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A Dead Letter
One evening in May, many years ago, a man of an uncertain age, forty or fifty years old, perhaps, walked with a steady purposeful stride on this long road which leads winding through the primeval forests up the valley to a little settlement by a lake among the mountains. He carried nothing. He was a stranger. As now and then he passed a house the people wondered, and asked one another who he was. He reached the old church which stood at a crossing of the roads, the one going on up the valley, the other leading to right and to left over the hills. The minister's house was on the corner opposite to the church. The minister, a man in the prime of life, stood on the green in front of the church, looking over the stone-wall into the graveyard. He was thinking how many joys and pains, virtues and sins, were hidden there. He turned and saw the stranger striding towards him, and greeted him with a pleasant "Good-evening." The reply was not gruff, but short in tone, "Good-evening," and the man walked on; but his eye caught the horse-sheds in the rear of the church, and he stopped short, then sat down on the door-step.
The minister strolled towards him and asked him if he was going to the village. "Not to-night," was the curt, trisyllabic answer. The minister was a man of much experience. He saw that there was here something out of the common run of humanity in that neighborhood. "If you are not going farther you will want a night's shelter, unless you are going back again."
"I s'pose there's no objection to my sleepin' in one of them sheds."
"My house, over there, is more comfortable; come over with me and get your supper, and I'll give you a bed."
"I'm grateful for your offer, but I'd ruther sleep in the shed, and I don't need supper."
The minister urged his invitation, but could get no reply. The stranger sat silent, not even looking up or answering with his eyes. At last the minister gave him up and went home. He looked out in the twilight frequently, and saw the man sitting on the door-step. He went over and tried him again with pressure, but received no response. He somehow conceived the idea that the language used by the queer man was affected, and not natural; that he assumed to be what he was not, an uneducated man. Perhaps it was so, perhaps not; no one ever knew. For many years after that the stranger lived in the valley, became one of the valley people, was known to every one, spoke to few, and used very brief sentences in such conversation as was necessary. He bought a tract of land, it could not be called a farm, lying on the side of the mountain and including a few acres of bottom land on the river. There were 100 acres in the tract, and he paid cash in bank notes, $80, for it. When the deed was made out, the village justice, who was a land-agent, asked him his name. He gave it promptly — Ben Layton. He built a log-house on his land. The people, not an aesthetic community, laughed at his selection of a site. It was up the mountain-side, on a projecting knoll, the front of which was a rocky precipice. The cabin stood in the edge of the forest. In front of it the ridge of the knoll was covered with low brush, mostly huckleberry bushes. A mountain stream came down a ravine behind the cabin and descended swiftly at one side of the knoll. A rough pathway, in time worn by his use, led from the cabin across the brook and down by the watercourse to the few acres of meadow-land on the river bottom. A forest road, little else than a logging road, among rocks and stumps, went from the meadow down two miles to the main road up the valley. From below you could see the cliff, and the low bushes covering the ridge, and the dark forest from which it projected, but you could not see the little cabin which stood under the trees. From the cabin door the view was one of unsurpassed beauty. The valley beneath, widening to hold a lovely lake two miles long, closing again where the mill and the store and the post-office and the half-dozen houses formed "the village," widened again beyond to the level where the church stood, and then went downward into immeasurable distance. The door opened to the west. When the sun was setting in June and July it went down in that remote distance, and the glory that filled the valley was like the light coming earthward from the celestial city.
Years went on. At first there was much curiosity about this strange arrival; but it passed. He became a recognized inhabitant. His strange character was more a matter of imagination than of known fact; for he seldom spoke to any one, and in those brief sentences which were necessary to his procuring the means of life he spoke as sensibly as any man in the valley. Oddly enough, he would sometimes exchange some little talk about the weather, or his health, or other commonplace subject, with the minister, but with no one else. And the minister was the only man who ever went twice to the cabin on the cliff. He had a settled conviction that this man had a soul, not disturbed by any errancy of faculty, which was worth looking after. And he looked after it for thirty or more years, but confessed in the end that he had never found it.
To the people the cabin was simply
"Ben's cabin,"and as years went along and young people came
to exist who had not been there when he arrived, a stranger,
he became Old Ben, a harmless semilunatic, who raised
potatoes on his bottom-land, killed and ate woodchucks and
all kinds of beasts of the field and forest, fished a great
deal, but mostly wandered around in the woods and along the
streams, silent and thoughtless.
A Mountain Road
Was he without thought? Who knows? Somewhere in the world perhaps there was one, perhaps there were many, who could have told what Ben had to think about. No one in the valley knew. He never read a newspaper or a book, never went to a public gathering, never voted, never was seen at church. He grew old. The minister grew old. All the people were growing older, many very old, as is the custom in city and country with all our family of man.
It was six o'clock of a July evening. A group of a dozen or more men stood on the porch of the store wherein was the post-office. The semi-weekly mail had arrived, and this group was regular at that hour. The minister sat in his low buggy under the shadow of a great Balm of Gilead-tree. The doctor drove up in his buckboard and stopped by the side of the minister. This was the time when the group at the post-office exchanged the news of the neighborhood, which meant a section of country three miles down and five miles up the valley, and included scattered clearings on the hills. The doctor, when he happened to be there, answered questions about the sick, and the intelligence he gave was carried in various directions, radiating to outlying homes, where all were sincerely interested in it.
"Doctor," said a man whose home was three miles away, "I shouldn't wonder if somethin's the matter o' Old Ben. I ain't seen him now it's a week or more, and I ain't seen smoke coming out of his chimeney for two days."
"Why haven't you gone up to see him?"
"Wall, it's somoethin' of a climb, and a long way around, and Ben don't like company, and I've been purty busy hoein' potatoes, and I thought o' goin' up to-morrow."
"You might better have gone up to-night instead of coming down here. Does any one know whether Ben has been down the valley lately?"
"I seen him, lemme see — it was Monday a week ago — he was fishin' on the big rock. Hain't any of you fellows seen him sence then?" While they were, one and another, saying "No" to this query, the postmaster came to the door with a letter in his hand.
"Here's a letter for Old Ben. What had I better do with it?" The people closed around the postmaster. Here was an incident. A letter to any one of them would have been a matter of general interest, but a letter to Old Ben was a startling fact.
"It's come at last," said one.
"Yes, it's come at last," said another and another.
"As long as I've been postmaster — and that's been how many years, boys? — as long as I can remember, Ben has come every Saturday and asked if there was a letter for him. Sometimes he came twice a week, sometimes every day for a while. There ought to be something important in it, and he hasn't been here now for more than a week. He's been waiting more than twenty years for that letter, and it's come at last."
This constant application of Old Ben for a letter, persistent, though vain, for months and years, was a known fact to all the people; but it had long been set down as only another indication of his lunacy. Before sunset pretty much every family in the valley was talking about it, and saying, "Old Ben's letter has come at last."
The letter passed from hand to hand; one and another wondered who had written it. The minister and the doctor were conversing and had not heard the postmaster's questions. But they were talking about Ben. When the postmaster repeated his inquiry, the minister said:
"Give me the letter. I will take it to him. I am going out to see him."
The sun was just above the far horizon when the minister reached the end of the narrow rocky road on the bottom-land, and tied his horse under a rude cow-shed near the bars of the pasture lot. It was a good half-mile from this point, by the wild path up the side of a brawling stream, through primeval forest, to the level of Ben's cabin. The minister knew his way. He had been at Ben's cabin not a few times. There was no house or cabin or habitation of man within many miles that he had not visited often. But he had never been here at this hour. The sun had gone. A mass of clouds hung across the valley from mountain to mountain, and all were aglow with crimson light. The country below the arch of fire was lit with a golden lustre which came flooding up the valley from the clear sky on the horizon. Above all was crimson, below all was gold. Turning his back to the miraculous view, the minister struck the cabin door with his knuckles two or three times and waited. A robin in a tree near by sang out boldly. A thrush poured forth a flood of melody, and another lower down the hill answered him. No sound came from within the cabin. The minister knocked again and waited. While he was waiting he heard a step, and turning saw the doctor coming along the path around the corner of the cabin. He was not surprised. They two were in the habit of meeting on such errands at all hours of the day and night.
They went into the cabin. It was only one room, eighteen or twenty feet long and fifteen wide. All of one end was occupied by the heap of rough stone which formed the chimney. Along the side was a low, broad bench, which did duty for a bed. There was little furniture, but everything in the room was clean and neat. In, or on, the bed lay the tall form of a man, motionless. As the two approached him he made no sign. His eyes were open.
"Is he dead?" asked the minister. The doctor laid his hand on the man's forehead, and answered:
"No, he is living yet; but," he added, after a little, "he is near the end."
The same thought was in the minds of the two who sat by the side of the bed: "Who is this man that lies here dying alone in the forest?" They had time to think, for the twilight passed into night, and dark night, with clouds and rising wind, and the trees began to utter strange sounds, but there was no sound from the lips of Old Ben. A whippoorwill suddenly called with his clear, rich voice from the peak of the cabin, and a dozen or more answered from the woods below. The sounds of nature are innumerable in the night-time in still weather, and when the wind blows the forest is filled with voices in a thousand tones. Some are syllabic utterances, shouts, calls, and answers; others, long notes of delight or of pain. It made the silence of the cabin most solemn and impressive to hear the turmoil and tumult in the outer world. And it was the more oppressive to the two watchers in that he who lay there dying held a secret on which the silence seemed to be placing a great black seal; for, to say truth, they had within the past thirty years asked each other countless times, "Who is Old Ben?" To the people not given to much thought the question had long since lost interest. To them, reading, scholarly men, it had continuous and increasing attraction as an unsolved problem. They asked it now, one of the other, with their eyes.
"He will never get his letter after all," said the doctor, in a low voice.
"What letter?" The words came from the lips of the motionless man. Then a sudden flash of light illumined his face. They bent over him. "What letter?" he said again. "Is there a letter for me?"
"Give it to him," said the doctor.
"Yes, Ben, I have a letter for you. It came by the mail to-night."
"Give it to me, quick, quick, dominie, for she said — she said —;" he tried to lift his hand, but failed. The light on his face became white, cold. After a while the light reappeared in his eyes. "The letter — she said — " he was murmuring rather than speaking, and they could hear no more, for the wind thundered and the trees wailed and sobbed and shrieked. For one instant his eyes seized and devoured the letter which the minister held in his hand, but he was powerless to take it; and a few moments later the end came, and he was dead.
Their work was done. They lit their lanterns and went out, leaving the mystery behind them. The forest was never so black as in the contrast with their lights. The brook was a torrent, for heavy showers had been passing over. Even now, as they went cautiously down the narrow footway, they paused several times to listen to the reverberation of heavy thunder, or to recover eyesight lost in the dazzling brilliance of lightning.
"He never got the letter after all," said the minister, as they reached the low cow-shed under which they had left their horses. "What shall we do with it?"
In that part of the country in those days there was small thought or knowledge of the laws of inheritance. The public administrator was unknown. The people buried Ben. When they brought him out of the cabin they left the door open. There was nothing in it which any one wanted to steal, and there was no one who had any interest in preserving it.
The minister carried the letter back to the postmaster. It lay a long time in his office, and again and again was brought out and handed around among the people. It was the central point of interest in that valley for months — a small folded bit of paper, concerning which every man and woman within five miles of the place of its deposit thought and talked and guessed and wondered. Then it went the way of dead letters.