sure, the result would have been more easily accomplished had the
chair been moved two feet farther forward, but that would have made the
professor too much a public spectacle, and, although by no means
backward in appearing, at the fitting time, before his fellow-men, he
enjoyed and required a certain amount of privacy.

Moreover, it was not toward the road that Professor Valeyon's eyes
were most often turned. They generally wandered southward, over the
ample garden, and across the long, winding valley, to the range of
rough-backed hills, which abruptly invaded the farther horizon. It was
a sufficiently varied and vigorous prospect, and one which years had
endeared to the old gentleman, as if it were the features of a friend.
Especially was he fond of looking at a certain open space, near the
summit of a high, wooded hill, directly opposite. It was like an oasis
among a desert of trees. Had it become overgrown, or had the surrounding
timber been cut away, the professor would have taken it much to heart. A
voluntary superstition of this kind is not uncommon in elderly gentlemen
of more than ordinary intellectual power. It is a sort of half-playful
revenge they wreak upon themselves for being so wise. Probably Professor
Valeyon would have been at a loss to explain why he valued this small
green spot so much; but, in times of doubt or trouble, be seemed to
find help and relief in gazing at it.

The entire range of hills was covered with a dense and tangled
timber-growth, save where the wood-cutters had cleared out a steep,
rectangular space, and dotted it with pale-yellow lumber-piles, that
looked as if nothing less than a miracle kept them from rolling over and
over down to the bottom of the valley, or where the gray, irregular face
of a precipice denied all foothold to the boldest roots. There was
nothing smooth, swelling, or graceful, in the aspect of the range. They
seemed, hills though they were, to be inspired with the souls of
mountains, which were ever seeking to burst the narrow bounds that
confined them. And, for his part, the professor liked them much better
than if they had been mountains indeed. They gave an impression of
greater energy and vitality, and were all the more comprehensible and
lovable, because not too sublime and vast.

In another way, his garden afforded as much pleasure to the professor as
his hills. From having planned and, in a great measure, made it himself,
he took in it a peculiar pride and interest. He knew just the position
of every plant and shrub, tree and flower, and in what sort of condition
they were as regarded luxuriance and vigor. Sitting quietly in his
chair, his fancy could wander in and out along the winding paths,
mindful of each new opening vista or backward scene--of where the shadow
fell, and where the sunshine slept hottest; could inhale the fragrance
of the tea-rose bush, and pause beneath the branches of the elm-tree;
the material man remaining all the while motionless, with closed
eyelids, or, now and then, half opening them to verify, by a glance,
some questionable recollection. This utilization, by the mental
faculties alone, of knowledge acquired by physical experience, always
produces an agreeable sub-consciousness of power--the ability to be, at
the same time, active and indolent.

In about the centre of the garden, flopped and tinkled a weak-minded
little fountain. The shrubbery partly hid it from view of the balcony,
but the small, irregular sound of its continuous fall was audible in the
quiet of the summer afternoons. Weak-minded though it was, Professor
Valeyon loved to listen to it. It suited him better than the full-toned
rush and splash of a heavier water-power; there was about it a human
uncertainty and imperfection which brought it nearer to his heart.
Moreover, weak and unambitious though it was, the fountain must have
been possessed of considerable tenacity of purpose, to say the least,
otherwise, doing so little, it would not have been persistent enough to
keep on doing it at all. It was really wonderful, on each recurring
year, to behold this poor little water-spout effecting neither more nor
less than the year before, and with no signs of any further aspirations
for the future.

A flight of five or six granite steps led up from the garden to the
balcony, and, although they were quite as old as the rest of the house,
they looked nearly as fresh and crude as when they were first put down.
The balcony itself was strongly built of wood, and faced by a broad and
stout railing, darkened by sun and rain, and worn smooth by much leaning
and sitting. Overhead spread an ample roof, which kept away the blaze
of the noonday sun, but did not deny the later and ruddier beams an
entrance. On either side the door-way, the windows of the dining-room
and of the professor's study opened down nearly to the floor. Every
thing in the house seemed to have some reference to the balcony, and,
in summer, it was certainly the most important part of all.

From the balcony to the front door extended, as has already been said,
a straight passage-way, into which the stairs descended, and on which
opened the doors of three rooms. It was covered with a deeply-worn strip
of oil-cloth, the pattern being quite undistinguishable in the middle,
and at the entrances of the doors and foot of the stairs, but appearing
with tolerable clearness for a distance of several inches out along the
walls. A high wainscoting ran along the sides; at the front door stood
an old-fashioned hat-tree, with no hats upon it; for the professor had
a way of wearing his hat into the house, and only taking it off when he
was seated at his study-table.

The gabled porch was wide and roomy, but had seen its best days, and was
rather out of repair. The board flooring creaked as you stepped upon it,
and the seams of the roof admitted small rills of water when it rained
hard, which, falling on the old brown mat, hastened its decay not a
little. A large, arched window opened on either side, so that one
standing in the porch could be seen from the upper and lower front
windows of the house. The outer woodwork and roof of the porch were
covered by a woodbine, trimmed, however, so as to leave the openings
clear. A few rickety steps, at the sides and between the cracks of
which sprouted tall blades of grass, led down to the path which
terminated in the gate. This path was distinguished by an incongruous
pavement of white limestone slabs, which were always kept carefully
clean. The gate was a rattle-boned affair, hanging feebly between two
grandfatherly old posts, which hypocritically tried to maintain an air
of solidity, though perfectly aware that they were wellnigh rotted away
at the base. The action of this gate was assisted--or more correctly
encumbered--by the contrivance of a sliding ball and chain, creating a
most dismal clatter and flap as often as it was opened. The white-washed
picket fence, scaled and patched by the weather, kept the posts in
excellent countenance; and inclosed a moderate grass-plot, adorned with
a couple of rather barren black cherry-trees, and as many firs, with
low-spread branches.

Above the house and the road rose a rugged eminence, sparely clothed
with patches of grass, brambles, and huckleberry-bushes, the gray knots
of rock pushing up here and there between. On the summit appeared
against the sky the outskirts of a sturdy forest, paradise of nuts and
squirrels. The rough road ran between rude stone-fences and straggling
apple-trees to the village, lying some two miles to the southeast. About
two hundred yards beyond the Parsonage--so Professor Valeyon's house was
called, he, in times past, having officiated as pastor of the
village--it made a sharp turn to the left around a spur of the hill,
bringing into view the tall white steeple of the village meeting-house,
relieved against the mountainous background beyond.

They dined in the Parsonage at two o'clock. At about three the professor
was wont to cross the entry to his study, take his pipe from its place
on the high wooden mantel-piece, fill it from the brown earthen-ware
tobacco-box on the table, and stepping through the window on to the
balcony, takes his place in his chair. Here he would sit sometimes till
sundown, composed in body and mind; dreaming, perhaps, over the rough
pathway of his earlier life, and facilitating the process by exhaling
long wreaths of thinnest smoke-layers from his mouth, and ever and anon
crossing and recrossing his legs.

On the present afternoon it was really very hot. Professor Valeyon,
occupying his usual position, had nearly finished his second pipe. He
had thrown off the light linen duster he usually wore, and sat with his
waistcoat open, displaying a somewhat rumpled, but very clean white
shirt-bosom; and his sturdy old neck was swathed in the white necktie
which was the only visible relic of his ministerial career. He had
covered his bald head with a handkerchief, for the double purpose of
keeping away the flies, and creating a cooling current of air. One of
his down-trodden slippers had dropped off, and lay sole-upward on the
floor. There was no symptom of a breeze in the still, warm valley, nor
even on the jagged ridges of the opposing hills. The professor, with all
his appliances for coolness and comfort, felt the need of one strongly.

Mellowed by the distance, the long shriek of the engine, on its way from
New York, streamed upon his ears and set him thinking. A good many years
since he had been to New York!--nine, positively nine--not since the
year after his wife's death. It hardly seemed so long, looking back upon
it. He wondered whether time had passed as silently and swiftly to his
daughters as to him. At all events, they had grown in the interval from
little girls into young ladies--Cornelia nineteen, and Sophie not more
than a year younger. "Bless me!" murmured the professor aloud, taking
the pipe from his mouth, and bringing his heavy eyebrows together in a
thoughtful frown.

He would scarcely have believed, in his younger years, that he would
have remained anywhere so long, without even a thought of changing the
scene. But then, his society days were over long ago, and he had seen
all he ever intended to see of the world. Here he had his house, and his
daily newspaper, and his books, and his garden, and the love and respect
of his daughters and fellow-townspeople. Was not that enough--was it not
all he could desire? But here, insensibly, the professor's eyes rested
upon the vacant spot at the summit of the hill opposite.

Very few people, be they never so old, or their circumstances never so
good, would find it impossible to mention something which they believe
they would be the happier for possessing. Perhaps Professor Valeyon was
not one of the exceptions, and was haunted by the idea that, were some
certain event to come to pass, life would be more pleasant and gracious
to him than it was now. Doubtless, however, an ideal aspiration of some
kind, even though it be never realized, is itself a kind of happiness,
without which we might feel at a loss. If the professor's solitary wish
had been fulfilled, and there had been no longer cause for him to say,
"If I had but this, I should be satisfied," might it not still happen
that in some unguarded, preoccupied moment he should start and blush to
find his lips senselessly forming themselves into the utterance of the
old formula? Would it not be a sad humiliation to acknowledge that the
treasure he had all his life craved, did not so truly fill and occupy
his heart as the mere act of yearning after it had done?

In indulging in these speculations, however, we are pretending to a
deeper knowledge of Professor Valeyon's private affairs than is at
present authorizable. After a while he withdrew his eyes from the
hill-tops, sighed, as those do whose thoughts have been profoundly
absorbed, and knocked the ashes out of his pipe. He began to debate
within himself--for the mind, unless strictly watched, is apt to waver
between light thoughts and grave--whether or no it was worth while to
make a second journey into the study after more tobacco. Perhaps
Cornelia was within call, and would thus afford a means of cutting the
Gordian knot at once. No! he remembered now that she had walked over to
the village for the afternoon mail, and would not be back for some time
yet. And Sophie--poor child! she would not leave her room for two weeks
to come, at least.

"I wonder whether they ever want to see any thing of the outside world?"
said the old gentleman to himself, elevating his chin, and scratching
his short, white beard. "Reasonable to suppose they could appreciate
something better than the society hereabouts! A picnic once in a
while--sleigh-ride in winter--sewing-bees--dance at--at Abbie's; and all
in the company of a set of country bumpkins, like Bill Reynolds, and
awkward farmers' daughters!

"It won't do--must be attended to! The good education I was at such
pains to give them--it'll only make them miserable if they're to wear
their lives out here. I'm getting old and selfish--that's the truth of
the matter. I want to sit here, and have my girls take care of me!
Pshaw!

"Sophie, now--well, perhaps she don't need it so much, yet; she's
younger than her sister, and has a good deal more internal resource:
besides, she's too delicate at present. But Neelie--Neelie ought to go
at once--this very summer. She needs an enormous deal of action and
excitement, bodily and mental both, to keep her in wholesome condition.
Has that same restless, feverish devil in her that I used to have; never
do to let it feed upon itself! must get her absorbed in outside things!

"But what am I to do?" resumed the professor, sitting up in his chair,
and shaking out his shirt-sleeves--for the heat of his meditations had
brought on a perspiration; "what can I do--eh? Sophie not in condition
to travel--can't leave her to take Cornelia--no one else to take
her--and she can't go alone, that's certain! Humph!"

Professor Valeyon paused in his soliloquy, like a man who has turned
into a closed court under the impression that it is a thoroughfare, and
stared down with upwrinkled forehead at the sole of the kicked-off
slipper, indulging the while in a mental calculation of how many days it
would take for the hole near the toe to work down to the hole under the
instep, and thus render problematical the possibility of keeping the
shoe on at all. It might take three weeks, or, say at the utmost, a
month; one month from the present time. It was at the present time about
the 15th of June, the 14th or the 15th, say the 15th! Well, then, on the
15th of July the slipper would be worn out; in all human probability the
weather would be even hotter then than it was now; and yet, in the face
of that heat he would be obliged to go over to the village, get Jonas
Hastings to fit him with a new pair, and then go through the long agony
of breaking them in! At the thought, great drops formed on the old
gentleman's nose, and ran suddenly down into his white mustache.

But this digression of thought was but superficial, and the sense that
something serious underlaid it remained always latent. The professor
leaned back in his chair, and sighed again heavily. It was true that he
was growing old, and now that he contemplated action, he felt that in
the last nine years the inertia of age had gained upon him. Besides, he
greatly loved his daughters, and though it is easy to say that the
greatest love is the greatest unselfishness, yet do we find a weakness
in our hearts which we cannot believe wholly wrong, strongly prompting
us to yearn and cling--even unwisely--to those who have our best
affection. "And what seems wise to-day may be proved folly to-morrow,"
is our argument, "so let us cling to the good we have."

And Professor Valeyon well knew that what time his daughters departed to
visit the outer world was likely to be the beginning of a longer journey
than to Boston or New York. They were attractive, and, it was to be
supposed, liable to be attracted; he would not be so weak as to imagine
that their love for their father could long remain supreme. But this old
man, who had kept abreast of the learning of the world, and was scarred
with many a bruise and stab received during his life's journey; who had
filled a pulpit, too, and preached Christian humility to his fellow
townspeople, had yet so much human heat and pride glowing like embers in
his old heart as to feel strong within him a bitter jealousy and sense
of wrong toward whatever young upstarts should intrude themselves, and
venture to brag of a love for his flesh and blood which might claim
precedence over his own. Doubtless the feeling was unworthy of him, and
he would, when the time came, play his part generously and well; but, so
long as the matter was purely imaginary, we may allow him some natural
ebullition of feeling.

So powerful, indeed, was the effect produced upon Professor Valeyon by
the succession and conflict of gloomy and painful emotions, that he laid
down his black clay-pipe upon the broad arm of the easy-chair, and began
to search in all directions for his handkerchief: indulging himself
meanwhile with the base reflection that as there was no present
probability of depriving himself of his daughters, that ceremony must,
for a time at least, be postponed. While yet the handkerchief-hunt was
in full cry, the professor's ears caught the rattle and flap of the
opening gate, and following it the quick, vigorous tap of small
boot-heels upon the marble flagstones. Next came a light, rustling
spring up the creaking porch-steps, and ere the old gentleman could
get his head far enough over his knees to see down the entry, a
fresh-looking young woman appeared smiling in the door-way, dressed in
a tawny summer-suit, and holding up in one hand a long, slender envelop,
sealed with a conspicuous monogram, and stamped with the New York
post-mark.
 
 
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