Anthony Adverse, volume one

Hervey Allen



The Roots of the Tree

Allen, Hervey, 1889-1949

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"There is something in us that can be without us, and will be after us, though indeed it hath no history of what it was before us, and cannot tell how it entered into us."

— Sir Thomas Browne.


In Which the Seed Falls in the Enchanted Forest

Chapter I. THE COACH

BETWEEN the villages of Aubiere and Romagnat in the ancient Province of Auvergne there is an old road that comes suddenly over the top of a high hill. To stand south of this ridge looking up at the highway flowing over the skyline is to receive one of those irrefutable impressions from landscape which requires more than a philosopher to explain. In this case it is undoubtedly, for some reason, one of exalted expectation.

From the deep notch in the hillcrest where the road first appears, to the bottom of the valley below it, the fields seem to sweep down hastily for the express purpose of widening out and waiting by the way. From the low hills for a considerable distance about, the stone farm buildings all happen to face toward it, and although most of them have stood thus for centuries their expressions of curiosity remain unaltered.

Somewhat to the east the hill of Gergovia thrusts its head into the sky, and continuously stares toward the notch as if speculating whether Celtic pedlars, Roman legionaries, Franks, crusaders, or cavaliers will raise the dust there.

In fact in whatever direction a man may look in this particular vicinity his eyes are led inevitably by the seductive tracery of the skyline to the most interesting point in all that countryside, the place where the road surmounts the hill. Almost anything might appear there suddenly against the empty sky, fix itself upon the memory, and then move on to an unknown destination.

Perhaps the high hill of Gergovia where heroic events have taken place in the remote past now misses a certain epic grandeur in the rhythms of mankind. For ages past tribes have ceased to migrate and armies to march over the highway it looks down upon. Cavalcades, or companies of pilgrims have rarely been seen upon it for some centuries now. Individual wayfaring has long been the rule. Even by the last quarter of the eighteenth century it had long been apparent what the best way of travelling the roads of this world is when one has a definite, personal object in view. Such, indeed, was then the state of society that the approach of a single individual, if he happened to belong to a certain class, might cause as much consternation to a whole countryside as the advance of a hostile army.

It was this condition of affairs, no doubt, that accounted for the alarm upon the faces of several peasants as they stood waiting uneasily in the late afternoon sunshine one spring day in the year 1775. They were gazing apprehensively at the deep notch in the hill just above them where the road, which they had been mending, surmounted the ridge. Indeed, a grinding sound of wheels from the farther side of the crest had already reached the ears of the keenest some moments before.

Presently there was the loud crack of a whip, the shouts of a postilion, and the heads of two horses made their appearance prick-eared against the sky. The off-leader, for there were evidently more horses behind, was ridden by a squat-bodied little man with abnormally short legs. A broad-brimmed felt hat with the flap turned up in front served, even at considerable distance, to accentuate under its dingy green cockade an unusual breadth of countenance. The ridge at the apex is very steep. The first team had already begun to descend before immediately behind it appeared the second straining hard against the breast straps. Then the coach, a "V"-shaped body with the powdered heads of two footmen in cocked hats peering over its slightly curved roof, outlined itself sharply in the bright notch of the road and seemed for an instant to pause there.

As soon as it hove in full sight a babble of relieved exclamation arose from the group of watching peasants. It was not the coach of M. de Besance.

As to whose coach it might be, there was small time for speculation. The problem rapidly began to solve itself. The coach was heavy and the hill was steep. Suddenly, at a cry from the little postilion, who began to use his whip like a demon, the horses stretched themselves out. Ap immense cloud of dust arose and foamed about the wheels.

The black body of the coach was now seen coming down the road like a log over a waterfall. Oaths, cries, shouts from the white-faced footmen, the squall and moan of brakes, and a frantic drumming of hoofs accompanied its descent. Four horses and the carriage flashed as one object through the spray of a little stream at the foot of the hill. There was a nautical pitch as the vehicle mounted violently upon a brief length of causeway that led to the ford. But so great was the momentum which it had accumulated and the terror of the horses that the postilion was unable to check them even with the attempted assistance of the peasants.

A large hole full of water on one side of the little causeway now became horribly apparent to him. With a quick jerk on the bridle and a firm hand the clever little driver dragged his horses around it. The front wheels missed it by a fraction. But there had not been time to turn the trick entirely. For an instant the left hind wheel hung spinning. Then to the accompaniment of a shrill feminine scream from the interior of the coach it sank with a sickening jar and gravelly crunch into the very centre of the pit. Nevertheless, the rear of the carriage finally rose to the level of the causeway as the horses once more struggled forward. A high water mark showed itself upon the yellow stockings of the petrified footmen. The coach lurched again violently, rocked, and stopped.

Scarcely had the coach body ceased to oscillate in its slings when from the window projected a claret-coloured face surmounted by a travel-stained wig much awry. A hand like a lion's paw flourished a gold-headed cane furiously, and from the mouth of its entirely masculine owner, which vent can only be described as grim, proceeded in a series of staccato barks and lion-like roars a masterpiece of Spanish profanity. It began with God the Father and ranged through the remainder of the Trinity. It touched upon the apostles, not omitting Judas; skipped sulphurously through a score or two of saints, and ended with a few choked bellows caused by twinges of violent pain on Santiago of Compostela. During the entire period of this soul-shaking address, and for several speechless seconds after, a small, intensely black, forked beard continued to flicker like an adder's tongue through the haze of words surrounding it. Somewhat exhausted, its owner now paused.

Those who thought his vocabulary exhausted, however, were sadly mistaken.

The gentleman looking out of the coach window owned estates both in Spain and in Italy. From both he drew copious revenues not only of rents but of idiom. He was of mixed Irish, Spanish, and Tuscan ancestry, and his fluency was even thrice enhanced. He now gripped his cane more firmly and lapsed into Italian.

"You mule's bastard," roared he, twisting his head around with an obvious grin of pain to address the little man sitting astride the lead horse, "Come here, I say. Come here till I break your back. I'll . . ." The rest was cut short by a second grimace of agony and a whistling sound from the cane.

The recipient of this alluring invitation climbed down from his saddle rather slowly, but with no further signs of hesitation walked imperturbably past his four quivering horses toward the door of the coach. His legs, which already appeared small when astride a horse, were now seen to be shorter than ever and crooked. Yet he moved with a certain feline motion that was somehow memorable. As he turned to face the door of the coach and removed his cocked hat, two tufts of mouse-coloured hair just over his ears, and a long, black whip thrust through his belt till it projected out of his coat tails behind, completed for the peasants, who were now crowding as close as they dared, the illusion that they were looking, not at a man, but at an animal vaguely familiar.

The door of the coach was now pushed open by the gold-headed cane revealing to those by the roadside a glimpse of the sumptuous interior of a ...