As a matter of fact the name of this story should be: Ruth Erskine Burnham's Son. But there are those living who remember Ruth Erskine and her memorable summer at the New York Chautauqua; and that name is so entirely associated with those four girls at Chautauqua, and their after experiences, that it seems natural to speak of her boy, Erskine, as Ruth Erskine's son; although, of course, he was also Judge Burnham's son.
The day on which she is again introduced to her friends was a dull one in late autumn; the afterglow of sunset was already fading, and the shadows were gathering fast. It was the hour that Erskine Burnham liked best for the [pg 2] piano. He was at that moment softly touching the keys, bringing forth harmonious sounds with the air of one not even hearing them.
He was a handsome boy. The promise of his early life,—during which time the exclamation, "What a beautiful child!" was being continually heard,—was being fulfilled in his boyhood. Friends of his father were fond of assuring Ruth that the boy was his father's image; while her friends were sure that no boy could be more like his mother.
As for Ruth when she saw her son bending over his books, a lock of hair continually dropping over his left eye and being continually flung back with a gesture peculiar to Judge Erskine, she would say:—
"He is very much like his grandfather."
As the boy grew older he laughed at all these opinions, and asked his mother if she did not think it would be difficult for a fellow to have any individuality who was strikingly like three people who were all, as nearly as he could make out, strikingly unlike one another.
This remark was one of the memories that came back to her as she looked out at the swift-falling [pg 3] night, and listened to that musical strain which was being played over and over and over. She seemed to be watching the people who were hurrying homeward, glancing apprehensively now and then at the sky; for despite the glow of sunset there were premonitions of a coming storm, and already a few advance snowflakes were beginning to fall. But Mrs. Burnham saw neither people nor snowflakes; or rather she saw them without seeing. Her eyes were swimming in tears that she did not intend to let have their way. Not as girl or woman had Ruth Erskine Burnham been given to tears, although there had been reason enough in her life for them. Since she had not indulged them then, she did not mean to begin now that she was middle-aged and her hair was being sprinkled with gray.
She had been going over the story of the years with herself, that afternoon, which might account in part for the dimmed eyes. It seemed to her, looking back, that her chief mission in life had been to minister at dying beds and follow as chief or almost chief mourner in funeral processions. She had gone away back to the [pg 4] betrothed of her youth, and added one more heavy sigh to the multitude that stood for a lost opportunity. How entirely Harold Wayne had been under her influence! how utterly she had failed him! And she had felt it only when she was following him to the grave. Then those other graves, her father's and Judge Burnham's daughters', Seraph and Minta, what strange sad memories she had connected with both those graves that were not a year apart in their making. And then their father had been laid beside them and they two were left alone in the world, she and Erskine.
He was not yet eighteen, but there were times when it seemed to his mother that he was much older, and that he and she had been alone together always. All these memories that, because it was an anniversary of one of her bereavements, had been more vivid with her than usual that day, trooped again about her as she stood in the waning light, apparently intent on watching the outside world, in order to escape being watched by her world, inside.
To people who were acquainted with the girl, Ruth Erskine, it will not seem strange that a [pg 5] look backward over her checkered life brought sombre thoughts that were close to tears.
Of the four girls who, years and years before when they were young and full of courage, went to Chautauqua together and lived their eventful summer and began their new lives together, hers had had the strangest, saddest story; it had been marked by experiences so unlike the commonplace that the world had stopped to look, and express its astonishment.
The unusual began with her father's strange revelations about that new mother who yet was not new, but had been her stepmother for years. Was ever daughter before called upon to receive a new mother in such way as that? But why go over all that ground again? She too had been followed to the grave, and no one of all Mrs. Burnham's friends had been more sincerely missed and mourned. Then there was her sister, Susan Erskine. Was ever heavier cross or greater blessing thrust into a life than that girl represented to the girl Ruth Erskine? It had been one of her later trials to give Susan up to China. She was sorely missed, but it had been good for Erskine to have such a missionary [pg 6] Auntie as she made. And those two strange girls Seraphina and Araminta Burnham. Could some writer put into print the story of those two lives as it interlaced with hers, the foolish world would call it fiction, and criticise it as unnatural.
Over the early days of her widowhood Ruth Burnham knew better than to linger. Though so many years had intervened that the little boy he left had grown to young manhood, she still missed his father so sorely that she could not trust herself to stay among those few precious months before he went suddenly from her.
She had been left, without even the warning of an hour, to bring up their boy alone! It was from this form of her bereavement that she had shrunken back most fearfully. Judge Burnham, with his life consecrated to God, had seemed eminently fitted to guide the life of just such a boy as theirs; but God had planned differently.
And now, what people call the anxious years were gone, and she had kept her boy.
Yet the tears which she did not mean to shed [pg 7] were, in part, for him. She knew better than most mothers seem to understand that there were still "anxious years" to be lived through.
They had lingered over the breakfast table that morning, discussing certain questions that had been discussed before.
"Mamma," the boy had said as he served her to fruit, "how came you to have pronounced ideas about all sorts of things? Were you always so?"
His mother laughed genially.
"What a definite question for a lawyer to ask!" for Erskine had already announced his intention of being a lawyer like his father and grandfather.
"What 'things' are supposed to be under consideration?"
He echoed her laugh.
"I was thinking aloud then," he said. "It often seems to me as though you and I knew each other's thoughts. But just now I am thinking of one of our argumentative subjects. In spite of the horror in which you have brought me up of those bits of pasteboard called cards, I find that I cannot feel precisely as you would [pg 8] like to have me, concerning them. I used to. As a child nobody could be fiercer than I in their denunciation; but I find that that was merely a reflex influence, and not judgment. In spite of me nowadays they look meek and harmless; and I was wondering how you and they came to be in such fierce antagonism. Was my father of that mind?"
"Am I fierce, Erskine?"
He gave her a half-quizzical, wholly loving smile as he said gayly:—
"That of course is not the word to apply to the most charming of women, but you know, dearest, that you are very much in earnest about all such matters. Were you brought up in that way?"
Mrs. Burnham shook her head.
"No, when I was of your age, and younger, we played cards at home; and I went to card-parties in our set very often. It was your Aunt Flossy who set a number of us to thinking and studying and praying about such matters."
Erskine shook his head with pretended gravity.
"I might have known it, mamma. Aunt [pg 9] Flossy isn't like people; in fact she always seems to me a trifle out of place on earth."
"I thought you were very fond indeed of your Aunt Flossy."
"So I am; and I think I should be very fond of an angel from heaven; but you see, when a fellow has to live on the earth, it is a trifle more convenient to be like the other earth worms. All of which was suggested by the fact that the Mitchells are to give a card-party next week. Very select, you understand, only the choice few are bidden and I happen to be one of them."
Then, although his mother shrank from it, feeling that it did harm rather than good to go again over ground that was familiar to both and that was so clear to her and did not convince her son, he persisted in arguing, and in trying to prove that her position was narrow and untenable in these days. Throughout the interview he had been courteous and winsome, as he always was with her, and had laughingly complimented her more than once on her skill in argument; but for all that, she knew he was entirely unconvinced, and felt that her hold [pg 10] on him was weaker than when they had gone over the same ground before. The fact was, and this mother knew it well, that the world and all the allurements for which that phrase stands was making a hard fight for her handsome son even so early in life, and there were times when she felt fearful that in a sense it would win. It was not that she believed he would ever be sorely tempted by any of the amusements or frivolities of life; he was strong-principled and strong-willed, and certain, that might be called main, points had been settled by him once for all. Yet none knew better than did this woman of long and peculiar experience that it was possible to maintain a high standing in the world and in the church and yet have almost as little knowledge of that life hid with Christ in God which was the Christian's rightful heritage as did the gay world around him. She craved this separated life for Erskine, yet he was social in his tastes and fond of being looked upon as a leader, and his mother knew it already irked him to feel that in certain social functions he must always be counted out.
"There are so many of them!" he had said [pg 11] to her once, with as much impatience in his tone as he ever gave to her.
"A fellow could manage to indulge one or two whims, but you know, dearest, you have at least half a dozen, and to humor them all will make a rather conspicuous wallflower, I am afraid."
Something very like that he had repeated that morning, and it had colored his mother's day. She knew that the Mitchells were fond of Erskine and would make vigorous efforts to secure him for their party. It was hard, she told herself, that one so fitted to shine in cultured circles of young people must so often be made to feel embarrassed and out of place, and she wondered for the dozenth time that season if ways of thinking about these things had changed, along with other changes. Was she herself what Erskine, if he had made use of the modern slang, might call a "back number"? "Still, his father, who had no such prejudices as mine to deal with, grew very positive in his objection to cards," she reminded herself, and sighed. If his father had lived, he would have known just how to manage Erskine; this, at [pg 12] least, she pleased herself by believing, ignoring the fact that in their son's early boyhood the father had had many ways of managing, of which she did not approve. This is a habit which we all have with our beloved dead.
It was the memory of their morning talk that had led Mrs. Burnham to appeal, that afternoon, to Mr. Conway when he dropped in for a social chat. Mr. Conway was their new pastor; a brilliant, scholarly man, much admired by old and young. Erskine in particular had been attracted to him, and was decidedly of the opinion that in the pulpit he was a great improvement on Dr. Dennis, even. Of course his mother did not agree with this verdict, but she was wise enough to remember that the friends of her girlhood could not be expected to be to her son what they were to her. Yet Erskine was eminently fair and thoughtful beyond his years for her. At the very time when he had so heartily indorsed Mr. Conway, he had made haste to say:—
"Of course, mamma, there is a sense in which no one can ever equal Dr. Dennis to us, and as for Aunt Marian her loss is irreparable." He [pg 13] held carefully to the boyish custom of claiming his mother's girl friends as aunts, and she liked it in him:—
"Nevertheless," he had added firmly, "as a preacher Mr. Conway is far superior to Dr. Dennis."
Despite his careful courtesy Erskine was at the age when wisdom is at its height, and opinions as a rule are delivered autocratically without any softening "I think." His mother, having often to make objections from principle, had learned the art of being silent when she could, and she had made no objection in words to his estimate of Mr. Conway. To a degree she was in sympathy with it. She liked Mr. Conway and was glad that he was so young that Erskine, being old for his years, could find him almost companionable, and at the same time could be helped by him.
Because of all these reasons she had been glad that Erskine was in, that afternoon when Mr. Conway called. He was fond of calling there, and playfully accused the two of being responsible for many neglected families in his parish. She had kept herself almost quiet while Erskine [pg 14] and their guest discussed books and music and men. They had many tastes in common. Then Erskine had been urged to play, and his selection from one of the great masters had chanced to be Mr. Conway's special favorite; and then, Mrs. Erskine having studied how to do it in an unstudied way, had skilfully turned the conversation into the channel of her morning talk with Erskine; and before two minutes had passed would have given much to be able to take back what she had done.
You can read this item using any of the following Kobo apps and devices: