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- Eben Holden - 1/52 -
Corrections to this eBook were performed by Martin Robb.
Eben Holden a Tale of the North Country
by Irving Bacheller
Early in the last century the hardy wood-choppers began to come west, out of Vermont. They founded their homes in the Adirondack wildernesses and cleared their rough acres with the axe and the charcoal pit. After years of toil in a rigorous climate they left their sons little besides a stumpy farm and a coon-skin overcoat. Far from the centres of life their amusements, their humours, their religion, their folk lore, their views of things had in them the flavour of the timber lands, the simplicity of childhood. Every son was nurtured in the love of honour and of industry, and the hope of sometime being president. It is to be feared this latter thing and the love of right living, for its own sake, were more in their thoughts than the immortal crown that had been the inspiration of their fathers. Leaving the farm for the more promising life of the big city they were as men born anew, and their second infancy was like that of Hercules. They had the strength of manhood, the tireless energy of children and some hope of the highest things. The pageant of the big town - its novelty, its promise, its art, its activity - quickened their highest powers, put them to their best effort. And in all great enterprises they became the pathfinders, like their fathers in the primeval forest.
This book has grown out of such enforced leisure as one may find in a busy life. Chapters begun in the publicity of a Pullman car have been finished in the cheerless solitude of a hotel chamber. Some have had their beginning in a sleepless night and their end in a day of bronchitis. A certain pious farmer in the north country when, like Agricola, he was about to die, requested the doubtful glory of this epitaph: 'He was a poor sinner, but he done his best' Save for the fact that I am an excellent sinner, in a literary sense, the words may stand for all the apology I have to make.
The characters were mostly men and women I have known and who left with me a love of my kind that even a wide experience with knavery and misfortune has never dissipated. For my knowledge of Mr Greeley I am chiefly indebted to David P. Rhoades, his publisher, to Philip Fitzpatrick, his pressman, to the files of the Tribune and to many books.
IRVING BACHELLER New York City, 7 April 1900
Of all the people that ever went west that expedition was the most remarkable.
A small boy in a big basket on the back of a jolly old man, who carried a cane in one hand, a rifle in the other; a black dog serving as scout, skirmisher and rear guard - that was the size of it. They were the survivors of a ruined home in the north of Vermont, and were travelling far into the valley of the St Lawrence, but with no particular destination.
Midsummer had passed them in their journey; their clothes were covered with dust; their faces browning in the hot sun. It was a very small boy that sat inside the basket and clung to the rim, his tow head shaking as the old man walked. He saw wonderful things, day after day, looking down at the green fields or peering into the gloomy reaches of the wood; and he talked about them.
'Uncle Eb - is that where the swifts are?' he would ask often; and the old man would answer, 'No; they ain't real sassy this time o' year. They lay 'round in the deep dingles every day.'
Then the small voice would sing idly or prattle with an imaginary being that had a habit of peeking over the edge of the basket or would shout a greeting to some bird or butterfly and ask finally: 'Tired, Uncle Eb?'
Sometimes the old gentleman would say 'not very', and keep on, looking thoughtfully at the ground. Then, again, he would stop and mop his bald head with a big red handkerchief and say, a little tremor of irritation in his voice: 'Tired! who wouldn't be tired with a big elephant like you on his back all day? I'd be 'shamed o' myself t' set there an' let an old man carry me from Dan to Beersheba. Git out now an' shake yer legs.'
I was the small boy and I remember it was always a great relief to get out of the basket, and having run ahead, to lie in the grass among the wild flowers, and jump up at him as he came along.
Uncle Eb had been working for my father five years before I was born. He was not a strong man and had never been able to carry the wide swath of the other help in the fields, but we all loved him for his kindness and his knack of story-telling. He was a bachelor who came over the mountain from Pleasant Valley, a little bundle of clothes on his shoulder, and bringing a name that enriched the nomenclature of our neighbourhood. It was Eben Holden.
He had a cheerful temper and an imagination that was a very wilderness of oddities. Bears and panthers growled and were very terrible in that strange country. He had invented an animal more treacherous than any in the woods, and he called it a swift. 'Sumthin' like a panther', he described the look of it a fearsome creature that lay in the edge of the woods at sundown and made a noise like a woman crying, to lure the unwary. It would light one's eye with fear to hear Uncle Eb lift his voice in the cry of the swift. Many a time in the twilight when the bay of a hound or some far cry came faintly through the wooded hills, I have seen him lift his hand and bid us hark. And when we had listened a moment, our eyes wide with wonder, he would turn and say in a low, half-whispered tone: ' 'S a swift' I suppose we needed more the fear of God, but the young children of the pioneer needed also the fear of the woods or they would have strayed to their death in them.
A big bass viol, taller than himself, had long been the solace of his Sundays. After he had shaved - a ceremony so solemn that it seemed a rite of his religion - that sacred viol was uncovered. He carried it sometimes to the back piazza and sometimes to the barn, where the horses shook and trembled at the roaring thunder of the strings. When he began playing we children had to get well out of the way, and keep our distance. I remember now the look of him, then - his thin face, his soft black eyes, his long nose, the suit of broadcloth, the stock and standing collar and, above all, the solemnity in his manner when that big devil of a thing was leaning on his breast
As to his playing I have never heard a more fearful sound in any time of peace or one less creditable to a Christian. Weekdays he was addicted to the milder sin of the flute and, after chores, if there were no one to talk with him, he would sit long and pour his soul into that magic bar of boxwood.
Uncle Eb had another great accomplishment. He was what they call in the north country 'a natural cooner'. After nightfall, when the corn was ripening, he spoke in a whisper and had his ear cocked for coons. But he loved all kinds of good fun.
So this man had a boy in his heart and a boy in his basket that evening we left the old house. My father and mother and older brother had been drowned in the lake, where they had gone for a day of pleasure. I had then a small understanding of my loss, hat I have learned since that the farm was not worth the mortgage and that everything had to be sold. Uncle Eb and I - a little lad, a very little lad of six - were all that was left of what had been in that home. Some were for sending me to the county house; but they decided, finally, to turn me over to a dissolute uncle, with some allowance for my keep. Therein Uncle Eb was to be reckoned with. He had set his heart on keeping me, but he was a farm-hand without any home or visible property and not, therefore, in the mind of the authorities, a proper guardian. He had me with him in the old house, and the very night he heard they were coming after me in the morning, we started on our journey. I remember he was a long time tying packages of bread and butter and tea and boiled eggs to the rim of the basket, so that they hung on the outside. Then he put a woollen shawl and an oilcloth blanket on the bottom, pulled the straps over his shoulders and buckled them, standing before the looking-glass, and, hang put on my cap and coat, stood me on the table, and stooped so that I could climb into the basket - a pack basket, that he had used in hunting, the top a little smaller than the bottom. Once in, I could stand comfortably or sit facing sideways, my back and knees wedged from port to starboard. With me in my place he blew out the lantern and groped his way to the road, his cane in one hand, his rifle in the other. Fred, our old dog - a black shepherd, with tawny points - came after us. Uncle Eb scolded him and tried to send him back, but I pleaded for the poor creature and that settled it, he was one of our party.
'Dunno how we'll feed him,' said Uncle Eb. 'Our own mouths are big enough t' take all we can carry, but I hain' no heart t' leave 'im all 'lone there.'
I was old for my age, they tell me, and had a serious look and a wise way of talking, for a boy so young; but I had no notion of what lay before or behind us.
'Now, boy, take a good look at the old house,' I remember he whispered to me at the gate that night ''Tain't likely ye'll ever see it ag'in. Keep quiet now,' he added, letting down the bars at the foot of the lane. 'We're goin' west an' we mustn't let the grass grow under us. Got t'be purty spry I can'tell ye.'
It was quite dark and he felt his way carefully down the cow-paths
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