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Truth to say, we had a pretty "high time" that week. When not at Tom's fort evenings, our youthful neighbors came to our house. Sweet corn was in the "milk;" and early apples, pears and plums were ripe. We roasted corn ears and played hide-and-seek by moonlight, over the house, wagon-house, wood-shed, granary and both barns.
I am inclined to believe that the Old Squire did not leave work enough to keep us properly out of that idleness which leads to mischief. For on the afternoon of the fourth day, we broke one wheel of the ox cart and hay rack, while "coasting" in it. There was a long slope in the east field; and we coasted there, all getting into the cart and letting it run down backwards, dragging the "tongue" on the ground behind it: not the proper manner of using a heavy cart.
After we had coasted down, we hauled the cart back with the oxen which we yoked for the purpose. The wheel was broken on account of the cart running off diagonally and striking a large stone.
We were obliged to own up to the matter on the Old Squire's return. He said little; but after considering the matter over night, he held a species of moot court in the sitting-room, heard all the evidence and then, good-humoredly, "sentenced" Addison, Halstead and myself to work on the highway that fall till we had earned enough to repair the wheel, six dollars; and speaking for myself, it was the most salutary bit of correction which I ever received; it led me to feel my personal responsibility for damage done foolishly.
But it is not of the broken cart wheel, or hide-and-seek by moonlight, that I wish to speak here, but of another diversion next day, and of a mysterious stranger who arrived at nick of time to participate in it.
Generally speaking, Theodora did not excel as a cook. She was much more fond of reading than of housework and domestic duties, although at the farm she always did her share conscientiously. Ellen had a greater natural bent toward cookery.
But there was one article of food which Theodora could prepare to perfection and that was fried pies. Such at least was the name we had for them; and we boys thought that if "Doad" had known how to do nothing else in the world but fry pies, she would still be a shining success in life. We esteemed her gift all the more highly for the reason that it was extra-hazardous. Making fried pies is nearly as dangerous as working in a powder-mill; those who have made them will understand what this means. I know a housewife who lost the sight of one of her eyes from a fried pie explosion. In another instance fully half the kitchen ceiling was literally coated with smoking hot fat, from the frying-pan, thrown up by the bursting of a pie.
Let not a novice like myself, however, presume to descant on the subject of fried pies to the thousands who doubtless know all the details of their manufacture. Theodora first prepared her dough, sweetened and mixed like ordinary doughnut dough, rolled it like a thick pie crust and then enclosed the "filling," consisting of mince-meat, or stewed apple, or gooseberry, or plum, or blackberry; or perhaps peach, raspberry, or preserved cherries. Only such fruits must be cooked and the pits or stones of plums or peaches carefully removed. The edges of the dough were wet and dexterously crimped together, so that the pie would not open in frying.
Then when the big pan of fat on the stove was just beginning to get smoking hot, the pies were launched gently in at one side and allowed to sink and rise. And about that time it was well to be watchful; for there was no telling just when a swelling, hot pie might take a fancy to enact the role of a bomb-shell and blow the blistering hot fat on all sides.
After suffering from a bad burn on one of her wrists the previous winter, Theodora had learned not to take chances with fried pies. She had a face mask which Addison had made for her, from pink pasteboard, and a pair of blue goggles for the eyes, which some member of the family had once made use of for snow blindness. The mask as I remember wore an irresistible grin.
When ready to begin frying two dozen pies, Theodora donned the mask and goggles and put on a pair of old kid gloves. Then if spatters of hot fat flew, she was none the worse; — but it was quite a sight to see her rigged for the occasion. The goggles were of portentous size, and we boys used to clap and cheer when she made her appearance.
As an article of diet, perhaps, fried pies could hardly be commended for invalids; but to a boy who had been working hard, or racing about for hours in the fresh air out of doors, they were simply delicious and went exactly to the right spot. Few articles of food are more appetizing to the eye than the rich doughnut brown of a fine fried pie.
That forenoon we coaxed Theodora and Ellen to fry a batch of three dozen, and two "Jonahs;" and the girls, with some misgivings as to what Gram would say to them for making such inroads on "pie timber," set about it by ten o'clock. Be it said, however, that "closeness" in the matter of daily food was not one of Gram's faults. She always laid in a large supply of "pie timber" and was not much concerned for fear of a shortage.
They filled half a dozen with mince-meat, half a dozen with stewed gooseberry, and then half a dozen each, of crab apple jelly, plum, peach and blackberry. They would not let us see what they filled the "Jonahs" with, but we knew that it was a fearful load. Generally it was with something shockingly sour, or bitter. The "Jonahs" looked precisely like the others and were mixed with the others on the platter which was passed at table, for each one to take his or her choice. And the rule was that whoever got the "Jonah pie" must either eat it, or crawl under the table for a foot-stool for the others during the rest of the meal!
What they actually put in the two "Jonahs," this time, was wheat bran mixed with cayenne pepper — an awful dose such as no mortal mouth could possibly bear up under! It is needless to say that the girls usually kept an eye on the Jonah pie or placed some slight private mark on it, so as not to get it themselves.
When we were alone and had something particularly good on the table, Addison and Theodora had a habit of making up rhymes about it, before passing it around, and sometimes the rest of us attempted to join in the recreation, generally with indifferent success. Kate Edwards had come in that day, and being invited to remain to our feast of fried pies, was contributing her wit to the rhyming contest, when chancing to glance out of the window, Ellen espied a gray horse and buggy with the top turned back, standing in the yard, and in the buggy a large elderly, dark-complexioned man, a stranger to all of us, who sat regarding the premises with a smile of shrewd and pleasant contemplation.
"Now who in the world can that be?" exclaimed Ellen in low tones. "I do believe he has overheard some of those awful verses you have been making up."
"But someone must go to the door," Theodora whispered. "Addison, you go out and see what he has come for."
"He doesn't look just like a minister," said Halstead.
"Nor just like a doctor," Kate whispered. "But he is somebody of consequence, I know, he looks so sort of dignified and experienced."
"And what a good, old, broad, distinguished face," said Ellen.
Thus their sharp young eyes took an inventory of our caller, who, I may as well say here, was Hannibal Hamlin, recently Vice-President of the United States and one of the most famous anti-slavery leaders of the Republican party before the Civil War.
The old Hamlin homestead, where Hannibal Hamlin passed his boyhood, was at Paris Hill, Maine, eight or ten miles to the eastward of the Old Squire's farm; he and the Old Squire had been young men together, and at one time quite close friends and classmates at Hebron Academy.
In strict point of fact, Mr. Hamlin's term of office as Vice-President with Abraham Lincoln, had expired; and at this time he had not entered on his long tenure of the Senatorship from Maine. Meantime he was Collector of Customs for the Port of Boston, but a few days previously had resigned this lucrative office, being unwilling longer to endorse the erratic administrative policy of President Andrew Johnson by holding an appointment from him.
In the interim he was making a brief visit to the scenes of his boyhood home, and had taken a fancy to drive over to call on the Old Squire. But we of the younger and lately-arriving generation, did not even know "Uncle Hannibal" by sight and had not the slightest idea who he was. Addison went out, however, and asked if he should take his horse.
"Why, Joseph S—— still lives here, does he not?" queried Mr. Hamlin, regarding Addison's youthful countenance inquiringly.
"Yes, sir," replied Addison. "I am his grandson."
"Ah, I thought you were rather young for one of his sons," Mr. Hamlin remarked. "I heard, too, that he had lost all his sons in the War."
"Yes, sir," Addison replied soberly.
Mr. Hamlin regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. "I used to know your grandfather," he said. "Is he at home?"
Addison explained the absence of Gramp and Gram. "I am very sorry they are away," he added.
"I am sorry, too," said Mr. Hamlin, "I wanted to see them and say a few words to them." He began to turn his horse as if to drive away, but Theodora, who was always exceedingly hospitable, had gone out and now addressed our caller with greater cordiality.
"Will you not come in, sir?" she exclaimed. "Grandfather will be very sorry! Do please stop a little while and let the boys feed your horse."
Mr. Hamlin regarded her with a paternal smile. "I will get out and walk around a bit, to rest my legs," he replied.
Once he was out of the buggy, Addison and I took his horse to the stable; and Theodora having first shown him the garden and the long row of bee hives, led the way to the cool sitting-room, and domesticated him in an easy chair. We heard her relating recent events of our family history to him, and answering his questions.
Meantime the fried pies were waiting and getting cold; and when Addison and I had returned from the stable, we all began to feel a little impatient. Ellen and Kate set the pies in the oven, to keep them warm; we did not like to begin eating them with company in the sitting-room, and so lingered hungrily about, awaiting developments. "How long s'pose he will stay!" Halse exclaimed crossly; and Addison began brushing up a little, in order to go in and help do the honors of the house with Theodora.
"He is a pretty nice old fellow," Addison remarked to Kate. "Have you any idea who he is?"
But Kate, though born in the county, had never seen him. Just then the sitting-room door opened, and we heard "Doad" saying, "We haven't much for luncheon to-day, but fried pies, but we shall all be glad to have you sit down with us."
"What an awful fib!" whispered Ellen behind her hand to Kate; and truth to say, his coming had rather upset our anticipated pleasure; but Mr. Hamlin had taken a great fancy to Theodora and was accepting her invitation, with vast good-nature.
What a great dark man he looked, as he followed Theodora out to the table.
"These are my cousins that I have told you of," she was saying, and then mentioned all our names to him and afterwards Kate's, although Mr. Hamlin had not seen fit to tell us his own; we supposed that he was merely some pleasant old acquaintance of Gramp's early years.
He was seated in Gramp's place at table and, after a brief flurry in the kitchen, the big platterful of fried pies was brought in. What Ellen and Theodora had done was, carefully to pick out the two "Jonahs" and lay them aside. We were now all gathered around. Addison and Theodora exchanged glances and there was a little pause of interrogation, in case our caller might possibly be a clergyman, after all, and might wish to say grace.
He evinced no disposition to do so, however; and laughing a little in spite of herself, Doad raised the platter and assayed to pass it to our guest.
"And are these the 'fried pies?'" he asked with the broadest of smiles. "They resemble huge doughnuts. But I now remember that my mother used to fry something like this, when I was a boy at home, over at Paris Hill; and my recollection is that they were very good."
"Yes, the most of them are very good," said Addison, by way of making conversation, "unless you happen to get the 'Jonah.'"
"And what's the 'Jonah?'" asked our visitor.
Amidst much laughter, this was explained to him — also the penalty. Mr. Hamlin burst forth in a great shout of laughter, which led us to surmise that he enjoyed fun.
"But we have taken the 'Jonahs' out of these," Theodora made haste to reassure him.
"What for?" he exclaimed.
"Why — why — because we have company," stammered Doad, much confused.
"And spoil the sport?" cried our visitor. "Young lady, I want those 'Jonahs' put back."
"Oh, but they are awful 'Jonahs!'" pleaded Theodora.
"I want those 'Jonahs' put back," insisted Mr. Hamlin. "I shall have to decline to lunch here, unless the 'Jonahs' are in their proper places. Fetch in the 'Jonahs.'"
Very shamefaced, Ellen brought them in.
"No hokus-pokus now," cried our visitor, and nothing would answer, but that we should all turn our backs and shut our eyes, while Kate put them among the others in the platter.
It was then passed and all chose one. "Each take a good, deep mouthful," cried Mr. Hamlin, entering mirthfully into the spirit of the game. "Altogether — now!"
We all bit, eight bites at once; as it chanced no one got a "Jonah," and the eight fried pies rapidly disappeared.
"But these are good!" cried our visitor, "Mine was gooseberry." Then turning to Theodora, "How many times can a fellow try for a 'Jonah' here?"
"Five times!" replied Doad, laughing and not a little pleased with the praise.
The platter was passed again, and again no one got bran and cayenne.
But at the third passing, I saw Kate start visibly when our visitor chose his pie. "All ready. Bite!" he cried; and we bit! but at the first taste he stopped short, rolled his eyes around and shook his head with his capacious mouth full.
"Oh, but you need not eat it, sir!" cried Theodora, rushing round to him. "You need not do anything!"
But without a word our bulky visitor had sunk slowly out of his chair and pushing it back, disappeared under the long table.
For a moment we all sat, scandalized, then shouted in spite of ourselves. In the midst of our confused hilarity, the table began to oscillate; it rose slowly several inches, then moved off, rattling, toward the sitting-room door! Our jolly visitor had it on his back and was crawling ponderously but carefully away with it on his hands and knees; — and the rest of us were getting ourselves and our chairs out of the way! In fact, the remainder of that luncheon was a perfect gale of laughter. The table walked clean around the room and came very carefully back to its original position.
After the hilarity had subsided,
the girls served
some very nice large, sweet blackberries, which our visitor appeared to
greatly. He told us of his boyhood at Paris Hill; of his fishing for
the brooks thereabouts, of the time he broke his arm and of the doctor
it so unskilfully that it had to be broken again and re-set; of the
tourmaline crystals which he and his brother found at Mt. Mica; and of
school-days at Hebron Academy; and all with such feeling and such a
that for an hour we were rapt listeners.
When at length he declared that he positively must be going on his way, we begged him to remain over night, and brought out his horse with great reluctance.
Before getting into the buggy, he took us each by the hand and saluted the girls, particularly "Doad," in a truly paternal manner.
"I've had a good time!" said he. "I am glad to see you all here at this old farm in my dear native state; but (and we saw the moisture start in his great black eyes) it touches my heart more than I can tell you, to know of the sad reason for your coming here. You have my heartiest sympathy.
"Tell your grandparents, that I should have been very glad to see them," he added, as he got in the buggy and took the reins from Addison.
"But, sir," said Theodora, earnestly, for we were all crowding up to the buggy, "grandfather will ask who it was that called."
"Oh, well, you can describe me to him!" cried Mr. Hamlin, laughing (for he knew how cut up we should feel if he told us who he really was). "And if he cannot make me out, you may tell him that it was an old fellow he once knew, named Hamlin. Good-by." And he drove away. The name signified little to us at the time.
"Well, whoever he is, he's an old brick!" said Halse, as the gray horse and buggy passed between the high gate-posts, at the foot of the lane.
"I think he is just splendid!" exclaimed Kate, enthusiastically.
"And he has such a great, kind heart!" said Theodora.
When Gramp and Gram came home, we were not slow in telling them that a most remarkable elderly man, named Hamlin, had called to see them, and stopped to lunch with us.
"Hamlin, Hamlin," repeated the Old Squire, absently. "What sort of looking man?"
Theodora and Ellen described him, with much zest.
"Why, Joseph, it must have been Hannibal!" cried Gram.
"So it was!" exclaimed Gramp. "Too bad we were not at home!"
"What! Not Hannibal Hamlin that was Vice-President of the United States!" Addison almost shouted.
"Yes, Vice-President Hamlin," said the Old Squire.
And about that time, it would have required nothing much heavier than a turkey's feather to bowl us all over. Addison looked at "Doad" and she looked at Ellen and me. Halse whistled.
"Why, what did you say, or do, that makes you look so queer!" cried Gram, with uneasiness. "I hope you behaved well to him. Did anything happen?"
"Oh, no, nothing much," said Ellen, laughing nervously. "Only he got the 'Jonah' pie and — and — we've had the Vice-President of the United States under the table to put our feet on!"
Gram turned very red and was much disturbed. She wanted to have a letter written that night, and try to apologize for us. But the Old Squire only laughed. "I have known Mr. Hamlin ever since he was a boy," said he. "He enjoyed that pie as well as any of them; no apology is needed."