The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 1
|The Duke of Stockbridge by
THE MARCH OF THE MINUTE MEN
NINE YEARS AFTER→
The first beams of the sun of August 17, 1777, were glancing down the long valley, which opening to the East, lets in the early rays of morning, upon the village of Stockbridge. Then, as now, the Housatonic crept still and darkling around the beetling base of Fisher's Nest, and in the meadows laughed above its pebbly shoals, embracing the verdant fields with many a loving curve. Then, as now, the mountains cradled the valley in their eternal arms, all round, from the Hill of the Wolves, on the north, to the peaks that guard the Ice Glen, away to the far south-east. Then, as now, many a lake and pond gemmed the landscape, and many a brook hung like a burnished silver chain upon the verdant slopes. But save for this changeless frame of nature, there was very little, in the village, which the modern dweller in Stockbridge would recognize.
The main settlement is along a street lying east and west, across the plain which extends from the Housatonic, northerly some distance, to the foot of a hill. The village green or "smooth" lies rather at the western end of the village than at the center. At this point the main street intersects with the county road, leading north and south, and with divers other paths and lanes, leading in crooked, rambling lines to several points of the compass; sometimes ending at a single dwelling, sometimes at clusters of several buildings. On the hill, to the north, somewhat separated from the settlement on the plain, are quite a number of houses, erected there during the recent French and Indian wars, for the sake of being near the fort, which is now used as a parsonage by Reverend Stephen West, the young minister. The streets are all very wide and grassy, wholly without shade trees, and bordered generally by rail fences or stone walls. The houses, usually separated by wide intervals of meadow, are rarely over a story and a half in height. When painted, the color is usually red, brown, or yellow, the effect of which is a certain picturesqueness wholly outside any design on the part of the practical minded inhabitants.
Interspersed among the houses, and occurring more thickly in the south and west parts of the village, are curious huts, as much like wigwams as houses. These are the dwellings of the Christianized and civilized Stockbridge Indians, the original possessors of the soil, who live intermingled with the whites on terms of the most utter comity, fully sharing the offices of church and town, and fighting the battles of the Commonwealth side by side with the white militia.
Around the green stand the public buildings of the place. Here is the tavern, a low two-story building, without porch or piazza, and entered by a door in the middle of the longest side. Over the door swings a sign, on which a former likeness of King George has, by a metamorphosis common at this period, been transformed into a soldier of the revolution, in Continental uniform of buff and blue. But just at this time its contemplation does not afford the patriotic tipler as much complacency as formerly, for Burgoyne is thundering at the passes of the Hoosacs, only fifty miles away, and King George may get his red coat back again, after all. The Tories in the village say that the landlord keeps a pot of red paint behind the door, so that the Hessian dragoons may not take him by surprise when they come galloping down the valley, some afternoon. On the other side [of] the green is the meeting-house, built some thirty years ago, by a grant from government at Boston, and now considered rather old-fashioned and inconvenient. Hard by the meeting-house is the graveyard, with the sandy knoll in its south-west corner, set apart for the use of the Indians. The whipping-post, stocks, and cage, for the summary correction of such offences as come within the jurisdiction of Justice Jahleel Woodbridge, Esquire, adorn the middle of the village green, and on Saturday afternoon are generally the center of a crowd assembled to be edified by the execution of sentences.
On the other side [of] the green from the meeting-house stands the store, built five years before, by Timothy Edwards, Esquire, a structure of a story and a half, with the unusual architectural adornment of a porch or piazza in front, the only thing of the kind in the village. The people of Stockbridge are scarcely prouder of the divinity of their late shepherd, the famous Dr. Jonathan Edwards, than they are of his son Timothy's store. Indeed, what with Dr. Edwards, so lately in their midst, Dr. Hopkins, down at Great Barrington, and Dr. Bellamy, just over the State line in Bethlehem, Connecticut, the people of Berkshire are decidedly more familiar with theologians than with storekeepers, for when Mr. Edwards built his store in 1772, it was the only one in the county.
At such a time it may be readily inferred that a commercial occupation serves rather as a distinction than otherwise. Squire Edwards is moreover chairman of the selectmen, and furthermore most of the farmers are in his debt for supplies, while to these varied elements of influence, his theological ancestry adds a certain odor of sanctity. It is true that Squire Jahleel Woodbridge is even more brilliantly descended, counting two colonial governors and numerous divines among his ancestry, not to speak of a rumored kinship with the English noble family of Northumberland. But instead of tending to a profitless rivalry the respective claims of the Edwardses and the Woodbridges to distinction have happily been merged by the marriage of Jahleel Woodbridge and Lucy Edwards, the sister of Squire Timothy, so that in all social and political matters, the two families are closely allied.
The back room of the store is, in a sense, the Council-chamber, where the affairs of the village are debated and settled by these magnates, whose decisions the common people never dream of anticipating or questioning. It is also a convivial center, a sort of clubroom. There, of an afternoon, may generally be seen Squires Woodbridge, Williams, Elisha Brown, Deacon Nash, Squire Edwards, and perhaps a few others, relaxing their gravity over generous bumpers of some choice old Jamaica, which Edwards had luckily laid in, just before the war stopped all imports.
In the west half of the store building, Squire Edwards lives with his family, including, besides his wife and children, the remnants of his father's family and that of his sister, the widowed Mrs. President Burr. Young Aaron Burr was there, for a while after his graduation at Princeton, and during the intervals of his arduous theological studies with Dr. Bellamy at Bethlehem. Perchance there are heart-sore maidens in the village, who, to their sorrow, could give more particular information of the exploits of the seductive Aaron at this period, than I am able to.
Such are the mountains and rivers, the streets and the houses of Stockbridge as the sun of this August morning in the year 1777, discloses them to view. But where are the people? It is seven, yes, nearly eight o'clock, and no human being is to be seen walking in the streets, or travelling in the roads, or working in the fields. Such lazy habits are certainly not what we have been wont to ascribe to our sturdy forefathers. Has the village, peradventure, been deserted by the population, through fear of the Hessian marauders, the threat of whose coming has long hung like a portentous cloud, over the Berkshire valley? Not at all. It is not the fear of man, but the fear of God, that has laid a spell upon the place. It is the Sabbath, or what we moderns call Sunday, and law and conscience have set their double seal on every door, that neither man, woman nor child, may go forth till sunset, save at the summons of the meeting-house bell. We may wander all the way from the parsonage on the hill, to Captain Konkapot's hut on the Barrington road, without meeting a soul, though the windows will have a scandalized face framed in each seven by nine pane of glass. And the distorted, uncouth and variously colored face and figure, which the imperfections of the glass give the passer-by, will doubtless appear to the horrified spectators, but the fit typical representation of his inward depravity. We shall, I say, meet no one, unless, as we pass his hut by Konkapot's brook, Jehoiachim Naunumpetox, the Indian tithing man, spy us, and that will be to our exceeding discomfiture, for straightway laying implacable hands upon us, he will deliver us to John Schebuck, the constable, who will grievously correct our flesh with stripes, for Sabbath-breaking, and cause us to sit in the stocks, for an ensample.
But if so mild an excursion involve so dire a risk, what must be the desperation of this horseman who is coming at a thundering gallop along the county road from Pittsfield? His horse is in a foaming sweat, the strained nostrils are filled with blood and the congested eyes protrude as if they would leap from their sockets to be at their goal.
It is Squire Woodbridge's two story red house before which the horseman pulls rein, and leaving his steed with hanging head and trembling knees and laboring sides, drags his own stiffened limbs up the walk and enters the house. Almost instantly Squire Woodbridge himself, issues from the door, dressed for church in a fine black coat, waistcoat, and knee-breeches, white silk stockings, a three-cornered black hat and silver buckles on his shoes, but in his hand instead of a Bible, a musket. As he steps out, the door of a house further east opens also, and another man similarly dressed, with brown woolen stockings, steps forth with a gun in his hand also. He seems to have interpreted the meaning of the horseman's message. This is Deacon Nash. Beckoning him to follow, Squire Woodbridge steps out to the edge of the green, raises his musket to his shoulder and discharges it into the air. Deacon Nash coming up a moment later also raises and fires his gun, and e'er the last echoes have reverberated from the mountains, Squire Edwards, musket in hand, throws open his store door and stepping out on the porch, fires the third gun.
A moment ago hundreds of faces were smiling, hundreds of eyes were bright, hundreds of cheeks were flushed. Now there is not a single smile or a trace of brightness, or a bit of color on a face in the valley. Such is the woful change wrought in every household, as the successive reports of the heavily-charged pieces sound through the village, and penetrate to the farthest outlying farmhouse. The first shot may well be an accident, the second may possibly be, but as the third inexorably follows, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and sons, look at each other with blanched faces, and instantly a hundred scenes of quiet preparation for meeting, are transformed into the confusion of a very different kind of preparation. Catechisms are dropped for muskets, and Bibles fall unnoticed under foot, as men spring for their haversacks and powder-horns. For those three guns summon the minute men to be on the march for Bennington. All the afternoon before, the roar of cannon has faintly sounded from the northward, and the people knew that Stark was meeting Baum and his Hessians, on the Hoosac. One detachment of Stockbridge men is already with him. Does this new summons mean disaster? Has the dreaded foe made good his boasted invincibility? No one knows, not even the exhausted messenger, for he was sent off by Stark, while yet the issue of yesterday's battle trembled in the balance.
"It's kinder suddin. I wuz in hopes the boys wouldn' hev to go, bein as they wuz a fightin yisdy," quavered old Elnathan Hamlin, as he trotted about, helplessly trying to help, and only hindering Mrs. Hamlin, as with white face, but deft hands, and quick eyes, she was getting her two boys ready, filling their haversacks, sewing a button here, tightening a buckle there, and looking to everything.
"Ye must tak keer o' Reub, Perez. He ain't so rugged 'zye be. By rights, he orter ha stayed to hum."
"Oh, I'm as stout as Perez. I can wrastle him. Don't fret about me," said Reuben, with attempted gayety, though his boyish lip quivered as he looked at his mother's face, noting how she did not meet his eye, lest she should lose her self-control, and not be able to do anything more.
"I'll look after the boy, never fear," said Perez, slapping his brother on the back. "I'll fetch him back a General, as big a man as Squire Woodbridge."
"I dunno what 'n time I shall dew 'bout gittin in the crops," whimpered Elnathan. "I can't dew it 'lone, nohow. Seems though my rheumatiz wuz wuss 'n ever, this las' spell o' weather."
"There goes Abner Rathbun, and George Fennell," cried Perez. "Time we were off. Good-bye mother. There! There! Don't you cry, mother. We'll be back all right. Got your gun, Reub? Good-bye father. Come on," and the boys were off.
In seeming sympathy with the sudden grief that has fallen on the village, the bright promise of the morning has given place in the last hour to one of those sudden rain storms to which a mountainous region is always liable, and a cold drizzle is now falling. But that does not hinder every one who has friends among the departing soldiers, or sympathy with the cause represented, from gathering on the green to witness the muster and march of the men. All the leading men and the officials of the town and parish are there, including the two Indian selectmen, Johannes Metoxin and Joseph Sauquesquot. Squire Edwards, Deacon Nash, Squire Williams and Captain Josiah Jones, brother-in-law of Squire Woodbridge, are going about among the tearful groups, of one of which each soldier is a centre, reassuring and encouraging both those who go, and those who stay, the ones with the promise that their wives and children and parents shall be looked after and cared for, the others with confident talk of victory and speedy reunions.
Squire Edwards tells Elnathan, who with Mrs. Hamlin has come down to the green, that he needn't fret about the mortgage on his house, and Deacon Nash tells him that he'll see that his crops are saved, and George Fennell, who, with his wife and daughter, stands by, is assured by the Squire, that they shall have what they want from the store. There is not a plough-boy among the minute men who is not honored today with a cordial word or two, or at least a smile, from the magnates who never before have recognized his existence.
And proud in her tears, to-day, is the girl who has a sweetheart among the soldiers. Shy girls, who for fear of being laughed at, have kept a secret of their inclinations, now grown suddenly bold, cry, as they talk with their lovers, and refuse not the parting kiss. Desire Edwards, the Squire's daughter, as she moves among the groups, and sees these things, is stirred with envy and thinks she would give anything if she, too, had a sweetheart to bid good-bye to. But she is only fifteen, and Squire Edwards' daughter, moreover, to whom no rustic swain dares pretend. Then she bethinks herself that one has timidly, enough, so pretended. She knows that Elnathan Hamlin's son, Perez, is dreadfully in love with her. He is better bred than the other boys, but after all he is only a farmer's son, and while pleased with his conquest as a testimony to her immature charms, she has looked down upon him as quite an inferior order of being to herself. But just now he appears to her in the desirable light of somebody to bid good-bye to, to the end that she may be on a par with the other girls whom she so envies. So she looks about for Perez.
And he, on his part, is looking about for her. That she, the Squire's daughter, as far above him as a star, would care whether he went or stayed, or would come to say good-bye to him, he had scarcely dared to think. And yet how deeply has that thought, which he has scarcely dared own, tinged all his other thinking! The martial glory that has so dazzled his young imagination, how much of its glitter was but reflected from a girl's eyes. As he looks about and not seeing her, says, "She does not care, she will not come," the sword loses all its sheen, and the nodding plume its charm, and his dreams of self-devotion all their exhilaration.
"I came to bid you good-bye, Perez," says a voice behind him.
He wheels about, red, confused, blissful. Desire Edwards, dark and sparkling as a gypsy, stands before him with her hand outstretched. He takes it eagerly, timidly. The little white fingers press his big brown ones. He does not feel them there; they seem to be clasping his heart. He feels the ecstatic pressure there.
"Fall in," shouts Captain Woodbridge, for the Squire himself is their captain.
There is a tumult of embraces and kisses all around. Reuben kissed his mother.
"Will you kiss me, Desire?" said Perez, huskily, carried beyond himself, scarcely knowing what he said, for if he had realized he never would have dared.
Desire looked about, and saw all the women kissing their men. The air was electric.
"Yes," she said, and gave him her red lips, and for a moment it seemed as if the earth had gone from under his feet. The next thing he knew he was standing in line, with Reub on one side, and George Fennell on the other and Abner Rathbun's six feet three towering at one end of the line, while Parson West was standing on the piazza of the store, praying for the blessing of God on the expedition.
"Amen," the parson said, and Captain Woodbridge's voice rang out again. The lines faced to the right, filed off the green at quick step, turned into the Pittsfield road, and left the women to their tears.