The Blue Flower

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Author: Henry Van Dyke

I

It must have been near Sutherland’s Pond that I lost the way. For there the deserted road which I had been following through the Highlands ran out upon a meadow all abloom with purple loose-strife and golden Saint-John’s wort. The declining sun cast a glory over the lonely field, and far in the corner, nigh to the woods, there was a touch of the celestial colour: blue of the sky seen between white clouds: blue of the sea shimmering through faint drifts of silver mist. The hope of finding that hue of distance and mystery embodied in a living form, the old hope of discovering the Blue Flower rose again in my heart. But it was only for a moment, for when I came nearer I saw that the colour which had caught my eye came from a multitude of closed gentians—the blossoms which never open into perfection—growing so closely together that their blended promise had seemed like a single flower.

So I harked back again, slanting across the meadow, to find the road. But it had vanished. Wandering among the alders and clumps of gray birches, here and there I found a track that looked like it; but as I tried each one, it grew more faint and uncertain and at last came to nothing in a thicket or a marsh. While I was thus beating about the bush the sun dropped below the western rim of hills. It was necessary to make the most of the lingering light, if I did not wish to be benighted in the woods. The little village of Canterbury, which was the goal of my day’s march, must lie about to the north just beyond the edge of the mountain, and in that direction I turned, pushing forward as rapidly as possible through the undergrowth.

Presently I came into a region where the trees were larger and the travelling was easier. It was not a primeval forest, but a second growth of chestnuts and poplars and maples. Through the woods there ran at intervals long lines of broken rock, covered with moss—the ruins, evidently, of ancient stone fences. The land must have been, in former days, a farm, inhabited, cultivated, the home of human hopes and desires and labours, but now relapsed into solitude and wilderness. What could the life have been among these rugged and inhospitable Highlands, on this niggard and reluctant soil? Where was the house that once sheltered the tillers of this rude corner of the earth?

Here, perhaps, in the little clearing into which I now emerged. A couple of decrepit apple-trees grew on the edge of it, and dropped their scanty and gnarled fruit to feast the squirrels. A little farther on, a straggling clump of ancient lilacs, a bewildered old bush of sweetbrier, the dark-green leaves of a cluster of tiger-lilies, long past blooming, marked the grave of the garden. And here, above this square hollow in the earth, with the remains of a crumbling chimney standing sentinel beside it, here the house must have stood. What joys, what sorrows once centred around this cold and desolate hearth-stone? What children went forth like birds from this dismantled nest into the wide world? What guests found refuge----

"Take care! stand back! There is a rattlesnake in the old cellar."

The voice, even more than the words, startled me. I drew away suddenly, and saw, behind the ruins of the chimney, a man of an aspect so striking that to this day his face and figure are as vivid in my memory as if it were but yesterday that I had met him.

He was dressed in black, the coat of a somewhat formal cut, a long cravat loosely knotted in his rolling collar. His head was bare, and the coal-black hair, thick and waving, was in some disorder. His face, smooth and pale, with high forehead, straight nose, and thin, sensitive lips—was it old or young? Handsome it certainly was, the face of a man of mark, a man of power. Yet there was something strange and wild about it. His dark eyes, with the fine wrinkles about them, had a look of unspeakable remoteness, and at the same time an intensity that seemed to pierce me through and through. It was as if he saw me in a dream, yet measured me, weighed me with a scrutiny as exact as it was at bottom indifferent.

But his lips were smiling, and there was no fault to be found, at least, with his manner. He had risen from the broad stone where he had evidently been sitting with his back against the chimney, and came forward to greet me.

"You will pardon the abruptness of my greeting? I thought you might not care to make acquaintance with the present tenant of this old house—at least not without an introduction."

"Certainly not," I answered, "you have done me a real kindness, which is better than the outward form of courtesy. But how is it that you stay at such close quarters with this unpleasant tenant? Have you no fear of him?"

"Not the least in the world," he answered, laughing. "I know the snakes too well, better than they know themselves. It is not likely that even an old serpent with thirteen rattles, like this one, could harm me. I know his ways. Before he could strike I should be out of reach."

"Well," said I, "it is a grim thought, at all events, that this house, once a cheerful home, no doubt, should have fallen at last to be the dwelling of such a vile creature."

"Fallen!" he exclaimed. Then he repeated the word with a questioning accent—"fallen? Are you sure of that? The snake, in his way, may be quite as honest as the people who lived here before him, and not much more harmful. The farmer was a miser who robbed his mother, quarrelled with his brother, and starved his wife. What she lacked in food, she made up in drink, when she could. One of the children, a girl, was a cripple, lamed by her mother in a fit of rage. The two boys were ne’er-do-weels who ran away from home as soon as they were old enough. One of them is serving a life-sentence in the State prison for manslaughter. When the house burned down some thirty years ago, the woman escaped. The man’s body was found with the head crushed in—perhaps by a falling timber. The family of our friend the rattlesnake could hardly surpass that record, I think.

But why should we blame them—any of them? They were only acting out their natures. To one who can see and understand, it is all perfectly simple, and interesting—immensely interesting."

It is impossible to describe the quiet eagerness, the cool glow of fervour with which he narrated this little history. It was the manner of the triumphant pathologist who lays bare some hidden seat of disease. It surprised and repelled me a little; yet it attracted me, too, for I could see how evidently he counted on my comprehension and sympathy.

"Well," said I, "it is a pitiful history. Rural life is not all peace and innocence. But how came you to know the story?"

"I? Oh, I make it my business to know a little of everything, and as much as possible of human life, not excepting the petty chronicles of the rustics around me. It is my chief pleasure. I earn my living by teaching boys. I find my satisfaction in studying men. But you are on a journey, sir, and night is falling. I must not detain you. Or perhaps you will allow me to forward you a little by serving as a guide. Which way were you going when you turned aside to look at this dismantled shrine?"

"To Canterbury," I answered, "to find a night’s, or a month’s, lodging at the inn. My journey is a ramble, it has neither terminus nor time-table."

"Then let me commend to you something vastly better than the tender mercies of the Canterbury Inn. Come with me to the school on Hilltop, where I am a teacher. It is a thousand feet above the village—purer air, finer view, and pleasanter company. There is plenty of room in the house, for it is vacation-time. Master Isaac Ward is always glad to entertain guests."

There was something so sudden and unconventional about the invitation that I was reluctant to accept it; but he gave it naturally and pressed it with earnest courtesy, assuring me that it was in accordance with Master Ward’s custom, that he would be much disappointed to lose the chance of talking with an interesting traveller, that he would far rather let me pay him for my lodging than have me go by, and so on—so that at last I consented.

Three minutes’ walking from the deserted clearing brought us into a travelled road. It circled the breast of the mountain, and as we stepped along it in the dusk I learned something of my companion. His name was Edward Keene; he taught Latin and Greek in the Hilltop School; he had studied for the ministry, but had given it up, I gathered, on account of a certain loss of interest, or rather a diversion of interest in another direction. He spoke of himself with an impersonal candour.

"Preachers must be always trying to persuade men," he said. "But what I care about is to know men. I don’t care what they do. Certainly I have no wish to interfere with them in their doings, for I doubt whether anyone can really change them. Each tree bears its own fruit, you see, and by their fruits you know them."

"What do you say to grafting? That changes the fruit, surely?"

"Yes, but a grafted tree is not really one tree. It is two trees growing together. There is a double life in it, and the second life, the added life, dominates the other. The stock becomes a kind of animate soil for the graft to grow in."

Presently the road dipped into a little valley and rose again, breasting the slope of a wooded hill which thrust itself out from the steeper flank of the mountain-range. Down the hill-side a song floated to meet us—that most noble lyric of old Robert Herrick:

Bid me to live, and I will live
Thy Protestant to be;
Or bid me love, and I will give
A loving heart to thee.

It was a girl’s voice, fresh and clear, with a note of tenderness in it that thrilled me. Keene’s pace quickened. And soon the singer came in sight, stepping lightly down the road, a shape of slender whiteness on the background of gathering night. She was beautiful even in that dim light, with brown eyes and hair, and a face that seemed to breathe purity and trust. Yet there was a trace of anxiety in it, or so I fancied, that gave it an appealing charm.

"You have come at last, Edward," she cried, running forward and putting her hand in his. "It is late. You have been out all day; I began to be afraid."

"Not too late," he answered; "there was no need for fear, Dorothy. I am not alone, you see." And keeping her hand, he introduced me to the daughter of Master Ward.

It was easy to guess the relation between these two young people who walked beside me in the dusk. It needed no words to say that they were lovers. Yet it would have needed many words to define the sense, that came to me gradually, of something singular in the tie that bound them together. On his part there was a certain tone of half-playful condescension toward her such as one might use to a lovely child, which seemed to match but ill with her unconscious attitude of watchful care, of tender solicitude for him—almost like the manner of an elder sister. Lovers they surely were, and acknowledged lovers, for their frankness of demeanour sought no concealment; but I felt that there must be

A little rift within the lute,

though neither of them might know it. Each one’s thought of the other was different from the other’s thought of self. There could not be a complete understanding, a perfect accord. What was the secret, of which each knew half, but not the other half?

Thus, with steps that kept time, but with thoughts how wide apart, we came to the door of the school. A warm flood of light poured out to greet us. The Master, an elderly, placid, comfortable man, gave me just the welcome that had been promised in his name. The supper was waiting, and the evening passed in such happy cheer that the bewilderments and misgivings of the twilight melted away, and at bedtime I dropped into the nest of sleep as one who has found a shelter among friends.

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Chicago: Henry Van Dyke, "I," The Blue Flower, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in The Blue Flower (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2022, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L92SNUCF5I8LUES.

MLA: Dyke, Henry Van. "I." The Blue Flower, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in The Blue Flower, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2022. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L92SNUCF5I8LUES.

Harvard: Dyke, HV, 'I' in The Blue Flower, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, The Blue Flower, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2022, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=L92SNUCF5I8LUES.