Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 13

Chapter 13

The love of labour was counted a great virtue there in Faraway. As for myself I could never put my heart in a hoe handle or in any like tool of toil. They made a blister upon my spirit as well as upon my hands. I tried to find in the sweat of my brow that exalted pleasure of which Mr Greeley had visions in his comfortable retreat on Printing House Square. But unfortunately I had not his point of view.

Hanging in my library, where I may see it as I write, is the old sickle of Uncle Eb. The hard hickory of its handle is worn thin by the grip of his hand. It becomes a melancholy symbol when I remember how also the hickory had worn him thin and bent him low, and how infinitely better than all the harvesting of the sickle was the strength of that man, diminishing as it wore the wood. I cannot help smiling when I look at the sickle and thank of the soft hands and tender amplitude of Mr Greeley.

The great editor had been a playmate of David Brower when they were boys, and his paper was read with much reverence in our home.

'How quick ye can plough a ten-acre lot with a pen,' Uncle Eb used to say when we had gone up to bed after father had been reading aloud from his Tribune.

Such was the power of the press in that country one had but to say of any doubtful thing, 'Seen it in print,' to stop all argument. If there were any further doubt he had only to say that he had read it either in the Tribune or the Bible, and couldn't remember which. Then it was a mere question of veracity in the speaker. Books and other reading were carefully put away for an improbable time of leisure.

'I might break my leg sometime,' said David Brower, 'then they'll come handy.' But the Tribune was read carefully every week.

I have seen David Brower stop and look at me while I have been digging potatoes, with a sober grin such as came to him always after he had swapped 'hosses' and got the worst of it. Then he would show me again, with a little impatience in his manner, how to hold the handle and straddle the row. He would watch me for a moment, turn to Uncle Eb, laugh hopelessly and say: 'Thet boy'll hev to be a minister. He can't work.'

But for Elizabeth Brower it might have gone hard with me those days. My mind was always on my books or my last talk with Jed Feary, and she shared my confidence and fed my hopes and shielded me as much as possible from the heavy work. Hope had a better head for mathematics than I, and had always helped me with my sums, but I had a better memory and an aptitude in other things that kept me at the head of most of my classes. Best of all at school I enjoyed the 'compositions' - I had many thoughts, such as they were, and some facility of expression, I doubt not, for a child. Many chronicles of the countryside came off my pen - sketches of odd events and characters there in Faraway. These were read to the assembled household. Elizabeth Brower would sit looking gravely down at me, as I stood by her knees reading, in those days of my early boyhood. Uncle Eb listened with his head turned curiously, as if his ear were cocked for coons. Sometimes he and David Brower would slap their knees and laugh heartily, whereat my foster mother would give them a quick glance and shake her head. For she was always fearful of the day when she should see in her children the birth of vanity, and sought to put it off as far as might be. Sometimes she would cover her mouth to hide a smile, and, when I had finished, look warningly at the rest, and say it was good, for a little boy. Her praise never went further, and indeed all those people hated flattery as they did the devil and frowned upon conceit She said that when the love of flattery got hold of one he would lie to gain it

I can see this slender, blue-eyed woman as I write. She is walking up and down beside her spinning-wheel. I can hear the dreary buz-z-z-z of the spindle as she feeds it with the fleecy ropes. That loud crescendo echoes in the still house of memory. I can hear her singing as she steps forward and slows the wheel and swings the cradle with her foot:

'On the other side of Jordan, In the sweet fields of Eden, Where the tree of Life is blooming, There is rest for you.

She lays her hand to the spokes again and the roar of the spindle drowns her voice.

All day, from the breakfast hour to supper time, I have heard the dismal sound of the spirmng as she walked the floor, content to sing of rest but never taking it.

Her home was almost a miracle of neatness. She could work with no peace of mind until the house had been swept and dusted. A fly speck on the window was enough to cloud her day. She went to town with David now and then - not oftener than once a quarter - and came back ill and exhausted. If she sat in a store waiting for David, while he went to mill or smithy, her imagination gave her no rest. That dirt abhorring mind of hers would begin to clean the windows, and when that was finished it would sweep the floor and dust the counters. In due course it would lower the big chandelier and take out all the lamps and wash the chimneys with soap and water and rub them till they shone. Then, if David had not come, it would put in the rest of its time on the woodwork. With all her cleaning I am sure the good woman kept her soul spotless. Elizabeth Brower believed in goodness and the love of God, and knew no fear. Uncle Eb used to say that wherever Elizabeth Brower went hereafter it would have to be clean and comfortable.

Elder Whitmarsh came often to dinner of a Sunday, when he and Mrs Brower talked volubly about the Scriptures, he taking a sterner view of God than she would allow. He was an Englishman by birth, who had settled in Faraway because there he had found relief for a serious affliction of asthma.

He came over one noon in the early summer, that followed the event of our last chapter, to tell us of a strawberry party that evening at the White Church.

'I've had a wonderful experience,' said he as he took a seat on the piazza, while Mrs Brower came and sat near him. 'I've discovered a great genius - a wandering fiddler, and I shall try to bring him to play for us.'

'A fiddler! why, Elder!' said she, 'you astonish me!'

'Nothing but sacred music,' he said, lifting his hand. 'I heard him play all the grand things today - "Rock of Ages", "Nearer My God, to Thee", "The Marseillaise" and "Home, Sweet Home". Lifted me off my feet! I've heard the great masters in New York and London, but no greater player than this man.'

'Where is he and where did he come from?'

'He's at my house now,' said the good man. 'I found him this morning. He stood under a tree by the road side, above Nortlrup's. As I came near I heard the strains of "The Marseillaise". For more than an hour I sat there listening. It was wonderful, Mrs Brower, wonderful! The poor fellow is eccentric. He never spoke to me. His clothes were dusty and worn. But his music went to my heart like a voice from Heaven. when he had finished I took him home with me, gave him food and a new coat, and left him sleeping. I want you to come over, and be sure to bring Hope. She must sing for us.'

'Mr Brower will be tired out, but perhaps the young people may go,' she said, looking at Hope and me.

My heart gave a leap as I saw in Hope's eyes a reflection of my own joy. In a moment she came and gave her mother a sounding kiss and asked her what she should wear.

'I must look my best, mother,' she said.

'My child,' said the elder, 'it's what you do and not what you wear that's important.'

'They're both important, Elder,' said my foster mother. You should teach your people the duty of comeliness. They honour their Maker when they look their best.'

The spirit of liberalism was abroad in the sons of the Puritans. In Elizabeth Brower the andent austerity of her race had been freely diluted with humour and cheerfulness and human sympathy. It used to be said of Deacon Hospur, a good but lazy man, that he was given both to prayer and profanity. Uncle Eb, who had once heard the deacon swear, when the latter had been bruised by a kicking cow, said that, so far as he knew, the deacon never swore except when 'twas necessary. Indeed, most of those men had, I doubt not, too little of that fear of God in them that characterised their fathers. And yet, as shall appear, there were in Faraway some relics of a stern faith.

Hope came out in fine feather, and although I have seen many grand ladles, gowned for the eyes of kings, I have never seen a lovelier figure than when, that evening, she came tripping down to the buggy. It was three miles to the white Church, and riding over in the twilight I laid the plan of my life before her. She sat a moment in silence after I had finished.

'I am going away, too,' she remarked, with a sigh.

'Going away!' I said with some surprise, for in all my plans I had secretly counted on returning in grand style to take her back with me.

'Going away,' said she decisively.

'It isn't nice for girls to go away from home,' I said.

'It isn't nice for boys, either,' said she.

We had come to the church, its open doors and windows all aglow with light. I helped her out at the steps, and hitched my horse under the long shed. We entered together and made our way through the chattering crowd to the little cloakroom in one corner. Elder Whitmarsh arrived in a moment and the fiddler, a short, stout, stupid-looking man, his fiddle in a black box under his arm, followed him to the platform that had been cleared of its pulpit The stranger stood staring vacantly at the crowd until the elder motioned him to a chair, when he obeyed with the hesitating, blind obedience of a dog. Then the elder made a brief prayer, and after a few remarks flavoured with puns, sacred and immemorial as the pulpit itself, started a brief programme of entertainment. A broad smile marked the beginning of his lighter mood. His manner seemed to say: 'Now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will give good heed, you shall see I can be witty on occasion.'

Then a young man came to the platform and recited, after which Hope went forward and sang 'The Land o' the Leal' with such spirit that I can feel my blood go faster even now as I thank of it, and of that girlish figure crowned with a glory of fair curls that fell low upon her waist and mingled with the wild pink roses at her bosom. The fiddler sat quietly as if he heard nothing until she began to sing, when he turned to look at her. The elder announced, after the ballad, that he had brought with him a wonderful musician who would favour them with some sacred music. He used the word 'sacred' because he had observed, I suppose, that certain of the 'hardshells' were looking askance at the fiddle. There was an awkward moment in which the fiddler made no move or sign of intelligence. The elder stepped near him and whispered. Getting no response, he returned to the front of the platform and said: 'We shall first resign ourselves to social intercourse and the good things the ladies have provided.'

Mountains of frosted cake reared their snowy summits on a long table, and the strawberries, heaped in saucers around them, were like red foothills. I remember that while they were serving us Hope and I were introduced to one Robert Livingstone - a young New Yorker, stoppmg at the inn near by, on his way to the big woods. He was a handsome fellow, with such a fine air of gallantry and so trig in fashionable clothes that he made me feel awkward and uncomfortable.

'I have never heard anything more delightful than that ballad,' he said to Hope. 'You must have your voice trained - you really must. It will make a great name for you.'

I wondered then why his words hurt me to the soul. The castle of my dreams had fallen as he spoke. A new light came into her face - I did not know then what it meant.

'Will you let me call upon you before I leave - may I?' He turned to me while she stood silent. 'I wish to see your father,' he added.

'Certanly,' she answered, blushing, 'you may come - if you care to come.

The musician had begun to thrum the strings of his violin. We turned to look at him. He still sat in his chair, his ear bent to the echoing chamber of the violin. Soon he laid his bow to the strings and a great chord hushed every whisper and died into a sweet, low melody, in which his thought seemed to be feeling its way through sombre paths of sound. The music brightened, the bow went faster, and suddenly 'The Girl I Left Behind Me' came rushing off the strings. A look of amazement gathered on the elder's face and deepened into horror. It went from one to another as if it had been a dish of ipecac. Ann Jane Foster went directly for her things, and with a most unchristian look hurried out into the night. Half a dozen others followed her, while the unholy music went on, its merry echoes rioting in that sacred room, hallowed with memories of the hour of conviction, of the day of mourning, of the coming of the bride in her beauty.

Deacon Hospur rose and began to drawl a sort of apology, when the player stopped suddenly and shot an oath at him. The deacon staggered under the shock of it. His whiskers seemed to lift a bit like the hair of a cat under provocation. Then he tried to speak, but only stuttered helplessly a moment as if his tongue were oscillating between silence and profanity, and was finally pulled down by his wife, who had laid hold of his coat tails. If it had been any other man than Deacon Hospur it would have gone badly with the musician then and there, but we boys saw his discomfiture with positive gratitude. In a moment all rose, the dishes were gathered up, and many hurried away with indignant glances at the poor elder, who was busy taking counsel with some of the brethren.

I have never seen a more pathetic figure than that of poor Nick Goodall as he sat there thrumming the strings of which he was a Heaven-born master. I saw him often after that night - a poor, halfwitted creature, who wandered from inn to inn there in the north country, trading music for hospitality. A thoroughly intelligible sentence never passed his lips, but he had a great gift of eloquence in music. Nobody knew whence he had come or any particular of his birth or training or family. But for his sullen temper, that broke into wild, unmeaning profanity at times, Nick Goodall would have made fame and fortune.

He stared at the thinning crowd as if he had begun dimly to comprehend the havoc he had wrought. Then he put on his hat, came down off the platform, and shuffled out of the open door, his violin in one hand, its box in the other. There were not more than a dozen of us who followed him into the little churchyard. The moon was rising, and the shadows of lilac and rose bush, of slab and monument lay long across the green mounds. Standing there between the graves of the dead he began to play. I shall never forget that solemn calling of the silver string:

'Come ye disconsolate where'er ye languish.'

It was a new voice, a revelation, a light where darkness had been, to Hope and to me. We stood listening far into the night, forgetful of everything, even the swift flight of the hours.

Loud, impassioned chords rose into the moonlit sky and sank to a faint whisper of melody, when we could hear the gossip of the birds in the belfry and under the eaves; trembling tones of supplication, wailing notes of longing and regret swept through the silent avenues of the churchyard, thrilling us with their eloquence. For the first time we heard the music of Handel, of Mendelssohn, of Paganini, and felt its power, then knowing neither name nor theme. Hour by hour he played on for the mere joy of it. When we shook hands with the elder and tiptoed to the buggy he was still playing. We drove slowly and listened a long way down the road. I could hear the strains of that ballad, then new to me, but now familiar, growing fainter in the distance:

O ye'll tak' the high road an' I'll tak' the low road An' I'll be in Scotland afore ye; But me an' me true love will never meet again On the bonnie, bonnie banks o' Loch Lomond.

what connection it may have had with the history of poor Nick Goodall*1 I have often wondered.

As the last note died into silence I turned to Hope, and she was crying.

'Why are you crying?' I asked, in as miserable a moment as I have ever known.

'It's the music,' she said.

*1 Poor Nick Coodall died in the almshouse of Jefferson County some thirty years ago. A better account of this incident was widely printed at that time.

We both sat in silence, then, hearing only the creak of the buggy as it sped over the sandy road. Well ahead of us I saw a man who suddenly turned aside, vaulting over the fence and running into the near woods.

'The night man!' I exclaimed, pulling up a moment to observe him.

Then a buggy came in sight, and presently we heard a loud 'hello' from David Brower, who, worried by our long stay, had come out in quest of us.