Wednesday, February 23, 2011

At the Time Appointed

By A. Maynard Barbour
Published in 1903 (Grosset & Dunlap)

A western novel among the mines. I originally wrote this post in October and revised it today. There was no real need, I admit, to give so many half-digested details of the plot but at any rate it's historical source material.

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!
. . .
We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1865)


At the Time Appointed is set in the era after the heyday of cattle ranching and I think even after the heyday of settlers and duels and gold bonanzas and cattle vs. sheepfarming controversies, when the Conquest of the West took on an industrial meaning. The hero, an expert in mineralogy and metallurgy, is headed westward on behalf of a group of corporate investors to inspect a mine that is for sale in the Rockies. According to the owners, the Ajax Mine is well worth the million dollar price, but as the dictum goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As a precaution, the hero adopts the cover name "John Darrell" and even the reader does not know his true name.

As the train runs the long final stretch to Ophir (possibly the real mining town in Colorado, in rugged mountainous terrain where sparse evergreens straggle down barren, tannish and domed slopes), an ingenuous young man sitting near the hero is proudly divulging his temporary possession of $75,000, proceeds of his uncle's highly lucrative Bird Mine. As if this were not harebrained enough, he produces visual aids: pieces of ore from a new gold mine and a map to explain where to find the veins. Noticing that there is a suspicious stirring among the fellow travellers, Darrell approaches the simpleton, known as Harry Whitcomb, and warns him to take care. The two men become friends.

That evening a latent case of mountain fever descends on Darrell. He awakens during the night to see that the car is being held up. While the other passengers, following the received wisdom that it is best to submit, bear the theft quietly, Whitcomb grapples with the robber and the man fatally stabs him. Darrell tries to note the visible traits of the criminal (whose face bears a convenient scar) and he calls for a surgeon and tends to Whitcomb once the robber has gone, but nothing else can be done. Fifteen thousand dollars had been left behind by accident, and with these in hand Darrell proceeds to meet the victim's uncle.

Mr. D.K. Underwood is waiting at the station. He greets Darrell gravely but hospitably, and invites him to his home, "The Pines," near the town. So they set off in their carriage, in company with Harry's coffin, and finally reach the house where the young man's aunt, Mrs. Dean, and his cousin, Mr. Underwood's daughter Kate, are waiting. After telling his host what had happened, and handing over the mine's money as well as funds he was carrying himself, the fever takes over and he loses consciousness.


Darrell's condition quickly worsens, and he is severely ill for three weeks. When the illness turns he has amnesia. In her treatment of this frequent authorial device, Barbour depicts Darrell in gloomy despair, ashamed of what he perceives as a mental handicap (which I think is a reflection of the bigotry toward psychological infirmity during her time), but also typically eager for hints as to his past identity.

In the meantime he lives comfortably in the Underwood home, and among other things gets to know a family friend named John Britton. The relationship has irritating hero-worshippy and bromantic overtones, as the older man is a kind of suave, manly saint who inspires the younger to become resigned to the loss of memory and forge ahead in spiritual and physical virility.


The trope: in order to command his fellow men, his environment, and his destiny, a man must first command himself. So Darrell sets himself a regimen of physical exercises, intelligent conversation, reading, and the arts (music), and keeps a diary to record his life, corresponding to the venerable ideal of mens sana in corpore sano.

Wikipedia informs me that this phrase comes from one of Juvenal's satires; since the entire quotation given is suited to the context, here it is in the English and Latin:

It is to be prayed that the mind be sound in a sound body.
Ask for a brave soul that lacks the fear of death,
which places the length of life last among nature’s blessings,
which is able to bear whatever kind of sufferings,
does not know anger, lusts for nothing and believes
the hardships and savage labors of Hercules better than
the satisfactions, feasts, and feather bed of an Eastern king.
I will reveal what you are able to give yourself;
For certain, the one footpath of a tranquil life lies through virtue.

orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
fortem posce animum mortis terrore carentem,
qui spatium uitae extremum inter munera ponat
naturae, qui ferre queat quoscumque labores,
nesciat irasci, cupiat nihil et potiores
Herculis aerumnas credat saeuosque labores
et uenere et cenis et pluma Sardanapalli.
monstro quod ipse tibi possis dare; semita certe
tranquillae per uirtutem patet unica uitae.

From Wikipedia, "Mens sana in corpore sano." Quoted Oct. 14th, 2010.


When Darrell has physically recovered from his fever, he feels compelled to work. He expresses the impulse to Britton, who replies (on better grounds than Mr. Micawber) that something will turn up.
The next morning found Darrell at an early hour on his way to the mining camp with Mr. Underwood and Mr. Britton. The ground was white and glistening with frost, and the sun, not yet far above the horizon, shone with a pale, cold light, but Darrell, wrapped in a fur coat of Mr. Underwood's, felt only the exhilarating effect of the thin, keen air, and as the large, double-seated carriage, drawn by two powerful horses, descended the pine-clad mountain and passed down one of the principal streets of the little city, he looked about him with lively interest.
They cross the Great Divide. [My family did this by car in Wyoming, in July/August 1998.]
At a short distance beyond them the road was terminated by the large milling plant, above which the mountain rose abruptly, its sides dotted with shaft-houses and crossed and recrossed with trestle-work almost to the summit. A wooden flume clung like a huge serpent to the steep slopes, and a tramway descended from near the summit to the mill below. At a little distance from the mill were the boarding-house and bunk-houses, while in the foreground, near the road was the office building [. . .]. The room they first entered was the superintendent's office. Beyond that was a pleasant reception-room, while in the rear were the private rooms of the superintendent and the assayer, who were not expected to share the bunk-houses with the miners.
In the reception room Darrell sees a display case of minerals and finds himself going through and describing them expertly; the same thing happens when they go outside to the mill; so it is decided that he can take over as head assayer (who tests the ores to determine the quality and quantity, I guess, of the metals in it). After this epiphany, John Britton pronounces the moral of the book:
I am no believer in accident. I believe that of the so-called 'happenings' in our lives, each has its appointed time and mission; and it is not for us to say which is trivial or which is important, until, knowing as we are known, we look back upon life as God sees it.

Eventually Kate Underwood returns from college and provides the feminine refinement which so many western novels after 1900 or so juxtapose to the sweat of their fathers' and brothers' brows. She is cheering, innocent, supporting, and affectionate; she entertains guests; she converses; she dresses decoratively; she scatters flowers everywhere; she sings and plays the piano (q.v. the Chopin nocturne which Kate plays). Kate has a Scottish collie, Duke, who sets off her nurturing tendences and is essentially one of Jane Austen's "heroic pursuits of infancy."

Her aunt, Mrs. Dean, is not permitted to be irresponsible and refined; she is the housekeeper and a mature, sympathetic, but quiet presence. Mr. Underwood "[does] not believe in taking what he call[s] the 'women folks' into his confidence regarding business affairs," because of his conservative background, stubbornness, and a lemming tendency to dislike the dictates of reflected common sense.

At the mine, meanwhile, a strike is brewing, since the workers' union has opened a boarding house which will require 75 cents' lodging per day as opposed to the $1 which, due to poverty or stinginess, some mine owners offer. While he says that he, for one, provides as good a board for his men as he should want for himself, Mr. Underwood is passive and purposely uninformed about conditions under other owners, whom he supports unqualifiedly.

Besides Mr. Underwood has decided to take a partner, who will invest $75,000 into the business and in return receive input in the management (though this is accounted in the book rather as a service than as a boon) and 33.3% of the profits. The partner is a Mr. Walcott, who lives in Texas and has a successful stake in the cattle industry there besides the life insurance office he maintained in Ophir; though he is good-looking and urbane enough, both Kate and Darrell (as well as Duke) feel instinctively uneasy. A tinge of racism is introduced with the emphasis that Walcott has Spanish as well as English origins — which I would call racism since the supposed deleterious effects of foreign blood on Anglo-Saxon psychology runs rampant in turn-of-the-century literature and there are hundreds of secret villains whose secrecy and villainy are explained by the fact that they are only half-American or pretending to be American. At any rate Mr. Underwood's defensiveness indicates that he has his own doubts.

While the partnership is being formalized, the boarding house is completed and the men are preparing for mass exodus and a strike. Mr. Underwood is frothing at the bit and at last shuts down the mine to take the wind out of the men's sails.
The ore-bins were closed and locked, the tram-cars stood empty on their tracks, the hoisting engine was still, the hoist-house and shaft-houses deserted. After the ceaseless noise and activity to which he had become accustomed at the camp the silence seemed oppressive, and he turned and retraced his steps to the office.
A crowd of men was gathered outside the office building. In single file they passed into the office to the superintendent's window, received their money silently, in almost every instance without comment or question, and passed out again. Once outside, however, there they remained, their number constantly augmented by new arrivals, for the men on the night shift had been aroused by their comrades and were now streaming down from the bunk-houses. A few laughed and joked, some looked sullen, some troubled and anxious, but all remained packed about the building, quiet, undemonstrative, and mute as dumb brutes as to their reason for staying there. They were all prepared to march boldly out of the mill and mines on the following Monday, on a strike, in obedience to orders; even to resort to violence in defence of their so-called "rights" if so ordered, but Mr. Underwood's sudden move had disarmed them; there had been no opportunity for a conference with their leaders, with the result that they acted more in accordance with their own individual instincts, and the loss of work for which they would have cared little in the event of a strike was now uppermost in their minds.
I don't like the underlying conviction that labouring men are not intelligent enough to discern injustice and to decide how to act, professionally or politically, without "leadership" (whether it is union bosses, agitators, mine owners, politicians, or foremen). But it must be admitted that — like Mr. Underwood and his indiscriminate partisan adherence to the mineowners' side — man is likely not at his intellectual peak as part of a mass.

At any rate the men come to parley with the owner, who remains recalcitrant since the men have every intention of upholding the union's position. They depart and Mr. Underwood leaves two trusted servants to guard the premises, introducing a violent note with the following instructions: "Keep an eye on things, boys! You're both good shots; if you catch anybody prowling 'round here, day or night, wing him, boys, wing him!"


During the strike Darrell is reassigned to desk work at the company offices in Ophir.
The building [. . .] had [. . .] been formerly occupied by one of the leading banks of Ophir, and was situated on the corner of two of its principal streets. [. . .] Heavy curtains separated that portion of the room in which the laboratory work was to be done from that to be used as a study, and to the latter there had been added a rug or two, a bookcase in which Darrell could arrange his small library of scientific works, a cabinet of mineralogical specimens, and a pair of paintings intended to conceal some of Time's ravages on the once finely decorated walls, while palms and blooming plants transformed the large plate-glass windows into bowers of fragrance and beauty [. . .].
Darrell and Mr. Underwood have a dispute about the office rent, which the latter considers unnecessary and which the former insists on paying because he wants no favours associated with Mr. Walcott.

While the office work is going well, Darrell finds himself increasingly drawn to the mountains and to The Pines and to Kate Underwood; the mush has begun. Kate understands something of Darrell's loneliness due to her solitude after the death of her mother and the restrained affection of her older relatives; and Darrell understands her loneliness due to his own. One day a ball is thrown to which the society of the neighbouring town Galena is invited; an éclaircissement finds place between the young pair. But Kate dances once with Walcott to find herself being "hypnotized" by his eyes, a ludicrous authorial absurdity but an inevitable consequence I suppose of the absorption in psychological phenomena of the time.

That night Darrell realizes again, however, that he has no idea who he is, what he has done, and if he is married; so after hoping for some divine intervention is forced to relinquish any immediate hope of marrying Kate and therefore any right to claim her at present.

At the same time Mr. Underwood has increased Mr. Walcott's share in the business to 50%, since profits have greatly risen and since the partner had contributed a further $50,000 to the enterprise himself. And both men intend to see Kate become Mrs. Walcott. Despite his generosity, Mr. Underwood is fixated on doing the best for his daughter, and "the best" is in his view marrying her to a rich man who is climbing in society and who, I suppose, can be relied upon not to carry her far away from the environs of Ophir — so Darrell is persona non grata in this respect. When Darrell hears of these plans he bluntly opposes them, arguing that Walcott is a man without any moral foundation whatsoever, which Mr. Underwood pishposhes as overidealistic finickiness. The father likewise ignores the evident disinclination of his daughter and the disapprobation of his sister.

At least the strike has ended and the union boarding house found untenable; Darrell is once again an assayer and he no longer lives in The Pines. But Mr. Walcott and Kate are engaged; she bows to the wishes of her father but refuses to pretend to feel any affection. They meet again for Christmas, while the fiancé is away, but the tidings of a fatal robbery similar to the one which brought about the death of Harry Whitcomb cast a pall over the holiday. So Darrell spends the rest of the winter at the mining community and (inspired by his experience with Kate) feels more compassion and understanding for the workers there.

When the wedding comes the hero is there for moral support. Peculiarly enough a messenger comes for Mr. Walcott, however, and in western parlance he skedaddles, right before the event, on the pretext of hastening to his father's deathbed. Kate has observed the arrival of the messenger; she does not understand their dialogue (it's mostly in Spanish ! ), but it dawns on her (intuitively, as it were) that her betrothed may not only be wrong for her tastes but also someone profoundly wrong in every sense. She decides never to marry him. The decision is confirmed when she hears of the paternal deathbed, a circumstance which the tone of the dialogue she had overheard would not support. Her father is not convinced by any of it; she leaves under a cloud for a visit with friends; the hero returns to his camp in the mountains.

Mr. Underwood suffers a stroke (brought on, it is surmised and later proven, by a discovery of his partner's financial mismanagement) and Darrell returns to his home, followed shortly afterwards, in restored good graces, Kate. The Bird Mine is sold; Walcott set back; Darrell's job passed on; and the latter departs for John Britton's cabin in the wilderness for a couple of months in order to finish writing a geological work.

* * *
Deep within the heart of the Rockies a June day was drawing to its close. Behind a range of snow-crowned peaks the sun was sinking into a sea of fire which glowed and shimmered along the western horizon and in whose transfiguring radiance the bold outlines of the mountains, extending far as the eye could reach in endless ranks, were marvellously softened; the nearer cliffs and crags were wrapped in a golden glory, while the hoary peaks against the eastern sky wore tints of rose and amethyst, and over the whole brooded the silence of the ages.

Less than a score of miles distant a busy city throbbed with ceaseless life and activity, but these royal monarchs, towering one above another, their hands joined in mystic fellowship, their heads white with eternal snows, dwelt in the same unbroken calm in which, with noiseless step, the centuries had come and gone, leaving their footprints in the granite rocks.

Amid those vast distances only two signs of human handiwork were visible. Close clinging to the sides of a rugged mountain a narrow track of shining steel wound its way upward, marking the pathway of civilization in its march from sea to sea, while near the summit of a neighboring peak a quaint cabin of unhewn logs arranged in Gothic fashion was built into the granite ledge.

On a small plateau before this unique dwelling stood John Britton and John Darrell, the latter absorbed in the wondrous scene, the other watching with intense satisfaction the surprise and rapture of his young companion. They stood thus till the sun dipped out of sight. The radiance faded, rose and amethyst deepened to purple; the mountains grew sombre and dun, their rugged outlines standing in bold relief against the evening sky. A nighthawk, circling above their heads, broke the silence with his shrill, plaintive cry, and with a sigh of deep content Darrell turned to his friend.

"What do you think of it?" the latter asked.

"It is unspeakably grand," was the reply, in awed tones.

Beckoning Darrell to follow, Mr. Britton led the way to the cabin, which he unlocked and entered.

"Welcome to the 'Hermitage!'" he said, smilingly, as Darrell paused on the threshold with an exclamation of delight.

A huge fireplace, blasted from solid rock, extended nearly across one side of the room. Over it hung antlers of moose, elk, and deer, while skins of mountain lion, bear, and wolf covered the floor. A large writing-table stood in the centre of the room, and beside it a bookcase filled with the works of some of the world's greatest authors.

In this solitary environment John Britton unfolds the story of his past. When he was a young man he had eloped with the daughter of a rich farmer, and when he found that he could not comfortably support his wife particularly when she was expecting a baby, he set off west in search of business opportunities. When he returned, however, it was to be told that the mother and child had died. In despair and guilt he roamed around the mines, then set off for the lonely spot where he later built the cabin and (guided by Providence) found gold nearby. After that he resolved to devote his life to helping others.

[Spoiler alert.]

Darrell is much impressed, and as he spends his weeks in the mountains begins to write a novel along with his geology. Then in a fateful hour he is out reverie-ing when a thunderstorm brews and a bolt of lightning (deus ex machina) hits him, since Divine Providence considers him ready to regain his memory.

So he reawakens to add two and two to make a four which the reader has likely suspected early on; John Britton is his father. He is named after him, only that Mrs. Britton's father (who took his daughter back in when she was so ill it was reported that she had died; frankly I don't know why, in logical terms, John Britton didn't go to visit his wife's grave within the lost two decades and find out that there wasn't any then) doesn't like the name and so he is more commonly called Darrell. Both men return home, to find Mrs. Britton frail but happy in the return of her family.

They return West after a time and there the story reaches its dénouement, in which the author has clearly given up her ambitions regarding the depictions of Western life and the shaping of the human character in it, and draws everything to a conventional close.

* * *

Quotations from At The Time Appointed []

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