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CHAPTER FIFTH

CORN-STALK FIDDLES

IT is a merit of our climate that at no time of the year are we, as children, shut out from healthy out-door pleasure. There are shady nooks along our creeks and rivers and delightful old mill-ponds wherein we may bathe in midsummer, and there are acres of glassy ice over which to skate in midwinter. Spring and autumn are too full of fun to particularize, the average day being available for scores of methods whereby to make life a treasure beyond compare, spending it, to the mind of a boy, in that most rational way, having sport. I do not know why we always played marbles at one time of the year and flew our kites at another: this is for the folk-lore clubs to fathom. Suffice it, that there has been for centuries a time for every out-door amusement as fixed as the phases of the moon. So much for the sport common to all boys. And now a word concerning an old-time musical instrument that may be now quite out of date, the corn-stalk fiddle.

This very primitive musical instrument is associated with the dreamy Indian-summer days of late November. Then it discoursed delicious music, but at other times it would have been "out of tune and harsh." Did the Indians give the secret to the children of our colonial forefathers? It would be a pleasing thought whenever the toy comes to mind, as the mere suggestion is a pleasant fancy.

The husking over, the corn-stalks carted and stored in a huge rick by the barn-yard, the apples gathered, the winter wood cut, and then the long quiet, with almost nothing to do. Such was the routine when I was a boy, and if the uncertain, dreamy days would only come, there was sure to be a short round of pleasure wherein the fiddle figured more prominently than all else.

It was no small part of the fun to see Billy make a fiddle; it was such a curious combination of mummery and skill. Having whetted his keen, old-fashioned Barlow knife on the toe of his boot, he would flourish it above his head with a whoop as though he was looking for an enemy instead of a corn-stalk. Finding one that was glossy and long enough between the joints, he would press it gently between his lips, trying the several sections, and then selecting the longest and most glossy one. So much of the proceeding was for our benefit, as the cunning old fellow well knew that it added to his importance in our eyes.

What followed was skill. Having cut off the stalk above and below the ring-like joints, he had now a convenient piece about eight or ten inches in length. This he warmed by rubbing it violently with the palm of his hand, and then placing the point of the knife as near the joint as practicable, he drew it quickly down to the next joint or lower end. It must be a straight incision, and Billy seldom failed to make it so. A parallel one was then made, not more than one-sixteenth of an inch distant. A space of twice this width was left, and two or three more strings were made in the same manner. These were freed of the pith adhering to their under sides, and held up by little wooden "bridges," one at each end. The bow was similarly fashioned, but was made of a more slender section of corn-stalk and had but two strings.

It was indeed surprising how available this crude production proved as a musical instrument. Youth and the environment counted for a great deal, of course, and my Quaker surroundings forbidding music, it was a sweeter joy because a stolen one.

I can picture days of forty years ago as distinctly as though a matter of the present. My cousin and myself, with Black Billy, would often steal away and carry with us one of the smaller barn doors. This we would place in a sunny nook on the south side of the stalk-rick, and while the fiddle was being made, would part with our jackets that we might dance the better. Billy was soon ready, and with what a joyful grin, rolling of his huge black eyes, and vigorous contortion of the whole body would our faithful friend draw from the corn-stalk every note of many a quaint old tune! And how we danced! For many a year after the old door showed the nail-marks of our heavily-heeled shoes where we had brought them down with a vigor that often roused the energy of old Billy, until he, too, would stand up and execute a marvellous pas seal. Then, tired out, we would rest in niches in the stalk-rick, and Billy would play such familiar airs as had penetrated even into the quiet of Quakerdom. It was no mere imitation of the music, but the thing itself; and it would be an hour or more before the fiddle's strings had lost their tension, the silicious covering had worn away, and the sweet sounds ceased.

Almost the last of my November afternoons passed in this way had a somewhat dramatic ending. The fiddle was one of more than ordinary excellence. In the height of our fun I spied the brim of my grandfather's hat extending an inch or two around the corner. I gave no sign, but danced more vigorously than ever, and as the music and dancing became more fast and furious the crown of his stiff hat appeared, and then my grandfather's face. His countenance was a study. Whether to give the alarm and run or to remain was the decision of an instant. I gave no sign, but kept one eye on him. "Faster!" I cried to Billy, and, to my complete astonishment, the hat moved rapidly up and down. Grandfather was keeping time! "Faster!" I cried again, and the music was now a shrieking medley, and the broad-brimmed hat vibrated wonderfully fast. It was too much. I gave a wild yell and darted off. Circling the barn and stalk-rick, I entered the front yard with a flushed but innocent face, and met grandpa. He, too, had an innocent, far-away look, but his hat was resting on the back of his head and his cheeks were streaming with perspiration, and, best of all, he did not seem to know it.

"Grandpa," I asked at the supper-table that evening, "does thee know why it is that savage races are so given to dancing?"

"Charles," he replied, gravely, and nothing more was said.


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