University of Virginia Library

Search this document 


No Page Number


I was sitting at the front window, buried, chin-deep, in
the perusal of “Sandford and Merton,” when I heard the
latch of the gate click. Looking up, I saw that it was only
Neighbor Niles, coming, as usual, in her sun-bonnet, with
her bare arms wrapped in her apron, for a chat with
mother. I therefore resumed my reading, for Neighbor
Niles always burst into the house without knocking, and
mother was sure to know who it was by the manner in
which the door opened. I had gotten as far into the book
as the building of the Robinson-Crusoe hut, and one half
of my mind speculated, as I read, whether a similar hut
might not be constructed in our garden, in the corner
between the snowball-bush and Muley's stable. Bob Simmons
would help me, I was sure; only it was scarcely possible
to finish it before winter, and then we could n't live
in it without a fireplace and a chimney.

Mother was hard at work, making me a new jacket of
gray satinet, lined with black chintz. My reading was interrupted
by the necessity of jumping up every ten minutes,
jerking off my old coat and trying on the new one, —
sometimes the body without the sleeves, sometimes one of


Page 2
the sleeves alone. Somehow it would n't fit at the shoulders,
and the front halves, instead of lying smoothly upon
my breast as they should have done, continually turned and
flew back against my arms, as if I had been running at full
speed. A tailor would have done the work better, it can't
be denied, but mother could not afford that. “You can
keep it buttoned, Johnny dear,” she would say, “and then
I think it 'll look very nice.”

Presently the door burst open, and there was Neighbor
Niles, voice and figure all at once, loud, hearty, and bustling.
Always hurried to “within an inch of her life,”
always working “like six yoke of oxen,” (as she was accustomed
to say,) she inveterately gossiped in the midst
of her labor, and jumped up in sudden spirts of work when
she might have rested. We knew her well and liked her.
I believe, indeed, she was generally liked in the neighborhood;
but when some of the farmers, deceived by her own
chatter, spoke of her as “a smart, doing woman,” their
wives would remark, with a slight toss of the head, “Them
that talks the most does n't always do the most.”

On this occasion, her voice entered the room, as nearly as
I can recollect, in the following style: —

“Good mornin', Neighbor Godfrey! Well, Johnny,
how 's he? Still a-readin'? He 'll be gittin' too much in
that head o' his'n. Jist put my bakin' into th' oven, — six
punkin-pies, ten dried-apple, and eight loaves o' bread,
besides a pan o' rusk. If I had nothin' else to do but
bake, 't would be enough for one woman: things goes in
our house. Got the jacket most done? Might ha' saved
a little stuff if you 'd ha' cut that left arm more catercornered,
— 't would ha' been full long, I guess, and there
a'n't no nap, o' no account, on satinet. Jane Koffmann,
she was over at Readin' last week, and got some for her
boys, a fippenny-bit a yard cheaper 'n this. Don't know,
though, as it 'll wear so well. Laws! are you sewin' with
silk instead o' patent thread?”


Page 3

“I find it saves me work,” said my mother, as Neighbor
Niles popped into the nearest chair, drew her hands from
under her apron, leaned over, and picked up a spool from
the lap-board. “Patent thread soon wears out at the
elbows and shoulders, and then there are rips, you know.
Besides, the color don't hold, and the seams soon look

I resumed my reading, while our visitor exhausted the
small budget of gossip which had accumulated since her
last visit, two days before. Her words fell upon my ears
mechanically, but failed to make any impression upon my
mind, which was wholly fixed upon the book. After a while,
however, my mother called to me, —

“Johnny, I think there 's some clearing up to do in the

I knew what that meant. Mother wished to have some
talk with Neighbor Niles, which I was not to hear. Many
a time had I been sent into the garden, on the pretence of
“clearing up things,” when I knew, and mother also knew,
that the beds were weeded, the alleys clean scraped, the
rubbish gathered together and thrown into the little stable-yard,
and all other work done which a strong inventive
faculty could suggest. It was a delicate way of getting me
out of the room.

I laid down my book with a sigh, but brightened up as
the idea occurred to me that I might now, at once, select
the site of my possible Crusoe hut, and take an inventory
of the material available for its construction. As I paused
on the oblong strip of turf, spread like a rug before the
garden-door, and glanced in at the back-window, I saw that
mother had already dropped her sewing, and that she and
Neighbor Niles had put their heads together, in a strictly
literal sense, for a private consultation.

The garden was a long, narrow plot of ground, running
back to the stable of our cow, and the adjoining yard, which
she was obliged to share with two well-grown and voracious


Page 4
pigs. I walked along the main alley, peering into the beds
right and left for something to “clear up,” in order to
satisfy my conscience before commencing my castle- or
rather hut-building; but I found nothing more serious than
three dry stalks of seed-radishes, which I pulled up and
flung over the fence. Then I walked straight to the snowball-bush.
I remember pacing off the length and breadth
of the snug, grassy corner behind it, and discovering, to my
grief, that, although there was room for a hut big enough
for Bob and myself to sit in, it would be impossible to walk
about, — much less swing a cat by the tail. In fact, we
should have to take as model another small edifice, which,
on the other side of the bush, already disturbed the needful
solitude. Moreover, not a hand's-breadth of board
or a stick of loose timber was to be found. “If I were
only in Charley Rand's place!” I thought. His father had
a piece of woodland in which you might lose your way
for as much as a quarter of an hour at a time, with enough
of dead boughs and refuse bark to build a whole encampment
of huts. Charley, perhaps, might be willing to join
in the sport; but he was not a favorite playfellow of mine,
and would be certain to claim the hut as his exclusive property,
after we other fellows had helped him to build it.
He was that sort of a boy. Then my fancy wandered
away to the real Crusoe on his island, and I repeated to
myself Cowper's “Verses, supposed to be written by Alexander
Selkirk.” Somehow, the lines gave an unexpected
turn to my thoughts. Where would be the great fun of
playing Crusoe, or even his imitators, Sandford and Merton,
in a back-garden, where a fellow's mother might call
him away at any moment? I should not be out of humanity's
reach, nor cease to hear the sweet music of speech;
the beasts that roam over the plain (especially McAllister's
bull, in the next field) would not behold my form with indifference,
nor would they suddenly become shockingly
tame. It would all be a make-believe, from beginning to


Page 5
end, requiring even greater efforts of imagination than I
had perpetrated a few years earlier, in playing at the village
school, —
“Here come three lords, all out of Spain,
A-courting of your daughter Jane,”
or in creating real terror by fancying a bear crouching behind
the briers in the fence-corner.

A little ashamed of myself, I walked to the garden-paling,
and looked over it, and across the rolling fields, to some
low, hazy hills in the distance. I belong to that small
class of men whose natures are not developed by a steady,
gradual process of growth, but advance by sudden and
seemingly arbitrary bounds, divided by intervals during
which their faculties remain almost stationary. I had now
reached one of those periods of growth, — the first, indeed,
which clearly presented itself to my own consciousness.
I had passed my sixteenth birthday, and the physical
change which was imminent began to touch and give color
to the operations of my mind. My vision did not pause at
the farthest hill, but went on, eagerly, into the unknown
landscape beyond. I had previously talked of the life that
lay before me as I had talked of Sinbad and Gulliver,
Robert Bruce and William Tell: all at once I became
conscious that it was an earnest business.

What must I do? What should I become? The few
occupations which found a place in our little village repelled
me. My frame was slight, and I felt that, even if I
liked it, I could never swing the blacksmith's hammer, or
rip boards like Dick Brown, the carpenter. Moreover, I
had an instinctive dislike to all kinds of manual labor,
except the light gardening tasks in which I assisted my
mother. Sometimes, in the harvest-season, I had earned a
little pocket - money on the neighboring farms. It was
pleasant enough to toss hay into cocks on the fragrant
meadows, but I did n't like the smother of packing it in


Page 6
the steaming mows, and my fingers became painfully sore
from binding sheaves. My ambition — at this time but a
vague, formless desire — was to be a scholar, a man of
learning. How this was to be attained, or what lay beyond
it, I could not clearly see. I knew, without being able to
explain why, that the Cross-Keys (as our village was
called, from its tavern-sign) was no place for me. But, up
to the afternoon I am describing, I had never given the
subject a serious thought.

Many a boy of ten knows far more of the world than I
then did. I doubt if any shepherd on the high Norwegian
fjelds lives in greater seclusion than did we, — my mother
and myself. The Cross-Keys lay aside from any of the
main highways of the county, and the farmers around were
mostly descendants of the original settlers of the soil, a
hundred and fifty years before. Their lives were still as
simple and primitive as in the last century. Few of them
ever travelled farther than to the Philadelphia market, at
the beginning of winter, to dispose of their pigs and poultry.
A mixture of the German element, dating from the
first emigration, tended still further to conserve the habits
and modes of thought of the community. My maternal
grandfather, Hatzfeld, was of this stock, and many of his
peculiarities, passing over my mother, have reappeared in
me, to play their part in the shaping of my fortunes.

My father had been a house- and sign-painter in the
larger village of Honeybrook, four miles distant. Immediately
after his death, which happened when I was eight
years old, my mother removed to the Cross-Keys, principally
because she had inherited the small cottage and garden
from her spinster aunt, Christina Hatzfeld. There
was nothing else, for my great-aunt had only a life-interest
in the main estate, which — I do not know precisely how
— had passed into the hands of the male heirs. My
mother's means were scarcely sufficient to support us in
the simplest way, and she was therefore in the habit of


Page 7
“taking in sewing” from the wives of the neighboring
farmers. Her labor was often paid in produce, and she
sometimes received, in addition, presents of fruit, potatoes,
and fuel from the kindly-hearted people. Thus we never
reached the verge of actual want, though there were times
when our daily fare was plainer than she cared to let the
neighbors see, and when the new coat or shawl had to be
postponed to a more fortunate season. For at least half
the year I attended the village school, and had already
learned nearly as much as a teacher hired for twenty dollars
a month was capable of imparting. The last one, indeed,
was unable to help me through quadratic equations, and
forced me, unwillingly, upon a course of Mensuration.

Between mother and myself there was the most entire
confidence, except upon the single subject of my future.
She was at once mother and elder sister, entering with
heart and soul into all my childish plans of work or play,
listening with equal interest to the stories I read, or relating
to me the humble incidents of her own life, with a
sweet, fresh simplicity of language, which never lost by
repetition. Her large black eyes would sparkle, and her
round face, to which the old-fashioned puffs of hair on the
temples gave such an odd charm, became as youthful in
expression, I am sure, as my own. Her past and her present
were freely shared with me, but she drew back when I
turned with any seriousness towards the future. At one
time, I think, she would have willingly stopped the march
of my years, and been content to keep me at her side, a
boy forever. I was incapable of detecting this feeling at
the time, and perhaps I wrong her memory in alluding to
it now. God knows I have often wished it could have
been so! Whatever of natural selfishness there may have
been in the thought, she weighed it down, out of sight, by
all those years of self-denial, and the final sacrifice, for my
sake. No truer, tenderer, more single-hearted mother
ever lived than Barbara Godfrey.


Page 8

She was so cordially esteemed in our little community
that no reproach, on my account, was allowed to reach her
ears. A boy of my age, who had no settled occupation,
was there considered to be in danger of becoming a useless
member of society; antipathy to hard, coarse manual
labor implied a moral deficiency; much schooling, for one
without means, was a probable evil: but no one had the
heart to unsettle the widow's comfort in her child. Now
and then, perhaps, a visitor might ask, “What are you
going to make of him, Barbara?” whereupon my mother
would answer, “He must make himself,” — with a confident
smile which put the question aside.

These words came across my mind as I leaned against
the palings, trying to summon some fleeting outline of my
destiny from the vapory distance of the landscape. I was
perplexed, but not discouraged. My trials, thus far, had
been few. When I first went to school, the boys had called
me “Bricktop,” on account of the auburn tinge of my hair,
which was a source of great sorrow until Sam Haskell,
whose head was of fiery hue, relieved me of the epithet.
Emily Rand, whose blue eyes and yellow ringlets confused
my lessons, (I am not certain but her pink-spotted calico
frock had something to do with it,) treated me scornfully,
and even scratched my face when it was my turn to kiss
her in playing “Love and War.” The farmers' sons also
laughed at my awkwardness and want of muscle; but this
annoyance was counterbalanced in the winter, when they
came to measure another sort of strength with me at school.
I had an impression that my value in the neighborhood
was not estimated very highly, and had periodical attacks
of shyness which almost amounted to self-distrust. On the
other hand, I had never experienced any marked unkindness
or injustice; my mother spoke ill of no one, and I did
not imagine the human race to be otherwise than honest,
virtuous, and reciprocally helpful.

I soon grew tired of facing the sober aspect of reality,


Page 9
so unexpectedly presented, and wandered off, as was the
habit of my mind, into vague and splendid dreams. If I
had the Wonderful Lamp, — if a great roc should come
sailing out of the western sky, pick me up in his claws, and
carry me to the peaks overlooking the Valley of Diamonds,
— if there were still a country where a cat might be sold
for a ship-load of gold, — if I might carry a loaf of bread
under my arm, like Benjamin Franklin, and afterwards
become rich and celebrated, (the latter circumstance being,
of course, a result of the former,) — there would be no difficulty
about my fate. It was hardly likely, however, that
either of these things would happen to me; but why not
something else, equally strange and fortunate?

A hard slap on a conspicuous, but luckily not a sensitive
portion of my body caused me to spring almost over the
paling. I whirled around, and with a swift instinct of retaliation,
struck out violently with both fists.

“No, you don't!” cried Bob Simmons, (for he it was,)
dodging the blows and then catching me by the wrists. “I
did n't mean to strike so hard, John; don't be mad about it.
I 'm going away soon, and came around to tell you.”

Bob was my special crony, because I had found him to
be the kindest-hearted of all the village boys. He was not
bright at school, and was apt to be rough in his language and
manners; but from the day he first walked home with me,
with his arm around my neck, I had faith in his affection.
He seemed to like me all the better from my lack of the
hard strength which filled him from head to foot. He once
carried me nearly a quarter of a mile in his arms, when I
had sprained my ankle in jumping down out of an apple-tree.
He had that rough male nature which loves what it has
once protected or helped. Besides, he was the only companion
to whom I dared confide my vague projects of life,
with the certainty of being not only heard, but encouraged.

“Yes,” said Bob, “I am going away, maybe in a few


Page 10

“Where? Not going away for good, Bob?”

“Like as not. I 'm nearly eighteen, and Dad says it 's
time to go to work on my own hook. The farm, you know,
is n't big enough for him and me, and he can get along with
Brewster now. So I must learn a trade; what do you think
it is?”

“You said, Bob, that you 'd like to be a mason?”

“Would n't I, though! But it 's the next thing to it.
Dad says there a'n't agoin' to be many more stone houses
built, — bricks has got to be the fashion. But they 're so
light, it 's no kind o' work. All square, too; you 've
just to put one atop of t' other, and there 's your wall.
Why, you could do it, John. Mort! Mort! hurry up with
that 'ere hod!”

Here Bob imitated the professional cry of the bricklayer
with startling exactness. There was not a fibre about him
that shrank from contact with labor, or from the rough tussle
by which a poor boy must win his foothold in the world.
I would, at that moment, have given my grammar and algebra
(in which branches he was lamentably deficient) for a
quarter of his unconscious courage. A wild thought flashed
across my mind: I might also be a bricklayer, and his fellow-apprentice!
Then came the discouraging drawback.

“But, Bob,” I said, “the bricks are so rough. I don't
like to handle them.”

“Should n't wonder if you did n't. Lookee there!”
And Bob laid my right hand in his broad, hard palm, and
placed his other hand beside it. “Look at them two hands!
they 're made for different kinds o' work. There 's my
thick fingers and broad nails, and your thin fingers and narrow
nails. You can write a'most like copy-plate, and I make
the roughest kind o' pot-hooks. The bones o' your fingers
is no thicker than a girl's. I dunno what I 'd do if mine
was like that.”

I colored, from the sense of my own physical insignificance.
“Oh, Bob,” I cried, “I wish I was strong! I 'll


Page 11
have to get my own living, too, and I don't know how to

“Oh, there 's time enough for you, John,” said Bob, consolingly.
“You need n't fret your gizzard yet awhile.
There 's teachin' school is n't so bad to start with. You 'll
soon be fit to do it, and that 's what I 'd never be, I reckon.”

We went into the little hay-mow over the stable, and sat
down, side by side, in the dusky recess, where our only
light came through the cracks between the shrunk clapboards.
Bob had brought a horse to the smith to be shod all
round, and there were two others in before him; so he could
count on a good hour before his turn came. It might be
our last chat together for a long time, and the thought of
this made our intercourse more frank and tender than usual.

“Tell me, Bob,” said I, “what you 'll do after you 've
learned the trade.”

“Why, do journey-work, to be sure. They get a dollar
and a half a day, in Phildelphy.”

“Well, — after that?”

“Dunno. P'raps I may be boss, and do business on the
wholesale. Bosses make money hand-over-fist. I tell
you what, John, I 'd like to build a house for myself like
Rand's, — heavy stone, two foot thick, and just such big
willy-trees before it, — a hundred acres o' land, and prime
stock on 't,; would n't I king it, then! Dad 's had a hard
time, he has, — only sixty acres, you know, and a morgidge
on it. Don't you tell nobody, — I 'm agoin' to help him
pay it off, afore I put by for myself.”

I had not the least idea of the nature of a mortgage, but
was ashamed to ask for information. Sometimes I had
looked down on Bob from the heights of my superior
learning, but now he seemed to overtop me in everything, —
in strength, in courage, and in practical knowledge. For
the first time, I would have been willing to change places
with him, — ah, how many times afterwards!

When we went down out of the hay-mow it was nearly


Page 12
evening, and I hurried back to our cottage. The fire which
I was accustomed to make in the little back-kitchen was already
kindled, and the table set for supper. Mother was
unusually silent and preoccupied; she did not even ask me
where I had been. After the simple meal — made richer
by the addition of four of Neighbor Niles's rusks — was
over, we took our places in the sitting-room, she with her
lap-board, and I with “Sandford and Merton.” She did
not ask me to read aloud, as usual, but went on silently
and steadily with her sewing. Now and then I caught the
breath of a rising sigh, checked as soon as she became
conscious of it. Nearly an hour passed, and my eyelids
began to grow heavy, when she suddenly spoke.

“Put away the book, John. You 're getting tired, I see,
and we can talk a little. I have something to say to you.”

I shut the book and turned towards her.

“It 's time, John, to be thinking of making something of
you. In four or five years — and the time will go by only
too fast — you 'll be a man. I 'd like to keep you here
always, but I know that can't be. I must n't think of myself:
I must teach you to do without me.”

“But I don't want to do without you, mother!” I cried.

“I know it, Johnny dear; but you must learn it, nevertheless.
Who knows how soon I may be taken from you?
I want to give you a chance of more and better schooling,
because you 're scarcely strong enough for hard work, and
I think you 're not so dull but you could manage to get
your living out of your head. At least, it would n't be
right for me not to help you what little I can. I 've looked
forward to it, and laid by whatever I could, — dear me, it 's
not what it ought to be, but we must be thankful for what 's
allowed us. I only want you to make good use of your
time while it lasts; you must always remember that every
day is an expense, and that the money was not easy to get.”

“What do you want me to do, mother?” I asked, after
a pause.


Page 13

“I have been talking with Neighbor Niles about it, and
she seems to see it in the same light as I do. She 's a
good neighbor, and a sensible woman. Charley Rand's
father is going to send him this winter to Dr. Dymond's
school, a mile the other side of Honeybrook. It 's the best
in the neighborhood, and I would n't want you to be far
away from me yet awhile. They ask seventy-five dollars
for the session, but Charley goes for sixty, having his washing
and Sunday's board at home. It seems like a heap of
money, John, but I 've laid away, every year since we came
here, twenty dollars out of the interest on the fifteen hundred
your father left me, and that 's a hundred and sixty.
Perhaps I could make out to let you have two years'
schooling, if I find that you get on well with your studies.
I 'm afraid that I could n't do more than that, because I
don't want to touch the capital. It 's all we have. Not
that you would n't be able to earn your living in a few
years, but we never know what 's in store for us. You
might become sickly and unable to follow any regular
business, or I” —

Here my mother suddenly stopped, clasped her hands
tightly together, and turned pale. Her lips were closed,
as if in pain, and I could see by the tension of the muscles
of her jaws that the teeth were set hard upon each other.
Of late, I had several times noticed the same action. I
could not drive away the impression that she was endeavoring
not to cry out under the violence of some mental or
physical torture. After a minute or two, the rigidity of
her face softened; she heaved a sigh, which, by a transition
infinitely touching, resolved itself into a low, cheerful
laugh, and said, —

“But there 's no use, after all, in worrying ourselves
by imagining what may never happen. Only I think it
best not to touch the capital; and now you know, Johnny,
what you have to depend on. There 's the money that I 've
been saving for you, and you shall have the benefit of it,


Page 14
every penny. Some folks would say it 's not wisely spent,
but it 's you must decide that by the use you make of it.
If I can see, every Saturday night when you come home,
that you know a little more than you did the week before,
I shall be satisfied.”

I was already glowing and tingling with delight at the
prospect held out to me. The sum my mother named
seemed to me enormous. I had heard of Dr. Dymond's
school as a paradise of instruction, unattainable to common
mortals. The boys who went there were a lesser kind of
seraphs, sitting in the shade of a perennial tree of knowledge.
With such advantages, all things seemed suddenly
possible to me; and had my mother remarked, “I expect
you to write a book as good as `The Children of the
Abbey,' — to make a better speech than Colonel McAllister,
— to tell the precise minute when the next eclipse of
the sun takes place,” — I should have answered, “Oh, of

“When am I to go?” I asked.

“It will be very soon, — too soon for me, for I shall find
the house terribly lonely without you, John. Charley
Rand will go in about three weeks, and I should like to
have you ready at the same time.”

“Three weeks!” I exclaimed, with a joyous excitement,
which I checked, feeling a pang of penitence at my own
delight, as I looked at mother.

She was bravely trying to smile, but there were tears in
her black eyes. One of her puffs fell out of its place; I
went to her and put it back nicely, as I had often done
before, — I liked to touch and arrange her hair, when she
would let me. Then she began to cry, turning away her
head, and saying, “Don't mind me, Johnny; I did n't
mean to.”

It cost me a mighty effort to say it, but I did say, — “If
you 'd rather have me stay at home, mother, I don't want
to go. The cow must be milked and the garden looked
after, anyhow. I did n't think of that.”


Page 15

“But I did, my child,” she said, wiping her eyes with
her apron. “Neighbor Niles will take Muley, and give me
half the milk every day. Then, you know, as you will not
be here on week-days, I shall need less garden-stuff. It 's
all fixed, and must n't be changed. I made up my mind to
it years ago, and ought to be thankful that I 've lived to
carry it out. Now, pull off your shoes and go to bed.”

I stole up the narrow, creaking ladder of a staircase to
my pigeon-hole under the roof. That night I turned over
more than once before I fell asleep. I was not the same
boy that got out of the little low bed the morning before,
and never would be again.