In the Old Valley

The man halted on the crest of the hill and looked sombrely down into
the long valley below. It was evening, and although the hills around
him were still in the light the valley was already filled with kindly,
placid shadows. A wind that blew across it from the misty blue sea
beyond was making wild music in the rugged firs above his head as he
stood in an angle of the weather-grey longer fence, knee-deep in
bracken. It had been by these firs he had halted twenty years ago,
turning for one last glance at the valley below, the home valley which
he had never seen since. But then the firs had been little more than
vigorous young saplings; they were tall, gnarled trees now, with
lichened trunks, and their lower boughs were dead. But high up their
tops were green and caught the saffron light of the west. He
remembered that when a boy he had thought there was nothing more
beautiful than the evening sunshine falling athwart the dark green fir
boughs on the hills.

As he listened to the swish and murmur of the wind, the earth-old tune
with the power to carry the soul back to the dawn of time, the years
fell away from him and he forgot much, remembering more. He knew now
that there had always been a longing in his heart to hear the
wind-chant in the firs. He had called that longing by other names, but
he knew it now for what it was when, hearing, he was satisfied.

He was a tall man with iron-grey hair and the face of a
conqueror–strong, pitiless, unswerving. Eagle eyes, quick to discern
and unfaltering to pursue; jaw square and intrepid; mouth formed to
keep secrets and cajole men to his will–a face that hid much and
revealed little. It told of power and intellect, but the soul of the
man was a hidden thing. Not in the arena where he had fought and
triumphed, giving fierce blow for blow, was it to be shown; but here,
looking down on the homeland, with the strength of the hills about
him, it rose dominantly and claimed its own. The old bond held. Yonder
below him was home–the old house that had sheltered him, the graves
of his kin, the wide fields where his boyhood dreams had been dreamed.

Should he go down to it? This was the question he asked himself. He
had come back to it, heartsick of his idols of the marketplace. For
years they had satisfied him, the buying and selling and getting gain,
the pitting of strength and craft against strength and craft, the
tireless struggle, the exultation of victory. Then, suddenly, they had
failed their worshipper; they ceased to satisfy; the sacrifices he had
heaped on their altars availed him nothing in this new need and hunger
of his being. His gods mocked him and he wearied of their service.
Were there not better things than these, things he had once known and
loved and forgotten? Where were the ideals of his youth, the lofty
aspirations that had upborne him then? Where was the eagerness and
zest of new dawns, the earnestness of well-filled, purposeful hours of
labour, the satisfaction of a good day worthily lived, at eventide the
unbroken rest of long, starry nights? Where might he find them again?
Were they yet to be had for the seeking in the old valley? With the
thought came a great yearning for home. He had had many habitations,
but he realized now that he had never thought of any of these places
as home. That name had all unconsciously been kept sacred to the long,
green, seaward-looking glen where he had been born.

So he had come back to it, drawn by a longing not to be resisted. But
at the last he felt afraid. There had been many changes, of that he
felt sure. Would it still be home? And if not, would not the loss be
most irreparable and bitter? Would it not be better to go away, having
looked at it from the hill and having heard the saga of the firs,
keeping his memory of it unblurred, than risk the probable disillusion
of a return to the places that had forgotten him and friends whom the
varying years must certainly have changed as he had changed himself?
No, he would not go down. It had been a foolish whim to come at
all–foolish, because the object of his quest was not to be found
there or elsewhere. He could not enter again into the heritage of
boyhood and the heart of youth. He could not find there the old dreams
and hopes that had made life sweet. He understood that he could not
bring back to the old valley what he had taken from it. He had lost
that intangible, all-real wealth of faith and idealism and zest; he
had bartered it away for the hard, yellow gold of the marketplace, and
he realized at last how much poorer he was than when he had left that
home valley. His was a name that stood for millions, but he was
beggared of hope and purpose.

No, he would not go down. There was no one left there, unchanged and
unchanging, to welcome him. He would be a stranger there, even among
his kin. He would stay awhile on the hill, until the night came down
over it, and then he would go back to his own place.

Down below him, on the crest of a little upland, he saw his old home,
a weather-grey house, almost hidden among white birch and apple trees,
with a thick fir grove to the north of it. He had been born in that
old house; his earliest memory was of standing on its threshold and
looking afar up to the long green hills.

“What is over the hills?” he had asked of his mother. With a smile she
had made answer,

“Many things, laddie. Wonderful things, beautiful things,
heart-breaking things.”

“Some day I shall go over the hills and find them all, Mother,” he had
said stoutly.

She had laughed and sighed and caught him to her heart. He had no
recollection of his father, who had died soon after his son’s birth,
but how well he remembered his mother, his little, brown-eyed,
girlish-faced mother!

He had lived on the homestead until he was twenty. He had tilled the
broad fields and gone in and out among the people, and their life had
been his life. But his heart was not in his work. He wanted to go
beyond the hills and seek what he knew must be there. The valley was
too narrow, too placid. He longed for conflict and accomplishment. He
felt power and desire and the lust of endeavour stirring in him. Oh,
to go over the hills to a world where men lived! Such had been the
goal of all his dreams.

When his mother died he sold the farm to his cousin, Stephen Marshall.
He supposed it still belonged to him. Stephen had been a good sort of
a fellow, a bit slow and plodding, perhaps, bovinely content to dwell
within the hills, never hearkening or responding to the lure of the
beyond. Yet it might be he had chosen the better part, to dwell thus
on the land of his fathers, with a wife won in youth, and children to
grow up around him. The childless, wifeless man looking down from the
hill wondered if it might have been so with him had he been content to
stay in the valley. Perhaps so. There had been Joyce.

He wondered where Joyce was now and whom she had married, for of
course she had married. Did she too live somewhere down there in the
valley, the matronly, contented mother of lads and lassies? He could
see her old home also, not so far from his own, just across a green
meadow by way of a footpath and stile and through the firs beyond it.
How often he had traversed that path in the old days, knowing that
Joyce would be waiting at the end of it among the firs–Joyce, the
playmate of childhood, the sweet confidante and companion of youth!
They had never been avowed lovers, but he had loved her then, as a boy
loves, although he had never said a word of love to her. Joyce alone
knew of his longings and his ambitions and his dreams; he had told
them all to her freely, sure of the understanding and sympathy no
other soul in the valley could give him. How true and strong and
womanly and gentle she had always been!

When he left home he had meant to go back to her some day. They had
parted without pledge or kiss, yet he knew she loved him and that he
loved her. At first they corresponded, then the letters began to grow
fewer. It was his fault; he had gradually forgotten. The new, fierce,
burning interests that came into his life crowded the old ones out.
Boyhood’s love was scorched up in that hot flame of ambition and
contest. He had not heard from or of Joyce for many years. Now, again,
he remembered as he looked down on the homeland fields.

The old places had changed little, whatever he might fear of the
people who lived in them. There was the school he had attended, a
small, low-eaved, white-washed building set back from the main road
among green spruces. Beyond it, amid tall elms, was the old church
with its square tower hung with ivy. He felt glad to see it; he had
expected to see a new church, offensively spick-and-span and modern,
for this church had been old when he was a boy. He recalled the many
times he had walked to it on the peaceful Sunday afternoons, sometimes
with his mother, sometimes with Joyce.

The sun set far out to sea and sucked down with it all the light out
of the winnowed dome of sky. The stars came out singly and crystal
clear over the far purple curves of the hills. Suddenly, glancing over
his shoulder, he saw through an arch of black fir boughs a young moon
swung low in a lake of palely tinted saffron sky. He smiled a little,
remembering that in boyhood it had been held a good omen to see the
new moon over the right shoulder.

Down in the valley the lights began to twinkle out here and there like
earth-stars. He would wait until he saw the kitchen light from the
window of his old home. Then he would go. He waited until the whole
valley was zoned with a glittering girdle, but no light glimmered out
through his native trees. Why was it lacking, that light he had so
often hailed at dark, coming home from boyish rambles on the hills? He
felt anxious and dissatisfied, as if he could not go away until he had
seen it.

When it was quite dark he descended the hill resolutely. He must know
why the homelight had failed him. When he found himself in the old
garden his heart grew sick and sore with disappointment and a bitter
homesickness. It needed but a glance, even in the dimness of the
summer night, to see that the old house was deserted and falling to
decay. The kitchen door swung open on rusty hinges; the windows were
broken and lifeless; weeds grew thickly over the yard and crowded
wantonly up to the very threshold through the chinks of the rotten
platform.

Cuthbert Marshall sat down on the old red sandstone step of the door
and bowed his head in his hands. This was what he had come back
to–this ghost and wreck of his past! Oh, bitterness!

From where he sat he saw the new house that Stephen had built beyond
the fir grove, with a cheerful light shining from its window. After a
long time he went over to it and knocked at the door. Stephen came to
it, a stout grizzled farmer, with a chubby boy on his shoulder. He was
not much changed; Cuthbert easily recognized him, but to Stephen
Marshall no recognition came of this man with whom he had played and
worked for years. Cuthbert was obliged to tell who he was. He was made
instantly and warmly welcome. Stephen was unfeignedly glad to see him,
and Stephen’s comely wife, whom he remembered as a slim, fresh-cheeked
valley girl, extended a kind and graceful hospitality. The boys and
girls, too, soon made friends with him. Yet he felt himself the
stranger and the alien, whom the long, swift-passing years had shut
forever from his old place.




He and Stephen talked late that night, and in the morning he yielded
to their entreaties to stay another day with them. He spent it
wandering about the farm and the old haunts of wood and stream. Yet he
could not find himself. This valley had his past in its keeping, but
it could not give it back to him; he had lost the master word that
might have compelled it.

He asked Stephen fully about all his old friends and neighbours with
one exception. He could not ask him what had become of Joyce Cameron.
The question was on his lips a dozen times, but he shrank from
uttering it. He had a vague, secret dread that the answer, whatever it
might be, would hurt him.

In the evening he yielded to a whim and went across to the Cameron
homestead, by the old footpath which was still kept open. He walked
slowly and dreamily, with his eyes on the far hills scarfed in the
splendour of sunset. So he had walked in the old days, but he had no
dreams now of what lay beyond the hills, and Joyce would not be
waiting among the firs.

The stile he remembered was gone, replaced by a little rustic gate. As
he passed through it he lifted his eyes and there before him he saw
her, standing tall and gracious among the grey trees, with the light
from the west falling over her face. So she had stood, so she had
looked many an evening of the long-ago. She had not changed; he
realized that in the first amazed, incredulous glance. Perhaps there
were lines on her face, a thread or two of silver in the soft brown
hair, but those splendid steady blue eyes were the same, and the soul
of her looked out through them, true to itself, the staunch, brave,
sweet soul of the maiden ripened to womanhood.

“Joyce!” he said, stupidly, unbelievingly.

She smiled and put out her hand. “I am glad to see you, Cuthbert,” she
said simply. “Stephen’s Mary told me you had come. And I thought you
would be over to see us this evening.”

She had offered him only one hand but he took both and held her so,
looking hungrily down at her as a man looks at something he knows must
be his salvation if salvation exists for him.

“Is it possible you are here still, Joyce?” he said slowly. “And you
have not changed at all.”

She coloured slightly and pulled away her hands, laughing. “Oh, indeed
I have. I have grown old. The twilight is so kind it hides that, but
it is true. Come into the house, Cuthbert. Father and Mother will be
glad to see you.”

“After a little,” he said imploringly. “Let us stay here awhile first,
Joyce. I want to make sure that this is no dream. Last night I stood
on those hills yonder and looked down, but I meant to go away because
I thought there would be no one left to welcome me. If I had known you
were here! You have lived here in the old valley all these years?”

“All these years,” she said gently, “I suppose you think it must have
been a very meagre life?”

“No. I am much wiser now than I was once, Joyce. I have learned wisdom
beyond the hills. One learns there–in time–but sometimes the lesson
is learned too late. Shall I tell you what I have learned, Joyce? The
gist of the lesson is that I left happiness behind me in the old
valley, when I went away from it, happiness and peace and the joy of
living. I did not miss these things for a long while; I did not even
know I had lost them. But I have discovered my loss.”

“Yet you have been a very successful man,” she said wonderingly.

“As the world calls success,” he answered bitterly. “I have place and
wealth and power. But that is not success, Joyce. I am tired of these
things; they are the toys of grown-up children; they do not satisfy
the man’s soul. I have come back to the old valley seeking for what
might satisfy, but I have little hope of finding it, unless–unless–”

He was silent, remembering that he had forfeited all right to her help
in the quest. Yet he realized clearly that only she could help him,
only she could guide him back to the path he had missed. It seemed to
him that she held in her keeping all the good of his life, all the
beauty of his past, all the possibilities of his future. Hers was the
master word, but how should he dare ask her to utter it?

They walked among the firs until the stars came out, and they talked
of many things. She had kept her freshness of soul and her ideals
untarnished. In the peace of the old valley she had lived a life,
narrow outwardly, wondrously deep and wide in thought and aspiration.
Her native hills bounded the vision of her eyes, but the outlook of
the soul was far and unhindered. In the quiet places and the green
ways she had found what he had failed to find–the secret of happiness
and content. He knew that if this woman had walked hand in hand with
him through the years, life, even in the glare and tumult of that
world beyond the hills, would never have lost its meaning for him. Oh,
fool and blind that he had been! While he had sought and toiled afar,
the best that God had meant for him had been here in the home of
youth. When darkness came down through the firs he told her all this,
haltingly, blunderingly, yearningly.

“Joyce, is it too late? Can you forgive my mistake, my long blindness?
Can you care for me again–a little?”

She turned her face upward to the sky between the swaying fir tops and
he saw the reflection of a star in her eyes. “I have never ceased to
care,” she said in a low tone. “I never really wanted to cease. It
would have left life too empty. If my love means so much to you it is
yours, Cuthbert–it always has been yours.”

He drew her close into his arms, and as he felt her heart beating
against his he understood that he had found the way back to simple
happiness and true wisdom, the wisdom of loving and the happiness of
being loved.