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WHEN I WENT AFTER THE EYESTONE
A FEW evenings ago, I read in a Boston newspaper that, as the result of a close contest, Isaac Kane Woodbridge had been elected mayor of one of the largest and most progressive cities of the Northwest.
Little Ike Woodbridge! Yes, it was surely he. How strangely events work round in this world of ours! Memories of a strange adventure that befell him years ago when he was a little fellow came to my mind, and I thought of the slender thread by which his life hung that afternoon.
The selectmen of our town had taken Ike Woodbridge from the poorhouse and "bound him out" to a farmer named Darius Dole. He was to have food, such as Dole and his wife ate, ten weeks' schooling a year, and if he did well and remained with the Doles until he was of legal age, a "liberty suit" of new clothes and fifty dollars.
That was the written agreement; and Farmer Dole, who was a severe, hard-working man, began early to see to it that little Ike earned all that came to him. The boy, who was a little over seven years old, had to be up and dressed at five o'clock in the morning, fetch wood and water to the kitchen, help do chores at the barn, run on errands, pull weeds in the garden, spread the hay swathes in the field with a little fork, and do a hundred other things, up, to the full measure of his strength.
The neighbors soon began to say that little Ike was being worked too hard. When the old Squire was one of the selectmen, he remonstrated with Dole, and wrung a promise from him that the boy should have more hours for sleep, warmer clothes for winter, and three playdays a year; but Dole did not keep his promise very strictly.
The fall that little Ike was in his eighth year, the threshers, as we called the men who journeyed from farm to farm to thresh the grain, came to the old Squire's as usual. While my cousin Halstead was helping to tend the machine, he got a bit of wheat beard in his right eye.
First Theodora, then Addison, and finally the old Squire, tried to wipe it out of his eye with a silk handkerchief; but they could not get it out, and by the next morning Halstead was suffering so much that Addison went to summon Doctor Green from the village, six miles away. But the doctor had gone to Portland, and Addison came back without him. Meanwhile a neighbor, Mrs. Wilbur, suggested putting an eyestone into Halstead's eye to get out the irritating substance. Mrs. Wilbur told them that Prudent Bedell, a queer old fellow who lived at Lurvey's Mills, four miles away, had an eyestone that he would lend to any one for ten cents.
Bedell was generally known as "the old sin-smeller," because he pretended to be able, through his sense of smell, to detect a criminal. Indeed, the old Squire had once employed him to settle a dispute for some superstitious lumbermen at one of his logging camps.
Anxious to try anything that might relieve Hal-stead's suffering, the old Squire sent me to borrow the eyestone. Although I was fourteen, that was the first time I had ever heard of an eyestone; from what Mrs. Wilbur had said about it, I supposed that it was something very mysterious.
"It will creep all round, inside the lid of his eye," she had said, "and find the dirt, and draw it along to the outer corner and push it out."
Physicians and oculists still have some faith in eyestones, I believe, although, on account of the progress that has been made in methods of treating the eye, they are not as much in use as formerly. Most eye-stones are a calcareous deposit, found in the shell of the common European crawfish. They are frequently pale yellow or light gray in color.
Usually you put the eyestone under the eyelid at the inner canthus of the eye, and the automatic action of the eye moves it slowly over the eyeball; thus it is likely to carry along with it any foreign body that has accidentally lodged in the eye. When the stone has reached the outer canthus you can remove it, along with any foreign substance it may have collected on its journey over the eye.
Halstead's sufferings had aroused my sympathy, and I set off at top speed; by running wherever the road was not uphill, I reached Lurvey's Mills in considerably less than an hour. Several mill hands were piling logs by the stream bank, and I stopped to inquire for Prudent Bedell. Resting on their peavies, the men glanced at me curiously.
"D'ye mean the old sin-smeller?" one of them asked me. "What is it you want?"
"I want to borrow his eyestone," I replied.
"Well," the man said, "he lives just across the bridge yonder, in that little green house."
It was a veritable bandbox of a house, boarded, battened, and painted bright green; the door was a vivid yellow. In response to my knock, a short, elderly man opened the door. His hair came to his shoulders; he wore a green coat and bright yellow trousers; and his arms were so long that his large brown hands hung down almost to his knees.
It was his nose, however, that especially caught my attention, for it was tipped back almost as if the end , had been cut off. I am afraid I stared at him.
"And what does this little gentleman want?" he said in a soft, silky voice that filled me with fresh wonder.
I recalled my wits sufficiently to ask whether he had an eyestone, and if he had, whether he would lend it to us. Whereupon in the same soft voice he told me that he had the day before lent his eyestone to a man who lived a mile or more from the mills.
"You can have it if you will go and get it," he said.
I paid him the usual fee of ten cents, and turned to hasten away; but he called me back. "It must be refreshed," he said.
He gave me a little glass vial half full of some liquid and told me to drop the eyestone into it when I should get it. Before using the eyestone it should be warmed in warm water, he said; then it should be put very gently under the lid at the corner of the eye. The eye should be bandaged with a handkerchief; and it was very desirable, he said, to have the sufferer lie down, and if possible, go to sleep.
With those directions in mind, I hurried away in quest of the eyestone; but at the house of the man to whom Bedell had sent me I found that the eyestone had done its work and had already been lent to another afflicted household, a mile away, where a woman had a sty in her eye. At that place I overtook it.
The woman, whose sty had been cured, opened a drawer and took out the eyestone, carefully wrapped in a piece of linen cloth. She handled it gingerly, and as I gazed at the small gray piece of chalky secretion, something of her own awe of it communicated itself to me. We dropped it into the vial, to be "refreshed"; and then, buttoning it safe in the pocket of ,my coat, I set off for home. Since I was now two or three miles north of Lurvey's Mills, I took another and shorter road than that by which I had come.
As it chanced, that road took me by the Dole farm, where little Ike lived. I saw no one about the old, unpainted house or the long, weathered barn, which with its sheds stood alongside the road. But as I hurried by I heard some hogs making a great noise — apparently under the barn. They were grunting, squealing, and "barking" gruffly, as if they were angry.
As I stopped for an instant to listen, I heard a low, faint cry, almost a moan, which seemed to come from under the barn. It was so unmistakably a cry of distress that, in spite of my haste, I went up to the barn door. Again I heard above the roars of the hogs that pitiful cry. The great door of the barn stood partly open, and entering the dark, evil-smelling old building, I walked slowly along toward that end of it from which the sounds came.
Presently I came upon a rickety trapdoor, which opened into the hogpen; the cover of the trapdoor was turned askew and hung down into the dark hole. Beside the hole lay a heap of freshly pulled turnips, with the green tops still on them.
The hogs were making a terrible noise below, but above their squealing I heard those faint moans.
"Who's down there?" I called. "What's the matter?"
From the dark, foul hole there came up the plaintive voice of a child. "Oh, oh, take me out! The hogs are eating me up! They've bit me and bit me!"
It was little Ike. Dole and his wife, I learned later, had gone away for the day on a visit, and had left the boy alone to do the chores — among other things to feed the hogs at noon; but as Ike had tugged at the heavy trapdoor to raise it, he had slipped and fallen down through the hole.
The four gaunt, savage old hogs that were in the pen were hungry and fierce. Even a grown person would have been in danger from the beasts. The pen, too, was knee-deep in soft muck and was as dark as a dungeon. In his efforts to escape the hogs, the boy had wallowed round in the muck. The' hole was out of his reach, and the sty was strongly planked up to the barn floor on all sides.
At last he had got hold of a dirty piece of broken board; backing into one corner of the pen, he had tried, as the hogs came "barking" up to him, to defend himself by striking them on their noses. They had bitten his arms and almost torn his clothes off him.
The little fellow had been in the pen for almost two hours, and plainly could not hold out much longer. Prompt action was necessary.
At first I was at a loss to know how to reach him. I was afraid of those hogs myself, and did not dare to climb down into the pen. I could see their ugly little eyes gleaming in the dark, as they roared up at me. At last I hit upon a plan. I threw the turnips down to them; then I got an axe from the woodshed, and hurried round by way of the cart door to the cellar. While the hogs were ravenously devouring the turnips, I chopped a hole in the side of the pen, through which I pulled out little Ike. He was a sorry sight. His thin little arms were bleeding where the hogs had bitten him, and he was so dirty that I could hardly recognize him. When I attempted to lead him out of the cellar, he tottered and fell repeatedly.
At last I got him round to the house door — only to find it locked. Dole and his wife had locked up the house and left little Ike's dinner — a piece of corn bread and some cheese — in a tin pail on the doorstep; the cat had already eaten most of it. I had intended to take him indoors and wash him, for he was in a wretched condition. Finally I put him on Dole's wheelbarrow, which I found by the door of the shed, and wheeled him to the nearest neighbors, the Frosts, who lived about a quarter of a mile away. Mrs. Frost had long been indignant as to the way the Doles were treating the boy; she gladly took him in and cared for him, while I hurried on with the eyestone.
I reached home about four o'clock in the afternoon, and the old Squire thought that, in view of my errand, I had been gone an unreasonably long time.
Halstead's eye was so much inflamed that we had no little trouble in getting the eyestone under the lid. Finally, however, the old Squire, with Addison's help, slipped it in. Halstead cried out, but the old Squire made him keep his eye closed; then the old gentleman bandaged it, and made him lie down.
But after all, I am unable to report definitely as to the efficacy of the eyestone, for shortly after five o'clock, when the stone had been in Halstead's eye a little more than an hour, Doctor Green came. He had returned on the afternoon train from Portland, and learning that we had sent for him earlier in the day, hurried out to the farm. When he examined Hal-stead's eye, he found the eyestone near the outer canthus, and near it the irritating bit of wheat beard. He removed both together. Whether or not the eye-stone had started the piece of wheat beard moving toward the outer corner of the eye was doubtful; but Doctor Green said, laughingly, that we could give the good old panacea the benefit of the doubt.
It was not until we were at the supper table that evening — with Halstead sitting at his place, his eye still bandaged — that I found a chance to explain fully why I had been gone so long on my errand.
Theodora and grandmother actually shed tears over my account of poor little Ike. The old Squire was so indignant at the treatment the boy had received that he set off early the next morning to interview the selectmen. As a result, they took little Ike from the Doles and put him into another family, the Winslows, who were very kind to him. Mrs. Winslow, indeed, gave him a mother's care and affection.
The boy soon began to grow properly. Within a year you would hardly have recognized him as the pinched and skinny little fellow that once had lived at the Dole farm. He grew in mind as well as body, and before long showed so much promise that the Winslows sent him first to the village academy, and afterward to Westbrook Seminary, near Portland. When he was about twenty-one he went West as a teacher; and from that day on his career has been upward.