Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 09
Grandma Bisnette came from Canada to work for the Browers. She was a big, cheerful woman, with a dialect, an amiable disposition and a swarthy, wrinkled face. She had a loose front tooth that occupied all the leisure of her tongue. When she sat at her knitting this big tooth clicked incessantly. On every stitch her tongue went in and out across it' and I, standing often by her knees, regarded the process with great curiosity.
The reader may gather much from these frank and informing words of Grandma Bisnette. 'When I los' my man, Mon Dieu! I have two son. An' when I come across I bring him with me. Abe he rough; but den he no bad man.'
Abe was the butcher of the neighbourhood - that red-handed, stony-hearted, necessary man whom the Yankee farmer in that north country hires to do the cruel things that have to be done. He wore ragged, dirty clothes and had a voice like a steam whistle. His rough, black hair fell low and mingled with his scanty beard. His hands were stained too often with the blood of some creature we loved. I always crept under the bed in Mrs Brower's room when Abe came - he was such a terror to me with his bloody work and noisy oaths. Such men were the curse of the cleanly homes in that country. There was much to shock the ears and eyes of children in the life of the farm. It was a fashion among the help to decorate their speech with profanity for the mere sound of it' and the foul mouthings of low-minded men spread like a pestilence in the fields.
Abe came always with an old bay horse and a rickety buckboard. His one foot on the dash, as he rode, gave the picture a dare-devil finish. The lash of his bull-whip sang around him, and his great voice sent its blasts of noise ahead. When we heard a fearful yell and rumble in the distance, we knew Abe was coming.
'Abe he come,' said Grandma Bisnette. 'Mon Dieu! he make de leetle rock fly.'
It was like the coming of a locomotive with roar of wheel and whistle. In my childhood, as soon as I saw the cloud of dust, I put for the bed and from its friendly cover would peek out' often, but never venture far until the man of blood had gone.
To us children he was a marvel of wickedness. There were those who told how he had stood in the storm one night and dared the Almighty to send the lightning upon him.
The dog Fred had grown so old and infirm that one day they sent for Abe to come and put an end to his misery. Every man on the farm loved the old dog and not one of them would raise a hand to kill him. Hope and I heard what Abe was coming to do, and when the men had gone to the fields, that summer morning, we lifted Fred into the little wagon m which he had once drawn me and starting back of the barn stole away with him through the deep grass of the meadow until we came out upon the highroad far below. We had planned to take him to school and make him a nest in the woodshed where he could share our luncheon and be out of the way of peril. After a good deal of difficulty and heavy pulling we got to the road at last. The old dog, now blind and helpless, sat contentedly in the wagon while its wheels creaked and groaned beneath him. We had gone but a short way in the road when we heard the red bridge roar under rushing wheels and the familiar yell of Abe.
'We'd better run,' said Hope, ' 'er we'll git swore at.'
I looked about me in a panic for some place to hide the party, but Abe was coming fast and there was only time to pick up clubs and stand our ground.
'Here!' the man shouted as he pulled up along side of us, 'where ye goin' with that dog?'
'Go 'way,' I answered, between anger and tears, lifting my club in a threatening manner.
He laughed then - a loud guffaw that rang in the near woods.
'What'll ye give me,' he asked leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, 'What'll ye give me if I don't kill him?'
I thought a moment. Then I put my hand in my pocket and presently took out my jack-knife - that treasure Uncle Eb had bought for me - and looked at it fondly.
Then I offered it to him.
Again he laughed loudly.
'Anything else?' he demanded while Hope sat hugging the old dog that was licking her hands.
'Got forty cents that I saved for the fair,' said I promptly.
Abe backed his horse and turned in the road.
'Wall boy,' he said, 'Tell 'em I've gone home.'
Then his great voice shouted, 'g'lang' the lash of his whip sang in the air and off he went.
We were first to arrive at the schoolhouse, that morning, and when the other children came we had Fred on a comfortable bed of grass in a corner of the woodshed. What with all the worry of that day I said my lessons poorly and went home with a load on my heart. Tomorrow would be Saturday; how were we to get food and water to the dog? They asked at home if we had seen old Fred and we both declared we had not - the first lie that ever laid its burden on my conscience. We both saved all our bread and butter and doughnuts next day, but we had so many chores to do it was impossible to go to the schoolhouse with them. So we agreed to steal away that night when all were asleep and take the food from its hiding place.
In the excitement of the day neither of us had eaten much. They thought we were ill and sent us to bed early. When Hope came into my room above stairs late in the evening we were both desperately hungry. We looked at our store of doughnuts and bread and butter under my bed. We counted it over.
'Won't you try one o' the doughnuts,' I whispered hoping that she would say yes so that I could try one also; for they did smell mighty good.
''Twouldn't be right" said she regretfully. 'There ain't any more 'n he'll want now.
''Twouldn't be right" I repeated with a sigh as I looked longingly at one of the big doughnuts. 'Couldn't bear t' do it - could you?'
'Don't seem as if I could,' she whispered, thoughtfully, her chin upon her hand.
Then she rose and went to the window.
'O my! how dark it is!' she whispered, looking out into the night.
'Purty dark!' I said, 'but you needn't be 'fraid. I'll take care o' you. If we should meet a bear I'll growl right back at him - that's what Uncle Eb tol' me t' do. I'm awful stout - most a man now! Can't nuthin' scare me.'
We could hear them talking below stairs and we went back to bed, intending to go forth later when the house was still. But' unfortunately for our adventure I fell asleep.
It was morning when I opened my eyes again. We children looked accusingly at each other while eating breakfast. Then we had to be washed and dressed in our best clothes to go to meeting. When the wagon was at the door and we were ready to start I had doughnuts and bread and butter in every pocket of my coat and trousers. I got in quickly and pulled the blanket over me so as to conceal the fullness of my pockets. We arrived so late I had no chance to go to the dog before we went into meeting. I was wearing boots that were too small for me, and when I entered with the others and sat down upon one of those straight backed seats of plain, unpainted pine my feet felt as if I had been caught in a bear trap. There was always such a silence in the room after the elder had sat down and adjusted his spectacles that I could hear the ticking of the watch he carried in the pocket of his broadcloth waistcoat. For my own part I know I looked with too much longing for the good of my soul on the great gold chain that spanned the broad convexity of his stomach. Presently I observed that a couple of young women were looking at me and whispering. Then suddenly I became aware that there were sundry protuberances on my person caused by bread and butter and doughnuts, and I felt very miserable indeed. Now and then as the elder spoke the loud, accusing neigh of some horse, tethered to the fence in the schoolyard, mingled with his thunder. After the good elder had been preaching an hour his big, fat body seemed to swim in my tears. When he had finished the choir sang. Their singing was a thing that appealed to the eye as well as the ear. Uncle Eb used to say it was a great comfort to see Elkenah Samson sing bass. His great mouth opened widely in this form of praise and his eyes had a wild stare in them when he aimed at the low notes.
Ransom Walker, a man of great dignity, with a bristling moustache, who had once been a schoolmaster, led the choir and carried the tenor part. It was no small privilege after the elder had announced the hymn, to see him rise and tap the desk with his tuning fork and hold it to his ear solemnly. Then he would seem to press his chin full hard upon his throat while he warbled a scale. Immediately, soprano, alto, bass and tenor launched forth upon the sea of song. The parts were like the treacherous and conflicting currents of a tide that tossed them roughly and sometimes overturned their craft. And Ransom Walker showed always a proper sense of danger and responsibility. Generally they got to port safely on these brief excursions, though exhausted. He had a way of beating time with his head while singing and I have no doubt it was a great help to him.
The elder came over to me after meeting, having taken my tears for a sign of conviction.
'May the Lord bless and comfort you, my boy!' said he.
I got away shortly and made for the door. Uncle Eb stopped me.
'My stars, Willie!' said he putting his hand on my upper coat pocket' 'what ye got in there?'
'Doughnuts,' I answered.
'An' what's this?' he asked touching one of my side pockets.
'Doughnuts,' I repeated.
'An' this,' touching another.
'That's doughnuts too,' I said.
'An' this,' he continued going down to my trousers pocket.
'Bread an' butter,' I answered, shamefacedly, and on the verge of tears.
'Jerusalem!' he exclaimed, 'must a 'spected a purty long sermon.
'Brought 'em fer ol' Fred,' I replied.
'Ol' Fred!' he whispered, 'where's he?'
I told my secret then and we both went out with Hope to where we had left him. He lay with his head between his paws on the bed of grass just as I had seen him lie many a time when his legs were weary with travel on Paradise Road, and when his days were yet full of pleasure. We called to him and Uncle Eb knelt and touched his head. Then he lifted the dog's nose, looked a moment into the sightless eyes and let it fall again.
'Fred's gone,' said he in a low tone as he turned away. 'Got there ahead uv us, Willy.'
Hope and I sat down by the old dog and wept bitterly.