Homespun Tales by Kate Douglas Wiggin - HTML preview
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2. "Old Kennebec"
It was just seven o'clock that same morning when Rose Wiley smoothed the last wrinkle from her dimity counterpane, picked up a shred of corn-husk from the spotless floor under the bed, slapped a mosquito on the window-sill, removed all signs of murder with a moist towel, and before running down to breakfast cast a frowning look at her pincushion. Almira, otherwise "Mite," Shapley had been in her room the afternoon before and disturbed with her careless hand the pattern of Rose's pins. They were kept religiously in the form of a Maltese cross; and if, while she was extricating one from her clothing, there had been an alarm of fire, Rose would have stuck the pin in its appointed place in the design, at the risk of losing her life.
Entering the kitchen with her light step, she brought the morning sunshine with her. The old people had already engaged in differences of opinion, but they commonly suspended open warfare in her presence. There were the usual last things to be done for breakfast, offices that belonged to her as her grandmother's assistant. She took yesterday's soda biscuits out of the steamer where they were warming and softening; brought an apple pie and a plate of seed cakes from the pantry; settled the coffee with a piece of dried fish skin and an egg shell; and transferred some fried potatoes from the spider to a covered dish."Did you remember the meat, grandpa? We're all out," she said, as she began buttoning a stiff collar around his reluctant neck.
"Remember? Land, yes! I wish't I ever could forgit anything! The butcher says he's 'bout tired o' travelin' over the country lookin' for critters to kill, but if he finds anything he'll be up along in the course of a week. He ain't a real smart butcher, Cyse Higgins ain't.-Land, Rose, don't button that dickey clean through my epperdummis! I have to sport starched collars in this life on account o' you and your gran'mother bein' so chock full o' style; but I hope to the Lord I shan't have to wear 'em in another world!""You won't," his wife responded with the snap of a dish towel, "or if you do, they'll wilt with the heat."
Rose smiled, but the soft hand with which she tied the neckcloth about the old man's withered neck pacified his spirit, and he smiled knowingly back at her as she took her seat at the breakfast table spread near the open kitchen door. She was a dazzling Rose, and, it is to be feared, a wasted one, for there was no one present to observe her clean pink calico and the still more subtle note struck in the green ribbon which was tied round her throat,--the ribbon that formed a sort of calyx, out of which sprang the flower of her face, as fresh and radiant as if it had bloomed that morning."Give me my coffee turrible quick," said Mr. Wiley; "I must be down to the bridge 'fore they start dog-warpin' the side jam." "I notice you're always due at the bridge on churnin' days," remarked his spouse, testily.
"'T ain't me as app'ints drivin' dates at Edgewood," replied the old man. "The boys'll hev a turrible job this year. The logs air ricked up jest like Rose's jack-straws; I never see 'em so turrible ricked up in all my exper'ence; an' Lije Dennett don' know no more 'bout pickin' a jam than Cooper's cow. Turrible sot in his ways, too; can't take a mite of advice. I was tellin' him how to go to work on that bung that's formed between the gre't gray rock an' the shore, --the awfullest place to bung that there is between this an' Biddeford,- and says he: 'Look here, I've be'n boss on this river for twelve year, an' I'll be doggoned if I'm goin' to be taught my business by any man!' 'This ain't no river,' says I, 'as you'd know,' says I, 'if you'd ever lived on the Kennebec.' 'Pity you hed n't stayed on it,' says he. 'I wish to the land I hed,' says I. An' then I come away, for my tongue's so turrible spry an' sarcustic that I knew if I stopped any longer I should stir up strife. There's some folks that'll set on addled aigs year in an' year out, as if there wa'n't good fresh ones bein' laid every day; an' Lije Dennett's one of 'em, when it comes to river-drivin'.""There's lots o' folks as have made a good livin' by mindin' their own business," observed the still sententious Mrs. Wiley, as she speared a soda biscuit with her fork.
"Mindin' your own business is a turrible selfish trade," responded her husband loftily. "If your neighbor is more ignorant than what you are,--partic'larly if he's as ignorant as Cooper's cow,--you'd ought, as a Kennebec man an' a Christian, to set him on the right track, though it's always a turrible risky thing to do." Rose's grandfather was called, by the irreverent younger generation, sometimes "Turrible Wiley" and sometimes "Old Kennebec," because of the frequency with which these words appeared in his conversation. There were not wanting those of late who dubbed him Uncle Ananias, for reasons too obvious to mention. After a long, indolent, tolerably truthful, and useless life, he had, at seventy-five, lost sight of the dividing line between fact and fancy, and drew on his imagination to such an extent that he almost staggered himself when he began to indulge in reminiscence. He was a feature of the Edgewood "drive," being always present during the five or six days that it was in progress, sometimes sitting on the river-bank, sometimes leaning over the bridge, sometimes reclining against the butt-end of a huge log, but always chewing tobacco and expectorating to incredible distances as he criticized and damned impartially all the expedients in use at the particular moment.
"I want to stay down by the river this afternoon," said Rose. "Ever so many of the girls will be there, and all my sewing is done up. If grandpa will leave the horse for me, I'll take the drivers' lunch to them at noon, and bring the dishes back in time to wash them before supper."
"I suppose you can go, if the rest do," said her grandmother, "though it's an awful lazy way of spendin' an afternoon. When I was a girl there was no such dawdlin' goin' on, I can tell you. Nobody thought o' lookin' at the river in them days; there was n't time."
"But it's such fun to watch the logs!" Rose exclaimed. "Next to dancing, the greatest fun in the world."
"'Specially as all the young men in town will be there, watchin', too," was the grandmother's reply. "Eben Brooks an' Richard Bean got home yesterday with their doctors' diplomas in their pockets. Mrs. Brooks says Eben stood forty-nine in a class o' fifty-five, an' seemed consid'able proud of him; an' I guess it is the first time he ever stood anywheres but at the foot. I tell you when these fifty-five new doctors git scattered over the country there'll be consid'able many folks keepin' house under ground. Dick Bean's goin' to stop a spell with Rufe an' Steve Waterman. That'll make one more to play in the river."
"Rufus ain't hardly got his workin' legs on yit," allowed Mr. Wiley, "but Steve's all right. He's a turrible smart driver, an' turrible reckless, too. He'll take all the chances there is, though to a man that's lived on the Kennebec there ain't what can rightly be called any turrible chances on the Saco.""He'd better be 'tendin' to his farm," objected Mrs. Wiley.
"His hay is all in," Rose spoke up quickly, "and he only helps on the river when the farm work is n't pressing. Besides, though it's all play to him, he earns his two dollars and a half a day."
"He don't keer about the two and a half," said her grandfather. "He jest can't keep away from the logs. There's some that can't. When I first moved here from Gard'ner, where the climate never suited me--"
"The climate of any place where you hev regular work never did an' never will suit you," remarked the old man's wife; but the interruption received no comment: such mistaken views of his character were too frequent to make any impression.
"As I was sayin', Rose," he continued, "when we first moved here from Gard'ner, we lived neighbor to the Watermans. Steve an' Rufus was little boys then, always playin' with a couple o' wild cousins o' theirn, consid'able older. Steve would scare his mother pretty nigh to death stealin' away to the mill to ride on the 'carriage,' 'side o' the log that was bein' sawed, hitchin' clean out over the river an' then jerkin' back 'most into the jaws o' the machinery."
"He never hed any common sense to spare, even when he was a young one," remarked Mrs. Wiley; "and I don't see as all the 'cademy education his father throwed away on him has changed him much." And with this observation she rose from the table and went to the sink.
"Steve ain't nobody's fool," dissented the old man; "but he's kind o' daft about the river. When he was little he was allers buildin' dams in the brook, an' sailin' chips, an' runnin' on the logs; allers choppin' up stickins an' raftin' 'em together in the pond. I cai'late Mis' Waterman died consid'able afore her time, jest from fright, lookin' out the winders and seein' her boys slippin' between the logs an' gittin' their daily dousin'. She could n't understand it, an' there's a heap o' things women-folks never do an' never can understand,--jest because they _air_ women-folks.""One o' the things is men, I s'pose," interrupted Mrs. Wiley.
"Men in general, but more partic'larly husbands," assented Old Kennebec; "howsomever, there's another thing they don't an' can't never take in, an' that's sport. Steve does riverdrivin' as he would horse-racin' or tiger- shootin' or tight-rope dancin'; an' he always did from a boy. When he was about twelve to fifteen, he used to help the river-drivers spring and fall, reg'lar. He could n't do nothin' but shin up an' down the rocks after hammers an' hatchets an' ropes, but he was turrible pleased with his job. 'Stepanfetchit,' they used to call him them days,--Stepanfetchit Waterman.""Good name for him yet," came in acid tones from the sink. "He's still steppin' an' fetchin', only it's Rose that's doin' the drivin' now." "I'm not driving anybody, that I know of," answered Rose, with heightened color, but with no loss of her habitual self-command.
"Then, when he graduated from errants," went on the crafty old man, who knew that when breakfast ceased, churning must begin, "Steve used to get seventy-five cents a day helpin' clear up the river--if you can call this here silv'ry streamlet a river. He'd pick off a log here an' there an' send it afloat, an' dig out them that hed got ketched in the rocks, and tidy up the banks jest like spring house-cleanin'. If he'd hed any kind of a boss, an' hed be'n trained on the Kennebec, he'd 'a' made a turrible smart driver, Steve would."
"He'll be drownded, that's what'll become o' him, prophesied Mrs. Wiley; "specially if Rose encourages him in such silly foolishness as ridin' logs from his house down to ourn, dark nights."
"Seein' as how Steve built ye a nice pigpen last month, 'pears to me you might have a good word for him now an' then, mother," remarked Old Kennebec, reaching for his second piece of pie.
"I wa'n't a mite deceived by that pigpen, no more'n I was by Jed Towle's hencoop, nor Ivory Dunn's well-curb, nor Pitt Packard's shed-steps. If you hed ever kep' up your buildin's yourself, Rose's beaux would n't hev to do their courtin' with carpenters' tools.""It's the pigpen an' the hencoop you want to keep your eye on, mother, not the motives of them as made 'em. It's turrible onsettlin' to inspeck folks' motives too turrible close."
"Riding a log is no more to Steve than riding a horse, so he says," interposed Rose, to change the subject; "but I tell him that a horse does n't revolve under you, and go sideways at the same time that it is going forwards."
"Log-ridin' ain't no trick at all to a man of sperit," said Mr. Wiley. "There's a few places in the Kennebec where the water's too shaller to let the logs float, so we used to build a flume, an' the logs would whiz down like arrers shot from a bow. The boys used to collect by the side o' that there flume to see me ride a log down, an' I've watched 'em drop in a dead faint when I spun by the crowd; but land! you can't drownd some folks, not without you tie nail-kags to their head an' feet an' drop 'em in the falls; I've rid logs down the b'ilin'est rapids o' the Kennebec an' never lost my head. I remember well the year o' the gre't freshet, I rid a log from--"
"There, there, father, that'll do," said Mrs. Wiley, decisively. "I'll put the cream in the churn, an' you jest work off' some o' your steam by bringin' the butter for us afore you start for the bridge. It don't do no good to brag afore your own women-folks; work goes consid'able better'n stories at every place 'cept the loafers' bench at the tavern."
And the baffled raconteur, who had never done a piece of work cheerfully in his life, dragged himself reluctantly to the shed, where, before long, one could hear him moving the dasher up and down sedately to his favorite "churning tune" of
Broad is the road that leads to death, And thousands walk together there;
But Wisdom shows a narrow path, With here and there a traveler.