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"THERE IS A MAN IN ENGLAND, NAMED DARWIN"
It was the following Sunday morning, if I remember aright, that I first heard the name of Charles Darwin and received an intimation as to the now world-famous theory of the origin and descent of mankind. What a singular name Darwin seemed to me, too, the first time I heard it.
The Old Squire was a great reader, for a Maine farmer, who as a rule has little time for that, during the summer season. But he always caught a few minutes for his newspapers at breakfast, or dinner, although we did not then take a daily paper.
The old gentleman had not received a college education, but he had once attended Fryeburg Academy, at the time Daniel Webster taught there, and afterwards had been a student for two terms at Hebron Academy. Even at the age of sixty-nine he retained a somewhat remarkable thirst for information of all kinds. I remember that he would sit for a whole evening, poring so intently in a volume of Chamber's Encyclopædia as to be hardly aware of what was going on in the room about him. After a manner, too, he kept pretty well posted, not only on events of current history and politics, but of scientific progress.
That spring of 1866, he had privately sent to an acquaintance in Portland to procure for him a copy of The Origin of Species, then a new book, to which he had seen brief allusions in our weekly newspapers, and concerning which he felt much curiosity. He read it all through, carefully, without saying much, if anything, about it to Gram, or any one else. But Elder Witham found out, somehow, that there was such a book in our house, and his animosity against it was much excited.
Before prayers that Sunday morning the Old Squire looked around — though I think he had Addison and Theodora chiefly in mind — and said, "There is a man in England, named Darwin, Charles Darwin, who has written a book, called The Origin of Species, of which a great deal begins to be said. This Darwin is a scholarly man and writes modestly. I see that a great many appear to be adopting his views. He holds that man has risen from certain lower animals, somewhat like the monkeys, or apes, and therefore that we are related by descent to these animals, instead of having been created perfect, as the Bible seems to teach.
"This man Darwin brings forward a great many things in support of his views, some of which seem reasonable. He appears to be a sincere man, and as such ought not to be condemned hastily. I think it is still too soon to form a decided opinion as to this, and that it is safer for us to go on believing as the Scriptures teach.
"I mention this," the Old Squire continued, "Because Elder Witham tells me that he is going to take up Darwin's book in his sermon a week from to-day, to warn people against it. The Elder, who is also very sincere, believes that this Darwin is a dangerous man who is doing vast harm to Christianity. I do not go quite so far as that, myself, although I still hold to the Scriptural account of man's creation. But if Mr. Darwin is as honest a man as he seems and has published what he thinks to be the truth, I do not believe his book will in the end do any harm in the world. But it is always better, in such important matters, not to change our opinions hastily, but to reflect carefully." After a pause Addison spoke. "Elder Witham's sermon against Darwin will not change my mind," said he, very decidedly. "I think Darwin is right. He is a great man. Elder Witham is always down on everything that touches his narrow views of the Bible."
"The Elder is an honest, fearless man," was all the reply the Old Squire made to that. But Gram exclaimed that she hoped none of us would ever read that wicked book about mankind being from monkeys — which somehow made me perversely resolve to read it.
The Old Squire, however, kept The Origin of Species put away in some secret receptacle known only to himself.
That same Sabbath morning, too, the Old Squire read briefly from one of the papers of a terrible war that was raging in South America, between Paraguay on one hand and Brazil and the Argentine Republic on the other. As usual, after reading anything of this kind at table, the old gentleman commented on it and generally made some point clear to us.
"The trouble down there in South America," said he, "comes wholly from an unscrupulous man, named Francisco Lopez, who has contrived to make himself Dictator of Paraguay. Lopez is an imitator of Napoleon Bonaparte. He has an insatiate ambition to conquer all South America and found an empire there, much as Napoleon sought to conquer Europe and establish a great French empire. Napoleon is Lopez' model. He has plunged Paraguay in misery and mourning.
"When I was a boy," the Old Squire added, "I had a great admiration for Napoleon Bonaparte and loved to read of his great battles. Nearly all young people do admire him. But now that I see his motives and his acts more clearly, I regard him as a monster of egotism and brutal ambition."
Halstead had stolen out while the Old Squire was reading to us. We could not find him during the forenoon, but he came in after we sat down at dinner, much as on a former Sunday; this time, too, he looked much heated. Addison and Theodora bent their eyes on their plates, but nothing was said by any one. Halstead ate hurriedly, with covert glances around. He seemed disturbed or excited, and after dinner went out in the garden alone, keeping aloof, but came up to our room late that evening, after I was abed.
At length I fell asleep, but immediately a noise like scratching or squeaking on the window pane, roused me suddenly. The window was on the back side of the house, but there was a driveway beneath it, and any one outside could, with a very long stick, reach up to the glass panes. It had grown dark, but when the noise waked me, I found that Halstead was sitting on the side of the bed, as if listening.
"What was that?" I said, sleepily.
"Oh, nothing," replied Halse. "The wind rattled the window, I guess."
I recollect thinking, that there was no wind that night, and I believe I said so, but I was very sleepy, and although I thought it queer that Halse should be sitting up to hear the wind, I soon fell into a drowse again and probably snored, for my room-mate often accused me of that offense.
I had not fallen soundly asleep, however, when I again heard the tapping at the window. A sly impulse, suggested probably by Halstead's demeanor, prompted me to play 'possum and pretend that I had not waked this time. I even went on breathing hard, on that pretense.
Halstead was still sitting on the bed. He listened for a moment to my counterfeit breathing, then slid easily off and approached the window. It was already raised a little and rested on a New Testament which Gram always kept in our room. Halse gently shoved the window higher and put out his head. The air of the quiet country night was very still, and I heard a hoarse whisper from the ground outside, although I could not distinguish the words.
"Yes," whispered Halstead in reply.
Then the whisper below resumed.
"I don't want to do that," said Halstead.
The whisper outside rejoined, at some length.
"Perhaps," answered Halse.
The other whisper continued.
"When?" asked Halstead.
The whisper replied for some moments.
"By eleven," Halse then said. "Not before."
Then there was a good deal of whispering beneath, and Halstead replied, "Well, I'll be there."
Not long after, he crept back to bed, I meantime continuing my fraudulent hard breathing, although by this time I was very much awake and consumed by curiosity and suspicion. For at least half an hour, Halse tossed and turned about, seeming to be very restless and uneasy; in fact, he was still turning, when I fell asleep in very truth.
When I first waked next morning, I did not recollect this circumstance of the previous evening; in fact, it did not come into my mind till we had gone out to milk the cows. I then began to think it over earnestly and continued doing so throughout the forenoon. At first I had no thought of telling any one what I had heard, for although Halse had recently threatened me, I did not wish to play the spy on him.
But the idea that something wrong was on foot grew very strong within me. The more I pondered the circumstances the more certain I felt of it. At length I concluded to speak of it to Theodora; for some reason my choice of a confidante fell instinctively on her.
We were "cultivating" the corn that forenoon with old Sol, and hoeing it for the second time. Finally, I made an excuse to go to the house for a jug of sweetened water. While preparing it, I found opportunity to call Theodora into the wood-shed, and first exacting a promise of secrecy from her, I told her what had occurred the previous evening.
She seemed surprised at first, then terrified, and I went back to the field with my jug, leaving her greatly disturbed.
When we came in at noon, she motioned me aside in the pantry and said hurriedly, that I must tell Addison and ask him to speak with her after dinner.
Twice during the afternoon we saw Theodora out in sight of the corn-field, and I knew that she was anxiously looking for a word or sign from Addison. At last, towards supper time, taking advantage of a few minutes when Halse had gone to the horse pasture with old Sol, I briefly mentioned the thing to Addison and proffered Theodora's request for an interview.
Addison listened with a frown. "I think I know who that was under the window," said he. "Halse has been running round with him, on the sly, for a month, and they've got some kind of a 'dido' planned out."
"Suppose it is anything bad?" I queried.
"Oh, I don't know," said Ad, impatiently. "Bad enough, I'll warrant you. If it is the fellow I think it is, he is an out-and-out 'tough' and a blackguard. One of those chaps that are hanging round Tibbett's rum shop out at the Corners. You may be sure that a man of that stamp isn't whispering around under windows, for any good."
"Why, you don't suppose they were planning to steal, or rob, do you?" I asked, much startled.
"Who knows," replied Addison, coolly. "Halse is a strange boy. He is just rattle-headed and foolish enough to get coaxed into some scrape that will disgrace him and all the rest of us. I never saw a fellow in my life so lacking in good sense.
"Oh yes, I'll talk with Doad," continued Ad, somewhat impatiently. "Doad is a good girl. She thinks moral suasion and generosity will do everything. But if I had Halse to manage, I would put him under lock and key, every night," said Addison, striking his hoe sharply into the ground.
"And if we only let him alone, I guess he will get there, of his own accord," he added with a fine irony.
I saw quite plainly that, as Theodora had once said to me, Addison had no patience with Halstead and his but too evident weakness of character.
"I don't like to run to the Old Squire with all that I see and hear," Addison went on, in a low tone, for Gramp was hoeing only a few steps behind us, and Halstead was now coming back from the pasture. "For they all think now that I don't like Halse and that I am too hard on him. But they will find out who is in the right about it."
After supper I saw Theodora in earnest conversation with Addison, out in the garden by the bee-house. Doad was a great friend of the bees; if she were wanted and not in the house, we generally looked first for her in the garden, in the vicinity of the bee-house.
Later in the evening, after we had finished milking and were going into the dairy with our pails, Addison said to me that it was best, he thought, to say nothing to the old folks just yet. "Doad wants me to watch to-night and, if Halse gets up to go off anywhere, to stop him and coax him back to his room.
"It isn't a job I like," continued Addison, "but perhaps we had better try it; Doad thinks so.
"So if you can keep awake, till ten or eleven, you had better," Addison went on. "If he gets up to start off, ask him where he is going, and if he really starts, come and call me, and we will go after him. I can dress in a minute."
To this proposal I agreed, and I may add here that at about eleven o'clock we surprised Halse in the act of stealing away to the Corners, but after some parley and a scuffle with him, succeeded in getting him back to bed, and I lodged with Addison.
It was but a short night thenceforward till five o'clock in the morning. Before going down-stairs we peeped into Halse's room, to see if he were there still. He lay soundly asleep. Addison closed the door softly. "Poor noodle," said he, as we got the milk pails. "Let him snooze awhile. I suppose it isn't really his fault that he has got such a head on his shoulders. He is rather to be pitied, after all. He is his own worst enemy.
"I've heard," Ad continued in a low tone, as we opened the barnyard gate, "that Aunt Ysabel, Halse's mother, was a sort of queer, tempery, flighty person."
The Old Squire had got out a little in advance of us and sat milking. "Good morning, boys," said he, looking up cheerily, as we passed. "Another fine day. The whole country looks bright and smiling. Grand year for crops."
"We will not say a word to him about our scrape with Halse last night," Addison remarked to me. "There's no use plaguing him with it. We cost him so much and give him so much trouble, that I am ashamed to let him know of this."
When we took in the milk, Theodora was grinding coffee (and how good it smelled! She had just roasted it in the stove oven). "We got him back all right, with no great difficulty," Addison whispered to her, in passing.
"Oh, I'm so glad," she replied.
Halse had not come down; and pretty soon we heard the Old Squire call him, at which Addison laughed a little as he glanced at me. At breakfast Halstead looked somewhat glum; in fact, he did not look at Addison and me at all, if he could avoid it.
That forenoon we hoed corn again and talked a good deal of the Fourth of July celebration which was to come off at the village the following week.
Toward noon, however, word was sent us that the husband of a cousin of the Old Squire's who resided in the town adjoining, to the eastward, had suddenly died, and that the funeral was to be at two o'clock that afternoon.
No one of the family seemed much disposed to attend it. It appeared that the deceased had not been a highly respected citizen. It was said that he had died from the effects of a fit of intoxication. The liquor which drunkards were able to obtain, by hook or crook, at that period and in spite of the Prohibitory Law, was of a peculiarly deleterious character.
At dinner the Old Squire remarked that he should attend the funeral, and that I could go with him, if I liked, but that the others might be excused. I at once accepted the invitation; almost anything was preferable to hoeing corn in the hot sun.
It was a pleasant ride of eight miles along the county road to the northeastward. We first passed numerous farms, then a "mud pond" and a "clear water pond," following afterwards the valley of a small river between two high, wooded mountains, till we came at last to a saw-mill, grist-mill and a few houses at a place whimsically known as the "city." Here in a little weathered house the last rites and services to the deceased were held. Elder Witham, still in his duster, preached a short discourse during which I felt somewhat distressed to hear him express certain doubts as to the man's future state. The Elder was a thoroughly upright Yankee and Methodist, who tried to preach the truth and the gospel, as he apprehended it; he did not believe that all a person's faults are, or ought to be, forgiven at his death. I remember the following words which he made use of on that occasion, for they appealed to some nascent sense of logic in me, I suppose: "The evil which men do in this life lives on in the world after they die; and even so the just penalty for it continues with them in a future state."
The Old Squire, although ordinarily a kind and reasonable man, yet possessed some of the same severe traits of character, which have descended in the sons of New England, from the days of the Puritans. I remember that he said, as we drove along the road, going homeward: "The death of a drunkard is a shameful end. Such a person can expect other people to mourn only for his folly."
But these sentiments made far less impression upon me then than the conduct of the wife of the dead man. I had somehow supposed that he was an old man; but instead, he was only thirty-four years of age; and his wife was an auburn-haired, strong woman, not more than thirty, unusually handsome in face and form. She was in a state of great excitement, not wholly caused by sorrow. It appeared that there had been a violently bitter quarrel between the pair, the night before the man's death; and so far from having forgiven her husband, even then, the woman exhibited the turbulence of her temper and behaved in an unseemly manner during and after the services. Her outcries gave me a very strange impression and in fact so shocked and terrified me, that to this day I cannot recall the scene without a singular sensation of disquiet. Withal, it was the first funeral which I had ever attended. As a lad I was in not a little doubt on several points, touching the behavior of widows on such occasions; and as we drove homeward, I ventured to ask the Old Squire whether women were often liable to go on at funerals as that one did. For I remember thinking that if this were really the case, I should never under any circumstances whatever, be allured into matrimony.
But the Old Squire at once said, positively, that they did not behave so, and that this woman (her name was Britannia) was an exception to all rules.
My next question upset him, however, for after a few moments of decent inward satisfaction over his reply, I asked him whether Britannia was a Pepperill.
Gramp turned half around on the wagon seat and looked at me in astonishment for an instant; he then burst out in a hearty laugh.
"No, no," said he. "She is no Pepperill, no connection whatever of your grandmother. The shoe is on the other foot. It's on my side this time."
He laughed again as he drove on; and just before we reached home, he told me, and seemed much in earnest that I should understand it, that the Pepperills were a very good family, as much or more so than the average, and that if I had got any different impression from anything I had heard said, it was utterly erroneous.
"You must never mind any of the nonsense I have over to your grandmother when we are at table," he continued. "It's all fun. We don't mean anything. Your grandma is the best woman I ever knew."
I replied that I had thought that was the way of it, myself. As the old gentleman had expressed himself so magnanimously toward the Pepperills, I at once resolved not to say a word to Gram, or any of the others, about this Britannia's behavior. I did not like to have Gramp put at any disadvantage in the family; so the old gentleman and I kept that incident quiet between us for a good many years.