Tom O' the Blueb'ry Plains
THE sky is a shadowless blue; the noonday sun glows fiercely; a cloud of dust rises from the burning road whenever the hot breeze stirs the air, or whenever a farm wagon creaks along, its wheels sinking into the deep sand.
In the distance, where the green of the earth joins the blue of the sky, gleams the silver line of a river.
As far as the eye can reach, the ground is covered with blueberry bushes; red leaves peeping among green ones; bloom of blue fruit hanging in full warm clusters, — spheres of velvet mellowed by summer sun, moistened with crystal dew, spiced with fragrance of woods.
In among the blueberry bushes grow huckleberries, “ choky pears,” and blacksnaps.
Gnarled oaks and stunted pines lift themselves out of the wilderness of shrubs. They look dwarfed and gloomy, as if Nature had been an untender mother, and denied them proper nourishment.
The road is a little-traveled one, and furrows of feathery grasses grow between the long, hot, sandy stretches of the wheel-ruts.
The first goldenrod gleams among the loose stones at the foot of the alder bushes. Whole families of pale butterflies, just out of their long sleep, perch on the brilliant stalks and tilter up and down in the sunshine.
Straggling processions of woolly brown caterpillars wend their way in the short grass by the wayside, where the wild parsnip and the purple bull-thistle are coming into bloom.
The song of birds is seldom heard, and the blueberry plains are given over to silence save for the buzzing of gorged flies, the humming of bees, and the chirping of crickets that stir the drowsy air when the summer begins to wane.
It is so still that the shuffle-shuffle of a footstep can be heard in the distance, the tinkle of a tin pail swinging musically to and fro, the swish of an alder switch cropping the heads of the roadside weeds. All at once a voíce breaks the stillness. Is it a child’s, a woman’s, or a man’s ? Neither, yet all three.
An’ hear the whis-sle of the jol-ly
Everybody knows the song, and everybody knows the cracked voice. The master of this bit of silent wilderness is coming home : it is Tom o’ the blueb’ry plains.
He is more than common tall, with a sandy beard, and a mop of tangled hair straggling beneath his torn straw hat. A square of wet calico drips from under the back of the hat. His gingham shirt is open at the throat, showing his tanned neck and chest. Warm as it is, he wears portions of at least three coats on his back. His high boots, split in foot and leg, are mended and spliced and laced and tied on with bits of shingle rope. He carries a small tin pail of molasses. It has a bail of rope, and a battered cover with a knob of sticky newspaper. Over one shoulder, suspended on a crooked branch, hangs a bundle of basket stuff, — split willow withes and the like ; over the other swings a decrepit bottomless three-legged chair.
I call him the master of the plains, but in faith he had no legal claim to the title. If be owned a habitation or had established a home on any spot in the universe, it was because no man envied him what he chose, and no man grudged him what he took ; for Tom was one of God’s fools, a foot-loose pilgrim in this world of ours, a poor addle-pated, simple-minded, harmless creature,— in village parlance, a " softy.”
Mother or father, sister or brother, he had none, nor ever had, so far as any one knew; but how should people who had to work from sun-up to candlelight to get the better of the climate have leisure to discover whether or no Blueb’ry Tom had any kin ?
At some period in an almost forgotten past there had been a house on Tom’s particular patch of the plains. It had long since tumbled into ruins and served for firewood, and even the chimney bricks had disappeared one by one, as the monotonous seasons came and went.
Tom had settled himself in an old tool-shop, corn-house, or rude out-building of some sort that had belonged to the ruined cottage. Here he had set up his household gods ; and since no one else had ever wanted a home in this dreary tangle of berry bushes, where the only shade came from stunted pines that flung shriveled arms to the sky and dropped dead cones to the sterile earth, here he remained unmolested.
In the lower part of the but he kept his basket stuff and his collection of twolegged and three-legged chairs. In the course of evolution they never sprouted another leg. those chairs ; as they were given to him, so they remained. The upper floor served for his living-room, and was reached by a ladder from the ground, for there was no stairway inside.
No one had ever been in the little upper chamber. When a passer-by chanced to bethink him that Tom’s hermitage was close at hand, he sometimes turned in his team by a certain clump of white birches and drove nearer to the house, intending to remind Tom that there was a chair to willow-bottom the next time he came to the village. But at the noise of the wheels Tom drew in his ladder; and when the visitor alighted and came within sight, it was to find the inhospitable host standing in the opening of the second-story window, a quaint figure framed in green branches, the ladder behind him, and on his face a kind of impenetrable dignity, as he shook his head and said, “Tom ain’t ter hum; Tom’s gone to Bonny Eagle.”
There was something impressive about this way of repelling callers; it was as effectual as a door slammed in the face, and yet there was a sort of mendacious courtesy about it. No one ever cared to go further; and indeed there was no mystery to tempt the curious, and no spoil to attract the mischievous or malicious. Any one could see, without entering, the straw bed in the far corner, the beams piled deep with red and white oak acorns, the strings of dried apples and bunches of everlastings hanging from the rafters, and the half-finished baskets filled with blown bird’s-eggs, pine cones, and pebbles.
No home in the village was better loved than Tom’s retreat in the blueberry plains. Whenever he approached it, after a long day’s tramp, when he caught the first sight of the white birches that marked the gateway to his estate and showed him where to turn off the public road into his own private grounds, he smiled a broader smile than usual, and broke into his well-known song: —
An’ hear the whis-sle of the jol-ly
Poor Tom could never catch the last note. He had sung the song for more than forty years, but the memory of this note was so blurred, and his cherished ideal of it so high (or so low, rather), that he never managed to reach it.
Oh, if only summer were eternal! Who could wish a better supper than ripe berries and molasses ? Nor was there need of sleeping under roof nor of lighting candle to grope his way to pallet of straw, when he might have the blue vault of heaven arching over him, and all God’s stars for lamps, and for a bed a horse blanket stretched over an elastic couch of pine needles. There were two gaunt pines that had been dropping their polished spills for centuries, perhaps, silently adding, year by year, another layer of aromatic springiness to poor Tom’s bed. Flinging his tired body on this grateful couch, burying his head in the crushed sweet fern of his pillow with one deepdrawn sigh of pleasure, — there, haunted by no past and harassed by no future, slept God’s fool as sweetly as a child.
Yes, if only summer were eternal, and youth as well!
But when the blueberries had ripened summer after summer, and the gaunt pine-trees had gone on for many years weaving poor Tom’s mattress, there came a change in the aspect of things. He still made his way to the village, seeking chairs to mend ; but he was even more unkempt than of old, his tall figure was bent, and his fingers trembled as he wove the willow strands in and out, and over and under.
There was little work to do, moreover, for the village had altogether retired from business, and was no longer in competition with its neighbors : the dam was torn away, the sawmills 'were pulled down ; husbands and fathers were laid in the churchyard, sons and brothers and lovers had gone West, and mothers and widows and spinsters stayed on, each in her quiet house alone. “ 'T ain’t no hardship when you get used to it,” said the Widow Buzzell. “ Land sakes ! a lantern ’s’s good’s a man any time, if you only think so, ’n’ ’t ain’t half so much trouble to keep it filled up! ”
But Tom still sold a basket occasionally, and the children always gathered about him for the sake of hearing him repeat his well-worn formula, — “ Tom allers puts two handles on baskets: one to take ’em up by, one to set ’em down by.” This was said with a beaming smile and a wise shake of the head, as if he were announcing a great discovery to an expectant world. And then he would lay down his burden of basket stuff, and, sitting under an apple-tree in somebody’s side yard, begin his task of willow-bottoming an old chair. It was a pretty sight enough, if one could keep back the tears, — the kindly, simple fellow with the circle of children about his knees. (Never a village fool without a troop of babies at his heels. They love him, too, till we teach them to mock.)
When he was younger, he would sing,
and dance the while, swinging his unfinished basket to and fro for a cradle. He was too stiff in the joints for dancing nowadays, but he still sang the “ bloomin’ gy-ar-ding” whenever they asked him, particularly if some apple-cheeked little maid would say, “Please, Tom!” He always laughed then, and, patting the child’s hand, said, “ Pooty gal! Got eyes! ” The youngsters danced with glee at this meaningless phrase, just as their mothers had danced years before when it was said to them.
Summer waned. In the moist places the gentian uncurled its blue flanges ; purple asters and gay Joe Pye waved their colors by the roadside; tall primroses put their yellow bonnets on, and peeped over the brooks to see themselves ; and the dusty pods of the milkweed were bursting with their silky fluffs, the spinning of the long summer. Autumn began to paint the maples red and the elms yellow, for the early days of September brought a frost. Some one remarked at the village store that old Blueb’ry Tom must not be suffered to stay on the plains another winter, now that he was getting so feeble, — not if the “ seleckmen ” had to root him out and take him to the poorfarm. He would surely starve or freeze, and his death would be laid at their door.
Tom was interviewed. Persuasion, logic, sharp words, all failed to move him one jot or tittle. He stood in his castle door, with the ladder behind him, smiling, always smiling (none but the fool smiles always, nor always weeps), and saying to all visitors, “ Tom ain’t ter hum ; Tom’s gone to Bonny Eagle ; Tom don’ want to go to the poor-farm.”
November came in surly.
The cheerful stir and bustle of the harvest were over, the corn was shocked, the apples and pumpkins were gathered into barns. The problem of Tom’s future was finally laid before the selectmen ; and since the poor fellow’s mild obstinacy had defeated all attempts to conquer it, the sheriff took the matter in hand.
The blueberry plains looked bleak and bare enough now. It had rained incessantly for days, growing ever colder and colder as it rained. The sun came out at last, but it shone in a wintry sort of way, — like a duty smile, — as if light, not heat, were its object. A keen wind blew the dead leaves hither and thither in a wild dance that had no merriment in it. A blackbird flew under an old barrel by the wayside, and, ruffling himself into a ball, remarked despondently that feathers were no sort of protection in this kind of climate. A snowbird, flying by, glanced in at the barrel, and observed that anybody who minded a little breeze like that had better join the woodcocks, who were leaving for the South by the night express.
The blueberry bushes were stripped bare of green. The stunted pines and sombre hemlocks looked in tone with the landscape now ; where all was dreary they did not seem amiss.
“ Je-whilikins ! ” exclaimed the sheriff as he drew up his coat collar. “ A madhouse is the place for the man who wants to live ou’doors in the winter time; the poor-farm is too good for him.”
But Tom was used to privation, and even to suffering. “ Ou’doors ” was the only home he knew, and with all its rigors he loved it. He looked over the barren plains, knowing, in a dull sort of way, that they would shortly be covered with snow ; but he had three coats, two of them with sleeves, and the crunchcrunch of the snow under his tread was music to his ears. Then, too, there were a few hospitable firesides where he could always warm himself; and the winter would soon be over, the birds would come again, — new birds, singing the old songs, — the sap would mount in the trees, the buds swell on the blueberry bushes, and the young ivory leaves push their ruddy tips through the softening ground. The plains were fatherland and mother-country, home and kindred, to Tom. He loved the earth that nourished him, and he saw through all the seeming death in nature the eternal miracle of the resurrection. To him winter was never cruel. He looked underneath her white mantle, saw the infant spring hidden in her warm bosom, and was content to wait. Content to wait ? Content to starve, content to freeze, if only he need not be carried into captivity.
The poor-farm was not a bad place, either, if only Tom had been a reasonable being. To be sure, when Hannah Sophia Palmer asked old Mrs. Pinkham how she liked it, she answered, with a patient sigh, that “her V Mr. Pinkham hed lived there goin’ on nine year, workin’ their fingers to the bone, ’most, ’n’ yet they had n’t been able to lay up a cent! ’ If this peculiarity of administration was its worst feature, it was certainly one that would have had no terrors for Tom o’ the blueb’ry plains. Terrors of some sort, nevertheless, the poor-farm had for him; and when the sheriff’s party turned in by the clump of white birches and approached the cabin, they found that fear had made the simple wise. Tom had provisioned the little upper chamber, and, in place of the piece of sacking that usually served him for a door in winter, he had woven a defense of willow. In fine, he had taken all his basket stuff, and, treating the opening through which he entered and left his home precisely as if it were a bottomless chair, he had filled it in solidly, weaving to and fro, by night as well as by day, till he felt, poor fool, as safely intrenched as if he were in the heart of a fortress.
The sheriff tied his horse to a tree, and Rube Hobson and Pitt Packard got out of the double wagon. Two men laughed when they saw the pathetic defense, but the other shut his lips together and caught his breath. (He had been born on a poor-farm, but no one knew it at Pleasant River.) They called Tom’s name repeatedly, but no other sound broke the silence of the plains save the rustling of the wind among the dead leaves.
“ Numb-head ! ” muttered the sheriff, pounding on the side of the cabin with his whipstock. “ Come out and show yourself ! We know you ’re in there, and it’s no use hiding! ”
At last, in response to a deafening blow from Rube Hobson’s hard fist, there came the answering note of a weak, despairing voice.
“ Tom ain’t ter hum,” it said ; “ Tom’s gone to Bonny Eagle.”
“ That’s all right! ” guffawed the men ; “but you’ve got to go some more, and go a dif’rent way. It ain’t no use fer you to hold back ; we’ve got a ladder, and by Jiminy! you go with us this time ! ”
The ladder was put against the side of the hut, and Pitt Packard climbed up, took his jack-knife, slit the woven door from top to bottom, and turned back the flap.
The men could see the inside of the chamber now. They were humorous persons, who could strain a joke to the snapping point, but they felt, at last, that there was nothing especially amusing in the situation. Tom was huddled in a heap on the straw bed in the far corner. The vacant smile had fled from his face, and he looked, for the first time in his life, quite distraught.
“ Come along, Tom,” said the sheriff kindly ; “ we 're going to take you where you can sleep in a bed, and have three meals a day.”
sang Tom quaveringly, as he hid his head in a paroxysm of fear.
“ Well, there ain’t no bloomin’ gardings to walk in jest now, so come along and be peaceable.”
“ Tom don’ want to go to the poorfarm,” he wailed piteously.
But there was no alternative. They dragged him off the bed and down the ladder as gently as possible ; then Rube Hobson held him on the back seat of the wagon, while the sheriff unhitched the horse. As they were on the point of starting, the captive began to wail and struggle more than ever, the burden of his plaint being a wild and tremulous plea for his pail of molasses.
“Dry up, old softy, or I’ll put the buggy robe over your bead ’ ” muttered Rube Hobson, who had not had much patience when he started on the trip, and had lost it all by this time.
“ By thunder! he shall hev his molasses, if he thinks he wants it! ” said Pitt Packard, and be ran up the ladder and brought it down, comforting the shivering creature thus, for he lapsed into a submissive silence that lasted until the unwelcome journey was over.
Tom remained at the poorhouse precisely twelve hours. It did not enter the minds of the authorities that any one so fortunate as to be admitted into their happy haven would decline to stay there. The unwilling guest disappeared early on the morrow of his arrival, and, after some search, they followed him to the old spot. He had climbed into his beloved retreat, and, having learned nothing from experience, had mended the willow door as best he could, and laid him down in peace. They dragged him out again, and this time more impatiently ; for it was exasperating to see a man (even if he were a fool) fight against a bed and three meals a day.
The second attempt was little more successful than the first. As a place of residence, the poor-farm did not seem any more desirable or attractive on near acquaintance than it did at long range. Tom remained a week, because he was kept in close confinement; but when they judged that he was weaned from his old home, they loosed his bonds, and — back to the plains he sped, like an arrow shot from the bow, or like a bit of iron leaping to the magnet.
What should be done with him ?
Public opinion was divided. Some people declared that the village had done its duty, and if the dog-goned lunk-head wanted to starve and freeze, it was his funeral, not theirs. Others thought that the community had no resource but to bear the responsibility of its irresponsible children, however troublesome they might be. There was entire unanimity of view so far as the main issues were concerned. It was agreed that nobody at the poor-farm had leisure to stand guard over Tom night and day, and that the sheriff could not be expected to spend his time forcing him out of his hut on the blueberry plains.
There was but one more expedient to be tried, a very simple and ingenious but radical and comprehensive one, which, in Rube Hobson’s opinion, would strike at the root of the matter.
Tom had fled from captivity for the third time.
He had stolen out at daybreak, and, by an unexpected stroke of fortune, the molasses pail was hanging on a nail by the shed door. The remains of a battered old bushel basket lay on the woodpile : bottom it had none, nor handles ; rotundity of side had long since disappeared, and none but its maker would have known it for a basket. Tom caught it up in his flight, and, seizing the first crooked stick that offered, he slung the dear familiar burden over his shoulder and started off on a jog-trot.
Heaven, how happy he was ! It was the rosy dawn of an Indian summer day, — a warm jewel of a day, dropped into the bleak world of yesterday without a hint of beneficent intention ; one of those enchanting weather surprises with which Dame Nature reconciles us to her stern New England rule.
The joy that comes of freedom, and the freedom that comes of joy, unbent the old man’s stiffened joints. He renewed his youth at every mile. He ran like a lapwing. When his feet first struck the sandy soil of the plains, he broke into the old song of the “bloom-in’ gy-arding ” and the “ jolly swain,” and in the marvelous mental and spiritual exhilaration born of the supreme moment he almost grasped that impossible last note. His heart could hardly hold its burden of rapture when he caught the wellknown gleam of the white birches. He turned into the familiar path, boy’s blood thumping in old man’s veins. The past week had been a dreadful dream. A few steps more and he would be within sight, within touch, of home, — home at last! No — what was wrong ? He must have gone beyond it, in his reckless haste ! Strange that he could have forgotten the beloved spot! Can lover mistake the way to sweetheart’s window? Can child lose the path to mother’s knee ?
He turned, — ran hither and thither, like one distraught. A nameless dread flitted through his dull mind, chilling his warm blood, paralyzing the activity of the moment before. At last, with a sob like that of a frightened child who flies from some imagined evil lurking in darkness, he darted back to the white birches and started anew. This time he trusted to blind instinct; his feet knew the path, and, left to themselves, they took him through the tangle of dry bushes straight to his —
It had vanished !
Nothing but ashes remained to mark the spot, — nothing but ashes ! And these, ere many days, the autumn winds would scatter, and the leafless branches on which they fell would shake them off lightly, never dreaming that they hid the soul of a home. Nothing but ashes !
Poor Tom o’ the blueb’ry plains!
Kate Douglas Wiggin.