The dreary March evening is rapidly passing from murky gloom to obscurity. Gusts of icy rain and sleet are sweeping full against a man who, though driving, bows his head so low that he cannot see his horses. The patient beasts, however, plod along the miry road, unerringly taking their course to the distant stable door. The highway sometimes passes through a grove on the edge of a forest, and the trees creak and groan as they writhe in the heavy blasts. In occasional groups of pines there is sighing and moaning almost human in suggestiveness of trouble. Never had Nature been in a more dismal mood, never had she been more prodigal of every element of discomfort, and never had the hero of my story been more cast down in heart and hope than on this chaotic day which, even to his dull fancy, appeared closing in harmony with his feelings and fortune. He is going home, yet the thought brings no assurance of welcome and comfort. As he cowers upon the seat of his market wagon, he is to the reader what he is in the fading light—a mere dim outline of a man. His progress is so slow that there will be plenty of time to relate some facts about him which will make the scenes and events to follow more intelligible.
James Holcroft is a middle-aged man and the owner of a small, hilly farm. He had inherited his rugged acres from his father, had always lived upon them, and the feeling had grown strong with the lapse of time that he could live nowhere else. Yet he knew that he was, in the vernacular of the region, "going down-hill." The small savings of years were slowly melting away, and the depressing feature of this truth was that he did not see how he could help himself. He was not a sanguine man, but rather one endowed with a hard, practical sense which made it clear that the down-hill process had only to continue sufficiently long to leave him landless and penniless. It was all so distinct on this dismal evening that he groaned aloud.
"If it comes to that, I don't know what I'll do—crawl away on a night like this and give up, like enough."
Perhaps he was right. When a man with a nature like his "gives up," the end has come. The low, sturdy oaks that grew so abundantly along the road were types of his character—they could break, but not bend. He had little suppleness, little power to adapt himself to varied conditions of life. An event had occurred a year since, which for months, he could only contemplate with dull wonder and dismay. In his youth he had married the daughter of a small farmer. Like himself, she had always been accustomed to toil and frugal living. From childhood she had been impressed with the thought that parting with a dollar was a serious matter, and to save a dollar one of the good deeds rewarded in this life and the life to come. She and her husband were in complete harmony on this vital point. Yet not a miserly trait entered into their humble thrift. It was a necessity entailed by their meager resources; it was inspired by the wish for an honest independence in their old age....