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THE SAD ABUSE OF OLD MEHITABLE
ABOUT this time there occurred a domestic episode with which Halstead was imperishably connected in the family annals.
In those days the family butter was churned in the kitchen by hand power, and often laboriously, in an upright dasher churn which Addison and Theodora had christened Old Mehitable. The butter had been a long time coming one morning; but finally the cream which for an hour or more had been thick, white and mute beneath the dasher strokes began to swash in a peculiar way, giving forth after each stroke a sound that they thought resembled, Mehitable — Mehitable — Mehitable.
That old churn was said to be sixty-six years old even then. There was little to wear out in the old-fashioned dasher churns, made as they were of well-seasoned pine or spruce, with a "butter cup" turned from a solid block of birch or maple, and the dasher staff of strong white ash. One of them sometimes outlasted two generations of housewives; they were simple, durable and easily kept clean, but hard to operate.
Our acquaintance with Mehitable had begun very soon after our arrival at the old farm. I remember that one of the first things the old Squire said to us was, "Boys, now that our family is so largely increased, I think that you will have to assist your grandmother with the dairy work, particularly the churning, which comes twice a week."
Tuesdays and Fridays were the churning days, and on those mornings I remember that we were wont to peer into the kitchen as we came to breakfast and mutter the unwelcome tidings to one another that old Mehitable was out there waiting — tidings followed immediately by two gleeful shouts of, "It isn't my turn!" — and glum looks from the one of us whose unfortunate lot it was to ply the dasher.
Addison, I recollect, used to take his turn without much demur or complaint, and he had a knack of getting through with it quickly as a rule, especially in summer. None of us had much trouble during the warm season. It was in November, December and January, when cold cream did not properly "ripen" and the cows were long past their freshening, that those protracted, wearying sessions at the churn began. Then, indeed, our annual grievance against grandmother Ruth burst forth afresh. For, like many another veteran housewife, the dear old lady was very "set" on having her butter come hard, and hence averse to raising the temperature of the cream above fifty-six degrees. Often that meant two or three hours of hard, up-and-down work at the churn.
In cold weather, too, the cream sometimes "swelled" in the churn, becoming so stiff as to render it nearly impossible to force the dasher through it; and we would lift the entire churn from the floor in our efforts to work it up and down. At such times our toes suffered, and we were wont to call loudly for Theodora and Ellen to come and hold the churn down, a task that they undertook with misgivings.
What exasperated us always was the superb calmness with which grandmother Ruth viewed those struggles, going placidly on with her other duties as if our woes were all in the natural order of the universe. The butter, eggs and poultry were her perquisites in the matter of farm products, and we were apt to accuse her of hard-heartedness in her desire to make them yield income.
Addison, I remember, had a prop that he inserted and drove tight with a mallet between a beam overhead and the top of the churn when the cream "swelled"; but neither Halstead nor I was ever able to adjust the prop skillfully enough to keep it from falling down on our heads.
And we suspected Addison of pouring warm water into the churn when grandmother's back was turned, though we never actually caught him at it. Sometimes when he churned, the butter "came" suspiciously soft, to grandmother's great dissatisfaction, since she had special customers for her butter at the village and was proud of its uniform quality.
With the kindly aid of the girls, especially Ellen, I usually got through my turn after a fashion. I was crafty enough to keep their sympathy and good offices enlisted on my side.
But poor Halstead! There was pretty sure to be a rumpus every time his turn came. Nature, indeed, had but poorly fitted him for churning, or, in fact, for any form of domestic labor that required sustained effort and patience. He had a kind heart; but his temper was stormy. When informed that his turn had come to churn, he almost always disputed it hotly. Afterwards he was likely to fume a while and finally go about the task in so sullen a mood that the girls were much inclined to leave him to his own devices. Looking back at our youthful days, I see plainly now that we were often uncharitable toward Halstead. He was, I must admit, a rather difficult boy to get on with, hasty of temper and inclined to act recklessly. There were no doubt physical causes for those defects; but Addison and I thought he might do better if he pleased. He and Addison were about the same age, and I was two and a half years younger. Halstead, in fact, was slightly taller than Addison, but not so strong. His complexion was darker and not so clear; and I imagine that he was not so healthy. Once, I remember, when Dr. Green from the village was at the house, he cast a professional eye on us three boys and remarked, "That dark boy's blood isn't so good as that of the other two," a remark that Halstead appears to have overheard.
None the less, he was strong enough to work when he chose, though he complained constantly and shirked when he could.
On the Friday morning referred to, it had come Halstead's turn "to stand up with old Mehitable," as Ellen used to say; and after the usual heated argument he had set about it out in the kitchen in a particularly wrathy mood. It was snowing outside. The old Squire had driven to the village; and, after doing the barn chores, Addison had retired to the sitting-room to cipher out two or three hard sums in complex fractions while I had seized the opportunity to read a book of Indian stories that Tom Edwards had lent me. After starting the churning, grandmother Ruth, assisted by the girls, was putting in order the bedrooms upstairs.
Through a crack of the unlatched door that led to the kitchen, we heard Halstead churning casually, muttering to himself and plumping the old churn about the kitchen floor. Several times he had shouted for the girls to come and help him hold it down; and presently we heard him ordering Nell to bid grandmother Ruth pour hot milk into the churn.
"It's as cold as ice!" he cried. "It never will come in the world till it is warmed up! Here I have churned for two hours, steady, and no signs of the butter's coming — and it isn't my turn either!"
We had heard Halstead run on so much in that same strain, however, that neither Addison nor I paid much attention to it.
Every few moments, however, he continued shouting for some one to come and help; and presently, when grandma Ruth came downstairs for a moment to see how matters were going on, we heard him pleading angrily with her to pour in hot milk.
"Make the other boys come and help!" he cried after her as she was calmly returning upstairs. "Make them come and churn a spell. Their blood is better'n mine!"
"Oh, I guess your blood is good enough," the old lady replied, laughing.
Silence for a time followed that last appeal. Halstead seemed to have resigned himself to his task. Addison's pencil ciphered away; and I grew absorbed in Colter's flight from the Indians.
Before long, however, a pungent odor, as of fat on a hot stove, began to pervade the house. Addison looked up and sniffed. Just then we heard Theodora race suddenly down the hall stairs, speed to the other door of the kitchen, then cry out and go flying back upstairs. An instant later she and Ellen rushed down, with grandmother Ruth hard after them. Evidently something was going wrong. Addison and I made for the kitchen door, for we heard grandmother exclaim in tones of deepest indignation, "O you Halstead! What have you done!"
Halstead had set the old churn on top of the hot stove, placed a chair close against it, and was standing on the chair, churning with might and main.
His head, as he plied the dasher, was almost touching the ceiling; his face was as red as a beet. He had filled the stove with dry wood, and the bottom of the churn was smoking; the chimes were warping out of their grooves, and cream was leaking on the stove. The kitchen reeked with the smoke and odor.
After one horrified glance, grandmother rushed in, snatched the churn off the stove and bore it to the sink. Her indignation was too great for "Christian words," as the old lady sometimes expressed it in moments of great domestic provocation. "Get the slop pails," she said in low tones to Ellen and Theodora. "Tis spoiled. The whole churning is smoked and spoiled — and the churn, too!"
Halstead, meantime, was getting down from the chair, still very hot and red. "Well, I warmed the old thing up once!" he muttered defiantly. "'Twas coming, too. 'Twould have come in one minute more!"
But neither grandmother nor the girls vouchsafed him another look. After a glance round, Addison drew back, shutting the kitchen door, and resumed his pencil. He shook his head sapiently to me, but seemed to be rocked by internal mirth. "Now, wasn't that just like Halse?" he muttered at length.
"What do you think the old Squire will say to this?" I hazarded.
"Oh, not much, I guess," Addison replied, going on with his problem. "The old gentleman doesn't think it is of much use to talk to him. Halse, you know, flies all to pieces if he is reproved."
In point of fact I do not believe the old Squire took the matter up with Halstead at all. He did not come home until afternoon, and no one said much to him about what had happened during the morning.
But we had to procure a new churn immediately for the following Tuesday. Old Mehitable was totally ruined. The bottom and the lower ends of the chimes were warped and charred beyond repair.
Largely influenced by Addison's advice, grandmother Ruth consented to the purchase of one of the new crank churns. For a year or more he had been secretly cogitating a scheme to avoid so much tiresome work when churning; and a crank churn, he foresaw, would lend itself to such a project much more readily than a churn with an upright dasher. It was a plan that finally took the form of a revolving shaft overhead along the walk from the kitchen to the stable, where it was actuated by a light horse-power. Little belts descending from this shaft operated not only the churn but a washing machine, a wringer, a corn sheller, a lathe and several other machines with so much success and saving of labor that even grandmother herself smiled approvingly.
"And that's all due to me!" Halstead used to exclaim once in a while. "If I hadn't burnt up that old churn, we would be tugging away at it to this day!""Yes, Halse, you are a wonderful boy in the kitchen!" Ellen would remark roguishly.