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- The Long Ago - 5/6 -
that comes in sacks nowadays at about the same price as butter and eggs. And even the wood had to be split just so and be "clear" and right, or grandmother would scold grandfather for not wearing his near-seeing specs when he bought it. "Guess they fooled you on that load, Mr. Van," she'd say. "It isn't like the last we had."
Don't you remember how you were hanging around the kitchen one Saturday morning kind-a waiting for something to come within reach, and grandfather's cane came tap-tapping down the long hall, and he pushed open the kitchen door and stood there, just inside the door, until the kettle started boiling over and making such a noise. And then he announced that he thought he better go out and see if there was any wood in market. (As if there weren't fifty farmers lined up there almost before daylight!) It was about nine o'clock and the sun had had a chance to warm things up a bit - so grandmother wrapped him up in his knitted muffler and away he went beneath his shiny silk hat. And because you stood around and looked wistfully up at him, he finally turned back, just before he reached the big front door and said: "Want to go along, Billie?" Of course you went, because there were all kinds of shops on the way up town to the wood market and grandfather always had an extra nickle for such occasions.
Can't you just see that wood-market now, as it used to be in the Long Ago - with its big platform scales - and its wagons of accurately-piled cord-wood marked on the end of some stick with the white chalk-mark of the official "inspector" and measurer - and the farmers all bundled-up and tied-around with various cold-dispelling devices and big mitts and fur caps? So far as you could tell then (or now, either, I'll wager!) every load was exactly like every other load - but not so to grandfather, for he would scrutinize them all, sound them with his stick, barter and dicker and look out for knots - and then make the rounds again and do it all over before finally making his selection - and I distinctly remember feeling that the wood left in market after grandfather had made his selection wasn't worth hauling away!
Load after load was driven up to the high backyard fence and its sticks heaved into the yard and piled in perfect order - and it made a goodly and formidable showing when Old Pete, the wood-sawyer, finally arrived on the scene. The time of wood-buying was determined partly by Pete's engagements - he went first to the Perkinses and next to the Williamses and so on in rotation as he had done for years, his entire winter being "engaged" far ahead. It did not seem possible, to boyish mind, that one man could ever get all that wood sawed and split, even if he was a great giant Norseman with the finest buck-saw in the country.
But each year Old Pete's prowess seemed to increase - and day after day the ceaseless music of his saw sounded across the crisp air - and the measured strokes of his axe struck a clarion note - until finally the yard showed only chips and saw-dust where that vast wood-pile had been - and the big barn was piled full to the rafters - the kitchen wood and chunks on one side, the big wood on the other.
Then Pete would come in and announce that the job was done - and grandfather would bundle-up and go out for a final inspection. Pete removed the pad from his leg (you remember the carpet he wore on his left knee - the one that held the stick in place in the buck when he was sawing) and together they went into the barn - and talked it all over - and Pete said it was harder wood than last year's and more knots in it and ought to be worth two shillings more than contract price - and grandfather finally allowed the excess - and Old Pete came in and got his money (in gold and silver) and a bowl of coffee and some bread - and went his way to the Jonesses or some other folks.
And you, young man - you surely hated to see that great Viking go - for he had told you many a wonderful tale at the noon hour as he munched his thick sandwiches - and no one could look at his massive head and huge shoulders and great beard and hair and doubt that his forebears had done all that he credited to them.
Somehow, Old Pete seemed more real than most men you knew - except grandfather, of course. There was something unexplainable in the man and his work that rang true - something that was so wholesome and sound. He wasn't like old Hawkins, the grocer - he'd as lief give you a rotten apple as not if he could smuggle it into the bag without you seeing him; and Kline the candy-man sometimes sold you old hard stuff mixed with the fresh. But Old Pete here - he just worked honest and steady - out in the open - at a fixed wage - and he did an honest job and was proud of it even if it was only sawing wood. He worked faithfully until it was done, and then he got a good word and a bowl of coffee and his wages in gold and silver - and went his way rejoicing, leaving behind him the glory of labor well performed blending with the refreshing fragrance of new-cut logs that sifted through the cracks of the old barn.
It is early, and Saturday morning - very, very early.
Listen! . . . An unmistakable drip, drip, drip . . . and the room is dark.
A bound out of bed - a quick step to the window - an anxious peering through the wet panes . . . . and the confirmation is complete.
It is raining - and on Saturday, the familiar leaden skies and steady drip that spell permanency and send the robin to the shelter of some thick bush, and leave only an occasional undaunted swallow cleaving the air on swift wing.
In all the world there is no sadness like that which in boyhood sends you back to bed on Saturday morning with the mournful drip, drip, drip of a steady rain doling in your ears.
Out in the woodshed there is a can of the largest, fattest angle-worms ever dug from a rich garden-plot - all so happily, so feverishly, so exultantly captured last night when Anticipation strengthened the little muscles that wielded the heavy spade. All safe in their black soil they wait, coiled round and round each other into a solid worm-ball in the bottom of the can.
A mile down the river the dam is calling - the tumbled waters are swirling and eddying and foaming over the deep places where the black-bass wait - and old Shoemaker Schmidt, patriarch of the river, is there this very minute, unwinding his pole, for well he knows that if one cares to brave the weather he will catch the largest and finest and most bass when the rain is falling on the river.
But small boys who have anxious mothers do not go fishing on rainy days - so there is no need of haste, and one might as well go back to bed and sleep unconcernedly just as late as possible. If only a fellow could get up between showers, or before the rain actually starts, so that he could truthfully say: "But, mother, really and truly, it wasn't raining when we started!" it would be all right, and the escape was warrantable, justified and safe; but with the rain actually falling, there was nothing to do but go to sleep again and turn the worms back into the garden if the rain didn't let up by noon.
It is one of the miracles of life that Boyhood can turn grief into joy and become almost instantly reconciled to the inevitable like a true philosopher, and change a sorrow into a blessing. The companion miracle is that Manhood with its years of wisdom forgets how to do this.
And so, when the rainy day becomes hopelessly rainy, and Shoemaker Schmidt is left alone at the dam, the rain that sounded so dismal at dawn proves to be a benefactor after all. There will be no woodsplitting today, no outdoor chores - for if it's too wet to go fishing, as mother insists, of course it's too wet to carry wood, or weed gardens or pick cucumbers for pickles. The logic is so obvious and conclusive that even mother does not press the point when you remind her of it - and you are free for a whole day in the attic.
Instantly the blessing is manifest - the sadness of that day-break drip, drip, drip is healed - the whole character of the day is changed, and the rain-melody becomes not a funeral-march but a dance.
The attic is the place of all places you would most love to be on this particular calendar day!
How stupid to spoil a perfectly good Saturday by sitting on a hard beam, with wet spray blowing in your face all the time, and getting all tired out holding a heavy fish-pole, when here is the attic waiting for you with its mysterious dark corners, its scurrying mice that suddenly develop into lions for your bow-and-arrow hunting, and its maneuvers on the broad field of its floor with yourself as the drum-corps and your companions as the army equipped with wooden swords and paper helmets!
The day has been rich in adventure, and exploration, and the doing of great deeds.
And it has been all too short, for the attic is growing dim, and mother is again calling us - telling us to send our little playmates home and come and get our bread and milk.
A last arrow is shot into the farthest comer where some undiscovered jungle beast may be prowling.
A last roll is given to the drum, and the army disbands.
A sudden fear seizes upon us as we realize that night has come and we are in the attic, alone.
And with no need of further urging we scamper unceremoniously down the stairs, slam the attic door, hurry into the kitchen where Maggie has our table waiting . . . .
Eight o'clock - and we're all tucked away among the feathers again!
Aren't we glad we didn't go down to the river - it would have been a cold, dismal day - and perhaps they weren't biting today, anyway - and we should have gotten very wet.
It is still raining, raining hard - pattering unceasingly on the roof . . . And the tin eave-troughs are singing their gentle lullaby of running water trickling from the shingles . . . a lullaby so soothing that we do not hear mother softly open the door . . . and come to our crib and place the little bare arms under the covers and leave a kiss on the yellow curls and a benediction in the room.
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