The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion

by Edward Bellamy

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As was remarked in the last chapter, it was some three weeks after the famous encounter at Lee that Dr. Partridge entertained Desire one afternoon with the account of the affair which I have transcribed for the information of my readers. The interval between the night before the Lee expedition, when she had taken her sickness, and the sunny afternoon of expiring February, when she sat listening to the doctor's story, had for her been only a blank of sickness, but in the community around, it had been a time of anxiety, of embitterment, and of critical change. The gay and brilliant court, of which she had for a brief period been the center, had long ago vanished. Hamlin's band at Lee had been the last considerable force of rebels embodied in Southern Berkshire, and a few days after its dispersal the companies from other towns left Stockbridge to return home, leaving the protection of the village to the home company. Close on this followed the arrival at Pittsfield of General Lincoln with a body of troops called into Berkshire by the invitation of General Patterson, to the disgust of some gentlemen who thought the county quite capable of attending to its own affairs. These forces had completed the pacification of Northern Berkshire, where, among the mountain fastnesses rebel bands had till then maintained themselves, so that now the entire county was subdued and the insurrection, so far as concerned any overt manifestation, was at an end. In Stockbridge Tax-collector Williams once more went his rounds. Deputy Sheriff Seymour's red flag floated again from the gable ends of the houses whence the mob had torn it last September, foreclosure sales were made, processes were served, debtors taken to jail, and the almost forgotten sound of the lash was once more heard on the green of Saturday afternoons as the constable executed Squire Woodbridge's sentences at the reerected whipping-post and stocks. Sedgwick's return to Boston to his seat in the Legislature early in February, had left Woodbridge to resume unimpeded his ancient autocracy in the village, and with as many grudges as that gentleman had to pay off, it may well be supposed the constable had no sinecure. The victims of justice were almost exclusively those who had been concerned in the late rebellion. For although the various amnesties, as well as the express stipulations under which a large number had surrendered, protected most of the insurgents from penalties for their political crimes, still misdemeanors and petty offenses against property and persons during the late disturbances were chargeable against most of them, and tried before a magistrate whom, like Woodbridge, they had mobbed. A charge was as good as a proof.

Nor if they appealed to a jury, was their chance much better, for the Legislature coming together again in February, had excluded former rebels from the jury box for three years, binding them to keep the peace for the same time, and depriving them of the elective franchise in all forms for a year, while on the other hand complete indemnity was granted to the friends of government for all offences against property or persons, which they might have committed in suppressing the rebellion. Without here controverting the necessity of these measures, it is easy to realize the state of hopeless discouragement to which they reduced the class exposed to their effect. Originally driven into the rebellion by the pressure of a poverty which made them the virtual serfs of the gentlemen, they now found themselves not only forced to resume their former position in that respect, but were in addition, deprived of the ordinary civil rights and guarantees of citizens. In desperation many fled over the border into New York and Connecticut, and joined bands of similar refugees which were camped there. Others, weaker spirited, or bound by ties they could not or would not break, remained at home, seeking to propitiate their masters by a contrite and circumspect demeanor, or sullenly enduring whatever was put upon them. A large number prepared to emigrate to homes in the West as soon as spring opened the roads.

Of the chief abettors of Perez, the fortunes may be briefly told. Jabez Flint had sold all he had and escaped to Nova Scotia to join one of the numerous colonies of deported Tories which had been formed there. Jabez was down on his luck.

"I've hed enough o' rebellin," he declared. "I've tried both sides on't. In the fust rebellion I wuz agin' the rebels, an the rebels licked. This ere time I tuk sides agin' the govment, an the govment hez licked. I'm like a feller ez is fust kicked behind an then in the stummick. I be done on both sides, like a pancake."

Israel Goodrich and Ezra Phelps, being excepted from the amnesties as members of the rebel committee, had only escaped jailing because, as men of some substance they had been able to give large bonds to await the further disposition of the Boston government.

"I didn' mind so much 'bout that," said Israel, "but what come kinder tough on me wuz a seein them poor white-livered pulin chaps tew my house tuk back ter jail."

For the debtors whom the mob had released from Great Barrington jail, including those to whom Israel had given asylum, had now been recaptured and returned to the charge of Cephas Bement and his pretty wife. Reuben Hamlin had been taken with the rest, though his stay in jail this time did not promise to be a long one, for he had overdone his feeble strength in that night walk through the snow to Lee, and since then had declined rapidly. He was so far gone that it would scarcely have been thought worth while to take him to jail if he could have remained at home. But as the sheriff had now sold the Hamlin house at auction, and Elnathan and his wife had been separated and boarded out as paupers, this was out of the question.

There was one man in Stockbridge, however, who was more to be pitied than Reuben. Peleg Bidwell found himself at the end of the rebellion as at the opening of it, the debtor and thrall of Solomon Gleason, save that his debt was greater, his means of paying it even less, while by his insolent bearing toward Solomon during the rebellion, he had made him not only his creditor but his enemy. The jail yawned before Peleg, and of the jail he, as well as the people generally, had acquired a new horror since the day when the mob had brought to light the secrets of that habitation of cruelty. He felt that, come what might, he could not go to a jail. And he did not. But his pretty wife stayed at home and avoided her former acquaintances, and those who saw her said she was pale and acted queer, and Peleg went about with a hangdog look, and Solomon Gleason was a frequent caller, and the women of the neighborhood whispered together.

Abner Rathbun and Meshech Little had fled across the border, and Abe Konkapot would have done so but for the fact that he could not leave his sweetheart Lu to be secured by his rival and brother, Jake. Jake, having out of enmity to his brother sided with the government party, was now in favor with the powers that were, and more preferred than ever by Lu's mother. But Abe knew the girl liked him rather the better, and did not let himself be discouraged. Jake, observing that he made little progress in spite of his advantages, laid a plot against his brother. The latter had acquired in the army a tendency to use profane language in moments of excitement, and it was of this weakness that Jake took advantage. Picking an opportunity when there were witnesses, he provoked Abe to wrath, and having made him swear profusely, went straightway to Squire Woodbridge and complained of him for blasphemy. Abe was promptly arrested and brought before the magistrate. The Squire, not unwilling to get a handle against so bad a rebel, observed that it was high time for the authorities to make a head against the tide of blasphemy which had swept over the state since the war, and to advertise to the rabble that the statute against profanity was not a dead letter and thereupon sentenced Abe to ten lashes at the whipping-post, to be at once laid on, it chancing to be a Saturday afternoon. While Abe, frantic with rage, was struggling with the constable and his assistants, Jake ran away to the Widow Nimham's cottage and asking Lu to go to walk, managed to bring her across the green in time to see the sentence carried into execution. Jake had understood what he was about. There were no doubt white girls in Stockbridge who might have married a lover whom they had seen publicly whipped, but for Lu, with an Indian's intense sensitiveness to a personal indignity, it would have been impossible. Abe needed no one to tell him that. As he was unbound and walked away from the post, his blood-shotten eyes had taken her in standing there with Jake. He did not even make an effort to see her afterwards and next Sunday Jake's and Lu's banns were called in meeting. Abe had been drunk pretty much all the time since, lying about the tavern floor. Widow Bingham said she hadn't a heart to refuse him rum, and in truth the poor fellow's manhood was so completely broken down, that he must have been a resolute teetotaler, indeed, who would not have deemed it an act of common humanity to help him temporarily to forget himself.

Such then are the events that were taking place in the community about her while Desire was lying on her sick bed, or making her first appearances as a convalescent downstairs. Only faint and occasional echoes of them had reached her ears. She had been told, indeed, that the rebellion was now all over and peace and order restored, but of the details and incidents of the process she knew nothing. To be precise it was during the latter part of the afternoon of the twenty-sixth day of February, that Dr. Partridge was entertaining her as aforesaid with his humorous version of the Lee affair. The Dr. and Mrs. Partridge had come to tea, and to spend the evening, and just here, lest any modern housewife should object that it is not a New England country practice to invite company on washing-day, I would mention that in those days of inexhaustible stores of linen, washing-day rarely came over once a fortnight. After tea in the evening the Doctor and Squire Edwards sat talking politics over their snuff-boxes, while Mrs. Partridge and Mrs. Edwards discussed the difficulty of getting good help, now that the negroes were beginning to feel the oats of their new liberty, and the farmers' daughters, since the war and the talk about liberty and equality, thought themselves as good as their betters. Now that the insurrection had still further stirred up their jealousy of gentlefolk, it was to be expected that they would be quite past getting on with at all, and for all Mrs. Edwards could see, ladies must make up their minds to do their own work pretty soon.

Desire sat in an armchair, her hands folded in her lap, musingly gazing into the glowing bed of coals upon the hearth, and listening half absently to the talk about her. She had been twice to meeting the day before, and considered herself as now quite well, but she had not disused the invalid's privilege of sitting silent in company.

"I marvel," said Squire Edwards, contemplatively tapping his snuff-box, "at the working of Providence, when I consider that so lately the Commonwealth, and especially this county, was in turmoil, the rebels having everything their own way, and we scarcely daring to call our souls our own, and behold them now scattered, fled over the border, in prison, or disarmed and trembling, and the authority of law and the courts everywhere established."

"Yes," replied the Doctor, "we have reason to be thankful indeed, and yet I cannot help compassionating the honester among the rebels. It is the pity of an uprising like this, that while one must needs sympathize with the want and suffering of the rebels, it is impossible to condemn too strongly the mad plans they urge as remedies. Ezra Phelps was telling me the other day, that their idea, had they succeeded, was to cause so many bills to be printed and scattered abroad, that the poorest could get enough to pay all their debts and taxes. Some were for repudiating public and private debts altogether, but Ezra said that this would not be honest. He was in favor of printing bills enough so everything could be paid. I tried to show him that one plan was as dishonest as the other; that they might just as well refuse payment, as pay in worthless bits of printed paper, and that the morality of the two schemes being the same, that of refusing outright the payment of dues, was preferable practically, because at least, it would not further derange trade by putting a debased and valueless currency in circulation. But I fear he did not see it at all, if he even gave me credit for sincerity, and yet he is an honest, well-meaning chap, and more intelligent than the common run of the rebels."

"That is the trouble nowadays," said Edwards, "these numskulls must needs have matters of government explained to them, and pass their own judgment on public affairs. And when they cannot understand them, then forsooth comes a rebellion. I think none can deny seeing in these late troubles the first fruits of those pestilent notions of equality, whereof we heard so much from certain quarters, during the late war of independence. I would that Mr. Jefferson and some of the other writers of pestilent democratic rhetoric might have been here in the state the past winter, to see the outcome of their preaching."

"It may yet prove," said Dr. Partridge, "that these troubles are to work providentially to incline the people of this state to favor a closer union with the rest of the continent for mutual protection, if the forthcoming convention at Philadelphia shall devise a practicable scheme. By reason of the preponderant strength of our Commonwealth we have deemed ourselves less in need of such a union than are our sister colonies, but this recent experience must teach us that even we are not strong enough to stand alone."

"You are right there, sir," said Edwards. "It is plain that if we keep on as we are, Massachusetts will ere long split into as many states as we have counties, or at least into several. What have these troubles been but a revolt of the western counties against the eastern, and had we gentlemen gone with the rebels, the state would have been by this time divided, and you know well," here Edwards' voice became confidential, "we have in the main, no great cause to be beholden to the Bostonians. They treat our western counties as if they were but provinces."

Desire's attention had lapsed as the gentlemen's talk got into the political depths, but some time after it was again aroused by hearing the mention of Perez Hamlin's name. The doctor was saying:

"They say he is lurking just over the York border at Lebanon. There are four or five score ruffians with him, who breathe out threatenings and slaughter against us Stockbridge people but I think we need lose no sleep on that account for the knaves will scarcely care to risk their necks on Massachusetts soil."

"It is possible," said Edwards, "that they may make some descents on Egremont or Sheffield or other points just across the line, but they will never venture so far inland as Stockbridge for fear of being cut off, and if they do our militia is quite able for them. What mischief they can do safely they will do, but nothing else for they are arrant cowards when all's said."

The talk of the gentlemen branched off upon other topics, but Desire did not follow it further, finding in what had just been said quite enough to engross her thoughts. Of course there could be no real danger that Hamlin would venture a visit to Stockbridge, since both her father and the doctor scouted the idea; but there was in the mere suggestion enough to be very agitating. To avoid the possibility of a meeting with Hamlin, as well as to acquit her conscience of a goading conviction of unfairness to him, she had already once risked compromising herself by sending that midnight warning to Lee, nor did she grudge the three weeks' sickness it cost her, seeing it had succeeded. Nor was the idea of meeting him any less terrifying now. The result of her experiences in the last few months had been that all her old self-reliance was gone. When she recalled what she had done and felt, and imagined what she might have gone on to do, she owned in all humility that she could no longer take care of herself or answer for herself. Desire Edwards was after all capable of being as big a fool as any other girl. Especially at the thought of meeting Hamlin again, this sense of insecurity became actual panic. It was not that she feared her heart. She was not conscious of loving him but of dreading him. Her imagination invested him with some strange, irrestible magnetic power over her, the magnetism of a tremendous passion, against which, demoralized by the memory of her former weakness, she could not guarantee herself. And the upshot was that just because she chanced to overhear that reference to Perez in the gentlemen's talk, she lay awake nervous and miserable for several hours after going to bed that night. In fact she had finally to take herself seriously to task about the folly of scaring herself to death about such a purely fanciful danger, before she could go to sleep.

She woke hours after with a stifled scream, for her mother was standing in the door of the room, half dressed, the candle she held revealing a pale and frightened face, while the words Desire heard were:

"Quick, get up and dress, or you'll be murdered in bed! An army of Shayites is in the village."

"Four o'clock in the morning courage," that steadiness of nerve which is not shaken when, suddenly roused from the relaxation and soft languor of sleep, one is called to face pressing, deadly, and undreamed of peril in the weird and chilling hour before dawn, was described by Napoleon as a most rare quality among soldiers, and such being the case it is hardly to be looked for among women. With chattering teeth and random motions, half-distraught with incoherent terrors, Desire made a hasty, incomplete toilet in the dark of her freezing bedroom, and ran downstairs. In the living-room she found her mother and the smaller children with the negro servants and Keziah Pixley, the white domestic. Downstairs in the cellar her father and Jonathan were at work burying the silver and other valuables, that having been the first thought when a fugitive from the tavern where the rebels had first halted, brought the alarm. There were no candles lit in the living-room lest their light should attract marauders, and the faint light of the just breaking dawn made the faces seem yet paler and ghastlier with fear than they were. From the street without could be heard the noise of a drum, shouts, and now and then musket shots, and having scraped away the thick frost from one of the panes, Desire could see parties of men with muskets going about and persons running across the green as if for their lives. As she looked she saw a party fire their muskets after one of these fugitives, who straightway came back and gave himself up. In the room it was bitterly cold, for though the ashes had been raked off the coals no wood had been put on lest the smoke from the chimney should draw attention.

The colored servants were in a state of abject terror, but the white "help" made no attempt to conceal her exultation. They were her friends the Shayites, and her sweetheart she declared was among them. He'd sent her a hint that they were coming, she volubly declared, and yesterday when Mrs. Edwards was "so high 'n mighty with her a makin her sweep the kitchen twicet over she was goodamiter tell her ez haow she'd see the time she'd wisht she'd a kep the right side on her."

"I've always tried to do right by you Keziah. I don't think you have any call to be revengeful," said the poor lady, trembling.

"Mebbe I hain't and mebbe I hev," shrilled Keziah, tossing her head disdainfully. "I guess I know them ez loves me from them ez don't. I s'pose ye think I dunno wat yer husbun an Jonathan be a buryin daown stairs."

"I'm sure you won't betray us, Keziah," said Mrs. Edwards. "You've had a good place with us, Keziah. And there's that dimity dress of mine. It's quite good yet. You could have it made over for you."

"Oh yes," replied Keziah, scornfully. "It's all well nuff ter talk bout givin some o' yer things away wen yer likely to lose em all."

With that, turning her back upon her terrified mistress, with the air of a queen refusing a petition, she patronizingly assured Desire that she had met with more favor in her eyes than her mother, and she would accordingly protect her. "Though," she added, "I guess ye won't need my helpin for Cap'n Hamlin 'll see nobuddy teches ye cept hisself."

"Is he here?" gasped Desire, her dismay suddenly magnified into utter panic.

"Fer sartain, my sweetheart ez sent me word 's under him," replied Keziah.

A noise of voices and tramp of feet at the outside door interrupted her. The marauders had come. The door was barred and this having been tested, there was a hail of gunstock blows upon it with orders to open and blasphemous threats as to the consequences of refusal. There was a dead silence within, but for Mrs. Edwards' hollow whisper, "Don't open." With staring eyes and mouths apart the terrified women and children looked at one another motionless, barely daring to breathe. But as the volley of blows and threats was renewed with access of violence, Keziah exclaimed:

"Ef they hain't yeur frens they be mine, an I hain't gonter see em kep aout in the cold no longer fer nobuddy," and she went to the door and took hold of the bar.

"Don't you do it," gasped Mrs. Edwards springing forward to arrest her. But she had done it, and instantly Meshech Little with three or four followers burst into the room, wearing the green insignia of rebellion in their caps and carrying muskets with bayonets fixed.

"Why didn' ye open that ar door, afore?" demanded Meshech, angrily.

"What do you want?" asked Mrs. Edwards tremblingly confronting him.

"Wat dew we want ole woman?" replied Meshech. "Wal, we want most evrything, but I guess we kin help oursels. Hey boys?"

"Callate we kin make aout tew," echoed one of his followers, not a Stockbridge man, and then as his eye caught Desire, as she stood pale and beautiful, with wild eyes and disheveled hair, by her mother, he made a dive at her saying: "Guess I'll take a kiss tew begin with."

"Let the gal 'lone," said Meshech, catching him by the shoulder. "Hands orfen her. She's the Duke's doxy, an he'll run ye through the body ef ye tech her."

"Gosh, she hain't, though, is she?" said the fellow, refraining from further demonstration but regarding her admiringly. "I hearn baout she. Likely lookin gal, tew, hain't she? On'y leetle tew black, mebbe."

"Did'n ye know, ye dern fool, it's along o' her the Duke sent us here, tew see nobuddy took nothin till he could come raoun?" said Meshech. "But I callate the on'y way to keep other fellers from takin anything tidday is ter take it yerself. We'll hev suthin tew drink, anyhaow. Hello, ole cock," he added as Edwards, coming up from down cellar, entered the room. "Ye be jess'n time. Come on, give us some rum," and neither daring nor able to make resistance, the storekeeper was hustled into the store. Keziah's sweetheart had remained behind. In the midst of their mutual endearments, she had found opportunity to whisper to him something, of which Mrs. Edwards caught the words, "cellar, nuff tew buy us a farm an a haouse," and guessed the drift. As Keziah and her young man, who responded to her suggestion with alacrity, were moving toward the cellar door, Mrs. Edwards barred their way. The fellow was about to lay hands on her, when one of the drinkers, coming back from the store, yelled: "Look out, thar's the cap'n," and Perez entered.

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.