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In The Sixties written by Harold Frederic who was an American journalist and novelist. This book was published in 1897. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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In The Sixties
PREFACE TO A UNIFORM EDITION
CHAPTER I—ABNER BEECH
CHAPTER II—JEFF’S MUTINY
CHAPTER V—“JEE’S” TIDINGS
CHAPTER VI—NI’S TALK WITH ABNER
CHAPTER VII—THE ELECTION
CHAPTER VIII—THE ELECTION BONFIRE
CHAPTER IX—ESTHER’S VISIT
CHAPTER X—THE FIRE
CHAPTER XI—THE CONQUEST OF ABNER
CHAPTER XII—THE UNWELCOME GUEST
CHAPTER XIII—THE BREAKFAST
THE WAR WIDOW
THE EVE OF THE FOURTH
MY AUNT SUSAN
In nothing else under the latter-day sun-not even in the mysterious department of woman’s attire-has Fashion been more variable, or more eccentric in its variations, than in the matter of prefaces. The eternal revolution of letters devours its own children so rapidly that for the hardiest of them ten years count as a generation; each succeeding decade has whims of its own about prefaces. Now it has been the rule to make them long and didactic, and now brief and with a twist toward flippancy. Upon occasion it has been thought desirable to throw upon this introductory formula the responsibility of explaining everything that was to follow in the book, and, again, nothing has seemed further from the proper function of a preface than elucidation of any sort. Sometimes the prevalent mode has discouraged prefaces altogether—and thus it happens that the present author, doomed to be doing in England at least something of what the English do, has never before chanced to write one. Yet now it seems that in America prefaces are much in vogue-and this is an American edition.
The apology of the exile ends abruptly, however, with this confession that the preface is strange ground. The four volumes under comment were all, it is true, written in England, but they do not belong to the Old World in any other sense.
In three of them the very existence of Europe is scarcely so much as hinted at. The fourth concerns itself, indeed, with events in which Europeans took an active part; but what they were doing, on the one side and on the other, was in its results very strictly American.
The idea which finally found shape and substance in this last-named book, “In the Valley,” seems now in retrospect to have been always in my mind. All four of my great-grandfathers had borne arms in the Revolutionary War, and one of them indeed somewhat indefinitely expanded this record by fighting on both sides. My earliest recollections are of tales told by my grandmother about local heroes of this conflict, who were but middle-aged people when she was a child. She herself had come into curious relation with one of the terrible realities of that period. At the age of six it was her task to beat linen upon the stones of a brook running through the Valley farm upon which she was reared, and the deep-hole close beside where she worked was the spot in which the owner of the farm had lain hidden in the alders, immersed to his chin, for two days and nights while Brant’s Indians were looking for him. Thus, by a single remove, I came myself into contact with the men who held Tryon County against the King, and my boyish head was full of them. Before I left school, at the age of twelve, I had composed several short but lurid introductions to a narrative which should have for its central feature the battle of Oriskany; for the writing of one of these, indeed, or rather for my contumacy in refusing to give up my manuscript to the teacher when my crime was detected, I was expelled from the school.
The plan of the book itself dated from 1877, the early months of which I busied myself greatly in inciting my fellow-citizens to form what is now the Oneida Historical Society, and to prepare for a befitting celebration of the coming hundredth anniversary of Oriskany. The circumstance that I had not two dollars to spare prevented my becoming a member of the Society, but in no way affected the marked success of the celebration it organized and superintended. It was at this time that I gathered the first materials for my projected work, from members of the Fonda and other families. Eight years later I was in the position of having made at least as many attempts to begin this book, which I had never ceased to desire to write, and for which I had steadily collected books and other data; one of these essays ran to more than twenty thousand words, and several others were half that length, but they were all failures.
In 1885, after I had been a year in London, the fact that a journalist friend of mine got two hundred and fifty dollars from the Weekly Echo for a serial story, based upon his own observations as a youngster in Ireland, gave me a new idea. He seemed to make his book with extreme facility, never touching the weekly instalment until the day for sending it to the printer’s had arrived, and then walking up and down dictating the new chapters in a very loud voice, to drown the racket of his secretary’s typewriter. This appeared to be a highly simple way of earning two hundred and fifty dollars, and I went home to start a story of my own at once. When I had written the opening chapter, I took it to the editor of the Weekly Echo, who happened to be a friend of mine as well. He read it, suggested the word “comely” instead of some other on the first page, and said it was too American for any English paper, but might do well in America. The fading away of the two hundred and fifty dollars depressed me a good deal, but after a time a helpful reaction came. I realized that I had consumed nearly ten years in fruitless mooning over my Revolutionary novel, and was no nearer achievement than at the outset, simply because I did not know how to make a book of any kind, let alone a historical book of the kind which should be the most difficult and exacting of all. This determined me to proceed with the contemporary story I had begun—if only to learn what it was really like to cover a whole canvas. The result was “Seth’s Brother’s Wife”—which still has the Echo man’s suggested “comely” in its opening description of the barn-yard.
At the time, I thought of this novel almost wholly in the light of preparation for the bigger task I had to do, and it is still easiest for me to so regard it. Certainly its completion, and perhaps still more the praise which was given to it by those who first saw it, gave me a degree of confidence that I had mastered the art of fiction which I look back upon now with surprise—and not a little envy. It was in the fine flush of this confidence that I hastened to take up the real work, the book I had been dreaming of so long, and, despite the immense amount of material in the shape of notes, cross-references, dates, maps, biographical facts, and the like, which I had perforce to drag along with me, my ardor maintained itself to the finish. “In the Valley” was written in eight months—and that, too, at a time when I had also a great deal of newspaper work to do as well.
“The Lawton Girl” suggested itself at the outset as a kind of sequel to “Seth’s Brother’s Wife,” but here I found myself confronted by agencies and influences the existence of which I had not previously suspected. In “Seth’s Brother’s Wife” I had made the characters do just what I wanted them to do, and the notion that my will was not altogether supreme had occurred neither to them nor to me. The same had been true of “In the Valley,” where indeed the people were so necessarily subordinated to the evolution of the story which they illustrated rather than shaped, that their personalities always remained shadowy in my own mind. But in “The Lawton Girl,” to my surprise at first, and then to my interested delight, the people took matters into their own hands quite from the start. It seemed only by courtesy that I even presided over their meetings, and that my sanction was asked for their comings and goings. As one of many examples, I may cite the interview between Jessica and Horace in the latter’s office. In my folly, I had prepared for her here a part of violent and embittered denunciation, full of scornful epithets and merciless jibes; to my discomfiture, she relented at the first sight of his gray hair and troubled mien, when I had brought her in, and would have none of my heroics whatever. Once reconciled to the posture of a spectator, I grew so interested in the doings of these people that I lost sight of a time-limit; they wandered along for two years, making the story in leisurely fashion as they went. At the end I did assert my authority, and kill Jessica—she who had not deserved or intended at all to die—but I see now more clearly than any one else that it was a false and cowardly thing to do.
There remains the volume of collected stories, long and short, dealing with varying aspects of home life in the North—or rather in my little part of the North—during the Civil War. These stories are by far closer to my heart than any other work of mine, partly because they seem to me to contain the best things I have done or ever shall do, partly because they are so closely interwoven with the personal memories and experiences of my own childhood—and a little also, no doubt, for the reason that they have not had quite the treatment outside that paternal affection had desired for them. Of all the writers whose books affected my younger years, I think that MM. Erckmann-Chatrian exerted upon me the deepest and most vital influence. I know that my ambition to paint some small pictures of the life of my Valley, under the shadow of the vast black cloud which was belching fire and death on its southern side, in humble imitation of their studies of Alsatian life in the days of the Napoleonic terror, was much more powerful than any impulse directly inspired by any other writers. By this confession I do not at all wish to suggest comparisons. The French writers dealt with a period remote enough to be invested with a haze of romance, and they wrote for a reading public vehemently interested in everything that could be told them about that period. These stories of mine lack these aids—and doubtless much else beside. But they are in large part my own recollections of the dreadful time—the actual things that a boy from five to nine saw and heard about him, while his own relatives were being killed, and his school-fellows orphaned, and women of his neighborhood forced into mourning and despair—and they had a right to be recorded.
A single word in addition to an already over-long preface. The locality which furnishes the scenes of the two contemporary novels and all the War stories may be identified in a general way with Central New York, but in no case is it possible to connect any specific village or town with one actually in existence. The political exigencies of “Seth’s Brother’s Wife” made it necessary to invent a Congressional District, composed of three counties, to which the names of Adams, Jay, and Dearborn were given. Afterwards the smaller places naturally took names reflecting the quaint operation of the accident which sprinkled our section, as it were, with the contents of a classical pepper-box. Thus Octavius, Thessaly, Tyre, and the rest came into being, and one tries to remember and respect the characteristics they have severally developed, but no exact counterparts exist for them in real life, and no map of the district has as yet been drawn, even in my own mind.
London, February 16, 1897.
It was on the night of my thirteenth birthday, I know, that the old farm-house was burned over our heads. By that reckoning I must have been six or seven when I went to live with Farmer Beech, because at the time he testified I had been with him half my life.
Abner Beech had often been supervisor for his town, and could have gone to the Assembly, it was said, had he chosen. He was a stalwart, thick-shouldered, big man, with shaggy dark eyebrows shading stern hazel eyes, and with a long, straight nose, and a broad, firmly shut mouth. His expansive upper lip was blue from many years of shaving; all the rest was bushing beard, mounting high upon the cheeks and rolling downward in iron-gray billows over his breast. That shaven upper lip, which still may be found among the farmers of the old blood in our district, was, I dare say, a survival from the time of the Puritan protest against the mustaches of the Cavaliers. If Abner Beech, in the latter days, had been told that this shaving on Wednesday and Saturday nights was a New England rite, I feel sure he would never have touched razor again.
He was a well-to-do man in the earlier time—a tremendous worker, a “good provider,” a citizen of weight and substance in the community. In all large matters the neighborhood looked to him to take the lead. He was the first farmer roundabout to set a mowing-machine to work in his meadows, and to put up lightning-rods on his buildings. At one period he was, too, the chief pillar in the church, but that was before the episode of the lightning-rods. Our little Union meeting-house was supplied in those days by an irregular procession of itinerant preachers, who came when the spirit moved and spoke with that entire frankness which is induced by knowledge that the night is to be spent somewhere else. One of these strolling ministers regarded all attempts to protect property from lightning as an insolent defiance of the Divine Will, and said so very pointedly in the pulpit, and the congregation sat still and listened and grinned. Farmer Beech never forgave them.
There came in good time other causes for ill-feeling. It is beyond the power of my memory to pick out and arrange in proper sequence the events which, in the final result, separated Abner Beech from his fellows. My own recollections go with distinctness back to the reception of the news that Virginia had hanged John Brown; in a vaguer way they cover the two or three preceding years. Very likely Farmer Beech had begun to fall out of touch with his neighbors even before that.
The circumstances of my adoption into his household—an orphan without relations or other friends—were not of the sort to serve this narrative. I was taken in to be raised as a farm-hand, and was no more expected to be grateful than as if I had been a young steer purchased to toil in the yoke. No suggestion was ever made that I had incurred any debt of obligation to the Beeches. In a little community where every one worked as a matter of course till there was no more work to do, and all shared alike the simple food, the tired, heavy sleep, and the infrequent spells of recreation, no one talked or thought of benefits conferred or received. My rights in the house and about the place were neither less nor more than those of Jeff Beech, the farmer’s only son.
In the course of time I came, indeed, to be a more sympathetic unit in the household, so to speak, than poor Jeff himself. But that was only because he had been drawn off after strange gods.
At all times—even when nothing else good was said of him—Abner Beech was spoken of by the people of the district as a “great hand for reading.” His pre-eminence in this matter remained unquestioned to the end. No other farmer for miles owned half the number of books which he had on the shelves above his writing-desk. Still less was there any one roundabout who could for a moment stand up with him in a discussion involving book-learning in general. This at first secured for him the respect of the whole country-side, and men were proud to be agreed with by such a scholar. But when affairs changed, this, oddly enough, became a formidable popular grievance against Abner Beech. They said then that his opinions were worthless because he got them from printed books, instead of from his heart.
What these opinions were may in some measure be guessed from the titles of the farmer’s books. Perhaps there were some thirty of them behind the glass doors of the old mahogany bookcase. With one or two agricultural or veterinary exceptions, they related exclusively to American history and politics. There were, I recall, the first two volumes of Bancroft, and Lossing’s “Lives of the Signers,” and “Field-Books” of the two wars with England; Thomas H. Benton’s “Thirty Years’ View;” the four green-black volumes of Hammond’s “Political History of the State of New York:” campaign lives of Lewis Cass and Franklin Pierce and larger biographies of Jefferson and Jackson, and, most imposing of all, a whole long row of big calf-bound volumes of the Congressional Globe, which carried the minutiae of politics at Washington back into the forties.
These books constituted the entire literary side of my boyish education. I have only the faintest and haziest recollections of what happened when I went during the winter months to the school-house at the Four Corners. But I can recall the very form of the type in the farmer’s books. Every one of those quaint, austere, and beardless faces, framed in high collars and stocks and waving hair—the Marcys, Calhouns, DeWitt Clintons, and Silas Wrights of the daguerreotype and Sartain’s primitive graver—gives back to me now the lineaments of an old-time friend.
Whenever I could with decency escape from playing checkers with Jeff, and had no harness to grease or other indoor jobs, I spent the winter evenings in poring over some of these books—generally with Abner Beech at the opposite side of the table immersed in another. On some rare occasion one of the hired men would take down a volume and look through it—the farmer watching him covertly the while to see that he did not wet his big thumbs to turn over the leaves—but for the most part we two had the books to ourselves. The others would sit about till bedtime, amusing themselves as best they could, the women-folk knitting or mending, the men cracking butternuts, or dallying with cider and apples and fried-cakes, as they talked over the work and gossip of the district and tempted the scorching impulses of the stovehearth with their stockinged feet.
This tacit separation of the farmer and myself from the rest of the household in the course of time begat confidences between us. He grew, from brief and casual beginnings, into a habit of speaking to me about the things we read. As it became apparent, year by year, that young Jeff was never going to read anything at all, Abner Beech more and more distinguished me with conversational favor. It cannot be said that the favoritism showed itself in other directions. I had to work as hard as ever, and got no more play-time than before. The master’s eye was everywhere as keen, alert, and unsparing as if I had not known even my alphabet. But when there were breathing spells, we talked together—or rather he talked and I listened—as if we were folk quite apart from the rest.
Two fixed ideas thus arose in my boyish mind, and dominated all my little notions of the world. One was that Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall were among the most infamous characters in history. The other was that every true American ought to hold himself in daily readiness to fight with England. I gave a great deal of thought to both these matters. I had early convictions, too, I remember, with regard to Daniel Webster, who had been very bad, and then all at once became a very good man. For some obscure reason I always connected him in my imagination with Zaccheus up a tree, and clung to the queer association of images long after I learned that the Marshfield statesman had been physically a large man.
Gradually the old blood-feud with the Britisher became obscured by fresher antagonisms, and there sprouted up a crop of new sons of Belial who deserved to be hated more even than had Hamilton and Marshall. With me the two stages of indignation glided into one another so imperceptibly that I can now hardly distinguish between them. What I do recall is that the farmer came in time to neglect the hereditary enemy, England, and to seem to have quite forgotten our own historic foes to liberty, so enraged was he over the modern Abolitionists. He told me about them as we paced up the seed rows together in the spring, as we drove homeward on the hay-load in the cool of the summer evening, as we shovelled out a path for the women to the pumps in the farm-yard through December snows. It took me a long time to even approximately grasp the wickedness of these new men, who desired to establish negro sovereignty in the Republic, and to compel each white girl to marry a black man.
The fact that I had never seen any negro “close to,” and had indeed only caught passing glimpses of one or more of the colored race on the streets of our nearest big town, added, no doubt, to the mystified alarm with which I contemplated these monstrous proposals. When finally an old darky on his travels did stroll our way, and I beheld him, incredibly ragged, dirty, and light-hearted, shuffling through “Jump Jim Crow” down at the Four Corners, for the ribald delectation of the village loafers, the revelation fairly made me shudder. I marvelled that the others could laugh, with this unspeakable fate hanging over their silly heads.
At first the Abolitionists were to me a remote and intangible class, who lived and wrought their evil deeds in distant places—chiefly New England way. I rarely heard mention of any names of persons among them. They seemed to be an impersonal mass, like a herd of buffaloes or a swarm of hornets. The first individuality in their ranks which attracted my attention, I remember, was that of Theodore Parker. The farmer one day brought home with him from town a pamphlet composed of anti-slavery sermons or addresses by this person. In the evening he read it, or as far into it as his temper would permit, beating the table with his huge fist from time to time, and snorting with wrathful amazement. At last he sprang to his feet, marched over to the wood-stove, kicked the door open with his boot, and thrust the offending print into the blaze. It is vivid in my memory still—the way the red flame-light flared over his big burly front, and sparkled on his beard, and made his face to shine like that of Moses.
But soon I learned that there were Abolitionists everywhere—Abolitionists right here in our own little farmland township of northern New York! The impression which this discovery made upon me was not unlike that produced on Robinson Crusoe by the immortal footprint. I could think of nothing else. Great events, which really covered a space of years, came and went as in a bunch together, while I was still pondering upon this. John Brown was hanged, Lincoln was elected, Sumter was fired on, the first regiment was raised and despatched from our rustic end of Dearborn County—and all the time it seems now as if my mind was concentrated upon the amazing fact that some of our neighbors were Abolitionists.
There was a certain dreamlike tricksiness of transformation in it all. At first there was only one Abolitionist, old “Jee” Hagadorn. Then, somehow, there came to be a number of them—and then, all at once, lo! everybody was an Abolitionist—that is to say, everybody but Abner Beech. The more general and enthusiastic the conversion of the others became, the more resolutely and doggedly he dug his heels into the ground, and braced his broad shoulders, and pulled in the opposite direction. The skies darkened, the wind rose, the storm of angry popular feeling burst swooping over the countryside, but Beech only stiffened his back and never budged an inch.
At some early stage of this great change, we ceased going to church at all. The pulpit of our rustic meeting-house had become a platform from which the farmer found himself denounced with hopeless regularity on every recurring Sabbath, and that, too, without any chance whatever of talking back. This in itself was hardly to be borne. But when others, mere laymen of the church, took up the theme, and began in class-meetings and the Sunday-school to talk about Antichrist and the Beast with Ten Horns and Seven Heads, in obvious connection with Southern sympathizers, it became frankly insufferable. The farmer did not give in without a fierce resistance. He collected all the texts he could find in the Bible, such as “Servants, obey your masters,” “Cursed be Canaan,” and the like, and hurled them vehemently, with strong, deep voice, and sternly glowing eyes, full at their heads. But the others had many more texts—we learned afterwards that old “Jee” Hagadorn enjoyed the unfair advantage of a Cruden’s Concordance—and their tongues were as forty to one, so we left off going to church altogether.
Not long after this, I should think, came the miserable affair of the cheese-factory.
The idea of doing all the dairy work of a neighborhood under a common roof, which originated not many miles from us, was now nearly ten years old. In those days it was regarded as having in it possibilities of vastly greater things than mere cheesemaking. Its success among us had stirred up in men’s minds big sanguine notions of co-operation as the answer to all American farm problems—as the gateway through which we were to march into the rural millennium. These high hopes one recalls now with a smile and a sigh. Farmers’ wives continued to break down and die under the strain, or to be drafted off to the lunatic asylums; the farmers kept on hanging themselves in their barns, or flying off westward before the locust-like cloud of mortgages; the boys and girls turned their steps townward in an ever-increasing host. The millennium never came at all.
But at that time—in the late fifties and early sixties—the cheese-factory was the centre of an impressive constellation of dreams and roseate promises. Its managers were the very elect of the district; their disfavor was more to be dreaded than any condemnation of a town-meeting; their chief officers were even more important personages than the supervisor and assessor.
Abner Beech had literally been the founder of our cheese-factory. I fancy he gave the very land on which it was built, and where you will see it still, under the willows by the upper-creek bridge. He sent to it in those days the milk of the biggest herd owned by any farmer for miles around, reaching at seasons nearly one hundred cows. His voice, too, outweighed all others in its co-operative councils.
But when our church-going community had reached the conclusion that a man couldn’t be a Christian and hold such views on the slave question as Beech held, it was only a very short step to the conviction that such a man would water his milk. In some parts of the world the theft of a horse is the most heinous of conceivable crimes; other sections exalt to this pinnacle of sacredness in property a sheep or a pheasant or a woman. Among our dairymen the thing of special sanctity was milk. A man in our neighborhood might almost better be accused of forgery or bigamy outright, than to fall under the dreadful suspicion of putting water into his cans.
Whether it was mere stupid prejudice or malignant invention I know not—who started the story was never to be learned—but of a sudden everybody seemed to have heard that Abner Beech’s milk had been refused at the cheese-factory. This was not true, any more than it was true that there could possibly have been warrant for such a proceeding. But what did happen was that the cheese-maker took elaborate pains each morning to test our cans with such primitive appliances as preceded the lactometer, and sniffed suspiciously as he entered our figures in a separate book, and behaved generally so that our hired man knocked him head over heels into one of his whey vats. Then the managers complained to the farmer. He went down to meet them, boiling over with rage. There was an evil spirit in the air, and bitter words were exchanged. The outcome was that Abner Beech renounced the co-operative curds of his earlier manhood, so to speak, sold part of his cattle at a heavy loss, and began making butter at home with the milk of the remainder.
Then we became pariahs in good earnest.
The farmer came in from the fields somewhat earlier than usual on this August afternoon. He walked, I remember, with a heavy step and bowed head, and, when he had come into the shade on the porch and taken off his hat, looked about him with a wearied air. The great heat, with its motionless atmosphere and sultry closeness, had well-nigh wilted everybody. But one could see that Abner was suffering more than the rest, and from something beyond the enervation of dog-days.
He sank weightily into the arm-chair by the desk, and stretched out his legs with a querulous note in his accustomed grunt of relief. On the moment Mrs. Beech came in from the kitchen, with the big china wash-bowl filled with cold water, and the towel and clean socks over her arm, and knelt before her husband. She proceeded to pull off his big, dust-baked boots and the woollen foot-gear, put his feet into the bowl, bathe and dry them, and draw on the fresh covering, all without a word.
The ceremony was one I had watched many hundreds of times. Mrs. Beech was a tall, dark, silent woman, whom I could well believe to have been handsome in her youth. She belonged to one of the old Mohawk-Dutch families, and when some of her sisters came to visit at the farm I noted that they too were all dusky as squaws, with jet-black shiny curls and eyes like the midnight hawk. I used always to be afraid of them on this account, but I dare say they were in reality most kindly women. Mrs. Beech herself, represented to my boyish eyes the ideal of a saturnine and masterful queen. She performed great quantities of work with no apparent effort—as if she had merely willed it to be done. Her household was governed with a cold impassive exactitude; there were never any hitches, or even high words. The hired girls, of course, called her “M’rye,” as the rest of us mostly did, but they rarely carried familiarity further, and as a rule respected her dislike for much talk. During all the years I spent under her roof I was never clear in my mind as to whether she liked me or not. Her own son, even, passed his boyhood in much the same state of dubiety.
But to her husband, Abner Beech, she was always most affectionately docile and humble. Her snapping black eyes followed him about and rested on him with an almost canine fidelity of liking. She spoke to him habitually in a voice quite different from that which others heard addressed to them. This, indeed, was measurably true of us all. By instinct the whole household deferred in tone and manner to our big, bearded chief, as if he were an Arab sheik ruling over us in a tent on the desert. The word “patriarch” still seems best to describe him, and his attitude toward us and the world in general, as I recall him sitting there in the half-darkened living-room, with his wife bending over his feet in true Oriental submission.
“Do you know where Jeff is?” the farmer suddenly asked, without turning his head to where I sat braiding a whiplash, but indicating by the volume of voice that his query was put to me.
“He went off about two o’clock,” I replied, “with his fish-pole. They say they are biting like everything down in the creek.”
“Well, you keep to work and they won’t bite you,” said Abner Beech. This was a very old joke with him, and usually the opportunity of using it once more tended to lighten his mood. Now, though mere force of habit led him to repeat the pleasantry, he had no pleasure in it. He sat with his head bent, and his huge hairy hands spread listlessly on the chair-arms.
Mrs. Beech finished her task, and rose, lifting the bowl from the floor. She paused, and looked wistfully into her husband’s face.
“You ain’t a bit well, Abner!” she said.
“Well as I’m likely ever to be again,” he made answer, gloomily.
“Has any more of’em been sayin’ or doin’ anything?” the wife asked, with diffident hesitation.
The farmer spoke with more animation. “D’ye suppose I care a picayune what they say or do?” he demanded. “Not I! But when a man’s own kith and kin turn agin him, into the bargain—” He left the sentence unfinished, and shook his head to indicate the impossibility of such a situation.
“Has Jeff—then—” Mrs. Beech began to ask.
“Yes—Jeff!” thundered the farmer, striking his fist on the arm of the chair. “Yes—by the Eternal!—Jeff!”
When Abner Beech swore by the Eternal we knew that things were pretty bad. His wife put the bowl down on a chair, and seated herself in another. “What’s Jeff been doin’?” she asked.
“Why, where d’ye suppose he was last night, ’n’ the night before that? Where d’ye suppose he is this minute? They ain’t no mistake about it, Lee Watkins saw ’em with his own eyes, and ta’nted me with it. He’s down by the red bridge—that’s where he is—hangin’ round that Hagadorn gal!”
Mrs. Beech looked properly aghast at the intelligence. Even to me it was apparent that the unhappy Jeff might better have been employed in committing any other crime under the sun. It was only to be expected that his mother would be horrified.
“I never could abide that Lee Watkins,” was what she said.
The farmer did not comment on the relevancy of this. “Yes,” he went on, “the daughter of mine enemy, the child of that whining, backbiting old scoundrel who’s been eating his way into me like a deer-tick for years—the whelp that I owe every mean and miserable thing that’s ever happened to me—yes, of all living human creatures, by the Eternal! it’s his daughter that that blamed fool of a Jeff must take a shine to, and hang around after!”
“He’ll come of age the fourteenth of next month,” remarked the mother, tentatively.
“Yes—and march up and vote the Woollyhead ticket. I suppose that’s what’ll come next!” said the farmer, bitterly. “It only needed that!”
“And it was you who got her the job of teachin’ the school, too,” put in Mrs. Beech.
“That’s nothing to do with it,” Abner continued. “I ain’t blamin’ her—that is, on her own account. She’s a good enough gal so far’s I know. But everything and everybody under that tumble-down Hagadorn roof ought to be pizen to any son of mine! That’s what I say! And I tell you this, mother”—the farmer rose, and spread his broad chest, towering over the seated woman as he spoke—“I tell you this; if he ain’t got pride enough to keep him away from that house—away from that gal—then he can keep away from this house—away from me!”
The wife looked up at him mutely, then bowed her head in tacit consent.
“He brings it on himself!” Abner cried, with clenched fists, beginning to pace up and down the room. “Who’s the one man I’ve reason to curse with my dying breath? Who began the infernal Abolition cackle here? Who drove me out of the church? Who started that outrageous lie about the milk at the factory, and chased me out of that, too? Who’s been a layin’ for years behind every stump and every bush, waitin’ for the chance to stab me in the back, an’ ruin my business, an’ set my neighbors agin me, an’ land me an’ mine in the poorhouse or the lockup? You know as well as I do—‘Jee’ Hagadorn! If I’d wrung his scrawny little neck for him the first time I ever laid eyes on him, it ’d ’a’ been money in my pocket and years added onto my life. And then my son—my son! Must go taggin’ around—oh-h!”
He ended with an inarticulate growl of impatience and wrath.
“Mebbe, if you spoke to the boy—” Mrs. Beech began.
“Yes, I’ll speak to him!” the farmer burst forth, with grim emphasis. “I’ll speak to him so’t he’ll hear!” He turned abruptly to me. “Here, boy,” he said, “you go down the creek-road an’ look for Jeff. If he ain’t loafin’ round the school-house he’ll be in the neighborhood of Hagadorn’s. You tell him I say for him to get back here as quick as he can. You needn’t tell him what it’s about. Pick up your feet, now!”
As luck would have it, I had scarcely got out to the road before I heard the loose-spoked wheels of the local butcher’s wagon rattling behind me down the hill. Looking round, I saw through the accompanying puffs of dust that young “Ni” Hagadorn was driving, and that he was alone. I stopped and waited for him to come up, questioning my mind whether it would be fair to beg a lift from him, when the purpose of my journey was so hostile to his family. Even after he had halted, and I had climbed up to the seat beside him, this consciousness of treachery disturbed me.
But no one thought long of being serious with “Ni.” He was along in the teens somewhere, not large for his years but extremely wiry and muscular, and the funniest boy any of us ever knew of. How the son of such a sad-faced, gloomy, old licensed exhorter as “Jee” Hagadorn could be such a running spring of jokes and odd sayings and general deviltry as “Ni,” passed all our understandings. His very face made you laugh, with its wilderness of freckles, its snub nose, and the comical curl to its mouth. He must have been a profitable investment to the butcher who hired him to drive about the country. The farmers’ wives all came out to laugh and chat with him, and under the influence of his good spirits they went on buying the toughest steaks and bull-beef flanks, at more than city prices, year after year. But anybody who thought “Ni” was soft because he was full of fun made a great mistake.
“I see you ain’t doin’ much ditchin’ this year,” “Ni” remarked, glancing over our fields as he started up the horse. “I should think you’d be tickled to death.”
Well, in one sense I was glad. There used to be no other such back-aching work in all the year as that picking up of stones to fill into the trenches which the hired men began digging as soon as the hay and grain were in. But, on the other hand, I knew that the present idleness meant—as everything else now seemed to mean—that the Beech farm was going to the dogs.
“No,” I made rueful answer. “Our land don’t need drainin’ any more. It’s dry as a powder-horn now.”
“Ni” clucked knowingly at the old horse. “Guess it’s Abner that can’t stand much more drainin’,” he said. “They say he’s looking all round for a mortgage, and can’t raise one.”
“No such thing!” I replied. “His health’s poorly this summer, that’s all. And Jeff—he don’t seem to take hold, somehow, like he used to.”
My companion laughed outright. “Mustn’t call him Jeff any more,” he remarked with a grin. “He was telling us down at the house that he was going to have people call him Tom after this. He can’t stand answerin’ to the same name as Jeff Davis,” he says.
“I suppose you folks put him up to that,” I made bold to comment, indignantly.
The suggestion did not annoy “Ni.” “Mebbe so,” he said. “You know Dad lots a good deal on names. He’s downright mortified that I don’t get up and kill people because my name’s Benaiah. ‘Why,’ he keeps on saying to me, ‘Here you are, Benaiah, the son of Jehoiada, as it was in Holy Writ, and instid of preparin’ to make ready to go out and fall on the enemies of righteousness, like your namesake did, all you do is read dime novels and cut up monkey-shines generally, for all the world as if you’d been named Pete or Steve or William Henry.’ That’s what he gives me pretty nearly every day.”
I was familiar enough with the quaint mysticism which the old Abolitionist cooper wove around the Scriptural names of himself and his son. We understood that these two appellations had alternated among his ancestors as well, and I had often heard him read from Samuel and Kings and Chronicles about them, his stiff red hair standing upright, and the blue veins swelling on his narrow temples with proud excitement. But that, of course, was in the old days, before the trouble came, and when I still went to church. To hear it all now again seemed to give me a novel impression of wild fanaticism in “Jee” Hagadorn.
His son was chuckling on his seat over something he had just remembered. “Last time,” he began, gurgling with laughter—“last time he went for me because I wasn’t measurin’ up to his idee of what a Benaiah ought to be like, I up an’ said to him, ‘Look a-here now, people who live in glass houses mustn’t heave rocks. If I’m Benaiah, you’re Jehoiada. Well, it says in the Bible that Jehoiada made a covenant. Do you make cove-nants? Not a bit of it! All you make is butter firkins, with now an’ then an odd pork barrel.’”
“What did he say to that?” I asked, as my companion’s merriment abated.
“Well, I come away just then; I seemed to have business outside,” replied “Ni,” still grinning.
We had reached the Corners now, and my companion obligingly drew up to let me get down. He called out some merry quip or other as he drove off, framed in a haze of golden dust against the sinking sun, and I stood looking after him with the pleasantest thoughts my mind had known for days. It was almost a shock to remember that he was one of the abhorrent and hated Hagadorns.
And his sister, too. It was not at all easy to keep one’s loathing up to the proper pitch where so nice a girl as Esther Hagadorn was its object.
She was years and years my senior—she was even older than “Ni”—and had been my teacher for the past two winters. She had never spoken to me save across that yawning gulf which separates little barefooted urchins from tall young women, with long dresses and their hair done up in a net, and I could hardly be said to know her at all. Yet now, perversely enough, I could think of nothing but her manifest superiority to all the farm-girls round about. She had been to a school in some remote city, where she had relations. Her hands were fabulously white, and even on the hottest of days her dresses rustled pleasantly with starched primness. People talked about her singing at church as something remarkable; to my mind, the real music was when she just spoke to you, even if it was no more than “Good-morning, Jimmy!”
I clambered up on the window-sill of the school-house, to make sure there was no one inside, and then set off down the creek-road toward the red or lower bridge. Milking-time was about over, and one or two teams passed me on the way to the cheese-factory, the handles of the cans rattling as they went, and the low sun throwing huge shadows of drivers and horses sprawling eastward over the stubble-field. I cut across lots to avoid the cheese-factory itself, with some vague feeling that it was not a fitting spectacle for any one who lived on the Beech farm.
A few moments brought me to the bank of the wandering stream below the factory, but so near that I could hear the creaking of the chain drawing up the cans over the tackle, or as we called it, the “teekle;” The willows under which I walked stretched without a break from the clump by the factory bridge. And now, lo and behold! beneath still other of these willows, farther down the stream, whom should I see strolling together but my schoolteacher and the delinquent Jeff!
Young Beech bore still the fish-pole I had seen him take from our shed some hours earlier, but the line twisted round it was very white and dry. He was extremely close to the girl, and kept his head bent down over her as they sauntered along the meadow-path. They seemed not to be talking, but just idly drifting forward like the deep slow water beside them. I had never realized before how tall Jeff was. Though the school-ma’am always seemed to me of an exceeding stature, here was Jeff rounding his shoulders and inclining his neck in order to look under her broad-brimmed Leghorn hat.
There could be no imaginable excuse for my not overtaking them. Instinct prompted me to start up a whistling tune as I advanced—a casual and indolently unobtrusive tune—at sound of which Jeff straightened himself, and gave his companion a little more room on the path. In a moment or two he stopped, and looked intently over the bank into the water, as if he hoped it might turn out to be a likely place for fish. And the school-ma’am, too, after a few aimless steps, halted to help him look.
“Abner wants you to come right straight home!” was the form in which my message delivered itself when I had come close up to them.
They both shifted their gaze from the sluggish stream below to me upon the instant. Then Esther Hagadorn looked away, but Jeff—good, big, honest Jeff, who had been like a fond elder brother to me since I could remember—knitted his brows and regarded me with something like a scowl.
“Did pa send you to say that?” he demanded, holding my eye with a glance of such stern inquiry that I could only nod my head in confusion.
“An’ he knew that you’d find me here, did he?”
“He said either at the school-house or around here somewhere,” I admitted, weakly. ‘An’ there ain’t nothin’ the matter at the farm?’
“He don’t want me for nothin’ special?” pursued Jeff, still looking me through and through.
“He didn’t say,” I made hesitating answer, but for the life of me, I could not keep from throwing a tell-tale look in the direction of his companion in the blue gingham dress.
A wink could not have told Jeff more. He gave a little bitter laugh, and stared above my head at the willow-plumes fora minute’s meditation. Then he tossed his fish-pole over to me and laughed again.
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