The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 14

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The Duke of Stockbridge by Edward Bellamy
CHAPTER FOURTEETH
PEREZ GOES TO MEETING

The very next day, as Squire Edwards and his family were sitting down to dinner, the eldest son Jonathan, a fine young fellow of sixteen, came in late with a blacked eye and torn clothes.

"My son," said Squire Edwards, sternly, "why do you come to the table in such a condition? What have you been doing?"

"I've been fighting Obadiah Weeks, sir, and I whipped him, too."

"And I shall whip you, sir, and soundly," said his father, with the Jove-like frown of the eighteenth century parent. "What have I told you about fighting? Go to your room, and wait for me there. You will have no dinner."

The boy turned on his heel without a word, and went out and up to his room. In the course of the afternoon, Squire Edwards was as good as his word. When he had come downstairs, after the discharge of his parental responsibilities, and gone into the store, Desire slipped up to Jonathan's room with a substantial luncheon under her apron. He was her favorite brother, and it was her habit thus surreptitiously to temper justice with mercy on occasions like the present. The lively satisfaction with which the youth hailed her appearance, gave ground to the suspicion that an empty stomach had been causing him more discomfort than a reproving conscience. As Desire was arranging the viands on the table she expressed a hope that the paternal correction had not been more painful than usual. The boy began to grin.

"Don't you fret about father's lickins," he said, "I'd just as lieve he'd lick me all day if he'll give me a couple o' minutes to get ready in. How many pair o' trowsers do you s'pose I've got on?"

"One, of course."

"Four," replied Jonathan, laying one forefinger by the side of his nose and winking at his sister. "I was sort of sorry for father, he got so tuckered trying to make me cry. Jimmeny, though, that veal pie looks good. I should hated to have lost that. You was real good to fetch it up.

"T'was only fair, though, this time," he continued, with his mouth full, "for t'was on 'count o' you I got to fightin."

"What do you mean?" said she.

"Why, Obadiah's been tellin the biggest set o' lies about you I ever heard of. He's been tellin em all over town. He said you went over to Elnathan Hamlin's, Wednesday, and got down on your knees to that Cap'n Hamlin, so's to get him not to have no more o' those horse-fiddles in front of Uncle's and our houses. You better believe I walloped him well, if he is bigger than me."

Jonathan, busy with eating, had not observed his sister's face during this recital, but now he said, glancing up:

"What on earth do you s'pose put such a lie into his head?"

"It isn't all a lie, Jonathan."

The boy laid down his knife and fork, and stared at her aghast.

"You don't mean you was over there?" he exclaimed.

Desire's face was crimson to the roots of her hair. She bowed her head.

"Wh-a-a-t!" said Jonathan, in a tone of utter disgust, tempered only by a remnant of incredulity.

"I didn't go on my knees to him," said Desire faintly.

"Oh, you didn't, didn't you? I believe you did," said the boy slowly, with an accent of ineffable scorn, rising to his feet and drawing away from his sister, as she seemed about to approach him.

Before the lad of sixteen, his elder sister, who had carried him in her arms as a baby, and been his teacher as a boy, stood like a culprit, quite abject. Finally she said:

"I didn't do it for myself. I did it for Aunt Lucy. The doctor said it would kill her if she was kept awake another night, and there was no other way to stop the mob. And so I did it."

"Was that the way?" said the boy, evidently staggered by this unexpected plea, and seeming quite at loss what to say.

"Yes," said Desire, rallying a little. "You might know it was. Do you think I'd do it any other way? I couldn't see Aunty die, could I?"

"No-o, darn it. I s'pose not," replied Jonathan slowly, as if he were not quite sure. His face wore a puzzled expression, the problem offered by this conflict of ethical obligations with caste sentiment being evidently too much for his boyish intellect. Evidently he had not inherited his grandfather's metaphysical faculty. Finally, with an air of being entirely posed, and losing interest in the subject, he sat down on the edge of his bed and abruptly closed the interview by observing:

"I'm going to take off some of these trowsers. They're too hot." Desire discreetly went out.

The only point in the observance of Sunday by the forefathers of New England, which is still generally practiced in these degenerate days, namely, the duty of sleeping later than usual that morning, was transgressed in at least one Stockbridge household on the Lord's Day following. Captain Perez Hamlin was up betimes and busy about house and barns. Since he had returned home he had taken the responsibility of all the chores about the place from the enfeebled shoulders of his father, besides supplying the place of man nurse to the invalids. This morning he had risen earlier than usual because he wanted to do up all the work before time for meeting.

It would have been easy for any one whose eye had followed him at his work, to see that his mind was preoccupied. Now he would walk about briskly, with head in the air, whistling as he went, or talking to the horse and cow, and anon bursting out laughing at his own absent-mindedness, as he found he had given the horse the cow's food, or put the meal into the water bucket. And again you would have certainly thought that he was fishing for the frogs at the bottom of the well instead of drawing water, so long did he stand leaning over the well-curb, before he bethought himself to loose his hold on the rope and let the ponderous well-sweep bring up the bucket.

He had not seen Desire Edwards since the Wednesday afternoon when she had called, but he knew he should see her at meeting. It was she who was responsible for the daydreaming way in which he was going about this morning, and for a good deal of previous daydreaming and night dreaming, too, in the last few days. The analogy of the tender passion to the chills and fever, had been borne out in his case by the usual alternations of complacency and depression. He told himself, that since he remembered so well his boyish courtship of her, she, too, doubtless remembered it. A woman was even more likely than a man to remember such things. Doubtless, she remembered too, that kiss she had given him. Her coming to him to ask his protection for her aunt, if she remembered those passages had some significance. She must have known that he would also remember them, and surely that would have deterred her from reopening their acquaintance had she found the reminiscences in question disagreeable. He assured himself that had it been wholly unpleasant for her to meet him, she would have been shrewd enough to devise some other way of securing the purpose of her visit. She had remained unmarried all the time of his absence, although she must have had suitors. Perhaps--well if this conjecture sounded a little conceited, be sure it was alternated with others self-depreciatory enough to balance it. But I have no space or need to describe the familiar process of architecture, by which with a perhaps for a keystone, possibilities for pillars, and dreams for pinnacles, lovers are wont to rear in a few idle hours, palaces outdazzling Aladdin's. I shall more profitably give a word or two of explanation to another point. Those familiar with the aristocratic constitution of New England society at this period, will perhaps deem it strange that the social gulf between the poor farmer's son, like Perez, and the daughter of one of the most distinguished families in Berkshire, should not have sufficed to deter the young man from indulging aspirations in that direction.

Perhaps, if he had grown up at home, such might have been the case, despite his boyish fondness for the girl. But the army of the revolution had been for its officers and more intelligent element, a famous school of democratic ideas. Perez was only one of thousands, who came home deeply imbued with principles of social equality; principles, which, despite finely phrased manifestoes and declarations of independence, were destined to work like a slow leaven for generations yet, ere they transformed the oligarchical system of colonial society, into the democracy of our day. It is true that, Paul Hubbard, Abner, Peleg, Meshech, and the rest, had been like Perez in the army, and yet the democratic impressions they had there received, now that they had returned home, served only to exasperate them against the pretensions of the superior class, without availing to eradicate their inbred instincts of servility in the presence of the very men they hated. Precisely this self-contemptuous recognition of his own servile feeling, operating on a morose temper, was the key to Hubbard's special bitterness toward the silk stockings. That Perez had none of this peasant's instinct, must, after all, be partly ascribed to the fact that his descent, by his mother's side, had been a gentleman's, and as Reuben had taken after Elnathan, so Perez was his mother's boy. He felt himself a gentleman, although a farmer's son. The air of dainty remoteness and distinction, which invested Desire in his imagination, was by virtue of her womanhood, solely, not as the representative of a higher class. He was penniless, she was rich, but to that sufficiently discouraging obstacle, no paralyzing sense of caste inferiority was added, in his mind.

Despite the dilatory and absent-minded procedure of the young man, by the time Prudence came out to call him in to the breakfast of fried pork and johnny-cake, the chores were done, and afterwards he had only to concern himself with his toilet. He stood a long time gazing ruefully at his coat, so sadly threadbare and white in the seams. It was his only one, and very old, but Prudence thought, when with a sigh he finally drew it on, that she had never seen so fine a soldier, and, indeed, the coat did look much better on than off, for a gallant bearing will, to some extent, redeem the most dilapidated attire.

Reuben had grown stronger from day to day, and though still weak, it was thought that he could well enough take care of George Fennell, during the forenoon, and allow the rest of the family to go to meeting. Perez had tinkered up the old cart, and contrived a harness out of ropes, by which his own horse could be attached to it, the farm horse having been long since sold off, and Mrs. Hamlin, who by reason of infirmities, had long been debarred from the privileges of the sanctuary, expected to be able by this means, to be present there this morning, to offer up devout thanksgiving for the mercy which had so wonderfully, in one week, restored her two sons to her.

It was half-past nine when the air was filled with a deep musical, melancholy sound, which appeared to come from the hill north of the village, where the meeting-house stood. It lasted, perhaps, five seconds, beginning with a long crescendo, and quivering into silence by an equally prolonged diminuendo. It was certainly an astonishing sound but none of the family appeared in the least agitated, Elnathan merely remarking:

"Thar's the warnin blow, Perez, I guess ye better be thinkin baout hitchin up." It were a pity indeed if the people of Stockbridge had not by that time become familiar with the sound of the old Indian conch-shell which since the mission church was founded at the first settlement of the town had served instead of a meeting-house bell. It may be well believed that strong lungs were the first requisite in sextons of that day. When an hour later the same dreary wail filled the valley once more with its weird echoes, the family was on its way to meeting, Mrs. Hamlin and Elnathan in the cart, and Perez with Prudence on foot. The congregation was now rapidly arriving from every direction, and the road was full of people. There were men on horseback with their wives sitting on a pillion behind, and clasping the conjugal waistband for security, families in carts, and families trudging afoot, while here and there the more pretentious members of the congregation were seen in chaises.

The new meeting-house on the hill had been built during Perez' absence, to supersede the old church on the green, with which his childish associations were connected. It had been erected directly after the close of the war and the effort in addition to the heavy taxation then necessary for public purposes, was such a drain on the resources of the town, as to have been a serious local aggravation of the distress of the times. According to the rule in church building religiously adhered to by the early New Englanders, the bleakest spot within the town limits had been selected for the meetinghouse. It was a white barn-shaped structure, fifty feet by sixty, with a steeple, the pride of the whole countryside, sixty-two feet high, and tipped with a brass rooster brought from Boston, by way of weather vane.

Perez and Prudence separating at the door went to the several places which Puritan decorum assigned to those of the spinster and bachelor condition respectively, the former going into the right hand gallery, the other into the left, exceptions being however made in behalf of the owners of the square pews, who enjoyed the privilege of having their families with them in the house of God. Across the middle of the end gallery Dr. Partridge's square pew extended, so that by no means might the occupants of the two side galleries come within whispering distance of each other.

Obadiah Weeks, Abe Konkapot and Abner, who was a a widower and classed himself with bachelors, and a large number of other younger men whom Perez recognized as belonging to the mob under his leadership on Tuesday, were already in their seats. Fidgeting in unfamiliar boots and shoes, and meek with plentifully greased and flatly plastered hair, there was very little in the subdued aspect of these young men to remind any one of the truculent rebels who a few days before had shaken their bludgeons in the faces of the Honorable the Justices of the Common Pleas. As Perez entered the seat with them, they recognized him with sheepish grins, as much as to say, "We're all in the same box," quite as the occupants of a prisoner's dock might receive a fellow victim thrust in with them by the sheriff. Obadiah reached out his clenched first with something in it, and Perez putting forth his hand, received therein a lot of dried caraway seeds. "Thort mebbe ye hadn't got no meetin seed," whispered Obadiah.

Owing to the fact that nine years absence from home had weaned him somewhat from native customs, Perez had, in fact, forgotten to lay in a supply of this inestimable simple, to the universal use of which by our forefathers during religious service, may probably be ascribed their endurance of Sabbatical and doctrinal rigors to which their descendants are confessedly unequal. It is well known that their knowledge of the medicinal uses of common herbs was far greater than ours, and it was doubtless the discovery of some secret virtue, some occult theological reaction, if I may so express myself, in the seeds of the humble caraway, which led to the undeviating rule of furnishing all the members of every family, from children to grey heads, with a small quantity to be chewed in the mouth and mingled with the saliva during attendance on the stated ordinances of the Gospel. Whatever may be thought of this theory, the fact will not be called in question that in the main, the relaxation of religious doctrine and Sabbath observance in New England, has proceeded side by side with the decline in the use of meetin seed.

In putting all the young men together in one gallery, it may be thought that some risk was incurred of making that a quarter of disturbance. But if the tithingman, with his argus-eyes and long rod were not enough to insure propriety, the charming rows of maidens on the seats of the gallery directly opposite could have been relied on to complete the work. The galleries were very deep, and the distance across the meeting house, from the front seat of one to that of the other, was not over twenty-five feet. At this close range, reckoning girls' eyes to have been about as effective then as they are now-a-days, it may be readily inferred what havoc must have been wrought on the bachelors' seats in the course of a two hour service. After being exposed to such a fire all day, it was no wonder at all, quite apart from other reasons, that on Sunday night the young men found their ardor inflamed to a pitch at which an interview with the buxom enslaver became a necessity.

The singers sat in the front seat of the galleries, the bass singers in the front seat on the bachelors' side, the treble in the front seat on the spinsters' side, and the alto and tenor singers in the wings of the end gallery, separated by Dr. Partridge's pew. For, as in most New England churches at this date, the "old way," of purely congregational singing by "lining out," had given place to select choirs, an innovation however, over which the elder part of the people still groaned and croaked. On the back seats of the end gallery, behind the tenors and altos respectively sat the negro freedmen and freedwomen, the Pomps and Cudjos, the Dinahs and Blossoms. Sitting by Prudence, among the treble singers, Perez noticed a young Indian girl of very uncommon beauty, and refinement of features, her dark olive complexion furnishing a most perfect foil to the blooming face of the white girl.

"Who's that girl by Prudence Fennell?" he whispered to Abe Konkapot, who sat beside him. The young Indian's bronze face flushed darkly, as he replied:

"That's Lucretia Nimham."

Perez was about to make further inquiries, when it flashed on him that this was the girl, whom Obadiah had jokingly alluded to as the reason why Abe had lingered in Stockbridge, instead of moving out to York State with his tribe. She certainly was a very sufficient reason for a man's doing or not doing almost anything.

From his position in the gallery, Perez could look down on the main body of the congregation below, and his cheek flushed with anger as he saw his father and mother occupying one of the seats in the back part of the room, in the locality considered least in honor, according to the distinctions followed by the parish committee, in periodically reseating the congregation, or "dignifying the seats," as the people called it. Considerably nearer the pulpit, and in seats of correspondingly greater dignity, he recognized Israel Goodrich and Ezra Phelps, the two men of chiefest estate among the insurgents. Directly under and before the pulpit, almost beneath it, in fact, facing the people from behind a sort of railing, sat Deacon Nash. His brother deacon, no less an one than Squire Timothy Edwards, has not yet arrived.

As he looked over the fast filling house, for he and Prudence had arrived rather early, he met many eyes fixed curiously upon him. Sometimes a whisper would pass along a seat, from person to person, till one after another, the entire row had turned and stared intently at him. It was fame.