Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 08
Of all that long season of snow, I remember most pleasantly the days that were sweetened with the sugar-making. When the sun was lifting his course in the clearing sky, and March had got the temper of the lamb, and the frozen pulses of the forest had begun to stir, the great kettle was mounted in the yard and all gave a hand to the washing of spouts and buckets. Then came tapping time, in which I helped carry the buckets and tasted the sweet flow that followed the auger's wound. The woods were merry with our shouts, and, shortly, one could hear the heart-beat of the maples in the sounding bucket. It was the reveille of spring. Towering trees shook down the gathered storms of snow and felt for the sunlight. The arch and shanty were repaired, the great iron kettle was scoured and lifted to its place, and then came the boiling. It was a great, an inestimable privilege to sit on the robes of faded fur, in the shanty, and hear the fire roaring under the kettle and smell the sweet odour of the boiling sap. Uncle Eb minded the shanty and the fire and the woods rang with his merry songs. When I think of that phase of the sugaring, lam face to face with one of the greatest perils of my life. My foster father had consented to let me spend a night with Uncle Eb in the shanty, and I was to sleep on the robes, where he would be beside me when he was not tending the fire. It had been a mild, bright day, and David came up with our supper at sunset. He sat talking with Uncle Eb for an hour or so, and the woods were darkling when he went away.
When he started on the dark trail that led to the clearing, I wondered at his courage - it was so black beyond the firelight. While we sat alone I plead for a story, but the thoughts of Uncle Eb had gone to roost early in a sort of gloomy meditation.
'Be still, my boy,' said he, 'an' go t' sleep. I ain't agoin' t' tell no yams an, git ye all stirred up. Ye go t' sleep. Come mornin' we'll go down t' the brook an' see if we can't find a mink or tew 'n the traps.'
I remember hearing a great crackling of twigs in the dark wood before I slept. As I lifted my head, Uncle Eb whispered, 'Hark!' and we both listened. A bent and aged figure came stalking into the firelight His long white hair mingled with his beard and covered his coat collar behind.
'Don't be scairt,' said Uncle Eb. ''Tain' no bear. It's nuthin' but a poet.,
I knew him for a man who wandered much and had a rhyme for everyone - a kindly man with a reputation for laziness and without any home.
'Bilin', eh?' said the poet
'Bilin',' said Uncle Eb.
'I'm bilin' over 'n the next bush,' said the poet, sitting down.
'How's everything in Jingleville?' Uncle Eb enquired.
Then the newcomer answered:
'Well, neighbour dear, in Jingleville We live by faith but we eat our fill; An' what w'u'd we do if it wa'n't fer prayer? Fer we can't raise a thing but whiskers an' hair.'
'Cur'us how you can'talk po'try,' said Uncle Eb. 'The only thing I've got agin you is them whiskers an' thet hair. 'Tain't Christian.'
''Tain't what's on the head, but what's in it - thet's the important thing,' said the poet. 'Did I ever tell ye what I wrote about the birds?'
'Don' know's ye ever did,' said Uncle Eb, stirring his fire.
'The boy'll like it, mebbe,' said he, taking a dirty piece of paper out of his pocket and holding it to the light.
The poem interested me, young as I was, not less than the strange figure of the old poet who lived unknown in the backwoods, and who died, I dare say, with many a finer song in his heart. I remember how he stood in the firelight and chanted the words in a sing-song tone. He gave us that rude copy of the poem, and here it is:
THE ROBIN'S WEDDING
Young robin red breast hed a beautiful nest an' he says to his love says he: It's ready now on a rocking bough In the top of a maple tree. I've lined it with down an' the velvet brown on the waist of a bumble-bee.
They were married next day, in the land o' the hay, the lady bird an' he. The bobolink came an' the wife o' the same An' the lark an' the fiddle de dee. An' the crow came down in a minister gown - there was nothing that he didn't see.
He fluttered his wing as they ast him to sing an' he tried fer t' clear out his throat; He hemmed an' he hawed an' be hawked an' he cawed But he couldn't deliver a note. The swallow was there an' he ushered each pair with his linsey an' claw hammer coat.
The bobolink tried fer t' flirt with the bride in a way thet was sassy an' bold. An' the notes that he took as he shivered an' shook Hed a sound like the jingle of gold. He sat on a briar an' laughed at the choir an' said thet the music was old.
The sexton he came - Mr Spider by name - a citizen hairy and grey. His rope in a steeple, he called the good people That live in the land o' the hay. The ants an' the squgs an' the crickets an' bugs - came out in a mighty array.
Some came down from Barleytown an' the neighbouring city o' Rye. An' the little black people they climbed every steeple An' sat looking up at the sky. They came fer t' see what a wedding might be an' they furnished the cake an, the pie.
I remember he turned to me when he had finished and took one of my small hands and held it in his hard palm and looked at it and then into my face.
'Ah, boy!' he said, 'your way shall lead you far from here, and you shall get learning and wealth and win - victories.'
'What nonsense are you talking, Jed Ferry?' said Uncle Eb. 'O, you all think I'm a fool an' a humbug, 'cos I look it. Why, Eben Holden, if you was what ye looked, ye'd be in the presidential chair. Folks here 'n the valley think o' nuthin' but hard work - most uv 'em, an' I tell ye now this boy ain't a goin' t' be wuth putty on a farm. Look a' them slender hands.
'There was a man come to me the other day an' wanted t' hev a poem 'bout his wife that hed jes' died. I ast him t' tell me all 'bout her.
'"Wall," said he, after he had scratched his head an' thought a minute, "she was a dretful good woman t' work."
'"Anything else?" I asked.
'He thought agin fer a minute.
'"Broke her leg once," he said, "an' was laid up fer more'n a year."
"Must o' suffered," said I.
'"Not then," he answered. "Ruther enjoyed it layin' abed an' readin' an' bein' rubbed, but 'twas hard on the children."
'"S'pose ye loved her," I said.
'Then the tears come into his eyes an' he couldn't speak fer a minute. Putty soon he whispered "Yes" kind o' confidential. 'Course he loved her, but these Yankees are ashamed o' their feelin's. They hev tender thoughts, but they hide 'em as careful as the wild goose hides her eggs. I wrote a poem t' please him, an' goin' home I made up one fer myself, an 'it run 'bout like this:
O give me more than a life, I beg, That finds real joy in a broken leg. Whose only thought is t' work an' save An' whose only rest is in the grave. Saving an' scrimping from day to day While its best it has squandered an' flung away Fer a life like that of which I tell Would rob me quite o' the dread o' hell.
'Toil an' slave an' scrimp an' save - thet's 'bout all we think uv 'n this country. 'Tain't right, Holden.'
'No, 'tain't right,' said Uncle Eb.
'I know I'm a poor, mis'rable critter. Kind o' out o' tune with everybody I know. Alwus quarrelled with my own folks, an' now I ain't got any home. Someday I'm goin' t' die in the poorhouse er on the ground under these woods. But I tell ye'- here he spoke in a voice that grew loud with feeling - 'mebbe I've been lazy, as they say, but I've got more out o' my life than any o' these fools. And someday God'll honour me far above them. When my wife an' I parted I wrote some lines that say well my meaning. It was only a log house we had, but this will show what I got out of it.' Then he spoke the lines, his voice trembling with emotion.
'O humble home! Thou hadst a secret door Thro' which I looked, betimes, with wondering eye On treasures that no palace ever wore But now - goodbye!
In hallowed scenes what feet have trod thy stage! The babe, the maiden, leaving home to wed The young man going forth by duty led And faltering age.
Thou hadst a magic window broad and high The light and glory of the morning shone Thro' it, however dark the day had grown, Or bleak the sky.
'I know Dave Brower's folks hev got brains an' decency, but when thet boy is old enough t' take care uv himself, let him git out o' this country. I tell ye he'll never make a farmer, an' if he marries an, settles down here he'll git t' be a poet, mebbe, er some such shif'less cuss, an' die in the poorhouse. Guess I better git back t' my bilin' now. Good-night,' he added, rising and buttoning his old coat as he walked away.
'Sing'lar man!' Uncle Eli exclaimed, thoughtfully, 'but anyone thet picks him up fer a fool'll find him a counterfeit.'
Young as I was, the rugged, elemental power of the old poet had somehow got to my heart and stirred my imagination. It all came not fully to my understanding until later. Little by little it grew upon me, and what an effect it had upon my thought and life ever after I should not dare to estimate. And soon I sought out the 'poet of the hills,' as they called him, and got to know and even to respect him in spite of his unlovely aspect.
Uncle Eb skimmed the boiling sap, put more wood on the fire and came and pulled off his boots and lay down beside me under the robe. And, hearing the boil of the sap and the crackle of the burning logs in the arch, I soon went asleep.
I remember feeling Uncle Eb's hand upon my cheek, and how I rose and stared about me in the fading shadows of a dream as he shook me gently.
'Wake up, my boy,' said he. 'Come, we mus' put fer home.'
The fire was out. The old man held a lantern as he stood before me, the blaze flickering. There was a fearsome darkness all around.
'Come, Willy, make haste,' he whispered, as I rubbed my eyes. 'Put on yer boots, an' here's yer little coat 'n' muffler.'
There was a mighty roar in the forest and icy puffs of snow came whistling in upon as. We stored the robes and pails and buckets and covered the big kettle.
The lofty tree-tops reeled and creaked above us, and a deep, sonorous moan was sweeping through the woods, as if the fingers of the wind had touched a mighty harp string in the timber. We could hear the crash and thunder of falling trees.
'Make haste! Make haste! It's resky here,' said Uncle Eb, and he held my hand and ran. We started through the brush and steered as straight as we could for the clearing. The little box of light he carried was soon sheathed in snow, and I remember how he stopped, half out of breath, often, and brushed it with his mittens to let out the light. We had made the scattering growth of little timber at the edge of the woods when the globe of the lantern snapped and fell. A moment later we stood in utter darkness. I knew, for the first time, then that we were in a bad fix.
'I guess God'll take care of us, Willy,' said Uncle Eb. 'If he don't, we'll never get there in this world never!'
It was a black and icy wall of night and storm on every side of us. I never saw a time when the light of God's heaven was so utterly extinguished; the cold never went to my bone as on that bitter night. My hands and feet were numb with aching, as the roar of the trees grew fainter in the open. I remember how I lagged, and how the old man urged me on, and how we toiled in the wind and darkness, straining our eyes for some familiar thing. Of a sudden we stumbled upon a wall that we had passed an hour or so before.
'Oh!' he groaned, and made that funny, deprecating cluck with his tongue, that I have heard so much from Yankee lips.
'God o' mercy!' said he, 'we've gone 'round in a half-circle. Now we'll take the wall an' mebbe it'll bring us home.'
I thought I couldn't keep my feet any longer, for an irresistible drowsiness had come over me. The voice of Uncle Eb seemed far away, and when I sank in the snow and shut my eyes to sleep he shook me as a terrier shakes a rat.
'Wake up, my boy,' said he, 'ye musn't sleep.'
Then he boxed my ears until I cried, and picked me up and ran with me along the side of the wall. I was but dimly conscious when he dropped me under a tree whose bare twigs lashed the air and stung my cheeks. I heard him tearing the branches savagely and muttering, 'Thanks to God, it's the blue beech.' I shall never forget how he turned and held to my hand and put the whip on me as I lay in the snow, and how the sting of it started my blood. Up I sprang in a jiffy and howled and danced. The stout rod bent and circled on me like a hoop of fire. Then I turned and tried to run while he clung to my coat tails, and every step I felt the stinging grab of the beech. There is a little seam across my cheek today that marks a footfall of one of those whips. In a moment I was as wide awake as Uncle Eb and needed no more stimulation.
The wall led us to the pasture lane, and there it was easy enough to make our way to the barnyard and up to the door of the house, which had a candle in every window, I remember. David was up and dressed to come after us, and I recall how he took Uncle Eb in his arms, when he fell fainting on the doorstep, and carried him to the lounge. I saw the blood on my face as I passed the mirror, and Elizabeth Brower came running and gave me one glance and rushed out of doors with the dipper. It was full of snow when she ran in and tore the wrappings off my neck and began to rub my ears and cheeks with the cold snow, calling loudly for Grandma Bisnette. She came in a moment and helped at the stripping of our feet and legs. I remember that she slit my trousers with the shears as I lay on the floor, while the others rubbed my feet with the snow. Our hands and ears were badly frosted, but in an hour the whiteness had gone out of them and the returning blood burnt like a fire.
'How queer he stares!' I heard them say when Uncle Eb first came to, and in a moment a roar of laughter broke from him.
'I'll never fergit,' said he presently, 'if I live a thousan' years, the lickin' I gin thet boy; but it hurt me worse'n it hurt him.'
Then he told the story of the blue beech.
The next day was that 'cold Friday' long remembered by those who felt its deadly chill - a day when water thrown in the magic air came down in clinking crystals, and sheaths of frost lay thick upon the windows. But that and the one before it were among the few days in that early period that lie, like a rock, under my character.