The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 18

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The Duke of Stockbridge by Edward Bellamy
CHAPTER EIGHTEENTH
LEX TALIONIS

The plan which Perez had formed for forestalling his adversaries and visiting upon their own heads the fate they had prepared for him, was very simple. He proposed to go down into the village with Abe and Lu and with their assistance, to call up, without waking anybody else, some forty or fifty of the most determined fellows of the rebel party. With the aid of these, he intended as noiselessly as possible, to enter the houses of Woodbridge, Edwards, Deacon Nash, Captain Stoddard and others, and arrest them in their beds, simultaneously seizing the town stock of muskets and powder, and conveying it to a guarded place, so that when the conspirators' party assembled at three o'clock, they might find themselves at once without arms or officers, their leaders hostages in the hands of the enemy, and their design completely set at naught. Thanks to the excesses of the past week or two, there were many more than forty men in the village who, knowing that the restoration of law and order meant a sharp reckoning for them, would stop at nothing to prevent it, and Perez could thus command precisely the sort of followers he wanted for his present undertaking.

For generations after, in certain Stockbridge households, the story in grandmother's repertoire most eagerly called by the young folks on winter evenings, was about how the "Regulators" came for grandpa; how at dead of night the heavy tramp of men and the sound of rough voices in the rooms below, awoke the children sleeping overhead and froze their young blood with fear of Indians; how at last mustering courage, they crept downstairs, and peeking into the living-room saw it full of fierce men, with green boughs in their hats, the flaring candles gleaming upon their muskets and bayonets, and the drawn sword of their captain; while in the midst, half-dressed and in his nightcap, grandpa was being hustled about.

Leaving these details to the imagination, suffice it to say that Perez' plan, clearly-conceived and executed with prompt, relentless vigor, was perfectly successful, and so noiselessly carried out, that excepting those families whose heads were arrested by the soldiers, the village as a whole, had no suspicion that anything in particular was going on, until waking up the next morning, the people found squads of armed men on guard at the street corners, and sentinels pacing up and down before the Fennell house, that building left vacant by Gleason's ejection, having been selected by Perez for the storage of his prisoners and the stores he had confiscated. As the people ran together on the green, to learn the reason of these strange appearances, and the story passed from lip to lip what had been the plot against their newly-acquired liberties, and the persons of their leaders, and by what a narrow chance, and by whose bold action the trouble had been averted, the sensation was prodigious. The tendency of public opinion which had been inclining to sympathize a little with the abuse the silk stockings had been undergoing the past week, was instantly reversed, now that the so near success of their plot once more made them objects of terror. The exasperation was far more general and profound than had been excited by the previous attempt to restore the old order of things, in the case of the sale of David Joy's house. This was more serious business. Every man who had been connected with the rebellion, felt in imagination the lash on his back, and white faces were plenty among the stoutest of them. And what they felt for themselves, you may be sure their wives and children and friends felt for them, with even greater intensity. As now and then the wife or child of one of the prisoners in the guard house, with anxious face, timidly passed through the throng, on the way to make inquiries concerning the welfare of the husband or father, black looks and muttered curses followed them, and the rude gibes with which the sentinels responded to their anxious, tearful questionings, were received with hoarse laughter by the crowd.

As Perez, coming forth for some purpose, appeared at the door of the Fennell house, there was a great shout of acclamation, the popular ratification of the night's work. But an even more convincing demonstration of approval awaited him. As he began to make his way through the throng, Submit Goodrich, Old Israel's buxom, black-eyed daughter, confronted him, saying:

"My old daddy'd a been in the stocks by this time if it hadn't been for you, so there," and throwing her arms around his neck she gave him a resounding smack on the lips. Meshech Little's wife followed suit, and then Peleg Bidwell's and a lot of other women of the people, amid the uproarious plaudits of the crowd, which became deafening as Resignation Ann Poor, Zadkiel's wife, elbowed her way through the pack and clasping the helpless Perez against her bony breast in a genuine bear's hug, gave him a kiss like a file.

"Well, I never," ejaculated Prudence Fennell, who was bringing some breakfast to Perez, and had observed all this kissing with a rather sour expression.

Unluckily for her, Submit overheard the words.

"You never, didn't you? an livin in the same haouse long with him too? Wal it's time you did," she exclaimed loudly, and seizing the struggling girl she thrust her before Perez, holding down her hands so that she could not cover her furiously blushing face, and amid the boisterous laughter of the bystanders she was kissed also, a proceeding which evidently pleased Obadiah Weeks, who stood near, as little as the other part had pleased Prudence. As Submit released her and she rushed away, Obadiah followed her.

"Haow'd ye like it?" he said, with a sickly grin of jealous irony. "I see ye didn' cover yer face very tight, he! he! Took keer to leave a hole, he! he!"

The girl turned on him like a flash and gave him a resounding slap on the cheek.

"Take that, you great gumph!" she exclaimed.

"Wha'd ye wanter hit a feller fer?" whined Obadiah, rubbing the smitten locality. "Gol darn it, I hain't done nothin to ye. Ye didn' slap him wen he kissed ye, darn him. Guess t'ain't the fuss time he's done it, nuther."

Prudence turned her back to him and walked off, but Obadiah, his bashfulness for the moment quite forgotten in his jealous rage, followed her long enough to add:

"Oh ye needn' think I hain't seen ye settin yer cap fer him all 'long, an he ole nuff tew be yer dad. S'pose ye thort ye'd git him, bein in the same haouse long with him, but ye hain't made aout. He's goin tew York an he don' keer no more baout yew nor the dirt unner his feet. He ez good's tole me so."

"Thar comes Abner Rathbun," said some one in the group around Perez. With heavy eyes, testifying to his debauch over night, and a generally crestfallen appearance, the giant was approaching from the tavern, where he had presumably been bracing up with a little morning flip.

"A nice sorter man you be Abner, fer yer neighbors to be a trustin ter look aout fer things," said an old farmer, sarcastically.

"Ef 't hadn't been fer Cap'n Hamlin thar, the constable would 'a waked ye up this mornin with the eend of a gad," said another.

"You'll have to take in your horns a little, after this, Abner. It won't do to be putting on any more airs," remarked a third.

"Go ahead," said Abner, ruefully, "I hain't got nothin ter say. Ye kin sass me all ye wanter. Every one on ye kin take yer hack at me. I'm kinder sorry thar ain't any on ye big nuff ter kick me, fer I orter be kicked."

"Never mind, Abner," said Perez, pitying his humiliated condition. "Anybody may get too much flip now and then. We missed you, but we managed to get through with the job all right."

"Cap'n," said Abner, "I was bleeged ter ye w'en ye pulled them two Britshers or'fer me tew Stillwater, but that ain't a sarcumstance to the way I be bleeged to ye this mornin, fer it's all your doins, and no thanks ter me, that I ain't gittin ten lashes this very minute, with all the women a snickerin at the size o' my back. I hev been kinder cocky, an I hev put on some airs, ez these fellers says, fer I callated ye'd kinder washed yer hands o' this business, an leff me tew be capin, but arter this ye'll fine Abner Rathbun knows his place."

"You were quite right about it, Abner. I have washed my hands of the business. I am going to take my folks out to York State. I meant to start this morning. If the silk stockings had waited till to-night they wouldn't have found me in their way."

"I callate twuz Providenshil they did'n wait, fer we'd 'a been gone suckers sure ez ye hedn't been on hand to dew wat ye did," said one of the men. "Thar ain't another man in town ez could a did it, or would dast try."

"But ye ain't callatin ter go arter this be ye, Perez?" said Abner.

"This makes no difference. I expect to get off to-morrow," replied Perez.

"Ye shan't go, not ef I hold ye," cried Mrs. Poor, edging up to him as if about to secure his person on the spot.

"Ef ye go the res' on us mout 's well go with ye, fer the silk stockins 'll hev it all ther own way then," remarked a farmer, gloomily.

"I don't think the silk stockings will try any more tricks right off," said Perez, grimly. "I propose to give em a lesson this morning, which they'll be likely to remember for one while."

"What be ye a gonter dew to em?" asked Abner, eagerly.

"Well," said Perez, deliberately, as every eye rested on him. "You see they had set their minds on havin some whipping done this morning, and I don't propose to have em disappointed. I'm going to do to them as they would have done to us. The whipping will come off as soon as Abe can find Little Pete to handle the gad. I sent him off some time ago. I don' see what's keeping him."

His manner was as quiet and matter-of-course as if he were proposing the most ordinary sort of forenoon occupation, and when he finished speaking he walked away without so much as a glance around to see how the people took it. It was nevertheless quite worth observing, the fascinated stare with which they looked after him, and then turned to fix on each other. It was Abner who, after several moments of dead silence, said in an awed voice, like a loud whisper:

"He's a gonter whip em." And Obadiah almost devoutly murmured, "By Gosh!"

The men who stood around, were intensely angry with the prisoners, for their plot to arrest and whip them, but the idea of retaliating in kind, by whipping the prisoners themselves, had not for an instant occurred to the boldest. The prisoners were gentlemen, and the idea of whipping a gentleman just as if he were one of themselves, was something the most lawless of them had never entertained. Education, precedent, and innate caste sentiment had alike precluded the idea. But after the first sensation of bewilderment had passed, it was evident that the shock which the popular mind had received from Perez' words, was not wholly disagreeable, but rather suggestive of a certain shuddering delight. The introspective gleam which shone in everybody's eye, betrayed the half-scared pleasure with which each in his own mind was turning over the daring imagination.

"Wy not, arter all?" said Meshech Little, hesitatingly, as if his logic didn't convince himself. "They wuz gonter lick us. They'd a had us licked by this time. It's tit for tat."

"I s'pose Goramity made our backs as well as theirn," observed Abner. "The on'y odds is in the kind o' coats we wears. Ourn ain't so fine ez theirn, but it's the back an not the coat that gits licked. Arter Pete has tuk orf ther coats thar won't be no odds."

The chuckle with which this was received, showed how fast the people were yielding to the awful charm of the thought.

"Dew yew s'pose Cap'n really dass dew it?" asked Obadiah.

"Dew it? Yes he'll dew it, you better b'lieve. Did yer see the set of his jaw w'en he wuz talkin so quiet-like baout lickin em? I wuz in the army with Perez, an I know his ways. W'en he sets his jaw that air way I don' keer to git in his way, big ez I be. He'll dew it ef he doos it with his own hands. He's pison proud, Perez is, an I guess the idee they wuz callatin tew hev him licked, hez kinder riled him."

As the people talked, their hearts began to burn. The more they thought of it, the more the idea fascinated them. Jests and hilarious comments, which betrayed a temper of delighted expectancy, soon began to be bandied about.

In ten minutes more, this very crowd which had received in shocked silence the first suggestion of whipping the gentlemen, had so set their fancy on that diversion that it would have been hard balking them. It must be remembered that this was a hundred years ago. The weekly spectacle of the cruel punishment of the lash, and the scarcely less painful and disgraceful infliction of the stocks and the pillory left in their minds no possibility for any revolt of mere humane sentiment against the proposed doings, such as a modern assembly would experience. To men and women who had learned from childhood to find a certain brutish titillation in beholding the public humiliation and physical anguish of their acquaintances and fellow-townsmen, the prospect of seeing the scourge actually applied to the backs of envied and hated social superiors, could not be otherwise than delightfully agitating.

Nor were there lacking supplies of Dutch courage for the timid. Among the town stores seized and conveyed to the Fennell house the night before, had been several casks of rum. One of these had been secretly sequestrated by some of the men and hidden in a neighboring barn. The secret of its whereabouts had been, in drunken confidence, conveyed from one man to another, with the consequence that pretty much all the men were rapidly getting drunk. Shortly after Perez had communicated his intention to the people, Paul Hubbard, with thirty or forty of the iron-workers, armed with bludgeons, arrived from West Stockbridge. Some rumor of the doings of the previous night had reached there, and he had hastily rallied his myrmidons and come down, not knowing but there might be some fighting to be done.

"Paul 'll be nigh tickled to death to hear of the whippin," said Abner, seeing him coming. "If he had his way he'd skin the silk stockins, an make whips out o' their own hides to whip em with. He don't seem to love em somehow 'nuther, wuth a darn." Nor was Paul's satisfaction at the news any less than Abner had anticipated. Presently he burst into the room in the Fennell house, which Perez had appropriated as a sort of headquarters, and wrung his rather indifferent hand with an almost tremulous delight.

"Bully for you, Hamlin, bully for you, by the Lord I didn't s'pose you had the mettle to do it. Little Pete is just the man for the business, but if he don't come, you can have one of my Welshmen. I s'pose most of the Stockbridge men wouldn't quite dare, but just wait till after the whipping. They won't be afraid of the bigwigs any longer. That'll break the charm. Little Pete's whip will do more to make us free and equal than all the swords and guns in Berkhire." And Hubbard went out exultant.

As he was leaving, he met no less an one than Parson West coming in, and wearing rather a discomfited countenance. The parson had been used, as parsons were in those days, to a good deal of deference from his flock, and the lowering looks and covered heads of the crowd about the door were disagreeable novelties. No institution in the New England of that day was, in fact, more strictly aristocratic than the pulpit. Its affiliations were wholly with the governing and wealthy classes, and its tone with the common people as arrogant and domineering as that of the magistracy itself. And though Parson West was personally a man of unusual affability toward the poor and lowly, it was impossible in a time like this that one of his class should not be regarded with suspicion and aversion by the popular party.

"I would have word with your captain," he said to the sentinel at the door.

"He's in thar," said the soldier, pointing to the door of the headquarters' room. Perez, who was walking to and fro, turned at the opening door and respectfully greeted the parson.

"Are you the captain of the armed band without?"

"I am."

"You have certain gentlemen in confinement, I have heard. I came to see you on account of an extraordinary report that you had threatened to inflict a disgraceful public chastisement upon their persons. No doubt the report is erroneous. You surely could not contemplate so cruel and scandalous a proceeding?"

"The report is entirely true, reverend sir. I am but waiting for a certain Hessian drummer who will wield the lash."

"But man," exclaimed the parson, "you have forgotten that these are the first men in the county. They are gentlemen of distinguished birth and official station. You would not whip them like common offenders. It is impossible. You are beside yourself. Such a thing was never heard of. It is most criminal, most wicked. As a minister of the gospel I protest! I forbid such a thing," and the little parson fairly choked with righteous indignation.

"These men, if they had succeeded in their plan last night, would have whipped me, and a score of others to-day. Would you have protested against that?"

"That is different. They would have proceeded against you as criminals, according to law."

"No doubt they would have proceeded according to law," replied Perez, with a bitter sneer. "They have been proceeding according to law for the past six years here in Berkshire, and that's why the people are in rebellion. I'm no lawyer, but I know that Perez Hamlin is as good as Jahleel Woodbridge, whatever the parson may think, and what he would have done to me, shall be done to him."

"That is not the rule of the gospel," said the minister, taking another tack. "Christ said if any man smite you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."

"If that is your counsel, take it to those who are likely to need it. I am going to do the smiting this time, and it's their time to do the turning. They need not trouble themselves, however. Pete will see that they get it on both sides."

"And now sir," he added, "if you would like to see the prisoners to prepare them for what's coming, you are welcome to," and opening the door of the room he told the sentinel in the corridor to let the parson into the guard room, and the silenced and horrified man of God mechanically acting upon the hint went out and left him alone.

The imagination of the reader will readily depict the state of mind in which the families of the arrested gentlemen were left after the midnight visit of Perez' band. That there was no more sleep in those households that night will be easily understood. In the Edwards family the long hours till morning passed in praying and weeping by Mrs. Edwards and Desire, and the younger children. They scarcely dared to doubt that the husband and father was destined to violence or death at the hands of these bloody and cruel men. At dawn Jonathan, who, on trying to follow his father when first arrested, had been driven back with blows, went out again, and the tidings which he brought back, that the prisoners were confined in the Fennell house and as yet had undergone no abuse, somewhat restored their agitated spirits. An hour or two later the boy came tearing into the house, with white face, clenched fists and blazing eyes.

"What is it?" cried his mother and sister, half scared to death at his looks.

"They're going,"--Jonathan choked.

"They're going to have father whipped," he finally made out to articulate.

"Whipped!" echoed Desire, faintly and uncomprehendingly.

"Yes!" cried the boy hoarsely, "like any vagabond, stripped and whipped at the whipping-post."

"What do you mean?" said Mrs. Edwards, as she took Jonathan by the shoulder.

"They're going to whip father, and uncle, and all the others," he repeated, beginning to whimper, stout boy as he was.

"Whip father? You're crazy, Jonathan, you didn't hear right. They'd never dare! It can't be! Run and find out," cried Desire, wildly.

"There ain't any use. I heard the Hamlin fellow say so himself. They're going to do it. They said it's no worse than whipping one of them, as if they were gentlemen," blubbered Jonathan.

"Oh no! no! They can't, they won't," cried the girl in an anguished voice, her eyes glazed with tears as she looked appealingly from Jonathan to her mother, in whose faces there was little enough to reassure her.

"Don't, mother, you hurt," said Jonathan, trying to twist away from the clasp which his mother had retained upon his arm, unconsciously tightening it till it was like a vise.

"Whip my husband!" said she, slowly, in a hollow tone. "Whip him!" she repeated. "Such a thing was never heard of. There must be some mistake."

"There must be. There must be," exclaimed Desire again. "It can never be. They are not so wicked. That Hamlin fellow is bad enough, but oh he isn't bad enough for that. They would not dare. God would not permit it. Some one will stop them."

"There is no one to stop them. The people are all against us. They are glad of it. They are laughing. Oh! how I hate them. Why don't God kill them?" and with a prolonged, inarticulate roar of impotent grief and indignation, the boy threw himself flat on the floor, and burying his face in his arms sobbed and rolled, and rolled and sobbed, like one in a fit.

"I will go and have speech with this Son of Belial, Hamlin. It may be the Lord will give me strength to prevail with him," said Mrs. Edwards. "And if not, they shall not put me from my husband. I will bear the stripes with him, that he may never be ashamed before the wife of his bosom," and with a calm and self-controlled demeanor, she bestirred herself to make ready to go out.

"Let me go mother," said Desire, half hesitatingly.

"It is not your place my child. I am his wife," replied Mrs. Edwards.

"Yes mother, but Desire's so pretty, and this Hamlin fellow stopped the horse-fiddles just to please her, the other time," whimpered Jonathan. "Perhaps he'd let father off if she went. Do let her go mother."

The allusion to the stopping of the horse-fiddle was Greek to Mrs. Edwards, to whose ears the story had never come. But the present was not a time for general inquiries. It sufficed that she saw the main point, the persuasive power of beauty over mankind.

"It may be that you had better go," she said. "If you fail I will go myself to my husband, and meantime I shall be in prayer, that this cup may pass from us."

Hastily the girl gathered her beautiful disheveled hair into a ribbon behind, removed the traces of tears from her wild and terror-stricken eyes, and not stopping even for her hat, in her fear that she might be too late, left the house and made her way through the throng before the Fennell house. At sight of her pallid cheeks and set lips, the ribald jeer died on the lips even of the drunken, and the people made way for her in silence. It was not that they had ever liked her, or now sympathized with her. She had always held herself too daintily aloof from speech or contact with them for that, but they guessed her errand, and had a certain rude sense of the pathos of such a humiliation for the haughty Desire Edwards.