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The Idyl of Twin Fires, Page 2

Walter Prichard Eaton

  Chapter II


  Three days later I got a report on the water from a chemist inSpringfield; it was pure. Meanwhile, I had decided to tap the townmain, so it didn't make any difference, anyway. We ran the car back toBentford, and I closed the deal, took an inventory of the farmimplements and equipment which went with the place, made a few hastyarrangements for my permanent coming, and hastened back to college. ThereI remained only long enough to see that the faculty had a competentman to fill my unexpired term (so much of conscience remained tome!), to pack up my books, pictures, and furniture, to purchase afew necessary household goods, or what I thought were necessary, and toconsult the college botanical department. Professor Grey of thedepartment assigned his chief assistant at the gardens to my case. Hetook me to Boston, and, armed with my inventory, in one day he spentexactly $641 of my precious savings, while I gasped, helpless in myignorance. He bought, it appeared to me, barrels of seeds, tons offertilizers, thousands of wheel hoes for horse and man, millions ofpruning saws and spraying machines, hotbed frames and sashes, tomatotrellises, and I knew not what other nameless implements and impedimenta.

  "There!" he cried, at 5 P.M. "Now you can make a beginning. You'llhave to find out this summer what else you need. Probably you'll wantto sink another $600 in the fall. I told 'em not to ship your smallfruits--raspberries, etc.--till you ordered 'em to. You won't beready for some weeks. The first thing you must do now is to hire afirst-class farmer and call in a tree specialist. Meanwhile, I'll giveyou a batch of government bulletins on orchards, field crops, cattle,and the like. You'd better read 'em up right away."

  "You're damn cheerful about it!" I cried. "You talk as if I were amillionaire, with nothing to do but read bulletins and spend money!"

  "That's about all you will do, for the next twelve months," he grinned.

  This was rather disconcerting. But the die was cast, and I came to asudden realization that seven years of teaching the young idea how topunctuate isn't the best possible training for running a farm, and if Iwere to get out of my experiment with a whole skin I had got to turn toand be my own chief labourer, and hereafter my own purchaser, as well.

  All that night I packed and planned, and the next morning I leftcollege forever. I slipped away quietly, before the chapel bell hadbegun to ring, avoiding all tender good-byes. I had a stack of experimentstation bulletins in my grip, and during the four hours I spent onthe train my eyes never left their pages. Four hours is not enough tomake a man a qualified agriculturist, but it is sufficient to make himhumble. I had left college without any sentimental regrets, my headbeing too full of plans and projects. I arrived at Bentford withoutany sentimental enthusiasms, my head being too full of rules forpruning and spraying, for cover crops, for tuberculin tests, for soilrenewal. I'm sorry to confess this, because in all the "back to theland" books I have read--especially the popular ones, and I want thisone to be popular, for certain very obvious reasons--the hero has landedon his new-found acres with all kinds of fine emotions and superbsentiments. The city folks who read his book, sitting by their steamradiators in their ten by twelve flats, love to fancy these emotions,glow to these sentiments. But I, alas, for seven long years preachedrealism to my classes, and even now the chains are on me; I must tellthe truth. I landed at Bentford station, hired a hack, and drove at onceto my farm, and my first thought on alighting was this: "Good Lord, Inever realized the frightful condition of that orchard! It will take mea solid week to save any of it, and I suppose I'll have to set out alot of new trees besides. More expense!"

  "It's a dollar up here," said the driver of the hack, in a mildlyinsidious voice.

  I paid him brusquely, and he drove away. I stood in the middle of theroad, my suitcase beside me, the long afternoon shadows coming downthrough my dilapidated orchard, and surveyed the scene. Milt Noble hadgone. So had my enthusiasm. The house was bare and desolate. It hadn'tbeen painted for twenty years, at the least, I decided. My trunks,which I had sent ahead by express, were standing disconsolately onthe kitchen porch. Behind me I heard my horse stamping in the stable,and saw my two cows feeding in the pasture. A postcard from one BertTemple, my nearest neighbour up the Slab City road, had informed methat he was milking them for me--and, I gathered, for the milk. Well, ifhe didn't, goodness knew who would! I never felt so lonely, so helpless,so hopeless, in my life.

  Then an odd fancy struck me. George Meredith made _his_ living, too,by reading manuscripts for a publisher! The picture of George Meredithtrying to reclaim a New England farm as an avocation restored my spirits,though just why, perhaps it would be difficult to make any one but afellow English instructor understand. I suddenly tossed my suitcaseinto the barn, and began a tour of inspection over my thirty acres.

  There was tonic in that turn! Twenty of my acres, as I have said, lay onthe south side of the road, surrounding the house. The other ten, behindthe barn, were pasture. The old orchard in front of the house (whichfaced the east, instead of the road) led down a slope half an acre inextent to the brook. That brook ran south close to the road whichformed my eastern boundary, along the entire extent of the farm--somethree hundred yards. At first it flowed through a wild tangle of weedsand wild flowers, then entered a grove of maples, then a stand of whitepines, and finally burbled out into a swampy little grove of tamaracks.I walked down through the orchard, seeing again the white bench acrossthe brook, against the roadside hedge, and seeing now tall iris flowersbesides, and a lily pool--all "the sweetest delight of gardens," asSir Thomas Browne mellifluously put it. As I followed the brook intothe maples and then into the sudden hushed quiet of my little standof pines, I thought how all this was mine--my own, to play with, todevelop as a sculptor molds his clay, to walk in, to read in, to dreamin. Think of owning even a half acre of pine woods, stillest and coolestof spots! I planned my path beside the brook as I went along, and myspirits rose like the songs of the sparrows from the roadside treesbeyond.

  The bulk of my farm lay to the south of the house, on a gentle slopewhich rose from the brook to a pasture plateau higher than the dwelling.Most of the slope had been cultivated, and some of it had been ploughedin the fall. I climbed westward, a hundred yards south of the house,over the rough ground, looked into the hayfield, and then continuedalong the wall of the hayfield, over ground evidently used as pasture,to my western boundary, where my acres met the cauliflower fields ofmy neighbour, Bert Temple.

  A single great pine, with wide-spreading, storm-tossed branches, likea cedar of Lebanon, stood at the stone wall, just inside my land. Thewall, indeed, ran almost over its roots, a pretty, gray, bramble-coveredwall, so old that it looked like a work of nature. Beneath the lowerlimbs of the pine, and over the wall, one saw the blue mountains framedlike a Japanese print. Standing off a way, however, the pine stood outsharply against the hills and the sky, a noble veteran, almost black.

  Then and there I saw my book plate--a coloured woodcut, green and blue,with the pine in black on the key block!

  Then I reflected how I stood on soil which must be made to pay me backin potatoes for the outlay, stood, as it were, on top of my practicalproblem--and dreamed of book plates!

  "_Somebody_ ought to get amusement out of this!" I said aloud, as I setoff for the barn, gathered up my suitcase, and climbed the road towardBert Temple's.

  If I live to be a hundred, I can never repay Bert Temple, artist incauliflowers and best of friends in my hour of need. Bert and his wifetook me in, treated me as a human, if helpless, fellow being, not as a"city man" to be fleeced, and gave me the best advice and the bestsupper a man ever had, meantime assuring me that my cows had been tested,and both were sound.


  The supper came first. I hadn't eaten such a supper since grandmotherdied. There were brown bread Joes--only rival of Rhode Island Johnny cakefor the title of the lost ambrosia of Olympus. They were so hot that thebutter melted over them instantly, and crisp outside, with delicious,runny insides.

  "Mrs. Templ
e," said I, "I haven't eaten brown bread Joes since I wasa boy. I didn't know the secret existed any more."

  Mrs. Temple beamed over her ample and calico-covered bosom. "You musthev come from Essex or Middlesex counties," she said, "if you've etbrown bread Joes before."

  "Essex," said I.

  "Essex!" she cried. "Well, well! I came from Georgetown. Bert, he'sMiddlesex. I dunno what we're doing out here in these ungodly, halfYork State mountains, but here we be, and the secret's with us."

  "Let me have some more of the secret," said I. "I'm growing youngerwith every mouthful."

  After supper Bert took me in hand. "First thing fer you to do's to gita farmer _and_ carpenter," he said. "I kin git yer both, if yer wantI should, an' not sting yer. Most noo folks thet come here gits stung.Seems like Bentford thinks thet's why they come!"

  "I'm clay in your hands," said I.

  "Wall, yer don't exactly know _me_ intimately," said Bert with alaugh, "so yer'd better git a bit o' granite into yer system. Neow, ezto a farmer--there's Mike Finn. He's not French, ez yer might guess,but he's honest ez the 21st o' June is long, an' he's out of a job onaccount of the Sulloways hevin' sold their estate whar he wuz gardeneran' the noo folks bringin' their own, an' he lives 'bout a quarterof a mile from your corner. He'll come an' his son'll help out withthe heavy work, sech ez ploughin', which you'd better begin termorrer."

  "Mike it is," said I. "What will he want for wages?"

  "He'll ask yer $60 a month, an' take $45, an' earn it all," Bertanswered. "We'll walk deown an' see him neow, ef yer like."

  I liked, and in the soft, spring evening we set off down the road."But," I was saying, "$45 a month for skilled labour seems to me ameasly wage. I'm ashamed to offer it. Why, college instructors get asmuch as that! I shall offer Mike $50."

  "Do yer want ter spile all the hired help in Bentford?" cried Bert.

  "No," said I, "but Mike gets $50, and perhaps a raise if he makesgood. I believe in the hire being worth the labourer. That's flat."

  "Wal, then, ez to carpenters," Bert switched, seeing that I could notbe budged; "thar's good carpenters, an' bad carpenters, an' HardCider Howard. Hard Cider's fergotten more abeout carpent'rin' thenmost o' the rest ever knoo, and he ain't fergot much, neither. But heain't handsome, and he looks upon the apple juice when it's yaller.Maybe yer don't mind looks, an' I kin keep Hard Cider sober whilehe's on your job. He'll treat yer fair, an' see thet the plumbersdo, an' fix all them rotten sills ez good ez noo."

  "What's that?" said I. "Rotten sills?"

  "Sure," Bert answered. "Mean to tell me yer didn't know thet? Yercan't pack all yer sills with leaves fer a hundred years, an' not take'em away summers half the time, an' _not_ rot yer sills. I'd say,treat 'em with cement like they do trees neow."

  I began to have visions of my remaining $24,000 melting away in sills.

  "I suppose the barn is rotten, too?" said I, faintly, as aninterrogation.

  We were then passing the barn. Bert stepped in--the door wasn'tlocked--lit a lantern, came out with it, and led me around to oneside. He held the lantern against one of the timbers which formed thefoundation frame. It was a foot in diameter, and made of hand-hewn oak!Though it had never been guilty of paint, it looked as solid as a rock.

  "Barn needs some patchin' and floorin' and a few shingles," saidBert, "but it ain't doo to fall deown jest yit!"

  He put the lantern back, and we walked on, turned the corner at mybrook, and followed the other road along past my pines till we came to asmall settlement of white cottages. At one of these Bert knocked. We wereadmitted by a pretty, blue-eyed Irish girl, who had a copy of Caesar'sCommentaries in her hand, into a tiny parlour where an "airtight"stove stood below a coloured chromo of the Virgin and Child, and amiddle-aged Irishman sat in his shirt sleeves, smoking a pipe.

  "Hello, Mike," said Bert, "this is Mr. John Upton, who's bought MiltNoble's place, an' wants a farmer _and_ gardener. I told him you wuzthe man."

  "Sit down, sor, sit down," said Mike, offering a chair with anexpansive and hospitable gesture. "Sure, let's talk it over."

  The pretty daughter had gone back to her Caesar by the nickel oil lamp,but she had one ear toward us, and I caught a corner of her eye, too--anextremely attractive, not to say provocative, eye.

  "Well, now," Mike was saying, "sure I can run a farm, but what do I begettin' for it?"

  "Fifty a month," said I, "which includes milking the cows and tendingfurnace in winter."

  "Sure, I got more than that on me last place and no cows at all."

  "Ye're a liar, Mike," said Bert.

  "That's a fightin' word in the ould country," said Mike.

  "This ain't the old country, and yer got $45," Bert grinned."Besides, yer'll be close to yer work. You wuz a mile an' a halffrum the Sulloways. Thet makes up fer the milkin'."

  "True, true," Mike replied, meditatively. "But what be yer runnin'the place for, Mr. Upton? Is it a real farmer ye'd be?"

  "A real farmer," I answered. "Why?"

  "Well, I didn't know. Onct I worked fer one o' them literary fellersthat married rich, and he was always fer makin' me try new-fangledthings in the ground instead o' good old cow manure. Begorra, he nighdrove the life out o' me with his talk o' bac-bac-bac somethin'--somekind of bugs, if ye can beat that--that he said made nitrogen. I'veheard say yer wuz a literary feller, too, Mr. Upton, and I have medoubts."

  "Well, I am a sort of a literary feller," I confessed, "but I nevermarried a rich wife."

  "Sure, ye're not so old to be past hopin'," Mike replied.

  I shook my head, and added, "But it's you I want to be the realliterary feller, Mike. You must write me a poem in potatoes."

  Mike put back his head and roared. "It's a pome yer want, is it?" hecried. "Sure, it's an oration I'll give ye. I'll grow ye the realhome rule pertaters."

  "Well," said I, rising, "do you begin to-morrow morning, and will yourson help for a few weeks?"

  "The mornin' it is," said Mike, "and Joe along."

  I paused by the side of the girl. "All Gaul is divided into threeparts," I laughed.

  She looked up with a pretty smile, but Mike spoke: "Sure, but they giveall three parts to Nora," he said, "so what was the use o' dividin'it? She thinks she's me mither instead o' me daughter!"

  "I'll put you to bed in a minute," said Nora, while Mike grinnedproudly at her.

  "I'm going to like Mike," said I to Bert, as we walked back up theroad.

  "I knoo yer would soon ez I seen yer," Bert replied. "The only folksthet don't like Mike is the folks thet can't see a joke. Mike has atolerable number o' dislikers."

  "Well, I've got my farmer," said I, "and now I suppose I've got tofind a housekeeper, as soon as the house is ready to live in. Nora wouldsuit me."

  "I reckon she would," Bert replied, "but she wouldn't soot Bentford."

  "In other words, I want an oldish woman, very plain, and preferably awidow?"

  "With a young son old enough ter help on the farm," Bert added witha grin.

  "I don't suppose you know of just that combination?"

  "Reckon I dew. You leave it to my old lady."

  "Mr. Temple," said I, "seems to me I'm leaving everything to you."

  "Wal, neow, yer might do a heap sight worse!" said Bert.

  I went up to my chamber when we got back, and sat down beside my littleglass lamp and did some figuring. I had $24,000 of my savings left,and out of that I subtracted another $2,000 for the carpenters andplumbers. That left me with an income from my investments of about$1,000 a year. Added to my alleged salary as a manuscript reader, alongwith what I hoped I could pick up writing, I recklessly calculated myannual income as a possible $3,000. Out of this I subtracted $600 forMike's wages, $360 for a housekeeper, $400 for additional labour, $75for taxes, and $500 for additions to my "plant," as I began to callmy farm. That made a total of $1,935, and left me a margin of about$1,000 for food, wines, liquors, and cigars, magazines, rare etchings,first editions, golf club dues, golf balls, cad
dy hire, an automobile,some antique mahogany, a few Persian rugs, an Italian marble sundial,and several other trifles I desired.

  I scanned my pad thoughtfully, and finally decided not to join the golfclub till the following year.

  Then it occurred to me that I ought, of course, to sell my farm producefor a handsome profit. Bert had gone to bed, so I couldn't ask himhow much I would be likely to realize. But with all due conservatism Idecided that I could safely rejoin the golf club. So I did, then andthere. Whereupon I felt better, and, picking out the manuscript of anovel from my bag, I went bravely at the task of earning my living.