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OUR FIRST GREAT SORROW
FARM work now came on apace. "Hot-beds" had to be prepared for the garden, since a Maine garden usually needs a little assistance at the start. Then came ploughing and harrowing for rye and oats, and later for wheat, then for potatoes and corn. Fences which had "winter-killed" beneath the deep snow drifts, had also to be repaired, so as to get the young cattle and colts out to pasture by May 15th; and then came sheep-washing, sheep-shearing and dipping the lambs again in "poke-stew."
But since this homely routine of farm work has been already described in the first book of these chronicles, I shall not hereafter dwell much on the details of it, but go on to the more notable incidents of this my second year at the Old Squire's.
During the first year we had lived with not much thought as to the future, or what we were to do in life; but now, ever after Master Pierson came among us, and we had begun the study of Latin, the stir of new ambitions began to be felt. There was, in truth, a budding of great hopes that year. The simple child life was over with us — gone never to return. Youth had come with its teeming schemes for the future.
True, we worked on the farm and played at times, much as before; yet it was with a difference. For now we were thinking much of money and how to make it for school expenses at the Academy.
The Old Squire, too, had seemed to catch something of the same spirit. He began to talk much of going into business again, lumbering up at Three Rivers in the Province of Quebec, also of dairying with Jersey cows on a larger scale, and of raising hops, and even of embarking in the petroleum oil business, out in Canada West.
At heart the old gentleman earnestly desired to aid all six of us in getting an education. These new schemes of his were, as I now think, largely, if not wholly, on our account; but they filled Gram with uneasiness. "Joseph, what has come over you!" she often exclaimed that season. "To hear you talk anybody would think you were a young man just starting in life, instead of an old fellow, going on three score and ten. It isn't natural, Joseph. I'm afraid your mind is getting unsettled."
The Old Squire's eye would twinkle at that; and one evening I remember hearing him say, "Ruth, it seems to be the fashion now for Americans to make a fortune. I have been a little backward about that, I fear. So I must hurry around to keep up with present fashions."
"Don't you try to be too fashionable in your old age, Joe," replied Gram with considerable severity.
He went on scheming none the less. Time and again Addison and I surprised him figuring away with a lead pencil on a bit of board out in the wagon-house. Already he was planning to get out five hundred thousand of lumber that coming winter, from certain lots he owned up Lurvey's stream, in the Great Woods. He bought four spans of Prince Edward Island horses in the fall, had new logging camps built and laid in food supplies for a crew of twenty men to go to work in November.
Early one morning about the middle of May, there came a telegram — an unusual event at the farm — announcing the death of a brother-in-law of Gram, living over in Kennebec County, and known to us as "Uncle Dresser." He was supposed to be very well off as to this world's goods; but even before his death there had been ill-natured contentions among certain of his relatives as to the disposition of his property; — troubles which were so distasteful to the Old Squire that he dissuaded Gram from attending the funeral which (the telegram announced) was to be on Thursday of that week. Both of them felt, however, that some one from our family ought to be present; and at length it was decided to have Theodora and myself set off, with Old Sol in the light wagon, and drive there, across country, the distance being nearly or quite forty miles.
It proved a momentous trip. We were gone four days, had a most exciting experience, and saw a very seamy side of human nature — as will be related in another place, hereafter.
Yet even this curious adventure was overshadowed by the sad affliction which fell on us a few weeks later.
According to custom the summer term of school at the old schoolhouse began on the first Monday in June; but the teacher hired by school agent Davis whom Tibbetts had succeeded in electing after so bitter a contest, proved wholly inefficient. Theodora and Ellen did not deem it worth while to attend. Addison, Halstead and I were too busy with the farm work to go, in any case. Boys in the district rarely went to school in summer, after they were twelve years old. Little Wealthy was therefore the only one to go from our place.
From the very first day of school there was complaint as to the condition of the schoolhouse. Nothing had been done by the neglectful agent to render it clean and sanitary after the long term, the previous winter. Nor had fuel been procured for cold, damp days such as often occur in Maine, during the early part of June. On the ninth day of the month a rain-storm had set in, which continued until the afternoon of the 11th.
That night little Wealthy came home looking ill, and complaining of a cold. She had sat and shivered all day, she said. Gram gave her hot catnip tea, and put her to bed early; but shortly after midnight the Old Squire came up stairs and, waking Addison, sent him to the village for Dr. Green, who came during the latter part of the night.
It was not till breakfast, however, that the rest of us learned that Wealthy was seriously ill. Even then we did not realize that it was anything worse than a bad cold. Gram and the Old Squire wore grave looks, however; and before ten o'clock the doctor returned. He was still at the house with his little patient, up stairs, when we boys went in from the field, to dinner. Gram did not come down to table; the Old Squire told us that the doctor had pronounced it a case of diphtheria of a croupous type; and that he said such of us young folks as were not needed in the sick-room had better not go up.
We three boys, with the two hired men, therefore, went back to our work in the field. That day we were finishing our corn planting. By five o'clock we had it nearly done, and were covering the last six rows of seed, when Theodora came hastening out to us from the house. Her eyes were red from crying. "Little Wealthy is very, very sick, boys," were her first words. "She cannot get her breath. Nothing they do helps her. If you want to see her, alive, you must come quick!"
We dropped everything and ran to the house. But the child had expired before we reached it. It was as sudden as that. At the door we met Ellen, sobbing convulsively. She threw her arms about Theodora's neck, and they wept together.
The Old Squire came down stairs. "Your dear little cousin has passed away, my children," was all the old gentleman could find words to say to us.
The doctor came down, and after giving some precautionary directions, drove away.
The suddenness of the calamity affected me strangely. A kind of stupefaction fell on me. I could not believe what they said, at first. It seemed impossible that Wealthy could be dead. I burst forth crying so uncontrollably, that Addison laid hold of my arm and hurried me out to the wagon-house. "You must not let yourself behave like that," he said reprovingly. "It is sad enough and bad enough without your setting up such a noise!" But for a long time I could not calm myself.
Halstead had disappeared. We did not see him again till late in the evening.
O, the solemnity and the black, bleak sorrow which brooded over the old farmhouse that night! It appeared to me that I could never go on living there under this crushing weight of grief. The sight of the closed door up stairs, and the tear-stained faces of Theodora and Ellen, filled me with unspeakable anguish.
As it came dark I remember retreating to a dim corner of the sitting-room, on the lounge, and was so loath to leave it to go to bed, that Theodora at length came in and, sitting beside me, held my hand for a long time, without speaking.
In our room, later that night, Addison tried in vain to cheer me by speaking of a trip which he had planned for us to take to the mountains up in the great woods, to search for tourmalines, amethysts and silver ore. I thought him utterly heartless to think of such things, at such a time, but know now that he felt quite as badly as I did, but possessed a more self-controlled, less emotional mind.
The same sense of wild anguish and bewilderment rested on me for several days, till after the funeral, when the little coffin stood in the sitting-room, and "Aunt Olive" had come, and Elder Witham preached a kindly sermon from the text, "It cometh tip like a flower."
Thus sadly was broken, for the first time, our little war-waif circle of six cousins at the Old Squire's; and all that now remained to us by which to remember Wealthy was that one small ambrotype, reproduced here.
Elsie Wilbur and one other — little Millie Darnley — who were at school at the same time, were taken sick of the same disease, namely, a bad cold followed by croupous diphtheria. All three were apparently from the same cause — sitting in a too cold schoolroom which was in an unsanitary condition.
At the Old Squire's we set little Wealthy's death down as one of the calamities of the year when Rum reigned in the school district. We believed that if the schoolhouse had been in charge of a careful school agent that summer, our winsome little cousin might still be with us. Davis was a neglectful sot. Tibbetts had made him so. Little Wealthy was the victim of the worthlessness of the one and the malice of the other. This thought embittered our hearts still more against our liquor-selling postmaster.
He was, in truth, the evil genius of our lives at the old farm, and at length — as I shall have to relate later — succeeded in involving Halstead in a disreputable affair which led him to run away from home.