The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion

by Edward Bellamy

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


Then, presently, the jail was full of cries of horror and indignation. For each cell door as it was unbarred and thrown open revealed the same piteous scene, the deliverers starting back, or standing quite transfixed before the ghastly and withered figures which rose up before them from dank pallets of putrid straw. The faces of these dismal apparitions expressed the terror and apprehension which the tumult and uproar about the jail had created in minds no longer capable of entertaining hope.

Ignorant who were the occupants of particular cells it was of course a matter of chance whether those who opened any one of them, were the friends of the unfortunates who were its inmates. But for a melancholy reason this was a matter of indifference. So ghastly a travesty on their former hale and robust selves, had sickness and sunless confinement made almost all the prisoners, that not even brothers recognized their brothers, and the corridor echoed with poignant voices, calling to the poor creatures:

"What's your name?" "Is this Abijah Galpin?" "Are you my brother Jake?" "Are you Sol Morris?" "Father, is it you?"

As they entered the jail with the rush of men, Perez had taken Prudence's hand, and remembering the location of Reuben's cell, stopped before it, lifted the bar, threw open the door and they went in. George Fennell was lying on the straw upon the floor. He had raised himself on one elbow, and was looking apprehensively to see what the opening of the door would reveal as the cause of this interruption to the usually sepulchral stillness of the jail. Reuben was standing in the middle of the floor, eagerly gazing in the same direction. Perez sprang to his brother's side, his face beautiful with the joy of the deliverer. If he had been a Frenchman, or an Italian, anything but an Anglo Saxon, he would have kissed him, with one of those noblest kisses of all, wherewith once in a lifetime, or so, men may greet each other. But he only supported him with one arm about the waist, and stroked his wasted cheek with his hand, and said:

"I've come for you Reub, old boy, you're free."

Prudence had first peered anxiously into the face of Reuben, and next glanced at the man lying on the straw. Then she plucked Perez by the sleeve, and said in an anguished voice:

"Father ain't here. Where is he?" and turned to run out.

"That's your father," replied Perez, pointing to the sick man.

The girl sprang to his side, and kneeling down, searched with straining eyes in the bleached and bony face, fringed with matted hair and long unkempt gray beard, for some trace of the full and ruddy countenance which she remembered. She would still have hesitated, but her father said:

"Prudy, my little girl, is it you?"

Her eyes might not recognize the lineaments of the face, but her heart recalled the intonation of tenderness, though the voice was weak and changed. Throwing her arms around his neck, pressing her full red lips in sobbing kisses upon his corpse-like face, she cried:

"Father! Oh Father!"

Presently the throng began to pour out of the jail, bringing with them those they had released. The news that the jail was being broken open, and the prisoners set free, had spread like wildfire through the thronged village, and nearly two thousand people were now assembled in front of and about the jail, including besides the people from out of town, nearly every man, woman and child in Great Barrington, not actually bedridden, excepting of course, the families of the magistrates, lawyers, court officers, and the wealthier citizens, who sympathized with them. These were trembling behind their closed doors, hoping, but by no means assured, that this sudden popular whirlwind, might exhaust itself, before involving them in destruction. And indeed the cries of pity, and the hoarse deep groans of indignation with which the throng before the jail received the prisoners as they were successively brought forth, were well calculated to inspire with apprehension, those who knew that they were held responsible by the public judgment for the deeds of darkness now being brought to light. It was now perhaps the old mother and young wife of a prisoner, holding up between them the son and husband, and guiding his tottering steps, that set the people crying and groaning. Now it was perhaps a couple of sturdy sons, unused tears running down their tanned cheeks, as they brought forth a white-haired father, blinking with bleared eyes at the forgotten sun, and gazing with dazed terror at the crowd of excited people. Now it was Perez Hamlin, leading out Reuben, holding him up with his arm, and crying like a baby in spite of all that he could do. Nor need he have been ashamed, for there were few men who were not in like plight. Then came Abner, and Abe Konkapot, stepping carefully, as they carried in their arms George Fennell, Prudence walking by his side, and holding fast his hand.

Nor must I forget to speak of Mrs. Poor. The big, raw-boned woman's hard-favored countenance was lit up with motherly solicitude, as she lifted, rather than assisted, Zadkiel, down the steps of the tavern.

"Wy don' ye take him up in yer arms?" remarked Obadiah Weeks, facetiously, but it was truly more touching than amusing, to see the protecting tenderness of the woman, for the puny little fellow whom an odd freak of Providence had given her for a husband, instead of a son.

Although Mrs. Poor movingly declared that "He warn't the shadder of hisself," the fact was, that having been but a short time in jail, Zadkiel showed few marks of confinement, far enough was he, from comparing in this respect, with the others, many of whom had been shut up for years. They looked, with the dead whiteness of their faces and hands, rather like grewsome cellar plants, torn from their native darkness, only to wither in the upper light and air, than like human organisms just restored to their normal climate. As they moved among the tanned and ruddy-faced people, their abnormal complexion made them look like representatives of the strange race of Albinos.

But saddest perhaps of all the sights were the debtors who found no acquaintances or relatives to welcome them as they came forth again helpless as at their first birth, into the world of bustle and sun and breeze. It was piteous to see them wandering about with feeble and sinewless steps, and vacant eyes, staring timidly at the noisy people, and shrinking dismayed from the throngs of sympathizing questioners which gathered round them. There were some whose names not even the oldest citizens could recall so long had they been shut up from the sight of men.

Jails in those days were deemed as good places as any for insane persons, and in fact were the only places available, so that, besides those whom long confinement had brought almost to the point of imbecility, there were several entirely insane and idiotic individuals among the prisoners. One of them went around in a high state of excitement declaring that it was the resurrection morning. Nor was the delusion altogether to be marvelled at considering the suddenness with which its victim had exchanged the cell, which for twenty years had been his home, for the bright vast firmament of heaven, with its floods of dazzling light and its blue and bottomless dome.

Another debtor, a man from Sheffield, as a prisoner of war during the revolution, had experienced the barbarities practiced by the British provost Cunningham at New York. Having barely returned home to his native village when he was thrust into jail as a debtor, he had not unnaturally run the two experiences together in his mind. It was his hallucination that he had been all the while a prisoner of the British at New York, and that the victorious Continental army had just arrived to deliver him and his comrades. In Perez he recognized General Washington.

"Ye was a long time comin, Ginral, but it's all right now," he said. "I knowd ye'd come at las', an I tole the boys not to git diskerridged. The redcoats has used us bad though, an I hope ye'll hang em, Gin'ral."

At the time of which I write, rape was practically an unknown crime in Berkshire, and theft extremely uncommon. But among the debtors there were a few criminals. These, released with the rest, were promptly recognized and seized by the people. The general voice was first for putting them back in the cells, but Abner declared that it would be doing them a kindness to knock them on the head rather than to send them back to such pigsties, and this view of the matter finding favor, the fellows were turned loose with a kick apiece and a warning to make themselves scarce.

In the first outburst of indignation over the horrible condition of the prison and the prisoners, there was a yell for Bement, and had the men, in their first rage, laid hands on him, it certainly would have gone hard with him. But he was not to be found, and it was not till some time after, that in ransacking the tavern, some one found him in the garret, hidden under a tow mattress stuffed with dried leaves, on which the hired man slept nights. He was hauled downstairs by the heels pretty roughly, and shoved and buffeted about somewhat, but the people having now passed into a comparatively exhilarated and good-tempered frame of mind, he underwent no further punishment, that is in his person. But that was saved only at the expense of his pocket, for the men insisted on his going behind the bar and treating the crowd, a process which was kept up until there was not a drop of liquor in his barrels, and scarcely a sober man in the village. Mrs. Bement, meanwhile, had been caught and held by some of the women, while one of the prisoners, a bestial looking idiot, drivelling and gibbering, and reeking with filth, was made to kiss her. No other penalty could have been devised at once so crushing to the victim, and so fully commending itself to the popular sense of justice.

There were about ten or fifteen of the released debtors whose homes were in or about Stockbridge, and as they could not walk any considerable distance, it was necessary to provide for their transport. Israel Goodrich and Ezra Phelps, as well as other Stockbridge men, had driven down in their carts, and these vehicles being filled with straw, the Stockbridge prisoners were placed in them. Israel Goodrich insisted that Reuben Hamlin and George Fennell, with Prudence, should go in his cart, and into it were also lifted three or four of the friendless prisoners, who had nowhere to go, and whose helpless condition had stirred old Israel's benevolent heart to its depths.

"The poor critters shell stay with me, ef I hev tew send my chil'n tew the neighbours ter make room fer em," he declared, blowing his nose with a blast that made his horses jump.

With six or seven carts leading the way, and some seventy or eighty men following on foot, the Stockbridge party began the march home about two o'clock. Full half the men who had marched down in the morning, chose to remain over in Barrington till later, and a good many were too drunk on Bement's free rum to walk. Most of Paul Hubbard's ironworkers being in that condition, he stayed to look after them, and Peleg Bidwell had also stayed, to see that none of the Stockbridge stragglers got into trouble, and bring them back when he could. Abner walked at the head of the men. Perez rode by Israel Goodrich's cart. They went on slowly, and it was five o'clock when they came in plain view of Stockbridge. The same exclamation was on every lip. It seemed a year instead of a few hours only since they had left in the morning.

"It's been a good day's work, Cap'n Hamlin, the best I ever hed a hand in," said Israel. "I callate it was the Lord's own work, ef we dew git hanged for't."

As the procession passed Israel's house, he helped out his sad guests, and sent on his cart with its other inmates. All the way back from Barrington, the Stockbridge company had been meeting a string of men and boys, in carts and afoot, who, having heard reports of what had been done, were hastening to see for themselves. Many of these turned back with the returning procession, others keeping on. This exodus of the masculine element, begun in the morning, and continued all day, had left in Stockbridge little save women and girls and small children, always excepting, of course, the families of the wealthier and governing classes, who had no part nor lot in the matter. Accordingly, when the party reached the green, there was only an assemblage of women and children to receive them. These crowded around the carts containing the released prisoners, with exclamations of pity and amazement, and as the vehicles took different directions at the parting of the streets, each one was followed by a score or two, who witnessed with tearful sympathy each reunion of husband and wife, of brother and sister, of mother and son. Several persons offered to take George Fennell, who had no home to go to, into their houses, but Perez said that he should, for the present, at least, lodge with him.

As Israel Goodrich's cart, containing Reuben and Fennell and Prudence, and followed by quite a concourse, turned up the lane to Elnathan Hamlin's house and stopped before the door, Elnathan and Mrs. Hamlin came out looking terrified. Perez, fearing some disappointment, had not told them plainly that he should bring Reuben home, and the report of the jail-breaking, although it had reached Stockbridge, had not penetrated to their rather isolated dwelling. So that it was with chilling apprehensions, rather than hope, that they saw the cart, driven slowly, as if it carried the dead, stop before their door, and the crowd of people following it.

"Mother, I've brought Reub home," said Perez, and a gaunt, wild-looking man was helped out of the cart, and tottered into Mrs. Hamlin's arms.

There was nothing but the faint, familiar smile, and the unaltered eyes, to tell her that this was the stalwart son whom the sheriff led away a year ago. Had she learned that he was dead, it would have shocked her less than to receive him alive and thus. Elnathan and she led him into the house between them. Ready hands lifted Fennell out of the cart and bore him in, Prudence following. And then Perez went in and shut the door, and the cart drove off, the people following.

Although the shock which Mrs. Hamlin had received was almost overwhelming, she had known, after the first moment, how to conceal it, and no sooner had the invalids been brought within doors and comfortably placed, than she began without a moment's delay, to bestir herself to prepare them food and drink, and make provision for their comfort. Tears of anguish filled her eyes whenever she turned aside, but they were wiped away, and her face was smiling and cheery when she looked at Reuben. But being with Perez a moment in a place apart, she broke down and cried bitterly.

"You have brought him home to die," she said.

But he reassured her.

"I have seen sick men," he said, "and I don't think Reub will die. He'll pull through, now he has your care. I'm afraid poor George is too far gone, but Reub will come out all right. Never fear mother."

"Far be it from me to limit the Holy One of Israel by my want of faith," said Mrs. Hamlin. "If it be the Lord's will that Reuben live, he will live, and if it be not His will, yet still will I praise His name for His great goodness in that I am permitted to take care of him, and do for him to the last. Who can say but the Most High will show still greater mercy to his servant, and save my son alive?"

As soon as the sick men were a little revived from the exhaustion of their journey, tubs of water were provided in the shed, and they washed themselves all over, Elnathan and Perez assisting in the repulsive task. Then, their filthy prison garments being thrown away, they were dressed in old clothing of Elnathan's, and their hair and matted beards were shorn off with scissors. Perez built a fire in the huge open fireplace to ward off the slight chill of evening, and the sick men were comfortably arranged before it upon the great settle. The elderly woman and the deft handed maiden, moved softly about, setting the tea table, and ministering to the needs of the invalids, arranging now a covering, now moving a stool, or maybe merely resting their cool and tender palms upon the fevered foreheads. Fennell had fallen peacefully asleep, but Reuben's face wore a smile, and in his eyes, as they languidly followed his mother's motions, to and fro, there was a look of unutterable content.

"I declar for 't," piped old Elnathan, as he sat in the chimney corner warming his fingers over the ruddy blaze, "I declar for 't, mother, the boy looks like another man a' ready. They ain't nothin like hum fer sick folks."

"I shan't want no doctor's stuff," said Reuben, feebly. "Seein mother round 's med'cin nuff fer me, I guess."

And Perez, as he stood leaning against the chimney, and looking on the scene, lit by the flickering firelight, said to himself, that never surely, in all his fighting had he ever drawn his sword to such good and holy purpose as that day.

Soon after nightfall the latchstring was pulled in a timid sort of way, and Obadiah Weeks stood on the threshold, waiting sheepishly till Mrs. Hamlin bade him enter. He came forward, toward the chimney, taking off his hat and smoothing his hair with his hand.

"It looks kinder good tew see a fire," he remarked, presently supplementing this by the observation that it was "kinder hot, though," and grinning vaguely around at every one in the room, with the exception of Prudence. He did not look at her, though he looked all around her. He put his hands in his pockets and took them out, rubbed one boot against the other, and examined a wart on one of his thumbs, as if he now observed it for the first time, and was quite absorbed in the discovery.

Then with a suddenness that somewhat startled Perez, who had been observing him with some curiosity, he wheeled round so as to face Prudence, and simultaneously sought in his pocket for something. Not finding it at first, his face got very red. Finally, however, he drew forth a little bundle and gave it to the girl, mumbling something about "Sassafras, thort mebbe 'twould be good fer yer dad," and bolted out of the room.

Nobody said anything after Obadiah's abrupt retirement, but when a few moments later, Prudence looked shyly around, with cheeks a little rosier than usual, she saw Perez regarding her with a slight smile of amusement. A minute after she got up and went over to Mrs. Hamlin, and laid the sassafras in her lap, saying:

"Don't you want this, Mrs. Hamlin? I'm sure I don't know what it's good for," and went back to her seat and sat down again, with a slight toss of the head.

Presently a medley of discordant sounds began to float up from the village on the gentle southerly breeze. There was a weird, unearthly groaning, as of a monster in pain, mingled with the beating of tin-pans. Perez finally went to see what it was. At the end of the lane he met Peleg Bidwell, and Peleg explained the matter.

"Ye see the boys hev all got back from Barrington, and they're pretty gosh darned drunk, most on em, an so nothin would do but they must go an rig up a hoss-fiddle an hunt up some pans, an go an serenade the silk stockins. They wuz a givin it tew Squire Woodbridge, wen I come by. I guess he won't git much sleep ter night," and with this information Perez went home again.

Anton Chekhov
Nathaniel Hawthorne
Susan Glaspell
Mark Twain
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary E. Wilkins Freeman
Herman Melville
Stephen Leacock
Kate Chopin
Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson