To the Reader
WHEN the little John who figures so prominently in these stories had reached that age at which the happenings of his boyhood seemed particularly near and clear, he wrote out some of his recollections of that time, at the earnest solicitation of those who had, from time to time, heard their fragments. The parts of this record which seem to bear especially upon the life of a small boy of that time upon a farm, I reproduce below, thinking that the record may be of interest; not, perhaps, to the youngsters who hear these Farm Stories, but to the fathers and mothers and aunts who tell them.
The situation of the farm was, especially then, very fine and picturesque, though now it could hardly be recognized. The county highway ran directly through the middle of it, with the Sudbury river parallel, midway between the road and lofty hills belonging to the farm and covered with a fine old forest upon the west, the solitary scene of many a mysterious exploration during my boyhood; where, long before I had heard of mythology, I had invented one intuitively, and expected to see a dryad in every tree every time I entered the woods, and a satyr in every grove, or a nymph in every fountain, and Pan himself could not have astonished me at such times any more than the dreaded Indian did our fathers a few years before.
The farm, as I recollect it now, was very beautiful, the land exceptionally fertile, consisting of lowland and upland, meadow and hillside, pasturage and woodland in abundance, intersected with rivulets pouring into the river or into famous old Farm Pond, which bounded the farm on the east. On this pond, then unvexed by conduits, and its shores almost primitively rural, my grandfather had placed a good flat-bottomed boat of his own manufacture, which he taught me to row cross-handed alone, so that many a day I used to venture out into what then seemed an ocean, and pulled in a mess of fresh fish to replenish the larder. The pond contained pickerel (this a game fish which I could only take through the ice in winter, my skill not being equal to the requirements of fishing and management of the boat at the same time).
My first definite recollection of anything at this moment is of my sixth birthday, when I had a new hatchet, and of driving it into some new boards with which the shed had been repaired. This first use of it, I suppose, worried my mother, but I spared the cherry-trees, of which we had a good many, well-grown and bearing delicious fruit. We also had a fine peach orchard and plenty of fruit from it.
At about this age I began to work in a mild way, as a privilege, on the farm, my first efforts being to place four kernels of corn upon each hill already prepared for it, my father following and rounding it up with his hoe. . . . Now I went to school, not to study, but to be kept out of mischief. . . . This school I remember especially for its very original system of rewards for good behaviour. As for punishments, I cannot remember that any were ever inflicted. Our teacher . . . was an amiable person whose pleasure it was to give pleasure and not pain. . . . That time was not so far distant from the War of 1812, but very many houses contained some relic of it, and I remember very well the closet in ours, containing the remains of my father's uniform. There was the ponderous cartouch-box, the leather worn away, and the canteen in which he carried water to quench his thirst, and some other things. In the house of this peaceful schoolma'am these relics were made to serve the arts of peace . . . but I fear they also served to foster that belligerent spirit latent in little boys.
She found the whole uniform with its accoutrements, and established legions of honour with appropriate badges among its disjecta membra for us to aspire to. The military hat was very large, very ugly, with bell crown, and so ponderous that the honour of wearing it was not much coveted; but when with it we were permitted to wear the coat with its laced lapels, dragging the belted sword, bigger, heavier, and longer than the historic two-handed swords immortalized by Sir Walter, then was the covering but our culminating glory, like the misty crown that envelops Monadnock.
Soon after this we moved into the "little red schoolhouse," schoolma'am and all, with an accession of boys. . . . Our teacher, who was of a decidedly absent-minded turn, would sometimes of a summer day become totally oblivious of our presence as well as of her own purposes, And one method of recalling her to herself would be to gather in one corner of the house, which was calculated for about two hundred scholars, while we numbered not more than ten boys and no girls. We would then run with much clatter upon the tops of the desks diagonally to an open window and leap out. By this time she would become conscious that something unusual was going on, but not sufficiently so to know what it was until we returned in single-file procession, with the most respectful bows of salutation, when she would say, "I do not remember giving you permission to take a recess," and then smile blandly upon us all and return to introspection.
While the summer was thus passing away, the ancient abandoned meeting-house which had stood for more than a century was torn down. Previous to taking it down we had been permitted the use of it, and had there established what we called a newspaper, and every pew was a subscriber. Curiously, more than one of these boys became actively connected with newspapers in Boston. When the sides of the house were removed, the roof was left on and ropes attached to the upper timbers, when the little boys were called upon to lend a hand. The structure began to sway, then to totter, the supreme moment arrived and down it came. The dust of a hundred years was let loose and obscured the sunlight. Innumerable bats which had harboured there so long were forced out and filled the air. This was a notable event in our simple lives and marked an epoch. About this time a peddler came along, and among his goods he tempted us with patriotic songs, the first I had heard of, and I purchased with my first two cents "The Constitution and the Guerriere." The words I soon learned, and in some unaccountable way the music also, and went about roaring, like any sucking dove:
At the age of ten years, responsibilities came to me. Our farm was well stocked with cattle. . . . For years we kept sheep, but as they were abandoned before I became interested in mutton and wool, I assume that they were not considered profitable, in the condition of the farm. . . . A serious accident at this time made it necessary for me, in addition to going to school, to take the care of the cows, a yoke of oxen, a horse, and sundry hogs, in addition to the poultry. In the month of October, my father, with a basket of corn upon his shoulders, stepped upon a rolling stone and broke both bones of a leg badly. He was laid up for many weeks and my business was to rise early, let the cows out of the barn, do their chamber work, get their fodder from the hay-mows, milk them, and, at night, shelter, water, milk and feed them again; and I cannot remember that I considered all this a hardship. At all events, it was done as a matter of course.
Then came winter, and I used to accompany my father with wood-sled and oxen to the wood-lots, chopping and felling trees for our winter's supply of fire-wood. These were holidays to me, for though the weather was cold and there was much snow, I was well wrapped and a bonfire warmed our chilled fingers, and then home, where I always found my mother had prepared a bowl of hot brown bread and milk. Sometimes, with the same team, I would start alone for the grist-mill with bags of corn to be ground, which I would leave with the miller and go on to the wood-lot for such a load of wood as my single strength could manage, and stop for the meal in returning. Though I might start away from home alone, it was rarely that the sled was not covered with boys on returning, and those boys who could not get on got their fun in pelting with snow-balls those who could. . . .
Sometimes, of a bright moonlight night, we would take our skates and skim for two or three miles over the frozen meadow, flooded from the river, upon which we did not venture. Clusters of trees and shrubbery and the sinuous stream, the whole bordered by hills and woods, made it fairy-land. . . . From the river I used to lure many a ruddy-finned perch and pickerel privateer. The flesh of these fish, taken from running streams, being so much better than that taken from the ponds, made a mess of river fish a very desirable acquisition to our larder, and I always welcomed a "southwest wind and a cloudy sky" as a fishing day.
In the autumn I passed much time in the fields and woods. We used to cross the river to reach a distant orchard where we gathered many baskets of apples for cider. The excursions were always delightful and in the nature of picnics. Many barrels of cider were sent to Boston and sold.
After the old Baptist meeting-house had become disused, we attended the new one now standing in the village about three miles away, to which I walked with such other boys as I fell in with. My father had purchased the pew No. 11 in the centre aisle where our family sat. We attended the two services, which had a short intermission between, which we usually spent in a disused stagecoach, eating our lunch, which as a rule consisted of a cracker moistened at the town pump which stood conveniently near. Sometimes we had the luxury of a turnover. I attended a few sessions of the Sunday school, but did not prove a success, being unable to repeat the first verse of the Bible when called upon for it. After the conclusion of the second service we walked sedately home and took the principal meal of the day. A part of it consisted of a milk cake (not biscuit), in the making of which my mother possessed special skill. Then I put on my frock of homespun, loosely made to cover my best clothes, tied around the throat with a string and hanging nearly to the shoes, and went for the cows which were always waiting at the bars to come home for the milking. After all this work was done, in time of drought the oxen were yoked to the scow, on which a large hogshead was placed, and we went to the river for water for the next day's washing. This excursion, which would have been a bore on Monday, was a delight on Sunday, for it seemed a little relaxation of the strictness with which the day was expected to be kept, and contained, as I thought, just a flavour of heresy and disobedience which made the music of the running water and the "sweet jargoning" of the little birds heavenly, and a fitting conclusion to a day of mingled restraint and delicious freedom. On arriving home we usually found that the water was mostly slopped away, so that we often made a second trip. We were all susceptible to the soothing influence of the closing day and came home a happy family, my mother having usually joined us in the excursion.
A small fertile spot of ground having been fenced in for some forgotten purpose, my father told me I could have the proceeds if I chose to cultivate it, and I made of it a model cornfield. No weed was allowed to grow there. I worked upon it early and late and grew proud of it. This was the land of woodchucks, and they revelled in the adjoining fields rich and redolent with clover, but they made frequent excursions to my corn, and I commenced war upon them with all the vigour of a boy, the cruelest created thing till his later development. As I had no gun, and if I had had one I was without the skill to overreach these wary animals, my methods were confined to traps, and first and last I took a good many. They are the pest of the farmer's best mowing land, crossing and recrossing it and beating down his richest clover. I have knocked in the head without compunction many a fat one. . . . I have even tried the not quite unsuccessful experiment of having a plump young one cooked for the table, and "my great revenge had stomach for it all."
Before my brother left home my father had purchased us a new gun. Wild pigeons were very plentiful then, and during the fine autumn days the air was almost darkened by the numerous flocks of these birds passing over, to or from their feeding-grounds, and every little clump or cluster of trees became their resting-place. Stewed pigeons made a palatable dish. I was too small to handle the gun, but was about tall enough to serve as a resting-place to the guns to my brother and our companion in arms, Có Ró Tó, who usually was with us in these forays, and many a wild pigeon has fallen by a shot fired across my youthful shoulder, neither of them being big enough to hold the gun from their own shoulders.
One of my uncles now sent me a new flute, which I took to show, in the evening, to Có Tó , who, as well as his brother, played a little. I called him outside to show it, and he took it into the house to show to his brother. They began to play and soon forgot all about me in their musical enthusiasm, and I sat outside upon the cellar door all the evening, with plenty of time to "let the sounds of music creep into my ears."
My mother's family was a large one, and as the most distant members of it were no farther away than Boston, there were frequent gatherings of the nine brothers and sisters. . . . Thanksgiving Day was one of great profusion, each sister vying with every other, and all skilful in preparation for the great festival; and the long table spread in the long, big kitchen or hall was surrounded with the numerous descendants of all these uncles and aunts, while the immense fireplace and spacious brick oven sent out their appetizing fragrance in resistless invitation to us youngsters; the whole presided over by our white-haired and dignified maternal grandfather.
Pigeons being still plenty, I thought it time to try the gun for myself, and finding one comfortably sitting in my favourite grove, I made the venture, and, to my own surprise, brought down the bird, which proved to be a beautiful specimen of a male pigeon, with the loveliest iridescent plumage I had ever seen. I was so elated that I seized it and ran home to exhibit the prize. After everybody had admired, somebody (my grandfather) asked what had become of my gun. The next day it was found in the swamp where I had flung it in my excitement.
In the meantime, the serious affairs of farming are going on and the diversions of snaring, gunning and fishing are digressions to be postponed to a more convenient season. Harvesting goes on, banking up about the house that potatoes may not freeze, the barn must be inspected and cattle made comfortable, and the hogs are to be slaughtered for market. That murderous operation is performed by an outsider, and if a selected specimen is salted down for the use of the family, it is to be hoped not in the spirit of Whittier's penurious farmers "Among the Hills," who, he says, "save their souls and their winter's pork with the leastpossible outlay of salt and sanctity."