The Church with an Overshot-Wheel by O. Henry
Lakelands is not to be found in the catalogues of fashionable summer resorts. It lies on a low spur of the Cumberland range of mountains on a little tributary of the Clinch River. Lakelands proper is a contented village of two dozen houses situated on a forlorn, narrow-gauge railroad line. You wonder whether the railroad lost itself in the pine woods and ran into Lakelands from fright and loneliness, or whether Lakelands got lost and huddled itself along the railroad to wait for the ears to carry it home.
You wonder again why it was named Lakelands. There are no lakes, and the lands about are too poor to be worth mentioning.
Half a mile from the village stands the Eagle House, a big, roomy old mansion run by Josiah Rankin for the accommodation of visitors who desire the mountain air at inexpensive rates. The Eagle House is delightfully mismanaged. It is full of ancient instead of modern improvements, and it is altogether as comfortably neglected and pleasingly disarranged as your own home. But you are furnished with clean rooms and good and abundant fare: yourself and the piny woods must do the rest. Nature has provided a mineral spring, grape-vine swings, and croquet — even the wickets are wooden. You have Art to thank only for the fiddle-and-guitar music twice a week at the hop in the rustic pavilion.
The patrons of the Eagle House are those who seek recreation as a necessity, as well as a pleasure. They are busy people, who may be likened to clocks that need a fortnight’s winding to insure a year’s running of their wheels. You will find students there from the lower towns, now and then an artist, or a geologist absorbed in construing the ancient strata of the hills. A few quiet families spend the summers there; and often one or two tired members of that patient sisterhood known to Lakelands as “schoolmarms.”
A quarter of a mile from the Eagle House was what would have been described to its guests as “an object of interest” in the catalogue, had the Eagle House issued a catalogue. This was an old, old mill that was no longer a mill. In the words of Josiah Rankin, it was “the only church in the United States, sah, with an overshot-wheel; and the only mill in the world, sah, with pews and a pipe organ.” The guests of the Eagle House attended the old mill church each Sabbath, and heard the preacher liken the purified Christian to bolted flour ground to usefulness between the millstones of experience and suffering.
Every year about the beginning of autumn there came to the Eagle House one Abram Strong, who remained for a time an honoured and beloved guest. In Lakelands he was called “Father Abram,” because his hair was so white, his face so strong and kind and florid, his laugh so merry, and his black clothes and broad hat so priestly in appearance. Even new guests after three or four days’ acquaintance gave him this familiar title.
Father Abram came a long way to Lakelands. He lived in a big, roaring town in the Northwest where he owned mills, not little mills with pews and an organ in them, but great, ugly, mountain-like mills that the freight trains crawled around all day like ants around an ant-heap. And now you must be told about Father Abram and the mill that was a church, for their stories run together.
In the days when the church was a mill, Mr. Strong was the miller. There was no jollier, dustier, busier, happier miller in all the land than he. He lived in a little cottage across the road from the mill. His hand was heavy, but his toll was light, and the mountaineers brought their grain to him across many weary miles of rocky roads.
The delight of the miller’s life was his little daughter, Aglaia. That was a brave name, truly, for a flaxen-haired toddler; but the mountaineers love sonorous and stately names. The mother had encountered it somewhere in a book, and the deed was done. In her babyhood Aglaia herself repudiated the name, as far as common use went, and persisted in calling herself “Dums.” The miller and his wife often tried to coax from Aglaia the source of this mysterious name, but without results. At last they arrived at a theory. In the little garden behind the cottage was a bed of rhododendrons in which the child took a peculiar delight and interest. It may have been that she perceived in “Dums” a kinship to the formidable name of her favourite flowers.
When Aglaia was four years old she and her father used to go through a little performance in the mill every afternoon, that never failed to come off, the weather permitting. When supper was ready her mother would brush her hair and put on a clean apron and send her across to the mill to bring her father home. When the miller saw her coming in the mill door he would come forward, all white with the flour dust, and wave his hand and sing an old miller’s song that was familiar in those parts and ran something like this:
“The wheel goes round, The grist is ground, The dusty miller’s merry. He sings all day, His work is play, While thinking of his dearie.”
Then Aglaia would run to him laughing, and call:
“Da-da, come take Dums home;” and the miller would swing her to his shoulder and march over to supper, singing the miller’s song. Every evening this would take place.
One day, only a week after her fourth birthday, Aglaia disappeared. When last seen she was plucking wild flowers by the side of the road in front of the cottage. A little while later her mother went out to see that she did not stray too faraway, and she was already gone.
Of course every effort was made to find her. The neighbours gathered and searched the woods and the mountains for miles around. They dragged every foot of the mill race and the creek for a long distance below the dam. Never a trace of her did they find. A night or two before there had been a family of wanderers camped in a grove near by. It was conjectured that they might have stolen the child; but when their wagon was overtaken and searched she could not be found.
The miller remained at the mill for nearly two years; and then his hope of finding her died out. He and his wife moved to the Northwest. In a few years he was the owner of a modern mill in one of the important milling cities in that region. Mrs. Strong never recovered from the shock caused by the loss of Aglaia, and two years after they moved away the miller was left to bear his sorrow alone.
When Abram Strong became prosperous he paid a visit to Lakelands and the old mill. The scene was a sad one for him, but he was a strong man, and always appeared cheery and kindly. It was then that he was inspired to convert the old mill into a church. Lakelands was too poor to build one; and the still poorer mountaineers could not assist. There was no place of worship nearer than twenty miles.
The miller altered the appearance of the mill as little as possible. The big overshot-wheel was left in its place. The young people who came to the church used to cut their initials in its soft and slowly decaying wood. The dam was partly destroyed, and the clear mountain stream rippled unchecked down its rocky bed. Inside the mill the changes were greater. The shafts and millstones and belts and pulleys were, of course, all removed. There were two rows of benches with aisles between, and a little raised platform and pulpit at one end. On three sides overhead was a gallery containing seats, and reached by a stairway inside. There was also an organ — a real pipe organ — in the gallery, that was the pride of the congregation of the Old Mill Church. Miss Phoebe Summers was the organist. The Lakelands boys proudly took turns at pumping it for her at each Sunday’s service. The Rev. Mr. Banbridge was the preacher, and rode down from Squirrel Gap on his old white horse without ever missing a service. And Abram Strong paid for everything. He paid the preacher five hundred dollars a year; and Miss Phoebe two hundred dollars.
Thus, in memory of Aglaia, the old mill was converted into a blessing for the community in which she had once lived. It seemed that the brief life of the child had brought about more good than the three score years and ten of many. But Abram Strong set up yet another monument to her memory.
Out from his mills in the Northwest came the “Aglaia” flour, made from the hardest and finest wheat that could be raised. The country soon found out that the “Aglaia” flour had two prices. One was the highest market price, and the other was — nothing.
Wherever there happened a calamity that left people destitute — a fire, a flood, a tornado, a strike, or a famine, there would go hurrying a generous consignment of the “Aglaia” at its “nothing” price. It was given away cautiously and judiciously, but it was freely given, and not a penny could the hungry ones pay for it. There got to be a saying that whenever there was a disastrous fire in the poor districts of a city the fire chief’s buggy reached the scene first, next the “Aglaia” flour wagon, and then the fire engines.
So this was Abram Strong’s other monument to Aglaia. Perhaps to a poet the theme may seem too utilitarian for beauty; but to some the fancy will seem sweet and fine that the pure, white, virgin flour, flying on its mission of love and charity, might be likened to the spirit of the lost child whose memory it signalized.
There came a year that brought hard times to the Cumberlands. Grain crops everywhere were light, and there were no local crops at all. Mountain floods had done much damage to property. Even game in the woods was so scarce that the hunters brought hardly enough home to keep their folk alive. Especially about Lakelands was the rigour felt.
As soon as Abram Strong heard of this his messages flew; and the little narrow-gauge cars began to unload “Aglaia” flour there. The miller’s orders were to store the flour in the gallery of the Old Mill Church; and that every one who attended the church was to carry home a sack of it.
Two weeks after that Abram Strong came for his yearly visit to the Eagle House, and became “Father Abram” again.
That season the Eagle House had fewer guests than usual. Among them was Rose Chester. Miss Chester came to Lakelands from Atlanta, where she worked in a department store. This was the first vacation outing of her life. The wife of the store manager had once spent a summer at the Eagle House. She had taken a fancy to Rose, and had persuaded her to go there for her three weeks’ holiday. The manager’s wife gave her a letter to Mrs. Rankin, who gladly received her in her own charge and care.
Miss Chester was not very strong. She was about twenty, and pale and delicate from an indoor life. But one week of Lakelands gave her a brightness and spirit that changed her wonderfully. The time was early September when the Cumberlands are at their greatest beauty. The mountain foliage was growing brilliant with autumnal colours; one breathed aerial champagne, the nights were deliciously cool, causing one to snuggle cosily under the warm blankets of the Eagle House.
Father Abram and Miss Chester became great friends. The old miller learned her story from Mrs. Rankin, and his interest went out quickly to the slender lonely girl who was making her own way in the world.
The mountain country was new to Miss Chester. She had lived many years in the warm, flat town of Atlanta; and the grandeur and variety of the Cumberlands delighted her. She was determined to enjoy every moment of her stay. Her little hoard of savings had been estimated so carefully in connection with her expenses that she knew almost to a penny what her very small surplus would be when she returned to work.
Miss Chester was fortunate in gaining Father Abram for a friend and companion. He knew every road and peak and slope of the mountains near Lakelands. Through him she became acquainted with the solemn delight of the shadowy, tilted aisles of the pine forests, the dignity of the bare crags, the crystal, tonic mornings, the dreamy, golden afternoons full of mysterious sadness. So her health improved, and her spirits grew light. She had a laugh as genial and hearty in its feminine way as the famous laugh of Father Abram. Both of them were natural optimists; and both knew how to present a serene and cheerful face to the world.
One day Miss Chester learned from one of the guests the history of Father Abram’s lost child. Quickly she hurried away and found the miller seated on his favourite rustic bench near the chalybeate spring. He was surprised when his little friend slipped her hand into his, and looked at him with tears in her eyes.
“Oh, Father Abram,” she said, “I’m so sorry! I didn’t know until to-day about your little daughter. You will find her yet some day — Oh, I hope you will.”
The miller looked down at her with his strong, ready smile.
“Thank you, Miss Rose,” he said, in his usual cheery tones. “But I do not expect to find Aglaia. For a few years I hoped that she had been stolen by vagrants, and that she still lived; but I have lost that hope. I believe that she was drowned.”
“I can understand,” said Miss Chester, “how the doubt must have made it so hard to bear. And yet you are so cheerful and so ready to make other people’s burdens light. Good Father Abram!”
“Good Miss Rose!” mimicked the miller, smiling. “Who thinks of others more than you do?”
A whimsical mood seemed to strike Miss Chester.
“Oh, Father Abram,” she cried, “wouldn’t it be grand if I should prove to be your daughter? Wouldn’t it be romantic? And wouldn’t you like to have me for a daughter?”
“Indeed, I would,” said the miller, heartily. “If Aglaia had lived I could wish for nothing better than for her to have grown up to be just such a little woman as you are. Maybe you are Aglaia,” he continued, falling in with her playful mood; “can’t you remember when we lived at the mill?”
Miss Chester fell swiftly into serious meditation. Her large eyes were fixed vaguely upon something in the distance. Father Abram was amused at her quick return to seriousness. She sat thus for a long time before she spoke.
“No,” she said at length, with a long sigh, “I can’t remember anything at all about a mill. I don’t think that I ever saw a flour mill in my life until I saw your funny little church. And if I were your little girl I would remember it, wouldn’t I? I’m so sorry, Father Abram.”
“So am I,” said Father Abram, humouring her. “But if you cannot remember that you are my little girl, Miss Rose, surely you can recollect being some one else’s. You remember your own parents, of course.”
“Oh, yes; I remember them very well — especially my father. He wasn’t a bit like you, Father Abram. Oh, I was only making believe: Come, now, you’ve rested long enough. You promised to show me the pool where you can see the trout playing, this afternoon. I never saw a trout.”
Late one afternoon Father Abram set out for the old mill alone. He often went to sit and think of the old days when he lived in the cottage across the road. Time had smoothed away the sharpness of his grief until he no longer found the memory of those times painful. But whenever Abram Strong sat in the melancholy September afternoons on the spot where “Dums” used to run in every day with her yellow curls flying, the smile that Lakelands always saw upon his face was not there.
The miller made his way slowly up the winding, steep road. The trees crowded so close to the edge of it that he walked in their shade, with his hat in his hand. Squirrels ran playfully upon the old rail fence at his right. Quails were calling to their young broods in the wheat stubble. The low sun sent a torrent of pale gold up the ravine that opened to the west. Early September! — it was within a few days only of the anniversary of Aglaia’s disappearance.
The old overshot-wheel, half covered with mountain ivy, caught patches of the warm sunlight filtering through the trees. The cottage across the road was still standing, but it would doubtless go down before the next winter’s mountain blasts. It was overrun with morning glory and wild gourd vines, and the door hung by one hinge.
Father Abram pushed open the mill door, and entered softly. And then he stood still, wondering. He heard the sound of some one within, weeping inconsolably. He looked, and saw Miss Chester sitting in a dim pew, with her head bowed upon an open letter that her hands held.
Father Abram went to her, and laid one of his strong hands firmly upon hers. She looked up, breathed his name, and tried to speak further.
“Not yet, Miss Rose,” said the miller, kindly. “Don’t try to talk yet. There’s nothing as good for you as a nice, quiet little cry when you are feeling blue.”
It seemed that the old miller, who had known so much sorrow himself, was a magician in driving it away from others. Miss Chester’s sobs grew easier. Presently she took her little plain-bordered handkerchief and wiped away a drop or two that had fallen from her eyes upon Father Abram’s big hand. Then she looked up and smiled through her tears. Miss Chester could always smile before her tears had dried, just as Father Abram could smile through his own grief. In that way the two were very much alike.
The miller asked her no questions; but by and by Miss Chester began to tell him.
It was the old story that always seems so big and important to the young, and that brings reminiscent smiles to their elders. Love was the theme, as may be supposed. There was a young man in Atlanta, full of all goodness and the graces, who had discovered that Miss Chester also possessed these qualities above all other people in Atlanta or anywhere else from Greenland to Patagonia. She showed Father Abram the letter over which she had been weeping. It was a manly, tender letter, a little superlative and urgent, after the style of love letters written by young men full of goodness and the graces. He proposed for Miss Chester’s hand in marriage at once. Life, he said, since her departure for a three-weeks’ visit, was not to be endured. He begged for an immediate answer; and if it were favourable he promised to fly, ignoring the narrow-gauge railroad, at once to Lakelands.
“And now where does the trouble come in?” asked the miller when he had read the letter.
“I cannot marry him,” said Miss Chester.
“Do you want to marry him?” asked Father Abram.
“Oh, I love him,” she answered, “but — ” Down went her head and she sobbed again.
“Come, Miss Rose,” said the miller; “you can give me your confidence. I do not question you, but I think you can trust me.”
“I do trust you,” said the girl. “I will tell you why I must refuse Ralph. I am nobody; I haven’t even a name; the name I call myself is a lie. Ralph is a noble man. I love him with all my heart, but I can never be his.”
“What talk is this?” said Father Abram. “You said that you remember your parents. Why do you say you have no name? I do not understand.”
“I do remember them,” said Miss Chester. “I remember them too well. My first recollections are of our life somewhere in the far South. We moved many times to different towns and states. I have picked cotton, and worked in factories, and have often gone without enough food and clothes. My mother was sometimes good to me; my father was always cruel, and beat me. I think they were both idle and unsettled.
“One night when we were living in a little town on a river near Atlanta they had a great quarrel. It was while they were abusing and taunting each other that I learned — oh, Father Abram, I learned that I didn’t even have the right to be — don’t you understand? I had no right even to a name; I was nobody.
“I ran away that night. I walked to Atlanta and found work. I gave myself the name of Rose Chester, and have earned my own living ever since. Now you know why I cannot marry Ralph — and, oh, I can never tell him why.”
Better than any sympathy, more helpful than pity, was Father Abram’s depreciation of her woes.
“Why, dear, dear! is that all?” he said. “Fie, fie! I thought something was in the way. If this perfect young man is a man at all he will not care a pinch of bran for your family tree. Dear Miss Rose, take my word for it, it is yourself he cares for. Tell him frankly, just as you have told me, and I’ll warrant that he will laugh at your story, and think all the more of you for it.”
“I shall never tell him,” said Miss Chester, sadly. “And I shall never marry him nor any one else. I have not the right.”
But they saw a long shadow come bobbing up the sunlit road. And then came a shorter one bobbing by its side; and presently two strange figures approached the church. The long shadow was made by Miss Phoebe Summers, the organist, come to practise. Tommy Teague, aged twelve, was responsible for the shorter shadow. It was Tommy’s day to pump the organ for Miss Phoebe, and his bare toes proudly spurned the dust of the road.
Miss Phoebe, in her lilac-spray chintz dress, with her accurate little curls hanging over each ear, courtesied low to Father Abram, and shook her curls ceremoniously at Miss Chester. Then she and her assistant climbed the steep stairway to the organ loft.
In the gathering shadows below, Father Abram and Miss Chester lingered. They were silent; and it is likely that they were busy with their memories. Miss Chester sat, leaning her head on her hand, with her eyes fixed far away. Father Abram stood in the next pew, looking thoughtfully out of the door at the road and the ruined cottage.
Suddenly the scene was transformed for him back almost a score of years into the past. For, as Tommy pumped away, Miss Phoebe struck a low bass note on the organ and held it to test the volume of air that it contained. The church ceased to exist, so far as Father Abram was concerned. The deep, booming vibration that shook the little frame building was no note from an organ, but the humming of the mill machinery. He felt sure that the old overshot wheel was turning; that he was back again, a dusty, merry miller in the old mountain mill. And now evening was come, and soon would come Aglaia with flying colours, toddling across the road to take him home to supper. Father Abram’s eyes were fixed upon the broken door of the cottage.
And then came another wonder. In the gallery overhead the sacks of flour were stacked in long rows. Perhaps a mouse had been at one of them; anyway the jar of the deep organ note shook down between the cracks of the gallery floor a stream of flour, covering Father Abram from head to foot with the white dust. And then the old miller stepped into the aisle, and waved his arms and began to sing the miller’s song:
“The wheel goes round, The grist is ground, The dusty miller’s merry.”
— and then the rest of the miracle happened. Miss Chester was leaning forward from her pew, as pale as the flour itself, her wide-open eyes staring at Father Abram like one in a waking dream. When he began the song she stretched out her arms to him; her lips moved; she called to him in dreamy tones: “Da-da, come take Dums home!”
Miss Phoebe released the low key of the organ. But her work had been well done. The note that she struck had beaten down the doors of a closed memory; and Father Abram held his lost Aglaia close in his arms.
When you visit Lakelands they will tell you more of this story. They will tell you how the lines of it were afterward traced, and the history of the miller’s daughter revealed after the gipsy wanderers had stolen her on that September day, attracted by her childish beauty. But you should wait until you sit comfortably on the shaded porch of the Eagle House, and then you can have the story at your ease. It seems best that our part of it should close while Miss Phoebe’s deep bass note was yet reverberating softly.
And yet, to my mind, the finest thing of it all happened while Father Abram and his daughter were walking back to the Eagle House in the long twilight, almost too glad to speak.
“Father,” she said, somewhat timidly and doubtfully, “have you a great deal of money?”
“A great deal?” said the miller. “Well, that depends. There is plenty unless you want to buy the moon or something equally expensive.”
“Would it cost very, very much,” asked Aglaia, who had always counted her dimes so carefully, “to send a telegram to Atlanta?”
“Ah,” said Father Abram, with a little sigh, “I see. You want to ask Ralph to come.”
Aglaia looked up at him with a tender smile.
“I want to ask him to wait,” she said. “I have just found my father, and I want it to be just we two for a while. I want to tell him he will have to wait.”