Notwithstanding the apparition of the blue-bird and the sanguine hopes of the boys, the winter yet refused to quit the field. Where these early blue-birds go to, that come to cheer desponding hearts in arctic regions like Poganuc, is more than one can say. Birds' wings are wonderful little affairs, and may carry them many hundred southward miles in a day. Dolly, however, had her own theory about it, and that was that the bird went right up into heaven, and there waited till all the snow-storms were over.

Certain it was that the Poganuc people, after two promising days of thaw, did not fall short of that "six weeks' sledding in March" which has come to be proverbial.

The thaw, which had dripped from icicles and melted from snow-banks, froze stiffer than ever, and then there came a two days' snow-storm—good, big, honest snow-feathers, that fell and fell all day and all night, till all the houses wore great white night-caps, the paths in front of all the house-doors had to be shoveled out again, and the farmers with their sleds turned out to break roads.

The Doctor was planning a tour in his sleigh to fulfill his monthly round of visiting the schools.

Schools there always were in every district, from the time the first log school-house had been erected in the forests, down to the days when, as now, the school-house is a comfortable, well-furnished building.

In the Doctor's day the common schoolhouses were little, mean shanties, built in the cheapest possible manner, consisting of one small room and a vestibule for hanging bonnets, hats, and dinner baskets. In winter, a box-stove, the pipe of which passed through one of the windows, gave warmth. Blackboards were unknown. The teacher's care was simply to hear reading in the Bible and the "Columbian Orator;" to set copies in ruled copy-books; to set "sums" from "Daboll's Arithmetic;" to teach parsing from "Murray's Grammar;" to mend pens, and to ferule and thrash disorderly scholars. In the summer months, when the big boys worked in the fields, a woman generally held sway, and taught knitting and sewing to the girls. On Saturday all recited the "Assembly's Catechism," and once a month the minister, and sometimes his wife, came in to hear and commend the progress of the scholars.

One of the troubles of a minister in those times was so to hold the balance as to keep down neighborhood quarrels;—not an easy matter among a race strong, opinionated, and who, having little variety in life, rather liked the stimulus of disagreements. A good quarrel was a sort of moral whetstone, always on hand for the sharpening of their wits.

Such a quarrel had stood for some two or three years past in regard to the position of the North Poganuc schoolhouse. It had unfortunately been first located on a high, slippery, windy hill, very uncomfortable of access in the winter months, and equally hot and cheerless in summer. Subsequently, the building of several new farm-houses had carried most of the children a considerable distance away, and occasioned increased sense of inconvenience.

The thing had been talked of and discussed in several successive town-meetings, but no vote could be got to change the position of the school-house. Zeph Higgins was one of the most decided in stating what ought to be done and where the school-house ought to stand; but, unfortunately, Zeph's mode of arguing a question was such as to rouse all the existing combativeness in those whom he sought to convince. No more likely mode to ruin a motion in town-meeting than to get Zeph interested to push it. In Poganuc, as elsewhere, there were those in town-meeting that voted on the principle stated by the immortal Bird o' Freedom Sawin:

"I take the side that isn't took

By them consarned teetotalers."

In the same manner, Zeph's neighbors were for the most part inclined in town meeting, irrespective of any other consideration, to take the side he didn't take.

Hiel Jones had often been heard to express the opinion that, "Ef Zeph Higgins would jest shet up his gash in town-meetin', that air school-house could be moved fast enough; but the minit that Dr. Cushing had been round, and got folks kind o' slicked down and peaceable, Zeph would git up and stroke 'em all back'ards and git their dander up agin. Folks warn't a-goin' to be druv; and Zeph was allers fer drivin'."

The subject of an approaching town-meeting was beginning to loom dimly in the discussions of the village. One characteristic of the Yankee mind, as developed in those days, was the slowness and deliberation with which it arrived at any purpose or conclusion. This was not merely in general movements, but in particular ones also. Did the Widow Brown contemplate turning her back buttery into a sink-room, she forthwith went over to the nearest matrons of her vicinity, and announced that she was "talkin' about movin' her sink," and the movement in all its branches and bearings was discussed in private session. That was step No. 1. Then all the women at the next quilting, or tea-drinking, heard that Widow Brown was "talking about changing her sink," and they talked about it. Then Seth Chickering, the neighborhood carpenter, was called into consultation, and came and investigated the premises, and reported—first to the widow and second to his wife, who told all the other women what "Seth, he said," etc. The talking process continued indefinitely, unless some active Providential dispensation brought it to an end.

The same process was repeated when Mrs. Slocum thought of investing in a new winter cloak; the idea in those days prevailing that a winter cloak was a thing never but once in a lifetime to be bought, and after that to endure for all generations, the important article must not be bought lightly or unadvisedly. When Deacon Dickenson proposed to build a new back parlor on his house and to re-shingle the roof, the talking and discussion lasted six months, and threw the whole neighborhood into commotion; carpenters came before daybreak and roosted on the fences, and at odd times as they found leisure, at all hours of the day, gathered together, and Seth Chickering took the opinions of Sam Parmelee and Jake Peters; and all Mrs. Dickenson's female friends talked about it, till every shingle, every shingle-nail and every drop of paint had received a separate consideration, and the bargain was, so to speak, whittled down to the finest possible point.

Imagine the delicacies of discussion, then, that attended the moving of a schoolhouse at the public expense—a schoolhouse in which everybody in the neighborhood had a private and personal claim—and how like the proceedings of a bull in a china shop was the advocacy of a champion like Zeph Higgins, and one may see how infinitely extended in this case might be the area of "talkin' about movin' that air schoolhouse," and how hopelessly distant any decision. The thing had already risen on the horizon of Deacon Dickenson's store, like one of those puzzling stars or fractiously disposed heavenly bodies that seem created to furnish astronomers with something to talk about.

The fateful period was again coming round; the spring town-meeting was at hand, and more than one had been heard to say that "Ef that air schoolhouse hed to be moved, it oughter be done while the sleddin' was good."

In Deacon Dickenson's store a knot of the talkers were gathered around the stove, having a final talk and warm-up previous to starting their sleds homeward to their supper of pork-and-beans and doughnuts.

Our mournful friend, Deacon Peasley, sat in his usual drooping attitude on a mackerel-keg placed conveniently by the stove; and then, like Beattie's hermit,

" ... his plaining begun.

Tho' mournful his spirit, his soul was resigned."

"I'm sure I hope I don't wanter dictate to the Lord, nor nothin, but ef he should send a turn o' rheumatism on Zeph Higgins, jest afore town-meetin' day—why, seems to me 'twould be a marcy to us all."

"I don't see, fer my part," said Tim Hawkins, "why folks need to mind what he says; but they do. He'll do more agin a motion talkin' fer it, than I can do talkin' agin it fer a year. I never see the beat of him—never."

"Aint there nobody," said Deacon Peasley, caressing his knee, and looking fondly at the stove door, "that could kind o' go to him, and sort o' set it in order afore him how he henders the very thing he's sot on doin'?"

"Guess you don't know him as I do," said Deacon Dickenson, "or you wouldn't 'a' thought o' that."

"And now he's gone in with the Democrats, and agin Parson Cushing and the church, it'll be worse 'n ever," remarked Tim Hawkins.

"Now, there's Mis' Higgins," said the Deacon; "she can't do nothin' with him; he won't take a word from her; she hez to step round softly arter him, a-settin' things right. Why, Widder Brown, that lives up by the huckleberry pastur' lot, was a-tellin' my wife, last Sunday, how Zeph's turkeys would come a-trampin' in her mowin', and all she could say and do he wouldn't keep 'em to hum. And then when they stole a nest there, Zeph he took the eggs and carried 'em off, 'cause he said the turkeys was hisn. Mis' Higgins, she jest put on her bonnet, and went right over, that arternoon, and took the turkey eggs back to the widder. Mis' Brown said Mis' Higgins didn't say a word, but she looked consid'able—her eyes was a-shinin' and her mouth sort o' set, as ef she'd about come to the eend of her patience."

"Wal," said Deacon Peasley, "I rather wonder she durst to do it."

"Wal," said Tim, "my wife sez that there is places where Mis' Higgins jest takes her stand, and Zeph has to give in. Ef she gets her back agin a text in the Bible, why, she won't stir from it ef he killed her; and when it comes to that Zeph hez to cave in. Come to standin'—why she kin stand longer 'n he kin. I rather 'xpect he didn't try to git back them turkey eggs. Ef he did, Mis' Higgins would 'a' stood right in the road, and he'd 'a' hed to 'a' walked over her. I 'xpect by this time Zeph knows what he kin make her do and what he can't."

"Wal," said Hiel Jones, who had just dropped in, "I tell ye Zeph's screwed himself into a tight place now. That air 'Piscopal parson, he's gret on orderin' and commandin', and thinks he didn't come right down from the 'Postles for nothin'. He puts his new folks through the drills lively, I tell ye; he's ben at old Zeph 'cause he don't bow to suit him in the creed—Zeph's back is stiff as a ramrod, and he jest hates it. Now, there's Mis' Higgins; she'll allers do any thing to 'blige anybody, and if the minister wants her to make a curtsey, why she does it the best she's able, and Nabby and the boys, they take to it; but it gravels Zeph. Then all this 'ere gittin' up and sittin' down aggravates him, and he comes out o' church as cross as a bull in fly-time."

Of course, the laugh was ready at this picture of their neighbor's troubles, and Hiram added:

"He'll put it through, though; he won't go back on his tracks, but it's pikery and wormwood to him, I tell ye. I saw him t'other day, after Parson had been speaking to him, come out o' church, and give his hoss such a twitch, and say 'Darn ye!' in a way I knew wa'n't meant for the critter. Zeph don't swear," added Hiel, "but I will say he can make darn sound the most like damn of any man in Poganuc. He's got lots o' swear in him, that ole feller hez."

"My mother says she remembers when Polly Higgins (that is) was the prettiest gal in all the deestrict," said Deacon Peasley. "She was Polly Adams, from Danbury. She came to keep the deestrict school, and Zeph he sot his eyes on her, and hev her he would; he wouldn't take 'No' for an answer; he didn't give her no peace till he got her."

"Any feller can get a gal that way," said Hiel, with a judicial air. "A gal allers says 'No' at fust—to get time to think on't."

"Is that the way with Nabby?" asked the Deacon, with a wink of superior intelligence. Whereat there came a general laugh, and Hiel pulled up his coat collar, and, looking as if he might say something if delicacy did not forbid, suddenly remembered that "Mother had sent him for a quarter of a pound o' young Hyson."

Definite business at once broke up the session, and every man, looking out his parcels, mounted his sled and wended his way home.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook