The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion

by Edward Bellamy

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


We who live in these days, when press and telegraph may be said to have almost rendered the tongue a superfluous member, quite fail to appreciate the rapidity with which intelligence was formerly transmitted from mouth to mouth. Virgil's description of hundred tongued Rumor appeared by no means so poetical an exaggeration to our ancestors as it does to us. Although the express, bearing the news of the Northampton uprising did not reach Stockbridge tavern a minute before half-past seven in the evening, there were very few families in the village or the outlying farmhouses, which had not heard it ere bedtime, an hour and a half later. And by the middle of the following forenoon there was in all Southern Berkshire, only here and there a family, off on a lonely hillside, or in a hidden valley, in which it was not the subject of debate.

In Stockbridge, that morning, what few industries still supported a languishing existence in spite of the hard times, were wholly suspended. The farmer left his rowen to lie in the field and take the chances of the weather, the miller gave his mill-stream a holiday, the carpenter left the house half-shingled with rain threatening, and the painter his brush in the pot, to collect on the street corners with their neighbors and discuss the portentous aspect of affairs. And even where there was little or no discussion, to stand silently in groups was something. Thus merely to be in company was, to these excited men, a necessity and a satisfaction, for so does the electricity of a common excitement magnetize human beings, that they have an attraction for one another, and are drawn together by a force not felt at other times. There were not less than three hundred men, a quarter of the entire population of the town, on and about Stockbridge Green at ten o'clock that Monday morning, twice as many as had assembled to hear the news from the convention the Saturday preceding.

The great want of the people, for the most part, tongue-tied farmers, seemed to be to hear talk, to have something said, and wherever a few brisk words gave promise of a lively dialogue, the speakers were at once surrounded by a dense throng of listeners. The thirsting eagerness with which they turned their open mouths toward each one as he began to speak, in the hope that he would express to themselves some one of the ideas formlessly astir in their own stolid minds, was pathetic testimony to the depth to which the iron of poverty, debt, judicial and governmental oppression had entered their souls. They had thought little and vaguely, but they had felt much and keenly, and it was evident the man who could voice their feelings, however partially, however perversely, and for his own ends, would be master of their actions.

Abner was not present, having gone at an early hour over to Lenox furnaces, where he was acquainted, to carry the news from Northampton, if it should not have arrived there, and notify the workmen that there would be goings-on at Barrington, Tuesday, and they were expected to be on hand. Paul Hubbard, also, had not come down from West Stockbridge, although the news had reached that place last night. But from the disposition of the man, there could be no question that he was busily at work moulding his particular myrmidons, the iron-workers, into good insurrectionary material. There was no doubt that he would have them down to Barrington on time, whoever else was there.

In the dearth of any further details of the Northampton uprising, the talk among the crowd on Stockbridge Green turned largely upon reminiscences and anecdotes of the disturbances at the same place, and at Hatfield four or five years previous. Ezra Phelps, who had been concerned in them, having subsequently removed from Hatfield to Stockbridge, enjoyed by virtue of that fact an oracular eminence, and as he stood under the shadow of the buttonwood tree before the tavern, relating his experiences, the people hung upon his lips.

"Parson Ely," he explained, "Parson Sam'l Ely wuz kinder tew the head on us. He wuz a nice sorter man, I tell yew. He wuz the on'y parson I ever seen ez hed any flesh in his heart for poor folks, 'nless it be some o' them ere Methody an Baptis preachers ez hez come in sence the war, an I callate they ain' reglar parsons nuther. Leastways, thuther parsons, they turned Parson Ely aout o' the min'stry daown to Somers whar he wuz, fer a tellin the poor folks they didn' git their rights. Times wuz hard four or five year ago, though they warn't so all-fired hard ez they be naow. Taxes wuz high 'nuff, an money wuz dretful skurce, an thar wuz lots o' lawin an suein o' poor folks. But gosh, ef we'd a known haow much wuss all them things wuz a going tew git, we sh'd a said we wuz well orf. But ye see we warn't so uster bein starved an cheated an jailed an knocked roun' then's we be sence, an so we wuz kinder desprit, an a slew on us come daown from Hatfield tew Northampton an stopped the court, wen t'wuz gonter set in the spring o' '82. I callate we went tew work baout the same ez Dan Shays an them fellers did las' week. Wal, arter we'd did the job an gone hum agin, Sheriff Porter up an nabbed the parson, an chucked him inter jail. He was long with us ye see, though he warn't no more tew blame nor any of us. Wal, ye see, we callated t'wouldn't be ezzackly fa'r tew let parson git intew trouble fer befriendin on us, an so baout 300 on us went daown tew Northampton agin, and broke open the jail an tuk parson aout. The sheriff didn' hev nothin tew say wen we wuz thar, but ez soon ez we'd gone hum, he up an took three o' the parson's frens as lived to Northampton an chucked em inter jail fer tew hold ez sorter hostiges. He callated he'd hev a ring in the parson's nose that ere way, so's he wouldn' dass dew nothin. Thar warn't no law nor no reason in sech doins, but 'twuz plantin time, leastways gittin on tew it, and he callated the farmers wouldn' leave ther farms, not fer nothin. But he mistook. Ye see we wuz fightin mad. Baout 500 on us tuk our guns an made tracks fer Northampton. Sheriff he'd got more'n a thousan milishy tew defend the jail, but the milishy didn' wanter fight, an we did, an that made a sight o' odds, fer wen we stopped night tew the taown an sent word that ef he didn' let them fellers aout o' jail we'd come an take em aout, he let em aout dum quick."

"Wat did they do nex?" inquired Obadiah Weeks, as Ezra paused with the appearance of having made an end of his narration.

"That wuz the eend on't," said Ezra. "By that time govment seen the people wuz in arnest, an quit foolin. Ginral Court passed a law pardnin all on us fer wat we'd done. They allers pardons fellers, ye see, wen ther's tew many on em tew lick, govment doos, an pooty soon arter they passed that ere tender law fer tew help poor folks ez hed debts so's prop'ty could be offered tew a far valiation instid o' cash."

"That air law wuz repealed sence," said Peleg. "Ef we hed it naow, mebbe we could git 'long spite o' ther being no money a cirkilatin."

"In course it wuz repealed," said Israel. "They on'y passed it caze they wuz scairt o' the people. The loryers an rich folks got it repealed soon ez ever they dasted. Gosh, govment don' keer nothin fer wat poor folks wants, 'nless they gits up riots. That's the on'y way they kin git laws changed, 's fur 's I see. Ain't that 'bout so Peleg?"

"Ye ain't fur outer the way, Isr'el. We hain't got no money, an they don' keer wat we says, but when we takes hole, an doos sumthin they wakes up a leetle. We can't make em hear us, but by jocks, we kin make em feel us," and Peleg pointed the sentiment with that cornerwise nod of the head, which is the rustic gesture of emphasis. "I callate ye've hit the nail on the head, Peleg," said a grizzled farmer. "We poor folks hez to git our rights by our hands, same ez we gits our livin."

But at this moment, a sudden hush fell upon the group, and from the general direction of the eyes, it was evidently the approach of Perez Hamlin, as he crossed the green toward the tavern, which was the cause thereof. Although Perez had arrived in town only at dusk on the preceding Saturday, and excepting his Sunday evening stroll with Abner, had kept within doors, the tongue of rumor had not only notified pretty much the entire community of his arrival, but had adorned that bare fact with a profuse embroidery of conjecture, as to his recent experiences, present estate, and intentions for the future.

An absence of nine years had, however, made him personally a stranger to most of the people. The young men had been mere lads when he went away, while of the elders, many were dead, or removed. As he approached the group around Ezra, he recognized but few of the faces, all of which were turned upon him with a common expression of curious scrutiny. There was Meshech Little. Him he shook hands with, and also with Peleg, and Israel Goodrich. Ezra had come to the village since his day.

"Surely this is Abe Konkapot," he said, extending his hand to a fine looking Indian. "Why Abe, I heard the Stockbridges had moved out to York State."

"You hear true," responded the smiling Indian. "Heap go. Some stay. No want to go."

"Widder Nimham's gal Lu, could tell ye 'bout why Abe don' want ter go, I guess," observed Obadiah Weeks, who directed the remark, however, not so much to Perez as to some of the half-grown young men, from whom it elicited a responsive snicker at Abe's expense.

Indeed, after the exchange of the first greetings, it became apparent that Perez' presence was a damper on the conversation. The simple fact was, the people did not recognize him as one of them. It was not that his dress, although a uniform, was better or costlier than theirs. The blue stockings were threadbare, and had been often mended, and the coat, of the same hue, was pitiably white in the seams, while the original buff of the waistcoat and knee breeches had faded to a whitey brown. But the erect soldierly carriage of the wearer, and that neatness and trimness in details, which military experience renders habitual, made this frayed and time-stained uniform seem almost elegant, as compared with the clothes that hung slouchily upon the men around him. Their faces were rough, and unshaven, their hair unkempt, their feet bare, or covered with dusty shoes, and they had generally left their coats at home. Perez was clean shaven, his shoes, although they barely held together, were neatly brushed, and the steel buckles polished, while his hair was gathered back over his ears, and tied with a black ribbon in a queue behind, in the manner of gentlemen. But Israel Goodrich and Ezra also wore their hair in this manner, while shoes and clean shaved faces were occasional indulgences with every bumpkin who stood around. It was not then alone any details of dress, but a certain distinction in air and bearing about Perez, which had struck them. The discipline of military responsibility, and the officer's constant necessity of maintaining an aspect of authority and dignity, before his men, had left refining marks upon his face, which distinguished it as a different sort from the countenances about him with their expressions of pathetic stolidity, or boorish shrewdness. In a word, although they knew old Elnathan Hamlin to be one of themselves, they instinctively felt that this son of his had become a gentleman.

At any time this consciousness would have produced constraint, and checked spontaneous conversation, but now, just at the moment when the demarcation of classes was taking the character of open hostility, it produced a sentiment of repulsion and enmity. His place was on the other side; not with the people, but with the gentlemen, the lawyers, the parsons, and the judges. Why did he come spying among them?

Perez, without guessing the reason of it, began to be conscious of the unsympathetic atmosphere, and was about moving away, when Israel Goodrich remarked, with the air of wishing to avoid an appearance of churlishness.

"Lessee, Perez, ye've been gone nigh onter nine year. Ye muss find some changes in the taown."

Israel, as a man of more considerable social importance than the most of those who stood around, and being moreover, old enough to be Perez' father, had been less affected by the impulse of class jealousy than the others.

"I've been home only one day, Mr. Goodrich," said Perez quietly, "but I've noticed some changes already. When I went away, every man in town had a farm of his own. As far as I've seen since I've been back, a few rich men have got pretty near all the farms now, and the men who used to own em, are glad of a chance to work on em as hired hands."

Such a sentiment, expressed by one of themselves, would have called forth a shower of confirmatory ejaculations, but the people stared at Perez in mere astonishment, the dead silence of surprise, at hearing such a strong statement of their grievances, from one whose appearance and manner seemed to identify him with the anti-popular, or gentleman's side. So far as this feeling of bewilderment took any more definite form, it evidently inclined to suspicion, rather than confidence. Was he mocking them? Was he trying to entrap them? Even Israel looked sharply at him, and his next remark, after quite a silence, was on another subject.

"I s'pose ye know ez haow they've set the niggers free."

"Yes," replied Perez, "I heard of that when I was away, but I didn't know the reason why they'd set em free, till I got home."

"What dew ye callate 's the reason?"

"I see they've made slaves of the poor folks, and don't need the niggers any more," replied Perez, as quietly as if he were making the most casual remark.

But still the people stared at him and looked questioningly at each other, so bereft of magnetic force is language, though it express our inmost convictions, when we do not believe that the heart of the speaker beats in sympathy with what he says.

"I don' quite git yer idee. Haow dew ye make out that air 'bout poor folks bein slaves?" said Ezra Phelps dryly.

It was evident that any man who thought he was going to get at the real feelings of these rustics without first gaining their confidence, little understood the shrewd caution of the race.

"I make it out this way," replied Perez. "I find pretty much every rich man has a gang of debtors working for him, working out their debts. If they are idle, if they dispute with him, if they don't let him do what he pleases with them and their families, he sends them to jail with a word, and there they stay till he wants to let them out. No man can interfere between him and them. He does with em whatsoever he will. And that's why I call them slaves."

Now, Meshech Little was slightly intoxicated. By that mysterious faculty, whereby the confirmed drunkard, although absolutely impecunious, nevertheless manages to keep soaked, while other thirsty men can get nothing, he had obtained rum. And Meshech it was who, proceeding in that spirit of frankness engendered by the bottle, now brought about the solution of a misunderstanding, that was becoming painful.

"Wha' ye say, Perez, z'all right, but wha'n time be yew a sayin on it fer? Ye be dressed so fine, an a cap'n b'sides, that we callated ye'd take yer tod tew the store, long with the silk stockins, 'stid o' consortin with common folks like we be."

There was a general sensation. Every mouth was opened, and every neck craned forward to catch the reply.

"Did you think so, Meshech? Well, you see you are mistaken. There's not a man among you has less cause to love the silk stockings, as you call them, than I have, and you Meshech ought to know it. Nine years ago, my brother Reub and I marched with the minute men. Parson and Squire Woodbridge, and Squire Edwards and all of em, came round us and said, 'We'll take care of your father and mother. We'll never forget what you are doing to-day.' Yesterday I came home to find my father and mother waiting to be sold out by the sheriff, and go to the poor house; and Reub, I found my brother Reub, rotting to death in Barrington jail."

"By gosh, I forgot baout Reub, I declar I did," exclaimed Meshech, contritely.

"Give us yer hand," said Israel, "I forgot same ez Meshech, an I misdoubted ye. This be Ezra Phelps, ez owns the new mill."

"Shake agin," said Peleg, extending his hand.

There was exhilaration as well as cordiality in the faces of the men, who now crowded around Perez, an exhilaration which had its source in the fact, that one whose appearance and bearing identified him with the gentlemen, was on their side. It filled them with more encouragement, than would have done the accession of a score of their own rank and sort. Brawn and muscle they could themselves supply, but for leadership, social, political and religious, they had always been accustomed to look to the gentlemen of the community, and from this lifelong and inherited habit, came the new sense of confidence and moral sanction, which they felt in having upon their side in the present crisis, one in whom they had instinctively recognized the traits of the superior caste.

"Hev ye hearn the news from Northampton, Perez?" asked Israel.

"Yes, and if you men are as much in earnest as I am, there'll be news from Barrington to-morrow," replied Perez, glancing around.

"Ef thar ain't, there'll be a lot on us disappinted, fer we be all a callatin tew go thar tew see," said Israel, significantly.

"We'll git yer brother aouter jail, fer ye, Perez, an ef thar's any fightin with the m'lishy, ye kin show us haow, I guess."

Meshech, as before intimated, was partially drunk, and spoke out of the fullness of his heart. But except for this one outburst, a stranger, especially one who did not know the New England disposition, and its preference for innuendo to any other mode of speech, in referring to the most important and exciting topics, would have failed entirely to get the idea that these farmers and laborers contemplated an act of armed rebellion on the morrow. He would, indeed, have heard frequent allusions to the probability there would be great goings on at Barrington, next morning, and intimations more or less explicit, on the part of nearly every man present, that he expected to be on hand to see what was done. But there was no intimation that they, themselves, expected to be the doers. Many, indeed, perhaps most, had very likely no distinct idea, of personally doing anything, nor was it at all necessary that they should have in order to ensure the expected outbreak, when the time should come. Given an excited crowd, all expecting something to be done which they desire to have done, and all the necessary elements of mob action are present.

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