Strong Hearts

Produced by Suzanne Shell, Lazar Liveanu and PG Distributed Proofreaders

STRONG HEARTS

By George W. Cable

1899

CONTENTS

_The Solitary

The Taxidermist

The Entomologist

In magazine form “The Solitary” appeared under the title of “Gregory’s

Island.”_

The Solitary

I

“The dream of Pharaoh is one. The seven kine are seven years; and the
seven good ears are seven years: the dream is one…. And for that the
dream was doubled unto Pharaoh twice, it is because the thing is
established.”…

In other words: Behind three or four subtitles and changes of time, scene,
characters, this tale of strong hearts is one. And for that the tale is
tripled or quadrupled unto you three or four times (the number will
depend); it is because in each of its three or four aspects—or separate
stories, if you insist—it sets forth, in heroic natures and poetic fates,
a principle which seems to me so universal that I think Joseph would say
of it also, as he said to the sovereign of Egypt, “The thing is
established of God.”

I know no better way to state this principle, being a man, not of letters,
but of commerce (and finance), than to say—what I fear I never should
have learned had I not known the men and women I here tell of—that
religion without poetry is as dead a thing as poetry without religion. In
our practical use of them, I mean; their infusion into all our doing and
being. As dry as a mummy, great Joseph would say.

Shall I be more explicit? Taking that great factor of life which men, with
countless lights, shades, narrownesses and breadths of meaning, call
Religion, and taking it in the largest sense we can give it; in like
manner taking Poetry in the largest sense possible; this cluster of tales
is one, because from each of its parts, with no argument but the souls and
fates they tell of, it illustrates the indivisible twinship of Poetry and
Religion; a oneness of office and of culmination, which, as they reach
their highest plane, merges them into identity. Is that any clearer? You
see I am no scientist or philosopher, and I do not stand at any dizzy
height, even in my regular business of banking and insurance, except now
and then when my colleagues of the clearing-house or board want something
drawn up—”Whereas, the inscrutable wisdom of Providence has taken from
among us”—something like that.

I tell the stories as I saw them occur. I tell them for your
entertainment; the truth they taught me you may do what you please with.
It was exemplified in some of these men and women by their failure to
incarnate it. Others, through the stained glass of their imperfect
humanity, showed it forth alive and alight in their own souls and bodies.
One there was who never dreamed he was a bright example of anything, in a
world which, you shall find him saying, God—or somebody—whoever is
responsible for civilization—had made only too good and complex and big
for him. We may hold that to make life a perfect, triumphant poem we must
keep in beautiful, untyrannous subordination every impulse of mere self-
provision, whether earthly or heavenly, while at the same time we give
life its equatorial circumference. I know that he so believed. Yet, under
no better conscious motive than an impulse of pure self-preservation,
finding his spiritual breadth and stature too small for half the practical
demands of such large theories, he humbly set to work to narrow down the
circumference of his life to limits within which he might hope to turn
some of its daily issues into good poetry. This is the main reason why I
tell of him first, and why the parts of my story—or the stories—do not
fall into chronological order. I break that order with impunity, and adopt
that which I believe to be best in the interest of Poetry and themselves.
Only do not think hard if I get more interested in the story, or stories,
than in the interpretation thereof.

II

The man of whom I am speaking was a tallish, slim young fellow, shaped
well enough, though a trifle limp for a Louisianian in the Mississippi
(Confederate) cavalry. Some camp wag had fastened on him the nickname of
“Crackedfiddle.” Our acquaintance began more than a year before Lee’s
surrender; but Gregory came out of the war without any startling record,
and the main thing I tell of him occurred some years later.

I never saw him under arms or in uniform. I met him first at the house of
a planter, where I was making the most of a flesh-wound, and was, myself,
in uniform simply because I hadn’t any other clothes. There were pretty
girls in the house, and as his friends and fellow-visitors—except me—
wore the gilt bars of commissioned rank on their gray collars, and he, as
a private, had done nothing glorious, his appearance was always in
civilian’s dress. Black he wore, from head to foot, in the cut fashionable
in New Orleans when the war brought fashion to a stand: coat-waist high,
skirt solemnly long; sleeves and trousers small at the hands and feet, and
puffed out—phew! in the middle. The whole scheme was dandyish, dashing,
zou-zou; and when he appeared in it, dark, good-looking, loose,
languorous, slow to smile and slower to speak, it was—confusing.

One sunset hour as I sat alone on the planter’s veranda immersed in a
romance, I noticed, too late to offer any serviceable warning, this
impressive black suit and its ungenerously nicknamed contents coming in at
the gate unprotected. Dogs, in the South, in those times, were not the
caressed and harmless creatures now so common. A Mississippi planter’s
watch-dogs were kept for their vigilant and ferocious hostility to the
negro of the quarters and to all strangers. One of these, a powerful,
notorious, bloodthirsty brute, long-bodied, deer-legged—you may possibly
know that big breed the planters called the “cur-dog” and prized so highly
-darted out of hiding and silently sprang at the visitor’s throat. Gregory
swerved, and the brute’s fangs, whirling by his face, closed in the sleeve
and rent it from shoulder to elbow. At the same time another, one of the
old “bear-dog” breed, was coming as fast as the light block and chain he
had to drag would allow him. Gregory neither spoke, nor moved to attack or
retreat. At my outcry the dogs slunk away, and he asked me, diffidently,
for a thing which was very precious in those days—pins.

But he was quickly surrounded by pitying eyes and emotional voices, and
was coaxed into the house, where the young ladies took his coat away to
mend it. While he waited for it in my room I spoke of the terror so many
brave men had of these fierce home-guards. I knew one such beast that was
sired of a wolf. He heard me with downcast eyes, at first with evident
pleasure, but very soon quite gravely.

“They can afford to fear dogs,” he replied, “when they’ve got no other
fear.” And when I would have it that he had shown a stout heart he smiled
ruefully.

“I do everything through weakness,” he soliloquized, and, taking my book,
opened it as if to dismiss our theme. But I bade him turn to the preface,
where heavily scored by the same feminine hand which had written on the
blank leaf opposite, “Richard Thorndyke Smith, from C.O.”—we read
something like this:

The seed of heroism is in all of us. Else we should not forever relish, as
we do, stories of peril, temptation, and exploit. Their true zest is no
mere ticklement of our curiosity or wonder, but comradeship with souls
that have courage in danger, faithfulness under trial, or magnanimity in
triumph or defeat. We have, moreover, it went on to say, a care for human
excellence in general, by reason of which we want not alone our son, or
cousin, or sister, but man everywhere, the norm, man, to be strong,
sweet, and true; and reading stories of such, we feel this wish rebound
upon us as duty sweetened by a new hope, and have a new yearning for its
fulfilment in ourselves.

“In short,” said I, closing the book, “those imaginative victories of soul
over circumstance become essentially ours by sympathy and emulation, don’t
they?”

“O yes,” he sighed, and added an indistinct word about “spasms of virtue.”
But I claimed a special charm and use for unexpected and detached
heroisms, be they fact or fiction. “If adventitious virtue,” I argued,
“can spring up from unsuspected seed and without the big roots of
character—”

“You think,” interrupted Gregory, “there’s a fresh chance for me.”

“For all the common run of us!” I cried. “Why not? And even if there
isn’t, hasn’t it a beauty and a value? Isn’t a rose a rose, on the bush or
off? Gold is gold wherever you find it, and the veriest spasm of true
virtue, coined into action, is true virtue, and counts. It may not work my
nature’s whole redemption, but it works that way, and is just so much
solid help toward the whole world’s uplift.” I was young enough then to
talk in that manner, and he actually took comfort in my words, confessing
that it had been his way to count a good act which was not in character
with its doer as something like a dead loss to everybody.

“I’m glad it’s not,” he said, “for I reckon my ruling motive is always
fear.”

“Was it fear this evening?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied, “it was. It was fear of a coward’s name, and a sort of
abject horror of being one.”

“Too big a coward inside,” I laughed, “to be a big stout coward outside,”
and he assented.

“Smith,” he said, and paused long, “if I were a hard drinker and should

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