The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion

by Edward Bellamy

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Squire Woodbridge had not failed to detect the first signs of decrease in the ebullition of the popular mind after the revolt of Tuesday, and when by Friday and Saturday the mob had apparently quite disappeared, and the village had returned to its normal condition, he assured himself that the rebellion was all over, and it only remained for him and his colleagues cautiously to get hold of the reins again, and then--then for the whip. For, the similitude under which the Squire oftenest thought of the people of Stockbridge was that of a team of horses which he was driving. There had been a little runaway, and he had been pitched out on his head. Let him once get his grip on the lines again, and the whip in his hand, and there should be some fine dancing among the leaders, or his name was not Jahleel Woodbridge, Esquire, and the whipping post on the green was nothing but a rosebush.

He was in a hurry for two reasons to get the reins in his hands again. In the first place, for the very natural and obvious reason that he grudged every moment of immunity from punishment enjoyed by men who had put him to such an open shame. The other and less obvious reason was the expected return of Squire Sedgwick from Boston. Sedgwick had been gone a week. He might be absent a week or two weeks more, but he might return any day. One thing was evident to Jahleel Woodbridge. Before this man returned, of whose growing and rival influence he had already so much reason to be jealous, he must have put an end to anarchy in Stockbridge, and once more stand at the head of its government. Sedgwick had warned him of the explosive state of popular feeling: he had resented that warning, and the event had proved his rival right. The only thing now left him was to show Sedgwick that if he had not been able to foresee the rebellion, he had been able to suppress it. Nevertheless he would proceed cautiously.

The red flag of the sheriff had for some weeks waved from the gable end of a small house on the main street, owned by a Baptist cobbler, one David Joy. There were quite a number of Baptists among the Welsh iron-workers at West Stockbridge, and some Methodists, but none of either heresy save David in Stockbridge, which, with this exception was, as a parish, a Congregational lamb without blemish. No wonder then that David was a thorn in the side to the authorities of the church, nor was he less despised by the common people. There was not a drunken loafer in town who did not pride himself upon the fact that, though he might be a drunkard, he was at least no Baptist, but belonged to the "Standing Order." Meshech Little, himself, who believed and practiced the doctrine of total immersion in rum, had no charity for one who believed in total immersion in water.

The date which had been set for the sale of David's goods and house, chanced to be the very Monday following the Sunday with whose religious services and other events the previous chapters have been concerned. It seemed to Squire Woodbridge that David's case would be an excellent one with which to inaugurate once more the reign of law. Owing to the social isolation and unpopularity of the man, the proceedings against him would be likely to excite very little sympathy or agitation of any kind, and having thus got the machinery of the law once more into operation, it would be easy enough to proceed thereafter, without fear or favor, against all classes of debtors and evil-doers in the good old way. Moreover, it had long been the intention of those having the interest of Zion at heart to "freeze out" David by this very process, and to that end considerable sanctified shrewdness had been expended in getting him into debt. So that by enforcing the sale in his case, two birds would, so to speak, be killed with one stone, and the political and spiritual interests of the parish be coincidently furthered, making it altogether an undertaking on which the blessing of Heaven might be reasonably looked for.

At three o'clock in the afternoon the sale took place. Everything worked as the Squire had expected. It being the general popular supposition that there were to be no more sheriffs' sales, there were no persons present at the auction save the officers of the law and the gentlemen who were to bid. Only here and there an astonished face peered out of a window at the proceedings, and a knot of loafers, who had been boozing away the afternoon, stood staring in the door of the tavern. That was all. There was no crowd, and no attempt at interruption. But the news that a man had been sold out for debt spread fast, and by sunset, when the men and boys came home from their farm-work or mechanical occupations, numerous groups of excited talkers had gathered in the streets. There was a very full meeting that night at the tavern.

"I declar for't," said Israel Goodrich, with an air of mingled disappointment and wrath, "I be reel put aout, an disappinted like. I dunno what tew make on't. I callated the trouble wuz all over, an times wuz gonter be good and folks live kinder neighbourly 'thout no more suein an jailin, an sellin aout, same ez long from '74 tew '80. I reckoned sure nuff them times wuz come 'round agin, an here they've gone an kicked the pot over, an the fat's in the fire agin, bad's ever."

"Darn em. Gosh darn em, I say," exclaimed Abner. "Didn't they git our idee what we wuz arter wen we stopped the courts? Did they think we wuz a foolin baout it? That's what I want some feller tew tell me. Did they think we wuz a foolin?"

Abner's usually good humoured face was darkly flushed, and there was an ugly gleam in his eye as he spoke.

"We wuz so quiet like las' week, they callated we'd jess hed our fling an got over it. I guess that wuz haow it wuz," said Peleg Bidwell.

"Did they think we'd been five year a gittin our dander up an would git over it in a week?" demanded Abner, glaring round. "If t'wuz caze we wuz tew quiet, we'll make racket nuff to suit em arter this, hey, boys? If racket's the ony thing they kin understan, they shall hev a plenty on't."

"Israel thought it wuz kingdom come already," said Paul Hubbard, who had hurried down from the iron-works with a gang of his myrmidons, on receipt of the news. "He thought the silk stockings was goin to give right in as sweet as sugar. Not by a darned sight. No sir. They ain't going to let go so easy. They ain't none o' that sort. They mean to have the old times back again, and they'll have em back, too, unless you wake up and show em you're in earnest."

"Not yit awhile, by the everlastin Jocks," shouted Abner. "Ef thar's any vartue in gunpowder them times shan't come back," and there was an answering yell that shook the room.

"That's the talk, Abner. Give us yer paw," said Paul, delighted to find the people working up to his own pitch of bitter and unrelenting animosity against the gentlemen. "That's the talk, but it'll take more'n talk. Look here men, three out of four of you have done enough already to get a dozen lashes on his bare back, if the silk stockings get on top again. It's all in a nutshell. If we don't keep them under they'll keep us under. We've just got to take hold and raise the devil with them. If we don't give them the devil, they'll give us the devil. Take your choice. It's one or the other."

There was a chorus of exclamations.

"That's so." "By gosh we're in for't, an we might's well go ahead." "Ye're right, Paul." "We'll git aout the hoss-fiddles an give em some mewsic." "We'll raise devil nuff fer em ter night." "Come on fellers." "Les give em a bonfire."

There was a general movement of the men out of the barroom, all talking together, clamorously suggesting plans, or merely, as in the case of the younger men and boys, venting their excitement in hoots and catcalls. It was a close dark night, obscure enough to make cowards brave, and the crowd that surged out of the tavern were by no means cowards, but angry and resolute men, whose exasperation at the action of the authorities, was sharpened and pointed by well-founded apprehensions of the personal consequences to themselves which that action threatened if not resisted. Some one's suggestion that they should begin by putting David Joy and his family back into their house, was received with acclamation and they were forthwith fetched from a neighboring shed, under which they had encamped for the night, and without much ceremony thrust into their former residence and ordered to stay there. For though in this case David happened to be identified with their own cause, it went against their grain to help a Baptist.

"Now, boys, les go an see Iry Seymour," said Abner, and with a yell, the crowd rushed off in the direction of the deputy sheriff's house.

Their blood was up, and it was perhaps well for that official that he did not wait to be interviewed. As the crowd surged up before the house, a man's figure was seen dimly flitting across the field behind, having apparently emerged from the back door. There was a yell "There goes Iry," and half the mob took after him, but, thanks to the darkness, the nimble-footed sheriff made good his escape, and his pursuers presently returned, breathless, but in high good humor over the novel sport, protesting that they laughed so hard they couldn't run.

The only other important demonstration by the mob that evening, was the tearing up of the fence in front of Squire Woodbridge's house and the construction of an immense bonfire in the street out of the fragments, the conflagration proceeding to the accompaniment of an obligato on the horse-fiddles.

So it came to pass that, as sometimes happens in such cases, Squire Woodbridge's first attempt to get the reins of the runaway team into his hands, had the effect of startling the horses into a more headlong gallop than ever.

If the events of the night, superadded to the armed revolt of the week before, left any doubt in the most sanguine mind that the present disturbances were no mere local and trifling irritations, but a general rebellion, the news which was in the village early the following morning, must have dispelled it. This news was that the week before, an armed mob of several hundred had stopped the courts at their meeting in Worcester and forced an adjournment for two months; that the entire state, except the district close around Boston, was in a ferment; that the people were everywhere arming and drilling and fully determined that no more courts should sit till the distresses of the times had been remedied. As yet the state authorities had taken no action looking toward the suppression of the insurrection, in which, indeed, the great majority of the population appeared actively or sympathetically engaged. The messenger reported that in the lower counties a sprig of hemlock in the hat, had been adopted as the badge of the insurgents, and that the towns through which he had ridden seemed to have fairly turned green, so universally did men, women and children wear the hemlock. The news had not been an hour in Stockbridge before every person on the streets had a bit of hemlock in their hat or hair. I say every person upon the street, for those who belonged to the anti-popular or court party, took good care to keep within doors that morning.

"I'm glad to see the hemlock, agin," said Israel Goodrich. "The old pine tree flag wuz a good flag to fight under. There wuz good blood spilt under it in the old colony days. Thar wuz better times in this 'ere province o' Massachusetts Bay, under the pine tree flag, than this dum Continental striped rag hez ever fetched, or ever will, I reckon."

The dismay which the news of the extent and apparent irresistibleness of the rebellion produced among those attached to the court party in Stockbridge, corresponded to the exultation to which the people gave themselves up. Nor did the populace lose any time in giving expression to their bolder temper by overt acts. About nine o'clock in the morning, Deputy Sheriff Seymour, who had not ventured to return to his house, was found concealed in the corn-bin of a barn near the burying-ground. A crowd instantly collected and dragged the terrified man from his concealment. Some one yelled:

"Ride him on a rail," and the suggestion finding an echo in the popular breast, a three-cornered fence rail was thrust between his legs, and lifted on men's shoulders. Astride of this sharp-backed steed, holding on with his hands for dear life, lest he should fall off and break his neck, he was carried, through the main streets of the village, followed by a howling crowd, and pelted with apples by the boys, while the windows of the houses along the way were full of laughing women. Having graced the popular holiday by this involuntary exhibition of himself, Seymour was let go without suffering any further violence, the crowd appearing boisterously jocose rather than embittered in temper. Master Hopkins, a young man who had recently entered Squire Sedgwick's office to study law, was next pounced upon, having indiscreetly ventured on the street, and treated to a similar free ride, which was protracted until the youth purchased surcease by consenting to wear a sprig of hemlock in his hat.

About the middle of the forenoon Squire Woodbridge, Deacon Nash, Dr. Partridge, with Squire Edwards and several other gentlemen were sitting in the back room of the store. It was a gloomy council. Woodbridge quaffed his glass of rum in short, quick unenjoying gulps, and said not a word. The others from time to time dropped a phrase or two expressive of the worst apprehensions as to what the mob might do, and entire discouragement as to the possibility of doing anything to restrain them. Suddenly, young Jonathan Edwards, who was in the outer room tending store, cried out:

"Father, the mob is coming. Shall I shut the door?"

Squire Edwards cried "Yes," and hastily went out to assist, but Dr. Partridge, with more presence of mind than the others seemed to possess at that moment, laid his hand on the storekeeper's arm, saying:

"Better not shut the door. They will tear the house down if you do. Resistance is out of the question."

In another moment a boisterous crowd of men, their faces flushed with drink, all wearing sprigs of hemlock in their hats, came pouring up the steps and filled the store, those who could not enter thronging the piazza and grinning in at the windows. Edwards and the other gentlemen stood at bay at the back end of the store, in front of the liquor hogsheads. Their bearing was that of men who expected personal violence, but in a justifiable agitation did not forget their personal dignity. But the expression on the face of Abner, who was the leader of the gang, was less one of exasperation than of sardonic humor.

"Good mornin," he said.

"Good morning, Abner," replied Edwards, propitiatingly.

"It's a good mornin and it's good news ez is come to taown. I s'pose ye hearn it a' ready. I thort so. Ye look ez ef ye hed. But we didn' come tew talk 'baout that. Thar wuz a leetle misunderstandin yisdy 'baout selling aout David. He ain't nothin but a skunk of a Baptis, an ef Iry hed put him in the stocks or licked him 'twould a sarved him right. But ye see some of the boys hev got a noshin agin heven any more fellers sole aout fer debt, an we've been a explainin our idee to Iry this mornin. I callate he's got it through his head, Iry hez. Ye see ef neighbors be gonter live together peaceable they've jess got ter unnerstan each other. What do yew s'pose Iry said? He said Squire thar tole him to sell David aout. In course we didn' b'leeve that. Squire ain't no gol darned fool, ez that would make him aout ter be. He knowd the men ez stopped the courts las' week wouldn' be afeard o' stoppin a sherriff. He knows the folks be in arnest 'baout hevin an eend on sewin an sellin an sendin tew jail. Squire knows, an ye all know that thar'll be fightin fore thar's any more sellin."

Abner had grown excited as he spoke, and the peculiar twinkle in his eye had given place to a wrathy glare as he uttered the last words, but this passed, and it was with his former sardonic grin that he added:

"But Iry didn' save his hide by tryin tew lay it orf ontew Squire an I guess he won't try no more sellin aout right away, not ef Goramity tole him tew."

"Yer gab's runnin away with yer. Git to yer p'int, Abner," said Peleg Bidwell.

"Lemme 'lone I'm comin 'roun," replied Abner. "Ye wuz over't the sale yisdy, warn't ye, Squire?" he said, addressing Edwards.

"Yes, Abner."

"Wal, ye see, when we come tew put back David's folks intew the haouse his woman missed the clock, and somebody said ez haow ye'd took et."

"I bid it in," said Edwards.

"I s'pose ye clean furgut t'wuz the on'y clock she hed," suggested Abner with a bland air of accounting for the other's conduct on the most favorable supposition.

Edwards, making no reply save to grow rather red, Abner continued:

"In course ye furgut it, that's what I tole the fellers, for ye wouldn't go and take the on'y clock a poor man hed wen ye've got a plenty, 'nless ye furgut. Ye see we knowed ye'd wanter send it right back soon ez ye thort o' that, and so we jess called in for't, callaten tew save ye the trouble."

"But--but I bought it," stammered Edwards.

"Sartin, sartin," said Abner. "Jess what I sed, ye bought it caze ye clean furgut it wuz David's on'y one, an he poor an yew rich. Crypus! Squire, ye hain't got no call tew explain it tew us. Ye see we knows yer ways Squire. We knows how apt ye be tew furgit jiss that way. We kin make allowances fer ye."

Edwards' forehead was crimson.

"There's the clock," he said, pointing to it where it lay on the counter. Abner took it up and put it under his arm, saying:

"David 'll be 'bliged to ye, Squire, when I tell him how cheerful ye sent it back. Some o' the fellers," he pursued with an affectation of a confidential tone, "some o' the fellers said mebbe ye wouldn't send it back cheerful. They said ye'd got no more compassion fer the poor than a flint stun. They said, them fellers did, that ye'd never in yer life let up on a man as owed ye, an would take a feller's last drop o' blood sooner'n lose a penny debt. They said, them fellers did, that yer hands, wite ez they looks, wuz red with the blood o' them that ye'd sent to die in jail."

Abner's voice had risen to a tremendous crescendo of indignation, and he seemed on the point of quite forgetting his ironical affectation, when, with an effort which added to the effect, he checked himself and resuming his former tone and grin, he added:

"I argyed with them fellers ez said them things bout ye. I tole em haow it couldn't be so, caze ye wuz a deakin, an hed family prayers, and could pray mos' ez long ez parson. But I couldn't do nothin with em, they wuz so sot. Wy them fellers akchilly said ye took this ere clock a knowin that it wuz David's on'y one, wen ye hed a plenty o' yer own tew. Jess think o' that Squire. What a hoggish old hunks they took ye fer, didn't they, naow?" Edwards glared at his tormentor with a countenance red and white with speechless rage, but Abner appeared as unconscious of anything peculiar in his manner as he did of the snickers of the men behind him. Having concluded his remarks he blandly bade the gentlemen good morning and left the store, followed by his gang, the suppressed risibilities of the party finding expression in long continued and uproarious laughter, as soon as they reached the outer air. After leaving the store they called on all the gentlemen who had bidden in anything at yesterday's sale, one after another, and reclaimed every article and returned it to David.

If any of the court party had flattered themselves that this mob, like that of the week before, would, after making an uproar for a day or two, disappear and leave the community in quiet, they were destined to disappointment. The popular exasperation and apprehension which the Squire's ill-starred attempt to regain authority had produced, gave to the elements of anarchy in the village a new cohesive force and impulse, while, thanks to the news of the spread and success of the rebellion elsewhere, the lawless were encouraged by entire confidence of impunity. From this day, in fact, it might be said that anarchy was organized in the village.

There were two main elements in the mob. One, the most dangerous, and the real element of strength in it, was composed of a score or two of men whom the stoppage of the courts had come too late to help. Their property all gone, they had been reduced to the condition of loafers, without stake in the community. Having no farms of their own to work on, and the demand for laborers being limited, they had nothing to do all day but to lounge around the tavern, drinking when they could get drinks, sneering at the silk stockings, and debating how further to discomfit them. The other element of the mob, the most mischievous, although not so seriously formidable, was composed of boys and half-grown youths, who less out of malice against the court party, than out of mere love of frolic, availed themselves to the utmost of the opportunity to play off pranks on the richer class of citizens. Bands of them ranged the streets from twilight till midnight, robbing orchards, building bonfires out of fences, opening barns and letting the cows into the gardens, stealing the horses for midnight races, afterwards leaving them to find their way home as they could, tying strings across the streets to trip wayfarers up, stoning windows, and generally making life a burden for their victims by an ingenious variety of petty outrages. Nor were the persons even of the unpopular class always spared. In the daytime it was tolerably safe for one of them to go abroad, but after dark, let him beware of unripe apples and overripe eggs. For the most part the silk stockings kept their houses in the evening, as much for their own protection as for that of their families, and the more prudent of them sat in the dark until bedtime, owing to the fact that lighted windows were a favorite mark with the boys.

The mob had dubbed itself "The Regulators," a title well enough deserved, indeed, by the extent to which they undertook to reorganize the property interests of the community. For the theory of the reclamation of property carried out in the case of the goods of David Joy, by no means stopped there. It was presently given an ex-post facto application, and made to cover articles of property which had changed hands at Sheriff's sales not only since but also previous to the stoppage of the courts. Wherever, in fact, a horse or a cart, a harness, a yoke of oxen or a piece of furniture had passed from the ownership of a poor man to the possession of a rich man and one of the court party, the original owner now reclaimed it, if so disposed, and so effectual was the mob terrorism in the village that such a claim was, generally, with better or worse grace yielded to.

Nor was the application of this doctrine of the restitution of all things even confined to personal property. Many of the richer class of citizens occupied houses acquired by harsh foreclosures since the dearth of circulating medium had placed debtors at the mercy of creditors. A few questions as to when they were thinking of moving out, with an intimation that the neighbors were ready to assist them, if it appeared necessary, was generally hint enough to secure a prompt vacating of the premises, though now and then when the occupants were unusually obstinate and refused to "take a joke" there were rather rough proceedings. Among those thus ejected was Solomon Gleason, the schoolmaster, who had been living in the house which George Fennel had formerly owned. In this case, however, the house remained vacant, George being too sick to be moved.

When Friday night came round again, there was a tremendous carouse at the tavern, in the midst of which Widow Bingham, rendered desperate by the demands for rum, demands which she did not dare to refuse for fear of provoking the mob to gut her establishment, finally exclaimed:

"Why don' ye go over't the store an let Squire Edwards stan treat awhile? What's the use o' making me dew it all? He's got better likker nor I hev an more on't, an he ain't a poor lone widder nuther, without noboddy ter stan up fer her," and the widow pointed her appeal by beginning to cry, which, as she was a buxom well-favored woman, made a decided impression on the crowd.

Abner, who was drunk as a king, instantly declared that "By the everlastin Jehu" he'd break the head o' the "fuss dum Nimshi" that asked for another drink, which brought the potations of the company to a sudden check. Presently Meshech Little observed:

"Come long fellersh, lesh go t' the store. Whosh fraid? I ain't." There was a chorus of thick-tongued protestations of equal valor, and the crowd reeled out after Meshech. Abner was left alone with the widow.

"I'm reel beholden to ye Abner Rathbun, fer stannin up fer me," said she warmly, "an Seliny Bingham ain't one tew ferget a favor nuther."

"I'd a smashed the snout o' the fuss one on em ez assed fer more. I'd a knocked his lights outer him, I don' keer who twuz," declared Abner, his valor still further inflamed by the gratitude which sparkled from the widow's fine eyes.

"Lemme mix ye a leetle rum 'n sugar, Abner. It'll dew ye good," said the widow. "I hope ye didn' take none o' that to yerself what I said tew the res' on em. I'm sure I don' grudge ye a drop ye've ever hed, caze I know ye be a nice stiddy man, an I feels safer like wen ye be raoun. Thar naow, jess try that an see ef it's mixed right."

Abner did try that, and more subsequently and sweet smiles and honeyed words therewith, the upshot of all which was the tacit conclusion that evening of a treaty of alliance, the tacitly understood conditions being that Abner should stand by the widow and see she was not put upon, in return for which the widow would see that he was not left thirsty, and if this understanding was sealed with a kiss snatched by one of the contracting parties as the other leaned too far over the bar with the fourth tumbler of rum and sugar, why it was all the more likely to be faithfully observed. That the widow was a fine woman Abner had previously observed, but any natural feeling which this observation might have excited had been kept in check by the consciousness of a long unsettled score. The woman was merged in the landlady, the sex in the creditor. Seeing that there is no more ecstatic experience known to the soul than the melting of awe into a tenderer sentiment, it will not be wondered at that Abner lingered over his twofold inebriation till at nine o'clock the widow said that she must really shut up the tavern.

His surprise was great on passing the store to see it still lit up, and a crowd of men inside, while from the apartments occupied by the Edwards family came the tinkling of Desire's piano. Going in, he found the store filled with drunken men, and the back room crowded with drinkers, whom young Jonathan Edwards was serving with liquor, while the Squire was walking about with a worn and anxious face, seeing that there was no stealing of his goods. As he saw Abner he said, making a pitiable attempt to affect a little dignity:

"I've been treating the men to a little liquor, but it's rather late, and I should like to get them out. You have some control over them, I believe. May I ask you to send them out?"

In the pressure of the present emergency, the poor man appeared to have forgotten the insults which Abner had heaped upon him a few days before, and Abner himself, who was in high good humor, and really felt almost sorry for the proud man before him, replied:

"Sartin, Sartin. I'll git em aout, but what's the peeanner agoin fer?"

"The men thought they would like to hear it, and my daughter was kind enough to play a little for them," said Edwards, his face flushing again, even after the mortifications of the evening, at the necessity of thus confessing his powerlessness to resist the most insulting demands of the rabble.

Abner passed through the door in the back room of the store, which opened into the living-room, a richly carpeted apartment, with fine oaken furniture imported from England. The parlor beyond was even more expensively furnished and decorated. Flat on his back, in the middle of the parlor carpet, was stretched Meshech Little, dead drunk. In nearly every chair was a barefooted, coatless lout, drunk and snoring with his hat over his eyes, and his legs stretched out, or vacantly staring with open mouth at Desire, who, with a face like ashes and the air of an automaton, was playing the piano.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.