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Strollers in Tiverton by Alice Brown

Tale of New England Life

In Tiverton, when reminiscences are in order, we go back to one very rich year; then the circus and strolling players came to town, and the usual camp-meeting was followed by an epidemic of scarlet fever, which might have stood forth as the judgment of heaven, save that the newly converted were stricken first and undoubtedly fared hardest. Hiram Cole said it was because they'd “got all their nerve-juice used up, hollerin' hallelujah.” But that I know not. This theory of nerve-juice, was a favorite one with Hiram: he contended that it had a powerful hand in determining the results of presidential elections; and, indeed, in swaying the balance of power among the nations of the earth.

Even in the early spring, there had been several cases of fever at Sudleigh; and so, when the circus made application for a license to take possession of the town, according to olden custom, the public authorities very wisely refused. Tiverton, however, was wroth at this arbitrary restriction. For more years than I can say, she had driven over to Sudleigh “to see the caravan;” and now, through some crack-brained theory of contagion, the caravan was to be barred out. We never really believed that the town-fathers had taken their highhanded measure on account of scarlet fever. We saw in it some occult political significance, and referred ominously to the butter we carried there on Saturdays, and to the possibility that, if they cast us off, a separation might affect them far more seriously than it would us. But to our loud-voiced delight, the caravan, finding that it was to be within hailing distance, and unwilling to pass on without further tribute, extended the sceptre to Tiverton herself; and Brad Freeman joyfully discussed the project of making a circus ground of his old race-course, which, he declared, he had purposed planting with tobacco. We never knew whether to believe this or not, though we had many times previously gone over Brad's calculation, by which he figured that he could sell at least three tons of fine-cut from one summer's produce. To that specious logic, we always listened with unwilling admiration; but when we could shake off the glamour inseparable from a problem made to come out right, we were accustomed to turn to one another, demanding with cold scepticism, “Where'd he git his seed?”

In spite of the loss of this potential crop, however, Brad was magnanimously willing to let his field; and Tiverton held her head high, in the prospect of having a circus of her own. We intimated that it would undoubtedly be fair weather, owing to our superior moral desert as compared with that of Sudleigh, which was annually afflicted with what had long been known as “circus-weather.” For Sudleigh had sinned, and Nature was thenceforth deputed to pay her back, in good old Hebrew style. One circus-day—before the war, as I believe—Sudleigh fenced up the spring in a corner of her grounds, and with a foolish thrift sold ice-water to the crowd, at a penny a glass. Tiverton was furious, and so, apparently, were the just heavens; for every circus-day thereafter it rained, in a fashion calculated to urge any forehanded Noah into immediate action. We of Tiverton never allowed our neighbor to forget her criminal lapse. When, on circus-afternoon, we met one of the rival township, dripping as ourselves, we said, with all the cheerfulness of conscious innocence,—

“Water enough for everybody, to-day! Guess ye won't have to peddle none out!”

“Seems to be comin' down pretty fast! You better build a platfoam over that spring! Go hard with ye if't overflowed!”

Strange to say, Sudleigh seemed to regard these time-licensed remarks with little favor; she even intimated that they smacked of the past, and were wearisome in her nostrils. But not for that did we halt in their distribution. Moreover, we flaunted our domestic loyalty by partaking of no Sudleigh fluid within the grounds. We carried tea, coffee, lemonade, milk, an ambitious variety of drinks, in order that even our children might be spared the public disgrace of tasting Sudleigh water; and it was a part of our excellent fooling to invite every Sudleighian to drink with us. Even the virtues, however, spare their votaries no pang; and in every family, this unbending fealty resulted in the individual members' betaking themselves to the pump or well, immediately on getting home, even before attempting to unharness. About five o'clock, on circus-afternoon, there would be a general rumbling of buckets and creaking of sweeps, while a chorus rose to heaven, “My! I was 'most choked!”

But our fete-day dawned bright and speckless. We rose before three o'clock, every man, woman and child of us, to see the procession come into town. It would leave the railway at Sudleigh, and we had a faint hope of its forming in regulation style, and sweeping into Tiverton, a blaze of glittering chariots surmounted by queens of beauty, of lazy beasts of the desert sulking in their cages, and dainty-stepping horses, ridden by bold amazons. For a time, the expectation kept us bright and hopeful, although most of us had only taken a “cold bite” before starting; but as the eastern saffron pencilled one line of light and the bird chorus swelled in piercing glory, we grew cross and all unbefitting the smiling morn. Only Dilly Joyce looked sunshiny as ever, for she had no domestic cares to beckon her; she and Nance Pete, who was in luck that day, having a full pipe. Dilly had nestled into a rock, curved in the form of a chair, and lay watching the eastern sky, a faint smile of pleasure parting her lips when the saffron hardened into gold.

“Nice, dear, ain't it?” she said, as I paused a moment near her, “I al'ays liked the side o' the road. But it's kind o' disturbin' to have so much talk. I dunno's you can help it, though, where there's so many people. Most o' the time, I'm better on't to home, but I did want to see an elephant near to!”

The sky broadened into light, and the birds jeered at us, poor, draggled folk who lived in boxes and were embarrassed by the morn. The men grew nervous, for milking-time was near, and in imagination I have no doubt they heard the lowing of reproachful kine.

“Well, 'tain't no use,” said Eli Pike, rising from the stone-wall, and stretching himself, with decision. “I've got to 'tend to them cows, whether or no!” And he strolled away on the country-road, without a look behind. Most of the other men, as in honor bound, followed him; and the women, with loud-voiced protest against an obvious necessity, trailed after them, to strain the milk. Only we who formed the gypsy element were left behind.

“I call it a real shame!” announced Mrs. Pike, gathering her summer shawl about her shoulders, and stepping away with an offended dignity such as no delinquent elephant could have faced. “I warrant ye, they wouldn't ha' treated Sudleigh so. They wouldn't ha' dared!”

“I dunno's Sudleigh's any more looked up to'n we be,” said Caleb Rivers, who had been so tardy in bestirring himself that he formed a part of the women's corps. “I guess, if the truth was known, Tiverton covers more land'n Sudleigh does, on'y Sudleigh's all humped up together into a quart bowl. I guess there's countries that 'ain't heard o' Sudleigh, an' wouldn't stan' much in fear if they had!”

And so Tiverton dispersed, unamiably, and with its public pride hurt to the quick. I tried to take pattern by Dilly Joyce, and steal from nature a little of the wonderful filial enjoyment which came to her unsought. When Dilly watched the sky, I did, also; when she brightened at sound of a bird hitherto silent, I tried to set down his notes in my memory; and when she closed her eyes, and shut out the world, to think it over, I did the same. But the result was different. Probably Dilly opened hers again upon the lovely earth, but I drifted off into dreamland, and only awoke, two hours after, to find the scenes marvellously changed. It was bright, steady morning, the morning come to stay. Tiverton had performed its dairy rites, and returned again, enlivened by a cup of tea; and oh, incredible joy! there was a grunting and panting, a swaying of mighty flanks. The circus was approaching, from Sudleigh way. Instantly I was alert and on my feet, for it would have been impossible to miss the contagion of the general joy. I knew how we felt, not as individuals, but as Tivertonians alone. We were tolerant potentates, waiting, in gracious majesty, to receive a deputation from the farther East. It grieves me much to stop here and confess, with a necessary honesty, that this was but a sorry circus, gauged by the conventional standards; else, I suppose, it had never come to Tiverton at all. The circus-folk had evidently dressed for travelling, not for us. The chariots, some of them still hooded in canvas, were very small and tarnished. There were but three elephants, two camels, and a most meagre display of those alluring cages made to afford even the careless eye a sudden, quickening glimpse of restless, tawny form, or slothful hulk within. Yet why depreciate the raw material whereof Fancy has power divine to build her altogether perfect heights? Here was the plain, homely setting of our plainer lives, and right into the midst of it had come the East. The elephants affected us most; we probably thought little about the immemorial mystery, the vague, occult tradition wrapped in that mouse-colored hide; but even to our dense Western imagination such quickening suggestion was vividly apparent. We knew our world; usually it seemed to us the only one, even when we looked at the stars. But at least one other had been created, and before us appeared its visible sign,—my lord the elephant! There he was, swaying along, conscious philosopher, conscious might, yet holding his omniscience in the background, and keeping a wary eye out for the peanuts with which we simple country souls had not provided ourselves. There was one curious thing about it all. We had seen the circus at Sudleigh, as I have said, yet the fact of entertaining it within our borders made it seem exactly as if we had never laid eyes upon it before. This was our caravan, and God Almighty had created the elephant for us. Dilly Joyce slipped her hand quickly in mine and pressed it hard. She was quite pale. Yet it was she who acted upon the first practical thought. She recovered herself before my lord went by, took a ginger cookie from her pocket, and put it into Davie Tolman's hand.

“Here,” she said, pushing him forward, “you go an' offer it to him. He'll take it. See'f he don't!”

Davie accepted the mission with joy, and persisted in it until he found himself close beside that swaying bulk, and saw the long trunk curved enticingly toward him. Then he uttered one explosive howl, and fell back on the very toes of us who were pressing forward to partake, by right of sympathy, in the little drama.

“Lordy Massy, keep still!” cried out Nance Pete; and she snatched him up bodily, and held him out to the elephant. I believe my own pang at that moment to have been general. I forgot that elephants are not carnivorous, and shuddered back, under the expectation of seeing Davie devoured, hide and hair. But Nance had the address to stiffen the little arm, and my lord took the cookie, still clutched in the despairing hand, and passed on. Then Davie wiped his eyes, after peeping stealthily about to see whether any one was disposed to jeer at him, and took such courage that he posed, ever after, as the hero of the day.

The procession had nearly passed us when we saw a sight calculated to animate us anew with a justifiable pride. Sudleigh itself, its young men and maidens, old men and children, was following the circus into our town. It would not have a circus of its own, forsooth, but it would share in ours! We, as by one consent, assumed an air of dignified self-importance. We were the hosts of the day; we bowed graciously to such of our guests as we knew, and, with a mild tolerance, looked over the heads of those who were unfamiliar. Yet nothing checked our happy companionship with the caravan; still we followed by the side of the procession, through tangles of blackberry vine, and over ditch and stubble. Some of the boys mounted the walls, and ran wildly, dislodging stones as they went, and earning no reproof from the fathers who, on any other day, would have been alive to a future mowing and the clashing of scythe and rock. There was, moreover, an impression abroad that our progress could by no means be considered devoid of danger.

“S'pose that fellar should rise up, an' wrench off them bars!” suggested Heman Blaisdell, pointing out one cage where a great creature, gaudy in stripes, paced back and forth, throwing us an occasional look of scorn and great despite. “I wouldn't give much for my chances! Nor for anybody else's!”

“My soul an' body!” ejaculated a woman. “I hope they don't forgit to lock them cages up! Folks git awful careless when they do a thing every day! I forgot to shet up the hins last week, an' that was the night the skunk got in.”

“I'm glad Brad brought his gun,” said another, in the tone of one who would have crossed herself had there been a saint to help. And thereafter we kept so thickly about Brad, walking with his long free stride, that his progress became impeded, and he almost fell over us. Suddenly, from the front, a man's voice rose in an imperative cry,—

“Turn round! turn round!”

Quite evidently the mandate was addressed to us, and we turned in a mass, fleeing back into Sudleigh's very arms. For a moment, it was like Sparta and Persia striving in the Pass; then Sudleigh turned also, such as were on foot, and fled with us. We pressed up the bank, as soon as we could collect our errant wits; some of us, with a sense of coming calamity, mounted the very wall, and there we had a moment to look about us. The caravan was keeping steadily on, like fate and taxes, and facing it stood a carryall attached to a frightened horse. On the front seat, erect in her accustomed majesty, sat Aunt Melissa Adams; and Uncle Hiram, ever a humble charioteer, was by her side. They, too, had driven out to see the circus, but alas! it had not struck them that they might meet it midway, with no volition of drawing up at the side of the road and allowing it to pass. The old horse, hardened to the vicissitudes of many farming seasons, had necessarily no acquaintance with the wild beasts of the Orient; no past experience, tucked away in his wise old head, could explain them in the very least. He plunged and reared; he snorted with fear, and Aunt Melissa began to emit shrieks of such volume and quality that the mangy lion, composing himself to sleep in his cage, rose, and sent forth a cry that Tiverton will long remember. We did not stop to explain our forebodings, but we were sure that, in some mysterious way, Aunt Melissa was doomed, and that she had brought her misfortune on herself. A second Daniel, she had no special integrity to stand her in need. And still the circus advanced, and the horse snorted and backed. He was a gaunt old beast, but in his terror, one moment of beauty dignified him beyond belief. His head was high, his eyes were starting.

“Turn round!” cried the men, but Uncle Hiram was paralyzed, and the reins lay supine in his hands, while he screamed a wheezy “Whoa!” Then Brad Freeman, as usual in cases outside precedent, became the good angel of Tiverton. He forced his gun on the person nearest at hand—who proved to be Nance Pete—and dashed forward. Seizing the frightened horse by the head, he cramped the wheel scientifically, and turned him round. Then he gave him a smack on the flank, and the carryall went reeling and swaying back into Tiverton, the avant-courrier of the circus. You should have heard Aunt Melissa's account of that ride, an epic moment which she treasured, in awe, to the day of her death. According to her, it asked no odds from the wild huntsman, or the Gabriel hounds. Well, we cowards came down from the wall, assuring each other, with voices still shaking a little, that we knew it was nothing, after all, and that nobody but Aunt Melissa would make such a fuss. How she did holler! we said, with conscious pride in our own self-possession when brought into unexpectedly close relations with wild beasts; and we trudged happily along through the dust stirred by alien trampling, back to Tiverton Street, and down into Brad Freeman's field. It would hardly be possible to describe our joy in watching the operation of tent-raising, nor our pride in Brad Freeman, when he assumed the character of host, and not only made the circus-folk free of the ground they had hired, but hurried here and there, helping with such address and muscular vigor that we felt defrauded in never having known how accomplished he really was. The strollers recognized his type, in no time; they were joking with him and clapping him on the back before the first tent had been unrolled. Now, none of us had ever seen a circus performer, save in the ring; and I think we were disappointed, for a moment, at finding we had in our midst no spangled angels in rosy tights, no athletes standing on their heads by choice, and quite preferring the landscape upside down, but a set of shabbily dressed, rather jaded men and women, who were, for all the world, just like ourselves, save that they walked more gracefully, and spoke in softer voice. But when the report went round that the cook was getting breakfast ready—out of doors, too!—we were more than compensated for the loss of such tinsel joys. Chattering and eager, we ran over to the dining-tent, and there, close beside it, found the little kitchen, its ovens smoking hot, and a man outside, aproned and capped, cutting up chops and steaks, with careless deftness, and laying them in the great iron pans, preparatory to broiling.

“By all 't's good an' bad!” swore Tom McNeil, a universal and sweeping oath he much affected, “they've got a whole sheep an' a side o' beef! Well, it's high livin', an' no mistake!”

We who considered a few pies a baking, watched this wholesale cookery in bewildered fascination. A savory smell arose to heaven. I never was so hungry in my life, and I believe all Tiverton would own to the same craving. Perhaps some wild instinct sprang up in us with the scent of meat in out-door air, but at any rate, we became much exhilarated, and our attention was only turned from the beguiling chops by Mrs. Wilson's saying, in a low tone, to her husband,—

“Lothrop, if there ain't Lucindy, an' that Molly McNeil with her! What's Lucindy got? My sake alive! you might ha' known she'd do suthin' to make anybody wish they'd stayed to home. If you can git near her, you keep a tight holt on her, or she'll be jumpin' through a hoop!”

I turned, with the rest. Yes, there was Miss Lucindy, tripping happily across the level field. Molly McNeil hastened beside her, and between them they carried a large clothes-basket, overflowing with flaming orange-red; a basket heaped with sunset, not the dawn! They were very near me when I guessed what it was; so near that I could see the happy smile on Lucindy's parted lips, and note how high the rose flush had risen in her delicate cheek, with happiness and haste.

“Stortions!” broke out a voice near me, in virile scorn,—Nance Pete's,—“stortions! Jes' like her! Better picked 'em a mess o' pease!”

It was, indeed, a basket of red nasturtiums, and the sun had touched them into a glory like his own. For one brief moment, we were ashamed of Lucindy's “shallerness” and irrelevancy; but the circus people interpreted her better. They rose from box and hamper where they had been listlessly awaiting their tardy breakfast, and crowded forward to meet her. They knew, through the comradeship of all Bohemia, exactly what she meant.

“My!” said Miss Lucindy, smiling full at them as they came,—her old, set smile had been touched, within a year, by something glad and free,—“set 'em down now, Molly. My! are you the folks? Well, I thought you'd seem different, somehow, but anyway, we brought you over a few blooms. We thought you couldn't have much time, movin' round so, to work in your gardins, especially the things you have to sow every year. Yes, dear, yes! Take a good handful. Here's a little mignonette I put in the bottom, so't everybody could have a sprig. Yes, there's enough for the men, too. Why, yes, help yourself! Law, dear, why don't you take off your veil? Hot as this is!” for the bearded lady, closely masked in black barege, had come forward and hungrily stretched out a great hand for her share.

We never knew how it all happened, but during this clamor of happy voices, the chops were cooked and the coffee boiled; the circus people turned about, and trooped into the tent where the tables were set, and they took Miss Lucindy with them. Yes, they did! Molly McNeil stayed contentedly outside; for though she had brought her share of the treasure, quite evidently she considered herself a friendly helper, not a partner in the scheme. But Miss Lucindy was the queen of the carnival. We heard one girl say to another, as our eccentric townswoman swept past us, in the eager crowd, “Oh, the dear old thing!” We saw a sad-eyed girl bend forward, lift a string of Miss Lucindy's apron (which, we felt, should have been left behind in the kitchen) and give it a hearty kiss. Later, when, by little groups, we peeped into the dining-tent, we saw Miss Lucindy sitting there at the table, between two women who evidently thought her the very nicest person that had ever crossed their wandering track. There she was, an untouched roll and chop on her plate, a cup of coffee by her side. She was not talking. She only smiled happily at those who talked to her, and her eyes shone very bright. We were ashamed; I confess it. For was not Sudleigh, also, there to see?

“Oh, my soul!” exclaimed Mrs. Wilson, in fretful undertone. “I wish the old Judge was here!”

Her husband turned and looked at her, and she quailed; not with fear of him, but at the vision of the outraged truth.

“Well, no,” she added, weakly, “I dunno's I wish anything so bad as that, but I do declare I think there ought to be somebody to keep a tight grip on Lucindy!”

Who shall deem himself worthy to write the chronicle of that glorious day? There were so many incidents not set down in the logical drama; so many side-shows of circumstance! We watched all the mysterious preparations for the afternoon performance, so far as we were allowed, with the keenness of the wise, who recognize a special wonder and will not let it pass unproved. We surrounded Miss Lucindy, when she came away from her breakfast party, and begged for an exact account of all her entertainers had said; but she could tell us nothing. She only reiterated, with eyes sparkling anew, that they were “proper nice folks, proper nice! and she must go home and get Ellen. If she'd known they were just like other folks she'd have brought Ellen this morning; but she'd been afraid there'd be talk that little girls better not hear.”

At noon, we sat about in the shade of the trees along the wall, and ate delicious cold food from the butter-boxes and baskets our men-folks had brought over during the forenoon lull; and we assiduously offered Sudleigh a drink, whenever it passed the counter where barrels of free spring-water had been set. And then, at the first possible moment, we paid our fee, and went inside the tent to see the animals. That scrubby menagerie had not gained in dignity from its transference to canvas walls. The enclosure was very hot and stuffy; there was a smell of dust and straw. The lion stretched himself, from time to time, and gave an angry roar for savage, long-lost joys. One bear, surely new to the business, kept walking up and down, up and down, moaning, in an abandon of homesickness. Brad Freeman stood before the cage when I was there.

“Say, Brad,” said the Crane boy, slipping his arm into the hunter's, in a good-fellowship sure to be reciprocated. “Davie Tolman said you's goin' to fetch over your fox, an' sell him to the circus. Be you?”

“My Lord!” answered Brad, very violently for him, the ever-tolerant. “No! I'm goin' to let him go. Look at that!” And while the Crane boy, unconcerned, yet puzzled, gave his full attention to the bear, Brad passed on.

There was a wolf, I remember, darting about his cage, slinking, furtive, ever on a futile prowl. He especially engaged the interest of Tom McNeil, who said admiringly, as I, too, looked through the bars, “Ain't he a prompt little cuss?” I felt that with Tom it was the fascination of opposites; he never could understand superlative energy.

Just as we were trooping into the larger tent (there were no three rings, I beg to say, maliciously calculated to distract the attention! One, of a goodly size, was quite enough for us!) a little voice piped up, “The snake's got loose!” How we surged and panted, and fought one another for our sacred lives! In vain were we urged to stand still; we strove the more. And when a bit of rope perversely and maliciously coiled itself round Rosa Tolman's ankle, she gave a shriek so loud and despairing that it undid us anew. If Sheriff Holmes had not come forward and sworn at us, I believe we should have trampled one another out of existence; but he seemed so palpably the embodiment of authority, and his oath the oath undoubtedly selected by legislature for that very occasion, that we paused, and on the passionate asseveration of a circus man that the snake was safely in his cage, consented to be calm. But Aunt Melissa Adams, unstrung by her earlier experience, would trust no doubtful circumstance. She plodded back into the animal-tent, assured herself, with her own eyes, of the snake's presence at his own hearthstone, and came back satisfied, just as the clown entered the ring. The performance needs no bush. We had palmleaf fans offered us, pop-corn, and pink lemonade. We sweltered under the blazing canvas, laughed at the clown's musty fooling, which deserved rather the reverence due old age, and wondered between whiles if there would be a shower, and if tent-poles were ever struck. Then it was all over, and we trailed out, in great bodily discomfort and spiritual joy, to witness, quite unlooked for, the most vivid drama of the day. Young Dana Marden was there, he and his wife who lived down in Tiverton Hollow. Dana was a nephew of Josh, of hapless memory, and “folks said" that, like Josh, he had “all the Marden setness, once git him riled.” But Mary Worthen had not been in the least afraid of that when she married him. Before their engagement, some one had casually mentioned Dana's having inherited “setness” for his patrimony.

“I know it,” she said, “and if I had anything to do with him, I'd break him of it, or I'd break his neck!”

Tiverton had been very considerate in never repeating that speech to Dana; and his wife, in all their five years of married life, had not fulfilled her threat. As we were making ready to leave the grounds, that day, and those who had horses were “tacklin up,” we became aware that Dana, a handsome, solid, fresh-colored fellow, sat in his wagon with pretty Mary beside him, and that they evidently had no intention of moving on. Of course we approached, to find out what the trouble might be.

“We can send word to have Tom Bunker milk the cows,” said Dana, with distinct emphasis, “an' we can stay for the evenin' performance. Or we can go now. Only, you've got to say which!”

“I don't want to say,” returned Mary, placidly, “because I don't know which you'd rather have. You just tell me so much!”

A frown contracted his brow; he looked a middle-aged man. When he spoke, his voice grated.

“You tell which, or we'll set here all night, an' I don't speak another word to you till you do!”

But Mary said nothing.

“My soul!” whispered Mrs. Rivers to me. “She's got herself into it now, jest as they say Lyddy Ann Marden done, with Josh. She'll have to back down!”

Several more of those aimless on-lookers, ever ready for the making of crowds, surged forward. The wagon was blocking the way. We realised with shame that Sudleigh, too, was here, to say nothing of sister towns less irritating to our pride. It was Uncle Eli Pike who stepped into the breach.

“Here, Dana!” he called, and, as we were glad to remember, all the aliens in the crowd could hear, “I guess that hoss o' yourn's gittin' a mite balky. I'll lead him a step, if you say so.” And without a word of assent from Dana, he guided the horse out of the grounds, and started him on the road. We watched the divided couple, on their common way. Dana was driving, it is true; but we knew, with a heavy certainty, that he was not speaking to his wife. He was a Marden, and nothing would make him speak.

This slight but very significant episode sent us home in a soberer mind than any of us had anticipated, after the gaudy triumphs of the day. We could not quell our curiosity over the upshot of it all, and that night, after the chores were done, we sat in the darkness, interspersing our comments on the spangled butterflies of horse and hoop with an awed question, now and then, while the minute-hand sped, “S'pose they've spoke yit?”

Alas! the prevailing voice was still against it; and when we went to market, and met there the people from the Hollow (who were somewhat more bucolic than we), they passed about the open secret. Dana did not speak to his wife. Again we knew he never would. The summer waned; the cows were turned into the shack, and the most “forehanded” among us began to cut boughs for banking up the house, and set afoot other preparations for winter's cold. Still Dana had not spoken. But the effect on Mary was inexplicable to us all. We knew she loved him deeply, and that the habits of their relationship were very tender; we expected her to sink and fail under the burden of this sudden exile of the heart, just as Lyddy Ann had done, so many years ago. But Mary held her head high, and kept her color. She even “went abroad” more than usual; ostentatiously so, we thought, for she would come over to Tiverton to pass the afternoon, after the good, old-fashioned style, with women whom she knew but slightly. And, most incredible of all, though Dana would not speak to her, she spoke to him! Once, in driving past, I heard her clear voice (it seemed now a dauntless voice!) calling,—

“Dana, dinner's ready!” Dana dropped the board he was carrying, and went in, a fierce yet dogged look upon his face, as if it needed hourly schooling to mirror his hard heart. Then the agent of the Sudleigh “Star,” who was canvassing for a new domestic paper, had also his story to tell. He went to the Mardens', and Mary, who admitted him, put down her name, and then called blithely into the kitchen,—

“Dana, I'm all out o' change. Will you hand me a dollar 'n' a quarter?”

Dana, flushed red and overwhelmed by a pitiable embarrassment, came to the door and gave the money; and Mary, with that proud unconsciousness which made us wonder anew every time we saw it in her, thanked him, and dismissed the visitor, as if nothing were wrong. The couple went as usual to church and sociable. Certain lines deepened in Dana's face, but Mary grew every day more light-heartedly cheerful. Yet the one-sided silence lived, with the terrible tenacity of evil.

So the days went on until midwinter snows began to blow, and then we learned, with a thrill of pride, that the International Dramatic Company proposed coming to our own little hall, for a two weeks' engagement. Some said Sudleigh Opera House was too large for it, and too expensive; but we, the wiser heads, were grandly aware that, with unusual acumen, the drama had at last recognized the true emporium of taste. We resolved that this discriminating company should not repent its choice. A week before the great first night, magnificent posters in red and blue set before us, in very choice English, the dramatic performances, “Shakespearean and otherwise,” destined to take place among us. The leading parts were to be assumed by Mr. and Mrs. Van Rensellaer Wilde, “two of the foremost artists in the stellar world, supported by an adequate company.”

The announcement ended with the insinuating alliteration, “Popular prices prevail.” The very first night, we were at the door, an excited crowd, absolutely before it was open; but early as we went, the hospitable pianist held the field before us; the hall resounded with his jocund banging at the very moment when the pioneer among us set foot within. I have never seen anywhere, either on benefit or farewell night, a cordiality to be compared with that which presided over our own theatre in Tiverton Hall. Mr. Van Rensellaer Wilde himself stood within the doorway, to greet us as we came; a personable man, with the smooth, individual face of his profession, a moist and beery eye, a catholic smile, tolerant enough to include the just and the unjust, a rusty, old-fashioned stock, and the very ancientest brown Prince Albert coat still in reputable existence,—a strange historical epitome of brushings and spongings, of camphor exile and patient patching. Quite evidently he was not among the prosperous, even in his stellar world. But not for that would he repine. This present planet was an admirable plot of ground, and here he stood, cheerfully ready to induct us, the Puritan-born, into the fictitious joys thereof. And popular prices prevailed; the floor of the hall itself confirmed it. It was divided, by chalk-lines, into three sections. Enter the first division, and a legend at your feet indicated the ten-cent territory. Advance a little, and “twenty-five cents” met the eye; and presently, approaching the platform, you were in the seats of the scornful, thirty-five cents each. The latter, by common consent, were eschewed by the very first comers, not alone for reasons of thrift, but because we thought they ought to be left for old folks, “a leetle mite hard o' hearin',” or the unfortunates who were “not so fur-sighted” as we. So we seated ourselves in delight already begun, for was not Mr. Gad Greenfield performing one of the “orchestral pieces” which the programme had led us to expect? The piano was an antique, accustomed to serve as victim at Sudleigh's dancing-school and sociables. I have never heard its condition described, on its return to Sudleigh; I only know that, from some eccentric partiality, Gad Greenfield's music was all fortissimo. Sally Flint, brought thither by the much-enduring overseer, for the sake of domestic peace, seemed to be the only one who did not regard Gad's performance with unquestioning awe. She was heard to say aloud, in a penetrating voice,—

“My soul an' body! what a racket!”

Whereupon she deliberately pulled some wool from the tassel of her chinchilla cloud, and stuffed a little wad into each ear. We were sorry for the overseer, thus put to shame by his untutored charge, and delicately looked away, after making sure Sally had “r'ared as high” as she proposed doing. She was the overseer's cross; no one could help him bear it.

And now the curtain went up,—though not on the play, let me tell you! On slighter joys, a fillip to the taste. A juggler, “all complete" in black small-clothes and white kid gloves, stood there ready to burn up our handkerchiefs, change our watches into rabbits, and make omelets in our best go-to-meeting hats. I cannot remember all the wonderful things he did (everything, I believe, judging from the roseate glow left in my mind, everything that juggler ever achieved short of the Hindoo marvel of cutting up maidens and splicing them together again, or planting the magic tree); I only know we were too crafty to help him, and though he again and again implored a volunteer from the audience to come and play the willing victim, we clung to our settees the more, so that Gad of the piano was obliged to fill the gap. And when the curtain came down, and went up again on a drawing-room, with a red plush chair in it, and a lady dressed in a long-tailed white satin gown, where were we? In Tiverton? Nay, in the great world of fashion and of crime. I remember very little now about the order of the plays; very little of their names and drift. I only know we were swept triumphantly through the widest range ever imagined since the “pastoral-comical, historical- pastoral,” of old Polonius. And in all, fat, middle-aged Wilde was the dashing hero, the deep-dyed villain; and his wife, middle-aged as he, and far, oh, far more corpulent! played the lovely heroine, the blooming victim, the queen of hearts. And she was truly beautiful to us, that blowsy dame, through the beguiling witchery of her art. The smarting tears came into our eyes when, in “Caste,” she staggered back, despairing, lost in grief, unable to arm her soldier for the march. Melodrama was her joy, and as we watched her lumbering about the stage in a white muslin dress, with the artificial springiness of a youth that would never return, we could have risen as one man, to snatch her from the toils of villany. She was a cool piece, that swiftly descending star! She had a way of deliberately stepping outside the scenes and letting down her thin black hair, before the tragic moment; then would she bound back again, and tear every passion to tatters, in good old-fashioned style. In “The Octoroon” especially she tore our hearts with it, so that it almost began to seem as if political issues were imminent. For between the acts, men bent forward to their neighbors, and put their heads together, recalling abolition times; and one poor, harmless old farmer from Sudleigh way was glared at in a fashion to which he had once been painfully accustomed, while murmurs of “Copperhead! Yes, Copperhead all through the war!” must have penetrated where he sat. But he was securely locked up in his fortress of deaf old age, and met the hostile glances benignly, quite unconscious of their meaning. In one particular, we felt, for a time, that we had been deceived. The Shakespearean drama had not been touched on as we had been led to expect; but at last, in the middle of the second week, we were rejoiced by the announcement that “Othello” would that night be appropriately set forth. The Moor of Venice! He would never have recognized himself—his great creator would never have guessed his identity—as presented by Mr. Van Rensellaer Wilde. I give you my word for that! From beginning to end of the performance, Tiverton groped about, in a haze of perplexity, rendered ever the more dense by the fact that none of the actors knew their parts. I am inclined to think they had enriched their announcement by this allusion to the Shakespearean drama in a moment of wild ambition, as we gladly commit ourselves to issues far-off and vague; and then, with a chivalrous determination to vindicate their written word; they had embarked on a troublous sea for which they had “neither mast nor sail, nor chart nor rudder.” So they went bobbing about in a tub, and we, with a like paucity of equipment, essayed to follow them.

Othello himself was a veiled mystery in our eyes.

“Ain't he colored?” whispered Mrs. Wilson to me; and while I hesitated, seeking to frame an answer both terse and true, she continued, although he was at that moment impressing the Senate with his great apology, “Is he free?”

I assured her on that point, and she settled down to a troubled study of the part, only to run hopelessly aground when Desdemona, in her stiff white satin gown, announced her intention of cleaving to the robust blackamoor, in spite of fate and father. That seemed a praiseworthy action, “taken by and large,” but we could not altogether applaud it. “Abolition,” as we were, the deed wounded some race prejudice in us, and Mrs. Hiram Cole voiced the general sentiment when she remarked audibly,—

“One color's as good as another, come Judgment Day, but let 'em marry among themselves, I say!”

The poverty of the scenery had something to do with our dulness in following the dramatic thread, for how should we know that our own little stage, disguised by a slender tree-growth, was the island of Cyprus, and that Desdemona, tripping through a doorway, in the same satin gown, had just arrived from a long and perilous voyage? “The riches of the ship” had “come on shore,” but for all we knew, it had been in the next room, taking a nap, all the while. In the crucial scene between Cassio and Iago, we got the impression that one was as drunk as the other, and that Cassio acted the better man of the two, chiefly because of his grandiloquent apostrophe relative to the thieving of brains. We approved of that, and looked meaningly round at old Cap'n Fuller, who was at that time taking more hard cider than we considered good for him. But when the final catastrophe came, we, having missed the logical sequence, were totally unprepared. Mr. Wilde, with a blackamoor fury irresistibly funny to one who has seen a city coal-man cursing another for not moving on, smothered his shrieking spouse in a pillow brought over for that purpose from the Blaisdells', where most of the actors were boarding. We were not inclined to endure this quietly. The more phlegmatic among us moved uneasily in our seats, and one or two men, excitable beyond the ordinary, sprang up, with an oath. Mrs. Wilson dragged her husband down again.

“For massy sake, do set still!” she urged. “He 'ain't killed her. Don't you see them toes a-twitchin'?”

No, Mrs. Wilde was not dead, as her weary appearance in the afterpiece attested; but she had been cruelly abused, and the murmurs, here and there, as we left the hall, went far to show that Othello had done well in voluntarily paying the debt of nature, and that Emilia thought none too ill of him.

“Ought to ha' been strong up, by good rights,” growled Tiverton. “you can't find a jury't would acquit him!”

Night after night, we conscientiously sat out the aforesaid afterpiece, innocently supposed to be our due because it had formed a part of the initial performance. However long our weary strollers might delay it, in the empty hope of our going home content, there we waited until the curtain went up. It was a dreary piece of business, varied by horse-play considered “kind o' rough” by even the more boisterous among us. Sometimes it was given, minstrel-wise, in the time-honored panoply of burnt cork; again, poor weary souls! they lacked even the spirit to blacken themselves, and clinging to the same dialogue, played boldly in Caucasian fairness, with the pathetically futile disguise of a Teuton accent. And last of all, Mr. Wilde would appear before the curtain, and “in behalf of Mrs. Wilde, self and company” thank us movingly for our kind attention, and announce the next night's bill.

The last half hour was my chosen time for leaning back against the wall, and allowing thought and glance to dwell lovingly on Tiverton faces. O worn and rugged features of the elder generation to whose kinship we are born! What solution, even of Time, the all-potent, shall wash your meaning from the heart? An absolute lack of self-consciousness had quite transformed the gaze they bent upon the stage. A veil had been swept aside, and the true soul shone forth; that soul which ever dwells apart, either from the dignity of its estate or, being wrought of fibre more delicate than air, because it fears recoil and hurt. There were Roxy and her husband, he too well content with life as it is, to be greatly moved by its counterfeit; she sparkling back some artless reply to the challenge of feeble romance and wingless wit. There was Uncle Eli, a little dazed by these strange doings, the hand on his knee shaking, from time to time, under the stimulus of unshared thought. There was Miss Lucindy, with Ellen and all the McNeils, a care-free, happy phalanx, smiling joyously at everything set before them, with that spontaneous rapture so good to see. One night, Nance Pete appeared, and established herself, with great importance, in the first row of the ten-cent seats; but she fell asleep, and snored with embarrassing volume and precision. She never came again, and announced indifferently, to all who cared to hear, that when she “wanted to see a passel o' monkeys, she'd go to the circus, an' done with it.” There, too, one night when Comedy burlesqued her own rapt self, was Dana Marden; but he came alone. Mary had a cold, we heard, and “thought she'd better stay in.” Dana sat through the foolish play, unmoved. His brow loomed heavy, like Tragedy's own mask, and it grew ever blacker while the scene went on. Hiram Cole whispered me,—

“He'll kill himself afore he's done with it. He's gone in for the whole hog, but he 'ain't growed to it, as Old Josh had. The Marden blood run emptin's afore it got to him.”

The last night came of all our blissful interlude, and on that night, by some stroke of fate, the bill was “Oliver Twist.” Of that performance let naught be spoken, save in reverence. For, by divine leading it might seem, and not their own good wit, those poor players had been briefly touched by the one true fire. Shakespeare had beckoned them, and they had passed him by; Comedy and Tragedy had been their innocent sport. How funny their tragedy had been, how sad their comedy, Momus only might tell. But to-night some gleaming wave from a greater sea had lifted them, and borne them on. Still they played, jarringly, for that was their untutored wont. Their speech roared, loud defiance to grammar's idle saws, their costumes were absurd remnants of an antique past; but a certain, rude, and homely dignity had transfigured them, and enveloped, too, this poor drama which, after all, goes very deep, down to the springs of life and love. There was a dirty and wicked abomination of a Fagin. Wilde himself played Sykes, and we of Tiverton, who know little about the formless monster dwelling under the garnished pavement of every great city, and rising, once in a century or so, to send red riot and ruin through the streets,—even we could read the story of his word and glance. Unconsciously to ourselves, we guessed at Whitechapel and the East End “tough,” and shuddered under the knowledge of evil. Mrs. Wilde, her heavy face many a shade sincerer than when she walked in dirty white satin, was Nancy; and in her death, culminated the grand moment of Tiverton's looking the drama in the face, and seeing it for what it is,—the living sister of life itself. Sykes really killed her alarmingly well. Round the stage he dragged her, bruised and speechless, with such cruel realism that we women crouched and shivered; and when she staggered to her knees, and told her pitiful lie for the brute she loved, the general shudder of worship and horror thrilled us into a mighty reverence for the tie stronger than death and hell, binding the woman to the man, and lifting Love triumphant on his cross of pain. With Nancy's final sigh, another swept through the hall, like breath among the trees, and, drawn by what thread I know not, I looked about me, and all unwittingly was present at another great last act. Dana Marden and his wife were in front of me, not three seats away. Mary was very pale, and sat quite motionless, looking down into her lap; but Dana bent forward, gripping the seat in front of him with white and straining hands. His face, drawn and knotted, was a mirror of such anguish as few of us imagine; we only learn its power when it steals upon us in the dark, and our souls wrestle with it for awful mastery. He seemed to be suffering an extremity of physical pain. After that, I gave little heed to the stage. I was only conscious that the curtain had gone down, and that Mr. Wilde was thanking us for our kind attention, and expressing a flattering hope that another year would find him again in our midst. We did not want the farce, that night, even as our rightful due. We got up, and filed out in silence. I was just behind Dana and Mary; so near that I could have touched him when, half-way, down the hall, he put out a clumsy hand and drew her shawl closer about her shoulders. Then he set his face straight forward again, but not before I had noticed how the lips were twitching still, in that dumb protest against the fetters of his birth. Again he turned to her, as suddenly as if a blow had forced his face about. I heard his voice, abrupt, explosive, full of the harshness so near at hand to wait on agony,—

“You got your rubbers on?”

Mary started a little, and a tremor like that of cold, went over her; but she kept her head firmly erect.

“Yes, Dana,” she said, clearly, just as she had spoken to him all those months, “I've got 'em on.”

Before eleven o'clock, the next morning, the news had spread all over joyful Tiverton. Dana had spoken at last! But Mary! Within a week, she took to her bed, quite overmastered by a lingering fever. She “came out all right,” as we say among ourselves, though after Dana had suffered such agonies of tenderness over her as few save mothers can know, or those who have injured their beloved. But she has never since been quite so dauntless, quite so full of the joy of life. As Hiram Cole again remarked, it is a serious thing to draw too heavily on the nerve-juice.

 
 
 

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