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HOME > Classical Novels > Being a Boy > XVIII COUNTRY SCENES
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It is impossible to say at what age a New England country boy becomes conscious that his trousers-legs are too short, and is anxious about the part of his hair and the fit of his woman-made roundabout. These harrowing thoughts come to him later than to the city lad. At least, a generation ago he served a long apprenticeship with nature only for a master, absolutely unconscious of the artificialities of life.

But I do not think his early education was neglected. And yet it is easy to underestimate the influences that, unconsciously to him, were expanding his mind and nursing in him heroic purposes. There was the lovely but narrow valley, with its rapid mountain stream; there were the great hills which he climbed only to see other hills stretching away to a broken and tempting [Pg 165] horizon; there were the rocky pastures, and the wide sweeps of forest through which the winter tempests howled, upon which hung the haze of summer heat, over which the great shadows of summer clouds traveled; there were the clouds themselves, shouldering up above the peaks, hurrying across the narrow sky,—the clouds out of which the wind came, and the lightning and the sudden dashes of rain; and there were days when the sky was ineffably blue and distant, a fathomless vault of heaven where the hen-hawk and the eagle poised on outstretched wings and watched for their prey. Can you say how these things fed the imagination of the boy, who had few books and no contact with the great world? Do you think any city lad could have written "Thanatopsis" at eighteen?

If you had seen John, in his short and roomy trousers and ill-used straw hat, picking his barefooted way over the rocks along the river-bank of a cool morning to see if an eel had "got on," you would not have fancied that he lived in an ideal world. [Pg 166] Nor did he consciously. So far as he knew, he had no more sentiment than a jack-knife. Although he loved Cynthia Rudd devotedly, and blushed scarlet one day when his cousin found a lock of Cynthia's flaming hair in the box where John kept his fish-hooks, spruce gum, flag-root, tickets of standing at the head, gimlet, billets-doux in blue ink, a vile liquid in a bottle to make fish bite, and other precious possessions, yet Cynthia's society had no attractions for him comparable to a day's trout-fishing. She was, after all, only a single and a very undefined item in his general ideal world, and there was no harm in letting his imagination play about her illumined head. Since Cynthia had "got religion" and John had got nothing, his love was tempered with a little awe and a feeling of distance. He was not fickle, and yet I cannot say that he was not ready to construct a new romance in which Cynthia should be eliminated. Nothing was easier. Perhaps it was a luxurious traveling-carriage, drawn by two splendid horses in plated harness, driven along the sandy road. There were [Pg 167] a gentleman and a young lad on the front seat, and on the back seat a handsome, pale lady with a little girl beside her. Behind, on the rack with the trunk, was a colored boy, an imp out of a story-book. John was told that the black boy was a slave, and that the carriage was from Baltimore. Here was a chance for a romance. Slavery, beauty, wealth, haughtiness, especially on the part of the slender boy on the front seat,—here was an opening into a vast realm. The high-stepping horses and the shining harness were enough to excite John's admiration, but these were nothing to the little girl. His eyes had never before fallen upon that kind of girl; he had hardly imagined that such a lovely creature could exist. Was it the soft and dainty toilet, was it the brown curls, or the large laughing eyes, or the delicate, finely cut features, or the charming little figure of this fairy-like person? Was this expression on her mobile face merely that of amusement at seeing a country boy? Then John hated her. On the contrary, did she see in him what John felt himself to be? Then [Pg 168] he would go the world over to serve her. In a moment he was self-conscious. His trousers seemed to creep higher up his legs, and he could feel his very ankles blush. He hoped that she had not seen the other side of him, for in fact the patches were not of the exact shade of the rest of the cloth. The vision flashed by him in a moment, but it left him with a resentful feeling. Perhaps that proud little girl would be sorry some day, when he had become a general, or written a book, or kept a store, to see him go away and marry another. He almost made up his cruel mind on the instant that he would never marry her, however bad she might feel. And yet he couldn't get her out of his mind for days and days, and when her image was present even Cynthia in the singers' seat on Sunday looked a little cheap and common. Poor Cynthia! Long before John became a general, or had his revenge on the Baltimore girl, she married a farmer and was the mother of children, red-headed; and when John saw her years after, she looked tired and discouraged, as one who has carried [Pg 169] into womanhood none of the romance of her youth.

Fishing and dreaming, I think, were the best amusements John had. The middle pier of the long covered bridge over the river stood upon a great rock, and this rock (which was known as the swimming-rock, whence the boys on summer evenings dived into the deep pool by its side) was a favorite spot with John when he could get an hour or two from the everlasting "chores." Making his way out to it over the rocks at low water with his fish-pole, there he was content to sit and observe the world; and there he saw a great deal of life. He always expected to catch the legendary trout which weighed two pounds and was believed to inhabit that pool. He always did catch horned dace and shiners, which he despised, and sometimes he snared a monstrous sucker a foot and a half long. But in the summer the sucker is a flabby fish, and John was not thanked for bringing him home. He liked, however, to lie with his face close to the water and watch the long fishes panting in the clear depths, and occasionally [Pg 170] he would drop a pebble near one to see how gracefully he would scud away with one wave of the tail into deeper water. Nothing fears the little brown boy. The yellow-bird slants his wings, almost touches the deep water before him, and then escapes away under the bridge to the east with a glint of sunshine on his back; the fish-hawk comes down with a swoop, dips one wing, and, his prey having darted under a stone, is away again over the still hill, high soaring on even-poised pinions, keeping an eye perhaps upon the great eagle which is sweeping the sky in widening circles.

But there is other life. A wagon rumbles over the bridge, and the farmer and his wife, jogging along, do not know that they have startled a lazy boy into a momentary fancy that a thunder-shower is coming up. John can see, as he lies there on a still summer day with the fishes and the birds for company, the road that comes down the left bank of the river, a hot, sandy, well-traveled road, hidden from view here and there by trees and bushes. The chief [Pg 171] point of interest, however, is an enormous sycamore-tree by the roadside and in front of John's house. The house is more than a century old, and its timbers were hewed and squared by Captain Moses Rice (who lies in his grave on the hillside above it), in the presence of the Red Man who killed him with arrow and tomahawk some time after his house was set in order. The gigantic tree, struck with a sort of leprosy, like all its species, appears much older, and of course has its tradition. They say it grew from a green stake which the first land-surveyor planted ............
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