Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Emory Women Writers Resource Project

Rodman the Keeper, an electronic edition

by Constance Fenimore Woolson [Woolson, Constance Fenimore, 1840-1894]

date: 1880
source publisher: D. Appleton and Company
collection: Genre Fiction

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I.

"INSTEAD of going through the whole book, you can read this abstract, Miss Honor."

The speaker drew forth five or six sheets of paper, closely covered with fine, small handwriting. The letters were not in the least beautiful, or even straight, if you examined them closely, for they carried themselves crookedly, and never twice alike; but, owing to their extreme smallness, and the careful way in which they stood on the line, rigidly particular as to their feet, although their spines were misshapen, they looked not unlike a regiment of little humpbacked men, marching with extreme precision, and daring you to say that they were crooked. Stephen Wainwright had partly taught himself this hand, and partly it was due to temperament. He despised a clerkly script; yet he could not wander down a page, or blur his words, any more than he could wander down a street, or blur his chance remarks; in spite of himself, he always knew exactly where he was going, and what he intended to say. He was not a man who attracted attention in any way. He | | 277 was small, yet not so small as to be noticed for smallness; he was what is called plain-looking, yet without that marked ugliness which, in a man, sometimes amounts to distinction. As to his dress, he was too exact for carelessness; you felt that the smallest spot on his loose flannel coat would trouble him; and yet he was entirely without that trim, fresh, spring-morning appearance which sometimes gives a small man an advantage over his larger brethren, as the great coach-dogs seem suddenly coarse and dirty when the shining little black-and-tan terrier bounds into the yard beside them. Stephen was a man born into the world with an over-weight of caution and doubt. They made the top of his head so broad and square that Reverence, who likes a rounded curve, found herself displaced; she clung on desperately through his schoolboy days, but was obliged at last to let go as the youth began to try his muscles, shake off extraneous substances, and find out what he really was himself, after the long succession of tutors and masters had done with him.

The conceit of small men is proverbial, and Stephen was considered a living etching of the proverb, without color, but sharply outlined. He had a large fortune; he had a good intellect; he had no vices—sufficient reasons, the world said, why he had become, at forty, unendurably conceited. His life, the world considered, was but a succession of conquests: and the quiet manner with which he entered a drawing-room crowded with people, or stood apart and looked on, was but another indication of that vanity of his which never faltered, even in the presence of the most beautiful women or the most brilliant men. The world had no patience with him. If he had not gone out in society at all, if he had belonged to that large class of men who persistently refuse to attire themselves in dress-coats and struggle through the dance, the world would have understood it; but, on the contrary, Stephen went everywhere, looking smaller and plainer than usual in his evening-dress, asked everybody to dance, and fulfilled every social obligation with painstaking exactitude. The world had no patience with him; | | 278 he was like a golden apple hanging low; but nobody could pull him off the branch.

Stephen's conversation-friend (every unmarried man, though an octogenarian, has his conversation-friend) was Adelaide Kellinger, the widow of his cousin and favorite boyhood-companion, Ralph Kellinger. Adelaide was now thirty-five years of age, an agreeable woman, tall, slender, and exquisitely dressed—a woman who made people forget that an arm should be round, or a cheek red, when her slim, amber-colored gracefulness was present with them. Adelaide's house was Stephen's one lounging-place. Here he came to hear her talk over last evening's party, and here he delivered fewer of those concise apropos remarks for which he was celebrated, and which had been the despair of a long series of young ladies in turn; for what can you do with a man who, on every occasion, even the most unexpected, has calmly ready for you a neat sentence, politely delivered, like the charmingly folded small parcels which the suave dry-goods clerk hands to you across the counter? Stephen was never in a hurry to bring out these remarks of his; on the contrary, he always left every pause unbroken for a perceptible half moment or two, as if waiting for some one else to speak. The unwary, therefore, were often entrapped into the idea that he was slow or unprepared; and the unwary made a mistake, as the more observing among them soon discovered.

Adelaide Kellinger had studied her cousin for years. The result of her studies was as follows: She paid, outwardly, no especial attention to him, and she remained perfectly natural herself. This last was a difficult task. If he asked a question, she answered with the plainest truth she could imagine; if he asked an opinion, she gave the one she would have given to her most intimate woman-friend (if she had had one); if she was tired, she did not conceal it; if she was out of temper, she said disagreeable, sharp-edged things. She was, therefore, perfectly natural? On the contrary, she was extremely unnatural. A charming woman does not go around | | 279 at the present day in a state of nature mentally any more than physically; politeness has become a necessary clothing to her. Adelaide Kellinger never spoke to her cousin without a little preceding pause, during which she thought over what she was going to say; and, as Stephen was slow to speak also, their conversations were ineffective, judged from a dramatic point of view. But Adelaide judged by certain broad facts, and left drama to others. Stephen liked to be with her; and he was a creature of habit. She intended that he should continue to like to be with her; and she relied upon that habit.

. . . . . . .

Afar off, counting by civilization, not by parallels of latitude, there are mountains in this country of ours, east of the Mississippi, as purple-black, wild, and pathless, some of them, as the peaks of the Western sierras. These mountains are in the middle South. A few roads climb from the plain below into their presence, and cautiously follow the small rivers that act as guides—a few roads, no more. Here and there are villages, or rather farm-centers, for the soil is fertile wherever it is cleared; but the farms are old and stationary: they do not grow, stretch out a fence here, or a new field there; they remain as they were when the farmers' sons were armed and sent to swell George Washington's little army. To this day the farmers' wives spin and weave, and dye and fashion, with their own hands, each in her own house, the garments worn by all the family; to this day they have seen nothing move by steam. The locomotive waits beyond the peaks; the water-mill is the highest idea of force. Half a mile from the village of Ellerby stands one of these water-mills; to it come farmers and farmers' boys on horseback, from miles around, with grist to be ground. And sometimes the women come too, riding slowly on old, pacing cart-horses, their faces hidden in the tubes of deep, long sun-bonnets, their arms moving up and down, up and down, as the old horse stretches his head to his fore-feet and back with every step. When two | | 280 farm-women meet at the mill-block there is much talking in the chipped-off mountain dialect; but they sit on their horses without dismounting, strong, erect, and not uncomely, with eyes like eagles', yet often toothless in their prime, in the strange rural-American way, which makes one wonder what it was in the life of the negro slaves which gives their grandchildren now such an advantage in this over the descendants alike of the whites of Massachusetts Bay and the plantations of the Carolinas. When the farmers meet at the mill-block, they dismount and sit down in a row, not exactly on their heels, but nearly so: in reality, they sit, or squat, on their feet, nothing of them touching the ground save the soles of their heavy shoes, the two tails of their blue homespun coats being brought round and held in front. In this position they whittle and play with their whips, or eat the giant apples of the mountains. Large, iron-framed men, they talk but slowly; they are content apparently to go without those finer comprehensions and appreciations which other men covet; they are content to be almost as inarticulate as their horses—honest beasts, with few differences save temper and color of hide. Across the road from the mill, but within sound and sight of its wheel, is Ellerby Library. It is a small wooden building, elevated about five feet above the ground, on four corner supports, like a table standing on four legs. Daylight shines underneath; and Northern boys, accustomed to close foundations, would be seized with temptations to run under and knock on the floor: the mountain boys who come to the mill, however, are too well acquainted with the peculiarities of the library to find amusement in them; and, besides, this barefooted cavalry cherishes, under its homespun jacket, an awkward respect for the librarian.

This librarian is Honor Dooris, and it is to her Stephen Wainwright now presents his sheets of manuscript.

"You think I have an odd handwriting? " he said.

"Ys," answered the librarian; "I should not think you would be proud of it."

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"I am not."

"Then why not try to change it? I might lend you my old copies—those I used myself and still use. Here they are." And she took from her desk a number of small slips of paper, on which were written, in a round hand with many flourishes and deeply-shaded lines, moral sentences, such as "He that would thrive must rise at five"; "Never put off till to-morrow what you can do to-day"; and others of like hilarious nature.

"Thanks," said Stephen; "I will take the copies, and try—to improve."

The librarian then began to look through the abstract, and Stephen did not break the silence.

"Would it not be a good idea for me to read it aloud? " she said, after a while. " can always remember what I have read aloud."

"As you please," replied Stephen.

So the librarian began, in a sweet voice, with a strong Southern accent, and read aloud, with frowning forehead and evidently but half-comprehension, the chemical abstract which Stephen had prepared.

"It is very hard," she said, looking up at him, with a deep furrow between her eyebrows.

"But not too hard for a person of determined mind."

The person of determined mind answered to the spur immediately, bent forward over the desk again, and went on reading. Stephen, motionless, sat with his eyes fixed on a spider's web high up in the window. When, too deeply puzzled to go on, the girl stopped and asked a question, he answered it generally without removing his eyes from the web. When once or twice she pushed the manuscript away and leaned back in her chair, impotent and irritated, he took the sheets from her hand, explained the hard parts with clear precision, gave them back, and motioned to her to continue. She read on for half an hour. When she finished, there was a flush on her cheeks, the flush of annoyance and fatigue.

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"I must go now," she said, placing the manuscript in her desk, and taking down her broad-brimmed Leghorn hat, yellow as old corn, adorned with a plain band of white ribbon.

"You are not, of course, foiled by a little chemistry," said Wainwright, rising also, and looking at her without change of expression.

"Oh, no," she answered; but still she crossed the room and opened the door, as if rather glad to escape, and, with a parting salutation, left him.

Wainwright sat down again. He did not watch her through the window; he took up a late volume of Herbert Spencer, opened it at the mark, and began reading with that careful dwelling upon each word which is, singularly enough, common alike to the scientific and the illiterate. The mass of middle-class readers do not notice words at all, but take only the general sense.

Honor went down the road toward Ellerby village, which was within sight around the corner, walking at first rapidly, but soon falling into the unhurrying gait of the Southern woman, so full of natural, swaying grace. At the edge of the village she turned and took a path which led into a ravine. The path followed a brook, and began to go up hill gradually; the ravine grew narrow and the sides high. Where the flanks met and formed the main hillside, there was, down in the hollow, a house with a basement above ground, with neither paint without nor within. No fences were required for Colonel Eliot's domain—the three near hillsides were his natural walls, a ditch and plank at the entrance of the ravine his moat and drawbridge. The hillsides had been cleared, and the high corn waved steeply all around and above him as he stood in front of his house. It went up to meet the sky, and was very good corn indeed—what he could save of it. A large portion, however, was regularly stolen by his own farm-hands—according to the pleasant methods of Southern agriculture after the war. The Colonel was glad when he could safely house one half of it. He was a cripple, hav- | | 283 ing lost a leg at Antietam. He had married a second wife, and had a house overflowing with children. He was poor as a squirrel, having a nest in these woods and the corn for nuts, and little else besides. He was as brave as a lion, courteous as an old cavalier, hot-headed when aroused, but generally easy-tempered and cheery. He went to church every Sunday, got down on his one knee and confessed his sins honestly; then he came home in the old red wagon, sat on the piazza, and watched the corn grow. Honor was his niece, she shared in his love and his poverty like his own children. Mrs. Eliot, a dimpled, soft-cheeked, faded woman, did not quite like Honor's office of librarian, even if it did add two hundred dollars to their slender income: none of Honor's family, none of her family, had ever been librarians.

"But we are so poor now," said Honor.

"None the less ladies, I hope, my dear," said the elder woman, tapping her niece's shoulder with her pink-tipped, taper fingers.

Honor's hands, however, showed traces of work. She had hated to see them grow coarse, and had cried over them; and then she had gone to church, flung herself down upon her knees, offered up her vanity and her roughened palms as a sacrifice, and, coming home, had insisted upon washing out all the iron pots and saucepans, although old Chloe stood ready to do that work with tears in her eyes over her young mistress's obstinacy. It was when this zeal of Honor's was burning brightest, and her self-mortifications were at their height—which means that she was eighteen, imaginative, and shut up in a box—that an outlet was suddenly presented to her. The old library at Ellerby Mill was resuscitated, reopened, endowed with new life, new books, and a new floor, and the position of librarian offered to her.

In former days the South had a literary taste of its own unlike anything at the North. It was a careful and correct taste, founded principally upon old English authors; and it would have delighted the soul of Charles Lamb, who, being | | 284 constantly told that he should be more modern, should write for posterity, gathered his unappreciated manuscripts to his breast, and declared that henceforth he would write only for antiquity. Nothing more unmodern than the old-time literary culture of the South could well be imagined; it delighted in old editions of old authors; it fondly turned their pages, and quoted their choice passages; it built little libraries here and there, like the one at Ellerby Mill, and loaded their shelves with fine old works. In the cities it expanded into associations, and large, lofty chambers were filled to the ceiling with costly tomes, which now look so dark, and rich, and ancient to Northern visitors, accustomed to the lightly bound, cheap new books constantly succeeding each other on the shelves of Northern libraries. These Southern collections were not for the multitude; there was no multitude. Where plantations met, where there was a neighborhood, there grew up the little country library. No one was in a hurry; the rules were lenient; the library was but a part of the easy, luxurious way of living which belonged to the planters. The books were generally imported, an English rather than a New York imprint being preferred; and, without doubt, they selected the classics of the world. But they stopped, generally, at the end of the last century, often at a date still earlier; they forgot that there may be new classics.

The library at Ellerby Mill was built by low-country planters who came up to the mountains during the warm months, having rambling old country-houses there. They had their little summer church, St. Mark's in the Wilderness, and they looked down upon the mountain-people, who, plain folk themselves, revered the old names borne by their summer visitors, names known in their State annals since the earliest times. The mountain-people had been so long accustomed to see their judges, governors, representatives, and senators chosen from certain families, that these offices seemed to them to belong by inheritance to those families; certainly the farmers never disputed the right. For the mountain-people | | 285 were farmers, not planters; their slaves were few. They were a class by themselves, a connecting link between the North and the South. The old names, then, placed Ellerby Library where it stood full thirty years before Honor was born. They did not care for the village, but erected the small building at a point about equidistant from their country-houses, and near the mill for safety, that boys or idle slaves, drawn by the charm which any building, even an empty shed, possesses in a thinly settled country, might not congregate there on Sundays and holidays, or camp there at night. But the library had been closed now for thirteen years; the trustees were all dead, the books moldy, the very door-key was lost. The low-country planters no longer came up to the mountains; there were new names in the State annals, and the mountain-farmers, poorer than before, and much bewildered as to the state of the world, but unchanged in their lack of the questioning capacity, rode by to and from the mill, and gave no thought to the little building with its barred shutters standing in the grove. What was there inside? Nothing save books, things of no practical value, and worthless. So the library stood desolate, like an unused lighthouse on the shore; and the books turned blue-green and damp at their leisure.

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