Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 17

Chapter 17

If I were writing a novel merely I should try to fill it with merriment and good cheer. I should thrust no sorrow upon the reader save that he might feel for having wasted his time. We have small need of manufactured sorrow when, truly, there is so much of the real thing on every side of us. But this book is nothing more nor less than a history, and by the same token it cannot be all as I would have wished it. In October following the events of the last chapter, Gerald died of consumption, having borne a lingering illness with great fortitude. I, who had come there a homeless orphan in a basket, and who, with the God-given eloquence of childhood had brought them to take me to their hearts and the old man that was with me as well, was now the only son left to Elizabeth and David Brower. There were those who called it folly at the time they took us in, I have heard, but he who shall read this history to the end shall see how that kind of folly may profit one or even many here in this hard world.

It was a gloomy summer for all of us. The industry and patience with which Hope bore her trial, night and day, is the sweetest recollection of my youth. It brought to her young face a tender soberness of womanhood - a subtle change of expression that made her all the more dear to me. Every day, rain or shine, the old doctor had come to visit his patient, sometimes sitting an hour and gazing thoughtfully in his face, occasionally asking a question, or telling a quaint anecdote. And then came the end.

The sky was cold and grey in the late autumn and the leaves were drifted deep in the edge of the woodlands when Hope and I went away to school together at HilIsborough. Uncle Eb drove us to our boarding place in town. when we bade him goodbye and saw him driving away, alone in the wagon, we hardly dared look at each other for the tears in our eyes.

David Brower had taken board for us at the house of one Solomon Rollin - universally known as 'Cooky' Rollin; that was one of the first things I learned at the Academy. It seemed that many years ago he had taken his girl to a dance and offered her, in lieu of supper, cookies that he had thoughtfully brought with him. Thus cheaply he had come to life-long distinction.

'You know Rollin's Ancient History, don't you?' the young man asked who sat with me at school that first day.

'Have it at home,' I answered, 'It's in five volumes.'

'I mean the history of Sol Rollin, the man you are boarding with,' said he smiling at me and then he told the story of the cookies.

The principal of the HilIsborough Academy was a big, brawny bachelor of Scotch descent, with a stem face and cold, grey, glaring eyes. when he stood towering above us on his platform in the main room of the building where I sat, there was an alertness in his figure, and a look of responsibility in his face, that reminded me of the pictures of Napoleon at Waterloo. He always carried a stout ruler that had blistered a shank of every mischievous boy in school. As he stood by the line, that came marching into prayers every morning he would frequently pull out a boy, administer a loud whack or two, shake him violently and force him into a seat. The day I began my studies at the Academy I saw him put two dents in the wall with the heels of a young man who had failed in his algebra. To a bashful and sensitive youth, just out of a country home, the sight of such violence was appalling. My first talk with him, however, renewed my courage. He had heard I was a good scholar and talked with me in a friendly way about my plans. Both Hope and I were under him in algebra and Latin. I well remember my first error in his class. I had misconstrued a Latin sentence. He looked at me, a smile and a sneer crowding each other for possession of his face. In a loud, jeering tone he cried: 'Mirabile dictu!'

I looked at him in doubt of his meaning.

'Mirabile dictu!' he shouted, his tongue trilling the r.

I corrected my error.

'Perfect!' he cried again. 'Puer pulchre! Next!'

He never went further than that with me in the way of correction. My size and my skill as a wrestler, that shortly ensured for me the respect of the boys, helped me to win the esteem of the master. I leamed my lessons and kept out of mischief. But others of equal proficiency were not so fortunate. He was apt to be hard on a light man who could be handled without over-exertion.

Uncle Eb came in to see me one day and sat awhile with me in my seat. While he was there the master took a boy by the collar and almost literally wiped the blackboard with him. There was a great clatter of heels for a moment. Uncle Eb went away shortly and was at Sol Rollin's when I came to dinner.

'Powerful man ain't he?' said Uncle Eb.

'Rather,' I said.

'Turned that boy into a reg'lar horse fiddle,' he remarked. 'Must 'ave unsot his reason.'

'Unnecessary!' I said.

'Reminded me o' the time 'at Tip Taylor got his tooth pulled,' said he. 'Shook 'im up so 'at he thought he'd had his neck put out o' ji'nt.'

Sol Rollin was one of my studies that winter. He was a carpenter by trade and his oddities were new and delightful. He whistled as he worked, he whistled as he read, he whistled right merrily as he walked up and down the streets - a short, slight figure with a round boyish face and a fringe of iron-grey hair under his chin. The little man had one big passion - that for getting and saving. The ancient thrift of his race had pinched him small and narrow as a foot is stunted by a tight shoe. His mind was a bit out of register as we say in the printing business. His vocabulary was rich and vivid and stimulating.

'Somebody broke into the arsenic today,' he announced, one evening, at the supper table.

'The arsenic,' said somebody, 'what arsenic?'

'Why the place where they keep the powder,' he answered.

'Oh! the arsenal.'

'Yes, the arsenal,' he said, cackling with laughter at his error. Then he grew serious.

'Stole all the ambition out of it,' he added.

'You mean ammunition, don't you, Solomon?' his wife enquired.

'Certainly,' said he, 'wasn't that what I said.'

When he had said a thing that met his own approval Sol Rollin would cackle most cheerfully and then crack a knuckle by twisting a finger. His laugh was mostly out of register also. It had a sad lack of relevancy. He laughed on principle rather than provocation. Some sort of secret comedy of which the world knew nothing, was passing in his mind; it seemed to have its exits and its entrances, its villain, its clown and its miser who got all the applause.

While working his joy was unconfined. Many a time I have sat and watched him in his little shop, its window dim with cobwebs. Sometimes he would stop whistling and cackle heartily as he worked his plane or drew his pencil to the square. I have even seen him drop his tools and give his undivided attention to laughter. He did not like to be interrupted - he loved his own company the best while he was 'doin' business'. I went one day when he was singing the two lines and their quaint chorus which was all he ever sang in my hearing; which gave him great relief, I have no doubt, when lip weary with whistling:

Sez I 'Dan'l Skinner, I thank yer mighty mean To send me up the river, With a sev'n dollar team' Lul-ly,ul- ly,diddie ul- ly, diddleul - lydee, Oh, lul-ly, ul - ly, diddle ul - ly, diddle ul - ly dee.

'Mr Rollin!' I said.

Yes siree,' said he, pausing in the midst of his chorus to look up at me.

'Where can I get a piece of yellow pine?'

'See 'n a minute,' he said. Then he continued his sawing and his song, ' "Says I Dan SItinner, I thank yer mighty mean"- what d' ye want it fer?' he asked stopping abruptly.

'Going to make a ruler,' I answered.

'"T' sen' me up the river with a seven dollar team,',' he went on, picking out a piece of smooth planed lumber, and handing it to me.

'How much is it worth?' I enquired.

He whistled a moment as he surveyed it carefully.

''Bout one cent,' he answered seriously.

I handed him the money and sat down awhile to watch him as he went on with his work. It was the cheapest amusement I have yet enjoyed. Indeed Sol Rollin became a dissipation, a subtle and seductive habit that grew upon me and on one pretext or another I went every Saturday to the shop if I had not gone home.

'What ye goin' t' be?'

He stopped his saw, and looked at me, waiting for my answer.

At last the tirne had come when I must declare myself and I did.

'A journalist,' I replied.

'What's that?' he enquired curiously.

'An editor,' I said.

'A printer man?'

'A printer man.'

'Huh!' said he. 'Mebbe I'll give ye a job. Sairey tol' me I'd orter t' 'ave some cards printed. I'll want good plain print: Solomon Rollin, Cappenter 'n J'iner, lilillsborough, NY - soun's putty good don't it.'

'Beautiful,' I answered.

'I'll git a big lot on 'em,' he said. 'I'll want one for Sister Susan 'at's out in Minnesoty - no, I guess I'll send 'er tew, so she can give one away - an' one fer my brother, Eliphalet, an' one apiece fer my three cousins over 'n Vermont, an' one fer my Aunt Mirandy. Le's see-tew an' one is three an' three is six an' one is seven. Then I'll git a few struck off fer the folks here - guess they'll thank I'm gittin' up 'n the world.'

He shook and snickered with anticipation of the glory of it. Pure vanity inspired him in the matter and it had in it no vulgar consideration of business policy. He whistled a lively tune as he bent to his work again.

'Yer sister says ye're a splendid scholar!' said he. 'Hear'n 'er braggin' 'bout ye t'other night; she thinks a good deal o' her brother, I can tell ye. Guess I know what she's gain' t' give ye Crissmus.'

'What's that?' I asked, with a curiosity more youthll than becoming.

'Don't ye never let on,' said he.

'Never,' said I.

'Hear'n 'em tell,' he said,' 'twas a gol' lockup, with 'er pictur' in it'

'Oh, a locket!' I exclaimed.

'That's it,' he replied, 'an' pure gol', too.'

I turned to go.

'Hope she'll grow up a savin' woman,' he remarked. ''Fraid she won't never be very good t' worlt'

'Why not?' I enquired.

'Han's are too little an' white,' he answered.

'She won't have to,' I said.

He cackled uproariously for a moment, then grew serious.

'Her father's rich,' he said, 'the richest man o' Faraway, an I guess she won't never hev anything t' dew but set'n sing an' play the melodium.'

'She can do as she likes,' I said.

He stood a moment looking down as if meditating on the delights he had pictured.

'Gol!' he exclaimed suddenly.

My subject had begun to study me, and I came away to escape further examination.