A HUT IN THE PRECIPICE

In the southern part of the Appalachian Mountains the tree-clad ridges
fold and coil about one another. In this wooded wilderness the trend of
each slope, the meandering of each stream, take unlooked-for turnings,
and the valleys cross and twist. It is such a region as we often find in
dreams, where the unexpected bars the way or opens out into falling
vistas down which our souls must speed, chasing some hope or chased by
unknown fears.

On a certain day a man called Neil Durgan passed through the village of
Deer Cove, in the mountains of Northern Georgia. When he had left the
few wooden buildings and the mill round which they clustered, he took a
path by the foaming mill-stream and ascended the mountain of Deer.

For more than a century before the freeing of the slaves, the Durgans
had been one of the proudest and richest families of Georgia. This man
was the present head of the house, sole heir to the loss of all its
lands and wealth. He was growing old now. Disappointment, Poverty, and
Humility walked with him. Yet Joy, the fugitive, peeped at him through
the leafless forest, from the snow-flakes of the dogwood and from the
violets in the moss, laughed at him in the mountain torrent, and wooed
him with the scent of the warming earth. Humility caught and kissed the
fleeting spirit, and led her also in attendance upon the traveller’s
weary feet.

Deer Cove is more than two thousand feet in altitude; Deer Mountain
rises a thousand feet above. Half-way up, Durgan came to the cabin of a
negro called Adam. According to the usage of the time, the freedman’s
surname was Durgan, because he had been born and bred on the Durgan
estates. Adam was a huge black negro. He and Durgan had not met since
they were boys.

Adam’s wife set a good table before the visitor. She was a quadroon,
younger, lithe and attractive. Both stood and watched Durgan eat–Adam
dumb with pleasure, the negress talking at times with such quick rushes
of soft words that attentive listening was necessary.

“Yes, Marse Neil, suh; these ladies as lives up here on Deer, they’s
here for their health–they is. Very nice ladies they is, too; but
they’s from the North! They don’t know how to treat us niggers right
kind as you does, suh! They’s allus for sayin’ ‘please’ an’ ‘thank ‘e,’
and ‘splaining perjinks to Adam an’ me. But ef you can’t board with
these ladies, marsa, ther’s no place you can live on Deer–no, there
ain’t, suh.”

Durgan had had his table set before the door, and ate looking at the
chaos of valleys, domes, and peaks which, from this height, was open to
the view. The characteristic blue haze of the region was over all. The
lower valleys in tender leaf had a changeful purple shimmer upon them,
as seen in the peacock’s plumage. The sun rained down white light from a
fleecy sky. The tree-tops of the slope immediately beneath them were red
with sap.

After a mood of reflection Durgan said, “You live well. These ladies
must pay you well if you can afford dinners like this.”

“Yes, Marse Neil, suh; they pays better than any in these parts. Miss
Hermie, she’s got right smart of sense, too, ’bout money. Miss Birdie,
she’s more for animals and flowers an’ sich; but they pays well, they
does.”

“Look me out two good men to work with me in the mine, Adam.”

Adam showed his white teeth in respectful joy. “That’s all right, suh.”

“Of course, as you are working for these ladies, you will look for my
men in your spare time.”

“That’s all right, suh.”

Durgan put down sufficient payment for his food, took up his travelling
satchel, and walked on. From the turn of the rough cart-road on which
the cabin stood the rocky summit was visible, and close below it the
gables of a solitary dwelling.

“A rough perch for northern birds!” said he to himself, and then was
plunged again in his own affairs. The branches, arching above, shut out
all prospect. He plodded on.

The upper side of the mountain was a bald wall of rock. Where, part way
up, the zigzag road abutted on this precipice it met a foot-trail to the
summit, and at the same point an outer ledge of flat rock gave access to
an excavation near at hand in the precipice. A wooden hut with a rude
bench at its door stood on the ledge, the only legacy of a former miner.
Durgan perceived that his new sphere was reached. He rested upon the
bench and looked about him wistfully.

He was a large, well-built man, with patrician cast of feature, brown
skin, and hair that was almost gray. His clothes were beginning to fray
at the edges. They were the clothes of a man of fashion whose pockets
had long been empty. His manner was haughty, but subdued by that subtle
gentleness which failure gives to higher natures. A broken heart, a head
carried high–these evoke compassion which can seldom be expressed.

He could look over the foot-hills to where cloud-shadows were slowly
sailing upon the blue, billowy reaches of the Georgian plains. In that
horizon, dim with sunlight, Durgan had sucked his silver spoon, and
possessed all that pertains to the lust of the eye and the pride of
life. The cruel war had wrapped him and his in its flames. When it was
over, he had sought relief in speculation, and time had brought the
episode of love. He had fought and lost; he had played and lost; he had
married and lost. Out of war and play and love he had brought only
himself and such a coat as is as much part of a man as its fur is part
of an animal.

After a while he unfolded a letter already well worn. He read it for the
last time with the fancy that it was well to end the old life where he
hoped to commence the new one.

The letter was written in New York, and dated a month before. It was
from his wife.

“It is very well for you to say that you would not want money from
me if I came to live in the south with you, but I do not believe
you could earn your own living, and it would ill become my social
position to acknowledge a husband who was out at elbows and working
like a convict. I think, too, that it is cant for you to preach to
me and say that ‘it would be well for us to try and do better.’ Is
it my fault that you have lost all self-respect, refusing to enter
good society, to interest yourself in the arts and all that belongs
to the spiritual side of life? Is it my fault that a spiritually
minded man has given me the sympathy which you cannot even
understand? I desire that you never again express to me your
thoughts about a friendship which is above your comprehension.

“If your rich cousin will let you delve for him for a pittance I
shall not interfere. I might tell him he could not put his mine
into worse hands! I shall not alter the agreement we made ten years
ago, which is that while you remain at a distance, and refrain from
annoyance, I shall not seek legal separation.”

The husband looked with a faint smile at the crest of the Durgans on the
fashionable notepaper, at the handwriting in which a resolute effort at
fashion barely concealed a lack of education. In the diction and
orthography he discerned the work of a second mind, and it was with a
puzzled, as well as a troubled air, that he tore the paper into atoms
and let them flutter over the precipice in the soft breeze. But the
puzzle was beyond his reading, and the trouble he cast into the past.
Whatever good he had deserved at the hands of his wife, it was not in
his nature to feel that Providence dealt too hardly with him. As he rose
to examine his new scene of work, the phrase of the huge negro returned
to his mind, and he muttered to himself, “Yes, suh; that’s all right!”

He found a pick and hammer in the shed, and set himself instantly to
break the rock where the vein of mica had already been worked. Weary as
he soon became, he was glad to suppose that, having failed in dealing
with his kind, he must wrestle now only with the solid earth, and in the
peace of the wilderness.

The angels, looking down upon him, smiled; for they know well that the
warfare of the world is only escaped by selfishness, not by
circumstance.