The Tower of Revolt

The Tower of Revolt  (1912) 
From Harper's Magazine, Feb 1912

The Tower of Revolt


THE Honorable Seth Higby was receiving a delegation of constituents in the grape-arbor.

Another and a meeker delegation waited under the old horse-chestnut tree: a thin-faced boy with solemn, deep-set eyes and light hair that rippled girlishly about his white brows; a stockier lad whose plump, self-assured sleekness and dapper new suit proclaimed his city breeding; and a grizzled, wire-haired dog from whose muzzle curled downward fierce tan moustachios.

They were listening silently to the aroused voice of the Honorable Seth as it pulsed through the honeyed air, heavy and fragrant with the smell of the setting grapes. But the voice was not honeyed; it was stern, vibrant, scornful.

"And so, gentlemen, you have left the cracker-boxes of Beasley's store to instruct your representative in Congress on a subject of international statesmanship; to demand that he shall subvert his reason and stultify his conscience, because it has occurred to you that such a course might possibly save you about four shillings apiece.

"And you intimate that if I don't trim my sails to meet your demands, a day of reckoning is in store for me.

"Gentlemen, I'm glad you came. It gives me an opportunity to tell you that I'll not do what you ask. I refuse. There are just three men of you who have ever been across the State line and only six of you have ever been outside the county. When I want advice from constituents on international affairs, I'll take it from those whom I regard as more competent to offer it than yourselves. And now I'll bid you good morning!"

In the moment of silence before the angry and abashed delegation began to file out of the arbor, Stephen confided to his visiting cousin:

"I've decided that when I grow up and it comes my turn I'm not going to be a—a Honorable. You have to talk so hard to folks."

"But you'll have to, Steve," responded the cousin. "They all have to, in our family. Grandfather was, and great-grandfather was something like it; and Uncle Ned is, down in Maine." And suddenly catching sight of the white face, the blazing eyes, and the half-shut lips of the Honorable Seth Higby, as he appeared under the arbor arch, he added, with the cruel frankness of childhood: "And I'm going home to-day. I don't want any more stone-picking. My back aches now."

"Don't—don't go—not yet!" pleaded Stephen. "Mebby he'll let us—"

"Naw, he won't, either!" interrupted the city cousin. "He believes that boys must work all the time. I heard him tell that to mother. He said that just because he didn't get married until he was middle-aged and didn't have but one child, everybody expected him to make a petted fool of you—but he'd show 'em that a man didn't have to be a fool just because he was fifty, and that a boy didn't have to be brought up idle, spoiled, and a spendthrift just because he was an only child and didn't have a mother."

"Don't go—not to-day!" persisted Stephen. "It's—it's awful lonesome."

"I guess I'll have to, Steve," insisted the cousin. "To-morrow's scrub-day at the engine-house, an' th' cap'n lets us boys scrub out—an' sometimes polish the engine. I'd hate to miss it."

"John! John!" They suddenly heard the Honorable Seth calling to the housekeeper's lanky son. "Have the sorrel colt hooked to the buckboard in five minutes. I'm going to catch the express at the cross-cut. Going back to the capital. That delegation of sap-heads decided me not to wait longer."

Seth Higby's satchel was always packed and ready for an outbound journey within thirty minutes after its owner had returned from one of the trips that, quite as much as his ability or his solid fortune, made him the envy of his home-staying New England neighbors and constituents. And the eternal readiness of that satchel was one reason why Seth Higby suffered Mrs. Hussen, his remote relative—suspicious, secret-loving, and unlettered—to reign in his wifeless home.

"She's so ignorant," he often said to himself, "that she makes me ache. And she's almost unnaturally plain. But she always has everything ready—even her tongue!"

Just as his foot was upon the step of the buckboard and John was gathering up the reins, Stephen appeared beside the front wheel.

"Well, what is it?" the Honorable asked, bruskly, glancing down into the appealing face of the boy.

"We gathered the stones—all of them—from the east pasture, sir," he replied, with just a touch of pride in his trembling voice.

"Then—then—throw them back again!" came the quick command. He snatched the reins from the clumsy hands of John, and the sorrel started forward and began to spread his strides in response to the knowledge that a master-driver held the reins.

Silently the boy watched the disappearing buckboard as it bounced over the stony road that led out of the old estate to the highway. He did not even seem to hear his cousin say: I'm goin' to get my things and be ready for the south stage. It 'll be along in a few minutes."

If there were tears in the boy's eyes, only the dog knew it—and Thorn never told the many things he knew.

"I guess Stevie's a little miffed," Mrs. Hussen confided to the departing visitor. "That dog's ears never get just that particular droop to 'em unless Stevie's a bit down-spirited."

The dog heeled his young master closely along the way to the east pasture that overlooked the river. There the boy seated himself on a boulder, took a solemn look at the neat piles of stones and the unspotted sweep of green from which they had been so laboriously gathered, and then dropped his face into his hands.

"I can't! I can't do it!" he moaned. "He told me to, but I can't!"

The dog pushed his bearded muzzle against the hands that screened the thin face, but Stephen gave no response. Suddenly he leaped to his feet and shouted:

"I won't! I won't! It ain't fair, and I won't!"

Thorn's ears rose belligerently, and a series of crisp, sharp barks announced that he was in keen sympathy with his comrade's new attitude of defiance. If the Honorable Seth Higby could have heard Stephen's declaration of revolt, his astonishment would have been greater than if the President of the United States and the chosen comrades of his political camp had suddenly read him out of the party and berated him as he had berated the "Cracker-box Brigade" from Beasley's store.

Never had Seth Higby known the boy to betray any emotion except quiet acquiescence since he had been old enough to understand the voice of authority. And that voice had been the first spoken word to reach the child's understanding.

On the way to Washington the face of the boy once obtruded itself before busy mind of the statesman, who most smiled with a grim humor at recollection of his hasty command, "Throw them back again!" He could hear his neighbors saying: "There's Seth Higby for you! No other man on earth would have thought of setting a boy such a stint to teach him discipline and keep him busy." Yes—that was it—discipline! Keep the boy busy! "I hate shiftlessness," was his silent comment—and with this the boy disappeared from his reflections, and he again centered his thoughts on the bill that was before his committee and that meant the gauge of battle to the political war-horse.

Marriage and fatherhood had been an incident in the life of this up-State leader—an eccentric tangent from the fixed orbit of solitary intellectual existence, an unexplained interruption to a long-confirmed state of bachelorhood. His widowerhood seemed the natural awakening from a brief and unaccountable dream. He had resumed his single life much as he had left it on the day when he had taken the delicate, fair-haired, and greatly awed schoolmistress to his impressive home. Excepting—there was "the boy"! But the unobtrusiveness of this reminder of his brief and belated married estate only made the boy an agreeable suggestion of unsuspected reflections in his softer moods as he walked in the moonlight under the stately elms and maples of the Old Higby Place, or brooded, unobserved, before the great brick fire-place that had so delighted the shy mistress who had sat before it for those few strange months.

Anyhow, there was one thing: he was doing his duty by the boy! He was not raising up a lawless, shiftless, and pampered youth to disgrace the Higby name and add a new recruit to the ranks of impertinent young social upstarts that were a standing offense to all well-reared and useful men. And, incidentally, he was furnishing a living contradiction to the silly superstition that the only child of a man who married late in life must perforce turn out spoiled. That certainly was something!

A clever Washington correspondent had once described the "Hon. Seth Higby" as "a survival and a contradiction, concealing under the clothes and manners of a past generation a mind aggressively modern." The analyst ascribed to him "an an integrity as old-fashioned as his clothes, with the driving power, the practical working ability, of a modern saw-mill—a character unique in latter-day political life."

In (he speech which the Honorable Seth Higby delivered before the House a week after his hurried departure from home—the ablest of all his public utterances—he begged the indulgence of his colleagues while he explained that his attitude was in defiance to the expressed sentiments of a strong element in his home constituency, but that, as he had never been known to carry ears sensitive to the acclaim of the multitude, he should follow the dictates of his own conscience in this as well as in all other matters; that private life had no terrors for him, and that his people needed no assurance other than his own on this score.

The debate and the vote that followed brought a glow of pride to his heart. The result was a personal triumph that expressed itself in newspaper head-lines—"One Old-fashioned Statesman Left," and "He Sounds Like Sumner."

But the boy and the dog did not read the newspapers and were innocent of the fresh glory that had descended upon the house of Higby. They were silently haunting the east pasture, scouting along the banks of the river below, and living a new, strange life of excitement that escaped even the prying eyes of Mrs. Hussen. Only once did Stephen ask her a question. Without lifting his eyes from his plate he inquired,

"When's he coming home?"

"When he can't find any excuse to stay away longer," she answered. "I—just—wonder—if—"

But she did not finish her sentence. Later she volunteered:

"Squire Stafford, down to the store, got his city paper yesterday, and said they're havin' a hot time in Washington, and that your pa's right in the middle of it bigger'n a woodchuck in a clover meadow. I guess he won't show up here for some time yet." At length she added:

"If he didn't leave you enough work to last through till he comes back, I'll set you a stint: go fishin' or make a kite or hunt chipmunks with your bow-gun. That's what a boy of mine 'd do!"

The strange gentleness of this speech made Stephen lift his eyes in a quick glance at her sharp face. Then he answered, soberly:

"I've got work."

"I don't like the looks of that boy's eyes any more'n I do the cock of that dog's ears," meditated Mrs. Hussen. "They're too big and too bright. Never had that fire in 'em before. That pair's up to something or I'll burn my stocking-basket! But Stevie never did a thing that was out of the way yet—I'll have to admit that. Sometimes I 'most wish he would. It would be kind of a relief. But there's time enough. Just wait till he gets out among 'em with them good looks!"

Having reached a comfortable assurance that he was, potentially at least, not above ordinary human frailties, Mrs. Hussen went contentedly about her work, speculating upon the havoc in hearts that he would make when once he "got his start." This, and her exciting ruminations upon how the Honorable Seth Higby might be spending his evenings in the seclusion of remote and wicked Washington, agreeably occupied her mind as her hands automatically performed their household tasks.

In the earlier part of Seth Higby's absence Stephen paced the east pasture, walking restlessly around and across it with ragged Thorn always at his heels, alert and expectant. One day Stephen, tired of his aimless patrol, dropped down upon the crown of the Point—a rough, flat outcropping of gray rock that formed the highest point of the pasture and also of the bluff overlooking the river. He was lying on his back, looking up through the branches of the black-walnut, thinking of the disobedience upon which he had deliberately embarked, wondering if the Honorable would send him away, and dreaming of other things that drifted as unaccountably into his mind as the hen-hawk far above him had drifted on tilting wing into his vision. He recalled having overheard the old man from the college, who came occasionally to visit, telling the Honorable how a brave Indian chief had been killed on the Point Rock. Yes; and the man had said, "There ought to be a monument to mark the spot"!

A monument—a big one, like a tower!

In an instant Stephen was sitting uppright scanning the face of the rock with bright, excited eyes.

"I'll do it—with the stones!" he exclaimed to the dog. "This place is just made for it. Then mebby the Honorable won't be so angry."

In the days that followed—although privileged to lie abed until seven and to breakfast in solitary state in the dining-room, as befitted the son of the Honorable Seth Higby—the drumming of the woodpecker on the dead hickory stub by his window was Stephen's alarm-clock, and it always sounded shortly after the first flush of dawn. Thorn was waiting for him at the woodshed door with eager leaps that almost pushed him over. Then Stephen voluntarily breakfasted at the "help" table, and, as Mrs. Hussen put it, "et like a harvest hand." As her philosophy decreed that "if a boy eats everything in sight an' sleeps nights as if he was in church, there ain't much th' matter with him," she dropped all care of him.

Stephen had spent too many hours watching the masons laying the walls of the new stone barn not to know that the strength of his structure depended upon the strength of its base.

"The big stones first," he confided to his bristling comrade, "and at the outside. Flattish ones if we can find 'em. We've got to go careful and lay 'em tight or it 'll tumble. But we don't have to dig. The big, flat rock 'll hold a tower as high as the walnut."

The task of laying the foundations of his tower was so splendidly exciting that for hours at a time he worked joyously, fearlessly, without a thought of his defiance against the authority of the Honorable.

"We must go slow," he kept repeating to Thorn, "and get the right start."

As the tower slowly grew, the stone-gatherer toiled with an increasing fever of haste. He must get it done before the Honorable returned! Somehow it came to seem to the solitary builder that if he could only finish the tower before the return of his father, it would mutely plead the justification of his defiance of the Honorable—the strong voice of authority to which he had always yielded a shy and instant submission.

Perhaps as the law-giver looked upon the tower, rising strong and solid from the face of the great Point Rock, builded of the stones that his decree would have scattered upon the clean, green field, he would understand why the builder could not, obey? Yes, the tower must be finished!

Every morning now Stephen darted out of the door before breakfast and ran eagerly through the orchard along the path that his pilgrimages had worn in the clovered sod, his heart beating high with the fear that perhaps it had fallen. And one night he awakened from a dream that the Tower had been besieged by hostile Indians who had razed it to the ground.

"It's just a nightmare," he assured himself when in possession of all his faculties. "I know because I couldn't move at first, and then I just wiggled my big toe and then my foot—and then I was all awake."

But he hurried into his shirt and trousers, stole down along the stairway, and felt his way stealthily through the dark house. On letting himself out the back way his hand was met by the friendly muzzle of Thorn. The night was black, and not even the comradeship and protection of the dog were able to dispel the terror of the dark. But the Tower! What if— He no longer hesitated. From the storehouse of his pocket he drew forth a scrap of fish-line and fastened it to the dog's collar. Instinctively Thorn led the way along the orchard path, through the gap in the stone fence at the bars, and straight across the pasture to the Tower. There they waited until a flash of heat-lightning showed the solid bulk, stone upon stone, as he had left it at sundown.

"It's still there!" he almost whispered to Thorn. "Still there—but we've got to finish it! We must work faster!"

And how he toiled! He worked as only the master-builder works who loves the thing he builds and hears an inward voice saying, "It must be finished."

At last came the day when there was only one pile of stones remaining, as Stephen left Point Rock in answer to the summoning blast from the ancient conch-shell that for three generations had called the workmen of the Old Higby Place to their meals.

But the feet of the boy dragged heavily along the turf. At the stile he slumped wearily upon the stone fence, leaned heavily against the grizzled side of Thorn, who had mounted before him, and mumbled, wearily:

"I'm glad one day more 'll finish it. I'm tired."

Then he took the dog's ragged face between his thin, stone-scarred hands, looked straight into the steadfast brown eyes of his comrade, and said, chokingly:

"It 'd be awful lonesome without you, Thorn!"

It seemed to the boy that there was little else in the world but stones—stones in the great house, stones in the barn, stones in the fences, and stones—millions of them!—in the Tower; stones everywhere. And they had all been gathered and carried and lifted into piece by people with aching backs and heavy bones and numb limbs.

Then what if the Tower should not tell its story to the stern, judging eyes of the Honorable? What if he should refuse to listen to its message and should only snort in his queer way and turn from it before he understood?

Perhaps if the Honorable was very angry and very hard he would mete out some terrible punishment—as he had to the clerk who stole the money and was now in prison. He could remember just how the Honorable had looked that night in the library!—his face white, his lips hard set and eyes as savage as the eyes of Thorn when he and the peddler's shepherd had fought over a bone. And what were the words that came out of those white lips after the others had done talking?

"He shall break stone. Ten years of it!"

He hadn't understood what the words meant then—but now he knew! Perhaps the Honorable would make him carry stones for ten years—picking them up from endless pastures, scattering them back again upon the clean fields, and then beginning all over again.

The boy groaned aloud at this thought. "And perhaps he'll take Thorn away and leave me alone—all alone!"

Stephen did not once lift his red eyes from his plate as Mrs. Hussen served him his supper. He waited wincingly for her sharp voice to ask, "What in the world's the matter with you?" But the question did not come, and he was permitted to drag his leaden feet up the long stairs without the added torture of being "talked to."

As he neared the main-line station the Honorable Seth Higby's smooth, distinguished face shone with a mellow satisfaction that was almost joy—a look that caused a fellow-passenger to remark to his seat-mate:

"He looks real pleasant to-day—the Honorable Seth—if he is a Tartar when he's riled—and no end of smart! When I hear anybody talk about gentlemen, I always kinder hark back in my mind to the Honorable. He's the smartest man this district ever raised, an' he cuts a big swath down to Washington."

Yes; it had been a great session, the home-coming celebrity mused as his keen eye swept the familiar landscape—a great session! It would go down in American history. And justice had finally prevailed. The malicious and ignorant enemies of his country had boon beaten. The clear, unsparing eye of self-analysis had been unable to discover to himself a single unworthy motive or a single unworthy act in his part of the great fight. And he had been the admitted leader of the victors.

Then a faint smile twitched at the firm, thin lips until they relaxed. Had the boy scattered the stones back upon the cleared field? Of course he had! He would walk home from the station, cutting across lots to the river road so that he might take a glance at the east pasture before he went to the house.

There was an odd, whimsical relish in following this impulse that was strange to him and that he was almost inclined to hide from the Honorable Seth Higby! It was like the freaky things he used to do as a boy—stepping on alternate boards when walking on the platform in front of the village store, walking pigeon-toed along a crack and tapping each board of the high fence about the tavern stable-yard that had a knot in it. What nonsense! He hadn't thought of those things in years—but still he smiled at the memory of them.

The fresh, woodsy smell that greeted him as he came through Stafford's woods made him stop and inhale long, deliberate breaths—and the field of ripe grain just beyond assailed him with a pungent, fruitful odor that brought a glow of pleasure to his cheek.

"A great soil, New England's," he said to himself. "Only the good Lord was a little too liberal with the stones!" Yes—and probably the boy thought so, too! He would soon see how thoroughly the boy had scattered those stones again, for he was already on his own land and the turn of the road would bring him to the low strip just in front of the ridge forming the line of the east pasture.

A moment later he stood still, his eyes fixed on Point Rock. What was that thing, anyway? A tower? A squat, blunt, stone tower? Then he saw a small figure, climbing over the far side, stoop heavily like a stone-mason at his work. Why, that was the boy! He had not scattered the stones! He was building them into a tower!

A surge of scarlet showed for an instant in the man's face. The boy had disobeyed! This thing was a Tower of Revolt, a monument of deliberated disobedience and rebellion!

Then the red of anger retreated as suddenly as it had appeared—driven back by a new fire in the eyes of the Honorable Seth that no man had seen in them since his youth. He, the Statesman, the "Survival," and the "Contradiction," at last tasted one moment of complete unconsciousness of duty, of dignity, and of self. For one instant he was the Natural Man. And in that strange lapse from conscious and self-controlled being he exclaimed:

"By God, he's a Higby! He's come into his spunk! He's defied me!—and because I gave him a command that outraged the Law of Labor. And he's built the tower like a workman! He's my son!"

With youthful bounds the father—not the statesman—sped up the path, hid by trees and undergrowth, and came out by the clump of choke-cherries a few rods from the Tower. He might have secretly watched the builder struggling to fit the last rebellious stones into the rude rampart of the Tower had not the alert Thorn given a warning bark just as Stephen was struggling to wedge a heavy stone into its place. Instantly the boy's white face lifted, his eyes caught the silent figure of the Honorable—and the stone slipped.

"Did it hurt you, son?" came the quick, impulsive question in a tone that was new to the Honorable.

"No, sir," answered the builder.

And he had called him "son," not boy. Yes—the Tower must have made him understand! For surely he was not very angry.

But the whitening touch of fear had not yet left the thin face, which seemed all eyes to the man; and as the boy clambered down the rude scaffolding, his gaunt legs trembled too perceptibly to escape eyes as sharp as those of the Honorable.

With a smile that the boy had never seen on those lips before, the Honorable took off the tattered straw hat and ran his fingers slowly, gently, through the light, rippling hair.

"I—I—couldn't throw them back again, sir," stammered the boy.

"I understand, Stephen," replied the man, and rested his hand caressingly on the bony little shoulder. "I understand," he added. "And it's a good tower, son. It shall never be touched—not a stone of it—while a Higby lives!"

He took the boy's hand and together they crossed the clean, unencumbered sward. But at the stile they stopped, and the wet-eyed man pointed an eloquent finger back at the thing the boy had builded and said:

"My son, I think it is the greatest tower in the world!" And he felt the thin fingers that he held in his own twitch and tighten with a thrill of pride. But when the boy spoke it was only to say,

"I don't feel near so lonesome, father."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1943, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 79 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.