A Village Watch-Tower
A VILLAGE WATCH-TOWER
It stood on the gentle slope of a hill, the old gray house, with its weatherbeaten clapboards and its roof of ragged shingles. It was in the very lap of the road, so that the stage-driver could almost knock on the window pane without getting down from his seat, on those rare occasions when he brought "old Mis' Bascom" a parcel from Saco.
Humble and dilapidated as it was, it was almost beautiful in the springtime, when the dandelion—dotted turf grew close to the great stone steps, or in the summer, when the famous Bascom elm cast its graceful shadow over the front door. The elm, indeed, was the only object that ever did cast its shadow there. Lucinda Bascom said her "front door 'n' entry never hed ben used except for fun'rals, 'n' she was goin' to keep it nice for that purpose, 'n' not get it all tracked up."
She was sitting now where she had sat for thirty years. Her high-backed rocker, with its copperplate cushion and crocheted tidy, stood always by a southern window that looked out on the river. The river was a sheet of crystal, as it poured over the dam; a rushing, roaring torrent of foaming white, as it swept under the bridge and fought its way between the rocky cliffs below, sweeping, swirling, eddying, in its narrow channel, pulsing restlessly into the ragged fissures of its shores, and leaping with a tempestuous roar into the Indian Cellar, a deep wooded gorge cleft in the very heart of the granite bank.
But Lucinda Bascom could see more than the river from her favorite window. It was a much-traveled road, the road that ran past the house on its way from Liberty Village to Milliken's Mills. A tottering old signboard, on a verdant triangle of turf, directed you over Deacon Chute's hill to the "Flag Medder Road," and from thence to Liberty Centre; the little post office and store, where the stage stopped twice a day, was quite within eyeshot; so were the public watering-trough, Brigadier Hill, and, behind the ruins of an old mill, the wooded path that led to the Indian Cellar, a favorite walk for village lovers. This was all on her side of the river. As for the bridge which knit together the two tiny villages, nobody could pass over that without being seen from the Bascoms'. The rumble of wheels generally brought a family party to the window,—Jot Bascom's wife (she that was Diadema Dennett), Jot himself, if he were in the house, little Jot, and Grandpa Bascom, who looked at the passersby with a vacant smile parting his thin lips. Old Mrs. Bascom herself did not need the rumble of wheels to tell her that a vehicle was coming, for she could see it fully ten minutes before it reached the bridge,—at the very moment it appeared at the crest of Saco Hill, where strangers pulled up their horses, on a clear day, and paused to look at Mount Washington, miles away in the distance. Tory Hill and Saco Hill met at the bridge, and just there, too, the river road began its shady course along the east side of the stream: in view of all which "old Mis' Bascom's settin'-room winder" might well be called the "Village Watch-Tower," when you consider further that she had moved only from her high-backed rocker to her bed, and from her bed to her rocker, for more than thirty years,—ever since that July day when her husband had had a sunstroke while painting the meeting-house steeple, and the baby Jonathan had been thereby hastened into a world not in the least ready to receive him.
She could not have lived without that window, she would have told you, nor without the river which had lulled her to sleep ever since she could remember. It was in the south chamber upstairs that she had been born. Her mother had lain there and listened to the swirl of the water, in that year when the river was higher than the oldest inhabitant had ever seen it,—the year when the covered bridge at the Mills had been carried away, and when the one at the Falls was in hourly danger of succumbing to the force of the freshet.
All the men in both villages were working on the river, strengthening the dam, bracing the bridge, and breaking the jams of logs; and with the parting of the boom, the snapping of the bridge timbers, the crashing of the logs against the rocks, and the shouts of the river-drivers, the little Lucinda had come into the world. Some one had gone for the father, and had found him on the river, where he had been since daybreak, drenched with the storm, blown from his dangerous footing time after time, but still battling with the great heaped-up masses of logs, wrenching them from each other's grasp, and sending them down the swollen stream.
Finally the jam broke, and a cheer of triumph burst from the excited men, as the logs, freed from their bondage, swept down the raging flood, on and ever on in joyous liberty, faster and faster, till they encountered some new obstacle, when they heaped themselves together again, like puppets of Fate, and were beaten by the waves into another helpless surrender.
When the jam broke, one dead monarch of the forest leaped into the air as if it had been shot from a cannon's mouth, and lodged between two jutting peaks of rock high on the river bank. Presently another log was dashed against it, but rolled off and hurried down the stream; then another, and still another; but no force seemed enough to drive the giant from its intrenched position.
"Let it alone, Raish!" cried the men. "It 'll git washed off in the night!"
Then from the shore came a boy's voice calling, "There's a baby up to your house!" And the men repeated in stentorian tones, "Baby up to your house, Raish! Baby up to your house!"
"Boy or girl?" shouted the young father.
"Girl!" came back the answer above the roar of the river.
Whereupon Raish Dunnell reached forward from the raft where he was standing and scratched a rude letter "L" with his pick upon the side of the stranded log.
"That's for Lucindy," he laughed. "Now go 'long down to Saco to my wife's folks, you log, 'n' tell 'em the news."
There had not been such a freshet for years before, and there had never been one since; so, as the quiet seasons went by, "Lucindy's log" was left in peace, the columbines blooming all about it, the harebells hanging their heads of delicate blue among blue rocks that held it in place, the birds building their nests in the knotholes of its withered side.
Seventy years had passed, and on each birthday, so long as she was able to walk, Lucinda, even after she had become Lucinda Bascom, had wandered down by the river side, and gazed, a little superstitiously perhaps, on the log that had been marked with an "L" on the morning she was born. It had stood the wear and tear of the elements bravely, but now it was beginning, like Lucinda, to show age. Its back was bent, like hers; its face was seamed and wrinkled, like her own; and the village lovers who looked at it from the opposite bank wondered if, after all, it would hold out as long as "old Mis' Bascom."
She held out bravely, old Mrs. Bascom, though she was "all skin, bones, and tongue," as the neighbors said; for nobody went into the Bascoms' to brighten up Aunt Lucinda a bit, or take her the news; one went in to get a bit of brightness, and to hear the news.
"I should get lonesome, I s'pose," she was wont to say, "if it wa'n't for the way this house is set, and this chair, and this winder, 'n' all. Men folks used to build some o' the houses up in a lane, or turn 'em back or side to the road, so the women folks could n't see anythin' to keep their minds off their churnin' or dish-washin'; but Aaron Dunnell hed somethin' else to think about, 'n' that was himself, first, last, and all the time. His store was down to the bottom of the hill, 'n' when be come up to his meals he used to set where he could see the door; 'n' if any cust'mer come, he could call to 'em to wait a spell while he finished eatin'. Land! I can hear him now, yellin' to 'em, with his mouth full of victuals! They hed to wait till he got good 'n' ready, too. There wa'n't so much comp'tition in business then as there is now, or he'd 'a' hed to give up eatin' or hire a clerk. … I 've always felt to be thankful that the house was on this rise o' ground. The teams hev to slow up on 'count o' the hill, 'n' it gives me consid'ble chance to see folks 'n' what they 've got in the back of the wagon, 'n' one thing 'n' other. … The neighbors is continually comin' in here to tell me things that's goin' on in the village. I like to hear 'em talk, but land! they can't tell me nothin'! They often say, 'For massy sakes, Lucindy Bascom, how d' you know that?' 'Why,' says I to them, 'I don't ask no questions, 'n' folks don't tell me no lies; I just set in my winder 'n' put two 'n' two together,—that's all I do.' I ain't never ben in a playhouse, but I don't suppose the playactors git down off the platform on t' the main floor to explain to the folks what they 've ben doin', do they? I expect, if folks can't understand their draymas when they 're actin' of 'em out, they have to go ignorant, don't they? Well, what do I want with explainin', when everythin' is acted out right in the road?"
There was quite a gathering of neighbors at the Bascoms' on this particular July afternoon. No invitations had been sent out, and none were needed. A common excitement had made it vital that people should drop in somewhere and speculate about certain interesting matters well known to be going on in the community, but going on in such an underhanded and secretive fashion that it well-nigh destroyed one's faith in human nature.
The sitting-room door was open into the entry, so that whatever breeze there was might come in, and an unusual glimpse of the new foreroom rug was afforded the spectators. Everything was as neat as wax, for Diadema was a housekeeper of the type fast passing away. The great coal stove was enveloped in its usual summer wrapper of purple calico, which, tied neatly about its ebony neck and portly waist, gave it the appearance of a buxom colored lady presiding over the assembly. The kerosene lamps stood in a row on the high, narrow mantelpiece, each chimney protected from the flies by a brown paper bag inverted over its head. Two plaster Samuels "praying" under pink mosquito netting adorned the ends of the shelf. There were screens at all the windows, and Diadema fidgeted nervously when a visitor came in the mosquito-netting door, for fear a fly should sneak in with her.
On the wall were certificates of membership in the Missionary Society; a picture of Maidens welcoming Washington in the Streets of Alexandria, in a frame of cucumber seeds; and an interesting document setting forth the claims of the Dunnell family as old settlers long before the separation of Maine from Massachusetts,—the fact being established by an obituary notice reading, "In Saco, December 1791, Dorcas, daughter of Abiathar Dunnell, two months old of Fits unbaptized."
"He may be going to marry her, and he may not," observed Almira Coffin; "though what she wants of Reuben Hobson is more 'n I can make out. I guess he's ben lookin' around these six years, but could n't find anybody that was fool enough to give him encouragement."
"Mebbe she wants to get married," said Hannah Sophia Palmer, in a tone that spoke volumes for her opinion of the married state. "When Parson Perkins come to this parish, one of his first calls was on Eunice Emery. 'Have you got your weddin' garment on, Miss Emery?' says he. 'No,' says she, 'but I 've ben tryin' to these twenty years.' She was always full of her jokes, Eunice was!"
"The Emerys was always a humorous family," remarked Diadema, as she annihilated a fly with a newspaper. "Old Silas Emery was an awful humorous man. He used to live up on the island; and there come a freshet one year, and he said he got his sofy 'n' chairs off, anyhow! That was just his jokin'. He had n't a sign of a sofy in the house; 't was his wife Sophy he meant, she that was Sophy Swett. Then another time, when I was a little mite of a thing runnin' in 'n' out o' his yard, he caught holt o' me, and says he, 'You 'd better take care, sissy; when I kill you and two more, thet 'll be three children I 've killed!' Land! you could n't drag me inside that yard for years afterwards. … There! she's got a fire in the cookstove; there 's a stream o' smoke comin' out o' the kitchen chimbley. I'm willin' to bet my new rug she's goin' to be married to-night!"
"Mebbe she's makin' jelly," suggested Hannah Sophia.
"Jelly!" ejaculated old Mrs. Bascom scornfully. "Do you s'pose Eunice Emery would build up a fire in the middle o' the afternoon 'n' go to makin' jelly, this hot day? Besides, there ain't a currant gone into her house this week, as I happen to know."
"It's a dretful thick year for fol'age," mumbled Grandpa Bascom, appearing in the door with his vacant smile. "I declare, some o' the maples looks like balls in the air."
"That's the twentieth time he's hed that over since mornin'," said Diadema. "Here, father, take your hat off 'n' set in the kitchen door 'n' shell me this mess o' peas. Now think smart, 'n' put the pods in the basket 'n' the peas in the pan; don't you mix 'em."
The old man hung his hat on the back of the chair, took the pan in his trembling hands, and began aimlessly to shell the peas; while he chuckled at the hens that gathered round the doorstep when they heard the peas rattling in the pan.
"Reuben needs a wife bad enough, If that's all," remarked the Widow Buzzell, as one who had given the matter some consideration.
"I should think he did," rejoined old Mrs. Bascom. "Those children 'bout git their livin' otff the road in summer, from the time the dand'lion greens is ready for diggin' till the blackb'ries 'n' chokecherries is gone. Diademy calls 'em in 'n' gives 'em a cooky every time they go past, 'n' they eat as if they was famished. Rube Hobson never was any kind of a pervider, 'n' he 's consid'able snug besides."
"He ain't goin' to better himself much." said Almira. "Eunice Emery ain't fit to housekeep for a cat. The pie she took to the pie supper at the church was so tough that even Deacon Dyer could n't eat it; and the boys got holt of her doughnuts, and declared they was goin' fishin' next day 'n' use 'em for sinkers. She lives from hand to mouth, Eunice Emery does. I know for a fact she don't make riz bread once a year."
"Mebbe her folks likes buttermilk bread best; some do," said the Widow Buzzell. "My husband always said, give him buttermilk bread to work on. He used to say my riz bread was so light he'd hev to tread on it to keep it anywheres; but when you'd eat buttermilk bread he said you'd got somethin' that stayed by you; you knew where it was every time. … For massy sake, there's the stage stoppin' at the Hobsons' door. I wonder if Rube's first wife's mother has come from Moderation? If 't is, they must 'a' made up their quarrel, for there was a time she would n't step foot over that doorsill. She must be goin' to stay some time, for there's a trunk on the back o' the stage. … No, there ain't nobody gettin' out. Ain't that a wash-boiler he's handin' down? … Well, it' s a mercy; he's ben borrowin' long enough!"
"What goes on after dark I ain't responsible for," returned old Mrs. Bascom, "but no new wash-boiler has gone into Rube Hobson's door in the daytime for many a year, and I 'll be bound it means somethin'. There goes a broom, too. Much sweepin' he 'll get out o' Eunice; it's a slick 'n' a promise with her! She's ben carryin' home bundles 'bout every other night for a month, but she's ben too sly to buy anythin' here at the store. She had Packard's horse to go to Saco last week. When she got home, jest at dusk, she drove int' the barn, 'n' bimeby Pitt Packard come to git his horse,—'t was her own buggy she went with. She looked over here when she went int' the house, 'n' she ketched my eye, though 't was half a mile away, 'n' she never took a thing in with her; but soon as 't was dark she made three trips out to the barn with a lantern, 'n' any fool could tell 't her arms was full o' pa'cels by the way she carried the lantern."
"Eunice never had a beau in her life that I can remember of," said Almira Coffin, waving her palmleaf fan. "Cyse Higgins set up with her for a spell, but it never amounted to nothin'. It seems queer, too, for she was always so fond o' seein' men folks round that when Pitt Packard was shinglin' her barn she used to go out nights 'n' rip some o' the shingles off, so 't he'd hev more days' work on it."
"Do tell!" "I want t' know!" "How you talk!" came from the lips of her enraptured auditors.
"I always said 't was she that begun on Rube Hobson, not him on her," remarked the Widow Buzzell. "Their land joinin' made courtin' come dretful handy. His critters used to git in her field 'bout every other day (I always suspicioned she broke the fence down herself), and then she'd hev to go over and git him to git 'em out. She's wed his onion bed for him two summers, as I happen to know. Diademy, don't you want to look out the back way 'n' see if Rube's come home yet?"
"He ain't," said old Mrs. Bascom; "the curtains is all down. He's gone up to the Mills, 'n' it's my opinion he's gone to speak to the minister."
"He hed somethin' in the back o' the wagon covered up with an old linen lap robe; 't ain't at all likely he'd 'a' hed that if he'd ben goin' to the minister's," objected Mrs. Jot.
"Anybody'd think you was born yesterday, to hear you talk, Diademy," retorted her mother-in-law. "When you 've set in one spot 's long 's I hev, p'raps you 'll hev the use o' your faculties! Men folks has more 'n one way o' gettin' married, 'specially when they 're ashamed of it. … Well, I vow, there's the Hobson children comin' out o' the door this minute, 'n' they 're all dressed up!"
Every woman in the room rose to her feet, and Diadema removed her murderous eye from a fly which she had been endeavoring to locate for some moments.
"I guess they 're goin' up to the church to meet their father 'n' Eunice, poor little things," ventured the Widow Buzzell.
"P'raps they be," said old Mrs. Bascom sarcastically; "p'raps they be goin' to church. takin' a three-quart tin pail 'n' a brown paper bundle along with 'em. … they 're comin' over the bridge, just as I s'posed. … Now, if they come past this house, you head 'em off, Almiry, 'n' see if you can git some satisfaction out of 'em. … They ain't hardly old enough to hold their tongues."
An exciting interview soon took place in the middle of the road, and Almira reëntered the room with the expression of one who had penetrated the inscrutable and solved the riddle of the Sphinx. She had been vouchsafed one of those gleams of light in darkness which almost dazzle the beholder.
"That's about the confirmingest thing I 've heern yet!" she ejaculated, as she took off her Shaker bonnet. "They say they 're goin' up to their aunt Hitty's to stay two days. They 're dressed in their best clean to the skin, 'n' it's their nightgownds they 've got in the bundle. … Mote has gone to Union to stop all night with his uncle Abijah, 'n' that leaves Rube all alone, for the Smith girl that does his chores is home sick with the hives. And what do you s'pose is in that pail? Fruit cake,—that's what 't is, no more 'n' no less! I knowed that Smith girl did n't bake it, 'n' so I asked 'em, 'n' they said Miss Emery give it to 'em. There was two little round trycakes, baked in muffin-rings. Eunice hed took some o' the batter out of her big loaf 'n' baked it to see how it was goin' to turn out."
"There ain't no gittin' round that," agreed the assembled company.
"I don't know what they 're goin' to live on," sighed Hannah Sophia Palmer. "Add nothin' to nothin' 'n' you git nothin',—that's arethmetic! He ain't hed a cent o' ready money sence he failed up, four years ago; 'thout it was that fifty dollars that fell to him from his wife's aunt. Eunice 'll hev her hands full this winter, I guess, with them three hearty children, 'n' him all wheezed up with phthisic from October to April! … Who's that comin' down Tory Hill? It's Rube's horse 'n' Rube's wagon, but it don't look like Rube."
"Yes, it's Rube, but he's got a new Panama hat, 'n' he's hed his linen duster washed," said old Mrs. Bascom. … "Now, do you mean to tell me that that woman with a stuck-up hat on is Eunice Emery? It ain't, 'n' that green parasol don't belong to this village. He's drivin' her into his yard! Land o' liberty! it's the school-teacher up t' the Mills that he's married! He's gone and brought another woman int' this village, 'stid o' weedin' one of 'em out, as he'd oughter! Yes, he's helpin' of her out, 'n' showin' her in. … Of all things!"
"See if he takes his horse out," said Hannah Sophia. "Mebbe he 'll drive her back in a few minutes. No, he's onhitched! … There, he's hangin' up the headstall!"
"I 've ben up in the attic chamber," panted Diadema; "she's pulled up the curtains, and took off her hat right in front o' the winder, 's bold as a brass kettle! She's come to stay!"
Almira drew on her mitts excitedly, tied on her Shaker, and started for the door.
"I'm goin' over to Eunice's," she said, "and I'm goin' to take my bottle of camphire. I should n't wonder a mite if I found her in a dead faint on the kitchen floor."
"I 'll go with you," said the Widow Buzzell. "I'd like to see with my own eyes how she takes it, 'n' it 'll be too late to tell if I wait till after milkin'. If she'd ben more open with me 'n' ever asked for my advice, I could 'a' told her it wa'n't the first time Rube Hobson has played that trick."
"I 'll go as fur as the bridge with you." said Hannah Sophia. "'n' then I 'll wait int' the store till I see you comin' out, 'n' then I 'll walk along back with you and hear what she says. … Good-by, Lucindy; glad to see how well you stan' this hot spell. You look slim, but 1 guess you 'll tough it out 's long 's the rest of us. I see your leg was all right, last time I was down side o' the river."
"They say it's jest goin' to break in two in the middle, and fall into the river," cheerfully responded Lucinda. "They say it's jest hangin' by a thread. Well, that's what they 've ben sayin' 'bout me these ten years, 'n' here I be still hangin'! It don't make no odds, I guess, whether it's a thread or a rope you 're hangin' by, so long as you hang. … Remember me to Eunice, 'n' tell her I did n't take any stock in the reports 'bout her 'n' Rube Hobson."
The next morning, little Mote Hobson, who had stayed all night with his uncle in Union, was walking home by the side of the river. He strolled along, the happy, tousle-headed, barefooted youngster, eyes one moment on the trees in the hope of squirrels and bird's-nests, the next on the ground in search of the first blueberries. As he stooped to pick up a bit of shining quartz to add to the collection in his ragged trousers pockets, he glanced across the river, and at that very instant Lucinda's log broke gently in twain, rolled down the bank, crumbling as it went, and, dropping in like a tired child, was carried peacefully along on the river's breast.
Mote walked more quietly after that. It was quite a feather in his cap to see, with his own eyes, the old landmark slip from its accustomed place and float down the stream. The other boys would miss it and say, "It's gone!" He would say, "I saw it go!"
Grandpa Bascom was standing at the top of the hill. His white locks were uncovered, and he was in his shirt sleeves. Little Jot, as usual, held fast by his shaking hand, for they loved each other, these two. The cruel stroke of the sun that had blurred the old man's brain had spared a blessed something in him that won the healing love of children.
"How d' ye, Mote?" he piped in his feeble voice. "They say Lucindy's dead. … Jot says she is, 'n' Diademy says she is, 'n' I guess she is. … It's a dretful thick year for fol'age: … some o' the maples looks like balls in the air."
Mote looked in at the window. The neighbors were hurrying to and fro. Diadema sat with her calico apron up to her face, sobbing; and for the first morning in thirty years old Mrs. Bascom's high-backed rocker was empty.