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   Chapter 8 THE SMOKY HILL SECRET.

The Story of a Country Town By E. W. Howe Characters: 30979

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


IT having been decided to begin the summer school a few weeks earlier than at first intended, it became necessary for me to go after the teacher; so it was arranged that I should drive over to Smoky Hill on Friday, and return any time the following day.

My mother shared the feeling that the neighborhood where Agnes lived was superior to ours-although none of us knew why we had this impression-and after taking unusual pains with my toilet, she asked Jo to cut my hair, which he kindly did just before I drove away in the wagon, from the high seat of which my short legs barely touched the floor.

I knew nothing of the settlement except the direction, which was north, and that the uncle with whom Agnes lived was named Biggs, but they said I could easily inquire the way. The distance was twenty miles, and by repeated inquiries I found that Mr. Biggs-who was called Little Biggs by those living near him-lived in the first white house after crossing the north fork of Bull River, and when I came in sight of the place I knew it as well as if I had lived within hailing distance all my life. It was just such a place as I expected to find; an aristocratic porch on two sides of a house evidently built after the plans of an architect-the first house of such pretensions I had ever seen-with a gravel walk leading down to the gate, and a wide and neglected yard in front. A broken and dismantled wind-mill stood in the barn-yard, and around it was piled a great collection of farm machinery in an equally advanced stage of decay, all rotting away for lack of care and use. There was a general air of neglect everywhere, and I thought Mr. Biggs was an indifferent farmer, or else an invalid. Boards were off the fences, and gates off the hinges, and pigs roamed in every place where they did not belong. A herd of them, attracted by the sound of my wheels, dashed out from under the porch, and went snorting into the vegetable garden through a broken fence. I noticed these things as I stopped at a large gate intended for wagons to drive through, and while wondering whether I had better drive in there, or tie the team and walk up to the house. While debating the question I saw that a large, boyish-looking young man was pitching hay near the barn, and, noticing that he had stopped his work and was looking at me, I motioned for him to come out. Impatiently throwing down his fork, he came out to the fence, and, resting his chin on the top board, he looked at me with great impudence.

"Does Mr. Biggs live here?" I civilly inquired.

"Yes, Mr. Biggs lives here," he answered, drawling the first word as if to express disgust.

"Well, then," I said, "if you will open the gate I'll come in."

He threw it open with a bang, as if to express an unfavorable opinion of me, and I drove through, and stopped down by the stables. He followed sullenly, after banging the gate again, and, picking up his fork without looking at me, went on with his pitching. I began to feel uncomfortable at this cool reception, and inquired quite respectfully:-

"Is Mr. Biggs at home?"

"No," the fellow replied, "he's not at home," plunging his fork viciously into the hay as though he were wishing I was under it.

"Is Miss Agnes at home, then?"

"Yes, Miss Agnes is at home." He looked up in better humor, as though the name of Agnes was not so disagreeable as that of Biggs.

"Well, I'm told to stay here to-night, and take Agnes to her school to-morrow. If you'll show me where to stand the horses I'll put them away."

He laid down his fork at this and went to look through the stables. There seemed to be a spring somewhere near, for the stalls were oozy and wet, and unfit for use, and the fellow was debating in his mind which was the worst or the best one, I could not tell which. Finally he found a place, but the feed boxes were gone; and then another, but it had no place for the hay. I was following him around by this time, and said the last one would do very well, as it was the best one there.

He helped me to unhitch the horses, and while we were about it I looked up at the house and saw Agnes at one of the windows. She went away immediately, however, and I supposed she would be down to welcome me; but she didn't come, and I began to feel very uncomfortable. I had consoled myself for the rudeness of the young man by the thought that he would be very much ashamed of his incivility when Agnes came running down to meet me; but she didn't come, and kept away from the window, and I was uncertain whether I had better return home or seek shelter for the night at another house.

I noticed in the meantime that the fellow helping me was a giant in stature, and that he had a very little head, on which was perched a hat evidently bought for one of the children. The band and shape being gone, it looked very much like an inverted V.

"I suppose you are the preacher's boy?" he said, after eying me a long while, as though that was a very good reason why he should dislike me.

On my replying that such was the case, he looked at me as if thinking I was larger or smaller than he had imagined, and continued apparently in better humor:-

"I have heard of you. I live here. I'm the hired man. My name is Big Adam; lazy Adam, she calls me."

I had heard that little eyes denoted cunning, and little ears great curiosity, and Big Adam's were so particularly small that I determined to be very wary of him during my stay.

"She owns the farm, though Biggs pretends to own it," Big Adam went on, "but, while they do not agree in this, they agree that Big Adam hasn't enough to do, and is very lazy, and between them I have a great deal of trouble. I do all the work that is done here, and though you may think from looking around that I am not kept very busy, I am. There are four hundred acres here, and they expect me to keep it in a high state of cultivation. You see how well I succeed; it's the worst-looking place on earth."

I began to understand him better, and said it looked very well when I drove up.

"May be it does-from the road, but I haven't been out there for a year to see. I am kept too busy. But if you stay here long I'll take you out into the field, and show you weeds higher than your head. Instead of spending the money to mend the stables and fences, they buy more land with it, to give Big Adam something to do; for they are always saying that I am fat from idleness. I am fat, but not from idleness. I haven't had time this spring to comb my hair. Look at it."

He took off the Λ-shaped hat, and held his head down for me to see. It reminded me of the brush heaps in which we found rabbits at home, and I wished Jo had come along; he would have been delighted to shingle it.

"But you go into the house," he said, putting on his hat again, and, taking up the fork he had laid down to hunt a stall for my horses: "you'll hear enough of lazy Adam in there. They'll tell you I'm lazy and shiftless, because I can't do the work of a dozen men; and they'll tell you I am surly, because I can't cheerfully go ahead and do all they ask me to. A fine opinion of Big Adam you'll have when you go away; but I ask you to notice while you are here if Big Adam is not always at work: and Agnes will tell you-she is the only one among them who pretends to tell the truth-that she has never seen me idle. But go on into the house; I am not allowed to talk to strangers."

Accepting this suggestion, I went through a gate which was torn off its hinges and lying flat in the path, and, walking up the steps, I knocked timidly at the front door. While waiting for some one to answer my rap, I noticed a door-plate hanging on one screw, and, careening my head around, read "Lytle Biggs." I then understood why his neighbors called him Little Biggs-it was his name.

I hadn't time to congratulate myself on this discovery, for just then the door-plate flew in, and Agnes stood before me. Although she was friendly to me as usual there was a constraint in her manner that I could not understand, and as she led the way in she looked as though she was expecting the house to blow up.

"My uncle is away," she said, confusedly, after we were seated in a room opening off from the hall where I had entered, "but we expect him home to-night. My mother is not well, and demands a great deal of care, or I should have come down to the gate to meet you when you drove up."

She was so ill at ease that I hurried to explain my errand, and I thought she was greatly relieved to know I had not come on a visit.

"I shall be ready in the morning at any time you are," she said; and I wondered she could leave her mother, for I had been fearing that perhaps I should have to go back without her.

There was a great romp and noise in the room above the one in which we sat, and she looked out through the door leading into the hall as if half expecting to see somebody come tumbling down the stairs.

"My uncle's children," she said, seeing I wondered at the noise. "He has eight."

I wondered she had not told of them before, and then I remembered that she seldom talked of her uncle's family or of her mother.

"How are they all?" I inquired, thinking I must say something.

There was a great crash in the room overhead and a cry of pain, and Agnes went quickly to the door to listen. Being convinced that one of them had fallen over a chair, she came back, and replied to my question.

"Very noisy," she said, half laughingly. "I fear they will annoy you; it is so quiet at your house, and there is so much confusion here."

I said, "Oh! not at all," not knowing what other reply to make.

"My uncle Lytle"-I pricked up my ears at this, as her pronunciation of her uncle's name was different from that given it by his neighbors-"my uncle Lytle is trying to bring them up in town fashion here in the country, and they are seldom allowed to go out of doors, so that they can't be blamed for being rude and bad. All of them except the baby would be out at the stables with Big Adam if they were given the opportunity, but their father's orders are to keep them away from the stables, and in the house. So we make the best of them."

Just then they all came tearing out into the hall above to the stair rail, and I knew they were peeping over; but some one came out hurriedly after them, and, driving them all back into the room again, shut the door with a bang.

"They are anxious to see you," Agnes said, smiling. "They have the greatest curiosity imaginable. There will be no peace until they are allowed to look at you."

Feeling that I was an intruder in the house, for some reason, I suggested that she let them come down, promising I would amuse them as best I could. She thought a moment, and then, excusing herself, went out. After a long time I heard her coming back with them. Six of them rushed into the room ahead of her, and, taking up a position behind the chairs, looked at me curiously. The other two she carried in her arms, one of them being an infant not more than four or five months old.

They seemed a queer lot to me, their clothing being of a pattern I had never seen before, and I noticed that the boys wore their hair in long curls, and that their frocks were braided. All of their faces were pale, which did not result solely from their being lately washed, and the older boys were dressed in short trousers, and wore shoes, though it was summer, a peculiarity which attracted my attention particularly, because most of the boys I had known went barefooted. Agnes placed the baby on my knee, and I soon had all the children about me, asking questions and going through my pockets. Indeed, I succeeded very well in amusing them. While they were playing around, I heard some one come down the stairs, and go down the hall to a door which I judged led into the kitchen. Presently Agnes went out too, and I supposed they were making arrangements for supper, which thought was probably suggested by the fact that it was late, and that I was very hungry. The children amused themselves with me for a considerable time, and were more noisy than ever, when unfortunately one of them fell headlong over a chair and set up a most terrible cry. Immediately a little dried-up old woman came hurrying into the room, who, picking up the screaming one, and roughly taking the baby out of my arms, drove them all up the stairs before her, slapping and banging them as they went, so that they were all screaming by the time the door up stairs closed upon them.

While she was collecting them I saw that the newcomer's hair was twisted behind her head in a tight little knot, and that she was very slender, and very short; that her features were small and sharp, and dried-up like a mummy's, and that, altogether, she was the most repulsive-looking creature I had ever seen. I half expected that she would give me a rap as she went out, she looked so sour and ugly. I supposed she was a servant; possibly Adam's mother, and when Agnes came in, which she did a moment after, looking very much frightened, I had it in my mind to say that the old woman of the sky had swept the children away with a broomstick.

"I was afraid they would annoy you," she said hurriedly, as though it was necessary to say something before I could remark on the queer little old woman who had driven them away.

I was about to reply that we were getting along very well until one of them fell down, when she continued:-"My uncle has just driven up. He is coming in."

At that moment the door opened softly, and a very small and handsomely dressed man stepped into the room. He spoke to Agnes pleasantly, and as he looked inquiringly at me, she explained:-

"One of my pupils from Fairview, Ned Westlock. I shall go home with him to-morrow, as the school opens a week earlier than was expected."

I knew now why his neighbors called him Little Biggs-because he was very short, and very thin, and very little.

"Ah! Ned Westlock."

After he had said this, he looked at me very attentively while he removed his gloves. Placing them in his tall hat, he set both away, and came back to me.

"I am very glad to know you," Mr. Biggs said. "I am glad to have you a guest at our house."

This was encouraging, as nobody else had said as much, and I felt better.

"I need not apologize," he said, "for the rough but honest ways of us farmers," looking admiringly at his thin legs, and brushing at a speck of dirt which seemed to be on one of them, "for I believe you come of an agricultural family yourself."

I was surprised at this reference to his rough ways, for he was extremely fastidious in his dress and manner. I managed to admit, however, that I came of an agricultural family.

"Those of us who live in the country, and earn our bread in the sweat of our brow," Mr. Biggs went on, seating himself beside me, "cannot be particular. Our clothing, our food, and our ways are rough, but substantial and honest. We have other matters to look after, such as following the plough, sowing the grain, and tossing the hay. We may have our ambitions like other men, but they are dwarfed and bent by holding the plough, and pitching the hay. When did you come, and how long do you stay?"

I replied that I had arrived but a few hours before, and that I would depart the next day at any hour Agnes was ready.

"I am sorry," Mr. Biggs was good enough to say, "I should be delighted to show you how we carry on a f

our hundred acre farm. Other great farmers have from four to a dozen hired men about them, but Big Adam and I do all the work here; and we are equal to it, though it keeps us very busy, as you will imagine. We have no time for the fine arts, you may be certain."

He ran on gayly in this way, making himself out in ignorance and muscle the equal of one of our Fairview farmers, although he was really nothing else to my mind than a fop, until Agnes came in and said we were to walk out to supper. There was no one in the supper room when we entered it, and although I expected other members of the family every moment, none came. Agnes was there most of the time, but did not sit down, and supplied the place of a servant.

"Those of us who live in the country," said Mr. Biggs, helping me to meat and bread with the greatest ceremony, "cannot be particular as to what we eat, except that it is substantial and hearty. Meat and bread and milk make muscle, and muscle is in great demand on a farm. Big Adam and I find a great deal of it necessary in tilling these four hundred acres, therefore we insist on plenty of plain and substantial food. Excuse me, if I eat like a hog."

The supper was a very good one, but he talked a great deal about its being plain but hearty; and although he was dainty in his eating, and ate nothing but bread and milk, and toasted bread and tea, he kept apologizing for his ravenous appetite. He had something to say, too, about shovelling in his food with a knife, and bolting it-he did neither, but on the contrary was very delicate-and as he kept watching me, I thought that he must be apologizing for his guest, which made me very uncomfortable at my bad manners, for up to that time I had not been backward in falling to. But as he continued to denounce his unnatural craving for food, and frequently expressed the fear that the meal lacked so much of what I was accustomed to, that I could not possibly make out a comfortable supper, I finally made up my mind he did not mean me at all.

When I had finished he was waiting for me, and we adjourned to the room in which I had played with the children. Lighting a cigar (which he said was a very poor one, but which he observed in the course of the evening, as an example of his extravagance, had cost twenty cents) he took a dressing-gown from a closet, and, putting it on, sat down before me, the picture of luxurious ease.

While we sat there I heard the family of eight, accompanied by their mother and the little old woman who had frightened me, come banging down the stairs, and file into the supper room, where there were a steady noise and wrangle until they had finished and gone up the stairs again. I heard Big Adam protesting to some one that it was not pleasant to be always "jawed at," and that he did all he could; but when the argument threatened to become boisterous, I heard a pleasanter voice intercede, and establish a peace, and I was sure this was Agnes's. Mr. Biggs stopped once or twice to listen to the confusion, as if trying to hear what was being said, but recollecting that if he could hear, I could as well, he began talking again to draw my attention from it. He tried to make me believe the children were making the disturbance, and said:-

"There can be no order in a house full of children, and very little comfort." He stopped to think a moment, but the uproar in the supper room was so great that he went on trying to draw my attention away from it. "I confess to thinking something of them, but every pleasure they bring is accompanied by inconvenience, expense, and annoyance. Have I told you yet that I am a philosopher?"

I had suspected that something was wrong with him, though I could not tell what it was. I replied politely, however, that he had not.

"Well, I am one," the little man said with a show of pride. "A great many men regard children as blessings. Now I have failed to discover any kind of a blessing or pleasure in being called up in the middle of the night to run for a doctor when there is croup in the house. Usually, too, in such cases the medical man lives a great many miles away, over a rough road. Whenever I go to bed early to make up lost sleep, or come home particularly tired from tossing the hay or holding the plough, either Annie, or Bennie, or Carrie, or Davie, or Effie, or Fannie, or Georgie, or Harry, is sick, and I am compelled to go for a doctor. This never fails if the night is very wet, the roads unusually heavy, or the weather particularly cold. While everybody admires little children, I am sure they would be much more popular if their teeth came more easily; and that there would be a greater demand for them if they did not take a hundred different diseases to which they are not exposed. I am that kind of philosopher."

The fire in the end of his cigar having about gone out, from holding it in his hand and waving it at me, he revived it with a great deal of puffing, and went on:-

"Understand me, Ned Westlock; I do not complain. I am like other men, except that I am not a fool; and while I accept the bitter with the sweet, I point out the bitter and refuse to call it palatable. I am at a loss to understand, for example, why the Creator is more considerate of pigs than He is of children; for I believe pigs cut their teeth before birth, and seldom die except when fat from good health, and at the hands of a butcher. Children, on the other hand"-he used his right hand to represent the pigs, and his left to represent the children-"are never well, and for every tooth there is an insolent doctor with a bill, to say nothing of measles, coughs, rashes, and fevers. I have seen it estimated that it requires three thousand eight hundred and seventy-nine dollars and thirty-five or forty cents to raise a baby to manhood or womanhood. A pig may be raised to maturity with a few hundred buckets of slop, a few bushels of corn, and a wisp of hay occasionally for a bed. What do you think of that?"

As he looked at me as though I had been stubbornly arguing the cause of the children, I replied that the pigs had the best of it, so far, decidedly.

"If you have never talked with a philosopher before, you may never have had your attention called to the fact, which possibly has escaped your own notice, that children do not appreciate good treatment, as do pigs and other animals. The very worst thing you can do for a boy is to treat him well. Where do you find the good boys?"

He made a pause as if expecting a reply, and I said, "I don't know," but I knew at once that he was impatient that I had replied, for he wanted to do all the talking himself.

"In families where boys are always hungry and abused," he resumed. "Where do you find your bad boys? In families where they are treated well, of course. A boy who has plenty to eat, and plenty to wear, and nothing to do, is always impudent and worthless; and parents who go to trouble and expense that their children may be happy and idle pay a big price for a pestilence. I do not pretend to say that in practice I am more of a philosopher than my neighbors; but it is a fact, nevertheless, that the pig that slips into the house and litters it up is beaten with a broomstick until he understands, when tempted on future occasions, that the practice is dangerous. If the pigs get on the porch, and you open the door suddenly, they run away in great haste, having been taught by harsh means that they are not expected there; and if we would teach children in the same way, we should have more comfort with them. But practically we regard the training of pigs as more important than the training of children, and suffer much discomfort in consequence. I recognize certain inexorable masters, and obey them to avoid uncomfortable consequences; and a child must have a master, or it will become disagreeable and annoying."

He stopped to listen to the noise made by his family up stairs. It was very uproarious, and I thought he was regretting that his philosophy had not been made to bear some practical fruit.

"If you were a young man," he continued, coming out of a brown study, "and had driven from Fairview to ask my advice on this question, I should advise you thus: 'Sir, if you covet the society of little children, hire them to play at your house until you are tired; for then you can send them away, and enjoy the quiet following their absence. You will find that pleasant enough, but if you have a house full of your own, that alters the case; for like the deserving poor, they then are always with you-in sickness as well as in health, and when they are disagreeable as well as when they are not.' That would be my candid advice; you may accept it, or let it alone, as you choose."

He waved the hand at me which he had previously used to represent the pigs, as though I had been asking him to counsel me on the subject, and as if he were impatient that I did not accept his advice at once. But recollecting himself, he took a delicate knife from his pocket, and after profuse apologies for his ill-manners, proceeded to pare his finger nails, looking occasionally at me as if doubting my ability to understand his philosophy, for I had scarcely said a word in reply to it.

"I understand your father is a singer," he said, after his fingers were mentally pronounced satisfactory.

I replied with a show of pride that he had the finest voice ever heard in Fairview church, and that he was famous for it.

"He ought to stop it," Mr. Biggs abruptly said. "People enjoy his singing, I have no doubt, but if he were a friend of mine-I have not even the pleasure of his acquaintance-I would say to him, 'Quit singing, Reverend John, if you would become great.' How does it come he is not in the Legislature? Because he sings. The people do not associate statesmanship with singing. When a man is honored for singing, he is honored for little else. Did you ever know a great man who sang?"

I replied that I had not, for I had never known a great man.

"Well," he answered curtly, "I know them all, and none of them sing. Or play. The darkey who can sing and dance is popular with an idle crowd, but the solid people who have gardens to spade, or walls to whitewash, avoid the musical negro, for his talent is likely to be exhausted in that direction. I don't pretend to know why it is against a man that he is able to entertain people with his voice, or with the skill of his fingers; I only know it is the case. It would be a kindness for somebody to say as much to Reverend John; you may convey the information to him, with my compliments, if you wish."

I had been wishing all evening that Agnes would come in, and ask me to sing, as I thought I had talent in that direction, and even debated in my mind whether I would roar the "Hunter's Horn," or "Glorious Day of Rest" for the amusement of my host; but I was now glad she had been so considerate of my feelings, and spared me the humiliation. I was quite certain that if she should ask me to sing after what Mr. Biggs had said, I should declare I had never attempted to do such a ridiculous thing.

"Every man who tells an uncomfortable truth," Mr. Biggs began again, after lighting a fresh cigar by the remains of the old one, "is called a beast. I am called a beast in this neighborhood (which is known for taxing and voting purposes as Smoky Hill) because I tell a great many unpalatable truths; I have eyes and intelligence, therefore I cannot help noticing (and mentioning) that the people of this country pay more attention to raising thorough-bred stock than to raising thorough-bred children which you must admit is ridiculous. I hear that The. Meek, for instance, has his stable full of fine stock, and his house full of sore-eyed children. The. Meek is evidently an ass; I'm glad I do not know him. If I did, I should make myself disagreeable by mentioning the circumstance."

I may as well mention here that Mr. Biggs was not the kind of man he claimed to be. On the contrary, he made his living by indorsing the follies of other people, but he had pointed out their mistakes to himself so often that I suppose he really believed he was generally despised for telling the truth.

"We have many of the same kind of men in Smoky Hill. It affords me pleasure to assure you that I am unpopular with them, and they take great comfort in the belief that I am likely to die in a year or two of consumption. But I have already had the satisfaction of attending the funerals of five men who predicted that I was not long for the world; I expect to help bury the rest of them at intervals in the future. While I get a little stronger every year, by care and common sense, they get a little weaker, by carelessness and ignorance, and finally they are buried, with L. Biggs, Esq., the consumptive, looking contentedly on. The trouble with these men is that they eat everything coming in their way, like pigs, lacking observation to teach them that a greater number of people die of over-feeding than die of over-drinking or over-working. The last Smoky Hill glutton that died was the Most Worthy Chief of a temperance society, and he was always quarreling with his wife because she didn't have pie for breakfast. For my part, I detest pie."

I was about to say that while I agreed with him in everything else, I should be compelled to make an exception in the pie particular; but he did not give me opportunity, for he proceeded:-

"In my visits to the homes of cultured but unwise people, I am frequently tempted to do violence to my stomach by eating late at night, but recollecting the fate of the Smoky Hill men, I respectfully decline. When I am offered cake, and nightmare in other forms, I do not greedily accept and devour everything set before me, but instead I say, 'If you have cold oatmeal mush, or a bit of graham bread, I will refresh myself with that, but no cake, I thank you, although the assortment is fine, and reflects great credit on the lady of the house.' Thus I preserve my health, and prove my philosophy. But no doubt I am wearying you; I will show you to bed."

He did not ask me whether I was tired of his company, but picked up the light as though he could decide questions for boys without their assistance, and leading the way up stairs, I meekly followed. Opening a door after reaching the upper floor, he gave me the light, said good night, and went down again, as though he had not had enough of his own company, and would sit up a while longer.

There were two comfortable beds in the room to which Mr. Biggs had shown me, and Big Adam occupied one of them already, sound asleep. His clothes were piled up in a heap by the side of it, with the Λ-shaped hat on top, ready to go on the first thing in the morning. He mumbled occasionally in his sleep, and I thought he was saying he did the best he could, and that it wasn't pleasant to be "jawed at," which made me think again of the terrible old woman with the parchment face, the little head, the little body, and the little knot of hair on the back of her head. I felt like kneeling down by my bed and praying that the queer woman might not have a habit of walking through the house at night, accompanied by the kitchen butcher-knife freshly sharpened at the grindstone, for there was no lock on the door. But speedily occupying the other bed, and putting out the light, I had hardly begun thinking of the curious family before I was sound asleep.

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