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CHAPTER III. PERNICIOUS LITERATURE.
When winter came, Hiram Winthrop had less to do and more time to follow the bidding of his own fancy. True, there was cordwood to split in abundance; and splitting cordwood is no child's play along the frozen shores of Lake Ontario. You go out among the snow in the wood-shed, and take the big ice-covered logs down from the huge pile with numbed fingers: then you lay them on a sort of double St. Andrew's cross, its two halves supported by a thwart-piece, and saw them up into fit lengths for the kitchen fireplace: and after that you split them in four with a solid-headed axe, taking care in the process not to let your deadened hands slip, so as to cut off the ends of your own toes with an ill-directed blow glancing off the log sideways. Yes, splitting cordwood is very serious work, with the thermometer at 40° below freezing; and drawing water from the well when the rope is frozen and your skin clings to the chill iron of the thirsty bucket-handle is hardly better: yet in spite of both these small drawbacks, Hiram Winthrop found much more to enjoy in his winters than in his summers. There was no corn to hoe, no peas to pick, no weeding to do, no daily toil on farm and garden. The snow had covered all with its great white sheet; and even the neighbourhood of Muddy Creek Dép?t looked desolately beautiful in its own dreary, cold, monotonous, Siberian fashion.

The flowers and leaves were gone too, to be sure; but in the low brushwood by the blackberry bottom the hares had turned white to match the snow; and the nut-hatches were answering one another in their varying keys; and the skunks were still busy of nights beneath the spreading walnuts; and the chickadees were tinkling overhead among the snow-laden pine-needles of the far woodland. All the summer visitors had gone south to Georgia and the gulf: but the snow-buntings were ever with Hiram in the wintry fields: and the bald-headed eagles still prowled around at times on the stray chance of catching a frozen-out racoon. Above all there was ease and leisure, respite from the deacon's rasping voice calling perpetually for Hiram here, and Hiram there, and Hiram yonder, to catch the horses, or tend the harrow, or mind the birds, or weed the tomatoes, or set shingles against the sun over the drooping transplanted cabbages. A happy time indeed for Hiram, that long, weary, white-sheeted, unbroken northern New York winter.

Sam Churchill was with the deacon still, but had little enough to do, for there isn't much going on upon an American farm from November to April, and the deacon would gladly have got rid of his hired help in the slack time if he could have shuffled him off; but Sam had been well advised on his first hiring, and had wisely covenanted to be kept on all the year round, with board and lodging and decent wages during the winter season. And Hiram initiated Sam into the mysteries of sliding on a bent piece of wood (a homemade toboggan) down the great snowdrifts, and skating on the frozen expansion of Muddy Creek, and building round huts, Esquimaux fashion, with big square blocks of solid dry snow, and tracking the white hare over the white fields by means of the marks he left behind him, whose termination, apparently lengthening itself out miraculously before one's very eyes, marked the spot where the hare himself was hopping invisible to human vision. In return, Sam lent him a few dearly-treasured books: books that he had brought from England with him: the books that had first set the Dorsetshire peasant lad upon his scheme of going forth alone upon the wide world beyond the ocean.

Hiram was equally delighted and astonished with these wonderful charmed volumes. He had seen a few books before, but they were all of two types: Cornell's Geography, Quackenboss's Grammar, and the other schoolbooks used at the common school; or else Barnes's Commentary, Elder Coffin's Ezekiel, the Hopkinsite Confession of Faith, and other like works of American exegetical and controversial theology. But Sam's books, oh, gracious, what a difference! There was Peter Simple, a story about a real live boy, who wa'n't good, pertickler, not to speak of, but had some real good old times on board a ship, somewhere, he did; and there was Tom Jones (Hiram no more understood the doubtful passages in that great romance than he understood the lucubrations of Philosopher Square, but he took it in, in the lump, as very good fun for all that), Tom Jones, the story of another real live boy, with, most delightful of all, a reg'lar mean sneak of a feller, called Blifil, to act as a foil to Tom's straightforward pagan flesh-and-bloodfulness; the Buccaneers of the Caribbean Sea, a glorious work of fire and slaughter, whar some feller or other got killed right off on every page a'most, you bet; Jake the Pirate, another splendid book of the same description; and half a dozen more assorted novels, from the best to the worst, all chosen alike for their stirring incidents which went straight home to the minds of the two lads, in spite of all external differences of birth and geographical surroundings. Hiram pored over them surreptitiously, late at nights, in the room that he and Sam occupied in common—a mere loft at the top of the house and felt in his heart he had never in his life imagined such delightful reading could possibly have existed. And they were written by growed-up men, too! How strange to think that once upon a time, somewhile and somewhere, there were growed-up men capable of thus sympathising with, and reproducing the ideas and feelings of, the natural mind of boyhood!

One evening, very late—eleven nearly—the deacon, prowling around after a bottle or something, spied an unwonted light gleaming down from the trap-door that led up to the loft where the lads ought at that moment to have been sleeping soundly. Lights in a well-conducted farmhouse at eleven o'clock was indeed incomprehensible: what on earth, the deacon asked himself wonderingly, could them thar lads be up to at this hour? He crept up the step-ladder cautiously, so as not to disturb them by premonitions, and opened the trap-door in sedulous silence. Sam was already fast asleep; but there was Hiram, sot up in bed, as quiet as a 'possum, 'pearin' as if he was a-readin' something. The deacon's eyes opened with amazement! Hiram reading! Had his heart been touched, then, quite sudden-like? Could he have took up the Hopkinsite Confession in secret to his upper chamber? Was he meditatin' makin' a public profession afore the Assembly?

The deacon glowered and marvelled. Creeping, still quite silently, up to the bedhead, he looked with an inquiring glance over poor Hiram's unsuspecting shoulder. A sea of words swam vaguely before his bewildered vision; words, not running into long orthodox paragraphs, like the Elder's Ezekiel, but cut up, oh horror, into distinct sentences, each indicating a separate part in a conversation. The deacon couldn't clearly make it all out; for it was a dramatic dialogue, a form of composition which had not largely fallen in the good man's way: but he picked up enough to understand that it was a low pothouse scene, where one Falstaff was bandying improper language with a person of the name of Prince (given name, Henry)—language that made even the deacon's sallow cheek blush feebly with reflected and vicarious modesty. For a moment he endeavoured, like a Christian man, to retain his wrath; and then paternal feeling overcame him, and he caught Hiram such a oner on his ears as he flattered himself that boy wouldn't be likely to forgit in any very partickler hurry.

Hiram looked round, amazed and stunned, his ear tingling and burning, and saw the gaunt apparition of his father, standing silent and black-browed by the bare bed-head. For a moment those two glared at one another mutely and defiantly.

At last Hiram spoke: 'Wal!' he said simply.

'Wal!' the deacon answered, with smothered wrath. 'Hiram, I am angry and sin not. What do you go an' take them bad books up to read for? Who give 'em you? Whar did you get 'em? Oh, you sinful, bad boy, whar did you get 'em?' And he administered another sound cuff upon Hiram's other ear.

Hiram put his hand up to the stinging spot, and cried a minute silently: then he answered as well as he was able: 'This aint a bad book: this is called “The Complete Dramattic Works of William Shakespeare.” Sam lent it to me, an' it's Sam's book, an' ther ain't no harm in it, anyhow.'

The deacon was plainly staggered for a moment, for even he had dimly heard the name of William Shakespeare; and though he had never made any personal acquaintance with that gentleman's works, he had always understood in a vague, indefinite fashion that this here Shakespeare was a perfectly respectable and recognised writer, whose books were read and approved of even by Hopkinsite ministers edoocated at Bethabara Seminary. So he took the volume in his hand incredulously and looked it through casually for a few minutes. He glanced at a scene or two here or there with a critical eye, and then he flung the volume from him quickly, as a man might fling and crush some loathsome reptile. By this time Sam was half-awake, and sat up in bed to inquire sleepily, what all thik ther row could be about at thik time of evenin'?' The deacon answered by going savagely to Sam's box, and taking out, one by one, for separate inspection, the volumes he found there. He held up the candle (stuck in an empty blacking-bottle) to each volume in succession, and, as soon as he had finally condemned them each, he flung them down in an untidy pile on the bare floor of the little bedroom. Most of them he stood stoically enough; but the Vicar of Wakefield was at last quite too much for his stifled indignation. Sitting down blankly on the bed he fired off his volley at poor Hiram's frightened head, with terrible significance.

'Hiram Winthrop,' he said solemnly, 'you air a son of perdition. You air more a'most 'n I kin manage with. Satan's openin' the door for you on-common wide, I kin tell you, sonny. It makes me downright scar't to see you in company along of sech books. Your mother'll be awful took back about it. I don't mind this 'ere about the Pirates of the Caribbean Sea, so much; that's kinder hist'ry, that is, and mayn't do you much harm: but sech things as this Peter Simple, an' Wakefield, and Pickwick's Papers—why, I wonder the roof don't fall in on 'em an' crush us in the lot altogether. I'm durned ef I could have thought you'd bin wicked enough to read 'em, sech on-principled literatoor. I sha'n't chastise you to-night, sonny; it's late, now, and we've read chapter: but to-morrer, Hiram, to-morrer, you shall pay for them thar books, take my word for it. You shall be chastened in the manner that's app'inted. Ef I was you, I should spend the rest of the evenin' in wrestlin' for forgiveness for the sin you've committed.'

And yet in the chapter the deacon had read at family worship that evening there was one little clause which said: 'Quench not the Spirit.'

Hiram slept but little that night, with the vague terror of to-morrow's whipping overshadowing him through the night watches. But he had at least one comfort: Sam Churchill had got out and gathered up his books, and locked them carefully in his box again.

'If the boss tries to touch they books again, I tell 'ee, Hiram,' he said bi-lingually (for absorbent America was already beginning to assimilate him), ''e'll vind 'isself a-lyin' longways on the vloor, afore he do know it, I promise 'ee.' Hiram heard, and was partly comforted. At least he would still have the books to read, somehow, at some time. For in his own heart, unregenerate or otherwise, he couldn't bring himself to believe that there could be really anything so very wicked in Henry the Fourth or Peter Simple.


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