The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 5
Elnathan was the only one of the family who went to church the following day. Mrs. Hamlin was too infirm to climb the hill to the meeting-house, and Perez' mood was more inclined to blood-spilling than to God's worship. All day he walked the house, his fists clenched, muttering curses through his set teeth, and looking not unlike a lion, ferociously pacing his cage. For his mother was tearfully relating to him the share of the general misery that had fallen to their lot, as a family, in the past nine years, how Elnathan had not been able to carry on his farm, without the aid of the boys, and had run behind, till now, Solomon Gleason the schoolmaster, had got hold of the mortgage, and was going to turn them into the street, that very week. But all this with the mother, as with the brother, was as nothing, compared with Reuben's imprisonment and sickness unto death.
It was Mrs. Hamlin, who did most of the talking, and much of what she said fell unheeded on Perez' ears, as he walked unceasingly to and fro across the kitchen. For his mind was occupied with all the intensity of application, of which it was capable, with the single point,--how he was to get Reuben out of jail. Even the emergency, which would so soon be raised, by the selling out of the homestead, and the turning of the family into the street, was subordinated, in his mind, to this prime question. The picture of his brother, shaggy-haired and foul, wallowing in the filth of that prison sty, and breathing its fetid air, which his memory kept constantly before him, would have driven him distracted, if for a moment he had allowed himself to doubt that he should somehow liberate him, and soon. He had told his mother nothing of the horrible condition in which he had found him. Under no circumstances must she know of that, not even if worst came to worst, and so even while he shuddered at the vision before his mind's eye, he essayed to speak cheerfully about Reuben's surroundings, and his condition of health. When she told him that Deacon Nash had refused to let him come home to be nursed back to health, Perez had to comfort her by pretending that he was not so very badly off where he was, and would doubtless recover.
"Nay, Perez," she said, "my eyes are dim, come close to me, that I may read your eyes. You were ever tender to your old mother, and I fear me, you hide somewhat lest I should disquiet myself. Come here my son." The brave man's eyes, that had never quailed before the belching artillery, had now ado indeed. Such sickness at heart behind them, such keen mother's instinct trying them before.
"Oh, Perez! My boy is dying! I see it."
"He is not, I tell you he is not," he cried hoarsely, breaking away from her. "He is well. He looks strong. Do you think I would lie to you? I tell you he is well and getting better."
But after that she would not be comforted. The afternoon wore on. Elnathan came from meeting, and at last, through the open windows of the house, came the cry, in children's voices.
"Sun's down! Sun's down!"
From the upper windows, its disc was yet visible, above the crest of the western mountains, and on the hilltops, it was still high Sabbath; but in the streets below, holy time was at an end. The doors, behind which, in Sabbatical decorum, the children had been pent up all day long, swung open with a simultaneous bang, and the boys with a whoop and halloo, tumbled over each other into the street, while the girls tripped gaily after. Innumerable games of tag, and "I spy," were organized in a trice, and for the hour or two between that and bed time, the small fry of the village devoted themselves, without a moment's intermission, to getting the Sabbath stiffening out of their legs and tongues.
Nor was the reawakening of the community by any means confined to the boys and girls. For soon the streets began to be alive with groups of men and women, all in their Sunday best, going to make social calls. In the majority of Stockbridge households, the best clothes, unless there chanced to be a funeral, were not put on oftener than once a week, when the recurrence of the Sabbath made their assumption a religious duty, and on this account it naturally became the custom to make the evening of that day the occasion of formal social intercourse. As soon, too, as the gathering twilight afforded some shield to their secret designs, sundry young men with liberally greased hair, their arms stiff in the sleeves of the unusual and Sunday coat, their feet, accustomed to the immediate contact of the soil, encased in well larded shoes, might have been seen gliding under the shadows of friendly fences, and along bypaths, with that furtive and hangdog air which, in all ages, has characterized the chicken-thief and the lover.
In front of the door of Squire Sedgwick's house is drawn up his travelling carriage, with two fine horses. On the box is Sol, the coachman, one of the Squire's negro freedmen, whose allegiance to the Sedgwick family was not in the least shaken by the abolition of slavery in the state by the adoption of the bill of rights six years before.
"I dunno noffin bout no Bill Wright," was Sol's final dismissal of the subject.
"Drive to Squire Woodbridge's house, Sol," said Sedgwick, as he stepped into the carriage.
Woodbridge was at the gate of his house, apparently about starting on his usual evening visit to the store, when the carriage drove up. Sedgwick alighted, and taking the other a little aside, said:
"It is necessary for me to start tonight for Boston, where I have some important cases. I regret it, because I would rather be at home just now. The spirit among the people is unruly, and while I do not anticipate serious trouble, I think it is a time when gentlemen should make their influence felt in their communities. I have no doubt, however, that the interests of Stockbridge and of the government are entirely safe in your hands as selectman and magistrate."
"I hope, sir, that I am equal to the duties of my position," replied Woodbridge, stiffly.
"Allow me again to assure you that I have not the smallest doubt of it," said Sedgwick, affably, "but I thought it well to notify you of my own necessary departure, and to put you on your guard. The bearing of the people on the green last evening, of which I saw more than you did, was unmistakably sullen, and their disappointment at the refusal of the convention to lend itself to their seditious and impracticable desires, is very bitter."
"Undoubtedly the result of the convention has been to increase the popular agitation. I had the honor to represent to you before it was held that such would be its effect, at which time, I believe you held a different view. Nevertheless, I opine that you exaggerate the degree of the popular agitation. It would be natural, that being a comparatively recent resident, you should be less apt to judge the temper of the Stockbridge people, than we who are longer here."
A half humorous, half impatient expression on Sedgwick's face, was the only indication he gave that he had recognized the other's huffy and bristling manner.
"Your opinion, Sir," he replied, with undiminished affability, "tends to relieve my apprehensions. I trust the event will justify it.
"And how does Miss Desire, this evening?" he added, saluting with doffed hat and a courtly bow, a young lady who had just come up, with the apparent intention of going in at the Woodbridge gate.
"I do but indifferent well, Sir. As well as a damsel may do in a world where gentlemen keep not their promises," she answered, with a curtsey, so saucily deep, that the crisp crimson silk of her skirt rustled on the ground.
"Nay, but tell me the caitiff's name, and let me be myself your knight, fair mistress, to redress your wrongs."
"Nay, 'tis yourself, Sir. Did you not promise you would come and hear me play my piano, when it came from Boston, and I have it a week already?"
"And I did not know it. Yes, now I bethink myself, Mrs. Sedgwick spoke thereof, but this convention has left me not a moment. But damsels are not political; no doubt you have heard nothing of the convention."
"Oh, yes; 'tis that all the poor want to be rich, and to hang all the lawyers. I've heard. 'Tis a fine scheme."
"No doubt the piano is most excellent in sound."
"It goes middling well, but already I weary me of my bargain."
"Are you then in trade, Miss Desire?"
"A little. Papa said if I would not tease him to let me go to New York this winter, he would have me a piano. I know not what came over me that I consented. I shall go into a decline ere spring. The ugly dress and the cowlike faces of the people, make me sick at heart, and give me bad dreams, and the horses neigh in better English than the farmers talk. Alack, 'tis a dreary place for a damsel! But, no doubt, I have interrupted some weighty discussion. I bid you good even, Sir," and, once more curtsying, the girl went up the path to the house, much to her uncle Jahleel's relief, who had no taste for badinage, and wanted to get on to the store, whither, presently he was on his way, while Sedgwick's carriage rolled off toward Boston.
About a mile out of Stockbridge, the carriage passed two men standing by the roadside, earnestly talking. These men were Perez Hamlin and Abner Rathbun.
"You remember the Ice-hole," said Perez, referring to an extraordinary cleft or chasm, of great depth, and extremely difficult and perilous of access, situated near the top of Little Mountain, a short distance from Stockbridge.
"Yes," said Abner, "I rekullec it, well. I guess you an I, Perez, air abaout the on'y fellers in taown, ez hev been clean through it."
"My plan is this," said Perez. "Kidnap Deacon Nash, carry him up to the Ice-hole, and keep him there till he makes out a release for Reub, then just carry down the paper to jail, get Reub out, and across the York State line, and send back word to Stockbridge where to find the deacon."
"But what'll we dew, ourselves?"
"Of course we shall have to stay in York. Why shouldn't we? There's no chance for a poor man here. The chances are that we should both be in jail for debt before spring."
"But what be I a goin to dew with my little Bijah? He's all I've got, but I can't leave him."
"My father and mother will take care of him, and bring him with em to York State, for I'm goin to get them right over there as soon as they're sold out. There's a chance for poor folks west; there's no chance here."
"Perez, thar's my fist. By gosh I'm with ye."
"Abner, it's a risky business, and you haven't got the call I've got, being as Reub isn't your brother. I'm asking a good deal of you Abner."
"Don' ye say nothin more baout it," said Abner, violently shaking the hand he still held, while he reassuringly clapped Perez on the back. "Dew ye rekullec that time tew Stillwater, when ye pulled them tew Britishers orfer me? Fer common doin's I don' callate ez two fellers is more'n my fair share in a scrimmage, but ye see my arm wuz busted, an if ye hadn't come along jess wen ye did, I callate the buryin squad would a cussed some on caount of my size, that evenin.
"But gosh all hemlock, Perez, I dunno wat makes me speak o' that naow. It wouldn' make no odds ef I'd never sot eyes onter ye afore. I'd help eny feller, 'bout sech a job es this ere, jess fer the fun on't. Risky! Yes it's risky; that's the fun. I hain't hed my blood fairly flowin afore, sence the war. It doos me more good nor a box o' pills. Jerewsalem, how riled deacon'll be!"
The two young men walked slowly back to the village, earnestly discussing the details of their daring enterprise, and turning up the lane, leading to the Hamlin house, paused, still conversing, at the gate. As they stood there, the house door opened, and a young girl came out, and approached them, while Mrs. Hamlin, standing in the door, said:
"Perez, this is Prudence Fennell, George Fennell's girl. She heard you had seen her father, and came to ask you about him."
The girl came near to Perez, and looked up at him with a questioning face, in which anxiety was struggling with timidity. She was a rosy cheeked lass, of about sixteen, well grown for her age, and dressed in coarse woolen homespun, while beneath her short skirt, appeared a pair of heavy shoes, which evidently bore very little relation to the shape of the feet within them. Her eyes were gray and frank, and the childishness, which the rest of her face was outgrowing, still lingered in the pout of her lips.
"Is my father much sick, sir?"
"He is very sick," said Perez.
The pitifulness of his tone, no doubt, more than his words, betrayed the truth to her fearful heart, for all the color ran down out of her cheeks, and he seemed to see nothing of her face, save two great terrified eyes, which piteously beseeched a merciful reply, even while they demanded the uttermost truth.
"Is he going to die?"
Perez felt a strong tugging at his heart strings, in which, for the moment, he forgot his own personal trouble.
"I don't know, my child," he replied, very gently.
"Oh, he's going to die. I know he's going to die," she cried, still looking through her welling eyes a moment, to see if he would not contradict her intuition, and then, as he looked on the ground, making no reply, she turned away, and walked slowly down the lane sobbing as she went.
"Abner, we must manage somehow to get George out too."
"Poor little gal, so we must Perez. We'll kidnap Schoolmaster Gleason 'long with deacon. But it's a pootty big job, Perez, two o' them and on'y two o' us."
"I'm afraid we're trying more than we can do, Abner. If we try too much, we shall fail entirely. I don't know. I don't know. There's the whole jail full, and one ought to come out as well as another. All have got friends that feel as bad as we do." He reflected a moment. "By the Lord, we'll try it, Abner. Poor little girl. It's a desperate game, anyway, and we might as well play for high stakes."
Abner went down the lane to the green, and Perez went into the house, and sat down in the dark to ponder the new difficulties with which the idea of also liberating Fennell complicated their first plan. Bold soldier as he was, practiced in the school of Marion and Sumter, in the surprises and strategems of partisan warfare, he was forced to admit that if their project had been hazardous before, this new feature made it almost foolhardy. In great perplexity he had finally determined to go to bed, hoping that the refreshment of morning would bring a clearer head and more sanguine mood, when there was a knock on the door. It was Abner looking very much excited.
"Come out! Come out! Crypus! Come out, I've got news."
"What is it?" said Perez eagerly, stepping forth into the darkness.
"That wuz a pootty leetle plan o' yourn, Perez."
Abner, he knew had not come to tell him that, for his voice trembled with suppressed excitement, and the grip of his hand on his shoulder was convulsive.
"P'raps we could a kerried it aout, an p'raps we should a kerflummuxed. Ye've got grit an I've got size," pursued Abner. "Twuz wuth tryin on. I'm kinder sorry we ain't a gonter try it."
"What the devil do you mean, Abner? not going to try it?"
"No, Perez, we ain't goin tew try it, leastways, not the same plan we callated, an we ain't a goin tew try it alone," and he leaned over and hissed in Perez' ear:
"The hull caounty o' Berkshire 's a gonter help us."
Perez looked at him with horror. He was not drunk; he must be going crazy.
"What do you mean, Abner?" he said soothingly.
"Ye think I don' know wat I be a talkin baout, don' ye, Perez? Wal, jess hole on a minit. A feller hez jess got in, a ridin 'xpress from Northampton, to fetch word that the people in Hampshire has riz, and stopped the courts. Fifteen hundred men, with Captain Dan Shays tew ther head, stopped em. Leastways, they sent word to the jedges that they kinder wisht they wouldn't hole no more courts till the laws wuz changed, and the jedges, they concluded that the 'dvice o' so many fellers with guns, wuz wuth suthin, so they 'journed."
"That means rebellion, Abner."
"In course it doos. An it means the Lord ain't quite dead yit. That's wat it means."
"But what's that got to do with Reub and George?"
"Dew with em, why, man alive, don' ye unnerstan? Don' ye callate Berkshire folks haz got ez much grit ez the Hampshire fellers, an don' ye callate we haz ez much call to hev a grudge agin courts? Ye orter been daown tew the tavern tew see haow the fellers cut up wen the news come. T'was like a match dropping intew a powder bar'l. Tuesday's court day tew Barrington, an ef thar ain't more'n a thousand men on han with clubs an guns, tew stop that air court, wy, call me a skunk. An wen that air court's stopped, that air jail's a comin open, or it's a comin daown, one o' the tew naow."