CHAPTER I THE MELON HARVEST
Once upon a time I owned a watermelon. I say once because I never did it again. When I got through owning that melon I never wanted another. The time was 1831; I was a boy of seven and the melon was the first of all my harvests. Every night and morning I watered and felt and surveyed my watermelon. My pride grew with the melon and, by and by, my uncle tried to express the extent and nature of my riches by calling me a mellionaire.
I didn't know much about myself those days except the fact that my name was Bart Baynes and, further, that I was an orphan who owned a watermelon and a little spotted hen and lived on Rattle road in a neighborhood called Lickitysplit. I lived with my Aunt Deel and my Uncle Peabody Baynes on a farm. They were brother and sister—he about thirty-eight and she a little beyond the far-distant goal of forty.
My father and mother died in a scourge of diphtheria that swept the neighborhood when I was a boy of five. For a time my Aunt Deel seemed to blame me for my loss.
"No wonder they're dead," she used to say, when out of patience with me and—well I suppose that I must have had an unusual talent for all the noisy arts of childhood when I broke the silence of that little home.
The word "dead" set the first mile-stone in the long stretch of my memory. That was because I tried so hard to comprehend it and further because it kept repeating its challenge to my imagination. I often wondered just what had become of my father and mother and I remember that the day after I went to my aunt's home a great idea came to me. It came out of the old dinner-horn hanging in the shed. I knew the power of its summons and I slyly captured the horn and marched around the house blowing it and hoping that it would bring my father up from the fields. I blew and blew and listened for that familiar halloo of his. When I paused for a drink of water at the well my aunt came and seized the horn and said it was no wonder they were dead. She knew nothing of the sublime bit of necromancy she had interrupted—poor soul!
I knew that she had spoken of my parents for I supposed that they were the only people in the world who were dead, but I did not know what it meant to be dead. I often called to them, as I had been wont to do, especially in the night, and shed many tears because they came no more to answer me. Aunt Deel did not often refer directly to my talents, but I saw, many times, that no-wonder-they-died look in her face.
Children are great rememberers. They are the recording angels—the keepers of the book of life. Man forgets—how easily!—and easiest of all, the solemn truth that children do not forget.
A few days after I arrived in the home of my aunt and uncle I slyly entered the parlor and climbed the what-not to examine some white flowers on its top shelf and tipped the whole thing over, scattering its burden of albums, wax flowers and sea shells on the floor. My aunt came running on her tiptoes and exclaimed: "Mercy! Come right out o' here this minute—you pest!"
I took some rather long steps going out which were due to the fact that Aunt Deel had hold of my hand. While I sat weeping she went back into the parlor and began to pick up things.
"My wreath! my wreath!" I heard her moaning.
How well I remember that little assemblage of flower ghosts in wax! They had no more right to associate with human beings than the ghosts of fable. Uncle Peabody used to call them the "Minervy flowers" because they were a present from his Aunt Minerva. When Aunt Deel returned to the kitchen where I sat—a sorrowing little refugee hunched up in a corner—she said: "I'll have to tell your Uncle Peabody—ayes!"
"Oh please don't tell my Uncle Peabody," I wailed.
"Ayes! I'll have to tell him," she answered firmly.
For the first time I looked for him with dread at the window and when he came I hid in a closet and heard that solemn and penetrating note in her voice as she said:
"I guess you'll have to take that boy away—ayes!"
"What now?" he asked.
"My stars! he sneaked into the parlor and tipped over the what-not and smashed that beautiful wax wreath!"
Her voice trembled.
"Not them Minervy flowers?" he asked in a tone of doleful incredulity.
"Ayes he did!"
"And tipped over the hull what-not?"
"Jerusalem four-corners!" he exclaimed. "I'll have to—"
He stopped as he was wont to do on the threshold of strong opinions and momentous resolutions.
The rest of the conversation was drowned in my own cries and Uncle Peabody came and lifted me tenderly and carried me up-stairs.
He sat down with me on his lap and hushed my cries. Then he said very gently:
"Now, Bub, you and me have got to be careful. What-nots and albums and wax flowers and hair-cloth sofys are the most dang'rous critters in St. Lawrence County. They're purty savage. Keep your eye peeled. You can't tell what minute they'll jump on ye. More boys have been dragged away and tore to pieces by `em than by all the bears and panthers in the woods. When I was a boy I got a cut acrost my legs that made a scar ye can see now, and it was a hair-cloth sofy that done it. Keep out o' that old parlor. Ye might as well go into a cage o' wolves. How be I goin' to make ye remember it?"
"I don't know," I whimpered and began to cry out in fearful anticipation.
He set me in a chair, picked up one of his old carpet-slippers and began to thump the bed with it. He belabored the bed with tremendous vigor. Meanwhile he looked at me and exclaimed: "You dreadful child!"
I knew that my sins were responsible for this violence. It frightened me and my cries increased.
The door at the bottom of the stairs opened suddenly.
Aunt Deel called:
"Don't lose your temper, Peabody. I think you've gone fur 'nough—ayes!"
Uncle Peabody stopped and blew as if he were very tired and then I caught a look in his face that reassured me.
He called back to her: "I wouldn't 'a' cared so much if it hadn't 'a' been the what-not and them Minervy flowers. When a boy tips over a what-not he's goin' it purty strong."
"Well don't be too severe. You'd better come now and git me a pail o' water—ayes, I think ye had."
Uncle Peabody did a lot of sneezing and coughing with his big, red handkerchief over his face and I was not old enough then to understand it. He kissed me and took my little hand in his big hard one and led me down the stairs.
After that in private talks uncle and I always referred to our parlor as the wolf den and that night, after I had gone to bed, he lay down beside me and told the story of a boy who, having been left alone in his father's house one day, was suddenly set upon and roughly handled by a what-not, a shaggy old hair-cloth sofy and an album. The sofy had begun it by scratchin' his face and he had scratched back with a shingle nail. The album had watched its chance and, when he stood beneath it, had jumped off a shelf on to his head. Suddenly he heard a voice calling him:
"Little boy, come here," it said, and it was the voice of the what-not.
"Just step up on this lower shelf," says the old what-not. "I want to show ye somethin'."
The what-not was all covered with shiny things and looked as innocent as a lamb.
He went over and stepped on the lower shelf and then the savage thing jumped right on top of him, very supple, and threw him on to the floor and held him there until his mother came.
I dreamed that night that a long-legged what-not, with a wax wreath in its hands, chased me around the house and caught and bit me on the neck. I called for help and uncle came and found me on the floor and put me back in bed again.
For a long time I thought that the way a man punished a boy was by thumping his bed. I knew that women had a different and less satisfactory method, for I remembered that my mother had spanked me and Aunt Deel had a way of giving my hands and head a kind of watermelon thump with the middle finger of her right hand and with a curious look in her eyes. Uncle Peabody used to call it a "snaptious look." Almost always he whacked the bed with his slipper. There were exceptions, however, and, by and by, I came to know in each case the destination of the slipper for if I had done anything which really afflicted my conscience that strip of leather seemed to know the truth, and found its way to my person.
My Uncle Peabody was a man of a thousand. I often saw him laughing and talking to himself and strange fancies came into my head about it.
"Who be you talkin' to?" I asked.
"Who be I talkin' to, Bub? Why I'm talkin' to my friends."
"Friends?" I said.
"The friends I orto have had but ain't got. When I git lonesome I just make up a lot o' folks and some of 'em is good comp'ny."
He loved to have me with him, as he worked, and told me odd tales and seemed to enjoy my prattle. I often saw him stand with rough fingers stirring his beard, just beginning to show a sprinkle of white, while he looked down at me as if struck with wonder at something I had said.
"Come and give me a kiss, Bub," he would say. As he knelt down, I would run to his arms and I wondered why he always blinked his gray eyes after he had kissed me.
He was a bachelor and for a singular reason. I have always laid it to the butternut trousers—the most sacred bit of apparel of which I have any knowledge.
"What have you got on them butternut trousers for?" I used to hear Aunt Deel say when he came down-stairs in his first best clothes to go to meeting or "attend" a sociable—those days people just went to meeting but they always "attended" sociables—"You're a wearin' `em threadbare, ayes! I suppose you've sot yer eyes on some one o' the girls. I can always tell—ayes I can! When you git your long legs in them butternut trousers I know you're warmin' up—ayes!"
I had begun to regard those light brown trousers with a feeling of awe, and used to put my hand upon them very softly when uncle had them on. They seemed to rank with "sofys," albums and what-nots in their capacity for making trouble.
Uncle Peabody rarely made any answer, and for a time thereafter Aunt Deel acted as if she were about done with him. She would go around with a stern face as if unaware of his presence, and I had to keep out of her way. In fact I dreaded the butternut trousers almost as much as she did.
Once Uncle Peabody had put on the butternut trousers, against the usual protest, to go to meeting.
"Ayes! you've got 'em on ag'in," said Aunt Deel. "I suppose your black trousers ain't good 'nough. That's 'cause you know Edna Perry is goin' to be there—ayes!"
Edna Perry was a widow of about his age who was visiting her sister in the neighborhood.
Aunt Deel wouldn't go to church with us, so we went off together and walked home with Mrs. Perry. As we passed our house I saw Aunt Deel looking out of the window and waved my hand to her.
When we got home at last we found my aunt sitting in her armchair by the stove.
"You did it—didn't ye?—ayes," she demanded rather angrily as we came in.
"Done what?" asked Uncle Peabody.
"Shinin' up to that Perry woman—ain't ye?—ayes! I see you're bound to git married—ayes!"
I had no idea what it meant to get married but I made up my mind that it was something pretty low and bad. For the moment I blamed Uncle Peabody.
Aunt Deel's voice and manner seemed to indicate that she had borne with him to the limit of her patience.
"Delia," said my uncle, "I wouldn't be so—"
Again he checked himself for fear of going too far, I suppose.
"My heart! my heart!" Aunt Deel exclaimed and struggled to her feet sobbing, and Uncle Peabody helped her to the lounge. She was so ill the rest of the day that my uncle had to go for the doctor while I bathed her forehead with cold water.
Poor Uncle Peabody! Every step toward matrimony required such an outlay of emotion and such a sacrifice of comfort that I presume it seemed to be hardly worth while.
Yet I must be careful not to give the reader a false impression of my Aunt Deel. She was a thin, pale woman, rather tall, with brown hair and blue eyes and a tongue—well, her tongue has spoken for itself. I suppose that she will seem inhumanly selfish with this jealousy of her brother.
"I promised ma that I would look after you and I'm a-goin' to do it—ayes!" I used to hear her say to my uncle.
There were not many married men who were so thoroughly looked after. This was due in part to her high opinion of the Baynes family, and to a general distrust of women. In her view they were a designing lot. It was probably true that Mrs. Perry was fond of show and would have been glad to join the Baynes family, but those items should not have been set down against her. There was Aunt Deel's mistake. She couldn't allow any humanity in other women.
She toiled incessantly. She washed and scrubbed and polished and dusted and sewed and knit from morning until night. She lived in mortal fear that company would come and find her unprepared—Alma Jones or Jabez Lincoln and his wife, or Ben and Mary Humphries, or "Mr. and Mrs. Horace Dunkelberg." These were the people of whom she talked when the neighbors came in and when she was not talking of the Bayneses. I observed that she always said "Mr. and Mrs. Horace Dunkelberg." They were the conversational ornaments of our home. "As Mrs. Horace Dunkelberg says," or, "as I said to Mr. Horace Dunkelberg," were phrases calculated to establish our social standing. I supposed that the world was peopled by Joneses, Lincolns, Humphries and Dunkelbergs, but mostly by Dunkelbergs. These latter were very rich people who lived in Canton village.
I know, now, how dearly Aunt Deel loved her brother and me. I must have been a great trial to that woman of forty unused to the pranks of children and the tender offices of a mother. Naturally I turned from her to my Uncle Peabody as a refuge and a help in time of trouble with increasing fondness. He had no knitting or sewing to do and when Uncle Peabody sat in the house he gave all his time to me and we weathered many a storm together as we sat silently in his favorite corner, of an evening, where I always went to sleep in his arms.
He and I slept in the little room up-stairs, "under the shingles"—as uncle used to say. I in a small bed, and he in the big one which had been the receiver of so much violence. So I gave her only a qualified affection until I could see beneath the words and the face and the correcting hand of my Aunt Deel.
Uncle made up the beds in our room. Often his own bed would go unmade. My aunt would upbraid him for laziness, whereupon he would say that when he got up he liked the feel of that bed so much that he wanted to begin next night right where he had left off.
I was seven years old when Uncle Peabody gave me the watermelon seeds. I put one of them in my mouth and bit it.
"It appears to me there's an awful draft blowin' down your throat," said Uncle Peabody. "You ain't no business eatin' a melon seed."
"Why?" was my query.
"'Cause it was made to put in the ground. Didn't you know it was alive?"
"Alive!" I exclaimed.
"Alive," said he, "I'll show ye."
He put a number of the seeds in the ground and covered them, and said that that part of the garden should be mine. I watched it every day and by and by two vines came up. One sickened and died in dry weather. Uncle Peabody said that I must water the other every day. I did it faithfully and the vine throve.
"What makes it grow?" I asked.
"The same thing that makes you grow," said Uncle Peabody. "You can do lots of things but there's only one thing that a watermelon can do. It can just grow. See how it reaches out toward the sunlight! If we was to pull them vines around and try to make 'em grow toward the north they wouldn't mind us. They'd creep back and go reachin' toward the sunlight ag'in just as if they had a compass to show 'em the way."
It was hard work, I thought, to go down into the garden, night and morning, with my little pail full of water, but uncle said that I should get my pay when the melon was ripe. I had also to keep the wood-box full and feed the chickens. They were odious tasks. When I asked Aunt Deel what I should get for doing them she answered quickly:
"Nospanks and bread and butter—ayes!"
When I asked what were "nospanks" she told me that they were part of the wages of a good child. I was better paid for my care of the watermelon vine, for its growth was measured with a string every day and kept me interested. One morning I found five blossoms on it. I picked one and carried it to Aunt Deel. Another I destroyed in the tragedy of catching a bumblebee which had crawled into its cup. In due time three small melons appeared. When they were as big as a baseball I picked two of them. One I tasted and threw away as I ran to the pump for relief. The other I hurled at a dog on my way to school.
So that last melon on the vine had my undivided affection. It grew in size and reputation, and soon I learned that a reputation is about the worst thing that a watermelon can acquire while it is on the vine. I invited everybody that came to the house to go and see my watermelon. They looked it over and said pleasant things about it. When I was a boy people used to treat children and watermelons with a like solicitude. Both were a subject for jests and both produced similar reactions in the human countenance.
Aunt Deel often applied the watermelon test to my forehead and discovered in me a capacity for noise which no melon could rival. That act became very familiar to me, for when my melon was nearing the summit of its fame and influence, all beholders thumped its rounded side with the middle finger of the right hand, and said that they guessed they'd steal it. I knew that this was some kind of a joke and a very idle one for they had also threatened to steal me and nothing had come of it.
At last Uncle Peabody agreed with me that it was about time to pick the melon. I decided to pick it immediately after meeting on Sunday, so that I could give it to my aunt and uncle at dinner-time. When we got home I ran for the garden. My feet and those of our friends and neighbors had literally worn a path to the melon. In eager haste I got my little wheelbarrow and ran with it to the end of that path. There I found nothing but broken vines! The melon had vanished. I ran back to the house almost overcome by a feeling of alarm, for I had thought long of that hour of pride when I should bring the melon and present it to my aunt and uncle.
"Uncle Peabody," I shouted, "my melon is gone."
"Well I van!" said he, "somebody must 'a' stole it."
"Stole it?" I repeated the words without fully comprehending what they meant.
"But it was my melon," I said with a trembling voice.
"Yes and I vum it's too bad! But, Bart, you ain't learned yit that there are wicked people in the world who come and take what don't belong to 'em."
There were tears in my eyes when I asked:
"They'll bring it back, won't they?"
"Never!" said Uncle Peabody, "I'm afraid they've et it up."
He had no sooner said it than a cry broke from my lips, and I sank down upon the grass moaning and sobbing. I lay amidst the ruins of the simple faith of childhood. It was as if the world and all its joys had come to an end.
"You can't blame the boy," I heard Uncle Peabody saying. "He's fussed with that melon all summer. He wanted to give it to you for a present."
"Ayes so he did! Well I declare! I never thought o' that—ayes!"
Aunt Deel spoke in a low, kindly tone and came and lifted me to my feet very tenderly.
"Come, Bart, don't feel so about that old melon," said she, "it ain't worth it. Come with me. I'm goin' to give you a present—ayes I be!"
I was still crying when she took me to her trunk, and offered the grateful assuagement of candy and a belt, all embroidered with blue and white beads.
"Now you see, Bart, how low and mean anybody is that takes what don't belong to 'em—ayes! They're snakes! Everybody hates 'em an' stamps on 'em when they come in sight—ayes!"
The abomination of the Lord was in her look and manner. How it shook my soul! He who had taken the watermelon had also taken from me something I was never to have again, and a very wonderful thing it was—faith in the goodness of men. My eyes had seen evil. The world had committed its first offense against me and my spirit was no longer the white and beautiful thing it had been. Still, therein is the beginning of wisdom and, looking down the long vista of the years, I thank God for the great harvest of the lost watermelon. Better things had come in its place—understanding and what more, often I have vainly tried to estimate. For one thing that sudden revelation of the heart of childhood had lifted my aunt's out of the cold storage of a puritanic spirit, and warmed it into new life and opened its door for me.
In the afternoon she sent me over to Wills' to borrow a little tea. I stopped for a few minutes to play with Henry Wills—a boy not quite a year older than I. While playing there I discovered a piece of the rind of my melon in the dooryard. On that piece of rind I saw the cross which I had made one day with my thumb-nail. It was intended to indicate that the melon was solely and wholly mine. I felt a flush of anger.
"I hate you," I said as I approached him.
"I hate you," he answered.
"You're a snake!" I said.
We now stood, face to face and breast to breast, like a pair of young roosters. He gave me a shove and told me to go home. I gave him a shove and told him I wouldn't. I pushed up close to him again and we glared into each other's eyes.
Suddenly he spat in my face. I gave him a scratch on the forehead with my finger-nails. Then we fell upon each other and rolled on the ground and hit and scratched with feline ferocity.
Mrs. Wills ran out of the house and parted us. Our blood was hot, and leaking through the skin of our faces a little.
"He pitched on me," Henry explained.
I couldn't speak.
"Go right home—this minute—you brat!" said Mrs. Wills in anger. "Here's your tea. Don't you ever come here again."
I took the tea and started down the road weeping. What a bitter day that was for me! I dreaded to face my aunt and uncle. Coming through the grove down by our gate I met Uncle Peabody. With the keen eyesight of the father of the prodigal son he had seen me coming "a long way off" and shouted:
"Well here ye be—I was kind o' worried, Bub."
Then his eye caught the look of dejection in my gait and figure. He hurried toward me. He stopped as I came sobbing to his feet.
"Why, what's the matter?" he asked gently, as he took the tea cup from my hand, and sat down upon his heels.
I could only fall into his arms and express myself in the grief of childhood. He hugged me close and begged me to tell him what was the matter.
"That Wills boy stole my melon," I said, and the words came slow with sobs.
"Oh, no he didn't," said Uncle Peabody.
"Yes he did. I saw a piece o' the rin'."
"Well by—" said Uncle Peabody, stopping, as usual, at the edge of the precipice.
"He's a snake," I added.
"And you fit and he scratched you up that way?"
"I scratched him, too."
"Don't you say a word about it to Aunt Deel. Don't ever speak o' that miserable melon ag'in to anybody. You scoot around to the barn, an' I'll be there in a minute and fix ye up."
He went by the road with the tea and I ran around to the lane and up to the stable. Uncle Peabody met me there in a moment and brought a pail of water and washed my face so that I felt and looked more respectable.
"If Aunt Deel asks ye about them scratches you just tell her that you and Hen had a little disagreement," said my uncle.
She didn't ask me, probably because Uncle Peabody had explained in his own way, and requested her to say nothing.
The worst was over for that day but the Baynes-Wills feud had begun. It led to many a fight in the school yard and on the way home. We were so evenly matched that our quarrel went on for a long time and gathered intensity as it continued.
One day Uncle Peabody had given me an egg and, said that there was a chicken in it.
"All ye have to do is to keep it warm an' the chicken will come to life, and when the hen is off the nest some day it will see light through the shell and peck its way out," he explained.
He marked my initials on the egg and put it under a hen and by and by a little chicken came out of the shell. I held it in my palm—a quivering, warm handful of yellow down. Its helplessness appealed to me and I fed and watched it every day. Later my uncle told me that it was a hen chick and would be laying eggs in four months. He added:
"It's the only thing it can do, an' if it's let alone it'll be sure to do it. Follows a kind of a compass that leads to the nest every time."
This chicken grew into a little spotted hen. She became my sole companion in many a lonely hour when Uncle Peabody had gone to the village, or was working in wet ground, or on the hay rack, or the mowing machine where I couldn't be with him. She was an amiable, confiding little hen who put her trust in me and kept it unto the day of her death, which came not until she had reached the full dignity of mature henhood.
She was like many things on the farm—of great but unconsidered beauty. No far-fetched pheasant was half so beautiful as she. I had always treated her with respect, and she would let me come and sit beside her while she rolled in the dust and permit me to stroke her head and examine her wonderful dress of glossy mottled satin. She would spread her glowing sleeves in the sunlight, and let me feel their downy lining with my fingers and see how their taut snug-fitting plumes were set.
I remember a day when she was sitting on her nest with that curious expression in her eyes which seemed to say, "Please don't bother me now for this is my busy time," I brought three little kittens from their basket in the wood-shed and put them under her. The kittens felt the warmth of her body and began to mew and stir about. I shall never forget the look of astonishment in the little hen as she slowly rose in her nest and peered beneath her body at the kittens. She looked at me as if to say that she really couldn't be bothered with those furry things any longer—they made her so nervous. She calmly took hold of one of them with her bill and lifted it out of the nest. She continued this process of eviction until they were all removed, when she quietly sat down again.Slowly her right hand rose above her
I mention this only to show that the hen and I had come to terms of intimacy and mutual understanding. So when I saw Wills' dog catch and kill her in the field one day, where she was hunting for grasshoppers, I naturally entertained a feeling of resentment. I heard the cries of the hen and ran through the orchard and witnessed the end of the tragedy and more. Away down in the meadow I saw the dog and farther away "the Wills boy," as we then called him, running toward his home. The dog had run away as I approached and when I picked up the lifeless body of my little friend the hills seemed to lift up their heads and fall upon me. Of course that Wills boy had set the dog on her. I shall write no more of that hour of trial. Such little things make history, and it is necessary that the reader should understand me.
One June day of the next summer Uncle Peabody and I, from down in the fields, saw a fine carriage drive in at our gate. He stopped and looked intently.
"Jerusalem four-corners!" he exclaimed. "It's Mr. and Mrs. Horace Dunkelberg."
My heart beat fast at thought of the legendary Dunkelbergs. Uncle looked me over from top to toe. "Heavens!" he exclaimed. "Go down to the brook and wash the mud off yer feet an' legs."
I ran for the brook and before I had returned to my uncle I heard the horn blow.
"The Dunkelbergs!—the Dunkelbergs! Come quick!" it seemed to say.
Uncle had tied a red handkerchief around his neck and was readjusting his galluses when I returned. In silence we hurried to the house. As we drew near I heard the voice of Mrs. Horace Dunkelberg and that of another woman quite as strange to my ear—a high-pitched voice of melting amiability. It was the company voice of my Aunt Deel. I had observed just a faint suggestion of it when the neighbors came, or when meeting was over, but I had never before heard the full-fledged angelicity of her company voice. It astonished me and I began to regard her as a very promising old lady. Uncle Peabody, himself, had undergone a change in the presence of the Dunkelbergs. He held his neck straighter and smiled more and spoke with greater deliberation.
Mr. Dunkelberg was a big, broad-shouldered, solemn-looking man. Somehow his face reminded me of a lion's which I had seen in one of my picture-books. He had a thick, long, outstanding mustache and side whiskers, and deep-set eyes and heavy eyebrows. He stood for half a moment looking down at me from a great height with his right hand in his pocket. I heard a little jingle of coins down where his hand was. It excited my curiosity. He took a step toward me and I retreated. I feared, a little, this big, lion-like man. My fears left me suddenly when he spoke in a small squeaky voice that reminded me of the chirping of a bird.
"Little boy, come here and I will make you a present," said he.
It reminded me of my disappointment when uncle tried to shoot his gun at a squirrel and only the cap cracked.
I went to him and he laid a silver piece in the palm of my hand....