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XII THE LONELY FARM-HOUSE
The winter evenings of the farmer-boy in New England used not to be so gay as to tire him of the pleasures of life before he became of age. A remote farm-house, standing a little off the road, banked up with sawdust and earth to keep the frost out of the cellar, blockaded with snow, and flying a blue flag of smoke from its chimney, looks like a besieged fort. On cold and stormy winter nights, to the traveler wearily dragging along in his creaking sleigh, the light from its windows suggests a house of refuge and the cheer of a blazing fire. But it is no less a fort, into which the family retire when the New England winter on the hills really sets in.

The boy is an important part of the garrison. He is not only one of the best means of communicating with the outer [Pg 93] world, but he furnishes half the entertainment and takes two thirds of the scolding of the family circle. A farm would come to grief without a boy on it, but it is impossible to think of a farm-house without a boy in it.
A REMOTE FARM-HOUSE

"That boy" brings life into the house; his tracks are to be seen everywhere, he leaves all the doors open, he hasn't half filled the wood-box, he makes noise enough to wake the dead; or he is in a brown-study by the fire and cannot be stirred, or he has fastened a grip upon some Crusoe book which cannot easily be shaken off. I suppose that the farmer-boy's evenings are not now what they used to be; that he has more books, and less to do, and is not half so good a boy as formerly, when he used to think the almanac was pretty lively reading, and the comic almanac, if he could get hold of that, was a supreme delight.

Of course he had the evenings to himself after he had done the "chores" at the barn, brought in the wood and piled it high in the box, ready to be heaped upon the great open fire. It was nearly dark when [Pg 94] he came from school (with its continuation of snowballing and sliding), and he always had an agreeable time stumbling and fumbling around in barn and woodhouse in the waning light.

John used to say that he supposed nobody would do his "chores" if he did not get home till midnight; and he was never contradicted. Whatever happened to him, and whatever length of days or sort of weather was produced by the almanac, the cardinal rule was that he should be at home before dark.

John used to imagine what people did in the dark ages, and wonder sometimes whether he wasn't still in them.

Of course, John had nothing to do all the evening, after his "chores,"—except little things. While he drew his chair up to the table in order to get the full radiance of the tallow candle on his slate or his book, the women of the house also sat by the table knitting and sewing. The head of the house sat in his chair, tipped back against the chimney; the hired man was in danger of burning his boots in the fire. [Pg 95] John might be deep in the excitement of a bear story, or be hard at writing a "composition" on his greasy slate; but, whatever he was doing, he was the only one who could always be interrupted. It was he who must snuff the candles, and put on a stick of wood, and toast the cheese, and turn the apples, and crack the nuts. He knew where the fox-and-geese board was, and he could find the twelve-men-Morris. Considering that he was expected to go to bed at eight o'clock, one would say that the opportunity for study was not great, and that his reading was rather interrupted. There seemed to be always something for him to do, even when all the rest of the family came as near being idle as is ever possible in a New England household.

No wonder that John was not sleepy at eight o'clock: he had been flying about while the others had been yawning before the fire. He would like to sit up just to see how much more solemn and stupid it would become as the night went on; he wanted to tinker his skates, to mend his sled, to finish that chapter. Why should [Pg 96] he go away from that bright blaze, and the company that sat in its radiance, to the cold and solitude of his chamber? Why didn't the people who were sleepy go to bed?

How lonesome the old house was; how cold it was, away from that great central fire in the heart of it; how its timbers creaked as if in the contracting pinch of the frost; what a rattling there was of windows, what a concerted attack upon the clapboards; how............
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