Chapter IX.


The month of March had dawned over the slippery, snow-clad hills of Poganuc. The custom that enumerates this as among the spring months was in that region the most bitter irony. Other winter months were simple winter—cold, sharp and hard enough—but March was winter with a practical application, driven in by winds that pierced through joints and marrow. Not an icicle of all the stalactites which adorned the fronts of houses had so much as thought of thawing; the snow banks still lay in white billows above the tops of the fences; the roads, through which the ox-sleds of the farmers crunched and squeaked their way, were cut deep down through heavy drifts, and there was still the best prospect in the world for future snow-storms; but yet it was called "spring." And the voting day had come; and Zeph Higgins, full of the energy of a sovereign and voter, was up at four o'clock in the morning, bestirring himself with a tempestuous clatter to rouse his household and be by daylight on the way to town to exercise his rights.

The feeble light of a tallow dip seemed to cut but a small circle into the darkness of the great kitchen. The frost sparkled white on the back of the big fire-place, where the last night's coals lay raked up under banks of ashes. An earthquake of tramping cowhide boots shook the rafters and stairs, and the four boys appeared on the scene of action. Backlog and forestick were soon piled and kindlings laid, and the fire roared and snapped and crackled up the ample chimney. Meek, shadowy Mrs. Higgins, with a step like a snow-flake, and resignation and submission in every line of her face, was proceeding to cut off frozen sausages from the strings of the same that garnished the kitchen walls. The tea kettle was hung over the blaze, and Zeph and the boys, with hats crowded down to their eyes, and tippets tied over their ears, plowed their way to the barn to milk and feed the stock.

When they returned, while the tea-kettle was puffing and the sausages frying and sizzling, there was an interval in which Zeph called to family prayers, and began reading the Bible with a voice as loud and harsh as the winds that were blowing out of doors.

Zeph always read the Bible straight along in course, without a moment's thought or inquiry as to the sense of what he was reading, which this morning was from Zechariah xi., as follows: "Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars. Howl, fir tree; for the cedar is fallen; because the mighty are spoiled. Howl, O ye oaks of Bashan, for the forest of the vintage is come down. There is a voice of the howling of the shepherds, for their glory is spoiled: a voice of the roaring of young lions, for the pride of Jordan is spoiled." Zeph rendered the whole chapter with his harshest tones, and then, all standing, he enunciated in stentorian voice the morning prayer, whose phrases were an heir-loom that had descended from father to son for generations.

The custom of family worship was one of the most rigid inculcations of the Puritan order of society, and came down from parent to child with the big family Bible, where the births, deaths and marriages of the household stood recorded.

In Zeph's case the custom seemed to be merely an inherited tradition, which had dwindled into a habit purely mechanical. Yet, who shall say?

Of a rugged race, educated in hardness, wringing his substance out of the very teeth and claws of reluctant nature, on a rocky and barren soil, and under a harsh, forbidding sky, who but the All-Seeing could judge him? In that hard soul there may have been thus uncouthly expressed a loyalty for Something Higher, however dimly perceived. It was acknowledging that even he had his master. One thing is certain, the custom of family prayers, such as it was, was a great comfort to the meek saint by his side, to whom any form of prayer, any pause from earthly care and looking up to a Heavenly Power, was a blessed rest. In that daily toil, often beyond her strength, when she never received a word of sympathy or praise, it was a comfort all day to her to have had a chapter in the Bible and a prayer in the morning. Even though the chapter were one that she could not by possibility understand a word of, yet it put her in mind of things in that same dear book that she did understand; things that gave her strength to live and hope to die by, and it was enough! Her faith in the Invisible Friend was so strong that she needed but to touch the hem of his garment. Even a table of genealogies out of his book was a sacred charm, an amulet of peace.

Four sons—tall, stout and ruddy, in different stages of progression—surrounded the table and caused sausages, rye and Indian bread, and pork and beans, rapidly to disappear. Of these sons two only were of the age to vote. Zeph rigorously exacted of his boys the full amount of labor which the law allowed till their majority; but at twenty-one he recognized their legal status, and began giving them the wages of hired men. On this morning he longed to have his way as to their vote; but the boys had enough of his own nature in them to have a purpose and will of their own, and how they were to vote was an impenetrable secret locked up in the rocky fastnesses of their own bosoms.

As soon as there were faint red streaks in the wintry sky, Zeph's sled was on the road, well loaded up with cord-wood to be delivered at Colonel Davenport's door; for Zeph never forgot business nor the opportunity of earning an honest penny. The oxen that drew his sled were sleek, well-fed beasts, the pride of Zeph's heart, and as the red sunlight darted across the snowy hills their breath steamed up, a very luminous cloud of vapor, which in a few moments congealed in sparkling frost lines on their patient eye-winkers and every little projecting hair around their great noses. The sled-runners creaked and grated as Zeph, with loud "Whoa," "Haw," or "Gee," directed the plodding course of his beasts. The cutting March wind was blowing right into his face; his shaggy, grizzled eye-brows and bushy beard were whitening apace; but he was in good spirits—he was going to vote against the Federalists; and as the largest part of the aristocracy of Town Hill were Federalists, he rejoiced all the more. Zeph was a creature born to oppose, as much as white bears are made to walk on ice.

And how, we ask, would New England's rocky soil and icy hills have been made mines of wealth unless there had been human beings born to oppose, delighting to combat and wrestle, and with an unconquerable power of will?

Zeph had taken a thirteen-acre lot so rocky that a sheep could scarce find a nibble there, had dug out and blasted and carted the rocks, wrought them into a circumambient stone fence, plowed and planted, and raised crop after crop of good rye thereon. He did it with heat, with zeal, with dogged determination; he did it all the more because neighbors said he was a fool for trying, and that he could never raise anything on that lot. There was a stern joy in this hand-to-hand fight with nature. He got his bread as Sampson did his honeycomb, out of the carcass of the slain lion. "Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness." Even the sharp March wind did not annoy him. It was a controversial wind, and that suited him; it was fighting him all the way, and he enjoyed beating it. Such a human being has his place in the Creator's scheme.

Poganuc was, for a still town, pretty well alive on that day. Farmers in their blue linsey frocks, with their long cart whips and their sleds hitched here and there at different doors, formed frequent objects in the picture. It was the day when they felt themselves as good as anybody. The court house was surrounded by groups earnestly discussing the political questions; many of them loafers who made a sort of holiday, and interspersed their observations and remarks with visits to the bar-room of Glazier's tavern, which was doing a thriving business that morning.

Standing by the side of the distributor of the Federal votes might be seen a tall, thin man, with a white head and an air of great activity and keenness. In his twinkling eye and in every line and wrinkle of his face might be read the observer and the humorist; the man who finds something to amuse him in all the quips and turns and oddities of human nature. This was Israel Dennie, High Sheriff of the County, one of the liveliest and shrewdest of the Federal leaders, who was, so to speak, crackling with activity, and entering into the full spirit of the day in all its phases.

"Here comes one of your party, Adams," he said with a malicious side twinkle to the distributor of the Democratic votes, as Abe Bowles, a noted "mauvais sujet" of the village, appeared out of Glazier's bar-room, coming forward with a rather uncertain step and flushed face.

"Walk up, friend; here you are."

"I'm a-goin' for toleration," said Abe, with thick utterance. "We've ben tied up too tight by these 'ere ministers, we have. I don't want no priestcraft, I don't. I believe every man's got to do as he darn pleases, I do."

"And go straight to the Devil if he wants to," said Squire Dennie smoothly. "Go ahead, my boy, and put in your vote."

"There comes old Zeph Higgins," he added with alertness; "let us have a bit of fun with him."

"Hulloa, Higgins; step this way; here's Mr. Adams to give you your vote. You're going to vote the Democratic ticket, you know."

"No, I ain't, nuther," said Zeph, from the sheer mechanical instinct of contradiction.

"Not going to vote with the Democrats, Higgins? All right, then you're going to vote the Federal ticket; here 'tis."

"No, I ain't, nuther. You let me alone. I ain't a-goin' to be dictated to. I'm a-goin' to vote jest as I'm a mind ter. I won't vote for nuther, ef I ain't a mind ter, and I'll vote for jest which one I want ter, and no other."

"So you shall, Higgins; so you shall," said Squire Dennie sympathetically, laying his hand on Zeph's shoulder.

"I shan't, nuther; you let me alone," said Zeph, shaking off the Sheriffs hand; and clutching at the Democratic ticket, he pushed up towards the polls.

"There's a fellow, now," said Sheriff Dennie, looking after him with a laugh. "That fellow's so contrary that he hates to do the very thing he wants to, if anybody else wants him to do it. If there was any way of voting that would spite both parties and please nobody, he'd take that. The only way to get that fellow to heaven would be to set out to drive him to hell; then he'd turn and run up the narrow way, full chisel."

It was some comfort to Zeph, however, to work his way up to the polls with Judge Belcher right in front and with Colonel Davenport's aristocratic, powdered head and stately form pushing him along behind, their broadcloth crowded against his homespun carter's frock, and he, Zephaniah, that day just as good as either. He would not have been so well pleased if he knew that his second son, Abner—following not long after him—dropped in the box the Federalist ticket. It was his right as a freeman; but he had no better reason for his preference than the wish to please his mother. He knew that Dr. Cushing was a Federalist, and that his mother was heart and soul for every thing that Dr. Cushing was for, and therefore he dropped this vote for his mother; and thus, as many times before and since, a woman voted through her son.

In fact, the political canvass just at this epoch had many features that might shock the pious sensibilities of a good house-mother. The union of all the minor religious denominations to upset the dominant rule of the Congregationalists had been reinforced and supplemented by all that Jacobin and irreligious element which the French Revolution had introduced into America.

The Poganuc Banner, a little weekly paper published in the village, expended its energies in coarse and scurrilous attacks upon ministers in general, and Dr. Cushing in particular. It ridiculed church-members, churches, Sunday-keeping, preaching and prayers; in short, every custom, preference and prejudice which it had been the work of years to establish in New England was assailed with vulgar wit and ribaldry.

Of course, the respectable part of the Democratic party did not exactly patronize these views; yet they felt for them that tolerance which even respectable people often feel in a rude push of society in a direction where they wish to go. They wanted the control of the State, and if rabid, drinking, irreligious men would give it to them, why not use them after their kind? When the brutes had won the battle for them, they would take care of the brutes, and get them back into their stalls.

The bar-room of Glazier's Tavern was the scene of the feats and boasts of this class of voters. Long before this time the clergy of Connecticut, alarmed at the progress of intemperance, had begun to use influence in getting stringent laws and restraints upon drinking, and the cry of course was, "Down with the laws."

"Tell ye what," said Mark Merrill; "we've ben tied up so tight we couldn't wink mor'n six times a week, and the parsons want to git it so we can't wink at all; and we won't have it so no longer; we're goin' to have liberty."

"Down with the tithing-man, say I," said Tim Sykes. "Whose business is it what I do Sundays? I ain't goin' to have no tithing-man spying on my liberty. I'll do jest what I'm a mind ter, Sundays. Ef I wan ter go a-fishin' Sundays, I'll go a-fishin'."

"Tell ye what," said Liph Kingsley, as he stirred his third glass of grog. "This 'ere priestcraft's got to go down. Reason's got on her throne, and chains is fallin'. I'm a free man—I be."

"You look like it," said Hiel, who stood with his hands in his pockets contemptuously surveying Liph, while with leering eye and unsteady hand he stirred his drink.

"That air's what you call Reason, is't?" added Hiel. "Wal, she's got on a pretty topplish throne, seems to me. I bet you Reason can't walk a crack now," he said, as Liph, having taken off his glass, fell with a helpless dump upon the settle.

"Sot down like a spoonful of apple-saas," said Hiel, looking him over sarcastically. The laugh now turned against the poor brute, and Hiel added: "Wal, boys, s'pose you like this 'ere sort of thing. Folks is different; for my part I like to kinder keep up a sort o' difference 'tween me and a hog. That air's my taste; but you're welcome to yourn," and Hiel went out to carry his observations elsewhere.

Hiel felt his own importance to the community of Poganuc Center too much to have been out of town on this day, when its affairs needed so much seeing to, therefore he had deputed Ned Bissel, a youth yet wanting some two years of the voting age, to drive his team for him while he gave his undivided attention to public interests; and indeed, as nearly as mortal man can be omnipresent, Hiel had been everywhere and heard everything, and, as the French say, "assisted" generally at the political struggle. Hiel considered himself as the provisional owner and care-taker of the town of Poganuc. It was our town, and Dr. Cushing was our minister, and the great meeting-house on the green was our meeting-house, and the singers' seat therein was our singers' seat, and he was ready to bet on any sermon, or action, or opinion of our minister. Hiel had not yet, as he phrased it, experienced religion, nor joined the church; but he "calculated he should some of these days." It wasn't Doctor Cushing's fault if he wasn't converted, he was free to affirm. Hiel had been excessively scandalized with the scurrilous attacks of the Poganuc Banner, and felt specially called to show his colors on that day. He had assured his mother on going out that morning that she needn't be a mite afeared, for he was a-goin' to stand up for the minister through thick and thin, and if any of them Democrats "saassed" him he'd give 'em as good as they sent.

In virtue of his ardent political zeal, he felt himself to-day on equal and speaking terms with all the Federal magnates; he clapped Colonel Davenport on the shoulder assuringly, and talked about "our side," and was familiar with Judge Belcher and Sheriff Dennie—darting hither and thither, observing and reporting with untiring zeal.

But, after all, that day the Democrats beat, and got the State of Connecticut. Sheriff Dennie was the first to carry the news of defeat into the parsonage at eventide.

"Well, Doctor, we're smashed. Democrats beat us all to flinders."

A general groan arose.

"Yes, yes," said the Sheriff. "Everything has voted that could stand on its hind legs, and the hogs are too many for us. It's a bad beat—bad beat."

That night when little Dolly came in to family prayers, she looked around wondering. Her father and mother looked stricken and overcome. There was the sort of heaviness in the air that even a child can feel when deep emotions are aroused. The boys, who knew only in a general way that their father's side had been beaten, looked a little scared at his dejected face.

"Father, what makes you feel so bad?" said Will, with that surprised wonder with which children approach emotions they cannot understand.

"I feel for the Church of God, my child," he said, and then he sung for the evening psalm:

I love thy kingdom, Lord,

The house of thine abode;

The Church our dear Redeemer saved

With his own precious blood.

For her my tears shall fall,

For her my prayers ascend;

To her my cares and toils be given

Till toils and cares shall end.

In the prayer that followed he pleaded for New England with all the Hebraistic imagery by which she was identified with God's ancient people:

"Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel; thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. * * Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt; thou didst cast forth the heathen, and plant it; thou preparedst room for it and didst cause it to take deep root, and it filled the land. The hills were covered with the shadow of it, and the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedars. Why hast thou then broken down her hedges so that all that pass by the way do pluck her? The boar out of the wood doth waste it; the wild beast of the field doth devour it. Return, we beseech thee, O Lord, and visit this vine and vineyard that thou has planted and the branch that thou madest strong for thyself."

It was with a voice tremulous and choking with emotion that Dr. Cushing thus poured forth the fears and the sorrows of his heart for the New England of the Puritans; the ideal church and state which they came hither to found.

Little Dolly cried from a strange childish fear, because of the trouble in her father's voice. The pleading tones affected her, she knew not why. The boys felt a martial determination to stand by their father and a longing to fight for him. All felt as if something deep and dreadful must have happened, and after prayers Dolly climbed into her father's lap, and put both arms around his neck, and said: "Papa, there sha'n't anything hurt you. I'll defend you." She was somewhat abashed by the cheerful laugh which followed, but the Doctor kissed her and said: "So you shall, dear; be sure and not let anything catch me," and then he tossed her up in his arms gleefully, and she felt as if the trouble, whatever it was, could not be quite hopeless.

But Dolly marveled in her own soul as she went to bed. She heard the boys without stint reviling the Democrats as the authors of all mischief; and yet Bessie Lewis's father was a Democrat, and he seemed a nice, cheery, good-natured man, who now and then gave her sticks of candy, and there was his mother, dear old Madame Lewis, who gave her the Christmas cookey. How could it be that such good people were Democrats? Poor Dolly hopelessly sighed over the mystery, but dared not ask questions.

But the Rev. Mr. Coan rejoiced in the result of the election. Not that he was by any means friendly to the ideas of the Jacobinical party by whose help it had been carried; but because, as he said, it opened a future for the church—for he too had his idea of "The Church." Meanwhile the true church, invisible to human eyes—one in spirit, though separated by creeds—was praying and looking upward, in the heart of Puritan and Ritualist, in the heart of old Madame Lewis, of the new Church, and of old Mrs. Higgins, whose soul was with the old meeting-house; of all everywhere who with humble purpose and divine aspiration were praying: "Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done."

That kingdom was coming even then—for its coming is in safer hands than those on either side—and there came a time, years after, when Parson Cushing, looking back on that election and its consequences, could say with another distinguished Connecticut clergyman:

"I suffered more than tongue can tell for the best thing that ever happened to old Connecticut."

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