The Hampshire Hills
( Originally Published 1891 )
ONE afternoon many years ago two little brothers named Seth and Abner were playing in the orchard. They were not troubled with the heat of the August day, for a soft, cool wind came up from the river in the valley over yonder and fanned their red cheeks and played all kinds of pranks with their tangled curls. All about them was the hum of bees, the song of birds, the smell of clover, and the merry music of the crickets. Their little dog Fido chased them through the high, waving grass, and rolled with them under the trees, and barked himself hoarse in his attempt to keep pace with their laughter. Wearied at length, they lay beneath the bellflower-tree and looked off at the Hampshire hills, and wondered if the time ever would come when they should go out into the world beyond those hills and be great, noisy men.
Fido did not understand it at all. He lolled in the grass, cooling his tongue on the clover bloom, and puzzling his brain to know why his little masters were so quiet all at once.
" I wish I were a man," said Abner, ruefully. " I want to be somebody and do something. It is very hard to be a little boy so long and to have no companions but little boys and girls, to see nothing but these same old trees and this same high grass, and to hear nothing but the same bird-songs from one day to another."
" That is true," said Seth. " I, too, am very tired of being a little boy, and I long to go out into the world and be a man like my gran'pa or my father or my uncles. With nothing to look at but those distant hills and the river in the valley, my eyes are wearied ; and I shall be very happy when I am big enough to leave this stupid place."
Had Fido understood their words he would have chided them, for the little dog loved his home and had no thought of any other pleasure than romping through the orchard and playing with his little masters all the day. But Fido did not understand them.
The clover bloom heard them with sadness. Had they but listened in turn they would have heard the clover saying softly : " Stay with me while you may, little boys ; trample me with your merry feet ; let me feel the imprint of your curly heads and kiss the sunburn on your little cheeks. Love me while you may, for when you go away you never will come back."
The bellflower-tree heard them, too, and she waved her great, strong branches as if she would caress the impatient little lads, and she whispered : " Do not think of leaving me : you are children, and you know nothing of the world beyond those distant hills. It is full of trouble and care and sorrow; abide here in this quiet spot till you are prepared to meet the vexations of that outer world. We are for you,we trees and grass and birds and bees and flowers. Abide with us, and learn the wisdom we teach."
The cricket in the raspberry-hedge heard them, and she chirped, oh! so sadly: "You will go out into the world and leave us and never think of us again till it is too late to re-turn. Open your ears, little boys, and hear my song of contentment."
So spake the clover bloom and the bellflower-tree and the cricket; and in like manner the robin that nested in the linden over yonder, and the big bumblebee that lived in the hole under the pasture gate, and the butterfly and the wild rose pleaded with them, each in his own way; but the little boys did not heed them, so eager were their desires to go into and mingle with the great world beyond those distant hills.
Many years went by ; and at last Seth and Abner grew to manhood, and the time was come when they were to go into the world and be brave, strong men. Fido had been dead a long time. They had made him a grave under the bellflower. tree, yes, just where he had romped with the two little boys that August afternoon Fido lay sleeping amid the humming of the bees and the perfume of the clover. But Seth and Abner did not think of Fido now, nor did they give even a passing thought to any of their old friends, the bellflower-tree, the clover, the cricket, and the robin. Their hearts beat with exultation. They were men, and they were going beyond the hills to know and try the world.
They were equipped for that struggle, not in a vain, frivolous way, but as good and brave young men should be. A gentle mother had counselled them, a prudent father had advised them, and they had gathered from the sweet things of Nature much of that wisdom before which all knowledge is as nothing. So they were fortified. They went beyond the hills and came into the West. How great and busy was the world, how great and busy it was here in the West! What a rush and noise and turmoil and seething and surging, and how keenly did the brothers have to watch and struggle for vantage ground. Withal, they prospered ; the counsel of the mother, the advice of the father, the wisdom of the grass and flowers and trees, were much to them, and they prospered. Honor and riches came to them, and they were happy. But amid it all, how seldom they thought of the little home among the circling hills where they had learned the first sweet lessons of life !
And now they were old and gray. They lived in splendid mansions, and all people paid them honor.
One August day a grim messenger stood in Seth's presence and beckoned to him.
" Who are you ? " cried Seth. " What strange power have you over me that the very sight of you chills my blood and stays the beating of my heart? "
Then the messenger threw aside his mask, and Seth saw that he was Death. Seth made no outcry ; he knew what the summons meant, and he was content. But he sent for Abner.
And when Abner came, Seth was stretched upon his bed, and there was a strange look in his eyes and a flush upon his cheeks, as though a fatal fever had laid hold on him.
"You shall not die !" cried Abner, and he threw himself about his brother's neck and wept.
But Seth bade Abner cease his outcry. " Sit hereby my bedside and talk with me," said he, "and let us speak of the Hampshire hills."
A great wonder overcame Abner. With reverence he listened, and as he listened, a sweet peace seemed to steal into his soul.
" I am prepared for Death," said Seth, " and I will go with Death this day. Let us talk of our childhood now, for, after all the battle with this great world, it is pleasant to think and speak of our boyhood among the Hampshire hills."
" Say on, dear brother," said Abner.
" I am thinking of an August day Iong ago," said Seth, solemnly and softly. " It was so very long ago, and yet it seems only yesterday. We were in the orchard together, under the bellflower-tree, and our little dog "
" Fido," said Abner, remembering it all, as the years came back.
"Fido and you and I, under the bellflower-tree," said Seth. " How we had played, and how weary we were, and how cool the grass was, and how sweet was the fragrance of the flowers ! Can you remember it, brother?"
" Oh, yes," replied Abner, " and I remember how we lay among the clover and looked off at the distant hills and wondered of the world beyond."
"And amid our wanderings and longings," said Seth, " how the old bellflower-tree seemed to stretch her kind arms down to us as if she would hold us away from that world beyond the hills."
"And now I can remember that the clover whispered to us, and the cricket in the raspberry-hedge sang to us of contentment," said Abner.
" The robin, too, carolled in the linden."
" It is very sweet to remember it now," said Seth. " How blue and hazy the hills looked ; how cool the breeze blew up from the river ; how like a silver lake the old pickerel pond sweltered under the summer sun over beyond the pasture and broom-corn, and how merry was the music of the birds and bees ! "
So these old men, who had been little boys together, talked of the August afternoon when with Fido they had romped in the orchard and rested beneath the bellflower-tree. And Seth's voice grew fainter, and his eyes were, oh ! so dim ; but to the very last he spoke of the dear old days and the orchard and the clover and the Hampshire hills. And when Seth fell asleep forever, Abner kissed his brother's lips and knelt at the bedside and said the prayer his mother had taught him.
In the street without there was the noise of passing carts, the cries of trades-people, and all the bustle of a great and busy city ; but, looking upon Seth's dear, dead face, Abner could hear only the music voices of birds and crickets and summer winds as he had heard them with Seth when they were little boys together, back among the Hampshire hills.