The Duke of Stockbridge: A Romance of Shays' Rebellion

by Edward Bellamy

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All through the first half of December one heavy snow storm had followed another. The roads about Stockbridge were often blocked for days together. In the village the work of digging paths along the sidewalks, between the widely-parted houses, was quite too great to be so much as thought of, and the only way of getting about was in sleighs, or wading mid-leg deep. Of course, for the women, this meant virtual imprisonment to the house, save on the occasion of the Sunday drive to meeting. In these days, even the disciplinary tedium of a convict's imprisonment is relieved by supplies of reading matter gathered by benevolent societies. But for the imprisoned women of whom I write there was not even this recreation. Printing had, indeed, been invented some hundreds of years, but it can scarcely be said that books had been as yet, and especially the kinds of books that ladies care to read. A bible, concordance, and perhaps a commentary, with maybe three or four other grave volumes, formed the limit of the average library in wealthy Berkshire families of that day.

It is needless to say then, that Desire's time hung very heavy on her hands, despite the utmost alleviations which embroidery, piano-playing, and cakemaking could afford. For her, isolated by social superiority, and just now, more than ever, separated from intercourse with the lower classes by reason of the present political animosities, there was no participation in the sports which made the season lively for the farmers' daughters. The moonlight sledding and skating expeditions, the promiscuously packed and uproarious sleighing-parties, the candy-pulls and "bees" of one sort and another, and all the other robust and not over-decorous social recreations in which the rural youth and maidens of that day delighted, were not for the storekeeper's fastidious daughter. The gentlemen's families in town did, indeed, afford a more refined and correspondingly duller social circle, but naturally enough in the present state of politics, there was very little thought of jollity in that quarter.

And so, as I said, it was very dull for Desire, in fact terribly dull. The only outside distraction all through the livelong day was the occasional passage of a team in the road, and her mother, too, usually occupied the chair at the only window commanding the road. And when the aching dullness of the day was over, and the candles were lit for the evening, and the little ones had been sent to bed, there was nothing for her but to sit in the chimney corner, and look at the blazing logs and brood and brood, till, at bedtime her father and Jonathan came in from the store. Then her mother woke up, and there was a little talk, but after that yawned the long dead night--sleep, sleep, nothing but sleep for a heart and brain that cried out for occupation.

Up to the time when the sudden coming of the winter put an abrupt end to her meeting with Perez, she was merely playing, or in more modern parlance, "flirting" with him, as a princess might flirt with a servitor. She had merely allowed his devotion to amuse her idleness. But now, thanks to the tedium which made any mental distraction welcome, the complexion of her thoughts concerning the young man suffered a gradual change. Having no other resource, she gave her fancy carte blanche to amuse her, and what materials could fancy find so effective as the exciting experiences of the last Autumn? Sitting before the great open fireplace in the evenings, while her mother dozed in the chimney corner, and the silence was only broken by the purring of the cat, the crackling of the fire, the ticking of the clock, and the low noise heard through the partition, of men talking over their cups with her father in the back room of the store, she fell into reveries from which she would be roused by the thick, hot beating of her heart, or wake with cheeks dyed in blushes at the voice of her mother. And then the long, dreamful nights. Almost two-thirds of each twenty-four hours in this dark season belonged to the domain of dreams. What wonder that discretion should find itself all unable to hold its own against fancy in such a world of shadows. What wonder that when, after meeting on Sundays she met Perez as she was stepping into her father's sleigh at the meeting-house door, she should feel too confused fairly to look him in the face, much as she had thought all through the week before of that opportunity of meeting him.

One day it chanced that Mrs. Edwards who was sitting by the window, said abruptly:

"Here comes that Hamlin fellow."

Desire sprang up with such an appearance of agitation that her mother added:

"Don't be scared, child. He won't come in here. It's only into the store he's coming."

She naturally presumed that it was terror which occasioned her daughter's perturbation. What would have been her astonishment if she could have followed the girl as she presently went up to her room, and seen her cowering there by the window in the cold for a full half-hour, so that she might through a rent in the curtain have a glimpse of Perez as he left the store! I am not sure that I even do right in telling the reader of this. Indeed her own pride did so revolt against her weakness that she tingled scarcely less with shame than with cold as she knelt there. Once or twice she did actually rise up and leave the window, and start to go downstairs, saying that she was glad she had not seen him yet, for she could still draw back with some self-respect. But even as she was thus in the act of retiring, some noise of boots in the store below suggesting that now he might be going out, brought her hurriedly back to the window. And when at last he did go, in her eagerness to see him, she forgot all about her scruples. Her heart sprang into her throat as she caught sight of him. She could have cried at a fleck in the miserable glass which spoiled her view. Then when he turned and looked up, a wave of color rushed all over her face, and she jumped back in such fear at the thought he might see her, although she was well hidden, that he had passed out of sight ere she dared look out again. But that upward glance and the eager look in his eyes consoled her for the loss. Had he not looked up, she would no doubt have yielded to a revulsion of self-contempt for her weakness, which would have been a damper on her growing infatuation. But that glance had made her foolishly, glowingly elated, and disposed to make light of the reproaches of her pride.

"I suppose you were waiting for that Hamlin fellow to go away, before coming down," said her mother as Desire re-entered the living-room. The girl started and averted her face with a guilty terror, saying faintly, "What?" How did her mother know? Her fears were relieved, though not her embarrassment, as her mother added:

"You needn't have been so much frightened, although I really can't blame you for it, after all you've been through at his hands. Still he would scarcely dare, with all his impudence, to try to force a way in here. You would have been quite safe, had you staid downstairs."

The good lady could not understand why, in spite of this reassurance, Desire should thereafter persist, as she did, in retiring to her own room whenever Hamlin came into the store. As the better informed reader will infer from this fact the girl's infatuation was on the increase. She had become quite shameless and hardened about using her point of espionage to see, without being seen, the lover who so occupied her thoughts. The only events of the slow, dull days for her were now his visits to the store. She no longer started back when, in going, his eager glance rose to her window, but panting, yet secure behind her covert, looked into his eyes and scanned his expression. Sometimes a quick rush of tears would rob her of her vision as she read in the sad hunger of those eyes how he longed for a glimpse of her face. But for very shame's sake she would have pulled the curtains up. It was so unfair of her, she thought self-reproachfully, to sate her own eyes while cheating his. She knew well enough that all which brought him to the store so often was the hope of seeing and speaking with her. And finally, about the middle of January, she made a desperate resolution that he should. For several days she managed to occupy her mother's usual seat by the window commanding the approach to the store, and finally was rewarded by seeing Hamlin go in. She said nothing at first, but soon remarked carelessly:

"I wonder if father hasn't got some other dimity in the store."

"Perhaps. I think not, though," replied Mrs. Edwards. Desire leaned back in her chair, stifled a yawn and presently said:

"I believe I'll just run in and ask him before I get any further on this." She rose up leisurely, stole a glance at the mirror in passing --how pale she was--opened the connecting door and went into the store.

She saw Perez, out of the corner of her eye, the instant she opened the door. But not taking any notice of him, in fact holding her head very stiffly, and walking unusually fast, she went across to her father and asked him about the dimity. Receiving his reply she turned, still without looking at Perez, and began mechanically to go back. So nervous and cowardly had she been made by the excessive preoccupation of her mind with him, that she actually had not the self-possession to carry out her boldly begun project of speaking to him, now that he was so near. It seemed as if she were actually afraid of looking at him. But when he said in a rather hurt tone, "Good afternoon, Miss Edwards," she stopped, and turned abruptly toward him and without speaking held out her hand. He had not ventured to offer his, but he now took hers. Her face was red enough now, and what he saw in her eyes made him forget everything else. They stood for several seconds in this intensely awkward way, speechless, for she had not even answered his greeting. Squire Edwards, in the act of putting back the roll of dimity on the shelf, was staring over his shoulder at them, astounded. She knew her father was looking at them, but she did not care. She felt at that moment that she did not care who looked on or what happened.

"How cold the weather is!" she said, dreamily.

"Yes, very," replied Perez.

"I hope it will be warmer, soon, don't you?" she murmered.

Then she seemed to come to herself, slowly withdrew her hand from his, and walked slowly into the living-room and shut the door, and went upstairs to her chamber. As soon as Hamlin had gone Edwards came in and spoke with some indignation of his presumption.

"If he had not let go her hand, I should have taken him by the shoulder in another second," he said angrily.

"Whatever made her shake hands with him?" demanded Mrs. Edwards.

"I suppose she thought she had to, or he would be murdering us all. The girl acted very properly, and would not have noticed him if he had not stopped her. But by the Providence of God matters now wear a better look. This fellow is no longer to be greatly feared. The rebels lose ground daily in town as well as in the county and state, and this Hamlin is losing control even over his own sort. If he does not leave the village he will be arrested soon. There is no need that we should humble ourselves before him any longer."

All of which was quite true. For while we have been following the dreams of a fancy-fevered girl, secluded in her snow-bound home among the hills of Berkshire, the scenes have shifted swiftly in the great drama of the rebellion, and a total change has come over the condition and prospects of the revolt. The policy of conciliation pursued by the state government had borne its fruit, better and more speedy fruit than any other policy could have borne. Any other would have plunged the state into bloody war and been of doubtful final issue. The credit for its adoption is due primarily to the popular form of the government which made it impossible for the authorities to act save in accordance with popular sentiment. There was no force save the militia, and for their use the approval of the two houses of the Legislature was needful. The conservative and aristocratic Senate might alone have favored a harsh course, but it could do nothing without the House, which fully sympathized with the people. The result was a compromise by which the Legislature at its extra session, ending the middle of November, passed laws giving the people the most of what they demanded, and then threatened them with the heavy arm of the law if they did not thereafter conduct themselves peaceably.

To alleviate the distress from the lack of circulating medium, the payment of back taxes in certain specified articles other than money was authorized, and real and personal estate at appraised value was made legal tender in actions for debt and in satisfaction for executions. An act was also passed and others were promised reducing the justly complained of costs of legal processes, and the fee tables of attorneys, sheriffs, clerks of courts and justices, for, according to the system then in vogue, most classes of judges were paid by fees from litigating parties instead of by salary. The complaint against the appropriation of so large a part of the income from the import and excise taxes to the payment of interest on the state debt was met by the appropriation of one-third of those taxes to government expenses. To be sure the Legislature had refused to provide for the emission of any more paper money, and this, in the opinion of many, was unpardonable but it had shown a disposition to make up in some degree for this failure by passing a law to establish a mint in Boston. These concessions practically cut the ground out from under the rebellion, and the practical minded people of the state, reckoning up what they had gained, wisely concluded that it would not be worth while to go to blows for the residue, especially as there was every reason to think the Legislature at the next sitting would complete the work of reform it had so well begun. A convention of the Hampshire County people at Hadley, on the second of January, gave formal expression to these views in a resolution advising all persons to lay aside arms and trust to peaceable petition for the redress of such grievances as still remained.

Indeed, even if the mass of the people had been less satisfied than they had reason to be with the Legislature's action, they had had quite enough of anarchy. The original stopping of the courts and jail deliveries, had been with their entire approval. But, as might be expected, the mobs which had done the business had been chiefly recruited from the idle and shiftless. Each village had furnished its contingent of tavern loafers, neerdowells, and returned soldiers with a distaste for industry. These fellows were all prompt to feel their importance and responsibility as champions of the people, and to a large extent had taken the domestic police as well as military affairs into their own hands. Of course it was not long before these self-elected dictators, began to indulge themselves in unwarrantable liberties with persons and property, while the vicious and criminal classes generally, taking advantage of the suspension of law, zealously made their hay while the sun shone. In fact, whatever course the government had taken, this state of things had grown so unbearable in many places that an insurrection within the insurrection, a revolt of the people against the rebels, must presently have taken place. But as may readily be supposed these rebel bands, both privates and officers, were by no means in favor of laying down their arms and thereby relapsing from their present position of importance and authority to their former state of social trash, despised by the solid citizens whom now they lorded it over. Peace, and the social insignificance it involved had no charms for them. Property for the most part they had none to lose. Largely veterans of the Revolution, for eight years more used to camp than house, the vagabond military state was congenial to them and its license sufficient reward. The course of the Shays' rebellion will not be readily comprehensible to any who leave out of sight this great multitude of returned soldiers with which the state was at the time filled, men generally destitute, unemployed and averse to labor, but inured to war, eager for its excitements, and moreover feeling themselves aggrieved by a neglectful and thankless country. And so though the mass of the people by the early part of winter had grown to be indifferent to the rebellion, if not actually in sympathy with the government, the insurgent soldiery still held together wonderfully and in a manner that would be impossible to understand without taking into account the peculiar material that composed it. Not a man of the lot took advantage of the governor's proclamation offering pardon, and instead of being intimidated by the crushing military force sent against them in January, the rebel army at the Battle of Springfield the last day of that month was the largest body of insurgents that had been assembled at any time.

The causes described which had been at work in the lower counties, to weaken popular sympathy with the insurgents, had simultaneously operated in Berkshire. The report brought back from Worcester by Abner's men, with the subsequent action of the Hadley convention in advising the laying aside of arms, had strengthened the hands of the conservatives in Stockbridge. The gentlemen of the village who had been so quiet since Perez' relentless suppression of the Woodbridge rising in September, found their voices again, and cautiously at first, but more boldly as they saw the favorable change of popular feeling, began to talk and reason with their fellow-citizens. If the insurrection had had no other effect, it had at least taught these somewhat haughty aristocrats the necessity of a conciliatory tone with the lower classes. The return home of Theodore Sedgwick in the latter part of December, gave a marked impulse to the government party, of whom he was at once recognized as the leader. He had the iron hand of Woodbridge, with a velvet glove of suavity, which the other lacked. To command seemed natural to him, but he could persuade with as much dignity as he could command, a gift at once rare and most needful in the present emergency. He it was who wore into the village the first white paper cockade which had been seen there, though within a week after, they were full as plenty as the hemlock sprigs. The news which came in the early part of January, that the government had ordered 4,400 militia under General Lincoln to march into the disaffected counties, and put down the rebellion, produced a strong impression. People who had thought stopping a court or two no great matter, and indeed quite an old fashion in Berkshire, were by no means ready to go to actually fighting the government. But still it should be noted that the majority of those who took off the green did not put on the white. The active furtherance of the government interests was left to a comparatively small party. The mass of the people contented themselves with withdrawing from open sympathy with the insurrection, and maintaining a surly neutrality. They were tired of the rebellion, without being warmly disposed toward the government. Neither the friends of government nor the insurgents who still withstood them, could presume too much on the support of this great neutral body, a fact which prevented them from immediately proceeding to extremities against each other.

It was fortunate that there was some such check on the animosity of the two factions. For the bitterness of the still unreconciled insurgents against the friends of the government was intense. They derided the white cockade as "the white feather," denounced its wearers as "Tories," every whit as bad as those who took King George's part against the people, and deserving nothing better than confiscation and hanging. Outrages committed upon the persons and families of government sympathizers in outlying settlements were daily reported. Against Sedgwick especial animosity was felt, but though he was constantly riding about the county to organize and encourage the government party, his reputation for indomitable courage, protected him from personal molestation under circumstances where another man would have been mobbed. In Stockbridge itself, there were no violent collisions of the two parties save in the case of the children, terrific snowball fights raging daily in the streets between the "Shayites" and the "Boston Army." Had Perez listened to the counsels of his followers, the exchange of hard knocks in the village would have been by no means confined to the children. But he well knew that the change in public opinion which was undermining the insurrection would only be precipitated by any violence towards the government party. Many of the men would not hear reason, however, and his attitude on this point produced angry murmurs. The men called up his failure to whip the silk stockings in September, his care for Squire Edwards' interests, and his veto of the plan for fixing prices on the goods at the store. It was declared that he was lukewarm to the cause, no better than a silk stocking himself, and that it would have been better to have had Hubbard for captain. Even Abner Rathbun, as well as Meshech Little, joined in this schism, which ended in the desertion of the most of the members of the company Perez had organized, to join Hubbard up at the iron-works. About the same time, Israel Goodrich withdrew from the committee of safety. He told Perez he was sorry to leave him, but the jig was plainly up, and he had his family to consider. If his farm was confiscated, they'd have to go on the town. "Arter all, Perez, we've made somethin by't. I hain't sorry I gone intew it. Them new laws ull be somethin of a lift; an harf a loaf be considabul better nor no bread." He advised Perez to get out of the business as quick as possible. "'Tain't no use kickin agin' the pricks," he said. Ezra, who was disgusted at the failure of the Legislature to print more bills, stuck awhile longer, and then he too withdrew. Peleg Bidwell and other men who had families or a little property at stake, rapidly dropped off. They owed it to their wives and children not to get into trouble, they said, and Perez could not blame them. And so day by day all through the month of January he saw his power melting away by a process as silent, irresistible and inevitable as the dissolving of a snow bank in spring; and he knew that if he lingered much longer in the village, the constable would come some morning and drag him ignominiously away to the lockup. It was a desperate position, and yet he was foolishly, wildly happy. Desire was not indifferent to him. That awkward meeting in the store, those moments of silent hand-clasp, with her eyes looking with such bold confession into his, had told him that the sole end and object of his strange role here in Stockbridge was gained. She loved him. Little indeed would he have recked that the role was now at an end; little would he have cared to linger an hour longer on this scene of his former fantastic fortunes, if but he could have borne her with him on his flight. How gayly he would have laughed at his enemies then. If he could but see her now, could but plead with her. Perhaps he might persuade her. But there was no opportunity. Even as far back as December, as soon as the rebellion began evidently to wane, Edwards had began to turn the cold shoulder to him on his visits to the store. He had put up with insults which had made his cheek burn, merely because at the store was his only chance of seeing Desire. But Edwards' tone to him after that meeting with her, had been such that he knew it was only by violence that he could again force an entrance over the storekeeper's threshold. The fact was, Edwards, now that the danger was over, blamed himself for an unnecessary subservience to the insurgent leader, and his mortified pride expressed itself in a special virulence toward him. There was then no chance of seeing Desire. She loved him, but he must fly and leave her. One moment he said to himself that he was the happiest of men. In the next he cursed himself as the most wretched. And so alternately smiling and cursing, he wandered about the village during those last days of January like one daft, too much absorbed in the inward struggle to be more than half conscious of his danger.

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.