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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » Babylon » Vol. I. CHAPTER I. RURAL AMERICA.
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Whar's Hiram, Het?' Deacon Zephaniah Winthrop asked of his wife, tartly. 'Pears to me that boy's allus off somewhar, whenever he's wanted to do anything. Can't git along without him, any way, when we've got to weed the spring peppermint. Whar's he off, I say, Mehitabel?'

Mrs. Winthrop drew herself together from the peas she was languidly shelling, and answered in the dry withered tone of a middle-aged northern New Yorker, 'Wal, I s'pose, Zeph, he's gone down to the blackberry lot, most likely.'

'Blackberry lot,' Mr. Winthrop replied with a fine air of irony. 'Blackberry lot, indeed. What does he want blackberryin', I should like to know? I'll blackberry him, I kin tell you, whenever I ketch him. Jest you go an' holler for him, Het, an' ef he don't come ruther sooner'n lightnin', he'll ketch it, an' no mistake, sure as preachin'. I've got an orful itchin', Mis' Winthrop, to give that thar boy a durned good cow-hidin' this very minnit.'

Mrs. Winthrop rose from the basket of peas and proceeded across the front yard with as much alacrity as she could summon up, to call for Hiram. She was a tall, weazened, sallow woman, prematurely aged, with a pair of high cheekbones, and a hard, hungry-looking, unlovable mouth; but she was averse to the extreme and unnecessary measure of cowhiding her firstborn. 'Hiram,' she called out, in her loudest and shrillest voice: 'Hiram!

Drat the boy, whar is he? Hiram! Hi-ram!' It was a dreary and a monotonous outlook altogether, that view from the gate of Zephaniah Winthrop's freehold farm in Geauga County. The homestead itself, an unpainted frame house, consisted of planed planks set carelessly one above the other on upright beams, stood in a weedy yard, surrounded by a raw-looking paling, and unbeautified by a single tree, creeper, shrub, bush, or scented flower. A square house, planted naked in the exact centre of a square yard, desolate and lonely, as though such an idea as that of beauty had never entered into the human heart. In front the long straight township road ran indefinitely as far as the eye could reach in either direction, beginning at the horizon on the north, and ending at the horizon on the south, but leading nowhere in particular, that anyone ever heard of, meanwhile, unless it were to Muddy Creek Dép?t (pronounced deepo) on the Rome, Watertown, and Ogdens-burg Railroad. At considerable intervals along its course, a new but congenitally shabby gate opened here and there into another bare square yard, and gave access to another bare square frame house of unpainted pine planks. In the blanks between these oases of unvarnished ugliness the road, instead of being bordered by green trees and smiling hedgerows, pursued its gaunt way, unrejoicing, between open fields or long and hideous snake fences. If you have ever seen a snake fence, you know what that means; if you haven't seen one, sit down in your own easy chair gratefully and comfortably, and thank an indulgent heaven with all your heart for your happy ignorance.

Beyond and behind the snake fences lay fields of wheat and meadows and pasture land; not, as in England, green and lush with grass or clover, but all alike bare, brown, weedy, and illimitable. There were no trees to be seen anywhere (though there were plenty of stumps), for this was 'a very fully settled section,' as Mr. Winthrop used to murmur to himself complacently: 'the country thar real beautiful: you might look about you, some parts, for a mile or two right away togither and never see a single tree a-standin' anywhar.' Indeed, it was difficult to imagine where on earth a boy could manage to hide himself in all that long, level, leafless district. But Mrs. Winthrop knew better: she knew Hiram was loafing away somewhere down in the blackberry lot beside the river.

'Lot' is a cheap and nasty equivalent in the great American language for field, meadow, croft, copse, paddock, and all the other beautiful and expressive old-world names which denote in the tongue of the old country our own time-honoured English inclosures. And the blackberry lot, at the bottom of the farm, was the one joy and delight of young Hiram Winthrop's boyish existence. Though you could hardly guess it, as seen from the farm, there was a river running in the hollow down yonder-Muddy Creek, in fact, which gave its own euphonious name to the naked little Dép?t; not here muddy, indeed, as in its lower reaches, but clear and limpid from the virgin springs of the Gilboa hillsides. Beside the creek, there stretched a waste lot, too rough and stony to be worth the curse of cultivation; and on that lot the blackberry bushes grew in wild profusion, and the morning-glories opened their great pink bells blushingly to the early sun, and the bobolinks chattered in the garish noontide, and the grey squirrels hid by day among the stunted trees, and the chipmunks showed their painted sides for a moment as they darted swiftly in and out from hole to hole amid the tangled brushwood. What a charmed spot it seemed to the boy's mind, that one solitary patch of undesecrated nature, in the midst of so many blackened stumps, and so much first-rate fall wheat, and such endless, hopeless, dreary hillocks of straight rowed, dry leaved, tillering Indian corn!

'Hiram! Hiram! Hi-ram!' cried Mrs. Winthrop, growing every moment shriller and shriller.

Hiram heard, and leaped from the brink at once, though a kingfisher was at that very moment eyeing him with head on one side from the half-concealing foliage of the basswood tree opposite. 'Yes, marm,' he answered submissively, showing himself as fast as he was able in the pasture above the blackberry lot. 'Wal! What is it?'

'Hiram,' his mother said, as soon as he was within convenient speaking distance, 'you come right along in here, sonny. Where was you, say? Here's father swearin he'll thrash you for goin' loafin'. He wants you jest to come in at once and help weed the peppermint. I guess you've bin down in the blackberry lot, fishin', or suthin'.'

'I ain't bin fishin',' Hiram answered, with a certain dogged, placid resignation. 'I've bin lookin' around, and that's so, mother. On'y lookin' around at the chipmunks an' bobolinks, 'cause I was dreadful tired.'

'Tired of what?' asked his mother, not uncompassionately.

'Planin',' Hiram answered, with a nod. 'Planks. Father give me forty planks to plane, an' I've done'em.'

'Wal, mind he don't thrash you, Hiram,' the sallow-faced woman said, warningly, with as much tenderness in her voice as lay within the compass of her nature. 'He's orful mad with you now, 'cause you didn't answer immejately when he hollered.'

'Then why don't he holler loud enough?' asked Hiram, in an injured tone—he was an ill-clad boy of about twelve—'I can't never hear him down lot yonder.'

'What's that you got in your pocket, sir?' Mr. Winthrop puts in, coming up unexpectedly to the pair on the long, straight, blinking high-road. 'What's that, naow, eh, sonny?'

Hiram pulls the evidence of guilt slowly out of his rough tunic. 'Injuns,' he answers, shortly, in the true western laconic fashion.

Mr. Winthrop examines the object carelessly. It is a bit of blackish stone, rudely chipped into shape, and ground at one end to an artificial edge with some nicety of execution.

'Injuns!' he echoes contemptuously, dashing it on the path: 'Injuns! Oh yes, this is Injuns! An' what's Injuns? Heathens, outlandish heathens; and a drunken, p'isonous crowd at that, too. The noble red man is a fraud; Injuns must go. It allus licks my poor finite understandin' altogether why the Lord should ever have run this great continent so long with nothin' better'n Injuns. It's one o' them mysteries o' Providence that 'taint given us poor wums to comprehend daown here, noways. Wal, they're all cleared out of this section naow, anyway, and why a lad that's brought up a Chrischun and Hopkinsite should want to go grubbin' up their knives and things in this cent'ry is a caution to me, that's what it is, a reg'lar caution.'

'This ain't a knife,' Hiram answered, still doggedly. 'This is a tommyhawk. Injun knives ain't made like this 'ere. I've had knives, and they're quite a different kinder pattern.'

Mr. Winthrop shook his head solemnly.

'Seems to me,' he said with a loud snort, ''taint right of any believin' boy goin' lookin' up these heathenish things, mother. He's allus bringin' 'em home—arrowheads, he calls 'em, and tommyhawks, and Lord knows what rubbish—when he ought to be weedin' in the peppermint lot, an' earnin' his livin'. Why wasn't you here, eh, sonny? Why wasn't you? Why wasn't you? Why wasn't you?'

As Mr. Winthrop accompanied each of these questions by a cuff, crescendo, on either ear alternately, it is not probable that he himself intended Hiram to reply to them with any particular definiteness. But Hiram, drawing his sleeve across his eyes, and wiping away the tears hastily, proceeded to answer with due deliberation: ''Cause I was tired planin' planks. So I went down to the blackberry lot, to rest a bit. But you won't let a feller rest. You want him to be workin' like a nigger all day.'Taint reasonable.'

'Mother,' Mr. Winthrop said again, more solemnly than before, 'it's my opinion that the old Adam is on-common powerful in this here lad, on-common powerful! Ef he had lived in Bible times, I should hev been afeard of a visible judgment on his head, like the babes that mocked at Elijah. (Or was it Elisha?' asked Mr. Winthrop to himself, dubitatively. 'I don't'zackly recollect the pertickler prophet.) The eye that mocketh at its father, you know, sonny; it's a dangerous thing, I kin tell you, to mock at your father. Go an' weed that thar peppermint, sir; go an' weed that thar peppermint.' And as he spoke the deacon gave Hiram a parting dig in the side with the handle of the Dutch hoe he was lightly carrying.

Hiram dodged the hoe quickly, and set off at a run to the peppermint lot. When he got there he waited a moment, and then felt in his pocket cautiously for some other unseen object. Oh joy, it wasn't broken! He took it out and looked at it tenderly. It was a bobolink's egg. He held it up to the light, and saw the sunshine gleaming through it.

'Aint it cunning?' he said to himself, with a little hug and chuckle of triumph. 'Ain't it a cunning little egg, either? I thought he'd most broke it, I did, but he hadn't, seems. It's the first I ever found, that sort. Oh my, ain't it cunning?' And he put the egg back lovingly in his pocket, with great cautiousness.

For a while the boy went on pulling up the weeds that grew between the wide rows of peppermint, and then at last he came to a big milk-weed in full flower. The flowers were very pretty, and so curious, too. He looked at them and admired them. But he must pull it up: no room in the field for milk-weed (it isn't a marketable crop, alas!), so he caught the pretty thing in his hands, and uprooted it without a murmur. Thus he went on, row after row, in the hot July sun, till nearly half the peppermint was well weeded.

Then he sat down to rest a little on the pile of boulders in the far corner. There was no tree to sit under, and no shade; but the boy could at least sit in the eye of the sun on the pile of ice-worn boulders. As he sat, he saw a wonderful and beautiful sight. In the sky above, a great bald-headed eagle came wheeling slowly toward the corner of the fall wheat lot. From the opposite quarter of the sky his partner circled on buoyant wings to meet him; and with wide curves to right and left, crossing and recrossing each other at the central point like well-bred setters, those two magnificent birds swiftly beat the sunlit fields for miles around them. At last, one of the pair detected game; for an instant he checked his flight, to steady his swoop, and then, with wings halffolded, and a rushing noise through the air, he fell plump on the ground at a vague spot in the midst of the meadow. One moment more, and he rose again, with a quivering rabbit suspended from his yellow claws. Presently he made towards the corn lot. It was fenced round, like all the others, with a snake fence, and, to Hiram's intense joy, the eagle finally settled, just opposite him, on one of the two upright rails that stand as a crook or stake for the top rail, called the rider. Its big white head shone in the sunlight, its throat rang out a sharp, short bark, and it craned its neck this way and that, looking defiantly across the field to Hiram.

'I reckon,' the boy said to himself quietly, 'I could draw that thar eagle.'

He put his hand into his trousers pocket, and pulled out from it a well-worn stump of blacklead pencil. Then from another pocket he took a small blank book, an old account book, in fact, with one side of the pages all unwritten, though the other was closely covered with rows of figures. It was a very precious possession to Hiram Winthrop, that dog-eared little volume, for it was nearly-filled with his own tentative pencil sketches of beast and birds, and all the other beautiful things that lived together in the blackberry bottom. He had never seen anything beautiful anywhere else, and that one spot and that one book were all the world to him that he loved or cared for.

He laid the book upon his knee, and proceeded carefully to sketch the grand whiteheaded eagle in his boyish fashion. 'He's the American eagle, I guess,' the lad said to himself, as he looked from bird to paper with rapid glances; 'on'y he ain't so stiff-built as the one upon the dollars, neither. His head goes so. Aint it elegant? Oh my, not a bit, ruther. And his tail! That's how. The feathers runs the same as if it was shingles on the roof of a residence. I've got his tail just as true as Genesis, you bet. I can go the head and the tail, straight an' square, but what licks me is the wings. Seems as if you couldn't get his wing to show right, nohow, agin the body. Think it must be that way, pretty near; but I don't know. I wish thar was some feller here in Geauga could show me how the folks that draw the illustriations in the books ud draw that thar wing. It goes one too high for me, altogether.'

Even as Hiram thought that last thought he was dimly aware in a moment of an ominous shadow supervening behind him, and of a heavy hand lifted angrily to cuff him about the head for his pesky idleness. He knew it was his father, and with rapid instinct he managed to avoid the unseen blow. But, alas, alas, as he did so, he dropped the precious account book from his lap and let it fall upon the heap of boulders. Deacon Winthrop took the mysterious volume up, and peered at it long and cautiously. 'Wal,' he said slowly, turning over the pages one by one, as if they were clear evidence of original sin unregenerated—'wal, this do beat all, really. I've allus wondered what on airth you could be up to, sonny, when you was sent to weed, and didn't get a furrer or two done, mornings, while I was hoein' a dozen rows of corn or tomaters. Wal, this do beat all. Makin' figgers of chipmunks, and woodchucks, and musk-rats, and—my goodness, ef that thar aint a rattlesnake! Hiram Winthrop, it's my opinion that you was born to reprobation—that's jest about the size of it!'

If this opinion had not been vigorously backed by a box on the ears and a violent shaking, it isn't likely that Hiram in his own mind would have felt deeply concerned at it. Reprobation is such a very long way off (especially when you're twelve years old), whereas a box on the ears is usually experienced in the present tense with remarkable rapidity. But Hiram was so well used to cuffing (for the deacon was a God-fearing man, who held it prime part of his parental duty to correct his child with due severity) that he didn't cry much or make a fuss about it. To say the truth, too, he was watching so eagerly to see what his father would do with the beloved sketch-book that he had no time to indulge in unnecessary sentiment. For if only that sketch-book were taken from him—that poor, soiled, second-hand, half-covered sketch-book—Hiram felt in his dim inarticulate fashion that he would have solved the pessimistic problem forthwith in the negative, and that life for him would no longer be worth living.

The deacon turned the leaves over slowly for some minutes more, with many angry ejaculations, and then deliberately took them between his finger and thumb, and tore the book in two across the middle. Next, he doubled the pages over again, and tore them a second time across, and so on until the whole lot was reduced to a mass of little fluttering crumpled fragments. These he tossed contemptuously among the boulders, and with a parting cuff to Hiram proceeded on his way, to ruminate over the singular mystery of reprobation, even in the children of regenerate parents. 'You jest mind you go in right thar an' weed the rest of that peppermint, sonny,' he said as he strode away. 'An' be pretty quick about it, too, or else you'll be more scar't when you come home to-night than ever you was scar't in all your life afore, you take my word for it.'

As soon as the deacon was gone, poor Hiram sat down again on the heap of boulders and cried as though his little heart would fairly break. In spite of his father's vigorous admonition, he couldn't turn to at once and weed the peppermint. ''Taint the lickin' I mind,' he said to himself ruefully, as he gathered up the scattered fragments in his hand, ''tain't the lickin', it's the picturs. Them thar picturs was pretty near the on'y thing I liked best of anything livin'. Wal, it wouldn't hev mattered much ef he'd on'y tore up the ones I'd drawed: but when he tore up all my paper, so as I can't draw any more, that does make a feller feel reel bad. I never was so mad with him in my life afore. I reckon fathers is the onaccountablest and most mirac'lous creeturs in all creation. He might hev tore the picturs ef he liked, but what for. did he want to go tearin' up all my paper?'

As he sat there on the boulders, still, with that gross injustice rankling impotently in his boyish soul, he felt another shadow approaching once more, and looked up expecting to see his father returning. But it wasn't the gaunt long shadow of the deacon that came across the pile: it was a plump, round, thickset English shadow, and it was closely followed by the body of its owner, his father's hired help, late come from Dorsetshire. Sam Churchill leant down in his bluff, kindly way, when he saw the little chap crying, and asked him quickly if he was ill.

'Sick?' Hiram answered, through his sobs, unconsciously translating the word into his own dialect. 'Sick? No, I aint sick, Mr. Sam; but I'm orful mad with father. He kem right here just now and tore up my drawin' book—an' that drawin' book was most everything to me, it was—and he's tore it up, a ravin' an' tearin' like all possest, this very minnit.'

Sam looked at the fragments sympathetically. 'I tell'ee, Hiram,' he said gently, 'I've got a brother o' my own awver yonder in Darsetshire—about your age, too—as is turble vond of drawin'. I was turble vond of it myself when I was a little chap at 'Ootton. Thik ther eagle is drawed first-rate, 'e be, an' so's the squir'l. I've drawed squir'ls myself, many's the time, in the copse at 'Ootton, I mind: an' I've gone mitching, too, in summer, birds'-nestin' and that, all over the vields for miles around us. Your faather's a main good man, Hiram;'e 's a religious man, an' a 'onest man, and I do love to 'ear 'un argify most turble vine about religion, an' 'ell, an' reprobation, an' 'Enery Clay, and such like: but'e's a'ard man, tiler's no denyin' of it.'E's took'is religion 'ot an' 'ot, 'e 'as; an' I do think'e do use 'ee bad sometimes, vor a little chap, an' no mistake. Now, don't 'ee go an' cry no longer, ther's a good little vulla; don't 'ee cry, Hiram, vor I never could abare to zee a little chap or a woman a-cryin'. Zee 'ere, Hiram,' and the big hand dived deep into the recesses of a pair of very muddy corduroy trousers, ''ere's a sixpence for'ee—what do 'ee call it awver 'ere, ten cents, bain't it? 'Ere, take it, take it young un; don't 'ee be aveard. Now, what'll 'ee buy wi' it, eh? Lollipops, most like, I sim.'

'Lollipops!' the boy answered quickly, taking the dime with a grateful gesture. 'No, Mr. Sam, not them: nor toffy, nor peanuts neither. I shall go right away to Wes' Johnson's store, next time father's in the city, an' buy a new book, so as I can make a crowd more drawin's. That's what I like better'n anything. It's jest splendid.'

Sam looked at the little Yankee boy again with a certain faint moisture in his eyes; but he didn't reflect to himself that human nature is much the same all the world over, in Dorsetshire or in Geauga County. In fact, it would never have occurred to Sam's simple heart to doubt the truth of that fairly obvious principle. He only put his hand on Hiram's ragged head, and said softly: 'Well, Hiram, turn to now, an' I'll help 'ee weed the peppermint.'

They weeded a row or two in silence, and then Sam asked suddenly: 'What vor do un grow thik peppermint, Hiram?'

'To make candy, Mr. Sam,' Hiram answered.

'Good job too,' Sam went on musingly. 'Seems to me they do want it turble bad in these 'ere parts. Sight too much corn, an' not near enough candy down to 'Murrica; why can't deacon let the little vulla draw a squir'l if 'e's got a mind to? That's what I wants to know. What do those varmers all around 'ere do? (Varmers they do call 'em; no better nor labourers, I take it.) Why, they buy a bit 'o land, an' work, an' slave thesselves an' their missuses, all their lives long, what vor? To raise pork and corn on. What vor, again? To buy more land; to raise more corn an' bacon; to buy more land again; to raise more corn an' bacon; and so on, world without end, amen, for ever an' ever. An' in the tottal, what do ur all come to? Pork and flour, for ever an' ever. Why, even awver yonder in old England, we'd got something better nor that, and better worth livin' vor.' And Sam's mind wandered back gently to Wootton Mandeville, and the old tower which he didn't know to be of Norman architecture, but which he loved just as well as if he did for all that: and then he borrowed Hiram's pencil, and pulled a piece of folded paper from his pocket (it had inclosed an ounce of best Virginia), and drew upon it for Hiram's wondering eyes a rough sketch of an English village church, with big round arches and dog-tooth ornament, embowered in shady elm-trees, and backed up by a rolling chalk down in the further distance. Hiram looked at the sketch admiringly and eagerly.

'I wish I could draw such a thing as that, he said with delight. 'But I can't, Mr. Sam; I can only draw birds and musk-rats and things—not churches. That's a reel pretty church, too: reckon I never see such a one as that thar anywhere. Might that be whar you was raised, now?'

Sam nodded assent.

'Wal, that does beat everything. I should like to go an' see something like that, sometime. Ef I git a book, will you learn me to draw a church same as you do, Mr. Sam?'

'Bless yer 'eart, yes,' Sam answered quickly, and turned with swimming eyes to weed the rest of the peppermint. From that day forth, Sam Churchill and Hiram Winthrop were sworn friends through all their troubles.


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