The Duke of Stockbridge/Chapter 20
The news of the riot at Great Barrington, brought by Sedgwick, excited a ferment of terror among the gentlemen's families in Stockbridge. Later in the day when the report got around that the mob intended to visit the latter place, and treat it in like manner, there was little less than a panic. The real facts of the Great Barrington outrages, quite bad enough in themselves, had been exaggerated ten-fold by rumor, and it was believed that the town was in flames and the streets full of murder and rapine. Some already began to barricade their doors, in preparation for the worst, while others who had horses and vehicles prepared to convey a part at least of their families and goods out of reach of the marauders. There were some in Stockbridge who well remembered the alarm, "The Indians are coming," that summer Sunday, when the Schaghticokes came down on the infant settlement, one and thirty years before. There was scarcely wilder terror then, but one point of difference sadly illustrated the distinction between a foreign invasion and a civil war. Then all the people were in the same fright, but now the panic was confined to the well-to-do families and those conscious of being considered friendly to the courts. The poorer people looked on their agitation with indifference, while some even jeered at it.
The afternoon wore away, however, and the expected mob failed to make its appearance, whereupon the people gradually took heart again. Those who had put their furniture into carts unloaded it, and those who had buried their silver in their cellars dug it up to use on the tea table. Nevertheless, along about dusk, a good many men living in Stockbridge, who had been down to Great Barrington all day, came home drunk and flushed with victory and these, with the aid of some of the same kidney in the village, kept up a lively racket all the evening, varied with petty outrages which Perez thought best to ignore, knowing too well the precarious tenure of his authority, to endanger it by overstrictness. Perhaps, indeed, he was not wholly averse to such occasional displays by the mob, as would keep before the gentlemen of the town a vivid impression of what would be in store for them if but for his guardianship.
It was about eight o'clock in the evening that, coming in sight of the store, he saw it besieged by a gang of men, whom Squire Edwards, visible against the background of the lighted doorway, was expostulating with. The men were drunk and reckless. They wanted rum and were bound to have it, and on the other hand the Squire had evidently made up his mind that if they got into his store in their present mood, they would be likely to plunder him of whatever he had, and drawing valor from desperation, was opposing, a resistance which involved no small personal peril. The crowd, besides being drunk, was composed of the very men who had grudged him his escape from the whipping-post a few days previous, and was by no means disposed to stand on ceremony with him. Already he was being hustled, his wig had been displaced, and his cane struck out of his hand, and in another minute he would have been knocked down and the store thronged. The light of a blazing bonfire on the green, threw glimmering reflections upon the crowd before the store, and Edwards catching sight of Perez' three-cornered hat cried in desperation:
"Captain Hamlin, will you let them kill me?"
In another moment Perez was up on the piazza in full view of the crowd, which abashed a little by his presence, for a moment drew back a little.
"What do you want, men? You ought not to break into people's houses! You musn't disgrace the hemlock."
"Tha's all mighty fine, Cap'n," said Meshech Little, "but we want suthin tew drink."
"Why don't you get it at the tavern?"
"The widder won't treat no more, an she's kinder got Abner bewitched like, so's he backs her up, an we can't git nothin thar 'thout fightin Abner, darn him."
"I say Cap'n 'tain't fa'r fer yew ter be a interferin with all our fun," spoke up another.
"That's so," said others. "Cap'n," remarked Meshech, "yew jess let us 'lone, we hain't a techin yew, an we're baoun tew hev a time ter night."
Perez knew well enough that to attempt to wholly thwart the intentions of this excited and drunken crowd, would be beyond his power, or at least involve a bloody riot, and so he replied, good-naturedly:
"That's all right, boys, you shall have your time, but it won't do to break into houses. Go over to the guardhouse and tell Abe Konkapot that I say you may have a couple of gallons of the town rum we seized the other night." This compromise was tumultuously accepted, the entire crowd starting on a run toward the Fennell house, each hoping to get the first advantage of the largess.
"Come in, Captain," said Edwards, and Perez entered.
Mrs. Edwards, Desire and Jonathan were in the store, having hurried thither from the inner living-rooms at the noise of the crowd, to share if they could not repel, the danger which threatened the head of the house. As Jonathan quickly closed and barred the door, Edwards said:
"Wife, I owe my property and perhaps my life, also, to Captain Hamlin."
Mrs. Edwards dropped a stately curtsey, and said with a grand air which made Perez feel as if her acknowledgments were a condescension quite dwarfing his performance:
"I truly thank you for your succor." He mumbled something, he could not have said what, and then his eyes sought Desire, who stood a little aside. As he met her eye, he found himself blushing with embarrassment at thought of their last interview. He had supposed that it would be she who would be confused and self-conscious when they met, but it was all on his side. She looked cool, dignified and perfectly composed, quite as if he were a stock or a stone. He could but wonder if he had remembered the incidents correctly. What with Mrs. Edwards' grand air of condescending politeness, and Desire's icy composure, he began to feel that he needed to get outdoors again, where he could review the situation and recover his equanimity. But on his making a movement in that direction, Squire Edwards, who had no notion of parting with the protection of his presence just at present, insisted that he should first go into the parlor, and Mrs. Edwards dutifully and crushingly seconding the invitation, he found himself without choice. The education of the camp, while it may adapt a man to command other men, does not necessarily fit him to shine in the salon. Perez stepped on his toes once or twice in passing through the store, and in the parlor doorway, to his intense mortification, jostled, heavily against Desire. He plumped down in the easiest chair in the room, before being invited to sit at all, and changing hastily from that to a stool too small for him, at the third attempt settled in a chair of the right size. It was then that he remembered to take off his hat, and having crossed and uncrossed his legs several times, and tried numerous postures, finally sat bolt upright, gripping the lapels of his coat with his hands. As for any tender emotions on account of the girl who sat near him, he was scarcely conscious of her presence, save as an element of embarrassment.
"I understand that you have served at the south, Captain Hamlin," said Mrs. Edwards.
"Yes, I thank you," he replied.
"You were with General Green, perhaps?"
"Yes--that is--yes m'am."
"How is your mother's health?"
"Very well indeed,--that is, when--when she isn't sick. She is generally sick."
"Yes, but she's pretty well otherwise. How are you?" this last, desperately.
"Oh, thanks, I'm quite well," Mrs. Edwards replied, with a slight elevation of the eyebrows. Somehow he felt that he ought not to have asked that, and then he made another desperate resolution to go home.
"I think they'll be looking for me at home," he said, tentatively rising halfway from his chair. "Father isn't well, you see." He had a vague feeling that he could not go unless they formally admitted the adequacy of his excuse.
At that moment there came the noise of an axe from the green, with shouts.
"What is that?" asked Mrs. Edwards of her husband, who entered from the store at that moment.
"The rascals--that is--" he corrected himself with a glance at Perez, "the men are chopping down the whippingpost to put on the bonfire. You were not thinking of going so soon, Captain Hamlin?" he added with evident concern.
"Yes, I think I will go," said Perez, straightening up and assuming a resolute air.
"I beg you will not be so hasty," said Mrs. Edwards, taking her husband's cue, and Perez abjectly sat down again.
"You must partake of my hospitality," said Edwards. "Jonathan, draw a decanter of that old Jamaica. Desire, bring us tumblers."
The only thought of Perez was that the liquor would, perhaps, brace him up a little, and to that end he filled his tumbler well up and did not refuse a second invitation. The result answered his expectations. In a very few moments he began to feel much more at ease. The incubus upon his faculties seemed lifted. His muscles relaxed. He recovered the free control of his tongue and his eyes. Whereas he had previously been only conscious of Mrs. Edwards, and but vaguely of the room in which they were and its other inmates, he now began to look around, and take cognizance of persons and things and even found himself complimenting his host on the quality of the rum with an ease at which he was surprised. He could readily have mustered courage enough now to take his leave, but he no longer felt in haste. As I observed above, he had heretofore but vaguely taken notice of Desire, as she had sat silently near by. Now he became conscious of her. He observed her closely. He had never seen her dressed as she was now, in a low-necked, white dress with short sleeves. As he was a few moments before, such new revelations of her beauty would have daunted him, would have actually added to his demoralization, but now he contemplated her with an intense, elated complacency. It was easier talking with Mr. Edwards than with Madam, and half an hour had passed, when Perez rose and said, this time without trying to excuse himself, that he must go. Mrs. Edwards had some time before excused herself from the room. Jonathan had also gone. Desire bade him good evening, and Squire Edwards led the way into the store to show him out. But Perez, after starting to follow him, abruptly turned back, and crossing the room to where Desire stood, held out his hand. She hesitated, and then put hers in it. He raised it to his lips, although she tried to snatch it away, and then, as if the touch had maddened him, he audaciously drew her to him and kissed her lips. She broke away, shivering and speechless. Then he saw her face crimson to the roots of her hair. She had seen her mother standing in the doorway, looking at her. But Perez, as he turned and went out through the store, did not perceive this. Had he turned to look back, he would have witnessed a striking tableau.
Desire had thrown herself into a chair and buried her face in her arms, against whose rounded whiteness the crimsoned ear tips and temples testified to the shameful glow upon the hidden face while her mother stood gazing at her, amazement and indignation pictured on her face. For a full half minute she stood thus, and then said:
"My daughter, what does this mean?"
There was no answer, save that, at the voice of her mother, a warm glow appeared upon the nape of the girl's neck, and even spread over the glistening shoulders, while her form shook with a single convulsive sob.
"Desire, tell me this instant," exclaimed Mrs. Edwards.
The girl threw up her head and faced her mother, her eyes blazing with indignant shame and glistening with tears, which were quite dried up by her hot cheeks ere they had run half their course.
"You saw," she said in a low, hard, fierce tone, "the fellow kissed me. He does it when he pleases. I have no one to protect me."
"Why do you let him? Why didn't you cry out?"
"And let father be whipped, let him be killed! Don't you know why I didn't?" cried the girl in a voice hoarse with excitement and overwhelming exasperation that the motive of the sacrifice should not be understood, even for a moment. She had sprung to her feet and was facing her mother.
"Was it for this that he released your father the other day?"
Desire looked at her mother without a word, in a way that was an answer. Mrs. Edwards seemed completely overcome, while Desire met her horrified gaze with a species of desperate hardihood.
"Yes, it is I," she said, in a shrill, nervously excited tone. "It is your daughter, Desire Edwards, whom this fellow has for a sweetheart. Oh, yes. He kisses me where he chooses, and I do not cry out. Isn't it fine, ha! ha!" and then her overstrained feelings finding expression in a burst of hysterical laughter, she threw herself back into her chair, and buried her face in her arms on the table as at first.
"What's the matter? What ails the girl?" said Edwards, coming in from the store, and viewing the scene with great surprise.
"The matter?" replied Mrs. Edwards slowly. "The matter is this: as that fellow was leaving, and your back was turned, he took our girl here and hugged and kissed her, and though she resisted what she could, she did not cry out. I stood in that door and saw it with my own eyes. When I called her to account for this scandal, she began vehemently to weep, and protested that she dared not anger him by outcry, fearing for your life if he were offended. And she further hinted that it was not the first time he had had the kissing of her. Nay, she as good as said it was with kisses that she ransomed you out of his hands the other day."
Edwards listened with profound interest, but with more evidence of curiosity than agitation, and after thinking a few moments, said thoughtfully:
"I have marvelled much by what manner of argument she compassed our deliverance, after the parson, a man mighty in persuasion and rebuke, had wholly failed therein. Verily, the devices of Providence for the protection of his saints in troublous times are past understanding. To this very intent doubtless, was the gift of comeliness bestowed on the maiden, a matter wherefore I have often, in much perplexity, inquired of the Lord, seeing that it is a gift that often brings the soul into jeopardy through vain thoughts. But now is the matter made plain to my eyes."
It was no light thing in those days for a wife to reproach her lord, but Mrs. Edwards' eyes fairly lightened as she demanded with a forced calm:
"Will you, then, give up your daughter to these lewd fellows as Lot would have given up his daughters to save his house?"
"Tut! tut!" said Edwards, frowning. "Your speech is unbridled and unseemly. I am not worthy to be likened to that holy man of old, for whose sake the Lord well nigh saved Sodom, nor am I placed in so sore a strait. You spoke of nothing worse than kissing. The girl will not be the worse, I trow, for a buss or two. Women are not so mighty tender. So long as girls like not the kissing, be sure t'will do them no harm, eh, Desire?" and he pinched her arm.
She snatched it away, and rushing across the room, threw herself upon the settle, with her face in the cushion.
"Pish!" said her father, peevishly, "she grudges a kiss to save her father from disgrace and ruin. It is a sinful, proud wench!"
"Proud!" echoed the girl, raising her tear-stained face from the cushion and sitting up. "I was proud, but I'm not any more. All the rabble are welcome to kiss me, seeing my father thinks it no matter."
"Pshaw, child, what a coil about a kiss or two, just because the fellow smells a little, maybe, of the barn! Can't you wash your face after? Take soap to 't, and save your tears. Bless me! you shall hide in the garret after this, but for my part, I shall still treat the fellow civilly, for he holds us, as it were, in the hollow of his hand," and he went into the store in a pet.
There was one redeeming feature about the disturbances in Stockbridge. The early bedtime habits of the people were too deeply fixed to be affected by any political revolution, and however noisy the streets might be soon after dusk, by half past nine or ten all was quiet. As Perez crossed the green, after leaving the store, the only sound that broke the stillness of the night, was the rumble of wheels on the Boston road. It was Sedgwick's carriage, bearing him back to the capital, to take his seat in the already convened State Senate. If his flying visit home had been a failure so far as his law business before the Supreme Court was concerned, it had at least enabled him to gain a vivid conception of the extent and virulence of the insurrection.
There was really a good deal more than a joke in calling Perez, Duke of Stockbridge. The antechamber of the headquarters room, at the guardhouse, was often half full of a morning with gentlemen, and those of lower degree as well, waiting to see him with requests. Some wanted passes, or authority to go out of town, or carry goods away. Others had complaints of orchards robbed, property stolen, or other injuries from the lawless, with petitions for redress. The varieties of cases in which Perez' intervention as the only substitute for law in the village was being constantly demanded, it would quite exceed my space to enumerate. In addition to this, he had the military affairs of the insurgent train-band to order, besides transacting business with the agents of neighboring towns, and even with messengers from Shays, who already had begun to call on the Berkshire towns for quotas to swell the rebel forces, of which a regular military organization was now being attempted.
An informal sort of constitutional convention at the tavern had committed the general government of the town, pending the present troubles, to a Committee of Correspondence, Inspection and Safety, consisting of Perez, Israel Goodrich and Ezra Phelps, but the two latter practically left everything to Perez. There was not in this improvised form of town government, singular as it strikes us, anything very novel or startling to the people of the village, accustomed as they were all through the war to the discretionary and almost despotic sway in internal as well as external affairs, of the town revolutionary committees of the same name. These, at first irregular, were subsequently recognized alike by the Continental and state authorities, and on them the work of carrying the people through the war practically and chiefly fell. In Berkshire, indeed, the offices of the revolutionary committees had been even more multifarious and extensive than in the other counties, for owing to the course of Berkshire in refusing to acknowledge the authority of the state government from 1775 to 1780, and the consequent suppression of courts during that period, even judicial functions had often devolved upon the committees, and suits at law had been heard and determined, and the verdicts enforced by them. To the town meeting alone did the revolutionary committees hold themselves responsible. The effect of the outbreak of the revolutionary war had been, indeed, to reduce democracy to its simplest terms. The Continental Congress had no power, and only pretended to recommend and advise. The state government, by sundering its relations with the crown, lost its legal title, and for some time after the war began, and as regards Berkshire, until the county voted to accept the new state constitution in 1780, its authority was not recognized. During that period it may be properly said that, while the Continental Congress advised and the state convention recommended, the town meeting was the only body of actual legislative powers in the Commonwealth. The reader must excuse this brief array of dry historical details, because only by bearing in mind that such had been the peculiar political education of the people of Berkshire, will it appear fully credible that revolt should so readily become organized, and anarchy assume the forms of law and order.
From the extent of his property interests and the popular animosity which endangered them, no gentleman in Stockbridge had more necessity to keep the right side of Perez Hamlin than Squire Edwards, and it was not the storekeeper's fault if he did not. Comparatively few days passed in which Perez did not find himself invited to take a glass of something, as he passed the store, and without touching the point either of servility or hypocrisy Edwards knew how to make himself so affable that Perez began actually to think that perhaps he liked him for his own sake, and even cherished the wild idea of taking him into confidence concerning his passion and hope as to Desire. Had he done so Edwards would certainly have found himself in a very awkward predicament. Meanwhile, day after day and even week after week passed, and save for an occasional glimpse of her passing a window, or the shadow on her bedroom curtain with which his long night watches were sometimes rewarded, he saw nothing of Desire. She never went on the street, and for two Sundays had stayed at home from meeting. He could not muster courage to ask Edwards about her, feeling that it must be that she kept within doors merely to avoid him. One evening, however, late in October, as he was sitting over some rum with the storekeeper, the latter remarked, in a casual way, that the doctor had advised that his daughter Desire, who had not been well of late, should take a trip to Pittsfield for her health, and as if it were something quite casual, asked Perez to have the kindness to make out a pass for her to go the next day. As the Squire made this request, speaking as if it were a mere matter of course, Perez was in the act of raising a glass of liquor to his lips. He gave Edwards one glance, very slowly set down the untasted beverage, and without a word of reply or of parting salutation, got up and went out. The moment he was gone the door connecting the living-rooms with the back of the store, softly opened, and Mrs. Edwards and Desire entered.
"Did you get it?" asked the latter.
"Get it," replied Edwards in disgust, "I should think not. He looked at me like a wolf when I spoke of it. I had some notion that he would stick his hanger through my stomach, but he thought better of that and got up and stalked out without so much as winking at me. He's a terrible fellow. I doubt if he does not some outrage to us for this."
"Dear! Dear! What shall I do?" cried Desire, wringing her hands. "I must go. I can't stay here, shut up like a prisoner, I shall be sick and die."
"Who knows," said Mrs. Edwards, "what this ruffian may do next? He will stop at nothing. He will not much longer respect our house. He may force himself in any day. She is not safe here. I dare not have her stay another day."
"I don't know what can be done, she can't get away without a pass," replied Edwards. "It would do no good for me to ask him again. Perhaps the girl herself might coax a pass out of him. It's the only chance."
"I coax him! I see him again! Oh I can't, I can't do that," cried Desire with an air of overwhelming repugnance.
"I could leave the door ajar you know, Desire, and be ready to come into the room if he were unmannerly," said her mother. "I think he's rather afraid of me. I'm afraid it's the only chance, as your father says, if you could but bring yourself to it."
"Oh it doesn't seem as if I could. It doesn't seem as if I could," cried the girl.
Perez did not come near the store for some days and it was on the street that Edwards next met him. The storekeeper was very cordial and made no further allusion to the pass. In the course of conversation he managed to make some reference to Desire's piano, and the curiosity the people seemed to feel about the novel instrument. He asked Perez if he had ever seen it, and Perez saying no, invited him to drop in that evening and hear Desire play a little. It is needless to say that the young man's surprise at the invitation did not prevent his accepting it. It would have melted the heart of his worst enemy to have seen how long he toiled that afternoon trying to refurbish his threadbare coat so white in the seams, and the rueful face with which he contemplated the result. On presenting himself at the store soon after dusk, Edwards at once ushered him into the parlor, and withdrew, saying that he must see to his business.
Desire sat at the piano, no one else being in the room. She looked rather pallid and thinner than when he had seen her last, but all the more interesting for this delicacy. There was, however, a far more striking alteration in her manner, for to his surprise she rose at his entrance, and came forward with a smile to greet him. He was delightfully bewildered.
"I scarcely know how to greet a Duke, for such I hear you are become," said Desire with a profound curtsy and a bewitching tone of badinage.
Entirely taken aback, he murmured something inarticulate, about her piano.
"Would your grace like to have me play a little?" she asked, gaily.
He intimated that he would, and she at once sat down before the little instrument. It was scarcely more to be compared with the magnificent machines of our day than the flageolets of Virgil's shepherds with the cornet-a-piston of the modern star performer, but Mozart, Haydn, Handel, or Beethoven never lived to see a better. It was only about two feet across by four and a half in width, with a small square sounding board at the end. The almost threadlike wires, strung on a wooden frame, gave forth a thin and tinny sound which would instantaneously bring the hands of a modern audience to its ears. But to Perez it seemed divine, and when, too, Desire opened her mouth and sang, tears of genuine emotion filled his eyes. She was more richly dressed than he had ever seen her before, wearing a cherry colored silk bodice, low necked, and with bell mouthed sleeves reaching to her elbows only, while the rounded white arms were set off with coral bracelets, a necklace of the same material encircling her throat. Upon one cheek, a little below the outside corner of the eye she wore a small black patch, according to a fashion of the time, by way of heightening by contrast the delicacy of her complexion. The faint perfume with which she had completed her toilet, seemed less a perfume than the very breath of her beauty, the voluptuous effluence which it exhaled. Having played and sung for some time she let her hands drop by her side and raising her eyes to meet Perez' fascinated gaze, said lightly:
"Do you like it?" The most exacting performer would have been satisfied with the manner in which after a husky attempt to say something in reply, he bowed his head in silence.
"I'm glad you came in tonight," she said, "for I want to ask something of you. Since you are Duke of Stockbridge we all have to ask favors of you, you see."
"What is it?" he asked.
"Oh, dear me," she said, laughing. "That's not the way people ask favors of kings and dukes. They make em promise to grant the favor first, and then tell em what it is. This is the way," and with the words she dropped lightly on one knee before Perez, and with her clasped hands pressed against her bosom, raised her face up toward his, her eyes eloquent, of intoxicating submissiveness.
"If thine handmaiden has found grace in the sight of my lord, the duke, let my request be done even according to the prayer of my lips."
Perez leaned forward toward the beautiful upward turning face.
"Whatever you want," he murmured.
"To the half of my dukedom, you must say."
"To the half of my dukedom," he repeated, in a mechanical voice, not removing his eyes from hers.
"Do you pledge your honor?" she demanded, still retaining her position.
If he had known that she intended asking him to blow his own brains out the next moment, and had expected to keep his promise, he must needs, with her kneeling so before him, have answered "yes," and so he did in fact reply.
"Thanks," she said, rising lightly to her feet, "you make a very good duke indeed, and to reward you I shall not ask for anything like half your dukedom, but only for a scrap of paper. Here is ink and paper and a pen. Please write me a pass to go to Pittsfield. Dr. Partridge says I must have change of air, and I don't want to be stopped by your soldiers."
A ghastly pallor overspread his face. "You're not going away," he stammered, rising slowly up.
"To be sure I am. What else should I want of the pass? Come, you're not going to make me do all that asking over again. Please sit right down again and write it. You know you promised on your word of honor."
She even put her hand smilingly on his shoulder, as if to push him down, and as he yielded to the light but irresistible pressure, she put a pen in his nerveless fingers, saying gayly:
"Just your name at the bottom, that's all. Father wrote the rest to save you trouble. Now, please." Powerless against an imperious magnetism which would have compelled him to sign his own death-warrant, he scrawled the words. As she took up the precious scrap of paper, and hid it in her bosom, the door opened, and Mrs. Edwards entered with stately formality, and the next moment Perez found himself blunderingly answering questions about his mother's state of health, not having the faintest idea what he was saying. The next thing he was conscious of was the cold frosty air on his face as he walked across the green from the store to the guardhouse.