( Scribner’s Magazine, July, 1879.)
It had been “borne in” upon him, more or less, during the long winter; it had not relaxed its hold when the frosts unlocked and the streams were set free from their long winter’s silence among the hills. He grew restless and abstracted under “the turnings of the Lord’s hand upon him,” and his speech unconsciously shaped itself into the Biblical cadences which came to him in his moments of spiritual exercise.
The bedrabbled snows of March shrank away before the keen, quickening sunbeams; the hills emerged, brown and sodden, like the chrysalis of the new year. The streams woke in a tumult, and all day and night their voices called from the hills back of the mill. The waste-weir was a foaming torrent, and spread itself in muddy shallows across the meadow beyond the old garden where the robins and blue birds were house-hunting. Friend Barton’s trouble stirred with the life-blood of the year, and pressed upon him sorely; but as yet he gave it no words. He plodded about among his lean kine, tempering the winds of March to his untimely lambs, and reconciling unnatural ewes to their maternal duties.
Friend Barton had never heard of the doctrine of the survival of the fittest; though it was the spring of 1812, and England and America were investigating the subject on the seas, while the nations of Europe were practically illustrating it. The “hospital tent,” as the boys called an old corn-basket, covered with carpet, which stood beside the kitchen chimney, was seldom without an occupant,–a brood of chilled chickens, a weakly lamb, or a wee pig (with too much blue in its pinkness), which had been left behind by its stouter brethren in the race for existence. The old mill hummed away through the day, and often late in the evening if time pressed, upon the grists which added a thin, intermittent stream of tribute to the family income. Whenever work was “slack,” Friend Barton was sawing or chopping in the wood-shed adjoining the kitchen; every moment he could seize or make he was there, stooping over the rapidly growing pile.
“Seems to me, father, thee’s in a great hurry with the wood this spring. I don’t know when we’ve had such a pile ahead.”
“‘Twon’t burn up any faster for being chopped,” Friend Barton said; and then his wife Rachel knew that if he had a reason for being “forehanded” with the wood, he was not ready to give it.
One rainy April afternoon, when the smoky gray distances began to take a tinge of green, and through the drip and rustle of the rain the call of the robins sounded, Friend Barton sat in the door of the barn, oiling the road-harness. The old chaise had been wheeled out and greased, and its cushions beaten and dusted.
An ox team with a load of grain creaked up the hill and stopped at the mill door. The driver, seeing Friend Barton’s broad-brimmed drab felt hat against the dark interior of the barn, came down the short lane leading from the mill past the house and farm-buildings.
“Fixin’ up for travellin’, Uncle Tommy?”
Vain compliments were unacceptable to Thomas Barton, and he was generally known and addressed as “Uncle Tommy” by the world’s people of a younger generation.
“It is not in man that walketh to direct his own steps, neighbor Gordon. I am getting myself in readiness to obey the Lord, whichever way He calls me.”
Farmer Gordon cast a shrewd eye over the premises. They wore that patient, sad, exhumed look which old farm-buildings are apt to have in early spring. The roofs were black with rain, and brightened with patches of green moss. Farmer Gordon instinctively calculated how many “bunches o’ shingle” would be required to rescue them from the decline into which they had fallen, in spite of the hectic green spots.