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Views from a A Hill-Top
"He was a very old man," said the landlord.
"How old?" I asked; "what do you mean by 'very old?'"
"Well, close on to ninety, I should say. No one exactly knew, and he didn't know himself. At least he said he didn't."
"He ought to have known a great deal."
"Well, it ain't always the man that lives the longest that learns the most. But Uncle Zekel did know a considerable deal. There wasn't a tree or a plant around here he couldn't tell you something about. There wasn't a square foot of land within ten miles that he didn't know everything that would or wouldn't grow on it. Then he understood the weather better than the newspapers nowadays, and he knew human natur' through and through. He never made a mistake in judgin' a man. He was sharp as a steel-trap when any one tried to come it over him. But he was so kind o' simple in his ways and his talk that strangers never thought much of him. Yes, he knew a great deal more than any of the rest of us hereabouts. Somehow everybody believed that he could see farther into a stone than any other man."
We were talking of an old man recently dead. It was at a way-side inn in Vermont, where I had stopped for the horses to feed and rest, and I was talking with the farmer-landlord, seated under a tree that shaded the front of the cottage-inn. Across the road, a little way below, there was a gathering at the door of a small house, which had led to the talk. The village people were coming together to carry to his grave the oldest resident, and while they were gathering the landlord told me about him.
No one now living remembered when he came to this part of the country. He was a Scotchman by birth, and though long practice had modified his voice and accent, there always remained in it some of the peculiarity which is musical to all who are familiar with Highland voices. He had been married in his early life, had children, and a household whose memories he sometimes, but rarely, referred to. All were gone. Wife and children had now lain side by side in the village graveyard for more than a half-century. All his friends of early life were gone as well. Most of them rested in the same safe enclosure.
Now this man's life was not, you will say, remarkable in anything. It was but the common life of man in the country, only a little longer than the average. You are right in this, that it was only an ordinary human life, but every life is remarkable, and worth studying. I had small opportunity for study of this. But I went across the road and joined the increasing assembly. He was lying in the middle of the small room into which the door opened. There was no fire on the broad hearth. "It's the first time that hearth has been cold for fifty years that I remember," said the landlord.
In the room were many evidences of the life he had led, memorials which no one now lived to cherish. An old musket and a muzzle-loading gun hung on one side of the room. The antlers of a moose and several of red deer were disposed as conveniences for hanging household utensils. Several strangely worn stones from rivers, curiously twisted and involved growths of trees, brilliant bits of mica and other minerals, were on the mantelshelf over the fireplace. There was no ceiling to the room. The rafters were bare, and the sheathing on the sides was nearly black with smoke and time.
It was not the hour or place in which to indulge curiosity, but I could not shut my eyes to the surroundings out of which this life had gone. And when some one gave me a chair I found myself seated by a small solid table, on which lay one book, a copy of the Breeches Bible. It was verily a family Bible. It was an edition, if I remember aright, of 1595. And on the margins and blank reverses of leaves, in old and faded ink, there were pithy sentences written by generations of Scotch Presbyterians, of whom this man lying dead here was last. He, too, had gone to join the numerous company, among whom are martyrs and saints, and along his path, as he had travelled here almost a century, he had the same old guide-book they had used. It is a wonderful guide-book: good for men in the rush and crush of cities, as for men in the quiet, lonesome places of the up-country.
As he lay there men talked freely about him, and it was wonderful to hear the affection and respect which were universally expressed for him. Every one had loved him, and all alike felt the loss of a friend. On his farm, a hundred rods from the house, was a knoll which rose gently on one side some seventy or eighty feet, and from its summit fell off precipitously to the river which ran with loud voice over rocks below. It had been a favorite resting-place with the old man, and the young man when he was growing old. There were stones so arranged by accident that they made a seat, not very comfortable, but men do not seek cushioned resting-places in the up-country. He had seen suns rise and suns set many times, sitting there. Much of the gentleness of his nature had come from the long habit of sitting there a little while now and then and thinking. More had come from that old Bible; and the two — the holy book and the calm contemplation — had worked together in his soul. He had some favorite subjects of thought which he occasionally talked about. The marvel of the universe, which bothers philosophic theorists, was no marvel to him, but one grand fact which he realized. "I can never forget," said the village pastor, "how he impressed me with a sudden exclamation when we were talking about the discoveries of science and the laws of nature. He said, 'What idea can any man have of God who thinks, with his poor eyes and inventions of glass and brass, he can see into and across the whole province which his God governs.' Another time he said, 'I'm a Democrat with men, but with God there is no democracy, to my notion. Men get to preaching equality so much that they don't believe themselves any lower than the angels, and imagine that the universe is ruled by a Master who will exist or not, just as his subjects think best.'
"'Star-gazing you call it, do ye,' he said to one who saw him sitting on his porch one night. 'Yes, but I'm not looking at the stars; I'm looking between and beyond them, and I see a country out yonder in which there's no law of nature, no attraction, no force, nothing that I read about in men's books, only the will of God, which is light and force and law and all,'"
Such expressions indicate the effect on his mind of his habit of thought on the hill-top. In all times men have gone up into high places to think and to pray. There is no place so lonesome as the summit of a hill. It lifts a man out of the world. I have known many men, of utterly irreverent and thoughtless character of mind, awed and terrified at finding themselves on high mountain peaks, and afraid to stay there. I remember once, many years ago, when there was no hotel on Mount Washington, and I had gone up there intending to stay all night and see the sun rise, a sense of awe and lonesomeness overtook me which I vainly strove to resist. I had passed nights alone in forests, on the sea in an open boat, but this was intolerable. There was a feeling, indeed, of lonesomeness, but at the same time of being surrounded by an unseen crowd of witnesses. So I was driven down, and made my dangerous way into lower regions more associated with my young humanity.
But the old man was never alone on his hill-top, having in long years learned to talk much with the unseen who met him there, and look earnestly into space if perchance he might see there a vision of superhuman beauty. And one day he saw what he had waited for. It was a clear, cool summer day, with a north-west wind drifting clouds across an intensely blue sky. A neighbor who had occasion to see him, not finding him at home, walked out and up the hill just after sunset. The old man was sitting on the rock seat, reclining on another rock which supported his back and head. He had been looking into the depths of the clear atmosphere, and as he lay there looking, there came suddenly into his vision that which eye hath not seen from earthly mountain peak; ear hath not heard from voice, howsoever eloquent and musical; heart of man, even his gentle, thoughtful heart, had not conceived. Who shall attempt to say with what serene and solemn joy the old man had seen the blue heavens opened, and the glory that is not of sun or stars, and had entered into it!