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A Forest Hearth: A Romance of Indiana in the Thirties

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CHAPTER I On the Heart of the Hearth

A strenuous sense of justice is the most disturbing of all virtues, and those persons in whom it predominates are usually as disagreeable as they are good. Any one who assumes the high plane of "justice to all, and confusion to sinners," may easily gain a reputation for goodness simply by doing nothing bad. Look wise and heavenward, frown severely but regretfully upon others' faults, and the world will whisper, "Ah, how good he is!" And you will be good—as the sinless, prickly pear. If the virtues of omission constitute saintship, and from a study of the calendar one might so conclude, seek your corona by the way of justice. For myself, I would rather be a layman with a few active virtues and a small sin or two, than a sternly just saint without a fault. Breed virtue in others by giving them something to forgive. Conceive, if you can, the unutterable horror of life in this world without a few blessed human faults. He who sins not at all, cannot easily find reason to forgive; and to forgive those who trespass against us, is one of the sweetest benedictions of life. I have known many persons who built their moral structure upon the single rock of justice; but they all bred wretchedness among those who loved them, and made life harder because they did not die young.

One woman of that sort, I knew,—Mrs. Margarita Bays. To her face, or in the presence of those who might repeat my words, I of course called her "Mrs. Bays"; but when I felt safe in so doing, I called her the "Chief Justice"—a title conferred by my friend, Billy Little. Later happenings in her life caused Little to christen her "my Lady Jeffreys," a sobriquet bestowed upon her because of the manner in which she treated her daughter, whose name was also Margarita.

The daughter, because she was as sweet as the wild rose, and as gentle as the soft spring sun, received from her friends the affectionate diminutive of Rita. And so I shall name her in this history.

Had not Rita been so gentle, yielding, and submissive, or had her father, Tom Bays,—husband to the Chief Justice,—been more combative and less amenable to the corroding influences of henpeck, I doubt if Madam Bays would ever have attained a dignity beyond that of "Associate Justice." That strong sense of domineering virtue which belongs to the truly just must be fed, and it waxes fat on an easy-going husband and a loving, tender daughter.

In the Bays home, the mother's righteous sense of justice and duty, which applied itself relentlessly upon husband and daughter, became the weakest sort of indulgence when dealing with the only son and heir. Without being vicious, Tom, Jr., was what the negroes called "jes' clean triflin'," and dominated his mother with an inherited club of inborn selfishness. Before Tom's selfishness, Justice threw away her scales and became maudlin sentiment.

I have been intimately acquainted with the Bays family ever since they came to Blue River settlement from North Carolina, and I am going to tell you the story of the sweetest, gentlest nature God has ever given me to know—Rita Bays....