Here to return to
DOWN IN MAINE
I HAVE always thought that fiction made the people of the New England country much more picturesque and entertaining than they really were, for it has seemed to me that in New England, as elsewhere, the commonplace abounded and distinct originality only cropped out at infrequent intervals. Since going “down” in Maine I have revised this opinion somewhat, and am willing to concede more than I would have before to our dialect writers — at least to such as are not carried away with a craze for queer types and mere grotesqueness.
The rural population along the Maine coast is composed almost wholly of Yankees of the purest strain, than whom there does not exist a more piquant combination of shrewdness and originality, intermixed with not a little downright oddity and crankiness. They are born jokers, and their conversation is enlivened with many curious twists and turns and out-of-the-way notions. The talk of the men and boys, it must be allowed, is apt to be well seasoned with brimstone, yet this insinuates itself in such a gentle, casual way that it is robbed of half its significance. On ordinary occasions the inclination is to avoid absolute swearing, and make the word “darn” in its various conjugations serve to give the desired emphasis. “Darn” was one of the hardest-worked words I heard, though a close second was found in the mention of his Satanic Majesty. Another characteristic of the Maine folk was their great fondness for whittling. Some of them would pare away with their jack-knives at sticks big enough for firewood, and at one sitting whittle them all to pieces. Yet this jack-knife labor was strangely aimless. These down-east Yankees only whittled out their thoughts rarely anything else not even a tooth‑pick, though I did see one man, on the porch of a store, fashion a prod about a foot long with which he proceeded to clean out his ears.
Still another characteristic of the inhabitants was their serene lack of haste. “Forced-to-go never gits far,” was a sentiment that seemed to have found universal acceptance in the rustic fishing village where I sojourned.
The people were all loiterers on the slightest excuse. You saw them visiting in the fields, they sat on fences together and in the grass by the roadside, and on the counters and among the boxes of the little stores, and on the piazzas in front of the taverns and post-offices. Teams that met on the road often drew up to give the drivers opportunity to talk, or a man driving would meet a man walking, and both would stop, while the latter adjusted one foot comfortably on a wheel-hub and entered into conversation.
Yet the people were not incompetent or thriftless. In their plodding way they nearly all made a decent living, and some accumulated modest wealth. The homes were, almost without exception, plain two-story buildings of wood with clapboarded sides. The low, old-fashioned, weatherworn houses, shingled all over, walls as well as roofs, were getting rare. Barns were small, for it is not a good farming region, and the houses presented a somewhat forlorn and barren aspect from lack of the great elms, maples, and spreading apple trees which in other parts of New England are an almost certain accompaniment of country homes. These trees do not flourish in northeastern Maine. Instead, spruce and fir are the typical trees of the landscape. Their dark forests overspread a very large part of the country and give to it a look of rude northern sterility, bespeaking short summers and long, cold winters.
To me the region was most attractive close along the shore. I liked to linger on the odorous wharves, with their barnacled piles and their litter of boards and barrels, ropes and lobster-pots. I liked still better to follow the water-line out to the points where were seaward‑jutting ledges against which the waves were ceaselessly crashing and foaming. Behind the points the sea reached inland in many a broad bay and quiet cove, and with every receding tide these invading waters shrunk and left exposed wide acres of mud-flats where barefoot boys grubbed with short-handled forks for clams. Then there were the frequent ruins of old vessels, some of them with hulls nearly complete, but dismantled of everything that could be ripped off and taken away; others with little left save their gaunt, black ribs sticking up out of the sand like the bones of ancient leviathans of the deep.
“‘Twa’n’t storms that spiled ‘em leastways that wa’n’t the trouble with most on ‘em,” explained a man I had questioned about them. “They just wa’n’t sea‑worthy no longer, you know.”
The man was fastening a new sail to the bowsprit of his clumsy fishing sloop that lay on its side on the beach. “But you see that vessel, right over thar in the middle o’ the cove — that’s a wrack. It drove in here in a storm with nobody on board. That was a East Injiaman wunst. There ain’t many vessels of any size owned along the coast here now. This boat’s the sort we have mostly hereabouts these days. I go lobsterin’ in it. I got one hundred and twenty pots out, and I’ll be startin’ to visit ‘em about three o’clock to-morrer mornin’. It’ll be noon by the time I c’n make the rounds and git back.”
I left the man tinkering his boat and went up from the shore into a pasture field. There I found two children, a boy and a girl, picking wild strawberries. The berries were small, but they were sweet and had a delicate herby flavor never attained by cultivated varieties. The boy said they intended to sell what they picked to the hotels. The hotels were good customers all through the season, and the children tramped over many miles of field and swamp and woods in a search for the succession of berries from the strawberries, which ripened in June, and the raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries and huckleberries which followed later, to cranberries in the early autumn.
Now a man called to the little girl from a neighboring patch of cultivated land where he was hoeing. “Susy,” he said, “I want you to go home ‘n’ get my terbacker. It’s right in my other pants’t I hung up by the suller door.”
A Home on the Shore
“Do you want your knife, too?” the girl called back.
“No, jest the terbacker. I can’t work good ‘ithout it.”
“Your beans are looking well,” said I, from over the fence.
“Yes; but the darned weeds grow so I have to hoe ‘em,” he complained, with the air of thinking the weeds increased in number and size out of pure contrariness.
“You’re a stranger round here, ain’t ye?” he continued, inquiringly.
I acknowledged that I was.
“Well, d’ye ever see that stun over’t Green Harbor?”
No; I had not.
“Well, ye ought to. It’s a grave-stun marble — ’n’ ‘t was jes’ like any other stun when ‘twas planted. Man named Ruckle is buried thar. I c’n remember him when I was a boy. He was a great hand for religion — use to be alus tellin’ how now he bore the cross, but sometime he’d wear the crown.
“An’ people use to say to him he mustn’t be too sure. Might be he’d go to hell after all. But, no, he knowed he was goin’ to heaven, ‘n’ if there was any way o’ informin’ his friends he was wearin’ the crown after he died he’d let ‘em know. Well, he died ‘n’ they buried him ‘n’ put up the stun, ‘n’ ‘bout three months after’ards people begun to notice there was somethin’ comin’ out on’t. It was special plain after rains, ‘n’ then they made out ‘twas a figger of a man with his hands folded, prayin’; and there was a crown on his head. It’d pay you to go over thar ‘n’ see that thar stun. You arsk for Job Ruckle. He’s a relative ‘n’ he’ll tell you all about it.”
My curiosity was aroused, and a few days later I went over to Green Harbor and looked up Mr. Job Ruckle. He was standing in his kitchen doorway.
“It isn’t going to storm, is it?” I remarked.
Mr. Ruckle cast his eyes skyward. “Well, I do’ know,” was his response, “we been havin’ awful funny weather here lately. Now to-day you can’t tell what it’s goin’ to do. There’s spells when the sun almost shines, and then it comes on dark and foggy ‘n’ you hear the big bell dingin’ down at the lighthouse.”
His friendly communicativeness, like that of most of the natives, was delightful. I mentioned the mystical gravestone and he said: “I’ll take ye right to the buryin’-groun’ ‘n’ show it to ye. But I got to draw a bucket o’ water fust. My woman’d give me Hail Columby if I didn’t.”
He picked up a heavy wooden pail, and I followed him across the yard to an antiquated well-sweep. He lowered and filled the pail.
“The well ain’t so very deep, but you won’t find no better water nowhar,” he declared.
I begged to try it and commended its sweetness and coolness.
“Yes, the rusticators all take to that water,” was his pleased comment.
By rusticators he meant the summer boarders of the region. That was the common term for them on the Maine coast. At first my unfamiliar ears failed to catch the signification of the word, and I had the fancy that a rusticator was some curious sea creature akin to an alligator.
“These ‘ere rusticators,” the man went on, “stop here time ‘n’ agin to git a drink from my well. That’s ginoowine water, that is!”
Presently he was leading the way down one of the narrow, woodsy lanes that abound in the district to the rustic burial-place of the community.
“Thar’s the stun,” said Mr. Ruckle, “‘n’ thar’s the figger coverin’ the hull back on’t. Here’s the head ‘n’ the two eyes, ‘n’ out this side is the hands clasped, ‘n’ thar’s the crown. Looks like an old Injun, I tell ‘em. There’s lots o’ people come here to see it — some on ‘em way from Philadelphia, ‘n’ I’ve seen this lane all full o’ rusticators’ buckboards. Some think the figger’s a rael sign from heaven; but my idee is that the marble’s poor, or thar wouldn’t no stain a come out that way. I tell the relations ‘t I’d take the stun down ‘n’ put up a good one, but the rest on ‘em won’t have it teched.”
The story of the stone. was interesting and the cloudy markings on its back curious, and I could make out the vague figure crowned and prayerful, yet it certainly was too grewsomely like an “old Injun” to be suggestive of a heavenly origin.
One thing that impressed me during my stay in Maine was the astonishing number of little churches among the scattered homes. I could not see the need for half of them. The only excuse offered for their superabundance was the uncompromising denominationalism of the inhabitants. One man told me of a little hamlet where two churches had recently been begun a Methodist and a Baptist.
“They’re at Clamville, way up ‘t the end o’ Hog Bay,” he explained, with the customary attention to details. “‘Tain’t nothin’ of a place only ‘bout six houses there and the people are poorer’n Job’s turkey; but somethin’ stirred ‘em up lately, and they set to work to put up them two churches. Well, their money’s given out now, and they’ve stopped on both of ‘em. I wouldn’t wonder a mite if they stood there jes’s they air, half finished, till they rotted and tumbled to pieces.”
It was a man named Smith who related this. He was driving and had overtaken me walking on the road, and as he was alone he had offered me the vacant seat in his buggy. That is a way the Maine folks have, for a team not already filled never passes a pedestrian, whether acquaintance or stranger, without this friendly tender of assistance.
“You look like a feller I knew once that was to our Smith reunion, over in Washington County a few years ago,” the man confided. “But he was rather taller’n you, come to think. I was livin’ over there then and I got up the reunion myself. We had a great time. There was Smiths from all around Massachusetts and everywhere forty or fifty of ‘em; and there was a friend of mine there, an artist from Aroostook County with his camera. He took two pictures of the crowd, and he had bad luck with both of ‘em. I looked through his machine and it was the prettiest sight ever I see all of us settin’ there on the grass with the woods behind. By George, I wouldn’t ‘a’ had them pictures fail for twenty-five dollars!
“You’re stoppin’ over here at Sou’ East Cove, I s’pose. You at one o’ the hotels?”
“Yes, at Bundy’s.”
“Well, that’s a good place — best there is there. I’ll set you right down at the door. Bundy’s wife’s a good cook, and they ain’t too highfalutin on prices. Only trouble is Bundy gets full.”
“What, in Maine?”
“Oh, yes, no trouble about that. You c’n always get your liquor in packages from the cities, and there’s always drinkin’ resorts in every town that has drinkers enough to support ‘em. In Bar Harbor and such places they run the saloons perfectly open, but mostly they are a little private about ‘em. You have to go downstairs and along a passage or something of that sort. It’s understood that about once a year the drinkin’ places’ll be raided, and every rum-seller pays a fine of one hundred and fifty dollars. System amounts to low license to my thinkin’, and I don’t see but there’s full as many drunkards in Maine as you’ll find anywhere else among the same sort of people.
THE POST-OFFICE PIAZZA
“I’ll tell you of a case. I live back here a mile or so beyond where I picked you up, and down a side road near the shore there’s a man and wife lives, and the man gets tight about once in so often. He’s uglier’n sin when he’s spreein’ beats his wife ‘n’ all that sort o’ thing. Well, up she come the other night through the woods carryin’ a little hairy dog in her arms. Her man had been and got crazy drunk and took to throwin’ things at her, and her face was cut and bleeding. She was highstericky bad, and talkin’ wild like, and huggin’ that little dog o’ hern and tellin’ it to kiss her only comfort she had in the world, she said. I was for gettin’ the man arrested, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
“Hohum, wal, wal, it ain’t easy to know what to do about this drinkin’ business, and our Maine system don’t work to perfection no more’n any other. Guess it’s goin’ to rain.”
It did rain that evening — came down in floods with an accompaniment of lightning and thunder. After supper I sat on the piazza with the rest of the hotel family. Among the others gathered there was a young woman from one of the neighbor’s, and a travelling agent who said he had made fifteen hundred dollars in nine weeks, and a piano-tuner from a seaport a score of miles distant, who said he had made thirty‑four dollars in the last three days. “But I ain’t collected a red cent of it,” he added, “and how in the old Harry ‘m I goin’ to pay my hotel bill with things goin’ on that way I’d like to know!”
Slap! The piano-tuner despatched a mosquito.
“Dick,” said he, addressing the landlord, “where’d all these mosquitoes come from down around here?”
“Well,” responded the landlord, soberly, “we bought quite a few last year. Had ‘em barrelled up and sent on from Boston.”
“Dick, d’ you know,” said the travelling agent, “I like to ‘a’ got killed when I come off the steamer on to your wharf this trip?”
“No; how’s that?”
“My gosh, I had the greatest highst ‘t I ever had in my life! Stepped on a banana peel or something, and my feet went out on the horizontal so almighty quick I forgot to flop. I couldn’t ‘a’ sat down any harder if I’d ‘a’ weighed five ton!”
Then the others related various “highsts” they had experienced, after which the piano-tuner changed the subject by remarking: “Too bad you didn’t git your hay in, Dick. I’d ‘a’ helped you if you’d spoken to me about it.”
The hay alluded to was a bedraggled little heap in front of the hotel steps that had been mowed off a patch about two yards square.
“Yes, that grass is wetter’n blazes, now. I cut it with my scythe this mornin’, and I been calculatin’ to put it on my wheelbarrer ‘n’ run it into the barn, but I didn’t git round to it. This’s quite a shower and it’s rainin’ hot water—that’s what it’s doin’! But it’ll be all right to-morrer. These evenin’ thunder-storms never last overnight. You take it when they come in the mornin’, though, and you’ll have it kind o’ drizzly all, day.”
“Dick,” said the tuner, “what’s the matter you don’t git the rusticators here the way they do at Cod‑port? This is a prettier place twice over.”
“The trouble,” replied Dick, “is with the Green Harbor end o’ the town. We got all the natural attractions this end, and there ain’t no chance o’ the rusticators quarterin’ over there’t Green Harbor, and the Green Harborers know it. So the whole caboodle of ‘em turns out town meetin’ days and votes down every blame projec’ we git up for improvin’ o’ the place. Only thing we ever got through was these ‘ere slatted‑board walks laid along the sides o’ the roads, but they’re gittin’ rotted out in a good many spots now. What we want is asphalt.”
“But the rusticators like scenery,” commented the piano-tuner. “Perhaps your scenery’d draw ‘em if you only fixed it up a little. I’ve heard tell that they whitewash their mountains in some places so ‘t they look snow-capped. Why don’t you whitewash your mountains up back here? You’d have all the people in Boston comin’ up to look at ‘em.”
An Old Schoolroom
Mr. Bundy ignored the suggestion of whitewash. His mind still dwelt on the wrongs of his end of the town. “We can’t even git a new schoolhouse,” he declared. “Same old shebang here we had when I was a boy, and same old box desks. They’re most whittled to pieces now, and the roof leaks like furiation. You’d find the floor all in a sozzle if you was to go in there to-night.”
“That’s your district school, ain’t it?” questioned the travelling agent. “But you got a good high school?”
“Yes, the buildin’s good enough, but the school only keeps here one term. Then it goes down t’ the Point a term and then over t’ Green Harbor a term.”
“What do the children do; foller it around?”
“No; it’s four miles between places, and that’s too fur.”
“Nearly all the boys in town seem to have bicycles,” I said. “I should think they might go on those.”
“That’s so, there is a considerable number of bicycles owned round here,” acknowledged Mr. Bundy. “D’ you ever notice though, ‘t a boy c’n go almost any distance on his bicycle for pleasure, but as f’r usin’ it f’r accomplishin’ anythin’, he might’s well not have any?”
“Well, I’ve got to go home,” interrupted the young woman from the neighbor’s.
“What’s your rush?” a young fellow sitting next her inquired. “Thought I was keepin’ company with you. We no need to be stirrin’ before midnight — ’tain’t perlite.”
“Midnight! what you talkin’ about?” scoffed the landlord. “When I used to go to see my girl we set up till half-past six in the mornin’ — set up till breakfast was ready.”
“Well, I can’t wait no longer,” reiterated the girl.
“Hold on,” said the young fellow. “I’ll borry a lantern and go along with you.”
“‘Tain’t far, I don’t want ye to,” was the response. “You git over across the street there alone and the thunder’ll strike you!” the piano-tuner remarked.
But she had gone, and he turned to the young fellow: “Well, I’m blessed if you didn’t make a muddle of it. Course she wouldn’t go home with you. Who’d go home with a lantern!”
For a time the company lapsed into silence and meditated. Then some one spoke of a schooner which had come into the bay and anchored the day before, and went on to say that it had eight or ten young fellows on board from New York. “They’re sailin’ the boat themselves except for a cap’n and a darky cook, and they’re givin’ shows along the coast. They give one over t’ the Point last night.”
“What was it like?” inquired Mr. Bundy.
“Well, ‘twas kind of a mixture, but minstrels much as anything.”
“There’s a good deal goin’ on around here just now,” commented the landlord. “To-morrer night there’s a dance over ‘t Green Harbor, and night after that there’s a dance here.”
“Isn’t it pretty hot weather for dancing?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ll warrant there’ll be some sweatin’; but we don’t mind that. We dance in spells all the year, though we ain’t had any’ dances lately, since winter.”
“How much is the admission?”
“Ladies are free. The men pays fifty cents each, or fifteen cents if they come in to look on and not to dance. But you wait till next week. We’re goin’ to have a regular town show then. You’ve seen the posters, I s’pose. There’s one in the office, and they’re all around the town — on fences and trees and barn doors, and I do’ know what not. The fellers ‘t put ‘em up said they plastered one on to the back of every girl they met. Course that’s talk, but I know they pasted some on to Bill Esty’s meat cart.”
“Yes,” said the piano-tuner, “and they got one on to Cap’n Totwick’s private kerridge, too.”
“Private darnation!” responded Mr. Bundy. “The only private kerridge Cap’n Totwick’s got ‘s that ram‑shackle old wagon he peddles fish in.”
“I met the cap’n when I come Monday,” the piano‑tuner went on. “I was standin’ out in front o’ the post-office readin’ a letter when he drove up from his house just startin’ out on a trip, and he stopped and told me he’d forgot to take his horse’s tail out o’ the britchin’ when he was harnessin’, and if I’d switch it out for him ‘t would save him gittin’ out. I see the bill pasted on his wagon then, and to pay for my horse‑tail job I made him wait while I read it through.”
“Say, you wouldn’t think it to look at him,” said the landlord, “but Cap’n Totwick’s got a good lot o’ money salted down.”
“He dresses like an old scarecrow,” responded the piano-tuner, “and five dollars’d be a big price for that hoss he drives.”
“Well,” said Mr. Bundy, “I was at the post-office one day and the cap’n come in just as I was sayin’ I wanted to git a sixty dollar check cashed, and he reached down into his old overhalls for his pocket-book, and cashed the check — yes, sir!”
Thus the talk rambled on from one topic to another through the long evening. I can only suggest in what I have related its racy interest and the graphic glimpses it afforded of the life and thought of the region; and when I think it over I am glad I avoided the famous resorts and big hotels in my trip and took up lodgings in that humble hostelry at Sou’ East Cove.
A Moonlit Evening