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THE school committee finally decided that Master Brench's curious methods of punishment were not actually dangerous. He was advised, however, to discontinue them; and school went on again Monday morning. Six or seven of the older boys refused to come back; but the old Squire thought we would better attend, for example's sake, if for no other reason, and we did so. During Christmas week, however, we were out several days, on account of an order for Christmas trees which had come up to us from Portland. I still remember that order distinctly. It ran as follows:
"Bring us one large Christmas tree, a balsam fir, fifteen feet tall, at least, and wide-spreading. Do not allow the tips of the boughs or the end buds to get broken or rubbed off.
"Bring six smaller firs, ten feet tall, to set in a half circle on each side of the large tree.
"Bring us also a large box of 'lion's-paw,' as much as four or five bushels of the trailing vines. And another large box of holly, carefully packed in more of the same soft vines, so that the berries shall not be shaken off.
"And, if you can find them, bring a dozen witches' brooms."
The order was from the superintendent of a Sunday school at Portland. This was the winter after our first memorable venture in selling Christmas trees in the city, when we had left the two large firs that we could not sell on the steps of two churches. The Eastern Argus had printed an item the next day, saying that the Sunday-school children wished to thank the unknown Santa Claus who had so kindly remembered them.
I suppose we should hardly have given away those two trees if we could have sold them; and my cousin Addison, who was always on the lookout to earn a dollar, sent a note afterward to the Sunday schools of both churches, informing them that we should be very glad to furnish them with Christmas trees in future, at fair rates. Not less than five profitable orders came from that one gift, which did not really cost us anything.
"What in the world are 'witches' brooms'?" Addison exclaimed, after reading the order. Theodora echoed the query. We had heard of witches' broomsticks, but witches' brooms were clearly something new in the way of Christmas decorations. But what? We looked in the dictionary; no help there. We asked questions of older people, and got no help from them. Finally we went to the old Squire, who repeated the query absently, "Witches' brooms? Witches' brooms? Why, let me see. Aren't they those great dense masses of twigs you sometimes see in the tops of fir trees? It is a kind of tree disease, some say tree cancer. At first they are green, but they turn dead and dry by the second year, and may kill that part of the tree. Often they are as large as a bushel basket. I saw one once fully six feet in diameter, a dry globe of closely packed twigs."
We knew what he meant now, but we had never heard those singular growths called "witches' brooms" before. Unlike mistletoe, the broom is not a plant parasite, but a growth from the fir itself, like an oak gall, or a gnarl on a maple or a yellow birch; but instead of being a solid growth on the tree trunk, it is a dense, abnormal growth of little twigs on a small bough of the fir, generally high up in the top.
The next day we went out along the borders of the farm wood lot and cut the seven firs; then, thinking that there might be a sale for others, we got enough more to make up a load for our trip to Portland.
While we were thus employed, Theodora and Ellen gathered the "lion's-paw," on the knolls by the border of the pasture woods; and in the afternoon we cut an immense bundle of holly along the wall by the upper field.
Holly is a word of many meanings; but in Maine what is called holly is the winterberry, a deciduous shrub that botanists rank as a species of alder. The vivid red berries are very beautiful, and resemble coral.
All the while we had been on the lookout for witches' brooms. In the swamp beyond the brook we found six, only two of which were perfect enough to use as decorations; at first we were a little doubtful of being able to fill this part of the order. There was one place, however, where we knew they could be found, and that was in the great fir swamp along Lurvey's Stream, on the way up to the hay meadows. Addison mentioned it at the supper table that evening; but the distance was fully thirteen miles; and at first we thought it hardly worth while to go so far for a dozen witches' brooms, for which the Sunday school would probably be unwilling to pay more than fifty cents apiece.
"And yet," Addison remarked, "if this Sunday school wants a dozen, other schools may want some after they see them. What if we go up and get seventy-five or a hundred, and take them along with the rest of our load? They may sell pretty well. Listen: 'Witches' brooms for your Christmas tree! Very sylvan! Very odd! Something new and unique! Only fifty cents apiece! Buy a broom! Buy a witches' broom!'"
The girls laughed. "What a peddler you would make, Ad!" Ellen cried; and we began to think that the venture might be worth trying.
It snowed hard that night, and instead of going up the stream on the ice with two hand sleds, as we had at first planned, Addison and I set a hayrack on two traverse sleds, and with two of the work-horses drove up the winter road. Axes and ropes were taken, feed for the team, and food enough for two days.
The sun had come out bright and warm; there was enough snow to make the sleds run easily, and we got on well until past three in the afternoon, when we were made aware of a very unusual change of temperature, for Maine in December. It grew warm rapidly; clouds overspread the sky; a thunderpeal rumbled suddenly. Within ten minutes a thundershower was falling, and almost as if by magic, all that snow melted away. We were left with our rack and traverse sleds, scraping and bumping over logs and stones. Never before or since have I seen six inches of snow go out of sight so suddenly. When we started, the earth was white on every hand, and the firs and spruces were like huge white umbrellas. In a single hour earth and forest were black again.
But matters more practical than scenery engaged our attention. It was eight miles farther to the fir swamp. The good sledding had vanished with the snow; every hole and hollow was full of water; it was hard to get on with our team; and for a time we hardly knew what course to follow.
On a branch trail, about half a mile off the winter road, there was another camp, known to us as Brown's Camp, which had been occupied by loggers the winter before. Addison thought that we had better go there and look for witches' brooms the next day. We reached the camp just at dusk, after a hard scramble over a very rough bit of trail.
Brown's Camp consisted of two low log houses, the man camp and the ox camp, and dreary they looked, standing there silent and deserted in the dark, wet wilderness of firs.
The heavy door of the ox camp stood ajar, and I think a bear must recently have been inside, for it was only with the greatest difficulty that we could lead or pull the horses in. Buckskin snorted constantly, and would not touch his corn; and the sweat drops came out on Jim's hair. We left them the lantern, to reassure them, and closing the door, went to the man camp, kindled a fire in the rusted stove, then warmed our food, and tried to make ourselves comfortable in the damp hut, with the blankets and sleigh robes that we had brought on the sleds.
Tired as we were, neither of us felt like falling asleep that night. It was a dismal place. We wished ourselves at home. Judging by the outcries, all the wild denizens of the wilderness were abroad. For a long time we lay, whispering now and then, instead of speaking aloud. A noise at the ox camp startled us, and, fearful lest one of the horses had thrown himself, Addison went hastily to the door to listen. "Come here," he whispered, in a strange tone.
I peeped forth over his shoulder, and was as much bewildered as he by what I saw. Cloudy as was the night, glimpses of something white appeared everywhere, going and coming, or flopping fitfully about. There were odd sounds, too, as of soft footfalls, and now and then low, petulant cries.
"What in the world are they?" Addison muttered.
Soon one of the mysterious white objects nearly bounced in at the door, and we discovered it was a hare in its white winter coat. The whole swamp was full of hares, all on the leap, going in one direction.
Seizing a pole, Addison knocked over three or four of them; still they came by; there must have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, all going one way.
At a distance we heard occasionally loud, sharp squealings, as of distress, and presently a lynx that seemed to be on the roof of the ox camp squalled hideously. Addison took the gun that we had brought, and while the hares were still flopping past, tried to get a shot at the lynx. But he was unable to make it out in the darkness, and it escaped.
I brought in one of the hares. I had an idea that we might add a bunch of them to our load for Portland; but it and the others that we had knocked over were too lank and light to be salable.
For an hour or more hares by the dozen continued to leap past the camp. We repeatedly heard lynxes, or other beasts of prey, snarling at a distance, as if following the mob of hares. Where all those hares came from, or where they went, or why they were traveling by night, we never knew. That is a question for naturalists. The next morning, when we went out to look for witches' brooms, there was not a hare in sight, except those that Addison had killed.
The witches' brooms were plentiful in the fir swamp along the stream; and as they were usually high up in the tree tops and not easily reached by climbing, we began to cut down such firs as had them. At that time and in that remote place, a fir-tree was of no value whatever.
Firs are easy trees to fell, for the wood is very soft, but they are bad to climb or handle on account of the pitch. We cut down about fifty trees that day, and left them as they fell, after getting the one or more witches' brooms in the top. Of those, we got eighty-two, all told; with the green fir boughs that went with them, they pretty nearly filled the rack. All were sear and dry, for they were just a densely interwoven mass of little twigs, but they contained a great many yellow flakes of dried pitch. In two of them we found the nests of flying squirrels; but in both cases the squirrels "flew" before the tree fell, and sailed away to other firs, standing near.
Altogether, it was a day of hard work. We were very tired — all the more so because we had slept hardly ten minutes the preceding night. But again we were much disturbed by the snarling of lynxes and the uneasiness of our horses at the ox camp. In fact, it was another dismal night for us; we hitched up at daybreak, and after a fearfully rough drive over bare logs and stones, and several breakages of harness, we reached the old Squire's, thoroughly tired out, at four o'clock in the afternoon.
The girls, however, were delighted with our lofty load of witches' brooms. In truth, it was rather picturesque, so many of those great gray bunches of intermeshed twigs, ensconced amid the green fir boughs that we had cut with them. A hall or a church would look odd indeed thus decorated.
Cheered by a good supper, we made ready to start for Portland the next morning. During the night, however, the weather changed. By daybreak on the twenty-third considerable snow had fallen, and we were able to travel this time on snow again. We had the rack piled higher than before, with the Christmas trees and the boxes of lion's-paw in the front end, and all those witches' brooms stacked and lashed on at the rear. The load was actually fourteen feet high, yet far from heavy; witches' brooms are dry and light. A northwest wind, blowing in heavy gusts behind us, fairly pushed us along the road. We got on fast, baited our team at New Gloucester at one o'clock in the afternoon, and by dusk had reached Welch's Tavern, eleven miles out of Portland.
Here we put up for the night; as our load was too bulky to draw into the barn, we were obliged to leave it in the yard outside, near the garden fence — fifty yards, perhaps, from the tavern piazza.
We had supper and were about to go to bed, when in came three fellows who had driven up from the city, on their way to hunt moose in Batchelder's Grant. All three were in a hilarious mood; they called for supper, and said that they meant to drive on to Ricker's Tavern, at the Poland Spring.
There was a lively fire on the hearth, for the night was cold and windy; the newcomers stood in front of it — while Addison and I sat back, looking on. The cause of their boisterousness was quite apparent; they were plentifully supplied with whiskey. Then, as now, the "Maine law" prohibited the sale of intoxicants; but this happened to be one of the numerous periods when the authorities were lax in enforcing the law.
Soon one of the newly arrived moose hunters drew out a large flask, from which all three drank. Turning to us, he cried, "Step up, boys, and take a nip!" Addison thanked him, but said that we were just going to bed.
"Oh, you'll sleep all the warmer for it. Come, take a swig with us."
We made no move to accept the invitation.
"Aw, you're temperance, are you?" one of the three exclaimed. "Nice little temperance lads!"
"Yes," Addison said, laughing. "But that's all right. We thank you just the same."
The three stood regarding us in an ugly mood, ready to quarrel. "If there's anything I hate," one of them remarked with a sneer, "it's a young fellow who's too much a mollycoddle to take a drink with a friend, and too stingy to pay for one."
We made no reply, and he continued to vent offensive remarks. The landlord came in, and Addison asked him to show us to our room. The hilarious trio called out insultingly to us as we ascended the stairs, and when the hotel keeper went down, we heard them asking him who we were and what our lofty load consisted of.
Half an hour or more later, we heard the moose hunters drive off, shouting uproariously; hardly three
minutes afterward there was a sudden alarm below, and the window of our room was illuminated with a ruddy light.
"Fire! The place is afire!" Addison exclaimed.
We jumped up and looked out. The whole yard was brilliantly illuminated; then we saw that our load by the garden fence was on fire, and burning fiercely.
Throwing on a few clothes, we rushed downstairs. The hotel keeper and his hostler were already out with buckets of water, but could do little. The load was ablaze, and those dry, pitchy witches' brooms flamed up tremendously. Fortunately, the wind carried the flame and sparks away from the tavern and barns, or the whole establishment might have burned down. The crackling was terrific; the firs as well as the witches' brooms burned. Great gusts of flame and vapor rose, writhing and twisting in the wind. Any one might have imagined them to be witches of the olden time, riding wildly away up toward the half-obscured moon!
So great was the heat that it proved impossible to save the rack and sleds, or even the near-by garden fence, which had caught fire.
That disaster ended the trip. It was now too near Christmas Day to get more large firs, to say nothing of witches' brooms; and we were obliged to send word to this effect to our Portland patrons. The next morning Addison and I rode home on old Jim and Buckskin, with their harness tied up in a bundle before us. The wind was piercing and bleak; we were both so chilled as to be ill of a cold for several days afterward. The story that we had to tell at home was far from being an inspiriting one. Not only had we lost our load, traverse sleds and rack, but in due time we had a bill of ten dollars to pay the hotel keeper for his garden fence.
We always supposed that those drunken ruffians touched off our load just before driving away; but of course it may have been a spark from the chimney.
That was our first and last experience with witches' brooms.