The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 3
Peleg's information, although of a hearsay character, was correct. Perez Hamlin was coming home. The day following the conversation in the barroom of Stockbridge tavern, which I have briefly sketched in the last chapter, about an hour after noon, a horseman might have been seen approaching the village of Great Barrington, on the road from Sheffield. He wore the buff and blue uniform of a captain in the late Continental army, and strapped to the saddle was a steel hilted sword which had apparently experienced a good many hard knocks. The lack of any other baggage to speak of, as well as the frayed and stained condition of his uniform, indicated that however rich the rider might be in glory, he was tolerably destitute of more palpable forms of wealth.
Poverty, in fact, had been the chief reason that had prevented Captain Hamlin from returning home before. The close of the war had found him serving under General Greene in South Carolina, and on the disbandment of the troops he had been left without means of support. Since then he had been slowly working his way homewards, stopping a few months wherever employment or hospitality offered. What with the lack and insecurity of mails, and his frequent movements, he had not heard from home for two or three years, though he had written. But in those days, when the constant exchange of bulletins of health and business between friends, which burdens modern mail bags, was out of the question, the fact perhaps developed a more robust quality of faith in the well-being of the absent than is known in these timid and anxious days. Certain it is that as the soldier rides along, the smiles that from time to time chase each other across his bronzed face, indicate that gay and tender anticipations of the meeting now only a few hours away, leave no room in his mind for gloomy conjectures of possible disaster. It is nine years since he parted with his father and mother; and his brother Reub he has not seen since the morning in 1778, when Perez, accepting a commission, had gone south with General Greene, and Reub had left for home with Abner and Fennell, and a lot of others whose time had expired. He smiles now as he thinks how he never really knew what it was to enjoy the fighting until he got the lad off home, so that he had not to worry about his being hit every time there was any shooting going on. Coming into Great Barrington, he asked the first man he met where the tavern was.
"That's it, over yonder," said the man, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at a nondescript building some way ahead.
"That looks more like a jail."
"Wal, so 'tis. The jail's in the ell part o' the tavern. Cephe Bement keeps 'em both."
"It's a queer notion to put em under the same roof."
"I dunno 'bout that, nuther. It's mostly by way o' the tavern that fellers gits inter jail, I calc'late."
Perez laughed, and riding up to the tavern end of the jail, dismounted, and going into the barroom, ordered a plate of pork and beans. Feeling in excellent humor he fell to conversing over his modest meal with the landlord, a big, beefy man, who evidently liked to hear himself talk, and in a gross sort of way, appeared to be rather good natured.
"I saw a good many red flags on farmhouses, as I was coming up from Sheffield, this morning," said Perez. "You haven't got the smallpox in the county again, have you?"
"Them wuz sheriff's sales," said the landlord, laughing uproariously, in which he was joined by a seedy, red-nosed character, addressed as Zeke, who appeared to be a hanger-on of the barroom in the function of echo to the landlord's jokes.
"Ye'll git uster that air red flag ef ye stay long in these parts. Ye ain't so fer from right arter all, though, fer I guess mos' folks'd baout as leeve hev the smallpox in the house ez the sheriff."
"Times are pretty hard hereabouts, are they?"
"Wal, yes, they be baout ez hard ez they kin be, but ye see it's wuss in this ere caounty 'n 'tis 'n mos' places, cause ther warn't nary court here fer six or eight year, till lately, an no debts wuz klected 'n so they've kinder piled up. I callate they ain't but dern few fellers in the caounty 'cept the parsons, 'n lawyers, 'n doctors ez ain't a bein sued ted-day, 'specially the farmers. I tell you it makes business lively fer the lawyers an sheriffs. They're the ones ez rides in kerridges these days."
"Is the jail pretty full now?"
"Chock full, hed to send a batch up ter Lenox las' week, an got em packed bout's thick's they'll lay naow, like codfish in a bar'l. Haow in time I'm a gonter make room fer the fellers the court'll send in nex' week, I d'now, derned if I dew. They'd orter be three new jails in the caounty this blamed minit."
"Do you expect a good many more this week?"
"Gosh, yes. Why, man alive, the Common Pleas never had ez much business ez this time. I callate they's nigh onter seven hundred cases tew try."
"The devil! Has there been a riot or a rebellion in the county? What have they all done?"
"Oh they hain't done nothin," replied the landlord, "they ain't nothin but debtors. Dern debtors, I don' like to hev the jailin of em. They hain't got no blood intew em like Sabbath-breakers, an blasphemers, an rapers has. They're weakly, pulin kinder chaps, what thar ain't no satisfaction a lockin up an a knockin roun'. They're dreffle deskerridgin kind o' fellers tew. Ye see we never git rid on em. They never gits let aout like other fellers as is in jail. They hez tew stay till they pays up, an naterally they can't pay up's long ez they stays. Genally they goes aout feet foremost, when they goes aout at all, an they ain't long lived."
"Why don't they pay up before they get in?" queried Perez.
"Whar be ye from?" asked the landlord, staring at him.
"I'm from New York, last."
"I thort ye could't be from roun' here, nowheres, to as' sech a queschin. Why don' they pay their debts? Did ye hear that Zeke? Why, jess caze they ain' no money in the kentry tew pay em with. It don' make a mite o' odds haow much propty a feller's got. It don' fetch nothin tew a sale. The credtor buys it in fer nothin, an the feller goes to jail fer the balance. A man as has got a silver sixpence can amos buy a farm. Some folks says they orter be a law makin propty a tender fer debts on a far valiation. I dunno, I don' keer, I hain't no fault tew find with my business, leastways the jail end on't."
Finishing his dinner, Perez asked for his score, and drew a large wallet from his pocket, and took out a roll of about five thousand dollars in Continental bills.
"Hain't ye got no Massachusetts bills? They ain't wuth but one shillin in six but that's suthin, and them Continental bills ain't wuth haouse room. Gosh durn it. I swow, ef I'd a known ye hadn't nothin but them, I wouldn't a guv ye a drop to drink nor eat nuther. Marthy say ony this morning, 'Cephas,' says she, 'rum 's rum an rags is rags, an don' ye give no more rum fer rags.'"
"Well," said Perez, "I have nothing else. Government thought they were good enough to pay the soldiers for their blood; they ought to pay landlords for their rum."
"I dunno nothin baout bein soldiers, an I dunno ez I or any other man's beholden to ye for't, nuther. Ye got paid all twat wuth if ye didn't git paid nuthin; fur's I kin reckon, we wuz a durn sight better orf under Ole King George 's we be naow. Ain' that baout so, Zeke?"
"Well," said Perez, "if you won't take these, I can't pay you at all."
"Well" said Bement crossly, "thar's the beans an mug o' flip. Call it a thousand dollars, an fork over, but by gosh, I don' git caught that way again. It's downright robbery, that's wot it is. I say ain't ye got no cleaner bills nor these?"
"Perhaps these are cleaner," said Perez, handing him another lot. "What odds does it make?"
"Wal, ye see, ef they be middlin clean, I kin keep kaounts on the backs on em, and Marthy finds em handy wen she writes to her folks daown tew Springfield. Tain't fuss class writin paper, but it's cheaper'n other kinds, an that's suthin in these times."
Having satisfied the landlord's requirements, as well as possible, Perez walked to the door and stood looking out. The ell containing the jail, coming under his eye, he turned and said, "You spoke of several hundred debtors coming before the court next week. It don't look as if you could get over fifty in here."
"Oh ye can jam in a hundred. I've got nigh that naow, and thay's other lockups in the caounty," replied the landlord. "But ef they wuz a gonter try to shet up all the debtors, they'd hev tew build a half a dozen new jails. But bless ye, the mos' on em won't be shet up. Ther creditors 'll git jedgments agin' em, an then they'll hev rings in their noses, an kin dew wot they likes with em caze ef they don' stan raoun' they kin shove em right intew jug ye see."
"You don't mean to say there's much of that sort of slavery," ejaculated Perez.
"I'd now baout slavery ezzackly, but thar's plenty o' that sort o' thing fer sartin. Credtors mosly'd ruther dew that way, caze they kin git suthin aout a feller, an ef they sen em tew jail it's a dead loss. They makes em work aout ther debt and reckons ther work tew baout wat they pleases. They is some queer kinder talk baout wat kind er things they makes em stan sometimes rather'n go ter jail. Wal, all I says is that a feller ez hez got a good lookin gal hed better not git a owin much in these ere times. I hain't said nothin, hev I, Zeke?" and that worthy answered his wink with a salacious chuckle.
"Have you any debtors from Stockbridge?" asked Perez, suddenly.
"A hull slew on em," replied Bement. "I've got one more'n I shall hev much longer, tew."
"Who be that?" asked Zeke.
"Wal, I callate George Fennell won't hole out much longer."
"Fennell; George Fennell! George Fennell is not in this jail," cried Perez.
"Wal, naow," said Bement, imperturbably, "perhaps ye know better'n I dew."
"But, landlord, he's my friend, my comrade, I'd like to see him," and the young man's countenance expressed the liveliest concern.
The landlord seemed to hesitate. Finally he turned his head and called, "Marthy", and a plump, kitten-like little woman appeared at a door, opening into the end of the bar, whereupon, the landlord, as he jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate their guest, remarked:
"He wants ter know if 'ee kin be let ter see George Fennell. Says he's his fren, an uster know him to the war."
Mrs. Bement looked at the officer and said, "Wal, my husbun don' genally keer to hev folks a seein the pris'ners, coz it makes em kinder discontented like." She hesitated a little and then added, "But I dunno's 'twill dew no harm Cephas, bein as Fennell won' las' much longer anyhow."
Thus authorized, Bement took a bundle of keys from a hook behind the bar, and proceeded to unlock the padlock which fastened an iron bar across a heavy plank door, in the middle of one of the sides of the room. As he threw open the door, a gust of foul stenches belched forth into the room, almost nauseating Perez. The smell of the prison was like that of a pig sty. The door had opened into a narrow corridor, dimly lit by a small square grated window at the further end, while along either side were rows of strong plank doors opening outward, and secured by heavy, oaken bars, slipped across them at the middle. The muggy dog-day had been very oppressive, even out of doors; but here in the corridor, it was intolerable. To breathe in the horrible concoction of smells, was like drinking from a sewer; the lungs, even as they involuntarily took it in, strove spasmodically to close their passages against it. It was impossible for one unaccustomed to such an atmosphere, to breathe, save by gasps. Bement stopped at one of the doors, and as he was raising the bar across it, he said:
"Thar ain' on'y one feller 'sides Fennell in here. He's a Stockbridge feller, too. The cell ain' so big's the others. Genally thar's three or four together. I'll jess shet ye in, an come back for ye in a minit."
He opened the door, and as the other stepped in, it was closed and barred behind him. The cell was about seven feet square and as high. The floor was a foot lower than the corridor, and correspondingly damper. It must have been on or below the level of the ground, and the floor, as well as the lower end of the planks which formed the walls, was black with moisture. The cell was littered with straw and every kind of indescribable filth, while the walls and ceiling were mildewed and spotted with ghastly growths of mould, feeding on the moist and filthy vapors, which were even more sickening than in the corridor.
Full six feet from the floor, too high to look out of, was a small grated window, a foot square, through which a few feeble, dog-day sunbeams, slanting downward, made a little yellow patch upon the lower part of one of the sides of the cell. Sitting upon a pile of filthy straw, leaning back against the wall, with his face directly in this spot, one of the prisoners was half-sitting, half-lying, his eyes shut as if asleep, and a smile of perfect happiness resting on his pale and weazened face. Doubtless he was dreaming of the time, when, as a boy, he played all day in the shining fields, or went blackberrying in the ardent July sun. For him the river was gleaming again, turning its million glittering facets to the sun, or, maybe, his eye was delighting in the still sheen of ponds in Indian summer, as they reflected the red glory of the overhanging maple or the bordering sumach thicket.
The other prisoner was kneeling on the floor before the wall, with a piece of charcoal in his hand, mumbling to himself as he busily added figures to a sum with which the surface above was already covered. As the door of the cell closed, he looked around from his work. Like the man's on the floor, his face had a ghastly pallor, against which the dirt with which it is stained, shows with peculiarly obscene effect, while the beards and hair of both had grown long and matted and were filled with straw. So completely had their miserable condition disguised them, that Perez would not have known in the dim light of the cell that he had ever seen either before.
The man who had been kneeling on the floor, after his first look of dull curiosity, began to stare fixedly at Perez, as if he were an apparition, and then rose to his feet. As he did so, Perez saw that he could not be Fennell, for the latter was tall, and this man was quite short. Yes, the reclining man must be George, and now he noted as an unmistakable confirmation, a scar on one of the emaciated hands lying on his breast. "George," he said, stepping to his side. As he did so he passed athwart the bar of sunshine that was falling on the man's countenance. A peevish expression crossed his face, and he opened his eyes, the burning, glassy eyes of the consumptive. For a few seconds he looked fixedly, wonderingly, and then said half dreamily, half inquiringly, as if he were not quite certain whether it were a man or a vision, he murmured:
"Yes, it is I, George," said the soldier, his eyes filling with compassionate tears. "How came you in this horrible place?"
But before Fennell could answer the other prisoner sprang to the side of the speaker, clutching his arm in his claw-like fingers, and crying in an anguished voice:
"Perez; brother Perez. Don't you know me?"
At the voice Perez started as if a bullet had reached his heart. Like lightning he turned, his face, frozen with fear, that was scarcely yet comprehended, his eyes like darts. From that white filthy face in its wild beast's mat of hair, his brother's eyes were looking into his.
"Lord, God in Heaven!" It was a husky, struggling voice, scarcely more than a whisper in which he uttered the words. For several seconds the brothers stood gazing into each other's countenances, Reuben holding Perez' arm and he half shrinking, not from his brother, though such was the attitude, but from the horror of the discovery.
"How long" he began to ask, and then his voice broke. The emaciated figure before him, the face bleached with the ghastly pallor which a sunless prison gives, the deep sunken eyes looking like coals of fire, eating their way into his brain, the tattered clothing, the long unkempt hair and beard, prematurely whitening, and filled with filth, the fingers grown claw-like and blue, with prison mould, the dull vacant look and the thought that this was Reuben, his brother; these things all filled him with such an unutterable, intolerable pity, that it seemed as if he should lose his head and go wild for very anguish of heart.
"I 'spose I'm kinder thin and some changed, so ye didn't know me," said Reuben, with a feeble smile. "Ye see I've been here a year, and am going into a decline. I sent word home to have father ask Deacon Nash if he wouldn't let me go home to be nussed up by mother. I should get rugged again if I could have a little o' mother's nussin. P'raps ye've come to take me home, Perez?" And a faint gleam of hope came into his face.
"Reub, Reub, I didn't know you was here," groaned Perez, as he put his arm about his brother, and supported his feeble figure.
"How come ye here, then?" asked Reuben.
"I was going home. I haven't been home since the war. Didn't you know? I heard o' George's being here, and came in to see him, but I didn't think o' you're being here."
"Where have ye been, Perez, all the time? I callated ye must be in jail, somewheres, like all the rest of the soldiers."
"I had no money to get home with. But how came you here, Reub? Who put you here?"
"Twas Deacon Nash done it. I tried to start a farm arter the war, and got in debt to Deacon for seed and stock, and there wasn't no crop, and the hard times come. I couldn't pay, and the Deacon sued, and so I lost the farm and had to come here."
"Why didn't father help you? He ain't dead is he?"
Almost any misfortune now seemed possible to Perez.
"No, he ain't dead, but he ain't got nothin. I spose he's sold out by this time. Sol Gleason had a mortgage on the place."
"How much was your debt, Reub?"
"Nineteen pound, seven shilling and six-pence. 'Leastways, the debt was nine pound, and the rest was lawyers', justices' and sheriffs' fees. I callate they'll find them figgers cut into my heart, when I'm dead."
And then he pointed to the sums in charcoal, covering the walls of the cell.
"I callated the interest down to how much a minute. I allers liked cipherin, ye know, Perez, and I have a great deal of time here. Ye see, every day, the interest is a penny and twenty-six twenty-sevenths of a farthin. The wall round me gits that much higher and thicker every day." He stepped closer up to the wall, and pointed to a particular set of figures.
"Here's my weight, ye see, ten stone and a fraction," and then observing Perez' pitiful glance at his emaciated form, he added, "I mean when I come to jail. Dividin nineteen pound, seven and six, by that, it makes me come to thrippence happenny a pound, 'cording to the laws o' Massachusetts, countin bones and waste. Mutton ain't wuth but tuppence, and there's lots o' fellers here for sech small debts, that they don't come to mor'n a farthin a pound, and ye see I'm gittin dearer, Perez. There's the interest one way, and I'm a gittin thinner the other way," he added with a piteous smile.
"Perez," interrupted Fennell, in a feeble, whimpering voice, as he weakly endeavored to raise himself from the floor, "I wish you'd jess give me a boost on your shoulders, so I kin see out the winder. Reub uster to do it, but he ain't stout enough now. It's two months since I've seen out. Say, Perez, won't ye?"
"It'll do him a sight o' good, Perez, if ye will. I never see a feller set sech store by trees and mountings as George does. They're jess like medicine to him, an he's fell off faster'n ever since I hain't been able to boost him up."
Perez knelt, too much moved for speech, and Reub helped to adjust upon his shoulders the feeble frame of the sick man, into whose face had come an expression of eager, excited expectation. As the soldier rose he fairly tottered from the unexpected lightness of his burden. He stepped beneath the high, grated window, and Fennell, resting his hands on the lintel, while Reub steadied him from behind, peered out. He made no sound, and finally Perez let him down to the floor.
"Could you see much?" asked Reub, but the other did not answer. His gaze was afar off as if the prison walls were no barrier to his eyes, and a smile of rapturous contemplation rested on his face. Then with a deep breath he seemed to return to a perception of his surroundings, and in tones of irrepressible exultation he murmured:
"I saw the mountains. They are so," and with a waving, undulating gesture of the hand that was wonderfully eloquent, he indicated the bold sweep of the forest clad Taghcanic peaks. The door swung open, and the jailer stood there.
"Time's up," he said sharply.
"What, you're not going now? You're not going to leave us yet?" cried Reuben, piteously.
Perez choked down the wrath and bitterness that was turning his heart to iron and said, humbly.
"Mr. Bement, I should like to stay a few minutes longer. This is my brother. I did not know he was here."
"Sorry for't," said Bement, carelessly. "Don' see as I kin help it, though. S'posed like nuff he was somebuddy's brother. Mout's well be your'n ez anybuddy's. I dunno who ye be. All I knows is that ye've been here fifteen minutes and now ye must leave. Don' keep me waitin, nuther. Thay ain' nobuddy tendin bar."
"Don't make him mad, Perez, or else he won't let ye come again," whispered Reuben, who saw that his brother was on the point of some violent outburst. Perez controlled himself, and took his brother's hands in his coming close up to him and looking away over his shoulder so that he might not see the pitiful workings of his features which would have negatived his words of comfort.
"Cheer up, Reub," he said huskily, "I'll get you out. I'll come for you," and still holding his grief-wrung face averted, that Reuben might not see it, he went forth, and Bement shut the door and barred it.