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I remember that I tried to walk and talk like Silas Wright after that day. He had a way of twisting little locks of his hair between his thumb and finger when he sat thinking. I practised that trick of his when I was alone and unobserved.
One day I was walking up and down, as I had seen Mr. Wright do, and talking to my friend "Baynes," when Aunt Deel called to me that I should bring the candle molds from the shed. I was keeper of the molds and greatly enjoyed the candle-making. First we strung the wicks on slender wooden rods--split and whittled by Uncle Peabody and me as we sat down by the stove in the evening. Then the wicks were let down into tin molds, each of which ended in a little inverted cone with a hole through its point. We carefully worked the wick ends through these perforations and drew them tight. When the mold was ready we poured in the melted tallow, which hardened in a few minutes. Later, by pulling the wooden rods, we loosened the candles and drew them out of the molds. They were as smooth and white as polished alabaster. With shears we trimmed the wick ends. The iron candlesticks were filled and cleaned of drippings and set on the little corner shelf above the sink.
When night fell again and the slender white shaft, rising above its base of iron, was crowned with yellow flame, I can think of nothing more beautiful in color, shape and symbolism. It was the torch of liberty and learning in the new world--a light-house on the shore of the great deep.
The work of the day ended, the candles were grouped near the edge of the table and my aunt's armchair was placed beside them. Then I sat on Uncle Peabody's lap by the fire or, as time went on, in my small chair beside him, while Aunt Deel adjusted her spectacles and began to read.
At last those of wearied bones and muscles had sat down to look abroad with the mind's eye. Their reason began to concern itself with problems beyond the narrow limits of the house and farm; their imaginations took the wings of the poet and rose above all their humble tasks.
I recall how, when the candles were lighted, storyteller, statesman, explorer, poet and preacher came from the far ends of the earth and poured their souls into ours. It was a dim light--that of the candles--but even to-day it shines through the long alley of these many years upon my pathway. I see now what I saw not then in the candle-light, a race marching out of darkness, ignorance and poverty with our little party in the caravan. Crowding on, they widened the narrow way of their stern religion.
At first we had only The Horse Farrier, The Cattle Book, The Story of the Indian Wars--a book which had been presented to Aunt Deel by her grandmother, and which in its shroud of white linen lay buried in her trunk most of the time for fear harm would come to it, as it did, indeed, when in a moment of generosity she had loaned it to me. The Bible and the St. Lawrence Republican were always with us.
Many a night, when a speech of Daniel Webster or Henry Clay or Dewitt Clinton had pushed me to the edge of unconsciousness, while I resisted by counting the steel links in the watch chain of Uncle Peabody--my rosary in every time of trouble--I had been bowled over the brink by some account of horse colic and its remedy, or of the proper treatment of hoof disease in sheep. I suffered keenly from the horse colic and like troubles and from the many hopes and perils of democracy in my childhood. I found the Bible, however, the most joyless book of all, Samson being, as I thought, the only man in it who amounted to much. A shadow lay across its pages which came, I think, from the awful solemnity of my aunt when she opened them. It reminded me of a dark rainy day made fearful by thunder and lightning. It was not the cheerful thing, illumined by the immortal faith of man which, since then, I have found it to be. The box of books changed the whole current of our lives.
I remember vividly that evening when we took out the books and tenderly felt their covers and read their titles. There were Cruikshanks' Comic Almanac and Hood's Comic Annual; tales by Washington Irving and James K. Paulding and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Miss Mitford and Miss Austin; the poems of John Milton and Felicia Hemans. Of the treasures in the box I have now; in my possession: A life of Washington, The Life and Writings of Doctor Duckworth, The Stolen Child, by "John Galt, Esq."; Rosine Laval, by "Mr. Smith"; Sermons and Essays, by William Ellery Channing. We found in the box, also, thirty numbers of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review and sundry copies of the New York Mirror.
"Ayes! I declare! What do you think o' this, Peabody Baynes!" Aunt Deel exclaimed as she sat turning the pages of a novel. "Ye know Aunt Minervy used to say that a novel was a fast horse on the road to perdition--ayes!"
"Well she wasn't--" Uncle Peabody began and stopped suddenly. What he meant to say about her will never be definitely known. In half a moment he added:
"I guess if Sue Wright recommends 'em they won't hurt us any."
"Ayes! I ain't afraid--we'll wade into 'em," she answered recklessly. "Ayes! we'll see what they're about."
Aunt Deel began with The Stolen Child. She read slowly and often paused for comment or explanation or laughter or to touch the corner of an eye with a corner of her handkerchief in moments when we were all deeply moved by the misfortunes of our favorite characters, which were acute and numerous. Often she stopped to spell out phrases of French or Latin, whereupon Uncle Peabody would exclaim:
"Call it 'snags' and go on."
The "snags" were numerous in certain of the books we read, in which case Uncle Peabody would exclaim:
"Say, that's purty rough plowin'. Mebbe you better move into another field."
How often I have heard Aunt Deel reading when the effect was like this:
"The Duchess exclaimed with an accent which betrayed the fact that she had been reared in the French Capital: 'Snags!' Whereupon Sir Roger rejoined in French equally patrician: 'Snags!"
Those days certain authors felt it necessary to prove that their education had not been neglected or forgotten. Their way was strewn with fragments of classic lore intended to awe and mystify the reader, while evidences of correct religious sentiment were dropped, here and there, to reassure him. The newspapers and magazines of the time, like certain of its books, were salted with little advertisements of religion, and virtue and honesty and thrift.
In those magazines we read of the great West--"the poor man's paradise"--"the stoneless land of plenty"; of its delightful climate, of the ease with which the farmer prospered on its rich soil. Uncle Peabody spoke playfully of going West, after that, but Aunt Deel made no answer and concealed her opinion on that subject for a long time. As for myself, the reading had deepened my interest in east and west and north and south and in the skies above them. How mysterious and inviting they had become!
One evening a neighbor had brought the Republican from the post-office. I opened it and read aloud these words, in large type at the top of the page:
Silas Wright Elected to the U.S. Senate.
"Well I want to know!" Uncle Peabody exclaimed. "That would make me forgit it if I was goin' to be hung. Go on and read what it says."
I read of the choosing of our friend for the seat made vacant by the resignation of William L. Marcy, who had been elected governor, and the part which most impressed us were these words from a letter of Mr. Wright to Azariah Flagg of Albany, written when the former was asked to accept the place:
"I am too young and too poor for such an elevation. I have not had the experience in that great theater of politics to qualify me for a place so exalted and responsible. I prefer therefore the humbler position which I now occupy."
"That's his way," said Uncle Peabody. "They had hard work to convince him that he knew enough to be Surrogate."
"Big men have little conceit--ayes!" said Aunt Deel with a significant glance at me.
The candles had burned low and I was watching the shroud of one of them when there came a rap at the door. It was unusual for any one to come to our door in the evening and we were a bit startled. Uncle Peabody opened it and old Kate entered without speaking and nodded to my aunt and uncle and sat down by the fire. Vividly I remembered the day of the fortune-telling. The same gentle smile lighted her face as she looked at me. She held up her hand with four fingers spread above it.
"Ayes," said Aunt Deel, "there are four perils."
My aunt rose and went into the but'ry while I sat staring at the ragged old woman. Her hair was white now and partly covered by a worn and faded bonnet. Forbidding as she was I did not miss the sweetness in her smile and her blue eyes when she looked at me. Aunt Deel came with a plate of doughnuts and bread and butter and head cheese and said in a voice full of pity:
"Poor ol' Kate--ayes! Here's somethin' for ye--ayes!"
She turned to, my uncle and said:
"Peabody Baynes, what'll we do--I'd like to know--ayes! She can't rove all night."
"I'll git some blankets an' make a bed for her, good 'nough for anybody, out in the hired man's room over the shed," said my uncle.
He brought the lantern--a little tower of perforated tin--and put a lighted candle inside of it. Then he beckoned to the stranger, who followed him out of the front door with the plate of food in her hands.
"Well I declare! It's a long time since she went up this road--ayes!" said Aunt Deel, yawning as she resumed her chair.
"Who is ol' Kate?" I asked.
"Oh, just a poor ol' crazy woman--wanders all 'round--ayes!"
"What made her crazy?"
"Oh, I guess somebody misused and deceived her when she was young--ayes! It's an awful wicked thing to do. Come, Bart--go right up to bed now. It's high time--ayes!"
"I want to wait 'til Uncle Peabody comes back," said I.
"I--I'm afraid she'll do somethin' to him."
"Nonsense! Ol' Kate is just as harmless as a kitten. You take your candle and go right up to bed--this minute--ayes!"
I went up-stairs with the candle and undressed very slowly and thoughtfully while I listened for the footsteps of my uncle. I did not get into bed until I heard him come in and blow out his lantern and start up the stairway. As he undressed he told me how for many years the strange woman had been roving in the roads "up hill and down dale, thousands an' thousands o' miles," and never reaching the end of her journey.
In a moment we heard a low wail above the sound of the breeze that shook the leaves of the old "popple" tree above our roof.
"What's that?" I whispered.
"I guess it's ol' Kate ravin'," said Uncle Peabody.
It touched my heart and I lay listening for a time but heard only the loud whisper of the popple leaves.
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