Eben Holden - A Tale of the North Country
by Irving Bacheller
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'Where's my ham, Dave?' said the editor as he looked at the slab of marble where the ham had lain.

'Don't know for sure,' said the publisher, 'it's probably up at the house of the—editor by this time.

'What did you go 'n give it to him for?' drawled Mr Greeley in a tone of irreparable injury. 'I wanted that ham for myself.

'I didn't give it to him,' said the publisher. 'He came and helped himself. Said he supposed it was sent in for notice.

'The infernal thief!' Mr Greeley piped with a violent gesture. 'I'll swear! if I didn't keep my shirt buttoned tight they'd have that, too.

The ham was a serious obstacle in the way of my business and it went over until evening. But that and like incidents made me to know the man as I have never seen him pictured—a boy grown old and grey, pushing the power of manhood with the ardours of youth.

I resumed work on the Tribune that week. My first assignment was a mass meeting in a big temporary structure—then called a wigwam—over in Brooklyn. My political life began that day and all by an odd chance. The wigwam was crowded to the doors. The audience bad been waiting half an hour for the speaker. The chairman had been doing his best to kill time but had run out of ammunition. He had sat down to wait, an awkward silence had begun. The crowd was stamping and whistling and clapping with impatience. As I walked down the centre aisle, to the reporter s table, they seemed to mistake me for the speaker. Instantly a great uproar began. It grew louder every step I took. I began to wonder and then to fear the truth. As I neared the stage the chairman came forward beckoning to me. I went to the flight of steps leading up to that higher level of distinguished citizens and halted, not knowing just what to do. He came and leaned over and whispered down at me. I remember he was red in the face and damp with perspiration.

'What is your name?' he enquired.

'Brower,' said I in a whisper.

A look of relief came into his face and I am sure a look of anxiety came into mine. He had taken the centre of the stage before I could stop him.

'Lathes and gentlemen,' said he, 'I am glad to inform you that General Brower has at last arrived.

I remembered then there was a General Brower in the army who was also a power in politics.

In the storm of applause that followed this announcement, I beckoned him to the edge of the platform again. I was nearer a condition of mental panic than I have ever known since that day.

'I am not General Brower,' I whispered.

'What!' said he in amazement.

'I am not General Brower,' I said.

'Great heavens!' he whispered, covering his mouth with his band and looking very thoughtful. 'You'll have to make a speech, anyway—there's no escape.

I could see no way out of it and, after a moment's hesitation, ascended the platform took off my overcoat and made a speech.

Fortunately the issue was one with which I had been long familiar. I told them how I had been trapped. The story put the audience in good humour and they helped me along with very generous applause. And so began my career in politics which has brought me more honour than I deserved although I know it has not been wholly without value to my country. It enabled me to repay in part the kindness of my former chief at a time when he was sadly in need of friends. I remember meeting him in Washington a day of that exciting campaign of '72. I was then in Congress.

'I thank you for what you have done, Brower,' said he, 'but I tell you I am licked. I shall not carry a single state. I am going to be slaughtered.

He had read his fate and better than he knew. In politics he was a great prophet.

Chapter 43

The north country lay buried in the snow that Christmastime. Here and there the steam plough had thrown its furrows, on either side of the railroad, high above the window line. The fences were muffled in long ridges of snow, their stakes showing like pins in a cushion of white velvet. Some of the small trees on the edge of the big timber stood overdrifted to their boughs. I have never seen such a glory of the morning as when the sun came up, that day we were nearing home, and lit the splendour of the hills, there in the land I love. The frosty nap of the snow glowed far and near with pulsing glints of pale sapphire.

We came into Hillsborough at noon the day before Christmas. Father and Uncle Eb met us at the depot and mother stood waving her handkerchief at the door as we drove up. And when we were done with our greetings and were standing, damp eyed, to warm ourselves at the fire, Uncle Eb brought his palms together with a loud whack and said:

'Look here, Liz beth Brower! I want if hev ye tell me if ye ever see a likelier pair o' colts.

She laughed as she looked at us. In a moment she ran her hand down the side of Hope's gown. Then she lifted a fold of the cloth and felt of it thoughtfully.

'How much was that a yard?' she asked a dreamy look in her eyes. 'Wy! w'y!' she continued as Hope told her the sum. 'Terrible steep! but it does fit splendid! Oughter wear well too! Wish ye'd put that on if ye go t' church nex' Sunday.

'O mother!' said Hope, laughing, 'I'll wear my blue silk.

'Come boys 'n girls,' said Elizabeth suddenly, 'dinner's all ready in the other room.

'Beats the world!' said Uncle Eb, as we sat down at the table. 'Ye do look gran' if me—ree-markable gran', both uv ye. Tek a premium at any fair—ye would sartin.'

'Has he won yer affections?' said David laughing as he looked over at Hope.

'He has,' said she solemnly.

'Affections are a sing'lar kind o' prop'ty,' said Uncle Eb. 'Hain't good fer nuthin till ye've gin em away. Then, like as not, they git very valyble.

'Good deal that way with money too,' said Elizabeth Brower.

'I recollec' when Hope was a leetle bit uv a girl' said Uncle Eb, 'she used if say 'et when she got married she was goin' if hev her husban' rub my back fer me when it was lame.

'I haven't forgotten it,' said Hope, 'and if you will all come you will make us happier.

'Good many mouths if feed!' Uncle Ebb remarked.

'I could take in sewing and help some,' said Elizabeth Brower, as she sipped her tea.

There was a little quiver in David's under lip as he looked over at her. 'You ain't able t' do hard work any more, mother,' said he. 'She won't never hev to nuther,' said Uncle Eb. 'Don't never pay if go bookin' fer trouble—it stew easy if find. There ain' no sech thing 's trouble 'n this world 'less ye look for it. Happiness won't hey nuthin if dew with a man thet likes trouble. Minnit a man stops lookin' fer trouble happiness 'II look fer him. Things came puny nigh's ye like 'em here 'n this world—hot er cold er only middlin'. Ye can either laugh er cry er fight er fish er go if meetin'. If ye don't like erry one you can fin fault. I'm on the lookout fer happiness—suits me best, someway, an don't hurt my feelin's a bit.

'Ev'ry day's a kind uv a circus day with you, Holden,' said David Brower. 'Alwuss hevin' a good time. Ye can hev more fun with yerseif 'n any man I ever see.'

'If I hev as much hereafter es I've hed here, I ain't a goin'if fin' no fault,' said Uncle Eb. ''S a reel, splendid world. God's fixed it up so ev'ry body can hev a good time if they'll only hev it. Once I heard uv a poor man 'at hed a bushel o' corn give tew him. He looked up kind o' sad an' ast if they wouldn't please shell it. Then they tuk it away. God's gin us happiness in the ear, but He ain't a goin' t' shell it fer us. You n 'Lizabeth oughter be very happy. Look a' them tew childern!

There came a rap at the door then. David put on his cap and went out with Uncle Eb.

'It's somebody for more money,' Elizabeth whispered, her eyes filling. 'I know 'tis, or he would have asked him in. We're goin't lose our home.

Her lips quivered; she covered her eyes a moment.

'David ain't well,' she continued. 'Worries night 'n day over money matters. Don't say much, but I can see it's alwuss on his mind. Woke up in the middle o' the night awhile ago. Found him sittin' by the stove. "Mother," he said, "we can't never go back to farmin'. I've ploughed furrows enough if go 'round the world. Couldn't never go through it ag'in." "Well," said I, "if you think best we could start over see how we git along. I'm willin' if try it." "No, we re too old," he says. "Thet's out o' the question. I've been thinkin' what'll we do there with Bill 'n Hope if we go t'live with 'em? Don't suppose they'll hev any hosses if take care uv er any wood if chop. What we'll hev if do is more'n I can make out. We can't do nuthin; we've never learnt how."

'We've thought that all over,' I said. 'We may have a place in the country with a big garden.

'Well,' said she, 'I'm very well if I am over sixty. I can cook an wash an' mend an' iron just as well as I ever could.'

Uncle Eb came to the door then.

'Bill,' he said, 'I want you 'n Hope if come out here 'n look at this young colt o' mine. He's playful 's a kitten.

We put on our wraps and went to the stable. Uncle Eb was there alone.

'If ye brought any Cnssmus presents,' he whispered, 'slip 'em into my hands. I'm goin' if run the cirkis t'morrow an' if we don't hev fun a plenty I'll miss my guess.

'I'll lay them out in my room,' said Hope.

'Be sure 'n put the names on 'em,' Uncle Eb whispered, as Hope went away.

'What have ye done with the "bilers"?' I enquired.

'Sold 'em,' said he, laughing. 'Barker never kep' his promise. Heard they'd gone over t' the 'Burg an' was tryin' t' sell more territory. I says if Dave, "You let me manage 'em an' I'll put 'em out o business here 'n this part o' the country." So I writ out an advertisement fer the paper. Read about this way: "Fer sale. Twelve hunderd patented suction Wash Bilers. Anyone at can't stan' prosperity an' is learnin' if swear 'll find 'em a great help. If he don't he's a bigger fool 'n I am. Nuthin' in 'em but tin—that's wuth somethin'. Warranted t' hold water."

'Wall ye know how that editor talks? 'Twant a day 'fore the head man o' the biler business come 'n bought 'em. An' the advertisement was never put in. Guess he wan't hankerin' if hev his business spilt.

Uncle Eb was not at the supper table that evening.

'Where's Holden?' said Elizabeth Brower.

'Dunno,' said David. 'Goin' after Santa Claus he tol' me.

'Never see the beat o' that man!' was the remark of Elizabeth, as she poured the tea. 'Jes' like a boy ev'ry Crissmus time. Been so excited fer a week couldn't hardly contain himself.'

'Ketched him out 'n the barn if other day laffin' like a fool,' said David. 'Thought he was crazy.'

We sat by the fire after the supper dishes were put away, talking of all the Christmas Days we could remember. Hope and I thought our last in Faraway best of all and no wonder, for we had got then the first promise of the great gift that now made us happy. Elizabeth, sitting in her easy-chair, told of Christmas in the olden time when her father had gone to the war with the British.

David sat near me, his face in the firelight—the broad brow wrinkled into furrows and framed in locks of iron-grey. He was looking thoughtfully at the fire. Uncle Eb came soon, stamping and shaking the snow out of his great fur coat.

'Col'night,' he said, warming his hands.

Then he carried his coat and cap away, returning shortly, with a little box in his hand.

'Jes' thought I'd buy this fer fun,' said he, holding it down to the firelight. 'Dummed if I ever see the like uv it. Whoa!' he shouted, as the cover flew open, releasing a jumping-jack. 'Quicker n a grasshopper! D'ye ever see sech a sassy little critter?

Then he handed it to Elizabeth.

'Wish ye Merry Christmas, Dave Brower!' said he.

'Ain't as merry as I might be,' said David.

'Know what's the matter with ye,' said Uncle Eb. 'Searchin' after trouble—thet's what ye're doin'. Findin' lots uv it right there 'n the fire. Trouble 's goiti' t' git mighty scurce 'round here this very selfsame night. Ain't goin' t' be nobody lookin' fer it—thet's why. Fer years ye ve been takin' care o' somebody et I'll take care 'o you, long's ye live—sartin sure. Folks they said ye was fools when ye took 'em in. Man said I was a fool once. Alwuss hed a purty fair idee o'myself sence then. When some folks call ye a fool 's a ruther good sign ye ain't. Ye've waited a long time fer yer pay—ain't much longer if wait now.'

There was a little quaver in his voice, We all looked at him in silence. Uncle Eb drew out his wallet with trembling hands, his fine old face lit with a deep emotion. David looked up at him as he wondered what joke was coming, until he saw his excitement.

'Here's twenty thousan' dollars,' said Uncle Eb, 'a reel, genuwine bank check! Jist as good as gold. Here 'tis! A Crissmus present fer you 'n Elizabeth. An' may God bless ye both!'

David looked up incredulously. Then he took the bit of paper. A big tear rolled down his cheek.

'Why, Holden! What does this mean?' he asked.

''At the Lord pays His debts,' said Uncle Eb. 'Read it.'

Hope had lighted the lamp.

David rose and put on his spectacles. One eyebrow had lifted above the level of the other. He held the check to the lamplight. Elizabeth stood at his elbow.

'Why, mother!' said he. 'Is this from our boy? From Nehemiah? Why, Nehemiah is dead!' he added, looking over his spectacles at Uncle Eb.

'Nehemiah is not dead,' said the latter.

'Nehemiah not dead!' he repeated, looking down at the draft. They turned it in the light, reading over and over again the happy tidings pinned to one corner of it. Then they looked into each other's eyes.

Elizabeth put her arms about David's neck and laid her head upon his shoulder and not one of us dare trust himself to speak for a little. Uncle Eb broke the silence.

'Got another present,' he said. 'S a good deal better 'n gold er silver.' A tall, bearded man came in.

'Mr Trumbull!' Hope exclaimed, rising.

'David an' Elizabeth Brower,' said Uncle Eb, 'the dead hes come if life. I give ye back yer son—Nehemiah.'

Then he swung his cap high above his head, shouting in a loud voice:

'Merry Crissmus! Merry Crissmus!'

The scene that followed I shall not try to picture. It was so full of happiness that every day of our lives since then has been blessed with it and with a peace that has lightened every sorrow; of it, I can truly say that it passeth all understanding.

'Look here, folks!' said Uncle Eb, after awhile, as he got his flute, 'my feelin's hev been teched hard. If I don't hev some jollification I'll bust. Bill Brower, limber up yer leather a leetle bit.'

Chapter 44

Nehemiah, whom I had known as John Trumbull, sat a long time between his father and mother, holding a hand of each, and talking in a low tone, while Hope and I were in the kitchen with Uncle Eb. Now that father and son were side by side we saw how like they were and wondered we bad never guessed the truth.

'Do you remember?' said Nehemiah, when we returned. 'Do you remember when you were a little boy, coming one night to the old log house on Bowman's Hill with Uncle Eb?

'I remember it very well,' I answered.

'That was the first time I ever saw you,' he said.

'Why, you are not the night man?'

'I was the night man,' he answered.

I stared at him with something of the old, familiar thrill that had always come at the mention of him years agone.

'He's grown a leetle since then,' said Uncle Eb.

'I thought so the night I carried him off the field at Bull Run,' said Nehemiah.

'Was that you?' I asked eagerly.

'It was,' he answered. 'I came over from Washington that afternoon. Your colonel told me you had been wounded.

'Wondered who you were, but I could not get you to answer. I have to thank you for my life.

Hope put her arms about his neck and kissed him.

'Tell us,' said she, 'how you came to be the night man.'

He folded his arms and looked down and began his story.

'Years ago I had a great misfortune. I was a mere boy at the time. By accident I killed another boy in play. It was an old gun we were playing with and nobody knew it was loaded. I had often quarrelled with the other boy—that is why they thought I had done it on purpose. There was a dance that night. I had got up in the evening, crawled out of the window and stolen away. We were in Rickard's stable. I remember how the people ran out with lanterns. They would have hung me—some of them—or given me the blue beech, if a boy friend had not hurried me away. It was a terrible hour. I was stunned; I could say nothing. They drove me to the 'Burg, the boy's father chasing us. I got over into Canada, walked to Montreal and there went to sea. It was foolish, I know, but I was only a boy of fifteen. I took another name; I began a new life. Nehemiah Brower was like one dead. In 'Frisco I saw Ben Gilman. He had been a school mate in Faraway. He put his hand on my shoulder and called me the old name. It was hard to deny it—the hardest thing I ever did. I was homesick; I wanted to ask him about my mother and father and my sister, who was a baby when I left. I would have given my life to talk with him. But I shook my head.

'"No," I said, "my name is not Brower. You are mistaken."

'Then I walked away and Nemy Brower stayed in his grave.

'Well, two years later we were cruising from Sidney to Van Dieman's Land. One night there came a big storm. A shipmate was washed away in the dark. We never saw him again. They found a letter in his box that said his real name was Nehemiah Brower, son of David Brower, of Faraway, NY, USA. I put it there, of course, and the captain wrote a letter to my father about the death of his son. My old self was near done for and the man Trumbull had a new lease of life. You see in my madness I had convicted and executed myself.

He paused a moment. His mother put her hand upon his shoulder with a word of gentle sympathy. Then he went on.

'Well, six years after I had gone away, one evening in midsummer, we came into the harbour of Quebec. I had been long in the southern seas. When I went ashore, on a day's leave, and wandered off in the fields and got the smell of the north, I went out of my head—went crazy for a look at the hills o' Faraway and my own people. Nothing could stop me then. I drew my pay, packed my things in a bag and off I went. Left the 'Burg afoot the day after; got to Faraway in the evening. It was beautiful—the scent o' the new hay that stood in cocks and rows on the hill—the noise o' the crickets—the smell o' the grain—the old house, just as I remembered them; just as I had dreamed of them a thousand times. And—when I went by the gate Bony—my old dog—came out and barked at—me and I spoke to him and he knew me and came and licked my hands, rubbing upon my leg. I sat down with him there by the stone wall and—the kiss of that old dog—the first token of love I had known for years' called back the dead and all that had been his. I put my arms about his—neck and was near crying out with joy.

'Then I stole up to the house and looked in at a window. There sat father, at a table, reading his paper; and a little girl was on her knees by mother saying her prayers. He stopped a moment, covering his eyes with his handkerchief.

'That was Hope,' I whispered.

'That was Hope,' he went on. 'All the king's oxen could not have dragged me out of Faraway then. Late at night I went off into the woods. The old dog followed to stay with me until he died. If it had not been for him I should have been hopeless. I had with me enough to eat for a time. We found a cave in a big ledge over back of Bull Pond. Its mouth was covered with briars. It had a big room and a stream of cold water trickling through a crevice. I made it my home and a fine place it was—cool in summer and warm in winter. I caught a cub panther that fall and a baby coon. They grew up with me there and were the only friends I had after Bony, except Uncle Eb.

'Uncle Eb!' I exclaimed.

'You know how I met him,' he continued. 'Well, he won my confidence. I told him my history. I came into the clearing almost every night. Met him often. He tried to persuade me to come back to my people, but I could not do it. I was insane; I feared something—I did not know what. Sometimes I doubted even my own identity. Many a summer night I sat talking for hours, with Uncle Eb, at the foot of Lone Pine. O, he was like a father to me! God knows what I should have done without him. Well, I stuck to my life, or rather to my death, O—there in the woods—getting fish out of the brooks and game out of the forest, and milk out of the cows in the pasture. Sometimes I went through the woods to the store at Tifton for flour and pork. One night Uncle Eb told me if I would go out among men to try my hand at some sort of business he would start me with a thousand dollars. Well, I did—it. I had also a hundred dollars of my own. I came through the woods afoot. Bought fashionable clothing at Utica, and came to the big city—you know the rest. Among men my fear has left me, so I wonder at it. I am a debtor to love—the love of Uncle Eb and that of a noble woman I shall soon marry. It has made me whole and brought me back to my own people.

'And everybody knew he was innocent the day after he left,' said David.

'Three cheers for Uncle Eb!' I demanded.

And we gave them.

'I declare!' said he. 'In all my born days never see sech fun. It's tree-menjious! I tell ye. Them 'et takes care uv others'll be took care uv—'less they do it o'purpose.'

And when the rest of us had gone to bed Uncle Eb sat awhile by the fire with David. Late at night he came upstairs with his candle. He came over to my bed on tiptoe to see if I were awake, holding the candle above my head. I was worn out and did not open my eyes. He sat down snickering.

'Tell ye one thing, Dave Brower,' he whispered to himself as he drew off his boots, 'when some folks calls ye a fool 's a purty good sign ye ain't.'

Chapter 45

Since that day I have seen much coming and going.

We are now the old folks—Margaret and Nehemiah and Hope and I. Those others, with their rugged strength, their simple ways, their undying youth, are of the past. The young folks—they are a new kind of people. It gives us comfort to think they will never have to sing in choirs or 'pound the rock' for board money; but I know it is the worse luck for them. They are a fine lot of young men and women—comely and well-mannered—but they will not be the pathfinders of the future. What with balls and dinners and clubs and theatres, they find too great a solace in the rear rank.

Nearly twenty years after that memorable Christmas, coming from Buffalo to New York one summer morning, my thoughts went astray in the north country. The familiar faces, the old scenes came trooping by and that very day I saw the sun set in Hillsborough as I had often those late years.

Mother was living in the old home, alone, with a daughter of Grandma Bisnette. It was her wish to live and die under that roof. She cooked me a fine supper, with her own hands, and a great anxiety to please me.

'Come Willie!' said she, as if I were a small boy again, 'you fill the woodbox an' I'll git supper ready. Lucindy, you clear out,' she said to the hired girl, good-naturedly. 'You dunno how t'cook for him.'

I filled the woodbox and brought a pail of water and while she was frying the ham and eggs read to her part of a speech I had made in Congress. Before thousands I had never felt more elation. At last I was sure of winning her applause. The little bent figure stood, thoughtfully, turning the ham and eggs. She put the spider aside, to stand near me, her hands upon her hips. There was a mighty pride in her face when I had finished.

I rose and she went and looked out of the window.

'Grand!' she murmured, wiping her eyes with the corner of her handkerchief.

'Glad you like it,' I said, with great satisfaction.

'O, the speech!' she answered, her elbow resting on the window sash, her hand supporting her head. 'I liked it very well—but—but I was thinking of the sunset. How beautiful it is.

I was weary after my day of travel and went early to bed there in my old room. I left her finishing a pair of socks she had been knitting for me. Lying in bed, I could hear the creak of her chair and the low sung, familiar words:

'On the other side of Jordan, In the sweet fields of Eden, Where the tree of life is blooming, There is rest for you.

Late at night she came into my room with a candle. I heard her come softly to the bed where she stood a moment leaning over me. Then she drew the quilt about my shoulder with a gentle hand.

'Poor little orphan!' said she, in a whisper that trembled. She was thinking of my childhood—of her own happier days.

Then she went away and I heard, in the silence, a ripple of measureless waters.

Next morning I took flowers and strewed them on the graves of David and Uncle Eb; there, Hope and I go often to sit for half a summer day above those perished forms, and think of the old time and of those last words of my venerable friend now graven on his tombstone:



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