By Frank W. Boreham
Silas Wright was deprived by sheer modesty of the honor of being President of the United States. His is one of the truly Homeric figures in American history. By downright purity of motive, transparency of purpose, and the devotion of commanding powers to the public good, he won for himself the honor, the love and the unbounded confidence of all his fellows. It used to be said of him that he was as honest as any man under heaven or in it. He might have aspired to any office to which it was in America's power to call him. Only his extreme humility, and his dread of impeding the promotion of his friends, kept him from rising to a position in which his name would have taken its place with those of Washington and Lincoln. But he refused almost every honor. 'He refused cabinet appointments,' says Benton, in his Thirty Years' View. 'He refused a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States; he rejected instantly the nomination of 1844 for Vice-President; he refused to be nominated for the Presidency. He spent as much time in declining office as others did in winning it. The offices he did accept were thrust upon him. He was born great and above office and unwillingly descended to it.' Whittier is very conservative in his choice of heroes. Those whom he commemorates in verse are not only great men, but good ones. And Silas Wright is among them. 'Man of the millions,' he says, in the lines that he penned on hearing of Mr. Wright's death:
Man of the millions, thou art lost too soon!
Portents at which the bravest stand aghast--
The birththroes of a Future, strange and vast,
Alarm the land; yet thou, so wise, and strong,
Suddenly summoned to the burial bed,
Lapped in its slumbers deep and ever long,
Hear'st not the tumult surging overhead.
Who now shall rally Freedom's scattered host?
Who wear the mantle of the leader lost?
The splendid personality of Silas Wright has been best revealed to us in Irving Bacheller's The Light in the Clearing. The book is partly history and partly commentary and partly fiction. Silas Wright, says Irving Bacheller, carried the candle of the Lord; and all the world rejoiced in its radiance.
Barton Baynes, the hero of the book--for whose actuality and historicity the author vouches--is an orphan brought up on a farm by his Uncle Peabody and Aunt Deel. Getting into all sorts of scrapes, he makes up his mind that he is too heavy a burden on the affectionate and good-natured couple; and one night he runs away. Out in the darkness, however, he meets with strange adventures, loses his way, and at length finds himself in the hands of Silas Wright, the Comptroller. The Senator first falls in love with the bright-faced, open-hearted, intelligent boy, and then takes him back to his uncle's farm. From that moment the friendship between the two--the great man and the obscure country boy--grows apace. After a while the Senator visits the district to deliver an address, and he spends the night at the farmhouse. It is a great occasion for Bart; and after supper an incident occurs that colors all his life and strikes the keynote of the book. As Barton approaches Mr. Wright to say Good-night, the Senator says:
'I shall be gone when you are up in the morning. It may be a long time before I see you; I shall leave something for you in a sealed envelope with your name on it. You are not to open the envelope until you go away to school. I know how you will feel that first day. When night falls, you will think of your aunt and uncle and be very lonely. When you go to your room for the night I want you to sit down all by yourself and read what I shall write. They will be, I think, the most impressive words ever written. You will think them over, but you will not understand them for a long time. Ask every wise man you meet to explain them to you, for all your happiness will depend upon your understanding of those few words in the envelope.'
The words in the sealed envelope!
What are the mysterious words in the envelope?
And what if the sealed envelope contains a text?
In the morning, when Barton rose, the Senator was gone, and Aunt Deel handed the boy the sealed envelope. It was addressed: 'Master Barton Baynes; to be opened when he leaves home to go to school.' That day soon came. At the Canton Academy, under the care of the excellent Michael Hacket, Bart felt terribly lonely, and, in accordance with the Senator's instructions, he opened the note. And this is what he read:
'Dear Bart, I want you to ask the wisest man you know to explain these words to you. I suggest that you commit them to memory and think often of their meaning. They are from Job: "His bones are full of the sin of his youth, which shall lie down with him in the dust." I believe that they are the most impressive in all the literature I have read.--Silas Wright.'
Bart soon learned to love and admire the schoolmaster; he was the wisest man he knew; to him, therefore, he went for an explanation of the words.
'All true!' exclaimed Mr. Hacket, after reading the note. 'I have seen it sinking into the bones of the young, and I have seen it lying down with the aged in the dust of their graves. Your body is like a sponge; it takes things in and holds them and feeds upon them. A part of every apple that you eat sinks down into your blood and bones. You can't get it out. It's the same with the books that you read and the thoughts that you enjoy. They go down into your bones and you can't get them out. A man's bones are full of the sin of his youth, which lies down with him in the dust!'
But the best exposition of the text is not Michael Hacket's, but Irving Bacheller's. The whole book is a vivid and arresting and terrible forth-setting of the impressive words that Barton found in his sealed envelope.
All through the book two dreadful characters move side by side--Benjamin Grimshaw and Silent Kate. Benjamin Grimshaw is rich and proud and pitiless. Everybody is afraid of him. But Roving Kate is not afraid. Indeed, he seems to be more afraid of her. Wherever he is, she is there. She is wild and bony and ragged. She is, or pretends to be, half demented. She tells fortunes with strange antics and gesticulations, scrawling her prognostications upon stray slips of paper. But Benjamin Grimshaw is the main object of her attention. She hates him, and hates him all the more terribly because she once loved him. For Roving Kate, the Silent Woman, was once Kate Fullerton, Squire Fullerton's pretty daughter. And Benjamin Grimshaw had loved her, and betrayed her, and spurned her, and married another. In the village cemetery you might have seen a tombstone bearing her name. Her father erected it to show that she was dead to him for ever. Poor Kate had never known her mother. And so, in the course of the story, Benjamin Grimshaw had two sons, only one of whom he recognized. For Kate Fullerton was the mother of the other. And, in her shame and her anger and her hate, Kate resolved to follow the father of her base-born child all the days of his life; and there she stands--unkempt, repulsive, menacing--always near him, the living embodiment of the sin of his youth.
Amos Grimshaw, his petted and pampered son, comes to the gallows. He is convicted of murder upon the highway. The father is in court when the Judge pronounces the awful sentence. And, of course, Roving Kate is there. Ragged as ever, the Silent Woman is waiting for him as he comes down the steps. She shoots out a bony finger at him, as, bowed and broken, he passes into the street. He turns and strikes at her with his cane.
'Go away from me,' he cries. 'Take her away, somebody! I can't stand it! She's killing me! Take her away!'
His face turns purple and then livid. He reels and falls headlong. He is dead! Three days later they bury him. Roving Kate stands by the graveside, strangely changed. She is decently dressed; her hair is neatly combed; the wild look has left her eyes. She looks like one whose back is relieved of a heavy burden. She scatters little red squares of paper into the grave, her lips moving silently. These are her last curses. Barton Baynes and his schoolmaster, Mr. Hacket, are standing by.
'The scarlet sins of his youth are lying down with him in the dust,' whispers the master to his pupil as they walk away together.
This is terrible enough--the thought of our sins surrounding our deathbeds and lying down with us in our graves--but the book contains something more profound and terrible still!
For, in addition to the grave of Benjamin Grimshaw, from which we have just turned sadly away, there are two other graves in the book. The one is a felon's grave--the grave of Amos Grimshaw. And what sins are these that are lying down with him in the dust? They are some of them his own; and they are some of them his father's; and they are some of them the sins of Roving Kate, the Silent Woman. Yes, they are some of them the woman's sins. For when Amos was but an impressionable boy, Kate had supplied him with literature by which she hoped to pollute and ruin him.
Out of the deathless hatred that she bore to the father, she longed to destroy the son, body and soul. She gave him tales that would inflame his fancy and excite his baser instincts, tales that glorified robbery, murder and villainy of every kind. If Amos Grimshaw had been a good man's son, and if ennobling influences had been brought to bear upon him, he might have lived to old age and gone down at last to an honored grave. But his father's example was always before him, and Kate's books did their dreadful work only too well. He became a highway robber; he shot a stranger on a lonely road. It came out in evidence that the deed had been perpetrated under circumstances identical with those described in one of the sensational stories found in the Grimshaw barn--the stories Kate had given him!
'It's the same with the books you read,' the schoolmaster had said, when Bart sought from him an explanation of the text in the sealed envelope; 'they go down into your bones and you can't get them out.'
And Kate's books had gone down into Amos Grimshaw's bones; and thus her sins and his father's sins lay down in the dust of the felon's grave and mingled with his own. No exposition of Silas Wright's text could be more arresting or alarming than that. My sins may overflow from my grave and lie down in the dust with my children!
And, on the very last page of The Light in the Clearing, we have an even more striking presentment of the same profound truth. For I said that, in the book, there is yet one other grave. It is a lonely grave up among the hills--the grave of the stranger who was shot by Amos Grimshaw that dark night; and this time it is old Kate who sits weeping beside it. For who was the stranger murdered upon the highway? It turns out to have been Kate's own son!
'It is very sorrowful,' she moans. 'He was trying to find me when he died!'
And so the murderer and the murdered were step-brothers! They were both the sons of Benjamin Grimshaw!
And, in this grave up among the hills, there lie down with poor murdered Enoch his own sins--whatever they may have been--and his father's sins--the sins that made him an outcast and a fugitive--and his mother's sins, the sins of the only being who loved him!
Yes, his mother's sins; for his mother's sins had slain him. In her hatred of Benjamin Grimshaw, she had moved Amos Grimshaw to become a murderer, and he had murdered--her own son!
'It is very sorrowful!' she moans.
It is indeed; sin is always sorrowful.
'Wherefore come now and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.'
It is best to make an end of them, and to turn from them, once and for all, that they lie down at last neither with us nor with our children.