Seth Miles and the Sacred Fire is featured in the anthology, Atlantic Narratives: Modern Short Stories, published in 1918. “Wasn’t it a good thing for the Bonniwells to pay tribute to the humanities in my person? Didn’t we, somehow, owe it to the world to put back in culture part of what we took out in cash? But how could I get that across to dad?”
‘RICHARD,’ said my dad about a week after Commencement, ‘life is real. You have had your education and your keep, and you’re a pleasant enough lad around the house. But the time has come to see what’s in you, and I want you to begin to show it right away. If you go to the coast with the family, it will mean three months fooling around with the yacht and the cars and a bunch of pretty girls. There’s nothing in that for you any longer.’
Of course, this rubbed me the wrong way.
‘Now you’ve got your degree, it’s time we started something else. You say you want to be a scholar—I suppose that means a college professor. Of course scholarship doesn’t pay, but if I leave you a few good bonds, probably you can clip the coupons while you last. I don’t insist that you make money, but I do insist that you work. My son must be able to lick his weight in wild-cats, whatever job he’s on. Do you get me?’
I looked out of the window and nodded, somewhat haughtily. Of course I couldn’t explain to dad the mixture of feelings that led me to choose scholarship. For, while I am keen on philology, and really do love the classics so that my spirit seems to swim, if you know what I mean, in the atmosphere that upheld Horace and the wise Cicero of ‘De Senectute,’ I also thought there was money enough in the family already. Wasn’t it a good thing for the Bonniwells to pay tribute to the humanities in my person? Didn’t we, somehow, owe it to the world to put back in culture part of what we took out in cash? But how could I get that across to dad?
He looked at me as if he, too, were trying to utter something difficult.
‘There are passions of the head as well as of the heart,’ he said finally. I opened my eyes, for he didn’t often talk in such fashion. ‘The old Greeks knew that. I always supposed a scholar, a teacher, had to feel that way if he was any good—that it was the mark of his calling. Perhaps you’ve been called; but, if so, you keep it pretty dark.’
He stopped and waited for an appropriate response, but I just couldn’t get it out. So I remarked, ‘If I’m not on the boat this summer, you’ll need another man when you cruise.’
‘That’s my affair,’ said he, looking disappointed. ‘Yours will be to hold down your job. I’ve got one ready for you. If you don’t like it, you can get another. We’ll see about a Ph.D. and Germany later on. But for this season, I had influence enough to get you the summer school in the Jericho district beyond Garibaldi, and you can board with Seth Miles.’
When I was a child, before we moved to Chicago, we lived in Oatesville, at the back of beyond. Garibaldi is an Indiana cross-roads about five miles farther on the road to nowhere.
‘O dad!’ I said; but I put everything I thought into those two words.
He instantly began to look as much like the heavy father on the stage as is possible to a spare man with a Roman nose. So I shrugged my shoulders.
‘Oh, very well!’ I said. ‘If you find me a fossil in the fall, pick out a comfortable museum to lend me to, won’t you?’
‘Richard.’ said my dad, ‘God only knows how a boy should be dealt with. I don’t. If I could only tell you the things I know so you would believe them, I’d set a match to half my fortune this minute. I want you to touch life somewhere, but I don’t know how to work it in. I’m doing this in sheer desperation.’
I could see he meant it, too, for his eyes were shiny and the little drops came out on his forehead.
‘I don’t happen to know anybody fitter than old Miles to inspire a scholar and a gentleman. So, if the summer doesn’t do you any good, it can’t do you any harm. I shall label your season’s work “Richard Bonniwell, Jr. on His Own Hook. Exhibit A.”—Don’t forget that. Your mother and I may seem to be in Maine, but I guess in our minds we’ll be down at Jericho schoolhouse looking on, most of the time.’
You ‘d think a man might buck up in response to that, wouldn’t you? But I didn’t particularly. It made me feel superior toward dad because he didn’t know any better than to arrange such a summer, thinking it would teach me anything. I suspected this indulgent attitude of mine might break down later, and it did.
It was a blazing hot summer for one thing. One of those occasional summers of the Middle West when the cattle pant in the fields and the blades of corn get limp on their stalks.
Mr. Miles, who was a benign bachelor, lived in a brick farmhouse with one long wing, and a furnace of which he was very proud. He put up his own ice, too, which was more to the point in July. His widowed sister kept house for him, and, if the meat was usually tough, the cream and vegetables were beyond praise. He owned the store at Garibaldi as well as this large farm; so he was a man of means, and important in his own sphere. To look at, he was rather wonderful. I don’t know how to describe him. He had keen, kind blue eyes; wavy, white hair; strong, regular features. There was a kind of graciousness and distinction about him that didn’t fit his speech and dress. It was as if you always saw the man he might be in the shadow of the man he was. Put him into evening clothes and take away his vernacular, and he’d be one of the loveliest old patriarchs you ever met.
The schoolhouse was brick, too; set back from the road in a field of hard-trodden clay, decorated with moth-eaten patches of grass. For further adornment, there was a row of box-alders out in front. As a temple of learning, it fell short. As its ministrant, I did the same.
There were forty scholars: squirmy, grimy little things that I found it hard to tell apart at first. I knew this was not the right attitude, but how could I help it? I had never tried to teach anybody anything before in my life. The bigger girls blushed and giggled; the little boys made faces and stuck out their tongues. As it was a summer session, there were no big boys to speak of.
To go in for scholarship does not at all imply the teacher’s gift or the desire for it. At Oxford, you know, they are a bit sniffy about the lecturers who arouse enthusiasm. Such are suspected of being ‘popular,’ and that, really, is quite awful. Some of our men have a similar notion, and, no doubt, it colored my views. Yet, deep down, I knew that if I was a teacher, it was up to me to teach. I really did try, but it takes time to get the hang of anything.
I was homesick, too. Mildred and Millicent, my kid sisters, are great fun, and the house is full of young people all summer long at home. When I shut my eyes I could see the blue, sparkling waters of the inlet, and the rocking of our float with its line of gay canoes.
How can I describe the rising tide of sick disgust at my surroundings that began to flood my spirit? Now that it’s all in the past, I’d like to think it was purely my liver,—I didn’t get enough exercise, really I didn’t, for it was too hot to walk much,—but perhaps part of it was just bad temper.
You see, it takes a good deal of a fellow to stand such a complete transplanting. I hated the paper shades in my bedroom, tied up with a cord, and the Nottingham curtains, and the springs that sank in the middle. I hated the respectable Brussels carpet in the best room, and the red rocking-chairs on the porch. I hated the hot, sleepless nights and the blazing, drowsy days.
Oh, I tell you, I had a glorious grouch!
I didn’t exactly hate the squirming children, for some of them began to show signs of almost human intelligence after they got used to me, and that did win me; but I hated that little schoolroom where the flies buzzed loudly all day long on the streaky panes. With deadly hatred I hated it.
I got to feeling very badly treated. What did my father suppose such commonplace discomforts were going to do for me? What part had a summer like this in the life and work that were to be mine? I lost that comfortable little feeling of advantage over life. I mislaid my consciousness of the silver spoon. In about three weeks it seemed as if I’d always taught summer-school at Jericho, and might have to keep on.
Oh, well!—I was hot and sore. Everybody has been hot and sore some time or other, I suppose. The minute description can be omitted. But I don’t know whether everybody with a grievance gets so badly twisted up in it as I do.
These emotions reached their climax one muggy, sultry July day as I plodded, moist and unhappy, back from the schoolhouse. I wiped my forehead, gritted my teeth, and vowed I would not stand the whole situation another twenty-four hours. I’d resign my position, wire dad, and take a train for somewhere out West in the mountains. If I had to make good on my own hook in three months, I’d at least do it in a cool place, at work of my selecting. The challenged party ought to have the choice of weapons.
My room was intolerably stuffy, so I came downstairs reluctantly and sat on the front steps. There was a wide outlook, for the house stood on a ridge of land that broke the flat prairie like a great welt. Old Miles was there, watching a heavy cloud-bank off in the southwest. Those clouds had been fooling around every evening for a week, but nothing ever came of it. The longer the drought, the harder it is to break.
I made some caustic remark about the weather as I sat down. Probably I looked cross enough to bite the poker.
Miles looked at me and then looked away quickly, as if it really was not decent to be observing a fellow in such a rage. I knew the look, for I’ve felt that way myself about other men.
‘Yes, bad weather,’ he said. ‘When it gets too hot and dry for corn, it’s too hot and dry for folks. And then—it always rains. It’ll rain to-night. You wait and see.’
I mumbled something disparaging to the universe.
‘Richard!’ said Mr. Miles suddenly and strongly, ‘I know what ails you. It ain’t the weather, it’s your teaching. You’re discouraged because you can’t make ’em sense things. But it ain’t time yet for you to get discouraged. I hate to see it, for it ain’t necessary.’
This made me feel a little ashamed of myself.
‘Did you ever teach, Mr. Miles?’ I asked, for the sake of seeming civil.
‘Yes, I did. So I know there’s a secret to teachin’ you prob’ly ain’t got yet. I dunno as I could help you to it. It ain’t likely. An’ yet—’
Unlikely indeed! I thought. Aloud, I said politely, ‘I’d be glad to hear your views.’
‘I know what you feel!’ he said with extraordinary energy. ‘My Lord! Don’t I know what you feel? You want to make ’em sense things as you sense ’em. You want to make ’em work as you can work. You won’t be satisfied until you’ve given ’em the thirst to know and the means of knowing. Yes, I know what you feel!’
I stared at him, dumbfounded. I knew what I felt, too, but it wasn’t much like this.
‘There are pictures in your brain that you must show ’em. There’s a universe to cram inside their heads. God has been workin’ for a billion years at doing things—and just one little life to learn about ’em in! To feel you’re on His trail, a-following fast, and got to pass the feeling on—I guess there’s no wine on earth so heady, is there, boy?’
I couldn’t pretend I didn’t understand him. I have had it too—that wonderful sensation we pack away into two dry words and label ‘intellectual stimulus.’ But it hadn’t come to me that I could, or should, pass it on. I thought it was an emotion designed for my private encouragement and delight. And what was old Seth Miles doing with intellectual stimulus? I would as soon expect to unearth a case of champagne in his cellar. But, however he got it, undeniably it was the real thing.
A dozen questions rushed to my tongue, but I held them back, for he was looking me up and down with a wistful tenderness that seemed to prelude further revelation.
‘I’m going to tell you the whole story now,’ he said with an effort. ‘I promised your father I would. He told me to. And I’d better get it over. Mebbe there’s something in it for you—and mebbe not. But here it is.’
‘I’ve lived right here since I was a little shaver. My father cleared this land on the Ridge, and as I grew up, I helped him. We were a small family for those days. I was the only boy. There was one sister, Sarah, who keeps house for me now—and Cynthy. Cynthy was an orphan my folks took to raise for company to Sarah. My father was her guardeen and she had two thousand dollars, so it wasn’t charity, you understand. She was the prettiest child, an’ the gentlest, I ever see, with her big brown eyes, her curly bronze hair, an’ her friendly little ways. I made it my business to look after Cynthy, the way a bigger boy will, from the time she come to us. Sometimes Sarah, being larger an’ self-willed, would pick on her a little—an’ then I’d put Sarah in her place mighty sudden. P’raps Cynthy was my romance, for she was a little finer stuff than we were. But I wasn’t a sentimental boy. Quite the other way. Mostly I was counted a handful. You ain’t got anybody in your school as hard to handle as I was when I was a cub.
‘When I went to school, I went for the fun of it, and to torment the teacher. I hadn’t another thought in my head. If I didn’t get a lickin’ once a week, I thought I was neglected. When I was sixteen, I’d been through Dayboll’s Arithmetic, and I could read and spell a little for my own use, but my spelling wasn’t much good to anybody else. That was all I knew and all I wanted to know. You see, the little I learned was all plastered on the outside, so to speak. It hadn’t called to anything inside me then.
‘One fall there come a new teacher to our school, a young fellow earnin’ money to get through college. He got on the right side of me somehow. I can’t tell how he did it, because I don’t know. But first he set me studying and then he set me thinking. And I began to work at books from the inside. They weren’t tasks any more. He made me feel like I had a mind and could use it, just like I knew I had strong muscles and could use them. Seemed ‘s if when I once got started, I couldn’t stop. I got up mornings to study. I studied nights an’ I studied Sundays. There couldn’t nothing stop me. I thought I’d found the biggest thing on earth when I found out how to make my mind work! Jerusalem! Those were days! I was happy then! Sometimes I wonder what the Lord’s got saved up for us in the next world as good as that tasted in this.’
He stopped, threw back his head and drew in a long, ecstatic breath, as though he would taste again the sharp, sweet flavor of that draught.
‘I studied like that for nigh two years. Then a new idea struck me. It was one spring day. I remember father and I was ploughing for corn. I said, “Father, if I could get a school, I guess I could teach.” He hadn’t no more idea I could teach than that I could go to Congress, not a bit; but I finally drilled it into him I was in earnest, and that fall he helped me get a school near home.
‘I never did any work as hard as that. It was against me that I was so near home, and everybody knew I’d never studied until just lately. I could tell you stories from now till bedtime about the times I had with the big boys and girls. But I never let go my main idea for a minute—that it wasn’t just so much grammar and ‘rithmetic I was tryin’ to cram into them, but that I had to show ’em how to sense it all. By and by, one after another found out what I was after. The bright ones took to it like ducks to water. It was just wonderful the work they’d do for me, once they understood.
‘A notion took shape in my head. For all I could see, the things to learn were endless. They stretched ahead of me like a sun-path on the water. I thought, “Mebbe I can go on learning all my days. Mebbe I can teach as I learn, so young folks will say of me as I said of my teacher, He showed me how to sense things for myself.” That notion seemed wonderful good to me! It grew stronger an’ stronger. It seemed as if I’d fit into such a life the way a key fits in its lock. And I couldn’t see no reason why I shouldn’t put it through.
‘So I spoke to father. He didn’t say much, but I noticed he didn’t seem keen about it. He’d bought the store at the Corners two years before, and it seemed to me it would work out pretty well if he sold the farm and just tended store and had a little house in Garibaldi, as he and mother got along in years.
‘I thought likely Sarah would marry, and anybody might be sure Cynthy would. She an’ Sarah had had two years’ schooling in Oatesville by this time, and they held themselves a bit high. Cynthy was grown up that pretty and dainty you caught your breath when you looked at her. There’s some young girls have that dazzling kind of a look. When you lay eyes on them, it hardly seems as if it could be true they looked like that. Cynthy was one of that kind.
‘My plans took shape in my mind the second winter I taught. I set my heart on teaching one more year and then going to school somewhere myself. I got the State University catalogue and began to plan the studying I did nights so it would help me enter.
‘It was just then that I ran against the proposition of teaching Greek. A boy from York State come out to spend the winter with an uncle whose farm joined ours. He’d lost his father, and I guess his mother didn’t know what to do with him. I don’t mean Dick wasn’t a good boy, but likely he was a handful for a woman.
‘Living so near, we saw a lot of him. He was always coming in evenings to see the girls, and he pretended to go to school, too. He was sort of uppish in his ways, and I knew he made fun of me and my teaching, all around among the neighbors. What did he do one day but bring me some beginning Greek exercises to look over, with his head in the air as if he was sayin’, “Guess I’ve got you now!”
‘I took his exercises and looked at ’em, awful wise, and said those was all right, that time. Bless you, I didn’t know Alphy from Omegy, but I meant to, mighty quick! I walked seven miles an’ back that evening to borrow some Greek books of a man I knew had ’em, and sat up till two o’clock, tryin’ to get the hang of the alphabet.
‘Well, sir! I just pitched into those books an’ tore the innards out of ’em, and then I pitched into that fellow. You’d ought to have seen him open his eyes when he found I knew what I was talkin’ about! He got tired of his Greek inside of two weeks. But I held him to it. I made him keep right on, and I did the same, and kept ahead of him.
‘It interested me awfully, that Greek. I borrowed some more books and got me some translations. I don’t say I got so I could read it easy, but I got on to a lot of new ideas. There was one book about a fellow who was strapped to a rock for a thousand years for bringing the fire of the gods to mortals. Probably you’ve heard of it. I liked that.’
All this sounded to me a good deal like a fairy-tale the old gentleman was telling. Of course, all education is so much more rigid nowadays, that the idea of anybody pitching in that way, and grabbing the heart out of any form of knowledge was novel to me. Yet I’d read in the biographies of great men that such things had really been done. Only—Mr. Miles wasn’t a great man. How, then, had he come to accomplish what I understood was essentially an achievement of genius? The thing staggered me.
‘”Prometheus Bound,”‘ said Seth Miles meditatively. ‘That’s the one. You may think I was conceited, but it seemed to me I knew how that man felt. To make them look up! To kindle the flame! Didn’t I know how a man could long to do that? Wouldn’t I, too, risk the anger of the gods if I could fire those children’s minds the way my own was fired?
‘You see, it’s this way, Richard: a feeling is a feeling. There are only just so many of ’em in the world, and if you know what any one of ’em is like, you do. That’s all.
‘When I spoke to father about my plans again, he looked as if I’d hurt him. A pitiful, caught look came in his eyes, and he said, “Don’t let’s talk about it now, Seth. I—I reelly ain’t up to it to-day.”
‘There was something in what he said, or the way he said it, that just seemed to hit my heart a smashing blow. I felt like I’d swallowed a pound of shot, and yet I didn’t know why. I couldn’t see anything wrong, nor any reason why my plans wasn’t for the best, for all of us. But those few words he said, and the way he looked, upset me so that I went off to the barn after school that afternoon and climbed into the hay-mow to find a quiet place to figure the thing out. I hadn’t been there long before I heard voices down below, and Cynthy’s laugh, and somebody climbing the ladder. It was Cynthy and Dick. Sarah had sent ’em out to hunt more eggs for a cake she was bakin’.
‘I didn’t think they’d stay long, and I wanted to be let alone, so I just kept quiet.
‘Now I want to say before I go any further that Dick would have been a great deal more no-account than he was if he hadn’t admired Cynthy, and it wasn’t any wonder she liked him. Besides what there was to him, there was plenty of little reasons, like the kind of neckties he wore and the way he kept his shoes shined. There was always a kind of style about Dick.
‘They rustled round, laughing and talking, till they got the five eggs they was sent for, and then Cynthy made as if she started down the ladder. Dick held her back.
‘”Not till you’ve kissed me!” said he.
‘”I’m ashamed of you,” said she.
‘”I’m proud of myself,” said he, “to think I know enough to want it. Why, Cynthy, I ain’t never had one, but I’d swear a kiss of yours would be like the flutter of an angel’s wing across my lips.”
‘”That’s foolishness,” said she; but she said it softly, as if she liked foolishness.
‘Mebbe you wonder how I remember every little thing they said. It’s like it was burned into my brain with fire. For I no sooner heard ’em foolin’ with one another that soft little way than something seemed to wring my heart with such a twist that it stopped beating.—Dick kiss Cynthy? Why—why, Cynthy was mine! She’d always been as close to me as the beat of my own heart. From the minute I first laid eyes on her I’d known it, in the back of my mind. I’d never put it into words, not even to myself. But that was the way it was. So now my soul just staggered. Nobody could kiss Cynthy but me. That was all.
‘”Foolishness!” said Dick; his voice was sort of thick and blurry, and, of a sudden, I could hear him breathing hard. “Foolishness! I guess it’s the only wisdom that there is!—My God!—My God!—O Cynthy, just one kiss!”
‘”Dick! Why, Dick!”
‘Her little voice sounded like the birds you sometimes hear in the middle of the night, just that soft, astonished, questioning note.
‘I suppose I was across that mow and beside ’em in five seconds, but it seemed to me I took an hour to cross it. I never traveled so long and hard a road, nor one so beset with terror and despair.
‘They turned and faced me as I came. Dick’s face was red, and in his eyes was agony—no less. Cynthy was very white, her little head held high on her slender neck. Her eyes was brave and clear. Mebbe I was excited, but it seemed to me that she was shinin’ from head to foot. You see, to her it was so wonderful.
‘We stood there silent for a long minute, lookin’ clean into one another’s souls. Dick’s eyes and mine met and wrestled. I never fought a fight like that,—without a word nor a blow,—and yet we were fighting for more than our lives.
‘His eyes didn’t fall. He didn’t look shamefaced. Oh, he too had pluck!
‘As my brain cleared of the queer mist, that cry of his seemed to sound pitifully in my ears.
‘”O Cynthy, just one kiss!”
‘I don’t suppose there’s a man on earth that ain’t said that from once to fifty times, just as much in earnest as Dick, and just as little thinkin’ them words are the key in the Door—the door that gives on the road runnin’ down to Hell or up to Heaven. You’ve got to move one way or the other if you open that door. It ain’t a road to linger on. Love marches.
‘That was the way it come to me then. For most men, love marches.—But me. How about me? The love that come to me had been silent and patient. It’d sat in my heart like a bird on its nest. Was I different from other men? Did I ask less, give more? I was just a boy—how was I to know?
‘It was Cynthy broke the tension. She was always a bit of a mischief. Suddenly she smiled an’ dimpled like the sun comin’ out from a cloud. She caught Dick’s finger-tips quick an’ brushed ’em across her lips.
‘”Well, Seth!” she says to me, cheerful and confident again.
‘”Is he your choice, Cynthy?” said I. “Dare you leave us—all of us—an’ go to him forever?” I asked her, steadying my voice.
‘She looked a little hurt and a little puzzled.
‘”Has it come to that?” she asked me.
‘”Mebbe it hasn’t with you,” I answered, “but it has with Dick—an’ with me, Cynthy.”
‘She looked at me as if she didn’t know what I meant, and then the color rushed up into her face in a glorious flood.
‘”Not—not you too, Seth?” she cried. “Oh—not you too!”
‘”Yes, Cynthy,—now and always.”
‘She looked from me to Dick an’ back to me again. In her face I saw she was uncertain.
‘”Why didn’t you tell me before?” she cried out sharply. “Why didn’t—you—teach me? O Seth, he needs me most!”
‘Dick’s eyes and mine met and clashed again like steel on steel. But it was mine that fell at last.
‘We all went back to the house together without saying any more.
‘It come to me just like this. Dick was tangled in his feelings, and the feelings are the strongest cords that ever bind a boy like him. Cynthy was drawn to him, because to her Dick was a thing of splendor and it was so wonderful he needed her! I needn’t tell you what it was tied me. I still had a fighting chance to get her away from him, but was it fair of me to make the fight?
‘Every drop of blood in my body said, Yes! Every cell in my brain said, No! For, you see, life had us in a net—but I was the strong one and I could break the net.
‘I went off and walked by myself. Sundown come, and milking-time, and supper. But I forgot to eat or work. I walked.
‘No man can tell you what he thinks and feels in hours like them. There ain’t no words for the awful hopes or the black despairs or the gleams that begin like lightning-flashes and grow to something like the breaking dawn. I couldn’t get away from it anyhow I turned. It wasn’t a situation I dared leave alone, not with Dick at white heat and Cynthy so confident of herself and so pitiful. It wasn’t safe to let things be. I must snatch her from him or give her to him.—It was my turn now to cry out, O my God!
”T was long after dark when I come back. My mind was made up. They should have each other. I’d do what I could to make the thing easy. “After all,” I told myself, “you ain’t completely stripped. Don’t think it! You have the other thing. You can carry the torch. You can bring down the flame. Folks will thank you yet for the sacred fire!”
‘I laid that thought to my heart like something cool and comforting. And it helped me to come through.
‘When I got back to the house, it was late and everybody was abed but my father. He was sitting right here where we are, waiting up for me. There was a moon, some past the full, rising yonder. I sat down on the step below him and put it to him straight.
‘”Father,” said I, “Dick’s in love with Cynthy. She’s eighteen an’ he’s twenty. I judge we’d better help ’em marry.”
‘He give a heartbroken kind of groan. “Don’t I know she’s eighteen?” he said. “Ain’t it worryin’ the life right out of me?”
‘”Whatever do you mean?” I asked pretty sharp, for I sensed bad trouble in his very voice.
‘”It’s her two thousand dollars,” he said. “She’s due to have it. If she marries, she’s got to have it right away. And I ain’t got it to give her, that’s all!”
‘”Where is it? What’s become of it?”
‘”I bought the store at the Crossroads with it, and give her my note. But I hadn’t no business to do it that way. And the store ain’t done well, and the farm ain’t done well. The summer’s been so cold and wet, corn ain’t more ‘n a third of a crop, and I put in mainly corn this year. I can’t sell the store. I dunno’s I can mortgage the farm. I dunno what to do. If you leave home like you talk of, I shall go under. Somebody’s got to take hold an’ help me. I can’t carry my load no longer.”
‘So—there was that! And I had to face it alone.
‘I didn’t despair over the money part of it, like father did. I knew he’d neglected the farm for the store, and the store for the farm. If I’d been with him either place, instead of teaching, things would have gone on all right. I thought Dick could have his choice of the store or a part of the land to clear up the debt to Cynthy. But, whichever he took, father’d need me to help out. I could see he was beginning to break. And Dick would need me too, till he got broke in to work and earnin’. So—now it was me that life had in the net, and there was no way I could break out.
‘Father went off to bed a good deal happier after I told him I’d stand by. He even chippered up so he said this: “You’re all right, Seth, and teachin”s all right. But I’ve thought it all over and I’ve come to the conclusion that teachin’ and studyin”s like hard cider. It goes to your head and makes you feel good, but after all, there ain’t nothing nourishing about it. I’d like to see you make some money.”
‘I sat on those steps the rest of the night, I guess, while that waning moon climbed up the sky and then dropped down again. ‘T ain’t often a man is called on to fight two such fights in a single day. I ain’t been able to look at a moon past the full since that night.
‘And yet—toward morning there come peace. I saw it this way at last. To help is bigger yet than to teach. If Prometheus could be chained to that rock a thousand years while the vultures tore his vitals just so that men might know, couldn’t I bear the beaks an’ the claws a little lifetime so that father and Cynthy and Dick might live? I thought I could—an’ I have.’
Mr. Miles stopped short. Something gripped my throat. I shall never see again such a luminous look as I caught on his face when he turned it toward the darkening west. The black clouds had rolled up rapidly while we were talking and, if you’ll believe me, when he had finished, it thundered on the right!
‘Is—is that all?’ I said chokily.
‘Cynthy’s had a happy life,’ he said. ‘Dick made good in the store, and he’s made good out yonder in the world. Dick has gone very far. And as for me, there’s only one thing more I want in this world. If—if I could see her boy and his pick up the torch I dropped, and carry on that sacred fire—’
It was mighty queer, but I found I was shaking all over with an excitement I hardly understood. Something that had been hovering in the air while he talked came closer and suddenly showed me its face.
‘But,’ I said thick and fast, ‘but—why, mother’s name is Cynthia!’
It was my turn to feel something squeeze my heart as in two hands. I’ll never tell you how I felt! For I saw a thousand things at once. I saw what dad meant by my touching life. And I saw the meaning of the path I had chosen blindly. Before me, like a map, were spread their lives and mine, to-day and yesterday. I shook with the passions that had created me. I vibrated with the sacrifices that had gone to make me possible. For the first time in all my days I got a glimpse of what the young generation means to the elder. On my head had descended all their hopes. I was the laden ship that carried their great desires. Mine to lift the torch for all of them—and thank God for the chance!
I struck my tears away and reached out blindly to grasp Seth Miles’s bony hand. I guess he knew I meant it.