The Slip of the Leash

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From Harper's Monthly Magazine Vol. CIX No. DCLIII (October, 1904)

Whether it was in his blood or not, as they say it is in the blood of some wild animals which invariably, sooner or later, revert to utter savagery, or whether he was unduly restrained by the conditions of his life, which made a reaction inevitable, Adam Andersen, at a time of life when most men have settled into the calm of acquiescence with fate which is to endure until death, broke his bonds. In other words, he went wild, he freed himself from all which had hitherto held him, and was for himself alone, — or perhaps for that which was in reality greater than himself or anything which had held him. Perhaps in returning to nature he also returned, in a sense, to God, although he broke, to the execration of all who knew of it, like the woman of the Scriptures, his jar of precious ointment.

Adam Andersen was over forty when he left a wife and four children, and a comfortable home, and went, not to the bad — that was not the word for it — but to that which is outside the good or the bad, to freedom from all cords and weights of civilized life. He lived, anyway, on the outskirts of civilization, where he could hear and see, and smell with his sharpened nostrils, that which was outside. He lived in one of the far Western States, on a fine farm which he himself had wrested from the wild. He had a house which was in those parts considered sumptuous, and furniture in those parts considered luxurious. There was a piano, and his daughters took music lessons. In the yard was a croquet set, and he used to watch his children playing the game with a sort of whimsical and admiring contempt. When he had been the age of his eldest boy — eight — he had played with a shovel and a hoe in grim earnest for his bread and butter. The eldest boy was eight, the next was five, then there were two girls, one ten, the other nine. Andersen's wife was still good to see — large, and blonde, with a seeming decision of character which, some said, had driven her husband afield. However, people, for the most part, were on her side.

The day after Andersen disappeared, leaving no trace, — for he had planned his escape well, — and his wife appealed to the people in the scattered settlement to aid her, there had been no lack of volunteers, and there had been fierce blame for the man, although he had left his family in easy circumstances, and his wife was considered to have the brain of a man and to be as competent to run the farm as Adam.

Adam Andersen had simply attired himself in some stout clothes and put a few necessaries in the rude old knapsack which he had borne over his shoulders when he first came to those parts, and one night when his wife and family were at a Christmas gathering in the school-house, three miles away, he had stepped — or rather leaped, so glad was the new sense of freedom in him — over the indefinite barrier which kept the settlement from the wild, the civilized man from the savage, and in a trice he was what he had been before he had known himself. He loped like a young wolf along the road farther west. He was a small and wiry man, and his muscles had still the strength and suppleness of youth. He had chosen a strange time for his exit, a night of intense cold, when the stars overhead swarmed in myriads seemingly laced together in a net of frost; but he was warmly clad, and besides he did not mind the cold. He loved it with a fierce animal yearning, for his forefathers had come of a cold climate, and it was the spur of their old impulses which now urged him on. He forged ahead as a Viking might have done at a battle-call, although before him were only wastes of land, instead of sea. He did not seem to feel the cold at all. He thought, it is true, of his wife and his children, and, paradoxical as it may seem, with intense love, yet still with exultation that he had broken away from that love and its terrible monotony of demand. The going to bed every night to sleep in his carved bedstead underneath the patchwork quilts which his wife had made, to realize beside him that other personality which had become a part of him, and which he had realized as extraneous, even while he loved it; the invariable rising in the morning and going about his tasks; the three meals a day; the sound of his daughters' pounding on the piano which he had purchased for them, and in which he himself took the greatest pride; the sight of his wife about her household tasks; the smell of the bread baking and the sweet cake; the wrangling and playing of the younger children in which he delighted, — he was free from now, and instead was an infinite preciousness of renewed individuality.

“I was being tore to pieces betwixt them all,” he said to himself as he leaped along, “and soon there would have been nothing at all left of me.” He looked up at the stars, and a sense of his own soul which he had lost for a long time was over him, and along with it, as a matter of sequence, was the sense of God. In his belt were pistols and a hunting-knife; over his shoulder, a rifle. He meant to hunt and trap the valuable game farther off, but when he reached the hunting-fields the desire left him. He was not a man of sentiment. It simply did not appeal to him to hunt, for the sake of profit, his fierce brothers of the out-of-doors. Once he had a good chance to shoot at a deer, and levelled his rifle, but did not fire. Instead of shooting the deer, he made his way to the nearest settlement and purchased some venison which another man had shot. He wore a money-belt. Once, even, he might have killed a bear and had a valuable skin, but let the great shaggy free thing lumber away. That was in the spring, when he had been on the tramp for six months.

At last he fell in with some men on their way to the mines, and he fared along with them. They were not the kind usually seen on such roads, but a meek set rather intimidated by their own adventure, and they had come from the East. They all rather feared Andersen, who kept himself to himself even while with them, and they had a theory that he was some escaped criminal. Andersen understood, and it filled him with the grim humor that a wild animal might have had. He knew himself that he would not hurt these men, that in reality he had never hurt anything, and the suspicion as to his evil doings seemed to him a fine joke. He listened to the innocent prattle of his companions concerning the gold they would dig out of the earth, and what they would do with it, and he had a sort of wonder concerning his own motives for joining them.

He was too simple to understand that the thirst for gold is in itself as primeval a thing as the thirst for freedom, inasmuch as gold is often the price of it. Then, too, the desire of discovery is as old as the world, and Andersen in setting himself free had become at once as old and as young as the world. It was therefore that he went on with the men to the mines. But he was the one of them all who made a rich find, although it was not for a year's time, and in the mean time there had been hardships which he had borne lightly, since he had not born them with his soul. Frost-bites which do not affect the soul have little sting in them, and neither has hunger under burning suns. Several of the party succumbed, and Andersen surprised them all by his roughly tender care of them, although they still feared him. They called him the wild man. Indeed, he had let his hair and beard grow, and was as shaggy as a bear, and almost as speechless. He never talked with his companions, and none of them knew anything of his antecedents.

When he made his great find it was in the early spring, and he struck out toward home. He did not know why he did so, but it seemed a part of his freedom, the natural impulse of a living thing which has discovered, toward a hole of hiding. It was a long and arduous journey, but he went on doggedly, his pistols in his belt, his rifle over shoulder. Except for the general wildness of his aspect, largely owing to the great growth of his hair and beard, he looked no more worn nor old than when he started. In reality, hardships had not injured him in the least. They had rather served as a tonic to a peculiar nervous nature which civilization had been rasping beyond endurance.

When he reached the outskirts of the settlement in which he had lived before his exit, he slunk cautiously, as if he had been a beast of prey with designs upon the folds. However, he was really in no danger of discovery. Before his departure he had gone clean shaven, and now so hirsute was he that his own wife and children could not have recognized him. There was about the settlement a great growth of forest, and in this he concealed himself. The weather was quite warm, and he had no trouble about living in the open; all his trouble was the lack of food. He had been obliged by necessity to overcome his dislike to slaughter for the sake of food, but even now he had a repugnance to it. At last he hit upon a plan. Under cover of night he stole into the village and robbed a baker's shop, leaving on the counter gold sufficient to twice pay for what he had taken. He also in the same fashion appropriated the contents of hen-coops.

As the summer advanced he built himself a rude shack under the shag of a hill, and laid in a stock of fire-wood. It began to be known in the settlement that there was a wild man living in the woods, but as he always paid for his raids upon the provisions of the place, no rancor was aroused against him, and wild things awakened no particular surprise or curiosity in that vicinity, so frequent they were, not even that wildest of all wild things — a wild man. It is true that some mothers lately from the East forbade their children to stray far into the woods in the locality where the wild man had been seen, but the children themselves, more fearless, made little raids in large companies for mutual protection, and boasted that they had seen the wild man and the wild man's house, and astonishing tales, tinctured with their childish fancy, they told of both. The man, in particular, was described as being in appearance something like a prehistoric giant. Nobody in the settlement dreamed of the true state of the case, and yet Adam Andersen had been away only a little over a year. Once it happened that his own two young children came with the exploring party, and both gazed at him round-eyed, from a flowering thicket, and neither dreamed that he had ever seen him before.

That night Andersen had a bad hour. The hunger of natural affections was upon him again, and crowded out that hunger of the soul which kept him in the wild. Those two utterly common little faces, those young of his flesh and blood, but not of his true self which he had let loose, had filled him with a torture of yearning. He wanted his wife and his children and his home. Once he started up to try to put himself in fitting trim to go home, and then it was over. The smell of the damp spring earth, and the multitude of young growing things which were the music of the first man, were loud in his senses, and his own spirit awakened to the life which satisfied him. Again, while he loved and longed for his wife, he resented his bonds, for in bonds she had held him, and the children, which were all like her rather than like him. He had cut the knot of his conditions of life, and he realized that not yet could the break be made entirely whole, and yet he never for one moment lost sight of his family, or lost his sense of care over them. He slunk on the borders of the fields, to make sure that his wife kept the men to their work; many a night the house-dog barked and howled and strained at his leash because he was under the windows, and they did not know who was there, although the youngest boy suggested fearfully that it might be the wild man, and Andersen heard the grate of the bolt in the door.

It was doubtful, when Andersen went away that night, moving with a curious free padding lope, like a wild animal, which he had acquired since he had left home, if he had ever in his life loved as he did then his wife and children and home. But they had become to him as the angel with whom Jacob wrestled for the sake of a mystery which was more than earth and life and all the natural affections thereof. As Andersen retraced his steps to his shack deep in the heart of the wood, he even wept a little, like a child. It was a damp night, and the wind came from the south full of moisture. Presently it began to rain. Andersen lay out in the warm rain and let it soak through him, and felt the winds, and soon the old sense of attaining his full stature — the sense of freedom from trammels which held him to an encumbering happiness — was over him. Still, as he lay there he felt his heart dislocated as Jacob felt his hip after the angelic encounter. He remembered with solicitude that his wife's face had looked thinner and older, that much of the look of decision and feminine imperiousness which had in reality fed upon him had vanished. The woman, bereft of her gentle, subservient husband, settled back into what she really was — a rather incompetent, timid female of her species. Adam had overrated her capability; her manner had misled him. The next year he, covertly observant, saw with concern that the fields had begun to suffer for want of his overlooking. Still his wife and his children retained their prosperous air.

Adam saw that his wife wore a rich silk dress, and bonnet loaded with flowers, and that she held her head high, while her mouth had a pleased, self-conscious expression. He understood her thoroughly. He knew that her beautiful clothes soothed as with a soothing emollient any ache in her heart because of his desertion of her. She was a type of the perfectly common feminine. She was a good woman, she kept the Commandments, but the material frivolity of her had overrun the spiritual, as weeds will overrun the flowers of a garden. And it was the same with the children, who resembled their mother, and it had been becoming the same with Adam. He had been losing the feeling of his own soul, and that from which the soul emanates, by reason of these harmless and pleasant, but utterly earthly and petty, interests. His children were as smartly attired as his wife; none of them looked downcast. He realized that for the time at least, in this atmosphere of religious festivity, and enveloped in their fine feathers, they were not troubled because of him, and his own misgivings were laid at rest. He had placed half of his gold which he had discovered in trust, and the interest was to be sent quarterly to his wife. He told himself that even if she did let the farm go to waste, she would have enough. And there was the remainder of his wealth, which he had buried as a dog might have buried a bone in a secret place in the woods. He used very little of it. His needs, the needs of a primitive and wild man which he had become, were few, and mostly supplied without coin of the realm. In summer there were always succulent greens, mushrooms, and berries. In winter there was the game which he had now forced himself to kill and eat, for savagery had returned in a degree with his freedom. He really needed little except cartridges, and now and then a rough garment.

All this time, although conscious of a never-ceasing ache of hunger in the earthly heart of him, he had the exaltation of a martyr, the sublime happiness of one who forfeits the good for the sake of the better, and the consciousness of that beyond his earthly life, which had been slipping away from him, was never lost. Always the wonderful perfume of a broken box of ointment was in his nostrils, and his sense of Him for whom it had been broken never left him. A religion so deep and vast that it seemed to furnish his soul with wings toward immensity possessed him. God and his relation to Him became more than his relation toward his kind. He became in the fullest sense himself. His growth, which had been checked, again reasserted itself.

Yet always he kept that watch upon that which he had left. Year after year the fields which had yielded so bountifully under his care suffered. The time came when it was hard for him not to enter the house and ask his wife what it meant, why she did not see to things, but he never did. He knew that she had enough, even if the broad fields, as finally happened, were converted into gardens of flaming weeds instead of grain. But soon after that — it was now three years since his exit — he began to notice that his wife no longer went dressed as richly as formerly, and that his children were even shabby. Then he saw them walking when properly they should have been riding; and one night, stealing into the barn, he found that the horses were all gone. He began to ask himself if anything could have gone wrong with that trust money. He tramped to the nearest town and possessed himself of papers, and soon enough found what he wanted. The man in whom he had trusted had defaulted. The money was gone. He then began to dole out the money which he had remaining. He was at his wits' end to do so without discovery, but by tramping miles first in one direction, then another, he contrived to send it in quarterly instalments, and he saw with delight that his wife had a new dress and the flowers on her bonnet bloomed anew. But the worry was upon him that the money, since he was using the principal, would soon be gone. He felt that he should invest the remainder. He tramped fifty miles one spring with the money concealed about him, and his pistols in his belt, and he invested it, and it was not long before the investment proved an utter loss. Then he knew that his wife had mortgaged the farm. Still, although the thought of it all was always with him, he seemed to live in his solitude with God, and realize himself that which he should be.

But finally the time came when by spying and listening he found out that his family could not live much longer unless something was done for them. One afternoon, slouching along in the shadows of the woods, he saw his wife and his slender daughters and eldest boy trying to plough the fields with an old horse which they had hired. That was too much for him. There was a man in the settlement who had owed him money for years. Andersen had returned to the simplest notions of right and wrong. That night he went to the great barn of the man who owed him, and got out two stout horses, and he worked all night ploughing his fields. In the morning, when the deserted wife saw what had been done, she thought it was the work of a benevolent neighbor, a widower, who had for some time been making advances to her. There had been a well-grounded report that Andersen was dead. However, Andersen's wife would not listen to the man, and although she saw with delight the work done on her fields, still she made up her mind that she would not admit any knowledge of the man who had done it. Adam worked night after night, and it was the seventh night that his second daughter discovered him. He was working quite near the house, and guiding the horses in silence, yet it was bright moonlight, and the girl, who was nervous and wakeful, looked out and saw him. He heard her shriek, and hurried with the horses out of the field.

The girl ran down to her mother, who slept on the ground-floor, and she was fairly gasping in hysterics. “Oh, mother! oh, mother!” she cried, catching her breath.

Her mother, white and gasping also, rose up in bed and looked at her.

“It is the wild man who is ploughing our fields,” said the girl, choking.

“I don't believe it.”

“Yes; I saw him. His beard blew out like a flag as he walked behind the horses.”

“I don't believe it. You were dreaming. It was Silas Edgett.”

“No, it was the wild man. I saw him.”

The next night Adam did not come. He felt that it was of no use. He knew they would all be on the watch. He waited. He thought, if he waited, they might cease to watch. On the third night he stole up to the barn of the neighbor whose horses he had borrowed, and caught the gleam of a lantern from the wide-open doors. They, too, were on the watch. They had discovered that their horses had been used. He waited still three days longer, and made a third attempt. Passing his wife's house, skirting like a shadow the edge of the woods which bordered the road, he distinctly saw white gleams in the windows; he kept on to the barn, and there was still the lantern gleam. A man was actually pacing like a sentinel before the open door. He retreated. The next day he left his shack, taking with him his scanty possessions, for he had a presentiment. He was quite right. The sheriff had been sent for, and that very night his shack was visited, but the wild man had gone. After all, there was nothing very serious in the charge against him. He had merely borrowed without leave a man's horses and ploughed the fields of a poor deserted woman. The widower who was her covert admirer advised the withdrawal of the search party, without further efforts to find the man.

The next day but one, Adam returned to his shack, but he was in despair. That had come which he had foreseen. All day he sat on a ledge of stone near his shack, reflecting. It was a beautiful day in spring, and a sudden warm spell had brought out the leaves on the trees. His feet were sunken in a bed of wild flowers. He heard running water and pipes of birds, and it seemed to him that he also heard something else — the trumpet of freedom of life and earth which calls a man to the battle-field of God. But he knew that the time was come when he must return to the trammels of love and happiness and anxiety, which his day and generation had made incumbent upon him, and which, although his soul after a manner delighted in them, were yet not the best for a man of his kind who had in him the memory of the old which is the new.

It was late afternoon when Adam rose up and entered his shack and got out a razor and a bit of looking-glass which he had kept all this time, and he shaved himself and cut his hair. Then he put on a decent suit of clothes which he had also kept, and when it was all done he looked a thin and meek man, and not one to ever kick over his traces of life. Then he left his shack, and went along the road toward his old home. He stopped at the house of a man who owned a mule, a half-mile from his own home, and found the man's wife at home, and bargained with her, with a little money he had left, for the hire of the mule for a few days. These people were newcomers in the settlement and did not know him, but the woman looked at him wonderingly when he told her what fields he wished to plough.

“But,” she said, “I thought that man was dead. I thought he ran away and died.”

“No,” said Adam, “he is alive.”

“But they told me he died,” persisted the woman.

“No, he is alive.”

“Are you him?” asked the woman.

“Yes, I am,” replied Adam, and left the woman gaping after him as he went away with the mule. She half feared that she had seen a ghost; then she looked at the solid silver in her hand.

Adam went on, leading the mule with his ragged sides. He was a strong mule, although he showed those ragged patches. Adam went, when he had reached his old home, into the barn and got the plough, and the dog strained at his leash to get at him, barking with joy.

Adam's wife and children in the house heard the dog bark and ran out, and there was Adam ploughing the field, — a small, meek-faced man with an expression of sublime patience and love. Adam's wife screamed.

“It is your father come back!” she cried out. Then she and the slender young girls and the little boys all ran out in the field and up to Adam, and he turned from his ploughing and clasped his wife and then his children in his arms, and his face was beaming, and his heart aching with excess of joy, and his leash was upon him again.

But he still had the sense of blessing which had come to him from his wrestling with that which was the holiest and best of earth and humanity, but which had come between himself and the best of himself.