Produced by Darleen Dove, David K. Park, Roger Frank and
the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
Produced by Darleen Dove, David K. Park, Roger Frank and
A YANKEE FROM THE WEST.
A YANKEE FROM THE WEST.
“Judge Elbridge,” “The Waters of Caney Fork,” “An Arkansas Planter.”
Chicago and New York: RAND, MCNALLY & COMPANY, PUBLISHERS.
Copyright,1898, by Rand, McNally & Co
In his mind the traveler holds of Illinois a tiresome picture, the kitchen garden of a great people, a flat and unromantic necessity. The greatest of men have trod the level ground, but it is hard to mark history upon a plane; there is no rugged place on which to hang a wreath, and on the prairie the traveling eye is accommodated by no inn whereat it may halt to rest. Such is the Illinois as remembered by the hastening tourist. But in the southern part of the State there are mountains, and in the north, the scene of this story, there is a spread and a roll of romantic country—the green billows of Wisconsin gently breaking into Illinois; lakes scattered like a handful of jewels thrown broadcast, quiet rivers singing low among the rushes. Traveling north, we have left the slim, man-tended tree of the prairies, and here we find the great oak. There are hillsides where the forest is heavy. There are valleys sweet in a riot of flowers. Along the roads the fences are almost hidden by grape-vines. On a knoll the air is honeyed with wild crab-apple; along a slope the senses tingle with the scent of the green walnut. There are lanes so romantic that cool design could have had no hand in their arrangement—they hold the poetry of accident. The inhabitants of this scope of country have done nothing to beautify it. They have built wooden houses and have scarred the earth, but persistent nature soon hides the scars with vines and grasses. The soil is wastefully strong. In New England and in parts of the South, the feeble corn is a constant care, but here it grows with the rankness of a jungle weed. And yet, moved by our national disease, nervousness, the farmer sells his pastoral dales to buy a wind-swept space of prairie in the far West. A strange shiftlessness, almost unaccountable in a climate so stimulating, has suffered many a farm to lie idle, with fences slowly moldering under flowering vines—a reproach to husbandry, but a contri Line 2620 column 53 – Query missing paragraph break?bution to sentiment. Amid these scenes many an astonished muser has asked himself this question: “Where are the poets of this land, where the bluebell nods in metre to the gentle breeze?” Not a poem, not a story has he se Line 2620 column 53 – Query missing paragraph break?en reflecting the life of this rude England in America. In the summer the Sunday newspaper prints the names of persons who, escaping from Chicago, have “sardined” themselves in cottages or suffered heat and indigestion at a farm-house; the maker of the bicycle map has marked the roads and dotted the villages; the pen and ink worker for the daily press has drawn sketches of a lily pad, a tree and a fish much larger than the truth; the reporter has caught a bit of color here and there, but the contemplative writer has been silent and the American painter has shut his eyes to open them upon a wood-shod family group in Germany.
This region was settled by Yankees. They brought with them a tireless industry and a shrewd humor. But to be wholly himself the Yankee must live on thin soil. Necessity must extract the full operation of his energy. Under his stern demand, the conquered ground yields more than enough. Vanquished poverty stuffs his purse. He sets up schools and establishes libraries. But on a soil that yields with cheerful readiness, he becomes careless and loses the shrewd essence of his energy. His humor, though, remains the same. Nervous and whimsical, he sees things with a hollow eye, and his laugh is harsh. Unlike his brother of the South, he does not hook arms with a joke, walk with it over the hill and loll with it in the shade of the valley; it is not his companion, but his instrument, and he makes it work for him.
One afternoon in early summer a man got off a train at Rollins, a milk station, and stood looking at a number of farmers loading into wagons the empty milk cans that had been returned from the city. He was tall and strong-appearing. He wore a dark, short beard, trimmed sharp, and his face was almost fierce-looking, with a touch of wildness, such as the art of the stage-man tries in vain to catch. He was not well dressed; he carried the suggestion that he might have lived where man is licentiously free. With his sharp eye he must have been quick to draw a bead with a gun; but his eye, though sharp, was pleasing. A dog sniffed him and walked off, satisfied with his investigation. The countryman stands ready to sanction a dog’s approval of a stranger—it is wisdom fortified by superstition, by tales told around the fire at night—so a look of mistrust was melted with a smile, and the owner of the dog spoke to the stranger.
“Don’t guess you’ve got a newspaper about you?” said the farmer, putting his last can into the wagon.
“No. The afternoon papers weren’t out when I left town.”
“Morning paper would suit me just as well—haven’t seen one to-day. I get a weekly all winter, and I try to get a daily in the summer, but sometimes I fail. Goin’ out to anybody’s house?”
“I don’t know.”
The farmer looked at him sharply. A man who did not know—who didn’t even guess that he didn’t know—was something of a curiosity to him. “Did you expect anybody to meet you?”
“No; I came out to look around a little—thought I might rent a farm if I could strike the right sort of terms.”
“Well, I guess you’ve come to the right place.” He turned and pointed far across a meadow to a windmill above tree tops on the brow of a hill. “Mrs. Stuvic, a widow woman, that lives over yonder, has an adjoinin’ farm to rent. Get in, and I’ll drive you over—goin’ that way anyhow, and it shan’t cost you a cent. Throw your carpet-bag in there, it won’t fall out. Whoa, boys! They won’t run away. Yes, sir, as good a little place as there is in the county,” he added, turning down a lane. “But the old woman has had all sorts of bad luck with it. That horse would have a fit if he couldn’t clap his tail over that line every five minutes. But he won’t run away.”
“I don’t care if he does,” said the stranger.
“Well, you would if you had to pick up milk cans for half a mile. He scattered them from that house up yonder down to that piece of timber day before yesterday.”
“Did he run away?”
“Well, he wasn’t walkin’.”
“Then how do you know he won’t run away again?”
“Well, I think I’ve sorter Christian scienced him.”
The stranger laughed, and the farmer clucked an applause of his own wisdom. They had reached a corner where a large white house stood surrounded by blooming cherry trees. Bees hummed, and the air was heavy with sweetness. The stranger took off his hat, and straightening up breathed long. “Delicious,” he said. The farmer turned to the right, into another road. “I’m almost glad I’m alive,” said the stranger.
“You must have paid your taxes and got it over with,” the farmer replied. The stranger did not rejoin. His mind and his eye had gone forth to roam in a piece of woods gently sloping toward the road. He saw the mandrake’s low canopy, shading the sod, the crimson flash of a woodpecker through the blue of the air beneath the green of the trees, like a spurt of blood. The farmer’s eye, cloyed with the feasts that nature spreads, followed a horse that galloped through the rank tangle of a marsh-dip in a meadow.
“Over on that other hill is where the old lady lives,” he said.
“What did you say her name was?”
“Well, her name was first one thing then another, but it’s Stuvic now. She’s been married several times—a Dutchman the last time, a good-hearted fellow that used to work for her first husband—a good talker in his way, smokin’ all the time, and coughin’ occasionally fit to kill himself. He liked to read, but he had to keep his books hid in the barn, for the old lady hates print worse than she does a snake. He’d wait till she was off the place, and then he’d go out and dig up his learnin’. But the minute he heard her comin’—and he could hear her a mile—he’d cover up his knowledge again. One day he told her he was goin’ to die, and she might have believed him, but he had lied to her a good deal, so she hooted at him; but a few days afterwards he convinced her, and when she found he had told the truth, she jumped into a black dress and cried. Strangest creature that ever lived, I guess; and if you want to come to good terms with her tell her you can’t read. She gets on a rampage once in a while, and then she owns the road. I saw her horse-whip a hired man. He had let a horse run away with him. She took the horse, hitched him to a buggy, jumped in, laid on the whip, and drove him at a gallop till he was only too glad to behave himself. Well, you can get out here.”
The stranger got down in front of a white “frame” house near the road. The farmer waved him a good-bye and drove on. From a young orchard behind the house there came the laughter of children at play. In the yard sat an aged man beneath an old apple tree. The place was a mingling of the old and the new, a farm-house with an extension for summer boarders.
As the stranger entered the gate, a tall, heavy, but graceful old woman stepped out upon the veranda. “Wasn’t that Steve Hardy that you rode up with?” she asked, gazing at him. The visitor bowed, and was about to answer when she snapped: “Oh, don’t come any of your bowin’ and scrapin’ to me. All I want is the truth.”
“The man didn’t tell me his name, madam.”
“Well, you didn’t lose anythin’. It was Steve Hardy, and a bigger liar never trod luther. Come in.”
The visitor stepped upon the veranda, and sat down upon a bench. The old woman stood looking at him. “Do you want board?” she asked. He took off his hat and placed it upon the bench beside him. She gazed at his bronzed face, his white brow, and grunted:
“I asked if you wanted board.”