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Sharon's Choice by Owen Wister

 

Under Providence, a man may achieve the making of many things--ships, books, fortunes, himself even, quite often enough to encourage others; but let him beware of creating a town. Towns mostly happen. No real-estate operator decided that Rome should be. Sharon was an intended town; a one man's piece of deliberate manufacture; his whim, his pet, his monument, his device for immortally continuing above ground. He planned its avenues, gave it his middle name, fed it with his railroad. But he had reckoned without the inhabitants (to say nothing of nature), and one day they displeased him. Whenever you wish, you can see Sharon and what it has come to as I saw it when, as a visitor without local prejudices, they asked me to serve with the telegraph-operator and the ticket-agent and the hotel-manager on the literary committee of judges at the school festival. There would be a stage, and flags, and elocution, and parents assembled, and afterwards ice-cream with strawberries from El Paso.

"Have you ever awarded prizes for school speaking?" inquired the telegraph-operator, Stuart.

"Yes," I told him. "At Concord in New Hampshire."

"Ever have a chat afterwards with a mother whose girl did not get the prize?"

"It was boys," I replied. "And parents had no say in it."

"It's boys and girls in Sharon," said he. "Parents have no say in it here, either. But that don't seem to occur to them at the moment. We'll all stick together, of course."

"I think I had best resign." said I. "You would find me no hand at pacifying a mother."

"There are fathers also," said Stuart. "But individual parents are small trouble compared with a big split in public opinion. We've missed that so far, though."

"Then why have judges? Why not a popular vote?" I inquired.

"Don't go back on us," said Stuart. "We are so few here. And you know education can't be democratic or where will good taste find itself? Eastman knows that much, at least." And Stuart explained that Eastman was the head of the school and chairman of our committee. "He is from Massachusetts, and his taste is good, but he is total abstinence. Won't allow any literature with the least smell of a drink in it, not even in the singing-class. Would not have 'Here's a health to King Charles' inside the door. Narrowing, that; as many of the finest classics speak of wine freely. Eastman is useful, but a crank. Now take 'Lochinvar.' We are to have it on strawberry night; but say! Eastman kicked about it. Told the kid to speak something else. Kid came to me, and I--"

A smile lurked for one instant in the corner of Stuart's eye, and disappeared again. Then he drew his arm through mine as we walked.

"You have never seen anything in your days like Sharon," said he. "You could not sit down by yourself and make such a thing up. Shakespeare might have, but he would have strained himself doing it. Well, Eastman says 'Lochinvar' will go in my expurgated version. Too bad Sir Walter cannot know. Ever read his Familiar Letters, Great grief! but he was a good man. Eastman stuck about that mention of wine. Remember?

'So now am I come with this lost love of mine To lead but one measure, drink one cup of wine.'

'Well,' thought I, 'Eastman would agree to water. Water and daughter would go, but is frequently used, and spoils the meter.' So I fiddled with my pencil down in the telegraph office, and I fixed the thing up. How's this?

'So now am I come with this beautiful maid To lead but one measure, drink one lemonade.'

Eastman accepts that. Says it's purer. Oh, it's not all sadness here!"

"How did you come to be in Sharon?" I asked my exotic acquaintance.

"Ah, how did I? How did all our crowd at the railroad? Somebody has got to sell tickets, somebody has got to run that hotel, and telegraphs have got to exist here. That's how we foreigners came. Many travellers change cars here, and one train usually misses the other, because the two companies do not love each other. You hear lots of language, especially in December. Eastern consumptives bound for southern California get left here, and drummers are also thick. Remarks range from 'How provoking!' to things I would not even say myself. So that big hotel and depot has to be kept running, and we fellows get a laugh now and then. Our lot is better than these people's." He made a general gesture at Sharon.

"I should have thought it was worse," said I. "No, for we'll be transferred some day. These poor folks are shipwrecked. Though it is their own foolishness, all this."

Again my eye followed as he indicated the town with a sweep of his hand; and from the town I looked to the four quarters of heaven. I may have seen across into Old Mexico. No sign labels the boundary; the vacuum of continent goes on, you might think, to Patagonia. Symptoms of neighboring Mexico basked on the sand heaps along Sharon's spacious avenues--little torpid, indecent gnomes in sashes and open rags, with crowning-steeple straw hats, and murder dozing in their small black eyes. They might have crawled from holes in the sand, or hatched out of brown cracked pods on some weeds that trailed through the broken bottles, the old shoes, and the wire fences. Outside these ramparts began the vacuum, white, gray, indigo, florescent, where all the year the sun shines. Not the semblance of any tree dances in the heat; only rocks and lumps of higher sand waver and dissolve and reappear in the shaking crystal of mirage. Not the scar of any river-bed furrows the void. A river there is, flowing somewhere out of the shiny violet mountains to the north, but it dies subterraneously on its way to Sharon, misses the town, and emerges thirty miles south across the sunlight in a shallow, futile lake, a cienaga, called Las Palomas. Then it evaporates into the ceaseless blue sky.

The water you get in Sharon is dragged by a herd of wind-wheels from the bowels of the sand. Over the town they turn and turn--Sharon's upper story--a filmy colony of slats. In some of the homes beneath them you may go up-stairs--in the American homes, not in the adobe Mexican caves of song, woman, and knives; and brick and stone edifices occur. Monuments of perished trade, these rise among their flatter neighbors cubical and stark; under-shirts, fire-arms, and groceries for sale in the ground-floor, blind dust-windows above. Most of the mansions, however, squat ephemerally upon the soil, no cellar to them, and no staircase, the total fragile box ready to bounce and caracole should the wind drive hard enough. Inside them, eating, mending, the newspaper, and more babies, eke out the twelvemonth; outside, the citizens loiter to their errands along the brief wide avenues of Sharon that empty into space. Men, women, and children move about in the town, sparse and casual, and over their heads in a white tribe the wind-wheels on their rudders veer to the breeze and indolently revolve above the gaping obsoleteness. Through the dumb town the locomotive bell tolls pervadingly when a train of freight or passengers trundles in from the horizon or out along the dwindling fence of telegraph poles. No matter where you are, you can hear it come and go, leaving Sharon behind, an airy carcass, bleached and ventilated, sitting on the sand, with the sun and the hot wind pouring through its bones.

This town was the magnate's child, the thing that was to keep his memory green; and as I took it in on that first walk of discovery, Stuart told me its story: how the magnate had decreed the railroad shops should be here; how, at that, corner lots grew in a night; how horsemen galloped the streets, shooting for joy, and the hasty tents rose while the houses were hammered together; how they had song, dance, cards, whiskey, license, murder, marriage, opera--the whole usual thing--regular as the clock in our West, in Australia, in Africa, in every virgin corner of the world where the Anglo-Saxon rushes to spend his animal spirits--regular as the clock, and in Sharon's case about fifteen minutes long. For they became greedy, the corner-lot people. They ran up prices for land which the railroad, the breath of their nostrils, wanted. They grew ugly, forgetting they were dealing with a magnate, and that a railroad from ocean to ocean can take its shops somewhere else with appalling ease. Thus did the corner lots become sand again in a night. "And in the words of the poet," concluded Stuart, "Sharon has an immense future behind it."

Our talk was changed by the sight of a lady leaning and calling over a fence.

"Mrs. Jeffries," said she. "Oh, Mrs. Jeffries!"

"Well?" called a voice next door.

"I want to send Leola and Arvasita into your yard."

"Well?" the voice repeated.

"Our tool-house blew over into your yard last night. It's jammed behind your tank."

"Oh, indeed!"

A window in the next house was opened, a head put out, and this occasioned my presentation to both ladies. They were Mrs. Mattern and Mrs. Jeffries, and they fell instantly into a stiff caution of deportment; but they speedily found I was not worth being cautious over. Stuart whispered to me that they were widows of high standing, and mothers of competing favorites for the elocution prize; and I hastened to court their esteem. Mrs. Mattern was in body more ample, standing high and yellow and fluffy; but Mrs. Jeffries was smooth and small, and behind her spectacles she had an eye.

"You must not let us interrupt you, ladies," said I, after some civilities. "Did I understand that something was to be carried some- where?"

"You did," said Mrs. Jeffries (she had come out of her house); "and I am pleased to notice no damage has been done to our fence--this time."

"It would have been fixed right up at my expense, as always, Mrs. Jeffries," retorted her neighbor, and started to keep abreast of Mrs. Jeffries as that lady walked and inspected the fence. Thus the two marched parallel along the frontier to the rear of their respective territories.

"You'll not resign?" said Stuart to me. "It is 'yours till death,' ain't it?"

I told him that it was.

"About once a month I can expect this," said Mrs. Jeffries, returning along her frontier.

"Well, it's not the only case in Sharon, Mrs. Jeffries," said Mrs. Mattern. "I'll remind you of them three coops when you kept poultry, and they got away across the railroad, along with the barber's shop."

"But cannot we help you get it out?" said I, with a zealous wish for peace.

"You are very accommodating, sir," said Mrs. Mattern.

"One of the prize-awarding committee," said Stuart. "An elegant judge of oratory. Has decided many contests at Concord, the home of Emerson."

"Concord, New Hampshire," I corrected; but neither lady heard me.

"How splendid for Leola!" cried Mrs. Mattern, instantly." Leola! Oh, Leola! Come right out here!"

Mrs. Jeffries has been more prompt. She was already in her house, and now came from it, bringing a pleasant-looking boy of sixteen, it might be. The youth grinned at me as he stood awkwardly, brought in shirtsleeves from the performance of some household work.

"This is Guy," said his mother. "Guy took the prize last year. Guy hopes--"

"Shut up, mother," said Guy, with entire sweetness. "I don't hope twice--"

"Twice or a dozen times should raise no hard feelings if my son is Sharon's best speaker," cried Mrs. Jeffries, and looked across the fence viciously.

"Shut up, mother; I ain't," said Guy.

"He is a master of humor recitations," his mother now said to me. "Perhaps you know, or perhaps you do not know, how high up that is reckoned."

"Why, mother, Leola can speak all around me. She can," Guy added to me, nodding his head confidentially.

I did not believe him, I think because I preferred his name to that of Leola.

"Leola will study in Paris, France," announced Mrs. Mattern, arriving with her child. "She has no advantages here. This is the gentleman, Leola."

But before I had more than noted a dark-eyed maiden who would not look at me, but stood in skirts too young for her figure, black stockings, and a dangle of hair that should have been up, her large parent had thrust into my hand a scrap-book.

"Here is what the Santa Fe Observer says"; and when I would have read, she read aloud for me. 'The next is the Los Angeles Christian Home. And here's what they wrote about her in El Paso: 'Her histrionic genius for one so young'--it commences below that picture. That's Leola." I now recognized the black stockings and the hair. "Here's what a literary lady in Lordsburg thinks," pursued Mrs. Mattern.

"Never mind that," murmured Leola.

"I shall." And the mother read the letter to me. "Leola has spoke in five cultured cities," she went on. "Arvasita can depict how she was encored at Albuquerque last Easter-Monday."

"Yes, sir, three recalls," said Arvasita, arriving at our group by the fence. An elder sister, she was, evidently. "Are you acquainted with 'Camill'?" she asked me, with a trifle of sternness; and upon my hesitating, "the celebrated French drayma of 'Camill'," she repeated, with a trifle more of sternness. "Camill is the lady in it who dies of consumption. Leola recites the letter-and-coughing scene, Act Third. Mr. Patterson of Coloraydo Springs pronounces it superior to Modjeska."

"That is Leola again," said Mrs. Mattern, showing me another newspaper cut--hair, stockings, and a candle this time.

"Sleep-walking scene, 'Macbeth,'" said Arvasita. "Leola's great night at the church fair and bazar, El Paso, in Shakespeare's acknowledged masterpiece. Leola's repetwar likewise includes 'Catherine the Queen before her Judges,' 'Quality of Mercy is not Strained,' 'Death of Little Nell,' 'Death of Paul Dombey,' ' Death of the Old Year,' 'Burial of Sir John Moore,' and other standard gems suitable for ladies."

"Leola," said her mother, "recite 'When the British Warrior Queen' to the gentleman."

"No, momma, please not," said Leola, and her voice made me look at her; something of appeal sounded in it.

"Leola is that young you must excuse her," said her mother--and I thought the girl winced.

"Come away, Guy," suddenly snapped little Mrs. Jeffries. "We are wasting the gentleman's time. You are no infant prodigy, and we have no pictures of your calves to show him in the papers."

"Why, mother!" cried the boy, and he gave a brotherly look to Leola.

But the girl, scarlet and upset, now ran inside the house.

"As for wasting time, madam," said I, with indignation, "you are wasting yours in attempting to prejudice the judges."

"There!" said Guy.

"And, Mrs. Mattern," continued, "if I may say so without offense, the age (real or imaginary) of the speakers may make a difference in Albuquerque, but with our committee not the slightest."

"Thank you, I'm sure," said Mrs. Mattern, bridling.

"Eastern ideas are ever welcome in Sharon," said Mrs. Jeffries. "Good-morning." And she removed Guy and herself into her house, while Mrs. Mattern and Arvasita, stiffly ignoring me, passed into their own door.

"Come have a drink," said Stuart to me. "I am glad you said it. Old Mother Mattern will let down those prodigy skirts. The poor girl has been ashamed of them these two years, but momma has bulldozed her into staying young for stage effect. The girl's not conceited, for a wonder, and she speaks well. It is even betting which of the two widows you have made the maddest."

Close by the saloon we were impeded by a rush of small boys. They ran before and behind us suddenly from barrels and unforeseen places, and wedging and bumping between us, they shouted: "Chicken-legs! Ah, look at the chicken-legs!"

For a sensitive moment I feared they were speaking of me; but the folding slat-doors of the saloon burst open outward, and a giant barkeeper came among the boys and caught and shook them to silence.

"You want to behave," was his single remark; and they dispersed like a Sunday-school.

I did not see why they should thus describe him. He stood and nodded to us, and jerked big thumb towards the departing flock. "Funny how a boy will never think," said he, with amiability." But they'll grow up to be about as good as the rest of us, I guess. Don't you let them monkey with you, Josey!" he called.

"Naw, I won't," said a voice. I turned and saw, by a barrel, a youth in knee-breeches glowering down the street at his routed enemies. He was possibly eight, and one hand was bound in a grimy rag. This was Chicken- legs.

"Did they harm you, Josey?" asked the giant.

"Naw, they didn't."

"Not troubled your hand any?"

"Naw, they didn't."

"Well, don't you let them touch you. We'll see you through." And as we followed him in towards our drink through his folding slat-doors he continued discoursing to me, the newcomer. "I am against interfering with kids. I like to leave 'em fight and fool just as much as they see fit. Now them boys ain't malicious, but they're young, you see, they're young, and misfortune don't appeal to them. Josey lost his father last spring, and his mother died last month. Last week he played with a freight car and left two of his fingers with it. Now you might think that was enough hardship."

"Indeed yes," I answered.

"But the little stake he inherited was gambled away by his stinking old aunt."

"Well!" I cried.

"So we're seeing him through."

"You bet," said a citizen in boots and pistol, who was playing billiards.

"This town is not going to permit any man to fool with Josey," stated his opponent in the game.

"Or women either," added a lounger by the bar, shaggy-bearded and also with a pistol.

"Mr. Abe Hanson," said the barkeeper, presenting me to him. "Josey's father's partner. He's took the boy from the aunt and is going to see him through."

"How 'r' ye?" said Mr. Hanson, hoarsely, and without enthusiasm.

"A member of the prize - awarding committee," explained Stuart, and waved a hand at me.

They all brightened up and came round me.

"Heard my boy speak?" inquired one. "Reub Gadsden's his name."

I told him I had heard no speaker thus far; and I mentioned Leola and Guy.

"Hope the boy'll give us 'The Jumping Frog' again," said one. "I near bust."

"What's the heifer speakin' this trip?" another inquired.

"Huh! Her!" said a third.

"You'll talk different, maybe, this time," retorted the other.

"Not agin 'The Jumping Frog,' he won't," the first insisted. "I near bust," he repeated.

"I'd like for you to know my boy Reub," said Mr. Gadsden to me, insinuatingly.

"Quit fixing' the judge, Al," said Leola's backer. "Reub forgets his words, an' says 'em over, an' balks, an' mires down, an' backs out, an starts fresh, en' it's confusin' to foller him."

"I'm glad to see you take so much interest, gentlemen," said I.

"Yes, we're apt to see it through," said the barkeeper. And Stuart and I bade them a good-morning.

As we neared the school-master's house, where Stuart was next taking me, we came again upon the boys with Josey, and no barkeeper at hand to "see him through." But Josey made it needless. At the word "Chicken-legs" he flew in a limber manner upon the nearest, and knocking him immediately flat, turned with spirit upon a second and kicked him. At this they set up a screeching and fell all together, and the school-master came out of his door.

"Boys, boys!" said he. "And the Sabbath too!"

As this did not immediately affect them, Mr. Eastman made a charge, and they fled from him then. A long stocking of Josey's was torn, and hung in two streamers round his ankles; and his dangling shoe-laces were trodden to fringe.

"If you want your hand to get well for strawberry night--" began Mr. Eastman.

"Ah, bother strawberry night!" said Josey, and hopped at one of his playmates. But Mr. Eastman caught him skilfully by the collar.

"I am glad his misfortunes have not crushed him altogether," said I.

"Josey Yeatts is an anxious case, sir," returned the teacher. "Several influences threaten his welfare. Yesterday I found tobacco on him. Chewing, sir."

"Just you hurt me," said Josey, "and I'll tell Abe."

"Abe!" exclaimed Mr. Eastman, lifting his brow. "He means a man old enough to be his father, sir. I endeavor to instill him with some few notions of respect, but the town spoils him. Indulges him completely, I may say. And when Sharon's sympathies are stirred sir, it will espouse a cause very warmly--Give me that!" broke off the schoolmaster, and there followed a brief wrestle. "Chewing again to-day, sir," he added to me.

"Abe lemme have it," shrieked Josey. "Lemme go, or he'll come over and fix you."

But the calm, chilly Eastman had ground the tobacco under his heel. "You can understand how my hands are tied," he said to me.

"Readily," I answered.

"The men give Josey his way in everything. He has a--I may say an unworthy aunt."

"Yes," said I. "So I have gathered."

At this point Josey ducked and slid free, and the united flock vanished with jeers at us. Josey forgot they had insulted him, they forgot he had beaten them; against a common enemy was their friendship cemented.

"You spoke of Sharon's warm way of espousing causes," said I to Eastman.

"I did, sir. No one could live here long without noticing it."

"Sharon is a quiet town, but sudden," remarked Stuart. "Apt to be sudden. They're beginning about strawberry night," he said to Eastman. "Wanted to know about things down in the saloon."

"How does their taste in elocution chiefly lie?" I inquired.

Eastman smiled. He was young, totally bald, the moral dome of his skull rising white above visionary eyes and a serious auburn beard. He was clothed in a bleak, smooth slate-gray suit, and at any climax of emphasis he lifted slightly upon his toes and relaxed again, shutting his lips tight on the finished sentence. "Your question," said he, "has often perplexed me. Sometimes they seem to prefer verse; sometimes prose stirs them greatly. We shall have a liberal crop of both this year. I am proud to tell you I have augmented our number of strawberry speakers by nearly fifty per cent."

"How many will there be?" said I.

"Eleven. You might wish some could be excused. But I let them speak to stimulate their interest in culture. Will you not take dinner with me, gentlemen? I was just sitting down when little Josey Yeatts brought me out."

We were glad to do this, and he opened another can of corned beef for us. "I cannot offer you wine, sir," said he to me, "though I am aware it is a general habit in luxurious homes." And he tightened his lips.

"General habit wherever they don't prefer whiskey," said Stuart.

"I fear so," the school-master replied, smiling. "That poison shall never enter my house, gentlemen, any more than tobacco. And as I cannot reform the adults of Sharon, I am doing what I can for their children. Little Hugh Straight is going to say his 'Lochinvar' very pleasingly, Mr. Stuart. I went over it with him last night. I like them to be word per- fect," he continued to me, "as failures on exhibition night elicit unfavorable comment."

"And are we to expect failures also?" I inquired.

"Reuben Gadsden is likely to mortify us. He is an earnest boy, but nervous; and one or two others. But I have limited their length. Reuben Gadsden's father declined to have his boy cut short, and he will give us a speech of Burke's; but I hope for the best. It narrows down, it narrows down. Guy Jeffries and Leola Mattern are the two."

"The parents seem to take keen interest," said I.

Mr. Eastman smiled at Stuart. "We have no reason to suppose they have changed since last year," said he. "Why, sir," he suddenly exclaimed, "if I did not feel I was doing something for the young generation here, I should leave Sharon to-morrow! One is not appreciated, not appreciated."

He spoke fervently of various local enterprises, his failures, his hopes, his achievements; and I left his house honoring him, but amazed --his heart was so wide and his head so narrow; a man who would purify with simultaneous austerity the morals of Lochinvar and of Sharon.

"About once a month," said Stuart, "I run against a new side he is blind on. Take his puzzlement as to whether they perfer verse or prose. Queer and dumb of him that, you see. Sharon does not know the difference between verse and prose."

"That's going too far," said I.

"They don't," he repeated, "when it comes to strawberry night. If the piece is about something they understand, rhymes do not help or hinder. And of course sex is apt to settle the question."

"Then I should have thought Leola--" I began.

"Not the sex of the speaker. It's the listeners. Now you take women. Women generally prefer something that will give them a good cry. We men want to laugh mostly."

"Yes," said I; "I would rather laugh myself, I think."

"You'd know you'd rather if you had to live in Sharon. The laugh is one of the big differences between women and men, and I would give you my views about it, only my Sunday-off time is up, and I've got to go to telegraphing."

"Our ways are together," said I. "I'm going back to the railroad hotel."

"There's Guy," continued Stuart. "He took the prize on 'The Jumping Frog.' Spoke better than Leola, anyhow. She spoke 'The Wreck of the Hesperus.' But Guy had the back benches--that's where the men sit-- pretty well useless. Guess if there had been a fire, some of the fellows would have been scorched before they'd have got strength sufficient to run out. But the ladies did not laugh much. Said they saw nothing much in jumping a frog. And if Leola had made 'em cry good and hard that night, the committee's decision would have kicked up more of a fuss than it did. As it was, Mrs. Mattern got me alone; but I worked us around to where Mrs. Jeffries was having her ice-cream, and I left them to argue it out."

"Let us adhere to that policy," I said to Stuart; and he replied nothing, but into the corner of his eye wandered that lurking smile which revealed that life brought him compensations.

He went to telegraphing, and I to revery concerning strawberry night. I found myself wishing now that there could have been two prizes; I desired both Leola and Guy to be happy; and presently I found the matter would be very close, so far at least as my judgment went. For boy and girl both brought me their selections, begging I would coach them, and this I had plenty of leisure to do. I preferred Guy's choice--the story of that blue-jay who dropped nuts through the hole in a roof, expecting to fill it, and his friends came to look on and discovered the hole went into the entire house. It is better even than "The Jumping Frog"--better than anything, I think--and young Guy told it well. But Leola brought a potent rival on the tearful side of things. "The Death of Paul Dombey" is plated pathos, not wholly sterling; but Sharon could not know this; and while Leola most prettily recited it to me I would lose my recent opinion in favor of Guy, and acknowledge the value of her performance. Guy might have the men strong for him, but this time the women were going to cry. I got also a certain other sort of entertainment out of the competing mothers. Mrs. Jeffries and Mrs. Mattern had a way of being in the hotel office at hours when I passed through to meals. They never came together, and always were taken by surprise at meeting me.

"Leola is ever so grateful to you," Mrs. Mattern would say.

"Oh," I would answer, "do not speak of it. Have you ever heard Guy's 'Blue-Jay' story?"

"Well, if it's anything like that frog business, I don't want to." And the lady would leave me.

"Guy tells me you are helping him so kindly," said Mrs. Jeffries.

"Oh yes, I'm severe,"' I answered, brightly. "I let nothing pass. I only wish I was as careful with Leola. But as soon as she begins 'Paul had never risen from his little bed,' I just lose myself listening to her."

On the whole, there were also compensations for me in these mothers, and I thought it as well to secure them in advance.

When the train arrived from El Paso, and I saw our strawberries and our ice-cream taken out, I felt the hour to be at hand, and that whatever our decision, no bias could be laid to me. According to his prudent habit, Eastman had the speakers follow each other alphabetically. This happened to place Leola after Guy, and perhaps might give her the last word, as it were, with the people; but our committee was there, and superior to such accidents. The flags and the bunting hung gay around the draped stage. While the audience rustled or resoundingly trod to its chairs, and seated neighbors conferred solemnly together over the programme, Stuart, behind the bunting, played "Silver Threads among the Gold" upon a melodeon.

"Pretty good this," he said to me, pumping his feet.

"What?" I said.

"Tune. Sharon is for free silver."

"Do you think they will catch your allusion?" I asked him.

"No. But I have a way of enjoying a thing by myself." And he pumped away, playing with tasteful variations until the hall was full and the singing-class assembled in gloves and ribbons.

They opened the ceremonies for us by rendering "Sweet and Low" very happily; and I trusted it was an omen.

Sharon was hearty, and we had "Sweet and Low" twice. Then the speaking began, and the speakers were welcomed, coming and going, with mild and friendly demonstrations. Nothing that one would especially mark went wrong until Reuben Gadsden. He strode to the middle of the boards, and they creaked beneath his tread. He stood a moment in large glittering boots and with hair flat and prominently watered. As he straightened from his bow his suspender-buttons came into view, and remained so for some singular internal reason, while he sent his right hand down into the nearest pocket and began his oratory.

"It is sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France," he said, impressively, and stopped.

We waited, and presently he resumed:

"It is sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France." He took the right hand out and put the left hand in.

"It is sixteen or seventeen years," said he, and stared frowning at his boots.

I found the silence was getting on my nerves. I felt as if it were myself who was drifting to idiocy, and tremulous empty sensations began to occur in my stomach. Had I been able to recall the next sentence, I should have prompted him.

"It is sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the Queen of France," said the orator, rapidly.

And down deep back among the men came a voice, "Well, I guess it must be, Reub."

This snapped the tension. I saw Reuben's boots march away; Mr. Eastman came from behind the bunting and spoke (I suppose) words of protest. I could not hear them, but in a minute, or perhaps two, we grew calm, and the speaking continued.

There was no question what they thought of Guy and Leola. He conquered the back of the room. They called his name, they blessed him with endearing audible oaths, and even the ladies smiled at his pleasant, honest face--the ladies, except Mrs. Mattern. She sat near Mrs. Jeffries, and throughout Guy's "Blue-Jay" fanned herself, exhibiting a well-sustained inattention. She might have foreseen that Mrs. Jeffries would have her turn. When the "Death of Paul Dombey" came, and handkerchiefs began to twinkle out among the audience, and various noises of grief were rising around us, and the men themselves murmured in sym- pathy, Mrs. Jeffries not only preserved a suppressed-hilarity countenance, but managed to cough twice with a cough that visibly bit into Mrs. Mattern's soul.

But Leola's appealing cadences moved me also. When Paul was dead, she made her pretty little bow, and we sat spellbound, then gave her applause surpassing Guy's. Unexpectedly I found embarrassment of choice dazing me, and I sat without attending to the later speakers. Was not successful humor more difficult than pathos? Were not tears more cheaply raised than laughter? Yet, on the other hand, Guy had one prize, and where merit was so even--I sat, I say, forgetful of the rest of the speakers, when suddenly I was aware of louder shouts of welcome, and I awaked to Josey Yeatts bowing at us.

"Spit it out, Josey!" a large encouraging voice was crying in the back of the hall. "We'll see you through."

"Don't be scared, Josey!" yelled another.

Then Josey opened his mouth and rhythmically rattled the following:

"I love little pussy her coat is so warm And if I don't hurt her she'll do me no harm I'll sit by the fi-yer and give her some food And pussy will love me because I am good."

That was all. It had come without falter or pause, even for breath. Josey stood, and the room rose to him.

"Again! again!" they roared." He ain't a bit scared!" "Go it, Josey!" "You don't forgit yer piece!" And a great deal more, while they pounded with their boots.

"I love little pussy," began Josey.

"Poor darling!" said a lady next me. "No mother."

"I'll sit by the fi-yer,"

Josey was continuing. But nobody heard him finish. The room was a Babel.

"Look at his little hand!" "Only three fingers inside them rags!" "Nobody to mend his clothes any more." They all talked to each other, and clapped and cheered, while Josey stood, one leg slightly advanced and proudly stiff, somewhat after the manner of those military engravings where some general is seen erect upon an eminence at the moment of victory.

Mr. Eastman again appeared from the bunting, and was telling us, I have no doubt, something of importance; but the giant barkeeper now shouted above the din, "Who says Josey Yeatts ain't the speaker for this night?"

At that striking of the common chord I saw them heave, promiscuous and unanimous, up the steps to the stage. Josey was set upon Abe Hanson's shoulder, while ladies wept around him. What the literary committee might have done I do not know, for we had not the time even to resign. Guy and Leola now appeared, bearing the prize between them--a picture of Washington handing the Bible out of clouds to Abraham Lincoln--and very immediately I found myself part of a procession. Men and women we were, marching about Sharon. The barkeeper led; four of Sharon's fathers fol- lowed him, escorting Josey borne aloft on Abe Hanson's shoulder, and rigid and military in his bearing. Leola and Guy followed with the picture; Stuart walked with me, whistling melodies of the war--Dixie and others. Eastman was not with us. When the ladies found themselves conducted to the saloon, they discreetly withdrew back to the entertainment we had broken out from. Josey saw them go, and shrilly spoke his first word:

"Ain't I going to have any ice-cream?"

This presently caused us to return to the ladies, and we finished the evening with entire unity of sentiment. Eastman alone took the incident to heart; inquired how he was to accomplish anything with hands tied, and murmured his constant burden once more: "One is not appreciated, not appreciated."

I do not stop over in Sharon any more. My ranch friend, whose presence there brought me to visit him, is gone away. But such was my virgin experience of the place; and in later days fate led me to be concerned with two more local competitions--one military and one civil--which greatly stirred the population. So that I never pass Sharon on my long travels without affectionately surveying the sandy, quivering, bleached town, unshaded by its twinkling forest of wind-wheels. Surely the heart always remembers a spot where it has been merry! And one thing I should like to know--shall know, perhaps: what sort of citizen in our republic Josey will grow to be. For whom will he vote? May he not himself come to sit in Washington and make laws for us? Universal suffrage holds so many possibilities.

 
 
 

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