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Old Squids and Little Speller by Edward Page Mitchell

 

In the days of content, when wants were few and well supplied, when New England rum was pure and cheap, and while the older generation still wore the knee breeches and turkey-tailed coats of colonial days, and Bailey, who kept a tollgate on the Hartford and Providence turnpike, died. For forty years after the Revolution, Bailey lived in the solitary little tollhouse, near the bridge over the turbulent Quinnebaug, and in all that time had never failed to answer the call to come and take toll; but one night he responded not, and they found him sitting in his chair with an open Bible on his knees, and his spirit gone to the country of which he had been reading.

So it happened that a few days after, the big coach left a tall young man at the Quinnebaug tollhouse, who brought with him his possessions encased in a handkerchief. The driver of the stage informed the young man that here was the scene of his future activities for the turnpike company, and added as he saw the young fellow staring at the board beside the door on which, at a long distant time, the rates of toll had been painted, "See here, Old Squids, you'd better chalk up some new figures. The old ones is about washed out."

The driver called him Old Squids, but aside from the fact that such a surname, if such it was, had never been heard before in that country, it was strange that he should have been called old. He was, in fact, a young fellow, not more than two or three and twenty, seemingly. Though his skin was bronzed, it was smooth, and though his beard was tangled, each hair at cross purposes, it had never known the razor, and was, therefore, silky. He was sinewy, though his joints were protuberant, and his broad shoulders were not erect. Yet, perhaps, they called him old because he was moderate in his way, not so much because of laziness as by inborn disposition.

When the coach rolled away Squids was left standing there, gazing with a perplexed expression at the toll board and abstractedly tugging at his beard. No wonder he was perplexed. There appeared only fragments of words on the board, for the rains had washed the paint away with bewildering irregularity. He could make nothing of it. The very first thing that Squids did, therefore, was to tear down the board and take it into the little cottage. Then, without any examination of his new home, he threw his bundle upon the bed and began to repair the damage that time had done to the board. But age had done its inevitable work with it, and as Squids held it on his knees it crumbled in his strong grasp and broke into fragments, as though the rude change, after forty years of unmeddled security on the door, had been too much for it.

Squids sorrowfully looked at the fragments at his feet, then gathered them up carefully, and gave them a decent interment in an old chest. For a week Squids labored to make a new toll board. Not that the board itself needed so much time, but, alas, the announcement on it did. For, skillful as Squids was with the hammer and saw and nails, his fingers were clumsy with the pencil and paint brush. Hour after hour he worked, studying the printed card of rates which the company had given him, so that he might transfer those figures and letters intelligibly upon the board. One night he even dreamed how it should be done, and dreaming, awoke with delight, lighted his candle, and down on his knees he went, to transfer the dream to the board. But his fingers refused to respond to the picture in his mind, and, with a sigh, Squids returned to bed.

At last Squids gave it up. He simply painted upon the board something like this:

man        1 ct.
horse     to ct.
critters ask me.

The words and the spelling of them he slyly obtained from some passing stranger who wrote them out for Squids upon a shingle. This new board he hung up in the old place, and when he saw any one, man or beast, approaching the gate, he brought out his tariff card in case anybody should ask him the toll.

The manager of the company passing by in the stage, though he smiled at the board, comforted Squids by saying that he had done well, and then the manager told his companion that Squids was odd, but faithful, and had given proof of his integrity to one of the company's directors. "He doesn't know any name but Squids," said the manager, "and we suppose he is some whaler's waif cast ashore in New London, and left to look out for himself. But he is faithful."

But Squids, while pacified by the manager's approval, was by no means content. "Some day," said he to himself, as he gazed sadly at his rather abortive effort, "I'll put one up that'll be a credit."

Squids seemed happy enough in his lonely home. He made few friends, for the spot was remote from the farms of that town. The stage drivers liked him, for he always gave each of them a glass of cool milk. Squids's only possession, besides his clothes, was a cow.

One day one of the drivers said to him: "See here, old Squids. I've been a drinking your milk, off and on, a year or more for nothing. What can I get for you up to Hartford that will sorter square it up?"

"You might bring me a spelling book," said Squids. "If you'll buy it and bring it I'll pay what it costs: not more than a dollar, I guess."

On the next down trip the driver handed Squids a Webster's spelling book. His blue eyes sparkled as he received it, but he said nothing except to express his thanks. But when the stage rolled away, and Squids was alone, he opened the book haphazard, and then, standing before the billboard, said, with an accent of triumph in his tone and the gleam of victory in his eye. "By moy I can paint one and put it up that will be a credit."

Squids could spell two- and three-letter words, but beyond that he found himself mired in many difficulties very often. He struggled and wrestled manfully, but rather despairingly, with the two-syllabled words in the speller. "That's a B," he would say, "sure, and that's an A, and that spells Ba. But I don't quite get this 'ere yet. That's a K, that's an E, and that's an R. K is a K. E is an E. R is an R. Ker. That must be Keer. Bakeer. Now what kind of word is that?"

Thus Baker overthrew him and he was very despondent. One night, as he lay upon his bed, his eyes wide open and his brain throbbing with the misery of the mystery of Bakeer, a great light came to him. He arose, lighted a candle, and from his canvas bag drew forth ten copper pennies, which he placed conspicuously upon his table. Then he no sooner touched his pillow than he fell asleep.

In the morning the ten coppers were given to the driver, with the request that they should be exchanged at Hartford for ten peppermint bull's-eyes, streaked red and white. When Squids received the bull's-eyes he put them away on a plate in his cupboard and bided his time until the next Saturday afternoon. At that time, about an hour before sundown, he began to peer up the road toward the bend, for it was at such time that he knew that every Saturday a young lad came along with some good things from his father's farm for the minister's Sunday dinner at the parsonage, a mile away on the other side of the Quinnebaug. At last Squids caught sight of the boy, who bore a basket on his arm seemingly heavily laden. Squids, with a slyness born of some sense of shame, concealed himself in the tollhouse. Soon the lad was at the gate calling upon Squids to come out and pass him.

"Hulloo! It's you, is it, Ebenezer, going to the minister's? That basket must be heavy. Should think you'd want to rest a bit."

"T'is heavy. There's a sparerib in it?"

"M'm. Want to know," said Squids, opening his eyes in surprise and sympathy well simulated. "Come in and sit down. Mebbe I can give you something kinder good."

"Now what's that air thing?" asked Squids, when he had Ebenezer in the house, holding up the monstrously tempting confection before the boy's eyes.

"Pepentink bull's-eyes," said the boy, delightedly.

"You like 'em. You shall have one." Here Squids seemed about to give Ebenezer the candy, but suddenly restrained himself.

"Hold on," he said. "You've got to earn it. Oh! You go to school?"

"Yes, in winter."

"H'm-m. How far have you got?"

"I've got to fractions and second reader."

"Sho! No! I wan't to know. Now let's see." Here Squids meditatively produced the Webster's speller from its place under his pillow, and opening it, said: "H'm-m. Let's see. Now, here, if you will read that colyumn down straight you shall have two bull's-eyes. Right here. Just to see how much you know."

"That's easy," said Ebenezer. "I will read some harder ones."

Squids seemed a little perplexed. At length he said, "Let's try the easy ones first. It'll be so much easier to earn the bull's-eyes. Don't you see?" And Squids placed the point of his jackknife blade upon Baker.

"That's Baker," said Ebenezer.

"Baker," replied Squids, with the queerest accent in his voice. "Baker. Sho! so 'tis." Here Squids abstractedly combed his beard with his jackknife.

"Of course it's Baker. Ker don't spell keer. Anybody but a fool might a' known that. Let me write it down, Ebenezer."

Then Squids, somewhat to the astonishment of Ebenezer, brought forth a shingle, and on the smooth white side, with a piece of charcoal, spelled out the word B-a-k-e-r.

"What do you write it down for, Squids?" asked the boy.

"What for? Oh, only to see how many you get right," replied the cunning Squids.

Thus Squids mastered some ten or twelve words, and the boy received two bull's-eyes, and Squids made a covenant with him that he should stop there every Saturday afternoon and show Squids whether he could read rightly such words in Webster's speller as Squids showed him, for which he was to receive two or more bull's-eyes.

Thus Squids, taught by a bribed and unconscious teacher, mastered the speller and began to make preparations to build a new toll board on which he purposed to paint the tariff of prices in a manner that would be a credit.

But something happened that made the new toll board and the credit that it was to be seem of petty consequence to him. One evening in March, when the line storm was raging without, Squids, with his speller on the table between two candles, and a shingle on his knee, was painting out with almost infinite pains the word cattle, so that he might be schooled in printing it correctly and as artistically as possible upon the toll board.

Suddenly Squids paused in his work and listened. There was surely a knock upon his door. The sound was not made by the beating of the oak branches on the roof. Squids took a candle and opened the door. A gust of wind blew the light out, as well as the other one on the table, but Squids had seen a woman's form on the doorstep, and he put forth his hand and drew her within. He bade her be patient until he relighted the candle, but before he could do so he heard her staggering step, and then he knew that she had fallen.

When Squids at last with nervous fingers coaxed a spark into the tinder and lighted a candle, he saw that the woman seemed to have sunk to the floor. Her face, over which her hair had fallen and was matted by the rain, was pale, and her eyes, half-opened with unconscious stare, seemed to him like the eyes of the dead. Her head, having fallen back, rested against the door. Squids held the candle to her parted lips and saw that she was not dead, but faint, and even before he could apply the simple remedies that he had she had somewhat recovered. She feebly rose, tottered to a chair, and then for the first time Squids saw that which startled him far more than her unconscious form had done. He saw in her arms the peaceful face of a sleeping infant.

She drank a glass of water, and Squids bustled about to prepare for her a cup of tea, for which he had made of great potency, so that, having taken it, she greatly revived.

"You're very wet," said Squids, and he threw some logs upon the hearth, urging her to draw near the fire. She did so, but with such manner of indifference that it seemed to Squids that she cared little whether she was wet or dry.

Though he had never touched the smooth, soft flesh of an infant before, Squids gently took this one from her unresisting arms and laid it upon his pillow. The child had not been wet by the storm, and Squids carefully tucked the quilt under the pillow. It did not even awaken under his unaccustomed touch, and as he looked upon the little sleeping one upon his pillow, with a chubby hand resting beside its cheek, Squids vowed that neither mother nor child should leave the house that night.

The woman watched him with the first sign of interest she had shown, and she said at length, "You are kind, very kind."

"That air's a cute little beauty," was all the reply Squids made. The woman told him an incoherent, rambling story about missing the stage and losing her way, and she begged that she might rest there until the next stage came. Squids urged her to make herself comfortable, and he set milk and bread before her. Then, with cautions respecting the need of thorough drying, Squids went away to the little loft. He listened as he lay upon an extemporized bed, but all was silent below, and when he was assured that the stranger was in comfort he fell asleep.

In the morning Squids knocked at the door, but there was no response. "She is tired: let her sleep," said Squids to himself.

But by and by there being no sound within, Squids ventured to knock again, and still getting no response opened the door. The room was vacant.

"She went away before I awoke," reasoned Squids, and he set about getting his breakfast.

Soon he heard that which caused him to stop and stand in utter amazement. He did not stir until he heard the sound again.

"Ma! Mal" It came to him once more, and then, gently raising the bedquilt, Squids's eyes met those of the baby.

The little thing put up its hands, chuckled, and bounced up and down upon the pillow.

"Mo! Mo!" it said.

"Mo! Mo!" said Squids. "That means moolly, moolly. It wants milk."

In an instant Squids was warming a basin of milk. "I calculate it'll like it sweet," he meditated. So he put in a heaping spoonful of sugar. Then, with the tenderness of a mother, Squids fed the little one, spoonful by spoonful, till at last it pushed the spoon away with its fat little hands, and, reaching up, clung with gentle yet firm grasp to Squids's long and silky beard, and then, tugging away, looked up into his eyes, and laughed and crowed.

"Seems as though it knowed me," said Squids. "I vum, the cute little rascal thinks it knows me," and two tears dropped from Squids' eyes right down upon the baby's cheek, and it lifted up one hand in sport, and as it felt of Squids's rough skin, it brushed away another tear or two with its frolicking. And Squids held his face down to it, and clucked and clucked, and spoke softly with all the instinct of paternity within him aroused. At last the little one's hands relaxed, and its eyelids drooped, and it fell asleep, and Squids stood there watching it, how long he knew not.

Thus Squids had a companion brought to him. He never knew why the mother, if such she was, left the baby there, or where she had gone, and as the days went by he began to have a secret terror lest she should sometime come and claim it. But she did not. No more thought had Squids for the new toll board, only as he set it before the child for a table whereon were gathered the marvelous toys that Squids whittled for it with his jackknife. Squids early discovered that the baby liked wheels above all things, and that it displayed wonderful cunning in the arrangement of them after he had whittled them out.

One day Squids found him gazing wonderingly at the Webster's speller, and though fearful of the lawlessness of those little hands, Squids bound the covers firmly together with cords and suffered him to play with the book. Then Squids called the baby Little Speller, and never by any other name. The little one tried hard to say Squids, but could only lisp "Thid," so that Squids came to like this diminutive as spoken by the child better than all other sounds.

"Some day you and me will rastle with this book, and I calculate we'll get the best of it, won't we, sir?" Squids would say to the child when it grew old enough to understand, and the little one would reply, "Yes we will, Thid."

Thus they lived, day by day, Little Speller content, while Squids--his happiness was a revelation of delight of which he had had no conception. By and by, when the little one was older, Squids would take him on his knee, and with the Webster speller and a new slate brought from Hartford, they would take up their tasks.

"That's A, sir. See how I make it. One line down, so, and another down, so, and one across, and that makes A." And Little Speller, with faltering fingers, would draw the lines and say, "That's A, Thid," and Squids would laugh and say, "We'll have a toll board by and by that will be a credit, and no mistake."

One day Squids spelled out horse on the slate, and Little Speller took the pencil and sketched a horse with very rectangular head and body and very wavy legs, and he said, "No, that's horse, Thid."

Squids roared, and got a shingle and made Little Speller spell horse in that way on it with a crayon. Then Squids nailed the shingle on the wall over the fireplace, and when anybody came in he would point proudly to it, saying, "See how Little Speller spells horse. He's a cute one!"

But before many months went by Squids found that the boy and he were exchanging places, for the teacher was becoming the taught and the scholar becoming the teacher. So Squids sent to Hartford and bought a first reader and an arithmetic, and great was their delight in pondering over the mysteries of these books and solving them.

"Little Speller," said Squids, one day, "you took to spelling natural, but you take to 'rithmetic more natural. But it's beyond me. After this you'll have to do the figgering and the spelling for me."

That the child had a talent for mathematics and mechanics Squids understood fully, though he could not express it in any other way than by saying: "He's mighty sharp at figgers and mighty cute with the jackknife."

One morning, as Squids was opening the tollgate, he astonished the traveler who waited to pass through by suddenly stopping and staring at the house. The stranger feared he had gone mad, or was carrying too much New England rum, till Squids, with triumphant utterance, said, "Look at that air. That's a credit at last," and he pointed to a new toll board neatly painted and accurately lettered. Then he rushed into the house and brought forth the lad.

"This is the boy that done it," said Squids, "unbeknown to me, and nailed her up unbeknown. Ain't that a credit? It is Little Speller, it is."

Then, when Little Speller grew older, he builded, with Squids's help, a marvelous tollgate that opened and shut automatically by the touching of a lever; and the fame of it spread, so that the manager even came, and wondered, too, and praised the lad, saying: "Squids, that boy is a genius, sure."

And Squids would watch Little Speller, when the lad knew it not, as an enthusiast studies a painting, and many and many a time did Squids in the night quietly arise from the bed, light a candle, and look, with something like awe in his glance, upon the face of the sleeping boy.

One day there came to the Quinnebaug tollgate some men, and they drove stakes and dug ditches, and builded a great dam across the river, half a mile above. Then they put up a building, larger than any Little Speller ever saw, and placed within it curious machines, and they put a huge wheel outside the building. Little Speller seemed entranced as he watched them day by day, and he caused the men to deal with him with great respect, because at a critical time in setting up the wheel, when it seemed as though something had gone wrong, they heard a little voice shouting peremptorily, "Loose your ropes, quick," and they did so, and the wheel settled properly in place. The men wondered how it was that that little fellow standing there on a rock could have shouted so commandingly that they trusted him. But they said: "He's got some gumption, sure."

When the big wheel was set agoing and the machines in the mill began to make a frightful clatter, then it was that Little Speller's enthusiasm and delight seemed to be greater even than such a little body as his could contain. He spent hours and hours in the mill watching the machines as they wove the threads of wool into cloth.

By and by Squids saw that Little Speller was silent, dreaming abstracted, and Squids became alarmed. "It's that air dreadful noise in the mill that's confusing his little head," reasoned Squids: and he urged the boy to go there less frequently, but Little Speller went as was his wont. At length, Squids saw that the boy was busying himself day and night with the jackknife and such other tools as were there, and Squids was pleased, though he could not comprehend what this strange thing was that Little Speller was building. The boy seemed absorbed by his work. When he ate, his great dreamy eyes were fixed abstractedly upon his plate; but he slept soundly, and Squids was not greatly alarmed.

"There's something in him that's working out," reasoned Squids, and when he saw the fierce energy and enthusiasm with which Little Speller cut and shaped and planed and fashioned the bits of wood, Squids was sure that whatever it was that was working out of him was working out well.

One day Little Speller said, as he put his hand on the thing he had made, "There, it's done, and it's all right. It's better than the ones they've got in the mill, only it's wood."

"What might it be, Little Speller?" asked Squids.

"It's a weaving machine."

"It's worked out of you. Part of you is in that thing, Little Speller, and it's a greater credit than the toll board or the gate."

Then Squids in great glee went and fetched the superintendent of the mill. "See," said he, when he had brought the man, "that air is worked out of Little Speller. Part of him is in it, and it's a credit."

The superintendent glanced with some interest at the model, more to please the lad and Squids than for any other reason. "Show him how it works," said Squids.

Little Speller did so. It was rude, clumsy; but as the boy explained the working of it, the superintendent became excited. He fingered it himself. He worked at it. Great beads of sweat stood on his forehead, for he was intensely interested. At last he said: "That will revolutionize woolen mills. The thing's built wrong, but the idea is there. Where did you get that idea, Squids?"

"Me!" exclaimed Squids. "Me! 'Taint me. It worked out of Little Speller. It's been working out of him ever since the mill was built. Ain't it a credit?"

"Credit!" and the superintendent smiled. "What do you want for it?" he asked.

"I want to see one built and set to working in the mill," said Little Speller.

"Will you let me build it?"

"Oh, if you only will," begged Little Speller.

"Put that down in writing, and I'll promise you I'll fit the mill with them; yes, and a hundred mills."

Squids and Little Speller seemed dazed by this unexpected glory.

"He's going to put what's worked out of you into a hundred mills, Little Speller," said Squids, as he looked almost reverentially upon the boy.

It was as the superintendent had said. Seizing Little Speller's idea, he had properly handled it, builded machines, obtained patents, therefore, and had revolutionized the woolen mills that were then springing up throughout eastern New England, and had he opened a mine of gold there on the banks of the Quinnebaug, the superintendent could hardly have had more riches.

But Squids and Little Speller were content. They would go up to the mill and watch the new machine, weaving yards and yards of cloth, Little Speller with the most ecstatic delight, and Squids with a sense of awe. "That's you, Little Speller. That's you working. It ain't the machine. That's only wood and iron."

By and by Little Speller began to appear abstracted again, and he spent many hours watching the transmission of power from the water wheel to the machinery. "Something more is working out," reasoned Squids, but he held his peace.

One day Squids heard someone coming down the road. He went to open the gate. There were four or five men, and they were bearing a burden. When they were near, Squids saw that they moved gently and bore their burden tenderly and that their faces were very grave. They did not try to pass the gate, but instead entered Squids's little house and laid their burden upon his bed. Then Squids saw Little Speller's pale face, and a little red thread that was vividly tracing its way on the white cheek down from the temple, and the eyes were closed and the hand hung limp. Squids stood there motionless a long time, then, turning to the men, he said, with dull, phlegmatic speech and a veiled appearance of his eyes,

"Was he working it out?"

"He was," said one, "and he forgot himself and got too near the shafting and it--"

"Yes, yes. He was a-working it out," said Squids mechanically, and with no intelligence in his eyes. Then suddenly he darted fiercely to the bedside. Little Speller had opened his eyes. He saw Squids and knew him.

"Thid," he said.

Squids bent over him, but could not speak.

"Thid, I shall never work it out," he whispered.

Then he turned his eyes longingly to the old model across the room, and then looked imploringly at Squids. The gatekeeper read his wishes. He pushed the old model up to the bedside. Then Little Speller put one hand upon it, and with the other outstretched till the palm rested gently upon Squids's face, he looked up with one peaceful glance and the flicker of a faint smile, and then the light passed out of Little Speller's eyes forever.

The men saw what had happened and went quietly away, leaving Squids alone with Little Speller.

In the afterdays, Squids would sit by the old model, gently speaking to it, and affectionately causing its mechanism to be put in operation, and he would say, "Little Speller is in there. He is in a hundred mills. You can hear him, but I, when I look at this, I can see him, too."

End.

 
 
 

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