Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 12
It was a time of new things - that winter when I saw the end of my fifteenth year. Then I began to enjoy the finer humours of life in Faraway - to see with understanding; and by God's grace - to feel.
The land of play and fear and fable was now far behind me and I had begun to feel the infinite in the ancient forest' in the everlasting hills, in the deep of heaven, in all the ways of men. Hope Brower was now near woman grown. She had a beauty of face and form that was the talk of the countryside. I have travelled far and seen many a fair face hut never one more to my eye. I have heard men say she was like a girl out of a story-book those days.
Late years something had come between us. Long ago we had fallen out of each other's confidence, and ever since she had seemed to shun me. It was the trip in the sledgehouse that' years after, came up between us and broke our childish intimacy. Uncle Be had told, before company, how she had kissed me that day and bespoke me for a husband, and while the others laughed loudly she had gone out of the room crying. She would have little to say to me then. I began to play with boys and she with girls. And it made me miserable to hear the boys a bit older than I gossip of her beauty and accuse each other of the sweet disgrace of love.
But I must hasten to those events in Faraway that shaped our destinies. And first comes that memorable night when I had the privilege of escorting Hope to the school lyceum where the argument of Jed Feary - poet of the hills - fired my soul with an ambition that has remained with me always.
Uncle Be suggested that I ask Hope to go with me.
'Prance right up to her,' he said, 'an' say you'd be glad of the pleasure of her company.
It seemed to me a very dubious thing to do. I looked thoughtful and turned red in the face.
'Young man,' he continued, 'the boy thet's 'fraid o' women'll never hev whiskers.'
'How's that?' I enquired.
'Be scairt t' death,' he answered,' 'fore they've hed time t' start Ye want t' step right up t' the rack jes' if ye'd bought an' paid fer yerself an' was proud o' yer bargain.'
I took his advice and when I found Hope alone in the parlour I came and asked her, very awkwardly as I now remember, to go with me.
She looked at me, blushing, and said she would ask her mother.
And she did, and we walked to the schoolhouse together that evening, her hand holding my arm, timidly, the most serious pair that ever struggled with the problem of deportment on such an occasion. I was oppressed with a heavy sense of responsibility in every word I uttered.
Ann Jane Foster, known as 'Scooter Jane', for her rapid walk and stiff carriage, met us at the corners on her way to the schoolhouse.
'Big turn out I guess,' said she. 'Jed Feary 'n' Squire Town is comin' over from Jingleville an' all the big guns'll be there. I love t' hear Jed Feary speak, he's so techin'.'
Ann Jane was always looking around for some event likely to touch her feelings. She went to every funeral in Faraway and, when sorrow was scarce in her own vicinity, journeyed far in quest of it
'Wouldn't wonder 'f the fur flew when they git t' going',' she remarked, and then hurried on, her head erect, her body motionless, her legs flying. Such energy as she gave to the pursuit of mourning I have never seen equalled in any other form of dissipation.
The schoolhouse was nearly full of people when we came in. The big boys were wrestling in the yard; men were lounging on the rude seats, inside, idly discussing crops and cattle and lapsing into silence, frequently, that bore the signs both of expectancy and reflection. Young men and young women sat together on one side of the house whispering and giggling. Alone among them was the big and eccentric granddaughter of Mrs Bisnette, who was always slapping some youngster for impertinence. Jed Feary and Squire Town sat together behind a pile of books, both looking very serious. The long hair and beard of the old poet were now white and his form bent with age. He came over and spoke to us and took a curl of Hope's hair in his stiffened fingers and held it to the lamplight.
'What silky gold!' he whispered.' 'S a skein o' fate, my dear girl!'
Suddenly the schoolteacher rapped on the desk and bade us come to order and Ransom Walker was called to the chair.
'Thet there is talent in Faraway township,' he said, having reluctantly come to the platform, 'and talent of the very highest order, no one can deny who has ever attended a lyceum at the Howard schoolhouse. I see evidences of talent in every face before me. And I wish to ask what are the two great talents of the Yankee - talents that made our forefathers famous the world over? I pause for an answer.'
He had once been a schoolmaster and that accounted for his didactic style.
'What are the two great talents of the Yankee?' he repeated, his hands clasped before him.
'Doughnuts an' pie,' said Uncle Be who sat in a far corner.
'No sir,' Mr Walker answered, 'there's some hev a talent fer sawin' wood, but we don't count that. It's war an' speakin', they are the two great talents of the Yankee. But his greatest talent is the gift o' gab. Give him a chance t' talk it over with his enemy an' he'll lick 'im without a fight. An' when his enemy is another Yankee - why, they both git licked, jest as it was in the case of the man thet sold me lightnin' rods. He was sorry he done it before I got through with him. If we did not encourage this talent in our sons they would be talked to death by our daughters. Ladies and gentlemen, it gives me pleasure t' say that the best speakers in Faraway township have come here t' discuss the important question:
'Resolved, that intemperance has caused more misery than war?
'I call upon Moses Tupper to open for the affirmative.'
Moses, as I have remarked, had a most unlovely face with a thin and bristling growth of whiskers. In giving him features Nature had been generous to a fault. He had a large red nose, and a mouth vastly too big for any proper use. It was a mouth fashioned for odd sayings. He was well to do and boasted often that he was a self-made man. Uncle Be used to say that if Mose Tupper had had the 'makin' uv himself he'd oughter done it more careful.'
I remember not much of the speech he made, but the picture of him, as he rose on tiptoe and swung his arms like a man fighting bees, and his drawling tones are as familiar as the things of yesterday.
'Gentlemen an' ladies,' said he presently, 'let me show you a pictur'. It is the drunkard's child. It is hungry an' there ain't no food in its home. The child is poorer'n a straw-fed hoss. 'Tain't hed a thing t' eat since day before yistiddy. Pictur' itto yourselves as it comes cryin' to its mother an' says:
'"Ma! Gi' me a piece o' bread an' butter."
'She covers her face with her apron an' says she, "There am none left, my child."
'An' bime bye the child comes agin' an' holds up its poor little han's an' says: "Ma! please gi' me a piece O' cake."
'An' she goes an' looks out O' the winder, er mebbe pokes the fire, an' says: "There am' none left, my child."
'An' bime bye it comes agin' an' it says: "Please gi' me a little piece O' pie."
'An' she mebbe flops into a chair an' says, sobbin', "There ain' none left, my child."
'No pie! Now, Mr Chairman!' exclaimed the orator, as he lifted both hands high above his head, 'If this ain't misery, in God's name, what is it?
'Years ago, when I was a young man, Mr President, I went to a dance one night at the village of Migleyville. I got a toothache, an' the Devil tempted me with whiskey, an' I tuk one glass an' then another an' purty soon I began t' thank I was a mighty hefty sort of a character, I did, an' I stud on a comer an' stumped everybody t' fight with me, an' bime bye an accomanodatin' kind of a chap come along, an' that's all I remember O' what happened. when I come to, my coat tails had been tore off, I'd lost one leg O' my trousers, a bran new silver watch, tew dollars in money, an a pair O' spectacles. When I stud up an' tried t' realise what hed happened I felt jes' like a blind rooster with only one leg an' no tail feathers.'
A roar of laughter followed these frank remarks of Mr Tupper and broke into a storm of merriment when Uncle Eb rose and said:
'Mr President, I hope you see that the misfortunes of our friend was due t' war, an' not to intemperance.'
Mr Tupper was unhorsed. For some minutes he stood helpless or shaking with the emotion that possessed all. Then he finished lamely and sat down.
The narrowness of the man that saw so much where there was so little in his own experience and in the trivial events of his own township was what I now recognise as most valuable to the purpose of this history. It was a narrowness that covered a multitude of people in St Lawrence county in those days.
Jed Feary was greeted with applause and then by respectfiil silence when he rose to speak. The fame of his verse and his learning had gone far beyond the narrow boundaries of the township in which he lived. It was the biggest thing in the county. Many a poor sinner who had gone out of Faraway to his long home got his first praise in the obituary poem by Jed Feary. These tributes were generally published in the county paper and paid for by the relatives of the deceased at the rate of a dollar a day for the time spent on them, or by a few days of board and lodging glory and consolation that was, alas! too cheap, as one might see by a glance at his forlorn figure. I shall never forget the courtly manner, so strangely in contrast with the rude deportment of other men in that place, with which he addressed the chairman and the people. The drawling dialect of the vicinity that flavoured his conversation fell from him like a mantle as he spoke and the light in his soul shone upon that little company a great light, as I now remember, that filled me with burning thoughts of the world and its mighty theatre of action. The way of my life lay clear before me, as I listened, and its days of toil and the sweet success my God has given me, although I take it humbly and hold it infinitely above my merit. I was to get learning and seek some way of expressing what was in me.
It would ill become me to try to repeat the words of this venerable seer, but he showed that intemperance was an individual sin, while war was a national evil. That one meant often the ruin of a race; the other the ruin of a family; that one was as the ocean, the other as a single drop in its waters. And he told us of the full of empires and the millions that had suffered the oppression of the conqueror and perished by the sword since Agamemnon.
After the debate a young lady read a literary paper full of clumsy wit, rude chronicles of the countryside, essays on 'Spring', and like topics -the work of the best talent of Faraway. Then came the decision, after which the meeting adjourned.
At the door some other boys tried 'to cut me out'. I came through the noisy crowd, however, with Hope on my arm and my heart flill of a great happiness.
'Did you like it?' she asked.
'Very much,' I answered.
'What did you enjoy most?'
'Your company,' I said, with a fine air of gallantry.
'Honestly. I want to take you to Rickard's sometime?'
That was indeed a long cherished hope.
'Maybe I won't let you,' she said.
'You'd better ask me sometime and see.'
'I shall. I wouldn't ask any other girl.'
'Well,' she added, with a sigh, 'if a boy likes one girl I don't think he ought to have anything to do with other girls. I hate a flirt.'
I happened to hear a footfall in the snow behind us, and looking back saw Ann Jane Foster going slow in easy hearing. She knew all, as we soon found out.
'I dew jes love t' see young folks enjoy themselves,' said she, 'it's entrancin".'
Coming in at our gate I saw a man going over the wall back of the big stables. The house was dark
'Did you see the night man?' Elizabeth Brower whispered as I lit the lamp. 'Went through the garden just now. I've been watching him here at the window.'