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THE STRANGE DISAPPEARANCE OF GRANDPA EDWARDS
THERE was so much to do at the old farm that we rarely found time to play games. But we had a croquet set that Theodora, Ellen and their girl neighbor, Catherine Edwards, occasionally carried out to a little wicketed court just east of the apple house in the rear of the farm buildings.
Halstead rather disdained the game as too tame for boys and Addison so easily outplayed the rest of us that there was not much fun in it for him, unless, as Theodora used to say, he played with one hand in his pocket. But as we were knocking the balls about one evening while we decided which of us should play, we saw Catherine crossing the west field. She had heard our voices and was making haste to reach us. As she approached, we saw that she looked anxious.
"Has grandpa been over here to-day?" her first words were. "He's gone. He went out right after breakfast this morning, and he hasn't come back.
"After he went out, Tom saw him down by the line wall," she continued hurriedly. "We thought perhaps he had gone to the Corners by the meadow-brook path. But he didn't come to dinner. We are beginning to wonder where he is. Tom's just gone to the Corners to see if he is there."
"Why, no," we said. "He hasn't been here to-day."
The two back windows at the rear of the kitchen were down, and Ellen, who was washing dishes there, overheard what Catherine had said, and spoke to grandmother Ruth, who called the old Squire.
"That's a little strange," he said when Catherine had repeated her tidings to him. "But I rather think it is nothing serious. He may have gone on from the Corners to the village. I shouldn't worry."
Grandpa Jonathan Edwards — distantly related to the stern New England divine of that name — was a sturdy, strong old man sixty-seven years of age, two years older than our old Squire, and a friend and neighbor of his from boyhood. With this youthful friend, Jock, the old Squire — who then of course was young — had journeyed to Connecticut to buy merino sheep: that memorable trip when they met with Anice and Ruth Pepperill, the two girls whom they subsequently married and brought home.
For the last seventeen years matters had not been going prosperously or happily at the Edwards farm. Jonathan's only son, Jotham (Catherine and Tom's father), had married at the age of twenty and come home to live. The old folks gave him the deed of the farm and accepted only a "maintenance" on it — not an uncommon mode of procedure. Quite naturally, no doubt, after taking the farm off his father's hands, marrying and having a family of his own, this son, Jotham, wished to manage the farm as he saw fit. He was a fairly kind, well-meaning man, but he had a hasty temper and was a poor manager. His plans seemed never to prosper, and the farm ran down, to the great sorrow and dissatisfaction of his father, Jonathan, whose good advice was wholly disregarded. The farm lapsed under a mortgage; the buildings went unrepaired, unpainted; and the older man experienced the constant grief of seeing the place that had been so dear to him going wrong and getting into worse condition every year.
Of course we young folks did not at that time know or understand much about all this; but I have learned since that Jonathan often unbosomed his troubles to the old Squire, who sympathized with him, but who could do little to improve matters.
Jotham's wife was a worthy woman, and I never heard that she did not treat the old folks well. It was the bad management and the constantly growing stress of straitened circumstances that so worried Jonathan.
Then, two years before we young folks came home to live at the old Squire's, Aunt Anice, as the neighbors called her, died suddenly of a sharp attack of pleurisy. That left Jonathan alone in the household of his son and family. He seemed, so the old Squire told me later, to lose heart entirely after that, and sat about or wandered over the farm in a state of constant discontent.
I fear, too, that his grandson, Tom, was not an unmixed comfort to him. Tom did not mean to hurt his grandfather's feelings. He was a good-hearted boy, but impetuous and somewhat hasty. More than once we heard him go on to tell what great things he meant to do at home, "after grandpa dies." Grandpa, indeed, may sometimes have heard him say that; and it is the saddest, most hopeless thing in life for elderly people to come to see that the younger generation is only waiting for them to die. If Grandpa Edwards had been very infirm, he might not have cared greatly; but, as I have said, at sixty-seven he was still hale and, except for a little rheumatism, apparently well.
Tom came home from the Corners that night without having learned anything of Grandpa Edwards's whereabouts. In the course of the evening his disappearance became known throughout the vicinity. The first conjectures were that he had set off on a visit somewhere and would soon return. Paying visits was not much after his manner of life; yet his family half believed that he had gone off to cheer himself up a bit. Jotham and his wife, and Catherine, too, now remembered that he had been unusually silent for a week. A search of the room he occupied showed that he had gone away wearing his every-day clothes. I remember that the old Squire and grandmother Ruth looked grave but said very little. Grandpa Edwards was not the kind of man to get lost. Of course he might have had a fall while tramping about and injured himself seriously or even fatally; but neither was that likely.
For several days, therefore, his family and his neighbors waited for him to return of his own accord. But when a week or more passed and he did not come anxiety deepened; and his son and the neighbors bestirred themselves to make wider inquiries. Tardily, at last, a considerable party searched the woods and the lake shores; and finally as many as fifty persons turned out and spent a day and a night looking for him.
"They will not find him," the old Squire remarked with a kind of sad certainty; and he did not join the searchers himself or encourage us boys to do so. I think that both he and grandmother Ruth partly feared that, as the old lady quaintly expressed it, "Jonathan had been left to take his own life," in a fit of despondency.
The disappearance was so mysterious, indeed, and some people thought so suspicious, that the town authorities took it up. The selectmen came to the Edwards farm and made careful inquiries into all the circumstances in order to make sure there had been nothing like wrongdoing. There was not, however, the least circumstance to indicate anything of that kind. Grandfather Jonathan had walked away no one knew where; Jotham and his wife knew no more than their neighbors. They did not know what to think. Perhaps they feared they had not treated their father well. They said little, but Catherine and Tom talked of it in all innocence. Supposed clues were reported, but they led to nothing and were soon abandoned. The baffling mystery of it remained and throughout that entire season cast its shadow on the community. It passed from the minds of us young people much sooner than from the minds of our elders. In the rush of life we largely ceased to think of it; but I am sure it was often in the thoughts of the old Squire and grandmother. With them months and even years made little difference in their sense of loss, for no tidings came — none at least that were ever made public; but thereby hangs the strangest part of this story.
The old Squire, as I have often said, was a lumberman as well as a farmer. For a number of years he was in company with a Canadian at Three Rivers in the Province of Quebec, and had lumber camps on the St. Maurice River as well as nearer home in Maine. After the age of seventy-three he gave up active participation in the Quebec branch of the business, but still retained an interest in it; and this went on for ten years or more. The former partner in Canada then died, and the business had to be wound up.
Long before that time Theodora, Halstead and finally Ellen had left home and gone out into the world for themselves, and as the old Squire was now past eighty we did not quite like to have him journey to Canada. He was still alert, but after an attack of rheumatic fever in the winter of 1869 his heart had disclosed slight defects; it was safer for him not to exert himself so vigorously as formerly; and as the partnership had to be terminated legally he gave me the power of attorney to go to Three Rivers and act for him.
I was at a sawmill fifteen miles out of Three Rivers for a week or more; but the day I left I came back to that place on a buckboard driven by a French habitant of the locality. On our way we passed a little stumpy clearing where there was a small, new, very tidy house, neatly shingled and clapboarded, with plots of bright asters and marigolds about the door. Adjoining was an equally tidy barn, and in front one of the best-kept, most luxuriant gardens I had ever seen in Canada. Farther away was an acre of ripening oats and another of potatoes. A Jersey cow with her tinkling bell was feeding at the borders of the clearing. Such evidences of care and thrift were so unusual in that northerly region that I spoke of it to my driver.
"Ah, heem ole Yarnkee man," the habitant said. "Heem work all time."
As if in confirmation of this remark an aged man, hearing our wheels, rose suddenly in the garden where he was weeding, with his face toward us. Something strangely familiar in his looks at once riveted my attention. I bade the driver stop and, jumping out, climbed the log fence inclosing the garden and approached the old man.
"Isn't your name Edwards — Jonathan Edwards?" I exclaimed.
He stood for some moments regarding me without speaking. "Wal, they don't call me that here," he said at last, still regarding me fixedly.
I told him then who I was and how I had come to be there. I was not absolutely certain that it was Grandpa Edwards, yet I felt pretty sure. His hair was a little whiter and his face somewhat more wrinkled; yet he had changed surprisingly little. His hearing, too, did not appear to be much impaired, and he was doing a pretty good job of weeding without glasses.
I could see that he was in doubt about admitting his identity to me. "It is only by accident I saw you," I said. "I did not come to find you."
Still he did not speak and seemed disinclined to do so, or to admit anything about himself. I was sorry that I had stopped to accost him, but now that I had done so I went on quite as a matter of course to give him tidings of the old Squire and of grandmother Ruth. "They are both living and well; they speak of you at times," I said. "Your disappearance grieved them. I don't think they ever blamed you."
His face worked strangely; his hands, grasping the hoe handle, shook; but still he said nothing.
Have you ever had word from your folks at the old farm?" I asked him at length. "Have you had any news of them at all?"
He shook his head. I then informed him that his son Jotham had died four years before; that Tom had gone abroad as an engineer; that Catherine was living at home, managing the old place and doing it well; that she had paid off the mortgage and was prospering.
He listened in silence; but his face worked painfully at times.
As I was speaking an elderly woman came to the door of the house and stood looking toward us.
"That is my wife," he said, noticing that I saw her. "She is a good woman. She takes good care of me."
I felt that it would be unkind to press him further and turned to go.
"Would you like to send any word to your folks or to grandmother and the old Squire?" I asked.
"Better not," said he with a kind of solemn sullenness. "I am out of all that. I'm the same's dead."
I could see that he wished it so. He had not really and in so many words acknowledged his identity; but when I turned to go he followed me to the log fence round the garden and as I got over grasped my hand and held on for the longest time! I thought he would never let go. His hand felt rather cold. I suppose the sight of me and the home speech brought his early life vividly back to him. He swallowed hard several times without speaking, and again I saw his wrinkled face working. He let go at last, went heavily back and picked up his hoe; and as we drove on I saw him hoeing stolidly.
The driver said that he had cleared up the little farm and built the log house and barn all by his own labor. For five years he had lived alone, but later he had married the widow of a Scotch immigrant. I noticed that this French-Canadian driver called him "M'sieur Andrews." It would seem that he had changed his name and begun anew in the world — or had tried to. How far he had succeeded I am unable to say.
I could not help feeling puzzled as well as depressed. The proper course under such circumstances is not wholly clear. Had his former friends a right to know what I had discovered? Right or wrong, what I decided on was to say nothing so long as the old man lived. Three years afterwards I wrote to a person whose acquaintance I had made at Three Rivers, asking him whether an old American, residing at a place I described, were still living, and received a reply saying that he was and apparently in good health. But two years later this same Canadian acquaintance, remembering my inquiry, wrote to say that the old man I had once asked about had just died, but that his widow was still living at their little farm and getting along as well as could be expected.
Then one day as the old Squire and I were driving home from a grange meeting I told him what I had learned five years before concerning the fate of his old friend. It was news to him, and yet he did not appear to be wholly surprised.
"I don't know, sir, whether I have done right or not, keeping this from you so long," I said after a moment of silence.
"I think you did perfectly right," the old Squire said after a pause. "You did what I myself, I am sure, would have done under the circumstances."
"Shall you tell grandmother Ruth?" I asked.
The old Squire considered it for several moments before he ventured to speak again. At last he lifted his head.
"On the whole I think it will be better if we do not," he replied. "It will give her a great shock, particularly Jonathan's second marriage up there in Canada. His disappearance has now largely faded from her mind. It is best so.
"Not that I justify it," he continued. "I think really that he did a shocking thing. But I understand it and overlook it in him. He bore his life there with Jotham just as long as he could. Jock had that kind of temperament. After Anice died there was nothing to keep him there.
"The fault was not all with Jotham," the old Squire continued reflectively. "Jotham was just what he was, hasty, willful and a poor head for management. No, the real fault was in the mistake in giving up the farm and all the rest of the property to Jotham when he came home to live. Jonathan should have kept his farm in his own hands and managed it himself as long as he was well and retained his faculties. True, Jotham was an only child and very likely would have left home if he couldn't have had his own way; but that would have been better, a thousand times better, than all the unhappiness that followed.
"No," the old Squire said again with conviction, "I don't much believe in elderly people's deeding away their farms or other businesses to their sons as long as they are able to manage them for themselves. It is a very bad method and has led to a world of trouble."
The old gentleman stopped suddenly and glanced at me.
"My boy, I quite forgot that you are still living at home with me and perhaps are beginning to think that it is time you had a deed of the old farm," he said in an apologetic voice.
"No, sir!" I exclaimed vehemently, for I had learned my lesson from what I had seen up in Canada. "You keep your property in your own hands as long as you live. If you ever see symptoms in me of wanting to play the Jotham, I hope that you will put me outside the house door and shut it on me!"
The old Squire laughed and patted my shoulder affectionately.
"Well, I'm eighty-three now, you know," he said slowly. "It can hardly be such a very great while."
I shook my head by way of protest, for the thought was an exceedingly unpleasant one.
However, the old gentleman only laughed again.
"No, it can hardly be such a very great while," he repeated.
But he lived to be ninety-eight, and I can truly say that those last years with him at the old farm, going about or driving round together, were the happiest of my life.