The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 7

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
The Duke of Stockbridge by Edward Bellamy
CHAPTER SEVENTH
THE FIRST ENCOUNTER

The next morning by six o'clock, a large number of persons had gathered on the green at Stockbridge, in consequence of an understanding that those intending to witness the goings on at Barrington, should rendezvous at the tavern, and go down together, whereby their own hearts would be made stronger, and their enemies the more impressed. A good many had, indeed, gone on ahead, singly, or in parties. Meshech Little, who lived on the Barrington road, said that he hadn't had a wink of sleep since four o'clock, for the noise of passing teams and pedestrians. Those who owned horses and carts, including such men as Israel Goodrich and Ezra Phelps, had preferred that mode of locomotion, but there were, nevertheless, as many as one hundred men and boys in the muster on the green. Perhaps a quarter of them had muskets, the others carried stout cudgels.

All sorts of rumors were flying about. One story was that the militia had been ordered out with a dozen rounds of cartridges, to defend the court and jail. Some even had heard that a cannon had been placed in front of the court house, and trained on the Stockbridge road. On the other hand, it was asserted that the court would not try to sit at all. As now one, and now another, of these contradictory reports prevailed, ebullitions of courage and symptoms of panic alternated among the people. It was easy to see that they contemplated the undertaking, on which they were embarking, not without a good deal of nervousness. Abner was going from group to group, trying to keep up their spirits.

"Hello," he exclaimed, coming across Jabez Flint. "Look a here, boys. Derned ef Jabez ain't a comin long with the res' on us. Wal, Jabez, I swow, I never callated ez I sh'd be a fightin long side o' ye. Misry makes strange bedfellers, though."

"It's you ez hez changed sides, not me," responded the Tory. "I wuz allers agin the state, an naow ye've come over tew my side."

Abner scratched his head.

"I swan, it doos look so. Anyhow, I be glad tew see ye tidday. I see ye've got yer gun, Jabez. Ye muss be keerful. Loryers is so derndly like foxes, that ye mout hit one on em by mistake."

There was a slight snicker at this, but the atmosphere was decidedly too heavy for jokes. However boldly they might discourse at the tavern of an evening, over their mugs of flip, about taking up arms and hanging the lawyers, it was not without manifold misgivings, that these law-abiding farmers found themselves on the point of being actually arrayed against the public authorities in armed rebellion. The absence of Israel Goodrich and Ezra Phelps, who were looked up to as the most substantial in estate and general respectability of those who inclined to the popular side, was moreover unfortunate, although it was supposed that they would be present at Barrington.

Meshech, indeed, in spite of the earliness of the hour, was full of pot-valor, and flourished his gun in a manner more perilous to those about him than to the state authorities, but his courage reeked so strongly of its source, that the display was rather discouraging than otherwise to the sober men around. Paul Hubbard, who had come down from the ironworks with thirty men or more, presently drew Abner aside and said:

"See here. It won't do to wait round any longer. We must start. They're losing all their grit standing here and thinking it over."

But the confabulation was interrupted by a cry of panic from Obadiah Weeks:

"Golly, here come the slectmen!"

"Hell!" exclaimed Hubbard, whirling on his heel, and taking in the situation with a glance, while Abner's face was expressive of equal consternation.

The local authorities had been so quiet the day before, that no interference on their part had been thought of.

But here in a body came the five selectmen, cane in hand, headed by Jahleel Woodbridge, wearing his most awful frown, and looking like the embodied majesty of law. The actions and attitudes of the crowd were like those of scholars interrupted by the entrance of the master in the midst of a scene of uproar. Those nearest the corners of the tavern promptly slunk behind it. Obadiah slipped around to the further side of the buttonwood tree before the tavern. There was a general movement in the body of the crowd, caused by the effort of each individual to slip quietly behind somebody else, while from the edges, men began to sneak homewards across the green, at a rate, which, had the warning been a little longer, would have left no assemblage at all by the time the selectmen arrived on the spot. Those who could not find shelter behind their fellows, and could not escape save by a dead run, pulled their hats over their eyes and looked on the ground, slyly dropping their cudgels, meanwhile, in the grass. There was not a gun to be seen.

With his head thrown back in the stiffest possible manner, his lips pursed out, and throwing glances like lashes right and left, Woodbridge, followed by the other selectmen, passed through the midst of the people, until he reached the stone step before the tavern door. He stepped up on this, and ere he opened his lips, swept the shame-faced assemblage before him with a withering glance. What with those who had pulled their hats over their eyes, and those who had turned their backs to him in anxiety to avoid identification, there was not an eye that met his. Abner himself, brave as a lion with his own class, was no braver than any one of them when it came to encountering one of the superior caste, to which he, and his ancestors before him, had looked up as their rulers and leaders by prescription. And so it must be written of even Abner, that he had somehow managed to get the trunk of the buttonwood tree, which sheltered Obadiah, between a part at least of his own enormous bulk, and Squire Woodbridge's eye. Paul Hubbard's bitter hatred of gentlemen, so far stood him in stead of courage, that it would not let him hide himself. He stood in plain view, but with his face half averted from Woodbridge, while his lip curled in bitter scorn of his own craven spirit. For it must be remembered that I am writing not of the American farmer and laborer of this democratic age, but of men who were separated but by a generation or two from the peasant serfs of England, and who under the stern and repressive rule of the untitled aristocracy of the colonies, had enjoyed little opportunity for outgrowing inherited instincts of servility.

And now it was that Perez Hamlin, who had been all this while within the tavern, his attention attracted by the sudden silence which had fallen on the people without, stepped to the door, appearing on the threshold just above Squire Woodbridge's head and a little to one side of him. At a glance he saw the way things were going. Already half demoralized by the mere presence and glance of the magnates, a dozen threatening words from the opening lips of Woodbridge would suffice to send these incipient rebels, like whipped curs, to their homes. He thought of Reub, and for a moment his heart was filled with grief and terror. Then he had an inspiration.

In the crowd was one known as Little Pete, a German drummer of Reidesel's Hessian corps, captured with Burgoyne's army. Brought to Stockbridge and quartered there as a prisoner he had continued to live in the town since the war. Abner had somewhere procured an old drum for Pete, and with this hung about his neck, the sticks in his hands, he now stood not ten feet away from the tavern door. He spoke but little English, and, being a foreigner, had none of that awe for the selectmen, alike in their personal and official characters, which unnerved the village folk. Left isolated by the falling back of the people around him, Pete was now staring at these dignitaries in stolid indifference. They did not wear uniforms, and Pete had never learned to respect or fear anything not in uniform.

Having first brought the people before him, to the fitting preliminary stage of demoralization, by the power of his eye, Woodbridge said in stern, authoritative tones, the more effective for being low pitched,

"You may well"----

That was as far, however, as he got. With the first sound of his voice, Perez stepped down beside him. Drawing his sword, which he had put on that morning, he waved it with a commanding gesture, and looking at little Pete, said with a quick, imperious accent:

"Drum!"

If a man in an officer's uniform, with a shining piece of steel in his hand, should order Pete to jump into the mouth of a cannon, he would no more think of hesitating, than the cannon itself of refusing to go off when the linstock was pulled. Without the change of a muscle in his heavy face, he raised the drumsticks and brought them down on the sheepskin.

And instantly the roll of the drum deafened the ears of the people, utterly drowning the imperious tones of the selectman, and growing louder and swifter from moment to moment, as the long unused wrists of the drummer recalled their former cunning.

Woodbridge spoke yet a few words without being able to hear himself. Then, his smooth, fleshy face purple with rage, he wheeled and glared at Hamlin. It did not need the drum to silence him now. He was so overcome with amazement and passion that he could not have articulated a word. But if he thought to face down the man by his side, he was mistaken. At least a head taller than Woodbridge, Perez turned and looked down into the congested eyes of the other with cool, careless, defiance.

And how about the people who looked on? The confident, decisive tone of Hamlin's order to the drummer, the bold gesture that enforced it, the fearless contempt for the village great man, which it implied, the unflinching look with which he met his wrathful gaze, and accompanying all these, the electrifying roll of the drum with its martial suggestions, had acted like magic on the crowd. Those who had slunk away came running back. Muskets rose to shoulders, sticks were again brandished, and the eyes of the people, a moment ago averted and downcast, rose defiantly. On every face there was a broad grin of delight. Even Paul Hubbard's cynical lips were wreathed with a smile of the keenest satisfaction, and he threw upon Perez one of the few glances of genuine admiration which men of his sardonic type ever have to spare for anybody.

For a few moments Woodbridge hesitated, uncertain what to do. To remain standing there, was impossible, with this crowd of his former vassals on the broad grin at his discomfiture. To retire was to confess defeat. The question was settled, however, when one of his official associates, unable longer to endure the din of the drum, desperately clapped both hands over his ears. At this the crowd began to guffaw uproariously, and seeing that it was high time to see about saving what little dignity he still retained, Woodbridge led the way into the tavern, whither he was incontinently followed by his compeers.

Instantly, at a gesture from Perez, the drum ceased, and his voice sounded strangely clear in the sudden and throbbing silence, as he directed little Pete to head the column, and gave the order to march. With a cheer, and a tread that shook the ground, the men set out. Perez remained standing before the tavern, till the last man had passed, by way of guarding against any new move by the selectmen, and then mounting his horse, rode along the column.

They were about half a mile out of Stockbridge, when Abner, accompanied by Paul Hubbard, approached Perez, and remarked:

"The fellers all on em says, ez haow ye'll hev tew be cap'n o' this ere kumpny. Thar's no use o' shilly-shallyin the business, we've got tew hev somebody ez kin speak up tew the silk stockins. Hain't that so, Paul?"

Hubbard nodded, but did not speak. It was gall and wormwood to his jealous and ambitious spirit, to concede the leadership to another, but his good sense forced him to recognize the necessity of so doing in the present case.

"Abner," replied Perez, "you know I only want to get Reub out. That's why I interfered when the plan looked like falling through. I don't want to be captain, man, I'd no notion of that."

"Nuther had I," said Abner, "till ye tackled the Squire, an then I see quick ez a flash that ye'd got ter be, an so'd all the other fellers. We sh'd a kerflummuxed sure's taxes, ef ye hadn't done jess what ye did. An naow, ye've got tew be cap'n, whether or no."

"Well," said Perez, "If I can do anything for you, I will. We're all in the same boat, I suppose. But if I'm captain, you two must be lieutenants."

"Yes, we're a gonter be," replied Abner. "Ye kin depend on us in a scrimmage, but ye muss sass the silk stockins."

Meanwhile the men, as they marched along the road in some semblance of military order, were eagerly discussing the recent passage between the dreaded Squire and their new champion. Their feeling about Perez seemed to be a certain odd mingling of respect, with an exultant sense of proprietorship in him as a representative of their own class, a farmer's son who had made himself as fine a gentleman as any of the silk stockings, and could face down the Squire himself.

"Did ye see haow Squire looked at Perez wen Pete begun tew drum?" observed Peleg. "I reckoned he wuz a gonter lay hans ontew him."

"Ef he had, by jimmeny, I b'leeve Cap'n would a hit him a crack ez would a knocked him inter the middle o' nex week," said Meshech.

"Oh, gosh, I ony wisht he hed," cried Obadiah, quite carried away at the wild thought of the mighty Squire rolling on the grass with a bloody nose.

"I allers hearn ez them Hamlin boys hed good blood intew em," observed a farmer. "Mrs. Hamlin's a Hawley, one o' them air River Gods, ez they calls em daown Hampshire way. Her folks wuz riled wen she tuk up with Elnathan, I hearn."