The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 4

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The Duke of Stockbridge by Edward Bellamy
CHAPTER FOURTH
THE PEOPLE ASK BREAD AND RECEIVE A STONE

As Captain Hamlin, leaving behind him Great Barrington and its tavern-jail, was riding slowly on toward Stockbridge, oblivious in the bitter tumult of his feelings, to the glorious scenery around him, Stockbridge Green was the scene of a quite unusual assemblage. Squire Sedgwick, the town's delegate, was expected back that afternoon from the county convention, which had been sitting at Lenox, to devise remedies for the popular distress, and the farmers from the outlying country had generally come into the village to get the first tidings of the result of its deliberations.

Seated on the piazza of the store, and standing around it, at a distance from the assemblage of the common people, suitably typifying their social superiority, was a group of the magnates of Stockbridge, in the stately dress of gentlemen of the olden time, their three-cornered hats resting upon powdered wigs, and long silk hose revealing the goodly proportions of their calves. Upon the piazza sits a short, portly gentleman, with bushy black eyebrows and a severe expression of countenance. Although a short man he has a way of holding his neck stiff, with the chin well out, and looking downward from beneath his eyelids, upon those who address him, which, with his pursed up lips, gives a decided impression of authority and unapproachableness. This is Jahleel Woodbridge, Esquire.

Parson West is standing on the ground in front of him, his silver headed cane tucked under one arm. His small person--he is not an inch over five feet tall--is as neatly dressed as if just taken out of a band-box, and his black, shining hose encase a leg and ankle which are the chaste admiration of the ladies of the parish, and the source, it is whispered, of no small complacency to the good man himself.

"What think you," he is saying to Squire Woodbridge, "will have been the action of the convention? Will it have emulated the demagogic tone of that at Hatfield, do you opine?"

"Let us hope not, Reverend Sir," responded the Squire, "but methinks it was inexpedient to allow the convention to meet, although Squire Sedgwick's mind was on that point at variance with mine. It is an easier matter to prevent a popular assembly than to restrain its utterances, when assembled."

"I trust," said the parson, looking around upon those standing near, "that we have all made it a subject of prayer, that the convention might be Providentially led to devise remedies for the inconveniences of the time, for they are sore, and the popular discontent is great."

"Nay, I fear 'tis past hoping for that the people will be contented with anything the convention may have done, however well considered," said Dr. Partridge. "They have set their hearts on some such miracle as that whereby Moses did refresh fainting Israel with water from the smitten rock. The crowd over yonder will be satisfied with nothing short of that from the convention," and the doctor waved his hand toward the people on the green, with a smile of tolerant contempt on his clean-cut, sarcastic, but not unkindly face.

"I much err," said Squire Woodbridge, "if the stocks and the whipping-post be not the remedy their discontent calls for. I am told that seditious and disorderly speech is common at the tavern of evenings. This presumption of the people to talk concerning matters of government, is an evil that has greatly increased since the war, and calls for sharp castigation. These numskulls must be taught their place or t'will shortly be no country for gentlemen to live in."

"A letter that I had but a day or two ago from my brother at Hatfield," said Dr. Partridge, "speaks of the people being much stirred up in Hampshire, so that some even fear an attempt of the mob to obstruct the court at Northampton, though my brother opined that their insolence would not reach so far. One Daniel Shays, an army captain, is spoken of as a leader."

Timothy Edwards, Esquire, a tall sharp featured man, with a wrinkled forehead, had come to the door of his store while the doctor was talking. I should vainly try to describe this stately merchant of the olden time, if the reader were to confound him, ever so little in his mind's eye, with the bustling, smiling, obsequious, modern storekeeper. Even a royal customer would scarcely have presumed so far as to ask this imposing gentleman, in powdered wig, snuff-colored coat, waistcoat and short clothes, white silk stockings and silver-buckled shoes, to cut off a piece of cloth or wrap up a bundle for him. It may be taken for granted that commercial enterprise, as illustrated in Squire Edwards' store, was entirely subservient to the maintenance of the proprietor's personal dignity. He now addressed Dr. Partridge:

"Said your brother anything of the report that the Tories and British emissaries are stirring up the popular discontent, to the end that reproach may be brought on the new government of the States, by revealing its weakness as compared with the King's?"

"Nay, of that he spoke not."

"For my part, I do fully believe it," resumed Edwards, "and, moreover, that this is but a branch of the British policy, looking toward the speedy reconquering of these States. It is to this end, also, that they are aiming to weaken us by drawing all the money out of the country, whereby, meanwhile, the present scarcity is caused."

"Methinks, good sir," replied the doctor, "the great expense of the war, and the public and private debts made thereby, with the consequential taxes and suits at law, do fully explain the lamentable state of the country, and the disquiet of the people, though it may be that the King has also designs against us."

"Nay," said the parson, in tones of gentle reproof, "these all be carnal reasons, whereby if we seek to explain the judgments of God, we do fail of the spiritual profiting we might find therein. For no doubt these present calamities are God's judgment upon this people for its sins, seeing it is well known that the bloody and cruel war now over, hath brought in upon us all manner of new and strange sins, even as if God would have us advertised how easily that liberty which we have gained may run into licentiousness. Sabbath-breaking and blasphemy have come in upon us like a flood, and the new and heinous sin of card-playing hath contaminated our borders, as hath been of late brought to light in the cases of Jerubbabel Galpin and Zedekiah Armstrong, who were taken in the act, and are even now in the stocks. And thereby am I reminded that I had purposed to improve this occasion for the reproof and admonition of them that stand by."

And thereupon the parson saluted the gentlemen and sedately crossed the green toward the stocks, around which was a noisy crowd of men and boys. As the parson approached, however, a respectful silence fell upon them. There was a general pulling off of hats and caps, and those in his path stood obsequiously aside, while the little children, slinking behind the grown folks, peeped around their legs at him. The two hobbledehoys in the stocks, loutish farmer's boys, had been already undergoing the punishment for about an hour. Their backs were bent so that their bodies resembled the letter U laid on its side, and their arms were strained as if they were pulling out of the sockets. All attempted bravado, all affectation of stoical indifference, all sense even of embarrassment, had evidently been merged in the demoralization of intense physical discomfort, and the manner in which they lolled their heads, first on one side and then on the other, was eloquent of abject and shameless misery. Standing directly in front of these hapless youths, and using them as his text, the parson began to admonish the people in this wise:

"It would seem the will of God to permit the adversary to try the people of Stockbridge with divers new and strange temptations, not known to our fathers, doubtless to the end, that their graces may shine forth the more clearly, even as gold tried in the fire hath a more excellent lustre, by reason of its discipline.

"I have examined myself with fasting, to see if any weakness or laxity in my office, as shepherd of this flock, might be the occasion of this license given to Satan. And it behooveth you, each in his own soul, and in his own household, to make inquisition lest some sin of his or theirs, bring this new temptation of card-playing, upon our people, even as the wedge of fine gold which Achan took and hid in his tent, did mightily discomfit the host of Israel with the plagues of the Lord. For even as for the sin of Adam, we are all justly chargeable, so for the sins of one another, doth the justice of God afflict us, so that we may find our account in watching over our brethren, even as over ourselves.

"And you, whom Satan hath led away captive," pursued the reverend orator, addressing himself to the young men in the stocks, "be ye thankful that ye have not been permitted to escape this temporal recompense of your transgression, which, if proved, may save you from the eternal flames of hell, Reflect, whether it be not better to endure for a season, the contempt and the chastisement of men, rather than to bear the torments and jeers of the devil and his angels forever."

"Behold," said the minister, holding up the pack of cards taken from the prisoners, "with what instruments Satan doth tempt mankind, and consider how perverse must be the inclination which can be tempted by devices that do so plainly advertise their devilish origin. At times Satan doth so shrewdly mask his wiles that if it were possible the very elect might be deceived, but how evidently doth he here reveal his handiwork."

He held up some of the court cards.

"Take note of these misshaped and deformed figures, heathenishly attired, and with no middle parts or legs, but with two heads turned diverse ways. These are not similitudes of man, who was made in the image of his Maker, but doubtless of fiends, revealed by Satan to the artificers who do his work in the fabrication of these instruments of sin. Mark these figures of diamonds and hearts, and these others, which I am told do signify spades and clubs. How plainly do they typify ill-gotten riches and bleeding hearts, violence and the grave. Wretched youths, which of ye tempted the other to this sin?"

"Je assed me to dew it," whimpered Zedekiah.

"Kiah, he assed me fust," averred Jerubbabel.

"No doubt ye are both right," said the minister sternly. "When two sin together, Satan is divided in twain, and the one half tempteth the other. See to it that ye sin not again on this wise, lest a worse thing come upon you."

Scarcely had the parson turned away, when a shout from some boys who had gone to the corner to watch for the coming of the Squire, announced his approach, and presently he appeared at the corner, riding a fine gray horse, and came on at an easy canter across the green. He was a tall, broad-shouldered, finely-proportioned man of about forty, with a refined face, frank and open, but rather haughty in expression, with piercing black eyes; a man in whose every gesture lay conscious power and obvious superiority. As he rode by the silent crowd, he acknowledged the salutations of the people with a courteous wave of the hand, but drew rein only when he reached the group of dignitaries about the store. There he dismounted and shook hands with the parson, who has rejoined the party, with Dr. Partridge, Squire Edwards and Squire Woodbridge.

"What news bring you from the convention? I trust you have been Providentially guided. I have not failed to remember you in my prayers," said the parson.

"For which I am deeply grateful, Reverend Sir," replied Sedgwick. "And truly I think your prayers have been effectual. The blessing of God has been manifestly upon the convention. Berkshire has not been disgraced, as have been the lower counties, by a seditious and incendiary body of resolutions on the part of her delegates. There were not wanting plenty of hot-heads, but they were overruled. I am convinced such might also have been the issue in the other counties, had the gentlemen put themselves forward as delegates, instead of leaving it all in a fit of disgust to the people."

"Was there any action taken in favor of the plan for the emission of bills, which shall systematically depreciate!" inquired Squire Woodbridge.

"Such a resolution was introduced by Thomas Gold of Pittsfield, a pestilent fellow, but we threw it out."

"What was the action on reduction of expenses of suits at law?" inquired Dr. Partridge.

"Again nothing," replied Sedgwick. "In a word, we refused to yield to any of the demands of the malcontents, or to hamper the Legislature with any specific recommendations. You know that we Berkshire people, thanks to our delay in recognizing the State authority, have an evil repute at Boston for a mobbish and ungovernable set. It seemed that this was a good opportunity, when the conventions of all the other counties were sending up seditious petitions, to make the moderation of our conduct such a contrast that there might be an end of such talk in the future."

Meanwhile, as it became apparent to the crowd on the green that they were not likely to be vouchsafed any information unless they asked for it, a brisk disputation, conducted in an undertone, so that it might not reach the ears of the gentlemen, arose as to who should be the spokesmen.

"I jess ez leeve go 's not," said Jabez Flint, the Tory, "only they wouldn' hev nothin tew say ter me ez wuz a Tory."

"Ef I were ten year younger, I'd go in a minute," said Israel Goodrich, "but my jints is kinder stiff. Abner, thar, he'd orter go, by rights."

"Why don' ye go, Abner? Ye ain't scairt o' speakin tew Squire, be ye!" said Peleg.

"I ain't scairt o' no man, and ye know it's well's ye wanter know. I'd go in a jiffey, only bein a young man, I don' like tew put myself forrard tew speak for them as is older."

"Why don' ye go yerself, Peleg, if ye be so dretful brave!" inquired Israel Goodrich.

"That's so, Peleg, why don' ye go?"

"I ain't no talker," said Peleg. "Ther's Ezry, he'd orter go, he's sech a good talker."

But Ezra swallowed the bait without taking the hook. "Tain't talkin ez is wanted, it's assin. Any on ye kin dew that's well's I," he discriminated.

The spirit of mutual deference was so strong that it is doubtful how long the contest of modesty might have continued, had not Laban Jones suddenly said:

"Ef none on ye dasn't ass what the convenshin has did, I'll ass myself. I'm more scairt o' my hungry babbies an I be o' the face o' any man."

Raising his stalwart figure to its full height, and squaring his shoulders as if to draw courage from a consciousness of his thews and sinews, Laban strode toward the store. But though he took the first steps strongly and firmly, his pace grew feebler and more hesitating as he neared the group of gentlemen, and his courage might have ebbed entirely, had not the parson, glancing around and catching his eye, given him a friendly nod. Laban thereupon came up to within a rod or two of the group, and taking off his cap, said in a small voice:

"Please we'd like ter know what the convenshin has did?"

Sedgwick, who had his back to him, turned quickly, and seeing Laban, said in a preemptory tone:

"Ah! Laban, you may tell your friends that the convention very wisely did nothing at all," and as he said this he turned to finish something that he was saying to Squire Woodbridge. Laban's jaw fell, and he continued to stand stock still for several moments, his dull features working as he tried to take in the idea. Finally, his consternation absorbing his timidity he said feebly:

"Nothin? Did you say, Squire?"

Sedgwick wheeled about with a frown, which however, changed into an expression of contemptuous pity as he saw the genuineness of the poor fellow's discomfiture.

"Nothing, Laban," he said, "except to resolve to support the courts, enforce the laws, and punish all disorderly persons. Don't forget that last, Laban, to punish all disorderly persons. Be sure to tell your friends that. And tell them, too, Laban, that it would be well for them to leave matters of government to their betters and attend to their farms," and as Laban turned mechanically and walked back Sedgwick added, speaking to the gentlemen about him:

"I like not this assembling of the people to discuss political matters. We must look to it, gentlemen, or we shall find that we have ridded ourselves of a king only to fall into the hands of a democracy, which I take it would be a bad exchange."

"Sir," said Edwards, "you must be in need of refreshment, after your ride. Come in, sir, and come in gentlemen, all. We shall discuss the Providential issue of the convention more commodiously within doors, over a suitable provision of Jamaica."

The suggestion seemed to be timely and acceptable, and one by one the gentlemen, standing aside with ceremonious politeness to let one another precede, entered the store, Parson West leading, for it was neither according to the requirements of decorum, or his own private tastes, that the minister should decline a convivial invitation of this character.

"What d'ee say, Laban?"

"What did they dew?"

"Did they 'bolish the loryers?"

"Wat did they dew baout more bills, Laban, hey?"

"What did they dew baout the taxes?"

"Why don't ye speak, man?"

"What's the matter on ye?" were some of the volley of questions with which the people hailed their chop-fallen deputy on his return, crowding forward around him, plucking his sleeves and pushing him to get his attention, for he regarded them with a dazed and sleep-walking expression. Finally he found his voice, and said:

"Squire says ez haow they didn' dew nothin."

There was a moment's dead silence, then the clamor burst out again.

"Not dew nothin?"

"What d'ye mean, Laban?"

"Nothin baout the taxes?"

"Nothin baout the loryers?"

"Nothin baout the sheriffs' fees?"

"Nothin baout jailin for debt?"

"Nothin baout takin prop'ty tew a valiation, Laban?"

"Nothin baout movin govment aout o' Bosting?"

"Nothin, I tells ye," answered Laban, in the same tone of utter discouragement. "Squire says ez haow the convenshin hain't done nothin 'cept tew resolve that ez courts sh'd go on an the laws sh'd be kerried aout an disorderly folks sh'd be punished."

The men looked from one to another of each other's faces, and each wore the same blank look. Finally Israel Goodrich said, nodding his head with an expression of utter dejection at each word:

"Wal, I swow, I be kinder disappinted."

There was a space of silence.

"So be I," said Peleg.

Presently Paul Hubbard's metallic voice was heard.

"We were fools not to have known it. Didn't we elect a General Court last year a purpose to do something for us, and come to get down to Bosting didn't the lawyers buy em up or fool em so they didn't do a thing? The people won't git righted till they take hold and right themselves, as they did in the war."

"Is that all the Squire said, Laban, every word?" asked Israel, and as he did so all eyes turned on Laban with a faint gleam of hope that there might yet be some crumb of comfort. Laban scratched his head.

"He said suthin baout govment bein none o' our business an haow we'd a better go hum an not be loafin roun'."

"Ef govment hain't no business o' ourn I'd like tew know what in time we fit the King fer," said Peleg.

"That's so, wy didn' ye ass Squire that queschin?" said Meshech Little.

"By gosh," exclaimed Abner Rathbun, with a sudden vehemence, "ef govment ain't no business o' ourn they made a mistake when they teached us that fightin was."

"What dew ye mean?" asked Israel half timorously.

"Never mind wat I mean," replied Abner, "on'y a wum 'll turn wen it's trod on."

"I don' bleeve but that Laban's mistook wat the Squire said. Ye ain't none tew clever, ye know, yerself, Laban, and I callate that ye didn' more'n half understan' wat Squire meant."

It was Ezra Phelps who announced this cheering view, which instantly found general favor, and poor Laban's limited mental powers were at once the topic of comments more plain spoken than flattering. Paul Hubbard, indeed, shook his head and smiled bitterly at this revulsion of hopefulness, but even Laban himself seemed eager to find ground for believing himself to have been, in this instance, an ass.

"Ye see the hull thing's in a nutshell," said Abner. "Either Laban's a fool, or else the hull caounty convenshin o' Berkshire is fools an wuss, an I callate it's Laban."

Perhaps the back room of the store lacked for Sedgwick, a comparatively recent resident of Stockbridge, those charms of familiarity it possessed for the other gentlemen, for even as Abner was speaking, he came out alone. As he saw the still waiting and undiminished crowd of people, he frowned angrily, and mounting his horse, rode directly toward them. Their sullen aspect, which might have caused another to avoid them, was his very reason for seeking an encounter. As he approached, his piercing eye rested a moment on the face of every man, and as it did so, each eye, impelled by a powerfull magnetism, rose deferentially to his, and every cap was pulled off.

"What is it, Ezra?" he demanded sharply, seeing that Ezra wanted to address him.

"If you please, Squire," said Ezra, cap in hand, "Laban's kinder stupid, an we callate he muster got what ye said tuther eend to. Will ye kindly tell us what the convenshin did?"

Stopping his horse, Sedgwick replied, in a loud, clear voice.

"The convention declared that the laws shall be enforced, and all disorderly persons punished with the stocks and with lashes on the bare back."

"Is that all?" faltered Ezra.

"All!" exclaimed Sedgwick, as his eye rested a moment on every face before him. "Let every one of you look out that he does not find it too much."

And now he suddenly broke off in a tone of sharp command, "Disperse and go to your houses on the pains and penalties of Sabbath breaking. The sun is down," and he pointed to the last glimmer of the yellow orb as it sank below the mountains. The people stood still just long enough to verify the fact with a glance, that holy time had begun, and instantly the green was covered with men and boys swiftly seeking shelter within their doors from the eye of an angry Deity, while from the store hastily emerged Squire Woodbridge, Dr. Partridge and the parson, and made their several ways homeward as rapidly as dignity would permit.

Perhaps ten minutes later, Captain Perez Hamlin might have been seen pricking his jaded horse across the deserted green. He looked around curiously at the new buildings and recent changes in the appearance of the village, and once or twice seemed a little at loss about his route. But finally he turned into a lane leading northerly toward the hill, just at the foot of which, beside the brook that skirted it, stood a weather-beaten house of a story and a half. As he caught sight of this, Perez spurred his horse to a gallop, and in a few moments the mother, through her tears of joy, was studying out in the stern face of the man, the lineaments of the boy whose soldier's belt she had buckled round him nine years before.