Munchausen by Dorothy Canfield
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
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
“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?”
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
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
#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
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
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
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
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.