Here to return to
“DOWN AT THE STORE”
I TALKED, a week ago, as if, in my time as a boy, we lived out of doors every day, and all day long, regardless of everything that winter could do to hinder us. That was an exaggeration. Now and then there came a time when the weather shook itself loose, as it were, and bore down upon us with banners flying. Then the strong man bowed himself, and even the playful boy took to his burrow. The pond might be smooth as glass, but he did not skate; the hill-track might be in prime condition, but he did not slide. He sang low, and waited for a change.
Not that he stayed at home from school. Let no degenerate reader, the enfeebled victim of modern ideas, think that. The day of coddling had not yet dawned upon New England. There was no bell then to announce a full holiday, or “one session,” because of rain or snow. And as truly as “school kept,” so truly the boy was expected to be there. No alternative was so much as considered. But on such a morning as we now have in mind he went at full speed, looking neither to right nor left, and he thanked his stars when he came in sight of the village store. That, whether going or coming, he hailed as a refuge. Possibly he had a cent in his pocket, a real “copper,” and felt it in danger of burning through; but cent or no cent, he went in to warm his fingers and his ears, and incidentally to listen to the talk of the assembled loafers.
I can see them now, one perched upon a barrel-head, one on a pile of boxes, three or four occupying a long settee, and one, wearing a big light-colored overcoat, who came every day, sitting like a lord in the comfortable armchair in front of the cylinder stove. This last man was not rich; neither was he in any peculiar sense a social favorite; he said little and bought less; but he always had the chief seat. I used to wonder what would happen if some day he should come in and find it occupied. But on that point it was idle to speculate. As well expect a simple congressman to drop into the Speaker's chair, leaving that functionary to dispose of his own corporeal dignity as best he could. Prescription, provided it be old enough, is the best of titles. What other has the new king of Great Britain and Ireland?
If it was shortly before schooltime, on one of those mornings when the weather seemed to be laying itself out to establish a record, the talk was likely to be of thermometers.
“My glass was down to nineteen below,” one man would say, by way of starting the ball.
“Mine touched twenty at half-past six,” the next one would remark.
And so the topic would go round, the mercury dropping steadily, notch by notch. As I said a week ago, winter was winter in those days. It may have occurred to me, sometimes, that the man who managed to speak last had a decided moral advantage over his rivals. He could save the honor of his thermometer at the least possible expense of veracity.
So far things were not very exciting, though on the whole rather more so, perhaps, than studying a geography lesson (as if it were anything to me which were the principal towns in Indiana!); but now, not unlikely, the conversation would shift to hunting exploits. This was more to the purpose. Wonderful game had been shot, first and last, down there in the Old Colony; almost everything, it seemed to a listening boy, except lions and elephants. If Mr. Roosevelt had lived in those times, he need not have gone to the Rocky Mountains in search of adventure.
I listened with both ears. There never was a boy who did not like to hear of doings with a gun. I remember still one of my very early excitements in that line. I was on my way home at noon when a flock of geese flew directly over the street, honking loudly. At that moment a shoemaker ran out of his little shop, gun in hand, and aiming straight upward, let go a charge. Nothing dropped, to my intense surprise and no small disappointment; but I had seen the shot fired, and that was something — as is plain from the fact that I remember it so vividly these many years afterward. The names of the principal towns of Indiana long ago folded their tents like the Arabs and silently stole away, but I can still see that shoemaker running out of his shop.
It was a common practice, I was to learn as I grew older, for shoemakers to keep a loaded gun standing in a corner, ready for such contingencies. There was a tradition in the town that a certain man (I have forgotten his name or I would bracket it with Mr. Roosevelt's) had once brought down a goose in this way. It is by no means impossible; for flocks of geese were an everyday sight in the season (I am sure I have seen twenty in an afternoon), and sometimes, in thick weather, they almost grazed the chimney-tops. Geese (of that kind) have grown sadly fewer since then, and perhaps have learned to fly higher.
After the hunting reminiscences would likely enough come a discussion of fast horses, Flora Temple and others — including “Mart” So-and-So's of our village; or possibly (and this I liked best of all, I think), the conversation would flag, and old Jason Andcut would begin whistling softly to himself. Then I was all ears. Such a tone as he had, especially in the lower register! And such trills and bewitching turns of melody! Why, it was almost as good as the Weymouth Band, which in those days was every whit as famous as the Boston Symphony Orchestra is now. When it played the “Wood-up Quickstep” or “Departed Days,” the whole town was moved, and one boy that I knew was almost in heaven.
In fact, ours was a musical community. The very man who now occupied the armchair in front of the stove (how plainly he comes before me as I write, taking snuff and reading the shopkeeper's newspaper of the evening before) had acquired the competency of which he was supposed to be possessed by playing the flute (or was it the clarinet?) in a Boston theatre orchestra; and at this very minute three younger men of the village were getting rich in the same sure and easy manner. As for whistling, there was hardly a boy in the street but was studying that accomplishment, though none of them could yet come within a mile of Jason Andcut. His was indeed “a soft and solemn-breathing sound,” as unlike the ear-piercing notes which most pairs of puckered lips gave forth as the luscious fruit of his own early pear tree (“Andcut's pears,” we always called them) was unlike certain harsh and crabbed things that looked like pears, to be sure, but tied your mouth up in a hard knot if, in a fit of boyish hunger, you were ever rash enough to set your teeth in one. The good man! I should love to hear his whistle now; I believe I should like it almost as well as Mr. Longy's oboe; but the last of those magical improvisations was long ago finished. I have heard good whistling since (not often, but I have heard it, both professional and amateur), but nothing to match that soliloquistic pianissimo, which I stole close to the man's elbow to get my fill of. Was the prosperity of the music partly in the boyish ear that heard it?
That corner-grocery gathering was one of our institutions; I might almost say the chief of then — casino and lyceum in one. If somebody once called the place a “yarn factory,” that was only in the way of a joke. On a rainy holiday it was a great resource. There were always talkers and listeners there, — the two essentials, — and the talk was often racy, though never, so far as I know, unfit for a boy's hearing. The town supported no local newspaper, nor did we feel the need of any. You could get all the news there was, and more too, “down at the store.” If the regular members of the club failed to bring it in, the baker or the candy peddler would happen along to supply the lack. And after all, say what you will, word of mouth is better than printers' ink.
And while you listened to the talk, you could be eating a stick of barber's-pole candy or a cent's worth of dates, or, if your wealth happened to admit of such extravagance, you could enjoy, after the Cranford fashion, quite unembarrassed by Cranford pudicity, a two-cent orange. Those were the days of small things. Dollars did not grow on every bush. Seven-year-old boys, at all events, were not yet accustomed to go about jingling a pocketful of silver. Once, I remember, I saw a little chap sidle up to the counter and look long at the jack-knives and other temptations displayed in the showcase. By and by the shopkeeper espied a possible customer, and came round to see what was wanted.
“How much are those tops?” asked the boy, pointing with his finger.
“Ten cents,” was the answer.
The boy was silent. He was thinking it over. Then he said: “I'll take two cents' worth of peanuts.”
Poor fellow! I have seen many a grown man since then who was obliged to content himself with the same kind of philosophy. And who shall say it is not a good one? If you cannot spend the summer in Europe, take a day at the seashore. If you miss of an election to Congress, bid for a place on the school committee. If you cannot write ten-thousand-dollar novels, write — well, write a weekly column in a newspaper. There is always something within a capable man's reach, though it be only “two cents' worth of peanuts.”