Story type: Literature
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. Infidelity 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 didn’t interfere”–
“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.
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