Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country, Chapter 28
The folks of Faraway have been carefully if rudely pictured, but the look of my own person, since I grew to the stature of manhood, I have left wholly to the imagination of the reader. I will wager he knew long since what manner of man I was and has measured me to the fraction of an inch, and knows even the colour of my hair and eyes from having been so long in my company. If not - well, I shall have to write him a letter.
when Uncle Eb and I took the train for New York that summer day in 1860, some fifteen years after we came down Paradise Road with the dog and wagon and pack basket, my head, which, in that far day, came only to the latitude of his trouser pocket, had now mounted six inches above his own. That is all I can say here on that branch of my subject. I was leaving to seek my fortune in the big city; Uncle Eb was off for a holiday and to see Hope and bring her home for a short visit. I remember with what sadness I looked back that morning at mother and father as they stood by the gate slowly waving their handkerchiefs. Our home at last was emptied of its young, and even as they looked the shadow of old age must have fallen suddenly before them. I knew how they would go back into that lonely room and how, while the clock went on with its ticking, Elizabeth would sit down and cover her face a moment, while David would make haste to take up his chores.
We sat in silence a long time after the train was off, a mighty sadness holding our tongues. Uncle Eb, who had never ridden a long journey on the cars before, had put on his grand suit of broadcloth. The day was hot and dusty, and before we had gone far he was sadiy soiled. But a suit never gave him any worry, once it was on. He sat calmly, holding his knee in his hands and looking out of the open window, a squint in his eyes that stood for some high degree of interest in the scenery.
'What do you think of this country?' I enquired.
'Looks purty fair,' said he, as he brushed his face with his handkerchief and coughed to clear his throat of the dust, 'but 'tain't quite so pleasant to the taste as some other parts o' the country. I ruther liked the flavour of Saint Lawrence all through, but Jefferson is a leetle gritty.'
He put down the window as he spoke.
'A leetle tobaccer'll improve it some,' he added, as his hand went down for the old silver box. 'The way these cars dew rip along! Consamed if it ain't like flyin'! Kind o' makes me feel like a bird.'
The railroad was then not the familiar thing it is now in the north country. The bull in the fields had not yet come to an understanding of its rights, and was frequently tempted into argument with a locomotive. Bill Fountain, who came out of a back township, one day had even tied his faithful hound to the rear platform.
Our train came to a long stop for wood and water near midday, and then we opened the lunch basket that mother had given us.
'Neighbour,' said a solemn-faced man, who sat in front of us, 'do you think the cars are ag'in the Bible? D'you think a Christian orter ride on 'em?'
'Sartin,' said Uncle Eb. 'Less the constable's after him - then I think he orter be on a balky hoss.'
'Wife'n I hes talked it over a good deal,' said the man. 'Some says it's ag'in the Bible. The minister 'at preaches over 'n our neighbourhood says if God hed wanted men t' fly he'd g'in 'em wings.'
'S'pose if he'd ever wanted 'm t' skate he'd hed 'em born with skates on?' said Uncle Eb.
'Danno,' said the man. 'It behooves us all to be careful. The Bible says "Go not after new things."'
'My friend,' said Uncle Eb, between bites of a doughnut, 'I don' care what I ride in so long as 'tain't a hearse. I want sumthin' at's comfortable an' purty middlin' spry. It'll do us good up here t' git jerked a few hunderd miles an' back ev'ry leetle while. Keep our j'ints limber. We'll live longer fer it, an' thet'll please God sure - cuz I don't think he's hankerin' fer our society - not a bit. Don' make no difference t' hirn whuther we ride 'n a spring wagon er on the cars so long's we're right side up 'n movin'. We need more steam; we're too dum slow. Kind o' think a leetle more steam in our religion wouldn't hurt us a bit. It's purty fur behind.'
We got to Albany in the evening, just in time for the night boat. Uncle Eb was a sight in his dusty broadcloth, when we got off the cars, and I know my appearance could not have been prepossessing. Once we were aboard the boat and had dusted our clothes and bathed our hands and faces we were in better spirits.
'Consarn it!' said Uncle Eb, as we left the washroom, 'le's have a dum good supper. I'll stan' treat'
'Comes a leetle bit high,' he said, as he paid the bill, 'but I don' care if it does. 'Fore we left I says t' myself, "Uncle Eb," says I, "you go right in fer a good time an' don' ye count the pennies. Everybody's a right t' be reckless once in seventy-five year."'
We went to our stateroom a little after nine. I remember the berths had not been made up, and removing our boots and coats we lay down upon the bare mattresses. Even then I had a lurking fear that we might be violating some rule of steamboat etiquette. when I went to New York before I had dozed all night in the big cabin.
A dim light came through the shuttered door that opened upon the dinning-saloon where the rattle of dishes for a time put away the possibility of sleep.
'I'll be awful glad t' see Hope,' said Uncle Eb, as he lay gaping.
'Guess I'll be happier to see her than she will to see me,' I said.
'What put that in yer head?' Unde Eb enquired.
''Fraid we've got pretty far apart,' said I.
'Shame on ye, Bill,' said the old gentleman. 'If thet's so ye ain't done right Hedn't orter let a girl like thet git away from ye - th' ain't another like her in this world.'
'I know it' I said' 'but I can't help it Somebody's cut me out Uncle Eb.'
''Tain't so,' said he emphatically. 'Ye want t' prance right up t' her.'
'I'm not afraid of any woman,' I said, with a great air of bravery, 'but if she don't care for me I ought not to throw myself at her.'
'Jerusalem!' said Uncle Eb, rising up suddenly, 'what hev I gone an' done?'
He jumped out of his berth quickly and in the dim light I could see him reaching for several big sheets of paper adhering to the back of his shirt and trousers. I went quickly to his assistance and began stripping off the broadsheets which, covered with some strongly adhesive substance, had laid a firm hold upon him. I rang the bell and ordered a light.
'Consam it all! what be they - plasters?' said Uncle Eb, quite out of patience.
'Pieces of brown paper, covered with - West India molasses, I should think,' said I.
'West Injy molasses!' he exclaimed. 'By mighty! That makes me hotter'n a pancake. what's it on the bed fer?'
'To catch flies,' I answered.
'An' ketched me,' said Uncle Eb, as he flung the sheet he was examimng into a corner. 'My extry good suit' too!'
He took off his trousers, then, holding them up to the light.
'They're sp'ilt,' said he mournfully. 'Hed 'em fer more'n ten year, too.'
'That's long enough,' I suggested.
'Got kind o' 'tached to 'em,' he said, looking down at them and rubbing his chin thoughtfully. Then we had a good laugh.
'You can put on the other suit,' I suggested, 'and when we get to the city we'll have these fixed.'
'Leetle sorry, though,' said he, 'cuz that other suit don' look reel grand. This here one has been purty - purty scrumptious in its day - if I do say it.'
'You look good enough in anything that's respectable,' I said.
'Kind o' wanted to look a leetle extry good, as ye might say,' said Uncle Eb, groping in his big carpet-bag. 'Hope, she's terrible proud, an' if they should hev a leetle fiddlin' an' dancin' some night we'd want t' be as stylish as any on em. B'lieve I'll go'n git me a spang, bran' new suit, anyway, 'fore we go up t' Fuller's.'
As we neared the city we both began feeling a bit doubtful as to whether we were quite ready for the ordeal.
'I ought to,' I said. 'Those I'm wearing aren't quite stylish enough, I'm afraid.'
'They're han'some,' said Uncle Eb, looking up over his spectacles, 'but mebbe they ain't just as splendid as they'd orter be. How much money did David give ye?'
'One hundred and fifty dollars,' I said, thinking it a very grand sum indeed.
''Tain't enough,' said Uncle Eb, bolting up at me again. 'Leastways not if ye're goin' t' hev a new suit. I want ye t' be spick an' span.'
He picked up his trousers then, and took out his fat leather wallet.
'Lock the door,' he whispered.
'Pop goes the weasel!' he exclaimed, good-naturedly, and then he began counting the bills.
'I'm not going to take any more of your money, Uncle Eb,' I said.
'Tut, tut!' said he, 'don't ye try t' interfere. what d' ye think they'll charge in the city fer a reel, splendid suit?'
He stopped and looked up at me.
'Probably as much as fifty dollars,' I answered.
'Whew-w-w!' he whistled. 'Patty steep! It is sartin.'
'Let me go as I am" said I. 'Time enough to have a new suit when I've earned it.'
'Wall,' he said, as he continued counting, 'I guess you've earnt it already. Ye've studied hard an' tuk first honours an' yer goin' where folks are purty middlin' proud'n haughty. I want ye t' be a reg'lar high stepper, with a nice, slick coat. There,' he whispered, as he handed me the money, 'take thet! An' don't ye never tell 'at I g'in it t' ye.'
I could not speak for a little while, as I took the money, for thinking of the many, many things this grand old man had done for me.
'Do ye think these boots'll do?' he asked, as he held up to the light the pair he had taken off in the evening.
'They look all right,' I said.
'Ain't got no decent squeak to 'em now, an' they seem t' look kind o' clumsy. How're your'n?' he asked.
I got them out from under the berth and we inspected them carefully deciding in the end they would pass muster.
The steward had made up our berths, when he came, and lit our room for us. Our feverish discussion of attire had carried us far past midnight, when we decided to go to bed.
'S'pose we musm't talk t' no strangers there 'n New York,' said Uncle Eb, as he lay down. 'I've read 'n the Triburne how they'll purtend t' be friends an' then grab yer money an' run like Sam Hill. If I meet any o' them fellers they're goin' t' find me purty middlin' poor comp'ny.'
We were up and on deck at daylight, viewing the Palisades. The lonely feeling of an alien hushed us into silence as we came to the noisy and thickening river craft at the upper end of the city. Countless window panes were shining in the morning sunlight. This thought was in my mind that somewhere in the innumerable host on either side was the one dearer to me than any other. We enquired our way at the dock and walked to French's Hotel, on Printing House Square. After breakfast we went and ordered all the grand new things we had planned to get. They would not be ready for two days, and after talking it over we decided to go and make a short call. Hope, who had been up and looking for us a long time, gave us a greeting so hearty we began to get the first feeling of comfort since landing. She was put out about our having had breakfast, I remember, and said we must have our things brought there at once.
'I shall have to stay at the hotel awhile,' I said, thinking of the new clothes.
'Why,' said Mrs Fuller, 'this girl has been busy a week fixing your rooms and planning for you. We could not hear of your going elsewhere. It would be downright ingratitude to her.'
A glow of red came into the cheeks of Hope that made me ashamed of my remark. I thought she looked lovelier in her pretty blue morning gown, covering a broad expanse of crinoline, than ever before.
'And you've both got to come and hear me sing tonight at the church,' said she. 'I wouldn't have agreed to sing if I had not thought you were to be here.'
We made ourselves at home, as we were most happy to do, and that afternoon I went down town to present to Mr Greeley the letter that David Brower had given me.