The Village Watch-Tower
Kate Douglas Wiggin
Part 1 out of 3
These days the name of Kate Douglas Wiggin is virtually unknown.
But if one mentions the title "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm," recognition
(at least in America) is instant. Everyone has heard of Rebecca;
her story has been in print continuously since it was first
published in 1903. It is certainly Mrs. Wiggin's most famous book,
and the only one of her many books that is still in print.
Everything else she wrote has slipped into complete obscurity.
Occasionally in an antique shop, one may still find a copy of her
immensely popular seasonal book, "The Birds' Christmas Carol", but that
is about the extent of what is readily available, even second-hand.
The Birds' Christas Carol is available as our Etext #721, Nov. 1996.
In 1904, Jack London wrote (from Manchuria!) to say that
Rebecca had won his heart. ("She is real," he wrote, "she lives;
she has given me many regrets, but I love her.") Some eighty years
later I happened to pick up and read "Rebecca" for the first time.
The book was so thoroughly enjoyable that when I had finished it,
I began at once a search for other works by the same author--
especially for a sequel to "Rebecca", which seemed practically to demand one.
There was never a sequel written, but "The New Chronicles of Rebecca"
was published in 1907, and contained some further chapters in the life
of its heroine. I had to be satisfied with that, for the time being.
Then, well over a year after jotting down Mrs. Wiggin's name on my list
of authors to "purchase on sight", I finally ran across a copy of "The
Village Watch-Tower"; and it was not even a book of which I had heard.
It was first published in 1895 by Houghton, who published much of her
other work at the time, and apparently was never published again.
Shortly thereafter I found a copy of her autobiography.
Kate Douglas Wiggin (nee Smith) was born in Philadelphia,
Pennsylvania, on September 28, 1856. She was raised for the most-part
in Maine, which forms a backdrop to much of her fiction.
She moved to California in the 1870s, and became involved
in the "free kindergarten" movement. She opened the Silver
Street Free Kindergarten in San Francisco, the first free
kindergarten in California, and there she worked until
the late 1880s (meantime opening her own training school
for teachers). Her first husband, Samuel Wiggin, died in 1889.
By then famous, she returned to New York and Maine.
She moved in international social circles, lecturing and giving
readings from her work. In 1895 she married for the second time
(to George Riggs).
At her home in San Francisco, overlooking the Golden
Gate and Marin County, she wrote her first book, "The Birds'
Christmas Carol", to raise money for her school.
The book also proved to be her means of entrance into publishing,
translation, and travel in elite circles throughout Europe.
The book was republished many times thereafter, and translated into
several languages. In addition to factual and educational works
(undertaken together with her sister, Nora Archibald Smith)
she also wrote a number of other popular novels in the early
years of the 20th century, including "Rebecca", and "The Story
of Waitstill Baxter" (1913). She died in 1923, on August 23,
at Harrow-on-Hill, England.
Beverly Seaton observed, in "American Women Writers",
that Mrs. Wiggin was "a popular writer who expressed what
her contemporaries themselves thought of as 'real life'"
(p. 413). "The Village Watch-Tower" I think is a perfect example
of that observation; it captures vividly a few frozen moments
of rural America, right at the twilight of the 19th century.
Most of it was written in the village of Quillcote, Maine,
her childhood home--and certainly the model for the village
of these stories.
No attempt has been made to edit this book for consistency
or to update or "correct" the spelling. Mrs. Wiggin's spelling is
somewhat transitional between modern American and British spellings.
The only liberty taken is that of removing extra spaces in contractions.
E.g., I have used "wouldn't" where the original has consistently "would n't";
this is true for all such contractions with "n't" which appeared
inordinately distracting to the modern reader.
R. McGowan, San Jose, March 1997
THE VILLAGE WATCH-TOWER
BY KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN
Dear old apple-tree, under whose gnarled branches these
stories were written, to you I dedicate the book. My head was
so close to you, who can tell from whence the thoughts came?
I only know that when all the other trees in the orchard were barren,
there were always stories to be found under your branches, and so it
is our joint book, dear apple-tree. Your pink blossoms have fallen
on the page as I wrote; your ruddy fruit has dropped into my lap;
the sunshine streamed through your leaves and tipped my pencil with gold.
The birds singing in your boughs may have lent a sweet note here
and there; and do you remember the day when the gentle shower came?
We just curled the closer, and you and I and the sky all cried
together while we wrote "The Fore-Room Rug."
It should be a lovely book, dear apple-tree, but alas!
it is not altogether that, because I am not so simple as you,
and because I have strayed farther away from the heart
of Mother Nature.
KATE DOUGLAS WIGGIN
"Quillcote," Hollis, Maine,
August 12, 1895.
The Village Watch-Tower 1
Tom o' the Blueb'ry Plains 31
The Nooning Tree 55
The Fore-Room Rug 95
A Village Stradivarius 123
The Eventful Trip of the Midnight Cry 195
THE VILLAGE WATCH-TOWER.
It stood on the gentle slope of a hill, the old gray house,
with its weather-beaten clapboards and its roof of ragged shingles.
It was in the very lap of the road, so that the stage-driver could almost
knock on the window pane without getting down from his seat, on those rare
occasions when he brought "old Mis' Bascom" a parcel from Saco.
Humble and dilapidated as it was, it was almost beautiful
in the springtime, when the dandelion-dotted turf grew close
to the great stone steps; or in the summer, when the famous
Bascom elm cast its graceful shadow over the front door.
The elm, indeed, was the only object that ever did cast its
shadow there. Lucinda Bascom said her "front door 'n' entry
never hed ben used except for fun'rals, 'n' she was goin'
to keep it nice for that purpose, 'n' not get it all tracked up."
She was sitting now where she had sat for thirty years.
Her high-backed rocker, with its cushion of copperplate patch
and its crocheted tidy, stood always by a southern window that
looked out on the river. The river was a sheet of crystal, as it
poured over the dam; a rushing, roaring torrent of foaming white,
as it swept under the bridge and fought its way between the rocky
cliffs beyond, sweeping swirling, eddying, in its narrow channel,
pulsing restlessly into the ragged fissures of its shores,
and leaping with a tempestuous roar into the Witches' Eel-pot, a deep
wooded gorge cleft in the very heart of the granite bank.
But Lucinda Bascom could see more than the river from her
favorite window. It was a much-traveled road, the road that ran
past the house on its way from Liberty Village to Milliken's Mills.
A tottering old sign-board, on a verdant triangle of turf, directed you
over Deacon Chute's hill to the "Flag Medder Road," and from thence
to Liberty Centre; the little post-office and store, where the stage
stopped twice a day, was quite within eyeshot; so were the public
watering-trough, Brigadier Hill, and, behind the ruins of an old mill,
the wooded path that led to the Witches' Eel-pot, a favorite
walk for village lovers. This was all on her side of the river.
As for the bridge which knit together the two tiny villages,
nobody could pass over that without being seen from the Bascoms'. The
rumble of wheels generally brought a family party to the window,--
Jot Bascom's wife (she that was Diadema Dennett), Jot himself,
if he were in the house, little Jot, and grandpa Bascom, who looked
at the passers-by with a vacant smile parting his thin lips.
Old Mrs. Bascom herself did not need the rumble of wheels to tell
her that a vehicle was coming, for she could see it fully ten minutes
before it reached the bridge,--at the very moment it appeared at the crest
of Saco Hill, where strangers pulled up their horses, on a clear day,
and paused to look at Mount Washington, miles away in the distance.
Tory Hill and Saco Hill met at the bridge, and just there, too, the river
road began its shady course along the east side of the stream:
in view of all which "old Mis' Bascom's settin'-room winder"
might well be called the "Village Watch-Tower," when you consider
further that she had moved only from her high-backed rocker to
her bed, and from her bed to her rocker, for more than thirty years,--
ever since that july day when her husband had had a sun-stroke
while painting the meeting-house steeple, and her baby Jonathan
had been thereby hastened into a world not in the least ready
to receive him.
She could not have lived without that window, she would have told you,
nor without the river, which had lulled her to sleep ever since she
could remember. It was in the south chamber upstairs that she had been born.
Her mother had lain there and listened to the swirl of the water, in that year
when the river was higher than the oldest inhabitant had ever seen it,--
the year when the covered bridge at the Mills had been carried away,
and when the one at the Falls was in hourly danger of succumbing to the force
of the freshet.
All the men in both villages were working on the river,
strengthening the dam, bracing the bridge, and breaking the jams of logs;
and with the parting of the boom, the snapping of the bridge timbers,
the crashing of the logs against the rocks, and the shouts of
the river-drivers, the little Lucinda had come into the world.
Some one had gone for the father, and had found him on the river,
where he had been since day-break, drenched with the storm,
blown fro his dangerous footing time after time, but still battling
with the great heaped-up masses of logs, wrenching them from one
another's grasp, and sending them down the swollen stream.
Finally the jam broke; and a cheer of triumph burst
from the excited men, as the logs, freed from their bondage,
swept down the raging flood, on and ever on in joyous liberty,
faster and faster, till they encountered some new obstacle,
when they heaped themselves together again, like puppets of Fate,
and were beaten by the waves into another helpless surrender.
With the breaking of the jam, one dead monarch of the forest
leaped into the air as if it had been shot from a cannon's mouth,
and lodged between two jutting peaks of rock high on the river bank.
Presently another log was dashed against it, but rolled off and hurried
down the stream; then another, and still another; but no force seemed
enough to drive the giant from its intrenched position.
"Hurry on down to the next jam, Raish, and let it alone,"
cried the men. "Mebbe it'll git washed off in the night, and anyhow
you can't budge it with no kind of a tool we've got here."
Then from the shore came a boy's voice calling, "There's a baby
up to your house!" And the men repeated in stentorian tones,
"Baby up to your house, Raish! Leggo the log; you're wanted!"
"Boy or girl?" shouted the young father.
"Girl!" came back the answer above the roar of the river.
Whereupon Raish Dunnell steadied himself with his pick
and taking a hatchet from his belt, cut a rude letter "L"
on the side of the stranded log.
"L's for Lucindy," he laughed. "Now you log if you git's fur as Saco,
drop in to my wife's folks and tell 'em the baby's name."
There had not been such a freshet for years before, and there had
never been one since; so, as the quiet seasons went by, "Lucindy's log"
was left in peace, the columbines blooming all about it, the harebells
hanging their heads of delicate blue among the rocks that held it in place,
the birds building their nests in the knot-holes of its withered side.
Seventy years had passed, and on each birthday,
from the time when she was only "Raish Dunnell's little Lou,"
to the years when she was Lucinda Bascom, wife and mother,
she had wandered down by the river side, and gazed,
a little superstitiously perhaps, on the log that had
been marked with an "L" on the morning she was born.
It had stood the wear and tear of the elements bravely,
but now it was beginning, like Lucinda, to show its age.
Its back was bent, like hers; its face was seamed and wrinkled,
like her own; and the village lovers who looked at it from
the opposite bank wondered if, after all, it would hold out
as long as "old Mis' Bascom."
She held out bravely, old Mrs. Bascom, though she was
"all skin, bones, and tongue," as the neighbors said; for nobody
needed to go into the Bascoms' to brighten up aunt Lucinda a bit,
or take her the news; one went in to get a bit of brightness,
and to hear the news.
"I should get lonesome, I s'pose," she was wont to say, "if it wa'n't
for the way this house is set, and this chair, and this winder, 'n' all.
Men folks used to build some o' the houses up in a lane, or turn 'em back
or side to the road, so the women folks couldn't see anythin' to keep their
minds off their churnin' or dish-washin'; but Aaron Dunnell hed somethin'
else to think about, 'n' that was himself, first, last, and all the time.
His store was down to bottom of the hill, 'n' when he come up to his meals,
he used to set where he could see the door; 'n' if any cust'mer come,
he could call to 'em to wait a spell till he got through eatin'. Land!
I can hear him now, yellin' to 'em, with his mouth full of victuals!
They hed to wait till he got good 'n' ready, too. There wa'n't so much
comp'tition in business then as there is now, or he'd 'a' hed to give up
eatin' or hire a clerk. . . . I've always felt to be thankful that the house
was on this rise o' ground. The teams hev to slow up on 'count o'
the hill, 'n' it gives me consid'ble chance to see folks 'n' what they've
got in the back of the wagon, 'n' one thing 'n' other. . . . The
neighbors is continually comin' in here to talk about things that's goin'
on in the village. I like to hear 'em, but land! they can't tell me
nothing'! They often say, `For massy sakes, Lucindy Bascom, how d'
you know that?' `Why,' says I to them, `I don't ask no questions,
'n' folks don't tell me no lies; I just set in my winder, 'n' put two
'n' two together,--that's all I do.' I ain't never ben in a playhouse,
but I don't suppose the play-actors git down off the platform on t'
the main floor to explain to the folks what they've ben doin', do they?
I expect, if folks can't understand their draymas when the're actin'
of 'em out, they have to go ignorant, don't they? Well, what do I want
with explainin', when everythin' is acted out right in the road?"
There was quite a gathering of neighbors at the Bascoms'
on this particular July afternoon. No invitations had been sent out,
and none were needed. A common excitement had made it vital
that people should drop in somewhere, and speculate about certain
interesting matters well known to be going on in the community,
but going on in such an underhand and secretive fashion that it
well-nigh destroyed one's faith in human nature.
The sitting-room door was open into the entry, so that
whatever breeze there was might come in, and an unusual
glimpse of the new foreroom rug was afforded the spectators.
Everything was as neat as wax, for Diadema was a housekeeper
of the type fast passing away. The great coal stove was enveloped
in its usual summer wrapper of purple calico, which, tied neatly
about its ebony neck and portly waist, gave it the appearance
of a buxom colored lady presiding over the assembly.
The kerosene lamps stood in a row on the high, narrow mantelpiece,
each chimney protected from the flies by a brown paper bag
inverted over its head. Two plaster Samuels praying under
the pink mosquito netting adorned the ends of the shelf.
There were screens at all the windows, and Diadema fidgeted
nervously when a visitor came in the mosquito netting door,
for fear a fly should sneak in with her.
On the wall were certificates of membership in the Missionary Society;
a picture of Maidens welcoming Washington in the Streets of Alexandria,
in a frame of cucumber seeds; and an interesting document setting forth
the claims of the Dunnell family as old settlers long before the separation
of Maine from Massachusetts,--the fact bein' established by an obituary
notice reading, "In Saco, December 1791, Dorcas, daughter of Abiathar Dunnell,
two months old of Fits unbaptized."
"He may be goin' to marry Eunice, and he may not," observed Almira Berry;
"though what she wants of Reuben Hobson is more 'n I can make out.
I never see a widower straighten up as he has this last year.
I guess he's been lookin' round pretty lively, but couldn't find anybody
that was fool enough to give him any encouragement."
"Mebbe she wants to get married," said Hannah Sophia,
in a tone that spoke volumes. "When Parson Perkins come
to this parish, one of his first calls was on Eunice Emery.
He always talked like the book o' Revelation; so says he,
`have you got your weddin' garment on, Miss Emery?' says he.
`No,' says she, `but I ben tryin' to these twenty years.'
She was always full of her jokes, Eunice was!"
"The Emerys was always a humorous family,"
remarked Diadema, as she annihilated a fly with a newspaper.
"Old Silas Emery was an awful humorous man. He used to live
up on the island; and there come a freshet one year,
and he said he got his sofy 'n' chairs off, anyhow!" That was
just his jokin'. He hadn't a sign of a sofy in the house;
't was his wife Sophy he meant, she that was Sophy Swett.
Then another time, when I was a little mite of a thin runnin'
in 'n' out o' his yard, he caught holt o' me, and says he,
`You'd better take care, sissy; when I kill you and two more,
thet'll be three children I've killed!' Land! you couldn't
drag me inside that yard for years afterwards.
. . . There! she's got a fire in the cook-stove; there's a stream o'
smoke comin' out o' the kitchen chimbley. I'm willin'
to bet my new rug she's goin' to be married tonight!"
"Mebbe she's makin' jell'," suggested Hannah Sophia.
"Jell'!" ejaculated Mrs. Jot scornfully. "Do you
s'pose Eunice Emery would build up a fire in the middle o'
the afternoon 'n' go to makin' a jell', this hot day?
Besides, there ain't a currant gone into her house this week,
as I happen to know."
"It's a dretful thick year for fol'age," mumbled grandpa Bascom,
appearing in the door with his vacant smile. "I declare some o'
the maples looks like balls in the air."
"That's the twentieth time he's hed that over since mornin',"
said Diadema. "Here, father, take your hat off 'n' set in the
kitchen door 'n' shell me this mess o' peas. Now think smart,
'n' put the pods in the basket 'n' the peas in the pan;
don't you mix 'em."
The old man hung his hat on the back of the chair, took the pan
in his trembling hands, and began aimlessly to open the pods,
while he chuckled at the hens that gathered round the doorstep
when they heard the peas rattling in the pan.
"Reuben needs a wife bad enough, if that's all," remarked the
Widow Buzzell, as one who had given the matter some consideration.
"I should think he did," rejoined old Mrs. Bascom.
"Those children 'bout git their livin' off the road in summer,
from the time the dand'lion greens is ready for diggin'
till the blackb'ries 'n' choke-cherries is gone.
Diademy calls 'em in 'n' gives 'em a cooky every time
they go past, 'n' they eat as if they was famished.
Rube Hobson never was any kind of a pervider, 'n' he's
consid'able snug besides."
"He ain't goin' to better himself much," said Almira.
"Eunice Emery ain't fit to housekeep for a cat.
The pie she took to the pie supper at the church was so tough
that even Deacon Dyer couldn't eat it; and the boys got holt
of her doughnuts, and declared they was goin' fishin' next day
'n' use 'em for sinkers. She lives from hand to mouth Eunice
Emery does. She's about as much of a doshy as Rube is.
She'll make tea that's strong enough to bear up an egg, most,
and eat her doughnuts with it three times a day rather than
take the trouble to walk out to the meat or the fish cart.
I know for a fact she don't make riz bread once a year."
"Mebbe her folks likes buttermilk bread best; some do,"
said the Widow Buzzell. "My husband always said, give him
buttermilk bread to work on. He used to say my riz bread
was so light he'd hev to tread on it to keep it anywheres;
but when you'd eat buttermilk bread he said you'd got somethin'
that stayed by you; you knew where it was every time.
. . . For massy sake! there's the stage stoppin' at the Hobson's door.
I wonder if Rube's first wife's mother has come from Moderation?
If 't is, they must 'a' made up their quarrel, for there was a time
she wouldn't step foot over that doorsill. She must be goin'
to stay some time, for there's a trunk on the back o' the stage.
. . . No, there ain't nobody gettin' out. Land, Hannah Sophia,
don't push me clean through the glass! It beats me why they make winders
so small that three people can't look out of 'em without crowdin'.
Ain't that a wash-boiler he's handin' down? Well, it's a mercy;
he's ben borrowin' long enough!"
"What goes on after dark I ain't responsible for,"
commented old Mrs. Bascom, "but no new wash-boiler has gone
into Rube Hobson's door in the daytime for many a year,
and I'll be bound it means somethin'. There goes a broom, too.
Much sweepin' he'll get out o' Eunice; it's a slick 'n'
a promise with her!"
"When did you begin to suspicion this, Diademy?" asked Almira Berry.
"I've got as much faculty as the next one, but anybody that lives on the river
road has just got to give up knowin' anything. You can't keep runnin'
to the store every day, and if you could you don't find out much nowadays.
Bill Peters don't take no more interest in his neighbors than a cow
does in election."
"I can't get mother Bascom to see it as I do," said Diadema,
"but for one thing she's ben carryin' home bundles 'bout every
other night for a month, though she's ben too smart to buy anythin'
here at this store. She had Packard's horse to go to Saco last week.
When she got home, jest at dusk, she drove int' the barn,
'n' bimeby Pitt Packard come to git his horse,--'t was her own
buggy she went with. She looked over here when she went int'
the house, 'n' she ketched my eye, though 't was half a mile away,
so she never took a thing in with her, but soon as't was dark she made
three trips out to the barn with a lantern, 'n' any fool could tell
't her arms was full o' pa'cels by the way she carried the lantern.
The Hobsons and the Emerys have married one another more 'n once,
as fur as that goes. I declare if I was goin' to get married I
should want to be relation to somebody besides my own folks."
"The reason I can hardly credit it," said Hannah Sophia,
"is because Eunice never had a beau in her life, that I can
remember of. Cyse Higgins set up with her for a spell,
but it never amounted to nothin'. It seems queer, too, for she
was always so fond o' seein' men folks round that when Pitt
Packard was shinglin' her barn she used to go out nights
'n' rip some o' the shingles off, so 't he'd hev more days'
work on it."
"I always said 't was she that begun on Rube Hobson,
not him on her," remarked the Widow Buzzell.
"Their land joinin' made courtin' come dretful handy.
His critters used to git in her field 'bout every other day
(I always suspicioned she broke the fence down herself),
and then she'd hev to go over and git him to drive 'em out.
She's wed his onion bed for him two summers, as I happen to know,
for I've been ou' doors more 'n common this summer, tryin'
to fetch my constitution up. Diademy, don't you want to look
out the back way 'n' see if Rube's come home yet?"
"He ain't," said old Mrs. Bascom, "so you needn't look;
can't you see the curtains is all down? He's gone up to the Mills,
'n' it's my opinion he's gone to speak to the minister."
"He hed somethin' in the back o' the wagon covered up with an old
linen lap robe; 't ain't at all likely he 'd 'a' hed that if he'd ben goin'
to the minister's," objected Mrs. Jot.
"Anybody'd think you was born yesterday, to hear you talk, Diademy,"
retorted her mother-in-law. "When you 've set in one spot's long's
I hev, p'raps you'll hev the use o' your faculties! Men folks has more
'n one way o' gettin' married, 'specially when they 're ashamed of it.
. . . Well, I vow, there's the little Hobson girls comin' out o'
the door this minute, 'n' they 're all dressed up, and Mote don't seem
to be with 'em."
Every woman in the room rose to her feet, and Diadema removed
her murderous eye from a fly which she had been endeavoring to locate
for some moments.
"I guess they 're goin' up to the church to meet their father 'n' Eunice,
poor little things," ventured the Widow Buzzell.
"P'raps they be," said old Mrs. Bascom sarcastically;
"p'raps they be goin' to church, takin' a three-quart
tin pail 'n' a brown paper bundle along with 'em.
. . . They 're comin' over the bridge, just as I s'posed.
. . . Now, if they come past this house, you head 'em off,
Almiry, 'n' see if you can git some satisfaction out of 'em.
. . . They ain't hardly old enough to hold their tongues."
An exciting interview soon took place in the middle of the road,
and Almira reentered the room with the expression of one who had
penetrated the inscrutable and solved the riddle of the Sphinx.
She had been vouch-safed one of those gleams of light in darkness
which almost dazzle the beholder.
"That's about the confirmingest thing I've heern yet!"
she ejaculated, as she took off her shaker bonnet.
"They say they're goin' up to their aunt Hitty's to stay two days.
They're dressed in their best, clean to the skin, for I looked;
'n' it's their night gownds they've got in the bundle.
They say little Mote has gone to Union to stop all night
with his uncle Abijah, 'n' that leaves Rube all alone,
for the smith girl that does his chores is home sick
with the hives. And what do you s'pose is in the pail?
_Fruit_ _cake_,--that's what 't is, no more 'n' no less!
I knowed that Smith girl didn't bake it, 'n' so I asked 'em,
'n' they said Miss Emery give it to 'em. There was two little
round try-cakes, baked in muffin-rings. Eunice hed took some o'
the batter out of a big loaf 'n' baked it to se how it was goin'
to turn out. That means wedding-cake, or I'm mistaken!"
"There ain't no gittin' round that," agreed the assembled company,
"now is there, Mis' Bascom?"
Old Mrs. Bascom wet her finger, smoothed the parting
of her false front, and looked inscrutable.
"I don't see why you're so secret," objected Diadema.
"I've got my opinions, and I've had 'em some time,"
observed the good lady. "I don't know 's I'm bound to tell 'em
and have 'em held up to ridicule. Let the veal hang, I say.
If any one of us is right, we'll all know to-morrow."
"Well, all any of us has got to judge from is appearances," said Diadema,
"and how you can twist 'em one way, and us another, stumps me!"
"Perhaps I see more appearances than you do,"
retorted her mother-in-law. "Some folks mistakes all they see
for all there is. I was reading a detective story last week.
It seems there was an awful murder in Schenectady, and a mother
and her two children was found dead in one bed, with bullet
holes in their heads. The husband was away on business,
and there wasn't any near neighbors to hear her screech.
Well, the detectives come from far and from near, and begun
to work up the case. One of 'em thought 't was the husband,--
though he set such store by his wife he went ravin'
crazy when he heard she was dead,--one of 'em laid it
on the children,--though they was both under six years old;
and one decided it was suicide,--though the woman was a church
member and didn't know how to fire a gun off, besides.
And then there come along a detective younger and smarter than
all the rest, and says he, `If all you bats have seen everything
you can see, I guess I'll take a look around,' says he.
Sure enough, there was a rug with `Welcome' on it layin' in front
of the washstand, and when he turned it up he found an elegant
diamond stud with a man's full name and address on the gold part.
He took a train and went right to the man's house.
He was so taken by surprise (he hadn't missed the stud,
for he had a full set of 'em) that he owned right up and
confessed the murder."
"I don't see as that's got anything to do with this case," said Diadema.
"It's got this much to do with it," replied old Mrs. Bascom,
"that perhaps you've looked all round the room and seen everything
you had eyes to see, and perhaps I've had wit enough to turn up
the rug in front o' the washstand."
"Whoever he marries now, Mis' Bascom'll have to say 't
was the one she meant," laughed the Widow Buzzell.
"I never was caught cheatin' yet, and if I live till Saturday I shall
be seventy-one years old," said the old lady with some heat. "Hand me
Jot's lead pencil, Diademy, and that old envelope on the winder sill.
I'll write the name I think of, and shut it up in the old Bible.
My hand's so stiff to-day I can't hardly move it, but I guess I can make
it plain enough to satisfy you."
"That's fair 'n' square," said Hannah Sophia, "and for
my pat I hope it ain't Eunice, for I like her too well.
What they're goin' to live on is more 'n I can see. Add nothin'
to nothin' 'n' you git nothin',--that's arethmetic! He ain't hed
a cent o' ready money sence he failed up four years ago, 'thout it
was that hundred dollars that fell to him from his wife's aunt.
Eunice'll hev her hands full this winter, I guess, with them
three hearty children 'n' him all wheezed up with phthisic
from October to April! . . . Who's that coming' down Tory Hill?
It's Rube's horse 'n' Rube's wagon, but it don't look like Rube."
"Yes, it's Rube; but he's got a new Panama hat, 'n' he 's hed his
linen duster washed," said old Mrs. Bascom. . . . "Now, do you
mean to tell me that that woman with a stuck-up hat on is Eunice Emery?
It ain't, 'n' that green parasol don't belong to this village. He's drivin'
her into his yard! . . . Just as I s'posed, it's that little, smirkin'
worthless school-teacher up to the Mills.--Don't break my neck, Diademy;
can't you see out the other winder?--Yes, he's helpin' her out, 'n' showin'
her in. He can't 'a' ben married more'n ten minutes, for he's goin'
clear up the steps to open the door for her!"
"Wait 'n' see if he takes his horse out," said Hannah Sophia.
"Mebbe he'll drive her back in a few minutes. . . . No, he's onhitched!
. . . There, he's hangin' up the head-stall!"
"I've ben up in the attic chamber," called the Widow Buzzell,
as she descended the stairs; "she's pulled up the curtains, and took
off her hat right in front o' the winder, 's bold as a brass kettle!
She's come to stay! Ain't that Rube Hobson all over,--to bring another
woman int' this village 'stid o' weedin' one of 'em out as he'd oughter.
He ain't got any more public sperit than a--hedgehog, 'n' never had!"
Almira drew on her mitts excitedly, tied on her shaker,
and started for the door.
"I'm goin' over to Eunice's," she said, "and I'm goin'
to take my bottle of camphire. I shouldn't wonder a mite
if I found her in a dead faint on the kitchen floor.
Nobody need tell me she wa'n't buildin' hopes."
"I'll go with you," said the Widow Buzzell.
"I'd like to see with my own eyes how she takes it,
'n' it'll be too late to tell if I wait till after supper.
If she'd ben more open with me 'n' ever asked for my advice,
I could 'a' told her it wa'n't the first time Rube Hobson has
played that trick."
"I'd come too if 't wa'n't milkin' but Jot ain't home
from the Centre, and I've got to do his chores; come in as you
go along back, will you?" asked Diadema.
Hannah Sophia remained behind, promising to meet them at the post-office
and hear the news. As the two women walked down the hill she drew the old
envelope from the Bible and read the wavering words scrawled upon it in old
Mrs. Bascom's rheumatic and uncertain hand,--
_the_ _milikins_ _Mills_ _Teecher._
"Well Lucindy, you do make good use o' your winder,"
she exclaimed, "but how you pitched on anything so onlikely
as her is more'n I can see."
"Just because 't was onlikely. A man's a great sight likelier
to do an onlikely thing than he is a likely one, when it comes
to marryin'. In the first place, Rube sent his children to school
up to the Mills 'stid of to the brick schoolhouse, though he had
to pay a little something to get 'em taken in to another deestrick.
They used to come down at night with their hands full o'
'ward o' merit cards. Do you s'pose I thought they got 'em
for good behavior, or for knowin' their lessons? Then aunt Hitty
told me some question or other Rube had asked examination day.
Since when has Rube Hobson 'tended examinations, thinks I. And
when I see the girl, a red-and-white paper doll that wouldn't know
whether to move the churn-dasher up 'n' down or round 'n' round,
I made up my mind that bein' a man he'd take her for certain,
and not his next-door neighbor of a sensible age and a house 'n'
farm 'n' cow 'n' buggy!"
"Sure enough," agreed Hannah Sophia, "though that don't
account for Eunice's queer actions, 'n' the pa'cels 'n'
the fruit cake."
"When I make out a case," observed Mrs. Bascom modestly,
"I ain't one to leave weak spots in it. If I guess at all,
I go all over the ground 'n' stop when I git through.
Now, sisters or no sisters, Maryabby Emery ain't spoke to Eunice sence
she moved to Salem. But if Eunice has ben bringin' pa'cels home,
Maryabby must 'a' paid for what was in 'em; and if she's ben bakin'
fruit cake this hot day, why Maryabby used to be so font o'
fruit cake her folks were afraid she'd have fits 'n' die.
I shall be watchin' here as usual to-morrow morning', 'n'
if Maryabby don't drive int' Eunice's yard before noon I won't
brag any more for a year to come."
Hannah Sophia gazed at old Mrs. Bascom with unstinted admiration.
"You do beat all," she said; "and I wish I could stay all night 'n' see
how it turns out, but Almiry is just comin' over the bridge, 'n' I must
start 'n' meet her. Good-by. I'm glad to see you so smart; you always
look slim, but I guess you'll tough it out's long 's the rest of us.
I see your log was all right, last time I was down side o' the river."
"They say it 's jest goin' to break in two in the middle,
and fall into the river," cheerfully responded Lucinda.
"They say it's just hanging' on by a thread. Well, that's what
they 've ben sayin' about me these ten years, 'n' here I be
still hanging! It don't make no odds, I guess, whether it's
a thread or a rope you 're hangin' by, so long as you hang."
* * *
The next morning, little Mote Hobson, who had stayed all night
with his uncle in Union, was walking home by the side of the river.
He strolled along, the happy, tousle-headed, barefooted youngster,
eyes one moment on the trees in the hope of squirrels and birds'-nests,
the next on the ground in search of the first blueberries.
As he stooped to pick up a bit of shining quartz to add to the collection
in his ragged trousers' pockets he glanced across the river,
and at that very instant Lucinda's log broke gently in twain,
rolled down the bank, crumbling as it went, and, dropping in like a
tired child, was carried peacefully along on the river's breast.
Mote walked more quickly after that. It was quite a feather
in his cap to see, with his own eyes, the old landmark
slip from its accustomed place and float down the stream.
The other boys would miss it and say, "It's gone!"
He would say, "I saw it go!"
Grandpa Bascom was standing at the top of the hill. His white locks
were uncovered, and he was in his shirt-sleeves. Baby Jot, as usual,
held fast by his shaking hand, for they loved each other, these two.
The cruel stroke of the sun that had blurred the old man's brain had spared
a blessed something in him that won the healing love of children.
"How d' ye, Mote?" he piped in his feeble voice. "They say
Lucindy's dead. . . . Jot says she is, 'n' Diademy says she is,
'n' I guess she is. . . . It 's a dretful thick year for fol'age;
. . . some o' the maples looks like balls in the air."
Mote looked in at the window. The neighbors were hurrying to and fro.
Diadema sat with her calico apron up to her face, sobbing; and for the first
morning in thirty years, old Mrs. Bascom's high-backed rocker was empty,
and there was no one sitting in the village watch-tower.
TOM O' THE BLUEB'RY PLAINS.
The sky is a shadowless blue; the noon-day sun glows fiercely;
a cloud of dust rises from the burning road whenever the hot
breeze stirs the air, or whenever a farm wagon creaks along,
its wheels sinking into the deep sand.
In the distance, where the green of the earth joins the blue of the sky,
gleams the silver line of a river.
As far as the eye an reach, the ground is covered
with blueberry bushes; red leaves peeping among green ones;
bloom of blue fruit hanging in full warm clusters,--spheres of
velvet mellowed by summer sun, moistened with crystal dew,
spiced with fragrance of woods.
In among the blueberry bushes grow huckleberries,
"choky pears," and black-snaps.
Gnarled oaks and stunted pines lift themselves out
of the wilderness of shrubs. They look dwarfed and gloomy,
as if Nature had been an untender mother, and denied
them proper nourishment.
The road is a little-traveled one, and furrows of feathery grasses
grow between the long, hot, sandy stretches of the wheel-ruts.
The first goldenrod gleams among the loose stones at the foot
of the alder bushes. Whole families of pale butterflies,
just out of their long sleep, perch on the brilliant stalks
and tilter up and down in the sunshine.
Straggling processions of wooly brown caterpillars wend their way
in the short grass by the wayside, where the wild carrot and the purple
bull-thistle are coming into bloom.
The song of birds is seldom heard, and the blueberry plains
are given over to silence save for the buzzing of gorged flies,
the humming of bees, and the chirping of crickets that stir
the drowsy air when the summer begins to wane.
It is so still that the shuffle-shuffle of a footstep can be heard
in the distance, the tinkle of a tin pail swinging musically to and fro,
the swish of an alder switch cropping the heads of the roadside weeds.
All at once a voice breaks the stillness. Is it a child's, a woman's,
or a man's? Neither yet all three.
"I'd much d'ruth-er walk in the bloom-in' gy-ar-ding,
An' hear the whis-sle of the jol-ly
Everybody knows the song, and everybody knows the cracked voice.
The master of this bit of silent wilderness is coming home:
it is Tom o' the blueb'ry plains.
He is more than common tall, with a sandy beard,
and a mop of tangled hair straggling beneath his torn straw hat.
A square of wet calico drips from under the back of the hat.
His gingham shirt is open at the throat, showing his tanned neck
and chest. Warm as it is, he wears portions of at least three coats
on his back. His high boots, split in foot and leg, are mended
and spliced and laced and tied on with bits of shingle rope.
He carries a small tin pail of molasses. It has a bail of rope,
and a battered cover with a knob of sticky newspaper.
Over one shoulder, suspended on a crooked branch, hangs a
bundle of basket stuff,--split willow withes and the like;
over the other swings a decrepit, bottomless, three-legged chair.
I call him the master of the plains, but in faith he had no legal
claim to the title. If he owned a habitation or had established a home
on any spot in the universe, it was because no man envied him what he took;
for Tom was one of God's fools, a foot-loose pilgrim in this world
of ours, a poor addle-pated, simple-minded, harmless creature,--
in village parlance, a "softy."
Mother or father, sister or brother, he had none, nor ever had,
so far as any one knew; but how should people who had to work from sun-up
to candlelight to get the better of the climate have leisure to discover
whether or no Blueb'ry Tom had any kin?
At some period in an almost forgotten past there
had been a house on Tom's particular patch of the plains.
It had long since tumbled into ruins and served for fire-wood
and even the chimney bricks had disappeared one by one,
as the monotonous seasons came and went.
Tom had settled himself in an old tool-shop, corn-house, or rude
out-building of some sort that had belonged to the ruined cottage.
Here he had set up his house-hold gods; and since no one else
had ever wanted a home in this dreary tangle of berry bushes,
where the only shade came from stunted pines that flung shriveled
arms to the sky and dropped dead cones to the sterile earth,
here he remained unmolested.
In the lower part of the hut he kept his basket stuff
and his collection of two-legged and three-legged chairs.
In the course of evolution they never sprouted another leg,
those chairs; as they were given to him, so they remained.
The upper floor served for his living-room, and was reached
by a ladder from the ground, for there was no stairway inside.
No one had ever been in the little upper chamber.
When a passer-by chanced to be-think him that Tom's
hermitage was close at hand, he sometimes turned in his
team by a certain clump of white birches and drove nearer
to the house, intending to remind Tom that there was a chair
to willow-bottom the next time he came to the village.
But at the noise of the wheels Tom drew in his ladder;
and when the visitor alighted and came within sight,
it was to find the inhospitable host standing in the opening
of the second-story window, a quaint figure framed
in green branches, the ladder behind him, and on his face
a kind of impenetrable dignity, as he shook his head and said,
"Tom ain't ter hum; Tom's gone to Bonny Eagle."
There was something impressive about his way of repelling callers;
it was as effectual as a door slammed in the face, and yet there
was a sort of mendacious courtesy about it. No one ever cared
to go further; and indeed there was no mystery to tempt the curious,
and no spoil to attract the mischievous or the malicious.
Any one could see, without entering, the straw bed in the far corner,
the beams piled deep with red and white oak acorns, the strings
of dried apples and bunches of everlastings hanging from the rafters,
and the half-finished baskets filled with blown bird's-eggs,
pine cones, and pebbles.
No home in the village was better loved than Tom's
retreat in the blueberry plains. Whenever he approached it,
after a long day's tramp, when he caught the first sight
of the white birches that marked the gateway to his estate
and showed him where to turn off the public road into his own
private grounds, he smiled a broader smile than usual,
and broke into his well-known song:
"I'd much d'ruth-er walk in the bloom-in' gy-ar-ding,
An' hear the whis-sle of the jol-ly
Poor Tom could never catch the last note. He had sung
the song for more than forty years, but the memory of this
tone was so blurred, and his cherished ideal of it so high
(or so low, rather), that he never managed to reach it.
Oh, if only summer were eternal! Who could wish a better
supper than ripe berries and molasses? Nor was there need
of sleeping under roof nor of lighting candles to grope his way
to pallet of straw, when he might have the blue vault of heaven
arching over him, and all God's stars for lamps, and for a bed
a horse blanket stretched over an elastic couch of pine needles.
There were two gaunt pines that had been dropping their polished
spills for centuries, perhaps silently adding, year by year,
another layer of aromatic springiness to poor Tom's bed.
Flinging his tired body on this grateful couch, burying his head
in the crushed sweet fern of his pillow with one deep-drawn
sigh of pleasure,--there, haunted by no past and harassed
by no future, slept God's fool as sweetly as a child.
Yes, if only summer were eternal, and youth as well!
But when the blueberries had ripened summer after summer,
and the gaunt pine-trees had gone on for many years weaving poor
Tom's mattress, there came a change in the aspect of things.
He still made his way to the village, seeking chairs to mend;
but he was even more unkempt than of old, his tall figure was bent,
and his fingers trembled as he wove the willow strands in and out,
and over and under.
There was little work to do, moreover, for the village had altogether
retired from business, and was no longer in competition with its neighbors:
the dam was torn away, the sawmills were pulled down; husbands and fathers
were laid in the churchyard, sons and brothers and lovers had gone West, and
mothers and widows and spinsters stayed on, each in her quiet house alone.
"'T ain't no hardship when you get used to it," said the Widow Buzzell.
"Land sakes! a lantern 's 's good 's a man any time, if you only think so,
'n' 't ain't half so much trouble to keep it filled up!"
But Tom still sold a basket occasionally, and the children
always gathered about him for the sake of hearing him repeat
his well-worn formula,--Tom allers puts two handles on baskets:
one to take 'em up by, one to set 'em down by."
This was said with a beaming smile and a wise shake of the head,
as if he were announcing a great discovery to an expectant world.
And then he would lay down his burden of basket stuff,
and, sitting under an apple-tree in somebody's side yard,
begin his task of willow-bottoming an old chair. It was a pretty
sight enough, if one could keep back the tears,--the kindly,
simple fellow with the circle of children about his knees.
Never a village fool without a troop of babies at his heels.
They love him, too, till we teach them to mock.
When he was younger, he would sing,
"Rock-a-by, baby, on the treetop,"
and dance the while, swinging his unfinished basket to and fro for a cradle.
He was too stiff in the joints for dancing nowadays, but he still sang
the "bloomin' gy-ar-ding" when ever they asked him, particularly if
some apple-cheeked little maid would say, "Please, Tom!"
He always laughed then, and, patting the child's hand, said, "Pooty gal,--
got eyes!" The youngsters dance with glee at this meaningless phrase,
just as their mothers had danced years before when it was said to them.
Summer waned. In the moist places the gentian uncurled
its blue fringes; purple asters and gay Joe Pye waved their
colors by the roadside; tall primroses put their yellow
bonnets on, and peeped over the brooks to see themselves;
and the dusty pods of the milkweed were bursting with
their silky fluffs, the spinning of the long summer.
Autumn began to paint the maples red and the elms yellow,
for the early days of September brought a frost.
Some one remarked at the village store that old Blueb'ry Tom
must not be suffered to stay on the plains another winter,
now that he was getting so feeble,--not if the "_se_leckmen" had
to root him out and take him to the poor-farm. He would surely
starve or freeze, and his death would be laid at their door.
Tom was interviewed. Persuasion, logic, sharp words, all failed
to move him one jot or tittle. He stood in his castle door,
with the ladder behind him, smiling, always smiling
(none but the fool smiles always, nor always weeps), and saying
to all visitors, "Tom ain't ter hum; Tom's gone to Bonny Eagle;
Tom don' want to go to the poor-farm."
November came in surly.
The cheerful stir and bustle of the harvest were over, the corn
was shocked, the apples and pumpkins were gathered into barns.
The problem of Tom's future was finally laid before the selectmen;
and since the poor fellow's mild obstinancy had defeated all attempts
to conquer it, the sheriff took the matter in hand.
The blueberry plains looked bleak and bare enough now. It had rained
incessantly for days, growing ever colder and colder as it rained.
The sun came out at last, but it shone in a wintry sort of way,--
like a duty smile,--as if light, not heat, were its object.
A keen wind blew the dead leaves hither and thither in a wild dance
that had no merriment in it. A blackbird flew under an old barrel
by the wayside, and, ruffling himself into a ball, remarked despondently
that feathers were no sort of protection in this kind of climate.
A snowbird, flying by, glanced in at the barrel, and observed that
anybody who minded a little breeze like that had better join the woodcocks,
who were leaving for the South by the night express.
The blueberry bushes were stripped bare of green. The stunted
pines and sombre hemlocks looked in tone with the landscape now;
where all was dreary they did not seem amiss.
"Je-whilikins!" exclaimed the sheriff as he drew up his coat collar.
"A madhouse is the place for the man who wants to live ou'doors in
the winter time; the poor-farm is too good for him."
But Tom was used to privation, and even to suffering.
"Ou'doors" was the only home he knew, and with all its rigors he loved it.
He looked over the barren plains, knowing, in a dull sort of way,
that they would shortly be covered with snow; but he had three coats,
two of them with sleeves, and the crunch-crunch of the snow
under his tread was music to his ears. Then, too, there were
a few hospitable firesides where he could always warm himself;
and the winter would soon be over, the birds would come again,--
new birds, singing the old songs,--the sap would mount in the trees,
the buds swell on the blueberry bushes, and the young ivory
leaves push their ruddy tips through the softening ground.
The plains were fatherland and mother-country, home and kindred, to Tom.
He loved the earth that nourished him, and he saw through all
the seeming death in nature the eternal miracle of the resurrection.
To him winter was never cruel. He looked underneath her white mantle,
saw the infant spring hidden in her warm bosom, and was content to wait.
Content to wait? Content to starve, content to freeze, if only
he need not be carried into captivity.
The poor-farm was not a bad place, either, if only Tom
had been a reasonable being. To be sure, when Hannah Sophia
Palmer asked old Mrs. Pinkham how she liked it, she answered,
with a patient sigh, that "her 'n' Mr. Pinkham hed lived
there goin' on nine year, workin' their fingers to the bone
'most, 'n' yet they hadn't been able to lay up a cent!"
If this peculiarity of administration was its worst feature,
it was certainly one that would have had no terrors for Tom o'
the blueb'ry plains. Terrors of some sort, nevertheless,
the poor-farm had for him; and when the sheriff's party
turned in by the clump of white birches and approached
the cabin, they found that fear had made the simple wise.
Tom had provished the little upper chamber, and, in place
of the piece of sacking that usually served him for a door
in winter, he had woven a defense of willow. In fine,
he had taken all his basket stuff, and, treating the opening
through which he entered and left his home precisely as
if it were a bottomless chair, he had filled it in solidly,
weaving to and fro, by night as well as by day, till he felt,
poor fool, as safely intrenched as if he were in the heart
of a fortress.
The sheriff tied his horse to a tree, and Rube Hobson and Pitt Packard
got out of the double wagon. Two men laughed when they saw the pathetic
defense, but the other shut his lips together and caught his breath.
(He had been born on a poor-farm, but no one knew it at Pleasant River.)
They called Tom's name repeatedly, but no other sound broke the silence
of the plains save the rustling of the wind among the dead leaves.
"Numb-head!" muttered the sheriff, pounding on the side
of the cabin with his whip-stock. "Come out and show yourself!
We know you're in there, and it's no use hiding!"
At last in response to a deafening blow from Rube Hobson's hard fist,
there came the answering note of a weak despairing voice.
"Tom ain't ter hum," it said; "Tom's gone to Bonny Eagle."
"That's all right!" guffawed the men; "but you've got to go some more,
and go a diff'rent way. It ain't no use fer you to hold back; we've got
a ladder, and by Jiminy! you go with us this time!"
The ladder was put against the side of the hut, and Pitt Packard
climbed up, took his jack-knife, slit the woven door from top to bottom,
and turned back the flap.
The men could see the inside of the chamber now. They were humorous
persons who could strain a joke to the snapping point, but they felt,
at last, that there was nothing especially amusing in the situation.
Tom was huddled in a heap on the straw bed in the far corner.
The vacant smile had fled from his face, and he looked, for the first
time in his life, quite distraught.
"Come along, Tom," said the sheriff kindly;
"we 're going to take you where you can sleep in a bed,
and have three meals a day."
"I'd much d'ruth-er walk in the bloom-in' gy-ar-ding,"
sang Tom quaveringly, as he hid his head in a paroxysm of fear.
"Well, there ain't no bloomin' gardings to walk in jest now,
so come along and be peaceable."
"Tom don' want to go to the poor-farm," he wailed piteously.
But there was no alternative. They dragged him off the bed
and down the ladder as gently as possible; then Rube Hobson held him
on the back seat of the wagon, while the sheriff unhitched the horse.
As they were on the point of starting, the captive began to wail
and struggle more than ever, the burden of his plaint being a wild
and tremulous plea for his pail of molasses.
"Dry up, old softy, or I'll put the buggy robe over your head!"
muttered Rube Hobson, who had not had much patience when he started
on the trip, and had lost it all by this time.
"By thunder! he shall hev his molasses, if he thinks he wants it!"
said Pitt Packard, and he ran up the ladder and brought it down,
comforting the shivering creature thus, for he lapsed into a submissive
silence that lasted until the unwelcome journey was over.
Tom remained at the poorhouse precisely twelve hours.
It did not enter the minds of the authorities that any one so fortunate
as to be admitted into that happy haven would decline to stay there.
The unwilling guest disappeared early on the morrow of his arrival, and,
after some search, they followed him to the old spot. He had climbed
into his beloved retreat, and, having learned nothing from experience,
had mended the willow door as best he could, and laid him down in peace.
They dragged him out again, and this time more impatiently;
for it was exasperating to see a man (even if he were a fool)
fight against a bed and three meals a day.
The second attempt was little more successful than the first.
As a place of residence, the poor-farm did not seem any more desirable
or attractive on near acquaintance than it did at long range.
Tom remained a week, because he was kept in close confinement;
but when they judged that he was weaned from his old home,
they loosed his bonds, and--back to the plains he sped, like an arrow
shot from the bow, or like a bit of iron leaping to the magnet.
What should be done with him?
Public opinion was divided. Some people declared that
the village had done its duty, and if the "dog-goned lunk-head"
wanted to starve and freeze, it was his funeral, not theirs.
Others thought that the community had no resource but to
bear the responsibility of its irresponsible children,
however troublesome they might be. There was entire
unanimity of view so far as the main issues were concerned.
It was agreed that nobody at the poor-farm had leisure to stand
guard over Tom night and day, and that the sheriff could
not be expected to spend his time forcing him out of his hut
on the blueberry plains.
There was but one more expedient to be tried, a very simple
and ingenious but radical and comprehensive one, which, in Rube
Hobson's opinion, would strike at the root of the matter.
Tom had fled from captivity for the third time.
He had stolen out at daybreak, and, by an unexpected stroke
of fortune, the molasses pail was hanging on a nail by the shed door.
The remains of a battered old bushel basket lay on the wood-pile: bottom
it had none, nor handles; rotundity of side had long since disappeared,
and none but its maker would have known it for a basket. Tom caught it
up in his flight, and, seizing the first crooked stick that offered,
he slung the dear familiar burden over his shoulder and started off
on a jog-trot.
Heaven, how happy he was! It was the rosy dawn of an Indian summer day,--
a warm jewel of a day, dropped into the bleak world of yesterday without
a hint of beneficent intention; one of those enchanting weather surprises
with which Dame Nature reconciles us to her stern New England rule.
The joy that comes of freedom, and the freedom
that comes of joy, unbent the old man's stiffened joints.
He renewed his youth at every mile. He ran like a lapwing.
When his feet first struck the sandy soil of the plains, he broke
into old song of the "bloom-in' gy-ar-ding" and the "jolly swain,"
and in the marvelous mental and spiritual exhilaration
born of the supreme moment he almost grasped that impossible
last note. His heard could hardly hold its burden of rapture
when he caught the well-known gleam of the white birches.
He turned into the familiar path, boy's blood thumping in old
man's veins. The past week had been a dreadful dream.
A few steps more and he would be within sight,
within touch of home,--home at last! No--what was wrong?
He must have gone beyond it, in his reckless haste!
Strange that he could have forgotten the beloved spot!
Can lover mistake the way to sweetheart's window?
Can child lose the path to mother's knee?
He turned,--ran hither and thither, like one distraught.
A nameless dread flitted through his dull mind, chilling his
warm blood, paralyzing the activity of the moment before.
At last, with a sob like that of a frightened child
who flies from some imagined evil lurking in darkness,
he darted back to the white birches and started anew.
This time he trusted to blind instinct; his feet knew the path,
and, left to themselves, they took him through the tangle
of dry bushes straight to his--
It had vanished!
Nothing but ashes remained to mark the spot,--nothing but ashes!
And these, ere many days, the autumn winds would scatter,
and the leafless branches on which they fell would shake them
off lightly, never dreaming that they hid the soul of a home.
Nothing but ashes!
Poor Tom o' the blueb'ry plains!
THE NOONING TREE.
The giant elm stood in the centre of the squire's fair green meadows,
and was known to all the country round about as the "Bean ellum."
The other trees had seemingly retired to a respectful distance,
as if they were not worthy of closer intimacy; and so it stood alone,
king of the meadow, monarch of the village.
It shot from the ground for a space, straight, strong, and superb,
and then bust into nine splendid branches, each a tree in itself,
all growing symmetrically from the parent trunk, and casting
a grateful shadow under which all the inhabitants of the tiny
village might have gathered.
It was not alone its size, its beauty, its symmetry, its density
of foliage, that made it the glory of the neighborhood, but the low
grown of its branches and the extra-ordinary breadth of its shade.
Passers-by from the adjacent towns were wont to hitch their teams
by the wayside, crawl through the stump fence and walk
across the fields, for a nearer view of its magnificence.
One man, indeed, was known to drive by the tree every day during
the summer, and lift his hat to it, respectfully, each time he passed;
but he was a poet and his intellect was not greatly esteemed
in the village.
The elm was almost as beautiful in one season as in another.
In the spring it rose from moist fields and mellow ploughed ground,
its tiny brown leaf buds bursting with pride at the thought
of the loveliness coiled up inside. In summer it stood
in the midst of a waving garden of buttercups and whiteweed,
a towering mass of verdant leafage, a shelter from the sun
and a refuge from the storm; a cool, splendid, hospitable dome,
under which the weary farmer might fling himself, and gaze
upward as into the heights and depths of an emerald heaven.
As for the birds, they made it a fashionable summer resort,
the most commodious and attractive in the whole country; with no
limit to the accommodations for those of a gregarious turn of mind,
liking the advantages of select society combined with country air.
In the autumn it held its own; for when the other elms changed
their green to duller tints, the nooning tree put on
a gown of yellow, and stood out against the far background
of sombre pine woods a brilliant mass of gold and brown.
In winter, when there was no longer dun of upturned sod,
nor waving daisy gardens, nor ruddy autumn grasses,
it rose above the dazzling snow crust, lifting its bare,
shapely branches in sober elegance and dignity, and seeming
to say, "Do not pity me; I have been, and, please God,
I shall be!"
Whenever the weather was sufficiently mild, it was used as a "nooning"
tree by all the men at work in the surrounding fields; but it was in haying
time that it became the favorite lunching and "bangeing" place for Squire
Bean's hands and those of Miss Vilda Cummins, who owned the adjoining farm.
The men congregated under the spreading branches at twelve o' the clock,
and spent the noon hour there, eating and "swapping" stories, as they
were doing to-day.
Each had a tin pail, and each consumed a quantity of "flour food"
that kept the housewives busy at the cook stove from morning till night.
A glance at Pitt Packard's luncheon, for instance, might suffice
as an illustration, for, as Jabe Slocum said, "Pitt took after
both his parents; one et a good deal, 'n' the other a good while."
His pail contained four doughnuts, a quarter section of pie,
six buttermilk biscuits, six ginger cookies, a baked cup custard,
and a quart of cold coffee. This quantity was a trifle unusual,
but every man in the group was lined throughout with pie,
cemented with buttermilk bread, and riveted with doughnuts.
Jabe Slocum and Brad Gibson lay extended slouchingly,
their cowhide boots turned up to the sky; Dave Milliken,
Steve Webster, and the others leaned back against the tree-trunk,
smoking clay pipes, or hugging their knees and chewing blades
of grass reflectively.
One man sat apart from the rest, gloomily puffing rings of smoke
into the air. After a while he lay down in the grass with his head
buried in his hat, sleeping to all appearances, while the others talked
and laughed; for he had no stories, though he put in an absent-minded word
or two when he was directly addressed. This was the man from Tennessee,
Matt Henderson, dubbed "Dixie" for short. He was a giant fellow,--
a "great gormin' critter," Samantha Ann Milliken called him;
but if he had held up his head and straightened his broad shoulders,
he would have been thought a man of splendid presence.
He seemed a being from another sphere instead of from another
section of the country. It was not alone the olive tint of the skin,
the mass of wavy dark hair tossed back from a high forehead,
the sombre eyes, and the sad mouth,--a mouth that had never grown
into laughing curves through telling Yankee jokes,--it was not these
that gave him what the boys called a "kind of a downcasted look."
The man from Tennessee had something more than a melancholy temperament;
he had, or physiognomy was a lie, a sorrow tugging at his heart.
"I'm goin' to doze a spell," drawled Jabe Slocum, pulling his
straw hat over his eyes. "I've got to renew my strength like
the eagle's, 'f I'm goin' to walk to the circus this afternoon.
Wake me up, boys, when you think I'd ought to sling that scythe
some more, for if I hev it on my mind I can't git a wink o' sleep."
This was apparently a witticism; at any rate, it elicited
roars of laughter.
"It's one of Jabe's useless days; he takes 'em from his
great-aunt Lyddy," said David Milliken.
"You jest dry up, Dave. Ef it took me as long to git
to workin' as it did you to git a wife, I bate this hay wouldn't
git mowed down to crack o' doom. Gorry! ain't this a tree!
I tell you, the sun 'n' the airth, the dew 'n' the showers,
'n' the Lord God o' creation jest took holt 'n' worked together
on this tree, 'n' no mistake!"
"You're right, Jabe." (This from Steve Webster, who was absently
cutting a _D_ in the bark. He was always cutting _D_'s these days.)
"This ellum can't be beat in the State o' Maine, nor no other state.
My brother that lives in California says that the big redwoods,
big as they air, don't throw no sech shade, nor ain't so han'some,
'specially in the fall o' the year, as our State o' Maine trees;
'assiduous trees,' he called 'em."
"_Assidyus_ trees? Why don't you talk United States while
you're about it, 'n' not fire yer long-range words round here?
_Assidyus!_ What does it mean, anyhow?"
"Can't prove it by me. That's what he called 'em, 'n'
I never forgot it."
"Assidyus--assidyus--it don't sound as if it meant nothing', to me."
"Assiduous means 'busy,'" said the man from Tennessee,
who had suddenly waked from a brown study, and dropped
off into another as soon as he had given the definition.
"Busy, does it? Wall, I guess we ain't no better off
now 'n we ever was. One tree's 'bout 's busy as another,
as fur 's I can see."
"Wall, there is kind of a meanin' in it to me, but it'sturrible far
fetched," remarked Jabe Slocum, rather sleepily.
"You see, our ellums and maples 'n' all them trees spends part o'
the year in buddin' 'n' gittin' out their leaves 'n' hangin'
em all over the branches; 'n' then, no sooner air they full grown
than they hev to begin colorin' of 'em red or yeller or brown,
'n' then shakin' 'em off; 'n' this is all extry, you might say,
to their every-day chores o' growin' 'n' cirkerlatin' sap, 'n' spreadin'
'n' thickenin' 'n' shovin' out limbs, 'n' one thing 'n' 'nother;
'n' it stan's to reason that the first 'n' hemlocks 'n' them
California redwoods, that keeps their clo'es on right through the year,
can't be so busy as them that keeps a-dressin' 'n' ondressin'
all the time."
"I guess you're 'bout right," allowed Steve,
"but I shouldn't never 'a' thought of it in the world.
What yer takin' out o' that bottle, Jabe? I thought you
was a temperance man."
"I guess he 's like the feller over to Shandagee schoolhouse,
that said he was in favor o' the law, but agin its enforcement!"
laughed Pitt Packard.
"I ain't breakin' no law; this is yarb bitters," Jabe answered,
with a pull at the bottle.
"It's to cirkerlate his blood," said Ob Tarbox;
"he's too dog-goned lazy to cirkerlate it himself."
"I'm takin' it fer what ails me," said Jabe oracularly;
"the heart knoweth its own bitterness, 'n' it 's a wise child
that knows its own complaints 'thout goin' to a doctor."
"Ain't yer scared fer fear it'll start yer growth, Laigs?" asked little
Brad Gibson, looking at Jabe's tremendous length of limb and foot.
"Say, how do yer git them feet o' yourn uphill? Do yer start one ahead,
'n' side-track the other?"
The tree rang with the laughter evoked by this sally,
but the man from Tennessee never smiled.
Jabe Slocum's imperturbable good humor was not shaken in the very least
by these personal remarks. "If I thought 't was a good growin'
medicine, I'd recommend it to your folks, Brad," he replied cheerfully.
"Your mother says you boys air all so short that when you're diggin'
potatoes, yer can't see her shake the dinner rag 'thout gittin'
up 'n' standing on the potato hills! If I was a sinikitin feller like you,
I wouldn't hector folks that had made out to grow some."
"Speakin' o' growin'," said Steve Webster, "who do you guess
I seen in Boston, when I was workin' there? That tall Swatkins
girl from the Duck Pond, the one that married Dan Robinson.
It was one Sunday, in the Catholic meetin'-house. I'd allers wanted
to go to a Catholic meetin', an' I declare it's about the solemnest
one there is. I mistrusted I was goin' to everlastin'ly giggle,
but I tell yer I was the awedest cutter yer ever see.
But anyway, the Swatkins girl--or Mis' Robinson, she is now--
was there as large as life in the next pew to me, jabberin'
Latin, pawin' beads, gettin' up 'n' kneelin' down, 'n' crossin'
herself north, south, east, 'n' west, with the best of 'em. Poor Dan!
'Grinnin' Dan,' we used to call him. Well, he don't grin nowadays.
He never was good for much, but he 's hed more 'n his comeuppance!"
"Why, what 's the matter with him? Can't he git work in Boston?"
"Matter? Why, his wife, that I see makin' believe be so
dreadful pious in the Catholic meetin', she 's carried on wuss 'n
the Old Driver for two years, 'n' now she 's up 'n' left him,--
gone with a han'somer man."
Down on Steve Webster's hand came Jabe Slocum's immense
paw with a grasp that made him cringe.
"What the"--began Steve, when the man from Tennessee took up
his scythe and slouched away from the group by the tree.
"Didn't yer know no better 'n that, yer thunderin' fool? Can't yer
see a hole in a grindstun 'thout it's hung on yer nose?"
"What hev I done?" asked Steve, as if dumfounded.
"Done? Where 've yer ben, that yer don't know Dixie's wife
's left him?"
"Where 've I ben? Hain't I ben workin' in Boston fer
a year; 'n' since I come home last week, hain't I ben tendin'
sick folks, so 't I couldn't git outside the dooryard?
I never seen the man in my life till yesterday, in the field,
'n' I thought he was one o' them dark-skinned Frenchies from
Guildford that hed come up here fer hayin'."
"Mebbe I spoke too sharp," said Jabe apologetically;
"but we 've ben scared to talk wives, or even women folks,
fer a month o' Sundays, fer fear Dixie 'd up 'n' tumble on his scythe,
or do somethin' crazy. You see it's this way (I'd ruther
talk than work; 'n' we ain't workin' by time to-day, anyway,
on account of the circus comin'): 'Bout a year 'n' a half ago,
this tall, han'some feller turned up here in Pleasant River.
He inhailed from down South somewheres, but he didn't
like his work there, 'n' drifted to New York, 'n' then
to Boston; 'n' then he remembered his mother was a State o'
Maine woman, 'n' he come here to see how he liked.
We didn't take no stock in him at first,--we never hed one o'
that nigger-tradin' secedin' lot in amongst us,--but he was
pleasant spoken 'n' a square, all-round feller, 'n' didn't
git off any secesh nonsense, 'n' it ended in our likin'
him first-rate. Wall, he got work in the cannin' fact'ry over on
the Butterfield road, 'n' then he fell in with the Maddoxes.
You 've hearn tell of 'em; they're relation to Pitt here."
"I wouldn't own 'em if I met 'em on Judgement Bench!"
exclaimed Pitt Packard hotly. "My stepfather's second wife married Mis'
Maddox's first husband after he got divorced from her, 'n' that's
all there is to it; they ain't no bloody-kin o' mine, 'n' I don't
call 'em relation."
"Wall, Pitt's relations or not, they're all wuss 'n the Old Driver,
as yer said 'bout Dan Robinson's wife. Dixie went to board there.
Mis Maddox was all out o' husbands jest then,--she 'd jest
disposed of her fourth, somehow or 'nother; she always hed
a plenty 'n' to spare, though there's lots o' likely women
folks round here that never hed one chance, let alone four.
Her daughter Fidelity was a chip o' the old block. Her father
hed named her Fidelity after his mother, when she wa'n't nothin'
but a two-days-old baby, 'n' he didn't know how she was goin' to turn out;
if he 'd 'a' waited two months, I believe I could 'a' told him.
_In_fidelity would 'a' ben a mighty sight more 'propriate; but either
of 'em is too long fer a name, so they got to callin' her Fiddy.
Wall, Fiddy didn't waste no time; she was nigh onto eighteen years
old when Dixie went there to board, 'n' she begun huneyfuglin'
him's soon as ever she set eyes on him. Folks warned him,
but 't wa'n't no use; he was kind o' bewitched with her from the first.
She wa'n't so han'some, neither. Blamed 'f I know how they do it;
let 'em alone, 'f yer know when yer 're well off, 's my motter.
She was red-headed, but her hair become her somehow when she curled
'n' frizzed it over a karosene lamp, 'n' then wound it round 'n'
round her head like ropes o' carnelian. She hedn't any particular
kind of a nose nor mouth nor eyes, but gorry! when she looked at yer,
yer felt kind as if yer was turnin' to putty inside."
"I know what yer mean," said Steve interestedly.
"She hed a figger jest like them fashion-paper pictures you
've seen, an' the very day any new styles come to Boston Fiddy
Maddox would hev 'em before sundown; the biggest bustles 'n'
the highest hats 'n' the tightest skirts 'n' the longest tails
to 'em; she'd git 'em somehow, anyhow! Dixie wa'n't out o'
money when he come here, an' a spell afterwards there was
more 'n a thousand dollars fell to him from his father's
folks down South. Well, Fiddy made that fly, I tell you!
Dixie bought a top buggy 'n' a sorrel hoss, 'n' they was on the road
most o' the time when he wa'n't to work; 'n' when he was,
she 'd go with Lem Simmons, 'n' Dixie none the wiser.
Mis Maddox was lookin' up a new husband jest then, so 't she
"She was the same kind o' goods, anyhow," interpolated Ob Tarbox.
"Yes, she was one of them women folks that air so light-minded
you can't anchor 'em down with a sewin'-machine, nor a dishpan,
nor a husband 'n' young ones, nor no namable kind of a thing;
the least wind blows 'em here 'n' blows 'em there, like dandelion puffs.
As time went on, the widder got herself a beau now 'n' then;
but as fast as she hooked 'em, Fiddy up 'n' took 'em away from her.
You see she 'd gethered in most of her husbands afore Fiddy was old
enough to hev her finger in the pie; but she cut her eye-teeth early,
Fiddy did, 'n' there wa'n't no kind of a feller come to set up
with the widder but she 'd everlastin'ly grab him, if she hed
any use fer him, 'n' then there 'd be Hail Columby, I tell yer.
But Dixie, he was 's blind 's a bat 'n' deef 's a post. He could
n't see nothin' but Fiddy, 'n' he couldn't see her very plain."
"He hed warnin's enough," put in Pitt Packard, though Jabe Slocum
never needed any assistance in spinning a yarn.
"Warnin's! I should think he hed. The Seventh Day Baptist
minister went so fur as to preach at him. 'The Apostle Paul gin heed,'
was the text. 'Why did he gin heed?' says he. 'Because he heerd.
If he hadn't 'a' heerd, he couldn't 'a' gin heed, 'n' 't wouldn't 'a' done
him no good to 'a' heerd 'thout he gin heed!' Wall, it helped consid'ble
many in the congregation, 'specially them that was in the habit of hearin'
'n' heedin', but it rolled right off Dixie like water off a duck's back.
He 'n' Fiddy was seen over to the ballin' alley to Wareham next day,
'n' they didn't come back for a week."
"'He gin her his hand,
And he made her his own,'"
sang little Brad Gibson.
"He hed gin her his hand, but no minister nor
trial-jestice nor eighteen-carat ring nor stificate could 'a'
made Fiddy Maddox anybody's own 'ceptin' the devil's, an'
he wouldn't 'a' married her; she'd 'a' ben too near kin.
We'd never 'spicioned she 'd git 's fur 's marryin' anybody, 'n' she
only married Dixie 'cause he told her he 'd take her to the
Wareham House to dinner, 'n' to the County Fair afterwards;
if any other feller hed offered to take her to supper,
'n' the theatre on top o' that, she 'd 'a' married him instid."
"How 'd the old woman take it?" asked Steve.
"She disowned her daughter _punctilio:_ in the first place,
fer runnin' away 'stid o' hevin' a church weddin'; 'n' second place,
fer marryin' a pauper (that was what she called him; 'n' it was true,
for they 'd spent every cent he hed); 'n' third place, fer alienatin'
the 'fections of a travelin' baker-man she hed her eye on fer herself.
He was a kind of a flour-food peddler, that used to drive a cart round
by Hard Scrabble, Moderation, 'n' Scratch Corner way. Mis' Maddox used
to buy all her baked victuals of him, 'specially after she found
out he was a widower beginnin' to take notice. His cart used
to stand at her door so long everybody on the rout would complain o'
stale bread. But bime bye Fiddy begun to set at her winder when
he druv up, 'n' bime bye she pinned a blue ribbon in her collar.
When she done that, Mis' Maddox alles hed to take a back seat.
The boys used to call it a danger signal. It kind o' drawed yer
'tention to p'ints 'bout her chin 'n' mouth 'n' neck, 'n' one thing
'n' 'nother, in a way that was cal'lated to snarl up the thoughts o'
perfessors o' religion 'n' turn 'em earthways. There was a spell
I hed to say, '_Remember_ _Rhapseny!_ _Remember_ _Rhapseny!_'
over to myself whenever Fiddy put on her blue ribbons. Wall, as I say,
Fiddy set at the winder, the baker-man seen the blue ribbons,
'n' Mis' Maddox's cake was dough. She put on a red ribbon;
but land! her neck looked 's if somebody 'd gone over it with a harrer!
Then she stomped round 'n' slat the dish-rag, but 't wa'n't no use.
'Gracious, mother,' says Fiddy, 'I don't do nothin' but set at
the winder. The sun shines for all.' 'You're right it does,'
says Mis' Maddox, ''n' that's jest what I complain of.
I'd like to get a change to shine on something myself.'
"But the baker-man kep' on comin', though when he got
to the Maddoxes' doorsteps he couldn't make change for a
quarter nor tell pie from bread; an' sure 's you're born,
the very day Fiddy went away to be married to Dixie, that mornin'
she drawed that everlastin' numhead of a flour-food peddler
out into the orchard, 'n' cut off a lock o' her hair,
'n' tied it up with a piece o' her blue ribbon, 'n' give it
to him; an' old Mis' Bascom says, when he went past her house
he was gazin' at it 'n' kissin' of it, 'n' his horse meanderin'
on one side the road 'n' the other, 'n' the door o' the cart
open 'n' slammin' to 'n' fro, 'n' ginger cookies spillin'
out all over the lot. He come back to the Maddoxes next morning'
('t wa'n't his day, but his hoss couldn't pull one way
when Fiddy's ribbon was pullin' t'other); an' when he found
out she 'd gone with Dixie, he cussed 'n' stomped 'n' took
on like a loontic; an' when Mis' Maddox hinted she was ready
to heal the wownds Fiddy 'd inflicted, he stomped 'n' cussed
wuss 'n' ever, 'n' the neighbors say he called her a hombly
old trollop, an' fired the bread loaves all over the dooryard,
he was so crazy at bein' cheated.
"Wall, to go back to Dixie--I'll be comin' right along, boys."
(This to Brad Gibson, who was taking his farewell drink of ginger tea
preparatory to beginning work.)
"I pity you, Steve!" exclaimed Brad, between deep swallows.
"If you 'd known when you was well off, you 'd 'a' stayed in Boston.
If Jabe hed a story started, he 'd talk three days after he was dead."
"Go 'long; leave me be! Wall, as I was sayin', Dixie brought Fiddy home
('Dell,' he called her), an' they 'peared bride 'n' groom at meetin'
next Sunday. The last hundred dollars he hed in the world hed gone into
the weddin' tower 'n' on to Fiddy's back. He hed a new suit, 'n' he looked
like a major. You ain't got no idea what he was, 'cause his eyes is dull now,
'n' he 's bowed all over, 'n' ain't shaved nor combed, hardly; but they was
the han'somest couple that ever walked up the broad aisle. She hed on a green
silk dress, an' a lace cape that was like a skeeter nettin' over her neck an'
showed her bare skin through, an' a hat like an apple orchard in full bloom,
hummin'-bird an' all. Dixie kerried himself as proud as Lucifer.
He didn't look at the minister 'n' he didn't look at the congregation;
his great eyes was glued on Fiddy, as if he couldn't hardly keep from eatin'
of her up. An' she behaved consid'able well for a few months, as long
's the novelty lasted an' the silk dresses was new. Before Christmas,
though, she began to peter out 'n' git slack-twisted. She allers hated
housework as bad as a pig would a penwiper, an' Dixie hed to git
his own breakfast afore he went to work, or go off on an empty stomach.
Many 's the time he 's got her meals for her 'n' took 'em to her on a waiter.
Them secesh fellers'll wait on women folks long as they can stan' up.
"Then bime bye the baby come along; but that made
things wuss 'stid o' better. She didn't pay no more
'tention to it than if it hed belonged to the town.
She 'd go off to dances, an' leave Dixie to home tendin'
cradle; but that wa'n't no hardship to him for he was 'bout
as much wropped up in the child as he was in Fiddy.
Wall, sir, 'bout a month ago she up 'n' disappeared off the face o'
the airth 'thout sayin' a word or leavin' a letter.
She took her clo'es, but she never thought o' takin' the baby;
one baby more or less didn't make no odds to her s' long 's she
hed that skeeter-nettin' cape. Dixie sarched fer her high an'
low fer a fortnight, but after that he give it up as a bad job.
He found out enough, I guess, to keep him pretty busy thinkin'
what he 'd do next. But day before yesterday the same circus
that plays here this afternoon was playin' to Wareham.
A lot of us went over on the evenin' train, an' we coaxed
Dixie into goin', so 's to take his mind off his trouble.
But land! he didn't see nothin'. He 'd walk right up
the lions 'n' tigers in the menagerie as if they was cats
'n' chickens, an' all the time the clown was singin'
he looked like a dumb animile that 's hed a bullet put in him.
There was lots o' side shows, mermaids 'n' six-legged calves 'n'
spotted girls, 'n' one thing 'n' 'nother, an' there was one o'
them whirligig machines with a mess o' rocking'-hosses goin'
round 'n' round, 'n' an organ in the middle playin' like sixty.
I wish we 'd 'a' kept clear o' the thing, but as bad luck would
hev it, we stopped to look, an' there on top o' two high-steppin'
white wooden hosses, set Mis' Fiddy an' that dod-gasted
light-complected baker-man! If ever she was suited to a dot,
it was jest then 'n' there. She could 'a' gone prancin'
round that there ring forever 'n' forever, with the whoopin'
'n' hollerin' 'n' whizzin' 'n' whirlin' soundin' in her ears,
'n' the music playin' like mad, 'n' she with nothin'
to do but stick on 'n' let some feller foot the bills.
Somebody must 'a' ben thinkin' o' Fiddy Maddox when the invented
them whirl-a-go-rounds. She was laughin' 'n' carryin'
on like the old Scratch; her apple-blossom hat dome off,
'n' the baker-man put it on, 'n' took consid'able time over it,
'n' pulled her ear 'n' pinched her cheek when he got through;
an' that was jest the blamed minute we ketched sight of 'em.
I pulled Dixie off, but I was too late. He give a groan I shall
remember to my dyin' day, 'n' then he plunged out o' the crowd
'n' through the gate like a streak o' lightnin'. We follered,
but land! we couldn't find him, an' true as I set here,
I never expected to see him alive agin. But I did;
I forgot all about one thing, you see, 'n' that was the baby.
If it wa'n't no attraction to its mother, I guess he cal'lated
it needed a father all the more. Anyhow, he turned up
in the field yesterday mornin', ready for work, but lookin'
as if he 'd hed his heart cut out 'n' a piece o' lead put
in the place of it."
"I don't seem as if she 'd 'a' ben brazen enough to come back
so near him," said Steve.
"Wall, I don't s'pose she hed any idea o' Dixie's bein'
at a circus over Wareham jest then; an' ten to one she
didn't care if the whole town seen her. She wanted
to get rid of him, 'n' she didn't mind how she did it.
Dixie ain't one of the shootin' kinds, an' anyhow, Fiddy Maddox
wa'n't one to look ahead; whatever she wanted to do,
that she done, from the time she was knee high to a grasshopper.
I've seen her set down by a peck basket of apples, 'n' take
a couple o' bites out o' one, 'n' then heave it fur 's she
could heave it 'n' start in on another, 'n' then another;
'n' 't wa'n't a good apple year, neither. She'd everlastin'ly
spile 'bout a dozen of 'em 'n' smaller 'bout two mouthfuls.
Doxy Morton, now, would eat an apple clean down to the core,
'n' then count the seeds 'n' put 'em on the window-sill to dry,
'n' get up 'n' put the core in the stove, 'n' wipe her hands
on the roller towel, 'n' take up her sewin' agin; 'n' if you
've got to be cuttin' 'nitials in tree bark an' writin'
of 'em in the grass with a stick like you 've ben doin'
for the last half-hour, you 're blamed lucky to be doin'
_D_'s not _F_'s, like Dixie there!"
* * *
It was three o'clock in the afternoon. The men had dropped work
and gone to the circus. The hay was pronounced to be in a condition
where it could be left without much danger; but, for that matter,
no man would have stayed in the field to attend to another man's hay
when there was a circus in the neighborhood.
Dixie was mowing on alone, listening as in a dream to that subtle
something in the swish of the scythe that makes one seek to know the song
it is singing to the grasses.
"Hush, ah, hush, the scythes are saying,
Hush, and heed not, and fall asleep;
Hush, they say to the grasses swaying,
Hush, they sing to the clover deep;
Hush,--'t is the lullaby Time is singing,--
Hush, and heed not, for all things pass.
Hush, ah, hush! and the scythes are swinging
Over the clover, over the grass."
And now, spent with fatigue and watching and care and grief,--
heart sick, mind sick, body sick, sick with past suspense
and present certainty and future dread,--he sat under the cool
shade of the nooning tree, and buried his face in his hands.
He was glad to be left alone with his miseries,--
glad that the other men, friendly as he felt them to be,
had gone to the circus, where he would not see or hear them
for hours to come.
How clearly he could conjure up the scene
that they were enjoying with such keen relish!
Only two days before, he had walked among the same tents,
staring at horses and gay trappings and painted Amazons
as one who noted nothing; yet the agony of the thing he now
saw at last lit up all the rest as with a lightning flash,
and burned the scene forever on his brain and heart.
It was at Wareham, too,--Wareham, where she had promised
to be his wife, where she had married him only a year before.
How well he remembered the night! They left the parsonage;
they had ten miles to drive in the moonlight before reaching
their stopping-place,--ten miles of such joy as only a man could know,
he thought, who had had the warm fruit of life hanging within
full vision, but just out of reach,--just above his longing lips;
and then, in an unlooked-for, gracious moment, his!
He could swear she had loved him that night, if never again.
But this picture passed away, and he saw that maddening circle
with the caracoling steeds. He head the discordant music, the monotonous
creak of the machinery, the strident laughter of the excited riders.
As first the thing was a blur, a kaleidoscope of whirling colors,
into which there presently crept form and order.
. . . A boy who had cried to get on, and was now crying to get off.
. . . Old Rube Hobson and his young wife; Rube looking white
and scared, partly by the whizzing motion, and partly by the
prospect of paying out ten cents for the doubtful pleasure.
. . . Pretty Hetty Dunnell with that young fellow from Portland;
she too timid to mount one of the mettle-some chargers, and snuggling
close to him in one of the circling seats. The, good Got!--
Dell! sitting on a prancing white horse, with the man he knew,
the man he feared, riding beside her; a man who kept holding on her
hat with fingers that trembled,--the very hat she "'peared bride in"
a man who brushed a grasshopper from her shoulder with an air
of ownership, and, when she slapped his hand coquettishly,
even dared to pinch her pink cheek,--his wife's cheek,--
before that crowd of on-lookers! Merry-go-round, indeed!
The horrible thing was well named; and life was just like it,--
a whirl of happiness and misery, in which the music cannot play
loud enough to drown the creak of the machinery, in which one
soul cries out in pain, another in terror, and the rest laugh;
but the prancing steeds gallop on, gallop on, and once mounted,
there is no getting off, unless . . .
There were some things it was not possible for a mean to bear!
The river! The river! He could hear it rippling over the sunny sands,
swirling among the logs, dashing and roaring under the bridge,
rushing to the sea's embrace. Could it tell whither it
was hurrying? NO; but it was escaping from its present bonds;
it would never have to pass over these same jagged rocks again.
"On, on to the unknown!" called the river. "I come! I come!"
he roused himself to respond, when a faint, faint, helpless voice broke
in upon the mad clatter in his brain, cleaving his torn heart in twain;
not a real voice,--the half-forgotten memory of one; a tender wail
that had added fresh misery to his night's vigil,--the baby!
But the feeble pipe was borne down by the swirl of the water
as it dashed between the rocky banks, still calling to him.
If he could only close his ears to it! But it still called--
called still--the river! And still the child's voice
pierced the rush of sound with its pitiful flute note,
until the two resolved themselves into contesting strains,
answering each other antiphonally. The river --the baby--
the river--the baby; and in and through, and betwixt and between,
there spun the whirling merry-go-round, with its curveting
wooden horses, its discordant organ, and its creaking machinery.
But gradually the child's voice gained in strength,
and as he heard it more plainly the other sounds grew fainter,
till at last, thank God! they were hushed. The din, the whirlwind,
and the tempest in his brain were lulled into silence,
as under a "Peace, be still!" and, worn out with the contest,
the man from Tennessee fell asleep under the grateful shade
of the nooning tree. So deep was the slumber that settled over
exhausted body and troubled spirit that the gathering clouds,
the sudden darkness, the distant muttering of thunder,
the frightened twitter of the birds, passed unnoticed.
A heavy drop of rain pierced the thick foliage and fell on
his face, but the storm within had been too fierce for him
to heed the storm without. He slept on.
* * *
Almost every man, woman, and child in the vicinity of Pleasant
River was on the way to the circus,--Boomer's Grand Six-in-One
Universal Consolidated Show; Brilliant Constellations of Fixed
Stars shining in the same Vast Firmament; Glittering Galaxies
of World-Famous Equestrian Artists; the biggest elephants,
the funniest clowns, the pluckiest riders, the stubbornest mules,
the most amazing acrobats, the tallest man and the shortest man,
the thinnest woman and the thickest woman, on the habitable globe;
and no connection with any other show on earth, especially Sypher's
Two-in-One Show now devastating the same State.
If the advertisements setting forth these attractions were
couched in language somewhat rosier than the facts would warrant,
there were few persons calm enough to perceive it, when once
the glamour of the village parade and the smell of the menagerie
had intoxicated the senses.
The circus had been the sole topic of conversation for a fortnight.
Jot Bascom could always be relied on for the latest and most authentic
news of its triumphant progress from one town to another. Jot was a sort
of town crier; and whenever the approach of a caravan was announced,
he would go over on the Liberty road to find out just where it was and what
were its immediate plans, for the thrilling pleasure of calling at every
one of the neighbors' on his way home, and delivering his budget of news.
He was an attendant at every funeral, and as far as possible at every wedding,
in the village; at every flag-raising and husking, and town and county fair.
When more pressing duties did not hinder, he endeavored to meet the two
daily trains that passed through Milliken's Mills, a mile or two from
Pleasant River. He accompanied the sheriff on all journeys entailing
serving of papers and other embarrassing duties common to the law.
On one occasion, when the two lawyers of the village held an investigation
before Trial Justice Simeon Porter, they waited an hour because Jot
Bascom did not come. They knew that something was amiss, but it was
only on reflection that they remembered that Jot was not indispensable.
He went with all paupers to the Poor Farm, and never missed a town meeting.
He knew all the conditions attending any swapping of horses that
occurred within a radius of twenty miles,--the terms of the trade
and the amount paid to boot. He knew who owed the fish-man and who owed
the meat-man, and who could not get trusted by either of them.
In fact, so far as the divine attributes of omniscience and omnipresence
could be vested in a faulty human creature, they were present in Jot Bascom.
That he was quite unable to attend conscientiously to home duties,
when overborne by press of public service, was true. When Diadema Bascom
wanted kindling split, wood brought in, the cows milked, or the pigs fed,
she commonly found her spouse serving humanity in bulk.
All the details of the approach of the Grand Six-in-One
Show had, therefore, been heralded to those work-sodden
and unambitious persons who tied themselves to their own
wood-piles or haying-fields.
These were the bulletins issues:--
The men were making a circle in the Widow Buzzell's field,
in the same place where the old one had been,--the old one,
viewed with awe for five years by all the village small boys.
The forerunners, outriders, proprietors, whatever they might be,
had arrived and gone to the tavern.
An elephant was quartered in the tavern shed!
The elephant had stepped through the floor!!
The advance guard of performers and part of the show itself had come!
And the "Cheriot"!!
This far-famed vehicle had paused on top of Deacon Chute's hill,
to prepare for the street parade. Little Jim Chute had been gloating
over the fact that it must pass by his house, and when it stopped
short under the elms in the dooryard his heart almost broke for joy.
He pinched the twenty-five-cent piece in his pocket to assure
himself that he was alive and in his right mind. The precious coin
had been the result of careful saving, and his hot, excited hands
had almost worn it thin. But alas for the vanity of human hopes!
When the magnificent red-and-gold "Cheriot" was uncovered,
that its glories might shine upon the waiting world, the door opened,
and a huddle of painted Indians tumbled out, ready to lead
the procession, or, if so disposed, to scalp the neighborhood.
Little Jim gave one panic-stricken look as they leaped over
the chariot steps, and then fled to the barn chamber, whence he had
to be dragged by his mother, and cuffed into willingness to attend
the spectacle that had once so dazzled his imagination.
On the eventful afternoon of the performance the road
was gay with teams. David and Samantha Milliken drove by in
Miss Cummin's neat carryall, two children on the back seat,
a will-o'-the-wisp baby girl held down by a serious boy.
Steve Webster was driving Doxy Morton in his mother's buggy.
Jabe Slocum, Pitt Packard, Brad Gibson, Cyse Higgins,
and scores of others were riding "shank's mare," as they
would have said.
It had been a close, warm day, and as the afternoon wore away it grew
hotter and closer. There was a dead calm in the air, a threatening blackness
in the west that made the farmers think anxiously of their hay. Presently the
thunderheads ran together into big black clouds, which melted in turn into
molten masses of smoky orange, so that the heavens were like burnished brass.
Drivers whipped up their horses, and pedestrians hastened their steps.
Steve Webster decided not to run even the smallest risk of injuring so
precious a commodity as Doxy Morton by a shower of rain, so he drove into
a friend's yard, put up his horse, and waited till the storm should pass by.
Brad Gibson stooped to drink at a wayside brook, and as he bent over
the water he heard a low, murmuring, muttering sound that seemed to make
the earth tremble.
Then from hill to hill "leapt the live thunder."
Even the distant mountains seemed to have "found a tongue."
A zigzag chain of lightning flashed in the lurid sky,
and after an appreciable interval another peal, louder than
the first, and nearer.
The rain began to fall, the forked flashes of flame darted hither
and thither in the clouds, and the boom of heaven's artillery grew heavier
and heavier. The blinding sheets of light and the tumultuous roar of sound
now followed each other so quickly that they seemed almost simultaneous.
Flash--crash--flash--crash--flash--crash; blinding and deafening eye and ear
at once. Everybody who could find a shelter of any sort hastened to it.
The women at home set their children in the midst of feather beds,
and some of them even huddled there themselves, their babies clinging
to them in sympathetic fear, as the livid shafts of light illuminated
the dark rooms with more than noonday glare.
The air was full of gloom; a nameless terror lurked
within it; the elements seemed at war with each other.
Horses whinnied in the stables, and colts dashed about the pastures.
The cattle sought sheltered places; the cows ambling clumsily towards
some refuge, their full bags dripping milk as they swung heavily
to and fro. The birds flew towards the orchards and the deep woods;
the swallows swooped restlessly round the barns, and hid themselves
under the eaves or in the shadow of deserted nests.
The rain now fell in sheets.
"Hurry up 'n' git under cover, Jabe," said Brad Gibson;
"you're jest the kind of a pole to draw lightnin'!"
"You hain't, then!" retorted Jabe. "There ain't enough o'
you fer lightnin' to ketch holt of!"
Suddenly a ghastly streak of light leaped out of a cloud,
and then another, till the sky seemed lit up by cataracts
of flame. A breath of wind sprang into the still air.
Then a deafening crash, clap, crack, roar, peal! and as Jabe
Slocum looked out of a protecting shed door, he saw a fiery
ball burst from the clouds, shooting brazen arrows as it fell.
Within the instant the meeting-house steeple broke into a tongue
of flame, and then, looking towards home, he fancied
that the fireball dropped to earth in Squire Bean's meadow.
The wind blew more fiercely now. There was a sudden
crackling of wood, falling of old timers, and breaking of glass.
The deadly fluid ran in a winding course down a great maple
by the shed, leaving a narrow charred channel through the bark
to tell how it passed to earth. A sombre pine stood up,
black and burned, its heart gaping through a ghastly wound
in the split trunk.
The rain now subsided; there was only an occasional faint
rumbling of thunder, as if it were murmuring over the distant sea;
the clouds broke away in the west; the sun peeped out, as if to see
what had been going on in the world since he hid himself an hour before.
A delicate rainbow bridge stretched from the blackened church
steeple to the glittering weathercock on the squire's barn;
and there, in the centre of the fair green meadows from which it
had risen in glorious strength and beauty for a century or more,
lay the nooning tree.
The fireball, if ball of fire indeed there were, had struck
in the very centre of its splendid dome, and ploughed its way
from feather tip to sturdy root, riving the tree in twain,
cleaving its great boughs left and right, laying one
majestic half level with the earth, and bending the other till
the proud head almost touched the grass.
The rainbow was reflected in the million drops glittering
upon the bowed branches, turning each into a tear of liquid opal.
The birds hopped on the prone magnificence, and eyed timorously
a strange object underneath.
There had been one swift, pitiless, merciful stroke!
The monarch of the meadow would never again feel the magic
thrill of the sap in its veins, nor the bursting of brown bud
into green leaf.
The birds would build their nests and sing their idyls in other boughs.
The "time of pleasure and love" was over with the nooning tree; over too,
with him who slept beneath; for under its fallen branches, with the light
of a great peace in his upturned face, lay the man from Tennessee.
THE FORE-ROOM RUG.
Diadema, wife of Jot Bascom, was sitting at the window
of the village watch-tower, so called because it commanded
a view of nearly everything that happened in Pleasant River;
those details escaping the physical eye being supplied by faith
and imagination working in the light of past experience.
She sat in the chair of honor, the chair of choice, the high-backed
rocker by the southern window, in which her husband's mother,
old Mrs. Bascom, had sat for thirty years, applying a still more
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