BEING A BOY
By Charles Dudley Warner
BEING A BOY
One of the best things in the world to be is a boy; it requires no experience, though it needs some practice to be a good one. The disadvantage of the position is that it does not last long enough; it is soon over; just as you get used to being a boy, you have to be something else, with a good deal more work to do and not half so much fun. And yet every boy is anxious to be a man, and is very uneasy with the restrictions that are put upon him as a boy. Good fun as it is to yoke up the calves and play work, there is not a boy on a farm but would rather drive a yoke of oxen at real work. What a glorious feeling it is, indeed, when a boy is for the first time given the long whip and permitted to drive the oxen, walking by their side, swinging the long lash, and shouting "Gee, Buck!" "Haw, Golden!" "Whoa, Bright!" and all the rest of that remarkable language, until he is red in the face, and all the neighbors for half a mile are aware that something unusual is going on. If I were a boy, I am not sure but I would rather drive the oxen than have a birthday. The proudest day of my life was one day when I rode on the neap of the cart, and drove the oxen, all alone, with a load of apples to the cider-mill. I was so little that it was a wonder that I did n't fall off, and get under the broad wheels. Nothing could make a boy, who cared anything for his appearance, feel flatter than to be run over by the broad tire of a cart-wheel. But I never heard of one who was, and I don't believe one ever will be. As I said, it was a great day for me, but I don't remember that the oxen cared much about it. They sagged along in their great clumsy way, switching their tails in my face occasionally, and now and then giving a lurch to this or that side of the road, attracted by a choice tuft of grass. And then I "came the Julius Caesar" over them, if you will allow me to use such a slang expression, a liberty I never should permit you. I don't know that Julius Caesar ever drove cattle, though he must often have seen the peasants from the Campagna "haw" and "gee" them round the Forum (of course in Latin, a language that those cattle understood as well as ours do English); but what I mean is, that I stood up and "hollered" with all my might, as everybody does with oxen, as if they were born deaf, and whacked them with the long lash over the head, just as the big folks did when they drove. I think now that it was a cowardly thing to crack the patient old fellows over the face and eyes, and make them wink in their meek manner. If I am ever a boy again on a farm, I shall speak gently to the oxen, and not go screaming round the farm like a crazy man; and I shall not hit them a cruel cut with the lash every few minutes, because it looks big to do so and I cannot think of anything else to do. I never liked lickings myself, and I don't know why an ox should like them, especially as he cannot reason about the moral improvement he is to get out of them.
Speaking of Latin reminds me that I once taught my cows Latin. I don't mean that I taught them to read it, for it is very difficult to teach a cow to read Latin or any of the dead languages,—a cow cares more for her cud than she does for all the classics put together. But if you begin early, you can teach a cow, or a calf (if you can teach a calf anything, which I doubt), Latin as well as English. There were ten cows, which I had to escort to and from pasture night and morning. To these cows I gave the names of the Roman numerals, beginning with Unus and Duo, and going up to Decem. Decem was, of course, the biggest cow of the party, or at least she was the ruler of the others, and had the place of honor in the stable and everywhere else. I admire cows, and especially the exactness with which they define their social position. In this case, Decem could "lick" Novem, and Novem could "lick" Octo, and so on down to Unus, who could n't lick anybody, except her own calf. I suppose I ought to have called the weakest cow Una instead of Unus, considering her sex; but I did n't care much to teach the cows the declensions of adjectives, in which I was not very well up myself; and, besides, it would be of little use to a cow. People who devote themselves too severely to study of the classics are apt to become dried up; and you should never do anything to dry up a cow. Well, these ten cows knew their names after a while, at least they appeared to, and would take their places as I called them. At least, if Octo attempted to get before Novem in going through the bars (I have heard people speak of a "pair of bars" when there were six or eight of them), or into the stable, the matter of precedence was settled then and there, and, once settled, there was no dispute about it afterwards. Novem either put her horns into Octo's ribs, and Octo shambled to one side, or else the two locked horns and tried the game of push and gore until one gave up. Nothing is stricter than the etiquette of a party of cows. There is nothing in royal courts equal to it; rank is exactly settled, and the same individuals always have the precedence. You know that at Windsor Castle, if the Royal Three-Ply Silver Stick should happen to get in front of the Most Royal Double-and-Twisted Golden Rod, when the court is going in to dinner, something so dreadful would happen that we don't dare to think of it. It is certain that the soup would get cold while the Golden Rod was pitching the Silver Stick out of the Castle window into the moat, and perhaps the island of Great Britain itself would split in two. But the people are very careful that it never shall happen, so we shall probably never know what the effect would be. Among cows, as I say, the question is settled in short order, and in a different manner from what it sometimes is in other society. It is said that in other society there is sometimes a great scramble for the first place, for the leadership, as it is called, and that women, and men too, fight for what is called position; and in order to be first they will injure their neighbors by telling stories about them and by backbiting, which is the meanest kind of biting there is, not excepting the bite of fleas. But in cow society there is nothing of this detraction in order to get the first place at the crib, or the farther stall in the stable. If the question arises, the cows turn in, horns and all, and settle it with one square fight, and that ends it. I have often admired this trait in COWS.
Besides Latin, I used to try to teach the cows a little poetry, and it is a very good plan. It does not do the cows much good, but it is very good exercise for a boy farmer. I used to commit to memory as good short poems as I could find (the cows liked to listen to "Thanatopsis" about as well as anything), and repeat them when I went to the pasture, and as I drove the cows home through the sweet ferns and down the rocky slopes. It improves a boy's elocution a great deal more than driving oxen.
It is a fact, also, that if a boy repeats "Thanatopsis" while he is milking, that operation acquires a certain dignity.
THE BOY AS A FARMER
Boys in general would be very good farmers if the current notions about farming were not so very different from those they entertain. What passes for laziness is very often an unwillingness to farm in a particular way. For instance, some morning in early summer John is told to catch the sorrel mare, harness her into the spring wagon, and put in the buffalo and the best whip, for father is obliged to drive over to the "Corners, to see a man" about some cattle, to talk with the road commissioner, to go to the store for the "women folks," and to attend to other important business; and very likely he will not be back till sundown. It must be very pressing business, for the old gentleman drives off in this way somewhere almost every pleasant day, and appears to have a great deal on his mind.
Meantime, he tells John that he can play ball after he has done up the chores. As if the chores could ever be "done up" on a farm. He is first to clean out the horse-stable; then to take a bill-hook and cut down the thistles and weeds from the fence corners in the home mowing-lot and along the road towards the village; to dig up the docks round the garden patch; to weed out the beet-bed; to hoe the early potatoes; to rake the sticks and leaves out of the front yard; in short, there is work enough laid out for John to keep him busy, it seems to him, till he comes of age; and at half an hour to sundown he is to go for the cows "and mind he don't run 'em!"
"Yes, sir," says John, "is that all?"
"Well, if you get through in good season, you might pick over those potatoes in the cellar; they are sprouting; they ain't fit to eat."
John is obliged to his father, for if there is any sort of chore more cheerful to a boy than another, on a pleasant day, it is rubbing the sprouts off potatoes in a dark cellar. And the old gentleman mounts his wagon and drives away down the enticing road, with the dog bounding along beside the wagon, and refusing to come back at John's call. John half wishes he were the dog. The dog knows the part of farming that suits him. He likes to run along the road and see all the dogs and other people, and he likes best of all to lie on the store steps at the Corners—while his master's horse is dozing at the post and his master is talking politics in the store—with the other dogs of his acquaintance, snapping at mutually annoying flies, and indulging in that delightful dog gossip which is expressed by a wag of the tail and a sniff of the nose. Nobody knows how many dogs' characters are destroyed in this gossip, or how a dog may be able to insinuate suspicion by a wag of the tail as a man can by a shrug of the shoulders, or sniff a slander as a man can suggest one by raising his eyebrows.
John looks after the old gentleman driving off in state, with the odorous buffalo-robe and the new whip, and he thinks that is the sort of farming he would like to do. And he cries after his departing parent,
"Say, father, can't I go over to the farther pasture and salt the cattle?" John knows that he could spend half a day very pleasantly in going over to that pasture, looking for bird's nests and shying at red squirrels on the way, and who knows but he might "see" a sucker in the meadow brook, and perhaps get a "jab" at him with a sharp stick. He knows a hole where there is a whopper; and one of his plans in life is to go some day and snare him, and bring him home in triumph. It is therefore strongly impressed upon his mind that the cattle want salting. But his father, without turning his head, replies,
"No, they don't need salting any more 'n you do!" And the old equipage goes rattling down the road, and John whistles his disappointment. When I was a boy on a farm, and I suppose it is so now, cattle were never salted half enough!
John goes to his chores, and gets through the stable as soon as he can, for that must be done; but when it comes to the out-door work, that rather drags. There are so many things to distract the attention—a chipmunk in the fence, a bird on a near-tree, and a hen-hawk circling high in the air over the barnyard. John loses a little time in stoning the chipmunk, which rather likes the sport, and in watching the bird, to find where its nest is; and he convinces himself that he ought to watch the hawk, lest it pounce upon the chickens, and therefore, with an easy conscience, he spends fifteen minutes in hallooing to that distant bird, and follows it away out of sight over the woods, and then wishes it would come back again. And then a carriage with two horses, and a trunk on behind, goes along the road; and there is a girl in the carriage who looks out at John, who is suddenly aware that his trousers are patched on each knee and in two places behind; and he wonders if she is rich, and whose name is on the trunk, and how much the horses cost, and whether that nice-looking man is the girl's father, and if that boy on the seat with the driver is her brother, and if he has to do chores; and as the gay sight disappears, John falls to thinking about the great world beyond the farm, of cities, and people who are always dressed up, and a great many other things of which he has a very dim notion. And then a boy, whom John knows, rides by in a wagon with his father, and the boy makes a face at John, and John returns the greeting with a twist of his own visage and some symbolic gestures. All these things take time. The work of cutting down the big weeds gets on slowly, although it is not very disagreeable, or would not be if it were play. John imagines that yonder big thistle is some whiskered villain, of whom he has read in a fairy book, and he advances on him with "Die, ruffian!" and slashes off his head with the bill-hook; or he charges upon the rows of mullein-stalks as if they were rebels in regimental ranks, and hews them down without mercy. What fun it might be if there were only another boy there to help. But even war, single handed, gets to be tiresome. It is dinner-time before John finishes the weeds, and it is cow-time before John has made much impression on the garden.
This garden John has no fondness for. He would rather hoe corn all day than work in it. Father seems to think that it is easy work that John can do, because it is near the house! John's continual plan in this life is to go fishing. When there comes a rainy day, he attempts to carry it out. But ten chances to one his father has different views. As it rains so that work cannot be done out-doors, it is a good time to work in the garden. He can run into the house between the heavy showers. John accordingly detests the garden; and the only time he works briskly in it is when he has a stent set, to do so much weeding before the Fourth of July. If he is spry, he can make an extra holiday the Fourth and the day after. Two days of gunpowder and ball-playing! When I was a boy, I supposed there was some connection between such and such an amount of work done on the farm and our national freedom. I doubted if there could be any Fourth of July if my stent was not done. I, at least, worked for my Independence.
THE DELIGHTS OF FARMING
There are so many bright spots in the life of a farm-boy, that I sometimes think I should like to live the life over again; I should almost be willing to be a girl if it were not for the chores. There is a great comfort to a boy in the amount of work he can get rid of doing. It is sometimes astonishing how slow he can go on an errand, —he who leads the school in a race. The world is new and interesting to him, and there is so much to take his attention off, when he is sent to do anything. Perhaps he himself couldn't explain why, when he is sent to the neighbor's after yeast, he stops to stone the frogs; he is not exactly cruel, but he wants to see if he can hit 'em. No other living thing can go so slow as a boy sent on an errand. His legs seem to be lead, unless he happens to espy a woodchuck in an adjoining lot, when he gives chase to it like a deer; and it is a curious fact about boys, that two will be a great deal slower in doing anything than one, and that the more you have to help on a piece of work the less is accomplished. Boys have a great power of helping each other to do nothing; and they are so innocent about it, and unconscious. "I went as quick as ever I could," says the boy: his father asks him why he did n't stay all night, when he has been absent three hours on a ten-minute errand. The sarcasm has no effect on the boy.
Going after the cows was a serious thing in my day. I had to climb a hill, which was covered with wild strawberries in the season. Could any boy pass by those ripe berries? And then in the fragrant hill pasture there were beds of wintergreen with red berries, tufts of columbine, roots of sassafras to be dug, and dozens of things good to eat or to smell, that I could not resist. It sometimes even lay in my way to climb a tree to look for a crow's nest, or to swing in the top, and to try if I could see the steeple of the village church. It became very important sometimes for me to see that steeple; and in the midst of my investigations the tin horn would blow a great blast from the farmhouse, which would send a cold chill down my back in the hottest days. I knew what it meant. It had a frightfully impatient quaver in it, not at all like the sweet note that called us to dinner from the hay-field. It said, "Why on earth does n't that boy come home? It is almost dark, and the cows ain't milked!" And that was the time the cows had to start into a brisk pace and make up for lost time. I wonder if any boy ever drove the cows home late, who did not say that the cows were at the very farther end of the pasture, and that "Old Brindle" was hidden in the woods, and he couldn't find her for ever so long! The brindle cow is the boy's scapegoat, many a time.
No other boy knows how to appreciate a holiday as the farm-boy does; and his best ones are of a peculiar kind. Going fishing is of course one sort. The excitement of rigging up the tackle, digging the bait, and the anticipation of great luck! These are pure pleasures, enjoyed because they are rare. Boys who can go a-fishing any time care but little for it. Tramping all day through bush and brier, fighting flies and mosquitoes, and branches that tangle the line, and snags that break the hook, and returning home late and hungry, with wet feet and a string of speckled trout on a willow twig, and having the family crowd out at the kitchen door to look at 'em, and say, "Pretty well done for you, bub; did you catch that big one yourself?" —this is also pure happiness, the like of which the boy will never have again, not if he comes to be selectman and deacon and to "keep store."
But the holidays I recall with delight were the two days in spring and fall, when we went to the distant pasture-land, in a neighboring town, maybe, to drive thither the young cattle and colts, and to bring them back again. It was a wild and rocky upland where our great pasture was, many miles from home, the road to it running by a brawling river, and up a dashing brook-side among great hills. What a day's adventure it was! It was like a journey to Europe. The night before, I could scarcely sleep for thinking of it! and there was no trouble about getting me up at sunrise that morning. The breakfast was eaten, the luncheon was packed in a large basket, with bottles of root beer and a jug of switchel, which packing I superintended with the greatest interest; and then the cattle were to be collected for the march, and the horses hitched up. Did I shirk any duty? Was I slow? I think not. I was willing to run my legs off after the frisky steers, who seemed to have an idea they were going on a lark, and frolicked about, dashing into all gates, and through all bars except the right ones; and how cheerfully I did yell at them.
It was a glorious chance to "holler," and I have never since heard any public speaker on the stump or at camp-meeting who could make more noise. I have often thought it fortunate that the amount of noise in a boy does not increase in proportion to his size; if it did, the world could not contain it.
The whole day was full of excitement and of freedom. We were away from the farm, which to a boy is one of the best parts of farming; we saw other farms and other people at work; I had the pleasure of marching along, and swinging my whip, past boys whom I knew, who were picking up stones. Every turn of the road, every bend and rapid of the river, the great bowlders by the wayside, the watering-troughs, the giant pine that had been struck by lightning, the mysterious covered bridge over the river where it was, most swift and rocky and foamy, the chance eagle in the blue sky, the sense of going somewhere,—why, as I recall all these things I feel that even the Prince Imperial, as he used to dash on horseback through the Bois de Boulogne, with fifty mounted hussars clattering at his heels, and crowds of people cheering, could not have been as happy as was I, a boy in short jacket and shorter pantaloons, trudging in the dust that day behind the steers and colts, cracking my black-stock whip.
I wish the journey would never end; but at last, by noon, we reach the pastures and turn in the herd; and after making the tour of the lots to make sure there are no breaks in the fences, we take our luncheon from the wagon and eat it under the trees by the spring. This is the supreme moment of the day. This is the way to live; this is like the Swiss Family Robinson, and all the rest of my delightful acquaintances in romance. Baked beans, rye-and-indian bread (moist, remember), doughnuts and cheese, pie, and root beer. What richness! You may live to dine at Delmonico's, or, if those Frenchmen do not eat each other up, at Philippe's, in Rue Montorgueil in Paris, where the dear old Thackeray used to eat as good a dinner as anybody; but you will get there neither doughnuts, nor pie, nor root beer, nor anything so good as that luncheon at noon in the old pasture, high among the Massachusetts hills! Nor will you ever, if you live to be the oldest boy in the world, have any holiday equal to the one I have described. But I always regretted that I did not take along a fishline, just to "throw in" the brook we passed. I know there were trout there.
NO FARMING WITHOUT A BOY
Say what you will about the general usefulness of boys, it is my impression that a farm without a boy would very soon come to grief. What the boy does is the life of the farm. He is the factotum, always in demand, always expected to do the thousand indispensable things that nobody else will do. Upon him fall all the odds and ends, the most difficult things. After everybody else is through, he has to finish up. His work is like a woman's,—perpetual waiting on others. Everybody knows how much easier it is to eat a good dinner than it is to wash the dishes afterwards. Consider what a boy on a farm is required to do; things that must be done, or life would actually stop.
It is understood, in the first place, that he is to do all the errands, to go to the store, to the post office, and to carry all sorts of messages. If he had as many legs as a centipede, they would tire before night. His two short limbs seem to him entirely inadequate to the task. He would like to have as many legs as a wheel has spokes, and rotate about in the same way. This he sometimes tries to do; and people who have seen him "turning cart-wheels" along the side of the road have supposed that he was amusing himself, and idling his time; he was only trying to invent a new mode of locomotion, so that he could economize his legs and do his errands with greater dispatch. He practices standing on his head, in order to accustom himself to any position. Leapfrog is one of his methods of getting over the ground quickly. He would willingly go an errand any distance if he could leap-frog it with a few other boys. He has a natural genius for combining pleasure with business. This is the reason why, when he is sent to the spring for a pitcher of water, and the family are waiting at the dinner-table, he is absent so long; for he stops to poke the frog that sits on the stone, or, if there is a penstock, to put his hand over the spout and squirt the water a little while. He is the one who spreads the grass when the men have cut it; he mows it away in the barn; he rides the horse to cultivate the corn, up and down the hot, weary rows; he picks up the potatoes when they are dug; he drives the cows night and morning; he brings wood and water and splits kindling; he gets up the horse and puts out the horse; whether he is in the house or out of it, there is always something for him to do. Just before school in winter he shovels paths; in summer he turns the grindstone. He knows where there are lots of winter-greens and sweet flag-root, but instead of going for them, he is to stay in-doors and pare apples and stone raisins and pound something in a mortar. And yet, with his mind full of schemes of what he would like to do, and his hands full of occupations, he is an idle boy who has nothing to busy himself with but school and chores! He would gladly do all the work if somebody else would do the chores, he thinks, and yet I doubt if any boy ever amounted to anything in the world, or was of much use as a man, who did not enjoy the advantages of a liberal education in the way of chores.
A boy on a farm is nothing without his pets; at least a dog, and probably rabbits, chickens, ducks, and guinea-hens. A guinea-hen suits a boy. It is entirely useless, and makes a more disagreeable noise than a Chinese gong. I once domesticated a young fox which a neighbor had caught. It is a mistake to suppose the fox cannot be tamed. Jacko was a very clever little animal, and behaved, in all respects, with propriety. He kept Sunday as well as any day, and all the ten commandments that he could understand. He was a very graceful playfellow, and seemed to have an affection for me. He lived in a wood-pile in the dooryard, and when I lay down at the entrance to his house and called him, he would come out and sit on his tail and lick my face just like a grown person. I taught him a great many tricks and all the virtues. That year I had a large number of hens, and Jacko went about among them with the most perfect indifference, never looking on them to lust after them, as I could see, and never touching an egg or a feather. So excellent was his reputation that I would have trusted him in the hen-roost in the dark without counting the hens. In short, he was domesticated, and I was fond of him and very proud of him, exhibiting him to all our visitors as an example of what affectionate treatment would do in subduing the brute instincts. I preferred him to my dog, whom I had, with much patience, taught to go up a long hill alone and surround the cows, and drive them home from the remote pasture. He liked the fun of it at first, but by and by he seemed to get the notion that it was a "chore," and when I whistled for him to go for the cows, he would turn tail and run the other way, and the more I whistled and threw stones at him, the faster he would run. His name was Turk, and I should have sold him if he had not been the kind of dog that nobody will buy. I suppose he was not a cow-dog, but what they call a sheep-dog. At least, when he got big enough, he used to get into the pasture and chase the sheep to death. That was the way he got into trouble, and lost his valuable life. A dog is of great use on a farm, and that is the reason a boy likes him. He is good to bite peddlers and small children, and run out and yelp at wagons that pass by, and to howl all night when the moon shines. And yet, if I were a boy again, the first thing I would have should be a dog; for dogs are great companions, and as active and spry as a boy at doing nothing. They are also good to bark at woodchuck-holes.
A good dog will bark at a woodchuck-hole long after the animal has retired to a remote part of his residence, and escaped by another hole. This deceives the woodchuck. Some of the most delightful hours of my life have been spent in hiding and watching the hole where the dog was not. What an exquisite thrill ran through my frame when the timid nose appeared, was withdrawn, poked out again, and finally followed by the entire animal, who looked cautiously about, and then hopped away to feed on the clover. At that moment I rushed in, occupied the "home base," yelled to Turk, and then danced with delight at the combat between the spunky woodchuck and the dog. They were about the same size, but science and civilization won the day. I did not reflect then that it would have been more in the interest of civilization if the woodchuck had killed the dog. I do not know why it is that boys so like to hunt and kill animals; but the excuse that I gave in this case for the murder was, that the woodchuck ate the clover and trod it down, and, in fact, was a woodchuck. It was not till long after that I learned with surprise that he is a rodent mammal, of the species Arctomys monax, is called at the West a ground-hog, and is eaten by people of color with great relish.
But I have forgotten my beautiful fox. Jacko continued to deport himself well until the young chickens came; he was actually cured of the fox vice of chicken-stealing. He used to go with me about the coops, pricking up his ears in an intelligent manner, and with a demure eye and the most virtuous droop of the tail. Charming fox! If he had held out a little while longer, I should have put him into a Sunday-school book. But I began to miss chickens. They disappeared mysteriously in the night. I would not suspect Jacko at first, for he looked so honest, and in the daytime seemed to be as much interested in the chickens as I was. But one morning, when I went to call him, I found feathers at the entrance of his hole, —chicken feathers. He couldn't deny it. He was a thief. His fox nature had come out under severe temptation. And he died an unnatural death. He had a thousand virtues and one crime. But that crime struck at the foundation of society. He deceived and stole; he was a liar and a thief, and no pretty ways could hide the fact. His intelligent, bright face couldn't save him. If he had been honest, he might have grown up to be a large, ornamental fox.
THE BOY'S SUNDAY
Sunday in the New England hill towns used to begin Saturday night at sundown; and the sun is lost to sight behind the hills there before it has set by the almanac. I remember that we used to go by the almanac Saturday night and by the visible disappearance Sunday night. On Saturday night we very slowly yielded to the influences of the holy time, which were settling down upon us, and submitted to the ablutions which were as inevitable as Sunday; but when the sun (and it never moved so slow) slid behind the hills Sunday night, the effect upon the watching boy was like a shock from a galvanic battery; something flashed through all his limbs and set them in motion, and no "play" ever seemed so sweet to him as that between sundown and dark Sunday night. This, however, was on the supposition that he had conscientiously kept Sunday, and had not gone in swimming and got drowned. This keeping of Saturday night instead of Sunday night we did not very well understand; but it seemed, on the whole, a good thing that we should rest Saturday night when we were tired, and play Sunday night when we were rested. I supposed, however, that it was an arrangement made to suit the big boys who wanted to go "courting" Sunday night. Certainly they were not to be blamed, for Sunday was the day when pretty girls were most fascinating, and I have never since seen any so lovely as those who used to sit in the gallery and in the singers' seats in the bare old meeting-houses.
Sunday to the country farmer-boy was hardly the relief that it was to the other members of the family; for the same chores must be done that day as on others, and he could not divert his mind with whistling, hand-springs, or sending the dog into the river after sticks. He had to submit, in the first place, to the restraint of shoes and stockings. He read in the Old Testament that when Moses came to holy ground, he put off his shoes; but the boy was obliged to put his on, upon the holy day, not only to go to meeting, but while he sat at home. Only the emancipated country-boy, who is as agile on his bare feet as a young kid, and rejoices in the pressure of the warm soft earth, knows what a hardship it is to tie on stiff shoes. The monks who put peas in their shoes as a penance do not suffer more than the country-boy in his penitential Sunday shoes. I recall the celerity with which he used to kick them off at sundown.
Sunday morning was not an idle one for the farmer-boy. He must rise tolerably early, for the cows were to be milked and driven to pasture; family prayers were a little longer than on other days; there were the Sunday-school verses to be relearned, for they did not stay in mind over night; perhaps the wagon was to be greased before the neighbors began to drive by; and the horse was to be caught out of the pasture, ridden home bareback, and harnessed.
This catching the horse, perhaps two of them, was very good fun usually, and would have broken the Sunday if the horse had not been wanted for taking the family to meeting. It was so peaceful and still in the pasture on Sunday morning; but the horses were never so playful, the colts never so frisky. Round and round the lot the boy went calling, in an entreating Sunday voice, "Jock, jock, jock, jock," and shaking his salt-dish, while the horses, with heads erect, and shaking tails and flashing heels, dashed from corner to corner, and gave the boy a pretty good race before he could coax the nose of one of them into his dish. The boy got angry, and came very near saying "dum it," but he rather enjoyed the fun, after all.
The boy remembers how his mother's anxiety was divided between the set of his turn-over collar, the parting of his hair, and his memory of the Sunday-school verses; and what a wild confusion there was through the house in getting off for meeting, and how he was kept running hither and thither, to get the hymn-book, or a palm-leaf fan, or the best whip, or to pick from the Sunday part of the garden the bunch of caraway-seed. Already the deacon's mare, with a wagon-load of the deacon's folks, had gone shambling past, head and tail drooping, clumsy hoofs kicking up clouds of dust, while the good deacon sat jerking the reins, in an automatic way, and the "womenfolks" patiently saw the dust settle upon their best summer finery. Wagon after wagon went along the sandy road, and when our boy's family started, they became part of a long procession, which sent up a mile of dust and a pungent, if not pious smell of buffalo-robes. There were fiery horses in the trail which had to be held in, for it was neither etiquette nor decent to pass anybody on Sunday. It was a great delight to the farmer-boy to see all this procession of horses, and to exchange sly winks with the other boys, who leaned over the wagon-seats for that purpose. Occasionally a boy rode behind, with his back to the family, and his pantomime was always some thing wonderful to see, and was considered very daring and wicked.
The meeting-house which our boy remembers was a high, square building, without a steeple. Within it had a lofty pulpit, with doors underneath and closets where sacred things were kept, and where the tithing-men were supposed to imprison bad boys. The pews were square, with seats facing each other, those on one side low for the children, and all with hinges, so that they could be raised when the congregation stood up for prayers and leaned over the backs of the pews, as horses meet each other across a pasture fence. After prayers these seats used to be slammed down with a long-continued clatter, which seemed to the boys about the best part of the exercises. The galleries were very high, and the singers' seats, where the pretty girls sat, were the most conspicuous of all. To sit in the gallery away from the family, was a privilege not often granted to the boy. The tithing-man, who carried a long rod and kept order in the house, and out-doors at noontime, sat in the gallery, and visited any boy who whispered or found curious passages in the Bible and showed them to another boy. It was an awful moment when the bushy-headed tithing-man approached a boy in sermon-time. The eyes of the whole congregation were on him, and he could feel the guilt ooze out of his burning face.
At noon was Sunday-school, and after that, before the afternoon service, in summer, the boys had a little time to eat their luncheon together at the watering-trough, where some of the elders were likely to be gathered, talking very solemnly about cattle; or they went over to a neighboring barn to see the calves; or they slipped off down the roadside to a place where they could dig sassafras or the root of the sweet-flag, roots very fragrant in the mind of many a boy with religious associations to this day. There was often an odor of sassafras in the afternoon service. It used to stand in my mind as a substitute for the Old Testament incense of the Jews. Something in the same way the big bass-viol in the choir took the place of "David's harp of solemn sound."
The going home from meeting was more cheerful and lively than the coming to it. There was all the bustle of getting the horses out of the sheds and bringing them round to the meeting-house steps. At noon the boys sometimes sat in the wagons and swung the whips without cracking them: now it was permitted to give them a little snap in order to bring the horses up in good style; and the boy was rather proud of the horse if it pranced a little while the timid "women-folks" were trying to get in. The boy had an eye for whatever life and stir there was in a New England Sunday. He liked to drive home fast. The old house and the farm looked pleasant to him. There was an extra dinner when they reached home, and a cheerful consciousness of duty performed made it a pleasant dinner. Long before sundown the Sunday-school book had been read, and the boy sat waiting in the house with great impatience the signal that the "day of rest" was over. A boy may not be very wicked, and yet not see the need of "rest." Neither his idea of rest nor work is that of older farmers.
THE GRINDSTONE OF LIFE
If there is one thing more than another that hardens the lot of the farmer-boy, it is the grindstone. Turning grindstones to grind scythes is one of those heroic but unobtrusive occupations for which one gets no credit. It is a hopeless kind of task, and, however faithfully the crank is turned, it is one that brings little reputation. There is a great deal of poetry about haying—I mean for those not engaged in it. One likes to hear the whetting of the scythes on a fresh morning and the response of the noisy bobolink, who always sits upon the fence and superintends the cutting of the dew-laden grass. There is a sort of music in the "swish" and a rhythm in the swing of the scythes in concert. The boy has not much time to attend to it, for it is lively business "spreading" after half a dozen men who have only to walk along and lay the grass low, while the boy has the whole hay-field on his hands. He has little time for the poetry of haying, as he struggles along, filling the air with the wet mass which he shakes over his head, and picking his way with short legs and bare feet amid the short and freshly cut stubble.
But if the scythes cut well and swing merrily, it is due to the boy who turned the grindstone. Oh, it was nothing to do, just turn the grindstone a few minutes for this and that one before breakfast; any "hired man" was authorized to order the boy to turn the grindstone. How they did bear on, those great strapping fellows! Turn, turn, turn, what a weary go it was. For my part, I used to like a grindstone that "wabbled" a good deal on its axis, for when I turned it fast, it put the grinder on a lively lookout for cutting his hands, and entirely satisfied his desire that I should "turn faster." It was some sport to make the water fly and wet the grinder, suddenly starting up quickly and surprising him when I was turning very slowly. I used to wish sometimes that I could turn fast enough to make the stone fly into a dozen pieces. Steady turning is what the grinders like, and any boy who turns steadily, so as to give an even motion to the stone, will be much praised, and will be in demand. I advise any boy who desires to do this sort of work to turn steadily. If he does it by jerks and in a fitful manner, the "hired men" will be very apt to dispense with his services and turn the grindstone for each other.
This is one of the most disagreeable tasks of the boy farmer, and, hard as it is, I do, not know why it is supposed to belong especially to childhood. But it is, and one of the certain marks that second childhood has come to a man on a farm is, that he is asked to turn the grindstone as if he were a boy again. When the old man is good for nothing else, when he can neither mow nor pitch, and scarcely "rake after," he can turn grindstone, and it is in this way that he renews his youth. "Ain't you ashamed to have your granther turn the grindstone?" asks the hired man of the boy. So the boy takes hold and turns himself, till his little back aches. When he gets older, he wishes he had replied, "Ain't you ashamed to make either an old man or a little boy do such hard grinding work?"
Doing the regular work of this world is not much, the boy thinks, but the wearisome part is the waiting on the people who do the work. And the boy is not far wrong. This is what women and boys have to do on a farm, wait upon everybody who—works. The trouble with the boy's life is, that he has no time that he can call his own. He is, like a barrel of beer, always on draft. The men-folks, having worked in the regular hours, lie down and rest, stretch themselves idly in the shade at noon, or lounge about after supper. Then the boy, who has done nothing all day but turn grindstone, and spread hay, and rake after, and run his little legs off at everybody's beck and call, is sent on some errand or some household chore, in order that time shall not hang heavy on his hands. The boy comes nearer to perpetual motion than anything else in nature, only it is not altogether a voluntary motion. The time that the farm-boy gets for his own is usually at the end of a stent. We used to be given a certain piece of corn to hoe, or a certain quantity of corn to husk in so many days. If we finished the task before the time set, we had the remainder to ourselves. In my day it used to take very sharp work to gain anything, but we were always anxious to take the chance. I think we enjoyed the holiday in anticipation quite as much as we did when we had won it. Unless it was training-day, or Fourth of July, or the circus was coming, it was a little difficult to find anything big enough to fill our anticipations of the fun we would have in the day or the two or three days we had earned. We did not want to waste the time on any common thing. Even going fishing in one of the wild mountain brooks was hardly up to the mark, for we could sometimes do that on a rainy day. Going down to the village store was not very exciting, and was, on the whole, a waste of our precious time. Unless we could get out our military company, life was apt to be a little blank, even on the holidays for which we had worked so hard. If you went to see another boy, he was probably at work in the hay-field or the potato-patch, and his father looked at you askance. You sometimes took hold and helped him, so that he could go and play with you; but it was usually time to go for the cows before the task was done. The fact is, or used to be, that the amusements of a boy in the country are not many. Snaring "suckers" out of the deep meadow brook used to be about as good as any that I had. The North American sucker is not an engaging animal in all respects; his body is comely enough, but his mouth is puckered up like that of a purse. The mouth is not formed for the gentle angle-worm nor the delusive fly of the fishermen. It is necessary, therefore, to snare the fish if you want him. In the sunny days he lies in the deep pools, by some big stone or near the bank, poising himself quite still, or only stirring his fins a little now and then, as an elephant moves his ears. He will lie so for hours, or rather float, in perfect idleness and apparent bliss. The boy who also has a holiday, but cannot keep still, comes along and peeps over the bank. "Golly, ain't he a big one!" Perhaps he is eighteen inches long, and weighs two or three pounds. He lies there among his friends, little fish and big ones, quite a school of them, perhaps a district school, that only keeps in warm days in the summer. The pupils seem to have little to learn, except to balance themselves and to turn gracefully with a flirt of the tail. Not much is taught but "deportment," and some of the old suckers are perfect Turveydrops in that. The boy is armed with a pole and a stout line, and on the end of it a brass wire bent into a hoop, which is a slipnoose, and slides together when anything is caught in it. The boy approaches the bank and looks over. There he lies, calm as a whale. The boy devours him with his eyes. He is almost too much excited to drop the snare into the water without making a noise. A puff of wind comes and ruffles the surface, so that he cannot see the fish. It is calm again, and there he still is, moving his fins in peaceful security. The boy lowers his snare behind the fish and slips it along. He intends to get it around him just back of the gills and then elevate him with a sudden jerk. It is a delicate operation, for the snare will turn a little, and if it hits the fish, he is off. However, it goes well; the wire is almost in place, when suddenly the fish, as if he had a warning in a dream, for he appears to see nothing, moves his tail just a little, glides out of the loop, and with no seeming appearance of frustrating any one's plans, lounges over to the other side of the pool; and there he reposes just as if he was not spoiling the boy's holiday. This slight change of base on the part of the fish requires the boy to reorganize his whole campaign, get a new position on the bank, a new line of approach, and patiently wait for the wind and sun before he can lower his line. This time, cunning and patience are rewarded. The hoop encircles the unsuspecting fish. The boy's eyes almost start from his head as he gives a tremendous jerk, and feels by the dead-weight that he has got him fast. Out he comes, up he goes in the air, and the boy runs to look at him. In this transaction, however, no one can be more surprised than the sucker.
FICTION AND SENTIMENT
The boy farmer does not appreciate school vacations as highly as his city cousin. When school keeps, he has only to "do chores and go to school," but between terms there are a thousand things on the farm that have been left for the boy to do. Picking up stones in the pastures and piling them in heaps used to be one of them. Some lots appeared to grow stones, or else the sun every year drew them to the surface, as it coaxes the round cantelopes out of the soft garden soil; it is certain that there were fields that always gave the boys this sort of fall work. And very lively work it was on frosty mornings for the barefooted boys, who were continually turning up the larger stones in order to stand for a moment in the warm place that had been covered from the frost. A boy can stand on one leg as well as a Holland stork; and the boy who found a warm spot for the sole of his foot was likely to stand in it until the words, "Come, stir your stumps," broke in discordantly upon his meditations. For the boy is very much given to meditations. If he had his way, he would do nothing in a hurry; he likes to stop and think about things, and enjoy his work as he goes along. He picks up potatoes as if each one were a lump of gold just turned out of the dirt, and requiring careful examination.
Although the country-boy feels a little joy when school breaks up (as he does when anything breaks up, or any change takes place), since he is released from the discipline and restraint of it, yet the school is his opening into the world,—his romance. Its opportunities for enjoyment are numberless. He does not exactly know what he is set at books for; he takes spelling rather as an exercise for his lungs, standing up and shouting out the words with entire recklessness of consequences; he grapples doggedly with arithmetic and geography as something that must be cleared out of his way before recess, but not at all with the zest he would dig a woodchuck out of his hole. But recess! Was ever any enjoyment so keen as that with which a boy rushes out of the schoolhouse door for the ten minutes of recess? He is like to burst with animal spirits; he runs like a deer; he can nearly fly; and he throws himself into play with entire self-forgetfulness, and an energy that would overturn the world if his strength were proportioned to it. For ten minutes the world is absolutely his; the weights are taken off, restraints are loosed, and he is his own master for that brief time,—as he never again will be if he lives to be as old as the king of Thule,—and nobody knows how old he was. And there is the nooning, a solid hour, in which vast projects can be carried out which have been slyly matured during the school-hours: expeditions are undertaken; wars are begun between the Indians on one side and the settlers on the other; the military company is drilled (without uniforms or arms), or games are carried on which involve miles of running, and an expenditure of wind sufficient to spell the spelling-book through at the highest pitch.
Friendships are formed, too, which are fervent, if not enduring, and enmities contracted which are frequently "taken out" on the spot, after a rough fashion boys have of settling as they go along; cases of long credit, either in words or trade, are not frequent with boys; boot on jack-knives must be paid on the nail; and it is considered much more honorable to out with a personal grievance at once, even if the explanation is made with the fists, than to pretend fair, and then take a sneaking revenge on some concealed opportunity. The country-boy at the district school is introduced into a wider world than he knew at home, in many ways. Some big boy brings to school a copy of the Arabian Nights, a dog-eared copy, with cover, title-page, and the last leaves missing, which is passed around, and slyly read under the desk, and perhaps comes to the little boy whose parents disapprove of novel-reading, and have no work of fiction in the house except a pious fraud called "Six Months in a Convent," and the latest comic almanac. The boy's eyes dilate as he steals some of the treasures out of the wondrous pages, and he longs to lose himself in the land of enchantment open before him. He tells at home that he has seen the most wonderful book that ever was, and a big boy has promised to lend it to him. "Is it a true book, John?" asks the grandmother; "because, if it is n't true, it is the worst thing that a boy can read." (This happened years ago.) John cannot answer as to the truth of the book, and so does not bring it home; but he borrows it, nevertheless, and conceals it in the barn and, lying in the hay-mow, is lost in its enchantments many an odd hour when he is supposed to be doing chores. There were no chores in the Arabian Nights; the boy there had but to rub the ring and summon a genius, who would feed the calves and pick up chips and bring in wood in a minute. It was through this emblazoned portal that the boy walked into the world of books, which he soon found was larger than his own, and filled with people he longed to know.
And the farmer-boy is not without his sentiment and his secrets, though he has never been at a children's party in his life, and, in fact, never has heard that children go into society when they are seven, and give regular wine-parties when they reach the ripe age of nine. But one of his regrets at having the summer school close is dimly connected with a little girl, whom he does not care much for, would a great deal rather play with a boy than with her at recess, —but whom he will not see again for some time,—a sweet little thing, who is very friendly with John, and with whom he has been known to exchange bits of candy wrapped up in paper, and for whom he cut in two his lead-pencil, and gave her half. At the last day of school she goes part way with John, and then he turns and goes a longer distance towards her home, so that it is late when he reaches his own. Is he late? He did n't know he was late; he came straight home when school was dismissed, only going a little way home with Alice Linton to help her carry her books. In a box in his chamber, which he has lately put a padlock on, among fishhooks and lines and baitboxes, odd pieces of brass, twine, early sweet apples, pop-corn, beechnuts, and other articles of value, are some little billets-doux, fancifully folded, three-cornered or otherwise, and written, I will warrant, in red or beautifully blue ink. These little notes are parting gifts at the close of school, and John, no doubt, gave his own in exchange for them, though the writing was an immense labor, and the folding was a secret bought of another boy for a big piece of sweet flag-root baked in sugar, a delicacy which John used to carry in his pantaloons-pocket until his pocket was in such a state that putting his fingers into it was about as good as dipping them into the sugar-bowl at home. Each precious note contained a lock or curl of girl's hair,—a rare collection of all colors, after John had been in school many terms, and had passed through a great many parting scenes,—black, brown, red, tow-color, and some that looked like spun gold and felt like silk. The sentiment contained in the notes was that which was common in the school, and expressed a melancholy foreboding of early death, and a touching desire to leave hair enough this side the grave to constitute a sort of strand of remembrance. With little variation, the poetry that made the hair precious was in the words, and, as a Cockney would say, set to the hair, following:
"This lock of hair, Which I did wear, Was taken from my head; When this you see, Remember me, Long after I am dead."
John liked to read these verses, which always made a new and fresh impression with each lock of hair, and he was not critical; they were for him vehicles of true sentiment, and indeed they were what he used when he inclosed a clip of his own sandy hair to a friend. And it did not occur to him until he was a great deal older and less innocent, to smile at them. John felt that he would sacredly keep every lock of hair intrusted to him, though death should come on the wings of cholera and take away every one of these sad, red-ink correspondents. When John's big brother one day caught sight of these treasures, and brutally told him that he "had hair enough to stuff a horse-collar," John was so outraged and shocked, as he should have been, at this rude invasion of his heart, this coarse suggestion, this profanation of his most delicate feeling, that he was kept from crying only by the resolution to "lick" his brother as soon as ever he got big enough.
THE COMING OF THANKSGIVING
One of the best things in farming is gathering the chestnuts, hickory-nuts, butternuts, and even beechnuts, in the late fall, after the frosts have cracked the husks and the high winds have shaken them, and the colored leaves have strewn the ground. On a bright October day, when the air is full of golden sunshine, there is nothing quite so exhilarating as going nutting. Nor is the pleasure of it altogether destroyed for the boy by the consideration that he is making himself useful in obtaining supplies for the winter household. The getting-in of potatoes and corn is a different thing; that is the prose, but nutting is the poetry, of farm life. I am not sure but the boy would find it very irksome, though, if he were obliged to work at nut-gathering in order to procure food for the family. He is willing to make himself useful in his own way. The Italian boy, who works day after day at a huge pile of pine-cones, pounding and cracking them and taking out the long seeds, which are sold and eaten as we eat nuts (and which are almost as good as pumpkin-seeds, another favorite with the Italians), probably does not see the fun of nutting. Indeed, if the farmer-boy here were set at pounding off the walnut-shucks and opening the prickly chestnut-burs as a task, he would think himself an ill-used boy. What a hardship the prickles in his fingers would be! But now he digs them out with his jack-knife, and enjoys the process, on the whole. The boy is willing to do any amount of work if it is called play.
In nutting, the squirrel is not more nimble and industrious than the boy. I like to see a crowd of boys swarm over a chestnut-grove; they leave a desert behind them like the seventeen-year locusts. To climb a tree and shake it, to club it, to strip it of its fruit, and pass to the next, is the sport of a brief time. I have seen a legion of boys scamper over our grass-plot under the chestnut-trees, each one as active as if he were a new patent picking-machine, sweeping the ground clean of nuts, and disappear over the hill before I could go to the door and speak to them about it. Indeed, I have noticed that boys don't care much for conversation with the owners of fruit-trees. They could speedily make their fortunes if they would work as rapidly in cotton-fields. I have never seen anything like it, except a flock of turkeys removing the grasshoppers from a piece of pasture.
Perhaps it is not generally known that we get the idea of some of our best military maneuvers from the turkey. The deploying of the skirmish-line in advance of an army is one of them. The drum-major of our holiday militia companies is copied exactly from the turkey gobbler; he has the same splendid appearance, the same proud step, and the same martial aspect. The gobbler does not lead his forces in the field, but goes behind them, like the colonel of a regiment, so that he can see every part of the line and direct its movements. This resemblance is one of the most singular things in natural history. I like to watch the gobbler maneuvering his forces in a grasshopper-field. He throws out his company of two dozen turkeys in a crescent-shaped skirmish-line, the number disposed at equal distances, while he walks majestically in the rear. They advance rapidly, picking right and left, with military precision, killing the foe and disposing of the dead bodies with the same peck. Nobody has yet discovered how many grasshoppers a turkey will hold; but he is very much like a boy at a Thanksgiving dinner,—he keeps on eating as long as the supplies last. The gobbler, in one of these raids, does not condescend to grab a single grasshopper,—at least, not while anybody is watching him. But I suppose he makes up for it when his dignity cannot be injured by having spectators of his voracity; perhaps he falls upon the grasshoppers when they are driven into a corner of the field. But he is only fattening himself for destruction; like all greedy persons, he comes to a bad end. And if the turkeys had any Sunday-school, they would be taught this.
The New England boy used to look forward to Thanksgiving as the great event of the year. He was apt to get stents set him,—so much corn to husk, for instance, before that day, so that he could have an extra play-spell; and in order to gain a day or two, he would work at his task with the rapidity of half a dozen boys. He always had the day after Thanksgiving as a holiday, and this was the day he counted on. Thanksgiving itself was rather an awful festival,—very much like Sunday, except for the enormous dinner, which filled his imagination for months before as completely as it did his stomach for that day and a week after. There was an impression in the house that that dinner was the most important event since the landing from the Mayflower. Heliogabalus, who did not resemble a Pilgrim Father at all, but who had prepared for himself in his day some very sumptuous banquets in Rome, and ate a great deal of the best he could get (and liked peacocks stuffed with asafetida, for one thing), never had anything like a Thanksgiving dinner; for do you suppose that he, or Sardanapalus either, ever had twenty-four different kinds of pie at one dinner? Therein many a New England boy is greater than the Roman emperor or the Assyrian king, and these were among the most luxurious eaters of their day and generation. But something more is necessary to make good men than plenty to eat, as Heliogabalus no doubt found when his head was cut off. Cutting off the head was a mode the people had of expressing disapproval of their conspicuous men. Nowadays they elect them to a higher office, or give them a mission to some foreign country, if they do not do well where they are.
For days and days before Thanksgiving the boy was kept at work evenings, pounding and paring and cutting up and mixing (not being allowed to taste much), until the world seemed to him to be made of fragrant spices, green fruit, raisins, and pastry,—a world that he was only yet allowed to enjoy through his nose. How filled the house was with the most delicious smells! The mince-pies that were made! If John had been shut in solid walls with them piled about him, he could n't have eaten his way out in four weeks. There were dainties enough cooked in those two weeks to have made the entire year luscious with good living, if they had been scattered along in it. But people were probably all the better for scrimping themselves a little in order to make this a great feast. And it was not by any means over in a day. There were weeks deep of chicken-pie and other pastry. The cold buttery was a cave of Aladdin, and it took a long time to excavate all its riches.
Thanksgiving Day itself was a heavy dav, the hilarity of it being so subdued by going to meeting, and the universal wearing of the Sunday clothes, that the boy could n't see it. But if he felt little exhilaration, he ate a great deal. The next day was the real holiday. Then were the merry-making parties, and perhaps the skatings and sleigh-rides, for the freezing weather came before the governor's proclamation in many parts of New England. The night after Thanksgiving occurred, perhaps, the first real party that the boy had ever attended, with live girls in it, dressed so bewitchingly. And there he heard those philandering songs, and played those sweet games of forfeits, which put him quite beside himself, and kept him awake that night till the rooster crowed at the end of his first chicken-nap. What a new world did that party open to him! I think it likely that he saw there, and probably did not dare say ten words to, some tall, graceful girl, much older than himself, who seemed to him like a new order of being. He could see her face just as plainly in the darkness of his chamber. He wondered if she noticed how awkward he was, and how short his trousers-legs were. He blushed as he thought of his rather ill-fitting shoes; and determined, then and there, that he wouldn't be put off with a ribbon any longer, but would have a young man's necktie. It was somewhat painful, thinking the party over, but it was delicious, too. He did not think, probably, that he would die for that tall, handsome girl; he did not put it exactly in that way. But he rather resolved to live for her, which might in the end amount to the same thing. At least, he thought that nobody would live to speak twice disrespectfully of her in his presence.
THE SEASON OF PUMPKIN-PIE
What John said was, that he did n't care much for pumpkin-pie; but that was after he had eaten a whole one. It seemed to him then that mince would be better.
The feeling of a boy towards pumpkin-pie has never been properly considered. There is an air of festivity about its approach in the fall. The boy is willing to help pare and cut up the pumpkin, and he watches with the greatest interest the stirring-up process and the pouring into the scalloped crust. When the sweet savor of the baking reaches his nostrils, he is filled with the most delightful anticipations. Why should he not be? He knows that for months to come the buttery will contain golden treasures, and that it will require only a slight ingenuity to get at them.
The fact is, that the boy is as good in the buttery as in any part of farming. His elders say that the boy is always hungry; but that is a very coarse way to put it. He has only recently come into a world that is full of good things to eat, and there is, on the whole, a very short time in which to eat them; at least, he is told, among the first information he receives, that life is short. Life being brief, and pie and the like fleeting, he very soon decides upon an active campaign. It may be an old story to people who have been eating for forty or fifty years, but it is different with a beginner. He takes the thick and thin as it comes, as to pie, for instance. Some people do make them very thin. I knew a place where they were not thicker than the poor man's plaster; they were spread so thin upon the crust that they were better fitted to draw out hunger than to satisfy it. They used to be made up by the great oven-full and kept in the dry cellar, where they hardened and dried to a toughness you would hardly believe. This was a long time ago, and they make the pumpkin-pie in the country better now, or the race of boys would have been so discouraged that I think they would have stopped coming into the world.
The truth is, that boys have always been so plenty that they are not half appreciated. We have shown that a farm could not get along without them, and yet their rights are seldom recognized. One of the most amusing things is their effort to acquire personal property. The boy has the care of the calves; they always need feeding, or shutting up, or letting out; when the boy wants to play, there are those calves to be looked after,—until he gets to hate the name of calf. But in consideration of his faithfulness, two of them are given to him. There is no doubt that they are his: he has the entire charge of them. When they get to be steers he spends all his holidays in breaking them in to a yoke. He gets them so broken in that they will run like a pair of deer all over the farm, turning the yoke, and kicking their heels, while he follows in full chase, shouting the ox language till he is red in the face. When the steers grow up to be cattle, a drover one day comes along and takes them away, and the boy is told that he can have another pair of calves; and so, with undiminished faith, he goes back and begins over again to make his fortune. He owns lambs and young colts in the same way, and makes just as much out of them.
There are ways in which the farmer-boy can earn money, as by gathering the early chestnuts and taking them to the corner store, or by finding turkeys' eggs and selling them to his mother; and another way is to go without butter at the table—but the money thus made is for the heathen. John read in Dr. Livingstone that some of the tribes in Central Africa (which is represented by a blank spot in the atlas) use the butter to grease their hair, putting on pounds of it at a time; and he said he had rather eat his butter than have it put to that use, especially as it melted away so fast in that hot climate.
Of course it was explained to John that the missionaries do not actually carry butter to Africa, and that they must usually go without it themselves there, it being almost impossible to make it good from the milk in the cocoanuts. And it was further explained to him that even if the heathen never received his butter or the money for it, it was an excellent thing for a boy to cultivate the habit of self-denial and of benevolence, and if the heathen never heard of him, he would be blessed for his generosity. This was all true.
But John said that he was tired of supporting the heathen out of his butter, and he wished the rest of the family would also stop eating butter and save the money for missions; and he wanted to know where the other members of the family got their money to send to the heathen; and his mother said that he was about half right, and that self-denial was just as good for grown people as it was for little boys and girls.
The boy is not always slow to take what he considers his rights. Speaking of those thin pumpkin-pies kept in the cellar cupboard. I used to know a boy, who afterwards grew to be a selectman, and brushed his hair straight up like General Jackson, and went to the legislature, where he always voted against every measure that was proposed, in the most honest manner, and got the reputation of being the "watch-dog of the treasury." Rats in the cellar were nothing to be compared to this boy for destructiveness in pies. He used to go down whenever he could make an excuse, to get apples for the family, or draw a mug of cider for his dear old grandfather (who was a famous story-teller about the Revolutionary War, and would no doubt have been wounded in battle if he had not been as prudent as he was patriotic), and come upstairs with a tallow candle in one hand and the apples or cider in the other, looking as innocent and as unconscious as if he had never done anything in his life except deny himself butter for the sake of the heathen. And yet this boy would have buttoned under his jacket an entire round pumpkin-pie. And the pie was so well made and so dry that it was not injured in the least, and it never hurt the boy's clothes a bit more than if it had been inside of him instead of outside; and this boy would retire to a secluded place and eat it with another boy, being never suspected because he was not in the cellar long enough to eat a pie, and he never appeared to have one about him. But he did something worse than this. When his mother saw that pie after pie departed, she told the family that she suspected the hired man; and the boy never said a word, which was the meanest kind of lying. That hired man was probably regarded with suspicion by the family to the end of his days, and if he had been accused of robbing, they would have believed him guilty.
I shouldn't wonder if that selectman occasionally has remorse now about that pie; dreams, perhaps, that it is buttoned up under his jacket and sticking to him like a breastplate; that it lies upon his stomach like a round and red-hot nightmare, eating into his vitals. Perhaps not. It is difficult to say exactly what was the sin of stealing that kind of pie, especially if the one who stole it ate it. It could have been used for the game of pitching quoits, and a pair of them would have made very fair wheels for the dog-cart. And yet it is probably as wrong to steal a thin pie as a thick one; and it made no difference because it was easy to steal this sort. Easy stealing is no better than easy lying, where detection of the lie is difficult. The boy who steals his mother's pies has no right to be surprised when some other boy steals his watermelons. Stealing is like charity in one respect,—it is apt to begin at home.
FIRST EXPERIENCE OF THE WORLD
If I were forced to be a boy, and a boy in the country,—the best kind of boy to be in the summer,—I would be about ten years of age. As soon as I got any older, I would quit it. The trouble with a boy is, that just as he begins to enjoy himself he is too old, and has to be set to doing something else. If a country boy were wise, he would stay at just that age when he could enjoy himself most, and have the least expected of him in the way of work.
Of course the perfectly good boy will always prefer to work and to do "chores" for his father and errands for his mother and sisters, rather than enjoy himself in his own way. I never saw but one such boy. He lived in the town of Goshen,—not the place where the butter is made, but a much better Goshen than that. And I never saw him, but I heard of him; and being about the same age, as I supposed, I was taken once from Zoah, where I lived, to Goshen to see him. But he was dead. He had been dead almost a year, so that it was impossible to see him. He died of the most singular disease: it was from not eating green apples in the season of them. This boy, whose name was Solomon, before he died, would rather split up kindling-wood for his mother than go a-fishing,—the consequence was, that he was kept at splitting kindling-wood and such work most of the time, and grew a better and more useful boy day by day. Solomon would not disobey his parents and eat green apples,—not even when they were ripe enough to knock off with a stick, but he had such a longing for them, that he pined, and passed away. If he had eaten the green apples, he would have died of them, probably; so that his example is a difficult one to follow. In fact, a boy is a hard subject to get a moral from. All his little playmates who ate green apples came to Solomon's funeral, and were very sorry for what they had done.
John was a very different boy from Solomon, not half so good, nor half so dead. He was a farmer's boy, as Solomon was, but he did not take so much interest in the farm. If John could have had his way, he would have discovered a cave full of diamonds, and lots of nail-kegs full of gold-pieces and Spanish dollars, with a pretty little girl living in the cave, and two beautifully caparisoned horses, upon which, taking the jewels and money, they would have ridden off together, he did not know where. John had got thus far in his studies, which were apparently arithmetic and geography, but were in reality the Arabian Nights, and other books of high and mighty adventure. He was a simple country-boy, and did not know much about the world as it is, but he had one of his own imagination, in which he lived a good deal. I daresay he found out soon enough what the world is, and he had a lesson or two when he was quite young, in two incidents, which I may as well relate.
If you had seen John at this time, you might have thought he was only a shabbily dressed country lad, and you never would have guessed what beautiful thoughts he sometimes had as he went stubbing his toes along the dusty road, nor what a chivalrous little fellow he was. You would have seen a short boy, barefooted, with trousers at once too big and too short, held up perhaps by one suspender only, a checked cotton shirt, and a hat of braided palm-leaf, frayed at the edges and bulged up in the crown. It is impossible to keep a hat neat if you use it to catch bumblebees and whisk 'em; to bail the water from a leaky boat; to catch minnows in; to put over honey-bees' nests, and to transport pebbles, strawberries, and hens' eggs. John usually carried a sling in his hand, or a bow, or a limber stick, sharp at one end, from which he could sling apples a great distance. If he walked in the road, he walked in the middle of it, shuffling up the dust; or if he went elsewhere, he was likely to be running on the top of the fence or the stone wall, and chasing chipmunks.
John knew the best place to dig sweet-flag in all the farm; it was in a meadow by the river, where the bobolinks sang so gayly. He never liked to hear the bobolink sing, however, for he said it always reminded him of the whetting of a scythe, and that reminded him of spreading hay; and if there was anything he hated, it was spreading hay after the mowers. "I guess you would n't like it yourself," said John, "with the stubbs getting into your feet, and the hot sun, and the men getting ahead of you, all you could do."
Towards evening, once, John was coming along the road home with some stalks of the sweet-flag in his hand; there is a succulent pith in the end of the stalk which is very good to eat,—tender, and not so strong as the root; and John liked to pull it, and carry home what he did not eat on the way. As he was walking along he met a carriage, which stopped opposite to him; he also stopped and bowed, as country boys used to bow in John's day. A lady leaned from the carriage, and said:
"What have you got, little boy?"
She seemed to be the most beautiful woman John had ever seen; with light hair, dark, tender eyes, and the sweetest smile. There was that in her gracious mien and in her dress which reminded John of the beautiful castle ladies, with whom he was well acquainted in books. He felt that he knew her at once, and he also seemed to be a sort of young prince himself. I fancy he did n't look much like one. But of his own appearance he thought not at all, as he replied to the lady's question, without the least embarrassment:
"It's sweet-flag stalk; would you like some?"
"Indeed, I should like to taste it," said the lady, with a most winning smile. "I used to be very fond of it when I was a little girl."
John was delighted that the lady should like sweet-flag, and that she was pleased to accept it from him. He thought himself that it was about the best thing to eat he knew. He handed up a large bunch of it. The lady took two or three stalks, and was about to return the rest, when John said:
"Please keep it all, ma'am. I can get lots more."
"I know where it's ever so thick."
"Thank you, thank you," said the lady; and as the carriage started, she reached out her hand to John. He did not understand the motion, until he saw a cent drop in the road at his feet. Instantly all his illusion and his pleasure vanished. Something like tears were in his eyes as he shouted:
"I don't want your cent. I don't sell flag!"
John was intensely mortified. "I suppose," he said, "she thought I was a sort of beggar-boy. To think of selling flag!"
At any rate, he walked away and left the cent in the road, a humiliated boy. The next day he told Jim Gates about it. Jim said he was green not to take the money; he'd go and look for it now, if he would tell him about where it dropped. And Jim did spend an hour poking about in the dirt, but he did not find the cent. Jim, however, had an idea; he said he was going to dig sweet-flag, and see if another carriage wouldn't come along.
John's next rebuff and knowledge of the world was of another sort. He was again walking the road at twilight, when he was overtaken by a wagon with one seat, upon which were two pretty girls, and a young gentleman sat between them, driving. It was a merry party, and John could hear them laughing and singing as they approached him. The wagon stopped when it overtook him, and one of the sweet-faced girls leaned from the seat and said, quite seriously and pleasantly:
"Little boy, how's your mar?"
John was surprised and puzzled for a moment. He had never seen the young lady, but he thought that she perhaps knew his mother; at any rate, his instinct of politeness made him say:
"She's pretty well, I thank you."
"Does she know you are out?"
And thereupon all three in the wagon burst into a roar of laughter, and dashed on.
It flashed upon John in a moment that he had been imposed on, and it hurt him dreadfully. His self-respect was injured somehow, and he felt as if his lovely, gentle mother had been insulted. He would like to have thrown a stone at the wagon, and in a rage he cried:
"You're a nice...." but he could n't think of any hard, bitter words quick enough.
Probably the young lady, who might have been almost any young lady, never knew what a cruel thing she had done.
The winter season is not all sliding downhill for the farmer-boy, by any means; yet he contrives to get as much fun out of it as from any part of the year. There is a difference in boys: some are always jolly, and some go scowling always through life as if they had a stone-bruise on each heel. I like a jolly boy.
I used to know one who came round every morning to sell molasses candy, offering two sticks for a cent apiece; it was worth fifty cents a day to see his cheery face. That boy rose in the world. He is now the owner of a large town at the West. To be sure, there are no houses in it except his own; but there is a map of it, and roads and streets are laid out on it, with dwellings and churches and academies and a college and an opera-house, and you could scarcely tell it from Springfield or Hartford,—on paper. He and all his family have the fever and ague, and shake worse than the people at Lebanon; but they do not mind it; it makes them lively, in fact. Ed May is just as jolly as he used to be. He calls his town Mayopolis, and expects to be mayor of it; his wife, however, calls the town Maybe.
The farmer-boy likes to have winter come for one thing, because it freezes up the ground so that he can't dig in it; and it is covered with snow so that there is no picking up stones, nor driving the cows to pasture. He would have a very easy time if it were not for the getting up before daylight to build the fires and do the "chores." Nature intended the long winter nights for the farmer-boy to sleep; but in my day he was expected to open his sleepy eyes when the cock crew, get out of the warm bed and light a candle, struggle into his cold pantaloons, and pull on boots in which the thermometer would have gone down to zero, rake open the coals on the hearth and start the morning fire, and then go to the barn to "fodder." The frost was thick on the kitchen windows, the snow was drifted against the door, and the journey to the barn, in the pale light of dawn, over the creaking snow, was like an exile's trip to Siberia. The boy was not half awake when he stumbled into the cold barn, and was greeted by the lowing and bleating and neighing of cattle waiting for their breakfast. How their breath steamed up from the mangers, and hung in frosty spears from their noses. Through the great lofts above the hay, where the swallows nested, the winter wind whistled, and the snow sifted. Those old barns were well ventilated.
I used to spend much valuable time in planning a barn that should be tight and warm, with a fire in it, if necessary, in order to keep the temperature somewhere near the freezing-point. I could n't see how the cattle could live in a place where a lively boy, full of young blood, would freeze to death in a short time if he did not swing his arms and slap his hands, and jump about like a goat. I thought I would have a sort of perpetual manger that should shake down the hay when it was wanted, and a self-acting machine that should cut up the turnips and pass them into the mangers, and water always flowing for the cattle and horses to drink. With these simple arrangements I could lie in bed, and know that the "chores" were doing themselves. It would also be necessary, in order that I should not be disturbed, that the crow should be taken out of the roosters, but I could think of no process to do it. It seems to me that the hen-breeders, if they know as much as they say they do, might raise a breed of crowless roosters for the benefit of boys, quiet neighborhoods, and sleepy families.
There was another notion that I had about kindling the kitchen fire, that I never carried out. It was to have a spring at the head of my bed, connecting with a wire, which should run to a torpedo which I would plant over night in the ashes of the fireplace. By touching the spring I could explode the torpedo, which would scatter the ashes and cover the live coals, and at the same time shake down the sticks of wood which were standing by the side of the ashes in the chimney, and the fire would kindle itself. This ingenious plan was frowned on by the whole family, who said they did not want to be waked up every morning by an explosion. And yet they expected me to wake up without an explosion! A boy's plans for making life agreeable are hardly ever heeded.
I never knew a boy farmer who was not eager to go to the district school in the winter. There is such a chance for learning, that he must be a dull boy who does not come out in the spring a fair skater, an accurate snow-baller, and an accomplished slider-down-hill, with or without a board, on his seat, on his stomach, or on his feet. Take a moderate hill, with a foot-slide down it worn to icy smoothness, and a "go-round" of boys on it, and there is nothing like it for whittling away boot-leather. The boy is the shoemaker's friend. An active lad can wear down a pair of cowhide soles in a week so that the ice will scrape his toes. Sledding or coasting is also slow fun compared to the "bareback" sliding down a steep hill over a hard, glistening crust. It is not only dangerous, but it is destructive to jacket and pantaloons to a degree to make a tailor laugh. If any other animal wore out his skin as fast as a schoolboy wears out his clothes in winter, it would need a new one once a month. In a country district-school patches were not by any means a sign of poverty, but of the boy's courage and adventurous disposition. Our elders used to threaten to dress us in leather and put sheet-iron seats in our trousers. The boy said that he wore out his trousers on the hard seats in the schoolhouse ciphering hard sums. For that extraordinary statement he received two castigations,—one at home, that was mild, and one from the schoolmaster, who was careful to lay the rod upon the boy's sliding-place, punishing him, as he jocosely called it, on a sliding scale, according to the thinness of his pantaloons.
What I liked best at school, however, was the study of history, —early history,—the Indian wars. We studied it mostly at noontime, and we had it illustrated as the children nowadays have "object-lessons," though our object was not so much to have lessons as it was to revive real history.
Back of the schoolhouse rose a round hill, upon which, tradition said, had stood in colonial times a block-house, built by the settlers for defense against the Indians. For the Indians had the idea that the whites were not settled enough, and used to come nights to settle—them with a tomahawk. It was called Fort Hill. It was very steep on each side, and the river ran close by. It was a charming place in summer, where one could find laurel, and checkerberries, and sassafras roots, and sit in the cool breeze, looking at the mountains across the river, and listening to the murmur of the Deerfield. The Methodists built a meeting-house there afterwards, but the hill was so slippery in winter that the aged could not climb it and the wind raged so fiercely that it blew nearly all the young Methodists away (many of whom were afterwards heard of in the West), and finally the meeting-house itself came down into the valley, and grew a steeple, and enjoyed itself ever afterwards. It used to be a notion in New England that a meeting-house ought to stand as near heaven as possible.
The boys at our school divided themselves into two parties: one was the Early Settlers and the other the Pequots, the latter the most numerous. The Early Settlers built a snow fort on the hill, and a strong fortress it was, constructed of snowballs, rolled up to a vast size (larger than the cyclopean blocks of stone which form the ancient Etruscan walls in Italy), piled one upon another, and the whole cemented by pouring on water which froze and made the walls solid. The Pequots helped the whites build it. It had a covered way under the snow, through which only could it be entered, and it had bastions and towers and openings to fire from, and a great many other things for which there are no names in military books. And it had a glacis and a ditch outside.
When it was completed, the Early Settlers, leaving the women in the schoolhouse, a prey to the Indians, used to retire into it, and await the attack of the Pequots. There was only a handful of the garrison, while the Indians were many, and also barbarous. It was agreed that they should be barbarous. And it was in this light that the great question was settled whether a boy might snowball with balls that he had soaked over night in water and let freeze. They were as hard as cobble-stones, and if a boy should be hit in the head by one of them, he could not tell whether he was a Pequot or an Early Settler. It was considered as unfair to use these ice-balls in open fight, as it is to use poisoned ammunition in real war. But as the whites were protected by the fort, and the Indians were treacherous by nature, it was decided that the latter might use the hard missiles.
The Pequots used to come swarming up the hill, with hideous war-whoops, attacking the fort on all sides with great noise and a shower of balls. The garrison replied with yells of defiance and well-directed shots, hurling back the invaders when they attempted to scale the walls. The Settlers had the advantage of position, but they were sometimes overpowered by numbers, and would often have had to surrender but for the ringing of the school-bell. The Pequots were in great fear of the school-bell.
I do not remember that the whites ever hauled down their flag and surrendered voluntarily; but once or twice the fort was carried by storm and the garrison were massacred to a boy, and thrown out of the fortress, having been first scalped. To take a boy's cap was to scalp him, and after that he was dead, if he played fair. There were a great many hard hits given and taken, but always cheerfully, for it was in the cause of our early history. The history of Greece and Rome was stuff compared to this. And we had many boys in our school who could imitate the Indian war whoop enough better than they could scan arma, virumque cano.
THE LONELY FARMHOUSE
The winter evenings of the farmer-boy in New England used not to be so gay as to tire him of the pleasures of life before he became of age. A remote farmhouse, standing a little off the road, banked up with sawdust and earth to keep the frost out of the cellar, blockaded with snow, and flying a blue flag of smoke from its chimney, looks like a besieged fort. On cold and stormy winter nights, to the traveler wearily dragging along in his creaking sleigh, the light from its windows suggests a house of refuge and the cheer of a blazing fire. But it is no less a fort, into which the family retire when the New England winter on the hills really sets in.
The boy is an important part of the garrison. He is not only one of the best means of communicating with the outer world, but he furnishes half the entertainment and takes two thirds of the scolding of the family circle. A farm would come to grief without a boy-on it, but it is impossible to think of a farmhouse without a boy in it.
"That boy" brings life into the house; his tracks are to be seen everywhere; he leaves all the doors open; he has n't half filled the wood-box; he makes noise enough to wake the dead; or he is in a brown-study by the fire and cannot be stirred, or he has fastened a grip into some Crusoe book which cannot easily be shaken off. I suppose that the farmer-boy's evenings are not now what they used to be; that he has more books, and less to do, and is not half so good a boy as formerly, when he used to think the almanac was pretty lively reading, and the comic almanac, if he could get hold of that, was a supreme delight.
Of course he had the evenings to himself, after he had done the "chores" at the barn, brought in the wood and piled it high in the box, ready to be heaped upon the great open fire. It was nearly dark when he came from school (with its continuation of snowballing and sliding), and he always had an agreeable time stumbling and fumbling around in barn and wood-house, in the waning light.
John used to say that he supposed nobody would do his "chores" if he did not get home till midnight; and he was never contradicted. Whatever happened to him, and whatever length of days or sort of weather was produced by the almanac, the cardinal rule was that he should be at home before dark.
John used to imagine what people did in the dark ages, and wonder sometimes whether he was n't still in them.
Of course, John had nothing to do all the evening, after his "chores,"—except little things. While he drew his chair up to the table in order to get the full radiance of the tallow candle on his slate or his book, the women of the house also sat by the table knitting and sewing. The head of the house sat in his chair, tipped back against the chimney; the hired man was in danger of burning his boots in the fire. John might be deep in the excitement of a bear story, or be hard at writing a "composition" on his greasy slate; but whatever he was doing, he was the only one who could always be interrupted. It was he who must snuff the candles, and put on a stick of wood, and toast the cheese, and turn the apples, and crack the nuts. He knew where the fox-and-geese board was, and he could find the twelve-men-Morris. Considering that he was expected to go to bed at eight o'clock, one would say that the opportunity for study was not great, and that his reading was rather interrupted. There seemed to be always something for him to do, even when all the rest of the family came as near being idle as is ever possible in a New England household.
No wonder that John was not sleepy at eight o'clock; he had been flying about while the others had been yawning before the fire. He would like to sit up just to see how much more solemn and stupid it would become as the night went on; he wanted to tinker his skates, to mend his sled, to finish that chapter. Why should he go away from that bright blaze, and the company that sat in its radiance, to the cold and solitude of his chamber? Why did n't the people who were sleepy go to bed?