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Number Five by Alice Brown

Tale of New England Life

We who are Tiverton born, though false ambition may have ridden us to market, or the world's voice incited us to kindred clamoring, have a way of shutting our eyes, now and then, to present changes, and seeing things as they were once, as they are still, in a certain sleepy yet altogether individual corner of country life. And especially do we delight in one bit of fine mental tracery, etched carelessly, yet for all time, so far as our own' short span is concerned, by the unerring stylus of youth: the outline of a little red schoolhouse, distinguished from the other similar structures within Tiverton bounds by “District No. V.,” painted on a shingle, in primitive black letters, and nailed aloft over the door. Up to the very hollow which made its playground and weedy garden, the road was elm-bordered and lined with fair meadows, skirted in the background by shadowy pines, so soft they did not even wave; they only seemed to breathe. The treasures of the road! On either side, the way was plumed and paved with beauties so rare that now, disheartened dwellers in city streets, we covetously con over in memory that roaming walk to school and home again. We know it now for what it was, a daily progress of delight. We see again the old watering-trough, decayed into the mellow loveliness of gray lichen and greenest moss. Here beside the ditch whence the water flowed, grew the pale forget-me-not and sticky star-blossomed cleavers. A step farther, beyond the nook where the spring bubbled first, were the riches of the common roadway; and over the gray, lichen-bearded fence, the growth of stubbly upland pasture. Everywhere, in road and pasture too, thronged milkweed, odorous haunt of the bee and those frailest butterflies of the year, born of one family with drifting blossoms; and straightly tall, the solitary mullein, dust-covered but crowned with a gold softer and more to be desired than the pride of kings. Perhaps the carriage folk from the outer world, who sometimes penetrate Tiverton's leafy quiet, may wonder at the queer little enclosures of sticks and pebbles on many a bare, tree-shaded slope along the road. “Left there from some game!” they say to one another, and drive on, satisfied. But these are no mere discarded playthings, dear ignorant travellers! They are tokens of the mimic earnest with which child-life is ever seeking to sober itself, and rushing unsummoned into the workaday fields of an aimlessly frantic world. They are houses, and the stone boundaries are walls. This tree stump is an armchair, this board a velvet sofa. Not more truly is “this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog.”

Across the road, at easy running distance from the schoolhouse at noontime or recess, crawled the little river, with its inevitable “hole,” which each mother's son was warned to avoid in swimming, lest he be seized with cramp there where the pool was bottomless. What eerie wonders lurked within the mirror of those shallow brown waters! Long black hairs cleaved and clung in their limpid flowing. To this day, I know not whether they were horse-hairs, far from home, or swaying willow roots; the boys said they were “truly” hairs of the kind destined to become snakes in their last estate; and the girls, listening, shivered with all Mother Eve's premonitory thrill along the backbone. Wish-bugs, too, were here, skimming and darting. The peculiarity of a wish-bug is that he will bestow upon you your heart's desire, if only you hold him in the hand and wish. But the impossible premise defeats the conclusion. You never do hold him long enough, simply because you can't catch him in the first place. Yet the fascinating possibility is like a taste for drink, or the glamour of cards. Does the committee-man drive past to Sudleigh market, suggesting the prospect of a leisurely return that afternoon, and consequent dropping in to hear the geography class? Then do the laziest and most optimistic boys betake them hastily from their dinner-pails to the river, and spend their precious nooning in quest of the potent bug, through whose spell the unwelcome visit may be averted. The time so squandered in riotous gaming might have, fixed the afternoon's “North Poles and Equators” triumphantly in mind, to the everlasting defiance of all alien questioning; but no! for human delight lies ever in the unattainable. The committee-man comes like Nemesis, aequo pede, the lesson is unlearned, and the stern-fibred little teacher orders out the rack known as staying after school. But what durance beyond hours in the indescribably desolate schoolroom ever taught mortal boy to shun the delusive insect created for his special undoing? So long as the heart has woes of its own breeding, so long also will it dodge the discipline of labor, and grasp at the flicker of an easy success.

On either side the little bridge (over which horses pounded with an ominous thunder and a rain of dust on the head of him who lingered beneath the sleepers, in a fearsome joy), the meadows were pranked with purple iris and whispering rushes, mingling each its sweetness with the good, rank smell of mud below. Here were the treasures of the water-course, close hidden, or blowing in the light of day. The pale, golden-hearted arrow-head neighbored the homespun pickerel-weed, and—oh, mysterious glory from an oozy bed!—luscious, sun-golden cow-lilies rose sturdily triumphant, dripping with color, glowing in sheen. The button-bush hung out her balls, and white alder painted the air with faint perfume; willow-herb built her bowery arches, and the flags were ever glancing like swords of roistering knights. These flags, be it known to such as have grown up in grievous ignorance of the lore inseparable from “deestrick school,” hold the most practical significance in the mind of boy and girl; for they bring forth (I know we thought for our delight alone!) a delicacy known as flag-buds, everlastingly dear to the childish palate. These were devoured by the wholesale in their season, and little mouths grew oozy-green as those of happy beasties in June, from much champing and chewing. Did we lose our appetite for the delectable dinner-pail through such literal going to pasture? I think not. Tastes were elastic, in those days; and Nature, so bullied, durst seldom revolt.

On one side, the nearest neighbor to the school lived at least a mile away; but on the other, the first house of all owned treasures manifold for the little squad who, though the day were wet or dry, fair or frowning, trotted thither at noon. Here were trees under which lay, in happy season, over-ripe Bartlett pears; here, too, was one mulberry-tree, whereof the suggestion was strange and wonderful, and the fruit less appealing to taste than to a mystical fancy. But outside the bank wall grew the balm-of-Gileads, in a stately, benevolent row,—trees of healing, of fragrance and romantic charm. No child ever sought the old home to beg pears and mulberries, or to fill the school-house pail at its dark-bosomed well, without bearing away a few of the leaves in a covetous grasp. Sweet treasure-trove these, to be pressed to fresh young faces, and held and patted in hot little palms, till they grew flabby but evermore fragrant, still diffusing over the dusty schoolroom that warm odor, whispering to those who read no corner but their own New England, of the myrrh and balsams of the East.

We knew everything in those days, we aimless knights-errant with dinner-pail and slate; the dry, frosty hollow where gentians bloom when the pride of the field is over, the woody slopes of the hepatica's awakening, under coverlet of withered leaves, and the sunny banks where violets love to live with their good gossip, the trembling anemone. At noon, we roved abroad into solitudes so deep that even our unsuspecting hearts sometimes quaked with fear of dark and lonesomeness; and then we came trooping back at the sound of the bell, untamed, happy little savages, ready to settle, with a long breath, to the afternoon's drowsy routine. Arrant nonsense that! the boundary of British America and the conjugation of the verb to be! Who that might loll away the hours upon a bank in silken ease, needed aught even of computation or the tongues? He alone had inherited the earth.

All the little figures flitting through those tranquil early dramas are so sharply drawn, so brightly colored still! I meet Melissa Crane sometimes nowadays, a prosperous matron with space enough on her broad back for the very largest plaid ever woven; but her present identity is hazy and unreal. I see instead, with a sudden throb of memory, the little Melissa, who, one recess, accepted a sugared doughnut from me, and said, with a quaint imitation of old folks' manner,—

“I think your mother will be a real good cook, if she lives!”

I hear of Susie Marden, who went out West, married, and grew up with the country in great magnificence; but to me she is and ever will be the little girl who made seventy pies, one Thanksgiving time, thereby earning the somewhat stinted admiration of those among us who could not cook. Many a great deed, tacitly promised in that springtime, never came to pass; many a brilliant career ingloriously ended. There was Sam Marshall. He could do sums to the admiration of class and teacher, and, Cuvier-like, evolve an entire flock from Colburn's two geese and a half. His memory was prodigious. He could name the Presidents, bound the States and Territories, and rattle off the list of prepositions so fast that you could almost see the spark-shower from his rushing wheels of thought. It was an understood thing among us, when Sam was in his teens, that he should at least enter the Senate; perhaps he would even be President, and scatter offices, like halfpence, among his scampering townsmen. But to-day he patiently does his haying—by hand! and “goes sleddin'“ in the winter. The Senate is as far from him as the Polar Star, and I question whether he could even bear the crucial test of two geese and a half. Yet I still look upon him with a thrill of awe, as the man selected by the popular vote to represent us in fame's Valhalla, and mysteriously defeated by some unexpected move of the “unseen hand at a game.”

There were a couple of boys such good comrades as never to be happy save when together. They cared only for the games made for two; all their goods were tacitly held in common, and a tradition still lives that David, when a new teacher asked his exact age, claimed his comrade's birthday, and then wondered why everybody laughed. They had a way of wandering off together to the woods, on Saturday. mornings, when the routine of chores could be hurried through, and always they bore with them a store of eggs, apples, or sweet corn, to be cooked in happy seclusion. All this raw material was stolen from the respective haylofts and gardens at home, though, as the fathers owned, with an appreciative grin, the boys might have taken it openly for the asking. That, however, would so have alloyed the charm of gypsying that it was not to be thought of for a moment; and they crept about on their foraging expeditions with all the caution of a hostile tribe. Blessed fathers and mothers to wink at the escapade, and happy boys, wise chiefly in their longing to be free! We had a theory that Jonathan and David would go into business together. Perhaps we thought of them in the same country store, their chairs tilted on either side of the air-tight stove, telling stories, in the intervals of custom, as they apparently did in their earlier estate. For, shy as they were in general company, they chatted together with an intense earnestness all day long; and it was one of the stock questions in our neighborhood, when the social light burned low,—

“What under the sun do you s'pose Dave and Jont find to talk about?”

Alas! again the world had builded foolishly; for with early manhood, they fell in love with the same round-cheeked school-teacher. Jonathan married her, after what wrench of feeling I know not; and the other fled to the town, whence he never returned save for the briefest visit at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. The stay-at-home lad is a warm farmer, and the little school-teacher a mother whose unlined face shows the record of a placid life; but David cannot know even this, save by hearsay, for he never sees them. He is a moneyed man, and not a year ago, gave the town a new library. But is he happy? Or does the old wound still show a ragged edge? For that may be, they tell us, even “when you come to forty year.”

Then, clad in brighter vestments of memory, there was the lad who earned unto himself much renown, even among his disapproving relatives, by running away from home, in quest of gold and glory. True, he was brought back at the end of three days, footsore and muddy, and with noble appetite for the griddle-cakes his mother cooked him in lieu of the traditional veal,—but all undaunted. He never tried it again, yet people say he has thrown away all his chances of a thrifty living by perpetual wandering in the woods with gun and fishing-rod, and that he is cursed with a deplorable indifference to the state of his fences and potato-patch. No one could call him an admirable citizen, but I am not sure that he has chosen the worser part; for who is so jovial and sympathetic on a winter evening, when the apples are passed, and even the shining cat purrs content before the blaze, or in the wood solitudes, familiar to him as his own house door?

“Pa'tridges' nests?” he said, one spring, with a cock of his eye calculated to show at once a humorous recognition of his genius and his delinquencies. “Sartain! I wish I was as sure where I keep my scythe sned!”

He has learned all the lore of the woods, the ways of “wild critters,” and the most efficacious means both to woo and kill them. Prim spinsters eye him acridly, as a man given over to “shif'less" ways, and wives set him up, like a lurid guidepost, before husbands prone to lapse from domestic thrift; but the dogs smile at him, and children, for whom he is ever ready to make kite or dory, though all his hay should mildew, or to string thimbleberries on a grass spear while supper cools within, tumble merrily at his heels. Such as he should never assume domestic relations, to be fettered with requirements of time and place. Let them rather claim maintenance from a grateful public, and live, like troubadours of old, ministrant to the general joy.

Not all the memories of that early day are quite unspotted by remorse. Although we wore the mask of jocund faces and straightforward glance, we little people repeatedly proclaimed ourselves the victims of Adam's fall. Even then we needed to pray for deliverance from those passions which have since pursued us. There was the little bound girl who lived with a “selec'man's” wife, a woman with children of her own, but a hard taskmistress to the stranger within her gates. Poor little Polly! her clothes, made over from those of her mistress, were of dark, rough flannel, often in uncouth plaids and appalling stripes. Her petticoats were dyed of a sickly hue known as cudbar, and she wore heavy woollen stockings of the same shade. Polly got up early, to milk and drive the cows; she set the table, washed milkpans, and ran hither and thither on her sturdy cudbar legs, always willing, sometimes singing, and often with a mute, questioning look on her little freckled face, as if she had already begun to wonder why it has pleased God to set so many boundary lines over which the feeble may not pass. The selec'man's son—a heavy-faced, greedy boy—was a bully, and Polly became his butt; she did his tasks, hectored by him in private, and with a child's strange reticence, she never told even us how unbearable he made her life. We could see it, however; for not much remains hidden in that communistic atmosphere of the country neighborhood. But sometimes Polly revolted; her temper blazed up, a harmless flash in the pan, and then, it was said, Mis' Jeremiah took her to the shed-chamber and, trounced her soundly. I myself have seen her sitting at the little low window, when I trotted by, in the pride of young life, to “borry some emptin's,” or the recipe for a new cake. Often she waved a timid hand to me; and I am glad to remember a certain sunny morning, illuminated now because I tossed her up a bright hollyhock in return. It was little to give out of a full and happy day; but Polly had nothing. Once she came near great good fortune,—and missed it! For a lady, who boarded a few weeks in the neighborhood, took a fancy to Polly, and was stirred to outspoken wrath by our tales of the severity of her life. She gave her a pretty pink cambric dress, and Polly wore it on “last day,” at the end of the summer term. She was evidently absorbed in love of it, and sat, smoothing its shiny surface with her little cracked hand, so oblivious to the requirements of the occasion that she only looked up dazed when the teacher told her to describe the Amazon River, and unregretfully let the question pass. The lady meant to take Polly away with, her, but she fell sick with erysipelas in the face, and was hurried off to the city to be nursed, “a sight to behold,” as everybody said. And whether she died, or whether she got well and forgot Polly, none of us ever heard. We only knew she did not return, bringing the odor of violets and the rustle of starched petticoats into our placid lives.

But all these thoughts of Polly would be less wearing, when they come in the night-time knocking at the heart, if I could only remember her as glowing under the sympathy and loving-kindness of her little mates. Alas! it was not so. We were senseless little brutes, who, never having learned the taste of misery ourselves, had no pity for the misfortunes of others. She was, indeed, ill-treated; but what were we, to translate the phrase? She was an under dog, and we had no mercy on her. We “plagued” her, God forgive us! And what the word means, in its full horror, only a child can compass. We laughed at her cudbar petticoats, her little “chopped hands;” and when she stumbled over the arithmetic lesson, because she had been up at four o'clock every morning since the first bluebirds came, we laughed at that. Life in general seems to have treated Polly in somewhat the same way. I hear that she did not marry well, and that her children had begun to “turn out bad,” when she died, prematurely bent and old, not many weeks ago. But when I think of what we might have given and what we did withhold, when I realize that one drop of water from each of us would have filled her little cup to overflowing, there is one compensating thought, and I murmur, conscience-smitten, “I'm glad she had the pink dress!”

And now the little school is ever present with us, ours still for counsel or reproof. Its long-closed sessions are open, by day and night; and I suppose, as time goes on, and we drop into the estate of those who sit by the fireside, oblivious to present scenes, yet acutely awake to such as

  “Flash upon that inward eye
  Which is the bliss of solitude,”

it will grow more and more lifelike and more near. Beside it, live all the joys of memory and many a long-past pain. For we who have walked in country ways, walk in them always, and with no divided love, even though brick pavements have been our chosen road this many a year. We follow the market, we buy and sell, and even run across the sea, to fit us with new armor for the soul, to guard it from the hurts of years; but ever do we keep the calendar of this one spring of life. Some unheard angelus summons us to days of feast and mourning; it may be the joy of the fresh-springing willow, or the nameless pain responsive to the croaking of frogs, in the month when twilights are misty, and waves of world-sorrow flood in upon the heart, we know not why. All those trembling half-thoughts of the sleep of the year and its awakening,—we have not escaped them by leaving the routine that brought them forth. We know when the first violets are blowing in the woods, and we paint for ourselves the tasselling of the alder and the red of maple-buds. We taste still the sting of checkerberry and woodsy flavor of the fragrant birch. When fields of corn are shimmering in the sun, we know exactly how it would seem to run through those dusty aisles, swept by that silken drapery, and counselled in whispers from the plumy tops so far above our heads. The ground-sparrow's nest is not strange to us; no, nor the partridge's hidden treasure within the wood. We can make pudding-bags of live-forever, dolls' bonnets, “trimmed up to the nines,” out of the velvet mullein leaf, and from the ox-eyed daisies, round, cap-begirt faces, smiling as the sun. All the homely secrets of rural life are ours: the taste of pie, cinnamon-flavored, from the dinner-pails at noon; the smell of “pears a-b'ilin',” at that happiest hour when, in the early dusk, we tumble into the kitchen, to find the table set and the stove redolent of warmth and savor. “What you got for supper?” we cry,—question to be paralleled in the summer days by “What'd you have for dinner?” as, famished little bears, we rush to the dairy-wheel, to feed ravenously on the cold, delicious fragments of the meal eaten without us.

If time ever stood still, if we were condemned to the blank solitude of hospital nights or becalmed, mid-ocean days, and had hours for fruitless dreaming, I wonder what viands we should choose, in setting forth a banquet from that ambrosial past! Foods unknown to poetry and song: “cold b'iled dish,” pan-dowdy, or rye drop-cakes dripping with butter! For these do we taste, in moments of retrospect; and perhaps we dwell the more on their homely savor because we dare not think what hands prepared them for our use, or, when the board was set, what faces smiled. We are too wise, with the cunning prudence of the years, to penetrate over-far beyond the rosy boundary of youth, lest we find also that bitter pool which is not Lethe, but the waters of a vain regret.

 
 
 

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