Nature's Scholar
J. Campbell Ver Planck

The Path, October, 1887.

There was once an old Scholar who counted his friends by scores in his Youth, and had now mislaid or lost them. Early in life he had wandered away from men and things to seek the Truth, and journeyed very far in his search, coming at last to an inheritance of little land and much learning, left him by an antiquarian ancestor. Deep down in quiet country dales he lived upon dreams and moldy books, well loved by all about him, for he never knew the current rates of wage or purchase, nor yet when maids hung gossipping over hedges, and dinner burned in the oven. The simple folk of the country side had their own way with him whom they called "the poor dear soul" and cherished as their own backbone, never letting any man out of their own township serve or despoil him, so much they felt they owed him. Some went so far in gratitude as to say he was not near so old as he looked, for if his hair was grey, there were firm, bright eyes and sturdy calves to give age the lie and maintain it. Moreover, the time a band passed through the village, he had been espied by Molly through the door chink, striding up and down, whistling as loud as any boy and cutting the air with his cane in a style far beyond the drum major. It was the kitchen verdict that he must have been "shocking bad" in his youth; his dinner was done to a turn that night and the maids had new ribbands in their caps and arch provocation on their faces.

Be his age what it might, day after day the Scholar read and wrote, or slowly paced his rustic walks, now amid rose blooms, now upon the sere rustle of leaves or crunch of snow, but always with a faithful old hound to heel on his right, whose head hung low like the master's. Nothing breathed on that homestead that did not seem to have greater right there than the Scholar: the very toads and lizards sat and swelled for pride of ownership in mossy nooks on his walk, and busy winter birds stood still at his approach, and pecked briskly at the brown boughs won by sun from ice, knowing well that not even creeping things had ever seen cause to turn aside for him. One hoary spider had indeed been seen to think the Scholar would learn more if he took some notice of creatures, but everyone knows that since Bruce introduced a spider to history, the tribe has been hypercritical of the insufficient methods of man. It is certain that the Scholar considered himself a mere sojourner there where he was master, and meant to return to anxious friends when he could carry the Truth to them. But the great tomes of his legacy were many and wise; still he lingered, still he sought, while Time went tiptoe past him.

One morning, as he wrote, a caprice of the Spring wind burst open the study casement. A gush of wild-wood fragrance and the shrill lilt of a girl's voice in song flooded into the room together. Some subtle quality of the voice made him throw down his pen and glance at a picture on his table. From beneath its coating of dust a merry brown eve laughed out at him and a round shoulder gleamed whitely. Taking up this picture, he polished it remorsefully with his worn coat cuff, muttering like one asleep: "Poor Kate! I have kept her waiting long. I cannot give myself to happiness or woman, until I find the Truth."

Straightway upon this came a miracle! His door swung open. There upon his threshold, young and rosy, lap and hair full of blossoms, face full of dimples, stood Kate herself. As the man's eye went from the picture to the woman, the man's heart leaped up hot and strong. He dropped the painted thing and caught the living beauty in his arms. "My Kate! you have waited for me!" Small chance has Truth with her own at times, when velvety cheek is so near and the springtide is yet young!

What said the beauty? She laughed again, and kissed him with the careless, cruel, kindness of youth to age. "Yes, we waited and rang till we were tired, so I came on to explore. Awfully nice of you to know me!" "But Kate" - he stammered.

"Harriet. I'm not named for Mamma," she rattled on. "Mamma's out there with Papa and the children."

"Children?" gasped the Scholar.

"Yes. Ten, besides me. Don't you hear them?"

Surely he heard them. Ten! they sounded like legions. The mere pursuit of truth is at once a recompense and a protection! Yet even a votary is vulnerable when a young girl goes on to say: "Let me call them, you'll sprain yourself, rushing about so. I shook your nerves; see how your hand trembles."

No wonder, poor Scholar. In that moment he looked double his age, for he - long unacquainted with mirrors - saw for the first time his stooping shoulders, his crows-feet and wrinkles, reflected in her blithe indifference, her attention wandering from him to his surroundings. His dead youth rose up with power, and stared him in the face; then fell away from his heart in ashes.

That heart was staunch though, as are the hearts of those who seek the Truth, so by the time his guests stepped beneath his roof, he stood ready to welcome them with gentle courtesy - his Kate, grown portly, but fresh and good-humored still, and secretly flattered to see, (as she did with the tail of her eye) her portrait so cleanly kept when all else was so dusty, and hoping her husband would not remark it. Her husband, (who would not have cared if he had, she having tapped his single vein of sentiment and run it dry,) a grave, cautious Scientist: a friend of his, a Speculator, attracted by unlikeness, whose sharp glance bestowed a hypothetical value wherever it fell: these and other friends had hunted the Scholar up to renew old ties in his country home, seeing which, the very cockles of his heart warmed to them. Soon milk was foaming into pails; sounds of beating and churning and frothing arose. Maids scurried in all directions. Slugs disturbed on young green things, and cackling hens in angry session on the barn aloof, alike averred that never had such an evil day befallen poultry yard and kitchen garden. "Humph" snarled old Peter: "me airly salad he should not have, an' me meanin' to sell it in market the Saturday, but for his bean' the boss, dang him!" To which Cook replied with much feeling that "Lord knows, I ain't never before seen the poor, dear gentleman ask for his own." Peter glared at her. "Woman! That's just what I am objectin' to. It's the first time makes the precydent. He's got the precydent on us now," with which mysterious omen hanging over her, Cook retired to her pans and sauces.

The day passed all too quickly, and when the hour for departure came round, the Scholar was so reluctant to part with his friends that he bethought him of making a gift to every one, that some portion of himself might go with them. Gathering them about him, he begged that each would tell him what they had liked best in his home, adding - the wily old Scholar: - that then these things might serve to remind him of friends, and perhaps smile at him in their absence. They were very worldly wise people, however, coming from the city beyond the hills, that city whose knowing lights out-winked the stars, whose mists denied a right of way to the sun himself. So perhaps they saw through his cunning, for all hung back until he said to the Artist: "Come Sir; you have praised my homestead much. What will you crown with your final approbation 'e're you leave me?"

The Artist could but smile back into the genial face bending towards him, "Sir, the fairest thing you own is one that in itself contains the true rules of all Art. It is as blue as the heavens, and like them, a living lesson in gradation of color, and its form displays the perfect line of beauty.'"

The Scholar's gaze sought the dark cabinets on his walls, each rich with its own freight, but the Scientist spoke up with decision. "On the contrary, the finest thing our friend possesses is colorless, formless; its beauty is its utility: its protean energy is a fountain of Power."

"Learning and Art are all very good," chirrupped the speculator, flecking off his eyeglass. "But if ever you chance to be hard up, let me choose what possession of yours shall be put upon the market, and you shall pocket its attractions - less commission - in more cash than anything else I see is likely to bring you."

A swift cloud of deprecation passed over the company, as when a breeze ruffles a grainfield and there is a stir, a rustle and a withdrawal from the rude intruder. The Scholar's cheek even reddened slightly, seeing which, the Poet hastened to staunch the wound, as is the royal prerogative of poets. "Sir," said he, "you have here an instrument of wonderful sweetness. It tunes ear and brain alike to the sweetest harmonies, and though I must leave it, I take its music with me, captured in my latest song, and all the world shall sing it."

He was a famous Poet, so the rest hastened to agree with him. "As for me," said a youth, gazing ardently at Harriet; "what I admired most was an image of the loveliest woman God ever made; what I envy most seemed to hold her in its arms, and these were one thing."

"And I," said a reproachful youth whom she had jilted, "I liked the one thing that cannot lie trampled upon, nor does it change and grow out of knowledge, like the fickle world around us."

"Fancy! Now for my part the jolliest thing here is always changing, never the same. It's a racer! No women for me!" So spoke the Dandy whom Harriet secretly loved. Stung, she turned away to hide her palpitating bosom, but flung a dart behind her, as girls will. "Diamonds," cried she, "give me our host's ancestral diamonds. Larger ones I never saw. Brilliants! Glorious! such quantities. My heart is set on having just such stones."

Her lovers stroked their callow chins and thought of their salaries, but before the puzzled Scholar could ask for an explanation, her mother took his hand, saving plaintively, "My good friend, next to yourself, what I value most is none of these things they name, but just something in your dairy which makes yours the sweetest cream and butter I ever tasted. How my poor children ever grow up on city fare, a merciful heaven only knows."

Everyone laughed at this touching idea, for just then the "poor children" rushed up with a loud rumble, as of thunder, and precipitated themselves upon the Scholar. The one at the rear, who still had some breath remaining, shouted out; "We never saw such a splendid stream. Don't we wish we had it at home." Their host was about to confess that he had never noticed it, when his voice was drowned in a general exclamation from all the grown people in one breath: "That was what I meant too; it is the stream yonder!"

The astonished Scholar turned to look at his choicest possession, now rosy under the setting sun. Its cascade swept down in a serpentine curve, while part of the water writhed backward from the lip of the fall, making a spiral within a spiral in strange double movement; an ebb and a flow. Below the outpour of life-giving water, six eddies swirled away, each in its own circle, but interlinked by a current that emptied itself in a larger whirlpool further down. The little wind that rises out of the cast at nightfall in the spring, struck coldly across this boiling vortex, condensing its foam into a silvery mist that gathered, rose, took on a graceful wraithlike shape, and floated away, a freed thing to the free ether. The Scholar drew himself up in sudden excitement and wonder, then these words burst from him in a torrent strangely unlike the calm evenness of his accustomed speech. "At last! At last I have found the secret. See" - and he pointed to the cascade - "there is the movement that creates life; it circles through the eddies and out of the whirlpool evolves the new-born life itself, the immortal that seeks the skies. Rejoice with me!"

The tears ran down his cheek, but his voice rang like a bugle and his form had a majesty they could not understand. They fell back a few paces. Their mirth was extinguished, their manners constrained. Like guilty hearts they made hasty farewells, avoiding his eye: their thanks fell crisp and cool on the air, like frost. While still their footsteps pressed his land, drowsy birds in the hedges saw them put heads close together in the shadows and whisper furtively, "Mad! He is mad. What will people say? We will never come again." The branches, closing behind them with a shudder, shed a soft rain of blossoms to obliterate their presence; then twining closer, shut the Scholar forever away from the world and its friends.

Lost in an ecstasy, he stood by the hurrying waters. A Voice called to him from somewhere; a Voice of airy mystery, a soundless but almighty Voice, so, that he trembled as he answered, Lord, here am I."

"Seest thou not, oh, Seeker," said the Voice, "that though Truth wears different garb to different men, it is but the livery of their own minds; beneath it is the One Truth that mirrors forth all the rest, changeless and resplendent under as many names as there are men? It is to be found in all things in Nature, even as the water is in all things: men pursue its splendor blindfold through the worlds, to find it shining beside their own door."

"And thou, who art thou?" asked the Scholar.

"I am that Spirit which moves above the face of the waters. With Truth I dwelt in her supreme abode. Seek me there."

An awful thrill, half fear, half joy ran through the hearer's breast, for these last words resounded from the deeps of his heart. Then he knew the supreme abode of Truth and worshiping in it, he became Nature's Scholar, and she made him young again with that youth which men call Immortality.

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