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A Village Munchausen by Dorothy Canfield

I

When I was a little girl, and lived in Hillsboro with my grandparents, there were two Decoration Days in every year. One was when all we school-children took flowers put to the cemetery and decorated the graves of the soldiers; and the other was when the peonies and syringas bloomed, and grandfather and I went alone to put a bouquet on the grave of old Jedediah Chillingworth.

Grandfather did this as a sort of penance for a great mistake he had made, and I think it was with the idea of making an atonement by confession that he used always to tell me the story of his relations with the old man. At any rate, he started his narrative when we left the house and began to walk out to the cemetery, and ended it as he laid the flowers on the neglected grave. I trotted along beside him, faster and faster as he grew more and more interested, and then stood breathless on the other side of the grave as he finished, in his cracked old voice, harsh with emotion.

The first part of his story happened a very long time ago, even before grandfather was born, when Jedediah Chillingworth first began to win for himself the combination title of town-fool and town-liar. By the time grandfather was a half-grown boy, big enough to join in the rough crowd of village lads who tormented Jed, the old dizzard had been for years the local butt. Of course I never saw him, but I have keard so much about him from all the gossips in the village, and grandfather used to describe him so vividly, that I feel as if I know all about him.

For about ten years of his youth Jedediah had been way from our little Vermont town, wandering in the great world. From his stories, he had been everywhere on he map. In the evening, around the stove in the village post-office, when somebody read aloud from the newspaper a remarkable event, all the loafers turned to Jed with wide, malicious grins, to hear him cap it with a yet ore marvelous tale of what had happened to him. They gathered around the simple-minded little old man, their tongues in their cheeks, and drew from him one silly, impossible, boastful story after another. They made him amplify circumstantially by clumsily artful questions, and poked one another in the ribs with delight over his deluded joy in their sympathetic interest.

As he grew older, his yarns solidified like folk-lore, into a consecrated and legendary form, which he repeated endlessly without variation. There were many of them—“How I drove a team of four horses over a falling bridge,” “How I interviewed the King of Portugal,” “How I saved big Sam Harden's life in the forest fire.” But the favorite one was, “How I rode the moose into Kennettown, Massachusetts.” This was the particular flaunting, sumptuous yarn which everybody made old Jed bring out for company. If a stranger remarked, “Old man Chillingworth can tell a tale or two, can't he?” everybody started up eagerly with the cry: “Oh, but have you heard him tell the story of how he rode the moose into Kennettown, Massachusetts?”

If the answer was negative; all business was laid aside until the withered little old man was found, pottering bout some of the odd jobs by which he earned his living. He was always as pleased as Punch to be asked to perform, and laid aside his tools with a foolish, bragging grin on his face, of which grandfather has told me so many times that it seems as if I had really seen it.

This is how he told the story, always word for word the same way:

“Wa'al, sir, I've had queer things happen to me in my time, hain't I, boys?”—at which the surrounding crowd always wagged mocking heads—“but nothin' to beat that. When I was ashore wunst, from one of my long v'y'ges on the sea, I was to Kennettown, Massachusetts.”

“How'd ye come to go there, Jed?” This was a question never to be omitted.

“Oh, I had a great sight of money to take to some folks that lived there. The captain of our ship had died at sea, and he give me nine thousand five hundred and seventy-two English gold guineas, to take to his brother and sister.”

Here he always stared around at the company, and accepted credulously the counterfeit coin of grotesquely exaggerated amazement which was given him.

“Wa'al, sir, I done it. I give the gold to them as it belonged to, and I was to leave town on the noon stagecoach. I was stayin' in the captain's brother's house. It was spang up against the woods, on the edge of town; and, I tell ye, woods was woods in them days.

“The mornin' I was to leave I was up early, lookin' out of my window, when what should I see with these mortial eyes but a gre't bull moose, as big as two yoke o' oxen, comin' along toward the house. He sort o' staggered along, and then give a gre't sigh I could hear from my room—I was on the ground floor—fell down on his knees, and laid his head on the ground 's if he was too beat out to go another step. Wa'al, sir, I never waited not long enough even to fetch a holler to wake the folks I just dove out o' the window, and made for him as fast as I could lick in. As I went by the wood-pile, I grabbed up a big stick of wood——”

“What kind of wood?” everybody asked in chorus.

“'Twas a big stick of birch-wood, with the white bark on it as clean as writin'-paper. I grabbed that up for a club—'twas the only thing in sight—and when I got to the moose I hit him a clip on the side of the head as hard as I could lay on. He didn't so much as open an eye, but I saw he was still breathing and I climbed up on his back so's to get a good whack at the top of his head. And then, sir, by Jupiter! he riz right up like a earthquake under me, and started off at forty miles an hour. He throwed his head back as he run, and ketched me right between his horns, like a nut in a nutcracker. I couldn't have got out of them horns—no, sir, a charge of powder couldn't scarcely have loosened me.”

There was another pause at this place for the outcries of astonishment and marvel which were never lacking. Then Jed went on, mumbling his toothless gums in delight over his importance.

“Wa'al, sir, I dassent tell ye how long we careered around them woods and pastures, for, after a while, he got so plumb crazy that he run right out into the open country. I'd hit him a whack over the head with my stick of wood every chanst I got and he was awful weak anyhow, so he'd kind o' stagger whenever he made a sharp turn. By an' by we got to goin' toward town. Somehow he'd landed himself in the road; an', sir, we rid up to the hotel like a coach and four, and he drapped dead in front of the steps, me stickin' as fast between his horns as if I'd 'a' growed to him. Yes, sir, they ackchally had to saw one of them horns off'n his head before they got me out.”

He came to a full stop here, but this was not the end.

“What became of the horns, Jed? Why didn't ye bring 'em along?”

“I did take the one they sawed off, to give to my partner, big Sam Harden. He was the biggest man I ever see, Sam Harden was. I left th' other horn in Kennettown for the captain's sister. She was as smart an' handsome a widow-woman as ever I see, an' I wanted for her to have a keepsake from me.”

This was really the end. The circle of inquisitors left their unconscious victim nodding and grinning to himself, and went on down the road. Grandfather said he still felt mean all over to remember how they laughed among themselves, and how they pointed out to the stranger the high lights in the story.

“Not only ain't there never been seen a moose in the State of Massachusetts, and not only are a moose's horns set too wide to catch a little squinch of a man like Jed, but what do you think?—there ain't no Kennettown in Massachusetts! No, nor in any other State. No, nor never was. Old Jed just made the town up out of his head, like the moose, an' the money, and the birch-bark and the handsome widow. Don't he beat all?”

II

My grandfather was one of these boys; in fact, he always used to say he was the ringleader, but that may have been another form of his penance. As he grew up he began to work into his father's business of tanning leather, and by and by, when a man grown, he traveled down to a big tannery at Newtonville, in Massachusetts, to learn some new processes in leather-curing.

When grandfather got along to this part of the story he began stretching his long legs faster and faster, until I was obliged to trot along, panting. He always lived the hurried last part over again, and so did I, although it happened so long before I was born.

One evening he was asked to tea by the mother of the prettiest girl in the village—she afterward became my grandmother—and was taken into the “best room” to see all the family curiosities. There were wax flowers and silhouettes and relics of every description. Mrs. Hamilton spared him not one of these wonders.

“This,” she said, “is the chain that was made of my grandfather's hair. It was finished and brought home on a Wednesday, and Thursday, the next day, grandfather was burned up in the great tannery fire, and this was all my grandmother had to remember him by. These are the front teeth of a savage that my uncle Josiah Abijah killed in the South Sea Islands. Uncle Josiah Abijah always said it was either him or the black man, but I have always felt that it was murder, just the same, and this is the stick of birch-wood that a sailor-man, who came here once to see my mother, killed a bull moose with.”

My grandmother has told me that never before or since did she see a human face change as did grandfather's.

“What?” he shouted, and his voice cracked.

“Yes, it sounds queer, but it's so. It's the only time a moose was ever seen here, and folks thought the wolves must have chased it till it was crazy or tired out. This sailor-man, who happened to be here, saw it, ran out, snatched up a stick from the wood-pile, and went at that great animal all alone. Folks say he was the bravest man this town ever saw. He got right up on its back—”

Grandmother said grandfather had turned so pale by this time that she thought he was going to faint and he sat down as if somebody had knocked him down. On the dusty road to the cemetery, however, he only strode along the faster, half forgetting the little girl who dragged at his hand, and turned a sympathetically agitated face up to his narrative.

Mrs. Hamilton went on through the whole incident, telling every single thing just the way old Jed did. She showed the dark places on the birch-bark where the blood had stained it, and she said the skull of the animal, with its one horn sawed off, was over among the relics in her aunt's home.

“My Aunt Maria was accounted a very good-looking woman in her day, and there were those that thought she might have taken a second husband, if the sailor had been so disposed. He was so brave and so honest, bringing all that money from my uncle, the sea-captain, when goodness knows, he might have run off with every cent of it, and nobody been any the wiser!”

At this grandfather gave a loud exclamation and stood up, shaking his head as if he had the ague. He just couldn't believe his ears, he said.

“No! No! No! It can't be the same!” he said over and over. “Why, he said it happened in Kennettown.”

“Well, now!” said Mrs. Hamilton, surprised. “Where did you ever get hold of that old name? I didn't suppose a soul but some of our old folks remembered that. Why, Newtonville wasn't named that but six months. Folks got mad at the Kennetts for being so highfalutin' over having the town named after them, and so 'twas changed back.”

Grandfather said he'd no notion of another word she said after that. When he went back to his room, he found a letter from home, telling him all the news, and mentioning, among other things, that old Jedediah Chillingworth wasn't expected to live much longer. Age had withered the little old man until there wasn't enough of him left to go on living. Grandfather usually reached this part of the story just as we arrived under the big maples that stand on each side of the cemetery gate, and always stopped short to say solemnly:

“Thank the Lord! I've two things to my credit. I never waited one minute to start back to Hillsboro, and from that time on I wanted to do what was right by the old man, even if it did turn out so different.”

Then we went on into the cemetery, and paced slowly along the winding paths as he continued:

“I got to Hillsboro late one night, and I'd 'most killed my horse to do it. They said Jedediah was still alive, but wasn't expected to last till morning. I went right up to his little old shack, without waiting to see my folks or to get a mouthful to eat. A whole lot of the neighbors had come in to watch with him, and even then, with the old dizzard actually dying, they were making a fool of him.

“He was half propped up in bed—he wasn't bigger than my fist by that time—with red spots in his cheeks, and his eyes like glass, and he was just ending up that moose story. The folks were laughing and winking and nudging one another in the ribs, just the way I used to. I was done up with my long, hard ride, and some nervous, I guess, for it fair turned my stomach to see them.

“I waited till they were all through laughing, and then I broke loose. I just gave them a piece of my mind! 'Look-a-here, you fellows!' I said. 'You think you're awful smart, don't you, making fun of poor old Jed as he lies a-dying? Now, listen to me. I've ridden forty miles over the mountains to get here before he goes, and make every man jack of you beg the old man's pardon. That story's true. I've just found out that every word of it is absolutely, literally the way it happened. Newtonville, where I'm staying in Massachusetts, used to be called Kennettown, and Jedediah did take the money there—yes, that exact sum we've laughed at all these years. They call him the honestest man in the world over there. They've got the stick of birch-wood, with the bloodstains on it, and the moose's skull, with the horn sawed off, and there are lots of old people who remember all about it. And I'm here to say I believe old Jed's been telling the truth, not only about that, but about all his adventures. I don't believe he's ever lied to us!'

“I felt so grand and magnanimous,” grandfather went on, “to think how I was making it up to the poor old man, and so set up over bringing a piece of news that just paralyzed everybody with astonishment. They all jumped up, yelling and carrying on. 'What? That story true! Well, did you ever! Wouldn't that beat all? To think old Jed's been telling—”

“And then we all thought of him, and started toward the bed to say how bad we felt.

“I'll never forget how he looked. His eyes were fairly coming out of his head, and his face was as white as paper. But that wasn't the dreadful thing. What always comes back to me whenever I think of him is the expression on his face. You could just see his heart breaking. He was so hurt, so surprised, so ashamed, that it wasn't decent to look at him. But we couldn't look away. We stood there, hanging our heads—I never felt so mean in my life—while he tried to get breath enough to say something. And then he screamed out—'twas dreadful to hear:

“'Why, didn't you fellers believe me? Did you think I was lyin?'“

Here grandfather stopped and blew his nose, and I choked.

“Those were his last words. He had some kind of a spasm, and never came to enough to know anything before he died. Those were the last words he said; and though they told us that in the coffin he looked just as he always had, only more quiet, with the foolish look gone, we were all of us ashamed to look the dead man in the face.”

Here grandfather laid the flowers on the unkempt grave, as if to serve as an “Amen” to his confession.

After this I always went around and held his hand tightly, and we stood very still. It was the solemnest time of the year.

III

All this used to happen, as I said, when I was a little girl; but I, too, grew up, as grandfather grew bent and feeble. When he was an old, old man of eighty-five, and when I had been away from Hillsboro several years teaching school, the last of my grandmother's relatives in Newtonville died. I was sent for to decide what should be done with the few family relics, and one Saturday and Sunday I went all through the little old house, looking over the things.

In the garret I came across the moose-skull with one horn. It made me feel queer to think what a part it had played in the development of my grandfather's honorable and tender old soul. There were a few sticks of furniture, some daguerrotypes and silhouettes, and a drawerful of yellow papers. The first I sent home to Hillsboro to grandmother. I took the papers back to the town where I was teaching, to look over them.

Among other things was a quaint old diary of my grandmother's great-aunt, she that was the buxom widow of Jed's story. It was full of homely items of her rustic occupations; what day she had “sett the broune hen,” and how much butter was made the first month she had the “party-colored cowe from over the mount'n.” I glanced idly at these faded bits of insignificant news, when I was electrified by seeing the following entry:

#This day came to my Bro. Amos and Me, a sea-man, bringeing news of my Bro. Elijah's the capt'n's dethe, and allso mutch monie in gold, sent to us by our Bro. The sea-man is the greatest in size aver I saw. No man in towne his bed can reach so mutch as to his sholder. And comely withal#.

The words fairly whirled on the page before my astonished eyes. Where was the image of the ill-favored little old Jed, so present to my imagination? I read on breathlessly, skipping news of the hen-house and barnyard, until I came upon this, the only other reference, but quite sufficient:

This day the sea-man, Samuel Harden, left us.

The self-restrained woman had said nothing of any disappointment she might have felt. The item stood quite alone, however, in a significant isolation. At least on that day she had not noticed the number of eggs.

I doubt if grandfather himself had been more excited when he saw the birch-wood club than I was to read those few words. I could hardly wait till the next Saturday to rush back to Hillsboro, and relieve the poor old man of the burden of remorse he had carried so faithfully and so mistakenly all these years, and to snatch the specious crown of martyrdom from that shameless thief of another man's exploits.

And yet, when I finally arrived at Hillsboro, I found it not so easy to begin. Some strange spell, exhaled from the unchanging aspect of the old house and the old people, fell on me, and, though I tried several times, I could not find a suitable opening. On Sunday morning grandfather asked me if I would help him to get out to Jed's grave. The peonies and syringas were in bloom, and grandmother had the bouquet made up ready. Drawing me aside, she to me that grandfather was really too infirm to try to make the expedition at all, and certainly could not go alone. Even then I could find no words to tell her. I thought it might be easier to do so out of doors.

It was the middle of a bright spring morning, when we started off, grandfather leaning on his cane and holding to my arm, while I carried the great clump of red peonies and white syringas. The sun was warm, but a cool breeze blew down from the mountains, and grandfather hobbled along bravely.

It made me feel like a little girl again to have him begin the story of the moose, and tell it word for word as he always had. He was forced to stop often now, and wait for breath to come back to him. At each of these halts beside the road, which was white in the clear spring sunshine, it was harder and harder to think of breaking in on him with my discovery.

As he finally told about Jedediah's wounded virtue on his deathbed—that outcry which seemed to me the most brazen part of the whole imposture—suddenly my heart softened, and I, too, believed that by that time of his life old Jed was—I really don't know just what it was that I believed, but it was something as comforting as the quiet warmth of the sunshine.

We were standing by the sunken old grave when grandfather finished. I looked at him, the sun shining down on his bent figure and bared white head, the flowers reflecting their brightness up into his withered old face, and a lump came into my throat. I could not have told him if I had wished to.

“We were ashamed to look the dead man in the face,” he said humbly, and laid the flowers down on the young grass.

Then I went around and held his dear old hand tightly in mine; and we stood very still for a long, long time.

 
 
 

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